Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A failed early modern memory theatre

I had reason to look at the various early editions of Florio’s translation of Montaigne. I had never seen this ‘comely frontispiece’ before, and thought I’d do a brief post on it. It appeared in the 1632 edition.

It comes with a variant on those ‘the mind of the frontispiece’ sets of verses that you sometimes get in early printed books.* These are graceful and well turned, and they adroitly turn the failure of an over-ambitious plan to advantage, for they explain how the picture doesn't convey the sense of the work.

As you will see if you read my transcript of the verses below, the scheme had been to do a woodcut of a many-roomed palace to symbolise the ‘Essays’ as a totality. The decoration of the many rooms would have been a memory theatre of the notable things in Montaigne; it would have displayed a cabinet of his wonders and rarities.

That was the plan, anyway. But the verses gracefully excuse its failure: Montaigne overwhelmed the capacity of visual art to represent his variety of subjects. So, the palace was dropped for a gateway (opened to all English readers by Florio’s translation) which invites the readers to pass through to see the riches beyond.

Who was working on this? Martin Droeshout, no less, did the engraving (and, I suppose, had struggled briefly with the scheme to depict a palace stuffed with visual allusions to Montaigne’s many subjects). My guess at the poet is Francis Quarles, as he has a rather similar conception in his Argalus and Parthenia frontispiece, also in 1632, but from a different publisher (John Marriott, and the engraving by Thomas Cecill: in Quarles’s vapid poem, the engraving is of a curtained ‘argument’ with supporting figures, to get you reading on).

Mary Edmonds has a brief ODNB life of Droeshout, and her publications may include some more informed comment on this elegant failure.

To the Beholder of this Title

When first this portlike Frontispiece was wrought,

To raise a Pile compleat, it was out thought,

Whose Roomes and Galleries should have been trim’d

With Emblemes, and with Pictures, fairly lim’d,

And drawne from those neat Peeces, which do lurke

Within the Closets of this Authors worke:

So placing them, and them contriving so,

That ev’ry Reader (passing to and fro)

By casting thereupon a glauncing eye,

Might in that Model or Epitomie

(Ev’n at the first aspect) inform’d have beene,

Of ev’ry Raritie contain’d within.

But walking through that Palace of Invention,

(The better to accomplish our Intention)

Wee found unlookt for, scattred here and there,

Such Profits, and such pleasures, ev’ry where,

In such Variety, that, but to name,

Each one, would make a Volume of the same.

For, in those Angles, and among those Leaves

Whereon the rash Beholders eye perceives

No shewes or promises, of such choice things

A diligent unfolder of them brings

Concealed Fruits to light: Ev’n thus did we

In such abundance, that they prove to bee

Beyond a brief expression, and have stop’t

Our purpose in presenting what wee hop’d.

In stead of Emblemes therefore, to explaine

The scope of this great Volume, we are faine

To fixe the Authors Title, on the Gate,

Annexed to his Name, presuming that

Will give this following Treatise much more praise

Then all the Trophies which our skill can raise.

For, he that hath not heard of Mountaine yet,

Is but a novice in the schools of wit.

You that so please may enter: For, behold

The Gate stands open, and the doores unfold

Their leaves to entertaine you. That French ward

Which lately kept you forth, is now unbard,

And you may passe at pleasure ev’ry way

If you are furnish’d with an English-key.

That, wee suppose you want not: If you do,

Wee are not they, whom this was meant unto:

Pray passe along, and stare no more on that

Which is the picture of you know not what,

Yet, if it please you, Spell it, And if than

You understand not, Give them roome that can.

* Edward Sherburne’s translation of Manilius has a fine Wencelaus Hollar, with explanatory verses giving explicitly the ‘mind of the frontispiece’. Funds for The London Bully (1683) either ran short or the picture of the prodigal was saucy enough to be swiped. I feel that I will want to post soon on the illustration to the work by Cave Beck, M.A.

1 comment:

Neophyte said...

Fabulous! Thank you for this.