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Il seme delta violenza: putti, fanciulli e mammoli nell' Italia tra Cinque e Seicento.

Niccoli, Ottavia. Rome: Laterza, 1995. xxiii + 210. N.P.

Natural Philosophy and its Discontents

Andreas Vesalius's publication of De humani corporis fabrica in 1543 has long marked a watershed in the history of Renaissance science. In this celebrated work, Vesalius proved the centrality of dissection for the development of anatomical knowledge. He was by no means the first anatomist of Renaissance Italy, but when he published the De fabrica, he went to great lengths to underscore the importance of his own innovative methods. The volume is exquisitely illustrated, with justly famous portrayals of the human body in which the skeleton, the muscles, the ligaments, the veins, and the internal organs are all depicted in unprecedented detail. Additionally, Vesalius simultaneously published epitomes of his work in Latin and German. But the frontispiece of the work itself is the most compelling representation of the Vesalian revolution. There the illustrator has depicted Vesalius performing a dissection. Vesalius stands in the center of an amphitheater crowded with onlookers, for the most part medical students and professors but curious townspeople as well. Vesalius's science is both public and revolutionary. From this point on, the opening of the human body will serve as the basis of new knowledge. Simultaneously, the new practice of dissection will convey to medical students a deeper knowledge of anatomy than had been possible earlier when this field had belonged more to natural philosophy than to medicine.

Yet the history of Renaissance anatomy was not quite so straight-forward. For one thing, Vesalius was far from the first to dissect human bodies. In their quest to understand the human form, Renaissance artists from Antonio Pollaiuolo to Leonardo da Vinci had dissected the bodies of the dead. More significantly, well before Vesalius, professors of anatomy had performed dissections in Italian universities since at least the end of the thirteenth century. The first well-documented dissections were those of Mondino dei Liuzzi, a professor in Bologna, who published his Anatomia in 1316. Over the next two centuries other Renaissance professors also practiced dissection and published anatomical treatises, but it is not until the sixteenth century --and especially in the work of Vesalius--that a scientific anatomy, based on direct observation of the human body during dissection, developed. But how does one account for this delay? Why did the opening of the human body in the early fourteenth century not lead to the revolutionary results that would come about in the sixteenth? It is to this question that Andrea Carlino has turned in his beautifully written book La fabbrica del corpo: libri e dissezione nel Rinascimento.

As the subtitle of Carlino's book suggests, dissection was only part of the story. Equally important was the book, specifically the anatomical treatise, whether ancient or modern, and its relation to the opening of the body. Before the sixteenth century the professor either recited or read an anatomical treatise from a rostrum, while a sector cut the body under the guidance of an ostensor or demonstrator who directed the incisions. In this setting, dissection was used as a pedagogical supplement to illustrate the truths of the text. The Vesalian revolution, therefore, was not the result of a willingness to open the body itself, rather it was a result of a fundamental reversal in which dissection would now take priority over the text. The professor, who formerly expounded anatomical science from texts (above all, Galen), now became a scientist who "read" the body. This is a point driven home by an illustration in the De fabrica that depicts Vesalius examining the internal structures of the fingers of a body he is dissecting: on the table next to the cadaver are an inkwell, a quill, and a manuscript on which Vesalius is recording his findings de musculis digitos moventibus.

By contrast, in the late medieval university, anatomical science had been largely confined to natural philosophy, with little attention paid to medical practice, which was, after all, based on a humoral theory of disease--a scientific perspective that marginalized the need for a thorough understanding of the internal organs of the body. However, in Carlino's view, an even more significant factor in the persistence of the Galenic model was the fact that anatomical science faced deeply-entrenched cultural taboos against the opening of cadavers. Carlino does not argue, as others have done, that medieval Christianity posed obstacles to research based on dissection. To the contrary, in the university in Rome (or Studium Urbis), dissections were performed annually, and the Church cooperated with political authorities in the provisioning of bodies, usually those of criminals who had been executed. But in the Studium, as at universities throughout the rest of Italy, the practice of dissection still had to overcome cultural barriers, and Carlino views these as the decisive factors in hindering the emergence of what we have come to understand as modern anatomy.

