bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Connectivity and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 24 November, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Religion and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 2 April, 2013

The second colloquium on the Mediterranean City took place a fortnight ago on 19th March 2013. You may remember that these events are organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature and that the first of these occurred in St Andrews last November. For the second, our venue was the British School at Rome, co-sponsor of the series, and the theme was Religion.

As our host, Christopher Smith, intimated in his opening words, we were continuing a conversation that had been started in St Andrews. The cast-list for this second day intentionally had some overlap with the first, while others were welcomed in our midst for the first time. What was notable was how some of the themes and concerns of the first day continued in the new setting. So, for instance, there has been a natural – and useful – inclination in these conversations to step back and to ask whether what is being discussed is specific to our subject matter. In both colloquia to date, we have considered whether what we are delineating is specifically Mediterranean or, as it was put on this occasion, would anything be different if we were discussing Paris. That caused a lively debate about how significant climate might be to social interaction – or, to put it another way, what differentiation we should pinpoint between the life of the Italian piazza and that of the northern market square. A similar anxiety about difference that run through our discussion is how ‘city-based’ is religion. As I hinted in my own brief introductory words for the day, there are good reasons to see religion as either blind to physical context or, if it is sensitive to location, setting challenges for any urban environment.  Think of the mystery of cultish sites, whether it be a glade, a grotto, a lake-side or a spring: the magic of most lies in their separation from the everyday, and often in their inaccessibility. Think, similarly, about that other type of difficulty of access: the sense of retreat from life and of other-worldly contemplation that marks many religions. None of these aspects need privilege an urban setting and may, indeed, set it challenges.

And, yet, as was clear from many of the talks, the city did have something to offer religions. Greg Woolf, providing the stimulating opening paper of the day, nicely encapsulated this for the Greek and Roman cities of the ancient world: cities might grow out of the sites of cults or they may pull religions into their ambit, providing a pluralist setting in which many gods could live side by side. The apparent lack of conflict or potentially violent competition in the polytheistic polis marked it off from the medieval cities which were discussed later in the colloquium, but what united all the discussions was a sense in which the city could act as a theatre for religious practice: it could provide both the stage and the audience, its streets and its buildings serving the purpose of vessels into which religious meaning could be poured to overflowing. So, in the processions through Byzantium described by Paul Magdalino or the festivals of Jerusalem evoked by Andrew Jotischky, religion gained from its urban location.

It gained but it also could lose. In Andrew’s fascinating depiction of Muslim observers at the Christian festivals of Easter in thirteenth-century Jerusalem, the European pilgrims might return home claiming that even the unbelievers could not but marvel at the miracles on display in the Holy Sepulchre, but was this what the Islamic onlookers took away from these events? At the very least, the purity of Christian worship had to seek an accommodation, a compromise or modus vivendi with the resident population. The tensions could be equally or more pressing in a city of a single religion, as Paul’s wide-ranging discussion of the confraternities of medieval Byzantium suggested. They were the organising committees not just for weekly acts of overt (some might say excessive) devotion but also for poetry, music, banqueting and drinking – where ‘overflowing’ could be literal as well as figurative. And, consequently, there could be a backlash, a sense that the pious had been subsumed to the merely pleasurable. Religion might be centre-stage but it did not have the theatre to itself.

Perhaps it might be said that to survive within the city, religion had to submit to the rhythms, the norms or the nomoi of the host location. This could be said to be implicit in the concept of civic religion which, as Frances Andrews reminded us in her subtle paper, was given its classic definition for medievalists by André Vauchez: ‘the appropriation of values of religious life by urban powers for the purposes of legitimation, celebration and public well-being’. The direction in which that definition takes us seems clear: the powers have the ability to appropriate, to bring religion into the ambit of their control in order to reinforce or to amplify that control. The city, in short, tames religion or civilises it. The city might also corrupt it, in a way more destructive of its essence than even the fringe activities of the Byzantine confraternities. Such corruption might come from the religious urban powers, as Lucy Sackville so vividly described in talking about the ruses used by Pierre Amiel, archbishop of Narbonne, to deploy heresy charges to his venal advantage. There could, then, be much individuals or authorities in the city could gain from the use of religion, but it may not have been of mutual benefit.

