Digital Editions at the Taylorian : the making of a mazarinade

As a participant in Emma Huber’s[1] inaugural Digital Editions course, I created a digital edition and accompanying transcription of a primary text held by the Taylor Institution Library. I chose to digitize, transcribe and encode a ‘mazarinade,’ dating from 1649 (title-page featured above). This piece belongs to the Taylorian’s vast collection of ‘mazarinades,’ or political pamphlets consisting of ‘short satirical or burlesque texts, in verse or prose, about Cardinal Mazarin, written at the time of the Fronde (1648-1653), a time of uprising and revolt in France while King Louis XIV was still a minor.’ The mazarinades satirize Cardinal Mazarin, who succeeded Richelieu as Minister of State and were the propagandist arm of the political revolution against the French Crown. The reasoning behind my choice of material was grounded in the pamphlet’s convenience for digitization, or ‘digitizability’: it is quarto-sized which means it is easy to photograph, legibly printed, which made it accessible to transcribe, and relatively short, making it a convenient choice for a contained project and first attempt at creating a digital edition. Furthermore, the Taylor Institution Library holds a large number of mazarinades that are not individually catalogued. I hope that the digital edition of the ‘Covrier de la Covr’ is a small contribution to the ongoing project to digitize them to raise awareness of their existence, improve access and, subsequently, promote their incorporation into research on early modern French history, literature and culture.

As a graduate student in early modern French literature, I was equally as curious about the medium of the pamphlet as I was about creating a digital edition; the mazarinades are explicitly polemical products, designed to undermine the Crown’s authority but simultaneously written in verse and therefore perhaps also blurring the line between art and politics. On a theoretical level, I was intrigued by the parallelism between the pamphlet and the digital edition, both being media designed for mass dissemination. By imitating the process of textual editing implicit in the mazarinade’s original creation in the re-production of the pamphlet as a digital artefact, I was made aware of the intricacies undergirding such production in the first place.

This mazarinade is written in rhyming couplets, the playful, sing-song nature of which lends itself well to ridiculing the Cardinal and the Queen. It tells the story of the French court under attack by Spanish forces. The courier who arrives tells the Queen that the only way to save the country is to get rid of the insolent ‘ministre de France,’ who flees the country by the end of the poem. When Mazarin informs the king of his decision, the latter promptly ‘se prit a rire/Disant c’est que ie desire. [began to laugh/saying “that’s what I desire.”]’ further undermining Mazarin’s authority.  What follows in the rest of this blog post is devoted to the process of creating this digital edition for those who want to learn more, but if you’re curious about the text itself, check it out here!

In the creation of this digital edition, editorial decisions began with the act of digitization itself. Under the guidance of Emma Huber, I learned about the various processes behind the creation of a digital edition, a process starting with digitization. In this case, the analog paper pamphlet was turned into a digital document by capturing its image. We used the Library’s camera to photograph each page of the mazarinade, which could be easily saved and transferred to our computers. Already at this stage, the bias of the editor/digitizer crept in, for I initially had not photographed the blank back-side of the pamphlet’s cover page. It contained no information I thought was valuable. And yet, this editorial decision resulted in an incomplete, bastardized version of the pamphlet that, though it was a digital facsimile, was already different from the original. Lots of factors went into the taking of these images such as the care of the book, making sure not to overextend the edges, using lead snakes to hold the pages down, natural lighting and using the maximum resolution possible on the camera.

Once we had all the images, we needed to ‘compress’ the images so that they could be easily represented as thumbnails on the digital editions website; Emma walked us through the various available formats and their purposes. We learned to use the TIFF format for our master images as it is the large preservation format. PNG files compress the file, but don’t lose any data in the process—which is why it can be called ‘lossless’ compression. The reason for not using a .jpeg file is because it creates a small file but loses data every time the file is saved (lossy compression). After converting the images to TIFF files then we cropped them to a standard format that makes the image easily viewable. Emma emphasized the importance of always retaining the original image and saving any changes made as a separate file. The importance of this is to ensure that no data is lost, since with every new save and/or change you lose information about the original image. She also emphasized the importance of providing metadata about the images such as which camera was used, the resolution, date of the picture, the shelfmark of the document captured, the holding library and then a description of the content of the image. This metadata should always be in open format that is available to anyone. And the description should use a controlled vocabulary in order to describe the content of the image so that it is more easily searchable for interested viewers.

It should be noted here that using a camera for the creation of digital text is useful when wanting to display that text alongside a transcription, but since cameras are unable to perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR), these digital documents alone are often insufficient for researchers, as they are not searchable or in a format that can be manipulated into other formats. As such, transcription was an essential component of this project; I chose to create a semi-diplomatic transcription, which attempts to preserve as much of the original textual presentation as possible, except where making small orthographic changes greatly enhances the readability for a modern audience. In my edition, all original spelling has been maintained, including the interchangeable use of u and v and other spelling variations. All accents and original punctuation have been reproduced, although editorial choices about spacing were made; where I felt the original lack of spacing between words would have made the document less readable or unclear, I used modern spacing practices. On line 210, there appears to be a printer error: it reads “lny” instead of “luy” however I maintained the mistake as such and signalled it in my editorial note.

Our transcriptions were created in the oXygen text editing software application, which creates ‘plain text’ that conforms easily to the XML markup language and thus also lends itself more easily to the process of ‘encoding.’ During this process, we also learned about the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) which has set out the rules for various elements used by XML to encode a transcribed text. These various codes and tags not only delineate the format elements, such as the title, body, quote, but also where verse appears and where editorial choices have been made. By doing this ‘structural encoding,’ it makes it possible for the encoded text to serve as the base for a variety of ‘transformations,’ in which the XML document is transformed into HTML (webpages), a PDF, EPUB (e-publication), DOCx or ODT (open data document). For me, the most important implication of having an xml-encoded text is that it opens up the possibilities of where you can take the scholarship from there. Although I did not extend the project this term, I would have been able to extract much data from a set of mazarinades. Hopefully when the corpus of digital mazarinades grows, scholars will be able to query the data sets using methods such as content analysis, social network analysis and corpus linguistics in order to expand the research being done on these texts. By turning qualitative observations into quantitative data, it might be possible to reach more audiences with more information. For example, now that I have the XML version, I could create a visualization that tracks the number of times the Queen regent is mentioned in the mazarinades, compared with how many times Cardinal Mazarin occurs, and compared with how often their names are mentioned in conjunction. I would have to ‘code’ the occurrences of each of these incidents, but once I have the quantitative data, I could use data visualization tools to present this information clearly and succinctly on a visual graphic.

While this seems to be a bit superfluous and redundant for a short pamphlet that can easily be studied by a literary scholar, the potential for data visualizations is particularly useful to researchers looking at massive corpora of texts, because it allows them to look at the information from a distance in a way that might lead to new research questions. And secondly, this merging of quantitative methods and qualitative data in sources such as literary texts, makes the research more easily accessible to a lay audience. Rather than needing to possess the skills of an Oxford graduate student, information can be communicated effectively in a matter of minutes with a good visualization and a thorough legend for the graphic. Therefore, the creation of digital editions is significant not only because they break open access to documents by making texts freely available online, but because the creation of ‘metadata’ about the texts and the quantification of humanities-based observations gives rise to different kinds of research methodologies that ask different kinds of questions; not only does this give the humanities researcher more breadth to contextualize and deepen her own research, it also provides the space for interdisciplinary collaboration on textual or historical artefacts that become the point of convergence for researchers from fields ranging from comparative literature to anthropology to computer science. Such collaboration inevitably results in, or has the capacity to result in, a deeper understanding not only of historical narratives and literary methods, but also of the socio-political structures governing access to information and its distribution in the modern day.

For me personally, the digitization of this mazarinade allowed me to connect to the text and the conditions of its original production that would not have been apparent had I been studying it online as an already digitized document. Going through the entire process of creating the digital document, its text and its context, as well as publishing it online for a variety of audiences brought to mind questions about the various layers of decision-making behind the creation of a text by a multitude of actors, from the author to the editor to the printer and the distributor. Although these questions would arise with any digital edition, the choice of the mazarinade aligned well with this one, especially when thinking about the polemical and ethical dimensions of mass textual dissemination. It is my hope that this blog post will serve as a small means of contextualizing the creation of this digital edition and prompt readers—researchers, teachers, students, historians, librarians, mazarinade enthusiasts alike—to think about how we acquire, process, and package information in the modern age and whether or not universities and libraries, as major guardians of this information, have an ethical responsibility to disseminate it so that texts, like the mazarinades, that were intended for a public readership, can reach one in the modern day.

[1] Emma Huber is the German subject librarian at the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford.


Eileen Jakeway, MSt French and German

Michael Angelo Taylor and the Taylor Institution: Legacies, Politics, Modern Languages

When the noted architect Sir Robert Taylor died on 27 September 1788, he left behind a codicil to his will which stipulated that, after specific allocations had gone to his wife and others, the residue of his considerable fortune (which at his death stood at some £180,000), be left in the first instance to his son and, in the event of his dying without issue, to the University of Oxford.[1] This bequest, the codicil stated, was to be used for buying freehold land in Oxford and constructing upon it an institution ‘for the teaching and improving the European languages’.

Fig. 1: Foundation stone, Taylor Institution (Photo: Thomas Roberts)

These words, engraved in stone, dominate the grand staircase which leads to the Main Reading Room of the Taylor Institution Library, the establishment ultimately founded as a result of Sir Robert’s generous donation. The phrase, therefore, is likely to have penetrated the consciousness of frequent visitors to the Taylorian. Readers are much less likely, however, to have heard of Sir Robert’s son, Michael Angelo Taylor. Little do they know that, had his position, following his father’s death, prevailed the Taylor Institution and its library might never have been realised – at least, not in the form that it exists today.

Fig. 2: Portrait of Michael Angelo Taylor by S. W. Reynolds. Published by and after J. Lonsdale. 1822 © National Portrait Gallery (NPG D15054). CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Born in 1757, Michael Angelo Taylor was the only child of Sir Robert Taylor and his wife, Lady Taylor. After spending time at Westminster School, he received legal training at the Inner Temple and at Lincoln’s Inn, and in late 1774 he was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Seemingly headed for a career in the law, he was called to the bar three weeks later. He completed his BA in 1778, and subsequently received his MA from St John’s College, leaving in 1781. By then, it seems, his interest in the legal profession had waned, and he had cultivated an ambition to make his way in politics. In 1784 he became MP for Poole, embarking on what would be a long, noteworthy, and quite successful career in Parliament.[2]

His life after leaving Oxford, however, was not to be without difficulty or controversy. Significantly, after Sir Robert died in 1788, Michael Angelo set himself on a collision course with the institution at which he had studied. Apparently not content with the £50,000 that his father had left to him specifically, he chose to contest the will, as well as the codicil to it which set out the bequest to the University. Thus, the University found itself embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle which was to rumble on until after Michael Angelo himself died in 1834. Papers deposited with the University Archives tell the story.

