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Noel L. Brann. The Debate over the Origin of Genius during the Italian Renaissance: the Theories of Supernatural Frenzy and Natural Melancholy in Accord and in Conflict on the Threshold of the Scientific Revolution.

Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. x + 502 pp. + 1 b/w pl. index, bibl. n.p. ISBN: 90-04-12362-8.

This big book with a descriptive title that adequately describes its content is perhaps not revolutionary, but it is still important because by concentrating on the Italian (and arguably most innovative) strain of thinking about melancholy and genius in the period it clarifies where others at best have summarized or only glossed over. The learned book, which impresses by the use of original and sometimes hard-to-read texts and also by the use of recent scholarship, deserves a place on the shelf next to the books of Panofsky and the Wittkowers.

I assume that Noel Brann works on the assumption that in the Renaissance the Gretchenfrage (crucial question) among poets and philosophers is not (as it was for Gretchen in Goethe's Faust) "Wie haltst du's mit der Religion?" (How do you regard religion?), but "Wie haltst du's mit der Inspiration?" (How do you regard inspiration?) At the back of his investigation of how Italians conceived of genius is of course the question of inspiration or, more precisely, what is authentic inspiration. In the course of his very scholarly reading of difficult Latin and Italian texts (for which he always supplies translations), he gives prominence to elements that often have not been unknown but whose importance cannot be stressed enough, as for example the importance of the ancient play on the Greek word for love, eros, and the word heros (Italian eroe), equivalent of the English hero. He illustrates several times in this big book (25, 132, 444) how merely by aspiration one word could be turned into the other, and how by this linguistic "coincidence" the notion of "heroic love" spread from medical circles to wider literary communities and that melancholy becomes par excellence the "heroic affection." Beyond the fact that different thinkers were intrigued with such notions, he shows by implication how etymology was connected with epistemology at a time when the etymology of etymology still had power.

Plato and the Pseudo-Aristotelian Problem 30.1 (against the background of Galenic humoral of genius was constructed. Therefore Brann has not only a very detailed chapter on Ficino's "reconstucted genial theory," but a very solid and possibly more original chapter entitled "The Aristotelian and Skeptical Revivals and their Disintegrative Impact on the Ficinian Genial Theory" (chap. 3). In the latter, on the basis of the writings of such thinkers as Barbaro the Younger, Achillini, and Nifo, some of whom participated in an Aristotelian revival, Brann shows that Ficino was opposed for his related view of an individual immortality, while (rather curiously) both camps apparently could agree that wicked demons but also God could utilize the melancholic humor to mediate their entrance into the human mind. According to him, the naturalist opposition (against Plato as reinterpreted by Ficino) comes to a head in Pomponazzi, who "reversed the subordination of melancholy to divine inspiration assigned to it by Ficino and Nifo, with melancholy now viewed, not as a material agent of supernatural powers, but as an independently efficacious instigator of genius, capable of deceiving the mind into believing that it is being impelled by supernatural powers" (168). Pomponazzi's skepticism is important for the countermovement (vilifying claims of genius based on melancholy). At the same time one wonders whether that skepticism does not also draw sustenance from the old notion of melancholy as the "Devil's bath," which possibly was in Erasmus' mind when, in his praise of medicine, he glorified the power of physicians beyond that of clerics by pointing to their ability to cure melancholy and thus bar access to the devil.

One of the meatiest sections in the second half of the book is Brann's discussion (chap. 5, "The Late Renaissance Vogue of Melancholic Genius") of Giordano Bruno, in which Brann seeks "to demonstrate that beneath Bruno's seemingly disorganized approach to the subject of human genius exists an underlying consistency of thought and purpose" (314). As someone who (in his own book on melancholy and genius) originally planned such a section, but then despaired and dropped it, I have great admiration for it. Brann rightly calls attention to Bruno's application of his guiding principle of opposites in the two different genres in which he wrote: philosophical speculation and mystical, prophetic, and poetic intuition. He finds that as to the question of human genius, Bruno's difference from Ficino is in emphasis rather than in kind (329). But he also says, "Where Bruno took radical departure from Ficino was in his view that, just as contraries like heat and cold are inseverable from one another at the highest as well as at the lowest stages of the heroic lover's drive to the infinite, so are the contraries of harmonizing supernatural frenzy and discordant natural melancholy" (324). As dense as this distillation still may seem, it is appropriate, for no attempt to demonstrate an underlying consistency of Bruno's thought should eliminate the dynamic opposites in the thought of the man who (as Brann reminds us, 320) chose as his motto In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis (In sorrow, joyful; in joy, sorrowful).

Finally Brann highlights Campanella's repudiation of (pseudo-)Aristotelian genial theory and his revalidation of demonology. He considers Campanella the link to modern mystical and theosophical movements. While Brann in following the fortunes of melancholic genius all through his book keeps bumping against theological questions (as for instance the existence of demons or the survival of an individual soul), any larger and unquestionably burning issues in the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation are largely excised. Perhaps this was a matter of imposed limitation, since the book is already large. At the same time I cannot help thinking that for the period Brann writes the modified Gretchen question "How do you regard inspiration?" almost invariably implies the other (and original Gretchenfrage): "How do you regard religion?"


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Author:Schleiner, Winfried
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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