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Rethinking humanism: animals and the analogic imagination in the Italian Renaissance.

I WILL PROPOSE IN THIS ESSAY that what constitutes human and animal bodies, and their points of intersection, was a concern of Italian humanist writers, who eschewed categorical divisions of any kind. While affirming the union of body and soul as the basis of human identity, they also recognized that the boundaries of this union were permeable. Further, they viewed the animal as linked to rather than separate from the human: both figure in a continuum of life that blurs conventional distinctions. The influence of post-Cartesian dualism, with its rigid divide between human and animal, has served to occlude this mode of thought, and to some extent has contaminated our critical grasp of humanism itself. We need to re-evaluate this tradition, first by discarding the vertical, hierarchical mode of being, with man at the pinnacle, a well-entrenched legacy of the Renaissance, and then by substituting a horizontal, neutralizing model--a lateral continuum.

In what follows, I will attempt to unpack the implications of the Italian humanist approach to human/animal relations by means of recent critical theory on the connectedness of bodies--specifically, through a description of inter-psychic, inter-corporeal phenomena. There is, I will argue, an intercorporeality among living, sentient, moving beings that was recognized in the Renaissance, and, notwithstanding the Cartesian epistemological shift, is acknowledged in contemporary philosophy as well. Thus our misreading of Italian humanism has occluded our recognition of its affinities with the animal theory of our own time, including, certainly, literary theory, but also neuroscience. (1)

How can our reflections on human/animal encounters be advanced by a consideration of Italian humanist texts? I begin by citing an educational humanist, Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370-1444) and his work, The Character and Studies Befitting a Free Born Youth, where he compares the eagerness of a horse to the desired virtue a student needs for learning:
   the first mark of a liberal temper is that it is motivated by
   eagerness for praise and inflamed by love of glory; this is the
   source of a certain noble envy and striving without hatred for
   praise and excellence. The next sign is that it willingly obeys its
   elders and is not defiant toward those who give good advice. For as
   horses are considered better for fighting when they are easily
   controlled by hand and rear up with their ears perked at the blare
   of trumpets, so those youths who listen well to their mentors and
   whom praise motivates to do what is good seem to offer rich fruit.

And continuing the analogy between horse and student, Vergerio states:
   Furthermore, those who are keen for endeavor, flee inaction, and
   always love to do what is right seem well disposed by nature, for
   (to employ the same sort of simile) as horses are considered better
   runners when they leap forward straightaway once the signal has
   been given, and do not stand sluggishly in place awaiting the spur
   or the whip, so young men who, without someone to admonish them,
   return eagerly at the appointed hours to their customary studies
   and to exercises that have scarcely been interrupted should be
   considered outstandingly suited to works of virtue. (2)
   [emphasis mine]

Clearly, we see above an analogy used to describe an idea but the example also serves as a model for the student who is particularly endowed with a desire to learn. The energy of the horse becomes the criterion for the modeling of a young boy who shows unbridled enthusiasm for learning. By situating the horse as an example for the student to follow, the analogy with an animal creates a relation between those two bodies. But it also underscores the vitality of a kinesthetic idea that is connected to a body in an intercorporeal relationship, that is, if one assumes that human thought is built up metaphorically from the basic kinesthetic experiences of living in a body:
   This primal animateness, this original kinetic spontaneity that
   infuses our being and defines our aliveness, is our point of
   departure for living in the world and making sense of it.... We
   literally discover ourselves in movement. We grow kinetically into
   our bodies. (3)

Furthermore, Vergerio's analogy, a presenting of such a "kinetic spontaneity," can be read as a conceptual metaphor, which in Lakoff and Johnson's theory, is that place where the understanding of that intercorporeal dynamic is articulated. (4) Thus metaphor, analogy and conceptual metaphors are understood to be constituted through an intercorporality that exists between living, sentient, moving beings. Lakoff and Johnson's conviction about how we experience language and meaning, as well as Vergerio's equine example, offer us the intellectual opportunity to open a space for understanding how animals and humans might share an interspecies connection:

The reason that conceptual metaphor is so important, then, is that it is our primary (although not our only) means for abstract conceptualization and reasoning ...

