Thursday, 30 June 2005

What's in a Name?

I love the names of shops here, the way that they use English (or rather english) to attract attention rather than to mean anything. It's a form of tourist vulgarity I suppose. So there is an ice-cream shop very close to the Duomo called "Very Good!" - with the exclamation mark, that's important. I like that one. Then there is the use of the phrase "Self-Service", of which it appears nobody in Italy knows the exact meaning. You see it in restaurants that are certainly not self-service, and I have seen it over the entrance to a....clothes shop! Now what can that possibly mean? Another of my favourites is a shop on via dei Calzaiuoli, a rather posh street leading from the Duomo eventually down to the Piazza della Signoria. It is called "expensive!", that's with the small "e", and the exclamation mark. Is that a sort of piss take of tourists who are easily parted with their money, or maybe it's directed at the Italians who wouldn't quite get the sfumature of the word? I might buy something there just to have the bag with the name on it.

Classes are going well, in the sense that nothing has changed. Yesterday one of the barons said that he was conscious that some of the doctoral students might have trouble following so his paper would be directed at us and apologised to his colleagues who would know all this already - he then proceeded to give exactly the same paper he had written for the seminar, written for his colleagues. A couple of us asked questions but there were not really listened to. This is not for us. I don't really know what to say about all this. I'm torn between enjoying the high level of philology and the complete lack of respect for the context.

We were supposed to eat with some of the students who had travelled from the south but they didn't wait for us and started eating without us. We didn't join them. It didn't seem worth it after such bad manners.

Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Petrarca and Inferno

The beach was a hoot, apart from the sunburn. But it's healing nicely now, so don't worry. I hadn't seen Emilia's nieces in 5 years and they have completely grown up. It's incredible.

This week we've got a week of double classes, i.e. a morning and afternoon session. What was originally planned was about 5 scholars talking about Petrarch. That's what was on the programme originally. Somehow this has transformed itself into an editorial committee of everyone working on a new edition of the complete works of Petrarch. What has happened is that one of the main guys decided to get everyone together and to do a kind of progress report on the edition. The doctoral students are utterly and completely excluded from this exercise. Betsy, my crazy American friend, said that it sounds like a typical summer school. But actually this is not a summer school at all - these are the normal classes for the doctorate of this institute. What has happened is that their classes have been hijacked, if you like, and they've been left out in the cold. The 'lectures', which are 15 - 20 mins long, by a whole series of illustrious filologists and famous people, are directed at eachother, not at students. There is no attempt to direct anything at them. And, furthermore, one famous Petrarch scholar has brought his doctoral students from another city, to participate. It's just that they are being treated as guests, so they all go out to lunch and dinner, with the speakers etc. So there is a complete separation of us and them.
Don't get me wrong: what's going on is very very interesting, and it's exciting to put faces on all the famous names. Really. I would also like to say that the only academic who has bothered, so far, to direct a word to the natives is Silvia Rizzo. It just goes to show that the greats are so often blessed with magnanimitas. As for the rest, guardo, e passo.

On top of this, and maybe making it worse, is the heat. Really, it is so hot I can hardly think straight. Yesterday it was more than 38 degrees (that's celsius, 450 Fahrenheit), and as bad today. Oh my god. You cannot imagine how uncomfortable it is to feel and hot AND not understand anything that's being said in class. You feel like jumping up in class and shouting out: "Is it hot in here or is it just me? AM I THE ONLY ONE DYING HERE!!"

Today we had lunch at the apartment of three of those on the course, Anna, Ilaria, and Stefano. It was delightful. They prepared a wonderful rice dish, and then we had anguria. Yummy.

Saturday, 25 June 2005


I'm off to the seaside on Sunday. Emilia, her brother, and his two daughters (and me!) are all going to the seaside - somewhere near Ancona. I can't wait. I'm off now to buy a bucket and spade. And some sun screen.

Some kind person called "Dutchie" told me that those Vape thingies are illegal in "Dutchland" (I presume) because they cause CANCER. So in addition to mosquitoes and sunburn, I've got cancer to deal with here. You know what, I think I'm going to be glad to get back to Northern Europe. I can't believe I'm saying that.

I went to eat in a nice place called Café Godò last night, not far from where I'm staying. It's quite nice I must say. I sat outside and had directly opposite a woman with perhaps the most annoying voice I've ever heard. She was making such a racket about having to leave by 9.30 that if she had shut up and eaten more she'd have been gone in 10 minutes. Beside me was a couple gurgling at eachother in a most unseemly manner. I'm all for love (I'm even in love myself), but really, I'm not at all sure that is appropriate. She looked a little cheap to be honest - all OTT designer stuff, him with his diamond earring and Rolex (common as muck here by the way, every second person has one). Yuk.

