- The Poet's Wisdom: The Humanists, the Church, and the Formation of Philosophy in the Early Renaissance
Timothy Kircher's meticulously researched book argues that Petrarch and Boccaccio advanced the humanist movement by challenging the Church's claim for immutable ethical and epistemological truth with their own insights into the movement of time and the power of variable emotions. Standard approaches to this topic examine early humanist thought in relation to contemporaneous philosophical currents descended from Scholasticism, Nominalism, or systems of [End Page 1170] Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism transmuted from antiquity. Kircher asks a different and powerfully new question: how does this thought appear in relation to contemporaneous religious writing, especially by mendicant friars who sought to guide the consciences of the laity? The scandal of the Avignon papacy and the cataclysm of the Black Death strained consciences to the breaking point. The mendicants responded by reasserting the teachings of a timeless moral theology. Petrarch and Boccaccio responded by working through the ironies and paradoxes of their own experiences.
In five major chapters on time, exemplum, experience, the sea as an image of temporality, and the ethics of pleasure, Kircher traces the ways in which Petrarch and Boccaccio developed their independent thinking. The chapter on time focuses on Boccaccio's representation of the plague of 1348 in the Decameron by comparing it with Matteo Villani's chronicle account. Villani regards the event in the light of conventional moral theology as "the latest and greatest divine retribution for sin" (56), but Boccaccio depicts it more skeptically as a historical moment for which the reader has the responsibility of assessing "alternative sources of knowledge" (64) and a "differentiated" human psychology (68). Simultaneously, Petrarch in his Familiar Letters (chiefly 8.7) offers his personal thoughts on the plague by examining "his own fluctuation of feeling" about it (88). Both attitudes contrast sharply with Villani's certitudes.
Kircher's successive chapters examine Petrarch's and Boccaccio's innovative thinking in the light of writings, largely in the vernacular, by clergy of the mendicant preaching orders. Chief among them are Dominicans in Tuscany, whose work offers remarkable structural analogues to passages in Boccaccio and Petrarch. They include Domenico Cavalca (d. 1342), who set forth a Mirror of the Cross; Bartolomeo da San Concordio (d. 1347), who compiled a Teachings of the Ancients; and Jacopo Passavanti (d. 1357), who offered a book of Lenten sermons titled Mirror of True Penitence. All three provide illuminating intertexts for Boccaccio's Decameron and Petrarch's Secretum and Rime sparse. Cavalca and Boccaccio, for example, "share a concern about the moral authority of the clergy" (107), which the former uses to urge a moral reform upon the clergy, while the latter opens clerical abuse to "the readiness of the lay reader to listen and interpret its significance for himself" (139). The emphasis on the confessor's role in Passavanti's penitence manual serves as a foil for Petrarch's Secretum, which boldly "shifts the focus from confessor to penitent, and explores how the penitent applies his understanding of experience to the evaluation of clerical counsel" (157).
In a richly detailed chapter on the sea as an image of temporality, the juxtaposition of experience to moral authority valorizes the turbulent sea as a ground of temporal experience. Whereas authorities warned against moral shipwreck caused by submission to temptation, both Petrarch and Boccaccio welcome "the existential predicament of one's immersion in time," implied by the sea (223). Kircher is nonetheless too careful a reader to trap his humanist writers in a Procrustean bed of resistance to clerical teaching. In an epilogue to his chapter on the ethics of pleasure, he reminds us that although Petrarch celebrated Laura and Boccaccio [End Page 1171] celebrated his female brigata, both at times repeated conventional warnings against sexuality and femininity. In such cases they were "adapting, rather than adopting, the clerical ideas" (293) which still retained a...