Yet, at the same time, that the urban powers felt the need to use the tools of the religious suggests that they felt it could provide something they otherwise lacked; they simply had to engage with the charisma of the holy – and did so from a position that, in at least some sense, was one of weakness. Indeed, what struck me increasingly through the day was how the people of the cities, both its leaders and its masses, had to negotiate the religious. This came across most strongly in those discussions of those moments when the dominant faith was contested or in question: not just, then, Andrew’s Jerusalem, but also Tony Lappin’s Cordoba, where one’s commitment to Christianity or Islam had necessarily to be fluid if survival was one’s aim, and to Gitte Lønstrup’s late antique Rome, where burials may suggest a tentative change of religion. These latter two papers gave rise to an interesting discussion of the question of how far one’s social standing affected one’s experience of religious change. More fundamentally, though, what seemed to me to connect the tales told in all three papers was the very human practice of hedging bets, of what, if this were later seventeenth-century England, would be called trimming. What I mean is not that one’s religious identity was so marginal it could be donned and doffed like an outer garment – quite the contrary: when dealing with religion, the stakes were so high that utter uncompromising commitment was difficult for all but the far-sighted or the fanatic. In the contexts of High Medieval Andalucia, say, a decision about religion might be a matter of life or death but, for some, at least, that must surely at times have felt of little import when placed alongside the matter of the afterlife. How could one be certain when the decisions might be so fatal not just to one’s body but to one’s soul? When standing before the gods, one does not want to choose too lightly. It would be supremely human to have a scintilla of doubt about the choices made and to want to keep open the possibility of a compromise settlement with the divine beings one had rejected. When, then, Muslims and Christians mingled at the holy places of Jerusalem, they may have both been showing their commitment to their one true God and simultaneously leaving the door ajar to salvation by another route.

I have avoided calling this syncretism because that is in danger of sounding too intellectual when what is often happening is a reaction to the enormity of religion by the little person. In front of the gods, though, all must feel small. It could legitimately be pointed out that the examples from Cordoba to Jerusalem were unusual in the level both of interchange and of potential tension. Yet, even within a city nearly uniform in its commitment to a single religion, hedging bets had its essential place. This was one of the insights I took away from Frances’s rich case study of the fourteenth-century preacher Venturino da Bergamo, who led his rally of penitents to Rome and called on the city authorities to turn over the money usually used for the Lenten festivals to him for religious use. His plea was rejected and he decided it was wise hurriedly to leave the city. What struck me from what we were told of the various reports of his journey to Rome (and then on to Avignon to answer for his deeds before the pope) was a sense of uncertainty from the onlookers. At the same time as they describe Venturino’s  flight from Rome they also hint that this may have invoked God’s wrath. Likewise, the inquisitorial process at Avignon with its question-and-answer format naturally assumed a starting-point of doubt that needed to be clarified. But, for many people, such clarification would have proved elusive. The City Fathers listening to Venturino might instinctively recoiled from his plea for them to do something so unpopular as to disinvest in a much-needed leavening of Lenten gloom but they would have had to have been coldly cynical not to wonder whether this troublesome priest was not a true prophet. You can imagine one of their number positing that in their deliberations and similarly imagine another responding with the question of whether he might be no prophet but, instead, a manifestation of the Anti-Christ himself. If they made the wrong judgement-call, there could be – so to speak – hell to pay. To appropriate religion, the urban powers had to leave themselves open to the potentially bracing experience of being preached at, but were then left with another quandrary: how could they be certain what was the right response?

In discussing the first workshop, I suggested that the city had, in its archetypal spaces which gave it such potency, also the seeds of its own destruction – the bridge and the piazza providing venues for unrest as much as for successful functioning. Religion, perhaps, provide the city with a similar conundrum. It ordered the city with its provision of time, both daily and annually, and with what we might call its structuring of internal distance: it is in the nature of a city and what sets it apart from a town is that it is multi-centred, and the various locations for devotions gave the city those multiple focal points. Of course, religion, by providing that variety and the cohabitation it demanded, also embedded potential tensions and conflicts within the city. It is not that, however, which I see as marking religion’s most basic challenge to the city’s fabric. In its ordering of the city, religion could provide not only a varied texture but also a greater depth: the orange grove of the mosque or the cloister of the convent providing a retreat to higher contemplation in the midst of the bustle of civic life. Deeper but also larger: through religion, the city, physically confined by its physical location, could expand its imagination and become the link between the here-and-now with the ever-after, the window affording vistas on worlds beyond. In a fundamental sense, religion allowed the city to overflow. It connected the stonework and the cobbles – the monumentality of the city, as discussed back in November – with something apparently more lasting and conceptually more concrete: the certainty of belief. Yet, the apprehension of that certainty was necessarily elusive and the negotiating of it in the humdrum circumstances of quotidian existence could never be anything other than a source of uncertainty.