I have forgotten about my friend's birthday: Belinda, happy birthday. I'll send a card on Monday. I'm an evil person to have forgotten and I am so sorry. Did you have a nice day? I've also received news that Pat and Siobhán have just had a baby. That's rather exciting.

Thursday, 23 June 2005

Armani, Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana

Yes dear reader, this is what I have to put up with here. All of these lovely things and no money to buy them. But I can still look. I keep having these fantasies that I try on loads of designer things and there's an earthquake or something and I walk blithely out of the shop with a year's salary of clothes on while everyone is running for cover. Even if I were killed I'd look great. A win win situation.

Today was the last lecture by Winterbottom. It was very good. A real slap to some of the barons here. Humble, generous, open, and utterly utterly competent. He was interested in what the students were doing, and made no attempt to hide behind his reputation. His lecture talked about some of his own emendations and errors and how we might avoid them. It was about him teaching us something, about passing the baton on, as it were. I laughed, wondering whether you'd see some of the princes here do such a thing. I don't think so.

What should I tell you about some of the student on my course? I suppose I should talk about them a bit. Claudia is probably closest in research interest. She's a hoot. One of Mazzoni's students here, scarily good at what she does, has published a book, and is ready to publish another (in addition to a wheel-barrow of articles). These people really do know how to make you feel unaccomplished. We're off shopping for books now, so I have to dash.

I do have to tell you about Siliva, who is completely nuts. She has a crazy head of curly hair which looks like it has a life of its own, which nobody can tame. She smokes a pipe (I swear) and is probably the typical Italian: she looks like Giorgio Armani himself dresses her in the mornings before she goes out. And then she's great fun. Oh and she's beautiful, did I mention that? (Bitch!). So in addition to feeling stupid, I feel ugly. (And what with the leprosy....).

By the way, I appear to be well recovered from my mosquito problem. Tomorrow is the festival of San Giovanni Battista, so obviously the entire city is shutting down. Perché no!

Wednesday, 22 June 2005

Bite Me

The great mystery of the 'hives' has been solved. Yeah. Hives. Like hell. These are goddam mosquito bites. All makes perfect sense now. To those of you reading this blog from countries that have mosquitoes, or at least little things that bite in the night, you will think that I am very stupid. I am. I come from a country with no heat, no sunshine, and certainly no mosquitoes. I did not think that a) it was such a problem here, and b) that they could do such damage. All those explanations I had in my head, like an allergy to the water, the food, the coffee (eek!), the sun (!), the sheets, my clothes....air, are redundant. And now I know why just my arms, hands, and face are affected, and why it appeared on the very first morning I was here - I left the window open.

So all was revealed when a girl on the course said, quite in passing, oh, you are staying at the 'Oltremare' accommodation. It's nice, except for all the mosquitoes. I knew the first day I saw you that you were there from all the bites on your face and hands.' It turns out she had been staying there for a bit last year and was in a similar position, though perhaps not quite as bad. So off I went to the chemist to buy a Vape, a little gizmo you plug in that emits fumes the little bastards don't like, and I slept very well. I had been hoping for the sounds of screaming dying insects, but alas, just silence. I feel better already. Now that I know what this is. Just have to wait for the boils to calm down now. The accommodation is the guest wing of the Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare, which houses what was the Botanical Gardens for the Colonies, where they brought back unusual and rare plants from what the Italians rather optimistically call their 'colonies' (sorry, I couldn't resist).

It could be worse, they could have had malaria.

Double class today. I'll probably be praying for malaria by the end of it.

Monday, 20 June 2005

Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost

Just finished Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost - and it is WELL worth a read. It's an historical crime novel set in the 1660s in Oxford and it is very enjoyable. It has four parts, each part is an account from the point of view of a character, all of whom suspect each other. So events get reported from different points of view and you have to weave your way in and out of their suspicions and prejudices to get to the bottom of the mystery. Read it.

Just started Guglielmo Gorni's Il Dante Perduto about a forged manuscript of Duecento poetry. A sort of thriller, but much more serious. I should stop reading this stuff.


I spent the weekend in Bologna visiting my old landlady and seeing all the old places I used to haunt in my two years here. It was such an emotional experience actually because so many of these places were tied up with the way I thought back then, which came rushing back to me when I revisited them. It was like seeing myself five years ago (and to be honest not being too impressed with what I saw!). They city is still beautiful. Really. I love it so much and have such affection for it. If it was ever possible to live there I think I would.

