bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Italian Culture and the Tudor Court

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 23 October, 2011

Step into the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace or, indeed, the equivalent space at Holyrood and you sense the self-imposed expectation that all should be of a certain standard, from the ironwork of the banisters to the heavy wood of the toilet doors. Have the opportunity to take a light lunch looking over the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and the same seems true not just of the permanent fittings but also of the food – the dainty smoked salmon sandwich or the amuse-bouche of mozzarella and pesto. There appears to be a projection of royal identity or, rather of certain values associated with that identity, even to those who are transient visitors, temporarily at the very edge of what in its loosest sense could be termed the court.

I mention this because on Friday, through the kind invitation of Kate Lowe, I attended a symposium on Italian culture at the Tudor court held (thanks to Lucy Whitaker) under the auspices of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. It was followed on Saturday by visits to Windsor Castle and (for this I had to bow out) Hampton Court. The occasion marked a culmination of a collaboration between Queen Mary’s, London and the Royal Collection which saw a funded doctorate, now submitted, by Charlotte Bolland. But the event felt less like an end than a beginning: a conversation that helped take stock of what we already know but also what more there is to find, to define and to conceptualise. The event was organised with few papers and an emphasis on discussion, with about thirty participants around the table. It was structured by a set of questions, each thrown out by one of the participants – the result was, helpfully, both some answers and many more questions. So, what I want to provide is not a depiction of the topic but rather an overview of some of those issues that might be usefully researched in future.

I will begin with a set of questions that, while not often at the centre of discussion provided a theme that ran through the day. How often were products recognisable to their users as hailing from a specific place of origin? In our own generation, we might, for instance, rarely check the labels on foodstuffs – unless we are concerned about food airmiles or want to boycott some benighted country – but we would talk of Dutch Edam, French baguettes and Danish pastries. Was there a deeper sensitivity to origins in the sixteenth century? And, if so, were products considered ‘Italian’ or more specifically, say, Venetian (glass), Milanese (armour) or Cremonese (at the end of our period, violins)? These products could include animals – some of our discussion, prompted by Charlotte Bolland, considered the role of horses as diplomatic gifts and the self-presentation of the Gonzagas of Mantua as both the owners and the arbiters of the best equine specimens. Nor were these ‘products’ confined to the tangible; Lucy Whitaker raised the question of whether Italians were particularly associated, in sixteenth-century minds, with technical innovation. I would add the link made between Italy – particularly Rome – and eloquence in the pre-Reformation period. These affinities between place and product or practice could also lead us to a comparative question: were the cities of Italy, generally or individually, particularly associated with a greater number of ‘things’ than were other places in western Europe? However we were to answer that, we would have to recognise that the wider issue lying behind it would be whether there was any concern to achieve economic autarky or whether the commercial inter-dependence of Europe – and beyond – was recognised and welcomed. We also cannot pretend these issues are static: as reputations change and skills spread or migrate, so the perceived affinities must eventually shift.

That being the case, the first cluster of questions has to be balanced or combined with another: how far did individual products or practices bear witness to what might be called a melange of manufacturing? This could most obviously encompass the naturalisation of an activity – Sydney Anglo, in deliciously provocative mode, opened the proceedings by noting how few Italians were involved in the ‘italianate’ arts of war or of festivals and other courtly pastimes as practised in sixteenth-century England. We might also think of mediated influences — with France and Burgundy being the usual suspects paraded in this category. But this is an issue which envelopes other phenomena too. We heard from Maria Hayward of clothing that could be begun in one place, shipped north from the Mediterranean and finished in England. I would parallel this with examples of manuscripts written, for instance, by a Dutch scribe for an English patron in the littera antiqua bookhand favoured by Italian humanists, illuminated in a fashionable French style and then bound in England (I have in my mind’s eye some of the codices for which Erasmus’s favourite scribe, Pieter Meghen, was the copyist).

The key concept here is, of course, eclectic or hybrid and that is often seen as the defining characteristic of court culture. The question then becomes whether the court was eclectic because that was seen as the route to the best or whether being hybrid or cosmopolitan within the confined space of the court was itself seen as being best – was this hybridity for an aesthetic purpose or as an end of itself? Behind this lies issues of how far the court was a place best suited to judge the best, whether discernment of quality was itself an innate quality of those gatherings of the high-born and the highly promoted. That, in turn, can broaden into the wider question – court: trend-setter, fashion-victim or old fogey? The answer to that, of course, depends on the cultural material which one studies. In terms of textiles, for instance, we heard of the court’s tailoring as being at the cutting edge, so to speak. In terms of the production of books, I would say that, most often, the court was a participant rather than a leader. Our trip to the library at Windsor threw up not quite an exception to this but certainly a useful counter-example: an inventure of Henry VII’s reign, occupying several pages, written first in Latin, then in English, its administrative purpose signified by the uneven cut of the top of the folios (wavy rather than serrated), the whole presented as a small book with its original binding similarly indented at the top – a type of product that is so particular and, at the same time, so associated with the traditions of royal bureaucracy that it could only have been produced in the environs of Westminster. That is to say, the court could prove the ideal location for the creation of the singular, the cultural hapax legomenon or, put more bluntly, the oddball.

