Writ­ten ap­pli­ca­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

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)

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