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  • The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin's Legacy
  • Michael J. B. Allen
Christopher S. Celenza . The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin's Legacy. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xxii + 210 pp. index. $45. ISBN: 0–8018–7815–2.

This is a difficult book to review despite its clarity, learning, and range. For it is preoccupied both with the lost riches of Renaissance Latin culture and with a modern failure that bears on the academic passions and intellectual commitments of many readers of this journal: the failure, despite the enormous labors and achievements of scores of brilliant and devoted scholars, to establish the study of the Italian humanists in the fifteenth century — for Celenza significantly the "long" fifteenth century — as a secure field in American universities, indeed to ensure its remaining in the curriculum at all. One of the problems may well be the very Latinity the humanists championed as the appropriate vehicle for their concerns and enthusiasms. Celenza's plea that more of us shoulder the unrespectable burden of translating the body of important but largely inaccessible Renaissance Latin texts is commendable: certainly translations may seduce more students into the field and help those already in it to explore its highways and byways with greater ease and expedition. But it is difficult to see how more translations, even of the profoundest and most difficult texts, can solve a problem that is not just a philological but more generally an educational, political, and philosophical one. When the President of the United States is incapable at times of constructing a grammatical sentence conveying the simplest of notions let alone of articulating complex ideas (if such exist), how can we set about teaching the essentially aulic values of a group of far less public, politically impotent men for the most part, who lived their mature lives guided, often competitively, by rhetorical and epideictic concerns centered on a patrician language that we now think of as dead even though it was very much alive for them? Even a shaping role for these humanists in the history of Italy is yet to be established, as is the seminal relationship between their humanism and our own humanisms, those that speak to our various democratic, ethical, and humanitarian values.

The Golem that haunts this study is the problem of the Latin sources in general. Celenza's first chapter shows convincingly why they escaped the great gathering and classifying efforts of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries that achieved so much in putting the study of antiquity and the Middle Ages on secure foundations. His second chapter is especially provocative given the current reevaluation of Paul Kristeller's and Eugenio Garin's complementary but rather [End Page 576] different legacies. This successfully sets out Garin's indebtedness as a "diachronic" thinker to Gentile and Croce, but to my mind underplays his remarkable sensitivity to the roles played by astrology, by harmonics, and by the World Soul and its complex musical and magical dimensions, in the cosmologies of such philosophers as Ficino and Bruno; for Garin wrote about such topics moved not only by immanentist philosophical convictions but by a subtle sense of poetry and mystery. Celenza is much more insightful in mapping out Kristeller's complex philosophical debts and the breadth of his scholarly interests, and in establishing the architectonic role of his elite German education and its stars. The third chapter looks at a number of theorists, and especially at the importance of Richard Rorty's insights into the notion of interpretive communities, before turning to a microhistory of twentieth-century sociology and social history. This takes us from Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch through Braudel, Ginsburg, Collins, and Bachelard to Bourdieu's cooptation of habitus to mean a "universalizing mediation" governing the subconscious structuring of any given field at any one time. All this is informative but has only an indirect bearing on the ways chapter 4 actually explores Valla and Ficino in the context of the notion of intellectual orthodoxy. Chapter 5 weaves together a consideration of the theoretical foundations underlying the work of Caroline Bynum and of Lauro Martines with a consideration of Lapo...


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pp. 576-577
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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