Might, then, the founder of a city have been wise to ban religion (like Plato did poets from his ideal city) from their foundation? Machiavelli, for one, would have argued not, but then added that Christianity with its emphasis on introspection and humility was precisely the wrong religion to be of civic use. But is a city without religion even fully imaginable? I am reminded of the history of Britain’s new town, Milton Keynes, founded in the 1960s consciously without a church, only to find religion soon seeping into its fabric. Religion has acted, time and again, not so much as an opiate of the masses but as their stimulant or, even, aphrodisiac. It has proven so necessary for the structure of the city because it provides a grounding that has its justification far beyond the small parameter of the city’s walls. But it is a certainty that can only be partially comprehended and so is a source simultaneously of strength and of instability.

Let me end by providing you with a photo of the participants of the colloquium, gathered in the warmth of the cortile of the British School (a far cry from the relentless winter persisting in England), and hope that you will be able to be with us when we have the third and final colloquium on ‘connectivity’ in Oxford on 23rd November.

An afternoon in Rome: the participants at the Religion colloquium of the Mediterranean City series

An afternoon in Rome: some of the participants at the Religion colloquium of the Mediterranean City series

Space and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2012

It is so busy at the moment that my best chance of knowing where I am is to ask what day it is. So, if it is Saturday 24th November, it must be St Andrews, and the first of three colloquia on the Mediterranean City. The series is sponsored jointly by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature and the British School at Rome. The first event was hosted by Frances Andrews and the Institute of Mediaeval History at the University, who did a fine job in making the forty or so delegates feel welcome and ready to engage in discussion. For, that was the key point of the day: our attention was to concentrate on exchange of views rather than presentation, so had six short papers on our topic with ample space for questions, comment and debate (no fisticuffs occurred, the more pugilistic among you will be disappointed to hear). We also consciously wanted to make sure we did not confine ourselves to the north-western seaboard of the Middle Sea, which is too often taken as the entirety of Mediterranean experience, and we did not want to consider the ‘Middle Ages’ narrowly. So, for the topic for this first event, which was ‘Space’, we had papers which ranged from urbanism as ideology in the Roman empire to the dynamics of trecento and quattrocento Italian cities, via Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus.

We also arranged for two graduate students to act as rapporteurs for the day, providing not summaries but reports capturing the tenour and direction of discussion. They will be available on-line at the Society’s website very soon. What follows, then, is in no way an ‘official’ account of the day’s discussion or, indeed, an attempt to recapitulate all that was discussed. It is, rather, my own brief thoughts on a few of the issues that were at the forefront of our minds as we grappled with the topic of ‘space’ in the Mediterranean city.

One of the issues in play was how we ourselves conceptualise space – many of the talks concentrated on public buildings and high-profile, outsize ones at that. There seems to be an association in our minds between space and monumentality but that latter concept is itself so particularly culturally defined. As Hugh Kennedy pointed out in general discussion, the lasting nature of classical stone edifices was alien to some Islamic parts of the Mediterranean where mud brick was the main building material. It might also be fairly asked how far medieval cities were conscious of their own monumentality. In a culture where the cartographic imagination – by which I mean the ability to construct a mental image of a place through a bird’s-eye view – was largely absent, depictions of cities often present simply their most notable structures, as Paul Magdalino reminded us via an image of Constantinople from a manuscript of Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Liber insularum archipelagi. That two-dimensional presentation suggests how a walker would orientate themselves by the relationship between those buildings. A Colosseum or a Castel Sant’ Angelo could not but be at the forefront of a walker’s consciousness. Similarly, in depictions, a particular building often stood as a sort of synecdoche for the city, so that the Pantheon was often used in fourteenth and fifteenth century depictions as a shorthand for Rome, as (before the completion of Brunelleschi’s dome) the Baptistery was for Florence. The Baptistery, it should be remembered, was imagined to be like the Pantheon, a classical temple converted into a place of Christian worship. In such a case, its latterday function associated its present with its (supposed) past; in many others, though, the reuse of an ancient monument worked to efface its original meaning. Leaving aside the cases of pillaging and subsequent incorporation of spolia into new buildings, we can think instead of the fortunes of an amphitheatre like that of Arles in Provence.

