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  • Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy
  • Daniel Bornstein
Alison Knowles Frazier . Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. xxii + 528 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. bibl. $45. ISBN: 0–231–12976–9.

As Alison Frazier notes wryly, those fervent devotees of classical antiquity, the Italian humanists, are not generally acknowledged to have been much interested in the lives of saints. But interested they clearly were, dedicating countless hours to producing hundreds of works on them: sermons and liturgical offices, biographies and dramas, in prose and in verse, in Latin and in the vernacular. It comes as no surprise that the subjects of this humanist hagiography were often figures from late antiquity, those Church Fathers, such as Augustine and Jerome, so beloved of classicizing authors from Petrarch on. But even more so were medieval or "modern" personages, such as the thirteenth-century pioneers of the mendicant movement, their fourteenth-century successors, and the Observant revivalists and other living saints of the fifteenth century. Like their subjects, the sources of humanist hagiography tended to be medieval, so that much of this enterprise consisted of recasting medieval materials in a more classicizing style — or, to be more precise, emphasizing the classical elements already to be found in their medieval models. Frazier concludes that "the effect of the studia humanitatis on the field of hagiography is best described as an intensification and redirection of medieval concerns, not as a complete break with, or a series of challenges to, those concerns" (27).

In five elegant case studies, Frazier demonstrates the scale and scope of humanist hagiography and explores its varied connections with both cultural traditions and current politics. One unexpected feature of humanist hagiography was a fascination with martyrdom, though, as Frazier points out, this should not really come as a surprise. The intensifying struggle with the Turks brought a new wave of Christian martyrs, and ancient tales of sufferings at the hands of the enemies of Christ acquired fresh relevance from such events as the fall of Constantinople and the sack of Otranto. Inspired by these recent debacles, authors as varied as Antonio degli Agli, Giannozzo Manetti, and Bonifazio Simonetta labored to bring new order to ancient martyrologies. The Milanese humanist Bonino Mombrizio compiled an immense legendary recounting the lives of 326 saints, ranging from first-century apostles to Catherine of Siena, and did so well enough to win the (not entirely merited) admiration of Jean Bolland for his [End Page 481] philological rigor and accurate reproduction of medieval texts; some telling omissions in his collection, together with the dedication to Cecco Simonetta, lead Frazier to see in Mombrizio's scholarly project a calculated move in a dangerous game of cultural politics following the assassination of Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Giovanni Garzoni of Bologna crafted his saints' lives not for historiographical or philological purposes, much less political ones, but pedagogical: moved by the desire to furnish Dominican novices with suitably elegant and inspiring texts, Garzoni made "Ciceronian Latin and classical notions of delivery part of the experience of young men at a leading Observant convent" (219). Giacomo da Udine broke dramatically with hagiographic conventions, producing a novel (and never since imitated) literary form: a heavenly symposium, in which famous orators, ancient and modern, gather to give speeches in honor of the local holy woman, Elena of Udine. The curial official, Raffaele Maffei, abandoned Rome for Volterra, where he pursued a double project of sanctity: writing panegyrics and lives of the saints and liturgical offices for them, and shaping his own life on their holy model.

This monumental work of scholarship and labor of love succeeds admirably in rescuing humanist hagiography from undeserved obscurity. Frazier has not merely crafted a compelling interpretation of individual examples and of the entire genre of humanist hagiography: she has also constructed an essential platform for all future research on the subject. In an appendix that is as long as many monographs, she presents an annotated list of the saints' lives, passions, and liturgical historiae, in manuscript and print, produced between 1420 and 1521 by over a hundred humanist authors, from Donato Acciaiuoli to Francesco Zorzi. This extraordinary handlist — lucid...


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pp. 481-482
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Archived 2009
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