Scribes, illuminators, manuscripts in Baudri de Bourgueil’s poems

Medieval texts explaining how manuscripts are (to be) decorated are rare. Works detailing how manuscripts that have come down to us have been adorned are rarissimi. The techniques of medieval illumination are known nearly exclusively from the appearance of the manuscripts themselves. No treatise or textbook dealing with decoration, painting or illumination has survived, and there is no evidence to my knowledge that any such treatise has ever been written. Medieval authors occasionally give us some details of script, decoration, format of manuscripts they encounter, but these are neither comprehensive nor very helpful in identifying the actual volumes. For identification, scholars have to rely on things like hand-lists and library registers. In other words, they rely on identifiable texts and, sometimes, general format, not on any visual peculiarities, like details of decoration, colours of initials, layout, illuminations, etc.

In this galaxy of relative decorative darkness, the poems of Baudri of Bourgueil (circa 1045-1130), abbot of the abbey of Bourgueil on the Loire Valley and bishop of Dol in Brittany (for which reason he’s also known as Baudri of Dol), shine an unexpected yet wholesome light on the matter. Baudri is not so much known for his poems (Carmina) as he is for his account of the First Crusade known as Historia Hierosolymitana (The History of Jerusalem). His poems, written towards the end of the 11th century, survive in only one manuscript, to which I shall return momentarily. The poems have never been translated into English. There’s been only one scholarly edition, produced in the 1920s by a French scholar, which was the basis for the only modern translation — into French. To sum up, the poems haven’t received much focused attention. They’ve been known, but not thoroughly examined.

Baudri’s poetic works number 256 poems of around 8700 verses, dealing with various themes which are impossible to group together into a coherent whole. There are poems on the Trojan War, others addressed to monks and abbots, others suffused with piety, yet others about friendship or the loss of it. Some number only a couple of lines, others as many as 1300. The styles are in no wise less diverse: some poems are hymns, others satires, epics, epitaphs, elegies. In this higgledy-piggledy corpus, there are a number of poems dealing with the materiality of writing. There are poems about wax tablets, others about books and copyists, and even a delicious heroic-comic lament about an iron stylus which broke after nine years of use. Only Baudri or the owner of the latest Mont Blanc fountain pen could set themselves such a task. The opening piece, however, is titled ‘He consoles his book against its detractors’ (Contra obtrectatores consolatur librum suum). It is addressed to his book of poems, that is to the manuscript. It begins thus, in elegiac couplets:

Vade, manus multas subiturus et atria multa,
vade, liber trepidus, discidium metuens
vade meus sine me, carmen sine nomine, vade
causa, principio, consule, fine carens.
Sique tuum nomen vult fratrum sollicitudo,
“Nomen quod petitis”, dic sibi,”non habeo”.

(Oh nervous book, fearing discord, about to endure many hands and many halls, come, my precious, without me, song without name, cause, principle, deliberation or closure. If the brothers’ apprehension demands a name from you, tell them ‘I do not have the name you seek’ (the translation, hasty and clumsy, is my own).

To ‘endure many hands and many halls’ implies that the book will be handled by many and will have to move from one room to another. We’ll see what that means in a moment.

The poem goes on in the same plaintive style until Baudri starts explaining how he decided to have the book painted. This is by far the most interesting part of the poem and, for good reason, one of the most remarkable passages in the whole collection. It goes like this (as always, the English translation follows the Latin, so make sure you scroll down):

Praecepi fieri capitales aere figuras,
ut quod non sensus, res tribuat pretium –
Ad nos miserunt Arabes huc forsitan aurum,
materiarum quo signa priora micant.
Introitus alios minio viridive colore,
ut mirabilius omne nitescat opus,
ut quos allicere sententia plena nequibit,
hos saltem species codicis alliciat.
Haec igitur lucet, haec vero littera ridet,
sed non arrident dicta decora tibi.
Elegi puerum scribentis in arte peritum,
qui sic disposuit, nomine Gualterium,
qui geniale solum, vagus ut tu, dicere nescit ;
sed decuit profugus scriberet ut profugum.
Gerardum quemdam natu proavo Turonensem
commoda sors Arabem contulit aurificem.

I asked that the capital letters [initials] be made of bronze, so that the book be valuable for its material aspect even in the absence of ideas (it was the Arabs, perhaps, who brought us the gold that makes the initial letters of texts so resplendent). I had the other initials painted red or green, so that the whole work would make a better impression. That way, those incapable of responding to the richness of expression will at least find the appearance of the manuscript appealing. Therefore, the letter still shines and smiles even if the adorned text is not pleasing to you [the reader]. I have chosen a boy named Walter, skilled in the arts of writing [calligraphy], and he laid it out in this fashion; a wanderer like you, he cannot say what his country is, but it was appropriate that an exiled should write like an exiled. The auspicious fate provided an Arabian goldsmith, a certain Gerald of Tours, very advanced in age.

