I have suggested that it would be worth the Renaissance Society of America going meta and studying the anthropology of its own ‘Annual Meeting’. The advantage of this little proposal is that it would help us stand outside our own experience and look in at ourselves. At this point, I should probably put my hand up and admit to not being a habitué of the RSA’s annual get-together. The last time I attended was ten years ago, when it was in Cambridge (UK – not MA). There have been several reasons why I have been unable to attend in the intervening years, but I have tended to justify my absence with reference to the conference’s amplitudinous nature – how can, I ask, an event which is so gargantuan continue to have the quality of a conference? Aristotle described how a city could be so large that it failed to have the character of a city. We too might wonder at what stage a conference becomes the equivalent of a megalopolis and is too massive to retain a single identity. I must stress that I enjoyed my experience of the RSA this year and was glad to have been persuaded to contribute (thank you, Piers Baker-Bates, Tom True and Oren Margolis). I did hear a few shockingly poor papers (given by established academics) and some very stimulating ones (many – but not all – given by early-career scholars). I feel guilty that I did not sit in on more panels; struck by end-0f-term exhaustion, I crept away on the first afternoon to preserve my energy for presenting the next day, and on that day, the sessions were so stimulating – excepting (modesty forces me to say) my own intervention – that I was drained by the evening without the stamina to go to the plenary lecture I had very much wanted to hear (I am getting old). Perhaps, though, I should not be too hard on myself: my absence was not, I sense, egregious. Yet, that such selective non-attendance – like Poggio Bracciolini travelling away from Constance – was perhaps not just acceptable but the norm says something about the expectations of the event. The worry is that those expectations clash with the basic concept of a conference, as I at least have seen it practised on other occasions.
The differences of concept were reflected in an exchange of views I had with another attendee the day after the RSA ended. I would like to claim the exchange was full and frank but, as we were both British, it naturally fell short of that. The person with whom I found myself in discussion complained that there was no consistency between sessions about when questions were asked so that it was difficult to time moving between papers; her preference would have been to have a 30 minute slot for each paper, including questions, with the chair’s job to be making sure that each paper and discussion on it was confined to that half hour. She may have been thinking aloud, or felt goaded to suggesting it by my own joking proposal that at the start of each panel, the door should be locked to avoid the disruption to the session caused by people entering and leaving when they please. For my interlocutor, moving between sessions is an established habit at such a conference and helps ensure one can attend as many papers of interest as possible. For me, in contrast, it is both ill-mannered and counter-productive. The organiser of a panel has taken the effort to bring together a group of speakers with some sense of connexion between their topics. This, of course, works better in some sessions than others but, unless a session is obviously a medley of disparate elements without any rationale, then, to my mind, we should show respect to both the organiser and the speakers by attending the whole session, however interesting another panel might be elsewhere.
That explains in brief why, on my submission, panel-popping offends good manners; that is not to say that there may be occasions on which for an individual it is nearly unavoidable but it is to suggest that it should be discouraged as an element of conference etiquette. I said a moment ago, however, that I also consider the practice counter-productive and I should explain that. If the intention of moving between sessions is to maximise one’s intellectual stimulation then it can only do that if one is not interested in hearing or engaging in the discussion section of a session. Personally, I find that at times the most exciting part – when the chair or members of the audience can draw out threads that linked the papers together and when a discussion can develop involving all speakers and some of the others in the room. That, I would suggest, is at the heart of what a conference is – it is a collective experience where speakers and attendees alike learn from each other and develop their thinking through the exchange of ideas.
Yet, of course, a conference where part of its claim to importance is its very size – like not only the RSA but also the International Medieval Congress at Leeds – can never manage to hold all its delegates together as one collective. The fact that such events tend to be organised in significant cities where there are plentiful distractions in itself must dissipate that to some extent (I know that Kathleen Kennedy would point out that Kalamazoo, home to another International Congress of medievalists, is an exception in being a small venue for a heavy-weight event). Such conferences’ need to have multiple parallel sessions – in Berlin, it was over 50 to each time slot – encourages the proposing and organising by societies or groups of a series of panels on one subject area, with the result that there are several mini-conferences happening in the same place, often with delegates who have paid to travel from afar sitting in a room speaking mainly to colleagues they could more cheaply have gathered together elsewhere. Those involved in such sessions are not unaware that it makes little economic sense to work this way but they calculate it has advantages – the fact that many of the arrangements are another’s responsibility, let alone the attraction of being seen at the ‘premier’ event – which keeps them doing it. These mini-conferences act like the rioni or quarters of a medieval city, with the conference itself being the municipality which gives them space – and which ensures they do not come to blows (not that I have ever heard of such things happening at the RSA or IMC but, then again, perhaps I am out of the loop). Yet, if one is not a full member of such a mini-conference or, as few of these strands run through the whole of the event, when ‘your’ section is not in action, then the structure demands that one creates an individualised experience of the conference. In such a context, the pattern of panel-popping my partner in conversation was proposing as appropriate behaviour is not simply likely to happen, it is, in effect, encouraged. The question is whether that matters.
