Saturday, August 27, 2011

Robert Curzon, A Short Account of Some of the Most Celebrated Libraries of Italy (1854)

“Robert Curzon was abnormally short, reaching five foot three inches at the age of sixteen. His physical undersize and his highly strung and intensely shy personality were a problem to his family, although they thought it was ‘nothing a good school with well-ventilated dormitories could not put right’. After a number of schools he ended up at Charterhouse ... and then after three years private tutoring went up to Christ Church, Oxford. He failed Responsions, and left without a degree in 1829 after four terms, because his Greek did not match his knowledge of Latin grammar, and because his tutor told him he was wasting his time.’ Robin Cormack, ‘Curzon’s Gentleman’s Book’, in R. Cormack and E. M. Jeffries, eds, Through the Looking Glass: Byzantium through British Eyes, SPBS 7 (Aldershot, 2000), pp. 147-59, at 150.

‘In 1833 he began those travels which have made his name renowned. Setting out with his close friend Walter Sneyd, Curzon travelled through Europe before visiting, with George Joseph Palmer, Egypt and the Holy Land in 1833–4, on a tour of research among the monastery libraries, gathering many valuable manuscripts. He returned to England in 1834, before setting out on a second tour in 1837–8, when he visited Mount Athos and bought five manuscripts from several monasteries there, before making further purchases in Egypt. His experiences are recorded in his Visit to the Monasteries in the Levant (1849). It immediately gained popularity, running to six editions by 1881.’ Stanley Lane-Poole, in. L. Stephens,  ed., Dictionary of National Biography (London, 1889) 13, col.  354.

It is doubtful that Robert Curzon’s works are very much read these days outside academic circles dedicated to the study of Victorian travel literature, Orientalism, and the cultures of colonial collecting. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, however, Curzon’s Visit to the Monasteries in the Levant (1849), an account of his travels and acquisition of manuscripts in the eastern Mediterranean was a major best seller. Curzon followed his explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean with travels in Italy, with the same purpose in mind: the discovery of lost classical works. The resulting account was neither a best seller nor, strictly speaking, a book at all, but rather a long account published in the 1854 Miscellany of the Philobiblon Society. With hindsight Curzon’s Visit to...the Levant might be seen as an early example of that narrow tradition of peculiarly English travel writing - a tradition in which Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin also stand - in which the road to Athos and Aleppo runs by way of Shepherd Market and Dover Street. By contrast, Curzon’s neglected Account of the Most Celebrated Libraries of Italy stands to day as a rare  - if slight - instance of an English contribution to the genre of the manuscript hunting humanist's travelogue  that runs from Poggio and Niccoli through the travels of Mabillon and de Montfaucon to the sommerreisen of Monumentists such as Bruno Krusch. Curzon's trip to Italy seems to have netted no new MSS, however, and little consequent opprobium. Published at a time when serious manuscript research and text editing was well under way at the MGH under Pertz's directorship, Curzon's entertaining account, with its ligatures and long s's,  is knowingly and intentionally antiquarian. And all the more engaging for it ...
  Robert Curzon, A Short Account of Some of the Most Celebrated Libraries of Italy’, Bibliographical and Historical Miscellanies of the Philobiblon Society (1854). 
The 'curious' Lombard law collection that Curzon saw, by the way, is the famous Codex Legum Langobardorum, La Cava, Archivio della Badia della Santissima Trinita, 4. L. Mattei-Cerasoli, Codices Cavenses I: Codices membranacei (Cava, 1935), pp. 22-5; G.H. Pertz, Archiv 5 (1824), 247-58. Images of the royal portraits in the MS as well as those of Odin and Freya can be found at various places on line.