Medieval books required a large number of individuals to make. Excluding the preparation of the parchment (costly, time-consuming and generally unpleasant), writing was usually done in several stages: the parchment was first ruled and folded, then the text was written down, colour applied to initials, rubrics, headings, highlighting and other elements of layout and finally, if required, more advanced elements of decoration (illustrations, illumination, gilding) were added, usually by a different person. In Baudri’s account, Walter (Gualterius in Latin) may have been in charge of writing and doing the first stage of decoration, while Gerald was tasked with more advanced visual elements, as we shall see.

As mentioned earlier, Baudri’s collection of poems survives in only one manuscript. That manuscript is now in the Vatican Library (Reg. lat. 1351: it has been digitised here:, but it is likely that Baudri brought it with him to Worcester around the turn of the 12th century.

Fig. 2. Vatican, BAV, Reg. Lat. 1351, f. 30r. Large decorated initials in green, red and blue, showing traces of metal coating.

The remarkable thing is that the manuscript is most likely to have been the one described in the poem-prologue above. The initials are painted in red and green for a large part of the volume, including the section covering the opening poem (Fig. 1. ) while the ‘capital letters’, the larger initials, have traces of metal, perhaps bronze (Fig. 2). Furthermore, Walter and Gerald’s names are written in painted capitals (Walter’s has a capital G (Fig. 1, 4th line from the bottom), the only capital to be painted inside the verse-line), strongly suggesting that the names may have been painted by the mentioned copyists. For a more detailed discussion of this claim, see Jean-Yves Tilliette, ‘Note sur le manuscrit des poèmes de Baudri de Bourgueil (Vatican, Reg.Lat. 1351)’, Scriptorium, 37 (1983), 241-245.

I am convinced that the Vatican manuscript is the one referred to in the opening poem. Baudri explains, and scholarship agrees, that authored texts were written on parchment (super pergamentum) after they’d been written in wax (in cera) — on wax tablets. Baudri instructed Walter (and possibly Gerald, as the rest of the poem suggests) to transfer the text from Baudri’s wax tablets to parchment. Once the text had been written down, the decorator, presumably Gerald in this case, would have started painting the initials, capitals and other visuals. It was common practice for the scribe to leave guide letters or words in the margin. These were the words the decorator or illustrator was required to paint. It is likely that Baudri’s parchments had to be moved to a different location (inside the abbey?) to be painted. We remember the nervous book ‘about to endure many hands and many halls’. The gilder (the Arabic goldsmith in the poem) may have moved the parchments to yet another location. When everything was completed, the book was ready to be bound, but many medieval books were left unbound. The Vatican volume has a modern binding, so it is difficult to say when the book was first bound. Personally, I am inclined to think it was bound soon after it was produced, as it would have been rather annoying – and a point of poor self-presentation – for Baudri to transport it to Worcester as a pack of flyleaves.

In another poem, Baudri gives further instructions to a different scribe named Hugh:

Si tamen id studeas, et cures ut bene scribas,
altera de minio capitalis littera fiat,
altera de viridi glaucove nigrove colore,
ut versus semper varietur origo decenter.

If you are diligent and take pains to write well, do a capital letter in red, another in green, blue or black colour, so that there would always be a harmonious variation at the beginning of the verse.

Screen Shot 2018-05-23 at 10.32.46.png
Fig. 3. Vatican, BAV, Reg. Lat. 1351, f. 24r

To my knowledge, Baudri’s is the only extant manuscript to show the decoration/illumination instructions at work in the actual volume. Because texts disseminated by being copied by hand, and being copied by hand doesn’t always mean that format and layout were also reproduced, the likelihood of autograph manuscripts (meaning original, the first in a series of later copies) reaching us is extremely low. Indeed, a very small number of such manuscripts have survived. And this makes Baudri’s work (his poems and his manuscript, not forgetting Walter, Gerald and Hugh) so precious.

Edition and French translation:

Baudri De Bourgeuil: Poemes, ed. by Jean-Yves Tilliette  2 vols (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998-2002).

A PDF file of the Latin text may be found here.


