Monday, April 6, 2015


Tina Marshall (trans.), Coluccio Salutati: On the World and Religious Life. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 62. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. xix, 391. ISBN 9780674055148. $29.95.

Reviewed by Martin Devecka, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site

Coluccio Salutati was an outstanding figure in the generation that came between Petrarch and the full flowering—with Lorenzo Valla, Poggio Bracciolini, and others—of what has conventionally been known as Renaissance humanism. As an independent scholar, he reassembled and circulated Cicero's Epistulae ad familiares; as chancellor of Florence, he wrote a tract, De tyranno, which constitutes one of the first explicit defenses of civil or republican government. His treatise On the World and Religious Life (De seculo et religione), with its thoroughgoing rejection, not just of political, but of all worldly activity, is difficult to fit with this career. Hans Baron, in his classic Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, called this text a "challenge for the student of Salutati:" something of an apparently medieval outlook, embedded in the matrix of early humanism.1

Anglophone readers who were intrigued by some of the fragments that Baron presented there—for instance, by Salutati's disturbing invocation of a Florence that was already crumbling into ruins—have had to wait a long time for a complete English translation of the text. It now appears as a volume in the I Tatti Renaissance Library, translated by Tina Marshall and introduced by Ronald G. Witt. This is in most respects an excellent edition; if Marshall and Witt do little to resolve the enigma of On the World, certainly they have made a valuable contribution by bringing this important but anomalous text to the attention of a wider audience.

Salutati wrote OTW in the early 1380s, after having begun and abandoned work on a defense of the vita activa whose lines of argument, one imagines, would have run in a very different direction. OTW is addressed to Niccolo Lapi, a friend of Salutati's who had taken a monastic vow; the aim of the work is to fortify Lapi in his resolve to reject secular life.

The first book of OTW is devoted to enumerating and describing—in a way that Salutati's contemporaries recognized as remarkably thorough—the traps and temptations of worldly life. Salutati approaches the task with gusto, sometimes describing the attractions of the saeculum in terms that might not make good reading for a monk (I have in mind especially Salutati's detailed report on the contents of erotic gossip, p. 89).

The reader's interest may flag in book two, which outlines the positive attractions and proper ascesis of life under a monastic rule. Here too, though, there is much of interest for intellectual and cultural historians. In particular, Salutati's praise of obedience as both the chief religious and the chief political virtue (p. 297) marks an interesting divergence from his earlier rejection of unjust rule in De tyranno, and his treatment of prayer according to rubrics derived from classical rhetoric (p. 299-301) shows one unexpected way in which the pagan and the Christian could meet without clashing at the close of the fourteenth century.

The contents of Marshall and Witt's volume are what we expect from an ITRL publication: a short introduction, a lightly-edited Latin text with facing English translation, some notes on the text, some critical notes on the translation, and an up-to-date bibliography.

Readers will observe that this volume's "notes on the text" are extraordinarily short. This is because Marshall has generally followed B. L. Ullman's 1957 edition, which is the best and most recent presentation of the Latin text.2 With the assistance of Andrew Dyck, Marshall has made some minor emendations that go to produce a more legible text than Ullman's. For example, Alexander the Great's conquests are acquired "tanto fastu," rather than "tanto faustu;" since Salutati clearly means to lay emphasis on the effort and toils involved, and since "faustu" is not a word, Marshall and Dyck's emendation seems justified. On the other hand, there are instances where a more conservative approach might have been called for. Ullman's text has Joseph passing through "omnes religiones Egypti;" Marshall and Dyck prefer "omnes regiones Egypti." The emended version certainly makes more sense, but nothing in the context of the passage licenses us to prefer the lectio facilior here.

The Latin text of OTW contained in this volume is, then, not a new critical edition—but there may not have been a need for one anyway, given the text's relatively simple manuscript tradition and the general thoroughness of Ullman's work. The effect of this new volume will be to make that work available to a wider audience, as well as, for the first time, to an English-speaking readership.

The translation is on the whole excellent. Marshall makes readable English out of Salutati's sometimes refractory Latin prose without doing much to slacken or flatten a vibrant and varied style. There are exceptions: for instance, Marshall translates contubernium rather blandly as "contact." (p. 101) In general, though, her English effectively captures Salutati's rich sense of verbal play. The chapters of the first book of OTW are linked together by "catch-phrases"—words or collocations which appear at the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, usually distinguished (in Latin) by a difference of accidence. Marshall preserves this structure while introducing enough variatio into the English to relieve the sense of tedium that might result from a too literal translation of Salutati's language game. "Confoventur"/"fomes," for example, comes out as "flames are being fanned"/"kindling" (p. 63); Marshall's light thematic link effectively captures Salutati's tenuous etymological tie.

The notes that accompany the translation, however, leave something to be desired. They are sometimes informative: for instance, Marshall traces an anecdote about a glutton's gullet that appears to derive from Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics back to Robert Grosseteste's Latin version of the Nicomachean Ethics, thus throwing cold water on the theory that Salutati was one of the first Westerners to read Aristotle in the original (p. 65, n. 34). Marshall also offers a good (if somewhat vague) note on the scholastic sources of Salutati's cosmology (p. 167, n. 116). For the most part, however, her annotations are limited to citations of Salutati's biblical or classical sources.

