When history bloomed from the necessary arts of genealogy

16 December 2008

An English roll chronicle and an Italian tondo illustrate different views of history. But the nativity is the hinge, says Pamela Tudor-Craig

Northern nativity: detail from the Roll Chronicle, mid-15th century, illumin­ation with coloured inks and tints on vellum rolls SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES OF LONDON

Northern nativity: detail from the Roll Chronicle, mid-15th century, illumin­ation with coloured inks and tints on vellum rolls SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIE...

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE, stretch­­ing back from our own time to clas­sical anti­quity, reads very differently in northern and southern Europe. The year 1416, when the first Garter King at Arms, William Bruges, in his mansion in Kentish Town, was im­portant and wealthy enough to feast the Emperor Sigismund, could be taken to mark the onset of historical re­search as a profession in this coun­try.

It was a study powered by the tra­cing of ancestry, the establish­ment of ancient claims by the prov­ing of un­broken lines of descent, a deciph­ering of pedigrees backwards from the present towards ancient ori­gins. In this enquiry, our country has ever been an acknowledged leader.

In the south, on the other hand, the physical remains of the Roman Empire have always been a visible reminder of past glories. It follows that the tangible revival of Classical architecture is the touchstone of a historical approach.

The year 1417, when Filippo Brun­­elleschi, disappointed in his ambition to be the leading sculptor in Florence, turned towards archi­tecture and first voiced an opinion on how the vast crossing of the Cathedral in Florence might be spanned (and, for the purpose, stu­died the evidence of ancient Roman engineering), could be taken to mark the onset of self-conscious identifi­ca­tion with an Imperial past.

This differentiation between north and south is not fortuitous. The general chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire from the fifth century onwards was stemmed by groups of strong men owing allegiance to a leader in ex­change for land. The inheritance by northern Europe of the power exer­cised by the Roman emperor was ac­knowledged at the coronation by the Pope of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 of the Christian era: a ruler based in northern Europe, but with his au­thor­ity ratified by the religious leader still living in the then much diminished ancient Rome.


The recording of national and local events by scholarly monks in Euro­pean monasteries was a con­stant feature of the Middle Ages, an activity that naturally emphasised de­velopments favouring the houses involved. The expansion of this activ­ity into the great families, useful in demonstrating past rights and con­­se­quence, came to be fully appre­ciated in the 15th century. Hence the multiplication of family trees.

The leap from “my” history to “our” history went back to the first secular historians, the original au­thor of the poem Brut among them. In its extended 13th-century prose version, with additions, this would become the standard history of our country. All complete and extended texts end in 1419. It was printed and reprinted in the 16th century. We owe to the Brut not only King Lear, but Joseph of Arimathaea bringing the Christ-child to Glaston­bury.

THE most dazzling examples of an attempt to combine a specific pedi­gree with wider history lie in the great rolls of power­ful families. One of these has always resided at Hat­field House. It was made in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, and traces her pedi­gree back to Adam. Similar pre­ten­sions on the part of Lord Lumley were the more poignant in that he too had no direct heir. “I didna’ ken”, said James I, “Adam’s ither name was Lumley.”

Another roll of similar ambitions was shown to the public for the first time last year. The Society of Anti­quar­ies’ MS501 was unravelled the length of the first room at its exhi­bition “Making History” at the Royal Academy. A version of the exhibi­tion, and with it the roll, is at present touring the country. Not many ven­ues are likely to have enough space to unroll it as fully as it was in Burling­ton House. There, it attracted much interest, being perhaps the first ex­ample of its kind to be seen at a stretch.

It was probably made, and left un­fin­ished, for yet another patron who left no heir — poor King Henry VI. So compelling to Charles II was its claim that Henry’s pedigree estab­lished his ancient rights to the Brit­ish throne that for Charles a further 192.58cm was tacked on to its orig­inal length of 1245.5cm, taking the story to his own time.

Had this method of claiming an­cient rights not been discredited by the mythological nature of much of the supporting evidence assembled, we may take it this prodigious roll would never have left the Royal Col­lection.


The roll is punctuated by painted roundels framed in rings of green, red, and blue of the major events of history. It starts, of course, with Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and Abra­ham poised to sacrifice Isaac, leading to the nativity. This is shown at its most disarmingly simple. All is conveyed by delicate penmanship.

The background is of a neat little thatched stable, housing the ox and ass, who lean over a wattle fence to contribute their warm breath to the comfort of the naked Child, who lies on the grass in a mandorla of golden rays. Grass and a clump of little trees are conveyed with a green colour wash, and the roundel is crowned, for the King of Kings, with a crown of fleur de lys studded with green and red jewels.