Despite the University’s vigorous assertion of the ‘force and validity’[3] of the crucial codicil, whilst Michael Angelo remained alive no settlement was reached between the two parties regarding Sir Robert’s bequest. Initially, a judge in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury pronounced against the validity of the codicil establishing Sir Robert’s intention to leave part of his fortune to the University. This was largely, it seems, due to the fact that Sir Robert had never actually attached his signature to the codicil.[4] (It appears that a considerable portion of the University’s case centred around attempting to prove that Sir Robert had intended to do so, and was prevented only by the failures of his solicitors.[5]) Although the High Court of Delegates reversed this decision following an appeal by the University, letters of administration with the will and codicil annexed were granted to Michael Angelo in 1795.[6] Michael Angelo thus ‘possessed himself of all the real and personal estate of his father’ and ‘intermixed’ it with his own monies and property.[7] In 1817 he offered to settle the University’s claim on his father’s estate for £50,000 Irish currency (the majority of the estate was in property in Ireland), but the University seems to have declined this proposal.[8]

Fig. 3: Extract from a University document headed ‘2nd Session of Michaelmas Term, to wit, Friday the 14th day of November 1788’. The author writes: ‘the party proponent prays […] that the Right Worshipful the Judge of this court would pronounce for the force and validity of the aforesaid papers’. One of the papers in question was the codicil establishing the bequest to the University. University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/2b

The fact that Michael Angelo could draw upon the entirety of his father’s estate granted him a considerable degree of financial security, and no doubt allowed him to focus his energies more completely on his political career – a career which was to gain him much public notoriety. Having begun his time in Parliament as a follower of Pitt, he later allied himself with the radical Whig Charles Fox and favoured parliamentary reform. Over time he repeatedly found himself the subject of controversy, and became one of the preferred subjects of the satirical printmakers of the day, the most notable of whom being James Gillray.[9] Often referred to as the ‘chicken of the law’ (a title he had inadvertently bestowed upon himself when, during a debate in February 1785, he described himself as ‘but a chicken’ in his profession,[10]) he was frequently depicted as a diminutive figure with treacherous tendencies. One print published in May 1797 (Fig. 3) – a satire on the decision of Charles Fox and several of his followers among the opposition Whigs (of whom Michael Angelo was one) to secede from Parliament in 1797 after calling for reform – provides a colourful example. Here he appears in the form of a small rat – one of several seen scampering from the Opposition benches and out through the doors of the House of Commons.

Fig. 4: James Gillray, Parliamentary-reform,-or-opposition-rats, leaving the house they had undermined. 1797 © Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In another print, published later that year (Fig. 4), he appears in a procession of ‘truants’ (that is, opposition Whigs who had seceded from the Commons) who are seen trudging reluctantly towards an angry-looking Pitt as they return to Parliament. Michael Angelo (second from the left) is here depicted as a miniscule figure, and one who has been humiliated – he is clearly embarrassed (he covers his face with his hand) – and a hen and her chicks can be seen at his feet. In depicting him in this way, the anonymous maker of this print perhaps sought to pierce through Taylor’s apparently pompous demeanour. Also noteworthy is the fact that all of the ‘truants’ wear bonnets-rouges, the implication being that they have revolutionary ambitions. Clearly, Michael Angelo was a divisive character whose behaviour inspired discussion and frustration in a number of different quarters, of which the University of Oxford was only one.

Fig. 5: Anon., Truant school-boys returning to their duty!! 1797 © Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

It was only after Michael Angelo’s long career in public life was brought to a close by his death in 1834 that the battle over his father’s fortune was finally concluded. Michael Angelo’s proposal of settling the University’s claim on Sir Robert’s estate for a sum of £50,000 appeared again in his will, and was again rejected by the University, which sought a greater amount. However, as Michael Angelo had intermixed his father’s estate with his own monies, it was now impossible to ascertain exactly how much of it had been left in residue after payment of his debts and legacies. In the end, an agreement between the University and John Vane (a relation of Michael Angelo’s late wife) was reached in November 1835, whereby the University of Oxford received the sum of £65,000.[11]

Several documents held in the University Archives shed some light on the lengths that senior figures within the University went to in order to finally obtain these funds. One particularly interesting document (UD/23/1/5), which lists monies paid by the University in 1837 to a solicitor named Baker Morrell,[12] reveals how legal proceedings relating to Michael Angelo and his father’s bequest in the years prior cost the University large sums of money in lawyers’ fees. The first page of this document alone lists £4 8s 8d paid to Morrell for, among other things, ‘Perusing and considering Mr M.A. Taylor’s codicil and the codicil to Sir R. Taylor’s will containing the bequest to the University and also the papers in the cause upon the establishment of Sir R. Taylor’s will and codicils in 1795’ (see Fig. 5).

Fig. 6: Extract from a University document headed ‘The University to Baker Morrell (Sir Robert Taylor’s Bequest)’. 1837. University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/5

The document runs to several pages in length, and on the final page the total sum paid is given as £342 3s 4d – a not inconsiderable amount, being equal to around £28,500 in today’s currency.[13] The list is seemingly exhaustive, even including £3 3s for ‘Postages and carriage of parcels for 2 years’.

Fig. 7: A note, signed by Frederick Joseph Morrell (1811–1882), the son and partner of the solicitor Baker Morrell, attached to UD/23/1/5 (see Fig. 5), University of Oxford Archives. The note acknowledges receipt of payment from the University ‘for business relative to Sir Robert Taylor’s bequest’.

The foundation of the Taylor Institution, then, was a messy business. Thanks to Michael Angelo, the University had already expended a considerable amount of time and money before any meaningful plans for its construction could be made, let alone those for its character or constitution. When the necessary funds had finally been received, they were put towards a project whereby land was acquired from Worcester College, and a building which combined a modern languages institution and a University art gallery (later to become the Ashmolean Museum) was erected on the site, designed by C.R. Cockerell (son of Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who had been a pupil of Sir Robert).[14] The Taylor Institution Library opened, at long last, in early 1849, sixty-one years after the founder’s death.

Thomas Roberts
Graduate Library Trainee
Taylor Institution Library


Simon Bailey, Keeper of the University Archives, for permission to reproduce extracts relating to Sir Robert Taylor’s Last Will and Testament.

References and Further Reading

[1] Jill Hughes, ‘Taylor Institution Library’, in B. Fabian (ed.), Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland, Österreich und Europa, Hildesheim, 2003 [Online ed.,].

[2] Roland Thorne, “Taylor, Michael Angelo (bap. 1757–1834)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [online ed., Jan 2013,, accessed 22 Nov 2017].
‘TAYLOR, Michael Angelo (1757-1834), of Cantley Hall, nr. Doncaster, Yorks. and Whitehall Yard, Mdx.’ The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher (CUP, 2009) [Online ed.:, accessed 16 Mar 2018].

[3] ‘2nd Session of Michaelmas Term, to wit, Friday the 14th day of November 1788’. University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/2b – see Fig. 2.

[4] John Harris & Malcolm Baker, “Taylor, Sir Robert (1714–1788)” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [Online ed., Jan 2013,].

[5] In UD/23/1/2b it is stated, for example, that ‘it was his intention to sign [the codicil] […] and was accordingly by his own desire raised up in his bed in order to sign the same’.

[6] These and other details relating to the legal dispute are set out in a University document headed ‘Sir Robert Taylor’s Bequest to the University of Oxford’, University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/1-6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This detail is noted by former Taylor librarian Giles Barber, who provides a succinct overview of the foundation of the library in his chapter entitled ‘The Taylor Institution’, in M.G. Brock & M.C. Curthoys (eds.), The History of the University of Oxford. Volume VI, Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 1 (OU), 1997), pp. 632-4.

[9] For an overview of Gillray’s work and significance, see, for example, Richard T. Godfrey & Mark Hallett (eds.), James Gillray: The Art of Caricature, Tate Publishing, 2001, and Draper Hill, Mr Gillray, the Caricaturist (London: Phaidon), 1965.

[10] Thorne, ‘Taylor, Michael Angelo’ (see note 2).

[11] This is recounted in the document entitled ‘Sir Robert Taylor’s Bequest to the University of Oxford’, University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/1-6.

[12] The Bodleian Library holds papers relating to Baker Morrell, as well as his father, James Morrell (also an Oxford solicitor). See

[13] See

[14] Barber, ‘The Taylor Institution’, p. 633 (see n. 8).

See also: Thomas Roberts Satirical prints and national identity in England, c.1760-c.1830 (B.A. Thesis, London School of Economics, 2017)

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts: Part II

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts
in the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution

II: The Divine Comedy Illustrated

This is the second of two short articles concerning the iconography of Dante as represented in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution in Oxford. The first concerned the image of Dante himself. This one is focused on Ashmolean and Taylorian illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

It has often been said that the Divine Comedy is impossible to render in another medium – and that those who have tried to depict the Comedy have all, more-or-less hopelessly, failed. Some have been criticised for being too literal, failing to engage with the higher purpose of the poem; others for sacrificing Dante to their personal artistic ambitions. Underlying these criticisms is an idea of Dante’s text as a pure and independent work of art. Anything added to this is suspect. Such arguments are equally by-products of a misguided cult of authenticity, reinforced in this context by an enduring academic tendency to privilege the word over the image.

Rather than making a fetish of some imagined original and ideal reader of the poem, and consequently lamenting the supposed corruption of interpreters, it makes more sense historically to consider with an open mind the various ways in which the Comedy has been experienced across the seven centuries since its composition. Reception has always entailed visualisation – whether in the material frame of the text or in the mind of the reader. The reception history of the Comedy, seen through the material evidence of the book in its many editions, is a constant reminder of the ever-changing variety of Dante’s readers. In fact, the evidence of imagery associated with Dante, which can be sampled from the holdings of the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution Library, indicates what we know ourselves as readers: that text and visual images are constantly in mutual dialogue.

The Comedy began to be illustrated almost as soon as it was written down: the earliest manuscript copies containing pictures date from the second quarter of the fourteenth century. More than five hundred codices of the poem from this and the following century have some form of pictures, although half of these cases include only minimal imagery, while some 150 are extensively illustrated. The arrival of printing, therefore, did not inaugurate the illustrated Comedy. The Bodleian Library possesses important examples of this early manuscript tradition, whilst the illustrated texts in the Taylor Institution Library are printed versions from the late fifteenth century onwards.

Sandro Botticelli, Illustration to Inferno Canto XV, facsimile Zeichnungen von Sandro Botticelli zu Dantes Goettlicher Komoedie: nach den Originalen im K. Kupferstichkabinett zu Berlin (Berlin: G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1887) Taylor Institution Library: REP.X.55 (plates)

Botticelli’s enormous project to illustrate the Comedy was, in a sense, the culmination of the medieval tradition of illustrated manuscript copies of the poem. Botticelli’s drawings themselves are now divided between Rome and (for the greater part) Berlin. The acquisition of these sheets in 1884 by the Kupferstichkabinett zu Berlin (Museum of Prints and Drawings) was followed by the publication of facsimiles of the complete series, made to the highest standards of the day and disseminated, as an act of cultural diplomacy, to the major collections of Europe. The Taylor Institution Library owns a copy of the portfolio of loose plates.