Lecture today was much better, in fact I would say quite good. We'll have this prof for the next two classes, and then we've got Michael Winterbottom from Wed to Fri. I'm rather looking forward to that. There is a funny dynamic in the classes because some of the students have done some pretty serious work and would be quite qualified for an in depth discussion of certain philological points etc, but there is no real desire to get into issues. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe they (i.e. the profs) don't want to bother; maybe they are afraid they'll look unprepared (which some of them most certainly are). Finding the balance, that's the key.
This is also interesting from the point of view of thinking about how I would put a course together, at whom I would aim it, and how. So for that I'm glad I'm here.

The hives are beginning to clear, and it's about time. My God. I looked like an leprous outcast for a while. Now I look like a leprous outcast on the mend. I was even reluctant to take the train to Bologna on Saturday such was the state of me. But it seems to be calming down a bit. Thank God for cortisone.

I'm almost afraid to go near the library such is its power to frustrate. I get enough of that in my study.

Friday, 17 June 2005

Tourist - Spots

For the five days now I have been tormented with hives, or at least I think they are hives. They appeared the first morning here in Florence and I haven't the foggiest what caused them. It might be the sun, as the pharmacist said. It's true. I have been without sunshine since last summer in Spain (sorry, I mean real sunshine, not what we get in Ireland or the UK). So I'm using a cortisone-based cream and taking anti-histamines. They're not getting better. I was so uncomfortable in the library that I got very little done.

Let's hope it passes. I'd rather not learn anything about the decrepid health system in addition to the university system.

The silly season has well and truly begun here. The city feels like it is groaning under the weight of tourists. Huge crowds swelling around the Piazza della Signoria, around the Galleria degli Uffizzi, all the usual places I suppose. I had to explain to one poor soul at the National Library that, no, you couldn't just take a wander around, that you needed an admission card. I tried to console her by telling her that there wasn't much to see. As a library it is not particularly beautiful. I could have added that as a library it is not particularly useful either.
I particularly enjoy those elderly American tourists who have a fierce look in their eyes. They are so serious that they have bought Nikes especially for the occasion and they are determined to see everything. They have a stamina I admire (and of which I am jealous, I must admit), and in this heat.

Won't post over the weekend I shouldn't think. Will probably go to Bologna to see some friends. Next week it Latin philology and textual criticism. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 16 June 2005

Labyrinthine Libraries

Prepare yourself for a rant. Italy is a beautiful place to visit, but it is a difficult place to work. I am beginning to remember now just how extraordinarily difficult everything is here. Every simple, simple task is just extraordinarily complex. I used to think that nothing happened, but I know that that is not the case. The minions do everything for those who have reached powerful positions and take advantage of it at every single occasion. Here we refer to professors as barons. This terminology is fully alive to its feudal origins and that is how things work here. And you have to play the game, otherwise someone else will, and will get ahead.

I went to the library yesterday to look at a thesis I had seen cited somewhere and was promptly told that it would be impossible. They have to make a request to the author, who leaves a forwarding address on the thesis, and then you are permitted to see it. When it comes to very old theses (mine was from 1977), the President of the Faculty just might give you permission - though the helpful library said she had never heard of permission being granted. Can you imagine? While I was browsing through the card catalogue of theses I realized why one particular professor is such a huge expert in his particular field - all of his students have done the work! I'm talking about critical editions, transcriptions, manuscript descriptions, the kind of stuff that should be in print. Some of which is in print, under his name.

The class today, on Greek textual traditions, was basically a private conversation between the professor and one of his colleagues, who introduced him. They spoke about tiny MS variants and made gnomic references to each other's published works (without any bibliographical references, needless to say), to their respective polemical and pseudo-polemical positions and to those of other scholars located in arcane journals with titles that require Unicode to write. We were treated as if we had arrived uninvited to an after-dinner conversation and would be supported as the way years ago in Ireland a simpleton relation would be not quite disowned but not quite part of the family either. It is a great example of one of the worst aspects of the Italian education system. These professors are experts in their fields - they could teach you a lot, if they bothered to think that that was important. But classes are inconvenient obligations.

And this is a class of a PhD programme. The students became restless and there were several simultaneous conversations going on in the room, as well as several people leaving during the coffee break. I don't think that I'm going to come to class tomorrow, but will spend the day in the National Library instead, doing some of my own work.

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Godi Fiorenza

Another class done. Interesting, I must say.

The director of the course took us all out to dinner last night to a pizzeria. It was very nice, and I got to meet some of the other kids. Nobody played with me, but some of them did talk to me, which was nice. One in particular is doing some interesting research relevant to my own and has published some things I shall read with interest.

