bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In praise of multiplicity: Ludwig Pollak and Bartolomeo Nogara

Posted in Practices of Scholarship by bonaelitterae on 8 July, 2022

When you look in the mirror how many yous do you see?


As I have recently been on holiday, I have been able to enjoy something which I can rarely find time to do in the frenetic everyday: reading for pleasure. On delight has been to immerse myself in Pollak’s Arm, a novella by Hans von Trotha which is desperately moving and which I warmly recommend to you, if you have not immersed yourself in it already. I admit that I read it in the recently published, elegant translation by Elisabeth Lauffer, even if, for a Briton, it itself required some translation (for instance, to these English eyes, the obvious meaning of ‘to tear up’ is to rend something into pieces, not — as intended — for one’s eyes to well). It is a work of fiction but its material is all too real: it is set on 15th October 1943, the night before the Nazi round-up of Rome’s Jews, and reflects on the life of Ludwig Pollak, the German-Czech Jewish art dealer and antiquary who was a long-term residence of that city. Its sources are mainly Pollak’s own diaries, and the narrative unveils his career, including his best-known triumph which gives the book its title: the remarkable discovery — announced to the world by Pollak in 1906 — of a fragment of the ancient Laocoön, one which had not be refound with the rest of the statue exactly four hundred years, a defining moment of the Renaissance in Rome.

Many of the characters mentioned by Pollak as he relays his biography had, for me, a ring of familiarity but one, in particular, I was not expecting to find in this novella. Pollak’s review of his life mentions a friend and supporter he has in the Vatican, and, in fact, the last pages of the novella are not fiction but a translation of a letter written by this friend in October 1943 in praise and defence of Pollak. The letter’s author was Bartolomeo Nogara. I am acquainted with him because of a book he edited which was published in the Vatican Library’s learned Studi e Testi series: what Nogara called the scritti inedita e rari of the Quattrocento humanist known to the Anglophone world as Flavio Biondo (and to Italian scholars, Nogara included, as Biondo Flavio). I have my own copy of that gray-covered volume in front of me, bought, I see, on a trip to the Vatican made in April 1998, four months after I was awarded my doctorate. I recall where I bought it: the was a shop for Vatican publications in St Peter’s Square itself, near the top of the north arm of buildings to the side of the cathedral façade. Some of the texts in that volume have been recently re-edited, and others are gaining more attention: while Biondo is best known as a promoter of Rome as a worthy capital for Christendom at the point the papacy was attempting to secure its returned position there, one of the texts Nogara presented shows the humanist’s fascination with the Ethiopian delegation to the Council of Florence, even seeing their description of the homeland as disproving the ancient authority of the geographer Ptolemy (it is a passage I have translated, from Nogara’s edition, for my Renaissance students, while we await Samantha Kelly’s fuller discussion of it).

I was vaguely aware of Nogara’s significance beyond this edition, in as much as I knew he was the Director General of the Vatican Museums — that is stated on the title-page of the volume — but I had not envisaged his wider life. When we read works, we sometimes conjure up the voice and the style that we imagine that author would have, and we can be disappointed to find the ‘real’ person is not like the image we constructed. Just as frustrating can be when we find we quite warm to someone we meet whose writings have not impressed us. This dissonance struck me now in a different way: that Bartolomeo Nogara, the person I knew as an editor of humanist Latin works, stood up against anti-Semitism during the pontificate of Pius XII increased my admiration for him, but made me question: are these the same man? In a simplistic sense, of course they are: this is not a case of a Doppelganger. But they present such disparate elements cohabiting in one body that it made we wonder about how our assumptions of a person’s individuality can mislead us — how, as it were, we concentrate our gaze on the single figure before us to the extent that we become blind to its multiplicity. It is like seeing a person standing surrounded by a set of mirrors: we take as the real the corporeal presence but there is a deep solipsism to that, assuming our two eyes reading one image is what provides the ‘true’; instead, the many reflections and refractions bring us closer to an appreciation of identity. This is not a change of perspective but a pluralising of perspectives.

