memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘british library’

Galileo Galilei (1)


I used to take an hour off every day after lunch to go for long walks, prowling round the Baixa section of Porto. At the limit of my range, allowing me only ten minutes over the target, was the old second-hand-book shop at the bottom of the Rua Mouzinho da Silva, which descends from São Bento station to the Ribeira. At the back of the narrow dark shop there was an English section that I used to check out in case there was anything new. I once came across a French book of poems by Baudelaire, lavishly bound in pale blue leather with fin-de-siècle designs in gold tooled onto the spine – divine decadence I thought as I opened it. I immediately noticed the price, really cheap, 200 escudos, then the book fell open at Les Fleurs du Mal – someone had gouged out a hole with fierce slashes of a sharp knife in the next thirty-odd pages as though in a frenzy of self-loathing. Someone doesn’t appreciate Baudelaire, I remarked to the owner of the shop drily. I know, it’s a crime to do that to such a fine book, he replied, I’m hoping that someone will buy it just to decorate his book-case.

Anyway on one particular afternoon I came across, in two half-leather bound volumes dated London 1811,




A native of Colonia-do-Sacramento, on the river La Plata:


To which are added,




For 500 escudos the pair, I snapped them up and hurried back to work. At the weekend I examined the volumes and read the first paragraph:

Three or four days had elapsed, after my arrival in Lisbon, from London, in the latter end of July, 1803, when a magistrate entered my apartments, and telling me who he was ,informed me, likewise, he had orders to seize all my papers , and to conduct me to prison, where I was to be rigorously kept aloof from all communication…

Hang on a minute I thought I didn’t realize that the Inquisition had lasted to the beginning of the 19th century. I turned back to the preface where I read:

From my earliest infancy I had accustomed myself to consider the existence of an inquisition in Europe as a system formed by ignorance and superstition, and therefore I had always viewed it with horror: but little did I ever dream of becoming a victim of its persecution. It is scarcely credible that, in the nineteenth century, a tribunal should exist, that, without any apparent cause, or without any violation of the laws of the country, should feel empowered to seize individuals and try them for offences which must considered imaginary, if they are not to be found, which is the case in the criminal code of the country.  

I skimmed through the two volumes: The narrative of the persecution was not without human interest and I earmarked it as a project for another occasion, maybe a non-judgmental treatment of Freemasonry versus the Catholic Church.

The bye-laws of the (Portuguese) Inquisition I found more fascinating – a list of laws and codes calculated to induce fear and bigotry and fervent anti-Semitism.

To be continued

Render unto Caesar

Another cherished book of mine is Caesar’s Commentaries:

The Commentaries of C. Julius Caesar of his war in Gallia and civil wars betwixt him and Pompey. Translated into English with many excellent and judicious observations thereupon. By Clement Edmunds, Esquire, London, 1677.

About this book my father wrote thus:

This an old family book though its history is obscure. I think that it was my grandfather who as a schoolboy at Westminster wrote home for a crib to Caesar and was astonished to receive this venerable folio with its quaint double-page engravings of Roman military formations.

It came to my father (Hugh Cantis Milner) who set about restoring it as he did other dilapidated family books. Presumably the original binding was past saving and he had it rebound by a local binder, a modest man who told him that his father had been book binder to Lord Halifax at Hickleton, but that he was not up to that standard. However he has done a fine job in full suede leather. There are no inscriptions except my own dated 1932; the 18th century bookplate has been replaced on the endpaper.

My father then gave it to me. I remember feeling annoyed by the lettering on the spine – Commentary in the singular and I had my doubts about the suitability of the binding. However I hope I had the grace to keep quiet. After more than sixty years the handsome volume seems fresh and good as new.

At first sight the book is highly confusing. In spite of vague words about revision and enlargement, it seems to be substantially a re-issue of the first edition of 1604. A flowery dedication «To The Prince» is followed by two pages of complimentary verses by William Camden (in Latin), Samuel Daniel, Joshua Sylvester and Ben Johnson who contributed two. (Johnson’s own copy of his friend’s book is now in the British Library.)

Behind these is an elaborate Latin eulogy of Caesar, which in parts seems only too applicable to Charles I. All these people were long since dead by 1677, and one has to work for oneself that the dedicatee must be the popular prince Henry who died in 1612, making way for his stiff and sickly brother Charles.

My father left it to me. I was not annoyed.

And the great civil war, 1642-1645, the internecine strife (brother against brother) which split society asunder and toppled the natural order of things, (our revolution in fact), is passed over in silence!

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.

(William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar)

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