FELLOW visitors to galleries can be annoying in so many ways. Some people feel compelled to announce in a firm and even emphatic way to their companions that they like a particular picture: not that it is interesting or striking or beautiful, but that they like it, a tacit demand for agreement. It’s even worse when they declare that they like it for some reason that is completely inappropriate or just wrong. I overheard a woman assuring her friend in the NGA Renaissance exhibition that she loved one portrait because its background was abstract when it was simply unfinished.
The remarkable exhibition of manuscripts from the Berlin Library offers some very specific opportunities for visitors to irritate each other, since by its very nature the show demands the viewer’s undistracted attention. The most obvious is when someone tries to read the texts aloud to their companion, although the annoyance in this case is in inverse proportion to the erudition of the reader. Much worse are those who earnestly inform their friends of the information they have just learnt from glancing at the explanatory label. Worst of all is making loud and irrelevant observations about the period, the author or the handwriting.
It is worth taking these annoyances in one’s stride, though, because the exhibition is full of treasures, from medieval illuminations to modern autographs, with a whole section devoted to musical manuscripts, in which those with a greater knowledge of music than I possess can ponder the relation between the musical sensibility of a composer and the hand — rapid and summary or minutely precise — in which he notates his musical creations.
The main body of the manuscripts exhibited here comes from the collection assembled by Ludwig Darmstedter (1846-1927), a chemist and historian of science who made a considerable fortune by inventing the process for extracting lanolin from wool. This allowed him to pursue his passion for manuscripts, including literary ones, but with a particular interest in documents relating to the history of science. Darmstedter eventually acquired more than 190,000 manuscripts, which he gave to the Berlin Staatsbibliothek in 1907.
From this vast collection, a selection has been made and complemented with additional works, especially in the earliest period of manuscripts and incunabula. There are 100 items altogether in the exhibition, a considerable number when you consider the time needed to absorb any one of them properly. For this reason it is especially useful that the manuscripts are reproduced in a comprehensive catalogue with full entries dealing with the individual and the circumstances of the piece of writing; some pieces, especially in foreign languages, need to be examined at leisure, perhaps with a magnifying glass and dictionary.
The earliest works in the exhibition are medieval manuscripts, but the oldest item is not, as one might expect, a religious text. It is a precious Carolingian parchment of the Aeneid — a passage from Book IV in which Dido reproaches the departing Aeneas and he replies rather coldly that his destiny is elsewhere, and that their lovemaking did not amount to the marriage she took it for — written in an early form of the simplified hand called Carolingian minuscule.
More than 11 centuries old and still in excellent condition, this sheet reminds us how durable written documents can be, while also vulnerable to fire, flood and other vicissitudes. Parchment, made from sheep or goat skins, is tougher than the papyrus used earlier in antiquity, particularly more resistant to damp conditions. Early paper was also very stable, unlike the acidic papers of the industrial age, which become brittle and discoloured with age. Even today in the age of digital records, we are confronted with the disquieting thought that our files are vulnerable to electromagnetic accidents.
The next group of manuscripts is from the 13th century, leaving behind the barbarian invasions and the struggle for survival that followed the age of Charlemagne, at the height of medieval civilisation in the gothic period. A little later is the first page of the Purgatorio, from a couple of decades after Dante’s death. The historiated initial P contains a picture of the poet with an incongruously bearded Virgil as his guide, looking out at a sailing boat — a literal illustration of the opening metaphor, per correr miglior acqua alza le vele / omai la navicella del mio ingegno: ‘‘ to run on better waters the ship of my mind raises now its sails’’.
There are bibles, books of hours, the Codex of Justinian and countless other fascinating things in this early section, including a tabulation of hand signs for counting devised by the Venerable Bede (in which, oddly enough, the number one is signified by the upheld palm with only the little finger bent). There is also a diagram of the human figure overlaid with the 12 signs of the zodiac, a common enough image in medieval and Renaissance books, and of fundamental importance to contemporary ideas of medicine, for the stars were held to exert decisive influences over specific parts of the body; this theory was accepted even by the Church, which only condemned the use of astrology for the purposes of divination.
In the next section we enter the different world of the Renaissance, which evolves again as it passes into the 17th century and the heroic age of the Scientific Revolution. From the beginning, though, we find ourselves in a more personal and intellectually critical world than that of the medieval mind, which tended to be collective, traditional and accretive in its approach to knowledge.
Almost suddenly, it seems — although in reality the transition was more complex — we find ourselves reading individual voices, addressing other individuals; indeed the first document is a letter of apology from Marsilio Ficino to his patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent. We enter here into a world of ideas and personal relationships, of connections and networks of intellectuals that becomes all the
Latin Book of Hours belonging to Nicolas von Firmian, Tyrolean nobleman (died 1510)
Michelangelo receipt to Lionardo de Bartolini (June 5, 1519)