Quid Tum?

Matthew Alderman

Somehow, life here appears too still. She is sitting in the colorless silver-gold sunlight of mid-afternoon, stretched out on the window-seat, lost in a book. You might still call her a girl—maybe she is eighteen, maybe less, maybe more, but her quiet, matter-of-fact absorption is almost childlike. Her poise is primly deliberate, and yet she is unconscious of our presence, her eyes so deeply downcast as to appear closed. Beyond, the window opens into the outside world. A small patch of sunlight glints in the dark shadow beneath the underside of her outstretched calves.

Quid Tum?

Quid Tum?

You wait to see if she breathes, or to hear the momentary rush of a fall breeze, to reassure yourself that both she and you have not fallen into some unnoticed and ordinary stasis.

I never bothered to give her a name, but I’m fond of her and her world. This moment started out merely as a decorative drawing, a cozy little nod to the joy of reading to hang over the bookcase in my new apartment. But it took on a more solemn and dark tone when I couldn’t find a cheerfully harmless quote about books to stick underneath it. And so the title came into being—and with it, the glowering winged eye insignia lurking in the stained-glass just above her deep-lidded, deep-lashed eyes.

Note the inscription: Quid tum?

A flippant translator might render it as “So what?” or “What then?” or even “What’s it to you?” The Renaissance humanist and minor cleric Leon Battista Alberti used it as his motto, along with that restless, searching eye streaking lightning-bolts from its pupil, equal parts Jupiter and Egyptian hieroglyph.1 The phrase may originate in Vergil’s tenth Eclogue: “So what, if Amyntas is swarthy? (quid tum si fuscus Amyntas?) Violets are black, and hyacinths are black.” This may seem almost nonsensical, ripped from its context, though one scholar claims it is Alberti’s taunting riposte to critics of his illegitimate birth.

But then, as the great Renaissance scholar Ingrid Rowland has pointed out, one symbol can enfold a multiplicity of meanings.2 One explanation, considered less likely by linguists and more by art historians, links the epigram—and the winged and perhaps Egyptianate eye—to the apocalyptic dread of the Dies Irae: “quid sum ego tunc dicturus?—“What shall I say then?” Alberti’s own drawn face and inner turmoil, as depicted on the portrait medal that bears the inscription, suggest a wariness at some interior chasm between the Renaissance Man, the self-proclaimed measure of all things, and the gift of the Holy Ghost that was once called the fear of the Lord.

(Rowland herself suggests translating it “Rosebud,” though this has less to do with Alberti than Rowland’s freewheeling and esoteric sense of humor, and a presumed Orson Welles fixation.)

The phrase is actually common enough in antique sources. Its most appealing meaning is the slightly flip, slightly searching “What next?” In that sense—mingled with the salutary consecrated horror of the Dies Irae—it makes its cameo appearance here, under an eye that is equal parts the omnipresent and powerful gaze of the God who made the heavens and the earth, and the restless, even occasionally neurotic eye of the artist who imitates, however distantly, God’s identity as creator. Quid tum can either be the frenzied wail of despair, a polite cough to advance discussion, or the hustling, bustling, joyous impatience of the artist eager to get on to his next project. It is the digestion of contemplated knowledge into action—whether that action is hard work, writing, or the further contemplation of deep prayer.

It is no mistake that there is a big pot of untouched coffee at her feet, and it sits ready for her, when she is ready for it.

But will she ever rise? What next? She is young, with a mind and body still untested and innocent. She sits in contemplation or obsolescence, with the world spread out before her, and when she will be ready to look beyond the window-frame and the shelf she sits upon, we can’t be sure. She is pure potential, waiting to apply her young knowledge—if she can come out of the stillness that holds her, and her small universe, fixed and still. In this antique turn of phrase, Quid tum, can be minutely glimpsed the sum of a human life rolled up to its very end—whether squandered and despairing, or glorious and triumphant.

The choice is hers—and yours.

Matthew Alderman is an assistant editor of Dappled Things. He lives in Manhattan, where he works in the field of architecture. As a liturgical artist, he has undertaken commissions from the Knights of Columbus, the Church Music Association of America, and Most Holy Mother of God Catholic Church in Vladivostok, Russia. His articles have appeared in Touchstone and The St. Austin Review.


1. [The factual content of the discussion that follows is taken from an exchange in the Letters column of the New York Review of Books (Volume 42, No.1) between the savant David Marsh and Renaissance woman Ingrid Rowland, who, like her idol, the Jesuit polymath Fr. Athanasius Kircher, may be the last person to know everything.]

2. [For the first sense, Rowland suggests consulting Aeneid IV.543, and for the second, she points to Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, II.11.26.]