Francisco Bethencourt, Florike Egmond, eds. Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, vol. 3: Correspondence and Cultural Exchange in Europe, 1400-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xx + 374 pp. EUR 70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-84548-9.
Reviewed by Milton Kooistra (Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, University of Toronto)
Published on H-German (August, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Letters as Messengers
This collection of essays is the final volume in a short series, Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, devoted to four major themes: religion, the city, communication and information, and the conception of man and the use of material goods. The volumes in this series represent the synthesis of works from a research program sponsored by the European Science Foundation and financed by eighteen research councils in seventeen countries. The result is a wonderful mishmash of research by scholars and experts from remarkably diverse backgrounds and specialties. The stated aim of the editors of this volume, Francisco Bethencourt and Florike Egmond, is to explore the correspondence not only of scholars, but also of merchants, politicians, artists, and even illiterate peasants. Attention is given to correspondence in the vernacular as opposed to Latin, the customary language of the Renaissance respublica literaria. Moreover, the editors hope to demonstrate that correspondence in the early modern period was exchanged through a variety of media: certainly via the traditional letter, but also in newsletters and reports. Moreover, they assert, it served a purpose much greater than the mere exchange of information; correspondence was also an "instrument of cultural exchange and transmission" (p. 4). Correspondence created "different networks of exchange" (p. 6) with reciprocal effects for members of different strata of European society, shaping the ethos of various social groups, defining new fields of research and exchange, and sharing political, commercial, diplomatic, or scientific information and opinions. At the start, the editors introduce us to Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), a French polymath whom Pierre Bayle later described as the "General Attorney" of the Republic of Letters. Though Peiresc published almost nothing, he left behind more than ten thousand letters that demonstrate the broad geographical reach of his network, the wide social range of his correspondents, the diversity of topics discussed, his systematic use of vernacular languages, and the semi-public aspect of his letters. For these reasons, the editors have rightly chosen Peiresc as an "icon" of this volume, a man whose correspondence raises a number of issues addressed in the book. The editors have structured the volume according to two main areas of research and analysis: networks and markets of information; and functions and meanings of correspondence, the latter of which is further subdivided into two segments, one concerning the field of the arts and the other the political sphere.
In the first essay, Mario Infelise examines the means by which news traveled in the early modern period and how it became the source of public information. He argues that in the late fifteenth century, the growing need of diplomatic envoys for information enhanced news-gathering and accelerated the flow of news. Merchants networks had dominated news-gathering before, but with the establishment of permanent diplomatic ties between states, both the type and scale of news sought changed. Official ambassadors and envoys culled merchant letters for the latest news and then forwarded it to their home governments in the form of handwritten avvisi, a word later supplanted by gazette. By the sixteenth century, avvisi evolved into a well-defined product with a standard layout, including headlines and news organized according to the place it had been collected. Author's names were increasingly omitted, an indication, Infelise argues, of a desire to pass on news worthy of a wider audience. Growing demand for information hastened the expansion of Europe's postal system in the sixteenth century to the point that news from elsewhere in the world became fairly commonplace.
Closely tied to Infelise's essay is the contribution by Zsuzsa Barbrics and Renate Pieper, which focuses on handwritten and printed newsletters as a means of communication. The authors begin by pointing out some general characteristics of handwritten newsletters found in key collections across Europe, most notably the Fuggerzeitungen collection in Vienna, which consists of twenty-seven volumes, each containing several thousand newsletters. The authors demonstrate that news tended to flow northwards from Italy, especially Venice and Rome, in the form of avvisi drawn from merchant letters. Professional agents, the predecessors of today's journalists, read through the reports and compiled their own vernacular newsletters--called avvisi in Italy and Spain, gazettes in France and the Netherlands, and Neue Zeitungen in the German-speaking lands--to reach an audience closer to home. They were typically written on one or two sheets of paper that were folded once; some even included illustrations. Newsletters were often bundled together with other forms of correspondence. By the sixteenth century, these newsletters shared common features: first, both author and recipient were unnamed, allowing greater dissemination of the letter and the ability to avoid censorship regulations. Second, they included headings, followed by a brief but generally reliable report about outstanding events, usually of a political or military nature. Using the news about the Battle of Lepanto (1571) as a case study, the authors compare handwritten newsletters with printed broadsheets. They demonstrate that the latest news was spread by handwritten means; broadsheets appeared later and tended to be based on the handwritten newsletters. The spread of the latest news about the battle also confirms the central position of Venice and Rome for the dissemination of news to the rest of Europe. By the seventeenth century, however, Antwerp had grown in importance, leading to development of a northwestern axis between Antwerp and Cologne.