The Arenes of Arles, as it appeared in 1686. The medieval towers remain but the interior and exterior have been ‘cleaned’ of habitations.

We can visit the empty oval shape of the Arènes in which bull fights are now staged, but only because of an early nineteenth-century clearing of its contents: the medieval space was both filled and encrusted with accretions of homes and shops, with the amphitheatre housing within it also churches, streets and squares. In making such a space useable how necessary was a process of forgetting its past? Was the place’s previous identity even as much as a ghost to its inheritors? In short, did it become liveable at the expense of losing its monumentality?

It might also be said that the monumental imposes itself upon its location, which while it does not seek to be in toto that space, it does want to assert itself as its defining element. Yet, surely more fundamental to the definition of most cities than any man-made edifice was their natural position. The Roman empire, in establishing its new towns (the subject of Louise Revell’s opening paper), may have been confident enough in its military prowess and its irrigational technology to eschew places with natural advantages but, for most earlier and later settlements, a defensible hill or a riverside location, for instance, was the most appropriate placing for a city. The advantages were often, of course, not solely practical: the sense of their being a divine presence in the springs or the glades of a location provided it with a charisma that made it suitable not just for one settlement but for repeated inhabitation. That charisma could die or, indeed, become anathema, if a location became feared, say, as a space owned by a former people’s dead; a locale, then, might be entirely abandoned but many were revived, slightly askew to their previous settlement, a process that makes the topographical history of a city often like a multiple and shifting palimpsest.

This point touches on a theme that was emphasised during the day’s proceedings: it is a theme that can be described in terms of distance, but in Trevor Dean’s characteristically suggestive paper it was also expressed as the variety of types of proximity possible within the city. He talked in terms of the relationship between individuals, as, that is, the different types of space that people would place between themselves depending on the actions they were sharing. Obviously, similar analysis could be applied to the physical structures of the city. The type of distance I have just discussed at the end of the previous paragraph is a mental or cultural one demanding a physical separation from what went earlier. At the same time, the right running of an urban community demands particular types of distance be imposed. This is particularly clear in the organisation of streets in cultures that precede Haussmann’s penchant for boulevards (to my mind, an inhuman imposition on cityscape). As Jo van Steenbergen described in relation to Cairo, there was a natural propensity for shops and stalls to encroach on the passable space, reducing a street to an alley. In other Islamic cities, as Hugh Kennedy mentioned, the sultan could decree that a thoroughfare should be no narrower than 20m. He also pointed out that the requirements of streets necessarily differed between cultures where traffic was mainly wagon-based and those were pack-animals like camels were the norm. The solutions found to the competing demands for passable and commercial space then could differ on the basis of what would actually pass through that space. Yet, what is perhaps most essential here is that tension: a city exists as an invitation to trade but an over-abundance of trade could undermine the ability to carry out that essential activity.

Nor is this the only tension at the heart of urban existence. It occurred to me listening to Patrick Lantschner’s paper comparing revolts in late medieval Verona, Bologna and Florence that elements which provide the very definition of a city and its success also breed its failure. As he reminded us in discussion, two focal points for revolt were the bridge and the piazza, locations essential to the urban identity. A city’s squares provide its most characteristic locales but they provide spaces that can also permit and perhaps encourage activities that undermine its fabric. Yet, this might be to complain about the very nature of the experience of a city. The discord that has often been said to be endemic in urban life made cities seem failed entities to some medieval and later observers, but we do not need to be Machiavelli to recognise that the inherent tensions and destructive tendencies could also be functions of the generative potential of a city’s necessarily plural identity.

From the outside, of course, cities can seem as places of excess and immorality, places from which laws were promulgated only themselves to be hives of the illicit. But one of the other issues that ran like a submerged stream through the discussion was how far it is possible to separate ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, even when a city is physically separated, as it so often was in Christendom (though not in Roman or Islamic culture), by its walls. I mused at the end whether city-living changed one’s concept of temporal space; I did so in order to hint at a problematic dynamic: the city was regulated by its human habits – the closing of its gates, the organisation of its market days – which might be seen to be an attempt to break out of the natural cycle of the seasons. Yet, for its market days, a city was dependent on outsiders, particularly on country-dwellers deigning to dirty their feet by stepping into the dusty square. The success of the city could not be created entirely within its walls but by its ability to pull in, like a magnet, the potential of its hinterland. That hinterland, though, might not be simply a contado of cultivated fields; regimes often took a mark of their own success to be their control of towns and, indeed, of subject cities. In other words, can we talk of one type of city or do we need to distinguish the metropolis and even the megalopolis from other forms or urban living? On the other hand, it is a more urgent task to attempt to reintegrate the urban environment with its immediate context, recognising that the city lived off – some might say was a parasite of – the countryside?