While Carlino's arguments are fascinating, and he has identified references on the part of thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and Augustine to a sense of disgust in front of the eviscerated body, it is nonetheless difficult to use such fragmentary evidence to reconstruct cultural attitudes across a period of nearly two thousand years. Upon reflection, moreover, it seems more likely that it is in our own highly medicalized societies that we have surrounded the cadaver with taboos. To late medieval and early modern Europeans, by contrast, the face of death was familiar. Men, women, and children died at home, and the bodies of the holy dead were preserved intact or dismembered and dispersed as a central element in medieval devotions. As Katharine Park has demonstrated, the view "that there was in medieval and Renaissance Europe a deep-seated `taboo' connected with corpses and the closure of the body" is a misconception.(1) To the contrary, the cult of relics mandated that the opening of the body be a regular practice, one for which there is little evidence that it provoked disgust. Carlino himself admits, in reference to the cult of saints, that devotional efforts to recover parts of the body "had much in common from a technical point of view with dissection" (197). But his overall argument nonetheless places the greatest emphasis on taboos against the opening of dead bodies that only such well-organized cultural institutions as the relic trade or university medical teaching could overcome. This may have been the case, and if so this would explain the affinities between late medieval devotion and anatomical practice that are central to Park's arguments. Nonetheless, in my view, a study based on a careful reading of late medieval and Renaissance sources is more compelling than a retrospective anthropology that attempts to chart attitudes over nearly two millennia.

Paola Zambelli, who also focuses on the history of natural philosophy, offers another perspective on the intellectual ferment of the sixteenth century in her Una reincarnazione di Pico ai tempi di Pomponazzi. In this book, Zambelli publishes the full text of the Apologeticus adversus cucullatos of Tiberio Russiliano, together with a thorough introduction that deftly illuminates not only the content of Russiliano's thought but also an important chapter in the history of Renaissance philosophy.(2)

A native of Calabria, Russiliano studied philosophy under the Aristotelian Agostino Nifo in Naples before moving--in an ambitious but restless peregrinatio studiorum--to study and to teach in Pisa, Bologna, Ferrara, and Padua. Russiliano was a dialectician, an astrologer, and a natural philosopher. Deeply influenced by the naturalism of Pomponazzi as well as by the natural magic of Pico, he developed his own ideas in a remarkably provocative and polemical text, the Apologeticus, published in Parma in 1519/20. This work, aimed with the zeal of his contemporary humanists against friars and scholastics--the cucullatos or the "hooded ones" of his title--began boldly with a horoscope of the birth of Christ and moved through a series of disputations that denied Christ's divinity and the immortality of the soul while maintaining the equally scandalous doctrines of the eternity of the world and spontaneous generation. Perhaps most compelling was Russiliano's interpretation of history. He held a cyclical view of nature. Natural catastrophes inevitably and recurrently destroyed civilizations, even life itself, but these would be regenerated--again through natural processes. The discovery of the "Indians" in America seemed to offer splendid proof. These antipodes could only be explained, Russiliano argued, from a materialist perspective: the natural, elemental conditions which led to the development of life (animal as well as human) in the Old World had been duplicated in the New. But natural or, more precisely, astrological causes also explained developments within human history. He linked major changes in religion with astrological events. The beginnings of Judaism, paganism, Christianity, and Islam each corresponded to a particular alignment of the stars. Even more recent events in Italian history--the wars and rapid dynastic changes in Italy since the 1490s--could be explained by solar and lunar eclipses and their relationship to the zodiac (221-22). Such naturalism was especially corrosive of religious traditions, since, logically, religions (like civilizations) came to be seen as historical and political rather than divinely-inspired phenomena. And this view, in turn, led Russiliano to emphasize the need for tolerance, a trait not often found among the cucullati, who "very often accuse others of heresy--noting the straw in the eyes of others but not the beam in their own--despite the fact that many [of these same friars] are continually being sent to the stake or condemned to prison for life or sentenced to service in the galleys" (261).

In her book-length introduction to this text, Zambelli, who is undoubtedly one of the leading students of Renaissance Aristotelianism in Italy today, wisely cautions readers against viewing Tiberio's ideas as "marginale e stravagante" (92). She makes a compelling case for viewing Russiliano's ideas as a fusion of the Platonic teachings of Pico and the Aristotelian doctrines of Pomponazzi. Despite the fact that a number of Renaissance scholars necessarily proceeded with caution in proposing their materialist views (Pomponazzi, for example, quietly circulated but did not publish his De incantationibus in his lifetime), Zambelli's reconstruction of the intellectual milieu makes it clear that this was a period of considerable intellectual openness. Neither Pope Leo X nor Clement VII was preoccupied with issues of ideological uniformity, and the inquisitorial courts, still organized at the diocesan level, were at best clumsy in their efforts to coordinate any form of repression. In short, the intellectual climate of the Counter Reformation had not yet made itself felt. Indeed, the analogy Zambelli draws between the provocative and eclectic quality of Russiliano's arguments and Pico's infamous Conclusiones of 1486 is given splendid confirmation both by the fact that Russiliano himself defended certain of Pico's theses and by the French Aristotelian Gabriel Naude, who, looking back from the early seventeenth century, noted that the period around 1500 had been one in which "philosophi libere de rebus cunctis et loqui et scribere consueverunt . . . Picus denique ac Tyberius Russilianus eas propositiones suscipiebant, quibus nunc assentiri nemo posset" (18). At least one paradox in this chapter of the history of Italian Aristotelianism lies in the fact that it would not be until the end of the sixteenth century that ideas similar to Russiliano would find forceful expression in such thinkers as Bruno and Campanella--the first sentenced to death, the second to life in prison for his teachings.

