Thursday, January 13, 2011


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James Hankins (ed.), Aurelio Lippo Brandolini. Republics and Kingdoms Compared. The I Tatti Renaissance Library; 40. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. xxvi, 297. ISBN 9780674033986. $29.95.

Reviewed by Alison Frazier, University of Texas at Austin (

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Table of Contents

Students and teachers of the reception of classical political thought will welcome this edition with facing-page English translation of Republics and Kingdoms Compared by Aurelio Brandolini (1454?-97). First drafted in 1489-90, the Latin dialogue depicts Hungarian monarch Matthias Corvinus trouncing the republican arguments of Florentine merchant Domenico Giugni, as the men face off over three days on three topics: the relative liberty, justice, and stability offered by the two forms of government. The lively debate, conducted for the most part socratico more, is verisimilar in being set between two historical personnages, and in drawing its examples from both ancient wisdom and contemporary practice. For these reasons, it should be a classroom hit. De comparatione rei publicae et regni was not, however, successful among contemporaries: it survives in only two manuscripts and did not enter print until the late nineteenth century (267-68).1 Nonetheless, the dialogue is of great interest today as one of the earliest works to reflect the influence of Plato’s Laws and Statesman, as Brandolini took advantage of the new Latin translations by Marsilio Ficino (much admired at the Hungarian court). Aristotle, the overwhelming favorite of late medieval and early modern moral and political philosophers, subsides but hardly disappears: De comparatione is no backdoor contribution to the Plato-Aristotle controversy.2 Rather, the predominance of arguments from the Greek tradition means that Brandolini challenges the neo-Roman preferences typical of his contemporaries, and most familiar today thanks to Machiavelli (xix-xx).

De comparatione is also significant as perhaps the first post-classical work to evince familiarity with Book VI of Polybius (xv). In answer to the republican interlocutor’s final challenge, “If the best form of rule was that of kings, why are republics founded at all?” (III.86), Brandolini’s monarch recites the famous cycle of government forms. The embedded sense of Giugni’s question is not quite answered by the fatalism of the Polybian cycle, but Giugni, evidently weary, acknowledges the lesson. Corvinus takes advantage of this opening to hammer Giugni with monarchical analogies from bees, the human fabric, and the cosmological order. Giugni concedes, and the monarch launches into a celebratory review of the historical success of monarchies; Hankins observes that this lengthy passage may be “without parallel in humanist political thought” (xxii). Citing Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, even Athens, Sparta, and Venice (clearly monarchy is a flexible concept), Corvinus closes by drawing perhaps once more on Polybius VI to note Carthage’s ill-timed passage into republicanism (III.91).

Brandolini’s dialogue is of interest to classicists for yet a third reason, which it shares with all moral and political philosophy by those tireless and sometimes tiresome humanists, and that is the range of sources deployed. De comparatione asserts its authority by drawing on a familiar list of poets, historians, biographers, moralists, and classroom auctores: Vergil, Ovid, Juvenal, and Horace; Livy, Sallust, and Eutropius; Plutarch and Aurelius Victor; Cicero, Seneca, and Valerius Maximus; Aesop and Terence. Just how these predominantly Latin sources of moral philosophy support Brandolini’s Greek tradition of political philosophy deserves analysis. Hankins’ annotations help the reader keep score and stay alert for occasional sightings of medievals, e.g., Dante, Giles of Rome, and John of Salisbury. Only three times does Brandolini cite the Bible 3; he is by that measure a secularizer. The age of political theology was yet to come.4

De comparatione poses a few puzzles that should add to its classroom success. It is intriguing, for instance, to observe a Florentine humanist championing monarchy. Self interest seems to be the answer here. As one of several well-known humanists who found temporary employment at the Hungarian court of Matthias Corvinus, Brandolini drafted De comparatione to win favor. The dialogue, from this angle, is calculated flattery, cunningly set in motion by the conceit that Prince Janos seeks instruction from his elderly and ill father. If the exercise is unfairly weighted in the monarch’s favor, there is good reason: it would hardly do for the patron to lose the argument. But it is also true that Brandolini himself had no reason to love republics, and especially not Florence, where he had no success making a living. Hankins describes him as an “economic exile,” a man “deeply alienated and hostile to the political traditions of his native city” (xxiv): the reflection of these attributes in the dialogue needs exploring.

The second puzzle of De comparatione is its lack of success, which was so profound as to extend even to the irony that the prince-figure who instigates the dialogue failed, too (Janos succumbed to the aristocratic backlash against his father’s policies: xi). The dialogue’s failure may have been sheer bad luck. Corvinus died in early 1490—before the work was even finished (Preface, 6). Brandolini, suddenly unemployed, returned to his native Florence for the first time in twenty years years (Preface, 7), and completed the work for dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici. Il Magnifico died in 1492: strike the second dedicatee. Five years later, Brandolini himself was dead. His brother, an accomplished rhetorician and ex tempore performer, prepared a second dedication copy (its preface provided in Hankins’ Appendix) for Giovanni de’ Medici, later Leo X. Silence fell. No doubt Giovanni was a busy man. But was such a monarchical work an embarrassment? Was it too original?