Benjamin Button and the Shepherd of Hermas

We all know the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of the man born with the physical appearance of a 70-year-old who, aging backwards, gets ever younger. We know it either from Scott Fitzgerald’s original story or the 2008 film loosely based on the former, starring Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett. Some of us may also know Mircea Eliade’s 1976 novella ‘Youth without Youth’ (also made into a film by Francis Ford Coppola). A similar plot occurs in Samuel Butler’s Note-Books, and there are at least four other stories based on the same topos in the 20th century. Where does the idea of reverse aging come from? A strict Jungian might say that’s part of our collective unconscious, driven by our death-defying desire for eternal youth. While that may very well be the case, it is worth pointing out that the topos of rejuvenation was already being used in the 2nd century AD. Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find a single reference to this literary kinship in online scholarship (I wish I had more time). The earliest text I could find that makes use of this idea is the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the early 2nd century AD. The Shepherd was a popular work in the early Christian Church, comprising of allegorical visions and parables, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed the Church. The visions were given to a slave called Hermas, whom some early Christian authors believed to have been the same Hermas that Paul the Apostle sent greetings to in the Book of Romans (16:14).

The idea of gradual rejuvenation occurs in the visions, where Hermas sees the Church as an old woman, first old, then getting increasingly younger.

For she had appeared to me, brethren, in the first vision the previous year under the form of an exceedingly old woman, sitting in a chair. In the second vision her face was youthful, but her skin and hair betokened age, and she stood while she spoke to me. She was also more joyful than on the first occasion. But in the third vision she was entirely youthful and exquisitely beautiful, except only that she had the hair of an old woman; but her face beamed with joy, and she sat on a seat. (trans. by Joseph Barber Lightfoot)

The allegorical woman is not a perfect match for our Benjamin Button, whose rejuvenation is cause for both humour and sadness. The rejuvenated Church taps into a number of topoi, such as that of renewal, the idea that one starts from a position of feebleness, langour and sin and is transformed, through the Holy Spirit, into one of youth, strength and bloom. The words of the Book of Revelation are the underlying engine of the Shepherd‘s use of the rejuvenation topos: ‘And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new”. (21:5). The salvation of the Church, according to the Shepherd, depends upon this progressive rejuvenation. Whilst both Button and Dominic Matei (the hero of Eliade’s novella) die through a dissolution of the self under the tyranny of time (even the backwards passing of it), the old woman gets, one suspects, forever younger, Christically transcending death. (I am tempted to write another paragraph about socialism and the old world getting younger, but this is neither the time nor the place).

E. K. Rand on being a humanist


British Library, Add MS 47678, containing some Cicero letters with explanatory glosses, from around 800 AD.

The American classicist and palaeographer Edward Kennard Rand (1871-1945) is one of those philologists who, having authored more than 200 publications, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. There is a one in German, which only serves to show the discrepancy in interest in philology between various nations. Pope Professor of Latin at Harvard, Rand is known to the wider public for his Loeb translations (especially of Boethius) and for his book The Founders of the Middle Ages, published in 1928. In the latter, he left us one of the most memorable descriptions of what a humanist is. I have transcribed it below, seeing that Google cannot find it anywhere on the web.

A humanist is one who has a love of all things human; one who cares more for art and letters, particularly the art and letters of Greece and Rome, than for the dry light of reason or the mystic’s flight into the unknown; one who distrusts allegory; one who adores critical editions with variants and variorum notes; one who has a passion for manuscripts, which he would like to discover, beg, borrow or steal; one who has an eloquent tongue which he frequently exercises; one who has a sharp tongue, which on occasion can let free a flood of good billingsgate or sting an opponent with an epigram’

(E. K. Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1928), p. 102).

Guittone d’Arezzo, Dante and the power of assonance

Re-reading Dante’s Commedia, I am reminded of the power of assonance, alliteration and other figures of phonetic repetition in early Italian poetry. Take these verses from Guittone d’Arezzo’s poem Ora parrà s’eo saverò cantare (Now we shall see whether I can still sing):

En vita more e sempre in morte vive
omo fellon, ch’è di ragion nemico:
credendo venir ricco, ven mendico;
Non manti acquistan l’oro,
ma l’oro loro.

In life he dies and always lives in death
The evil person who is an enemy of reason
Convinced that he will become rich, he becomes a beggar
Not many acquire gold
But gold dominates them. (translation by Frede Jensen, lines 46-53)

For such early vernacular poetry (the poem was composed in the 1260s), to see this level of stylistic sophistication is really impressive. Guittone almost achieves a gentle paromoion through something similar to an antanaclasis.

Dante no doubt threw his hat in the ring when he captured the tension between love and death, eros and thanatos, in a single line in the Francesca-Paolo canto in the Comedy, playing on the phonetics and morphology of the words amor and morte:

Amor condusse noi ad una morte.

(Love led the two of us unto one death, Inferno 5:106)

The literal encapsulation of love in death and death in love (amor, una morte) seems to point to Dante’s metaphysical statement that, on the one hand, passionate, disorganized and, most importantly, illicit love contains in it the seeds of its own dissolution, while on the other hand, that, as Francesca tells the story, there is a kind of love even in death, a circumscription and distillation of conjoined love, amor..noi in a single death, una morte. The difference between love and death is a two-letter word, the accusative ‘te’ (you).