Some, obviously, would say not – or would, indeed, celebrate such structures, pointing out that as a metropolis gives an individual the opportunity to be who they want to be, not controlled by the collective habits that mark out village life, so these large events give opportunities that break down established structures of authority and empower the individual. There is undoubted merit to that argument and it could be taken as a rationale for the organisers of a large conference facilitating as many sessions as possible, though, as the argument over the lack of women among the RSA’s plenaries shows, size does not necessarily ensure diversity. There is a further danger about continuing expansion: I wonder when the metropolis turns into the megalopolis and the individualised becomes the atomised. That aside, and to repeat my central point, if we see a conference as an event which fosters a collective identity and a sharing of thought-processes among contributors (speakers and listeners), then the RSA or IMC would not fit the definition. Admittedly, neither of those two gatherings actually calls itself a conference. The RSA has its ‘annual meeting’ – though, with so many present, there are so few you do actually meet: you bump into friends you did not even realise were going to be there, and you fail to find others who are lost in the mass of people and of sessions. IMC, like Kalamazoo, terms itself a congress, hinting at the difference of its nature from smaller-scale or more old-fashioned (and more human-sized) gatherings. What is at stake, though, is not an issue of terminology – though this could help if, that is, we are alert to the nuances of terms and share a single language; that in itself must be in doubt considering the slippage that seems to occur between ‘colloquium’, ‘symposium’ and ‘workshop’, for instance. What I want to insist matters is that we all – as organisers and as attendees – consider reflectively the implications of size has for the nature of intellectual engagement at an event. Perhaps others do this and I am slow on the uptake but the way in which the patterns of sessions alters little between different types of conference suggests otherwise. The RSA (to continue with this example) envisage ‘panels’ and ’roundtables’, to which are added ‘plenaries’ as the basic structure. If, though, we want to foster more interaction and more exchange, are there not additional ways in which to achieve this – could not, for instance, there be occasions where the chair of each session or an appointed rapporteur feeds back to a wider audience? And does social media – beyond twitter feeds and storify (take a bow, Liesbeth Corens) – give opportunities to achieve such a sharing of experience (always remembering that a substantial proportion of the delegates are likely to be off-line during the conference itself)?
That is, of course, assuming that such sharing, with the assumptions of a single collective identity, is desirable at such an event. But have I misunderstood the anthropology?
In the summer of 1435, the Artois town of Arras was over-run. This was a peaceful invasion, unlike others in its history, for Arras was to be the site of a congress intended to end the major international conflict of northern Europe between the kingdoms of France and England by bringing them – and the allies of the English, the dukes of Burgundy – to the negotiating table. The congress was overseen by the Bolognese cardinal, Niccolò Albergati, in whose entourage were two future popes, Nicholas V and Pius II. Whatever the future greatness of some of his household, his companions formed a relatively modest following, particularly when compared with that of England’s premier cleric, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who rode into town with a retinue of five hundred. Attendance at the congress, moreover, was not drawn simply from the main protoganists and the representatives of the papacy – its participants came also, as one orator presented noted, ‘from Cyprus, from Denmark, from Poland…’. For a town whose population was probably in the mid-twenty-thousands, these visitors must have swelled its numbers in a way that both provided economic possibilities and stretched its resources to near-breaking point. Where would all of Beaufort’s retainers stayed – in tents outside the town walls? How would the taverns have coped with the increased demand for food which there surely must have been, even if some of the attending dignitaries came with their own cooks and supplies? And the Congress of Arras, let us remember, was one of the smaller international conferences of the early fifteenth century. It could not compare with the General Councils of the Church – with Constance or Basel (especially in its early days) or with Ferrara-Florence (the pope’s riposte to Basel at which the Christian churches beyond the Catholic West were represented). Spare a thought for the locals of each of those towns who had to suffer as well as profit from the influx of strangers, with their colourful clothes, curious manners and incomprehensible languages.
The dress code among modern academics offers more subtle variation between national types than was the case in the age of the Councils. At an event like the Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that ended a week ago in Berlin, there were some differences on display: the wearing of what looked suspiciously like pre-made bowties was considered appropriate fashion by some of one nation, while a few brave souls (and I use ‘brave’ in the sense of foolhardy) of another country unblushlingly sported braces (Amer.: suspenders – but let us not pursue that difference in usage). And this is only to comment on the practices of male couture. These examples remind us that the RSA, like the congress at Arras, was highly cosmopolitan, but without the advantage of having a universally owned lingua franca between scholars (ubi colloquia in lingua latina erant?); the event had instead to be polyglot, with at least lip-service paid to speaking in tongues. This contrast with Arras is one among the many significant differences, but, standing in the reception of the Humboldt University, I could not shake from my mind the sense that this ‘conference’ – and I will explain the scare-quotes in the second part of this discussion – with its 3,200 delegates, plus its support industry like the well-stocked book-stands (one of the few temptations to which the latterday academic fails to be immune), shared something of the character of one of those quattrocento Councils or Congresses. Moreover, I would humbly suggest, a future RSA could usefully include a panel or two on those Councils seen through the anthropology of the RSA.
I mooted this suggestion with a few of those attending – when I say a few, I mean roughly 0.15% of the delegates. They proposed some interesting topics. Of perennial fascination is the contrast – and sometimes conflict – between different styles of presentation, usually assumed to be a matter of national educational traditions, though the panels often also provide evidence of the movement or assimilitation of others’ habits; this could provide insight for those of us considering the process of the international adoption of humanist techniques of oratory in the fifteenth century. Equally valid would be to consider the range of audience engagements in a panel, from styles of questioning to the tradition of the intervento. Related to these subjects might be the sub-cultures created among attendees by what they do away from the conference venue – so compare the adventures of a Poggio Bracciolini at St. Gallen (or, indeed, Baden-Baden) with the opera outings of colleagues or the late-night drinking sessions (the membership of these events may be found to overlap). Such escapades could also allow a study of the impact of the sudden arrival of so many people on the local economy; there were certainly mutterings that the Berlin restaurants were caught unawares by the dietary expectations of the members of the RSA. Then, as was pointed out, there is the nature of gift-giving at such events which in itself reflects patterns of patronage some of which pre-exist while others are created at the event, either for its duration or with longer-term results. That, too, is linked to the matter of the after-tremors of the earthquake which is such a congregating of people: to the flurries of e-mails and follow-up meetings we may now be having could be parallelled the possibilities of renewed contact that were nurtured by an acquaintance made at a General Council. And, beneath and beyond all these smaller issues, the anthropological approach could allow us to consider the range of purposes and results of such an outsize gathering, in a such a way that we would be invited to consider how those other elements enhanced or undermined its ostensible raison d’être. It is, indeed, on its declared rationale that I want to concentrate in the second part of these reflections.
