© 2019 John Griffiths  All rights reserved

Intentional anonymity in the Renaissance

Why are we so obsessed with attaching names to anonymous works of art, literature and music? This is a topic that I have been investigating with colleagues in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, Véronique Duché, Andrea Rizzi, and Vicente Pérez de León (although Vicente has now departed and is based at the University of Glasgow). It grew initially from a study of fame and the way the birth of print culture provided a new means for individuals to achieve notoriety. In the process, we became aware of many cases where the opposite seemed to be a motivating factor. There appear to be many artists, musicians and writers who eschewed fame and preferred to inhabit the darker areas of anonymity for a variety of reasons — religious, political, confessional, or through gender restrictions. 

Here are the opening few paragraphs of a recent article on the topic:

Andrea Rizzi and John Griffiths, “The Renaissance of Anonymity”. Renaissance Quarterly 69.1 (2016): 200-212


(To read the whole article see the Renaissance Quarterly web page, or use a service such as JSTOR.)

IN 1559, POPE Paul IV published a new Index of banned books. In this document, all anonymous works are proscribed. This radical initiative led the print industry to find new strategies to sell its products, including the use of pseudonyms, initials, and other concealing devices. Paul IV’s ban was a mighty yet unsuccessful attack on concealed authorship. Anonymity as a deliberate act of concealment on the part of the author, editor, or publisher has continued until the present day. Renaissance scholars encounter the anonymous in different contexts and genres: archival documents (manuscript and print), literature, music, and art. Despite this, scholars seldom question what anonymity is and how it matters to their research. The most common approaches to anonymity are to take Renaissance authorial concealment as an accident (in literature and music) or a default practice (in visual art) before the development of professional artistic figures, copyright laws, and celebrity. An unsigned painting from early fifteenth-century Italy is seen as a norm by Renaissance art historians, as most art works are without signatures and can therefore be categorized as anonymous but awaiting identification. When the modern scholar finally attributes the work as being, for example, from the workshop of Catena or Botticelli, anonymity is discarded, and modern values concerning its aesthetic, cultural, and monetary worth are concomitantly ascribed to it. In most cases where attribution of premodern works is not unequivocal to modern scholars, the works are provisionally classified as anonymous until their authorship is established; but for Renaissance viewers and patrons these works were not anonymous, or at least they were not thought of as such by the intended audience and users. As with secrecy, anonymity demarcates “exclusion, distinction and privilege” : intentional anonymity in some cases deliberately restricts or expands access to information and cultural delectation in ways that would not be possible otherwise.

Yet unsigned literary or art works that may be understood as anonymous today may not have been regarded as such by the circles or communities for which they were intended: such communities were infinitely more circumscribed than today. The ubiquitous “Anon.” is encountered by literary scholars, musicologists, and historians across multiple genres. Both Michel Foucault and Margreta de Grazia have defined two approaches to anonymity in relation to literature and history. They argue that nonliterary documents have writers, whereas literary texts have authors. The distinction implies that archival documents are authorized by their community whereas literary texts depend on what Foucault dubs “the author function” 2 and the notion of ownership. This effectively means that, in the case of the historical document, early modern institutions and communities hold the agency and authorship. The writer is only the conduit or instrument and therefore should not concern the historian. In literature, instead, the author is the validating discourse and the author function should concern the literary scholar. Foucault’s and de Grazia’s understandings of anonymity in literature and history are not sufficiently nuanced, and create significant distortions. The recent scholarship on English literature discussed here critiques the understanding of the history of anonymity as evolutionary and linear. Instead, there is ample evidence showing that, at least in literature, “anonymity is not simply a residual characteristic of oral or manuscript culture,” 3 but represents for several centuries an important convention in both print and manuscript cultures.

Recent scholarship on early modern and modern English and Spanish literature provides an innovative and sophisticated understanding of anonymity that applies equally well to all disciplines related to Renaissance studies. This emerging literature explores the nature of intentional anonymity — a form of authorship in which the mask was often a game privy to contemporary readers and viewers. In the words of Marcy North, “anonymity is a flexible convention. It can represent . . . an act of modesty or an act of self-protection.” 4 These studies show that anonymity was one of several conventions available to authors, copyists, printers, and patrons for shaping their relationship with the text and reader.

In the present essay we maintain that the conventions of anonymity were practiced in a range of other artistic endeavors (music and the figurative arts) and forms of communication (chronicles, letter-writing, and denunciations, among others) that are yet to receive due attention. Musicologists, historians, and art historians have not yet fully engaged with the Anon. Twenty years ago, former director of the National Gallery and British Museum in London, Neil MacGregor, asked whether it matters in art history that an artist has a real name. His answer then was “yes,” and this concern, which continues in the present day, is a consequence of our conditioning by the legal and cultural notions behind intellectual property, copyright, and the value of a work being increased by knowing the identity of its unique creator. But we are often not privy to the early modern rules of the game and, because of this, are unable to locate anonymity in its material, social, and cultural realms. Foucault and de Grazia have suggested that history and literature deal with texts differently. In the last twenty-five years or so, however, social and cultural historians have turned to literature to understand the Renaissance. Similarly, new literary historicists have devoted much attention to archival material and incorporated it into their analyses of fiction. We believe that this growing interaction between literature, musicology, and history prompts a reconsideration of how anonymity is perceived and studied in these fields.