Monday, June 24, 2019



Everyone is familiar with Samuel Johnson's justly famous letter to Lord Chesterfield (February 7, 1755):
To The Right Honourable The Earl Of Chesterfield
My Lord,

I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of The World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre;—that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.

The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron, which providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,

My Lord,
Your lordship's most humble,
most obedient servant,
A less known but similar episode occurred two years later, recounted at the beginning of Charles W. Hedrick Jr., History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), p. xi with note on p. 259:
In 1757 Giovanni Battista Piranesi published the final edition of his collection of etchings of the ruins of ancient Rome, Le antichità Romane. The frontispiece to that edition shows a palimpsested inscription: the original letters have been erased and over them a new text, announcing the book to the reader, has been carved. Piranesi explains this unusual illustration and its prominent position at the beginning of the book in great detail in another of his works, a polemic entitled the Lettere di giustificazione.1 An Irish nobleman, James Caulfield, Lord Charlemont, had promised a substantial subvention for the publication of the book, but at the last moment had reneged on his guarantee. The work was already complete, and Piranesi had commemorated Charlemont's name and patronage in inscriptions strategically placed in the various etchings throughout the volume. When Charlemont declined to provide the promised funding, Piranesi went through the engravings of the book, eradicating his onetime patron's name almost everywhere.

1. His explanation of the image and account of the dispute are so detailed as to make further commentary superfluous. He recollects the palimpsested inscriptions from the Antichità as if on the wall of a museum in tav. 8 of the Lettere (reproduced as the frontispiece of this book). The text of the Lettere is reproduced in Wilton-Ely 1972.

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