That indefatigable scholar, Prof. Dana Sutton, clearly had a busy summer. He has both been updating his very valuable ‘Analytic Bibliography of on-line Neo-Latin Texts‘ and adding to its main source, that is, his own ‘Philological Museum‘ of editions he provides of Renaissance Latin works. It would be hard for any student of early modern England to avoid using this significant and continually expanding repository. For one thing (as Jim Binns taught us some time ago), a sixteenth-century Englishman wanting to publish a text in the learned language of Latin would usually look to the continental presses, rather than to those in Westminster or London: it is axiomatic that, in terms of printing, England was a backwater, with texts using the new technology regularly an import like the paper on which they were produced. This means that Early English Books On-line is not the quick short-cut to the text for many works written by Englishmen; the database, originally designed to put on the web those items listed in the Short-Title Catalogue (up to 1641), necessarily overstates the insularity of our forefathers by under-representing their ability to compose in our civilization’s lingua franca. There is a supplementary reason why Prof. Sutton’s Museum is a place all early modernists must visit: many of the works it contains have no critical edition and, when they do (as with, for instance, Andrea Ammonio’s Carmina of 1511), Sutton has a sharp eye for their failings. The Museum, in other words, is no side-show; it is the main act.
What has happened in recent months is that Dana Sutton’s has been turning his attention to Polydore Vergil, that humanist from Urbino who spent most of his adult life away from his hill-top hometown, swapping its sunshine for the more sullen skies that hang above London. He is surely best known for his monumental Anglica Historia, though his name is also associated with encyclopaedic De inventoribus, now available in the edition by Brian Copenhaver in that indispensable series, the I Tatti Renaissance Library. In addition, he was the author of a collection of adages – clashing with Erasmus over which of them should be considered the ‘inventor’ of that genre. What is more, as Dana Sutton is reminding us, he was the author of several dialogues, four of which appeared together in a Basel edition of 1545 but which, as Sutton suggests, were most likely composed at various earlier dates. All of them are now available in the virtual exhibition rooms of the Philological Museum, complete with foonotes (mainly identifying citations), translations and introductions. His painstaking efforts may not be enough to establish Vergil as an innovative dialogue-writer – their style is, in some ways, old-fashioned, sitting in a tradition of Christianising classicism that stretches back beyong Battista Spagnoli (Mantuanus) to Poggio Bracciolini – but their interest lies, in part, in their ‘ordinariness’.
The editorial work on these texts allows them to stand alone as witnesses to Prof. Sutton’s assiduity, but, in addition, as is shown in his introduction to Vergil’s Dialogus de Patientia, they form part of a wider vision of the reign of Henry VII which he has already outlined elsewhere in his Museum. He gives it fuller expression here, opening by saying that ‘in most studies of the introduction of Humanism into England, there is one figure who inevitably fails to receive the credit that is his due’ – and that is the new king himself. In this interpretation, Henry, aware of the ‘new learning’ from his time in France and Burgundy, recognises the importance of training his own people in it, both for diplomatic and for propaganda purposes, and appreciates that until his countrymen have become better educated, he needs must rely on imported humanists, like Polydore Vergil himself. I summarise the argument because, in the footnote to his first sentence, Prof. Sutton chides me (with great gentility) for exemplifying the lack of attention to Henry as introducer of the studia humanitatis to England. It is absolutely true that I have not given him that credit, and it is for one (to my mind) good reason: I do not believe he deserves it. I do not want to act like the sort of churlish reviewer for whom other people’s works are fodder to their own egomania; you can end reading here with my praise of Dana Sutton’s hyper-activity ringing in your ears, but if you believe my scepticism demands an explanation, you can read a very brief response in the following final paragraph.
To my mind, there is a cluster of difficulties to the interpretation I have just outlined. In terms of chronology, it post-dates the use of humanist fashions in English diplomatic correspondence and oratory, while also allowing the impression that there was a wholescale shift to Ciceronian rhetoric; in truth, many products of chanceries – across Europe and not just in this corner of the world – remained resolutely unreformed. In conceptual terms, the interpretation seems to me to misrepresent the power of ‘propaganda’ in the early sixteenth century – or, rather, its limitations. Many of the products of Henry VII’s so-called grex poetarum were not propagated to a wide public; they were more often intended for the delectation of those on the king’s immediate orbit, a reflection of a set of developing habits which defined ‘court culture’. That culture could, indeed, have diplomatic value, as transmitted back by foreign visitors to their governments but it was not about the moulding of ‘public opinion’ which we usually take to be the definition of propaganda. A good example of this is provided by Vergil himself. To reiterate a suggestion I made some years ago, it seems to me that if Henry VII had envisaged that it was a shrewd method of achieving propaganda to dispense with some excess wealth by furnishing the visiting papal diplomat from Urbino with a pension that would allow him the time to write a history of England, then he must have died disappointed. This was not just a function of the decades that it took to write the work; when it was produced, there seems to have been no sense of urgency from the government for projecting their ‘propaganda tool’ to their people or to the world. It was Vergil himself who sought to have it published, like so many English neo-Latin writers, elsewhere in Europe, and it was Vergil who provided manuscripts of the work, not for his English patrons, but for the duke of his hometown of Urbino. Guidobaldo was also, as we see from the excellent recourse provided to us by Dana Sutton, the dedicatee of the set of dialogues published in 1545: a few years later, and Vergil was back in his hometown. We do not need to presume that the dedication was a tactic specifically intended to smooth the way for his return, but it does seem that repeatedly in his English years the humanist made attempts to continue to be in good favour with his original lords. If Polydore Vergil perceived his Historia as propaganda, it was more as a display of his own genius then as the mouthpiece of England’s regime. And for King Henry, father or son, the very presence of the humanist was evidence enough of their royal generosity or magnificence in providing a pension, a process of remuneration which had the added benefit of encouraging a demonstration of loyalty by the author second-guessing what his patron might want him to say. To propagate a specific message to their people, though, a monarch knew they had weapons mightier than any neo-Latin pen.