As you can see, the day fruitfully ended with more questions than premature answers. I very much look forward to continuing this conversation at the next of these workshops. And, so, if it is Tuesday 19th March, it will have to be the British School at Rome, where we will be discussing religion and the Mediterranean city.

On Bad Copying

Posted in Manuscripts, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 25 September, 2011

I am briefly once again in Rome, thanks to a grant from the Bodleian as part of a partnership with the Vatican Library. So, I am spending my days in the marble-floored Sala manoscritti of the Biblioteca Apostolica, with the late-summer sun shining onto the roof-top cortile to my left. And sitting in that room, consulting codices made in this same city five hundred and fifty years ago, a nagging question that has disturbed my mind before, only to be put to one side, now returns, all the more insistent and demanding of attention. It is this: how come so many of these manuscripts can be elegantly written on fine quality parchment, with ostentatiously wide borders empty except for tasteful illumination, and often in an appropriately expensive binding – how come these books that so look the part can be, in truth, evidence for what can only be called sloppy copying?

I will name (but not with the intent to shame) a particular scribe, whose products I have recently been studying: step forward Johannes Caldarifex, as he sometimes signs himself, a Latinisation of the name he was born with, Johann Kessler. A German and a cleric, he spent a large part of his career here in Rome, for some of it at least in the household of Antonio de la Cerda, Spanish cardinal and dedicatee of works by both Rinucius Aretinus and the future Pius II (Cerda himself is worthy of much more attention than he deserves). In that household, Johannes acted as a scribe, specialising in large-size codices, on thinnish, smooth parchment which he ruled with a dry point, often so heavily that it nearly tears the surface. He produced copies of recent publications like George of Trebizond’s translations of Aristotle and of Eusebius, as well as traditional texts in fashion among humanists, like Lactantius or Cicero’s Familiar Letters. This last is the earliest dated manuscript we have by Johannes, to 1448, and it shows him already master of humanist littera antiqua bookhand; there is – aside from changes of detail – a notable consistency in his script. In some of the codices, he makes the text accessible by providing running headers and foliation which inform the contents lists he compiles and places at the start of the volume. He also, in some cases, shows signs of personal interest in the texts he is transcribing, adding nota monograms and other annotations in, for instance, his copies of Josephus and of Jerome. These are all imposing, highly presentable volumes but – let us whisper it – textually accurate they were not. We have reason to suspect a scribe’s Latin when he ends a work with a colophon that reads ‘Qui scripsit scripta sua manu sit benedicta’, suggesting (if it were to make any sense at all) that the scribe had changed sex. More importantly, however, the body of the work is characterised by being strewn with errors. For instance, in the codex he constructed of Cicero’s Letters – a volume that opens with an impressive full border in the bianchi girari style, inhabited by two disconcertingly out-size birds – the first owner, the bishop of Brescia, Pietro del Monte, clearly considered the text deficient for he felt the need to correct obvious mistakes with his own suppositions of what the reading should be.

Johannes’ manuscripts, it must be said, are not an egregious and atypical case of bad copying. We can not simply write it off as the work of a barbarian northerner corrupting Renaissance culture: a list of Italian scribes who were equally susceptible to making mistakes would be extensive. Let me give another example from the collection of Cardinal de la Cerda. A humanist scribe, who does not identify themselves, provided him with Leonardo Bruni’s recent translation of Aristotle’s Politics; the copyist – who writes the titles in gold, on one occasion, stating the book is the work of ‘Aristelis’ – so mangled the text, however, that an early user went to the lengths of comparing it with another copy and adding corrections to nearly every page. In the Spanish cardinal’s library, poor quality texts in high-grade manuscripts were the norm, not the exception. And we should wonder how unusual his library was.