I had forgotten how disgustingly feudal the whole Italian academic system is. You have to be an acolyte to do anything here - the right person has to present you here and there, and if you are not presented by such-and-such, then forget it. I shall probably post again about this, in particular on how one person's work gets left out of the bibliography of another person's work, all for very arbitrary and political reasons that have nothing to do with scholarship. I am glad I don't have to do anything here. I think that I would find it a very suffocating experience.

I've got a list of s/h bookshops and am off out now to hunt. I shall post with any luck that I might have. And a bird shat on me today, so that's good luck. Isn't it?

Monday, 13 June 2005

E con una verghetta l'aperse

The building is which we have our seminars is very nice, quite a mini pastoral idyll with trees in the garden outside, the wild city kept at bay with the palazzo walls. When it became obvious that there was no pointer with which the eminent professor could illustrate details on his slide show, one of the assistants must have rushed out, pulled off the nearest branch, wrapped some scotch tape around it, and presented it to him to use. So here he is using a Golden Bough to illustrate his lectures. I giggled.
I also asked a question, about whether we knew anything about scribal training in Greek texts; I asked because I didn't know the answer. He answered like I shouldn't have asked the question. I might keep quiet again.

Florence still looks beautiful.

I'm off to eat something and go book browsing.

First Day at School

It looks like access to the internet is going to be more difficult than I thought, so I'm writing my blogs in little txt files and uploading them when I find somewhere with an internet connection.

My journey to the school on my first morning says everything about this place: via Marconi, piazza Fra' Girolamo Savonarola, via Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, via Massaccio, It is looking beautiful in the sunshine. It is so refreshing to wake up to sunshine instead of incessant clouds and rain.

The eminent professor is setting up the lecture room for a ten o'clock start - actually, we are running on the academic quarter here, so we are starting at 10.15! Ah, Italy. How I've missed that academic quarter.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

Bella Firenze

Florence, here I am at last. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Florence.

Before I begin, let me say that the conference was a resounding success and we got a great buzz from it. The papers were very strong and the discussion was encouraging and stimulating. It was exactly the environment we were hoping to foster. The English Faculty turned out in force, and we had Eric Stanley make the closing remarks, as brilliant as they were funny. Watch this spot for possible published proceedings...but more on that anon.

Florence. I flew to Forlì from Stansted. This required me to leave Oxford at 1 am this morning for a 7 am flight. Exhausted does not really describe my state at the moment. Paralytic with tiredness is much better. Anyway, I got the bus to Bologna where I spent the afternoon catching up with my landlady when I was there. It was lovely. Her dog is as insane as ever.

I have just got into my lodgings which are a little bit out of the city centre, but then, this is Florence after all. The 'foresteria' is obviously not in use much because the toilet was full of little tadpole thingies. I swear. I'm afraid to go into the bathroom now in case the mother ship comes back to punish me for flushing them away. God.

And, in keeping with my accident-prone week, a bottle of shower gel opened in my bag and covered every single thing in my wash bag (now in the bin) and covered my socks too. So while the room stinks of shower gel, there was not a drop left with which to actually wash.

More anon. Bed now. Early start. First day at school. Will the other kids play with me? Will I get homework?

Thursday, 9 June 2005

Allegorical Soup

You know when you are really busy and running around with very little time, and then something very silly happens that holds you up in an extremely frustrating way? Like when you're rushing out the door and you tear your shirt on the door handle, or you lose a button. Usually it is not something serious, usually it is something stupid, and it makes you very angry and then frustrated for getting angry at something so silly.

I just dropped my wallet into a bowl of soup. This doesn't sound serious, but do you know how messy that is to clean up? All my cards, covered in cauliflower soup. I had to empty the wallet, wash everything individually, then wash the wallet, and now have the many little pieces of my life before me drying.

The reason I'm so busy is that we are one day away from our Allegory conference. It's called On Allegory: Aspects and Approaches, at Lincoln College. I'm really looking forward to it and think that there are some interesting papers lined up.

Monday, 6 June 2005

Saint Gaudí?

Sagrada Familia
Originally uploaded by Miglior Acque.

