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A Philology of Reading

by Paolo Scartoni, Rutgers University

Philology is a bourgeois, paternalist, and hygienist system of thought about the family; it cherishes filiation, tracks down adulterers, and is afraid of contamination. Its thought is based on what is wrong (the variant being a form of deviant behaviour), and it is the basis for a positive methodology. 1Cited in P. Trovato, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lachmann’s Method. A Non-Standard Handbook of Genealogical Textual Criticism in the Age of Post-Structuralism, Cladistics, and Copy-Text, Padua, Libreriauniversitaria.it, 2017 (2nd ed.), p. 44.

With these words, Bernard Cerquiglini famously critiqued traditional philology. Paolo Trovato recently responded to Cerquiglini in his handbook on genealogical textual criticism:

I am sure that, if he were looking for a new apartment, even Prof. Cerquiglini would be able to mentally correct “explosive courtyard” to “exclusive courtyard” and that this would not make him think of himself as an upholder of a “bourgeois, paternalist, and hygienist system of thought about the family.2ibid.

I find Trovato’s example very helpful to think about our reading practices in the age of social media and instant communication. Every day, we find ourselves in need of reconstructing the original intentions of many authors of posts, tweets, and even online newspaper articles which are riddled with formal errors and typos. Sometimes the task is quite easy, other times it is harder; on some occasions it is almost or entirely impossible (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Donald Trump, tweet, May 30th 2017. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/us/politics/covfefe-trump-twitter.html

However, we don’t expect to find those same errors when we read books. Perhaps it is only me, but personally, when I read a book and something sounds off, I immediately assume I am the one to blame. And almost always, it is in fact my fault – I have misread a passage, and I rejoice at the flawlessness of the book I purchased. As is well-known, things are very different when it comes to manuscripts. And yet, I think it was enlightening for me (perhaps for some of my colleagues, too) to read a manuscript full of errors and take it seriously, nonetheless. It helped me realize how people in the past used to read differently, and at the same time how similar their reading was to our daily “social media philology,” (it is Gianfranco Contini who described philology as a “daily event”3G. Contini, Filologia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2014, p. 7.).

This is the reason why, I believe, it is highly instructive to work extensively on a so-called bad witness such as ours: not because it allows one to reconstruct the original intentions of its author, but to experience the active engagement it requires from the reader. Readers from the past were aware that copyists were far from infallible. Therefore, they must participate actively in the process of retrieval of textual meaning. As with social media, sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes it’s impossible.

Fig. 2: Houghton MS Typ 422, f. 14r, detail.

It’s easy when, for instance, the copyist forgets a period but correctly transcribes the capital letter following it. It happens all the time in our manuscript. The context tells you there should be a period, the capital letter suggests there was indeed one, and you immediately supply the period on your own. It is impossible when an entire folio is missing, which happens four times in our manuscript. For example, there is no logical link between our 13v and 14r. As readers, we immediately realized that a folio was missing. Only later did William Stoneman confirm this by reconstructing the folio binding. In this case, we might imagine our authentic reader asking a friend for a copy of the work they are enjoying so much, in order to have a look at the missing pages. It’s what we did. We referred to and translated from Grayson’s edition of Deiphira whenever we had extensive lacunae.

Then, there is a third case: when it’s not easy, nor impossible, to figure out the meaning or meanings of a poorly transcribed passage. It happens, for example, in the presence of an error which generates a new sentence that does or could make sense. Here’s an example, which we discussed at length without reaching a definitive solution (fig. 2).

Manuscript1st interpretation2nd interpretation
Non pero rimasse dame cum ogni astutia et argomento storli da lanimo quello furore / quale io provo / non e nostra liberta potere se non ne ubedirli.Nonetheless, I did not refrain from taking away from my spirit, with all my cunning and reason, that wrath which I feel and to which I have no choice but to submit.Therefore, all that was left was for me to remove from my spirit, with all my cunning and reason, all the anger to which we have no choice but to submit, as I prove.

In this case we have two (even though there could be more) different interpretations: one assuming the virgulae (the slashes) were copied correctly, therefore isolating “quale io provo”. In this case, a possible translation would read something along the lines of the first interpretation of the chart. Here, it is not clear what introduces the last clause “non è nostra libertà potere se non ne ubidirli”. Or we could consider the first virgula as misplaced and move it after “quale.” In this case, the last clause is introduced by “quale,” which, and makes grammatical sense and sounds something like “the anger to which we have no choice but to submit, as I prove.”

When we encountered this type of situation, we followed two principles: whenever the error would have been evident to an authentic reader, we have intervened. Whenever a not-so-obvious error resulted in a meaningful phrase, we have translated it accordingly, privileging what our manuscript transmitted, rather than a reconstructed text. Our goal was not to read Alberti’s Deiphira, but this Deiphira. The case above is borderline. For example, I personally believe the authentic reader would have emended it and mentally moved the virgula, but we didn’t all agree. And our disagreement was another valuable lesson for our “philology of reading,”: it taught me that the authentic reader doesn’t really exist, because in the 15th century, just like today, different readers read differently.

The Digital Deiphira is many things, and among them, it is an experiment in philological reading more than criticism. And it was a successful experiment, for mainly two reasons: 1. we worked in a group, which means many readers and many interpretations; and 2. we listened to our manuscript rather than doubting it.

Recommended citation:

Scartoni, Paolo. “A Philology of Reading.” A Transcription and Translation of Leon Battista Alberti’s Deiphira, Houghton MS Typ. 422. Georgetown University, September 22, 2021.