BMCR 2013.11.09

Francesco Filelfo. On Exile. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 55

, , Francesco Filelfo. On Exile. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 55. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. xxvi, 485. ISBN 9780674066366. $29.95.

In Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture, Silvia Montiglio demonstrates that Greco-Roman discourses on exile diverged into two camps: one treated it as a great evil for cutting a person off from civilized society while the other maintained, more optimistically, that travel presented an opportunity for the one displaced to enhance his wisdom.1 The locus classicus of the first position is found in Euripides’ The Phoenician Women in a dialogue between Polynices and his mother Jocasta. In this exchange, Oedipus’ son declares that his expulsion from Thebes was the source of his “long-lasting sorrow” and that the exilic experience is equivalent to slavery: not only does it entail the separation from one’s home, gods, cultural monuments, and social networks, it also forces the wanderer to humble himself before others, refrain from speaking freely, and submit to the life of a beggar. While many other writers would concur with this analysis, a second narrative located within the Hellenistic philosophical tradition arose to counter this position. Rather than consider it an occasion for lament, these authors insisted that exile actually provided an opportunity to acquire knowledge and to become a citizen of the world who could impart new insights to humanity.2 The exile path was the way to discover truth.

Both of these views structure the dialogue of Francesco Filelfo’s On Exile. Written in 1440, this text purports to record the conversations of a number of the leading citizens of Florence (e.g., Palla Strozzi and his son Onofrio, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, Giannozzo Manetti, and Leonardo Bruni) in 1434, the year when Cosimo de’ Medici returned to power and expelled his enemies from the city. As they face their impending expulsion, these elite men meet in order to decide how best to approach their new fate. Because Filelfo was a virulent critic of Medici rule and enjoyed Milanese patronage at the time he was composing his text, it is no surprise that his dialogue first raises and then dismantles the negative perceptions of exile that had existed since antiquity. For Filelfo, the exilic life presents a person with an opportunity to become a citizen of the world whose virtue and reputation remain secure in spite of the attempts to treat him with dishonor. In this way the author reminds the ottimati of their social and moral superiority while consoling them with the idea that the true exiles are their enemies, “from whom every good of the mind is in exile” ( omne animi bonum exulat; I.243).

These themes emerge over the course of the three books, each of which targets a specific topic (Book I: “On the Disadvantages of Exile”; Book II: “On Infamy”; and Book III: “On Poverty”). Although he initially intended the work to comprise ten books, Filelfo managed to complete only the first three. Yet what appears in these books is a testament to the depth of humanistic learning amassed by one of the Quattrocento’s most prominent intellectuals. Indeed, not only does Filelfo mine the classical archives, integrating the works of a wide range of ancient authors (e.g., Hesiod, Euripides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, Vergil, Seneca, and Plutarch), he also incorporates insights from the Bible and patristic texts to demonstrate his proficiency in the Christian literary tradition.

The edition by De Keyser and Blanchard, the first complete translation of Filelfo’s work, provides an excellent resource for navigating these complex literary and historical threads. The twenty-page introduction briefly addresses Filelfo’s life and his experiences in Florence before examining the text’s genre, its dependence on Greco-Roman philosophical topoi, and the broad outlines of each book’s argument. The translation, rendered into sparkling prose by Blanchard, ably captures the conversational setting of the dialogue, and especially shines in Books II and III when the reader confronts Filelfo’s extended and turgid rehearsals of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics. Accompanying the translation are twenty-two pages of notes that focus on identifying Filelfo’s antetexts and in many cases offer illuminating commentary on a passage’s literary, philosophical, or historical background. The book also contains a number of sections that will interest specialists and assist in the appreciation of this complicated work: 1) a short discussion of the manuscript tradition; 2) a collection of the major textual variants; 3) a two-page bibliography (primarily of works written in Italian); and 4) an eleven-page index of names and events.

De Keyser and Blanchard have produced an admirable critical text that both expands the database of exilic literature in English and advances the understanding of how Renaissance humanists appropriated earlier literature for their own age. Because this is a large topic (and the authors likely had to make compromises due to limitations of space), it should not be surprising that the introduction and notes are unable to connect Filelfo’s work with more literary and historical threads. A more comprehensive treatment might therefore have included a discussion of the various types of exile found in antiquity, a point that becomes important when Palla Strozzi refuses to self-identify as an exile and instead prefers to think of his entire life as an case of relegatio from heaven (I.191, 195). These passages also converge with the Christian tradition, which the authors leave undeveloped.3 Yet it is precisely this tradition that becomes crucial for Filelfo, who seeks to subvert a simplistic, human understanding of exile in favor of a divine reinterpretation: drawing on Philippians 3:19-20, Filelfo has Palla Strozzi assert that the virtuous man is really a citizen of heaven, and moreover, that the ottimati’s Florentine opponents, for whom “god is their belly,” willfully misappropriate and abuse their power.4 In this important climax, the Christian literary archive becomes central for the construction of opposing identities. Finally, readers interested in situating On Exile within the context of other medieval and Renaissance texts on the same topic will need to consult Randolph Starn’s work, which unfortunately is not included in the bibliography.5


1. Silvia Montiglio, Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 24-41, 180-203. For an evaluation of Montiglio’s book, see BMCR 2006.01.51.

2. Euripides, Phoe. 357-407.

3. The introduction and notes do not, however, completely ignore other points of contact between On Exile and Christian literature.

4. See I.199 (Philippians 3:20) and I.232 (Philippians 3:19). For the theme of exile in early Christianity, see Benjamin H. Dunning, Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). For an evaluation of Dunning’s book, see BMCR 2010.05.24.

5. Randolph Starn, Contrary Commonwealth: The Theme of Exile in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982).