bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Never read once

Posted in Academic Practices, Reading by bonaelitterae on 30 March, 2020

I have a morning when what I have published is unwriting itself. I am working on a long-overdue article which should be a simple write-up of a plenary lecture given two years ago. In challenging myself, however, to think deeper and go further, I am realising how superficial I have been in what I have already allowed to go out to the world. Reviewers to date have been very kind to The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain; I would be much harsher.

The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘The Eloquent Page’, which encapsulates a point central to my argument: the Quattrocento humanists in reforming how the page looked did so in the belief that the presentation of a text was not extrinsic to its meaning but essential to its expression. For words to be beautiful, they need not only to sound so (in the mind’s ear) but also to be pleasing to the eye. If, in other words, one wants to write with eloquence, it is not just about a phrase being well-turned; it must be also be well turned out on the page. In pursuit of this visual expression of eloquence, the humanists believe they had found their paradigm via a re-invention of an earlier style of script. Their assumption was that, just as a particular idiom of Latin was, for them, the best method of communication, so this new old bookhand, the littera antiqua, was not simply a good possibility but the best.

I stand by all these claims but what has struck me today is how much more persuasive I could have made them. The article I am writing touches on how humanist texts praise of the built environment. What I have come to appreciate and regret is that I missed a trick in Renaissance Reform in not drawing a parallel between ideas of a well-designed building and what we can call the architecture of the page. Fundamental to both of them is the sense of proportion, and it was clearly that perception of balance, through which comes harmony, that attracted the humanists to their littera antiqua.

I could say, in my defence, that making such an association would have been in danger of disrespecting chronology: in the development of the revived styles, the page came before the Palazzo Rucellai or the Pazzi Chapel. The humanists did not need to think — indeed, could not think — of architectural prototypes for their reforms, whereas later Brunelleschi or Ghiberti could not but have been conscious of the re-design of the page as setting an exemplar for their own innovations. I might also say that, perhaps partly in response to developments in the art of the built, a hyper-sensitivity to the proportions of the page appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, when scribes like Bartolomeo Sanvito began to show a concern for the golden ratio. A perception of the importance of proportion, then, was integral to the early humanists’ reform, but turning that into a science came later than the main focus of my discussion.

Either of those defences, though, is weak when set against my obvious failure. The associations had been expressed with exquisite eloquence by Ernst Gombrich in his classic essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of Arts’. When I say ‘classic’, I mean both in the public sense that it is often republished and highly regarded and also in a more private way: it is an essay which I read first early in my days of doctoral research and which was fundamental to my intellectual development. I remember cheering its anti-Hegelianism, being enthralled by its delineation of a human community, feeling the thirst to read as much Gombrich as possible. I have still on my wall a quotation from him, which I have written out in a tidy script which I stopped being able to achieve quarter of a century ago:

I learned what I should have always have known, that the past was not people by abstractions but by men and women

If I turn, though, to my recent monograph and check the bibliography, I find no mention of his name. It is true that you will also not found there a reference to Michel de Certeau, who is another (but more recent) strong influence of what I have written. Perhaps it is the case that the deepest debts are the ones that cannot be expressed. I still accuse myself, though, and find myself guilty of ingratitude. I take some comfort that I am alone in this specific oversight: there is an important recent doctorate on the humanist reform of script and one which we should hope soon appears in print, by Philippa Sissis, and she provides ample citation to Gombrich. At least my failing is peculiar to me but that does not exonerate me.

I also know how this failure occurred: I read as I live life — I savour and then I move on. I rarely return to re-read, and if I do re-read it is sometimes because I have forgotten I ever seen it in the first place. I know, in this instance, that I did return to Gombrich’s article several times, so it transfused itself into my mental apparatus, but I must to have come to assume that my recall would be perfect and I would have nothing to regain by revisiting it again. Perhaps, in privileging further reading, I have lived by the assumption that it is better to have read and lost of the memory of it than never to have read it at all. Today, in contrast, I have come to realise the truth of the famous passage in Seneca’s Letters:

Distringit librorum multitudo; itaque cum legere non possis quantum habueris, satis est habere quantum legas.

He is surely not talking of reading as the eye gliding over the page but the sort of intensive study which comes only with frequent re-acquaintance. Perhaps it is better than never to have read than to have read only once. Maybe this should be an article of faith for the virtuous pursuit of slow scholarship.

Connectivity and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 24 November, 2013

First, we shaped the city, then we constructed worship within it, and now we have given it connections. We have just had the third and final colloquium on the Mediterranean City, a year minus a day after the first, which was held in St Andrews, on Space. We had had spring in the British School at Rome, where we discussed Religion, and now we – some stalwarts of all three, some who had been to one before, plus several new and welcome faces – re-grouped in Oxford, to talk about Connectivity.

I will admit that this was, of the three, the one I was most keen to organise, relating as it does most closely to my research. I was not disappointed by our speakers who all followed the rubric of short interventions to stimulate discussion – and how they did! The room bubbled with ideas, too many to reduce to one analysis. Perhaps that, indeed, might be appropriate in the context of discussing the well-connected city.

