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Humanism and Secularization from Petrarch to Valla.

Humanism and Secularization from Petrarch to Valla. By Riccardo Fubini, translated by Martha King. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. viii + 306 pages.

Professor of Renaissance History at the University of Florence, Riccardo Fubini has long been one of the most respected historians of Quattrocento humanism and diplomacy. In the 1970s, he edited the first two volumes of the collected letters of Lorenzo de' Medici; and in the 1990s he began to anthologize his groundbreaking essays in Renaissance thought and politics. The first such anthology was Umanesimo e secolarizzazione da Petrarca a Valla (1990), a volume assembling five magisterial studies on humanist thought written between 1961 and 1987 and revised to include more recent bibliography, with a particular emphasis on Poggio Bracciolini and Lorenzo Valla. (Between 1994 and 2001, Fubini published three more volumes of essays on Quattrocento politics and diplomacy, which one hopes will also be translated for a wider audience.)

In his introduction, Fubini describes some of the problems that face any student of humanism. He observes that it is often hard to detect the sources behind the writings of the humanists, who frequently disguise their debt to previous thinkers or reinterpret their ideas in provocative and polemical ways. Characteristic of the humanist movement is what he calls "secularization," a term he defines as an intellectual viewpoint that broke with scholastic paradigms without renouncing Christian belief.

"Consciousness of the Latin Language among Humanists: Did the Romans Speak Latin?" examines a linguistic dispute that arose in the papal Curia in 1435. There were two opposing camps, represented by two humanists. Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) asserted that the ancient Romans spoke a vernacular that was far simpler than their written language. Flavio Biondo (1392-1463) in turn maintained that classical Latin had been a single language, if one that embraced a range of styles from colloquialism to lofty eloquence. (In his 1990 volume, Fubini added a twenty-page appendix discussing Mirko Tavoni's 1984 Latino, grammatica, volgare: Storia di una questione. While the notes to the present edition refer to this work, Fubini's appendix is omitted.) Fubini begins by examining Trecento interpretations of the question. Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch all wrote in both languages, achieving greatness in their vernacular works while praising the eloquence of classical Latin; but their obiter dicta comparing the two languages are based on ill-defined linguistic notions. In the Quattrocento, Bruni clearly inferred from his personal experience as an author that ancient Romans were obliged to study Latin in order to achieve literary elegance. By contrast, Biondo gathered from classical texts that Latin had been a single language in antiquity, and that the separation between Latin and volgare had largely begun after the fall of Rome. This important debate continued outside the Curia, and Fubini traces its repercussions from 1440 to 1460 in the writings of humanists such as Guarino of Verona, Poggio Bracciolini, Angelo Decembrio, Benedetto Accolti, Francesco Filelfo, and Lorenzo Valla.

"Humanist Intentions and Patristic References: Some Thoughts on the Moral Writings of the Humanists" surveys how eminent humanists used the Church Fathers, often in paradoxically nonreligious contexts. Fubini begins with Petrarch (1304-1374), who disdained medieval florilegia but himself used classical and ecclesiastical authors in a more assimilated process of composition. Whereas the two works by Petrarch that established his literary reputation in the 1340s, the Latin epic Africa and historical compendium Rerum memorabilium libri, remained unfinished and were often disparaged by later humanists, Petrarchan influence on later humanists lay rather in a secular "opening" of the terms and techniques of moral discussion. Following the example of Petrarch's letters and treatises, Poggio Bracciolini's De avaritia (On avarice) (1429) and Lorenzo Valla's De voluptate (On pleasure) (1431) adopt new paradigms for ethical reflection within the traditional genre of the Ciceronian dialogue. While asserting the relevance of classical learning to contemporary moral issues, for example, Poggio also imitates Petrarch by citing patristic literature in nontheological contexts. The more contentious Valla (1407-1457), in turn, cites traditional authorities, both classical and Christian, in ways that qualify and even subvert their original intentions. Thus, when his interlocutors condemn the Stoics and Cynics, they are in fact condemning Scholastics and Christian ascetics.

"Poggio Bracciolini and San Bernardino: The Themes and Motives of a Polemic" describes how Poggio reacted to the teaching of his contemporary, the Franciscan Observant preacher Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). Poggio regarded the Observants as greedy and hypocritical, and he was particularly critical of Bernardino for introducing the devotional cult of the Holy Name of Jesus. The most important witness to Poggio's disaffection is his Latin dialogue De avaritia, which he published in 1429 as his first essay in the dialogue form. In the work, the topic of avarice arises when several members of the papal Curia comment on the recent preaching success of Bernardino, whose fiery sermons denounce this vice in particular. Antonio Loschi praises the friar's reforming zeal, but Cencio Rustici counters that such preachers, rather than doing good, are merely seeking popular applause. Like Petrarch, Poggio disdained the use of medieval florilegia, and Fubini notes how the exemplum of a usurer cited by Bernardino later recurs in the comic context of Poggio's Facetiae (Jests) (1348-1452). Poggio also distrusted the allegorization of ancient texts, which was a staple rhetorical weapon among preachers and even humanists like Salutati.