Botticelli’s patron must have been a wealthy Florentine patrician, who was content for his artist to work on a grand scale, and to allow his imagination, responding to the poem, to build creatively on the pre-existing repertoire of illustrations to the Comedy. The moment was an important one in the process of Tuscan re-adoption of the exiled Florentine: in 1481, a decade after the appearance of the first, north Italian, printed edition, the Comedy was published in the city of Dante’s birth. This version was accompanied by an extensive commentary and a patriotic introduction by Cristoforo Landino, who boasted that the new edition effectively repatriated the author: ‘…Firenze lungo tempo dolente ma finalmente lieta sommamente si congratula col suo poeta Dante nel fine di due secoli risuscitato et restituto nella patria sua’ (‘After a long period of grief, Florence can finally and happily celebrate to the utmost with her poet, Dante, who after two centuries has been restored to life and to his homeland’). The book was also illustrated with woodblock prints, which for the first half of Inferno were based on the drawings on which Botticelli was evidently simultaneously at work. For the rest, Botticelli’s progress was evidently too slow to be of use, and other designs were deployed. These woodblocks would be re-used in diverse editions over several years.

Commento di Christophoro Landino fiorentino sopra la comedia di Dante Alighieri poeta fiorentino (Venice, 1491) Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.Fol.It.1491(1)


















The Ashmolean Print Room possesses a number of detached woodcuts from this series, painstakingly cut out from copies of the book by early collectors of printed images. In some cases, previous owners of the books had enhanced the pictures with the addition of colour.

Woodcuts from the Comedy published in Venice in 1491(?) Ashmolean Museum: Douce Collection WA.2003 (Italian sequence, unmounted)

Landino’s extensive commentary made a visual announcement that the text was quasi-biblical in its need of authoritative exposition. By the same token, however, the annotations threatened to overwhelm the text, which, like the Bible, was also known in less intellectualised forms. In an evident reaction against the perceived clutter of the Tuscan layout, the great Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius produced a simple text edition, with the collaboration of Pietro Bembo. The latter owned a copy of the Comedy once given by Boccaccio to Petrarch, which encouraged the editors to think their version superior to others. Their claim was that modern Tuscan versions had corrupted the text with changes in vernacular usage, whereas they were presenting the ‘authentic’ Dante. Once again, an idea of authenticity is contrasted with the supposed inadequacy of anything which might betray the process of reception and the passage of time. Aldus’s end-note authoritatively declares: ‘Venetiis in aedibus Aldi accuratissime men’. The title page bears the simple legend: ‘Le terze rime di Dante’. The text appears unencumbered.

Lo’nferno e’l Purgatorio e’l Paradiso di Dante Alaghieri (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1502) Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.12°.It.1502

But although the prestige of the Bembo-Aldus text meant that it was frequently copied thereafter, it was in fact far from perfect, giving the opportunity for the Tuscan Alessandro Vellutello to condemn its failings and so to reclaim the book for Florence. Vellutello’s extra-annotated edition of 1544 (ironically published in Venice) would in turn provide the initial basis for the official Florentine imprint of the Accademia della Crusca in the 1590s. The 1544 printing also introduced a number of diagrams of Hell, based partly on the work on this subject written in Florence in the fifteenth century by Antonio Manetti. Sixteenth-century readers were interested to apply the latest techniques of geographical measurement to their reading of the poem. It is often pointed out that many more editions of Petrarch than of Dante appeared in print before 1600; yet the latter was not seen as outdated.

La comedia di Dante Aligieri con la noua espositione di Alessandro Vellutello (Venice, 1544) Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.8°.It.1544(2)

In 1564, for the first time, the author appeared on the title page both in the largest lettering and in a portrait (apparently derived from those by Raphael, or otherwise from those fifteenth-century Florentine depictions on which Raphael himself had drawn).

Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso (Venice, 1564)
Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.Fol.It.1564(1)

The Ashmolean Museum possesses an extraordinary testament to the status of Dante in mid-sixteenth-century Tuscany, in the form of a wax relief, probably made in the late eighteenth century as a cast copy of its Renaissance original. That work was made by the young virtuoso sculptor Pierino da Vinci, on commission from the prominent Dante scholar, engineer, and Medicean governor of Pisa, Luca Martini. The subject is the shocking scene, described in Cantos 32 and 33 of Inferno, of the imprisonment and starvation by Archbishop Ruggiero of Pisa of his enemy, Ugolino, together with the latter’s sons and grandsons. Both the patron’s deep knowledge of the poem and his official posting to Pisa explain the appearance of this, the first Dantean subject to be rendered as an independent work of art.

Pierino da Vinci (after), Ugolino and His Sons and Grandsons in the Tower of Famine. Wax relief. Probably late 18th-century Ashmolean Museum: WA1897.190 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Only months before this commission, in the late 1540s, a famous discussion had been conducted in Florence concerning the status of the various arts. Benedetto Varchi, who orchestrated that debate together with Luca Martini, proposed that in order to render Dante’s Inferno or Pugatorio in visual art, the better medium would be, not painting, but relief sculpture. Giorgio Vasari, who saw the relief which ensued, commented that ‘In this work Vinci displayed the excellence of design no less than did Dante the perfection of poetry in his verses, for no less compassion is stirred by the attitudes shaped in wax by the sculptor in him who beholds them, than is roused in him who listens to the words and accents imprinted on the living page by the poet.’ Bearing in mind this reference to a wax version, it is not altogether impossible, on the available evidence, that the Ashmolean relief was made by Pierino da Vinci – even if the arrival of the bronze in Britain creates a plausible context for the manufacture of a wax version (together with several terracotta casts which are known, and of which the Ashmolean possesses an example: WA1888.CDEF.S28) for an eighteenth-century collector. (The bronze version, which for more than two centuries resided in the house of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth, was in 2010 sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein; it is now in that family’s palace in Vienna.)

The afterlife of Pierino da Vinci’s bronze Ugolino had momentous consequences for the imagery of the Comedy in the nineteenth century. By the seventeenth century it had been attributed to Michelangelo: not a foolish idea, given Pierino’s admiration and emulation of the master which is so evident in the figures. Acquired and brought home by a travelling English artist around 1700, it was seen by the painter and critic Jonathan Richardson, who in an influential essay on art criticism praised the sculptor’s ability to lift the communication of great ideas even beyond the power of words.

Joshua Reynolds, himself a passionate admirer of Michelangelo, responded to Richardson’s challenge with a painting of the same subject, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 (now at Knole, Kent). Once John Dixon had in 1774 made an engraving after Reynolds’s picture, the tragic subject was launched as an ideal point of reference for the Romantic imagination, as Dante’s poem came back into favour around 1800. Along with the episode of Paolo and Francesca, that of Ugolino’s imprisonment dominated the selection of scenes from the Comedy chosen for depiction by numerous nineteenth-century artists.

At the same period a number of artists rose to the challenge of illustrating the entire poem. By the time that Gustave Doré embarked on his Dante series in the 1850s, the poet was thoroughly established in French and European culture, which helps to explain the enormous impact of those particular designs. It was, by contrast, at a relatively early moment in the nineteenth-century boom in Dante’s critical fortune that William Blake, in the 1820s, undertook a similar project. Blake’s response to Dante was so personal, that it has often been assumed to have sacrificed the poem to Blake’s idiosyncratic visual mythologies. This does injustice to the work, on which Blake was exclusively and passionately engaged in the final, illness-ridden years of his life. Blake had enormous respect for Dante, despite disagreeing with aspects of his theology; but the strength of his imagery stems from the fact that he regarded himself as equal to the medieval poet as both poet and visionary. A century ago Blake’s watercolour drawings, which he made as steps towards a never completed series of engravings, were distributed to various museums by the Art Fund. One given to the Ashmolean is amongst the most beautiful of the set. It relates to Paradiso Canto 24, and represents Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini.

William Blake, Beatrice and Dante in Gemini, 1824-7. Watercolour over graphite with some pen and ink and black chalk Ashmolean Museum: WA1918.5 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Print Room also holds a set of the seven partially completed prints by Blake, which his friend and publisher John Linnell had solicited from him.

William Blake, The Six-footed Serpent Attacking Buoso de’ Donati (Inferno Canto 25). Engraving Ashmolean Museum: WA1941.27.5

In the next generation and in his own fashion, Dante Gabriel Rossetti also brought into focus aspects of the Comedy which had previously been less noticed.  He contributed to a new fascination with the youthful Dante of the lyric poetry and the Vita Nuova. The poet, in Rossetti’s imagery, shifts from the role of hero to that of lover. This is exemplified in the Ashmolean’s Beatrice at a Marriage Feast Denying Her Salutation to Dante.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beatrice at a Marriage Feast Denying Her Salutation to Dante. Watercolour and bodycolour with some pen Ashmolean Museum: WA1942.156 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Rossetti was prompted in particular directions by John Ruskin, who proposed several subjects for the artist to take from Purgatorio. One of these was the character of Matelda (or Matilda), seen by Dante in the Earthly Paradise. Rossetti’s painting of this subject is lost, but the Ashmolean holds a detailed preparatory drawing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dante’s Vision of Matilda Gathering Flowers (Purgatorio Canto 28). Pen and brown ink. Ashmolean Museum: WA1942.157 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Dante describes Matelda as ‘una donna soletta’ who picks flowers and sings by herself. Rossetti, ever drawn to ideas of friendship and evidently eager, perhaps under the influence of Ruskin, to emphasise a feminine principle, multiplied the female presence in his image.

Other artists in Oxford collections have engaged in diverse ways with Dante’s Comedy. Rodin’s work for his never completed Dantesque scheme, The Gates of Hell, is represented in the Ashmolean Print Room by a small engraving of Souls in Purgatory (WA1946.263). A few drawings for Tom Phillips’s Inferno (1985; WA2009.94 and WA2009.96–99) are held in the Print Room, while several boxes of related materials are catalogued in the Bodleian Library Special Collections. Also in the Print Room are sets of Geoff MacEwan’s Inferno (1990) and Purgatory (2008) engravings. In the latter the Earthly Paradise, an oasis of green ringed by purificatory flames, bursts into colour and into an abstract simplification of form. The poem continues to find imaginative responses which themselves generate new readings and new readers.

Geoff MacEwan, ‘The Garden’ 2008 © Geoff MacEwan Reproduced with the Artist’s permission


In June 2017 seminars on Dante and the visual arts were held, on two occasions for different audiences, in the Western Art Print Room of the Ashmolean Museum. The project was the result of my experience as Faculty Fellow in the Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean. I am very grateful to the following who contributed generously and enthusiastically to the collaboration: the Keeper of Western Art, Dr Catherine Whistler; the Leverhulme Research Assistant (Raphael Project), Angelamaria Aceto; the Print Room Supervisors, Dr Caroline Palmer and Katherine Wodehouse; the Bodleian Libraries’ Librarian for Art & Architecture, and for Italian Literature & Language, Clare Hills-Nova; the Picture Library Curator of the Ashmolean Museum, Amy Taylor; and Jim Harris, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean, together with Unity Coombes and Ben Skarratt, UEP Museum Assistants.

Professor Gervase Rosser
History of Art Department & Faculty of History
University of Oxford

Ancient Scripts : Ogham – Old Irish inscriptions

On 1st November 2017 Dr Dominique Santos, a visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity from the University of Blumenau, Brazil, gave a lecture on Ogham in the series ‘Introducing Ancient Scripts’. He kindly sent us a summary of his lecture. We are pleased to include this in our blog especially since he spent many months in the Taylor Institution Library for his research on Ogham, the script used for Old Irish, mainly inscribed on stones in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Remarkably, the inscriptions were not made on the face but on the edge of the stones.

FARDEL Stone, from Devon, England (THOMAS, 1994, Fig. 16.6).

