Erasmus, Man of Letters
The Construction of Charisma in Print
By Lisa Jardine
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
'A better portrait of Erasmus will his writings show': Fashioning the Figure
Whose Book? The Quentin Metsys Diptych of Erasmus and Peter Gilles
Early in 1517, Erasmus wrote from Antwerp to Thomas More in London:
Peter Gilles and I are being painted on the same panel, which we intend shortly to send you as a gift. On my return here, however, I found Peter seriously—indeed, dangerously—ill with some indeterminate sickness, from which even now he has not entirely recovered; as far as the portrait was concerned, this was extremely inconvenient. I myself was in excellent health; but somehow the physician took it into his head to tell me to take some pills to purge my bile, and the advice he foolishly gave me I even more foolishly agreed to take. My portrait had already been begun; but after taking the medicine, when I went back to the painter, he said it was not the same face, and so the painting has been put off for several days, until I look more cheerful.
The joint gift was finally dispatched in September 1517, and More wrote letters of thanks to both donors (who had paid equal shares of the cost of the work). To Gilles he sent a verse tribute (verses which he described as 'as clumsy as the painting is masterly'). The first part of this is a six-line epigram, in the persona of the diptych itself, celebrating the ardent friendship between Erasmus and Gilles, as there depicted, and between Erasmus, Gilles, and More, as made vivid by their correspondence. The second, in More's own persona, plays elaborately on the conjunction of portrait-likeness, reproduced handwritings, books and letters, as combining to make the figures recognisable:
I am confident you will recognise those you see represented here, even if you only saw them once in the past. If you do not, the identity of the first will be revealed to you by the letter which he holds; the other, to enlighten you, is writing his own name; and in any case, even were he not doing so, the inscribed books, which are famous, and read worldwide, will be able to enlighten you ...
The letter closes with a further enthusiastic outburst on More's part on Metsys's virtuosity in depicting, as it were, the writing of the writers:
My dear Pieter, marvellously as our Quintin [Metsys] has represented everything, [your portrait] shows above all what a wonderful forger he would have made! He has imitated the address on my letter to you so well that I do not believe I could make a better job if 1 tried to repeat the original inscription myself. And so, unless he wants it for some purpose of his own, or you are keeping it for your own ends, do please let me have the letter back: it will double the effect if it is kept handy alongside the picture. If it has been lost, or if you have a use for it, I will see whether I in my turn can imitate the man who imitates my hand so well.
In spite of the modest disclaimer, this letter and its verses were clearly intended as a public tribute, and were published the following year.
Meanwhile, More wrote privately to Erasmus:
Truly, even though this may be a proud thought, I judge it to be thus. I esteem what you have sent me to mean that you would wish to revive the memory of yourself in my mind, not just daily, but hourly. You know me so well that I need not labour to prove to you that although I am not without many shortcomings, nevertheless, I am far from being a common braggart. Yet to tell the truth, there is one craving for glory I cannot shake off, and I marvel at how sensuously and sweetly it appeals to me. It is when the thought comes to me that I shall be commended to the most distant ages because of the friendship of Erasmus, as testified to by the letters, the books and the pictures, as testified to, indeed, in every way.
A more fanciful, public offering was published in the 1518 Auctarium volume of Erasmus's letters, however, forming a matching pair with the letter to Gilles and its verse tribute:
I am delighted that my little verses on the painting pleased you. Cuthbert Tunstall thought the hendecasyllables more than passable, he was lukewarm about the six-liner. A certain inconsequential monk [fraterculus quidam], however, dared to take exception to my linking the two of you together as Castor and Pollux. He said that you ought rather have been joined as Theseus and Pirithous, or as Pylades and Orestes, who were as you are intimate friends one to the other, not brothers. Since I could not stand the monk, even if he spoke the truth, I replied to his good intention with a bad epigram, as follows:
Wishing to show two friends in little verses to be the greatest of mutual friends, I had said that they were such as Castor and Pollux once were. 'Your comparison of brothers with friends is inept' rejoined a trifling monk [fraterculus]. 'What,' I said, 'Is there any closer kind of friendship than that between brothers?' My interlocutor laughed scornfully at such ignorance of the obvious on my part, and said, 'In our large and crowded monastery there are more than two hundred brothers, but I wager you anything that amongst those two hundred you will not find two brothers who are mutual friends!'
The diptych to which this correspondence refers will be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a volume of Erasmus's selected works or read one of the popular biographies. For the Metsys Erasmus panel alternates with Holbein's portraits to provide the standard likeness of the great scholar, regularly reproduced as book jacket or frontispiece. Together with Albrecht Durer's engraving and Hans Holbein's late portraits, Metsys's painting has been the subject of a whole sequence of art-historical articles and monographs, whose focus is sometimes Erasmus himself, sometimes Thomas More, and sometimes the genre of scholar-portraits itself.