Politics and Society

Scholars have long recognized the years around 1400 as a major turning point in the cultural and political history of Florence. In Italia quattrocentesca: politica e diplomazia nell'eta di Lorenzo il Magnifico, Riccardo Fubini explores the transformations in the political life of fifteenth-century Florence (and of Italy more generally) from a variety of new angles. As Fubini notes at the outset, the point of departure for this collection of essays was his work on an edition of the Letters of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the questions these raised regarding the political and diplomatic history of the Quattrocento.(3) Fubini's emphasis on his editorial experience is important. Readers will not find here the results of researches shaped by recent historiographical debates concerning Florence. To the contrary, these are pushed to the back ground while the sources--both familiar and unfamiliar--are privileged. Fubini's work is based on a deliberate movement ad fontes that is as rare as it is (potentially) fruitful, though one suspects that Baron's famous Crisis Of the Early Italian Renaissance has shaped many of Fubini's questions.(4)

While the essays are, in general, developed around familiar themes such as the constitutional reforms of the Albizzi, the rise to power of the Medici, the assassination of the Duke of Milan (1466), the Pazzi Conspiracy (1468), the formation of the Italian League (1455), the development of the doctrine of the balance of power, the significance of Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), and the relations between Milan and Burgundy, the arguments offer a new interpretation of the growing power of the state in the fifteenth century. The new statalismo, Fubini argues, was not a function of the modernization of institutions but rather of the success of the new ruling groups in freeing themselves from the traditional corporate structures (the guilds above all) that had limited political authority in the late medieval period, and in developing a remarkably secular language of legitimation. He analyzes this shift with relative clarity in his essay "Della rappresentanza sociale alla rappresentanza politica: sviluppi politico-costituzionali in Firenze dal Tre al Cinquecento," though it is in his essay on the chancellor-humanist Antonio Ivani da Sarzana that it is possible to understand most clearly what this shift meant in human and cultural terms and in which Fubini's own expertise in the history of Renaissance humanism and its relation to political development is most fully developed.(5)

But readers should be warned: this is an especially demanding text. There is, I believe, an almost inevitable sense of historiographical spaesamento in reading Fubini. Not only does he reject traditional historiographical schemata (such as modernization theory), he also attempts to ground his arguments in such a complicated histoire evenementielle that the salient points of his thesis risk being lost in a sea of details. This sense of disorientation is also a result of Fubini's own peculiar brand of political history. Although he is effective in demonstrating the emergence of a new political vocabulary in the development of the Medicean regime, for example, he does little to account for the relation of politics to social life. Yet, in my view, "political" representation will be a useful category only insofar as historians can demonstrate how the new regimes legitimated themselves socially as well as ideologically. Fubini's emphasis on the role of "acts of political will" (48) and on the use of violence to solidify support only goes part way in explaining the new politics of the fifteenth century. Nonetheless, Fubini's work is a clear example that there is still much to be learned from what we might consider the most traditional of Renaissance fields, namely philology. It is in the confrontation of old texts with new ideas that Renaissance history is most likely to make its most significant gains.

Marcello Fantoni's La Corte del Granduca: Forma e simboli del potere fra Cinque e Seicento--published in the Bulzoni series "Europa delle Corti"--is a very different type of political history, though, like Fubini, Fantoni too exhibits a healthy skepticism towards histories (increasingly fashionable in Italy today) that have viewed the early modern political world, perhaps anachronistically, from the perspective of modernization theory. Fantoni's approach to his subject is neither chronological nor comprehensive, but rather develops what he himself characterizes as a "zibaldone di exempla" that explores the largely symbolic underpinnings or representations of power of the Medici Grand Dukes. Beginning with the use of space in the Pitti Palace, Fantoni provides an intriguing reading of the nature of the court hierarchy that registered itself in a variety of protocols from the seating of courtiers at table and the assignment of apartments to the distribution of favors and gifts by the Prince to his underlings. Fantoni's analysis is at its best when he focuses on the particular. In his exploration of palace decorum, for example, he provides a useful reading of two manuscripts of the Medicean guardorobiere Diacinto Maria Marmi: the Piante degli appartamenti di Palazzo of 1650 and the Norma per il Guardaroba del Gran Palazzo nella citta di Firenze of 1662; he offers a fascinating account of the court careers of the Usimbardi family, which staffed several important court offices in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century; and he gives a fresh interpretation of the appropriation by the Medici of the cult of the Madonna dell' Annunziata. Fantoni's emphasis on protocol, on ritual, and representation is in keeping with many of the more fashionable trends in the study of court culture. The author draws on and critiques Norbert Elias. His arguments, moreover, have something of the flavor of Peter Burke's recent study of Louis XIV.(6) But the sociological dimensions of this study are not brought together in a convincing whole, nor--and this is the case with Fubini's study of Florentine politics as well--are political languages and symbols tied to the broader social and political developments of the period. I am certainly appreciative of the new researches of Fubini and Fantoni, but neither offers a genuine exploration of the nexus between politics and society.