Refractions but not fractured. It may be that I have been led down this avenue of thinking by von Trotha. Late in his novella, he has Pollak describe how, having been fêted by the Hertziana — the German art historical library near the Spanish Steps — for his discovery of the arm of the Laocoön, he was in the 1930s ostracised, and asked not to enter its doors. Specious reasons were given; the reader is left to infer that the underlying objection to him had become his Jewishness. In the new ideology, Pollak’s failing was that he could not stop being Jewish and it was assumed that this infected his every action, his every writing. The irony is not lost on Pollak that he was being barred from an institution that had been founded by a Jew, Henriette Hertz, whose name was also dropped from the foundation in this period (it has, of course, been reinstated).

The fallacy into which Pollak’s enemies fell was the assumption that a single element of identity can form the essence of a person. It is true that Pollak describes himself as becoming more Jewish or, rather, that, in his later years, he became more conscious of his Jewish heritage (a similar trajectory as to that followed by Isaiah Berlin, as described by Michael Ignatieff). This, though, does not make the fallacy decreases in error — rather, it makes it yet more fallacious. For, if at any single moment, there are several aspects in play, that number increases and their combination shifts over the course of time, through the impact of circumstances and of the life-cycle. Imagine the mirrors around a person not being static but forever in motion, so that identity is continually refracted as if through a kaleidescope.


A recent invention of scholarly bureaucracy is the ORCID, the persistent digital identifier which allows one scholar’s works to be correctly attributed to that individual, whatever differences there are in the published citations. This is a noble initiative but let us not forget the within any ORCID can bloom a range of flowers, providing a cacophony of colour — and that the identity behind that identifier is yet more multiple than their writings can ever suggest.


Confession of a Manuscript Researcher

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 12 April, 2016

Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.

Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.

You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.

I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.

I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.

More ways of making a point

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2011

I have already mentioned my interest in maniculae, those pointing hands that appear in printed books but also in manuscripts. When a history of manuscript annotation comes to be written — to stand alongsie Bill Sherman’s work on early-modern varieties — particular attention will be drawn to the manicula. It is not the only form of annotating symbol, a method of marking a passage of interest or significance; indeed, it is probably rather a late-comer, slapping out of the way the style of face-drawing that is more common in twelfth- or early-thirteeenth-century manuscripts. Sometimes those two forms stand side by side in late medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. I have before me at the moment an interesting specimen, as I sit in the Vatican Library (how things change — when I first came here sixteen years ago, the idea that in this sanctuary next to its roof-top cortile you could be in contact with a wider world was unimaginable. I hanker after those days).

The manuscript, a copy mainly of Pliny’s letters (in the 8 book tradition), has the shelfmark MS. Reg. lat. 1472. It is dated by its scribe to 1453; he signs himself ‘Val. Sal.’. Val not only writes the text, he adds frequent marginalia, in Greek and in Latin, in black and in red ink. He provides plentiful specimens of various maniculae but he does not confine his ‘nota marks’ to these — as I have said, he also includes several faces, one of them distinctive for the Cyrano-like size of his nose and a chin of stubble which is a few centuries ahead of fashion. But it does not stop there: he also provides an example of the annotating symbol which should be known as the ocululus: I know some examples in Leiden, but here the eye is weeping at the beauty of the text (without any water damage). There are also the familiar Greek symbols, and a few Nota monograms. There are other drawings as well: a flowering plant, for instance (presumably considered an appropriate sign to suggest the text should be put into a florilegium). More unusual and less explicable perhaps is the last intervention: the scribe also draws as a nota symbol a boar’s head, with tusks and an extended snout pointing to the text. The animal, I should add, is wearing an elegant collar.

As I have suggested, there is a history to be written of these symbols. You might think that mere antiquarianism but I hope my short description of the scribe’s playful activities in his book has persuaded you, if of nothing else, of the fact that this manuscript — if you pardon the expression — is no bore.