An unexpected journey to Italy

As I was clearing up old boxes yesterday, I found a text laid out on a few pieces of old paper, stained by water and reeking of mould. I proposed to transcribe it and, since I could not find a more suitable outlet for it, publish it here. The author must remain anonymous, not having given any hints of his identity in the text. All we can say is that he was nel mezzo del cammin, slightly suffering from sciatic pain and a resident of London. The time is not clear either: it could be either the 16th century or any time thereafter. The short exposition appears to be a travelogue, the enthusiastic account of a traveller from London to the Italian Alps. It instantly made me think of Montaigne’s Journal de voyage en Italie, but, naturally, it bears no comparison. If inspired by Montaigne’s, the present journal is a pale and mocking copy of the former. I will let the reader figure out the rest.

Editor’s note: I have tried to stay as faithful to the text as possible. Any errors – solecismus, synchysis, confusions of any kind – belong to the author, not the editor.

After hours on the road, over and under the clouds, witnessing a melancholic sunset somewhere over Germany – and clouds laid out like a wrinkled tablecloth, he arrived in Bergamo. Not quite in Bergamo, but in an age which did away with horses and mules, the expression will do. It was pouring in Bergamo when he lodged at the Cascata. Good lodgings. Messire was pleased to see that the ingress into Italy was welcomed with that magnificent Lombard comfort, the bidet, present in every home, no matter how humble. He wished to dine in town, if only to recall his pleasant stay two years before, but the rain, falling like biblical vengeance, prevented him. He settled for a nearby inn, whose name, now forgotten, had a Yankee undertone (it was later recalled that the name of the inn was Saloon). He was served delicious meats, seasoned with Iranian salt and accompanied by grilled vegetables. The wine was undoubtedly better than what he was accustomed to in his native country. The innkeeper served a nice bottle of 5-year-old Barolo in glasses so large they were suitable instead for minestrone. Messire deplored the foreign influence and recalled other travellers’ notes about glasses in Italy, some of the smallest in Europe.

The lodgings were, as said, fine. There was plenty of room for accommodating one’s transport under the inn. On such a rainy day, Messire found that most convenient and was pleased with the choice he had made. He went to bed tired but contented, and feeling only a trace of the lingering sciatic pain he had long been suffering from. No particular plans were made for the next day, but with the prospect of less vengeful weather, he said he might visit Venice on his way to the rugged Dolomites, the terminus of his voyage.

Intermission. The wave of denunciations of male sexual assults is a terrible thing because it makes one think that men can only abuse women sexually. What about the rest of psychological forms of oppression? Nobody seems in the least worried about that.

The day started on the wrong foot, with more rain and no sign of improvement. Breakfast was light, perhaps too light for Messire’s morning appetite. It was noticed how everyone in Italy eats as much in the morning as the value they place on time. Getting the transport ready and having paid the host, we travelled three miles to the upper city of Bergamo. By the time Messire got there, the rain had stopped and the sun, jealous of Italian hot-temperedness, came out in all its glory. The first station was the Collione chapel with its High Renaissance facade and exquisite workmanship. We marvelled at the delicate decoration and, having speculated about the relationship between power and art, we visited the nearby church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a Romanesque pearl trapped inside a Baroque shell. Messire was corrected in his belief about a particular fresco by a certain Bergamasque gentilhome, who explained that the figure of the hairy hermit was not that of John the Baptist, as Messire thought, but a local hermit whose body was discovered by another hermit and the story told to Giacomo de Voragine, who included it in the Legenda Aurea. The fresco was painted in the mid 13th century, but preserved an unprecedented freshness.

Thence Messire’s train moved to Verona, about 100 miles. We arrived in Verona in the early afternoon, scandalized to enter the city gates together with hoards of mindless tourists, who didn’t even endeavour to preserve an appearance of devotion as they brandished their photographic equipment, raising it on high. Streets in Verona are paved with large slates of granite and are full of antiquities, revealing themselves as readily as a courtesan’s knee, in which the city abounds, as we were told.

Messire made it straight to the statue of Dante, conveniently located near Cangrande della Scala’s monumental mausoleum. Having paid his respects, he went to see one of the ancient city gates, still bearing an inscription dedicated to Emperor Titus.

With the day clearing, decision was made to head to Venice, on account of the few pilgrims ans travellers visiting the city that time of year.

The approach to Venice was made from the sea, Messire having rented a tronchetto. He found the city very pleasant, and the air clear and not too salty. The Jewish quarter, called the Giudecca, was the first stop, and an opportunity to admire the many fine buildings lining the canal. Once landed in Piazza San Marco, haste was recommended as the sun was fast declining. Without further ado, Messire visited the basilica, whose mosaics left him breathless. There were many barbarians in Venice, apparently just as eager to see its wonders as our most respectable citizens.