I am not in the habit of shouting at the television. In part, that is because I am not much of a TV-watcher: until my then partner, now wife, moved in, there was no box in the house. When I do sit in front of it, the programmes on offer are usually not the sort to arouse violent reactions: I find it hard to get angry with Inspector Montablano. But a documentary has had me not just emitting expletives in a raised voice but also searching for suitable objects or pets to throw at the screen (lucky, then, that there are no animals in the house). The programme was the BBC’s ‘flag-ship’ arts phenomenon, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, presented by James Fox – not the actor but brother of Edward Fox, but ‘Dr James Fox’ (nowadays those who have written a dissertation can only appear on TV accompanied by the title, as if it were a mark of their trustworthiness in all matters).
I did not come to the programme cold: already this week I was put in training for the new sport of yelling in frustration and ire at the small screen. I had caught a few moments of another offering from the BBC, its ‘How to Get Ahead, at Renaissance Court’ – clever title, pity about the content. When I joined it, the presenter, Stephen Smith, was standing in the cortile of Florence’s Bargello, in front of Cellini’s bust of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, with its all’antica armour and ducal features finely realised in metal. Smith explains, however, that the Duke hated it because it presented him as a medieval prince while – cut to the Uffizi, with Smith next to Bronzino’s portrait of the Duke in armour – this is how he wanted to be presented, as a Renaissance prince. Smith went on to explain ‘Renaissance’ by evoking (in not so many words) Castigilione’s idea of sprezzatura but by then I had bawled at the screen and scrambled for the remote control. It was not simply that it had been assumed that two objects could encapsulate the contrast between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ – it was the very presence of that discredited dichotomy, expressed with no reservation or recognition of its problematic nature, that made choice words fall unbidden from my lips.
I must admit I did expect ‘A Very British Renaissance’ to give me more opportunities to put my lung capacity through its paces. My prediction that the fifteenth-century Renaissance elements about which I write would be entirely absent quickly proved true. The Renaissance arrived, apparently, in 1507, when Pietro Torrigiano set foot on English soil (or mud, the dominant metaphor for ‘medieval’ Britain in this programme). No time, then, for Poggio Bracciolini or Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, or for the likes of Pietro Carmeliano, secretary and scribe to Henry VII. Indeed, according to the presenter, while ‘the Renaissance had been raging in Italy for two hundred years … here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever’. As you might imagine, at this point in the programme, rage was not confined to trecento and quattrocento Italy. The reason given for this laggardly showing? There had been so much in-fighting that Britain ‘hadn’t had time for a Renaissance’ – not (Dr Fox might have mentioned) that the struggles for power in Florence or the rivalry with Milan or between Milan and Venice had put a brake on ‘the Renaissance’. Neither, having been softened up by Mr Smith’s performance earlier in the week, did the recourse to the simplistic medieval / Renaissance division catch me completely off guard. So, we had Nicholas Kratzer with his ‘formidable mind – a genuinely Renaissance mind’, since he was interested in scientific observation. Likewise, we had his friend Hans Holbein, over whose drawings at Windsor Fox rhapsodised in eloquent fashion, introducing his peroration with ‘I think they’re even more important’ – it was part of the style of the programme that when a point required emphasis it was introduced by a first-person comment, even though the thought that followed was never original or particularly insightful. In this case, it was the claim that in Holbein’s drawings there were ‘the seeds of a new idea – the moment when people stopped thinking about themselves as types … and started to think about themselves as individuals.’ And so was brushed away over a century of scholarship spent dismantling the dubious concepts provided by Michelet and Burckhardt and we are again mired in talk of ‘the birth of the individual’.
It is a moment like this that you want to stop the presenter and interrogate him. In precisely what way is the remarkable draughtsmanship of Holbein associated with a new individualism? Is it that he made his sitters aware of their own selves? Did they walk in thinking of themselves as a type and leave realising they were unique? Or was the fact that they were willing to sit for him evidence that they already had a sense of their own individuality which they wanted captured on paper by this artist for hire? If so, then their sense of self did not need Holbein; it gained expression through him. But also, if so, did not the fact that these courtiers and merchants chose to call on Holbein’s services group them together as a type – the sort of person who would waste some of their expendable wealth on the conspicuous consumption of having their portrait done? They could chant in unison ‘we are all individuals’.
Yet, even the muddle-minded, half-baked historical thinking that underpinned the presentation was not what should concern us most. For one thing, there was also a disturbing politics at play. I realise the BBC is sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias and maybe they worried about the fact that their presenter is a leftie – in the sense that David Cameron is. And Barack Obama. And me. Did they decide they needed their left-handed presenter to be not just right-on but also right-wing, so much so that the attitudes he was required to spout could warm the heart of Mr Farage (if he watched such cerebral stuff)? Did they require Dr Fox to give lines like the British ‘didn’t simply copy Europe, they would do things differently’? ‘Europe’ was consistently used in the sense of ‘the continent’. The assumption that the British Isles is not and has not been part of Europe is depressing politics based on bad history: it was certainly not how contemporaries in the period Dr Fox was discussing would have envisaged their civilisation. Meanwhile, in this year of the Scottish referendum, it might have been thought appropriate to make the case for a shared identity between Scotland and England. So, a section was included on Stirling Castle, but it would be understandable if those north of the border felt the programme stank of Sassenach arrogance. The terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were used interchangeably; the overarching narrative was one provided by the political history of that part of the British Isles that centred on London. Thus, the Reformation discussed was that experienced in England, admittedly with notable omissions — no Break with Rome or Dissolution of the Monasteries — and ample space for anti-Catholic righteous indignation at the Marian persecution of Protestants, those ‘innocent people’ whose only crime was their religious difference from their monarch. The purpose of those lines was to introduce John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which (the author’s near-namesake claimed) the true genius lay in its illustrations. At this point, we might have expected some discussion of their artistic skill but the only association made with the apparent theme of the programme was that the book was produced using a ‘Renaissance invention’ by which printing was presumably meant. Let us leave aside the re-write of history that implies, and concentrate on the conclusion of the section where it was asserted that the Book of Martyrs was not just ‘a monumental work of the Renaissance but also the beginning of a distinctly British tradition of graphically exposing injustice’.