The third essay in this collection is by Francesca Trivellato, who contends that private correspondence exchanged among merchants involved in long-distance trade remained the single most important source of information throughout the early modern period, despite the appearance and diffusion in the sixteenth century of printed periodicals that offered economic information. She argues that business correspondence was instrumental in forging durable economic relations with outsiders and in allowing merchants to exert control over their agents overseas. It dealt with three main categories of information: first, commodity prices, local units of weights and measures, and exchange rates; second, news relating to political, military, and diplomatic matters; finally, and perhaps most importantly, information about the reputations of the merchants themselves. Trivellato presents a case study of merchant correspondence based on the almost fourteen thousand letters written between 1704 and 1746 by the Ergas and Silvera, a partnership of Sephardic Jews from Livorno (Tuscany), to both Jews and gentiles in the numerous ports of the Mediterranean and northern Europe, and even to Goa. She focuses on 242 letters addressed to Christian (mostly Italian) merchants in Lisbon and 86 to Hindu merchants in Goa, all of which concern trade in coral and diamonds. These letters helped link together distant communities and transcend cultural barriers between people separated by dramatic ethnic and religious divides.
Florike Egmond's article on the correspondence of Carolus Clusius (1525-1609), a foremost botanist of the sixteenth century, describes the formation of a "virtual" community of European natural historians and rounds off part 1 of the book. Clusius's correspondence, much of which survives in manuscript form (mainly in Leiden and Erlangen), is of vital importance for understanding the burgeoning field of botany, whose practitioners helped fuel the early modern craze for exotic plants such as tulips and botanical gardens. About half of his letters are in Latin, while the rest are either in French, German, Dutch, or Italian, testimony to Clusius's skill in languages. Most of his correspondents were fellow botanists, collectors, and garden owners from across Europe. Egmond also discusses the role of friendship in Clusius's correspondence. She argues that friendship played an important role in creating a community of scholars bound together by their love for botany and naturalia. Friendship was expressed by the exchange of material objects, such as plants, seeds, and books, as well as non-material gifts, such as knowledge, time, and assistance. Egmond includes a translation of a letter from James (Jacques) Garet, Jr. to Clusius of 1590 that effectively illustrates her point about friendship and exchange in the correspondence of early modern botanists.
Part 2 begins with an article by Fernando Bouza, who focuses on the correspondence between Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a courtier, and Martín de Aragón, duke of Villahermosa, which deals mainly with artistic issues. Granvelle acted as an agent for the duke all over Europe, sending not only gifts, but also information on the life and work of artists the duke patronized. Bouza argues that the correspondence between Perrenot and Villahermosa demonstrates how a handwritten letter and an accompanying portrait reflect early modern courtly customs of gift-giving and serve as a deferential expression of friendship and service, especially for people separated by great distance. A handwritten letter served "as a second-best substitute for private conversation" and portraits "for personal contact" (p. 154).
Peter Mason's contribution focuses on the correspondence and paintings of the French artist Nicolas Poussin, in particular on his famous letter of 1639 to Paul Fréart de Chantelou, cousin and agent of François Sublet de Noyers, the principal advisor on the arts to Cardinal Richelieu. Poussin describes a recent painting, Israelites Gathering the Manna (1638), which he is sending to Chantelou, and suggests the frame that would best complement its colors. Although Chantelou wrote that the painting accompanied the letter, it was only later forwarded to Chantelou, according to the letter's postscriptum. Based on this fact, Mason contends that the letter is an example of "deferred presence." Poussin's letter is a substitute for his physical presence and for the actual painting, and hints at his reluctance to postpone a move from Rome to the royal court. In the second half of the article, Mason concludes that Poussin understood that the act of reading a painting has a temporality of its own alongside the different temporalities depicted in the painting itself, that is to say, an Old Testament story with classical motives and a New Testament perspective of salvation. In the appendix, Mason includes a transcription of the letter along with a facsimile copy.
The final article in part 2 is by Irene Baldriga, who examines correspondence as an instrument of exchange and art-collecting that played an important role in the development of galleries and museums in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The correspondence of famous people, such as Athanasius Kircher, was collected and shown to visitors. Letters are a unique source of information about the attitude and taste of early modern collectors. The collections of the Gonzagas, Vincenzo Giustiniani, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel, and Kircher attest to the importance of correspondence in transmitting patterns of collecting and creating museums on a European scale. Baldriga argues that the first illustrated catalogues of museums were motivated by the desire to have the collection survive beyond the material proximity of its pieces. Letters were often included in portraits of a collector as a status symbol. Even after individual collections were sold, correspondence could keep alive the "aura" of the collection long after its sale and dispersal. Baldriga concludes her article by turning her attention to cabinets d'amateurs, a genre of painting developed in Flanders. These were portraits of a collector and his museum, where the emphasis was on displaying the quantity of pieces. She thinks that they represent a vulgarization of the practice of collecting, for the painting becomes a sort of catalogue of a collection or an imagined gallery.
