Through The Looking-Glass

A few months ago, I bought a modern edition of Thomas Morley’s Elizabethan music treatise A Plaine And Easie Introduction To Practicall Musicke. Before you get to Morley’s text, there is a reproduction of its original eye-catching engraved title page. I was immediately fascinated by the scene it presents, which surrounds a grand cartouche containing the title information.

It’s laid out like the floor-plan of a basilica, with an apse at the top. But perhaps it looks more like a ceiling painting, as its backdrop is filled with billowing clouds.

Upon these clouds sits a pantheon of figures, most of whom are labelled and hold various instruments of measurement, or tools of learning. Looking closer, it’s clear they are a mixture of the real, the mythological, and symbolic personifications.

But only one of them has an obvious connection to Morley’s book: a woman representing Musica in the bottom-right corner, playing a lute. So how does the rest of this image relate to the contents? I decided to do a little research.

It turns out that this woodcut was not designed for Morley’s treatise at all. The central title panel could be swapped for different books. In fact, as Stephen Orgel has written, it was used for a remarkably large variety of publications in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: Euclid’s Elements, Sidney’s Arcadia and a biography of King Alfred all featured it, as did Dowland airs and Sternhold and Hopkins Psalm tunes.

However, the identity of the figures shows that it was originally designed with one book in mind.

The four labelled women in the bottom half represent the ‘Quadrivium’ of Renaissance education – geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music. These were commonly portrayed as female figures in Renaissance art. But above them, the six labelled men – Ptolomeus, Marinus, Aratus, Strabo, Hipparchus, Polibius – are all real authors from Classical antiquity, associated with charting the heavens and earth.

That’s because this page was engraved for William Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse, conteinyng the pleasant Principles of Cosmographie, Geographie, Hydrographie, or Navigation. It was printed in 1559 by John Day, almost forty years before Morley’s book, and the signature of I.B. on the picture may refer to the artist John Bettes.

Cuningham’s title page includes a poem, which gives an indication of his aims:

In this glasse if you will beholde
The Sterry Skie, and Yearth so wide,
The Seas also, with windes so cold,
Yea and thy selfe all these to guide,
What this type meane first learn aright,
So shall the gayne thy travaill quight.

Cuningham intends to teach the reader about the world and aid their travels across it. The engraving certainly illustrates the poem’s sense of wonder and fullness – it’s crammed with detail. Peeking from behind the clouds are stars, the sun, and a comet. The labelled figures are elegantly finished, and many of them are themselves engaged in the act of close looking: either at their instruments, at each other, or pointing mysteriously off the page. (See the original Cuningham front page here.)

What’s more, the design is clearly arranged with an eye for symmetry, and dual opposites. Framing the top are reclining figures with sun, moon, a lion and a shellfish – day and night, land and sea.

Between them in the apse are the ‘three ages of man’, plus a winged satyr who holds a scythe. Orgel speculates that this may be Saturn – associated with time – and that his satyr-like appearance could be a rare pun, a false etymology for his name.

Either way, the characterisation here is delightful. The adult is led by the hand, while the satyr gazes down at the care-free boy, who holds aloft the stick of a whirligig. This is echoed by the old man who now walks with a stick, scratching his head and looking tired.

If the satyr is Saturn, it would strengthen the symmetry with Mercury, who is bottom centre. As messenger of the Gods he has many associations, but he surely represents eloquence here. With one arm raised and mouth open, he appears to be holding court (though unusually his staff – the caduceus – is shown his right hand, when it’s normally in the left). On either side of him are the zodiac signs he rules over, Gemini and Virgo.

Supporting the cartouche are two statues in profile, possibly references to the telamon and caryatid of Classical sculpture, as they seem to act as pillars (their arms are missing too, perhaps in a ruinous Venus-de-Milo style). The male statue has a Pan-like face.

Above the title and beneath the globe is the motto Virescit Vulnere Veritas, which could be translated as ‘truth strengthens by her wound’. Or in other words: knowledge is hard won. (Incidentally, this motto was later taken up as the trademark of the printer Thomas Creede, with a very literal illustration of Truth as a naked woman being flogged!).

As Orgel explains, there’s no consistent theme to the books that Cuningham’s engraving was re-used for, and after Day’s death in 1584, it was passed on to at least two more printers. The simple fact of its elegance may have been more important than its representational scheme, and naturally it would be cheaper to use an existing woodcut than to commission a new one, even if it was decades old.

But the idealised vision of Humanist learning in the picture does reveal something about Cuningham’s text. Alan Salter has described how ‘diligent observation’ is key to the book’s thesis – and that’s depicted quite obviously. Familiarity with Classical antiquity is clear in the text too: at the very start Cuningham invokes Daedalus, who ensnared the ‘monster ignorance’ in his labyrinth. Those who keep this monster’s company are ‘brute beasts’, he writes. In later pages we can see how this view morphs into unpleasant prejudices: ‘brute beasts’ are the same words he uses for Native Americans, while the people of Ireland are ‘savage, wilde & beastly’ too.

One interesting feature that unites Cuningham’s and Morley’s books is that they are set out as dialogues. The characters have tellingly Classical names: Morley’s men are Polymathes and Philomathes, while Cuningham uses Spoudaeus and Philonicus. Hardly the folk of the local Tudor tavern! The conceit of explanation-through-conversation would probably seem silly if used today, but it was widespread in English books of the time. Cathy Shrank has written that it may have derived in part from the Medieval practice of Catechism, and the teaching of ancient writers of dialogue as models to emulate, such as Cicero.

The Cosmographical Glasse features more lavish engravings, including a portrait of the author, Atlas carrying a globe, and a large map of Norwich. You can peruse the whole book in an online scan here.

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