BMCR 2021.06.07

The vernacular Aristotle: translation as reception in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

, The vernacular Aristotle: translation as reception in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Classics after antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xix, 276. ISBN 9781108481816. $99.99.


The outlines of the story of the Renaissance recovery of Greek are well known. After the close of antiquity, Greek ceased to be taught and read to any significant degree in Western Europe – a few outstanding individuals excepted – and it was only in the second generation of quattrocento humanists that the Hellenic muse sang once again in the West. This is a good story, and as with many good stories in intellectual history, it is at least half true. It is indeed only in the fifteenth century that we find Greek texts written in Greek in circulation in Europe, in manuscript and later in print. One thing this story ignores is how rare an attainment an adequate reading knowledge of Greek remained throughout the Renaissance, and the degree to which even respectable scholars had recourse to Latin translations. More importantly, however, it ignores the fact that Greek texts were absolutely central to European intellectual culture for two centuries before Petrarch. I refer, of course, to the Corpus Aristotelicum, a vast body of material including not only the works by or attributed to Aristotle, but also a significant bulk of late ancient commentary. Everyone knows, of course, how important Aristotle was in the medieval period, but it is easy to dismiss it by sticking in the box labelled ‘Scholasticism.’ This is problematic in two ways: scholasticism and humanism do not actually accommodate a naive dualism, and Aristotle found a wider readership beyond the medieval schools.

In a stimulating study of the vernacular, and mostly lay, culture of late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, Eugenio Refini provides a salutary reminder of the central role of Aristotle, and specifically Aristotelian ethics, in the emerging vernacular traditions of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries in Italy. His theme (as goes his subtitle) is ‘translation as reception’, or how translation, which broadly understood includes adaptation, ‘vernacularisation’, and ‘vulgarisation’, is not a neutral process but one that actively shapes and remakes its source. A translator, for Refini, is Janus-faced, both a reader of an original text and an author preparing a text for other readers, and therefore to understand translators’ work it is necessary to consider both their relationship to their source texts and their readers’ relationship to them.

A vignette which opens the text illustrates this process, a widely disseminated visual motif wherein a senescent Aristotle on all fours is bridled and ridden by the beautiful courtesan Phyllis. The transgressive potential of this image makes its popularity in the later Middle Ages – an age that delighted in irreverent parody and monitory exempla – unsurprising, but its deployment at the beginning of the treatment of Aristotle’s Ethics in Brunetto Latini’s Tresor is a bit more surprising, and provides the entrée for Refini’s first chapter. Refini shows how the earliest Italian vernacularisations – both textual and visual – were indebted to earlier French works and substantially derived not from Greek originals, or even Latin translations, but from Latin scholastic compendia. The second chapter focuses on Dante, and his engagement with both the theory and practice of translation. Understanding this helps illuminate the curious tension in the later humanistic movement toward valorizing both ‘pure’ Classical languages and contemporary vernacular. Dante argues that vernacular language (and he seems to conceive it as singular, even if pronounced differently in different places) is natural, where grammatica, or Latin, is an artificial language, born out of the application of rules to an original vernacular. The third chapter examines the first Italian translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (not from the Greek, nor from Bruni’s new ‘humanistic’ Latin translation, but from the medieval version of Grosseteste), and the Venetian context in which it was produced, for the successful mercantile house of Giustiniani. We have a rich body of material which allows us to document the way successive generations of the Giustiniani family sponsored the translation of Aristotelian material, with a view toward wedding ethics with commerce. The fourth chapter turns to Florence, showing in a similar way how merchant families formed one of the principal audiences for vernacular Aristotelian materials, which can be usefully tracked by looking at the provenance of manuscripts of Nuti’s Italian translation of Bruni’s new Latin Ethics. The final chapter expands the focus beyond just Aristotelian texts to include scholastic ethical manuals of Aristotelian inspiration, which themselves obtained a rich afterlife in vernacular translations and adaptations. All along the way, Refini judiciously supports his main thread and at times intricate argument with recourse to a wide array of manuscript material and parallel features in contemporary visual culture – paintings, statuary, architecture, and the like.

All of this shows, first off, the demanding nature of early Renaissance studies, which requires a scholar to be equally at home with scholasticism and humanism, French and Italian, Latin and Greek, text and image; Refini handles these demands with aplomb and ably guides the readers along his thread through this material. It also shows how fragile some of these dichotomies are: Aristotle himself at once belongs to all of these constituencies and none. What we have is a particular kind of reception, and a reception which needs a genealogical approach. Take Jacopo Campora’s De immortalitate animae, a text discussed in Chapter 5. Campora, a Dominican, while staying in Oxford, met the Italian merchant Giovanni Marcanova in London in 1432, where they discussed the perennial topic of the soul’s immortality. In gratitude, Campora (while in Bruges) composed an Italian dialogue based on the conversation and sent it to Marcanova. It went on to achieve some success, surviving in more than a handful of manuscript copies and nine different printings before 1500. Unsurprisingly, the dialogue is thoroughly steeped in Aristotelian philosophy, and it would be easy enough to study the text’s ‘reception’ of Aristotle by putting it directly into dialogue with Aristotle’s works. But that would oversimplify the actual nature of the work, which is a product of Aristotle’s originals, a Latin Aristotelian tradition that stretches all the way back to antiquity, medieval Latin translations, scholastic compendia, and humanistic translations: its Aristotle is not just the Stagyrite himself, but the compound of the many different Aristotles who entered Western intellectual culture at different times and in different contexts. These different strands are highlighted, as Refini shows, through the different physical contexts in which the work circulated: some in collections of ancient and medieval philosophical texts translated into the vernacular, others with more explicitly devotional and catechetical materials. Indeed, the visual programmes that accompany the text in both print and manuscript illustrate strikingly the various milieux in which it was read.

Study of reception and the classical tradition has surged in recent years. Unfortunately, this resurgence (with a few notable exceptions) has often tended to skip from late antiquity to the Renaissance. This book provides an excellent case-study both for the dividends reaped from paying close attention to how the classics were read in the later medieval period and how failure to pay attention to this material risks distorting our understanding of the Renaissance. Humanists, of course, were themselves keen to emphasize the rupture, their own disjunction from the Middle Ages – a period which they first identified and named as such; scholars of the classical tradition would perhaps do well to take their self-description with a grain of salt. Refini shows how in the reception of Aristotle there are no neat dividing lines between medieval and Renaissance, scholastic and humanist. There is no doubt, should willing hands be found, that many other authors and tradition would benefit from treatment of equal rigor and sensitivity.