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Renaissance Characters.

Originally published in Italian in 1988, this is a collection of essays on various roles that Renaissance men and women played. Three essays have been translated from Italian, two from French, and four were originally written in English. John E. Law writes about the Renaissance prince; Michael Mallett the condottiere, Massimo Firpo on the cardinal; Peter Burke on the courtier; Eugenio Garin on "the philosopher and the magus"; Alberto Tenenti on the merchant-banker; Andre Chastel on the artist; Margaret L. King on the woman of the Renaissance; and Tzvetan Todorov on voyagers and natives. An aura of Burckhardtian individualism hovers over many of the essays.

The book is intended for nonspecialists. The essays lack documentation except for general bibliographies and scholars will grit their teeth at some of the exaggerated statements. Most of the essays are filled with unidentified names and references, untranslated Latin and Italian phrases, and a paucity of dates. The real audience for this volume seems to have been older Italian readers who, before the school reforms of 1968, were pumped full of enough Italian history and Latin to be able to understand the names, unexplained bits of information, and untranslated quotes. It is hard to see how readers on this side of the Atlantic lacking such education will get much out of the volume, Students will be bewildered.

Garin seems to have pursued a standard Italian approach to such a volume: gather a group of experts, give each a topic, and turn them loose without firm direction. Consequently, the authors approach their subjects from different perspectives. Law argues that the Italian Renaissance princedom was not modern but really medieval in nature. He states that the modernity of Renaissance states has been much exaggerated, partly because historians are "the king's friends." They see things the way the prince wants them to be seen. The problem is that Law concentrates on the fifteenth-century princedom, while most of the evidence for the modernity of the Italian Renaissance state comes from republics and sixteenth-century princedoms. Law's essay is also an example of the strange phenomenon that many British historians of the Italian Renaissance are convinced medievalists who deny the existence of their own subject.

Firpo's long essay presents a readable account about the Renaissance papacy from 1464 onward. It is full of stories of corruption and suppression and, naturally, avoids "good" popes and nuances. Garin argues that practically every innovative Italian Renaissance intellectual developed outside of universities and broke with university learning. But his Burckhardtian superintellectuals include Pietro Pomponazzi and Girolamo Cardano, who spent most of their adult lives teaching in Italian universities.

Some of the essays are considerably better. Mallett gives a clear account of the condottiere and Tenenti does the same for the merchant-banker. King's essay, a precis of her recent book also published by the University of Chicago Press, summarizes in clear fashion a great deal of research on European women during the Renaissance. Finally, there is a hilarious mistake in the preface. Vittorino da Feltre's school, which he called Casa Giocosa (Merry House), becomes "casa dei giuochi" (house of games of chance). The pious Vittorino would have been horrified.

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Author:Grendler, Paul F.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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