bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

I have been petrified

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 June, 2013

The other week saw a jolly event: the second launch of Roscoe and Italy, a collection of essays edited by the indefatigable Stella Fletcher. The volume discusses a wide range of aspects of the intellectual life of the Liverpudlian pioneer of Renaissance studies, William Roscoe, including chapters on his friends, including one by myself on William Shepherd, first (and so far only) British biographer of the adventurous humanist, Poggio Bracciolini.

The first launch of the book was in Roscoe’s hometown, an event at which I could not be present. Not to be outdone by Liverpool, Florence decided to have a presentazione, at the British Institute. It involved elegant speeches by Stefano Baldassarri, Mark Roberts of the Institute, and John Law, followed by a lively discussion. During that, I pointed out how wonderfully inappropriate the event was: Roscoe, as is well-known, never left the shores of Britain and, indeed, found travelling to London too unpleasant. He would not have wanted to journey to Florence, and preferred to conjure up its Renaissance identity through the books and paintings with which he surrounded himself.

All the same, it was a pleasure to be able to celebrate both the author and the book about him on the banks of the Arno. There was much praise for the work and it is certainly a stimulating and, indeed, well-produced volume. Of course, no book is without its imperfections, and I am sure sharp-eyed readers will catch some misprints or other infelicities. I myself noticed one on first opening it, but this was a matter of amour propre. On the page with the list of contributors, it is stated ‘David Rundle is Corpus Christi College, Oxford’.

As a battle-cry, it cannot equal ‘I’m Spartacus’ but it is still an impressive claim. The weight of the college’s Headington stone walls sit heavily on my shoulders… It is a bold statement that has left me asking existential question about the meaning of ‘is’. Is ‘is’ as in the cinema bill boards, where to say Helen Mirren is The Queen suggests a representation so impressively real that you could the actor has inhabited the being of the person portrayed? It reminds me of a theatre studies exercise at school in which we each had to act one of the buildings of Macclesfield — I was to be the church (I am told my spire was not up to much but that I made a wicked nave).

Or is ‘is’ to suggest that somehow I capture the quintessence of the institution? I appreciate that my work on humanism in England makes an association between me and the foundation of Richard Fox which was praised (beyond reality) by Erasmus. I am not so sure, though, that that is the entire identity of Corpus now, nor am I sure I am, in character, any more a Corpuscule than I am a Houseman (Christ Church being my alma mater).

But then, perhaps, ‘is’ means here simply that I have come to look like the crenellated quadrangles of the small but complex College. If that is the case, I truly am petrified.

William Roscoe and the Wonders of Not Travelling

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 14 June, 2009

A thought came to me as I moved from slumber to wakefulness this unEnglishly warm Sunday morning. As the title suggests it is about William Roscoe, the Liverpudlian banker and Renaissance scholar at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It is nearly a year since the day-conference dedicated to Roscoe in his hometown, at which I spoke on his friend and Poggio’s first modern biographer, William Shepherd. The proceedings of that conference are to be edited by the indomitable Stella Fletcher. A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in organising a rather different workshop, in Oxford and under the aegis of the Europaeum, on historical approaches to Europeanisation. At that workshop, fleeting mention was made to the Grand Tour as a process of Europeanising — and that set me thinking about our Liverpudlian friend.

If Roscoe’s name is remembered, it will be — I suspect — most often recalled for the curious fact that the author of two volumes on the Medici never set foot in the city of their birth or even visited any part of the Italian peninsula. I say ‘curious’: for some scholars, it seems simply inexplicable, for others, it is a source of gentle mockery.  For much of his life, Roscoe had the money to travel and he expressed the desire to see Florence but he never put the effort into actually crossing the Channel and heading towards the Mediterranean. He relied on friends to visit archives and gather information for him in Italy. How could, it is sometimes implied, a man who had never seen the Palazzo Vecchio or the Medici church of San Lorenzo consider himself competent to write about them?

A recent attempt has been made to answer that question; it can be described as the diachronic justification. Roscoe may have chosen not to travel across Europe; he could not but fail to travel across time. And the inability to visit Florence or Rome as they actually were in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a much greater barrier to comprehension than not touring contemporary Italy. Roscoe, on this analysis, was little more hampered than all historians in appreciating the subject of their studies.

