bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Same, similar and suggestive

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 10 September, 2016

There are, I am finding, advantages to a retirement which is ludicrously precocious and — let us be pessimistic for a moment — temporary. In the nine days since it began, I have been on a lecture trip to Cork (with thanks to Caitríona for the invitation, and Jason and Emma for the best-of-Irish hospitality); I have enjoyed a decadently convivial tea (with thanks to Judith); I have settled down to work on completing my monograph, and…

When I first sat down to write this, I was hoping to continue with fanfare and the words ‘I have made a new discovery’. But I have not and what I have instead is in some ways more interesting. For, it is a cautionary tale which may help remind us of the limits of what we can do with our evidence and may suggest what is changing (and what not) about those limits in the digital age.

I am spending time with John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, who is the focus of one of the chapters of my book. Considering his reputation for sadism, some might consider that I am keeping bad company, even in my solitude. It is not, though, with his bloodthirstiness that I am currently concerned; instead, it is with his book collecting while he was in Italy from the autumn of 1458 until the summer of 1461. I have been drafting a brief paragraph on the humanists who sought his patronage, who included Ognibene Bonisoli da Lonigo, often described as a quiet-living schoolmaster in Vicenza who avoided the bustle of the larger cities. Ognibene presented to Tiptoft a manuscript of his commentary on Juvenal, and that is now in the Bodleian (where it is MS. Arch. Selden B. 50). He also dedicated to the earl a translation of a minor text he claimed was by Xenophon on hunting. I was about to write a footnote reading ‘the dedication copy is not known to survive’ when I decided that was a statement that required a further check.

The transmission of Ognibene’s text has been discussed by my one-time colleague, the enviably polyglot David Marsh. While the work is available in an incunable edition, in manuscript, David lists only five copies. A dedication copy is likely to have been produced as a stand-alone item, and that reduces the list further to two cases where the translation is totus codex. One, in San Daniele, is an unlikely candidate given the history of the Biblioteca Guarneriana. The other is in Yale University’s Beinecke and I had previously excluded from enquiries because the catalogue dates it to the very end of the fifteenth century, so at least two decades after Tiptoft’s execution in 1470, let alone his departure from Italy nine years earlier. Investigating this again, I wondered about the rationale for that dating; it is not made explicit but I suspect it was on the basis of the paper. It is said to have a watermark similar to one the grand master of such studies, Charles-Moïse Briquet, found occurring in stock produced in Verona in 1467, with variants datable to between 1476 and 1492. As the watermark is similar rather than identical to the image he provided, the assumption would naturally be made that it was one of the later variants being used. There is here, however, a helpful reminder of limitations of research even as exhaustive as Briquet’s. More often and not, when one finds a watermark, it is not exactly as is described in his listing (or in Piccard), and then, as the saying goes, all bets are off: no conclusion can be drawn definitely identifying a date on the basis of a similarity. At the most, the likeness might be suggestive of a place of origin since motifs circulated locally — unless, that is, the motif is simple or popular. Even then, however, place of production of paper is no guarantee of the place of its use as a writing surface.

The paper, then, can not be sufficient evidence for dating the manuscript but, if we had only the catalogue, we would have to take the statement on trust. Nowadays, however, we do not have to trust it. The Beinecke is one of those laudable institutions which has made not only its descriptions available on-line but, for many of its manuscripts, uploaded high-resolution digital images. This places the catalogue’s scholarship and the primary source which it describes in dialogue, one which can at times be revealingly discordant. I have described before, in the context of the discovery of a manuscript from Tiptoft’s circle, how this subtly shifts the method of research, in ways which are not entirely unproblematic; more fundamentally, it also alters our sense of the authority of scholarship. We do — and here is a second general note of caution — need to be wary not to replace trust of others with trust in ourselves: our eyes can be deceived by what we think we see on the screen.

Tiptoft was not one of those owners (like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester was) who had a pathological need to announce his possession of a book. Some manuscripts presented to him or written for him do have his coat-of-arms but he himself never provides an ex libris. How, instead, we can identify a book as his is usually by its marginalia, for he added to many of his manuscripts notes in a large littera antiqua, or (and this was more frequent) provided a distinctive diagonal manicula with long forefinger and cuff marked, sometimes surmounting a line in the margin, its straight vertical interrupted by small sets of curves. The images the Beinecke provides reveal an unadorned manuscript written in an elegant humanist cursive bookhand, with ample borders rarely interrupted by annotations, but there are three interventions. The first, at fol. 6v, is cropped but is clearly in the hand of the scribe (note, in particular, the style of st ligature, with the first letter joining the second just below the top of its ascender). This contrasts with the next note, ‘Superstitio venatoria’, at fol. 11v, where the script seems not to be that of the scribe (contrast the form of st ligature, for instance, or the shape of the v). It may be this reader who appears again at fol. 26, adding not a word in the margin but a long straight line, interrupted by small sets of curves, topped by a diagonal manicula with long forefinger and simple cuff marked. That sounds very much like my description of the interventions we can firmly identified as Tiptoft’s, and there are some similarities. If this were simply connoisseurship, we might make a triumphant declaration, but it is not and we would be wrong to do so.

