Sunday, May 17, 2009

Book Review: "The Scarith of Scornello"

I do love a good hoax. And Ingrid Rowland's The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery (University of Chicago Press, 2004) is the story of a pretty good hoax. In 1634, 19-year old Curzio Inghirami, his younger sister and a servant, wandering the grounds of their rural Tuscan estate near the old city of Volterra, "stumbled upon" a strange ball of pitch, fabric and hair which when broken revealed several pieces of linen rag paper on which were written certain 'prophecies' penned by one Prospero of Fiesole (Prosperus Fesulanus). More of these strange capsules, which became known as scarith (based on one of the inscriptions), were soon found near the same location, and they purported to be a series of writings dating from the late Etruscan period, around the mid-60s B.C.

The Inghirami clan rallied around young Curzio, claiming and then defending the authenticity of the scarith and their inscriptions - which, if accurate, raised their region to a certain historical prominence. Curzio published a compilation of the contents of the scarith in a lavish book, Ethruscarum Antiquitatum Fragmenta (Florence, 1636), complete with a false 1637 Frankfurt imprint. The book, richly made and illustrated with numerous woodcuts, copper engravings, and folding charts, was a triumph of book production ... but its flashy contents failed to convince the critics.

Rowland inexplicably fails to mention one of the first criticisms, by Meric Casaubon in his 1638 book A treatise of use and custome, but she does examine the strong critiques leveled at Inghirami's work by Leone Allacci and others, in which it was pointed out that Curzio's philological and forensic skills weren't quite up to par: his "Etruscan" inscriptions read left to right, rather than the correct right to left, and his inscriptions were written on rag paper, rather than the linen cloth known to have been used in actual Etruscan writings. Curzio also has his writer complain about running out of paper at one point, when the inscription was found balled up within several layers of extra paper ... which of course was setting aside the larger issue of the fact that the inscriptions were later found to be printed on paper bearing the watermark of the state paper factory. It's a good thing Curzio didn't show off his scarith very often.

The criticisms of Inghirami's work by Allacci and various others, as well as defenses written by Curzio himself and a few of his friends, are well outlined, and Rowland does well at placing Curzio's work in the context of Italian regional political and religious jockeying of the seventeenth century, with the struggle over Galilean scientific theory never far from the fore and the various regions families competing for influence. The book is well illustrated, although the small format has resulted in the compression of Inghirami's detailed engravings to an unfortunate degree. Almost fifty pages of footnotes with translations and much additional content, plus a delightfully-detailed bibliography, are welcome additions indeed.

There are some really interesting aspects to this case which bear some similarities to a few other literary forgeries: the "important discovery" by a young man who later published his findings in a luxurious book reminded me of William Henry Ireland's Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakspeare (1796); the regional patriotism brings to mind the Ossian forgeries of William Macpherson, and Rowland herself draws parallels with Thomas Chatterton. The "d'oh moment" with the watermarks is similar to the Vrain-Denis Lucas forgeries, although those (for reasons entirely unclear) held up far longer than they should have.

A must-read for the forgery buff. Anybody up for translating and reprinting the canon of original works? That I'd like to see. In the meantime, if you have £2,500, you can have your own copy of Ethruscarum Antiquitatum Fragmenta, via Arthur Freeman Rare Books (their description of the book, I have to say, is an absolute delight).