We have not developed two separate logical and inferential systems, one for our bodily experiences and one for our abstract concepts and reasoning (as pure logic). Instead the logic of our bodily experience provides all the logic we need in order to perform every rational inference, even with the most abstract concepts. (Johnson 179)

A case in point would be the writings on horses, for example, of Gian-Battista Alberti, Pasquale Caracciolo and Federico Grisone, which all discuss not only the proper training of horses but also the intricate relations that exist between horse and human. As Federico Grisone states in discussing the relation of riding to horsemanship: "But think also that he is together with you of the same body, of the same spirit, and the same will." Especially fascinating is Caraciollo's thousand- page treatise La gloria del cavallo (1556) in which he uses examples taken from Galen's humoral medical typology, the same character typology normally assigned to humans, to discuss the character of a horse. (5) Or we may turn to the praise Caraciollo has for the horse in the same text where he states that the horse is worthy of the same consideration as a human because he is "in many qualities of feelings and affects, similar to man himself." (10). Here too we read of a connection between bodies that by virtue of an analogical imagination connects the human to the animal via bodily affects. Ludovico Ariosto's romance epic poem Orlando Furioso is replete with analogies between animals and humans, as for example, when Angelica, after seeing her arch enemy Rinaldo, is said to have been frightened "like a baby fawn or kid, who has watched through the leaves of wood where he was born , and has seen the leopard's fangs close on his mother's throat, seen her flank and breast tore open ..."; or the warrior Rinaldo's famous horse who is said to have a "human intelligence." (6)

If we thus begin to recognize how bodies are represented and framed in textual and artistic representations, we can perhaps also start to reread and rethink early modern questions of subjectivity and intercorporality, mediated through the language of metaphor and analogy, and thus of animals, humans, and the inter-relations that obtain through their beings. What this kind of reading might produce is a rethinking of the up/down hierarchy, the vertical axis, so prevalent in Renaissance thought, in favor of a relational, hence horizontal framework. (7) Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski's work on the Renaissance and group identity is most helpful in emphasizing that ideas of corporeal realities and exchanges between beings were characteristic of key aspects of Renaissance thinking and that these ideas contravene the intra-psychic work of previous academic scholarship that glorified the birth of the individual and Renaissance man:
   The discovery of and fascination with the human body and of
   nonhuman bodies, as well, had a profound impact on group concepts
   and identities and ... the self is not a thing but a relation
   between 'those dimensions of experience that people describe as
   internal (conscious or unconscious thoughts, feelings, beliefs,
   emotions, desires) and those that they describe as external
   (speaking or writing, hating or loving, praying or blaspheming,
   laughing or crying, stealing or buying, and so on). Through his
   concept of the relational self, Martin offers an important
   reformulation of the interface between the individual and the
   collective that takes both into account. (8) [emphasis mine]

Keeping in mind the differences between humanist thinkers, from Pico della Mirandola to Pompanazzi, to Ficino, and the fluid articulation of different humanisms, the up/down hierarchy appears to be the most prevalent way humanists conceptualized the category "man," as potentially being at the top of a chain of being; yet Pico della Mirandola, for example, conceptualized "man" as a chameleon (an animal analogy) who can choose where to exist on the vertical plane. Man can choose to be either like a beast or like an angel. (9) If we take, however, the idea of bodies in relation to other bodies, then this chain of being produces a lateral axis wherein social configurations that are in relation to each other are also present. Reading for a lateral axis, as we have seen with Vergerio's horse/student analogy, opens up more coordinates of interpretation and moves us away from the vertical plane that is congruent with the human's upright position. In other words, such a reading would identify the inscripted body as the site for a shared intelligibility, articulated through analogies and conceptual metaphors especially relevant to discursive and narrativized texts. The humanists and intellectuals of the early modern period grounded thought in metaphor and analogy, perhaps inadvertently crossing this vertical model with a lateral one, and thereby undoing, perhaps unconsciously, any doctrinal theory that would hold secure man's place on top of everything and everyone.

What is thus needed is a critical examination of the assumption of human exceptionalism, the up/down, man-on-top way of thinking, that seems unwittingly produced by the human's erect posture as a space-oriented body. And while it is clear that humans are indeed a complicated and creative species, the upright position of the human on the axis does not legitimate his being isolated from other life forms. Indeed, the erroneous idea that the human exists in isolation, or that human superiority is predicated on questions of genius and on the individual selection of "great men" requires a rereading of the human in relation to its environment, to objects, if you will. Some contemporary neuro-science shows that looking at the brain in isolation does not really tell us very much about how mental life works (just as the notion of Renaissance Man in isolation does not really give us an adequate idea of what and how meaning was incorporated and shared by different beings). For example, the neuro-scientist Vittorio Gallese argues that the study of the brain and/or the individual in isolation does not explain enough and that
   all levels of interaction that can be employed to characterize
   cognition in single individuals must intersect or overlap to enable
   the development of mutual recognition and intelligibility.

