Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.03

Patrick Baker, Ronny Kaiser, Maike Priesterjahn, Johannes Helmrath (ed.), Portraying the Prince in the Renaissance: The Humanist Depiction of Rulers in Historiographical and Biographical Texts. Transformationen der Antike, 44.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. ix, 489.  ISBN 9783110472363.  €99,95.  


Reviewed by Astrid M. H. Nilsson, Lund University (astrid.nilsson@klass.lu.se)

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The present volume is the last in a trilogy that aims at reconsidering the nature of humanist historiography, and the result of a conference held in Berlin in 2014. The two preceding volumes, also resulting from conferences, are Medien und Sprachen humanistischer Geschichtsschreibung, (2009, preview here) and Historiographie des Humanismus (2013, preview here). These two contain contributions exclusively or mainly in German, but in this last volume, there are almost as many papers in English as in German. At the beginning of each English article, a summary in German is found, and vice versa. Quotations from original works are provided both in translation and in the original language, a commendable practice, not least when the quotations originate from works that are hard to come by because they are available only in early modern editions, or even in manuscript form.

The introduction begins: “The hallmarks of humanist historical writing are supposed to be moral purpose, eloquent style, a critical stance toward myths and legends, dedication to truth, a heightened awareness of the power of contingency and human agency, and a keen sense of anachronism. The present volume is offered in the spirit of a sympathetic re-evaluation of this paradigm.” (p. 1) Immediately afterwards, the editors ask themselves which other factors may have had an impact on humanist historical writing. They also point out that Renaissance writers did not distinguish between historiography and biography as strictly as the ancients, and particularly not when portraying princes, because in that case the distinction was often blurred. Even works of epic could sometimes belong to this category. In other words, the editors are suggesting an expansion of the meaning of “historical writing” in accordance with humanist views. From there, the reappraisal of the paradigm is brought about.

The characteristics referred to in the quotation above about humanist historiography (if not exhaustive) are drawn from overviews, such as the well-known monographs by Cochrane (1981) and Fueter (1911). These two works study a great number of humanist historical works (in the stricter sense) in order to discern long lines of development and present general traits of humanist historiography. Here, instead, the individual humanists are allowed to speak through their texts by way of investigations of one or a few specific works. The re-evaluation is thus often linked to the second question in the introduction, the one concerning which other factors were involved in humanist historical texts apart from the so to speak usual ones. This approach deepens the understanding of humanist historical texts mainly by adding to their already known characteristics, but also by questioning them. The words “sympathetic reappraisal” from the introduction constitute a very good description of what this book does. As an added benefit to an already interesting read, the present volume introduces some works that are not among the more generally well-known works of the period.

The articles are placed under four broad thematic headings: Virtues, Cultural and Political Pretensions, Models Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and Method. These are presented in the introduction along with a few general questions and topics later discussed in individual articles. At the end, one final article (Schirrmeister) is found under the heading of Critical Summary, in which the other articles are discussed with transformation theory as a tool, and possible new objects of study are suggested. Transformation theory in this case refers to the theoretical framework of reception, which was developed in the Berlin project, and in which the concept of transformation plays a crucial role. It is described in Transformation. Ein Konzept zur Erforschung kulturellen Wandels, ed. Hartmut Böhme et al. (Munich 2011). The introduction sets out from the articles and discusses recurring themes and ideas, while the critical summary uses transformation theory for discussing the articles: the volume thus basically both starts and finishes with a summary aimed at linking the articles together, but in different ways.

The first thematic section contains contributions that discuss the description of virtues and to some extent vices, in the depictions of princes. Charles VII of France, for example, was no battlefield hero, but otherwise a stock image of a good prince. Schwitter shows that historians could portray the king as a good prince anyway by placing the focus on his foremost virtue, ordonnance, or, to use modern terms, on the king’s logistic and organisational skills in war and peace.

In the second section, the historical texts discussed are used for political and/or cultural purposes, as in Kaiser’s description of the Germaniae exegesis, an early sixteenth- century work. Its author, Franciscus Irenicus, describes a very long and to a certain extent questionable line of rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, bestowing the honour of being the oldest of the European civilisations upon that realm. As great age was an important criterion for claiming precedence among other countries, such a work was indeed strongly political.

From the third section, which deals with models, and the corresponding part of the introduction, it becomes clear that the models used were definitely not limited to the handful of canonical ancient writers that one “ought” to imitate. The models included not only other ancient writers, but also medieval or roughly contemporary ones, as is seen in Laureys’s article. He suggests that one Renaissance work about princes was used as model for another: a biographical work in prose was changed and adapted into one in verse (the Elogia virorum bellica laude illustrium). Though collections of biographies were not unheard of in Antiquity, they were very frequent during the Renaissance.

The fourth section discusses method. Von Ostenfeld-Suske’s contribution presents the views of a Spanish historian and royal official, Juan Páez de Castro, on how to write royal history. According to him, its main purposes were providing moral guidance to the ruler, and legitimating his politics. This political perspective is also mirrored in Páez’ opinion that official documents were the best and most reliable sources. As the royal archives were off limits to most, the only ones actually able to write reliable works of history were the royal officials themselves, which effectively undermined the reliability of the works written by other aspiring historians.

