- In the Company of Demons: Unnatural Beings, Love, and Identity in the Italian Renaissance by Armando Maggi
Armando Maggi’s slim, erudite, dense, provocative volume devotes one chapter to each of the following texts: Giovanfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, Strix sive de ludificatione daemonum (Witch, or the Deceptions of Demons) (1523 in Latin and 1524 in Italian); Strozzi Cigogna, Il palagio de gl’incanti e delle gran meraviglie de gli spiriti e di tutta la natura (The Palace of Marvels and of the Great Enchantments of the Spirits and of the Entire Nature) (1605 in Italian and 1606 in Latin); Pompeo della Barba, Spositione d’un sonetto pla-tonico (Interpretation of a Platonic Sonnet) (1549) in context with the author’s I due primi dialoghi, nell’uno de’ quali si ragiona de’ segreti della natura (First Two Dialogues, One of the Two Discusses the Mysteries of Nature) (1558); Ludovico Maria Sinistrari, De daemonialitate (On Demoniality) (written in the [End Page 694] latter half of the seventeenth century, manuscript discovered and printed in 1872). A lengthy introduction also delves into Girolamo Menghi’s Compendio dell’ arte essorcistica (Compendium of the Art of Exorcisms) (1576), which, unlike the four texts featured in the individual chapters, had a wide distribution, with many re-printings over the decades that followed it.
Readers of JAAR, or any other scholarly journal, may be forgiven if they have little familiarity with the above titles and authors, except perhaps for Menghi, or if they experience a moment of confusion between Giovanfrancesco Pico and his better-known uncle, Giovanni. Maggi’s rescue of these texts from obscurity is not meant as an exercise in antiquarian self-indulgence; rather, the author intends to profoundly reshape what we thought we knew about demonology and witchcraft in the Italian Renaissance. Even officially condemned ideas and writings, such as Cigogna’s, or those that never saw a printed edition in their own day, such as Sinistrari’s, may resonate popular beliefs, or at least beliefs whose popularity remains to be determined. Before Maggi, Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (2002), defined the state of the question on demonology. There is a chronological divide between the two works, with Stephens concentrating on the period before ca. 1530, whereas Maggi ranges from 1500 to the end of the seventeenth century. But much more than chronology distinguishes one from the other, as becomes strikingly evident in their respective treatments of Pico’s Strix. Stephens grapples with questions of impact, context, circulation of ideas, and the consequences of words on paper. For Maggi, instead, words have a life and force of their own, and in his illuminating, highly innovative constructions we may see what no one else has seen before. Stephens places Pico’s Strix beside the ardent Catholic philosopher’s mainstream Examen vanitatis doctri-nae gentium, et veritatis christianae disciplinae. (1520), whereas Maggi sets his stage with an analysis of Pico’s adoring hagiographic biography of Caterina da Racconigi (written ca. 1532, published 1858), a work not even included in Stephens’s bibliography.
Maggi carefully demarcates his Strix explorations into tidbits marked off by pedestrian, plain-language chapter subtitles that provide a structure for some astounding leaps of imagination, leaving one in wonderment at his quirky brilliance while pondering whether any of this is real, whatever real may be. So, what do we learn? Pico’s Strix concludes that virtually all Greco-Roman mythological, epic, and even philosophical writings convey false knowledge; collectively they constitute Satan’s “Holy Scriptures.” The truth of Christian revelation, by contrast, is to be found in the persecuted, mystical understandings of Caterina da Racconigi and the martyred Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. The Pico who actively involved himself in the trial, condemnation, and execution of ten witches—seven male and three female—in his little fiefdom, interestingly enough, is the same Pico who exorcised demons by applying to the victims’ foreheads a purloined piece of Savonarola’s heart, rescued as it floated down the Arno. Maggi makes sense...