These issues lead naturally onto considerations of the relationship between the court and other activities. We were often reminded, particularly by Cinzia Sicca, of the importance of the mercantile world, as importers and as conduits of goods to the court. Was the court a parasite on the back of international commerce? Were, indeed, the court’s activities only possible in the increasingly metropolitan – though not necessarily increasingly cosmopolitan – world of London? Yet, the court itself was not one location with a static character. Leaving aside the issue of the court being used as shorthand for the royal court (no Skeltonian question of ‘which court?’ here), the king’s entourage was both movable and highly fluid. Part of its eclectic nature surely lay in that instability of presence with the toing and froing of international visitors re-shaping its identity and focus repeatedly. That process of visiting related to a highly pertinent question raised on the day by Margaret McGowan: the balance between ‘making’ and ‘doing’ in relation to court life. To put it another way, how far were the royal works of palace building themselves a prelude, the provision of a theatrical setting in which the performances that were the real work of the court took place? Do we do an injustice to court culture if we privilege the monumental over the ephemeral?

Cutting across all these issues, of course, are matters of periodisation. The Tudor century was, as Cliff Davies would remind us, no such thing – there was little consciousness of ‘Tudor’ to define it. We might instead see a simple way of dividing up the time to be the name of the monarch whose court it was, but that surely gives too much credit to the centre-point in defining the circle which, in fact, constructed the royal persona. Each scholar might detect different patterns: for my own part, I would see a continuity from the early 1460s to the early 1510s in terms of the Italian influences on royal diplomacy, while at the other end of the sixteenth century, there is (despite the change from English queen to Scottish king) arguably a continuity of interests from, say, the late 1580s to the early 1610s. Between those periods, further divisions might need to be made with, of course, the religious turmoil of the 1530s to late 1550s being necessarily a state of flux and uncertainty. But, then, such instability – the continual chasing of the butterflies of ‘fashion’, the blend of languid waiting and kinetic energy reminiscent of a departure lounge – these phenomena might be quintessential to the intrigue of the court.


In Praise of the Simple: an open letter of C. S. L. Davies

Posted in Historiography, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 November, 2009

Dear Cliff,

To review a review article might seem to be like being the flea on the back of the insect on the back of the lumbering mammal, but it is what I am about to do. I have just read your piece in the latest English Historical Review on Kevin Sharpe’s Selling the Tudor Monarchy. It is a sign of how stimulating I found it that I can not resist writing to you about my immediate reaction.

I particularly enjoyed seeing you develop further your Tudor-sceptic line, first outlined in the Times Literary Supplement. It is a salutary reminder that descent but not dynasty mattered, that what concerned these monarchs was precisely not the accident of a surname they did not use. You neatly respond to the mental  shrug of shoulders that some might have when realising the sixteenth-century English vocabulary is poorer, in effect, by one word. But, I must say, I think you still sell it short, so to speak: that the Tudors did not see themselves as Tudor, that 1485 was neither presented or remembered as a change of dynasty, should make us stop and think about our concepts of periodisation. Bosworth, which can be claimed to have seen the death of a tyrant, is itself a tyranny, dividing ‘medieval’ from ‘early modern’, with the following 118 years perceived as having some sort of internal coherence. We might need periods as a heuristic tool, and as a way of sorting out office space in university corridors, but we rarely stop at that: we begin to believe they reflect some deeper reality, and so slide back into Hegelian notions of the ‘age’ and its geist. Personally, I would prefer that we emphasised that change is a piecemeal process, that even if a paradigm shifts, life tout court does not — that there are no absolute dividing lines. But if we must order ourselves into chronological segments, at least it helps if we change their shapes as deftly as clouds change theirs. Your debunking of what we will have to call the ‘Tudor myth’ helps us to think again about what we would see as significant ‘turning-points’ — the equivalents (to echo your use of modern parallels) of 1989 or 11/9 — in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. If we take 1485 as a moment of relatively minor dislocation, with the fortuitous settling of a rekindled family squabble, we can look elsewhere for key moments when the pace of political and cultural (note that combination — to which I will return) change quickened, when innovation and concomitant destruction went hand in hand. At the latter end, we would have what you have dubbed the ‘Eltonian decade’, the 1530s; but, at the other end, how far would we retreat — to 1422 and the reality of a minority which challenged the nature of the political order, to 1399 and another non-change of non-dynasty? I would put down a marker for the 1460s, when I sense the language of English politics begins to alter in a way soon catalysed by the importing of print in the same era. But wherever we place the goal-posts, we must remember that it is a game, not a fixture.

