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.

More on Greenblatt, Lucretius and Poggio, or waiting for the Renaissance

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2012

It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.

I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.

That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.

This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.

I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.

It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.

However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.

Buy Renaissance Pornography for Christmas

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2010

Now there’s a title liable to cause a spike in viewing figures. But, for those of you in search of some visual titillation straight from the flowering of Italian culture, you will be disappointed. There is not even a reproduction from I Modi to provide  momentary stimulation. You will have to be more committed an onanist that Martin Amis’s Mr. Self to find appropriate inspiration here.

Instead, this post is a belated celebration — belated because its subject has been on the market for several months now. Wrapped in the pale blue uniform of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the object in question is the parallel text of Panormita’s Hermaphroditus. Now, alongside the Platonist reveries of Ficino or the advice on education of Pier Paolo Vergerio and others, can rest on the bookshelves a collection of neo-latin poems so scurrilous, so devoted to all sorts of sex that, as its editor and translator, Holt Parker announces in his introduction, it is blessed with a loathsome reputation. For those who prefer their humanists pure, single-minded scholars avant la lettre, this is a volume best kept out of sight, but if we want to develop a fuller understanding of these authors and their milieu, it is precisely by not flinching to watch them when they spit venom or tell dirty jokes or wallow in sexual licence that we are going to create a more rounded analysis of those we often see as our intellectual forefathers.

One aspect that interests me is how this is a work that generations have wanted to burn. I have, as more attentive readers have may have noted, been working on a small piece concerning William Shepherd, early-nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, advanced Liberal, friend of William Roscoe and biographer of Poggio Bracciolini. In his Life of Poggio, he mentions the Hermaphroditus, because Shepherd’s ‘hero’ — himself no stranger to sex or to lewd humour — had censured Panormita (Poggio’s letter appears in the useful appendix to the I Tatti volume). Shepherd goes on to mention how, at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, ‘the cause of decency and morality was vindicated by the passing of a solemn censure upon [the] Hermaphroditus, which was ignominiously consigned to the flames in the most public part of the city’. Even for such a Liberal, an opponent of arbitrary rule and of the censorship that comes with it, the destruction of books has its place in civilised society.

With the horror of Kristallnacht engrained in our psyche, the burning of books — be they rude poetry or someone else’s holy book — holds a greater ability to shock than the book itself. But this should not let us complacently imagine that we have become a model of tolerance: Panormita still has such an ability to offend it can be censored. I can prove this with a more recent anecdote, that comes from the time a decade ago when I was editing the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I asked a colleague to write an essay on homosexuality, and she, understandably, quoted the Hermaphroditus in it, ending her contribution with one of its epigrams (in the edition as poem XII). I found myself called in to the publishers to talk to their editor who insisted that the words could not be used — it would offend the audience and she, the editor, had to defend Hutchinson’s good name. I remonstrated and asked what else she might decided to cut. I pointed out that there was an entry on Matteo Colombo and a mention of his famous ‘discovery’, the clitoris — ‘do you’, I asked, ‘have anything against the clitoris?’. ‘No, I have nothing against the clitoris’.

Reader, she had her way: the published volume did not quote Panormita’s words, but rather delicately paraphrased them.  Now that Panormita has achieved the respectability of being in the I Tatti series — a respectability he himself might have loathed — perhaps such periphrasis will no longer be necessary. Somehow, though, I doubt that.

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.

For those of you who have not yet met Poggio

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 22 July, 2008

Following on from my last posting about William Shepherd’s Life of Poggio, I realise that I have been frightfully ill-mannered and have not introduced to you its ‘hero’, Poggio Bracciolini (1380 – 1457). I am sure many of you have already met him, but in case you are uncertain whether you would recognise him, I provide a portrait:

The image is, obviously, a nineteenth-century drawing. It is taken from the frontispiece of Tommaso Tonelli’s translation of Shepherd’s Lives, published in two volumes in 1825. It is a set of volumes which, through the miracle of e-Bay, I now own, sold to me by Gail Tothill of New York for a price which pleased my bank-balance but saddened my soul, to think in what low esteem such works must presently be held.

More of you will have met Poggio than think you have: as you walked through the Duomo in Florence, and turned to your left, averting your gaze from the English condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, you would have seen a statue of one of the saints which is said to have been modelled on Poggio in cadaverous old age.

And, if you have not met Poggio there, you are well acquainted with his works. He is famous for his re-discoveries of ancient texts, ‘liberating’ Quintilian and others from monastic ‘dungeons’ (aka libraries), for reviving the art of the Ciceronian dialogue and, most enduringly, for inventing the script known as littera antiqua, the humanist bookhand which was supposedly a return to ancient elegance and which you will all recognise since, when manuscripts were joined in the world by printed books, it became the basis for Roman type — the ancestor of modern Times New Roman.

Poggio also had a lively sense of humour and an eye for the ladies. He knew how to live and when you next raise a glass of Chianti, think of him.

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.