Venice is the epitome and paragon of glory through decadence, a metaphor for our humanity. The city itself is the complete opposite of that Anglo-Saxon scientific exuberance and lack of interest for metaphysical questions, no mattter how nihilistic or self-defeating, which we can’t hear too much of these days. There is a serene resignation in the Serenissima, and also the sense of a life well-spent, limited yet glorious. What can tell that story better than a city slowly going under the water, capsizing under the weight of its lancet windows, moulded palazzi and stone churches? Nevertheless, above the waterline, there is light, and music, Caneletto and Vivaldi and even Sargent perhaps. Messire found all these thoughts to go well with a cigar in the company of the gondeliers. Thoughts of Marco Polo describing Venice to the Khan crossed his mind. ‘Imagine’, Messire said, ‘all the stories Polo could have told the great Mongol about the city that were as exotic to the latter as stories from the East were to the former.’ There is no city more elegiac than Venice. It had once been said that for every unhappy city there is a happy city. How many unhappy cities are there, we wonder, for Venice’s happiness?

Travelling, Italo Calvino explains, is when one comes to realize one’s true, minuscule dimensions and to learn the things one has never nor will ever possess. Travelling is a descent into resignation. Though everyone can travel, not everyone should.

We left Venice behind us and took the mountain road towards Cortina d’Ampezzo, of which Messire had heard so much and wished to visit. The road was easy but long, and when night fell, we started to wonder whether there would be any inns on our passage. Messire was relieved when we stopped in Longarone at Luigi de Bona, who served us polenta with mushrooms and mountain cheese. Messire noticed this was one of the cheapest meals he ever had, and downed a carafe of Soave in an instant to celebrate this. Before midnight, we arrived, armes et baggages, in Cortina and stoppped at Alnbergo Europa, who had been warned beforehand of our arrival. The city was calm, the roads quiet and the sky starry as a painting.

There are few places in the world like Cortina. Once the morning curtain was drawn and the sun revealed all that eas hidden, it became clear that Cortina has no rival. Set around the mountains like a fortress defended by heavy walls, Cortina reveals its greatest neighbours; the Dolomites, teeth-like mountains grinning in the sun. The valley is long and wide, moisteurised by numerous rivulets, some aspiring to be strict rivers, cutting through stone and ice. The valley is inhabited by gentlefolk who make a living out of grazing their animals on the slopes and catering to eager visitors. Messire was astounded by the quality of the food and the freshness of the wine, though most of it was brought in from the less rugged hills of Veneto further to the south.

Messire insisted that despite the warm weather, he should be given a pair of wooden planks to practise sliding on snow, as he had read in some Norse book. He was fortunate, as some tracks were still practicable under the rushing thaw, and he could slide down ad libitum. Unfortunately, enough caution was not practised, and Messire found himself on the side of the mount, at his foot, away from his mule. He was lucky, however, to find a God-fearing old lasy called Ecaterina who was happy to use her mule to transport him and his equipment back to the inn. On the way, Messire learned the lady lived in the valley, but that her son was making a living in Holland. All this time, Messire spoke to her in fluent Italian. She wishes to know where he had learned the language, and thereupon Messire recited several terzine from Dante. The lady was more annoyed than impressed, and Messire relented. The evening was quiet. Messire spent the rest of the day reading a book about invisible cities, which we all thought was rather inappropriate given where we were. We dined at an unassuming tavern by the main church and then retreated for the night.

Messire woke up the next day to discover that the sciatic pain had disappeared and he quickly credited it to the Dolomite valley. He was no less glad that the temperature had dropped, allowing the landscape to recover some of its hivernal beauty: a note of mystery due to fog followed by a little bit of rain.

Plans were made to visit the area in more depth than one is accustomed to at this time of year. Despite warnings of avalanches and many closed mountain passes, it was arranged to tour the Dolomites in anti-clockwise fashion: moving first to Pieve di Livinallongo through Passo Falzarego and Cernadoi. We lunched at the Klematys, a lonely tavern overlooking some of the most rugged peaks in the region. Food was delicious, the house wine rich in berry fruit and a touch of herbs. The meal was crowned with a Grappa Cumino, a cumin-infused grappa of which Messire asked the host for a bottle to take back with him. Prices were lower than usual, which was strange, considering that these folk put more effort to supply the kitchen in the mountains than elsewhere.

Leaving the Klematys, we made for the highest road in the region, turning west in Arabba. No sooner had our motorised mules taken us 10 miles up the mountain road than we had to turn back, the road being closed ahead, due to the risk of avalanches and renegade marmots. By the time we reached Cortina, it was getting dark and rainy.