This is not to say that social history is not having some success in recent Italian scholarship. To the contrary, Ottavia Niccoli's Il seme della violenza is splendid proof that it is alive and well. In this carefully-crafted book, Niccoli explores the history of boys and violence in Renaissance and early modern Italy. Niccoli is primarily concerned with the public world of boys--generally those between the ages of seven and fourteen--who have become familiar to us in recent years through the researches of such scholars as Richard Trexler and Donald Weinstein.(7) Niccoli's contribution, largely synthetic, is enriched through her own expertise in urban chronicles. Examining evidence from the cities and towns of central and northern Italy, she provides vivid images of boys in groups whose functions varied: at times their antics and "battagliole" served as outlets to community tensions; at other times they were virtual emblems of the community's religious values and divine aspirations. In the heat of the moment, bands of boys were known to dig up the cadavers of criminals (whom they felt had not received sufficient punishment), drag them through the streets, beat them, and then either burn them or drop them into a river. At times, these groups would take on a rather more military function and enact battles (at times with fatal consequences) inside their cities. In both these cases, violence stood in a curious relation to the divine. Children were seen as representatives of God's will or even as invested with prophetic powers. In the best known case of youth organizations --the fanciulli of Savonarola--we witness the ability of a charismatic religious leader, assisted by a network of confraternities, to bring the often explosively violent youth under control.

Control of the minds and bodies of the young was a central goal of religious and educational reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Their task was not an easy one. The Jesuits who hoped to organize a school in Gubbio in 1553 found that almost no one would take on the role of disciplining the groups of boys whose militaristic companies were so threatening. "In the four months we have been here," the Jesuit Giovan Battista Velati wrote to Ignatius, "we have not been able to find a correctore . . . because everyone fears being killed" (42). Nonetheless, the efforts to impose a new civility on the young did have some success. A turning point came in the sixteenth century with the popularization of humanist ideas of education and especially the diffusion of Erasmus's De civilitate morum puerilium which was diffused in Italy from the 1550s on in an anonymous translation: Operetta utile del costumare i fanciulli. But the most significant strides taken in discipline came with the Counter Reformation, with the formation of new religious orders, their schools, and the emphasis on creanza cristiana. Children were to be civilized through a deeper knowledge of Christian virtues. Parents would in part be responsible for this, but the religious orders also developed catechism schools aimed at instilling piety and controlling gestures and behavior. In her final three chapters, Niccoli examines the lives of those children who had not been brought in off the streets and whose activities have left a criminal record in the archives of the infamous Torrone, the criminal tribunal in Bologna. The petty larcenies and the random acts of violence make it clear that many young people were barely affected by the new initiatives of the Counter Reformation, though it is difficult to know how representative these cases are, since almost by definition they involved young people whose lives had reduced them to a state of vagabondage and/or mendicancy.

Perhaps the only disappointment is that Niccoli's book is too short. One would like to keep reading about the young boys whose lives she captures so vividly. At times, she generalizes on the basis of rather episodic evidence, and it is difficult to know--in the absence of a more rigorous quantitative study of aspects of schooling and apprenticeships--how typical her largely anecdotal evidence is. But it is refreshing to read a work that offers a view of children in the streets of the Renaissance city, so far removed from the affective, domestic spheres of childhood familiar to us from the writings of Philippe Aries. Finally, what is most admirable is the confidence with which Niccoli draws not only on Italian but also on French, British, and American scholarship. Her book, in short, is evidence that a republic of letters beyond the confines of one nation is not only desirable--it is likely to be productive as well.

Memory and History

In recent years memory has become an important theme in Renaissance studies, and now Lina Bolzoni, already well-known for her earlier writings on this subject, offers a new book, La Stanza della memoria, which deepens our understanding of the variegated roles of memory in sixteenth-century Italian culture. Before Bolzoni, most scholars of the history of memory focused on the theoretical dimensions of this subject as it was developed in Renaissance treatises. But Bolzoni significantly shifts the focus. She is concerned above all with practices--especially those in the sphere of the new technologies of printing--that explored a variety of ways of organizing knowledge, to make history, culture, and the natural world accessible to the human mind.

