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Douglas Biow. Doctors, Ambassadors, and Secretaries: Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy.

Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. xviii + 224 pp. index, illus. bibl. $39. ISBN: 0-226-05171-4.

This is a learned, well-written book that I read with curiosity and profit. Professor Biow is mainly concerned with the combination of humanism and professions, namely medicine, diplomacy, and secretariat. As the introductory chapter highlights, the very notion of "profession" is by no means an obvious one in Renaissance times. True, there was the good old practice of medicine: in this case the meaning is plain, and the association of medical and humanistic learning is also well-known. The book deals extensively with Girolamo Fracastoro and his writings on contagion. "For Fracastoro the revered ancient Greeks laid the foundation of knowledge" but provided only, as Fracastoro writes, "general facts and the first principles of things" (74). Much remained to be discovered, and Professor Biow emphasizes particularly the attitude of "wonder" that Fracastoro's scientific concern evinces, according to "the metaphoric structure of scientific knowledge at its inception" (79). (By the way, I would like to mention here that there is a quite unappreciated exception to the rule, represented by no other than Lorenzo Valla. Actually Valla writes in the Repastinatio dialecticae et philosophiae, 1:9.4, that scientific language differs absolutely from poets' and orators' metaphoric discourse: "quasi vero in philosophia poetas imitari debeamus aut oratores, topice frequenter ant necessitatis, ant ornatus, aut significantius exprimendi gratia loquentes ... Qui sermo procul abest ab eo qui loqui vult ad exactissimam veritatem." But Valla was just an exception, without any direct impact on his own and the following century.)

If the notion of "profession" is plain for medicine, for diplomacy and secretariat it is quite another matter. The book dwells on treatises such as Ottaviano Maggi's on the perfect ambassador, or Antonio Nati's, Francesco Sansovino's, Torquato Tasso's, etc. on secretaries' duties. These writers emphasize the very roots of their "profession" in ancient times: in other words, they were so aware of the novelty of the profession itself that they searched for a legitimization in a mythical past. The chapters on Ermolao Barbaro and Francesco Guicciardini (on diplomacy) and on Machiavelli (on secretariat) suggest quite different, more pragmatic thoughts. Although the exposition by Professor Biow is usually judicious, a more clear-cut distinction between experience that writings such as Barbaro's, Guicciaridini's, and Machiavelli's rely on, and the lengthy erudition of the treatises at the end of the century would be expedient. Incidentally, why has Barbaro's De officio legati, a treatise well-known among sixteenth-century scholars, remained unedited?

I end this review where Professor Biow's book begins. Chapter 1 deals rather oddly with Petrarch's coronation as a poet. According to him, there was in this case a kind of non-professional profession: "Petrarch refused to transform the profession of the humanist poet first fashioned in his oration into any single established, official profession" (44). Actually the meaning of Petrarch's oration for his crowning is far more important than Professor Biow argues. It contains the idea of the dark centuries and of the rebirth of learning, that is to say the idea of the Renaissance at its very beginnings. In other words, the oration consists of a cultural manifesto, not a mere professional statement. Anyway, Professor Biow gives us a good and expedient exposition of the Collatio laureationis, and this is another reason why his book is worth reading.


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Author:Fubini, Riccardo
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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