We couldn’t miss the chance to see Bolzano, famous for its bread. Indeed, Mess. De Montaigne had once reported that the world’s best bread is sold there. Messire said he cannot confirm this claim or not, but he thought he bread was not bad. Nor was the wine. Messire brought back a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella, sold to him by a winsom lady who keeps the largest Tuscan wine producers in desdain. A farmer’s market was being held at the time, and Messire bought large quanties of soft and hard cheese, of which one was made by mixing it with winter truffles. The cathedral church has some old frescoes, which we judged to belong to Giotto’s school. Messire was disappointed to see some pews concealing some fine fragments of wall paintings. The return journey didn’t feel as long, but with the night falling last, it became obvious that the road was not as safe as thought beforehand. We dined at a local tavern whose name now escapes us. Messire feasted on deer ribs with polenta. We slept peacefully, with only the occasional gallop on the main road to disturb us.

The next morning was spent making preparations for our return to Milan. As we only had to arrive there late in the evening, Messire proposed, and we all agreed, to take the road through Padua, in order to see Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel and the baptistery frescoes there. It was not meant to be. Having arrived in Padua, it was soon discovered that entrance to the Chapel was blocked by thousands of visitors who, although perhaps not as eager as us, had certainly been far more rigorous in planning their visit. Messire was fuming that we couldn’t see the chapel, and no amount of bribery, threats or supplication was able to make the guards any more pliable to our project. Disappointed, Messire made for the baptistery, where some consolation was taken in the frescoes by Giusto de Menabuoi. Messire was sure that Menabuoi had been one of Giotto’s pupils, something recent scholarship finds doubtful. A couple of hours were spent admiring the ‘creation of the world’ and ‘paradise’, two of the most accomplished and moving scenes of the entire fresco programme. Just as Michel de Montaigne before him, Messire concluded that there are no good barbers in the whole of Italy, which we all found a bit harsh. In fact, Messire was angry that the only barber he found on his way to the stables was due to open shortly, but was still closed an hour later. Perhaps not that there are no good barbers in Italy, but that they are not men of their word.

Our tired horses took us to Milan, and from there back to morose Albion. Messire was already dreaming of other voyages he would soon make to Italy.



Montaigne’s visit of the Vatican Library

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) arrived in Rome in November 1580, after a long journey across France, Germany and northern Italy. His Journal de voyage, intimate and never intended for publication, is our only source of information for what he did there. Although he constantly complained about the state of his health (renal colic, migraines, toothache, etc), he found the strength to visit the famous Vatican Library, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. For anyone interested in the history of the book, his account is pretiosissimus, bearing on the state of the library (free access, morning visit hours, chained books, etc), the manuscripts and printed books consulted thereat, as well as observations of a rather palaeographical and codicological nature.

I have included a translation of the text in English, a list of the items mentioned by Montaigne, the identification made by François Rigolot (in ‘Curiosity, Contingency, and Cultural Diversity: Montaigne’s Readings at the Vatican Library’, 64:3 Renaissance Quarterly, pp. 847-874) as well as images of the items that have been digitised. We may come as close as possible, 438 years later, to Montaigne’s visit to the Library.

On the 6th of March I went to see the library of the Vatican, which is contained in five or six rooms all communicating one with the other. There are many rows of desks, each desk having a great number of books chained thereto. Also, in the chests, which were all opened for my inspection, I saw many manuscripts, of which I chiefly remarked a Seneca and the Opuscula of Plutarch. Amongst the noteworthy sights I saw was the statue of the good Aristides, with a fine head, bald and thickly bearded, a grand forehead, and an expression full of sweetness and majesty. The base is very ancient, and has his name written thereupon. I saw likewise a Chinese book writ in strange characters, on leaves made of a certain stuff much more tender and transparent than the paper we use, and because this fabric is not thick enough to bear the stain of ink, they write on only one side of the sheet, and the sheets are all doubled and folded at the outside edges by which they are held together. It is said that these sheets are the bark of a certain tree, as is a fragment of ancient papyrus which I saw covered with unknown characters. I saw also the Breviary of Saint Gregory in manuscript, which has no date, but the account they give of it states that it has come down from one hand to another from Saint Gregory s time. It is a missal not unlike our own, and it was taken to the recent Council at Trent as an authority for the ceremonies of our Church. Next, a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas, containing corrections made by the author himself, who wrote badly, using a small character worse even than my own. Next, a Bible printed on parchment, one of those which Plantin has recently printed in four languages, which book King Philip presented to the Pope, according to an inscription on the cover. Next, the original manuscript of the book which King Henry of England wrote against Luther and sent fifty years ago to Pope Leo X. It contains a subscription and a graceful Latin distich, both written by his own hand :

“Anglorum Rex Henricus, Leo decime, mittit
Hoc opus, & fidei testem & amicitae.”

