Saturday, July 25, 2015

Travelogue: Renaissance humanism

The Laurentian Library, attached to the cloister of San Lorenzo, was designed in part by Michelangelo for the last of the Medici popes, Clement VII.  Though not mobbed by tourists, it is nevertheless a popular Florentine destination and a timely reminder of the literary side of the Renaissance.  I had seen photographs in the past, and had often wondered, "Where are the bookshelves?"  The answer can be seen above:  the books lay on the shelf below the tilted reading desk, with their titles listed on the yellow strips running vertically up the ends of the desks.

At the time of our visit there was an exhibition in an adjoining room of antique books and manuscripts, from a first century papyrus page of Xenophon's Hellenica to more recent hand-lettered-and-illuminated manuscripts.  It was a reminder of the labor involved in making books prior to the printing press and their value.

It goes without saying that the Renaissance was a complex phenomenon.  "Renaissance" is our word, not theirs.  They no more thought of themselves as "Renaissance Men" than crusaders thought of themselves as "medieval."  I think it was Vasari who first talked about a "rebirth" of painting in his series of lives of the artists.  Michelet and Burckhardt probably cemented in place the notion of a "renaissance" in early modern Italy, but that, in turn, led others to point out the regularity with which different epochs re-discover the past.  Arguably the twelfth century, with its rediscovery of Aristotle and Roman law, was as much a re-birth of classical antiquity as developments in fifteenth century Florence.

"Humanism," too, is a term of maddening fluidity.  Nowadays it is almost a synonym for secularity.  Yet the Renaissance "turn to man" was decidedly a mixed bag when it came to religion.  More and Erasmus, two great northern humanists, were deeply religious.  Machiavelli's Principe, on the other hand, counsels irreligion coupled with the appearance of devotion, and the cortegiano of Castiglione, if not impious, is most at home, not in the cloister, or the university, but at court.

I mention the sixteenth century humanists deliberately because I have hitherto had only limited exposure to the pioneering humanists of the fifteenth century, the quatrocento.  Since my return I have acquired a couple of new books to remedy that omission.

One is a new publication from the I Tatti Renaissance Library, Giovanni Pontano's On Married Love and Eridanus.  Like the other humanists of the fourteenth century, Pontano was more interested in reviving a purified classical Latin than developing the vernacular.  Born in the Duchy of Spoleto, Pontano's reputation for learning led to his early patronage by the King of Naples, and he eventually rose to become second man in the kingdom.  On Married Love unusually celebrates the love between husband and wife, erotic and affectionate expressions leading, rather naturally, to the addition of paternal and familial love.  If nothing else it questions the common contemporary conviction that before the nineteenth century marriage was only a matter of convenience and property.

I also came across a text, translation and commentary on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man from Cambridge University Press (I Tatti has been promising a Pico volume for quite some time, but it's nowhere in sight).  Here is the passage most commonly quoted, the passage often taken as the epitome of Renaissance thought, spoken by God to the newly-created Adam:

«Nec certam sedem, nec propriam faciem, nec munus ullum peculiare tibi dedimus, o Adam, ut quam sedem, quam faciem, quae munera tute optaveris, ea, pro voto, pro tua sententia, habeas et possideas. Definita caeteris natura intra praescriptas a nobis leges cohercetur.  Tu, nullis angustiis cohercitus, pro tuo arbitrio, in cuius manu te posui, tibi illam prefinies.  Medium te mundi posui, ut circumspiceres inde commodius quidquid est in mundo.  Nec te celestem neque terrenum, neque mortalem neque immortalem fecimus, ut tui ipsius quasi arbitrarius honorariusque plastes in quam malueris tute formam effingas.  Poteris in inferiora quae sunt bruta degenerare; poteris in superiora quae sunt divina ex tui animi sententia regenerari».

There is no doubting the great hierarchical chain of being in creation.  But man alone is given no fixed place on it.  Set in the center of the world he may choose to ascend or descend, sink to brutality or rise to divinity.  It is a vision of God-given dignity, an assertion of divine freedom which can bring with heavenly or hellish consequences.

Pico is best known from his Oration.  He was widely admired; one of Thomas More's first productions was a translation of a Life of Pico.  His Oration was composed as the introduction to a great debate he planned in Rome on some nine hundred theses.  But he ran into some trouble.  On the way down to Rome he apparently abducted the wife of a distant Medici relative, and this plainly took some trouble to sort out.  Then Innocent VIII got to reviewing the theses and found some of them wanting in orthodoxy.  He cancelled the debate, and Pico thought it prudent to retreat to a sympathetic court in France.  He did eventually return to Italy, to Florence, but died rather young and, surprisingly, a partisan of Savonarola.

The nine hundred theses are not included in the Cambridge edition of the Oration.  I think that they will be published in the I Tatti edition.  From what I know of them, second hand, they cover an extraordinarily wide range of philosophical and religious propositions with the aim of synthesizing them.  In this Pico can be compared to his great contemporary Marsilio Ficino, whose great work, in addition to reviving the work of Plato, was to reconcile Platonism with Christianity.  Pico seems to have wanted to go further, to synthesize not only the noble pagans (whom even Dante gave a peaceful repose), but the Egyptians, the Persians, the Arabs, and anyone and everyone whose take on God and the universe had made it to fifteenth century Europe.

And that brings us back to libraries.  The very idea of a library almost demands synthesis.  The books, the philosophies, the reflections of diverse peoples in diverse civilizations from all times since the dawn of civilization suggest the possibility of a reconciling concept, a found or imposed unity among the collection.  Pico thought it there for the finding, given enough civilized discussion.  We are still looking for it, wondering if it is there, still eluding our grasp, or an illusion of the bookshelf.

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