Possible Lives

Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    Possible Lives
    Book Description:

    Possible Lives uses the saints'lives written by humanists of the Italian Renaissance to explore the intertwining of classical and religious cultures on the eve of the European Reformation. The lives of saints were among the most reproduced and widely distributed literatures of medieval and early modern Europe. During the century before the Reformation, these narratives of impossible goodness fell into the hands of classicizing intellectuals known as humanists. This study examines how the humanist authors received, criticized, and rewrote the traditional stories of exemplary virtue for patrons and audiences who were surprisingly open to their textual experiments.

    Drawn from a newly constructed catalog of primary sources in manuscript and print, the cases in this book range from the lure of martyrdom as the West confronted Islam to the use of saints'lives in local politics and the rhetorician's classroom. Frazier discusses the writers'perceptions of historical sanctity, the commanding place of the mendicant friars, and one unique account of a contemporary holy woman.

    Possible Lives shows that the classical Renaissance was also a saintly Renaissance, as humanists deployed their rhetorical and philological skills to "renew the persuasive force of Christian virtue" and "save the cult of the saints." Combining quantitative and anecdotal approaches in a highly readable series of case studies, Frazier reveals the contextual richness of this little-known and unexpectedly large body of Latin hagiography.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50339-6
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Two Technical Notes
    (pp. xix-xxi)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: Authors, Saints, and Texts
    (pp. 1-43)

    In the midwinter of 1439, the aspiring historian Tobia del Borgo wrote a letter to Guarino Guarini, his former teacher. Guarino (1374–1460) encouraged students to keep in touch after they left his school, especially urging them to hone their rhetorical skills by composing descriptions. The event that Tobia had just witnessed in Milan certainly deserved a lengthy and—since a good Renaissance historian was expected to deploy the classics—a densely allusive description.² Tobia opened with apologies for not writing more often, but then he got right to work. As he explained to Guarino, it all started with a...

  7. CHAPTER 2 A Renaissance of Martyrs
    (pp. 45-99)

    The Quattrocento humanists’ focus on martyrdom, and especially on the martyrs of the early Church, represents a strong continuity with the preceding centuries. Alongside its proliferation of Christological and Marian feasts, the calendar of the pre-Tridentine Church favored early martyrs above all other types of saints. This emphasis reflected the foundational role of martyrdom in the Church’s past; as Tertullian had said, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.² Medieval Christians understood that the harvest had been large; a letter purported to be by Jerome and regularly prefaced to Usuard’s martyrology, a ninth-century collection widely used...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Last Medieval Legendary
    (pp. 101-167)

    Of all the Quattrocento humanists who worked with medieval vitae et passiones, the Milanese rhetorician Bonino Mombrizio (1424–ca. 1480) was by far the most successful. The reasons are not hard to understand. Mombrizio’s is the largest collection of extensive narratives made by any of the authors discussed in this study, encompassing 326 lives and passions whose subjects range from the apostles of the first century to Catherine of Siena (d. 1380; c.d. 1461).² More important, unlike Antonio degli Agli’s De vitis et gestis sanctorum, which has languished in manuscript despite its place in liturgical history, Mombrizio’s collection was printed...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The Teacher’s Saints
    (pp. 169-219)

    The preceding chapters have shown authors engaged with dozens, even hundreds, of saints’ lives and passions at a time. The encyclopedic projects undertaken by Antonio Agli, Giannozzo Manetti, Bonino Mombrizio, and others, although dissimilar in concept and intent, are equally impressive in scope. But if we consider accounts that were meant to stand alone, uncollected, unabsorbed into larger codicological schemes, then it must be said that the most impressively prolific humanist author of prose vitae et passiones sanctorum was a married layman, physician, professor of medicine, and teacher of rhetoric. Giovanni Garzoni of Bologna composed more saints’ lives and martyrs’...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Spectacle of a Woman’s Devotion
    (pp. 221-267)

    The most innovative of the Quattrocento humanists’ vitae et passiones sanctorum was written by Giacomo da Udine (ca. 1415–1482), a canon of the cathedral at Aquileia.² The account is unique in its rhetorical display and correspondingly hard to assess. Humanism in the Friuli is relatively understudied,³ and the author is little known.⁴ The dedicatee, Paul II (1464–1471), is famous for his relative hostility to humanist literati.⁵ The subject is an elderly contemporary widow of charismatic virtues, a saintly type that did not typically appeal to humanists.⁶ And experts have judged the narrative harshly: “less a life of the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Saint as Author
    (pp. 269-314)

    In early 1507 Raffaele Maffei retired from Rome to the family home at Volterra.² The small town to the southwest of Florence is still beautiful today; beyond its walls the green hills stretch for miles. For Raffaele, born and educated in Rome, the vista induced a sense of exile.³ Moving to Volterra, he left behind the papal chancery, where he had served for three decades as scriptor apostolicus, shaped by the paradox of a clerical life at once dependent on the venality of office and desirous of reform.⁴ He left behind his prestigious confraternity of Santo Spirito in Sasso, the...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Conclusion
    (pp. 315-326)

    Possible Lives has explored some of the ways that the humanists participated in the cult of the saints through narrative. Should we describe this textual participation as success or failure? Perhaps it is a bittersweet mixture. I have, it is true, presented a sheaf of failures. Every chapter introduces material that is little known even to Renaissance specialists: surely that demonstrates the humanists’ inability to create an impact. The labors of Antonio degli Agli and Giannozzo Manetti to account for the historical martyrs did not save the martyrology; the variety of textual manipulations practiced by Aurispa or Lorenzo Valla, even...

  13. Hand List: An Annotated List of Authors and Their Vitae, Passiones, and Liturgical Historiae About Saints (Manuscript and Print, ca. 1420–1521)
    (pp. 327-494)
  14. Index: Manuscripts Consulted
    (pp. 495-498)
  15. Index: People and Places
    (pp. 499-528)