Or was De comparatione somehow suspect? Renaissance dialogues repeatedly present interpretive dilemmas, as authors may take cover by displacing dangerous arguments onto fictitious personae, ludicrously improbable contemporaries, or even onto their own enemies. Leon Battista Alberti’s Della famiglia, for example, is typically read as a straightforward set of instructions on the right management of the family and household. The ideals expressed are certainly verisimilar. But there are reasons to be wary of Alberti’s relation to them, not least the fact that the dialogue’s frame has Alberti’s father dying in a back room as a self-important tribe of relatives, men who in actuality had excluded Alberti and his brother (both illegitimate) from their inheritances, are depicted conversing high-mindedly on oeconomica while young Alberti looks on. For anyone who knew of the brothers’ situation, that cornice would have seemed an act of furious aggression. What, then, shall we make of Brandolini’s relation to the monarchical ideology he champions, given that he situates the king’s victory over the merchant-republican during the last three days of Carnival? You don’t have to be a Bakhtin specialist to wonder about that setting, not just the use of Carnival, but also the significant three-day period verging on Lent. Does Brandolini intend his readers to remark on the (only just) secular tempora as a comment on the (only just) secular topic? The question is far from idle, for by c. 1492, when the dialogue was completed for a not-quite-prince, Brandolini had become a member of the mendicant order of the Augustinian Hermits. Indeed, he was a member of an observant congregation, and consequently must be pegged as a self-conscious reformer. Perhaps biblical quotation is not the best way to measure theological content, just as quotation of the Classics is not the best way to measure the depth of a humanist’s education.

Now De comparatione is not, in Hankins’ presentation, a slippery game. But there is no doubt that Brandolini—author of an important handbook on rhetoric—means the composition to be provocative.5 Take for instance the author’s preface, which states that aside from man, cetera … animalia aequo inter se iure agunt neque vel suo vel alieno generi aut praesse aut subesse satis curant. This assertion is quite puzzling: we have already seen that the author has Corvinus refer to the kingdom of bees, a monarchy widely-known from Vergil’s fourth eclogue, Seneca’s De clementia, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, Plutarch’s Moralia, and Pliny’s Natural History—not to mention Plato’s Republic! To mislead on a point of common knowledge is a declaration of shrouded purpose, and on this point, too, the dialogue deserves close reading.

As director of the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, Hankins is a past master at translating and evaluating humanist Latin. He acknowledges that, precisely as an analytic, political dialogue, would seem to require ad verbum precision. But the key terms respublica and princeps show that the desire for precision can be misplaced: the meaning of these words was in flux, even under advisement (so to speak) in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (268-69). Hankins’ principle in this translation might be described as a judiciously moderated ad verbum. In the case of words having to do with emotion and free will, I noted, for example, that affectus is quite consistently rendered ‘passion,’ while sponte ranges from ‘free will’ to ‘voluntarily’ and ‘spontaneously’ (I. 70, 71 and II.13). Some distracting archaisms (e.g., the anglophilic ‘weal’ at I.67) and anachronisms (e.g., ‘nations’ for nationes at I.69) appear, but are more than balanced by inspired translations (e.g., ‘behavior patterns’ for artes at I.6). Hankins’ English is blessedly easy to read—a great boon for classroom use. Also along that line, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are modernized according to series strictures. Brandolini provided no titles for the three parts of his dialogue. Hankins’ very helpful analytic table of contents allows readers to identify topics of interest and sometimes of great originality (e.g., arguments for free trade). In a characteristically deft and idea-filled introduction, Hankins situates De comparatione in the landscape of Renaissance political discussion: Patrizi, Machiavelli, and Castiglione lose some of their lustre in comparison with the newcomer. No student of Machiavelli should neglect this book.

The series’ standard allows Hankins only brief annotations to text and translation; he generally makes the most of them, although those corresponding to the translation veer unpredictably between historical explanations and source-text identifications. A “Note on Text and Translation” explains the manuscript situation.6 The decision for endnotes, and then their dispersal into four separate sections, is unfortunate (a regular reviewers’ refrain about this series). One imagines a dialogue, definitely not socratico more, in which the publisher weighs the common (?) wisdom (?) that footnotes frighten off readers, against the certainty that endnotes frustrate them. That dialogue probably explains as well why the Latin title of Brandolini’s treatise is kept under wraps until p. 267. The brevity of the bibliography reflects the need for more scholarship in Western European languages on the Hungarian Renaissance, scholarship that this welcome and invigorating publication will surely encourage.7


1. Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana, MS Ricc. 672 and Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. LXXVIII, ii; the archetype from which both copies derive is lost. The editio princeps was produced in 1890 by the eminent Hungarian scholar, J. Abel. I have not seen L. Biagini, “Edizione critica del De comparatione rei publicae et regni di Aurelio Lippo Brandolini” a tesi di laurea completed at the UniversitĂ  degli Studi di Firenze in 1995. Hankins’ edition is the third.
2. On the Plato-Aristotle controversy of 1439-1597, watch for the publication of J. Monfasani’s critical edition of George of Trebizond’s Comparatio Philosophorum Platonis et Aristotelis.
3. A minor misprint: John 19.19 is referenced in Book III at n. 45, not n. 46.
4. E. Nelson, The Hebrew Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). See, however, E. Rummel, “In Defense of Theologizing Humanists: Aurelio Brandolini’s ‘In sacram Ebreorum historiam … praefatio” in G. Tournoy, ed., Humanistica Lovaniensia 44 (1995): 90-106.
5. On Brandolini’s De ratione scribendi libri tres, J. W. O’Malley, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome (Durham: Duke University Press, 1979), 45-55, remains a helpful introduction.
6. On the complexities of res publica in fifteenth-century discourse, and its importance for the history of political philosophy, see further Hankins’ “Exclusivist Republicanism and the Non-Monarchical Republic” Political Theory 38, 2 (2010): 1-31.
7. Readers will sometimes have to work a little to trace in the bibliography Hankins’ earlier references to Lenzuni and Farbaky (e.g., 269, n. 1). The bibliography is growing as I write: see PĂ©ter Farbaky and Louis A. Waldman eds., Italy and Hungary: Humanism and Art in the Early Renaissance (Florence: Leo S. Olschki), forthcoming.

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