We might, of course, wonder why we should wonder at this: after all, we know that in a manuscript culture each transcription was liable to introduce error and take the text further from its pristine state. Yet, there is something particularly counter-intuitive about this tendency within codices that conspicuously display their commitment to humanism, that culture of the book which we now describe as the first, heroic phase in the history of philology. What is more, the script of humanism was itself the forerunner of the Roman typeface and so, for us, may resonate with the perceived aspirations of the enterprise of the text in print. Those aspirations – the commitment to accuracy manifested in the stability of the printed page – are undoubtedly themselves a mythology and, for many generations, Gutenberg’s technology provided imperfect texts which held out the prospect of only being perfected by the intervention of you, the reader, yourself. This is a recognition which has become all the more possible as we enter into a second information technology revolution where the text becomes even less stable and the mistaken or the downright inaccurate has its place in the democracy of the internet. However that may be, it is certainly the case that our understanding of early print culture has developed to bring it closer to the dynamics of the world it only gradually replaced. If, then, we have to accept error as a recidivist reality, a sort of ghost in the non-mechanised machine, we can also recognise that tactics intended to provide confidence in textual quality often provide illusory reassurance. And so it must have been with the humanist aesthetic for the book: the emphasis on the uncluttered page drawing attention to the clearly-written words – all this was little more than a false promise to the reader who came to realise that the transcription they had before them was untrustworthy. Did they see this as a paradox, or as an inescapable fact that had to be tolerated? What strategies could they master to negotiate a culture of inaccuracy?

It is certainly the case that mistakes were tolerated. Error on the level perpetrated by Johannes Caldarifex seems certainly not to have placed a break on his career: we see him at work for well over a decade. Nor can we explain his success simply by noting that he was employed by one cardinal who may have shown commendable Christian charity towards his servant’s mistakes, for Johannes certainly made works for other leading clergymen as well – aside from Pietro del Monte’s collection, there were manuscripts by this scribe to be found in the libraries of Filippo Calandrini, half-brother to Nicholas V, who made him a cardinal, and of Bessarion, the papabile and learned Greek. Certainly, we know that some owners did not care what was written on the line as long as the page itself looked splendid; but readers – humanist readers – who were concerned to be able to approach the text clearly learnt to live with imperfections. We might wonder what level of error was considered acceptable. We might even ask ourselves whether they, perhaps, quietly relished a corrupt text which tested their ingenuity for correction.

Yet, my interest is more with the scribe himself, who has made a conscious choice to adopt the humanist agenda. Was he unaware of its intended implications for the text? Assuming that he had the understanding, did he feel shamed if confronted with evidence of his own mistakes? More basically, how could he rationalise to himself the reality of error? Perhaps the apparent insouciance of scribes was not simply unthinking, but suggests a mindset, a way of seeing their work that recognises their innate and human inability to produce the perfect text. Perhaps they comforted themselves with thinking that their efforts were not the text itself, but a witness to the text. We might call to mind the Islamic tradition in which the divine wisdom which is the Qu’ran is separate from its physical manifestation, the mushaf. Or we might consider more apposite the Platonic concept of the Form. Or we might think of the x or the y of the philologist’s stemma – the assumed prototype to which the editor attempts to return by reconstruction from the extant copies. Faced with such a presentation of the evidence of the descent of a text, our scribe might with a weary smile acknowledge that what they were producing would sit – could only ever sit – far from the stemmatic head.

We can take the analogy with a textual stemma further, for that diagrammatic presentation necessarily speaks of a multiple of witnesses to a text. Our scribe, similarly, might have been concious that there was not the copy of a work, but only one manifestation among several: that there was, in other words, a community of copies, a republic of literal letters – a republic, they would admit, that was certainly a flawed state, a fallen state. That perception or outlook might not be just a phlegmatic philosophical consideration; in some particular situations, it would be an immediate practical reality. Someone like Johannes Caldarifex – who was not the only copyist in de la Cerda’s household, let alone in the few square miles beyond his palace – would have been well aware that he was one of a plurality of scribes at work not very distant from each other. In quattrocento Rome, like Florence several copyists could each independently make their living by their trade in providing attractive, if inaccurate, manuscripts. This was a context, then, in which the scribe of literary texts was becoming a professional and perhaps this is the central paradox: the process of professionalisation could also be a victory for imperfection.

There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Roman

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 March, 2011

One of the requirements of the Paul Mellon Centre fellowship I currently hold is to give a public lecture at the British School at Rome. This took place last Wednesday. It is always a pleasure to speak at the BSR — and the dinner afterwards is always a lively affair!

