Over the Christmas break I had the chance to attend the ‘Handwritten’ exhibition at the Australian National Library. What a mind blowing experience!
This extraordinary exhibition features 100 unique manuscripts from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library). There are letters and manuscripts dating from the past 10 centuries written by the lions of literature, religion, science, music, exploration and philosophy.
Where do I start?
The vividness of the inks and gold leaf of biblical illuminations painted 1000 years ago were amazing. And the precision of the perfectly aligned script was testament to the austerity, discipline and devotion of the monks who must have laboured over such masterpieces.
Here was Dante’s Divine Comedy before me, separated only by a sheet of glass. And more – documents written by Galileo, Goethe, Dickens, Newton, Michelangelo (a receipt for services rendered), Machiavelli and Napoleon all in a row to be inspected in the hushed atmosphere and low light of the library. In a way it was lucky that most of the documents were not in English otherwise I would have had other visitors getting irritated at me hogging the exhibit space! Even so I still managed to linger over a few: a letter from the explorer Livingstone speaking of his desire to return into the dark interior of Africa, one from James Cook describing the suitability of a ship for voyaging, and Albert Einstein expressing his concern that his science should be used for peace.
What struck me most was the neatness of the writing of the earliest examples. These men took care with their words and were practised in perfecting communication. The initial greetings were always gracious even when the content was to dispute or reason with their correspondents. However, it seemed to me that as the exhibition moved into examples from more recent times, the authors’ handwriting became less mannered, even careless, hinting at the personality of the writer based on the size or formation of their letters or their less uniform style .
Then there were the musical scores. These were beautifully presented with the relevant composition playing as you examined the notations. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony lay in front of my eyes. The bars of tiny black minims, crotchets and quavers dancing across the page. More poignant, though, was the little notebook he used when his deafness prevented him from understanding those around him. On one page his doctor wrote questions ruled off by pencil lines. Beethoven’s responses are lost to us as he did not reply in writing. The one sided conversation piqued my curiosity as well as my sympathy.
And my favourite? A letter from Heinrich Schliemann protesting the authenticity of his discovery of Priam’s treasure at Troy. As I have researched this archaeologist’s (and entrepeneur’s) life for one of my novels, I was intrigued to see first hand evidence of his defence of the find.
There were more, of course: Curie, Darwin, Kaftka, Dostoyevsky, Haydn, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Nightingale, Nobel, Pasteur and Watt …too many to rave about. Why not go and take a look yourself if you have the chance. http://www.nla.gov.au/node/2314
And what of the writers, philosophers and inventors of today? With the advance of technology and its varied media will future generations be able to view such a treasure trove? Can the Word Document and PDF of modern times provide the same allure? Somehow the sterility of typeface can’t compare with handwriting. Many of the documents in the exhibit were in a foreign language and yet the character of the author shone through in ink and paper without any need for translation. The printed page alone could provide no such clues.
I usually handwrite a first draft before moulding and editing a chapter on the screen. I find ideas flow when putting pen to paper but with my atrocious writing and the ease of typing, cutting and pasting there is no way I could present a polished version without my trusty computer. And I am a strong advocate for email and Facebook being methods of communication as valid as any handwritten letter. Yet the sight of all those manuscripts has made me ponder, and even lament, the prospect of a future where children are no longer taught longhand and all letters are seen as some oddity of the past.
This exhibition sounds like a once in a lifetime event!! I will be making the journey from Melbourne to see these manuscripts with my own eyes.
Elisabeth Storrs says
Hi LJP, thanks for commenting.
I’m sure you won’t regret the journey. You can fit in the Renaissance exhibition as well :)