Much ado about nothing (ctd.)

May 27 2015

Image of Much ado about nothing (ctd.)

Picture: BG

I continue to be amazed at Country Life's emphatic pronunciation of 'The Greatest Discovery in 400 Years', with their claim to have found Shakespeare's only life portrait (in the frontispiece, above, of Gerrard's 1598 Herball). The theory, by Botanist Mark Griffiths, has been pretty neatly debunked now, but the magazine and Griffiths are holding firm, and back up their faith with statements like:

'We have a series of completely incontrovertible facts that this is Shakespeare'.

If you said that in an A-level history essay, you'd get an 'F'. The most important evidence Griffiths cites for his theory - that the symbol on the frontispiece says 'Shakespeare' if you add an 'E' to the number '4', which in Latin could translate as 'Shake' in English, and that the vaguely arrow-looking thing is in fact a spear, to be identified not in Latin but in English, thus giving you 'Shake, spear' - is not an 'incontrovertible fact' but an interpretation of self-identified clues. 

If Country Life wanted to publish this theory, then they should have done so as a fascinating conjecture - which it is - and not as the gospel truth. By doing so they devalue both the argument and themselves. On Twitter, Philip Mould described the publication as a 'Hitler Diary moment'. Ouch.

Still, the debate is an interesting one, and there has even been some defence of the claim. In The Spectator, Alexander Waugh leaps to Griffiths' side, and says it certainly is Shakespeare - but not for the reasons Griffiths thinks:

In those days poets were nicknamed after the works they had written – Sydney, for instance, was ‘Astophel’, Watson was ‘Amyntas’, Spenser was ‘Collyn,’ Nashe was ‘Pierce’, Drayton was ‘Rowland’ etc.  Three years before the publication of Herball Shakespeare was nicknamed ‘Adon’ by the poet Thomas Edwards in his ‘Envoy to Narcissus.’  Given, as Professor Wells concedes, that Mark Griffiths has persuasively identified the other three figures on the title page as Gerard, Dodoens and Lord Burghley, the identification of the poet holding the symbols of Adonis can only be ‘ADON’ who is indisputably Shakespeare, the author of the poem Venus and Adonis, so popular that it had already run to three editions by 1597. It should also be noted that the Narcissus lily grows out of Adonis’s blood only in Shakespeare, all other variations of the Greek myth make it an anemone.

In other words, the Gerard frontispiece on which Griffiths' claims are based can be interpreted in numerous ways. Waugh, incidentally, doesn't believe that Shakespeare (as in, the fellow from Stratford) wrote Shakespeare's plays. He thinks it might have been the Earl of Oxford.

On Huffington Post, Ros Barber lays into the corn on the cob that 'Shakespeare' is holding, which Griffiths says helps identify the playwrite:

Griffiths claims that the cob of corn in the figure's other hand is a reference to Titus Andronicus. But the "corn" mentioned in Titus Andronicus is very clearly wheat, not the newly imported American plant maize. We know it is wheat because it is thrashed ("first thrash the corn, then burn the straw" -- 2.3.123) and gathered into sheaths ("This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf" -- 5.3.70). You do not do this with corn-on-the-cob. "Corn" in Elizabethan England denoted any kind of grain, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, maize was not referred to as "corn" without the modifier 'Indian' before 1809. This removes any argument that it might be Shakespeare who is holding a cob of corn.

Meanwhile, there seems to be more compelling evidence that the figures on the Gerard frontispiece are supposed to be seen as classical figures such as Dioscorides, who was a Physician in the Roman army (hence the roman toga he is depicted in) and viewed by those in the 16th Century as the leading authority on all things plant. Mark Gray points us to a German edition of Dioscorides' work published in 1598 (below), which has clear similarities to Gerard's frontispiece.

John Overholt of Harvard University (here) highlights that not only do we see a clear mention of Dioscorides on the frontispiece of the later edition (1633) of Gerard's Herball, but also on earlier editions of Rembert Dodoens' Herball, of which he illustrates the below example published in 1616, but which was first published in 1583. Gerard's Herball borrowed heavily from Dodoens' work. In Dodoen's title page, Dioscorides is shown lower right.

I haven't found an example of the 1583 edition online, but I learn from the website of the Edward Worth Library in Ireland that it was re-used on Carolus Clusius book of rare plants published in 1601. So it seems safe to say that many late 16th Century books on plants contained on overt reference to classical figures such as Dioscorides on their title pages. Mark Griffiths' claim, of course, is that in the case of Gerard's 1598 edition, these were subverted to mean four modern figures, only identifiable to master cryptographers (of whom none apparently existed, because there is no evidence anyone cracked the code until now).

