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Reviewed by:
  • Commentaries
  • Emily O'Brien
Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta, eds. Commentaries. Vol. 1. Books 1-2. The I Tatti Renaissance Library 12. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. xxvi + 422 pp. index. map. bibl. $29.95. ISBN: 0-674-01164-3.
Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta, eds. Commentaries. Vol. 2. Books 3-4. The I Tatti Renaissance Library 29. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. viii + 408 pp. index. map. bibl. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-674-02489-2. 1

There is no need to make a case for the Commentaries of Pope Pius II (1405-64) as part of The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Their author, né Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, stood a towering figure in the politics and culture of Renaissance Europe. As a work of history, moreover, the Commentaries remain unmatched: to this day, they are the only autobiography penned from the papal throne. Far more than a personal memoir, however, the text offers a rare eyewitness account of some of the most storied events of the fifteenth century. Among the many recent publications on Pius' s career and on his vast and varied corpus of writings are several modern editions of this twelve-book magnum opus (Totaro, 1984; van Heck, 1984; Bellus and Boronkai, 1993). Until, however, the I Tatti edition, coedited by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta, those seeking an English version of the Commentaries had to rely on the out-of-print and, in many ways, out-of-date translation by Florence Gragg (Smith College Studies in History, vols. 22, 25, 30, 35, and 43; 1936-57). Meserve and Simonetta' s volumes, the first two of a projected five, thus come as a welcome addition both to this essential collection of Italian Renaissance texts and to the growing community of students and scholars interested in Pius II.

Each volume covers two books of the Commentaries. In the first book, Pius offers a swiftly moving and selective narrative of his life and career, from his birth to his election as pope. Book 2 focuses primarily on his journey to Mantua, where he had summoned Europe' s rulers to discuss plans for a crusade. He devotes the third book to reporting the events of the Mantua congress and to describing those in attendance. In book 4, Pius travels back to Rome and along the way navigates rebellions in the Papal States, political tensions in Siena, the election of new cardinals, and the outbreak of the Neapolitan war. Over the course of several hundred pages, we are introduced to a panoply of important churchmen and secular rulers; and in the foreground or the background, we follow a sequence of pivotal historical events (among them, the Council of Basel, the Fall of Constantinople, and the reigns of three popes and one antipope). We also discern some of the major contours of Pius' s own carefully crafted self-portrait: he emerges first and foremost as a consummate orator and a commanding statesman, one who is immune to the intimidation of his opponents, resilient in the face of crippling gout, and determined to rally Europe against the Ottoman Turks. We also detect broader patterns and rhythms in the narrative of the text—how Pius enhances his own image through disparaging portraits of his rivals (Sigismondo Malatesta's in book 2 is only the most infamous); how he attributes to his own actions, and especially to his dazzling oratory, a string of significant triumphs in both [End Page 1212] ecclesiastical and secular politics; and how he weaves into the narrative of his life geographical and historical excursus and reflections on human nature.

As Meserve and Simonetta make clear in their accompanying notes, this edition of the Commentaries is not merely a reissue of Gragg' s earlier translation. Theirs is based on a different manuscript: the MS Corsini 147, of Rome's Biblioteca Corsiniana, now widely accepted as the final version of the Commentaries. The earlier and, in part, autograph manuscript used by Gragg (Regin. lat. 1995, of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) serves these editors only as an occasional supplement (variants are listed helpfully at the back). In making this decision, they follow the lead of two of the text' s...


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