And so we have the British (for which read mainly English) ‘genius’. The relative influences of Hegel and Herder on Burckhardt have been debated; the shadows of both fall across this programme but it turns out that the noun in the title is less significant than the adjective: this is less about the supposed Zeitgeist of the Renaissance than about the mythical Volksgeist of ‘the British’. Sir Arthur Bryant would be proud. What it is to be ‘British’ was not entirely pleasant: without the effete ‘elegance’ of the Mediterranean, ‘our’ Renaissance would express ‘solid, earthy reality’, and while there was a sense of fair play, there was also dislike of Catholics, and of foreigners, despite Britain’s debt to them. It was a construction of ‘Britishness’ in which England’s one intellectual of European standing in the early sixteenth century could have no place: Thomas More was conspicuous by his exclusion.
Perhaps, though, even a little Englander mentality is not the most worrying element in this programme. What was most depressing was that the information was presented not as a point of view, open to debate, but as a set of unquestionable facts: ‘I think’ used as an expression not of humility but of certainty. It presented a mindset in which the past can be easily categorised and judged. ‘How good a poet was he?’, Dr Fox asked about Thomas Wyatt (you can guess the answer). Standing besides the portrait by John Bettes in Tate Britain, he commented ‘I must admit this is not as good as Holbein but it’s pretty darn good’. We were given a history defined by league tables, in which Renaissance is certainly better than medieval, and in which Britain is separate from and implicitly better than ‘Europe’. Who constructs these league tables? The presenters, the doctors, the ‘experts’ – even when their expertise is patently doubtful. You, the viewers, have no part in that construction, you are the passive recipients of what is claimed to be established knowledge. You cannot see – to return to Stephen Smith – that Bronzino is Renaissance and Cellini medieval? That is because you are no expert. What unites the two programmes is that they are not intended to develop the watchers’ critical faculties or their ability to analyse the objects being displayed: it is, rather, to remind us that, we, on the wrong side of the screen, lack those faculties. This is not about liberal education but about indoctrination. It is this, even more than its recourse to a tired, demonstrably mistaken historiography, that makes these programmes deeply, depressingly conservative. Is this really in the spirit of the mission of the BBC?
My new identities are causing confusion to more than just me, it seems, so let me begin with a double clarification. No, I am not teaching at the University of Exeter, and, no, I am not giving the Lyell Lectures.
Exeter has a fine cathedral and there are some very good restaurants. But it cannot claim to be England’s oldest recorded town, where the Norman Castle, second only to the Tower of London in size, is set on the foundations of a Roman temple. I am, as I have explained before, now an Essex man, based at the University whose postal address is Colchester, though its campus is closer to the attractive river-side village of Wivenhoe (something happened to the sense of direction in the early 1960s when the new universities were founded — witness also the misnamed University of Warwick[shire]).
That is not to say that my life is now confined to the East of England. Indeed, my existential uncertainty is not about who I am but where I am each day. I may be teaching in Essex but I also have long-standing commitments in Oxford, including giving a set of lectures on my research, beginning on Thursday 17th October. This series is generously sponsored by the J. P. R. Lyell Fund but is — to repeat — decidedly not this year’s Lyell Lectures. There are not really many grounds for confusion: after all, the Lyell Lectures are an annual event when a leading scholar invited by the Electors presents on an area where they are an acknowledged expert. If that was not enough of a give-away, there is also the fact that those for 2013 have already been given, by Richard Beadle, and the identity of the Lyell Lecturer for 2014 is already known: it will be the Rector of Lincoln, Henry Woudhuysen.
The Lyell Fund’s involvement in my forthcoming set of lectures is that they have supported much of the research that is their basis, and a condition of their grant to me was that I provide a series. I should add that they have been joined by others in funding the research: the Paul Mellon Centre, the British School at Rome (my second home) and, further back in time, the Neil Ker Fund of the British Academy all deserve the warmest thanks.
The lectures, then, are one result of my recent project which has been to focus my long-term interest in humanist palaeogrpahy by producing a catalogue of English Humanist Scripts up to c. 1509. That catalogue will be published in the series ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’, overseen by the indomitable Anthony Hobson; its previous volumes have been Tilly de la Mare’s classic survey of the scripts of Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Niccoli and others, and the detailed study of the master of italic, Bartolomeo Sanvito begun by Tilly and ably completed by Laura Nuvolini. That work will present, scribe by scribe, a detailed discussion of their practices. What these lectures allow me to do is to tease out and emphasise the arguments which run through the catalogue as an undercurrent. I will be emphasising, then, how we need to revise our chronology of the ‘spread’ of humanism and, more widely, to question the very concept of ‘spread’; I will be providing plentiful evidence for the cosmopolitanism of humanist book arts, in England but also in Italy; I will consider how and why scribes came to adopt a practice we identify as ‘Roman’ or Italian — and how they also, at times, dispensed with it. In the process, I will be present new characters central to the history of humanism in England who have not previously been mentioned: they will include England’s first humanist scribe and the person I like to consider Scotland’s first humanist. I hope to see you there.
A full list of the titles of these lectures is provided on this site .
I ended the previous post Sheherazade-like, leaving the tale to be finished another night. I had explained how I had happened upon a manuscript of works by Salutati which provided evidence of its being associated with the voracious English book-collector of the early fifteenth century, Andrew Holes. It also included a seventeenth-century note by Richard Smith stating that the owner at that point had another similar manuscript and so I was waiting for the opportunity to investigate whether that codex had also survived through the subsequent centuries and had reached the same safe-house of a library.
Tracking down that manuscript proved much simpler than is often the case: the first volume I called up on Thursday immediately announced itself to be the book for which I was searching. It fitted Smith’s description of a manuscript of works by the same author as its main part included a collection of Salutati’s Epistolae. It did not have a note of ownership by Smith, but it did share with the other manuscript a style of seventeenth-century contents list, which here ended with a reference to ‘in alio lib. MSS ipsius Authoris in 4’, a definite reference to the other manuscript. What was more, as I walked back to my desk and turned over the leaves, it became clear that here there regularly appeared in the margin the manicula that appeared once in the manuscript I had seen the previous year. In other words, the manuscript could definitely be associated with Andrew Holes.
I have used twice the phrase ‘associated with’ rather than ‘owned by’ because, as I explained before, there has been some confusion about Holes’ marginalia: two strikingly different scripts having both been attributed to him. When I studied the known Holes manuscripts nine or ten years ago, this struck me as problematic, and I suspected at that point that there were two separate readers at work. But there was not enough evidence to hand to confirm my suspicion. What I did not expect was that the manuscript in Paris I saw the other day would present such helpful evidence to provide a definite solution.
I mentioned that the main part of the manuscript was occupied by letters of Salutati. It must be said that despite Smith’s suggestion that the book was a twin with the one in which he wrote his ownership note, the size, mise-en-page and script, while all being similar, are in each specific subtly distinct. Smith specifically mentioned the ‘same vellum’ and it is true that for both manuscripts, the parchment has been prepared to be very smooth on the skin-side but fairly dark on the hair-side – as is seen in other early-fifteenth-century codices constructed in Florence. What was particularly notable in this ‘new’ manuscript is that the style of parchment served not only for the part including Salutati’s letters but also for a second fascicule, with its own set of leaf signatures and with a script quite different from that of the first part. This second section, which provides a copy of Francesco Barbaro’s De re uxoria, was written by an English scribe who helpfully signs himself at the final colophon, giving his name as ‘Johannes Burgh’. Burgh not only writes this second fascicule; he also annotates the first, providing textual additions. It was, I must admit, only while looking at those marginalia that it struck me with real force: this spiky but elegant gothic cursive bookhand is identical with one of the two scripts that have been attributed to Andrew Holes.
We can say a little more about John Burgh: as Josephine Bennett explained in her 1944 article, like Andrew Holes, he had been a student at New College; he was sent to the papal curia and became Holes’s own secretary. It is hardly surprising, then, that he should frequently intervene in his master’s manuscripts, though his addition of Barbaro’s work is the only occasion (to date) that we know of him acting as the scribe for a complete text – which is suggestive, surely of how much we must have lost.
The identification of him as one of the two annotators here makes it likely that we can identify the other reader, with his stubby manicula and his gothic cursive script which suggests some acquaintance with the Italian pre-humanist fashions as practised in Salutati’s circle, as Holes himself. That, in turn, should allow us to reconstruct with more precision his own reading habits. For instance, in this manuscript, what is notable is his interest in contemporary characters – he once notes ‘de poggio’, referring to Salutati’s protege and our friend, Poggio Bracciolini, whom Holes presumably knew personally – and in Salutati himself, noting the author’s own listing of his compositions. Holes seems to have been one of those book-collectors who chose to associate his activity with a particular writer: we already knew that he owned some books once owned by Salutati, but now we can see more fully his interest in the Florentine Chancellor who acted as mentor to the first generation of fifteenth-century humanists.
There is much more that this discovery can teach us. Let me, for the moment, note just one other implication. As I mentioned previously, most of Andrew Holes’s books were given to his alma mater of New College and most of them remain there. Some of them migrated and we can now add to that story because it is clear that both these Salutati manuscripts are examples of that. When the antiquary John Leland visited the library in the mid-1530s, the books he saw included two volumes of letters by Salutati, and a copy of the same author’s De verecundia. One of the epistolaries is now in the British Library but the other one, and the manuscript of De verecundia are surely those in Paris. It would seem, then, that they left the library but may have travelled together until they came into the hands of Richard Smith in the 1670s. With some more work, it may also be possible to trace in more detail the stages of ownership before they reached him.
Let me, though, return to the issue with which I began the last post. According to the diktats of the ‘Research Excellence’ culture in Britain, the work that I did about a decade ago on Holes’s manuscripts should have been printed at that point: in this system, one is not allowed to spend significant time without it showing a clear return in ‘published outcomes’. But, if I had done, what I would have been able to present to the world would have been a detailed discussion which showed there was a problem, without providing a solution. It may have been worthy, but it would have been singularly down-beat and, frankly, unsatisfying for author and audience alike. I am pleased that I failed: it was right not to write it up for publication. Indeed, if it had been, it may be harder to justify returning to it later, when it is possible to give a fuller, more pleasing and revealing tale now. Some academic research can be like fast food, rustled up quickly for instant gratification. There is a place for that. But there is surely a place also for Slow Study, the art of refraining from publishing until the recalcitrant jigsaw has, with a miraculous shake of the pieces, fallen all into place. I launch, then, the Slow Study Movement, with its motto, Festina Lente, and its guardian angel, patron saint of palaeographers, Serendipity.
Yes, yes, I know. I have been silent for too long, leaving my audience shuffling in their seats uncomfortable at this Cagey performance. I did warn you when I started this site that I have neither the character nor the time to blog incessantly. But, by any standards, the hiatus since the previous post has developed from being a pregnant pause to a laboured silence. It is not, I would like to insist, because I have had nothing to say. Au contraire: several posts have been crafted in my mind, only to fail to be downloaded from brain to laptop. Perhaps their time will come or, more likely, they have been sent to the recycling bin of forgetfulness.
There is, however, one topic that has refused to be ignored and insists that I write something. My research in the last few days, in Oxford, London and Rome, has made me think about the uses and the limitations of the lectio probatoria: those intriguing and infuriating records in some medieval library catalogues of a terse extract, usually just the first word – if you are lucky, two or three – of a volume’s second folio (and so sometimes called the secundo folio). The practice of providing this information appears to have begun in Paris in the thirteenth century and became fairly common in France and in England (but, in contrast, very rare in Germany). The purpose of it is clear: while the opening of a text should always be the same, by the time a scribe and his pen come to the start of the next folio, it is unlikely that he will have reached exactly the same place as his exemplar or another copy to hand, and so the first words of that page can act as a diagnostic, identifying the specific volume where the title alone may not.