The dialogue on avarice is articulated by three speakers offering three different views. Bartolomeo of Montepulciano denounces avarice as an unnatural vice; Antonio Loschi defends the social benefits of our human urge to acquire; and Andreas of Constantinople concludes the discussion by condemning avarice and urginginstead the pursuit of virtue. The shifting criteria and perspectives of this debate make it impossible to identify Poggio's own view with any one speaker. Fubini perceptively reviews the arguments of the dialogue in the light of both classical and contemporary views of wealth, especially Bruni's recent translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics (1420). In sum, Fubini regards the dialogue "as less a confrontation of opposing theses than a treatment of the same theme in successive degrees of persuasiveness" (85).

"The Theater of the World in the Moral and Historical Thought of Poggio Bracciolini" begins by reviewing the relevant scholarship concerning this humanist, whose importance is often underestimated precisely because he is compared to rivals of greater stature like Bruni or Valla. Fubini notes that one neglected aspect of Poggio's contribution lies in his historical accounts of contemporary events, a field in which he views Poggio as one of the young humanists who, like Bruni, broke with Salutati's conservative Christian view of Petrarch's legacy. Instead, Poggio insists on the individual's moral responsibility, and deplores the hypocrisy of those who cite scripture but live immorally. As in the previous essay, Fubini points out how Poggio's writings substitute an eclectic moral freedom for the rigid hierarchical values of the church.

Strikingly, a classical metaphor pervades Poggio's historical works, especially his dialogues De in felicitate principum (The unhappiness of rulers) (1440) and De varietate fortunae (The mutability of fortune) (1442-1448). Describing the spectacular vicissitudes of human history, Poggio adapts a passage from Lucian's Menippus (around 160 A.D.), in which the actor playing a king, when stripped of his costume, is exposed as an ignoble slave. (The passage is already cited in Poggio's 1417 "Oratio ad patres," delivered at the Council of Constance, which Fubini edited as an appendix to his Italian volume, but which is omitted from this translation.) Found in Seneca and John Chrysostom among others, the ancient metaphor of the world as stage runs throughout Poggio's reflections on human history, which emphasize the spectacular vicissitudes of great men. While his historical writing is linked to the tradition of Senecan tragedy and of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium (The fates of illustrious men) (1355-1373), Poggio focuses largely on contemporary events and even provides an early source for the career of Tamerlane that would inspire Marlowe. Despite his eventual recognition, he remained an intellectual maverick, critical of both the papacy and Florence, whose history he recounts without Bruni's civic pride. Small wonder, then, that his writings aroused the contemporary polemics of Valla and the posthumous criticism of Cristoforo Landino and Giovanni Pontano.

"An Analysis of Lorenzo Valla's De voluptate: His Sojourn in Pavia and the Composition of the Dialogue" traces the history of Valla's first dialogue On pleasure. Written in 1431, when Eugenius IV had just become pope, the dialogue was fictionally set in the Curia, featuring Lombard and Roman interlocutors as a means of winning favor in both circles. A few years later, Valla changed the title to the less provocative De vero bono (On the true good) and introduced more venerable figures as interlocutors. The debate offers three different doctrines--Stoic, Epicurean, and Christian--concerning the highest ethical good. In his preface, Valla claims that he will turn the sword of the philosophers against them-a claim that he makes good, as Fubini shows, against authorities like Cicero, Lactantius, and even Augustine. As the immediate inspiration for Valla's dialogue, Fubini analyzes Cosma Raimondi's Defensio Epicuri (Defense of Epicurus) (1426). And beyond the De voluptate, he traces the later fortune of Valla's many provocative writings, from his trial by the Inquisition at Naples in 1447 to his reception by later Italian humanists, who often eschewed his assertions, and by Martin Luther, who embraced them. On a related note, the essay concludes with reflections on the threat Valla's theoretical writings posed to the ecclesiastical and juridical establishment.

These five essays should be required reading for every student of Quattrocento intellectual history. Their argument illuminates major events in the movement known as humanism, and the extensive footnotes (which make up nearly half of the entire book) contain an encyclopedic wealth of close readings and commentary. The strength of Fubini's analysis lies in his ability to portray humanist thought as an organic response both to its intellectual roots and to its social setting, as a dialogue with the past and an engagement with the present. This translation generally succeeds in rendering the author's dense and nuanced Italian prose in perspicuous, if not always idiomatic, English. Despite minor blemishes, this volume makes an important collection of Renaissance studies available to the wider readership it deserves.

David Marsh

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey
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Author:Marsh, David
Publication:CLIO
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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