bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Searching for Guarino in Ferrara

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 22 September, 2012

Holidays are still, in some residual sense, holy days. Even without working hours vacated, apart from the chore of site-seeing in the sun, there remain some duties, some acts of respect that order the days. Site-seeing itself is a habit of reverence, not an adherence to any faith more stringent than the cult of culture, perhaps, but certainly a recognition of others’ faith. We step out of the sunlight into the shade of a church and may not comprehend the deity who once inhabited there (and may do still); we may consciously contrast our cerebral engagement with the cultish goings-on that have had their home there but by our visiting presence – like it or not – we are conforming to an appreciation of the power the place has had and, by conforming, extending its after-life.

The reverence we show, of course, is not confined to locations of the religious. There are plenty of sites for secular pilgrimage, whether they be the homes of famous figures or temples to the arts. I have talked before of my experience of Arquà Petrarca in the Euganean hills, complete with his stuffed cat (these places are often the sites of relics all as dubious as the medieval splinters of the True Cross). One of the artefacts on display there were the visitors books, recording the grand tourists who had come to pay their respects to the little god who was the house’s long-dead inhabitant; I saw last week in Ferrara an equivalent in the house of Ludovico Ariosto, where the page rests permanently open at the signature of Giuseppe Verdi – we bend forward (the natural movement of the supplicant) to take a closer look of when opera met epic.

But being in Ferrara on my summer break, I was not there as a true believer in Ariosto. As you might expect from my interests, I was more interested in the physical remains of the studia humanitatis. In particular, it  would have seemed an act of impiety not to seek out the memorials to Guarino da Verona who, as his name demonstrates, was not a local son but who, invited here to lecture at the university by Leonello d’Este stayed for most of the rest of his life, dying in 1460. Indeed, it was his reputation as a schoolmaster and a scholar – much more than Angelo Decembrio’s verbose idealisation of Leonello’s court or even Leon Battista Alberti’s transient association with Ferrara – that made the d’Este city a site of significance on the humanist map. Considering that I have recently polished off an article suggesting we should rethink the construction of Guarino’s reputation (building on comments I made in Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe), some might suggest that my search for Guarino was more an act of penance than simply of reverence. If so, I think I can say I have expiated for my sins.

What I found remarkable was that, despite all the cobbled streets with the red-bricked houses being so evocative of the city’s Renaissance past, there was little trace of Ferrara’s best-known humanist. There is, of course, the inscription in memory of him in the church of San Paolo – a copy of the original which was destroyed in the 1570 earthquake that shook the city; I remember seeing and transcribing that inscription when I first visited the city eleven years ago but by the 450th anniversary of Guarino’s death, when I was again briefly in Ferrara, the church was closed for restoration, and it remains so. Perhaps, in part, because that was inaccessible and so could not sate my interest, I wanted to find other evidence. But in a city which has various methods of marking their monuments and their characters – the municipal yellow street signs announcing in terse fashion the details of a palazzo or a church, the older inscriptions written into a building’s wall remembering the notable birth or other event that occurred therein, the red-lettered plaques erected by Ferrariae Decus – there is precious little outward and visible sign of Guarino’s presence. In a city which marks on its tourist map the house not only of Ariosto but also of Ercole d’Este’s favourite architect, Biagio Rossetti, and where Ariosto has certainly become the favourite son, celebrated in the name of both a piazza and a street (let alone one named after his masterpiece, Orlando Furioso), and where the city’s troublesome export to Florence, the fiery friar, Girolamo Savonarola, is commemorated by a statue in the shadow of the castello as well as the road running past (ironically) San Francesco, there is no place for an external plaque or memorial to the humanist who is credited with having given life to Ferrara’s Renaissance. There is a via Carbone, presumably named after Ludovico, the humanist who saw himself as Guarino’s successor and who delivered his funeral oration; the street is now known for its cinema. There is also, outside the city walls, a modern via Pannonio, perhaps after Janus Pannonius, Hungarian student of Guarino, later bishop and rebel against Matthias Corvinus, as well as being the author of bisexual erotic poetry. Where, though, is Guarino himself?

Palazzo Guarini-Giordani, Ferrara

Not, it should be said, where he is claimed to be. The city does have a via Guarini, so-called because it begins at the corner of the Palazzo Guarini-Giordani, designed by Biagio Rossetti and far up within the ‘addizione erculea’, the grandiose town-planning project of Ercole d’Este to extend the city north of the original walls of the city that ran alongside the Castello (a scheme perhaps as egotistical but undeniably more successful that Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s renaissance of his home village as the papal retreat of Pienza). Above the doorway into the Palazzo, now part of Ferrara’s university (much expanded since Guarino’s day), there is what I take to be a nineteenth-century notice celebrating the palace’s famous inhabitants; it names as the first of those Guarino da Verona himself. So, here we have the evidence for which I am searching – except it is so obviously implausible, Guarino having been dead for a half a lifetime before the building was begun in 1496. It was, in fact, designed for one of Guarino’s many sons, Battista, who followed his father in his scholarly pursuits, but he lived to enjoy his new house only for a few years, dying in the high summer of 1503. The Palazzo and the road beside it are, in reality, named after the dynasty that could trace itself back to Guarino, rather than the humanist himself.

