BMCR 2004.09.29

The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy

, The lost Italian Renaissance : humanists, historians, and Latin's legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xx, 210 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801878152 $45.00.

Any classicists suffering a periodic bout of uncertainty about the vitality of their discipline would be well advised to turn to Christopher Celenza’s new book for a touch of consolation, albeit of a bitter kind. For, as he rather wistfully points out, those scholars who work on the world of fifteenth-century humanists look to classics departments as well-resourced havens in good health. Many central fifteenth-century Latin works remain unedited or untranslated, and few people study them. Because the field of Italian Renaissance intellectual history slips between departments, Celenza argues, those works, particularly in North America, “have been ‘disciplined’ out of existence” (57). Briefly and passionately, he demonstrates why this is the case, gives some of the reasons why he thinks that fifteenth-century humanists are important, and suggests how scholars might go about remedying the problem.

Celenza’s arguments for the submersion of fifteenth-century Latin works are basically two. First, Renaissance Latin did not appeal to nationalist conceptions of history current in the nineteenth century, when genuine cultural expression was supposed to take place in a native language. Even Burckhardt, who in many ways went against the grain of the historical thought of his time, believed that for the humanists Latin was a vehicle for achieving modernity, rather than worth studying for its own sake; their “contribution to culture had to be primarily on the ideological, not the literary, plane” (13). No scholars, therefore, took it upon themselves to produce usable collections of sources. Second, and partly because of the absence of readily available sources, twentieth-century academics who worked on fifteenth-century intellectuals by and large failed to take full account of developments in historiography, particularly the rise of social history. Celenza identifies the two most influential theoretical approaches to Italian Renaissance intellectual history as those of Eugenio Garin and Paul Oskar Kristeller: the former pioneering a diachronic stance, looking back with certain ideas about the nature of modernity to find their pioneers in the Renaissance, and the latter offering an idealized, synchronic outlook, classifying humanism without asking larger questions of change and development. These different approaches failed to impress upon the North American academic world the significance of fifteenth-century humanism, and so failed — through no fault of Garin’s or Kristeller’s, as Celenza stresses when he traces the cultural backgrounds for their development — to lead to the creation of a critical mass of scholars prepared to develop the pair’s work further.

Celenza’s response to this situation is first to propose how historians of humanism might employ the theoretical methodologies of their social historian counterparts to reinvigorate their subject. He reviews various twentieth-century historiographical trends and suggests that Rorty’s use of interpretive communities and Bourdieu’s habitus could be used with most profit to go beyond Garin’s and Kristeller’s approaches. He then gives an idea of how such ideas could be applied in practice. Both Lorenzo Valla and Marsilio Ficino, he argues, expanded the bounds of orthodoxy by reaching back into the past and, if read properly, demonstrate an inclusive lack of dogma. An understanding of their social context allows us to appreciate the development of their thought. A second case study applies insights from gender studies to ideas of honor in humanist discourse, and relates the anxieties humanists voiced to the performative culture of the courts in which they worked and competed. To a classicist, some of the observations here may recall similar investigations of sexualized political discourse in late republican Rome.

Celenza firmly and rightly believes that investigation of fifteenth-century Latin texts will reveal works that reward further study, and that those works are of huge importance if we want to contextualize later vernacular writers like Machiavelli and Castiglione. He also suggests that they may provide “an antecedent to the conversational culture of consensus” (142) that to him is so attractive a feature of Rorty’s ideas. But he is aware that the project he advocates, of making these promising works more accessible, is not a straightforward or easy one: he shows how varieties of autograph manuscripts, annotated texts belonging to contemporary readers, and printed editions revised during the authors’ lifetimes makes the task of editors of Renaissance texts different from that of classical philologists. Indeed, it is a task about which there is still considerable methodological debate.1 On the other hand, though, there are some efforts to edit and/or translate works of these sorts (which can be seen as part of a wider rise in interest in humanism and its historiography: the position is not quite as desperate as Celenza suggests), both Anglophone and other, which Celenza lists in an appendix. Not surprisingly, he suggests that electronic publication should also become a venue for humanist texts (although any classicists at this moment who want further proof of the vigor of their discipline should try comparing their electronic resources with anything that they can find on fifteenth-century Latin humanist works).2

As the editor and translator of two humanist treatises, there is no doubt that Celenza knows of what he writes.3 His recommendations are sensible, convincing, and borne out by his case studies, and although, as he hints in the introduction, he may ruffle some feathers, such is the lot of the reformer. Part status quaestionis, part explanation of that status, part manifesto, his book is the admirable product of considerable reading and thought, and will remain a useful resource for anyone interested in the history of intellectual history in the fifteenth or the twentieth century. Like all manifestos, though (or at least all manifestos with more bite than current political offerings), it invites at least some dissent and modification, perhaps especially from those in sympathy with its central message.