FARDEL Stone, from Devon, England (THOMAS, 1994, Fig. 16.6).

Some of the Ogham Stones are bilingual Ogham – Latin. In the studies on Latin language and bilingualism in Britannia Romana (Roman Britain), Ogham Stones are not often discussed. Aside from very specific studies, mainly conducted by Celtic scholars, little is said about the contexts of bilingualism (ADAMS, 2004) considering these monuments. There is a propensity in Roman epigraphic studies, including the most recent ones, to disregard bilingual Ogham Stones, even when focused on Late Antiquity.

That is why I have spent a year studying mainly the Ogham Stones. In the Taylorian I had access not only to the most important publications in the field of Ogham but also to the history of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as well. The Library has a wonderful staff and the team is very knowledgeable about the collection and ready to help scholars research and explore this material.

During my working days at the Institutio Tayloriana, I have been asking myself the following questions: what could Ogham Stones tell us about exchanges and connections across the Irish Sea in Late Antiquity? Will the knowledge of this specific corpus be able to increase our understanding of the interaction among diverse cultures that inhabited, traded and communicated in (post-) Roman Britannia? Besides what has already been produced in other disciplines, how far could a historical approach to the subject contribute to its comprehension? Will these monuments have a broader role in historical books, being appreciated not only as merely illustrative ‘narrative appendices’ or an epigraphic object working as complement to other written sources? These are some of the issues I was concerned about.

‘Ogham Stones’ is the name the researchers of this field use to make reference to some erected stone monuments in Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, England and Scotland. This designation is based on the main alphabet, Ogham, created to carve short written messages on these monuments, which enabled the sound representation of the Irish language in its infancy. Because of this, Ogham Stones are considered national monuments in Ireland and controlled by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, an official government body. In fact, the majority of the stones are in Ireland, mainly in the South, in the counties of Kerry, Cork and Waterford, from where 247 inscriptions are registered. It would be a very hard task to keep them apart from their Irish background and the debate about the idea of Irishness. However, Ogham Stones are not restricted to Ireland; they are fundamental evidence for elucidating many aspects of the history of the places where they are found (MCMANUS, 1991; SANTOS, 2015) and, above all, the exchanges and connections across the Irish Sea in Late Antiquity, the object of this research.

Lewannick Ogham Stone – Cornwall - England

Lewannick Ogham Stone – Cornwall – England

In order to carve the messages using the Ogham alphabet, incisions were made around the edges of a stone, interpreted like a ‘natural line’, from bottom to top and left to right. The meaning was determined by the number, position and direction of the notches in this ‘line’. The marks were grouped in four blocks (aicmí) of five, corresponding to 20 letters. When they stand to the right of this central stemline they are consonants: one incision makes a ‘b’, two a ‘l’, three a ‘v/f/w’, four a ‘s’, and five a ‘n’. Following the same pattern, but to the left side: ‘h/y’, ‘d’, ‘t’, ‘c’, and ‘q’. Five diagonal marks across the stemline make the sequence ‘m’, ‘g’, ‘gw’, ‘st’, and ‘r’. The vowels were made with dots or horizontal lines crossing the stemline of the rock, also following the same logic. Thus, ‘a’, ‘o’, ‘u’, ‘e’ and ‘i’ (THURNEYSEN, 2003). A graphical example can be seen on the figure below.

The Ogham alphabet (CHARLES-EDWARDS, 2000, p. 165).

The Ogham alphabet (CHARLES-EDWARDS, 2000, p. 165).

The inscriptions to be carved were conceived by the ‘Oghamist’, a certain scholar with a deep knowledge of Irish tradition, mainly of the Early Irish Language (MCMANUS, 2006). In order to achieve a better quality, this scholar designed a sample, perhaps modelled on wax or a wooden piece and then a craftsman would have the task of carving the inscription at its final destination, the stone itself. It is possible that the person hired to do the job had little or no knowledge at all of the content of the writing, which could lead to misunderstandings and mistakes (MACALISTER, 1945/1996).

Ogham inscriptions have a similar pattern; they usually consist of personal names, ancestry or tribal affiliation. Fionnbarr Moore explains the inscriptions have a specific number of formulae: X MAQI Y, in English ‘X son of Y’; X AVI Y, in which AVI means ‘grandson’; X MAQI MUCOI Y, in this case, MAQI means ‘descendant’ and MUCOI perhaps stands for  some ancestral deity; another common Irish word is ANM, meaning ‘name of’; some stones also have inscriptions with KOI, which means ‘here’, this being the equivalent to the Latin Hic Iacit (Iacet) ‘here lies’; another important word is CELI, like in the formula X CELI Y, which means, ‘X follower of Y’. These phrases can be mixed to generate formulae like: X MAQI Y MUCOI Z; X KOI MAQI MUCOI Y (MOORE, 2010). In several occasions there is no formula at all, but just isolated names (MCMANUS, 2006, p. 98-99).

Despite the nomenclature and the epigraphic tradition, Ogham was not exclusively carved on stones, but also on other objects including bones, a wooden weaver’s sword, and a knife-handle (MCMANUS, 2006). From the 7th century on there are manuscripts written in Ogham. The most important of them is the Auraicept na nÉces, preserved at the fol. 169r- 180v of the Book of Ballymote, which explains how the alphabet works.

First page of the Auraicept na n-Éces from The Book of Ballymote. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS. 23 p 12, F. 170r.

First page of the Auraicept na n-Éces from The Book of Ballymote. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS. 23 p 12, F. 170r.

The tradition according to which the name of the letters of the Ogham alphabet comes from names of trees originated in this document; another fundamental text is the De dúilib feda na forfid, a manuscript that explains the functionality of the Ogham additional characters; In Lebor Ogaim, in its turn, is the most ancient treatise written in Old Irish about Ogham.

A definitive or absolute chronology for Ogham inscriptions cannot be provided. Since dendrochronology, thermoluminescence, carbon-14 and other modern dating methods are not useful to give a precise year of a stone, we can only try to figure out a relative chronology and this is what specialists have done. By using a philological approach and comparing the findings with other written sources and historical facts, finally, it is believed that Ogham Stones were probably carved since the middle 4th or the beginnings of the 5th century. However, it is possible that the alphabet employed to write the first graphical signs of Old Irish language was in use by the 2nd century (HARVEY, 1990, p. 13-14), or even the 1st (CARNEY, 1975, p. 53-65), and continued to be produced until the 9th (MCMANUS, 1991).

A late printed copy of the Book of Leinster manuscript containing the Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, in which the Irish hero Cúchulainn exchanges messages in Ogham [The Book of Leinster, (Dublin : Royal Irish Academy, 1880) Taylor Institution Library shelfmark C.625.22[O]]

A late printed copy of the Book of Leinster manuscript containing the Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, in which the Irish hero Cúchulainn exchanges messages in Ogham [The Book of Leinster, (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1880) Taylor Institution Library shelfmark C.625.22[O]].

Over such a vast period, some changes in this Irish epigraphical tradition can be noticed. Perhaps, the most remarkable could be the way the marks were carved. From the 4th until the 6th century they were made over the edge of the stones, interpreted as a ‘natural line’; since the 7th century, the stemline started to be drawn on the surface of the stone.

Ogham and Runic inscriptins on Maughold Stone (c. 800-899), from Kirk Maughold, Isle of Man (KERMODE, 1907, Plate LXIV).

Ogham and Runic inscriptins on Maughold Stone (c. 800-899), from Kirk Maughold, Isle of Man (KERMODE, 1907, Plate LXIV).

Generally, the first group of inscriptions is denominated as ‘orthodox’; the second is called ‘scholastic’.

The first Ogham Stone to be registered was found in 1702, in a place called Emlagh East (IMLEACH DHÚN SÉANN), in Co. Kerry, in the Dingle peninsula, Ireland, by the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhuyd.  Nowadays, about 400 stones are known and recorded in Macalister’s Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (CIIC). However, little attention has been given to the 33 bilingual corpora of Britannia. They were erected in Britannia Romana (and post-Roman Britain) and carved with Ogham alphabet and Roman capital letters in order to register messages in two languages, Irish and Latin. Some examples, are: Ogham Stone CIIC 368, that reads ‘MAQI MUCOI DUMELEDONAS’, in Ogham, for Irish language, and ‘BARRIVENDI FILIVS VENDVBARI HIC IACIT’, in Roman capitals, for Latin; CIIC 500, from which follows the inscription ‘[E]B[I]CATOS M[A]QI ROC[A]T[O]S’, in Ogham, and ‘ANMECATI FILIVS ROCATI HIC IACIT’, in Roman capitals; there are stones that contain only names in Ogham, but more information is given in Latin from the Roman capitals. These are the cases of CIIC 353, in which can be read ‘TRENACCATLO’, in Ogham, and ‘TRENACATVS IC IACIT FILIVS MAGLAGNI’, in Roman capitals; CIIC 358, that reads ‘VOTECORIGAS’, in Ogham, and ‘MEMORIA VOTEPORIGIS PROTICTORIS’, in Roman capitals; CIIC 380, from which one can read ‘ICORIGAS’, in Ogham, and ‘ICORI FILIVS POTENTINI’, in Roman capitals; and CIIC 422, that reads ‘VENDOGNI’, in Ogham, and [U]ENDOGNI [F]ILI [H]OCIDEGNI, in Roman capitals.

If Britannia Romana made an impact on Hibernia (the Latin name for Ireland), the opposite also happened. John Roche states that forts and cities in the region of what is Wales today, such as Cardiff and Caerwent, were designed to withstand Irish attacks, which saw the region as a potential slave market like the one in which (Saint) Patrick was captured. Many Roman coins were found in Ireland and are evidence for both trade and Irish incursions. This movement helps us to understand the later Irish colonies in Britain, evidence of much more permanent diplomatic relationships (ROCHE, 1993, p. 7-9). Anthony Harvey explains this is not surprising at all as the sea at the time was more a way than an impediment. Thus, the Irish Sea must have formed what he calls ‘an effective block to cultural communication for hundreds of years’ (HARVEY, 1990, p. 14). According to Charles Thomas, Irish presence in Britain may go back to the 3rd century and have lasted until the Viking incursions and is attested by the existence of personal names, nouns and conjunctions in Ogham inscriptions from the region (THOMAS, 1973, p. 5-13).

Thomas Charles-Edwards has pointed out that these inscriptions in Ogham indicate a desire to elevate Old Irish language to the same level and status as Latin (CHARLES-EDWARDS, 2000, p. 176-177).

To investigate Ogham Stones as evidence of historical connections across the Irish Sea was the challenge of my research, developed as part of my Sabbatical Leave at Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity. It would hardly have been possible without having access to the Taylorian Celtic Collection.


Dr. Dominique Santos – Lecturer in Ancient and Medieval History at FURB – University of Blumenau – Santa Catarina – Brazil, was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity in 2017.


(Titles available in the Taylor Institution Library)

ADAMS, J.N. Bilingualism and the Latin Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

ATKINSON, Robert. The Book of Leinster: sometime called the Book of Glendalough: a collection of pieces, prose and verse, in the Irish language, compiled in part, about the middle of the twelfth century: now for the first time published from the original manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1880.

BRUUN, Christer; EDMONDSON, Jonathan. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

CARNEY, James. The Invention of the Ogom Cipher. Ériu, Vol. 26, 1975, p. 53-65.

