Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries: Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy / Edition 2

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In this book, Douglas Biow traces the role that humanists played in the development of professions and professionalism in Renaissance Italy, and vice versa. For instance, humanists were initially quite hostile to medicine, viewing it as poorly adapted to their program of study. They much preferred the secretarial profession, which they made their own throughout the Renaissance and eventually defined in treatises in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Examining a wide range of treatises, poems, and other works that humanists wrote both as and about doctors, ambassadors, and secretaries, Biow shows how interactions with these professions forced humanists to make their studies relevant to their own times, uniting theory and practice in a way that strengthened humanism. His detailed analyses of writings by familiar and lesser-known figures, from Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Tasso to Maggi, Fracastoro, and Barbaro, will especially interest students of Renaissance Italy, but also anyone concerned with the rise of professionalism during the early modern period.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226051710
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 266
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas Biow is an associate professor in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author of Mirabile Dictu: Representations of the Marvelous in Medieval and Renaissance Epic.

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Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries
Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2002 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-05171-0

Chapter One

Along with the right to perform the work as it wishes, a profession normally also claims rights to exclude other workers as deemed necessary, to dominate public definitions of the tasks concerned, and indeed to impose professional definitions of the tasks on competing professions. Public jurisdiction, in short, is a claim of both social and cultural authority. - ANDREW ABBOTT

The Coronation Oration: Romancing a Profession

The day is April 8, 1341, the place Rome. Petrarch delivers his coronation oration to "a large multitude and with great joy" (Fam. 4.8; 196) in the halls of the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline. It was a ceremony that he had carefully constructed. His speech is titled after the medieval sermon type called the "Collatio," which normally consisted of a public reading and interpretation of the sacred scriptures among monks, and it begins with a quote he then proceeds to explicate in the light of other writings, point by point. But Petrarch does not choose a verse from Holy Scripture; nor does he refer to sacred writings in the compilation of quotes that occupy about a quarter of his text. With the exception of himself, Petrarch scarcely mentions or cites from any Christian writer, and the verse he begins with, the verse that runs as the main thread throughout the speech, is drawn from the third book of Virgil's Georgics. He takes his cue from a didactic pagan text about farming and from a book within it that teaches how to work livestock. Why the Georgics? And why on this "festive day" (3.2; 302) choose a verse from a book that ends with a plague that lays waste the land? After all, Petrarch is ostensibly celebrating with his oration an ascent to Parnassus, not a descent into death, despite all the inherent difficulties he claims he faces in making this voyage for both himself and the community:

"Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?" Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens, "Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis / raptat amor" [But a sweet longing urges me upward over the lonely slopes of Parnassus] as I said at the outset. (5.5-6; 304)

Ascents according to Petrarch often require descents at the same time. This concept has roots in antiquity but was traditionally linked in the Middle Ages to Christ's descent into humility, beginning with His death and harrowing of hell as preparation for His ascent to the throne of heaven. This concept of simultaneous descent and ascent was certainly familiar to Dante, who used it as a master narrative in the Commedia. There Dante's wayfarer progresses toward heaven as the way down through hell becomes part of a continuous yet circuitous upward voyage to God. As the pilgrim spirals through the three realms of the other world, his journey corresponds in allegory to Christ's harrowing of hell, resurrection, and enthronement. This same Christianized concept of ascent and descent underpins Petrarch's coronation oration. Petrarch has chosen to celebrate his crowning precisely on Easter Sunday, the day on which Christ rose from his tomb and ascended victorious after his descent into hell, as well as the day on which Dante's pilgrim, after having entered the inferno on good Friday, emerges to ascend to a Christianized Parnassus on top of Mount Purgatory, where he is crowned and mitered. However, unlike Dante, Petrarch has not journeyed through hell and purgatory with Virgil as his guide. He has entered, after admittedly a tiresome trip, ancient fallen Rome, where Virgil, "the very father of poets" (3.3; 302), once lived and wrote. Now Virgil's symbolic son-not Dante but Petrarch-has come to receive his laurel crown. And this crown, far from being one goal among many, is the final goal for Petrarch. Rather than being otherworldly and reaching to ward God, Petrarch's ascent is terrestrial, and it aims to stop at the pinnacle of Parnassus. If Petrarch has been reborn on Easter day, he has been putatively reborn within a narrative structure far different from the comic and eschatological one within which Dante had placed his wayfarer.

