A Bizarre Story

Thompson Cooper (1837–1904) was the son of Charles Henry Cooper (1808–66), the distinguished Town Clerk of Cambridge, whose historical and biographical works on the city are still a major source of information. From 1842 to 1853 he published four volumes of Annals of Cambridge (volume 5 was completed by his son J.W. Cooper of Trinity Hall, and published ‘with additions and corrections to Volumes I–IV and index to the complete work’ in 1908).

A bust of C.H. Cooper, by the sculptor Henry Wiles (1838–1930).

C.H. Cooper’s next work was Athenae Cantabrigienses, a collection of carefully researched biographies of distinguished figures with Cambridge connections, of which the first volume appeared in 1858. It was apparently Thompson’s idea, and written jointly, but again left incomplete at C.H.’s death, when the two sons found the completion of the third volume was more than they could manage, given other commitments: Volume 3 (published at the expense of the University, whereas most of Cooper’s works had been funded by public subscription) appeared in 1913 under the supervision of G.J. Gray.

At the same time, Cooper was also working to revise the text of Memorials of Cambridge, originally published in 1841 to accompany illustrations by the engraver John Le Keux (1783–1846). He was under the impression that ‘only a slight amount of labour’ would be required of him. However, he altered and modified this now three-volume work (1860–6) so extensively was that it is effectively re-written.

Le Keux’s engraving of Peterhouse, from Volume 1 of Cooper’s Memorials of Cambridge.

All this goes to demonstrate that Thompson Cooper, biographer and journalist, was probably, by upbringing and experience, an ideal person to contribute to Sir Leslie Stephen’s great enterprise, the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography (later, of course, the ODNB). In 1858, he wrote a book on Parliamentary shorthand (probably a handy skill to have; cf. Charles Dickens) before working as a sub-editor, and later Parliamentary reporter, for the Daily Telegraph. In 1866, he moved to The Times, and reported debates in the House of Commons for the next twenty years. In his spare time, he produced A New Biographical Dictionary: Containing Concise Notices of Eminent Persons of All Ages and Countries; and More Particularly of … Great Britain and Ireland (1873), and wrote the text for a seven-volume collection of photographs of the Great and Good (1876–83).

Dickens’s business card as a ‘Short Hand Writer’.

As the current ODNB describes it: ‘Cooper was associated with the Dictionary of National Biography from its inception. In 1883 Leslie Stephen appointed him to compile the lengthy lists of proposed entries which were published every six months in The Athenaeum to elicit information and comment. He himself wrote 1423 entries –much the largest contribution by any one author. [They are listed here.] He specialized in Roman Catholic subjects, but was also responsible for Cambridge graduates of early date, modern journalists, and shorthand writers. His literary and historical insight was not profound, but he had the gift of serendipity and never lost his zest for research.’

One of Thompson Cooper’s entries was on Pietro Bizari (spelled Bizzarri in the current ODNB entry, written by Kenneth R. Bartlett, from which much of what follows is drawn). Probably born in 1525 (Cooper has 1530) in Sassoferrato Castello in the Marche, Pietro was the son of a soldier who died in 1528. He is occasionally known as Petrus Perusinus, so presumably spent some time in Perugia, but was educated in Venice, where – remarkably – at the age of about eighteen, he converted to Protestantism.

He may have come under the influence of the famous Bernardino Ochino (1487–1564), who began as a Franciscan, studied medicine at Perugia, and in 1534 transferred to the newly formed Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, which attempted to return to the original life of Franciscan simplicity. He moved in an intellectual milieu which included Vittoria Colonna, Pietro Martire Vermigli and Cardinal Pietro Bembo, who invited him to Venice, where in 1539 he preached a series of sermons which suggested that he sympathised with the notion of justification by faith.

Bernadino Ochino as a preacher in Augsburg, as portrayed in a 1748 publication.

Summoned to Rome in 1542, Ochino was warned at Bologna by Gasparo Contarini, Venetian diplomat, cardinal and would-be church reformer, not to go (Contarini was dying, poisoned (it is alleged) by the forces of reaction).

The memorial to Contarini in the church of Madonna del’Orto, Venice.

He fled instead to Geneva via Florence, then to Augsburg; but when it was occupied by imperial forces in 1547, he went to England, where he received a pension from Edward VI and was given a prebendal stall at Canterbury. (The young Princess Elizabeth translated his Che Cosa è Christo into Latin and English.)

Princess Elizabeth, c. 1546, attributed to William Scrots. (Credit: The Royal Collection Trust)

The accession of Mary led to further flight – Basel, then Zürich; but his writings on free will led to problems with the Calvinist orthodoxy, and he was banished. His end was miserable: after fleeing to and being expelled from Poland, he died in obscurity in Moravia in about 1564. (Apparently he had at least four children, three of whom predeceased him during an outbreak of plague.)

Bizzarri’s trajectory was not dissimilar, but his end was (as far as is known) not so miserable, not least because, instead of indulging in the dangerous pursuit of theology, he became a spy. He left Italy in 1545, and stayed in Nuremberg and Wittenberg (with the hope of studying with Melanchthon), but fled to England (ahead of the Habsburg armies) in 1549. He was clearly not without influential friends, being made a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, in July, ‘by the royal commissioners for the visitation of the university, being incorporated there in the same degree which he had taken in partibus transmarinis’, but did not remain long. At some point he had made the acquaintance of Francis Russell, later the second earl of Bedford, and followed him to court.

