The shipwreck of antiquarianism

“Antiquities, or remnants of history, are, as was said, TANQUAM TABULA NAUFRAGII [like a plank of a shipwreck], when industrious persons by an exact and scrupulous diligence and observation, out of monuments, names, words, proverbs, traditions, private records and evidences, fragments of stories, passages of books that concern not story, and the like, do save and recover somewhat from the deluge of time.”

Bacon’s famous definition (from a work of 1605) picks up a topos of comparing antiquarianism to the recovery of a shipwreck that circulated among writers on and of antiquarianism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Recently Riccardo Fubini showed the origin of the topos in the preface of Flavio Biondo’s Italia Illustrata (1453):

sed gratias mihi potius de perductis ad litus e tanto naufragio supernatantibus, parum autem apparentibus, tabulis haberi, quam de tota navi desiderata rationem a me exposci debere contenderim

“I reckon that I should be thanked for the bringing to shore, from such a huge shipwreck, the planks floating on the surface, although they are only a few, rather than be called to account for the whole ship”

As Fubini pointed out, this, in turn, refers to Biondo’s involvement with Alberti’s failed scheme to raise Caligula’s luxury barges from the floor of Lake Nemi.

I bring up this shipwreck topos because I have just come across another use of a nautical metaphor in an antiquarian work and I’m trying to think through whether it is a conscious call-back to Biondo’s preface. At the end of every edition of his Britannia – which does for Britain what Biondo did for Italy and was first published in 1586- William Camden writes:

Nihil aliud restat, cum e scrupulosis Antiquitatis cautibus enavigarit oratio, quam ut nautae olim Neptuno vela lacera, sic ego etiam aliquod DEO OPT. MAX. & Venerandae Antiquitati anathema consacrarem, quod libens merito nunc voveo & suo tempore Deo volente vota solveam.

“Nothing remains, since the work has come out of the rough rocks of Antiquity, except, as sailors once dedicated their torn sails to Neptune, that I should make a dedication to the BEST GREATEST GOD and Honored Antiquity, which I now vow freely and deservedly and I will fulfill the vow in its time, God willing.”

While Camden was still alive and in cooperation with him, Philemon Holland translated the whole work (published 1610). His translation of this passage reads:

Nothing remaineth now, seeing that my penne hath with much labour strugled and sailed at length out of so many blind shelues and shallowes of the Ocean and craggy rocks of antiquity, save onely this, that seamen were wont in old time, to present Neptune with their torne sailes, or some saved planks according to their vow; so I also should consecrate some monument unto the Almighty and Most Gracious God, and to Venerable Antiquity: which now right willingly and of duty I vow, and God willing in convenient time I will performe and make good my vow.

Holland’s translation adds something interesting. The Latin mentions that sailors would dedicate their torn sails – vela lacera – but has nothing about “saved planks”. Camden’s original phrasing appears to provide a rather trite writerly metaphor – book as voyage – which also fits with the final section of the book, a survey of the smaller British islands.

My suggestion – though I don’t feel certain – is that Holland added the phrase about saved planks to allude to the Baconian definition of antiquities and to mark the genre of Camden’s Britannia. The publication of Bacon’s On the Advancement of Learning preceded the translation of Camden’s big book only by a couple of years, but surely was well known enough to have influenced the translator. In the context of Camden’s rather more dramatic nautical (even oceanic) metaphor, it is interesting too to see how far the antiquarian planks may have come from Alberti’s attempt to raise the Roman imperial pleasure barges from the rather placid lake at Nemi.


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