Alternative facts -- about Roman emperors
One of the things that you have to get into the heads of graduate student is the importance of always going back to the original source. You can’t ever trust the reports of others. If you quote an author from a quote in another author, the chances of error are just too high. You’d be amazed how often the quote isn’t actually accurate, or it’s torn misleadingly out of context and the original was actually saying something significantly different from what is claimed.
Anyway today I followed my own advice; and phew! I am in the middle now of my first big chapter in the book and I was wanting a pithy quote to illustrate and enliven my assertion that quite a lot of people have always found the line up of ancient marble bust of emperor in museums a bit dull. It’s one of those things that I remember seeing ever so often in eighteenth and nineteenth century accounts of visiting museums in Italy, but the only reference I had written down was from a book on the Grand Tour (I am not going to say which, on the grounds that only those absolutely certain they are without sin should cast the first stone . . . and we all must have been guilty at some point).
The book referred to a letter by Lady Holland (aka Lady Georgiana Caroline Lennox) complaining about being bored in the Uffizi in 1766 – writing frankly, it said, about “the few very fine things, and the vast deal of tiresome stuff”. After that direct quote, the book went on: “The tribuna, with its showpieces such as the Venus de Medici, was all very well, she allowed, but there were endless busts of emperors and cabinets of coins and medals to be walked through first. These she had found tedious and boring,”
You can see why I had written it down in my notebook. It looked as if Lady Holland was going to give me just the quote I needed.
But it was just as well I checked in the original text (The Correspondence of Emily Duchess of Leinster, Lady Holland’s sister, published Dublin, 1949), because she said nothing about busts of emperors at all. The direct quote was more or less right (it was actually “a few very fine things and a vast deal of tiresome stuff”, but I can forgive that). And it may indeed have been busts of emperors that Lady Holland had in mind. But there was actually no mention of them, nor of the Venus de’ Medici, nor of coins and medals – despite the phrase “she allowed”, which implies that she is being quoted in paraphrase. There is in fact nothing at all to explain what she meant by “tiresome stuff”.
In a way, this doesn’t actually matter very much. But it is a nice example of what happens so often and of how “alternative facts” can grow in the academy too. It’s easy enough to think that I might have taken this on trust (it’s a CUP academic book, for heaven’s sake). In fact, I had already planned a sentence running along the lines of “Lady Holland visiting the Uffizi in 1766 was not the last and probably not the first to find its line-up of Roman emperors. . . “ And so it would have gained more legs, and in time, requoted, more.
And the other problem is that it’s left me looking for another example. I’ve got something that will do, but not as vivid as I had hoped Lady Holland was going to be. So if anyone has any references that might help me out, do let me know.
(And here is the new version: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/alternative-facts-roman-emperors/)