      The study of historical material must then be read and understood
   as pertaining not to a single brain function or "genius" but to an
   aggregate field of social interaction and embodiment. (10)

Imaginative correspondences, as between human and animals, are clearly at work in such a reformulation so that even the vertical axis might be made to produce more co-ordinates of interpretation that would allow for an deeper understanding of how the animal and the human interfaced in the Italian Renaissance. Gallese's "embodied simulation" is useful in situating the co-ordinates on the two axis as an embodied experience in which the relation between beings suggests the importance of the corporeal for inter-psychic and inter-corporeal associations.

Regarding animals, several of today's most creative thinkers use different approaches to convey the importance of a new animal/ human interface. J. M Coetzee, for example, calls for a sympathetic imagination as the driving force for an understanding of the shared finitude of both animals and humans, a notion similar to Gallese's embodied simulation in which imagination grasps the relationship between beings through movement and bodies in motion, thereby reinforcing the inseparable connection between body and mind. This inseparable connection is what can also link the human to other bodies or objects with which it comes into contact. As Deborah Jensen claims: "We map the actions of others onto our own motor systems," meaning that "we both feel and acknowledge consciously or unconsciously the actions of an other being." (11) This rethinking of humanism, of the human in relation to its environment vis a vis "animal studies" comes at a time when scholars in the humanities have witnessed and participated in the deconstruction of the human subject (le sujet suppose savoir). "Post-humanism" has been the "cri du jour" in the dismantling of the tired hegemony of old-fashioned humanism with its flawed privilege granted to all things white, male and European, historically encouraged by various social movements in the twentieth century.

The new field of animal studies has also challenged intellectual biases in traditional disciplines. Almost all the work within animal studies, with its diverse disciplinary origins, including but not limited to cultural studies, history, literary studies, critical theory, wildlife biology, embodied cognitive studies, ethnology, environmental studies, anthropology, legal studies and philosophy, has a common critical point of view: it situates the entity called man within a multi-species context. What one finds, then, in the critical and theoretical dismantling of humanist privilege in contemporary thought, is a new query: where is the place of the human within a wider bio-context? And while historical studies about animals do exist, their tendency is to be empirical rather than theoretical. In contrast, this new humanist approach to animal studies, as the historian Erica Fudge has so aptly stated,
   highlights the fact that the marginalization of animals in modern
   humanities research itself serves an important philosophical and
   moral function. It obliterates a way of thinking that raises
   questions about the nature of the animal and the human, that offers
   us another inheritance, another way of conceptualizing both
   ourselves and the world around us. (12)

One way to approach this lack would be to see how different cultures of the early modern period conceptualized meaning, especially as is the case in point here, with reference to the animal.

Given the wide umbrella under which animal studies is located, it might be valuable to uncover what and how animals were ranked or perceived vis a vis the human in the Renaissance. Susan Bordo has shown in her excellent feminist critique of Descartes how the Cartesian subject was radically different from the subject of the very early (Italian) Renaissance. Bordo highlights the epistemological difference between pre- and post-Cartesian humanisms.
   Not all phallocentric cultures are phallocentric in the same way;
   not all cultures are phallocentric; and even arguably phallocentric
   cultures are not seamlessly so. Some would argue that categories
   such as phallocentrism and patriarchy are too sweeping and unifying
   to be useful in describing how cultures are organized and power

   For the Medievals and Early Renaissance, there is no radical
   disjunction between the "inner" reality and outward appearance but
   rather a close relation between the movement of the body and
   movement of the soul ... Dance was regarded as "an action
   demonstrative of spiritual movement" in which, as Alberti says,
   "the movements of the soul are recognized in the movements of the
   body. (13)

If we begin to think within a more imaginative topography, understanding that in the early modern period bodies existed in definitive relation to each other and created meaning out of that relation, then it appears that, as in Vergerio's example, two bodies from two different species can co-exist in a relational way that produces meaning and affect.

A few ways that we might begin to rethink humanisms are already intimated in the works of both Alberti and Caracciolo. (14) These texts point to an animal's ranking in ways that that clearly undo the centrality and absolute difference of the human. Instead, the animal stands in a productive partnership with the human species. We have seen an instance of this high positioning of the nonhuman animal in Caraciollo's On the Glory of the Horse which mirrors in its title Pico Della Mirandola's On the Dignity of Man. Or let us consider the work of Giovan Battista Della Porta whose text on physiognomy does not apologize for its superimposition of the faces of animals onto humans, but instead insists on an analogy between the animal and the human, based, presumably, on how human bodily manifestations of psychic vicissitudes inevitably trigger comparisons with animal behavior. (15) As we read the history of animals in the early modern period we might take into account the relation between animals and humans, where the animal figures as part of a continuum of life in which humans also partake reciprocally in animal characteristics; and we might locate the sites where that relation is not repressed.

