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The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin's Legacy (review)
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Reviewed by
Christopher S. Celenza. The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Pp. xx + 210. Cloth, $45.00

This is a programmatic book about why and how philosophy should care about Renaissance texts. Celenza starts with an assessment of the neglect of the wealth of Latin Renaissance [End Page 485] sources by nineteenth-century historiography, followed by portraits of two prototypal twentieth-century historians and their philosophical approach. He proposes a method of study for Renaissance thinkers and exemplifies it with two key figures and with the concept of honor. A survey of the field of study and an appendix concerning Renaissance research in the US conclude the book.

"The Renaissance" as a field of research between the Middle Ages and what is now cowardly called "Early Modern" became legitimate through the awakening of national consciousness in the nineteenth century. Consequently, the emphasis lay on vernacular language works in Italy and elsewhere. Latin Renaissance literature never was worthy of Grossforschung, i.e., of national projects like the academy enterprises concerning world history or classical studies, even though classical philology originated in the humanists' emulation of the ancients. This however would be absorbed by the nineteenth-century idea of national character (12).

Italian Hegelianism of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century included Renaissance philosophy in the evolution of national spirit, and the late Eugenio Garin as its pupil spent his scholarly life portraying with astounding precision and detail Italian Humanism and Renaissance as a dialectic and rational development. Equally diligent was the German born Paul Oskar Kristeller, clinging, however, to a very different understanding of philosophy, which Celenza describes as rationalist in the Kantian and metaphysical in the Platonico-Aristotelian tradition (41). Here the author underestimates the influence of Heidegger on Kristeller: his dissertation was clearly an interpretation of Plotinus in the light of existentialism, which still transpires in his famous Ficino book and many later philosophical statements. The problem with both approaches, that of Garin and that of Kristeller, is that those philosophers who ignore history (deliberately or incidentally) and those who lost an understanding of metaphysics do not know how to read Renaissance thinkers.

'Microhistory' is the formula Celenza proposes: Richard Rorty's abolishing the notion of 'representing' reality in favor of evocation and conversation—both for the interpretation of the past and the past itself—and Pierre Bourdieux's notions of 'field' and 'relational thinking' open the possibility of locating past thinkers in their community and, consequently, the meaning of their philosophical endeavor. What Celenza exercised with Garin and Kristeller applies also to Renaissance authors. Under the heading 'Orthodoxy,' Celenza shows that it is unfortunate to censure Lorenzo Valla (+ 1457) or Marsilio Ficino (+ 1499) as being unorthodox or as precursors to the Reformation, because this perspective misses the point of their lives' work—namely, to find out what makes Christian beliefs and their sources Christian. Valla's discoveries in Greek and Latin philology and Ficino's experiments with magic are part of their scrutiny of orthopraxy (my term), the right way of Christian life, and are embedded in their conversations with friend and foe, who in some cases still await discovery. The far-reaching message of these two samples is: reading their work and studying their conversations is the way to study philosophy in the fifteenth century.

The same is proven by engaging in social concepts such as 'honor.' Starting with a surprising appreciation of gender studies, Celenza suggests taking a look at intellectual masculinity among courtiers and writers. Then it turns out that Machiavelli bequeathed to modernity—perhaps as a caricature—the structure of struggle for power, ideas, and provision in which humanists were engaged, being the first large generation of intellectuals outside the safe haven of cathedrals and convents.

"What is really there?" is the concluding question. A new canon, the prelude to early modern sociology of scholarship, and models of—presently highly acclaimed—contextualization of intellectual productivity. Returning to the Latinity of Renaissance sources Celenza shows that even the emergence of vernacular literature, which bewitched nationalist historiography, was by itself a fruit of the wider debate over language, communication, and social values...