I read both the prefaces, one to the Pope and the other to the reader. The king claims indulgence for any literary shortcomings on the score of his military occupations, but the style is good scholastic Latin. I inspected the library without any difficulty; indeed, anyone may visit it and make what extracts he likes; it is open almost every morning. I was taken to every part thereof by a gentleman, who invited me to make use of it as often as I might desire. Our ambassador quitted Rome just at this time without having ever seen the library, and he complained because pressure had been put upon him to beg this favour of Cardinal Charlet, and that he had never been allowed to inspect the manuscript Seneca, which he desired greatly to see. It was my good luck which carried me on to success, for, having heard of the ambassador’s failure, I was in despair. Thus it seems all things come easily to men of a certain temper, and are unattainable by others. Right occasion and opportunity have their privileges, and often hold out to ordinary folk what they deny to kings. Curiosity often stands in its own way, and the like may be affirmed of greatness and power. In the library I saw also a manuscript Virgil in an exceedingly large handwriting, of that long and narrow character which we see in Rome in inscriptions of the age of the Emperors somewhere about the reign of Constantine, a character which takes somewhat of Gothic form, and misses that square proportion which the old Latin inscriptions possess. The sight of this Virgil confirmed a belief which I have always held, to wit, that the four lines usually put at the opening of the Aeneid are borrowed, since this copy has them not. Also a copy of the Acts of the Apostles, written in very fair Greek golden character. The lettering is massive, solid in substance, and raised upon the paper, so that anyone who may pass his finger over the same will detect the thickness thereof. We have, I believe, lost all knowledge of this method.

(translated by W.G. Waters, 1903. The original in French is here)

According to the text, Montaigne saw the following items:

  • a manuscript containing works by Seneca and the Moral Essays of Plutarch’ (perhaps Vat. Lat. 1888, a manuscript decorated by Bartolomeo San Vito (ca. 1435–ca. 1518), the most famous
    miniaturist of the time:Vat1888.JPG
  • a Greek statue representing a rhetorician from Smyrna;
  • a book from China’’ (This document, usually referred to as the ‘‘stampato cinese,’’ was identified as a midsixteenth-century leaflet entitled SSEU-MA KOUANG. Tseu tche tong kien tsie yao, or Summary of the Historical Mirror, chapters 6–10);
  • a papyrus from Egypt (perhaps Vat. lat. 3777, images unavailable);
  • an old missal used as evidence before the Council of Trent (one of the most famous manuscripts in the Library, the Sacramentarium Fuldense:
  • a supposedly self-annotated book by Thomas Aquinas (Vat. lat. 3804, images unavailable);
  • the famous ‘‘Antwerp Polyglot Bible’’ or Biblia Regia, printed by Christophe Plantin (ca. 1520–89) in eight volumes between 1569 and 1572, containing the Old Testament in four languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic) and the New Testament in three (Greek, Syriac, and Latin):
  • a gift from Henry VIII of England to Pope Leo X: this is the Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum:
  • the famous Vergilius Romanus (Vat. lat. 3867), the only complete Virgil among the oldest extant manuscripts:
  • a Byzantine manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles given by the Queen of Cyprus to Pope Innocent VIII: (, a magnificent twelfth-century manuscript of
    the Acts of the Apostles and Letters given to Pope Innocent VIII by Charlotte de Lusignan when she came to Rome, as Queen of Cyprus, in the late 1480s):



Augustine and iconographic relativity

London, British Library, Harley MS 4951, f. 123r

St Augustine refuses to get old. If anything, he gets more and more interesting. We live in an age of icons – not religious icons, but images of all kinds. Our age is also one of a widespread reflection of the nature of imagery. We look at images, we use them, but we also read and write about them. It is therefore hard to see what a 4th-century Christian theologian and philosopher can offer to a debate where names such as Saussure, Baudrillard and Eco crowd the field. Nevertheless, Augustine reflected deeply about the place of signs and images (linguistic, textual and visual) and his observations may be seen as foundational for later theories.

Augustine’s theory of signs can’t even be summarized here. Instead, I  wish to dwell for a moment on a short passage from De Trinitate (book 8, chapter 4) where he advances a general theory of iconographic relativity. What I mean by this is the attachment to the idea that there is nothing wrong with an image that doesn’t conform to its specifics in reality (what we might now call its historical referent). In fact, Augustine argues, it is natural for people to conceive differently of the same object, be it one of visual observation or mental contemplation.

Medieval depictions of historical figures and scenes are well known for their anachronism (as we like to put it). Ancient Roman soldiers dressed in the latest Norman fashion are just one example among thousands. Nor are we ignorant as to why this is so. A large number of theories and ideas have been put forward to explain the apparent indifference to accuracy in the process of medieval historical recollection (although we shouldn’t forget that the first category of the historical consciousness, according to Hegel, is expectation, not recollection, forward-thinking, not back-tracking).