Fired by his enthusiasm for one aspect of Renaissance intellectual life, Celenza seems in danger of narrowing his domain too far. His sympathy for the pluralism and dialogic conversations of the Italian humanists, which he finds in a long fifteenth century, spanning the period from Petrarch to the early 1500s, is evident. At one point he compares recent editions of the work of Menander (“the sitcom author of the ancient world”) with the dearth of editions of the humanists, and concludes that “even authors who are recognizably less important as ‘literature’ have been worked over numerous times… whereas Italian Renaissance authors are comparatively unknown” (154). He is happy to advocate one of the benefits of the project that he proposes as the discovery of a “limited number of thinkers who deserve a place in any canon of readings from the period and without whom our literary and philosophical heritage is diminished” (141). While he gives good reasons for his enthusiasm, the focus on Italy (even if we allow that Italian intellectuals were the driving force behind the humanist movement and had readers, imitators, and protégés beyond the Alps), the time-frame (by the end of the fifteenth century, he argues that humanists had become institutionalized, and consequently less exciting) and the slightly exclusive sounding pay-off run the danger of alienating other historians, particularly those interested primarily in the sociology of Renaissance intellectuals. The sixteenth-century northern European circle of humanists, associated above all with Justus Lipsius, offers many of the same pleasures that Celenza enjoys: they wrote Latin dialogues, they explored the heritage of classical philosophy, and their confessional ambiguity in an uncertain religious and political climate meant that they too tended to promote undogmatic plurality. Although some of it was printed, their work has also suffered a similar neglect to that of their fifteenth-century predecessors in Italy, with whom they can profitably be read in conjunction today. There are clearly practical issues at stake here — faced with reams and reams of unedited or untranslated neo-Latin material, where should one start in order to make the enterprise attractive and practicable? — but, because of examples like Lipsius and friends, to promote the study of humanist Latin in fifteenth-century Italy alone runs risks of parochialism. Celenza compares his field of Italian Renaissance intellectual history with classics or medieval studies, but the comparison is hardly justified by his scope, and one reason for those disciplines’ success has been their inclusiveness and malleability.

In a similar vein, should historians a generation hence reflect on the major theoretical approaches to the intellectual history of the Italian Renaissance in the twentieth century, I wonder whether they would still agree that Garin’s and Kristeller’s were the most influential. There is no doubt that they were hugely important for offering definitions of humanism and exploring the implications of the humanist movement, especially on the literary and philosophical planes, Celenza’s main interests. But humanism — the definition of which remains fiercely contested — and particularly its literary and philosophical aspects are not, on most readings, coterminous with Renaissance intellectual history. I suspect that even now, for an outsider to this field, Aby Warburg and his inheritors would be assumed to have made as important a contribution to our understanding of the intellectual world of the Renaissance. In America in particular, Erwin Panofsky (under the influence of Ernst Cassirer as well as Warburg) played a vital part in introducing humanists and their ideas to a generation of students: he was nominally an art historian, and many of his ideas have been qualified and interrogated since, but his theoretical approach to the transmission of classical material provided a way of looking at humanism that differed from Garin’s or Kristeller’s visions. In fact, as Celenza points out, Bourdieu first used the term habitus in a note at the end of his translation of Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. In the work of Kristeller and Garin, Celenza examines the influence of scholars who most shaped the area by which he is most inspired. For his new program to be effective perhaps this call to action would benefit from a consideration of the development of the Warburgian theoretical strand — and, conceivably, given the Bourdieu connection, its influence on the author himself.

These, though, are an adherent’s quibbles. There is no doubt that with this book Celenza has drawn attention to a body of work that deserves far more attention than it has received and that offers exciting new avenues for historical study. Moreover, his thoughtful, reasoned assessment of the field’s development offers a model of analysis for placing the growth of intellectuals’ ideas in their social context.


1. For an entertaining example from a slightly later period, see the dispute between Luc Deitz, “Editing Sixteenth-Century Latin Prose Texts: a Case Study and a Few General Observations,” and Helga Köhler, “Auf dem Weg zum modernen Lesetext, ” in Glenn W. Most (ed.), Editing Texts, Texte Edieren (1998), pp. 141-164 and 165-189.

2. One example worthy of extended celebration is Dana F. Sutton’s Analytic Bibliography of On-Line Neo-Latin Texts, although it mostly contains links to facsimiles of sixteenth-century and later books, and so Celenza does not mention it.

3. Renaissance Humanism and the Papal Curia: Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger’s De curiae commodis (1999) and Piety and Pythagoras in Renaissance Florence: The Symbolum Nesianum (2001). The former — happily, given the author’s argument, freely available on line from the publisher — provides the backbone for Celenza’s study of honor here; for a careful analysis of some of the difficulties involved in editing and interpreting the text, see the review article by David Rundle in the Bulletin for the Society of Renaissance Studies 18 (2000), pp. 18-24.