Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.16

Anthony Grafton, Commerce with the Classics.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1997.  Pp. 237.  ISBN 0-472-10626.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by N. G. Wilson , Lincoln College, Oxford
Word count: 1477 words

This book consists essentially of four case studies, three of them discussing figures with whom the average classical scholar, even if he or she has some interest in the history of the subject, is not likely to be familiar, despite their acknowledged fame and importance. The preliminary chapter and three of the four that follow bear some relation to papers previously published, but all have been revised or enlarged in important respects. Grafton brings to his task the broad range of learning that we have come to expect from him; the intellectual response of eminent personalities of the Renaissance to the ancient world is rarely if ever depicted with such a wide command of the sources. The adjective "eminent" should be emphasised as G. rightly does on p. 7; he is not dealing with run-of-the-mill humanists, even if they too have a claim on our attention if we are to catch the spirit of an age. G. is determined to catch them at work in the study, seeing how the hours they spent reading led to what they wrote. His aim is not to revise accepted opinions so much as to focus more intently on the means by which results had to be achieved, often by scholars for whom the necessary books were not easily or immediately accessible. G.'s chapters averaging forty pages give ample room to draw a picture in which both broad perspectives and details can receive their due.

The introduction opens with an analogy from China, where Matteo Ricci wrote a book exploiting both the western and the Confucian heritage. This is a striking incipit, and I have to admit a mild feeling of regret that on the opening page G.'s clarity of expression fails him slightly in the first paragraph; the example might in any case be thought more an ornamental digression than an organic element in the exposition; the comparative study of what aspects of western tradition missionaries and conquerors tried to impose on other cultures is not the story that G. is trying to tell in this book. Some details: on p. 15 the sentence ending with n. 17 was not clear to me; p. 16 n. 16: I doubt if Ptolemy Philadelphus had such ambitious projects for translation as G. seems to attribute to him, and the notion seems to be withdrawn on p. 25; p. 16 line 5 ab imo for "country" read "city"; p. 21 n. 36: the Latin is odd.

The first chapter is designed to make the reader understand what it was like to engage in scholarship or literary pursuits in the middle of the fifteenth century. The starting point is Valla's autograph note appended to a MS. of his version of Thucydides intended to be the official copy. G. analyses Valla's intentions in translating a historical text, which he equipped with a few notes, emphasising the rhetorical element in the ancient author. Then we are taken into a Renaissance library; that of the Este in Ferrara is the chosen example, with some help from Decembrio's De politia literarum. Other grand libraries of that epoch were conceived on the model of their ancient counterparts, notably that of Alexandria, rightly characterised by G. as a mysterious institution. In fact the library of the Museum, as G. could have pointed out, is surprisingly little represented in artistic visions of the ancient world, and classical sources speak of it so rarely that its history remains largely unknown. G. then describes what Renaissance books looked like and shows us scenes of literary life at more than one Italian court. A detail on p. 24: I doubt if anyone in the fifteenth century had realised that the ancients did not normally sit at desks to read.

The first of the four detailed studies is devoted to Alberti, a man of exceptionally diverse interests, not a typical humanist. His excursion into hagiography shows careful thought about the reliability of his sources. His encounters with Lucian's Encomium of a fly and Ptolemy's Geography are described. Noteworthy is the fact that he appreciated the significance of the new invention of printing (p. 66). But given his manifold talents it is hardly possible to summarise briefly the contents of this chapter. A few points may be singled out. On pp. 71-2 G. suggests dating the De re aedificatoria a trifle later than is usual because of its use of some Greek sources that became available in the 1450s. The polemical stance in relation to Vitruvius is brought out well. G. does not see that the use of Seneca rightly adduced on p. 76 would almost certainly account also for the anti-Ciceronian position mentioned on pp. 73-4. G. touches on the debate between the Ancients and Moderns, and one might have wished him to say more about this. He does not repeat in this chapter a suggestion recently made in his foreword to the reprint of G. Boas, The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo (Princeton 1993), p. xvi, that Alberti was probably induced by a reading of Horapollo to analyse hieroglyphics as a universal symbolic language. The idea was worth pursuing, partly to establish whether this could have been in some sense an anticipation of the concept of a "real character" as developed in the seventeenth century, partly to emphasise how a text which modern classicists are for the most part unacquainted with could act as an important stimulus in another intellectual context. Horapollo is mentioned by G. in passing in the chapter on Pico (p. 104).

The chapter on Pico describes him as an omnivorous reader. True by any ordinary standard; but should one, despite the facts noted at the end of this paragraph, register an exception for classical poetry? The reader would have gained both here and in other chapters if G. had made clear the extent of his subjects' reading of Greek poetry: how many humanists were able to read Greek tragedy and comedy in the original, and did the others avail themselves of versions in Latin or the vernacular? An amusing detail tangential to the main theme is the spectacle of Pico being taught an invented oriental language by Flavius Mithridates. One may also smile on seeing how Pico wavered in his view of the importance of literary style (pp. 109-11). But the main feature of this chapter is the attack on astrology. G. does not make the point that Pico's polemic might well have been improved had he been able to consult Photius' Bibliotheca in which codex 223 reports in great detail the demolition by Diodorus of Tarsus (that text remained unpublished until 1600, largely because the two best manuscripts were in cardinal Bessarion's collection in the Marciana Library and, contrary to the donor's wishes, inaccessible). Pico made good use of Aristotle, Metaphysics X, and it is fascinating to find him citing Callimachus when dealing with a question of allegory. Hesiod also appears (p. 120) in an account of propitious and other days; Pico reacted differently from Politian to this text.

The next chapter is more limited in scope. It deals with Budé's response to Homer, which is to be recovered mainly from his autograph notes in a copy of the editio princeps now in the Princeton University Library; six plates illustrate this. Here a lawyer with humanistic interests from northern Europe confronts the greatest Greek poet. Some additional insight into his approach to Homer comes from some autograph notebooks now preserved in a private library in Geneva; a few remarks in these go further than the notes entered in the margins of his printed text. Budé made much use of the Pseudo-Plutarch Vita as well as scholia, and shows a liking for allegorical interpretation. But there is nothing very remarkable about his reaction to Homer, and the only point of real note in this chapter to my way of thinking is that Budé seems by some mysterious means to have been able to obtain indirect access to a small amount of the material offered by the scholia of the famous Venice Ms.

Last comes Kepler, not a figure who appears often in accounts of the classical tradition, but that is our fault as products of the unduly specialised modern world. He was in fact much interested in areas of traditional scholarship. Nevertheless this chapter is hard going for the average reader who is not well versed in the history of science, and it seems less well organised than the others What I found most appealing in it was the discussion of Kepler's handling of Plutarch's De facie in orbe lunae. As G. says, Kepler may have been the last great physical scientist to emend a classical literary text.

A short epilogue and some suggestions for further reading complete the volume, which one hopes to see issued in paperback, so that it may circulate widely among students of both classics and history.

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