The use of such evidence in identifying extant manuscripts and so reconstruct their provenance is well recognised. Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano, in particular, have published studies using the lectio probatoria as a tool for manuscript provenance studies. More recently, James Willoughby has shown that the practice of recording the second folio continued into early print culture: this may seem, at first, nonsensical as what precisely marks out the (relatively) mass-produced printed book is that individual copies are not unique and all of one printing will begin each page with the same words. Yet, in defence of cataloguers who continued the practice, this did not, in the earliest decades of the new technology at least, have to worry them: several copies with identical layout may exist but only one was in their library and so the lectio probatoria remained a useful finding aid. And, as Willoughby explains, for the latter-day bibliographer, it can also be useful in helping identify precisely which printed edition the library owned: while multiple copies were identical, they were highly unlikely in their layout and thus their secundo folio to be exactly the same as the multiple copies of another printing.
But the historian’s use of the lectio probatoria has its limitations. There are obvious duds: the list-writer who records ‘et’ or ‘quod’ as the first word of the relevant page is providing the minimum of information which may not have been of much use then and is certainly not for our purposes. In other cases, the wording may still be fairly mundane but more revealing when combined with the knowledge of the text in the volume, which is usually the first piece of information listed. Yet, I have encountered cases where a search for the relevant phrase in the text cited suggests not it or anything like it occurs at an appropriate point early in the work. Either the cataloguer made a mistake or, as seems to be the case in some inventories, the text listed is not necessarily the first. This is the case with the indenture drawn up for the third and largest gift made by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester to Oxford University in 1444 (and which we know only from the copy recorded of it in the University’s Archives). My reconstruction of what happened is that the inventory-maker, working quickly, picked up the volume and (as was customary, because of the way clasps on bindings closed a book) opened it from the back, flicked through to find a title, and then moved to the beginning to record the lectio probatoria. What, then, he and other list-makers like him were providing was not a record of first work and second folio but a note stating that a manuscript included the cited work somewhere between its covers and, in addition, had the word or words recorded at its second folio.
The lesson from this is that to understand the evidential possibilities of the lectio probatoria, we first have to appreciate the particular modus operandi of that specific cataloguer. There are a couple of other rules of thumb that we need to follow and each can be introduced by a cautionary tale.
The first involves a manuscript of Juvenal, now in the Bodleian, that I was consulting last week. I was interested in it because it has been attributed to the collection of Robert Flemyng, dean of Lincoln (d. 1483), in whom I am interested as he was an early aficionado of humanist manuscripts, and himself a scribe competent in humanist cursive. The provenance of the manuscript – MS. Lat. class. e 30 – has been reconstructed on the basis that the secundo folio agrees with the lectio probatoria of an entry in the 1474 catalogue of Lincoln College, Oxford, where it is stated that the book was given by Flemyng. The manuscript, a small mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist product is the sort of volume that Flemyng could have picked up on his travels – but it has at the foot of its opening page two coats of arms, one of the Loredan family, the other suggested to be that of the Malipiero family (though the tinctures are wrong). This helps localise the manuscript to the Veneto; it is not impossible that Flemyng bought it second-hand but there is no other evidence to relate it to him – he does not, as he does in a good number of the other books he owned, annotate this volume. Nor does the present Oxford location help localise its earlier existence: we only know it was in England at the start of the twentieth century and may have been elsewhere before that. What is more, there is a problem with relying on the lectio probatoria as deciding evidence. Remember that this is a work of poetry, where the scribe has to respect line divisions. This obviously makes it much more likely than with a prose text that two manuscripts could have the same opening of the second folio. In such a case, the lectio is much less probatoria than we should like.
The second case I present to you (if any of the audience are still in the house) involves a Vatican manuscript for which Williman and Corsano have proposed a provenance. It is a copy of Vegetius the secundo folio of which accords with the lectio probatoria of a volume of that work as recorded in the 1389 catalogue of Dover Priory. This would be interesting evidence of the migration of manuscripts to Italy from England, except that the manuscript itself – MS. Vat. lat. 4492 – disproves the reconstruction by the fact that it was written in Rome in 1408. The book simply came into the world too late to be that recorded in the Dover listing. By the fifteenth century, then, at least two copies of the text Vegetius existed – at opposite ends of Europe – with the same secundo folio. An unlikely occurrence in a prose text, certainly, but one which, given the laws of probability, is going to happen in some cases.
What I want to emphasise in this case – and which is relevant to the Flemyng example as well – is a fact so obvious it should not need stating: the evidence of the first words of the second folio should not be taken in isolation. It cannot be used as a trump card, rendering all other known facts redundant. If it does not accord with the other information available, alarm bells should ring and another explanation must be sought.
This, though, is not to suggest that we should ignore the possibilities the lectio probatoria provide – we too often work with so little evidence, we cannot lightly dispense with this precious piece of proof. Indeed, we can probably make more use of them than we are accustomed to do. They can sometimes help us provide details about manuscripts that are no longer extant. I have enjoyed, on some occasions, identifying more precisely the opening contents of a volume from the record of the lectio probatoria. So, for instance, the first of Humfrey’s gifts to Oxford (made in 1439), one of the entries reads:
Item oraciones Tullii 2o fo. aut quelibet
Checking those two words, I realised that they came at the appropriate point in just one of Cicero’s orations, the Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino, a work which was re-found in 1415 by Poggio Bracciolini (a friend of ours from other posts on this site). The brief entry, then, demonstrates that the duke was providing classical texts which had been circulating for less than a quarter of a century. This much has subsequently been noted in print in an important article by Rod Thomson, but we can add further comment. First, the opening text was an unusual one, most of the copies of the ‘new’ orations choosing other speeches with which to begin. That nugget of information may help us reconstruct the origin of the copy that Humfrey owned. Second, the specific location of the words in the relevant text can give us some general sense of the size of the volume. It can only be general – the changes in possible shape combined with the varieties of scribal practice would not allow anything more exact – but, in this case, with the phrase falling just over 500 words into the oration, we are probably looking at a large quarto volume, perhaps something with between 20 and 25 lines to a page.
