Polydore Vergil was a priest, humanist, and historian from Urbino who spent most of his life in England, where he moved in 1502 as papal sub-collector. Besides a collection of proverbs that gave life to a dispute (and later on to a friendship) with Erasmus of Rotterdam, his most famous works, in all Europe, were an erudite encyclopedia about human origins and discoveries (De rerum inventoribus) and an impressive history of England (Anglica historia), the first to be inspired by a humanistic method. Back to his home country in 1553, he died there 2 years later.
Polydore Vergil was born in the castle of Firmignano, near Urbino, around 1470. His father’s father, Antonio, doctor and astrologer, had been professor at the University of Paris; his father Giorgio owned an apothecary in Firmignano. The Vergils were related to the Pini family, to whom belonged Teseo – Polydore’s uncle – who was the author, around 1484–1486, of a treatise about wanderers (Speculum cerretanorum) which can be considered the ancestor of a literary genre that became widely popular in modern times.
Polydore studied in Bologna (probably attending the lessons of Filippo Beroaldo) and in Padua, before he received the ordination in 1496. His first work, the Proverbiorum libellus, dates back to 1498 and was followed a year later by the De rerum inventoribus, respectively, a collection of proverbs and an encyclopedic catalogue of discoveries and inventions. Both works became incredibly popular, giving to their author a European fame.
In 1502 the young humanist was at the service of the Roman Curia, and in the same year, he was sent to England, with the role of sub-collector, by Cardinal Adriano Castellesi da Corneto. Except for some brief interruptions, Polydore lived in England for more than 50 years, fulfilling prestigious roles and striking up friendship with the most remarkable exponents of English humanism (from John Colet to Thomas More); but he also underwent a disgraceful period between 1515 and 1516, when he was arrested for the wish of the ambitious minister plenipotentiary of King Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey – who allowed his release only after having obtained from Pope Leone X the cardinal hat. During his long staying in England, Polydore wrote the dialogues De prodigiis (Vergil 1531) and around 1506 he was commissioned by Henry VII to write a fundamental history of England (Anglica historia) published the first time in 1534 (and then, in expanded versions, in 1546 and in 1555).
He came back to Italy in 1553 and died in Urbino in April 1555 (Connell 2004).
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
The Proverbiorum libellus was published in 1498, 2 years earlier than the 1st edition of the more famous Adagia by Erasmus of Rotterdam. The two humanists had worked autonomously at their collections, and the debate about the priority of the one or the other work – raised by the opponents of the Dutch humanist – did not forbid the friendship between Erasmus and Polydore, as their written correspondence testifies (Ruggeri 1992, 2000).
Polydore carried on working at his Libellus until its 20th edition (1550), and in the same way he re-elaborated and expanded on several occasions the De rerum inventoribus. To the three books of the 1st edition (1499), devoted to the conquests and the inventions of the homo faber, he added in 1521 five more books, where he investigated the origins of rituals and of religious institutions (Atkinson 2007). Humanist as well as priest, Polydore shows the same plot between rational criticism and theological explanations in the dialogues De prodigiis, where he adopts the naturalistic point of view of Cicero’s De divinatione to deny the existence of the pagan prodigies, not of Christian miracles.
Polydore’s critical and comparative method emerges far more clearly in his Anglica historia, England’s first history carried out with a humanistic method, so that it has remained a reference point for English historiography, until the nineteenth century.
Impact and Legacy
All Polydore Virgil’s main works had a great fortune, with their several reprints and translations in the main European languages, but the most extraordinary fame went to the De rerum inventoribus, that could count, within the end of the seventeenth century, on more than 100 editions.
The IV–VIII books of the De inventoribus felt the effects of the events linked to the Reformation, and for the frequent criticism against the ecclesiastical decadence or practices like the ecclesiastic celibacy and the indulgences, the encyclopedia was inserted on several occasions in the Index librorum prohibitorum, and various expurgated editions were planned (Lodone 2010).
- [for a more complete list of the numerous editions of Vergil’s writings see Ruggeri 1992; Ruggeri 2000]Google Scholar
- Vergil, P. 1498. Proverbiorum Libellus. Venice: De Pensis.Google Scholar
- Vergil, P. 1499. De Inventoribus Rerum. Venice: De Pensis.Google Scholar
- Vergil, P. 1531. Dialogorum de Prodigiis libri tres. Basel: Bebel.Google Scholar
- Vergil, P. 1534. Anglica historia. Venice [see also the partial edition (and translation) by D. Hay, The Anglica historia of Polydore Vergil, AD 1485–1537. London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1950].Google Scholar
- Atkinson, C. 2007. Inventing inventors in Renaissance Europe: Polydore Vergil’s De inventoribus rerum. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.Google Scholar
- Bacchielli, R., ed. 2003. Polidoro Virgili e la cultura umanistica europea. Urbino: Accademia Raffaello.Google Scholar
- Connell, W.J. 2004. Vergil, Polydore. Oxford dictionary of national biography, online ed. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/28224.
- Lodone, M. 2010. Traduzioni, censure, riscritture: sul De inventoribus di Polidoro Virgilio. Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa s 2: 143–177.Google Scholar
- Ruggeri, R. 1992. Un amico di Erasmo: Polidoro Virgili. Urbino: Quattro Venti.Google Scholar
- Ruggeri, R. 2000. Polidoro Virgili: un umanista europeo. Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali.Google Scholar