Monday, May 5, 2008

Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

Dante and His Book - In Santa Maria del Fiore
One thing that has been nagging at me during this brief (2+ month) study of Renaissance art and culture and that is that I don’t consult many primary sources. I tend to, rather, use a lot of secondary sources. Okay, given that I’m not intending to be a scholar in this field maybe it isn’t that important, but the question remains of how to balance the use of primary sources with secondary sources. (For more on sources, read here.) I was even chided by a librarian at the British Institute when I checked in a philosophy book (The Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics by E. Zeller *) and glibly declared, I only read the introduction, not the actual writings.

A primary source is a work produced during the period you are studying. For example, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy itself would qualify as using a primary source. A secondary source is an interpretation or analysis of a primary source. For example, reading the Wikipedia page about the Divine Comedy would qualify as a using a secondary source. The challenge is that with the “way” information is available to us today reading secondary sources is very easy, addictive (think Amazon book reviews), and a huge time saver. But when does it not help?

I was of the mind that primary sources are hard to find, especially on the Internet, but this really isn’t true. There are a number of sites like the Gutenberg or Internet Archive that have texts available. The rest you can find easily at a library. (Gutenberg even has texts read aloud. I have On the Origin of Species as an mp3 on my phone – for long train or airplane rides – fantastic!)

So, I tried the Divine Comedy (written between 1308 and 1321) and got through several pages before I yawned, and wondered if anyone created a nice image showing Dante’s concept. Then I searched and found Paul Laffoley’s vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven. I spent more time reading about this artist than I did reading the Divine Comedy. So the problem was me.

My next attempt was with a small book called Oration on the Dignity of Man by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, written in 1487. This speech is considered a key text of Renaissance humanism. This time, I was successful. I finished the 70 or so pages and I think reading it was better than reading about it – though there wasn’t a Wikipedia page on it, honestly, I checked.
Oration on the Dignity of Man - Front CoverOration on the Dignity of Man - Back Cover

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