Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Humanities at Princeton University. His most recent book is The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe.


A Hero of the European Mind

‘Landscape with Roman Ruins’; detail of a painting by Herman Posthumus, 1536
Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637) was the exemplary polymath of an age that swarmed with them. His curiosity embraced everything: the deep past and the immediate present, exact sciences and applied ones, philology and philosophy, fossils and antiquities. He collected manuscripts and printed books, curious vessels and engraved gems. His …

Piero le Fou

Piero di Cosimo: The Adoration of the Child, circa 1505

“Like Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo worked in many different fields of art,” Anthony Grafton writes in the New York Review’s May 7 issue. He produced some of the most handsome and dignified religious paintings of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. But he also crafted “startlingly vivid portraits of individuals and strangely evocative images of religious objects.” The works included in the exhibition “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence” at the National Gallery “open up a world of ravishing visual interest.” We present here a series of Piero’s works, with commentary drawn from Grafton’s review.

The Ravishing Painting of Piero di Cosimo

Piero di Cosimo: Prometheus Fashioning the First Man, circa 1510–1515
Great nineteenth-century critics taught us to imagine the Italian Renaissance as a world of nymphs walking gracefully on flowery meadows. They liked Piero di Cosimo, who painted his share of nymphs, but they did not have a great deal to say about him. Jacob Burckhardt praised the “extraordinarily solid composition …

Scrawled Insults and Epiphanies

A detail from the title page of Mark Twain's copy of Plutarch's Lives, annotated by Twain

In Readers Make Their Mark, an exhibition of annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, you can see readers writing in books of every kind, for every imaginable reason. Sometimes they are learning the basics. Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books. And sometimes they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar .

Reliving the Renaissance

'Descent from the Cross'; triptych by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, circa 1540-1545, central panel 8 feet 7 1/8 inches x 5 feet 7 3/4 inches; left and right wings each 8 feet 11 7/8 inches x 2 feet 9 1/8 inches

Reviewing the Metropolitan Museum’s show “Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry,” Anthony Grafton called Coecke (1502–1550) “a master who devoted his best talents and energies to tapestries and other collaborative enterprises, and who, for that reason, has never had the fame of the great masters of fresco, portrait, and sculpture.” Here we present a series of Coecke’s paintings, drafts, and tapestries with Grafton’s commentary.

A Great Master at the Met

‘The Conversion of Saul’; tapestry designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 13 feet 10 5/8 inches x 24 feet 6 5/8 inches, circa 1529–1530, probably woven in Brussels before 1563
Everyone who was anyone in the sixteenth-century art world liked Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The skilled artisans who wove tapestries and crafted stained-glass windows eagerly used his designs. The greatest patrons paid happily through the nose for the immense tapestries, eight or nine to a series, in which Coecke and those who executed his designs told biblical and classical stories, put the cardinal vices on parade, or celebrated the victories of great men.

Can the Colleges Be Saved?

Betty Grable, top right, in How to Be Very, Very Popular, 1955
Students and former students owe more, at this point, for their educations than is owed in either credit card or automobile debt. Yet many fail to find profitable employment after graduation. In the long term, consumers will not remain willing to fund a system that loads them with debt and provides few visible financial benefits in return. At the least, a shake-up is coming, and possibly something more dramatic.

The Most Charming Pagan

Frontispiece to On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, copied by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Pope Sixtus IV, Italy, 1483
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve celebrates an ancient Latin poem. So, as he shows, did the scholars and scribes who brought it back into circulation in Renaissance Europe. The frontispiece of one manuscript suggests something of what they found in it. On it stands a classical arch, adorned with colored marble and sculpted capitals, standing before a landscape with river, cliffs, and a spindly, towering tree—the kind of imaginary country you usually see in fifteenth-century paintings of saints receiving the stigmata.

Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

Killian Court in front of Building 10 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 2002
A number of American universities offer their faculty salaries and working conditions, laboratories and libraries that few institutions elsewhere can match. At every level of the system, dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems. Yet American universities also attract ferocious criticism, much of it from professors and from journalists who know them well, and that’s entirely reasonable too. Every coin has its other side, every virtue its corresponding vice—and practically every university its festering sores.

