Author Archives: cristian

Dantedì

Dante and Virgil walking past the point of no return into Hell. One can’t return from Hell just as one can’t unsee and unhear something seen and heard. The way goes on, hopefully upwards and out, but never back. London, British Library, Egerton MS 943

Yesterday, the Italian government instituted the Dante National Day. From this year on, 25 March will be known as Dantedì – Dante Day – the putative day in 1300 when the Florentine poet started his downward pilgrimage into Hell.

Dantedì is probably meant to be more than a commemorative day in the calendar. The word itself suggests that its claim to public and national relevance goes straight to the heart of the Italian week. After Monday (lunedì), Tuesday (martedì), etc, to Friday (venerdì) – Dantedì proceeds to the conquest of Italian time. This is not at all inappropriate, as Time is a central feature in the construction of the Divine Comedy – the oppression thereof in Inferno, and its thinness in Paradiso.

Dantedì is Dante’s Day, but it is also a celebration of the human mind’s last historical attempt to seize upon the totality of available knowledge in one tour-de-force and one man’s desire to rise above, go beyond and describe what cannot be put into words.

Dantedì deserves a place in all calendars, not just the Italian, and a platform whence one may again one day scrutinize the heavens in search of truth and beauty.

Opening new worlds

A stab at the Greek alphabet from the quill of a Latin 12th-century scribe, British Library Arundel 173

Unlike learning to ride a bike, learning to write is vehicle-specific.

Learning to write is learning to write a particular language in a particular script.

If you’ve only learned to write English in the Latin alphabet, you won’t know how to write Arabic, Korean, Sanskrit or, closer to ‘home’, Greek.

Learning a new script is like learning to write all over again – the pen feels unsafe, the signs don’t make much sense, it’s all about imitation, and the learning curve is usually less steep. Many give up, while the rest go on bleeding.

A language is more than a tool enabling us to exchange information with others – it is a gateway into new universes of being, familiar and strange at the same time. The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Language and script, universe and territory.

It is reasonable to expect great difficulties in learning new languages and new scripts. New worlds are seized through strife and industry. Ad astra per aspera.

The Western medieval scribes were masters of Latin writing, plowing on with pen and parchment for days, weeks and months, blackening the whiteboards of culture. Yet, when they had to write Greek or Arabic – the two most common scripts outside Latin Christendom, they generally failed. Those worlds were closed to them as much as their failure to master the Greek and Arabic scripts.

The limits of their world were the limits of their script.

Conservative tech

The most radical ideas are still being recorded and disseminated using one of the most conservative technologies ever developed: handwriting.

Nor does it appear that script, the alphabet or our reading practices are going to change much in the next century.

Errors

Many words are yet to be coined. One of them is ‘errorology’.

Errorology is the study of errors. Not any errors, but errors of transmission. I’m obviously thinking of texts. Texts are transmitted either humanly, or mechanically. Texts in manuscripts are subject to human reproduction. Printed texts are transmitted mechanically.

The errors between printed copies tend towards zero. The errors between handwritten copies tend towards one. Printing reduces difference, manuscripts multiply it.

A transcription error in a handwritten text is as significant a gain to the history of that text as is the genetic relic in an evolved species to the study of that species.

Errorologists, whose profession hasn’t seen the light of day yet (but which comes close to that of the philologists’), have an eye for difference, since errors are simply departures from a perceived canon. ‘Correct’ texts are often the result of identified and expunged errors, whose presence helps reconstruct the right text, which is most often absent.

Errorologists realise that errors are all there is, as presence leads to absence and traces, fading away as tracks in the snow, provide only a distant echo of another story.

Errors are purely human, and there is nothing diabolical about persevering in them, only the age-old scribal practice of cultures who had to find ways to move on while leaving tracks in the snow.

Culture is a flow of scribal errors in the reproduction of a text which was never finished to be reproduced.

Defying death

Like a music album released after the death of the singer, a book carries the pulsations of life beyond life. If only for a line read posthumously, death is made nothing – scripted life has conquered. The words may have flown into nothingness, but the letters are still here, within reach, to be grasped and eaten alive.

Oral traditions are beautiful, but they are fragile as they depend on human carriers. Books are also fragile and in need of custodians.

Make no mistake, all record is fragile, no matter how materially solid. If all the world’s books were inscribed on slates of granite, their survival would still be precarious as the skill and knowledge required to read them cannot be preserved in stone. You may copy a book about cuneiform script unto an indestructible rock, the ability to read it in order to decipher the script will always be at risk of extinction.

Hence the paradox: a book may defy the death of the word, but the live word is the guarantee of that defiance.

Bibliophilia

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An illustrated copy of the Notitia Dignitatum, a document detailing the administrative organisation of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in the early 5th century AD. This manuscript was commissioned by Pietro Donato in 1436.

There are many book lovers, but few bibliophiles. Bibliophilia means of course love for/of books, but it is not enough to love books to be a bibliophile.

While social media buzzes with declarations of love for reading and for books, true bibliophilia is only rarely achieved. At least the kind of bibliophilia which makes all famous bibliophiles belong to the same family.

A bibliophile loves books and loves reading, but also collects books, writes about them, and promotes the life and ecosystem of books. The Venetian humanist Pietro Donato (1380-1447) was a bibliophile who commissioned manuscripts, collected all he could find, furthered the cause of book learning, and engaged with the literate community on the subject of important texts and the volumes which contained them.

Richard de Bury, whom you will have an opportunity to hear more about on this blog (see about this blog page), lived a generation before Pietro Donato and expressed his bibliophilia in a famous book called Philobiblon (written about 1345). Even more remarkably than Donato, De Bury espoused the cause of books at a time when Europe was waking up to the importance of literacy, learning and education. Some of the chapters of the Philobiblon have an early-modern, even modern ring to them: ‘The Complaint of Books against Wars’, ‘Who Ought to be Special Lovers of Books’, or ‘That it is Meritorious to Write New Books and to Renew the Old’.

Ductus

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Nothing is really random. The decorative design of this initial letter B follows a careful ‘ductus’. Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 6

There is either leading or being led. Changing or being changed. Action or passion. And of course the manner of leading or being led – ductus, from ducere (to lead).

In palaeography– the study of ancient writing –, ductus is described as ‘the overall, general “nature” of the production of a given script, defined in terms of the “number, sequence, and direction of the strokes used in forming each letter of the script’s alphabet’.

In art history, ductus is also sometimes referred to as the manner of structuring a ‘readable’ space, most often a sacred space, where symbolism, metaphor and embodied space converge to create a space of interpretation. Medieval churches were structured in such a way so that the hermeneutic ductus would be easy for the visitor, meaning that anyone entering the church and the following a pre-established track would be confronted with a narrative inscribed in the architectural space itself (nave, transept, column capitals, paintings, objects, etc).

The story you want to tell will qualify your ductus. The way you write will shape the ductus you follow. To communicate is to structure the space in between and to create the channel in which your ductus will pass through.