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Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism.

Angelo Mazzocco, ed. Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism.

Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 143. Leiden: Brill, 2006. xii + 324 pp. index. tbls. bibl. $129. ISBN: 90-04-15244-X.

This collection of thirteen independent essays is suggestively grouped into three parts and prefaced by Professor Mazzocco's introduction to the history of the "great consult" over the nature, provenance, originality, and essential values of Renaissance humanism, beginning with Georg Voigt and Burckhardt and the responses they engendered, then moving on to "the revolt of the medievalists" to conclude with Baron, Garin, and Kristeller. His decision to end with this trinity of preeminent interpreters stems from his conviction that they still largely determine the parameters of humanist study. However, Baron and Garin are not much referenced here, while one hears Kristeller's circumspect voice in essay after essay.

Ronald Witt commences with the Kristellerian view that Italian humanists were the heirs to the medieval dictatores and worked principally either as teachers of rhetoric and grammar, or as notaries and lawyers in princely and communal chanceries, while gradually adopting new classicizing ideals. But in the unique case of republican Padua an "intimate connection" arose in the thirteenth century among lay teachers of grammar, the notariate, and participation in communal government; and this accounts for the "precocious" appearance of humanism in that city (25-26). A contrasting situation pertained in Bologna, where the grammarians were "politically marginalized" as academics and usually did not occupy notarial positions or participate in government (35). Hence they lacked their Paduan counterparts' "sense of urgency" in looking to ancient Rome as a model for organizing and stabilizing civic life.

Robert Black insists once again on the continuity of grammatical instruction and the texts used in the schools from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, even as he acknowledges "the collapse" of classically-based secondary education in Italy in the early thirteenth century. He attributes this to the rise of "the new Parisian logical school of grammar" (47) and to the pressure that the newly powerful law and medical faculties exerted upon the grammar schools to "streamline" their curricula so that budding lawyers and doctors could be trained in Latin more expeditiously (49). He also points to the class conflict that led the arriviste notaries and lawyers to embrace humanistic Latin, even as their aristocracy continued to embrace the vernacular.

Paul Grendler's essay is arresting, partly because of its assault on Black (and others) and its championship of Voigt (and Fubini), and partly because of its insistence on three differentiae distinguishing the Italian humanists from their medieval predecessors: that they admired a range of newly discovered Latin texts, especially those of Cicero; that they launched an avalanche of criticism of all kinds: on medieval Latin, on derivative medical texts, on Pliny's botanical errors, and so on; and that they penetrated the school system, becoming the Latin schoolmasters of Europe, as well as variously occupying university professorships of grammar and rhetoric, even as they failed to reform the great law texts (though many of them were lawyers) or to have a major impact on theology in Italy (Reformation Germany was another matter). Part 1 concludes with Massimo Miglio's review of curial humanism, the formation of the papal library, and the signal role of Nicholas V in its reconstruction; and with Giuseppe Mazzotta's suggestive account of the role played by encyclopedias in the shaping of humanism.

In part 2 Ricardo Fubini looks at the relationship of humanism, "a vast and multifaceted cultural movement," (127) with traditional Scholasticism and its concern with handing down (traditio), via its unity of method, a "heritage of truths" (130). Focusing on Petrarch and Valla, he reminds us that Petrarch came to know and to challenge not the speculative Scholasticism prevalent in Paris, but, rather, the "compiling Scholasticism" sponsored by the papal court at Avignon; and that Petrarch famously rejected the whole culture of compilations because it obscured the immediacy of the text. James Hankins has a perceptive essay on the effort in the Renaissance to comprehend ancient religious wisdom, including "the reductive universalism of the Stoics" (141), to incorporate it into Christianity--Ficino's being the most luminous attempt--and to meditate philosophically on the nature of religion itself. This meditation, which is not medieval in its assumptions or methodology, speaks to the emergence of modern concerns in the Renaissance, for all its roots in the Middle Ages.

Charles Nauert has judicious comments on Celtis, Agricola, Reuchlin, Fichet, Gaguin, Linacre, and others, but keys his essay to the "true inventors" of a "fully developed" Christian humanism (172), Jacques Lefevre D'Etaples and Erasmus, emphasizing the paradigmatic force of the union between Erasmus's notion of "the philosophy of Christ" and his accomplishments as a philologist (179). Part 2 concludes with Eckhard Kessler's subtle rhetorical analysis of Guarino's treatise De modo et ordine docendi et discendi (1459); and with Arthur Kinney's deft examination of the role of rhetorical imitation, especially in English texts.

In part 3 Mazzocco traces the history of the varying accounts, Renaissance and modern, of the role of Petrarch and his predecessors in the development of humanism as renovatio, culminating with Biondo's crowning him primus vero omnium. This is followed by John Monfasani's erudite unraveling of Poliziano's brilliant emendation of the crux in the [Pseudo-]Aristotelian Problemata 30.1.953a 17-18 (the locus classicus on melancholy) and concomitantly with his attack on Theodore of Gaza. Finally, in one of the best essays in this notable collection, Alison Brown looks at the recovery of Lucretius and at Marcello Adriani's Lucretian challenge to Savonarola. The Roman poet, she writes, was important for his heretical Epicureanism but also for his "homely analogies" in discussing "clandestine" philosophical and scientific theories (287). Adriani was able to draw on these in asserting that Fortune was responsible, along with Nature and God, for all that happens, though a man can retain a degree of freedom if he responds flexibly to their combined influence.

In sum, this is an exaltation of essays by well-established scholars united by an important set of concerns. The essays could have appeared independently, of course: but thus assembled they react with each other in interesting and fruitful ways, even as they testify to the midlife vitality still of humanist studies.


University of California, Los Angeles
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Author:Allen, Michael J.B.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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