It would be an anachronism, however, to expect Augustine to discuss the anachronism. However, he explains that the human mind is naturally attracted to imagining the countenance, look and shape (facies) of people whom it doesn’t have direct contact with. The anthropology of ikonopoesis (image-making) is clear:

For who is there that reads or hears what the Apostle Paul has written, or what has been written of him, that does not imagine to himself the countenance both of the apostle himself, and of all those whose names are there mentioned?

Augustine makes clear that a person’s historical facies was one, so he doesn’t leave it to imagination to recreate everything according to its own disposition. There is order between imagination and reality. If there be fake news, let everyone know it is fake.

For even the countenance of our Lord Himself in the flesh is variously fancied by the diversity of countless imaginations, which yet was one, whatever it was.

And so he makes no illusion about the departures from historical accuracy, which are not bad as long as we hold the other allegorical and anagogical channels open:

what leads us to salvation is not the image which the mind forms for itself to use for thinking (which may perhaps be far different from what he actually looked like), but according to our mental representation, what sorts of thoughts we have about his humankind.

The image may perhaps be far different from what the reality was. Now look at the image of Christ at the top of this blog. The facies of Christ was fancied by the imagination of this late-eleventh century French illustrator. According to Augustine’s theory, there is nothing more natural than this depiction of Christ. The illustrator has certainly imagined the traits, but he is supposed to have done so, for imaging (mental or graphic) is a task is essential in cognition. There is equality between images depicting reality because, ultimately, whether achievable or not, faithfulness is not everything. We are very far from the Renaissance.

The full passage is given below, in Latin and in translation.

Necesse est autem, cum aliqua corporalia lecta vel audita quae non vidimus, credimus, fingat sibi animus aliquid in lineamentis formisque corporum, sicut occurrerit cogitanti, quod aut verum non sit, aut etiam si verum est, quod rarissime potest accidere; non hoc tamen fide ut teneamus quidquam prodest, sed ad aliud aliquid utile, quod per hoc insinuatur. Quis enim legentium vel audientium quae scripsit apostolus Paulus, vel quae de illo scripta sunt, non fingat animo et ipsius Apostoli faciem, et omnium quorum ibi nomina commemorantur? Et cum in tanta hominum multitudine quibus illae Litterae notae sunt, alius aliter lineamenta figuramque illorum corporum cogitet, quis propinquius et similius cogitet, utique incertum est. Neque ibi occupatur fides nostra, qua facie corporis fuerint illi homine; sed tantum quia per Dei gratiam ita vixerunt, et ea gesserunt, quae Scriptura illa testatur. Hoc utile est credere, et non desperandum, et appetendum. Nam et ipsius facies Dominicae carnis, innumerabilium cogitationum diversitate variatur et fingitur, quae tamen una erat, quaecumque erat. Neque in fide nostra quam de Domino Iesu Christo habemus, illud salubre est quod sibi animus fingit, longe fortasse aliter quam res habet, sed illud quod secundum speciem de homine cogitamus; habemus enim quasi regulariter infixam naturae humanae notitiam, secundum quam quidquid tale aspicimus, statim hominem esse cognoscimus, vel hominis formam. (De Trinitate, VIII, 4, 7)

But it must needs be, that, when by reading or hearing of them [of virtues] we believe in any corporeal things which we have not seen, the mind frames for itself something under bodily features and forms, just as it may occur to our thoughts; which either is not true, or even if it be true, which can most rarely happen, yet this is of no benefit to us to believe in by faith, but it is useful for some other purpose, which is intimated by means of it. For who is there that reads or hears what the Apostle Paul has written, or what has been written of him, that does not imagine to himself the countenance both of the apostle himself, and of all those whose names are there mentioned? And whereas, among such a multitude of men to whom these books are known, each imagines in a different way those bodily features and forms, it is assuredly uncertain which it is that imagines them more nearly and more like the reality. Nor, indeed, is our faith busied therein with the bodily countenance of those men; but only that by the grace of God they so lived and so acted as that Scripture witnesses: this it is which it is both useful to believe, and which must not be despaired of, and must be sought. For even the countenance of our Lord Himself in the flesh is variously fancied by the diversity of countless imaginations, which yet was one, whatever it was. But for our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is not the image which the mind forms for itself to use for thinking (which may perhaps be far different from what he actually looked like) that leads us to salvation, but according to our mental representation, what sorts of thoughts we have about his humankind: for we have a notion of human nature implanted in us, as it were by rule, according to which we know forthwith, that whatever such thing we see is a man or the form of a man.