‘Similar’ is not ‘the same’, and the similarities you see have to be balanced against the dissimilarities you want to ignore. So, in this case, the description I have just given overlooks two basic differences. First, Tiptoft usually draws a rather dapper frilly cuff, not the simple curves that appear in this case. True, he does not always use that, as can be seen on some of the openings from another manuscript I have been able to identify as his, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. lat. 7966. But what is invariably the case — and I have gone through several manuscripts checking this is so — is that he always uses a single line to make the forefinger, rather than drawing it with two strokes as happens here. Likewise, if we turn to the words written in the Beinecke manuscript at fol. 16v, there are some similarities with Tiptoft’s hand but the aspect of the script is more flowing, more relaxed in itself than Tiptoft’s rather deliberate serifed strokes.

So, any identification of this reader with the dedicatee of the work the manuscript contains should not be asserted. I think I was sensible to pursue the possibility but more sensible not to force the evidence to prove something it cannot. The principle must be to err on the side of caution: only through firm, incontrovertible identifications can scholarship progress.

And, yet, this is not quite all. The more I look at the Beinecke manuscript, the more I am struck with the similarity of its script with other manuscripts made for Tiptoft or by artisans who worked for him. There is, in particular, a manuscript (for which there are no images available on-line) at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, their MS. 389, an imposing volume of Cicero’s Orations in which several copyists shared responsibility. None provides a direct parallel to the Beinecke’s script, with its slanted ascenders and tendency to some extravagant letter-forms, but the similarities of aspect and of detail (as in the curious ampersand) are suggestive:  these probably did not come from the same pen but it would seem likely that they were from the same milieu. Likewise, there is a codicological detail of the Beinecke manuscript that cannot be checked on-line but may be significant: it is said to be not just on paper but on paper that is ‘highly polished’. This style of finish is also known from other manuscripts produced for Tiptoft (for instance, Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 1. 13) and might again suggest a common context of production.

That is to say, Tiptoft may not have touched these pages but among those whom he knew may have been one or more who did. We cannot make a firm identification but I think, at least, we can draw the conclusion that the codex now in Yale was made in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, on the terra firma of the Veneto, perhaps in or around Padua, the city where the earl was longest present while he was in Italy.

‘Is that it?’, you might ask, ‘can you say nothing more certain than that?’ My response would be that we have a duty not to pretend to certainty when it does not exist, however much others (like you, the reader in my head) or we ourselves put pressure to provide that definitive assertion. This takes will-power in a culture where the expectation is of quick publication. I have already owned up to my membership of the Slow Study Movement and I will insist that there are some types of research that cannot be squeezed into the straitjacket of a finite project started and finished within a REF cycle: manuscript studies demands a longer commitment than that. But, you might also point out, there is an added intellectual difficulty. I said that we should err on the side of caution and I must, therefore, admit that I have condoned error. You could legitimately note that I have shown that Tiptoft’s association with the Beinecke is ‘unproven’, rather than definitely to be rejected. I accept that. You might draw out from that a more general point: is it not our role to speculate? Yes, I respond, we must have speculation and hypotheses, but we must also be ready to set them aside them. What is more, if a hypothesis remains just that, a possibility which is not fully proven, then we might want to share it with colleagues in discussion or in a seminar, but we really should not waste the printed page on it. We should keep such speculation to the spoken word — or to a blog.



How should we read Xenophon’s Hiero?

Posted in History of Political Thought, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 1 August, 2010

Xenophon’s Hiero is a small work with a large Renaissance reputation. Translated at the beginning of the quattrocento by Leonardo Bruni, it was one of the first pagan Greek texts to receive a rendering into humanist Latin; it circulated widely across Europe, becoming the standard version until Erasmus’ re-translation. Bruni’s text now survives in nearly two hundred manuscripts, as the estimable David Marsh has shown [Catalogus Translationum, vii (1992)]. It also has a significant place within the humanist’s oeuvre: it is one of what I would call Bruni’s manifestoes – four remarkably assured works produced in a remarkably fruitful period of his early thirties, presenting his agenda for study and for action. The manifestoes include two original compositions: the Laudatio Florentinae urbis, a celebration of republican Florence; and the Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, heralding a reform of literary scholarship, in which Bruni’s mentor, Coluccio Salutati, is presented as both the arbiter and the previous generation, while Niccolò Niccoli is given the role of radical firebrand. Alongside them are two translations, each dedicated to one of the figures in the Dialogi: to Salutati is sent a translation of St Basil on the use of reading the pagans – a highly appropriate tract considering the immediately contemporary attacks on Salutati for his ‘unchristian’ studies. To Niccoli Bruni thought it suitable to send Xenophon’s short dialogue on tyranny, the Hiero – but why? In what way is that apt? That is the question at issue.