CHARLES-EDWARDS, T. M.  Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

COOLEY, Alisson E. The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

DI MARTINO, Vittorio. Roman Ireland, London: The Collins Press. 2003.

FORSYTH, Katherine Stuart. The Ogham Inscriptions of Scotland: An Edited Corpus. PhD Thesis, Harvard University, 1996. p. L.

FREEMAN, Philip. Ireland and the Classical World. Houston: University of Texas Press. 2001.

GUARINELLO, N. L. . Uma Morfologia da História: as formas da História Antiga. Politéia (Vitória da Conquista), Vitória da Conquista, v. 3, n.1, p. 41-62, 2003.

HARVEY, Anthony. The Ogham Inscriptions and the Roman Alphabet: Two Traditions or One? Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 4, Nº1, 1990. p. 13-14.

HINGLEY, Richard. Hadrian’s Wall: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012.

KERMODE, P.M.C. Manx Crosses. London: Bemrose & Sons Ltd, 1907.

MACALISTER, R.A.S. Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, Vol I. Dublin, Stationery Office, 1945.

MACALISTER, R.A.S. Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, Vol I. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996.

MCMANUS, Damian. A Guide to Ogam. Maynooth, 1991.

MCMANUS, Damian. Written on Stone. Irish Arts Review. Vol. 23, Nº3, 2006, pp. 98-99.

MOORE, Fionnbarr. The Ogham Stones of County Kerry. In: MURRAY, Griffin. Medieval Treasures of County Kerry. Tralee : Kerry County Museum 2010.

Ó CRÓINÍN, Dáibhi. Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. Londres: Longman, 1995.

REDNAP, Mark. A corpus of early medieval inscribed stones and stone sculpture in Wales. Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2007-2013.

ROCHE, John. The Influence of Ireland on Roman Britain…:…Cursus Unicus? Archaeology Ireland. Vol. 7, nº 1, 1993, p. 7-9.

SANTOS, Dominique. Patrício: A Construção da Imagem de um Santo/How the Historical Patrick Was Transformed into the St. Patrick of Religious Faith. 1. ed. New York; Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2013.

SANTOS, Dominique. A Cultura Hiberno-Latina na Bretanha romana e pós-romana: evidências a partir das Ogham Stones. In: Anais eletrônicos do XXVIII Simpósio Nacional de História da ANPUH, Florianópolis, 2015.

STEVENSON, Jane. The Beginnings of Literacy in Ireland. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature. Vol. 89C, 1989. p. 127-165.

SWIFT, Catherine. Ogam Stones and the Earliest Irish Christians. Maynooth Monographs Series Minor II. Maynooth: St. Patrick’s College. 1997. p. 90.

THOMAS, Charles. Irish Colonists in South-West Britain. World Archaeology. Vol. 5, nº 1, Colonization, 1973, p. 5-13.

THOMAS, Charles. And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994.

THURNEYSEN, E. R. A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2003.



LGBT History Month: Piranesi Special Seminar

A personal view: Yourcenar, Piranesi and Egypt
By Richard Bruce Parkinson

In the early 1960s, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote an essay on ‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse (The dark brain of Piranesi)’. Earlier, in 1941, she and her American life-partner Grace Frick had bought four engravings in New York which remained with them for the rest of their lives, and one of them played a part in inspiring what remains her most famous work, Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian 1951). The novel is a poetic evocation of the life of the Roman emperor, including his relationship with the handsome Antinous, who died on an imperial progress in middle Egypt in AD 130. The novel has always had particular resonance for LGBT readers as a profoundly ‘queer’ imagining of the ancient past, but it has also been inspirational for some Egyptologists, notably the great Philippe Derchain (1926–2012), who even composed a fictional account, in an intertextual dialogue with Yourcenar’s novel, of the Barberini obelisk that Hadrian had erected in Antinous’ honour.

Fig. 1. G. B. Piranesi: ‘Exterior of the so-called “Tempio del Dio Canopo” at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli’, in Vedute di Roma, vol. 5 (ca. 1769)

The above print, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from around 1769, shows the exterior of the so-called ‘Tempio del Dio Canopo’ at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli from the series entitled Vedute di Roma, which forms volume 5 in Taylorian founder Sir Robert Taylor’s own set of Piranesi volumes, now housed in the Taylor Institution Library (see The villa was central to Yourcenar’s inspiration, and this is the one image she described in detail in her reflective notes on composing the novel. From ancient descriptions of the villa as containing a ‘Canopus’, the building at its centre was thought to represent the town of Canopus in Egypt, and it was traditionally regarded as the find spot for many Egyptianising works of art from the villa. In the novel, ‘cette chapelle de Canope où son culte se célèbre à l’égyptienne (that chapel of Canopus where his cult is celebrated in Egyptian fashion)’ is evoked as Hadrian attempts to summon up the ghost of his lost beloved. Piranesi’s print is a carefully captioned view of the structure, reflecting his concerns to document the ‘speaking ruins’ of ancient Rome, but it also possesses a romantic quality that appealed to Yourcenar. She described the etching as showing ‘structure ronde, éclatée come un crâne, d’où de vagues broussailles pendent comme des mèches de cheveux. Le génie presque médiumnique de Piranèse a flairé là l’hallucination, les longues routines du souvenir, l’architecture tragique d’un monde intérieur (a round structure, burst open like a skull, from which fallen trees and brush hang vaguely down, like strands of hair. The genius of Piranesi, almost mediumistic, has truly caught the element of hallucination here: he has sensed the long-continued rituals of mourning, the tragic architecture of an inner world)’.  The domed building is skull-like, with two fallen masses of the vault placed symmetrically in the foreground like jaws; they still lie in the area today.

Fig. 2. The vault and fallen blocks of the ‘Canopus’ (photograph: R. B. Parkinson)

As Nigel Saint has noted, the view down the central axis of the etching allows the viewer to look from the outside into as it were the inner parts of the emperor’s private world, as Yourcenar attempted. The strikingly symmetrical composition creates a sense of mystery: what are the three tiny figures doing in the centre of the monumental arena – are they reading palms?

Fig. 3. G. B. Piranesi: ‘Exterior of the so-called “Tempio del Dio Canopo” at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli’ (detail), in Vedute di Roma, vol. 5 (ca. 1769)

As Yourcenar’s emperor says of his villa, ‘chaque édifice était le plan d’un songe (each structure was the chart of a dream)’. The tree on the left seems playfully to echo the gesturing figure on the right, as if monument, nature and humans are all parts of a single grandiose ruin: such contemporaneous figures appealed to Yourcenar’s desire to explore ways to mediate between the living present and the past, through ‘[les] milliers de vies silencieuses, furtives comme celles des bêtes … qui se sont succédé ici entre Hadrien et nous (the thousands of lives, silent and furtive as those of wild beasts … who have followed in our succession here between Hadrian’s time and ours)’. For her, the depiction of a ruin becomes ‘une méditation à la fois visuelle et métaphysique sur la vie et la mort des formes (a meditation both visual and metaphysical on the life and death of forms)’.

To modern archaeological eyes, the print also shows that any historical certainty is remarkably uncertain, as excavations and reconstructions of the building continually change the picture in every sense: the traditional idea that this building was connected with Egyptianising art-works and cult has been disputed, and its identification as Hadrian’s ‘Canopus’ is far from certain, with architectural historians arguing that it was probably only a scenic triclinium for the summer months.

Fig. 4. The ‘Canopus’ with a restored pool and re-erected columns (photograph: R. B. Parkinson)

The architecture is no longer considered in any way ‘tragic’. New layers of interpretation gather around the image, but I retain a fondness for it, partly as a symbol of Yourcenar’s vision of a queer ‘monde intérieur’. And partly because a print of it hung (and still hangs) over the fireplace of the sitting room in Petite Plaisance, the house that she shared with Grace Frick in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Fig. 5. Yousuf Karsh: Marguerite Yourcenar at Petite Plaisance in 1987 (© Estate of Yousuf Karsh)

The print thus not only evokes the ancient past of Hadrian and Antinous, but also the modern personal, domestic world of Yourcenar and Frick. For me, as a gay Egyptologist, it has become an image of what historians do in trying to recapture a sense of ancient lived experiences—not only with precision, but also with imagination and empathy.

Richard Bruce Parkinson
Professor of Egyptology & Fellow of The Queen’s College
University of Oxford

Post Script

The opportunity to view this and Piranesi’s other etchings took place during a special seminar, ‘G. B. Piranesi: Sir Robert Taylor’s Collection of Etchings & the Ashmolean Candelabra’, held at the Taylor Institution and the Ashmolean Museum in late 2017. The occasion arose from Oxford’s 2017 Slade Lectures, ‘The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities’ (, during which Caroline van Eck (Uni-versity of Cambridge) focused on the works of Piranesi, thus prompting further investigation of the Taylorian’s collection. In remarkable condition and logistically difficult to display, the Library’s full set had rarely (if ever) been shown in its entirety. The Piranesi seminar, led by Professor van Eck, thus enabled an international group of academics and curators from a variety of disciplines to examine and discuss Sir Robert Taylor’s set; and also to hear, from Christoph Frank (U. della Svizzera italiana, Mendrisio), about the discovery of a previously unknown album of Piranesi drawings at Karlsruhe, throwing light on the conservation history of one of the Ashmolean candelabra.

Fig. 6. G.B. Piranesi. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi, tripodi, lucerne ed ornamenti antichi (Rome, 1778)

To many, the most compelling component of the seminar was volume 17. This, an ‘elephant folio’ (79 x 61 cm.), unfolded at one end to a 3.5 metre-long etching of the Colonna Traiana (Trajan’s Column, fig. 9); and, at the other, to an equally long Colonna Antonina (also known as the Colonna di Marco Aurelio or Colonna Aureliana).

Clare Hills-Nova
Italian Literature & Language Librarian
Taylor Institution Library

Further reading

Marguerite Yourcenar:

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoires d’Hadrien (Paris: Plon, 1951). English translation by Grace Frick: Memoirs of Hadrian (London : Readers Union, 1955).

Marguerite Yourcenar, ‘‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse’ in Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1962). English translation by Richard Howard in The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Henley-on-Thames: Ellis, 1985), 88–128.

Véronique Beirnaert-Mary and Achmy Halley (ed.), Marguerite Yourcenar et l’empereur Hadrien: Une réécriture de l’antiquité (Gand: Snoeck, 2015).

Thorsten Opper, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (London: British Museum, 2008).

R. B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World (London: British Museum, 2013), 118-121.

Nigel Saint, Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual (Oxford: Legenda, 2000).

Fig. 9. G.B. Piranesi. Veduta del prospotto principale della Colonna Trajana (Ghent University Library)

G. B. Piranesi:

Ghent University Library/Universiteits Bibliotheek Gent. Prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778): (viewed 03/02/2018).

Georg Kabierske, “A Cache of Newly Identified Drawings by Piranesi and His Studio at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe”, Master Drawings LIII/2 (2015), 147-179.

