No sex or bile please, we're scholars

The Italian Renaissance - The Italian Renaissance
February 27, 2004

"The Special Enemies of Scholars are Five: Phlegm, Black Bile, Sexual Intercourse, Gluttony, and Sleeping in the Morning." So intoned the Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino, who clearly had not read his David Lodge. A few pages later, the 66-year-old Ficino recommends that old scholars revive themselves by suckling at the breast of a young girl, so perhaps he had read Lodge after all.

This paired set of volumes contains numerous rich and unexpected texts that are ideally suited to seminar discussions on the Italian Renaissance. Paula Findlen assembles 12 articles, most published within the past 20 years. Kenneth Gouwens collects 18 readings from the 14th to the early 16th century. Both volumes are organised under the following headings: "The Renaissance state"; "Urban life and values"; "Gender and society"; "The power of knowledge"; and "Patronage, art and culture". Each section has two or three readings, and the editors have collaborated sufficiently that, in many cases, the separate volumes complement each other.

The two volumes could be used independently, although at slightly different levels: Gouwens' could supplement an entry-level course in the Italian Renaissance, while Findlen's, if used on its own, would be more suited to middle to senior undergraduates.

Findlen and Gouwens are emerging as important scholars in the generation of American academics that is now defining the field. Both work within the general area of intellectual history as it has been reshaped by social and anthropological currents. Their volumes are oriented to American-style liberal arts courses and to American academic buyers.

Most of Findlen's authors are well-known American scholars, including some (Anthony Molho and Edward Muir, for example) whose works have shaped current approaches to Renaissance politics and religion. Gouwens rounds up the usual suspects when aiming to capture Renaissance humanism but, alongside the names that are familiar to those who have taken freshman western civilisation courses, (Petrarch, Valla, Machiavelli), he has included women such as Alessandra Strozzi and Isabella d'Este.

It is with these women that the two volumes most complement each other. Thus, Findlen offers an article on D'Este as a patron, and Gouwens matches this with selected letters on collecting from her correspondence about her art purchases.

Findlen includes a work on patrician women as political players, and Gouwens complements with further letters from one of the most voluble of these players, Strozzi. There are more such sensitive pairings that are particularly fruitful for seminar discussion. There are also a few puzzles, such as an article on Isotta Nogarola paired with selections from Laura Cereta, or the choice of Theodor Mommsen to represent traditional views rather than someone such as Paul Oskar Kristeller.

Both volumes tip heavily to the familiar Rome-Florence-Venice axis, and Gouwens offers only the literary and/or prescriptive writings of upper-class authors, to the exclusion of voices from other social ranks. Yet the selections are substantial and well edited, the introductory material is helpful and the books themselves are solidly crafted.

Nicholas Terpstra is associate professor of history, University of Toronto.


The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Readings. First edition

Author - Paula Findlen
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 354
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 631 22282 0 and 22283 9

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