The evidence that Renaissance humanists in the age of the printing press were concerned with making knowledge visible is evident in many realms of their activity. Their books are filled with tables, diagrams, trees of knowledge (illustrations that are often suppressed in modern editions). Bolzoni traces these practices through the experience of the Accademia Veneziana (1557-1561), the macchine retoriche, and the games of memory that shaped the way memory (and perhaps the mind itself) was organized. For Renaissance humanists the medium was the message. Trees of knowledge set up series of associations that transformed the ways in which traditional subjects like rhetoric were taught. This was not only true in the universities but in urban, vernacular culture as well. Orazio Toscanella, a humanist and frequent collaborator in the print shops of sixteenth-century Venice, was celebrated for his production of scholastic texts. Indeed, in one of them--the Retorica di M. Tullio Cicerone a Gaio Herennio ridotta in alberi con tanto ordine e con essempi cosi chiari et ben collocati, che ciascuno potra da se con mirabile facilita apprenderla of 1566--he offered a virtual anatomy of a classical work, aimed at making it both more accessible and more memorable to his students. The fact that this was published within a generation of Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica hardly seems accidental. As Bolzoni writes, "in the anatomical theater one renders visible that which is beneath and within the unity of the human body; in the same manner--and the analogy was already dear to Camillo [the author of a contemporary Teatro della memoria]--it is possible to cut open texts, to penetrate their unities, and to bring out and make visible the mechanisms that structure them" (59). But it is the enormous power of memory on the interior life that is most striking. Images, that is, were not only instruments for thinking but often took on a life of their own, as Bolzoni brilliantly demonstrates in her brief discussion of the Renaissance discussions of the art of forgetting. A mind overly crowded with images may have difficulty making room for new knowledge. Accordingly, humanists deliberately cultivated ways to clear their minds. But this arte de scordarse was not only about making room for new ideas but also about freeing oneself from the nearly autonomous power that imagined ideas could assume in the mind. After all, in the territory of memory, as Bolzoni observes, "when one creates images and call us up emotions to make use of them, one cannot always control the process" (148).

It is impossible in the course of this brief review to do justice to La stanza della memoria. Bolzoni carries us into a late Renaissance world in which images, texts, and the human person all interacted and influenced each other in intricate, surprising, and at times far-reaching ways. She covers topics as diverse as the history of physiognomy, collezionismo, and the history of the passions. Indeed, her work on the passions and their relation to rhetorical expression offers new insights into Renaissance psychology that all students of the period must take seriously. Historians of the book, art historians, and students of all aspects of early modern culture--Italian and European--should put this book on their "must read" list.

But memory also shapes the way historians view the past. In Genealogie incredibili: scritti di storia nell'Europa moderna, Roberto Bizzocchi turns his attention to another aspect of early modern culture that contemporary scholarship tends to overlook: the early modern mania for genealogies. He opens his history with the intriguing story of Alfonso Ceccarelli, a one-time doctor but more recently an inventive and prolific writer of genealogies, who was decapitated on the Ponte San Angelo in Rome on July 9, 1583 for falsifying the wills of Roman noblemen. The story of Ceccarelli acquired its fame from Girolamo Tiraboschi's Riflessioni su gli scrittori genealogici, written at the time of the French Revolution. Tiraboschi, like many other enlightened erudites of the late eighteenth century, equated the production of genealogies with a concern to uphold aristocratic privilege; accordingly, he quite naturally made Ceccarelli his villain, "un de' piu furbi e de' piu arditi impostori che siensi al mondo veduti." Tiraboschi, that is, revived the story of Ceccarelli only to condemn him and genealogical writings to oblivion. And indeed for the most part modern scholars have followed his lead. When we study the historiography of Renaissance Italy, it is to such writers as Machiavelli and Guicciardini that we are most likely to turn. And yet by doing so, as Roberto Bizzocchi argues in his lively and imaginative Genealogie incredibili, we are likely to ignore one of the major aspects of early modern culture: storiografia genealogica.

Ceccarelli was by no means an isolated case. As Bizzocchi demonstrates, there was a sizeable market for genealogies in the early modern world. Alongside Ceccarelli's works one might place--to give but two examples from many--Francesco Sansovino's Della origine e de' fatti delle famiglie illustri d'Italia (1582) and Giovan Pietro Crescenzi's Corona della Nobilta d'Italia (1639). While most scholars have viewed genealogies as a non-problem--obviously, as Tiraboschi noted, such writings upheld aristocratic privilege--Bizzocchi shifts the focus away from political functions to the cultural meaning of such texts. After all, such works would have been fragile supports indeed had not their content been widely accepted. But how does one explain the fact that such works--"the product" as Bizzocchi notes, "of a refined, literary culture, presented in erudite works and often written in Latin, the efforts of authors who at times were themselves, but in any case always had as colleagues, men gifted with a highly developed critical spirit" (77)--were widely believed? How could something so clearly irrational (to us) have attracted the approving attention of well-educated Italian (and other European) nobles throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries?