I like even more than your de-Tudoring of the subject the line of thinking to which that led you in your piece. If not a dynasty, what was there to sell? The individual monarchs, of course, though there was, I would stress, little about this process that was ‘individual’. You pick up on the talk of ‘negotiation’ between sovereign and people, and highlight the importance of ‘reception’, particularly in its resistant or unintended modes. I am hugely sympathetic to this: we need to seek out, as it were, the graffiti artists defacing the official image — if, that is, the ‘official’ has meaning for this era. Image-making was, both of necessity and of choice, so often out-sourced, so remote from the individual it supposedly ‘projected’, that there was no officium masterminding representations. The displays at royal entries, for instance, were obviously not designed to a palace blueprint, even though the guilds and other organisers were attempting to depict what they thought would be appropriate — that, in other words, there was a straining to identify and to reinforce a shared language. This was surely less about projection than ‘imposition’, the dressing up of the monarch in garb chosen for him or her by those around and beyond, as in the image of the undressed and dressed Louis XIV discussed by Peter Burke. Image, I am arguing, was so susceptible to intervention, to redirection, as well as to misunderstanding and hostility, that it was very rarely under control. The messages that can be conveyed with any success are, in the first place, as you mention, ones that are repeated time and again, in coins, in services, in what you, and John Cooper, term the banal. But I would add the most subtle of activities can provide a message that is all headline and no fine print and this brings me to something about which I know a little: princely libraries.

Once again, I was delighted to see your brief reference to royal libraries and quite agree with your scepticism: they were not built up with an eagle eye on direct and specific political advantage that could be gained from them and their contents.  I don’t deny that some princes read some of the time, but the collecting of a library was not a private pursuit. You say that we do not know much about who had access to the books; in some cases, we certainly do, and can see those around the prince actively intervening in ‘his’ books. I think, in particular, of the collection of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester but what I say for the early fifteenth century also works for at least some of the period you are discussing. But what is as interesting as the use in the library itself is how the books got there in the first place: in a phrase from a thesis you may remember reading back in 1997, book ownership for a prince was an occupational hazard. They might — on the advice of their secretaries and other members of the household — buy books, but a large number were also presented to them. It is often imagined that if a presentation occurred, the prince presumably wanted to accept the book. I do know of a few cases where a presentation failed to happen, but more often, I suspect, the prince felt the need to accept a gift, created and provided unsolicited, for otherwise the accusation of lack of magnanimity would hang around him or her. In other words, authors were rarely commissioned; they produced works which they might think would suit a prince they may have known only through repute, and thus add to the image in partial ignorance. Any recompense to the author was usually only received after the presentation occurred, making the production, particularly of a manuscript, a ‘loss-leader’, intended to recoup costs after the event. But, what matters more in the context of what you were saying, is that the importance for the prince lay less in the book itself but in the act of presentation — a moment identifying the prince as worthy of the respect of the person kneeling before him. In that sense, the books themselves are a recollection of previous events, witnesses to that respect and to an affinity that has existed, however temporarily. The books, in their chests, had only latent power: it was, as you mention, only when they are taken out of the hiding-places, put on display, or on loan, that they made real that potency. Or, I should add, when they were given away — as, for instance, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester did when he had carried away from his palace hundreds of his books as donations to the University of Oxford. It was an outsize action with an outsize message of his generosity and his respect for learning.

And this is the explanation, as I would see it, for the existence of those libraries: they were not necessarily repositories of wisdom to inform policy decisions, but they provided a simple and helpfully vague message about a prince being associated with learning. To try to identify a more precise or nuanced ‘image’ being ‘projected’ is to fall into one of the two traps you describe in your article.  A prince could hardly avoid owning a collection and, as you point out, if a prince was bookless, they would be open to the imputation — from the relatively few — of a lack of necessary virtue. I say the relatively few but this particular audience, of peers (in every sense), of ‘opinion-formers’ domestic and foreign, mattered for a prince’s political reputation. In saying this I come to my last point: I do not see the separation you make between ‘political’ and ‘cultural’. I can not envisage a sphere — beyond perhaps the privy, but even there David Starkey would disagree — when the prince or monarch is not on display, in action, and thus political. A culture of politics suffused their existence, where even past-times were not simply play. This is not to deny the main points that you make, but rather to rephrase it: shrewd calculation of specific political benefits played no role in allowing a room in one’s palace to be given over to the books one came to own, but a library, like the palaces themselves, or the menageries and other exotica that cluttered them, was an element in the cultural impedimenta that were unavoidably part of the prince’s political existence. That owning a book collection had its use — simple, unsubtle, even banal — was an old reality of political life.

My thanks for having set me thinking and distracting me so usefully from the work I should have been doing these last hours!

Best wishes, as always,