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ERASMUS AND BIOGRAPHY MARGARET MANN PHILLIPS When making an attempt to COme to some conclusions about the frequent word-portraits Erasmus painted, the first impulse is to apologize for harping on a theme so hackneyed. On further consideration, however, the apologies must take a very different form. The subject involves some of the most fundamental questions about the Renaissance. The danger will be to promise more than one can perform, and formulate queries to which there can be no answer. For the subject really resolves itself into the assessment of character by the men of the Renaissance, how far they were simply renewing the classical conception of personality and how far they took up a new standpoint and ushered in the modern world. Again, whether it is true that biography as we know it was hardly practised during the Middle Ages, and if so, why; and does this distinction operate in favour of the claim made by the humanists that they were bringing back light after darkness - does it justify in fact the idea of a Renaissance? (As the reaction against Burckhardt cleared, it has been possible once more to believe in such an idea.) Again, what is the relationship of painting in words to painting tout court, painting in visual media, and have these word sketches of Erasmus anything to reveal about this much-discussed question? Did he, who wrote so appreCiatively of the art of Diirer, have any conscious intention of approximating to visual art? I cannot promise to answer all these questions, but I offer some material for their solution. I suggest that some light may be thrown on them by examining the word-portraits of Erasmus and particularly the famous ones: I make no claim to new discoveries. Just as Erasmus was in the habit of decorating the margin of his manuscripts with his own face and other caricatures, so thumbnail sketches are a feature of his works: my favourite passing vignette is the character discreetly unnamed, in the household of the Bishop of Bergen, who had a collection of manuscl~pt volumes each beginning with a magnificent title page - Poems, Orations, Epistles etc. - but alas, every succeeding page was blank.' The best-known portraits are the longer ones of Thomas More2 (written in July 1519), of Colet and Vitrier" (1521), of Alexander Stewart4 (Adagia, 1515), and of Archbishop Warham' (several passages of UTQ, Volume XLII, Number 3, Spring 1973. Printed in Canada 186 MARGARET MANN PHILLIPS 1533): and we might add some obituary notices like the lament for Froben' in 1527 and the praise of Rudolph Agricola1 in the first Adagia of all, the Collectanea of 1500. It is a diversified gallery, and the longer passages as we all know are developed enough to be described as biography. If biography is taken in the modem sense, they were a new departure. Here is the first bone of contention. Edmund Gosse wrote an essay' clainring that true biography hardly existed before the seventeenth century . Examining this claim with reference to northern Europe (the problem is slightly different in Italy) I find that a recent writer on Brant6me, Mr Robert D. Cottrell,· points out that the word biographie was not introduced into France until after the Renaissance (the existence of a specific term, of course, indicates not the beginning but the recognition of a genre). He substantiates this by adding that Hauser's six-volume bibliography of historical sources in France does not list biographical works until after 1559, or biographies proper until after 1589. From then onwards differentiation begins to be marked and biography appears as a literary genre. Clearly this suggests a narrow delimitation: biography is not mere life-writing, of which there has been plenty since the world began. It presents a subject in his entirety, it begins with birth and ends with death, and the subject fills the canvas or the stage. It is motivated by psychological curiosity, and strong interest, love or love-hate, and springs from personal knowledge gained by contact during life or from intinrate papers and letters. It is distingUished from encomium, or description embedded in history, or even a narrative of personal adventure. Finally , the more ulterior motives...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 185-201
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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