Ferrara, Palazzo Guarini-Giordani, notice recording the ‘presence’ of Guarino

Recognition of the error made me want all the more to find as precisely as possible where Guarino actually resided in his adopted town – where, that is, he lived, slept and ran his private school, his conturbernium, which the likes of Janus Pannonius attended and where English travellers like William Gray, future bishop of Ely, and John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, would presumably have visited him. My pursuit, I must admit, drove my darling mild-mannered wife to distraction.

Ferrara, via del Turco, the presumed site of the house of Guarino

Some brief searching (not enough to interrupt the rest of the holiday) showed that we do have some written evidence of the humanist’s residence, largely thanks to the researches of the incomparable Remigio Sabbadini: we know that he lodged at the house of the Strozzi and that, as the Dizionario biografico degli italiani states, ‘andò ad abitare nell’attigua casa dei Boiardi, in via S. Michele, che prese in affitto per tre anni e che poi acquistò per 3500 lire marchesane, 550 delle quali donategli dal marchese’. There is a slight complication: there is not now in the street plan of Ferrara any record of a road of San Michele, but there is a church, closed, deconsecrated and in poor repair. The route to it is now called the via del Turco (after the medieval Turchi family) and it was at the upper end of this road, near the via Cortevecchia, that Guarino had his house. The casa Strozzi was pulled down long ago, replaced in the seventeenth century by a wooden theatre which itself was replaced by a brick building in the nineteenth century which later became a cinema. The picture-house, in contrast to the successful one on via Carbone, has closed for business and the empty building shows a lack of loving care. As Guarino’s more permanent home – known as the casa Boiardi after the noble Boiardo family, forefathers of the poet Matteo Maria – was next door to the casa Strozzi, we can identify its location and view the spot, but much of it has now disappeared: there is a break in the building line, with an area now used for parking. Behind that, though, there are houses and they include one Renaissance lintel above a low doorway. Perhaps this is one small remnant of the building Guarino called home.

There is not, you will be unsurprised to hear, any plaque or notice to record the connexion of the site with the learned humanist. As I have suggested, this is not because the Ferrarese are adverse to advertising their heritage. Indeed, further down the same street, a modern apartment block has retained one stone of an older building, which records the Pico della Mirandola stopped there. I enjoy the juxtaposition of notices that now festoons that wall.

Ferrara, via del Turco 29, inscription to Pico and its modern accompaniment

It is, of course, understandable that Guarino has become overshadowed in the city of Ariosto; the poet has long been the talisman of Ferrara’s contribution to culture. In 1933, the ‘centenario ariostesco’ was celebrated, for instance, by a significant exhibition of local Renaissance art including the likes of Cosmè Tura and Garofalo. I think we can anticipate with some confidence that there will be a menu of cultural events as rich as the local dish of salama da sugo organised to mark the next significant Ariostean anniversary in twenty-one years’ time. But rejoicing in that maestro of the volgare should not mean that a Latinate scholar who was also important to Ferrara’s identity need be forgotten. Perhaps in the years running up to 2033, the Ferrarese could find a moment to remember the achievements of their most famous schoolmaster – 2029 would mark the sixth centenary of the arrival of Guarino da Verona in their city. If they did arrange such an act of pietas, I for one would willingly make the pilgrimage to their doorstep.

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The Cult of Petrarch and the Art of Graffiti

Posted in Grand Tour by bonaelitterae on 13 April, 2010

Speaking last week in Padua at a conference expertly organised by the excellent Alessandra Petrina, I took the opportunity in the following days to follow where previous secular pilgrims have done: for the first time, I visited Arquà Petrarca, which sits in the embrace of the Euganean Hills. The village — or, as the tourist information would have it, borgo — only took its double-barrelled name in 1868, when it added the reference to its most famous former inhabitant, Francesco Petrarca, who lived out his final years here.

Petrarch’s tomb stands in front of the parochial church, and the house in which he lived is now a small museum. Its display bears witness to the cult of the poet, in particular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, there is a print depicting the opening of Petrarch’s tomb in 1834, when his remains were checked and a rib removed for separate burial (one example of a fashion for exhumations which could, in itself, be a topic worthy of an historian). The house also contains an example of the ‘Codici di Arquà’, begun in 1787 as visitors’ books. The purpose, the museum explains, was to end the previous practice of etching one’s name into the walls of the small villa. Now there remain examples of these graffiti (the most legible being by Austrian students from 1564) on the fireplaces and on the baroque wall-monument to what is supposed to be Petrarch’s mummified cat.

This history of graffiti interests me. Their presence demonstrate that, while the casa was in various private hands, it was also open to visitors. ‘Pilgrims’ would, presumably, turn off the road from Padua to Ferrara at Monsélice, and climb into the hills purposely to visit the village. Some would then wish to record their visit — they did not attempt to leave their mark on the marble of the tomb but thought it appropriate to etch their name in the stonework or plaster of the house. The owners, for their part, must either have been continually unobservant or (more likely) have been tolerant, if not welcoming, of such graffiti. In other words, such inscriptions were, until the late eighteenth century, an accepted activity for at least some tourists. If this is so, it puts in a different light the graffiti found so often elsewhere — in churches, for example, cut into alabaster figures or marked on frescoes. It has struck me before that these could rarely have been acts of a moment but must have been more deliberate and painstaking. In that situation, such graffiti must have had a resonance different from those with which we would associate the activity: not akin to vandalism, it was an act that lay somewhere between the desire to commemorate one’s own presence and a wish to pay homage to the place or the long-gone person in whose presence you were. Petrarch, perhaps, would have understood.