Meanwhile, here's a 1578 edition of Rembert Dodoen's 'Herball' published in England (from which Gerard's 1598 Herball borrows heavily), which shows figures similar to those seen on the Gerrard frontispiece, but come with identifications. Dioscorides, however, is not shown. The imagery is taken from a 1563 Dutch edition of Dodoens' Herball.

Update - the Country Life website has sprung into life again. This time, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College Edward Wilson, who backed Mark Griffiths' claims from the start, goes into bat. He was a tutor in medieval English. But he immediately sets himself up for a fall by beginning:

There is now growing acceptance, beginning with no less an authority than Prof Stanley Wells, that three of the men depicted on William Rogers’s 1597 title page of John Gerard’s Herball are real persons as identified by Mark Griffiths in Country Life (May 20)—namely, John Gerard, Lord Burghley and Rembert Dodoens.

Phooey. This is a curious way to defend an argument. Stanley Wells has said the 'fourth man' is not Shakespeare, but because he thinks the other three figures might be real people, he is still used to defend Griffiths' thesis. But as far as I can make out, the majority of people who have weighed into this debate think the figures in the frontispiece are, as seems to traditionally have been the case, merely generic figures related to the classical age. As I stated in my earlier post, the evidence that the 'first' man is Burghley is slight, and based purely on speculation. I do not find the likeness encouraging, when seen within the wider context of late Tudor portraits.

Anyway, because some have said the 'fourth man' might be Dioscorides, Wilson sets this theory up for demolition - because it isn't Dioscorides it must be, er, Shakespeare. Straw man, anyone?

Evidence in Wilson and Griffiths' favour is the frontispiece which I reproduced above, the 1578 Herball by Henry Lyte, in which we don't see Dioscorides but Apollo (top left) in Roman garb.

Wilson and Country Life then illustrate yet another frontispiece (above), which again bears remarkable compositional similarities to the Gerard frontispiece of 1598. It is from Jacobus Tabernaemontanus Neuw Kreuterbuch, and it was published in Frankfurt in 1588. Here we see not Dioscorides, but Apollo (on the right), in Roman garb but this time wearing a laurel wreath. This, says Wilson, must mean that we are dealing with a depiction of the poets Apollo inspired:

In short, there is a precise and incontrovertible precedent that establishes the fact that the Fourth Man on Gerard’s 1597 title page represents not Dioscorides, but Apollo and the poets he inspired. Given that the other three figures are portraits of persons alive in the 16th century camouflaged as the characters conventionally shown on botanical title pages, we are looking at a new likeness of an Elizabethan poet.

See what he did there? He made one massive assumption - that the three figures on Gerard's title page are beyond doubt correctly identified by Griffiths, and uses it to reinforce the assertion that the 'fourth man' must be Shakespeare. Historians amongst you - and lawyers - will know that this is a strange way of presenting evidence. (Alas, we are not treated to any Griffiths-like interpretation of the the Neuw Kreuterbach title page - might not the garden depicted be some Imperial Habsburg spot, or one of the figures the Emperor Rudolf II himself?)

As far as I can see, the only thing we can be sure about now - beyond doubt - is that there was a strong tradition that frontispieces of this kind featured classical figures such as Apollo and Dioscorides. In all the frontispieces we have seen so far, the figures are drawn like mythical or ancient figures, as opposed to actual portrait depictions, and are usually inscribed as such. In those frontispieces where modern figures are depicted, the manner of their portrayal is very different (as art historians will immediately be able to recognise), and they are identified by a further inscription - as Gerard is himself in the subsequent 1633 edition of his Herball.

In other words, we still await firm, contemporary evidence that the 'fourth man' is Shakespeare. Conjecture and theories will not do. Anyone who thinks it does needs to go to the back of the history class, and start again.

Update - prompted by Mark Gray, I've been having a look at some other frontispieces of the period, especially those that relate to Gerard's 1598 Herball.

Mark Griffiths begins his theory that the Herball's frontispiece contains all sorts of identifiable clues by stating that the garden seen at the bottom (detail above) is not a generic garden, but shows Lord Burghley's garden at Theobalds, in Hertfordshire. From there we get to Elizabeth I being in the garden, then to Lord Burghley being one of the 'four men' in the frontispiece, and so on until we get to Shakespeare.

To make this initial Theobalds identification fit, Griffiths states that William Rogers, the engraver of the Herball's frontispiece, took inspiration from Adriaen Collaert's c.1580 engraving 'April' (above, first published in Antwerp; see a high-res here), but that Rogers changed certain key elements. One of these was to replace the central tree with an olive tree. Burghley grew olives in his garden, we are told, and so the tree is a clear indication that the garden is Theobolds.

Also, Rogers was - Griffiths states - 'careful to include [Burghley's] prized olives' in the decorative borders of the above print of Lord Burghley. (Though I have to say not so careful as to make them stand out amongst the many other types of flowers one can see in the print.) 