The exchange of letters between intellectual friends 'frames' the diptych, which is itself a tribute to, and token of, that friendship. The letters provide a setting, an occasion, and a collection of harmonising sentiments which give the graphic representations additional meaning. They contrive an atmosphere of vivid excitement; they dramatise a flurry of delighted exchanges which supposedly attended the transportation from Antwerp to London (via Calais) of the double portrait. The letters—prominently and repeatedly reprinted thereafter—concentrate their own and the reader's attention on the lasting significance of the gift 'likeness' which Desiderius Erasmus and Peter Gilles offer Thomas More. Is what is figured on the wood panels with such consummate skill a permanent record of a particularly humane friendship? Or is it rather an enduring monument to Erasmus, 'man of letters'—a figure whose memorable qualities are those of the Master (pedagogus to perpetual student onlookers), the technically superlative translator, editor and circulator in print of the treasures of ancient secular and sacred learning?
I highlight such questions in order to begin to try to revive for us a sense of how thoroughly remarkable it is that the figure of Erasmus should so fully have formed our conception of the European teacher and man of letters. So strongly has Erasmus marked the 'humanities' or the 'liberal arts' that we fail to recognise the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the original figure he shaped in the years around 1520—we miss the virtuoso command of the media he displays as he models graphic and printed representations to his purposes. By 1520, Erasmus was over fifty, and a certain recognisable sort of scholarly 'fame' (academically circumscribed, geographically restricted) was already securely his. He was, that is to say, already a famous intellectual figure in the Low Countries. Yet the self-conscious programme of the gift-portraits, their studied publicising in the accompanying artful letters, suggests that he envisaged some kind of fame on a yet larger scale, with a yet more extensive reach (geographically, and in terms of its duration).
My suggestion is that he aspired to something more like the renown traditionally accorded only to the major ancient authors and teachers of secular and sacred texts—the international acclaim and recognition accorded to a Seneca or a Jerome. We fail to notice the extraordinary presumptuousness of this aspiration on Erasmus's part only, I think, because in the end he was so entirely and consummately successful. The care with which Erasmus composed his version of himself as symbol of enduring success in the domain of 'letters' (or bonae litterae), out of available cultural models of timeless, universal scholarly and spiritual achievement, has shaped our own version almost entirely. It has so permeated our understanding of the effectiveness and impact of learning that for centuries since, academics in the humanities have taken it for granted that our professional practice—the professional practice of reading, commenting, and editing—is a source of, and means of access to, limitless power and influence in a world which values our undertakings. Learning elevates individual thought into universal significance, it knows no national boundaries, it can influence world events, it can shape and make political outcomes.
Erasmus's letter to More is studiedly disingenuous about the art of the portrait painter. Quentin Metsys cannot go on with the portrait of Erasmus which he has already started because Erasmus's voluntary purging has left him looking unwell. The sittings cannot continue until Erasmus is once more 'himself'—once more fits the image of himself which Metsys has begun to fix. This little anecdote (much quoted by Erasmus biographers) makes vivid a particular type of resemblance which is to be Erasmus's gift to More—an exact physical likeness, the likeness of now, a precious treasure to be sent posthaste to the friend who regrets his absence. We may compare this letter and its anecdote with another intimate exchange of letters, similarly charged with affection, more than ten years later, between Erasmus and Margaret Roper, More's eldest, and intellectually gifted, daughter. That exchange is also about a portrait (or rather, a sketch for a portrait), this time Hans Holbein's group portrait of the More family:
I can hardly express to you, Oh Margaret Roper, ornament of your native Britain, the deep pleasure I experienced when the painter Holbein set before me the portrait of your entire family. It has captured your likenesses so well that if I were personally with you I could hardly have seen more clearly. How often do I find myself wishing that just once more before I die I could see that group of friends who are so dear to me, and to whom I owe, in large part, my social standing and my fame. (At least I would rather be indebted to you than to any other living soul.) That wish has in large part been granted by the good office of the expert hand of the artist. I have been able to meet and recognise you all once more, and none better than you. I have even believed that I could discover, through that beautiful exterior, the reflection of your yet more beautiful soul. I congratulate you all on your good fortune, and above all your most dear father.
To which Margaret Roper replied:
We have learned with joy and with infinite gratitude that the arrival of the painter gave you so much pleasure, because he was the bearer of the portrait he had done of my parents and the entire family. Our deepest desire is to see our tutor again one day, and to be able to talk again to him—he whose learned works have taught us everything that we know, he who is also the true and long-standing friend of our father.