Georg Kabierske, “Vasi, urne, cinerarie, altari e candelabri: Newly Identified Drawings for Piranesi’s Antiquities and Sculptural Comporsisions at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe” in Francesco Nevola (ed.), Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Predecessori, contemporanei e successori: Studi in onore di John Wilton-Ely  (Rome: Quasar, 2016), 245-262.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, [Opera Piranesi]. Rome, [1748-1779]: v.1-4. Le antichità romane. — v.5-6. Vedute di Roma. — v.7. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum. — Osservazioni. — v.8. Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo. –Antichità di Cora. -v.9. Alcune vedute di archi trionfali. — Opere varie di architettura prospettive grotteschi antichità. — Le rouine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia. — Trofei di Ottaviano Avgvsto. — v.10. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum regiae. — v.11, 12. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi. — v.13. Descrizione e disegno dell’emissario del Lago Albano. — I. B. Piranesii Lapides capitolini. — v.14. Raccolta de tempj antichi. — Diversi maniere d’adornare i cammini. — v.15. Différentes vues de quelques restes de trois grands édifices. — v.16. Raccolta di alcuni disegni del Barberi da Cento. — Carceri d’invenzione. — Il teatro d’Ercolano alla maestra di Gustavo III. — v.17. Trofeo o sia magnifica colonna. — Colonna Antonina come si vede oggidi. — Colonna eretta in memoria dell’apoteosi di Antonino Pio.

Ancient Scripts and language

In a packed lecture room in the Taylor Institution Library, John Coleman, Professor of Phonetics at Oxford, gave a fascinating seminar on the connection between Ancient Scripts and language. He focused on the following questions; “What might writing systems reveal about how people think (or thought) about their languages? How are differences between writing systems relate to differences between languages?”

He pointed out that script is relatively young, as the earliest examples of writing date back only 6000 years (to 4000 BC), whereas 200,000 years ago homo sapiens already had speech. The importance of writing language down was illustrated by the request to the University from a non-literate speaker of Nipode Uitoto, an oral South American language, to invent a writing system for his language. The request reached Oxford via a linguistics student when he did fieldwork in the area. In the recorded message the speaker said “…We truly want to know about our language so that we can teach our word to our children. […] if it is truly possible to write down our language, I want to know how this can be done.”

In the Middle East, script developed from ideographs (characters representing concepts) to syllabic script (characters representing sounds). The oldest texts were either written on stone or on clay tablets, some of which have survived. In Oxford, we don’t have far to go to see examples: the Ashmolean Museum holds clay tablets as well as engraved stones. The stone monument pictured below is engraved with Hieroglyphic Luwian, where some symbols represent a whole word but most represent syllables.

Stone monument from Carchemish (modern Jarablus, Syria) written in Hieroglyphic Luwian.

Stone monument, Ashmolean Museum.

Syllabic scripts were regarded as systems of sounds that could be listed in syllabaries; lists of symbols that represent syllables with a consonant and a vowel in one symbol or element. There are examples of such syllabaries in various languages, including the Native American language Cherokee, Japanese, Amharic (Ethiopic) and the Linear B writing system used to write Mycenean Greek. Since the symbols consist of just one element representing sounds like ‘da’ or ‘ja’, these symbols show no understanding of the distinction between consonants and vowels.

Mycenaean Greek (Linear B)

Bilingual texts can help us to decipher scripts and translate unknown languages. For example, the extract below from an Old Babylonian grammar with Sumerian translation gives us an insight into both languages. We can see in the chart below that Sumerian has more inflections than Babylonian.  Members of the Babylonian elite were keen to learn the Sumerian language as it was seen as more prestigious.

Extract from Old Babylonian Grammatical Text I (c.1600 BC)

Ancient Chinese writing, which is entirely separate from the Middle Eastern tradition, also shows some awareness of sound structure. The majority of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic, so every character has a meaning in itself, but can also be used for its phonetic value as a sound.  Even in the case of pictograms that do not have an internal structure, there are some examples indicating that scholars analysed the syllable in two parts as in the rhyme tables below.

Ancient Chinese (700 AD)

In conclusion, the earliest writing is based on both meaning and sounds, so even the oldest symbols could already represent sounds. “Sounds” usually means syllables or parts of syllables. Moving to writing based on sounds makes literacy easier to acquire and makes it possible to read and write almost anything, including intangible meanings and foreign names. Almost as soon as scribal education started, we have documents about language: sign-lists, lists of vocabulary, lists of translations, grammatical paradigms … in other words, what we once called Grammar and now call Linguistics.

Many thanks to Prof. Coleman for the content of this blog. You can listen to the full lecture and see the slides here.


Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian


Further reading

Senner, W. M. ed. 1991. The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press.

Naveh, Joseph. 1982. Early history of the alphabet : an introduction to West Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. Jerusalem : Magnes Press, Hebrew University ; Leiden : E.J. Brill.

Powell, Barry B. 2012. Writing : theory and history of the technology of civilization. Chichester : Wiley-Blackwell.

Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Writing and script : a very short introduction Oxford : Oxford University Press

Jean, Georges. 1992. Writing : the story of alphabets and scripts. London : Thames & Hudson.

Harris, Roy. 1986. The origin of writing.  La Salle, Ill : Open Court.

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. OUP.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell.

Sampson, Geoffrey.1985. Writing Systems, a Linguistic Introduction. London: Hutchinson.

Cohen, Marcel. 1958. La grande invention de l’écriture et son evolution. Paris : Impr. Nationale.

Baines, John. J.Bennet and S.D.Houston. 2008. The disappearance of writing systems : perspectives on literacy and communication. London : Equinox.

Asher, R. E. and E. J. A. Henderson, eds. 1981. Towards a History of Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press.

Jacobsen, T. ‘Very Ancient Linguistics’, in: Hymes, D.ed., Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms. Indiana University Press. pp.41-62.

Veldhuis, Niek. 2014. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Münster : Ugarit-Verlag.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2003. The Invention of Cuneiform. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Melchert, H. Craig, ed. 2003. The Luwians. Brill.

Han, Jiantang. 2012. Chinese characters. Cambridge University Press

Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. 2013. Written on bamboo and silk : the beginnings of Chinese books and inscriptions. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The alphabetic labyrinth : the letters in history and imagination. London : Thames & Hudson.

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts
in the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution Library

I: The Image of the Poet

Oxford’s dedication to Dante is deep-rooted. The University’s Dante Society was set up in 1876 (thirteen years before the foundation of the Dante Alighieri Society in Italy), and has provided a focus for the reading and discussion of his work ever since. The intellectual preoccupation has been overwhelmingly literary and textual. Yet the cult has had more extensive visual dimensions than its devotees may have realised (or wished to acknowledge). Oxford bears rich traces of this visual culture.

Earlier this year, the Ashmolean Museum’s Print Room hosted two seminars — one for the University’s Dante Society, the other for the Print Research Seminar — at which works in the collections of the Ashmolean and the Taylor Institution Library were presented and discussed. This is the first of two short pieces deriving from those seminars. Both posts focus on the iconography of Dante, as this is represented in particular in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum and of the Taylor Institution Library in Oxford. The second piece (to be posted later in the year) will consider illustrations to the Divine Comedy between the sixteenth and the twenty-first century. This, the first post, addresses the image of Dante.

Reception of Dante has always been inflected by perception of the poet. Each age, just as it re-reads the Comedy, at the same time re-envisions its author. Readers always believe they know what Dante looked like – a remarkable claim to authentic connection, considering how little information we really have. The Ashmolean possesses a plaster mould of what in the nineteenth century was reputed to be ‘Dante’s death-mask’.

Mask of Dante. Plaster, 19th century (Ashmolean Museum: WA.OA1767 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Mask of Dante. Plaster, 19th century (Ashmolean Museum: WA.OA1767 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

This example was given in 1879 to the Oxford Dante Society by Seymour Kirkup, a fanatical Dantophile and long-standing resident of Florence (who believed he was in direct spirit communication with the great poet). The minutes of the Dante Society in November of that year record the gift:

Baron Kirkup having at the suggestion of Signor de Tivoli kindly presented to the Society a Cast from the Mask of Dante in his possession, which formerly belonged to Signor Bartolini [Lorenzo Bartolini (d.1850), sculptor and maker of casts in Florence], and which has been on good grounds believed to have been taken from the Mask originally placed upon Dante’s Tomb at Ravenna. Resolved that the best thanks of the Society be conveyed to Baron Kirkup [via] Signor de Tivoli. Signor de Tivoli informed the Society that it was also the wish of Baron Kirkup that in the event of the Society being at any future time dissolved the cast should remain in the possession of the Secretary for the time being, or other chief officer of the Society.

In the event, however, the head was in 1920 consigned by the Society to the Ashmolean Museum, where it has been little noticed.

The head, which was made in two halves, may have been created from the plaster head of Dante kept in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, which had formerly belonged to Kirkup. (This is the head around which revolves the plot of the book, Inferno, published in 2013 by Dan Brown.) Kirkup had also, in 1840, employed a restorer to look for the supposed Portrait of Dante by Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello, of which he produced a tracing and drawing, on the basis of which a chromolithograph was published by the Arundel Society in the following year.

Portrait of Dante after the image in the Bargello, published by the Arundel Society, 1841 (© The British Museum)

Portrait of Dante after the image in the Bargello, published by the Arundel Society, 1841 (© The British Museum)

In reality the fresco in the Bargello dates from after Giotto’s death, and is not likely to represent Dante. The Palazzo Vecchio head, and another in the Florentine Palazzo Torrigiani del Nero, were thought in the nineteenth century to be based either upon a death-mask or upon another three-dimensional image created for the poet’s tomb at Ravenna in 1483. None of this has any basis in historical fact. The stories tell us, in despite of the absence of evidence, about a recurrent desire for proximity to the poet through his supposed likeness.

The history of Dante’s portrait took a new turn in 1865 when, in the six-hundredth anniversary of his birth and in the highly relevant context of the Unification of Italy, his bones (seemingly authentic) were rediscovered near to the tomb in Ravenna. The availability of the skull (albeit lacking the jawbone) led – after some time and strong official resistance to any interference with the sacred relics – to attempts to reconstruct Dante’s facial appearance on this basis. This has continued to generate versions which have made their own respective contemporary claims to the Dante aura.  That produced in the 1930s by Fabio Frassetto was framed in the political language of the time, and was claimed to prove (against other theories) that Dante was ‘of the Mediterranean race’.

Fabio Frassetto, Head of Dante, bronze (From: A.Cottignoli and G.Gruppioni, Fabio Frassetto e l’enigma del volto di Dante (2012])

Fabio Frassetto, Head of Dante, bronze (From: A.Cottignoli and G.Gruppioni, Fabio Frassetto e l’enigma del volto di Dante (2012])

In 2006 anthropologists at the University of Bologna, working on the skull with new methods of facial reconstruction, came up with what La Repubblica announced on its front page to be, at last, ‘the true portrait of Dante’.

Reconstruction of the head of Dante by the University of Bologna, 2006 (© La Repubblica)

Reconstruction of the head of Dante by the University of Bologna, 2006 (© La Repubblica)

The only relatively early verbal description of Dante, which can be set alongside this reconstruction, is that given by Boccaccio, presumably based on conversations held in Ravenna with people who had known the poet in his fifties:

“Our poet was of middle height and in his later years he walked somewhat bent over, with a grave and gentle gait. He was clad always in the most seemly attire, such as befitted his ripe years. His face was long, his nose aquiline, and his eyes rather big than small. His jaws were large, and his lower lip protruded. His complexion was dark, his hair and beard thick, black and curly, and his expression ever melancholy and thoughtful.”