The Wrong Way to Lower College Costs

A poster for the national Day of Action to Defend Public Education on March 4, 2010

Want to know how to solve the problem of ever-increasing college costs? A lot of people have answers. One of the Very Serious People who can give you one is the economist Richard Vedder, professor at Ohio University, Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In a recently issued report Vedder and two researchers use data provided by the University of Texas system, which includes nine universities, to argue that the state “could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching”—and, more remarkably still, do so “without importantly reducing outside research funding or productivity.”

Academic Freedom After the Cronon Controversy

The statue

Many observers are worried about the latest skirmish in the battle to destroy American higher education, which involves the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin. As has now been widely reported, on March 17, Stephan Thompson—an operative for the Republican Party of Wisconsin—used the state’s Open Documents law to demand copies of all emails to and from Cronon since January 1 that mention Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or any of a number of other words related to the state’s recent labor debates. Professor Cronon had written critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen of Wisconsin Republicans’ recent efforts to curb the rights of state workers, and Thompson clearly hoped to catch him using his university email to engage in pro-union or pro-Democratic politics, which would violate state law.

Jumping Through the Computer Screen

Sixteenth-century cabinet of curiosities belonging to Ferrante Imperato, an apothecary in Naples; from the frontispiece of the 1672 edition of his Historia Naturale
At night, nowadays, we all go on strange and glorious journeys. Just hop through the glowing computer screen, skip from link to link, and you skim across oceans of information. Books and blogs, high-culture magazines and raunchy porn, travel agencies and term paper mills, YouTube and Early English Books Online: …

Save the Warburg Library!

The first floor of the Warburg Institute, where, Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger write, ‘any sustained trip into the...stacks will bring the reader not only to the books he or she is looking for, but also to their unexpected “good neighbours”’
Much of Britain’s industry has disappeared. The recently vaunted financial sector is in disarray. But British universities remain world leaders. They set high standards. They support innovative research. Above all, as the distinguished Bristol historian Fernando Cervantes pointed out recently in the TLS, they offer a uniquely intensive form of …

Save the Warburg Library!

An exhibition on rare books assembled for a presentation in the Warburg Library Reading Room in Hamburg, April 1927

Much of Britain’s industry has disappeared. The recently vaunted financial sector is in disarray. But British universities remain world leaders. The conditions that have made this possible included, in the past, a loose, egalitarian organization, substantial autonomy for scholars and teachers, and a generous esprit de corps. Yet instead of preserving this distinguished and successful sector of British life, both Labour and Tory governments seem bent on rearing hierarchies, crushing autonomy, and destroying morale.

‘A Jewel of a Thousand Facets’

‘Puzza, or the “the Chinese Cybele,” sitting on a lotus flower’; engraving by Bernard Picart from Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World, 1720s
In 1723, the engraver Bernard Picart and the printer Jean Frederic Bernard revealed the varied religions of the world to European readers. In seven splendidly illustrated folio volumes that appeared from 1723 to 1737, Religious Ceremonies of the World offered—at least to anyone strong enough to lift one of the …

The Pope and the Hedgehog

Charges and countercharges are swirling around the Catholic Church. Newspaper articles have raised questions about how much Pope Benedict XVI knew about particular cases of alleged abuse by priests and the ways in which he himself dealt with abusers. No one can predict what will happen as more cases come …

In a Fantastic, Lost World

Mourners from the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, 1443–1457
Down the middle of the great hall of medieval sculpture in the Metropolitan, under the banners, march thirty-six men and one boy, carved from alabaster, most of them around sixteen inches tall: tiny mourners from the tomb of John the Fearless, one of the Valois dukes of Burgundy. They will …

