Pp. x, 328 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2006 , £60.00 .
Pp. xii, 334 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2004 , £65.00 .
These two volumes of collected studies present the work of two distinguished North-American scholars, all published in the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. The authors are experts of the multi-faceted period of the Renaissance and present a gallery of humanists ranging from the early fourteenth to the late sixteenth centuries, networks of scholars who often meet and overlap, from Erasmus (d. 1536) to Aldus Manutius (d. 1515), from Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) to Cardinal Bessarion (d. 1472) and Pietro Pomponazzi (d. 1525). Thus the result is largely complementary, Monfasani highlighting the literary activities of the Greek community in early Renaissance Italy, Grendler focusing on the educational endeavours of some key religious figures and orders of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Yet this reader has experienced two very different books: one ploughing a sure furrow between an in-depth general understanding of the period and the specific case studies that confirm or raise doubts about general premisses; the other ferreting occasional preys in deep, but ultimately messy, scramblings, leaving the reader baffled. The first, through pondered words and punctual references, building the reader's trust; the second, through misprints and an avalanche of bibliography, ultimately undermining it. For example, in both books we find mention of Manutius's first ever printing of most of Aristotles's works in Greek, a topic which is central to Monfasani's concerns on the fate of the philosopher's books in the period, but only incidental to Grendel's comprehensive and critical account of ‘Renaissance Humanism, Schools, and Universities’ (Monfasani, VI, p. 206; Grendel, VIII, p. 13–14). However, it is only the latter who draws out the importance of the event, and alone points to Schmitt's seminal work on Aristotle and the Renaissance. Grendel writes with the beautiful clarity of the scholar who has slowly and thoroughly absorbed his subject, and thus speaks to whoever wishes to learn. Monfasani's writing may be only for the initiated, resulting murky and muddled to the student.
Above all, Grendel's Renaissance is full of surprises: of an Erasmus who gets his doctorate in an underhand way from a second-rate university, despite his well-known contempt for titles and institutions (II); of a Piero della Francesca who was probably taught ‘abbaco’ rather than a more sophisticated classical curriculum (IV); of the Piarist's pedagogy which avoided corporal punishments (VII); of Jesuits wrestling with Italian authorities to infiltrate secular universities (V–VI) – mostly unsuccessfully – and anyway of an Italy enclosing the papal state but displaying no thriving theology at its universities, where priests mostly studied law, and medicine was the next most important subject (I, VI). Grendel's information is well documented, balanced, contextualized, and exciting, as it invites the reader to comparisons with modern universities and educational methods, while presenting the Renaissance players in all their complexity, but with unfailing sympathy. Monfasani's world, by contrast, is full of inadequate and unsavory characters: Theodore Gaza is a mediocre philosopher (III–IV), Argyropoulos is unnecessarily quarrelsome (V; but see his Averroism described in I–II), Aldus Manutius could have done a better job of ordering his material for publication (VI), Marsilio Ficino's shallow reading of Pletho armed him to battle with George of Trebizond over Plato and Aristotle (IX), Lorenzo Valla was a ‘seriously flippant theologian’ going about ‘re-inventing the wheel’ on several occasions (XI–XII). Frankly, this Renaissance world appears as an ugly mess of patrons and favourites, each disguised to please the other with no substance to offer; and even the awesome Inquisition is taken in.
Whether it is because of the difference in scholarship (individual as well as accumulated through generations), or because of the different sub-set of Renaissance scholars examined, or perhaps a combination of both, these worlds, which were co-terminous and contemporaneous, appear strangely distant, worlds apart. There is clearly delineated the future challenge of bringing them closer together.