The Theatre of a Renaissance Book (Part 2)

Bongo is in the building!

In Part 1 I marvelled at the extraordinary quantity of verbiage enclosing Bongo’s treatise, even taking the author’s preface as the beginning of what a modern academic would think of as the actual book.  What interests me particularly is the journey to reach this ‘beginning’ and here I am going to reflect on what it contains and why.

The concept of a title page requires no explanation, and since we are in late sixteenth century Bergamo, the imprimatur is logically the thing we need to read before we progress any further.

Then we move into a new phase of the introduction, with the arms of the Madruzzo family taking a whole page.  I see this whole section, which includes the Latin encomia on the author, along with the dedication to the Cardinal, as a single phase of the work.  In theatrical terms, it is the warm-up act.  I am seriously doubtful if the earnest scholar started with the first set of elegiacs and worked onwards, any more than a modern academic actually starts a book with the foreword (I also start fiction at the end, as I don’t like surprises).  My shrewd suspicion is that the most used part of the work comes later with the Index of Biblical citations.  However, for the integrity of the work, the encomia clearly have to be positioned first, and they perform an important and recognisable function – that of peer review.

The whole of the Numerorum Mysteria is a tour de force of display of erudition.  But what guarantee is there of its authenticity or value?  Within the modern academic community we have developed a semi-secret checklist of the reputable – part of graduateness consists of absorbing it.  Has the author a degree or position (preferably both) at a recognised seat of learning?  Is the work published by a reputable University Press?  Was it subject to peer review before publication?  Has it been reviewed in a reputable journal?  Is it cited by the worthy?  There are other finer points, subtleties about bibliography, footnotes, even font, layout and paper quality, which enable the initiated to detect the dreaded populist or coffee table work from a safe distance.  The chaos of social media has disrupted these comfortable certainties – this blog for example – perhaps I am a loon and have just made Pietro Bongo up.

The encomia by authorities of the day are a form of Renaissance peer review.  Their locations are sometimes given, situating the author in a community of Italian scholarship, and the use of Latin verse, the most prestigious and elite form of discourse, elevates the status of authors and readership.  The verse form is also supposed to be aethetically pleasing, bringing an emphasis on the entertainment of the reader sadly lacking in many modern publications.

This Renaissance book is not merely a package of information, it is a major cultural event.  The build-up to the main thesis could be compared to a stage show, where the warm-up band precedes the main act, enhancing the entertainment of the audience but focusing all expectation and respect on the band to come.  A more contemporaneous comparison might be with the conventions of the procession, where the exalted personage – the king, the Host – is preceded and followed by an escort, which may feature musicians or other entertainers.  The banners – the title page, the Medruzzo arms, go before.  The Latin verses represent a procession of sages, accompanied by music, leading the great author into the presence of his readership.

The nesting of the dedication to the Cardinal in the midst of this segment of the procession, follows the same logic.  He has his own preceding and following escort of sages.  By following the ornate prose dedication to the Cardinal with a poem in praise of his own book, Bongo actually manages to place himself at the Cardinal’s side among the sages, as well as being represented by his masterpiece later on – a trick he could not have pulled off in life.  There is good Classical precedent for framing a dedication rather than placing it early or finally in a sequence: I am thinking especially of the Odes of Horace, where the allusion to the patron is often worked into the centre of a poem.

The procession of sages escorting the Cardinal, though mainly in Latin verse, actually ends with an entry in Hebrew.   Now comes an address by the author to the reader.  This looks like a foreword and it introduces the beginning of what you might call the matter of the book, but we are still a very long way from the formal preface.  Up until now, we have had authorities guaranteeing Bongo’s erudition.  Now we move to demonstrations and citations indicated the breadth and relevance of his learning.  More on this in Part 3.

One thought on “The Theatre of a Renaissance Book (Part 2)

  1. I’m very much enjoying your blog. Interesting, thoughtful and with a familiar dose of humour. And if you are a loon and this Bongo is a figment of your imagination, then this is the kind of fake news we need more of.


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