Many authors in this volume, not least in the two later sections, to some extent touch on the practice of imitatio commonplace in the Renaissance. The idea is easily reduced to basic statements of the kind that the humanists saw Livy as the model for historiography, period. A few examples of recurring references related to this phenomenon in the present work might serve as an illustration of how the reappraisal of the usual paradigm of humanist historiography deepens and problematises such general knowledge.

It has already been pointed out that potential models could be found not only in Antiquity, but also in much later eras. On one occasion, Peters says that ancient writers of panegyrics faced a situation that differed very greatly from that of their Renaissance imitators, because on the Italian peninsula there was no single obvious addressee for panegyrics, as in imperial Rome, but rather many potential patrons to praise. This necessitated an adaptation, which is illustrated in De Keyser’s contribution. He discusses the Sphortias, an epic poem about Francesco Sforza, ruler of Milan. Earlier researchers have pointed out that Filelfo neither extolled Sforza as much as he could have done, nor criticised Sforza’s opponents to any greater extent. Sforza’s enemies in the work are given several opportunities to criticise him. This is then interpreted as an attempt at voicing the author’s own, hidden criticism of Sforza. De Keyser suggests instead that its author, Francesco Filelfo, adapted it to the somewhat unstable political realities of the era by refraining from excessive praise, or the opposite, as it would be unwise to alienate any prospective patron. The ancient models were here adapted in order to match contemporary expectations.

This was not always the case, however. Hayes’ article presents a case in which an author failed to adapt his epic work about Cosimo de’Medici to his own time. In Florence, it was not the best of ideas to liken the unofficial ruler of the city to Emperor Augustus. As a result, the work was not appreciated even by its addressee, and soon forgotten. In other words, the use of classical models did not automatically lead to success if they were not properly adapted.

In his contribution, finally,Ianziti uses an examination of Decembrio's biography of Filippo Maria Visconti, the last of the Visconti dukes of Milan to discuss what constitutes a “Suetonian” biography. Although the Suetonian model of thematic narration – in which the focus is on the prince’s persona, and mostly in his private life – has been brilliantly adapted, the result still clashed with contemporary ideas about how to portray a prince. Visconti had a number of darker sides, and these were brought into the light by Decembrio in order to ensure the truth of the biography: if strongly negative actions were not smoothed over, he thought that the work in its entirety would be more reliable. This shows that even a brilliant imitation and adaptation of the model found in the work of an ancient author could fail to bring about its success.

To conclude, Portraying the Prince is a refreshing complement to classic overviews as the ones referred to above, and provides greater richness and a more vibrant texture to the canvas of humanist historiography.

Table of Contents

I. Virtues
1. Thomas Schwitter: Der Herrscher und die gute Ordnung. Das Bild Karls VII. in der französischen Historiographie am Übergang von der tradierten zur humanistisch geprägten Historiographie
2. Maike Priesterjahn: Charlemagne am Renaissancehof. Die Darstellung Karls des Großen in Paolo Emilios De rebus gestis Francorum
3. Stefan Schlelein: Guter König, schlechter König? Die Darstellung Heinrichs V. und Heinrichs VI. von England in Polydor Vergils Anglica historia
4. Hester Schadee: Alfonso ›the Magnanimous‹ of Naples as Portrayed by Facio and Panormita: Four Versions of Emulation, Representation, and Virtue
II. Cultural and Political Pretensions
5. Luka Špoljarić: Illyrian Trojans in a Turkish Storm: Croatian Renaissance Lords and the Politics of Dynastic Origin Myths
6. Ronny Kaiser: Personelle Serialität und nationale Geschichte. Überlegungen zu den Herrschergestalten in Franciscus Irenicus’ Germaniae Exegesis
7. Florian Schaffenrath: Riccardo Bartolinis Austrias (1516) oder: Wie ein Herrscher zum Feldherrn gegen die Türken wird
III. Models Ancient, Medieval and Modern
8. Markus Schürer: Der Herrscher als zweiter Salomo. Zum Bild König Roberts von Anjou in der Renaissance
9. Gary Ianziti: Pier Candido Decembrio and the Suetonian Path to Princely Biography
10. Thomas Haye: Die Cosmias des Giovanni Mario Filelfo (1426–1480)
11. Wolfgang Strobl: Einhard reloaded. Francesco Tedeschini Picolomini, Hilario aus Verona, Donato Acciaiuoli und die Karlsbiographik im italienischen Renaissance-Humanismus
12. Marc Laureys: Auf den Spuren Paolo Giovios? Herrscherdarstellung in Jacobus Sluperius’ Elogia virorum bellica laude illustrium
IV. Method
13. Patrick Baker: Princes between Lorenzo Valla and Bartolomeo Facio
14. Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske: Juan Páez de Castro, Charles V, and a Method for Royal Historiography
15. Jeroen De Keyser: Picturing the Perfect Patron? Francesco Filelfo’s Image of Francesco Sforza
16. Christian Peters: Verbis phucare tyrannos? Selbstanspruch und Leistungsspektren von zeithistorischer Epik als panegyrischem Medium im 15. Jahrhundert
V. Critical Summary
17. Albert Schirrmeister: The Description Makes the Prince: Princely Portrayal from the Perspective of Transformation Theory
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