Part 3 opens with a fascinating essay by Francisco Bethencourt that compares the correspondence of Afonso de Albuquerque and Hernán Cortés to their respective monarchs in Portugal and Castile, which portrayed them as conquerors and reflected on the political issues resulting from their actions. Cortés, Bethencourt writes, fought for political legitimacy; Albuquerque, by contrast, for political support. Bethencourt turns his attention first to an analysis of the 116 surviving letters from Albuquerque, written between 1507 and 1515. They attest to Albuquerque's struggle, and eventual failure, to win solid or consistent political support from the king, though he could implement the policies he defined in the field, imposing them on the royal court, even when he acted without royal assent. In the second section, the author discusses the five long reports written by Cortés to Charles V between July 1519 and September 1526. Bethencourt notes that the first three were written to justify Cortés's military actions and diplomatic maneuvers to conquer territory in Mexico and to persuade Charles to recognize him as Captain-General of New Spain. The last two, on the other hand, record Cortés's efforts to maintain or extend his power against royal bureaucrats, something for which he needed his sovereign's recognition. The correspondences offer different solutions to the political issues concerning European imperialism. Both men strove to be portrayed as heroes, but in the end, only Cortés enjoyed fame during his lifetime, unlike Albuquerque, whose reputation was not truly established until the mid-sixteenth century.
Dejanirah Couto examines the interesting topic of spying in the Ottoman Empire, whose state secrets were reported back to Europe by means of encrypted correspondence. She traces the transition from a rudimentary fourteenth-century network of domestic spying, designed to preserve internal security, to the creation of an organized secret service for foreign policy. Several fifteenth-century Italian humanists, such as Leon Battista Alberti and Cicco Simonetta, wrote treatises on cryptography. Cryptography offered a solution to the problem of maintaining the confidentiality of correspondence in an age of uncertain transportation and possible interception. Couto writes that two major cipher systems were employed in the Renaissance: transposition, whereby letters kept their identity but were shifted or mixed by prearranged rules, and substitution, whereby letters lost their identity but kept their place, a method considered more complex and therefore safer. Keys to the codes, usually based on a biblical phrase or prayer, were constantly developed and replaced to ensure the security of the encrypted messages. Over the sixteenth century, cryptography became an increasingly sophisticated art, thanks to a number of key treatises, such as those by Johannes Trithemius and Giovanni Battista Della. Venice led the way in training encoders, who were obliged to take oaths of obedience to the Council of Ten and forbidden to reveal codes to those outside the ducal palace. Because of the complexities of cryptography, encoders also continued to use memorization codes (in parabula), a much simpler technique that did not require knowledge of various languages or mathematics. Instead, one name was simply replaced by another. Venice, Portugal, and Spain were at the forefront in the development of cryptography. In the latter half of the article, Couto focuses on spying in the Ottoman Empire, with particular attention to an in parabula code from Naples, addressed to Juan Campos, a secret agent living at Foggia. It contains general instructions about his mission and a coded glossary for him to use. She analyzes the spy's mission in the context of Naples's war with the Ottomans, and examines the code for its various categories and classifications.
The final contribution to this volume is a contribution by the late István György Tóth, who examines the problems and implications of the correspondence of illiterate peasants in early modern Hungary. A very small percentage of Hungarian peasants had the capacity to write and sign a document. Even judges and regional bailiffs were not always literate. Illiterate people of any social status were obliged to resort to a third party, usually a schoolmaster, parish priest, student, or merchant, to sign official documents, or read/write letters between lovers and relatives. According to Tóth, delegated reading and writing remained a major means of communication in daily life, bereft, however, of any of the intimacy that characterizes nineteenth-century private correspondence. These delegated letters were most frequently corroborated by oral messages.
This collection of essays will be of great interest to any historian involved with correspondence and cultural exchange in the early modern period. It helps to broaden our understanding and definition of correspondence to include not just letters, but also newsletters and reports, which often contained scientific ideas, gifts, portraits, information, and so. This fine volume adds creatively and meaningfully to scholars' knowledge of the Republic of Letters.
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Milton Kooistra. Review of Bethencourt, Francisco; Egmond, Florike, eds., Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, vol. 3: Correspondence and Cultural Exchange in Europe, 1400-1700.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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