Witnessing ‘The Magic of Handwriting’

An exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum
July 4, 2018 Updated: September 1, 2018    

NEW YORK—We might form certain notions in our minds about famous people from the way they have been written about in history books, presented in the media, or talked about in everyday conversation. But if we see their autographs—their handwriting in a document, a fleeting note, or an intimate letter—our notions about them may change. We have the opportunity to access a private moment in their lives. It’s not to be taken lightly. These items exude a subtle, yet potent charm, bringing us back to events that have enriched the past.

For instance, during his job-seeking journey in 1778, the 22-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a spirited letter to his father, Leopold, about a magnificent 16-year-old soprano, Aloysia Weber, who “sings superb cantabile.” On the small piece of paper, Mozart revealed his wish to travel from Germany to Italy with Weber to support her and to establish himself as an opera composer. “I refuse to bury the talent for composition our benevolent God has so bountifully given me,” Mozart wrote to his father. “I may say so without arrogance, for I feel it now more than ever,” he added. In this tiny letter, we get a sense of how Mozart was striving to break free from his controlling father.

This is just one example from 140 items in the exhibition, “The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection” at The Morgan Library & Museum, running until Sept. 16, 2018.

An autograph letter signed, from 7-year-old Victoria, the future queen of Great Britain, to her uncle Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany, Tunbridge Wells, Aug. 16, 1826. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. (The Morgan Library & Museum)

This exhibition is not about the attempt to interpret people’s personalities based on their handwriting. It’s not a graphology exhibition. The exhibition’s items “give us a sense of being able to travel back in time and establish a sort of intimacy with the people who marked the page with their hands,” said Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s Drue Heinz curator of literary and historical manuscripts.   

The “magic” in the title of the exhibition references the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who was also an autograph collector. Zweig once begged the poet Rainer Maria Rilke for a precious gift: the manuscript of one of Rilke’s own poems. “I realize it is a lot to ask,” Zweig told Rilke, “for I know the magic of handwriting well, and I know that the gift of a manuscript is also the gift of a secret—a secret that unveils itself only for love.”

Signed handprint, 1935, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. (Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

The exhibition’s items were not really intended for public display, and most have never been displayed before. But the collector of the exhibition, the Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago, is not the hoarding kind of collector.

“I am thrilled to be able to share some the manuscripts and letters that have brought me such joy—and to do so within the library formed by one of the greatest of American autograph collectors,” Corrêa do Lago said at the press preview, referring to John Pierpont Morgan.

For nearly half a century, Corrêa do Lago has been acquiring thousands of handwritten letters, manuscripts, musical compositions, inscribed photographs, drawings, and documents. At 12 years of age, just for fun, he started writing letters to famous people, asking if they would send him something they had written by hand. At 17 years of age, he visited the Morgan for the first time and was amazed upon seeing manuscripts by the likes of Mozart, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Dickens. That is when he discovered that a market for autographs actually existed, and subsequently launched his career as an autograph seller and art publisher.

An autograph mathematical manuscript, circa 1940s, by Albert Einstein. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. (The Morgan Library & Museum)

Coming full circle, a top selection from his collection exhibited at the Morgan features an array of writing from notable figures, spanning from the 12th to the 20th centuries.

We can see a document of the accession of England’s Elizabeth I, signed by her on Nov. 20, 1558, from the first council meeting of her reign. We can lean over to read Winston Churchill’s letter to Pamela, Lady Lytton, his first great love, saying, “I am getting older now the trappings of power and responsibility have fallen away, and I totter along in the shades of retirement.” 

It seems incredulous how some of these fragile pieces of paper have survived for so long. One of the earliest works on view, for the first time, is a small block drawing with notes by Michelangelo, dated circa 1518. It’s a pen and ink drawing with autograph instructions for ordering marble for his first major architectural commission, the facade of San Lorenzo in Florence, which was never built.

Pen and ink drawing with autograph instructions by Michelangelo Buonarroti for a marble order for the facade of San Lorenzo, [Florence, 1518]. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. (The Morgan Library & Museum)

Other legendary figures featured include some of the greatest philosophers and thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking; musical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Giacomo Puccini; iconic performers like Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday, Audrey Hepburn, and the Beatles; artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, J.M.W. Turner, and Frida Kahlo; authors like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lewis Carroll, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Oscar Wilde, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Ernest Hemingway.

Among these cultural giants, some lesser known figures are also included, but no less interesting, including: Antônio Carlos Jobim, who launched Brazil’s bossa nova sound during the 1950s; and the 19th-century pioneer Brazilian author, Machado de Assis.

It’s a remarkable collection indeed.

Milene Fernandez is on Instagram @milenejf

An autograph manuscript draft of a portion of Act 1 from “The Girl of the Golden West” (“La Fanciulla del West”), circa 1908, by Giacomo Puccini. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. (The Morgan Library & Museum)