In both of Erasmus's letters, intimate friendship is represented as a pleasure taken in a precise physical rendering of the absent friend. The gift he and Gilles offer Thomas More is to be an enduring testimony to the closest of personal commitments; it requires that the representation of the donors be a perfect physical copy of the friends the recipient has known in intimate detail. The sketch of the More family which Holbein brings at Erasmus's request is able, in the meticulous rendering of its originals, to evoke and reawaken the very same deep feelings of affection as their physical presence. And yet, of course, the rhetorical point of such claims is their evident contrivedness—the extent to which the echo of Pliny can be heard behind the extravagant claims for the artist's copy of the real.
In strong contrast, Thomas More's verse response to Gilles focuses not on the bodily but on the textual trace of the friendship—the written instructions in the composition which permit correct identification of the sitters, preserving their memory for posterity:
The Painting Speaks
I represent Erasmus and Gilles as as close friends as once were Castor and Pollux. More, bound to them by as great a love as any man could entertain for his own self, grieves at his physical separation from them. So the measure they took, in response to the yearnings of the absent friend, was that loving letters should make their souls present to him, and I [the painting] their bodies.
There is a deliberate distinction being made here between levels of memorial representation. Affectionate letters transport souls to remote locations, paintings make present bodies. And a play is being made on amans: the letters are 'loving', yet love yearns for bodies; letters vividly yield 'souls', paintings only the shadowy illusion of (inferior) bodies. This is a formulation we will find cropping up repeatedly in the story this study traces—the compelling yet illusory ability of graphic representation to capture the individual; the extraordinary power of writings to convey the mind, the soul of the great man: 'A better portrait of Erasmus will his writings show', as the inscription runs on Metsys's medal representation of Erasmus, and on Diirer's classic engraving.
'Letters' (litterae) convey souls, and provide enduring memorials. Images provoke affection, capture the imagination, and are shadowy and enigmatic. In the same letter from More to Gilles, More maintains that the letter in Gilles's hand identifies the sitter more securely than his physical traits. While the bodily resemblance can be recognised only by those who have seen the sitters (even if only once), the faithfully forged letter lastingly and precisely records the friendship in a form which can be 'read' by everyone, for all time. And to emphasise that graphic representation as the interpretative centre of the painting, More elaborates on the artifices by means of which he will stun admirers with the virtuosity of the technique which ensures its lasting significance (the retrieved letter set alongside the panel, or More's own forgery of the original set alongside the painterly forgery).
And yet, of course, here too the careful contrivedness of the rhetoric hoodwinks us. It is not writing per se which transports minds and ensures recognition of souls. Like the bodies of the sitters, their handwritings and that of their absent friend are recognisable only to those who know them well. Indeed, the inscription on the letter Peter Gilles holds makes this point elegantly:
V[iro] Il[lus]trissimo Petro / Egidio Amico charissimo / Anverpiae [or Anverpiis].
To that most illustrius man, Peter Gilles, dearest friend, of [or at] Antwerp.
This inscription clearly identifies the sitter, in a manner which can be paralleled in other Llemish paintings. The sender of the letter is only 'plain' for someone who can recognise his handwriting (and who, indeed, stands close enough to the panel to make that hand out). To any other viewer it is simply a letter to Gilles, and indeed, in the context of the pair of panels (and this is a point to which I shall return shortly), it is most readily interpreted as a letter from Erasmus—famous conductor of a worldwide epistolary correspondence.
The Gilles panel is indeed laden with visual 'clues' which link him much more securely with Erasmus than with More. Behind him, the titles on the books on the shelves identify him not simply as a man of learning but, more specifically, as an up-to-date reader of Erasmus: Plutarch in Latin, Suetonius, Seneca's Tragedies, Quintus Curtius, the Education of a Christian Prince. One might go further and suggest that the titles identify the sitter as a student reader of Erasmus—the titles are all pedagogic works; the somewhat artificial use of Greek transcription for two of the titles (the Plutarch and the Education of a Christian Prince) comply with an Erasmian programme of pedagogy grounded in both Greek and Latin. The relationship which the panel therefore clearly defines is not one with the sender of the letter he holds (Thomas More), but with the writer of the books which surround him, Desiderius Erasmus. And although Erasmus had just published his two major contributions to contemporary theology (his Novum Instrumentum and his four-volume edition of Saint Jerome's Letters), and is shown at work on his first biblical paraphrase, the books which surround Gilles contribute to a representation of a teacher, rather than a theologian or editor. Here is Erasmus magister, the praeceptor obseruantissimus (most attentive of teachers) of Gilles's most extravagent epistolary salutations. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Erasmus, Man of Letters by Lisa Jardine. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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