The Pope and the Hedgehog

Pope Benedict XVI celebrating Mass, Floriana, Malta, April 18, 2010

Charges and counter-charges are swirling around the Catholic church. Newspaper articles have raised questions about how much Pope Benedict XVI knew about particular cases and the ways in which he himself dealt with abusers. No one can predict what will happen as more cases come to light and more victims tell their stories. But it’s worth stepping back, for a moment, and remembering that Benedict is probably the greatest scholar to rule the church since Innocent III, the brilliant jurist who served from 1198 to 1216. He knows how to wield all the tools of historical research and theological and exegetical argument. No one has studied the development and meaning of the Catholic liturgy with more care and precision, or performs Mass more beautifully. His rich sense of the value of tradition—and the way it develops over time—will likely determine his response to the current crisis.

Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities

Oxford Fellows ‘envisaging the weather’; drawing by Max Beerbohm from Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story, 1911
British universities face a crisis of the mind and spirit. For thirty years, Tory and Labour politicians, bureaucrats, and “managers” have hacked at the traditional foundations of academic life. Unless policies and practices change soon, the damage will be impossible to remedy. As an “Occasional Student” at University College London …

Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities

British universities face a crisis of the mind and spirit. For thirty years, Tory and Labour politicians, bureaucrats, and “managers” have hacked at the traditional foundations of academic life. Unless policies and practices change soon, the damage will be impossible to remedy.

A Nazi at Harvard

In 1934, the Harvard class of 1909 held its 25th reunion—then as now an occasion for members of the American elite to parade in public and celebrate their achievements. But this year the star attraction was a German: Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the son of a Munich art dealer and publisher who had joined the Nazi movement and enjoyed personal access to Hitler (Hitler liked hearing him play the piano, as had his Harvard classmates, for whom he composed football fight songs). In the early 1930s he served as foreign press chief for the Nazi party.

‘But They Burned Giordano Bruno!’

Long ago, I went with friends to visit the Roman villa of Cardinal Bessarion on the one day in the year when it was open to the public. One of the great scholars and churchmen of the fifteenth century, Bessarion wrote profound studies of ancient philosophy and supported such innovative …

The Wonders of the Loom

Three hundred years ago, the good and the great ate their meals, danced their minuets, and carried out their plots surrounded by tapestries. Splendid hangings, woven by skilled artisans working, inch by inch, to designs drawn up by artists such as Raphael, Rubens, and Van Mander, were a passion—even an …

Stoppard’s Romance

The marathon version of Tom Stoppard’s Russian trilogy is charged with excitement. When I saw the three plays in one day at the end of March, virtually the entire audience stayed until the end. Some of those present—who ranged from eager students to slippered pantaloons—clutched battered blue copies of Isaiah …

Rediscovering a Lost Continent

Francis Bacon rarely found himself at a loss for words. When he wanted to say that what his contemporaries revered as “antiquity” had been a time more primitive than his own, he expressed the thought with four lapidary Latin words: antiquitas mundi juventus saeculi—the age of antiquity is the youth …

Prague: The Glorious Moment

In 1933, Willy Haas came back to Prague from Berlin. The editor of one of the great Weimar periodicals, Die literarische Welt (The Literary World), Haas had flourished in the Twenties, publishing major work by Kafka, Cocteau, Benjamin, and others. Driven out of Berlin by the Nazis, he came home, …

The Ways of Genius

The walls of the Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the New York Public Library will display until next February a variety of colorful, fascinating creatures. Voltaire’s great friend, the distinguished philosopher Mme. du Châtelet, appears more than once. She sits smiling, in a portrait, next to an armillary sphere that symbolizes …

Big Book on Campus

Fiction—even genre fiction—carries us into worlds we don’t know. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories bring the imperial London of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries back to life—and make us feel, as nothing else can, the weird brilliance of late Victorian Positivism. John le Carré’s spy novels preserve …

In No Man’s Land

The fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola loved nothing more than buying books—the costlier and the more outlandish the better. He built up a splendid library in the palace at Mirandola, decorated with a fresco by Cosimo Tura that depicted the Persian sage Zoroaster and the Egyptian Hermes, as …