What, meanwhile, have remained more plausible (if less ‘scientifically’ authenticated) portraits of Dante were those made at the beginning of the sixteenth century by Raphael, as part of his decoration for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace. Raphael had seen in Florence a number of fifteenth-century depictions of Dante which had together established a more-or-less canonical image: these must lie behind his depictions. Dante appears in Raphael’s frescoes among the theologians witnessing the Disputa concerning the Holy Sacrament, and again as one of the poets joining Apollo on Parnassus. Later artists would copy these representations of the poet, especially the former, which is closer to the eye level of the visitor. The Ashmolean owns a fine black chalk drawing after the Dante of the Disputa which may have been made by a pupil of Thomas Lawrence (but not, pace Francis Douce who owned the drawing before giving it to the museum, by Lawrence himself, who only visited Rome late in life and when working in a different style).

Pupil of Thomas Lawrence(?), Dante, after Raphael (Ashmolean Museum: WA1863.1413© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Pupil of Thomas Lawrence(?), Dante, after Raphael (Ashmolean Museum: WA1863.1413 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The nineteenth century would see a shift in taste from this type of the Dante portrait, haughty and austere, to a focus on a more youthful and romantic image. The change was facilitated by the publication of the Bargello ‘portrait’. It was the presentation to his father (by the indefatigable Kirkup) of a copy of this image which kindled in the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti an interest in the supposed relationship between Dante and Giotto, and fostered his own commitment to become an artist. The Ashmolean has relatively recently acquired a drawing for Rossetti’s painting of Giotto Painting Dante.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (record photo) (Ashmolean Museum: WA2014.36 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (record photo) (Ashmolean Museum: WA2014.36 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Another drawing for the work is in the Tate and the finished painting (c. 1852) is in the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (© Tate, London 2017)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (© Tate, London 2017)

The importance to Rossetti of this image of friendship between the poet after whom he had himself been named and the ideal painter is indicated by the fact that he made a watercolour copy in 1859 (Fogg Art Museum), in which his own features were given to the figure of Giotto – a further creative dimension of the nineteenth-century Dante cult.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Professor Gervase Rosser
History of Art Department & Faculty of History
University of Oxford

Martin Luther: ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen – An Open Letter on Translating (1530)

500 years ago, on 31st October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church (known as the Castle Church) in Wittenberg; this became known as the start of the Reformation.

Not many years later, in 1522, Luther finished his Bible translation into German, thus making the Bible accessible to people who did not know Latin. They could now read the Bible for themselves, and were no longer solely dependent on explanations and interpretations given by priests. Not only was this Bible translation hugely important in the breakthrough of the Reformation; it also was the deciding factor in determining the main language used in Germany. Since Luther wrote in his own High German dialect, this – rather than Low German – became the main language of Germany.

It was not just the fact that Luther had translated the Bible that was important: it was also the way he did it. Like others before him, Luther cultivated a sense-for-sense, as opposed to a word-for-word, approach. His great innovation was a translation style close in register to colloquial speech, but with a simple eloquence that brought the original text alive. (Jones 2017: xiv)

Luther explained his ideas about sense-for-sense translating of the Bible in an Open Letter, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (Open Letter on Translating). This Sendbrief or Open Letter is one of the Luther pamphlets the Taylorian is fortunate to hold. These pamphlets were acquired from several University Libraries, notably Heidelberg, in 1878. The Sendbrief was chosen for re-publication on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Subsequently, it has been published online, and including a translation into English, and can be freely downloaded from (print copies for sale in the library). Howard Jones translated the text into English, Henrike Lähnemann wrote the introduction and Emma Huber (German Librarian) prepared the digital publication.

Image of the Taylorian publication of Luther's Ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen - an open letter on translating.

The Sendbrief was read out in full on 25th May 2017 at the Taylor Institution by over 30 readers who read one or two paragraphs each. This reading event brought the text to life in a new way. The entire event is available on video from

As an author, Luther came across as a witty person who knew how to engage with his audience of ordinary people. He criticised his opponents for being ‘Esel’ (donkeys), not clever enough to understand that the real purpose of the Bible was to be read by all, whether educated or not.

Luther’s thoughts about translation also became clear to me when I heard the letter read aloud.  His thoughts on how to translate in such a manner that the ordinary person could understand the text can be regarded as an early example of translation theory. One of Luther’s arguments against literal translation was illustrated by the angel’s greeting to Mary ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord be with you’. Luther goes on to say ‘Tell me, is this good German? Show me any German who says, ‘You are full of grace’. For that matter, what German will understand the meaning of ‘full of grace’? They’re going to think of a barrel full of beer or a bag full of money. That’s why I rendered it into German as ‘gracious one’, to make it easier for a German to actually work out what the angel means by his greeting.’ Luther’s concern was that the language of the Bible should not be a barrier to understanding for those listening to it read aloud, or reading it themselves.

The facsimile and transcription can be found on



Martin Luther, translated by Howard Jones (2017) Ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen = An open letter on translating. Treasures of the Taylorian. Series one. Reformation pamphlets. Oxford : Taylor Institution Library.

Taylor Institution Library Main Stack BR333.L88 LUT 2017


Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

‘The Unnatural Life at the Writing-Desk’: Women’s Writing across the Long Eighteenth Century

In conjunction with the one-day interdisciplinary conference, ‘Women, Authorship, and Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century: New Methodologies’ (held on Saturday, 17th June, at the Taylor Institution and TORCH), the Taylorian hosted an exhibition entitled ‘The Unnatural Life at the Writing-Desk’: Women’s Writing across the Long Eighteenth Century. The exhibition was curated by Dr Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, Joanna Raisbeck and Ben Shears. The exhibition catalogue is available at this link.

The exhibition aims to display the contribution that women writers (broadly conceived) made to a variety of fields in the long eighteenth century, with sections, among others, on science, focussed on Emilie Du Châtelet; drama, with works by Hannah More and Charlotte von Stein; and letters. The aim is to move beyond entrenched or prescriptive ideas of the areas in which women could operate—including for example, translation—and to offer a nuanced perspective on the breadth and depth of women’s writing across Europe. The exhibition draws in the most part on volumes held in the special collections of the Taylor Institution Library, but also on the antiquarian collections of Somerville College, and showcases the work of, among others, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sophie Mereau, Fanny Burney, Françoise de Graffigny, and Catherine the Great.

Below are a few examples of some of the works exhibited, which have been chosen for how they differ from clichés of women’s writing in the eighteenth century, such as women primarily producing (epistolary) novels and translations. These include the German writer Benedikte Naubert was important for the development of the historical novel, Charlotte von Stein, who is better known for her relation to Goethe than her dramas, and an edition of Catherine the Great’s dramas. The volumes in themselves are intriguing historical and cultural artefacts:

Benedikte Naubert 

Benedikte Naubert (1756-1819) was one of the first professional female authors in Germany. Although her work has been overlooked in literary history because of its ‘trivial’ associations – a pejorative term, particularly in German literary historiography –, she influenced writers such as Ann Radcliffe and Friedrich Schiller by establishing the secret tribunal novel (Vehmgerichtsroman). Hermann von Unna (‘Hermann of Unna’, 1788) was the first of two such novels, with the second, Alf von Dülmen, following in 1791. Recently her oeuvre has been recognised for its importance in the development of the historical novel and fairy tale as literary genres, as well as preparing the ground for the genre of Gothic fiction.

Hermann von Unna was one of the first German Gothic novels to be translated into English in 1794 and was adapted for the stage at Covent Garden in 1795, and a French dramatization was published in 1791, Le Tribunal Secret. Naubert draws on the German Vehmgericht (Vehmic courts) of the Middle Ages to explore in an intricate, episodic plot, the fears ignited by the French Revolution of secret tribunals and conspiracy theories. Although the Taylorian does not hold any German editions of Naubert’s Hermann von Unna, it does have French and English translations, including copies of the first three editions of Hermann von Unna in English, which all stem from the same anonymously published translation. The English translation erroneously ascribes the novel to a so-called Professor Kramer, an ill-chosen pseudonym since it was linked to Karl Gottlob Cramer, a writer known for adventure novels.

Charlotte von Stein

Neues Freiheitssystem oder die Verschwörung gegen die Liebe (‘New System of Freedom or the Conspiracy Against Love’, 1798), in Charlotte von Stein, Dramen, ed. Susanne Kord (Hildesheim: Olms, 1998) (facsimile) EP.667.A.10

Neues Freiheitssystem oder die Verschwörung gegen die Liebe (‘New System of Freedom or the Conspiracy Against Love’, 1798), in Charlotte von Stein, Dramen, ed. Susanne Kord (Hildesheim: Olms, 1998) (facsimile) EP.667.A.10

Charlotte von Stein (1742-1827), a lady-in-waiting at the court of Weimar, has featured in literary history primarily in association with Goethe. She is variously considered his close friend, muse, and – in the more sensationalist readings – his lover. But she also wrote several dramas, only one of which, Die Zwey Emilien (The Two Emilies), was published during her lifetime. Of these dramas, the tragedy Dido has garnered critical attention because of its gently comic portrayal of Goethe.

The comedy Neues Freiheitssystem oder die Verschwörung gegen die Liebe (‘New System of Freedom or the Conspiracy Against Love’, 1798), which explores the social construction of gender, is an interesting example of editorial practices. It was first published by von Stein’s grandson Felix von Stein in 1867, but in an edited form that reduced the original five acts to four. The drama was re-published with further editorial amendments by Franz Ulbrich, who based his edition on the 1867 publication, rather than on the original text.

Charlotte von Stein’s dramas were re-published as part of the series Frühe Frauenliteratur in Deutschland (Early Women’s Writing in Germany) by the publishing house Olms. These editions feature facsimiles of the original or pre-existing versions of the texts. In this case, the version of Neues Freiheitssystem oder die Verschwörung gegen die Liebe follows the twentieth-century publication edited by Franz Ulbrich.

Catherine the Great 

Catherine the Great and others, Théâtre de l’Hermitage de Catherine II, impératrice de Russie, 2 vols (Paris: F. Buisson, Year 7 [1798]) VET.FR.II.B.1412 (v. 1)

Catherine the Great and others, Théâtre de l’Hermitage de Catherine II, impératrice de Russie, 2 vols (Paris: F. Buisson, Year 7 [1798]) VET.FR.II.B.1412 (v. 1)

Elite women wrote and performed in private theatricals all across eighteenth-century Europe, from Elizabeth, Countess Harcourt, in Oxfordshire to Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Catherine the Great in Russia did not perform herself, but she wrote extensively for the public and the private stage. In 1787-1788, she led her courtiers and some foreign diplomats in composing a series of theatrical works (largely proverb plays), which were then performed by a troupe of French actors in the recently-built Hermitage theatre in her palace in St Petersburg. She oversaw the first edition of the plays in 1788, distributing the very small print run only to those who had contributed to the collection. One of the participants, the then French ambassador Louis Philippe de Ségur, then republished the work after her death. This volume is the curious result of publishing a relic of ancien régime culture in Revolutionary France: a particularly inaccurate engraving of the Empress faces a title page using the Revolutionary calendar but prominently crediting an absolute monarch and outspoken opponent of the Revolution as the lead author.