To a large degree, the credibility was itself a legacy of the Renaissance and early modern fascination with Biblical and classical models. Although both classical and early Christian civilization provided examples of writers who disparaged genealogies, both traditions nonetheless "passed onto subsequent periods the example of a valuing of the history of ancestors" (129). We see this not only in histories of noble families but also in the genealogies of cities, towns, royal houses, and religious orders. Thus, as long as the ancient world was based on an acceptance of such literature, genealogical histories were given considerable justification. But Bizzocchi is not only concerned with the enduring power of literary models, he is also concerned with recovering aspects of the mentalite of early modern genealogists. Such individuals did not see their works as deceptive; if they were inventive, they believed that they were merely documenting what was already known to be true. As Ceccarelli stressed in his defense, when placed on trial for falsifying documents, "non devo esser ripreso ne notato de falsitate, quoniam non fui contra veritatem, sed pro veritate in favorem nobilium et illustrium familiarum" (210). Moreover, this was an age in which history itself was often equated with the history of nobility, and in which the discovery of a name could by itself be seen as evidence of a connection. Most of all, such histories provided a sense of stability and order in an era marked by political, religious, and cultural discontinuities.

In Il romanziere e l'archivista, Claudio Povolo, a student of Venetian judicial institutions trained by Gaetano Cozzi, turns our attention less to the ways in which we have forgotten certain aspects of early modern Italian culture than to the ways in which the development of archives in early nineteenth-century Italy has shaped the emerging historiographical understanding of the period. Povolo's ostensible subject is Alessandro Manzoni's famous novel I promessi sposi. Manzoni was an indefatigable student of history, especially of the early seventeenth century, and students of this work have long recognized that many of its themes and characters were based on actual historical events and personages such as the plague of 1630, the Nun of Monza, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, and so on, but the central story--the tale of the unfortunate lovers Renzo and Lucia--has been held to be an invention, a product, that is, of Manzoni's imagination.

Claudio Povolo's carefully-crafted and provocative Il romanziere e l'archivista challenges this received view of the role of imagination in the construction of Manzoni's masterpiece. Povolo puts forth the intriguing hypothesis that the Milanese Manzoni, who set his novel in Lombardy, based his story on the records of an early seventeenth-century Venetian trial. Povolo never clinches his argument with absolute proof. He himself acknowledges that he is moving in the realm of the probable. Nonetheless, along the way--whether or not one accepts Povolo's central hypothesis--this book, which reads like a marvelous detective novel, has much to teach us about early modern Venetian Justice as well as about the formation of the Venetian archives. Perhaps most fascinating, in the end, is Povolo's implicit suggestion about the role these archives played in the early nineteenth century in shaping modern interpretations of the history of the Venetian Republic.

The first part of Povolo's analysis is devoted to demonstrating the resemblances between the trial and Manzoni's "fiction." The trial in question involved a petty nobleman by the name of Paolo Orgiano who, in the fall of 1607, was sentenced to life in prison for sexual violence that he had carried out in a small town on the Venetian terraferma--he had intimidated, abused, and raped several local women over a number of years. In Povolo's view, it is possible to equate Orgiano with the infamously oppressive don Rodrigo of I promessi sposi; Fiore Bertola, one of the peasant women he raped, with the novel's Lucia; and fra Ludovico, the friar who sought to protect Fiore from Paolo, with Manzoni's benevolent fra Cristoforo, who offered his protection to Lucia and her lover Renzo. That there is a resemblance between what Povolo calls the "narrative structure" of the trial and that of the novel is clear, though given what Povolo himself describes as the emblematic nature of the trial (16, 30, 41) there is little reason to believe that Manzoni actually read it or even could have read it, except for one curious detail. The trial, which should be classified with the thousands of others like it in the series of some 600 buste or bundles of documents classified as Processi criminali of the Venetian Council of Ten, is located instead in an anomalous series of only three buste entitled Processi delegati ai rettori. Apart from size, the most obvious distinction between the two series is chronological. The Processi criminali cover the second half of the eighteenth century, the Processi delegati ai rettori, the first years of the seventeenth. And this discrepancy leads Povolo to a pivotal question: "why, from that which we can define as nothing short of a shipwreck of the criminal archives, were only these few trials from the beginning of the 1600s saved?" (58) What, in short, made it possible for the trial against Paolo Orgiano and a few others from this same period, to escape this fate?