That argument may be correct in logic, though it fails to grapple with an intellectual context that would see a cityscape as the reflection of its people’s spirit. In other words, walking the Florentine streets, however transformed they were from their pristine Renaissance state, would still be able to imbue the perceptive viewer with a sense of the identity that was moulded by and, in turn, moulded its inhabitants.

I do not know whether Roscoe read or knew of Herder, and whether he subscribed to similar ideas of a people’s genius — he certainly did have a sense of Florence’s particular identity, in a way which is a forerunner to Hans Baron’s concept of civic humanism. And he could develop this thinking at a desk far removed from the location about which he was writing. There is, it strikes me, another and more positive way to describe Roscoe’s failure to travel: he may have perceived that culture had developed so far that he did not need to make the journey. After all, his mercantile contacts could ensure that Italian ‘primitive’ paintings could arrive at his door, as could other objets d’art as well as continental books. Those paintings, including  a beautiful-beyond-words Simone Martini now hang in the Walker, not directly by Roscoe’s gift but by the generosity of those who purchased his estate when he fell into dire financial difficulty. The rationale for such a gallery, public or private, as with museums of the same period, was to have available artefacts evocative of distant lands: why would one need to travel abroad when the foreign travelled to England? Or, to put this another way, is it Europeanisation when cultural commerce is so vibrant that Europe can stay at home?

There is the over-used passage from Machiavelli’s letters where he describes retiring in the evening from his daily chores, putting on (metaphorically, we understand) classical garb and conversing in his study with the ancients. He conjures up an image of time-travel through solitude. Perhaps, for Roscoe the non-conformist, there was a similar retreat into contemplation, surrounded by the things of the other world which he visited in his imagination, as he evoked pen-potraits of a place he had seen only in his mind’s eye — if ‘only’ is the right word.

In memory of George Holmes

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 7 March, 2009

It was 29th January 2009 when Prof. George Holmes died. I was in Rome at the time – one of George’s favourite cities – and so I did not have the chance to attend his funeral or to mark his passing. When he was Chichele Professor of Medieval History in Oxford, organising and chairing seminars for new graduates I was starting my doctorate, and, a few years later, he was the internal examiner for my doctorate, so I remember him with real respect and affection. I have not seen the standard type of obituaries in the broadsheet newspapers. Presumably there will be a memoir to him eventually in the Proceedings of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. But it occurs to me that, now, in the months immediately after his death, we should reflect on the loss of not only a very human scholar but also of a style of historical writing which he represented. With him, I sense, there dies something of a particularly British tradition of Renaissance scholarship. I am not competent to write on his personal life so what follows are simply some thoughts on an intellectual obituary.

George’s wide-ranging publication record reflected the way his life was a mental odyssey. He began his academic career, in Cambridge, as an historian of late medieval England, his doctoral work published as The Estates of the Higher Nobility in fourteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1957). That research continued, with a text-book on later medieval England (Edinburgh, 1962) and, a decade later, his dissection of The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975). At the same time, however, his interests broadened beyond the Channel, inspired originally (I think) by his interest in the Italian bankers whose reach – to their own peril – stretched to England. The mercantile connexions between Italy and England was to become a topic he would return to on several occasions in significant articles. Those studies inspired an interest in Florentine history and, now based in Oxford, he set about learning Italian, for which he showed an enviable facility. His fascination led him to produce the work for which he is probably best remembered, his writings on the Italian Renaissance. These included his tellingly-titled The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400 – 1450 (Oxford, 1969) and Florence, Rome and the origins of the Renaissance (Oxford, 1986). He was not to be confined in either one country or one century.

Even this brief summary does not do justice to his interests. One of his works that I certainly still find useful in teaching was his text-book on late medieval Europe in the Fontana series, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320 – 1450 (London, 1975 [2nd ed: Oxford, 2000]). The study for that book kindled an interest in the Hussites, an interest which is reflected in the space given to them in that work.

What strikes me about George’s learned publications is the combination of detailed, specific articles alongside books in which he provided a lucid overview of a subject. A volume like Florentine Enlightenment or his later Renaissance (London, 1996) provide readable texts with forceful (if understated) arguments driving them forward. These seem to me to sit at the end of a tradition of British historical writing that goes back to Addington Symonds or even Roscoe: the ability to make accessible to an English-speaking audience a broad vista of Italian history. As his articles demonstrated, George could present a forensic analysis of a tightly-defined topic – what is now the main mode of academic writing – but that other style is perhaps less appreciated. It is less recognised as a mode of presentation because it is a particularly British style, a specifically British contribution to the understanding of the Renaissance.

