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In My Good Books

Renaissance Boy

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
5 August 2006

Felix Platter was a nice young student who travelled from his native Basle to study medicine in Montpellier in 1552, and kept a journal which he later wrote up. Beloved Son Felix (published in 1962) is a translation by Seán Jennett of the part of this journal that deals with his journey to and fro, and his experiences in Montpellier. The original is in the Basle dialect. It seems to have been rather faithful to the spirit of the original document, for Platter tells us many embarrassing things that happened to him, as well as sharing his triumphs and distinctions.

He is a pleasant character, understandably nervous of travel and wary of the underworld characters he meets, and tries to avoid, on the road. He gets homesick, and goes into the stable to his little horse, throws his arms around its neck and bursts into tears. "The poor beast, who was also alone, and whinnied plaintively for other horses, seemed to share the sorrow of our isolation."

As he approaches Montpellier he finds that the outskirts of the city are marked by scenes of execution, bodies broken upon the wheel, and limbs hung from gibbets and on the olive trees. The brutal methods of killing criminals and heretics, coolly recorded, will become a theme in the journal. The first servant who takes off his boots in Montpellier is later hanged for throwing her newborn child into the latrine. Her body is dissected in the anatomy theatre, the womb still swollen from childbirth. "Afterwards the hangman came to collect the pieces, wrapped them in a sheet, and hung them on a gibbet outside the town."

In the course of some 120 pages, the author of the journal goes from being a frightened boy, afraid on Christmas Eve of being left alone in the house, shutting himself up in his study and reading an old copy of Plautus, to being part of a group of anatomy students who organise a spy-ring to tell them of recently interred bodies. The students themselves go out at night, dig up the bodies and carry them off for autopsy. Eventually the monks in one place begin to guard their graveyard, and if a student comes near he receives bolts from a crossbow.

After work, sitting in his study or on the terrace at the top of the house, Platter plays his lute, and people gather down below to listen. You get a very good sense of the dissemination of music in the Renaissance: "After supper a wandering musician came by. We played him for his songs, and he lost; he was therefore obliged to sing them to us, which he did, sitting on the sill of a window. These singers know some very pretty airs, for example 'A la chambre' etc." Platter gets a friend to send him lute-strings from Basle, and in return he sends him some music, to give him a sense of the progress he has made.

Another object of dissemination: botanical specimens. Platter has an "Indian Fig", that is, a prickly pear, growing in a pot in his study and later on his terrace. "One of these plants in my master's garden had become a real tree, with several branches, and produced fruit; nevertheless it had grown from a single leaf from Italy." That single leaf would have been a recent novelty from the New World, whose products impinge elsewhere in the narrative when Platter sees a flock of turkeys (he calls them peacocks).

He is becoming a Renaissance man, though even by the end of the narrative he has yet to acquire a beard. He has collected specimens of coral, shells and sea fish, which he will organise with his dried, pressed plants into a museum for which (in a way that strikes us as childlike) he will always charge admission, and whose records he will meticulously keep. In 1555 he and his friends go to visit Nostradamus, then about to become famous. In the next year a rumour is put about that July 22, Mary Magdalen's Day, will be the end of the world.

In 1557, having passed his baccalaureate, he comes home, taller by a head than when he had left five years before. His guide goes with him as far as the gate of his home. He rings the bell, but the house is empty, it being Sunday afternoon. In front of the gate is a man going to the doctor to have his urine examined, which seems to Platter to be a happy omen for his future as a physician. Soon his mother comes running, and folds him in her arms, bursting into tears. Platter pays off his guide, and gives him his cloak as a tip.

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