The answer lies in the complex history of the reorganization and ultimately the centralization of the Venetian state archives in the decades after the fall of the Republic. Povolo makes a strong case for the probability that the material we know today as the Processi delegati ai rettori was housed briefly in the Scuola di San Teodoro, which served as the Archivio politico of the Republic before the creation of the central archive at the Frari. The hypothesis is attractive. On the one hand, had these trials not been housed in San Teodoro but rather remained in the Ducal Palace along with other materials from the period before 1750, they would have been part of the deliberate, systematic and nearly total destruction of the earlier criminal records. On the other hand, the individual who had charge of the archive at San Teodoro after the death of the first great Venetian archivist, the historian Carlo Antonio Marin, was Count Agostino Carli Rubbi. And Carli Rubbi--as Povolo shows--had connections with Milan that may have resulted in his having made the trial in question available to Manzoni. Carli Rubbi may not have known Manzoni personally, but he was familiar with Milanese society and culture. Moreover, he may have had political motives--especially following the publication of Pierre Daru's Histoire de la Republique de Venise in 1819--to make available a trial that portrayed Venice in a more favorable light than the dark tones used by Daru. Finally Carli Rubbi's own movements on the mainland coincided with the period in which Manzoni began the first drafts of what would eventually become I promessi sposi. Nor should we forget Manzoni's own insistence on the importance of the use of archival materials in the writing of historical fiction. Possibly, just possibly, Manzoni did make use of the Venetian trial against Paolo Orgiano.

To be sure, some readers may object that Povolo has done nothing more than build a house of cards; and certainly he would not win his case in court. But Povolo's book nonetheless serves historians of early modern Italian culture well. His chapters on the political intrigues and personalities behind the creation of the Venetian archives opens up a vast array of questions about the ways in which the choices made in the early nineteenth century about which records to preserve have shaped historical research. Similarly, he shows clearly how the values and beliefs of nineteenth-century writers have weighed heavily on the kinds of questions we still raise about the Venetian Republic. The case of Carlo Antonio Marin, the first great archivist of the Republic, is well known, but alongside Marin, we mustn't forget such figures as the relatively obscure Carli Rubbi. Nor should we forget how deeply our understanding of early modern Italian society has been shaped by Manzoni, in whose works the exact relation between history and invention is likely to remain mysterious.


For Italian historians--like many of their counterparts in the United States and Britain--the Renaissance as a conceptual framework for the analysis of Italy in the period running from roughly 1300 to 1600 has lost much of explanatory power and attractiveness. This is not to say that scholars have not stopped posing questions about modernity. Fubini finds in the new political values of fifteenth-century Florence many of the precursors to modern political thought; and Carlino's work on Vesalius, while radically reinterpreting the nature of his contribution, nonetheless sees the De humani corporis fabrica as an important watershed in the development of modern science. But at least in academic history, the Renaissance seems to have vanished as a major problem or organizing principle. Burckhardt is rarely cited; and the earlier Anglo-American history of Italy in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries is viewed as motivated largely by ideological concerns, above all the effort to root the story of the development of modern, western democracies in the first experiments in republican institutions in Renaissance Florence and Venice. In Italy--at least among historians--the dynamic fields are medieval history and storia moderna, though it is the latter--what we in the United States and Britain call the early modern period--that most often overlaps (at least chronologically) with the concerns of Anglo-American "Renaissance" historians.(8)

While it is difficult to generalize about the emphases of recent Italian historical scholarship on the early modern period, certain recurrent themes are evident. Foremost among them is a certain suspicion about the modernity of the urban and humanistic world of the Renaissance. Bolzoni's La stanza della memoria makes the cultivation of a "senso di lontananza" an explicit part of her historical analysis; she is profoundly concerned, as we have seen, to demonstrate the ways in which the culture of the late Renaissance differed from our own. At times we might believe that we--like Machiavelli--can have conversations with the ghosts of humanists past, but Bolzoni's analysis of the mental universe of our early modern counterparts suggests otherwise, or at the very least that the conversation always involves the most difficult questions of cultural translation, no small task for the historian. And other Italian scholars--whether reviewed here or not--have made this effort to understand a lost culture central to their enterprise. Of these figures, perhaps Carlo Ginzburg is the best known in the United States, but the work of Roberto Bizzocchi, Massimo Firpo, Ottavia Niccoli, Adriano Prosperi, Paola Zambelli, and many others also have this quality. The goal of these scholars, that is, is to understand the early modern world on its own terms rather than as a precursor to modern developments.

Among the other ways in which Italian scholarship tends to overlap with the methodological or epistemological concerns of American studies of this period is in its emphasis on the problem of representation. This category--often associated with the work of Foucault--proves to be an enormously rich means of exploring the ways in which culture and social life intersected. Andrea Carlino uses the term "representation" to show the power of images in the shaping of scientific culture; Fubini uses it in a more traditional sense to discuss different modes of organizing political institutions; Bolzoni's work expands this concern to a broader range of humanist texts; and Fantoni explores the symbolic power of representations in baroque politics. We are provided, therefore, with rewarding histories of the ways in which the human imagination and its projections shaped the various cultures of early modern Italy: courtly and urban, humanistic and vernacular.

