bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Danae Suttoni plurimas gratias, or Polydore Vergil on the net

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2014

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.

Will the real Renaissance please stand up?

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 2 October, 2011

Last month I received notice of a conference which I am sure proved stimulating but which I could not attend as I was then in Rome. What caught my attention, however, were the first words of the promotional e-mail:

While Renaissance and Early Modern Studies are focused on the two and a half centuries between 1500 and 1750,…

I must admit that it took me some time to move beyond that comma. Has the Renaissance that I study been abolished? Have we returned to calling Piero della Francesca or Andrea Mantegna ‘Primitives’ and now see art beginning only with Michelangelo and his followers? Since I have been away, has it been decided that humanism now starts only with Filippo Beroaldo the Younger and leaves out the generations of Leonardo Bruni and Pomponius Laetus? More to the point: what Renaissance after 1500? From where I am standing, it is mostly over, bar the shouting (between back-biting editors)  – and that soon turned into the burnings of the Reformation. What brave new world is this?

When I explain my work, I sometimes describe my area of study as that part of the Middle Ages that we call the Renaissance. I do not say it because I believe in the essence of the ‘medieval’ any more than I have faith in the existence of ‘modernity’ but rather because most of the achievements we would recognise as ‘Renaissance’ – think of Brunelleschi’s dome capping Florence’s cathedral, Alberti’s design for the Palazzo Rucellai, Donatello’s statues of David, the art of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Lippi father and son, the new classicising Latin of Bruni or Poggio, the reform of manuscripts begun in the same circle, the establishment of libraries from San Marco in Florence to the Malatestiana in Cesena and the papal library in Rome, the philological work of Lorenzo Valla or Politian, the teaching of Guarino or Vittorino da Feltre the first sales from the Aldine press – fall within the fifteenth century. And that century, as we know, sits in most faculty corridors or on bookshop shelves within that millennium of civilisation that follows the Fall of Rome. Such distinctions necessarily simplify – we might not now believe Italian creativity dies with the invasions from 1494, or even with the re-born Sack of Rome in 1527 – but we might wonder how long into the sixteenth century lasts that cycle of fashions and their fruitful combination that marked the quattrocento.

I will be accused of being obtuse: the term ‘Renaissance’ is surely being used with the meaning of ‘cultural flowering’ which sprouts in many parts of Christendom. But is such ‘flowering’ solely the province of the sixteenth century? Could not late medieval England boast of its tre corone – Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate – and celebrate the architecture of the likes of Richard Winchcombe, or the artistry of Nottingham alabasters? Would not Castile look earlier to the vernacular achievements of its three cultures in the time of Alfonso X? And, in the fifteenth century, the would-be nation of Burgundy has been described as having in its heyday its own Renaissance, and one which with its skill in oil paintings and tapestry found buyers in Italy. In Italy itself, why talk of creativity only in quattrocento or cinquecento terms: are Giotto, the Cosmati family, Pietro Cavallini, Dante and Mussato all to be forgotten? It does not seem obvious to me that these was unprecedented creativity that marks out the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – new markets, following the economic reorganisation created by the Black Death, and new technologies, most notably in print, certainly, but not necessarily new genius after a winter (or an autumn) of cultural decay.

Of course, it may be then said, the ‘Renaissance’ was a particular type of cultural flowering which began in Italy and slowly oozed out of the peninsula, eventually to stain all of Europe (meaning, most often, western Europe and paying less heed to culture in, say, Krakow or Buda). This is a claim with a long tradition – the Italian humanists themselves, like Polydore Vergil, liked to talk of the translatio studii which had transferred learning from their homeland to whichever country they were then visiting (following in the footsteps, it must be said, of earlier humanists). There was certainly an export of a type of education then becoming popular in Italy and eventually giving its name to humanism; that export was made possible, in large part, by the creation of a trade in printed books. Yet, was there really a similar combination of artistic fashions with interplay between them in Shakespeare’s London, say, as there had been in early Medici Florence or in the papal city of Nicholas V and Sixtus IV? Even if the answer to that was ‘yes’, the question would then be how much that particular cultural flowering – the Shakespearean moment, one episode in many – directly owed to the earlier activities in those Italian cities? Do we use the term ‘Renaissance’ more by analogy than by association?

Ah, says the early modernist, that is the point: our Renaissance need not be the young relative in the shadow of your quattrocento events; it is its own man. So be it: use the term as you choose. But, if it is to have a specific relevance to a particular part of one vernacular tradition, it cannot simultaneously be employed in some general sweeping definition, that can encompass all of the cultural activity of the sixteenth century or (even more incongruously) later. Hispanists perhaps are more fortunate: they can talk of their literary ‘Golden Age’ without straining to define it in unavoidably Italianate terms. Perhaps other nations need a similar separation. For late sixteenth-century England, then, who would like to invent a term?