Anyway, there is little architecturally in the Herball frontispiece that links us directly to the garden at Theobalds. True, the original manor house at Theobalds had a moat, but that seems to have been replaced by Burghley when he enlarged the house (see more on the history of the house here). The garden did have canals in it, but the waterway seen in the print seems more of a moat than a canal. And we know that the garden at Theobalds was large, so is it odd that we are shown a rather small parterre which looks out onto a field of crops?

But the main point is - are we really sure Rogers was being as ingenious as Griffiths attests? I wonder. The vast bulk of the illustrations in Gerard's Herball (some 1800) were taken from woodblocks that were rented by the Herball's printer John Norton from another printer in Frankfurt, Nicholaus Bassaeus. In 1590 Bassaeus had published an edition of a book by Jacobus Theodorus, also known as 'Tabernaemontanus', called 'Eicones plantarum seu stirpium', which had used these illustrations.

Now, in 1598, the same year that the Herball was published, Nicholaus Bassaeus also published another book on a related theme; a commentary on the works of the Roman naturalist Dioscorides by the Sienese doctor and naturalist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (sometimes called 'Matthiolus'). The book was called Medici Caesarei et Ferdinandi Archiducis Austriae opera quae extant omnia. I have illustrated the frontispiece in full above, but here is a detail of the garden, which appears at the bottom of the page, as in the Gerard Herball.

Now, is the close similarity of the garden in the scene at the base of both Mattioli's work and Gerard's a coincidence? The garden in Rogers and Gerard's frontispiece seems to me to be much closer to that seen in the 1598 Mattioli book than the c.1580s Collaert 'April' print. Look closely and we see the apparent olive tree is in the centre of both the Mattioli and Gerard gardens, as well as similar architecture int he building, a full field in the distance, and the similarly attired walking couple (one of whom, Griffiths says, is Elizabeth I).

Therefore, my question is, instead of making his own interpretation of the c.1580s 'April' print, might Rogers instead have been following the latest type of garden print sent over by Nicholas Bassaeus from Frankfurt with the rest of the plates for Gerard's Herball? If indeed Rogers was following a print, and then made an engraving plate from that print, then this would account for the fact that the image appears back to front.

Given the similarities between the two, the alternative I suppose is that somebody in Frankfurt was struck by Rogers' interpreation of the garden, and thought, 'I'll follow that'. But I can't easily see that being the case, given that Frankfurt was a more sophisticated place for making such prints than London. 

'Aha!' you say - but what about the dates? Rogers' engraving is dated 1597, and the Mattioli one 1598. But this isn't perhaps as much as a problem as you might think. First, the Mattioli frontispiece might have been in preparation some time before the date of publication, and a print of some kind might have been sent over to London with the rest of Bassaeus' woodcuts. And second, though Rogers' engraving was dated 1597, publication of the Herball was in early 1598 in our modern calendar - the 'New Year' in those days coming at the end of March (hence our financial year running the same way today). The Gregorian calendar and the new style of beginning the new year on January 1st was introduced in Germany earlier (from c.1583 onwards) than in Britain which, being a Protestant country, resisted until much later the formal introduction of the Gregorian calendar announced by the Vatican in 1580.

But there's another key point here - the comparison between the Rogers/Gerard frontispiece and the Mattioli one takes on another significance when we realise that immediately beneath the garden in the Mattioli book we see a printer's mark, in this case for Nicholaus Bassaeus of Frankfurt. Also of interest is the fact that in a later 1674 edition of the Mattioli book (below) we see the same garden, but with a different mark, which this time appears to contain one of our famous 'signs of four'. Therefore, if Rogers did indeed get sight of a new type of botanical title page from Frankfurt when he was designing his own for Gerard's Herball, was he merely following that further when he decided to incorporate a printer's mark, which Griffiths has chosen to interpret as a code saying 'Shakespeare'?

I make no claim to know much about printing botanical publishing in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it seems to me that we can begin to see more logical explanations for the appearances of the various 'clues' on the frontispiece for Gerard's Herball in 1598 than Griffiths' imagines. Could it be that the garden is just a garden, the printer's mark is just a printer's mark, and that the figures are just figures?

Update II - another key aspect of Griffiths' claim is a supposed 'E' in the cypher, which we are asked to add to the Latin 'quater' to make 'quaterE', which can translate as 'shake'. The illustration printed in Country Life, below, is supposed to show what has been called 'a broken E'. In other words, because it doesn't quite look like a proper 'E', which is essential to the Griffiths thesis, an excuse has to be made for it.

Griffiths says this about the unusual 'E':

The cipher does not contain I (or J) for John Norton. The letter at top right is without doubt E. To determine that, I examined all other known extant specimens of William Rogers’s lettering. Where, as in this case, he was pushed for space, he radically shortened the top bar of E to something like a serif.

