Peter Mack, Director and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the Warburg Institute, gave  a presentation on ‘The Library and Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute as Research Instruments’ (9 February). Professor Mack’s publications include Renaissance Argument: Valla and Agricola in the Traditions of Rhetoric and Dialectic (1993), Renaissance Rhetoric (1994), Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (2002), Reading and Rhetoric in Montaigne and Shakespeare (2010) and A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620 (2011). He extended an invitation to all researchers with interests in cultural and intellectual history, history of art and the relations between cultures to visit the library and the photographic collection (further details, opening hours and entry conditions here).  He gave a short history of the Institute, which began as the Art Historian Aby Warburg’s private library and left Hamburg for London in 1933 to escape the Nazis (a remarkable image of this intellectual emigration can be seen here.) The Institute has a unique standing as a witness to twentieth-century developments in cultural history as well as a rich repository of texts and images; the  unique arrangment of this open stack library can be explored further here. The website also gives details of the programme of lectures and conferences at the Institute.

Piero di Cosimo, The Forest Fire: with kind permission of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Piero di Cosimo’s The Forest Fire explores the early history of humanity in the spirit of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (see Catherine Whistler and David Bomford, The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo). Recent scholarship has been bringing to light the  substantial and neglected presence of Lucretius in early modern culture, and this year’s CEMS conference (May 16-17) takes as its theme The Early Modern Lucretius. Speakers will include Stephen Greenblatt, whose The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began vividly narrates the poem’s rediscovery, Alison Brown, author of The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence, Philip Hardie, author of Lucretian Receptions, David Norbrook, co-editor of a new edition of Lucy Hutchinson’s translation, and Catherine Wilson, author of Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity. There will be a special session in which manuscript and print editions of Lucretius from the Bodleian Library will be presented by David Butterfield, who is preparing a new edition of the poem. Fuller details and booking are here.

In the latest CEMS seminar on ‘The Universities in Historical Context’, Professor G. R. Evans posed the provocative question ‘Dumbing down’? Did that happen in early modern universities?’.  She began by discussing current debates on standards and quality. Given how hard it is on our own time to infer from  a syllabus or exam paper at what level people are actually being taught, how far is it possible to make such inferences about the past? Her examples ranged from the medieval university to the debates about reform at Oxford in the early nineteenth century. If the question did not allow of a simple answer, it produced valuable debate and a reminder of previous controversies over the public value of higher education: the Edinburgh Review complained in 1810 that ‘When a University has been doing useless things for a long time, it appears at first degrading to them to be useful’’.