bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

More on Greenblatt, Lucretius and Poggio, or waiting for the Renaissance

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2012

It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.

I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.

That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.

This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.

I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.

It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.

However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.


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  1. […] and noted some of the contemporary issues the book addresses (for more on this session see his blog). In the final seminar, Victoria Moul (King’s College London) presented ‘Some Horatian odes in […]

  2. […] Our humanist friend is not having a bad year: he has already gained some celebrity for being the man who unleashed Lucretius on an unsuspecting Christian world. Now, the travelling scholar who also ‘discovered’ Quintilian and other authors, the […]

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