"Hard lines chuck", my partner the ceramist consoled when I told him the book I'd chosen as my inspiration for the project 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' had been sold to a university library in the United States. After the initial stab of disappointment at not being able to see or hold the book for myself I quickly realised there was a curious symmetry to what I now regarded as my 'lost object' of desire - in Lacanian terms that which drives the urge to create.
The material realisation of a piece of work comes in many forms and I've never been especially interested in literal depiction, recreation or illustration. Now that the actual book was gone I could fully turn my attention to its owner - the mysterious man in the Roman prison - who I would also never see except in my mind's eye and the signficance of his own interventions into the text.
Paul Quarrie at work in the Continental and Illuminations Department
Paul Quarrie, who had researched the book prior to its sale, soon provided me with fascinating background information, including its title and dimensions. As one of the many editions of the canons of the Council of Trent, written in Latin and printed in Venice in 1564 by one G. Cavalcalupo, the small book was neither rare nor remarkable. Ironically, as Paul had explained on the site visit, books such as this, written in Latin, are now quite hard to sell as so few people read the language these days. With its plain vellum cover it wasn't even desirable as a decorative addition to a gentleman's study or country house library, unlike the many lavishly tooled and gilded Continental books of a similar period on display in the department.
Early gold-tooled vellum and leather bound books from continental Europe
Ordinarily it wouldn't have had much going for it and might have languished in Maggs back catalogues for decades. Certainly, I'd blinked and almost missed it. What made it special was its extra-ordinary provenance. Its owner Francesco Ghesi had been a professor of philosophy and theology who'd taught first in Naples and then in Rome. He was himself a published writer of several manuscripts and printed books. Somehow though - possibly through connections to Giovanni Morone, one of the more heterodox thinkers of the time - he'd fallen foul of Pius V who was elected Pope in 1566.
Upon opening the book it had been revealed that Ghesi had turned it upside down and back to front and, throughout its 184 pages, between the lines of printed text, he had handwritten his defence to the Roman Inquisition whilst imprisoned by the Pope under suspicion of heresy. It was probably precisely the fact that this was such an unremarkable volume of religious doctrine, so small as to fit easily within a man's grasp, that he'd been able to carry it with him to prison. And, anyway, how could the Inquisition object to a prisoner reading and reflecting upon the very canons of faith against which he'd allegedly committed heresy. He finished writing his defence, with its poignant plea for justice, in December 1570 but was only freed in 1574, following the death of Pius V, after spending eight years in prison. Francesco Ghesi died in 1578 "unable to enjoy other than in paradise the prize of his innocence".
I now knew which material I wanted to use to make the piece. But first I had another difficult choice to make; one contemporary writer, a prisoner of conscience, to represent the hundreds, if not thousands, imprisoned worldwide today .........