I provide that final example to suggest some of the possibilities of the lectio probatoria which are, as yet, underused. It may not be able to match as often as we would like a record with an extant manuscript – and we should use caution, respectful of other evidence and conscious of the type of text that we are studying – but it may well be able to give some insight into a volume that no longer exists. To put it another way: we are, perhaps, too keen to imagine it as a key to unlocking the secrets of what we do have, rather than recognising it as a peep-hole onto what we can no longer touch.
The phone rings and it’s the BBC. They want to know more about Poggio Bracciolini. Our humanist friend is not having a bad year: he has already gained some celebrity for being the man who unleashed Lucretius on an unsuspecting Christian world. Now, the travelling scholar who also ‘discovered’ Quintilian and other authors, the humanist who was at the vanguard of reviving the Ciceronian dialogue form, the scribe who designed the new ‘littera antiqua’, the script of humanism which is the progenitor of the typeface you are reading — this man of many parts is to appear on BBC4.
The title of the programme in which he is to feature is revealing: ‘The World’s Oldest Joke’. He is to enter the limelight not because of any of his achievements just mentioned but because he had a fine line in blue humour, as recorded in his Facetiae, the set of jokes and other tales that originated (he reveals at the end of the work) in the bugiale — the lie-factory that was the waiting-room in the Vatican where papal secretaries like Poggio would loiter in anticipation of an audience with the Holy Father. And Poggio’s humour proved infectious, some of his facetiae reappearing in vernaculars across sixteenth-century Europe. Indeed, as I have argued recently, this collection of tales that was a work of his old age became the best-known element of his oeuvre because of the intervention of an invention with which he could have only had brief familiarity: the arrival of print could help circulate one’s works much more quickly than the scribal activities in which Poggio himself had been immersed, but it could also re-shape and contort one’s reputation. Poggio was known in his lifetime for his dialogues with their moral message and was sometimes accorded the sobriquet of ‘philosophus’; but, though those works travelled across Europe in manuscript, they were not the ones that were first to reach the printing-press: it was the Facetiae that most often was printed in the first decades of the first information technology revolution. And so, Poggio the philosopher became a dirty old man.
There is, then, an enjoyable irony that where print went, the second information technology revolution follows. Poggio is about to receive, through the television screen, a much wider audience than he can usually hope to command nowadays: a name that would usually only be heard in the sedate surroundings of Senior Common Rooms will be projected into lounges across the country, not because of his scholarly achievements but because of his ability to make people laugh.
Some might conclude that this is nothing more than is to be expected of a medium that popularizes and so has to entertain more than it educates. But I find myself not sharing those thoughts — after all, humanists like Poggio consider that you could educate through entertainment, that you could play seriously. What strikes me, instead, is that the scholarly Poggio, the scribe, the moraliser, is as partial a picture as one that concentrates solely on his joke-telling. Should we not be intergrating them together to get closer to Poggio the man?
I put that as question because the answer is by no means clear-cut: I, who am so precious about separating the different elements of my life, am the last person to suggest that you need to know the whole person, even if that were possible. Most of us live out lives knowing others in part, not wholly — others and perhaps ourselves as well. That may be our tragedy, or maybe it is our survival mechanism. Poggio himself may have been frustrated that his Facetiae should feature so large in the world’s memory of him — or, rather, Poggio aged forty may have been crestfallen to hear a prophecy that a work Poggio aged seventy would compile might become remembered as his main achievement. Perhaps he too would like to have kept his different lives separate one from another. But, equally, this was a man who berated others for not so much living as ‘doing life’, someone whose earthy experiences influence his scholarship.
The lady from the BBC was enthusiastic about Poggio and finished our conversation by saying how he deserved a biography or historical novel about his life. (It is not a challenge to which I think I could rise: ‘Poggio, when you have quite finished with your mistress, write me a letter’, ‘Yes, my lord of Winchester’). Perhaps I should have asked her ‘which life?’ And, perhaps, indeed, that would be the greatest challenge — to do justice to the many facets and the changing character of this man, without imagining he was all of them all the time. Let us hope, that, if such a work did come into being, it could let us both see his skill in writing and hear his laughter.
It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.
I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.
That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.
This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.
I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.
It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.
However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.
Lucretius is the name on everyone’s lips at the moment. Not only is there Alison Brown’s slim Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence but also Stephen Greenblatt’s lively and readable The Swerve, with its different sub-titles depending on which side of the Atlantic you live: in the big, brash United States, the tale of the ‘rediscovery’ of Lucretius is about ‘how the world became modern’; among the diffident British for whom periphrasis is a way of life, it is merely ‘how the Renaissance began’.
Merely? Even the British sub-title involves a grand claim. And if we are to associate the Renaissance with one newly popular text, most would not choose the admittedly seductive poetry of Lucretius but the helpful guides to oratory of Quintilian or Cicero, or some of the latter’s speeches. But, then, it seems that Lucretius is seen to speak to our atomised post-po-mo selves, wracked with fears and self-loathing as we struggle to make sense of our place in the shadow of the lost Twin Towers.
With Lucretius, of course, must come reference — if only passing — to the humanist who brought him back into the world, Poggio Bracciolini, with whom I have long acquaintance. What Greenblatt provides is more than a cursory nod: Lucretius is the hero of his book, but Poggio is certainly its main character. His book has been reviewed well, if not kindly, in The Washington Post; I myself am attending a discussion on the book, chaired by David Norbrook, this afternoon. I will be beginning the proceedings, in fact, with a short discussion on ‘Stephen Greenblatt and other English-speaking admirers of Poggio Bracciolini’ — I will not second-guess what I will say, but I will provide you with a copy of my handout.