At the feet of the holy Babe kneels the Virgin, and on the other side Joseph with his stick and bundle has just arrived. He has probably been looking for the midwives who will shortly join them. He falls on one knee, his hand to his brow in wonder­ment at the swiftness and radiance of this sacred birth.

The picture is entangled in a complex genealogical tree. To the right of the nativity and above it, one small roundel has beside it a shield of a double-headed eagle, black on red, and a triple crown, and in the centre the name Julius Caesar. Below him, and immediately flanking the nativ­ity, are three roundels for his assas­sin­ators, among them Cassius, which is correct. But the date was 44 BC.

On the left-hand side of the nativ­ity is the crowned roundel of Cleo­patra, and three crowned roundels for her three spouses, given as Ptol­emy XIII, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. Mark Anthony had met Cleopatra in 41 BC, and in 34 BC he proclaimed the children he had had by her to be kings, and presented them with kingdoms and provinces belonging to Rome.

One leafy line of descent along the left-hand margin gives the name of one of these offspring as “Phillippus tetrarcha”, which takes us to the beginning of St Luke, chapter 3: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber­ius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Phillip tetrarch of Iturea . . . the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness . . .”


Alas, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra lived a generation earlier than the nativ­ity. It would have given a new slant to the flight into Egypt. Accord­ing to this scheme, Herod and his brother Phillip were sons of Cleo­patra by Mark Anthony — a most in­­triguing, if not precisely likely, ar­rangement.

Further down the roll we find Peter as the first pope. The historian behind the Antiquaries’ roll was grop­­ing for a match between classi­cal and biblical history. He has sug­gested that Christ was born while the then sophisticated world was hedged about with the scandals of Cleopatra and the murder of Julius Caesar at the hands of his closest allies. If we had been around, would we have picked out the event that mattered most? The scholar posing the ques­tion was probably Roger Alban, a Carmelite monk of London.

Thanks to more recent scholar­ship, we in our time may rejoice in a sharper sense of the actual date of Christ’s birth, thanks to the pointers given by Matthew and Luke. Matthew firmly places it in the reign of Herod the Great, which closed in 4 BC. The reference in Luke to when the Baptist began to preach, picked up in our roll, points to 27-29 of the Christian era, and Luke again indi­cates that Christ was about 30 years old at the time. There are margins for argument, but they are minor ones, and we have the clear historical context at which heroic early Anti­quaries were aiming.

THE illustrations in the Antiquaries’ roll are attributed to William Abell. His sole documented work was the charter of the consolidation of Eton College in 1446, for which he was paid 16s. 8d.

The charter for King’s College, Camb­ridge, which starts with an elaborate illumination of the as­sump­tion of the Virgin, plus the King and College at prayer, is almost certainly by the same artist, since they were twin foundations. As luck would have it, his tiny sketch of the kneeling Henry VI is the nearest thing to a contemporary likeness we have.

The charter for King’s College, Camb­ridge, which starts with an elaborate illumination of the as­sump­tion of the Virgin, plus the King and College at prayer, is almost certainly by the same artist, since they were twin foundations. As luck would have it, his tiny sketch of the kneeling Henry VI is the nearest thing to a contemporary likeness we have.

Abell is also associated with illustrated manuscripts, such as the Book of Hours that belonged to Henry Beauchamp, Duke of Glou­cester (d. 1446), now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York; a missal associated with Thomas Ashen­don, Abbot of Abingdon, dated 1461; the Grant of Arms to the Tallow Chandlers of 1456; and the Cartulary of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, of 1456-68. The Epistle of Othea, MS H.5 in St John’s College, Cambridge, of c.1459-55, presented him with a challenge, in as much as a classical text needed (not very con­vincing) classical costume, and un­familiar scenes.


This busy and no doubt prosper­ous Londoner was a member of the Stationers’ Company from 1448 un­til his death in 1474. The Painter Stain­ers had not yet been founded. It has been suggested that the Anti­quaries’ Roll was printed in the des­perate year 1470-71, when Henry VI was fleetingly replaced on the En­glish throne. That would certainly ac­count for its originally unfinished state.

It will not have escaped your ob­servations that his patrons were exalted, and included his King. The Anti­quaries’ roll is a fair sample of his work. We may take it that it was the best to be had in the London of his time. You could say he was hardly inspired, but well named: able.

IT IS not quite fair to put beside Abell’s reticent little painting a pic­ture by his younger and far more ex­alted contemporary, working for the wealthy families of Florence, Sandro Botticelli; but this spectacular tondo may be dated to that same year, 1470-71 — so an early work of his beside perhaps one of the last by the industrious Englishman.

Botticelli had not yet reached the position of painter to the Medici. The tondo form is not really suitable for altarpieces, and this round pic­ture was almost certainly destined for a domestic setting, this one prob­ably for the Puce family.

