Labours of Latin lovers

Bring Out Your Dead
November 8, 2002

Anthony Grafton prefers the "brighter side" of the European Renaissance. He does not spend much time harping on about all those evil "-isms" revisionist historians complain were also aboard that leaky old flagship of western civilisation. Instead, in this, his latest of more than 20 witty and jargon-free books, Grafton enthusiastically examines one of the more worthy - isms - humanism, which enjoyed both innocent cause and generous effect on world culture. Renaissance humanism, however, must not be confused with liberal "humanitarianism" since it really had only to do with the Latin philology that so obsessed European savants from the 14th through the 17th centuries, as they sought ethical guidance in the "dead" languages of classical antiquity.

In Bring Out Your Dead , Grafton traces the evolution of Latin humanism from its archaeological and antiquarian beginnings in Italy, through its emphasis on rhetoric and sometimes pedantic exercise across the Alps (especially in the Germanic lands), and then to its unexpected influence on the rise of enlightened scientific and historical reasoning by the 18th century. Grafton's catchy title is derived, by the way, not from some antique epigram, but from a memorable scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail , that hilarious spoof on the Middle Ages. It is also a self-deprecating pun on the fact that several of Grafton's chapters are resurrections from earlier "dead" publications of his own, which, nonetheless, he breathes back to life in his present argument.

The book is divided into four connected, although not necessarily chronological sections: "Histories and traditions", "Humanism and science", "Communities of learning" and "Profiles". The first and last deal with particular individuals playing key roles in the definition of humanism during the Renaissance itself, such as Leon Battista Alberti, Justus Lipsius, René Descartes, Joseph Scaliger and Giambattista Vico, and a few post-Renaissance scholars, such as Jacob Bernays in the 19th century and Erwin Panofsky of the 20th, who were just as critical in reinterpreting humanism to their contemporaneous generations. The opening essay on "Panofsky, Alberti, and the ancient world" is especially illuminating since it also reveals the author's own early inspirations and evolution as a scholar of humanism. Panofsky, who died in 1968, became Grafton's intellectual idol during graduate school. In one of many well-turned figures of speech, he summarises Panofsky thus: "He seemed to have both the panoramic vision of the parachutist and the microscopic attention to detail of the truffle-hunter." Alberti, who died in 1472 (Grafton has recently published a separate Alberti biography), emerges as the most humane of the early humanists because he pointed out practical ways the antique past could be made useful to the present: "Alberti, in short, committed himself throughout his life to making classical texts, ideas, and forms live in what he recognized quite happily, as a non-classical world."

Throughout his own chapters, Grafton maintains similar Albertian cheerfulness as he labours through the dense philological controversies among Alberti's less cheerful successors; for instance, the idiosyncratic views of Jean Hardouin in the 17th century that the corpus of antique literature, including Virgil's Aeneid , were medieval fakes; or the 18th-century nit-picking discussions about the curious grammar of Petronius's Satyricon , whether evidence of fakery, or disguising a moral lesson, or even parodying the bawdy street-talk of Roman plebs.

Two of Grafton's chapters are reprints of earlier book reviews in which he starts by praising three recently published "postmodern" works on Renaissance art and culture, but ends by twitting the authors regarding the "flamboyant hybrid forms of their new scholarship". In one, a review of a book purporting to expose the "darker side of the Renaissance" - humanist complicity in the "colonisation" of indigenous Indians during the Spanish conquest of Mexico - Grafton wisely cautions: "Early observers of societies - like early students of physics and biology - could not, as they created the humanities we have inherited, avoid committing many errors that now seem obvious. Surely their occasional successes deserve at least as much attention as their frequent failures. Many revisionists do not willingly concede that much to the European devil, and in failing to do so, they reveal the screen of prejudices that separate them, too, from the objects of their study."

For myself, the second and third sections of Grafton's book - "Humanism and science" and "Communities of learning" - are the most interesting. What the author describes here, in often amusing detail, is that remarkable "Republic of Letters", as it was called in its time, an amorphous yet distinctive community of scholars from every nation in western Europe, who took increasing advantage of the new technology of printing and its ability to proliferate ideas quickly among anyone who could read Latin. So convenient was this international communications system that scholars who not only read and wrote in Latin but spoke it fluently viva voce could travel to another country and personally interchange with colleagues about their mutual printed works, even enjoying invitations to dine privately at family tables where the servants likewise understood Latin. Entrepreneurial printers and their inky-fingered typesetters also played key roles in this cross-cultural "Republic of Latin Letters", critically selecting, editing the latest manifestos, selling them in international book fairs and, as early as the 17th century, publishing periodical review journals.

The flip side of this ideal system of intellectual exchange, however, was the arrogant elitism it frequently engendered in its erudite participants, such as 17th-century polymaths Athanasius Kircher and Joseph Scaliger (Grafton calls them the "polyhistors") whose encyclopedic knowledge led them to polemicise patronisingly and sometimes pretentiously about literally everything. Certainly, Kircher and Scaliger were honest if erratic geniuses, but many lesser talents of the time compiled equally long-winded, yet utterly pompous and incomprehensible tomes, adumbrating the opaque babble of some of our present-day "deconstructionists". Indeed, David Lodge, if he reads Grafton's book, might well be prompted to write a comparable Renaissance parody. He need look no further for a 17th-century Morris Zapp than Johann Seger, one-time rector of the University of Wittenberg and imperial poet laureate, who commissioned an engraving, prints of which were intended to be distributed to his colleagues, depicting himself standing before crucified Christ. From Seger's mouth issued the inscribed words, "Lord Jesus, do you love me?" From Jesus's bowed head came the reply, "Yes, most eminent, excellent, and learned Master Seger, imperial poet laureate and worthy rector of Wittenberg, I do love you."

This droll anecdote should not diminish our appreciation of the serious overall contribution of Renaissance humanism to 18th-century advances in empirical scientific reasoning and modern historiographical method, as deduced especially in the brilliant minds of Descartes and Vico. As Grafton summarises: "A standard genealogy of modern thought, one inherited from its 17th-century creators, suggests that the new philosophy that called everything into doubt grew in soil fertilized by the ashes of the humanist traditionI the whole enterprise of trying to find guidances for modern behaviour in classical texts required readers to rip their supposed authorities out of time and context."

Samuel Y. Edgerton is professor of art history, Williams College, Massachusetts, US.

Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation

Author - Anthony Grafton
ISBN - 0 674 00468 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £26.50
Pages - 360

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments