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  • Pico's Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics
  • M. V. Dougherty
Crofton Black. Pico's Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions: History, Culture, Religion, Ideas 116. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006. xiv + 266 pp. index. append. bibl. $139. ISBN: 90-04-15315-2.

This volume presents a full-scale study of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's late work, the Heptaplus, an unusual sevenfold commentary on the six days of creation found in the first chapter of Genesis. In this study the author succeeds brilliantly: Crofton Black provides a reliable and authoritative presentation of the aim and arguments of Pico's Heptaplus, and he successfully situates the work within the history of biblical exegesis. A novel interpretation of the Heptaplus is defended with carefully marshaled evidence, and the book sets a very high standard for Pico scholarship. Additionally, the volume is a valuable contribution the ongoing project of identifying Pico's doctrinal sources, which Paul Oskar Kristeller declared in 1963 to be "still partly unexplored, or subject to debate" (Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters [1993], 3:231).

The first chapter, titled "Pico's Life and Works," presents a brief biography of the Renaissance philosopher that recounts Pico's literary output and chronicles the famous episodes of his life, such as the proposed disputation of the 900 Conclusiones, the papal condemnation that followed, and Pico's subsequent [End Page 509] residence under the protection of Lorenzo de' Medici. Black carefully underscores Pico's relationship with three contemporaries: Elijah del Medigo, Flavius Mithridates, and Johanan Alemanno, emphasizing them as conduits for making Jewish and Arabic traditions available to him. The emphasis on Pico's Jewish influences in this chapter is significant; it forms the background for his attempt to answer definitively the question of whether or not Pico's Genesis commentary is a kabbalistic work. Ultimately, the volume provides a nuanced answer: although Pico deliberately expurgated the word Kabbalah from his literary vocabulary by the time of writing the Heptaplus, the work contains "kabbalistic content" (131). While the emphasis on Hebrew sources for Pico's thought in Black's biographical introduction is important for defending the view of the latent Kabbalah in Pico's Heptaplus, other famous influences on Pico's thought are largely unmentioned. For instance, this biographical chapter makes no mention of Girolamo Savonarola, under whose influence Pico's later works are often believed to have been written.

While the second chapter provides a straightforward and reliable summary of the content and arguments of Pico's Heptaplus, it is the third chapter that will surely command the interest of a broader range of readers than simply those with a predilection for Pico. Black provides an expertly argued account of figures and methods of fifteenth-century biblical exegesis, examining this time as a liminal period between the well-studied medieval and Reformation traditions of exegesis. The dominant strains of interpretation in this neglected period are marked by a commitment to some variation of the traditional exegesis of the fourfold senses of scripture (literal-historical, allegorical, moral-tropological, and the anagogical) as well as a commitment to Greek and Hebrew philology, which was characteristic of the humanistic outlook. Black shows that while in his other scriptural commentaries such as the Expositiones in Psalmos Pico is following the exegetical methods that are standard for fifteenth-century biblical hermeneutics, in the Heptaplus Pico explicitly tries something new and spurns the fourfold model of exegesis and philological concerns. Thus, Pico's Heptaplus "differs not only from contemporary norms but also from Pico's other exegetical work" (94).

The longest chapter of the volume is the fourth, which offers an account of Pico's interest in esotericism even in works beyond the Heptaplus; Pico's remarks on the subject in the Commento and the Oratio are given special consideration in addition to the Heptaplus. Black presents an overview of temptations to (and endorsements of) esotericism found in early Greek and Latin Christian writers, medieval Christian, Jewish, and Arabic figures, and Neoplatonists from various periods. The next two chapters are where Black presents his most original interpretations of Pico's Heptaplus. Black wants to show that the Heptaplus contains a theory of allegory...


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