Asked by the vivacious Deputy Director of the School, Sue Russell, for a lecture title at the start of the year, I could think of nothing better than the title of my present research topic and so called it ‘The English Hand in Rome: Barbarous Britons and the Renaissance Arts of the Book’. As it turned out, my talk was just as much about Scotsmen as it was about anyone south of the border that divides Great Britain. That was because I have been finding interesting information about Scottish scribes active in Rome in the 1450s. So, the Englishman, Scotsman and Roman mentioned above were John Lax, George of Kynninmond and — this is rather a cheat — Flavio Biondo.

John Lax was, some contemporaries would have claimed, Lax by name and lax by nature. He was a controversial figure but at the height of his fortunes, in the mid-1450s, he was a papal secretary and a lynch-pin of the two English hospices in Rome. That is well-known, but what has been less noted is his mastery of humanist cursive and his use of it in manuscripts, combining it, sometimes on the same folio, with sections in a gothic cursive script. One of the questions I set myself for my lecture was why he, as it were, flick-switched between the two scripts.

George of Kynninmond is also a known, if minor, name — a scribe who was active in Rome in the 1450s who mastered the fashionable littera antiqua. I have recently had the good fortune both to be able to track down previously unnoticed manuscripts signed by him in the Vatican, and to reconstruct more fully his career. But I have had even better fortune in making contact with Daniela Gionta of the University of Messina, who has made a yet more exciting discovery that sheds further light onto his intellectual interests. I will let her tell that part of the tale herself, in her article forthcoming in Studi medievali e umanistici. Suffice it to say that it connects him to other humanist activities, alongside and complementary to his acting as copyist.

Calling Flavio Biondo a Roman would, of course, be to rob Forli of one of its sons — but, then, Biondo’s time in the papal curia and the nature of his writing, much of which described and praised the city of the popes, ties his identity close to Rome. The interest to me of Biondo was as a way in to understanding the significance of the British presences in quattrocento Rome. The city was the location of the popes but, of course, that was not as secure as we might think with hindsight — the long ‘captivity’ in Avignon, the Great Schism, the flight of Eugenius IV less than twenty-five years after the return of the unified papacy to Rome and, indeed, the Porcari Conspiracy of 1453 all should remind us how uncertain mid-quattrocento observers may have been about the popes’ continuing presence there. But — and this is the point — any such insecurity is hidden in Biondo’s praise of Rome; his Latin may often be criticised for not acheiving humanis elegance but he had mastered the persuasiveness of their rhetoric. And one crucial way in which he praised Rome was by claiming that it attracted people from all the world — even from Britain — to it, with those foreigners accepting that Rome is the mistress of the world.

Biondo’s description may tell us more about the way in which humanist constructed the concept of what is praiseworthy than the social ‘reality’ of Rome. In particular, it evokes a sort of imperialism, with other peoples’ submitting to Rome’s supremacy. It constructs humanism itself as an international enterprise but one which is centripetal, dragging others into Rome’s ambit. This is one element of what is occurring but it strikes me that what he, and other humanists, claim also hides other elements of that international enterprise — and one of those elements is how the cosmopolitan community that came to define Rome engaged with or intervened in the core humanist practice of book-creation.

I hope, at some point soon, to write up my paper as an article (or two). In the meantime, I am putting on-line my handout so that it can see some of the materials I used in my discussion.

Britons, Bretons and Germans

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 19 February, 2011

This is a cautionary tale. It concerns the difficulty of assigning modern nationalities to Renaissance characters. It results from my following up two references in one footnote. I should explain: I have become interested in the practical issues created by the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman curia in the years after the end of the Schism. One article — I won’t mention author or location – makes interesting reference to the critical comment sometimes passed on the accents of foreign preachers or orators in Rome.

The footnote cites two references, the first to Jacopo Gherardi’s Diarium romanum, in which it is said that, in 1481, Guilelmus de Quercu, ‘natione Britannus et principis sui orator ad pontificem, ex Carmelitarum ordine’ gave a good sermon ‘quamvis ab externo barbare pronuntiata’. The article, following the editor of Gherardi’s diary, identifies the preacher as an ‘English Carmelite’, which set me scratching my head as I had not heard of this English representative in Rome. After some searching, the fog of confusion lifted: the reference is actually to Guilelmus de Domo Quercu, then in Rome as the representative of his prince, the duke of Britanny. In fact, his sermon was printed soon after it was given and, indeed, its elegant humanist Latin is available for you to see on-line.