As Petrarch begins his ascent toward Parnassus to become the laureate poet, he symbolically descends as well. The age in which he lives is old, he observes, so old that it has forgotten the virtues of its former glory and customs for "more than twelve hundred years" (6.1; 304). Even the Capitoline, which marks the center of Rome, is "decaying" (Fam. 4.7, 193), Petrarch tells King Robert in a letter that describes his crowning. Like the romance hero who must set out on a quest to regenerate the senescent land typically stricken by a plague, Petrarch, notwithstanding his detractors, has chosen to come to the center of the decadence of his own age-Rome-and revitalize his country by renewing an ancient custom in a time of decline: "I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills, I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth" (6.2; 304). So too, like the typical romance hero, who functions first as an individual inspired by love and then as an agent of the community, Petrarch has set out on a quest, driven by "amor" [love]. He quests for a prize that will confer on him great "personal glory" (5.7, 10.2; 304, 307) and will thereby allow him to bring to life a dead culture. Descending to ascend, Petrarch will win fame for himself and renew Rome and Roman culture as he renews their ancient custom, rejuvenating both so that they may come to life once again. In doing so, Petrarch claims he will lead men and women, who have grown weary in a time of decline, toward Parnassus along an arduous yet uplifting path:

I will say only this: while there are some who think it shameful to follow in the footsteps of others, there are far more who fear to essay a hard road unless they have a sure guide. Many such men I have known, especially in Italy: learned and gifted men, devoted to the same studies, thirsting with the same desires, who as yet-whether from a sense of shame, or from sluggishness, or from diffidence, or, as I prefer to think, from modesty and humility-have not entered upon this road. Boldly, therefore, perhaps, but-to the best of my belief-with no unworthy intention, since others are holding back I am venturing to offer myself as guide for this toilsome and dangerous path; and I trust that there may be many followers [me in tam laborioso et michi quidem periculoso calle ducem prebere non expavi, multos posthac, ut arbitror, secuturos]. (8.1-2; 306)

Like romance heroes who must face trials and tribulations so that others may one day follow and attain personal goals of great social value, Petrarch has been tried and tested to the full in his adventures (or so he claims in his oration): "How hard and inexorable fortune has been to me, with what labors she has oppressed me from my youth up, how many blows I have endured from her" (3.1; 302). Buffeted by fortune, Petrarch seeks to achieve the impossible: "Everyone, to be sure, who has made trial of the poetic task knows what impediments are placed in his way by the bitterness of fortune" (3.3; 302). For this reason, Petrarch has chosen to cite from the Georgics and from a book that ends with the plague. If Orpheus's loss underpins the disease in the fourth book, Petrarch, descending to ascend Parnassus, has come to Rome to recall his own homeland, now reduced to a senescent wasteland, from the depths of its own massive cultural loss. Like the death-defying Orpheus, who embodies so many qualities that Northrop Frye associates with romance, Petrarch speaks in his oration to a forgetful, decaying world, but he also aims to revitalize an entire culture through his work as a "divinely inspired" poet (2.7; 301). Without the inspired poet there would be no possibility of regeneration for all those who toil in the world. The occupation of others thus indirectly depends on the revivifying Orphic song of the poet whose profession Petrarch here hails. So Petrarch feigns that a concerned friend might well ask him: "What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive [renovare] a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? and this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune?" (5.2-3; 304). This is Petrarch's romance quest and "labor." His struggle with Fortune, which has brought him to wander about in his "amor" for the sake of studying and in his effort to avoid the "impediments placed in his way" (3.3; 302), has finally led him, after so many adventures, back home.

By openinghis oration with the Georgics as the work most dedicated to "labor" (2.11; 302), Petrarch thus aims to validate within the quest-structure of romance the "profession of the poet" as a heroic form of work worthy of award and respect in a time of cultural decline. However, though Petrarch may have explained the need for the poet in society in the first half of his oration, he does not explain the true "nature of the profession of the poet" (9.2; 306) until the middle; and then, when he does, Petrarch is brief, though characteristically ambiguous. At the thematic and structural center of his oration, before closing with his discussion of the virtues of the laurel as the appropriate prize for his work in "the office and the profession of the poet" (9.4; 306), Petrarch writes:

It would take me too long to discourse upon this theme; but if time were not lacking and I did not fear to weary you I could readily prove to you that poets under the veil of fictions have set forth truths physical, moral, and historical-thus bearing out a statement I often make, that the difference between a poet on the one hand and a historian or a moral or physical philosopher on the other is the same as the difference between a clouded sky and a clear sky, since in each case the same light exists in the object of vision, but is perceived in different degrees according to the capacity of the observers. Poetry, furthermore, is all the sweeter since a truth that must be sought out with some care gives all the more delight when it is discovered. Let this suffice as a statement not so much about myself as about the poetic profession, for while poets are wont to find pleasure in a certain playfulness, I should not wish to appear to be a poet and nothing more [hoc non tam de me ipso, quam de poetice professionis effectu dixisse satis sit, neque enim, quamvis poetarum more ludere delectet, sic poeta videri velim, ut non sim aliud quam poeta]. (9.6-8; 307)

The profession of the poet, it would seem, has it both ways. On the one hand, Petrarch praises poetry in the face of the customary objection that it is a lie. Defending poetry, he relies on the justification, familiar in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that allegorical readings disclose deep hidden truths encoded in works of fiction. On the other hand, Petrarch proceeds to confirm the impression that poetry consists of merely gaming with words-a position embedded in the very structure of romance-when he renders the activity of the poet playful too ("ludere delectet," 9.8). Given that Petrarch begins the oration by informing his audience that he will speak in "the manner of poets" (1.1; 300) and then proceeds to insist that "the manner of poets" (9.8) is to play, we may infer that to "play" (9.8) with "subtle figures" [obliquis figurationibus, 9.4; 306] constitutes the manner of all poets at all times, including Petrarch in his oration. His collatio, after all, is a poetic one, as he announces from the outset: "Today, magnificent and venerable sirs, I must follow in my speech the ways of poetry, and I have therefore taken my text from a poetic source. For the same reason I shall do without those minute distinctions that are usually to be found in theological declamations" (1.1; 300).