What provided the main themes of the day were the structures of connection and the lived experience of dealing with its impact on the city. We moved, as in the previous colloquia, across the expanse of the Middle Sea, stopping at Acre, Alexandria and Seville, with special attention to the Adriatic (Ragusa / Dubvronik and Venice). Our chronological range was, if anything, yet more expansive than in previous sessions, stretching from the ancient world through the High Middle Ages into the fifteenth century and beyond into the ‘early modern period’.

The papers allowed us to consider whether some cities were more capable of taking advantage of long-term change than others, a place having a magnetic pull created by its location and association with patterns of movement, be they economic, religious or political. Conversation also introduced the important theme of the link between technology and connectivity, allowing us to wonder whether the sea routes of the Mediterranean always had advantage over land travel. Even with those sea routes, an extended voyage would be expected to have several land-falls, reminding us that long-distance connectivity requires staging posts – one city being a gateway to another, until a Rome or a Jerusalem is reached. The human movement between the cities of Egypt was attractively described by Georg Christ as urban transhumance, with the shift of power between the settlements tempered by tradition and by this circular movement of people. We also noted in our final discussion that it may not be just the city that is well-connected: monasteries and non-urban pilgrimage sites held their attraction, their pull. That said, however, for some such sites, their very inaccessibility stimulated the challenge of reaching them, while for others, their proximity to a city made them satellites to the urban star, though perhaps at times they might shine brighter than their larger neighbour. Perhaps, indeed, there was something of this in the relationship between the Benedictine monastery of the isle of Locum with the city of Ragusa, the fascinating subject of Magdalena Skoblar’s talk to us.

Teeming though the day was with suggestive topics, my personal focus since the afternoon ended has been on the experience of these connections within the cityscape. The day began with a positively pyrotechnical display by Nicholas Purcell in which, along with many other insights, he reminded us how a city might want to act as a break on connectivity, desiring a purity which was suspicious of the presence of aliens. As Andrew Jotischky and others pointed out, the city’s layout may be structured so as to place alien communities in defined quarters, in a process of confinement that both visitor and host might find protective. Nicholas also threw in to general discussion the axiom that you cannot step into the same city twice. Quite how fluid the physical cityscape might be, and whether all lacked fixity equally were issues that remained hanging. We remembered the previous discussion at the first of these colloquia where the contrast between the stone-built and mud-brick was highlighted and where we mused on the legacy of monumentality. As in that earlier conversation, so in this, the man-made achievement was surely most often less determining of a city’s identity than its natural location – but, as the example of Seville (which, in its ancient guise of Hispalis, was eloquently introduced to us by Simon Keay) reminds us through the changing course of ‘its’ river, the Guadalquivir, even those certainties were mutable. To such gradual shifts, we should add also the impacts of natural disasters, be the earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, and those which could be the act of more than just God, like the ever-present threat of destructive, purging fire in the city.

Yet, if, as Nicholas was persuading us, cities are themselves persuasive strategies that have managed to convince of their own longevity, security and supposed fixity, the process of persuasion, it seems to me, is not only through the construction of memory but through strategies of forgetting. In other words, we do not set foot into the same city because, whatever else, each time we enter, the weight of history has provided another layer of skin to the urban body, but to comprehend the place, we necessarily peel back some of those layers to find a core which we believe – perhaps forlornly – to be familiar. I have recently commented in another context about how an all-remembering mind could surely not cope with all the horrors that live beside the positive energies of any community, and a city learns how to forget and how to direct attention. So, when we stand in the Piazza della Signoria, we wonder at Florentine order, we might even look at the ground and see the – very recent – plaque to the spot where Savonarola was burnt, but do we ever look up and think on the bodies of criminals that dangled from the Palazzo or think of the traitors thrown from its ramparts?

I am reminded of the justly celebrated passage in Michel de Certeau where he talks of how ‘we’ walk in the city, making it liveable for us in a manner far from the attempted totalising vision of those who plan and order a city. His analysis is designed for modern living, and there were no de-humanising boulevards cut across the urban environments we were discussing. There is still, though, a fundamental truth applicable to our discussions which is our tendency – as city-dwellers – to comprehend through the walked experience, defining from our own vantage-point, not with a panoptic scan. But such solipsistic living is perhaps not confined to us walkers but is the thought pattern of the city itself: through its declaration of memories and its careful silences, it intends to simplify itself, to become knowable and manageable. But connectivity, however much it is celebrated as part of its character, is a challenge to such simplification. With the welter of alien influences that it imposes on the host – however much attempt to control or confine them there might be – they are inimical to a settled definition or urban identity. It is as if the city continually strives and fails to avoid being other.

It seems to me that this theme provides – just as the previous two colloquia have done – a concept generative of the city’s identity but also destructive of it. The quintessential spaces of the city, like the piazza, are also sites of disorder; the alliance between the urban and the religious is, likewise, potentially destabilising at the same time as being creative. Similarly, if, as I suggested in my comments on the second workshop, religion deepens urban space, then connectivity broadens it, hinting at the wondrous variety of the world and simultaneously attempting to encapsulate, capture and control it within the hemmed-in limits of the city’s boundaries. The city, in other words, attempts, within its confines, to order this world and touch the next, all the time finding it nigh on impossible fully to order itself – or perhaps even to be itself.