This is not the only occasion of which I am aware where ‘Britannus’ does not refer to Great Britain but to its little relative, the duchy in the geographical area of France. If this raises concerns over how to identify a character, the second reference exacerbates those issues. The article also cites the papal master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard (with a lapsus calami mistaking the page reference). Burchard noted that an English orator’s speech in December 1492 was well composed but not well received ‘propter inexpeditam expressivam’. As that phrase suggests, Burchard was in no position to judge the quality of others’ Latin. That is by the bye, as is the fact that the orator in question was John Shirwood, a collector of humanist manuscripts and printed books, and accomplished author. It should be added that Shirwood died in Rome less than a month after he gave that oration so his ‘inexpeditam’ expression might well have more to do with his age and health than his foreign nature. If this was the last occasion on which Shirwood spoke before a pope, it was not the first — he was in fact a long-term resident in Rome, closely associated with the English Hospice, where he was to be buried. Burchard mentions him several times and — finally I reach the point of this description — on one occasion includes him in a list of significant clerics present in Rome at the time of  the election of Innocent VIII. Burchard organises his list by nation; the entry for Shirwood reads: ‘Ex Germanis: episcopus Dunelmensis, orator regis Anglie’.

Now, the term ‘German’ had a wide reference, encompassing much of the Holy Roman Empire north of the Alps. Those from the Low Countries would often identify themselves by their town or diocese and then add that they were of the ‘German nation’. But could the term be used even more loosely? Burchard, of course, was in a position to know better: was his phrasing a reflection of local Italian usage with a designation as ‘German’ being at times equivalent to saying ‘ultramontane’? There may be other explanations for the phrase but it should, at least, give pause for thought before too ready an acceptance or interpretation of fifteenth-century phrasing as mapping onto modern usage.

There is the moral of my tale. That — and perhaps this: scholarship would be so much easier if one did not check others’ footnotes and took what they said on trust. But, then, no self-respecting academic would dream of doing that. Would they?

No photo

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 13 January, 2011

I arrived in Rome last night for a period of research. So this morning was my first chance on this trip to see the city in daylight. Rome had prepared itself for me: it woke up and put on its blue sky (gently streaked with plumes of high white cloud); it met me not in any fancy dress, but (as I like it) wearing in its lived-in statuesque beauty; it felt fresh as it closed in and breathed on my cheek. You may tell that I am ecstatic with the splendour of it all.

An added, perhaps meaner, joy of my walk was relishing how little of the morning could be caught in photographs. No camera could capture the dappled delight of the sunlight speckling the water streaming from the fountains above the Galleria d’Arte Moderna; it could not comprehend the haze that veils the morning panorama of the city from the Pincio; it could not record faithfully the quality of the light giving each leaf its individuality. The camera never fails to lie. There are virtues in virtuality but the pleasures of reality are vertiginous.

It was after I had walked down from the Pincio to the Piazza del Popolo and entered Santa Maria del Popolo that I encountered the injunction to sum this up: ‘no photo’ is printed in majuscules on A4 paper stuck on the both sides of the chapel containing Caravaggio’s two canvases. There are particular reasons, of course, to avoid photography of those objects in that confined space. But, there, in that holy place, a sin is committed nearly as bad as trigger-happy-snapping. For the price of a small coin, the walls are lit with an intense electric light that floods each of the pictures. It reveals every detail of the design: the folds of the rich drapery of Saul-becoming-Paul, the strain on the right arm of the cross-maker as he lifts the perplexed Peter off the ground. Yet, at the same time, something seems lost through this uncompromising revelation: it somehow evens out the pictures; it flattens them. Was this how Caravaggio intended them to be seen, a pool of light lapping around each element? We tend to like our seventeenth-century music played in ‘period’ style nowadays; is it not time we went in for some period viewing of our own? I waited for the light to switch off and gazed then at a different image of a fallen Saul, in some sort of harmony with the flank of the horse above him. It was something more mystical, less comprehensible – as a miracle should have been. I prayed silently for a few more moments of half-light, but the clatter of the coin falling into the box sent not a soul out of Purgatory, but the soul out of the paintings before us. No photo, yes, but no aggressive artificial lighting either, please.

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