Virgil (in the Renaissance)
The Roman poet Virgil played an important part in the thought and writings of Renaissance philosophers, largely as a result of the enduring place held by his poetry in Renaissance education and the long tradition of philosophical interpretations of Virgil’s works.
The poetry of Virgil occupied a central position in educational curricula throughout the period of the Renaissance. Language and imagery from the works of the Roman poet consequently permeated almost every aspect of Renaissance culture, and philosophy was no exception (Zabughin 1921–1923; Basewell 1995; Wilson-Okamura 2010; Usher and Fernbach 2012; Hardie 2014; Houghton and Sgarbi; Forthcoming). From late antiquity, Virgil’s poems had been regarded as a repository of philosophy and other wisdom (see especially the late antique commentary of Servius, Fulgentius’ Expositio Virgilianae continentiae, and the disquisitions on Virgil’s compendious learning in Macrobius’ Saturnalia), and this tendency continued through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. In his treatise on the study of literature, Leonardo Bruni quotes Virgil’s lines on the inner spirit pervading all things from the speech of Anchises in the underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid, before going on to ask, “When we read these things, what philosopher do we not hold cheap? Who has ever spoken of the nature of the soul with such clarity and knowledge?” (De studiis et litteris 22). Cristoforo Landino, who also wrote a commentary on the Aeneid, devoted the third and fourth books of his Disputationes Camaldulenses to a Platonizing exegesis of the poem, the allegorical thrust of which bears some similarities to the readings of Virgil’s epic expounded in earlier centuries by (pseudo-) Bernardus Silvestris and others (Kallendorf 1989, 129–165).
The Aeneid, in particular, was often seen as providing not only a model of literary eloquence but also a guide to moral and virtuous behavior (Kallendorf 1989). Petrarch, who in one of his later letters (Seniles 4.5) advanced an elaborate moralizing interpretation of the narrative of the poem, asserted that in his presentation of the figure of Aeneas, Virgil had intended to offer his readers a portrait of the perfect man (vir perfectus). Likewise, Landino maintained in a lecture delivered in Florence in the 1460s that the poet’s aim had been “to encourage us not only to good speaking but to upright living, that he might advise the human race as best he could” Nor was the poet’s sphere of authority limited to matters of individual morality; in the city-states of Renaissance Italy, Virgil was also enrolled among the champions of civic and constitutional values, his famous words on the mission of Rome to spare the conquered and war down the proud from Aeneid 6.853 appearing beneath the personification of Magnanimity in Taddeo di Bartolo’s frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. Virgil himself is depicted as one of a series of famous men from antiquity, scripture, and mythology in a series of fifteenth-century frescoes in the Palazzo Comunale of the small Tuscan commune of Lucignano, displaying on the pages of his book the same passage from Aeneid 6, with the word Romane (Roman) altered, consciously or otherwise, to ratione (by reason) – a significant modification, in view of the importance of “ragione” (reason) in late medieval Italian civic discourse. Craig Kallendorf has demonstrated how Virgil’s works were later used to reinforce the distinctive emphases of the “Myth of Venice,” promoting civic cohesion and suppressing possible sources of challenge and dissent (Kallendorf 1999).
Various attempts were made to accommodate Virgil’s poetry within formal philosophical systems. The adoption of the classical author as a forerunner and figurehead by Landino (for whom Virgil was “altogether a Platonist”) and other exponents of Neoplatonism has already been noted; the Ferrarese scholar Nascimbene Nascimbeni set out to produce a commentary on the first six books of the Aeneid “according to the thought of Aristotle and Plato” (Zabughin 1921–1923, 2:79–81). The Roman poet was also widely revered as a conduit of theological truths, mainly thanks to the long tradition of seeing his fourth eclogue, with its predictions of the return of the Virgin, the birth of a divine child who will restore the Golden Age, and peace and abundance in the natural world (expressed in terms reminiscent of the prophecies of Isaiah) as a conscious or unconscious anticipation of the birth of Christ (Ziolkowski and Putnam 2008, 487–503). Famously affirmed by Dante’s Statius (Purgatorio 22.64-73), this conception finds expression in the works of Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Antonio Mancinelli, among others.
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