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Le imprese del drago: Politica, emblematica e scienze naturali alla corte di Gregorio XIII (1572-1585).

Marco Ruffini. Le imprese del drago: Politica, emblematica e scienze naturali alla corte di Gregorio XIII (1572-1585).

Europa delle Corti 118. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2005. 166 pp. index. illus. map. [euro]15. ISBN: 88-7870-065-7.

This erudite, intriguing, and stimulating study examines various aspects of the political impresa in the context of both the literary and artistic milieu during the papal court of Bolognese Pontiff Gregory XIII (Ugo Boncompagni, r. 1572-85) in Rome. The author traces the development of the impresa of the dragon out of the political and cultural trends in Rome during the late sixteenth century. From heraldry and poetic writings to scientific and natural reconstructs, the literati and academies' intellectuals create a new iconographical genre: iconocrazia, or the study of political emblems. In the year of the post-Tridentine religious and political debate, "the new pope Gregory XIII, needs to defend himself from the association, indicated in the Holy Scriptures, between the antichristian and the dragon. The Boncompagni family aimed to redefine the symbolic meaning of the dragon represented in his family coat-of-arms" (13).

The tome consists of six chapters and an index. Although a bibliography is not included, the footnotes include copious references in support of the text. The first chapter explains the selection of the dragon image as an impresa for the pontiff. Traditionally, the image of the dragon holds a negative connotation: however, in 1562, the Boncompagi family engaged the Bolognese physician and philosopher, Baldassare Pisanelli, to explain scientifically and allegorically the symbolism of the new pontiffs coat-of-arms with the impresa of the dragon. Under this new meaning, the dragon symbolized a good serpent. The dragon had a truncated tail, this pontiffs symbol of a beneficent dragon, implying a good omen and alluding to the accomplishments of Gregory XIII.

Because of his interest in natural phenomena and his association with the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, the Boncompagni family selected Pisanelli to investigate a positive symbolism of the dragon. This reconstruction of the pontiff dragon's symbolism was followed by the poet Torquato Tasso, who composed poems in Gerusalemme conquistata on the good nature of the dragon, and the painter Agostino Carracci, who marked an emblem of the dragon with the inscription "Isomini custodia dracone" (36, fig. 4). In 1588, this propagandistic quest culminated in the publication of Principio Fabrizi's Delle allusioni, imprese et emblemi sopra Gregorio XIII, Pontifice Massimo.

Chapter 2 explains the importance and influences of Fabrizi's Delle allusioni on the positive political image of Pope Gregory XIII. It also addresses the intervention of the publisher and editor of Fabrizi's text, Bartolomeo Grassi. The discussion focuses on the various symbols associated with the pontiffs dragon image and on the technical aspects of the creation and reproduction of the dragon impresa.

Chapter 3 continues the Cinquecento theoretical debate of the signification of the dragon impresa and its application in the religious Counter-Reformation milieu, but concentrates on the miraculous appearance of the drago di fuoco (the dragon of fire) in the sky in 1575 in Rome, and the maleficent infliction of the plague. Conveniently, however, the church and the scientific community initiated a debate regarding the connection of the drago di fuoco and the plague, and the dragon and the comet. The church employed the plague and the comet as a political weapon, a fearful threat against those faithful who believed in astrological and scientific causes. The plague was caused by the sin of superstitious beliefs, while the appearance of the drago di fuoco was a divine sign to protect the faithful. Scientists attempted to explain the event as a natural phenomenon: the drago di fuoco corresponded to a luminous phenomenon generated by asteroids that traveled between the sun and the earth, or a comet.

Chapter 4 goes on to investigate the connection of the dragon impresa with the natural phenomenon and, in particular, with the killing of a dragon in Villa di Malavolta in Bologna on 13 May 1573, the day that Boncompagni was elevated to pope. Filippo Sega, a writer and lawyer from Imola, began investigating the natural and supernatural connections of this event. He contacted the naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi to understand the biological and unnatural composition of a dragon, as well as the dragon's positive or negative political symbolism in connection to the Bolognese pope.

Chapter 5 focuses on the deletion of the symbolism of the heraldic depiction of the dragon in 1586 with the accession of Pope Sixtus V. Discussion regarding the political symbolism of the dragon (Gregory XIII) and the lion (Sixtus V) is revealed in the emblems: for example, Prudentia fortitude fortior, an emblem of the lion carrying a dragon around his neck in Fabrizi's Delle allusioni (140, fig. 33).

Chapter 6 is an epilogue connecting the symbolism of the lion with that of the dragon, focusing on the interconnection of the emblems, cartography, and numismatics. Thus the dragon of Gregory XIII is a creature that evolves from the combination of various animals, employing Aldrovandi's reconstruction of the dragon: the body is from that of a serpent, its head from that of fish, and its claws from those of a bird. At the end of the Cinquecento, this hybrid monster is a symbol of cultural unity. During the governance of Gregory XIII, the impresa of the dragon expresses the pontiff's desire to maintain his own cultural, political, and moral identity in the midst of severe political and religious controversies.

This book is a worthwhile contribution to the scholarship of political imprese and emblems of sixteenth-century Italian culture.


University of Massachusetts Lowell
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Author:De Girolami Cheney, Liana
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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