01 July 2020

Metsys' meeting of minds

If history has a tendency to repeat itself, then where better to look for lessons on how to adapt to the current situation. The School of History at UEA has published a series of blogs looking at past events that have relevance to the current crisis. Here Dr Oren Margolis looks to the Renaissance for alternative visions of how academics can come together at a time of social distancing.  

Metsy portraits

There are two portraits – originally a diptych, now in different locations – which feature in my current research and which now come to mind. They were painted in Antwerp in 1517 by Quentin Metsys, one of the leading artists of the Northern Renaissance, and depict Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most famous humanist of his day, and his friend and fellow scholar Pieter Gillis. A third friend, Thomas More, is also present in the work, in the form of a letter (Metsys reproduced his handwriting!) held in Gillis’s hand: the diptych was a gift for him. Although there is no sense that Erasmus and Gillis are physically proximate, the wooden bookshelves behind them are continuous, joining their separate spaces.

This is where the work becomes interesting for our own moment. These bookshelves are loaded with works authored, edited, or recommended by Erasmus: his scholarship is at the heart of this long-distance humanist friendship. Beyond the frame, many others across Europe who had never met Erasmus could encounter those same works through the new technology of the printing press, and could apply his educational methods, read his works, and share in the same ‘republic of letters’. It is a picture of learning, of teaching, and of scholarship itself that we would do well to reflect upon today.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, stories such as the one about what Isaac Newton achieved at home when he was sent away from Cambridge during a plague outbreak made the rounds. Yet rather than comforting ourselves with what we might do in isolation, we might think about what other precedents for academic sociability there are to draw upon, now and in a possibly changed future.

Throughout its thousand-year history, the university as an institution has always depended on bringing people together – students and faculty, in lectures and seminars, research groups, social settings, and sometimes just serendipitously. Universities produce a special energy, which I love, and I desperately want us to get back to that. But the example of the Renaissance shows us that there are alternatives. Renaissance humanism did not grow up in universities. It first spread through networks of scholars and sometimes schools and other centres in Italian cities, but always had a sense of being geographically unbounded. Learned friendships and debates took place entirely through the exchange of books and letters. It was printing that freed humanism even further from place, allowing a proliferation of scholarly endeavour now seen as cumulative and a sense of belonging cultivated by shared reading.

People in the Renaissance did not see themselves as isolated: the Metsys diptych makes that much clear. And yet what did Erasmus need but a publishing house to print his works, an amanuensis to draft his letters (we must content ourselves with our laptops), and a wide network of students and scholars to exchange these with? In some aspects of our lives, we are finding that our new technologies and modes of communication are making proximity (or lack thereof) almost entirely irrelevant. These reflections don’t recommend any one course of action. They do tell us that proximity and contact are not all, and that trying to replicate what we don’t have is not the only solution.

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Image caption: The separated and here reunited portraits of Erasmus of Rotterdam (left) and Pieter Gillis (right) by Quentin Metsys, 1517