In latter-day scholarship on Bruni’s ‘manifestoes’, interest has characteristically been concentrated on the original works. The significance of the translations produced alongside them has only recently begun to be explored. The Hiero is presently the subject of what we can be sure will be a stimulating doctoral thesis, and it is also central to a piece by Brian Jeffrey Maxson in the most recent issue of Renaissance Studies. It is an article which has left me waking up early in the morning pondering the question with which I opened. You see, Maxson describes the Hiero, without reservation, as ‘pro-monarchical’, while I have always taken the work to be subtly critical of one-man rule. My understanding perhaps owes something to Leo Strauss’s suspicious reading of the text; Strauss’s analysis, in turn, has been dismissed as being ‘as perverse as one can be’ by one classicist who would see the dialogue as an endorsement of rule over willing subjects, as is developed more fully in the Cyropaedia [V. J. Gray in Classical Quarterly, new series, xxxvi (1986)]. But, more recently, other classicists have wondered whether the Cyropaedia is as straightforwardly positive as has usually been thought [eg Y. L. Too in Pedagogy and Power (Cambridge, 1998)]; if that work can be read with suspicion, it leads us back to wondering about the Hiero. How can such a small text be subject to such diverse views?

The dialogue is deceptively simple. In a moment of leisure, the tyrant Hieron sits down with the poet Simonides, who asks his interlocutor to teach him from his experience who is happier, the tyrant or the private man. Hieron responds bemoaning his lot, enumerating how at every point his pleasure is thwarted by his status. This takes up the main part of the work. When he has finished, Simonides offers him advice on how to improve his situation and make his subjects be willing to be ruled by him – he should treat his country as his fatherland, and surpass all others in generosity and in kindness. If he does that, he will be happy and no one will be jealous of his happiness. The End. The dialogue stops there, with Hieron given no chance to respond or to thank the poet. It stops but does not conclude: this is a work which is artfully open-ended.

Xenophon’s refusal to close off the work, to declare a ‘victor’ in the debate (if it can be called that) allows and perhaps encourages the multiple meanings that have been given to the work. We could, then, simply finish here and get up from the table: the point of it is that its point is hard to define. But that still leaves two questions: why Xenophon should have wanted his work to be so open to interpretation? And if there are several ways of reading the work, what was Bruni’s? Let me focus on that second question.

The humanist dedication is itself a work of art which can often frame the text that follows and establish its relationship with the dedicatee. Leonardo Bruni does that in the preface to his translation of St Basil or in his later Plutarch dedications. In the contexts of those, the preface to the Hiero might seem odd: it has hardly anything to say about the work. Instead, it provides a brief biography of its author, praising Xenophon for his mastery of both arms and letters, describing how, after a successful military career, he was forced into exile by envious citizens and then turned his hand to philosophy. Niccoli could not but want, Bruni says, to embrace Xenophon. There is no mention in this preface of the subject-matter of the Hiero or of its characters. They are presented without introduction, as it were – except that the dialogue has been placed in a context in which what matters is the relationship between philosophy and political fortunes. In other words, Bruni does not hint at a particular political reading – either pro-monarchical or pro-republican – but does imply that reading is about politics.

It may be more usual to have a more forceful direction provided by a preface, rather than the gentle steering that Bruni masters here. But this is not unique in his literary career: take, for instance, his wonderful jeu d’ésprit, the Oratio Heliogabali, a speech placed into the mouth of a fictitious Roman emperor, exhorting the prostitutes of Rome to lasciviousness. That travelled without a preface – to the perplexity of some readers, it must said. On occasion, you will find copies with an added scribal note, explaining to the reader that this is to be read ironically and that Bruni was not, in fact, promoting vice. In contrast, it must be said, you would very rarely find such guidance notes in a copy of the Hiero – readers may not have had the same difficulty in understanding the purpose of that dialogue.

We have still not pinned down a particular meaning, a specific reading, to Bruni’s Xenophon – and that, I would suggest, is how Bruni would want it to be. He had, I suspect, no intention of closing down the open-ended nature of the dialogue. That said, he does re-weight the text somewhat by a simple act of translation. I am not thinking of his ‘straightening out’ of the text – at the point when Simonides teases Hieron about his catamite, in the Latin the young lover becomes a girl – but rather his emphasis on the word ‘tyrant’. Latin is notoriously a less supple language than Greek: the word ‘tyrannos’ could have connotations of rule that was either despotic or something less negative – the Latin ‘tyrannus’ has no such ambivalence. Perhaps a translator should consider using a different term to render ‘tyrannos’; Bruni did not. And what is more, he changes the title of the work so that it circulated not, primarily, as Hiero but more often as Tyrannus.

Bruni’s translation, then, comes in three parts: the short work itself, preceded by the shorter preface, itself preceded by the shortest, laconic (I nearly said Tacitean) part, the title. That title announces the dialogue to be about the tyrant, the evil monarch – an implicit contrast with the good citizen, Xenophon, who was its author. And yet this still does not tell us how to understand the dialogue; it does not reveal a straightforward message. But, then, how could it: if one were truly sitting in front of a tyrant, as Simonides was and as we might see ourselves as his successors, can we trust a word our interlocutor says? And can we, in turn, trust ourselves to be honest in his presence? Would we leave our conversation open-ended because we could not be open?