I'd like to see these other examples. But, a quick glance at other versions of the 1598 Herball reveals that it is most likely not an 'E' or even a 'broken E', at all. Here's another Herball online, and you can see in the detail below that it is a most unusual-looking 'E'.

This whole affair is like watching someone make a jigsaw puzzle come together by simply jamming all the pieces in, whether they fit or not. I wish it wasn't so, but so much of Griffiths' claim is based on what may be seen as optimistic interpretations like this. I'm afraid I cannot escape the conclusion that it is little more than wishful thinking at almost every step. But as with so much to do with Shakespeare we're likely to be stuck with it now, cropping up in news stories for years to come as a likeness of Shakespeare, courtesy of time-pressed sub-editors.

Update III - I made the mistake of voyaging into the comments section of the Country Life website. Alas, discussion of Griffiths' claim has descended into mud-slinging between 'Stratfordians' (those who believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare) and 'Oxfordians' (those who believe it was the Earl of Oxford). It's nasty out there, and poor Dr Griffiths has been caught in the cross fire, with some needless abuse thrown at him too.

Update IV - Dr Griffiths writes:

There’s good reason to believe that William Rogers took the garden at the base of the 1597 title page of Gerard’s Herball directly from Adriaen Collaert’s series The Twelve Months; also that Rogers’ engraving was the model for the very similar oval garden that appeared on the title pages of various Continental botanical works, beginning with an edition of Matthiolus published in 1598 and continuing over the next two centuries.

Rogers used not just one print from The Twelve Months but two. He drew mainly on Aprilis. This scene was too stark, however, for Gerard’s and Burghley’s purposes and so Rogers put leaves on its trees and raised the newly ploughed field in the middle ground to high summer ripeness. He also looked at September, another in Collaert’s series, and took from it the figure on the ladder who’s picking apples in the foreground. Rogers was probably familiar with another such apple-gatherer shown in the oval garden (unrelated to Collaert’s September) at the bottom of the title page of the 1588 edition of Tabernaemontanus – the page that features Apollo so prominently. With these models in mind, he placed his apple-picker at middle ground right in The Herball’s oval garden.

Having cannibalized these two images, he customized the resulting hybrid. He replaced the lanky non-descript tree at the centre of the parterre in Aprilis with an olive that rises before the steeple of the church in the distance. As I wrote in Country Life (May 20), Lord Burghley was a proud pioneer of Olea europaea in English horticulture. Rogers also turned its anonymous strolling couple into Gerard and Elizabeth I. We can be confident that this minuscule figure is the Queen because her presence in the garden is captioned in the most obvious floral code of her day. The oval is subtended  by sprays of the official Tudor rose and her signature Eglantine that are very close to those engraved by Rogers in Rosa Electa, one of his formal portraits of Elizabeth. Then there’s feasibility: it’s a matter of record that the Queen admired Gerard, visited Theobalds, and spent time in its gardens.

Now, in the oval garden on the 1598 Matthiolus title page, the olive tree is still in place, the trees are still in leaf and the corn is still high. But there have been some changes. Several features of the original Collaert prints that were used by Rogers in his 1597 engraving have disappeared: notably, the distant church from Aprilis and the apple-gatherer on his ladder from September. Given these omissions, I cannot see how the Matthiolus oval garden could have been the source for Rogers’s: transmission of this image would appear to have been the other way around – Gerard first, Matthiolus second, beginning with Rogers drawing on two Collaert prints to make one design for Gerard.

Gerard’s Herball was published early in 1598, and its title page may well have been finalized and proofed a good while before that. Its publisher John Norton moved swiftly to get books to markets on the Continent and to do deals with publishers there over assets such as illustrations. John Gerard, too, is likely to have sent copies of The Herball to friends and fellow botanists in France and Germany. The title page of the 1598 edition of Matthiolus has two features indebted to the Rogers engraving – the goddess Flora at the top, and the oval garden at the bottom. Caspar Bauhin, the editor of this volume, dated its dedication ‘xvi kal. vii’ 1598. This indicates that the book’s preliminaries went to press long enough after the publication of Gerard’s Herball for its title page to have been influenced by the Rogers engraving. Its dedicatee was Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg. He visited Theobalds in 1592, and that may - just may - have had something to do with the decision to imitate Rogers’ imaginary window on its gardens.

The oval garden in the 1598 Matthiolus appeared in subsequent editions, and in the works of Tabernaemontanus, always without such details as the church and the apple-picker. It is apparent to me that Rogers’ design ex Collaert influenced these gardens, not vice versa. You may find that others make similar points to you: the relationship between Collaert, Gerard’s title page garden and that used for Matthiolus (1598) and others has been discussed in bibliographical studies since the 1970s and in a US PhD thesis not long ago.

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