Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Two Renaissance Europes

Last month, I travelled to Warsaw to see one of Central Europe’s international blockbuster exhibitions of 2012/13 – Europa Jagiellonica 1386-157: Art and Culture in Central Europe under the Jagiellonians. The show grew out of an art historical research project at the University of Leipzig in the early 2000s, and opened in Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic last spring. From there, a convoy of trucks packed with Renaissance art took the exhibition to Warsaw, and in January it will move onto Potsdam in Germany.

The aim of the exhibition is to showcase the depth of artistic talent, and extent of elite artistic patronage of Renaissance forms, in Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first few galleries focus on the Jagiellonian dynasty themselves, who by 1500 ruled Lithuania, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. They are represented through their portraits, pearl necklaces, initials carved in red marble, the vestments of a dynastic cardinal. The second part of the exhibition (in Warsaw, rather confusingly, housed in a completely different venue) is a great treasure chest of gilded gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, monstrances and jewelled reliquaries from Prague, Zagreb, Cracow, Bratislava and Buda. As a curatorial and diplomatic feat, bringing all these objects together is an epic achievement. The lack of any narrative about Jagiellonian Europe and its culture/s does, however, feel like a missed opportunity.

What most struck me about Europa Jagiellonica, however, was just how starkly our histories of Renaissance Europe are still stubbornly split into two – in the English-speaking world, research and teaching focus overwhelmingly on France, Italy, the British Isles, Iberia and the Holy Roman Empire. In Central European museums and textbooks, however, there is a completely different narrative focused on dynasties like the Jagiellonians. I spend a lot of my professional life explaining (and perhaps apologising for) this state of affairs – saying it is due to linguistic barriers; to a traditionally inward-looking focus among Central European historians, and to an anti Central-Europe prejudice among many western historians who assume the region is by definition marginal. But sometimes, when I stand in front of the maps like those in Europa Jagiellonica, which show that the Jagiellonians, who are regularly omitted from English Renaissance textbooks, ruled over a third of continental Europe, c. 30% of today's EU, my patience does rather give way to exasperation. It is over 20 years, a whole generation, since the end of the Cold War. You wonder, for all the talk of European integration since 1945, how long we will have to wait for a joined-up, unified account of Europe’s early modern past. And in the meantime, the Jagiellonians and their lands and peoples linger on the margins of our historic consciousness, alien, exotic and fairy-tale like, less like the flesh-and-blood Tudors than like royalty from a medieval fantasy epic, such as Game of Thrones.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Can You Feast on Books?

Food magnets in Little Italy, New York.
Photo by su-lin

There was a photo from this year’s Hay-on-Wye literary festival, which showed a banner strung across the street saying ‘Kindle free zone’. I know that some 15C observers had anxieties about the arrival of the printed book (the fate of scribes and scriptoria, the perceived non-durability of printed pages), but I wonder if the products of the early printing industry were ever actively boycotted, on ideological grounds, by manuscript lovers in quite the same way that e-readers are now.

All this talk about the printed ink-and-paper book as seriously endangered has made me increasingly sensitive to the sensory experience of dealing with ‘real’ (‘traditional’?) books. This week, I received a number of publishers’ catalogues in the post and it was like ripping open envelopes to look at catalogues of toys – they have evocative and idiosyncratic historical pictures on their covers (an early modern fleet in a mountainous harbour, a golden city). Inside, dozens and dozens of goodies are set out, colourful miniature book covers, hundreds of little windows on the past. The experience of browsing a catalogue, or the contents page of a book you’ve long wanted to read, reminds me of perusing a restaurant menu – the extent of choice and possibility is exciting, there is lots of anticipation, and you half-scan for things you already know you like (pineapple, sesame seeds… early modern zoology, woodcuts, Jagiellonians). With books, there is the certainty that you can’t order, read or remember everything; that you can only select prize pickings from this cornucopia of knowledge. I recently decided to bring myself up to date with the most recent Reformation historiography by ordering a big box of books from Amazon. Opening them was like breaking open a hamper of gourmet goodies, but the real enjoyment came from then spreading them out, like a mosaic, on the coffee table in my Somerville room, from the way the light catches on their glossy covers, and the heady smell of fresh ink.

In a new book, Stephen Poole claims that we fetishise food too much; perhaps we are guilty of the same with printed books. But if they do end up going the way of medieval illuminated manuscripts, becoming a tiny luxury market for the moneyed connoisseur, we may as well enjoy the colours, smells and comforting feel of shiny paper under our fingers while we still can.