Marshall misses at least one such reference: "If we say that we do not have sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us," (p. 55) is a citation of I John 1:8. Salutati's Latin differs slightly from the Vulgate (by using "quia" in place of "quoniam") and so Marshall may not have thought the reference exact enough to note. But then Marshall has also missed (or at least not annotated) the Augustinian character of the larger claim that Salutati is making here about original sin qua vitiation of the free human will ("The human race glories that it has free power over its own will…yet as a result of our own frailty and the punishment of our first transgression…they are unable to turn away from evil and do good"). Indeed, one of the few authorities to cite John I:8 is Augustine, who employs it in the service exactly of this argument about fallen man's debased will—and Salutati's rendition of the passage matches Augustine's perfectly (e.g. Contra Julianum 3.48).3

It may have been an editorial decision not to annotate such thematic or argumentative engagements with earlier writers, perhaps on the assumption that this volume's target audience would be able to recognize these references unaided. For an audience that will consist of classicists, early modernists without a classical background, and even casual readers, it might nonetheless have been helpful to provide a more extensive critical apparatus. For instance, Salutati's Christianized retelling of Livy's counterfactual discussion of Alexander's invasion of Italy (pp. 41-45) carries no footnote here to the Roman historian. Although this Livian episode (AUC 9.17-18) is well-known to classicists, it may be less familiar to Renaissance scholars coming from other scholarly backgrounds—exactly the sort of people, one supposes, who were supposed to benefit by an English edition of OTW in the first place.

Similarly, one would have liked to see a better note on Salutati's intriguing evocation of a secular "golden age" when the world was ruled by Saturn—an evocation that, unusually, contains no reference to the pagan character of this myth and no intimation that this golden age "had" to end because of mankind's sin. This figure shows up twice in OTW (pp. 63 and 179); only on the second occasion does Marshall provide a footnote (n. 124: "e.g. Vergil, Eclogues 4, 6, 9; Ovid, Met. 1.89-112, etc.") What Marshall gains in completeness, she loses in precision: Salutati's glandes et flumina clinch the reference to Ovid (Met. 1.106, 111). There, the golden age is followed by a Hesiodic narrative of decline through ages of silver, bronze, and iron; and finally by a flood myth that some early Christian writers saw as confirming or compatible with the biblical account.4 This is important context for evaluating Salutati's own use of the "golden age," which Marshall in any case should have discussed in greater depth.

As my discussion of the critical notes will have suggested, this edition takes a somewhat deflationary attitude toward OTW. In his introductory essay, Ronald Witt writes that "there is little originality in [this] treatise"—excepting Salutati's description of Florence, already translated and discussed by Baron half a century ago (p. xiv). Witt sees this text, rightly, as belonging to the medieval genre de contemptu mundi: "his main contribution to the…tradition lay in his organization of the material into a relentless diatribe against life in the world and in favor of monastic retreat" (p. xv). This is an important observation on the text, but it is not the whole story. Why was it that monastic living needed, at just this time, to be so rigorously defended? In this connection, one might have mentioned "On the Profession of the Religious," a work by Salutati's protégé Lorenzo Valla that attacked monastic life and undermined monks' claim to special religious merit.

The remainder of Witt's introduction gives a very good summary of the emotional facts surrounding Salutati's composition and publication of OTW. Had the Ciompi Revolt led Salutati to see his political and scholarly accomplishments as hostages to fortune (p. xvi)? That episode certainly seems to have been on Salutati's mind while he wrote OTW ("How many and what kinds of dwellings of citizens, how many palaces, has the civic plague of internecine strife destroyed!" (p. 137)). These were also the questions that interested Baron and they are important ones for any intellectual history of the early Renaissance. To approach the text in this way, though, as merely the product of circumstances, may be to neutralize interest in what the text actually says.

Lest my general appreciation for this volume get lost among my many specific quibbles, let me reiterate that I think Marshall and Witt have done an admirable service in bringing OTW to an Anglophone readership. The translation and Latin text are more than adequate, while the introduction provides readers all the background they need to understand OTW in its historical context. With Rolf Bagemihl's translation of Salutati's political writings (also published by ITRL last year), this book gives us a complete picture in English of one of the early Renaissance's most important, and most enigmatic, literary figures. 5


1.   H. Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. Revised one-volume edition. Princeton: PUP, 1966. For the quote, see p. 107; for Baron's treatment of On the World, see pp. 106-110.
2.   B. L. Ullman, Colucii Salutati De seculo et religione. Florence: L.S. Olschki, 1957.
3.   For a full list of Augustinian references to 1 John 1:8, see A. Dupont, Gratia in Augustine's Sermones ad Populum During the Pelagian Controversy. Leiden: Brill, 2012, pp. 592-600. It is also possible that Salutati might have gotten his anomalous wording from Aquinas (De malo 1.24), but the context in which Salutati deploys this citation makes an Augustinian source more plausible.
4.   M. Roberts, "Creation in Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Latin Poets of Late Antiquity." pp. 403-415 in Arethusa 35.3, 2002.
5.   R. Bagemihl, trans.; S. Baldassari, ed. Coluccio Salutati: Political Writings. Cambridge: HUP, 2014.

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