Renaissance to the Modern Age

The Light of Knowledge Rekindled

The Renaissance was a period of revival when Europe awoke from the sleep of a thousand years and the study of the Ancient World was pursued with a degree of enthusiasm that still reverberates today. It was from the dawn of this period that we date the earliest beginnings of the modern taste for collecting the autographs of great men and women. Petrarch, the 14th century Italian scholar, poet and humanist, was the prime initiator in the recovery of knowledge from the writers of Rome and Greece. To him belongs the credit for first embarking on the search for ancient manuscripts, a passion that he passed on to his friend, Bocaccio. Petrarch’s inquiring mind and love of Classical authors led him to travel, visiting learned men and searching monastic libraries everywhere for Classical manuscripts. He personally discovered the Institutes of Quintilian (a Roman treatise on the art of oratory that constitutes an exhaustive encyclopedia of Roman educational practices), and in 1345 made a startling discovery – a collection of Cicero’s letters not previously known to exist. This led him to decry the neglect of manuscripts in the millennium since Rome fell. “Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover,” he wrote, “places a new offence…to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the…writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage.” Petrarch went a long way toward reversing that neglect. Under the influence of the movement he inaugurated, religious orders began to value and preserve the original manuscripts of their founders and distinguished members, often keeping them in the same cabinets as relics of the saints.

In the Renaissance, one of its chief financiers, the Fugger banking family, collected manuscripts. Oddly enough, so did Savonarola, the fiery opponent of the Renaissance who led Florence for four years and carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities, in which items associated with moral laxity (mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures, gaming tables, musical instruments, fine dresses, and the works of immoral and ancient poets) were burnt in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria.

For Friendship’s Sake

The earliest known autograph album was compiled in 1466 and proved to be the ancestor of millions upon millions of albums to come after. However, the practice of keeping an autograph album only became established in earnest after a Bohemian squire compiled one in 1507 and started a fad. The album was called an “album amicorum” or “book of friends,” and the point was to obtain the autographs of friends and acquaintances, and frankly, to show who you knew. By the mid-16th century it had become fashionable for students and members of the gentry, particularly in Germany, to keep these albums. In the books, professors as well as students made their contributions to the collector’s pages, and some of the surviving albums contain inscriptions by major figures and scholars of the day (they contain, in some instances, the only extant autographs of these great men). Some have illustrations by professional artists; Rembrandt drew “Simeon’s Ode” in the album amicorum of one Jacob Heyblocq in 1661. Travelers also kept the albums and used them not merely to obtain mementos, but to collect letters of introduction they could present to people at their upcoming destinations along their route. Thus, some albums are replete with lengthy letters written to secure aid for the album owner. The impetus for these collectors was therefore in part utilitarian; the value of the assembled signatures was in their ability to open doors, not intrinsic in the handwriting of the individual signers. The practice of keeping these albums became common throughout Europe by the 17th century. King Charles I of England maintained one that eventually became a prize possession of King George III.

Autograph Collecting Reborn

In the 17th century, the concept of collecting autographs and manuscripts, neither for the purpose of salvaging antiquity nor for friendship’s or convenience sake, but for interest and historical passion, was resurrected by French minister of state Antoine Lomenie de Brienne. He amassed a huge collection of 340 large volumes of significant manuscripts, some of them contemporary, and numerous others followed his collecting lead. In time, King Louis XIII would obtain the de Brienne collection and make it the basis of the French Royal Library. In England, this was the century of the great antiquaries, and some of them, such as John Evelyn and Ralph Thoresby, began to see the historical value of the papers of the day and compiled the letters of their eminent friends. Elias Ashmole, who avidly collected manuscripts later in the century, bequeathed a priceless collection of them to Oxford University.

During the 1700’s, interest in this avocation spread to persons of leisure throughout Europe, a number of whom assembled collections of correspondence and literary manuscripts written by the great men and women of history and literature. The focus at that time was on monumental figures from the past; John Milton was an appropriately famous literary subject, and any number of Continental royals were also suitable for this purpose. Autograph collectors then had two justifications for their activities: historical purposes (to preserve the original manuscripts of an important person), and to showcase the collector’s social status. For while there did not exist a large economic market for autograph letters and manuscripts, to have access to them meant that you were a respected, cultured, and well-connected figure. Sir Richard Phillips, who started collecting late in the 18th century and rather extravagantly liked to claim to be the first collector of autographs in England, amassed reams of precious manuscripts. His claim was not totally off-base, however, as he was indeed the first person perhaps anywhere in the modern era who understood and appreciated the financial value of these pieces. He once had a manuscript of George Washington and volunteered that he expected a grant of land in America in exchange for it. But he was far from alone in collecting, as by 1789 there was enough interest in the field to lead John Thane to publish the first book offering a selection of autograph facsimiles – British Autography. This added awareness also resulted in the donation of more manuscripts to institutions. At this time, Lord Frederick Campbell gave the British Museum the earliest royal autograph of England known to exist – a cross written in the hand of King William Rufus, circa 1090, in the center of a document in which he gave the manor of Lambeth to the church of Rochester. That is where things stood at the dawn of the 19th century – a small number of wealthy enthusiasts, scholars and antiquarians had established the hobby of collecting historically interesting manuscripts of deceased notable personalities.

An Autograph Marketplace Is Created in England

According to George Smith, publisher of Cornhill Magazine, the premier English magazine of the day, until 1822 transactions involving the sale and transfer of autograph collections were handled privately. That year, for the first time, they were sold publicly and singly. By the early 1830’s, a public market for autographs was being established, and auctioneers began holding sales specifically containing books and autographs. The great bibliophile Thomas Thorpe, one of London’s best known booksellers whose finger was in every important pie at the time, became the first autograph dealer when he converted his inventory to one in which manuscripts accounted for 2/3 of his holdings. By the mid-1830’s, he began issuing autograph catalogs fulled with material; in 1841, he offered his customers some 16,000 pieces. Thorpe’s best customer was Sir Thomas Phillips who in one memorable case purchased every single item in the Thorpe catalog. It would be half a century before an American autograph marketplace of that sophistication would emerge.

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