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Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy.

Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy. By Alison Knowles Frazier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. xx + 527 pp. $45.00 cloth.

Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy is a fascinating analysis of a body of little-known, but vastly important, material--Latin works of hagiography by fifteenth-century humanists. One of Frazier's chief tasks, and one which she accomplishes with remarkable success, is the work of recovery. She says that the book's aim is "to recover the extent, the variety, and the significance of the humanists engagement with the saints (10), and in five chapters plus an introduction and conclusion as well as a minutely annotated handlist of manuscript and print sources, she does just that. In the process, she also engages in some compelling literary and historical detective work, which she presents in such a way as to make this book a gripping read in a way that is truly refreshing to find in a scholarly work.

Frazier's first chapter, her introduction, not unexpectedly outlines the material to be covered. She does an admirable job not only of familiarizing the reader with little-studied texts but also of presenting quantitative analysis of such things as humanist hagiographers' preferences for saints of particular centuries (the fourth and fifth as well as the thirteenth through fifteenth) and particular types (early martyrs, bishops, and male saints in religious orders). One of her major concerns in the book as a whole is to explore the continuities that exist between medieval and Renaissance humanist hagiography, and she lays the groundwork for developing this argument in the introduction.

Her second chapter begins with precisely this issue--the Quattrocento humanists' attraction to writing lives of the martyrs as something that "represents a strong continuity with the preceding centuries" (45) but that is "at odds with ... familiar historiographical models" (47). She goes on to analyze the political circumstances, including the failures of the Crusades and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, that inform humanist martyrologies as she paints a picture of the "conceptual richness of martyrdom in humanists' hands" (50). In this chapter, as is generally the case, she is also remarkably attentive to significant literary and rhetorical dimensions of the materials under consideration.

In chapter 3, entitled "The Last Medieval Legendary," Frazier further develops her focus on humanist hagiographers' continuities with medieval traditions. This chapter considers the Sanctuarium of Bonino Mombrizio, an immense collection of saints' lives printed ca. 1477 in two folio volumes and existing in nearly eighty copies. Jean Bolland valued this work for what he described as its "reliable reproduction of medieval manuscripts" (103), and Frazier takes up the questions of how and why Mombrizio treated his manuscript sources. Here too she takes into account the political aspects of the text's production, skillfully demonstrating the probable impact of the murder of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, duke of Milan, on Mombrizio's choices of and ordering of saints in the collection.

Chapter 4 treats the hagiographies of Giovanni Garzoni of Bologna, a rather unexpected figure to write saints' lives since he was a "married layman, physician, professor of medicine, and teacher of rhetoric" (170). As she does with the other figures she discusses, Frazier provides a useful account of Garzoni's biography, concentrating on his intellectual formation. The overarching question in this chapter is that of the function of hagiography within humanist pedagogy. She analyzes Garzoni's paraphrastic techniques and argues that this prolific writer produced saint's lives to use in teaching students Latin syntax and vocabulary.

Chapter 5, entitled "The Spectacle of a Woman's Devotion," considers what Frazier terms "the most innovative of the Quattrocento humanists' vitae et passiones sanctorum" (221), Giacomo da Udine's life of a contemporary, devout widow named Elena of Udine (d. April 23, 1458); Elena was, during her lifetime, recognized as a santa viva. Frazier explores the motivations for Giacomo's unusual choice of subject matter, contextualizing the vita Helenae in relation to local politics as well as in relation to conflict between the Augustinian Hermits, with whom Elena was closely connected, and their rival Augustinian Lateran Canons. She presents a detailed comparison of Giacomo's vita to other vitae Helenae to demonstrate his literary artistry, illustrating his innovation in framing his hagiography as a symposium, albeit one that departs from classical precedent. She also makes a strong case that Giacomo's vita represents an important contribution to the contemporary debate about "the use of classical literature in the training of religious" (266).

In chapter 6 Frazier turns her attention to the hagiographical writings of Raffaele Maffei, who retired from a career in the papal chancery to pursue a life of sanctity in Volterra. Frazier argues that his nearly forgotten saints' lives are "aids to his own ascetic self-fashioning" (273). Maffei was also greatly concerned with the problems of panegyric in hagiography, since he saw the "overabundance of perfection" (293) as likely to prompt readers either to despair or to dismiss the cult of the saints. For his own edification, and for that of others, Maffei attempted to "rewrite the cult of the perfect saints as the cult of struggling humans" (314).

Frazier's seventh chapter, her conclusion, considers the reasons for the failures of humanist hagiography. She does not attribute these works' lack of success to their Latinity, nor does she see the fault as lying with their subject matter. Rather, she observes that secularization (a term that she uses with appropriate caution) and the intervention of the Reformations caused humanist hagiography to be a relatively short-lived experiment.

Frazier has written an extraordinary book. Her prose is lucid, her scholarship meticulous, and her arguments both innovative and convincing. This book should be of obvious interest to historians and literary scholars of Quattrocento Italy, but it deserves to be read even more widely by those who work on European literatures and religions of the later medieval and early modern literature periods.

Nancy Bradley Warren

Florida State University
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Author:Warren, Nancy Bradley
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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