In titling his oration a collatio, Petrarch calls attention to the fact that he adopted a loose oratorical form. In keeping with the notion that it was closely connected to communal monastic life, the collatio was conceptualized as a sort of conversation. As we read in the commentary to the famous Collationes of John Cassian (A.D. 360-435), the first abbot and founder of the abbey of Saint-Victor at Marseille, "Collationes are so called from talking about things [conferendo], as everyone knows." The form of the collatio might seem improvisational, yet it was intellectually rigorous. Through conversation, confabulatio, it provided for a mode of inquiry where dark passages of scripture were placed under scrutiny and often enough examined in relation to one another. On occasion, a collatio could espouse the value of play in the context of higher religious concerns. Cassian, in the last of his twenty-four collationes, reminds us of the value of play when he tells the story, eventually repeated by many after him, of St. John's response to a follower:

It is said that the blessed John the evangelist, while he was gently stroking a partridge with his hands suddenly saw a philosopher approaching him in the garb of a hunter, who was astonished that a man of so great fame and reputation should demean himself to such paltry and trivial amusements, and said: "Can you be that John, whose great and famous reputation attracted me also with the greatest desire for your acquaintance? Why then do you occupy yourself with such poor amusements?" To whom the blessed John: "What is it," he said, "that you are carrying in your hand?" The other replied: "a bow." "And why," said he, "do you not always carry it everywhere bent?" To whom the other replied: "It would not do, for the force of its stiffness would be relaxed by its being continually bent, and it would be lessened and destroyed, and when the time came for it to send stouter arrows after some beast, its stiffness would be lost by the excessive and continuous strain, and it would be impossible for the more powerful bolts to be shot." "And, my lad," said the blessed John, "do not let this slight and short relaxation of my mind disturb you, as unless, sometimes relieved and relaxed the rigor of its purpose by some recreation, the spirit would lose its spring owing to the unbroken strain, and would be unable, when need required, implicitly to follow what was right." (Coll. 24, chap. 21)

As St. John informs his interlocutor, play as a form of relaxation was central to the well-being of humans, all of whom sometimes need to slacken their efforts in order to better return to more serious goals. Aristotle's term for play as temporary relaxation was eutrapelia. Glending Olson has traced the importance of this concept, which had a longhistor y in classical culture, throughout the late Middle Ages, where it received extended treatment at the hands of Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294), St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/25-1274), and Nicole Oresme (ca. 1325-1382), among others. However, while it might be advocated within a collatio such as Cassian's, play was not appropriate to the form of the collatio itself, however conversational in tone the collatio might appear to be. The form itself was lax but certainly not playful.

Although medieval writers valued play as relief for the tired mind, body, and spirit, they did not advocate play, so conceived as the relaxation of the mind, as a goal itself. Such a notion went against not only Aristotle's original concept of eutrapelia but every subsequent concept of play that was indebted to it. As Olson succinctly asserts in his study of the concept of eutrapelia in the Middle Ages, "the moral problem is to give play its due without turning it into an end itself." Hence Aquinas, in referring back to Cassian, rightly subordinated play to the felicity of contemplation: "The activity of playing looked at specifically in itself is not ordained to a further end, yet the pleasure we take therein serves as recreation and rest for the soul, and accordingly when this be well-tempered, application to play is lawful" (IIa-IIae, q. 168, art. 2.3). God, as creator, might "play" as a "theologia ludens," but humans, with their unquiet hearts, may only play to revive their spirits as pilgrims on their journey to God, as they travel from the region of unlikeness to likeness. For this reason, Petrarch, in his ascent of Mount Parnassus, carefully makes a point of declaring that play is only the poet's manner, and that to be a poet is in itself not enough.


Excerpted from Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries by DOUGLAS BIOW Copyright © 2002 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy
1. Petrarch's Profession and His Laurel
2. Three Reactions to Plague: Marvels and Commonplaces in Medicine and Literature
3. Fracastoro as Poet and Physician: Syphilis, Epic, and the Wonder of Disease
4. Exemplary Work: Two Venetian Humanists Writing on the Resident Ambassador
5. The Importance and Tragedy of Being an Ambassador: The Performance of Francesco Guicciardini
6. Open Secrets: The Place of the Renaissance Secretary
7. The Secretarial Profession among Others: Tasso's Enabling Analogies

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