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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 298-299

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Piety and Pythagoras in Renaissance Florence: The Symbolum Nesianum. By Christopher S. Celenza. [Studies in the History of Christian Thought, Volume C1.] (Leiden: Brill. 2001. Pp.xiii, 238. $85.00.)

This is a careful edition and translation of a text of intrinsic interest for those intellectual historians committed to exploring the rich intrications of philosophical and religious moments in Renaissance inquiry. The text is the Symbolum Nesianum; its original version was the work of Giovanni Nesi, and reflects his double allegiance to Ficino on the one hand, to Savonarola on the other, in a fifteenth-century aggiornamento of the Pythagorean sayings, symbola, a tradition of texts defined as "a very loose configuration of apophthegmata which changes with every author who cites them or comments upon them" (p. 6). It is an initiative that assumes that the sayings can and should "enter the eveyday life of monks" (p. 3).

Celenza asserts that "the author's notion of a latens energia, a "hidden energy," possessed by the symbols is perhaps the most powerful kind of expression of what a true believer in the prisca theologia tradition had in mind: a set of linguistic units which could have life breathed into them at any time by the right hermeneutical approach" (p. 3). Celenza, in short, asks us to see this text as evidence for innovation, for he claims that "there are some cases where newly discovered texts actually help shape ideology and even social practices" (p. 82).

Celenza's approach is the reverse of reductive, in short. He contextualizes the effort not only as a product of the rich fifteenth-century Florentine intellectual and religious ambiance, but as illuminating general European speculative currents, a complicated interplay of philosophic, hermeneutic, and vatic, ritualistic moments (p. 8). He offers, I would argue, an essentially Garinian approach to [End Page 298] Renaissance inquiry: first, in acknowledging the need for an inclusive definition of philosophic problematic—the contests, issues of practice—thus a refusal of a limitation to a narrow, perhaps anachronistic, consideration only of the logical, epistemological, metaphysical problems of post-Kantian philosophy; second, in rejecting a simple intertextuality, bookishness, for the integration of the work in a general account of institutions and practices of the time. On the one hand, Celenza follows Garin in pursuing, not an account of a possible "purist" recovery of an originary Plato and Aristotle, but of the intrinsic interest and interconnections of late antique and specific Renaissance initiatives. A different Classicism produces different investigative imperatives; there is a need for a syncretic approach to Classical syncretism; Celenza cites Walter Burkert's program, which insists on, not an opposition of rational justification and religious motives, but an integration. And, as well, his account reflects Garin's appreciation of a Diltheyan phenomenology, a concern with the texture of religious life, the specific parameters of the experience of faith, obvious in Celenza's insistence on the interactivity of Ficinan and Savonarola commitment, on Ficino's contribution to the "vatic sensibility" of Florence (p. 26).

Finally, Celenza affirms Garin's sense of the usefulness of the minor texts of minor, as well as of major, figures in describing experience; here the peculiarity of the genre is a strength: Symbolum Nesianum is presented as a text, not simply edifying, but recreational in use; evidence of a continuum, a range of capacity and practice in Florentine intellectual life. While Celenza makes no sweeping claims for the text as a "literary masterpiece" or philosophical tour-de-force (p.83), his introduction represents a significant contribution to a perspicacious reorientation of the history of Renaissance philosophy.


Nancy S. Struever
Johns Hopkins University



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