Francis Russell as a boy, by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Credit: The Royal Collection Trust)

Russell was of the reform party, and a close associate of William Cecil: he and his father both signed the document giving the succession to Lady Jane Grey. They survived the consequences, but Bizzarri may have thought it prudent to return to the continent. Russell travelled in Europe from 1555 (when he succeeded to the earldom): he met Charles V in Brussels, and passed time in Venice, where he may have met up again with Bizzarri, who next appears in that city in 1558, writing a message of praise to Elizabeth I on her accession.

The second earl of Bedford, c. 1585, the year of his death.

He then returned to England and presented a manuscript, De principe tractatus, to the queen. For this piece of flattery he was rewarded with a pension and the living of Alton Pancras in Dorset, worth £20 a year, probably through the influence of Archbishop Parker, whom he had known at Cambridge. (It is not clear if he ever visited his parish…)

The parish church of St Pancras at Alton Pancras, Dorset. Apart from the tower, the building is mostly Victorian.

In 1564, Bedford, a member of Elizabeth’s Privy Council, was appointed governor of Berwick, and took Bizzarri north with him. He met Mary, queen of Scots, to whom he presented a Latin treatise, De bello et pace, urging rulers to oppose war.

Bizzarri left for Italy immediately after this, with William Cecil’s permission, spending the autumn of 1564 in Padua before moving on to Venice. He kept his pension, and it seems reasonable to assume that this was a quid pro quo for passing back to Cecil information on political and trade developments in northern Italy. He also moved in literary circles, having a collection of essays dedicated to Queen Elizabeth published by Aldus Manutius in 1565.

Bizzarri’s Varia Opuscula, printed by Aldus.

He also published a history of the recent war in Hungary, but for some reason left Venice in 1566, and the book, dedicated to Bedford, was published in Lyon in 1568.

Bizzarri was back in England (and ostensibly in Bedford’s service) between 1570 and 1572, but himself receiving intelligence from an informer in Venice, which he presumably passed on to Cecil. In August 1572 (yet again showing an alarming tendency to be at the wrong place at the wrong time), he set out ostensibly for Venice, passing through Paris on St Bartholomew’s Eve. Happily, he was able to take refuge in the house of the English ambassador, Sir Francis Walsingham, who became a close correspondent (if indeed they did not already know each other through Cecil). Once travel was safe again, he went on to Basel, where in 1573 he published his Cyprium bellum, on the recent conquest of Cyprus by the Turks.

The title page of Cyprium bellum.

This work was dedicated to the Elector August of Saxony, and when Bizzarri followed his work to Dresden he was rewarded by an annual pension of 100 thalers, increased soon afterwards to 150. He began sending reports to Dresden from Augsburg, and later settled in Nuremberg, where he bought a house. (He also tried to arrange a marriage with the daughter of his fellow exile Vermigli, but this did not come off.)

The Elector August, depicted on a thaler coin of 1582.

By 1576, he was in Cologne, sending reports to Cecil, Walsingham and the Elector August, but 1578 found him in Antwerp (then recovering from the Spanish Fury), where Christophe Plantin published his Senatus populique Genuensis rerum domi forisque gestarum historiae atque annales: cum luculenta variarum rerum cognitione dignissimarum, quæ diversis temporibus, & potissimum hac nostra tempestate contigerunt, enarratione in 1579 (despite his repeated efforts, the Genoan senate gave him no reward, suspecting the book of being heretical: it was indeed later placed on the Index librorum prohibitorum).

The title page of Bizzarri’s history of Genoa, showing Plantin’s colophon of the golden compasses.

The Index, first published after the Council of Trent, abolished in 1966.

Cooper records Justus Lipsius writing that in 1581 Bizzarri, while passing through Leiden, left with him the manuscript of a ‘Universal History’ in eight volumes, with a request that he would seek for a publisher who would undertake to bring it out at his own expense: it seems never to have been published. (Likewise, the manuscript of his final work, De quattuor monarchiis, was sent from Antwerp to Frankfurt for printing, but seems to have disappeared.)

His next published work, in 1583, was Rerum Persicarum historia in XII libros descripta, totius gentis initia, mores, instituta, et rerum domi forisque gestarum, which included accounts of Barbaro’s and Contarini’s travels in Persia in the fifteenth century. (Two copies of the work were sent to England, for the queen and Walsingham.) Travelling to Dresden by the Rhine to present a copy to the Elector, he had a narrow escape from Catholic soldiers when his boat was raided, but the Elector both gave him a monetary reward and increased his pension.

The title page of Persicarun rerum historia.

Bizzarri then had to flee back from Antwerp to England, via Dordrecht, to escape the armies of Alexander Farnese, but in 1586 he set off for Dresden again, anxious about the future of his pension after the death of the Elector August. He then headed back across Europe: his last known whereabouts was Den Haag, whence he wrote a letter to Cecil on 23 November. After this, the historian and spy disappears from the record, leaving the diligent Thompson Cooper to trace his life and compile a list of his works.


This entry was posted in Bibliography, Biography, Cambridge, History, Italy, Literature, London, Museums and Galleries, Printing and Publishing, Venice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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