This is Antonio Gaudí's Sagrada Família in Barcelona. I think that anyone wanting to get a real sense of medieval culture should visit this cathedral. It is, in short, astonishing. When Monsignor Ragonesi, the Papal Nuncio, visited the site in 1915 he told Gaudi: "Maestro, you are the Dante of architecture. Your magnificent work is a Christian poem carved in stone." The achievement of this piece of architecture is difficult to put in to words, just as it is difficult to put the achievement of the Divine Comedy into words. Its unfinished nature adds to its mystery and compels us to work our way through the structure in a very physically and intellectually challenging way. But what do we think about making Gaudí a saint? I'm not sure. There is something every bit as miraculous and mystical about experiencing this building as reading about the lives of any other 'conventional' saints. And yet we seem to see it as an encroachment upon art. Somehow the whole thing looks, how shall I say it: unseemly. (After all, are there any 'real' modern saints anymore?...Media darlings maybe, but not saints). How would we feel about making Dante a saint, for example? I suppose he has managed to be safely hedged by the academicians and somehow seems not at home in a conversation about sainthood. Perhaps he was too critical of the Church he saw around him. It would be a bit like talking of Saint William Langland - it jars too much to take seriously. And at the same time nobody is talking about making Henry Yvele a saint, or Villard de Honnecourt.

And then there is that wonderful link that Ragonesi intuited between the structure of the Comedy and the structure of the cathedral, later outlined so powerfully (in this case anent St Thomas and High Gothic architecture) by Panofsky in Architecture and Scholasticism (1951).

So do we make Gaudí a saint or not?

Friday, 3 June 2005

Exams: how do you eat yours?

Oxford students go nuts when they finish their exams. This is a phenomenon that I am still trying to work out and would appreciate feedback on same. They queue up outside Schools and throw flour, eggs, sparkly glitter stuff all over eachother, they open cheap bottles of fizzy wine and spray that everywhere. Then you will see students, clearly just post-examination, walking around Oxford with their parents. This I do not get. I walked through main quad the other day and I heard a student say to her friend: 'Aw my Dad just dropped a crate of champaigne and some flowers...isn't that sweet? And he's calling by tomorrow and we're going for lunch.' [emph. mine...]. The friend then asked 'Oh are you finishing tomorrow?'.
I remember finishing my university exams and nobody went crazy, most of us were too tired to celebrate like that, and besides, we just got over it. It was just finished, the whole city didn't need to know about it. I don't think I even called my just wasn't such a big deal. I don't remember it being a big deal for others either.

I do remember this kind of behaviour, however, when I finished my Leaving Certificate (Eng. equiv.: A-Levels; God only knows in the States), which leads to my next controversial little observation. Oxford is basically an extension of boarding school. You are fed and watered, you have someone who cleans your room, you are taught one to one, etc. Most colleges usually identify themselves as undergrad-oriented, and do everything they can to strengthen that identity. As a graduate here there is very little real understanding at either College- or University-level of the needs of graduate students. This is changing, true, but not quickly. And I wonder on what exactly is all this energy being expended by the VC making the academics 'accountable' (whatever that means...), riling the dons in the process, making them suspicious of every move he makes. Sounds like a resigning issue to me to be honest.

But despite the best efforts of these people:
Oxford has fantastic archival material from a medievalist's point of view, so I shouldn't complain. And in Duke Humphrey's they are very nice to me, even though I am something Malcolm Parkes or Ralph Hanna would scrape off their shoes.

Thursday, 2 June 2005


As I suspected 'The Lament of the Last Survivor' had nothing to do with AS poetry, but I think was a humourous reference to himself and the state of English studies. It was an extremely entertaining send up of some of the more bizarre and awful trends in modern medieval scholarship and compare and contrasting the present state with the 'good/bad' (delete as appropriate) old times when he was an undergraduate, of having DS Brewer come to Bermingham and seeing him as at the cutting edge of criticism, invigourating the study of the subject there. He then went on to propose a rehabilitation of an appreciation of the 'poetry' of Chaucer, and to see just how good it is. We are so afraid to say that now aren't we? And we are so afraid to say that Lydgate is simply not as good. That simple.

I'm off to see a 14th C Ovid MS in Balliol.

Wednesday, 1 June 2005

Rain - in June, Imagine

So the Strawberry Field is no more, and not even poor aul' Yoko could save it this time. Kinda sad I suppose. And the Dutch are about to say Ne, well that might not be a bad thing. People might start to get worried about Europe and in the end it will only get stronger and I won't have to listen to the anti-European nonsense all over the place here.

Just for the record: I think that Christopher Hitchens is a royal pain in the ARSE and I'm sick of listening to his moaning and whining and pseudo-intellectual sheiße.

I'm sorry, that's terribly undignified of me. It's not quite what he says, it's the way he says it.

Derek Pearsall is giving a paper at the Graduate Medieval Seminar this afternoon. I'm rather looking forward to it, he's always good for a laugh. His paper is on 'The Lament of the Last Survivor'.


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