But there are also differences in emphasis between Italian and American histories of this period. Much recent Italian scholarship challenges Anglo-American models of Renaissance periodization. There is a much greater sense of the interplay of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture than those of us trained in American universities are likely to expect. Bizzocchi's work is a clear example of the importance of considering developments across periods that we perhaps too easily truncate into the Renaissance and the baroque. Other Italian scholars share his emphasis on the continuities between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture. This is true among intellectual historians such as Giuseppi Olmi as well as among such institutional historians as Cecilia Nubola. Furthermore, there is--perhaps because it is a matter of Italian scholars discussing the history of their own culture in a century that has not been without its own moments of profound political and cultural disruption--a marked sense of the fragility of culture. Scholars in Italy analyze in detailed fashion mechanisms by which certain aspects of early modern culture, high and low, were suppressed. This is perhaps most evident in the histories of religion--especially the histories of heresy--though the concern with mechanisms of repression appears in the work of Bolzoni and Zambelli as well. Finally, there is a significant difference between the American emphasis on the social history and the relatively marginal role the history of groups--whether families, guilds, or ruling circles--appears to play in the Italian scholarship of this period. In this respect, Niccoli's work is a refreshing exception, one that opens up the possibility for real dialogue between Italian and American historians of early modern Italy.

The paradox lies in the fact that historical scholarship is extremely innovative in the absence of a shared commitment to the idea of the Renaissance. Or perhaps this is no paradox at all, since received truths may do more to hamper than to assist genuine scholarship. But what an odd generation of historians we are: most of us go on teaching the Renaissance even when, in our own research and scholarship, we are less and less convinced that the Renaissance problem is central to understanding the transition from the medieval to the modern world. At best, we grant the Renaissance significance when applied to high culture--to art, music, and literature--while doubting its existence as a dimension of social and political life. In the absence of alternatives, perhaps this is the best we can do. We are, that is, like explorers with outdated maps. We nonetheless sense that the journey to the shores of the early modern world is more than worth making, even if we are not sure what we shall find once we get there.

(1) Katharine Park, "The Criminal and the Saintly Body: Autopsy and Dissection in Renaissance Italy," Renaissance Quarterly 47 (1994): 1-33; the passage cited is from 3.

(2) Curiously, another edition of this work was recently published in Italy: Tiberio Russiliano Sesto Calabrese, Apologeticus adversus cucullatos (Cosenza: Periferia, 1991) with notes and a translation by Luigi de Franco. Of the two editions, Zambelli's--which was well underway when de Franco's appeared--is the more scholarly and reliable. Zambelli's earlier works on this figure include her Une reincarnation de Jean Pic a l'epoque de Pomponazzi (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1977); "Una disputa filosofica ereticale proposta nelle universita padane nel 1519," in Paolo Rossi et al., eds., Il Rinascimento nelle corti padane: societa e cultura (Bari: De Donato, 1977); and "`Aristotelismo eclettico' o polemiche clandestine? Immortalita dell'anima e vicissitudini della storia universales in Pomponazzi, Nifo e Tiberio Russiliano," in Olaf Pluta, ed., Die Philosophie im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert. In Memoriam Konstanty Michalski (Amsterdam: B.R. Gruner, 1988), 451-93.

(3) Lorenzo de' Medici, Lettere, vols. I and II, ed. Riccardo Fubini (Florence: Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, 1977).

(4) On Fubini's view of the significance and limitations of Baron's work, see Fubini, "Renaissance Historian: The Career of Hans Baron," Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 541-74.

(5) An English version of the essay, "From Social to Political Representation in Renaissance Florence" appears in Anthony Molho et al., eds., City-States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 223-40; there is also an English translation of another of the essays published in Italia quattroentesca: "The Italian League and the Balance of Power at the Accession of Lorenzo de' Medici," Journal of Modern History 67, supp. (1995): S 166-99.

(6) Peter Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven: Yale University Press 1992).

(7) Richard Trexler, "Ritual in Florence: Adolescence and Salvation in the Renaissance," in Charles Trinkaus, ed., The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974), 200-64; and Donald Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

(8) The current American historiography of this period in Italian history has also moved away from an emphasis on the Renaissance or the Renaissance problem; see Edward Muir, "The Italian Renaissance in America," American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1095-118. Significant too is the recent decision by its editors to change the name of the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies to the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. My concluding remarks attempt to tie together my reading of not only the texts reviewed here but also the books reviewed in two earlier essays: see John Martin, "Recent Italian Works on the Renaissance: Perspectives on Intellectual Political, and Social History," Renaissance Quarterly 47 (1994): 623-38; and "Recent Italian Scholarship on the Renaissance: Aspects of Christianity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy," Renaissance Quarterly 48 (1995): 593-610.
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Author:Martin, John
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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