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  • The Censorship and Fortuna of Platina's Lives of the Popes in the Sixteenth Century
  • Simon Ditchfield
The Censorship and Fortuna of Platina's Lives of the Popes in the Sixteenth Century. By Stefan Bauer. [Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 9.] (Turnhout: Brepols. 2006. Pp. xvii, 390. €70,00. ISBN-13: 978-2-503-51814-5.)

"Platina wrote not the lives [of popes] but of their vices" (Platina non vitas, sed vitia scripsit).This was the critical assessment made by the English cardinal William Allen during attempts made in 1587 to censor the "Lives of the Popes" (Vitae pontificum, 1479), which was written by the North Italian humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, (whose adopted name of "Platina" is the Latinization of the author's birthplace, Piadena). It forms the fulcrum of attention in Bauer's fascinating and painstaking reconstruction of the afterlife of a humanist text in Counter-Reformation Rome.The Vitae pontificum had been conceived by Platina as a reworking, in suitably polished prose, of the compilation of papal biographies known as the Liber pontificalis ("Papal Book"), which had been started in the fifth century and continued down to the death of Martin V in 1431. In their place, Platina provided a text whose value for contemporaries and subsequent generations has lain principally in its powers of synthesis and presentation rather than for its scholarship. It also broke with tradition by including reference to relevant secular events. In addition, its biographical arrangement meant that it was easy to add short lives of popes who came after Sixtus IV (1471–84) or even to add new information, (as in the seventeenth century editions revised by Alfonso Chacón, who added lists of cardinals made under each pope). Its popularity is attested by the number of editions it enjoyed in the first two centuries after publication. According to Bauer's useful short-title list (pp. 325–28), the text enjoyed some twenty-seven Latin editions (down to 1664), thirty-one Italian (down to 1765), four French (down to 1651), seven German (down to 1627), and one Dutch (1650). Interestingly, the only two English editions before a single subsequent printing of 1888 occurred during the reign of the Catholic King James II (1685–88). Bauer has carried out some fine detective work to trace the relevant documentation that has taken him not only to the recently opened Archive of the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith (which contains the records of both the Holy Office and, in more complete form, those of the Index) but also to the Ambrosiana Library in Milan (where Allen's comments may be found). Allen was particularly exercised by Platina's unflattering account of the series of thoroughly unsavory characters who succeeded Formosus as pope in the first half of the tenth century. However, he was opposed on this by the formidable Robert Bellarmine, who noted, first, that Platina gave a negative judgment of only forty popes out of 220 and then more important, that the very fact that [End Page 366] God had permitted such scoundrels to occupy the throne of St. Peter served to show only that the legitimacy of the office did not depend on the virtues of the officeholder. It is one of the several strengths of Bauer's scrupulously documented and carefully argued study that we are able to recapture something of the process of censorship. Indeed, in this case there was also the input of Carlo Borromeo's former "scholarly consultant," Pietro Galesini. By reading Bauer's valuable and substantial documentary appendix (pp. 253–322) in tandem with the text as printed we are able to reconstruct this three-way conversation. Although, ironically, this led to nothing being done and Platina's text continued to be reprinted using the text that had been prepared by Onofrio Panvinio (in 1562 and 1568), whose continuation of the narrative after the death of Sixtus IV had not met with official approval.This picture of censorship as a process that could be creative as well as repressive is confirmed when we look at the case of the censorship of the Italian translation of Platina's Lives. This was carried out by and at the...


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