It has been identified with the one described by Giorgio Vasari in 1568 in the Casa Puce. They remained his loyal patrons. It is tempting to sug­gest that some of the striking youths in the foreground are members of the family, taking part in the annual procession of the Confraternity of the Kings, which paraded through Florence on each 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany. Every great family belonged, and wore their most extravagant clothes.

This annual living event brought the feast very much to the fore. The glorious cavalcade painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici Palace in the Via Largo was only half a generation dry when Botticelli came to the subject.

Gozzoli referred to the most significant moment in 1451, when the Orthodox Emperor and his en­tourage came to Florence. Botticelli has emphasised the telescoping of time. In his young day, Renaissance Florence challenged contemporary Rome, but aspired to recreate the ancient Rome from which modern Rome had fallen away. Michelan­gelo’s David turns his frowning gaze to the south. In a 13th century best-seller, Jacopo de Voragine’s Golden Legend, it states that when the ancient Romans built the temple of peace, Apollo was asked how long it would stand. The answer came: until a virgin bore a child.


With confidence, therefore, the lintel was inscribed: templum pacis aeternum. But in the night Mary bore Christ, the temple crumpled, and it is now the site of the church of Santa Maria Nuova. That fancy gave a gloss to the numerous Quattro­cento paintings where the shepherds or kings thread their way to a crib set in what appear to be classical ruins.

This tondo merits the slow and attentive examination by the eye that the Pucci ladies no doubt frequently gave it. Here there are mettlesome horses worrying at their painful bits, attendants engrossed in gossip, two wretched monkeys. On the left, the prow of a boat is coming in to tie up on a projecting rock. On the right, deer are disturbed, and run to a wood. Behind that, there is the sug­gestion of great towers.

A flurry of trumpeters enter from the right, blowing at full blast. They have not disturbed the magnificent peacock (symbol of eternity and also of pride), dominating the scene from a broken pilaster. The central structure is laid out like the crossing of a church under construction.

At a higher level, which should represent the entrance to the choir, sits a modest Virgin, presenting her vigorous baby to the Magi. Joseph huddles under his cloak behind her, and at the far end, where the altar should be, and where the actual birth might have taken place, a hole in rough masonry half conceals the ox and ass.

It has been suggested that this set­ting does not convey a ruinous building, but one of the astonishing group of new churches in the clas­sical taste which were being built in Florence all through Botticelli’s youth: that this is not the decline, but the rebirth, of all that had been good in the classical world.

Of course, the Baptistery, the Duomo, with its dome completed less than a decade before Botticelli’s birth in 1445, the Campanile, the great Palazzi Vecchio, and Bargello, the Friars’ churches, and Orsan­michele had “always” been there, but San Marco and the Capella degli Pazzi were new, the Ospitali degli Inno­centi was opened the year Botti­celli was born, and Santo Spirito was in building during his lifetime; plus San Lorenzo and Santissima Annun­ciata, the Palazzo Pitti, and the Me­dici Palace. Not only were there build­ing sites, but the narrow streets must have been congested with carts bearing gleaming marbles form the hills.

Nothing like this was going on in Rome itself: Florence was presiding in architecture and all the arts and, above all, in learning over the recrea­tion of the classical world. There, in the 1470s, the nativity could well be imagined as a hidden event, ne­glected at the time by the grand people, who were aiming to supplant the splendours of the ancient clas­sical world.


We can cast the posturing crowd in the foreground of Botticelli’s pic­ture as the 15th-century descendants of sophisticated Roman citizens, whom not even the trumpets divert from their private conversations. The little group on the steps to the chan­cel alone have the power to reverse the pretensions of classical architec­ture, and turn it to the worship, not of emperors, but of a Baby. The only living being in the foreground of Botticelli’s crowded panel which has noticed what is really happening, and is gazing at the Magi about the holy Babe, is the seated white mastiff.

EITHER WAY, in northern Europe, puzzling out its long and vaguely chartered pre-history, or in Florence, where the wine of the Renaissance was pouring out, the nativity is the hinge point. For us northerners, it is virtually the moment, give or take 50 years, when we left the Stone and Bronze Ages and entered written historical time.

In the then more learned south, it is the seed of doubt as empires rose and fell — not just the recent Ro­man, but the Greek, the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Sumerian — and not only of doubt about the lasting endurance of might, but perhaps the seed of hope for the Golden Child who might usher in the realm of peace, true founder of the Templum Pacis Aeternum.

For venues and dates in the tour of the exhibition “Making History: 300 Years of Antiquaries in Britain”, which includes rare objects from the Society of Antiquaries’ collections, see www.


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