In considering such an imaginative topography for the future, scholars might think about questions of similitude rather than absolute difference, a reconsideration that could be addressed through the analysis of analogies in early Renaissance texts. Here I would point, for example, to the difference between the Italian Renaissance with its insistence on the human being as a single union of body and soul, as well as the virtues that proceed from this embodied locus, to a later understanding of how the separation of animals from humans, nature from culture, might parallel the rigid ontological separation of body from soul, or the mind/body dichotomy. Such contrasts can be parsed not only between different cultures and different humanisms but also with the understanding that in any one culture they might co-exist.

Another important consideration is how issues of feminism or racism fit into the speciest categories that are found in contemporary Western culture; and how such issues challenge these categories. Examining ways in which bodies, both animal and human, were thought to intersect in the Renaissance, and how they are described, suppressed or constituted, can shed new light on the history of bodies, be they animal, human or plant. With a focus on the animal, we might re-discover concepts of body and soul, of animal and human, that allow us to conceive of the Renaissance as a period that did not define the human/animal interface as oppositional, but instead humanized the animal and annualized the human through a concept of intercorporeality. That is, the exchanges and interfaces between human and animals give us an other picture, another heritage that may indeed re-frame our discourses on the Renaissance to include multiple sites of exchange amongst the diverse beings that inhabit the world of Renaissance texts.


(1.) See especially The Body in Early Modern Italy, ed. Julia Hairston and Walter Stephens (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). For an excellent discussion on the different European Humanisms see Charles G. Nauert, ed., Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). I wish to thank Carla Freccero and Brenda Schildgen for listening to me and for their invaluable suggestions.

(2.) See Pier Paolo Vergerio, "The Character and Studies Befitting a Free Born Youth," in Humanist Educational Treatises, ed. and trans. Craig W. Kallendorf (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 69.

(3.) Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 20.

(4.) See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live by (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

(5.) See Leon Battista Alberti, II Cavallo Vivo, trans. Antonio Videtta (Naples: Stampa et Ars, 1981); Federico Grisone, Ordini di Cavalcare (Venetia 1550); Pasquale Caracciolo, La Gloria del cavallo (1566). See also the work of Vincaine Despret Hans, Le Cheval qui savait compter (Paris: Le Seuil, 2004) where she discusses the intricate bodily and affective connections between human and horse. Also see Elizabeth Tobey "The Palio Horse in Italy," in The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline and Identity in the Early Modern World, ed. Karen Raber and Trevia J. Tucker (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 63-91. The quotation from Grisone is cited from Tobey, 91.

(6.) Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans, Guido Waldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 5, 13. See also Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Animal Characters: Non Human Beings in Early Modern Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press). Boehrer makes a wonderful case for the horse Bayardo in the Orlando Furioso whose "intelligenza umana" is elided in later English Renaissance texts because of the concern about an animal sharing human characteristics or partaking in human nature. See esp. 30-31.

(7.) In discussing the differences between vertical and horizontal transcendence, Johnson states: "there is a different notion of transcendence, which we might call horizontal transcendence, that recognizes the inescapability of human finitude and is compatible with the embodiment of meaning, mind, and personal identity. (281) While the Italian humanists did believe in transcendence, they did not do away with the notion of the body (it would have been heretical to do so), so this bodily presence leaves room for a lateral or horizontal transcendence that allows the body and soul to be connected to the world and to other beings in the world. For arguments that have to do with the unity of body and soul, see especially the humanist Pietro Pomponazzi "On Immortality" in The Benaissance Philosophy of Man, eds. Ernst Cassirer, Francesco Petrarca, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall et al. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), 281-381. On the inseparableness of body and soul, see Carolyn Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay On religion in Late Medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2011).

(8.) See Group Identity in the Renaissance World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(9.) In The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernest Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1941).

(10.) See Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowsky and Vittorio Gallese in "How Stories Make Us Feel: Toward an Embodied Narratology" in California Italian Studies, 1, no. 1 (2011): 180, 5.

(11.) Deborah Jensen and Marco Iacoboni in California Italian Studies, 2, 1 (2011).

(12.) See Erica Fudge, Brutal Reasoning. Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 4.

(13.) See "Selections from the Flight of Objectivity" in Feminist Interpretations of Rene Descartes, ed. Susan Bordo (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 52; 50-51.

(14.) See Juliana Schiesari, "The Art of Domination; Alberti's il Cavallo Vivo" in Beasts and Beauties: animals, gender and domestication in the Italian Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 44-54.

(15.) Gian Battista della Porta, Delia fisonomia dell'uomo, ed. Marco Cicognani, (Parma: Ugo Guando, 1988).
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Title Annotation:FORUM: Manimals: Early Modern Animal/Human Interfaces
Author:Schiesari, Juliana
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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