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Armando Maggi. Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology.

Armando Maggi. Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. Pp 255.

This book represents a distinguished and theoretically sophisticated contribution to the relatively short bibliography of scholarly works on European demonological literature. Since the 1970s, witch trials have been the focus of many important studies, but learned Latin treatises on the powers of demons have attracted less attention. The crucial exception is Stuart Clark's Thinking with Demons (1996), the indispensable starting place for any serious reading on this recondite topic. Conceived as a corrective to the idea that witch and demon beliefs existed only (or mainly) at the lowest social levels, Clark's magisterial work demonstrates the pervasive character of "demonic thinking" in European high culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in the areas of science, history, religion and politics.

As a literary scholar, Armando Maggi takes a more textually focused and exegetical approach to traditional demonologies, presenting densely argued, close readings of five selected authors from sixteenth-century Italy, as well as one from Portugal. He describes his own work as "a linguistic and rhetorical analysis" of the dialogue between demons and humans "as it was hypothesized and investigated during the Renaissance" (1). The demonological treatises under investigation are to be understood as "grammar books," dissecting the strange idioms through which fallen angels communicate their subversive, destructive messages to vulnerable humans (2). Maggi explains his approach as a "form of intellectual and linguistic translation," an effort "to make sense of [...] an obsolete and 'insane' intellectual system" (3). While recognizing differences of emphasis among authors, he is not primarily concerned with the specific contexts in which individual treatises were written; rather he treats demonological literature as a single discourse, one still spoken, at least in some quarters, up to the present day.

His first chapter, "The Devil's Perverted Syllogism," is a highly original linguistic analysis of Sylvester Prierio's De strigimagarum daemonunque mirandis (Rome, 1521). Maggi sees this treatise as unique in the demonological literature for its focus on "the dynamics of the devil's intellectual practice [...] how the devils think and manifest their thoughts" (42). Since they have no bodies and no voices, angels have no language of their own; essentially they are messengers acting "as instruments of others' discourses" (5). In the case of the good angels, this situation presents no problem, since they reliably transmit divine messages. But fallen angels are "permanently excluded from meaning" (5), and despite their intelligence, they are parasitically dependent on others' idioms. "Astute semioticians of the world's language" (23), these "speakers of the mind" inhabit the lower air, where they observe human actions, and in their intellectualized way, form incomplete "perverted syllogisms" in men's minds, infecting them with an unspoken, destructive language of "chaos and incertitude" (6). Like the book as a whole, this chapter is informed but not dominated by twentieth-century theories of language (Pierce, Searle, de Certeau, Lacan). As it turns out, these theorists really do help to explicate the highly abstract, unembodied discourse of demons and angels. Maggi's work demonstrates the utility of linguistic and literary theory in decoding the most abstruse of pre-modern discourses, showing that the sometimes difficult hermeneutics of the "linguistic turn" can facilitate the daunting task of deciphering these earlier arcane texts.

Since the "devil needs a human speaker [...] to complete his perverted syllogism" (54), language provides the opening for demonic appropriation of human desires. A previously unstudied treatise by the Portuguese Inquisitor Manuel do Valle de Moura, De incantationibus seu ensalmis (Lisbon, 1620) describes the subversion of ceremonial religious speech to magical ends by users of incantations, called ensalmi in the vernacular. Defined as "benedictions or imprecations composed of a certain formula of words, primarily holy ones" (55), they were used primarily for healing, but also to obtain worldly goods. The problem with such invocations was the uncertainty of their addressee; even when putatively directed to God, requests could easily be taken up by a demonic listener. The earliest ensalmi were pagan; those of Jews, sodomites, witches, and heretics continued to give human voice to "Satan's rhetoric" (84).

In a jurisdictional assertion typical of Counter Reformation thinking, only the official prayers of the Catholic Church were guaranteed to be immune to demonic usurpation. The most powerful ecclesiastical weapon against demons was exorcism, which underwent a significant revival in sixteenth-century Italy. Chapter 3 focuses on a collection of Italian exorcist treatises, the Thesaurus Exorcismorum (Cologne, 1608), including those by Zacharia Visconti, Valerio Polidori and Girolamo Menghi (who was not an Inquisitor, as Maggi asserts, but a Franciscan exorcist). Each of these treatises functioned as a vade mecum, or manual (97) for arresting the spread of demonic rhetoric through the more powerful voice of the institutional Church, speaking through a licensed exorcist reading from an approved script.

Chapter 4 examines "The Discourse of the Mind in the Probation of St. Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi," a Florentine mystic and the subject of an important earlier book by the author. This amazing text records Maria's five-year melancholia, a condition which left her peculiarly vulnerable to demonic assaults. Maggi's analysis of how demons used the melancholic temper to insert themselves into the human mind is chilling, and may seem oddly familiar to any modern depressive. His final chapter takes on a little known illustrated treatise by the sixteenth-century physician and astrologer, Girolamo Cardano: Metoposcopia, or "the analysis of signs marked on the human face" (183). Demons could read these signs, using them to pick out likely targets for possession, obsession, or temptation.

In his introduction, Maggi accurately describes his study as "founded on a 'credulous' suspension of disbelief" (3), one that abstains from "superimposing our 'enlightened' beliefs" on early modern demonological thought. But how can "the criminal conduct of the Catholic Church" (3) be discerned, if not from a retrospective, modern perspective? Maggi's conclusion deliberately rejects any historicist discontinuities, presenting a Gay Pride rally in Rome during the Jubilee Year of 2000 as part of a transhistorical confrontation between a repressive orthodoxy and "its victims, all those who, throughout the centuries and in different ways, were persecuted and murdered" (231) by representatives of the Church. This originally Catholic, demonized view of sodomy has, in his view, been taken up by the otherwise presumptively heretical forces of the American Christian right (234). Many readers not drawn to the anachronistic aspects of this impassioned conclusion will nonetheless find themselves enlightened and engaged by Maggi's skillful, even brilliant, reconstruction of how demons and demonologists thought and spoke about each other in Counter Reformation Europe.

Mary R. O'Neil, University of Washington
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Title Annotation:Italian Bookshelf
Author:O'Neil, Mary R.
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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