Henry of Kirkestede steps slightly further from the shadows

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 24 January, 2011

A few decades ago and the name of Henry of Kirkestede would have been known to very, very few. His major work, a Catalogus scriptorum ecclesie, had from the sixteenth century been ascribed to ‘Boston of Bury’. Even after R. H. Rouse had demonstrated that it should instead by attributed to the monk of Bury St Edmunds who became its mid-fourteenth-century librarian, Henry from the Norfolk village of Kirkestede, the error continued to circulate. In the meantime, in editing the Catalogus for the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, Richard and his wife Mary Rouse proposed another work for Kirkestede: a Speculum Coenobitarum, discussing the origins of monasticism and celebrating its signifance by listing the saints and other worthy figures who had been monks. The Rouses’ argument that Kirkestede substantially revised and expanded this text produced at Bury, was based on internal similiarities with the Catalogus: what they could not show was a manuscript that made explicit reference to his involvement. Now, we can have yet greater confidence in their inspired supposition because there is a small piece of further evidence that comes from an unexpected location.

I have been mulling over a manuscript in the Vatican, MS. Vat. lat. 1221, largely dedicated to hagiography of Thomas Becket. It is unusual for this type of text in being written on Italian parchment in the fifteenth century in a humanist script with matching bianchi girari initials. It has been known to scholars mainly because it includes an otherwise unknown letter of John of Salisbury. I have had the suspicion that the manuscript, though looking to all intent and purposes as an Italian product was actually the work of an Englishman — there are a couple of moments when the copyist slips into a more gothic script and he shows notable mastery of English placenames. My interest led me to look more closely at all its contents. Near the end, there is a set of lists recording monks who were saints, popes, kings, authors and doctors of the church. Each list is introduced by four lines of verses — verses which also appear in the similar lists that make up the revised Speculum Coenobitarum. But what makes this all the more striking is that those lists include a rubricated colophon which reads ‘Explicit compilatio fratris de kyrkested’.

Now, it might be said that the phrasing is open to interpretation: properly, it should refer to a brother at the monastery of Kirkestede. If so, it would be curious: there is little other evidence of such scholarly activity from that Lincolnshire Cistercian house, and it would beg the question why the compiler of the manuscript does not mention the order in his concluding collection of oaths made on being a monk. A more plausible explanation is that the Christian name ‘Henry’ has been omitted either because the scribe did not know much about him or was transcribing from a copy that itself did not record the forename. It seems to me that the identification with Henry, and thus corroboration of Rouses’ suggestion, is inescapable.

This being so, it raises interesting issues about the popularity of the work. All the manuscripts of the revised Speculum known to date are from English monasteries — in particular, Bury itself, St Albans and Durham. This  copy made in Italy (and soon after production, it can be added, in the papal library) could suggest an international fame that has previously been unnoticed. Then again, as its copyist is likely to be an Englishman, most likely in Rome, it might be said that the work had travelled far from Bury but not far from the English community.

The Vatican gives us something to rejoice

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 16 December, 2009

From Papa Ratzinger, a Christmas gift. The advent of tidings of great joy. To those who receive the newsletter of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana — a mere 12 thousand of them — it has been announced that the largest manuscript collection in the world will reopen to scholarship on Monday, 20th September 2010. Put that date in your diary.

For a long time, it has seemed that the Vatican would not dare to name a date: vague talk of ‘autumn 2010′ was all anyone could hear. It was like the process of closure itself. I happened to have arranged to go to the Vatican for ten days’ study in March 2007, and heard in Rome the rumours that it might close. So, when I renewed my card, I commented that ‘alcuni hanno detto’ that the Library will close. One member of staff said ‘e vero’ but her boss interrupted to clarify: ‘e vero che hai detto: alcuni hanno detto…’ It was apparent that direct questioning would receive no direct answer; I did wonder whether they were testing my knowledge of the Italian conditional (if the library were to close, for how long…).

A few months later, and a day at the Vatican was apparently like waiting for the January Sales outside Harrods, with the difference that nothing was cut-price or could be taken home. The queues are now legendary; the feats of scholars tied to their desks, avoiding any comfort break, to make the most before the intellectual apocalypse occurred, will be the stuff of memoirs.

In contrast to those months, the way the Vatican has kept readers informed and now announced a date, with an apparent determination that it is fixed, is to be applauded. But the applause, the cheering, the dewy-eyed relief will be so much greater when we can once more hand in our card, take the key to our locker, walk up the narrow staircase, eye the outstretched hand of divus Thomas, turn to our left, turn again and find ourselves in the haven of learning that is the sala manoscritti. How I hope to be there.

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