- Augustine in the Italian Renaissance: Art and Philosophy from Petrarch to Michelangelo
Thomas à Kempis writes that he found peace in a quiet corner with a (good) book. If you are in the mood to follow him, this ought to be the book. Learned without being pedantic, scholarly but not tedious, informative without drawing the reader into a sea of irrelevancies, well-written and easy to read, with a body of footnotes whose content is so rich that it grabs your attention perhaps even more than the text itself, the work is an intellectual feast.
First Gill gives us a generous discussion on the early history and development of the Augustinian order, from 1256 when the new order received its rule by Pope Alexander IV, up to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The historical figure, his writings, and his life experience obviously all played a pivotal role in the shaping of the Christian culture of the Renaissance. Not so well-known, and this is pursued and discussed by the author admirably, is how pervasive, deep, and lasting such influence was. Using Petrarch as the golden thread that links France with Milan, Venice, Florence, and Padua (among other cities), and with the best minds of the period within these local cultures, the text seems to imply that everybody worth his salt was a devoted follower of Augustine. Petrarch's stay in Padua gives place to a detailed examination of visual cycles on the life of the saint and the history of his religious order, from the largely destroyed decoration by Guariento in the palace of the Carrara, the lords of that city, and continuing with the frescos in the Eremitani, those by Bartolo di Fredi in Montalcino and Ottavio Nelli in Gubbio, finishing with the decoration by Benozzo Gozzoli in San Gimignano, which is certainly the most famous and studied of them all. If on one hand Gill's discussion of Gozzoli's work is only informative, that of Nelli's cycle, especially if taken together with what she writes on the iconography of St. Augustine's tomb in Pavia, is a brilliant and detailed introduction on the impact of the saint upon the visual arts of the period. The well-known fact that Petrarch was carrying a copy of the Confessions when he ascended Mount Ventoux (the letter telling of the feat was sent to an Augustinian friar) gives place to a perceptive, sensitive, and acute pairing of Petrarch's search for truth and God with that of Augustine, where the poet's ascension becomes a metaphor for the soul's journey from the fetters of passions into the pure essence, or light, of God.
The following chapter, "Augustine's Light," is by far the best part of the book: here the entwined thoughts of Plato and Augustine on light as the visible manifestation of the divine, crosses the centuries and finds a new meaning in the [End Page 503] synthesis of Petrarch, and through him gives rise to the Christian Neoplatonism that underlines Florentine culture from Salutati to Michelangelo. In the last part of the book the author discusses the influence of St. Augustine's philosophy and theology in the elaboration of the huge program for the Sistine Chapel, in particular that for the ceiling and the Last Judgment. The minds and thoughts of Augustine, Michelangelo, and Egidio da Viterbo, the Augustinian whose intervention very likely was of primary importance in drafting the iconography, converge here and melt into a whole that still signifies the highest reach of Christian philosophy in the entire Italian Renaissance.
Although the book is excellent and certainly fills a gap in our understanding of Augustine's role and influence in the shaping of the cultural, religious, and philosophical texture of the period, a few observations have to be made, one concerning the period taken into consideration. Objectively, it is hard to give credit to the author's statement (4) that the Renaissance begins with Petrarch...