Beyond showcasing the variety of women’s writing in print form in the eighteenth century, one unique and valuable item that was on display was a letter by Joséphine de Beauharnais to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Letter from Joséphine de Beauharnais to Napoleon Bonaparte, 5 Ventôse [24 February 1796] Courtesy of Bryan Ward-Perkins and the President and Fellows of Trinity College, Oxford

Letter from Joséphine de Beauharnais to Napoleon Bonaparte, 5 Ventôse [24 February 1796]. Courtesy of Bryan Ward-Perkins and the President and Fellows of Trinity College, Oxford.

There are few extant letters by Josephine known to exist, and this one in particular had been known to exist from an undated facsimile from the early nineteenth century. This original manuscript of the letter was discovered in the archives of Trinity College by the Fellow Archivist Bryan Ward-Perkins. Since the letter is rare, the manuscript was only exhibited for one day of the exhibition, replaced by a scanned paper copy for the remainder of the time. It was nonetheless quite the coup to be allowed to include the letter in the exhibition.

The exhibition ran in parallel with two conferences, originally ‘Women, Authorship, and Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century: New Methodologies’ and then extended to cover the Women in German Studies Open Conference on Reform and Revolt. The exhibition was not just of interest to university students and academics, however, since it was also shown to the school pupils on the UNIQ summer schools in German and French – in the hope of conveying to the next generation how exciting it can be to work with books and manuscripts as historical objects.

Joanna Raisbeck
Somerville College, University of Oxford

A tale of two sisters: Simone and Hélène de Beauvoir’s La Femme rompue

‘I was her first “reader”, and I would draw’, writes Hélène de Beauvoir (1910-2001) in Souvenirs (De Beauvoir, 1987, p.72), where she recalls how, in the early years, she came to choose the vocation of artist, whilst her elder sister, Simone (1908-1986), preferred to write.

De Beauvoir, S. and H. de Beauvoir, 1967. La femme rompue. Title page. Paris: Gallimard. W.J. Strachan Collection, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford

Many years later, shortly after giving a speech on the subject of women and creativity during a visit to Japan in 1966 (Francis, Gontier and De Beauvoir, 1979, pp.458-474), the author of Le deuxième sexe (Gallimard, 1949) wrote to her younger sister with an invitation to create a series of engravings based on her new novel, La femme rompue (Gallimard, 1967). Although Gallimard initially hesitated to take on the project, over fears of it being a rather controversial piece of literature, the completed work, including its illustrations, was finally published in 1967 and also appeared in Elle magazine’s October-November issue of that year (Weber-Feve, 2010, p.82).

De Beauvoir, S., and H. de Beauvoir, 1967. La femme rompue, pp. 162-163. Paris: Gallimard. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. W.J. Strachan Collection. (Image: Koninklijke Bibliotheek/National Library of the Netherlands)

The novel is written in the form of an intimate diary and recounts the experience of a housewife who struggles to come to terms with the sudden discovery that her husband has another woman in his life. The main themes covered in the story are echoed in the individual memoirs of the Beauvoir sisters, with particular regard to their mother’s confined domestic life in their family home in the rue de Rennes, Paris, and Simone’s later experience as the second woman in her relationship with philosopher, novelist and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). It is this more personal content in La femme rompue, which drew scathing remarks from (male) critics, who viewed the novel as too autobiographical and less interesting than some of the author’s previous work.

Hélène readily accepted the invitation to create illustrations for her sister’s novel and strongly defended the text against the harsh criticism it received. As an art form, the livre d’artiste (artist’s book) was already well-established by this time, with a long tradition of artists, authors, designers and printers collaborating to produce books that were highly sought after by private collectors and bibliophile societies.

 Twentieth century artists’ books, showing artist-designed bindings. Sir Paul Getty Collection, Wormsley Library, Buckinghamshire. (Photo: Olivia Freuler)

Several publishers and art dealers had pioneered the genre in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939), who, in 1900, published Parallèlement by the French poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), with lithographs by the artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). These set themselves apart from earlier pictorial illustrations because of the way in which they explored the broader mood and themes of the poems instead of focusing mainly on the actions or situations described in the text (Castleman, 1994, pp.27-28). Similarly, Hélène de Beauvoir’s engravings for La femme rompue the different emotional states of the main character through figures that are either enclosed in small boxes or caught in a chaotic spiral of jumbled, jagged lines, thus powerfully conveying the way in which the narrator’s life is torn apart and tipped upside down by sudden and unexpected revelations.

In her own memoirs, Hélène expressed a certain fondness for working in black and white and mentions her admiration for classic French tales by La Comtesse de Ségur (1799-1874) and Charles Perrault (1628-1703), who respectively authored Les Malheurs de Sophie (1858) and Histoire ou Contes du temps passé (1697), citing in particular the illustrations by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for Perrault’s Contes as an early source of inspiration.

Gustave Doré. Illustration for ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ in Perrault, C. 1862. Les contes de Perrault. Paris: J. Hetzel  and Librairie Firmin Didot Freres et Fils. Woodcut.  (Image: / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Simone was supportive of her sister’s artistic career, and frequently helped pay for her studio in the rue Santeuil, Paris, in her formative years. However, her feelings about Hélène’s capabilities as an artist — and about women artists in general — were rather mixed, as is revealed through one of her letters to Sartre written in May 1954 (De Beauvoir, Sartre and Le Bon de Beauvoir, 1992, p.504) and in Le deuxième sexe, in a chapter titled “La Femme indépendante” where she laments the way in which women artists frequently see their work merely as a way to pass the time. (De Beauvoir and Parshley, 1953, pp.663-665). It wasn’t until 1966, on the occasion of the aforementioned speech in Japan, that Simone began to defend women artists and highlight the lack of support often faced by women who chose art as their vocation – a turning point that certainly encouraged a collaboration between the two siblings.

One hundred and forty-three copies were made of the illustrated edition of La femme rompue. Of the sixteen engravings produced by Hélène de Beauvoir for this publication, five form part of the Taylor Institution Library’s Strachan Collection of livres d’artistes extracts (now housed, for conservation reasons, at the Sackler Library). The collection was built by Walter Strachan (1903-1994) from the 1940s onwards and in it are a number of other works illustrated by women artists: Michèle Bardet, Micheline Catti (b.1926), Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1927-1991), Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), Denise Esteban (1924-1986), Léonor Fini (1908-1996), Carmen Martinez, Germaine Richier (1904-1959), Suzanne Roger (1898-1986), Brigitte Simon (1926-2009) and Ania Staritsky (1908-1981), all of whom are listed below along with the books’ authors.

Ania Staritsky. Illustration from: Albert-Birot, P., 1978. Poèmes du dimanche. Paris: Editions sic. Etching. W.J. Strachan Collection, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford. (Image: Strachan, W. J., 1987. Le livre d’artiste)

Olivia Freuler, Graduate Library Trainee, Sackler Library, Bodleian Libraries

Texts with illustrations by women artists in the Taylorian’s W.J. Strachan Collection

ALBERT-BIROT, P. (Author), STARITSKY, A. (Artist), 1978. Poèmes du dimanche. Paris: Editions sic.

BONNEFOY, Y. (Author), ESTEBAN, D. (Artist), 1973. Une peinture métaphysique. Paris: Esteban.

BUTOR, M. (Author), MARTNEZ, C. (Artist), 1976. Devises fantômes. Paris: Martinez.

CELAN, P. (Author), CELAN-LESTRANGE, G. (Artist), 1965. Atemkristall. Paris: R. Altmann.

CELAN, P. (Author), CELAN-LESTRANGE, G. (Artist), 1969. Schwarzmaut. Vaduz: Editions Brunidor.

DE NERVAL, G. (Author), FINI, L. (Artist), 1960. Aurélia. Monaco: Le Club International de Bibliophilie.

DORCELY, R. (Author), ROGER, S. (Artist), 1961. S.O.S. Paris: Galerie Louise Leiris.

ESTEBAN, C. (Author), SIMON, B. (Artist), 1968. La saison dévastée. Paris: D. Renard.

GARNUNG, F. (Editor), BARDET, M. (Artist), 1956. Epitaphes grecques et epitaphes funéraires grecques. Paris: Les Impénitents.

GHERASIM, L. (Author), CATTI, M. (Artist), 1967. Droit de regard sur les idées. M. Paris: Editions Brunidor & Robert Altmann.

RIMBAUD, J-A. (Author), RICHIER, G. (Artist), 1951. Une saison en enfer, Les déserts de l’amour, Les illuminations. Lausanne: Gonin.

SHAKESPEARE, W. (Author), FINI, L., (Artist), 1965. La Tempête. Paris : Aux dépens d’un amateur.

TZARA, T. (Author), DELAUNAY, S. (Artist), 1961. Juste présent. Paris: Galerie Louis Leiris.

ZDANEVICH, I. (Author), STARITSKY, A. (Artist), 1982. Un de la brigade. Paris: Hélène Iliazd.

I would like to thank Nick Hearn, French and Slavonic Subject Specialist, Taylor Institution Library, for his help in researching the Zdanevich title.


CASTLEMAN, R., 1994. A century of artist’s books. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

DE BEAUVOIR, H., ROUTIER, M. (ed.), 1987. Souvenirs. Paris: Séguier.

DE BEAUVOIR, S., 1959. Memoirs of a dutiful daughter. Translated by KIRKUP, J. New York and Cleveland: World Publishing Company. (Originally published in 1958, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée. Paris: Gallimard).

DE BEAUVOIR, S., 1953. The second sex. Translated by PARSHLEY, H.M. London: Jonathan Cape. (Originally published in 1949, Le deuxième sexe. Paris: Gallimard)

DE BEAUVOIR, S., 1969. The woman destroyed. Translated by O’BRIAN, P. London: Collins. (Originally published in 1967, La femme rompue: L’Age de discrétion. Monologue. Paris: Gallimard).

DE BEAUVOIR, S. 1979. La femme et la création. In: DE BEAUVOIR, S., FRANCIS, C. (ed.) and GONTIER, F. (ed.), Les écrits de Simone de Beauvoir: la vie, l’écriture, avec en appendice, textes inédits ou retrouvés. Paris: Gallimard.

DE BEAUVOIR, S., SARTRE, J-P., LE BON DE BEAUVOIR, S. (ed.), 1992. Letters to Sartre. Translated by HOARE, Q. London: Vintage. (Originally published in 1990, Lettres à Sartre. Paris: Gallimard).

MONTEIL, C., 2004. The Beauvoir sisters. Translated by DE JAGER, M. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

PERRAULT, C., STAHL, P.J. (ed.), DORE, G. (ill.) 1862. Les contes de Perrault. Paris: J. Hetzel and Librairie Firmin Didot Freres et Fils.

STRACHAN, W. J., 1987. Le livre d’artiste. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution.

WEBER-FEVE, S., 2010. (Re)Displaying Femininity and Home with Annie Ernaux and Simone De Beauvoir. In: WEBER-FEVE, S., Re-hybridizing transnational domesticity and femininity: women’s contemporary filmmaking and lifewriting in France, Algeria, and Tunisia. Lanham: Lexington Books.


BEATTIE, S., 2015. The owls are not what they seem…. [Online] Victoria & Albert Museum. [Jun 1, 2017]. Available:

KONINKLIJKE BIBLIOTHEEK. La femme rompue [Online] Koninklijke Bibliotheek. [20 April, 2017]. Available:

Further reading

JOHANKNECHT, S. et al., 2007. [Artist’s books: Special issue]. Art libraries journal, 32 (2).