George remained active until his last days. He had suffered two bouts of serious ill health in the previous decades – experiences that shaped and perhaps mellowed his view of the world. He was a regular presence in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian. The disappearance of his jacketed, open-necked, blue-shirted figure will leave the library a colder place.

Liverpool, the Renaissance and a little-known manuscript of Poggio Bracciolini

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 21 July, 2008

This being conference season, when I flew away from Dublin, I had four days to prepare a paper for a second conference. This was a one-day event, organised in Liverpool by my friend, Stella Fletcher, and sponsored by the Society for Renaissance Studies, entitled ‘William Roscoe and Italy.’ Stella can be proud of herself for arranging what proved to be a highly successful occasion, held in the refined surroundings of The Athenaeum Club, and attracting both academics and a range of interested local people. It was also an an event from which I learnt greatly.

William Roscoe, Liverpudlian banker, political liberal, art collector and biographer of both Lorenzo de’ Medici, the so-called Magnifico (1796), and his corpulent son, Leo X (1805), is himself far beyond my usual intellectual stomping ground. The furthest my studies have previously reached in the history of scholarship has been the antiquaries of the early eighteenth century, in particular Thomas Hearne. But my task for the day was to discuss the work of Roscoe’s self-declared disciple, Rev. William Shepherd (1768 – 1847), who penned the first – and, so far, only – English Life of Poggio, first published in 1802, with a second revised edition in 1837. That second edition was informed by the Italian translation of Sheperd’s biography, which appeared in 1825, augmented with detailed footnotes – and undertaken by no less a person than Cavaliere Tommaso Tonelli who went on to produce the edition of Poggio Bracciolini’s letters which remained the standard work until the 1980s.

The role of Roscoe and his circle in developing British studies of the Renaissance has received some popular notice recently, including a name-check on Bettany Hughes’ BBC radio programme. It struck me from last week’s proceedings, however, that its significance may still be underestimated. In terms of the history of British scholarship, Roscoe and Shepherd – religious dissenters and political radicals wedded to their North-western identity – seem to me to mark out a particular approach to learning, quite distant from that of the antiquaries in either of the university towns or in London. In terms of the historiography of the Renaissance, these English authors, and their Italian enthusiasts, provide a perspective which has been too often overlooked because their approach was largely superseded by what could be called the Swiss school, comprising such divergent figures as Jean Charles Sismonde de Sismondi and Jacob Burckhardt. Burckhardt’s Civilisation of Italy in the Renaissance, like the works of Karl Marx in a different field, had an influence that was immense but is now increasingly incomprehensible. Burckhardt’s evocative image of the discovery of individualism, in which everything became a work of art created for one’s own use, has proven an engrossing mythology. Perhaps, though, if scholarship had not gone down that particularly beguiling path, and continued with the approach of Roscoe and Shepherd, which saw an association between mercantile cities and cultural achievement, but did not dress it up in tales of individualism, less ink may have been wasted. Roscoe was father of other myths, certainly, but perhaps they would have proven less corrosive.

My time in the Athenaeum – of which Roscoe was a founder member – was made all the more productive because I had chance to see a manuscript there. William Shepherd was given a manuscript of Poggio’s Epistolae which was sold at auction the year after his death. The manuscript survives, though it is not listed in Neil Ker’s Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, nor is it mentioned in Helene Harth’s 1980s edition of Poggio’s Lettere. The oversight might not be that surprising: when I visited the Athenaeum, they were not sure that they had any such thing but I was certain it was there as it had been seen by that exacting scholar, Martin Davies, who mentioned it in print in Italian Studies in 1993. And, sure enough, the helpful staff at the Athenaeum kindly hunted out the volume and I had a happy half-hour studying it. It had been bought by the Athenaeum at the auction of Shepherd’s library. It may not be of great textual value, but its interest lies not just in the fact that it owned by Poggio’s nineteenth-century biographer and annotated in pencil by him. The manuscript was produced in Italy in the third quarter of the century and may have spent its first years there, but what I discovered is that it has marginalia by an English hand, demonstrating it was in this country by the early sixteenth century at the latest. It is witness, then, to the English interest in that most human of humanists, Poggio Braccolini – an interest to which William Shepherd was a worthy heir.