Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Patrick Baker, Johannes Helmrath, Craig Kallendorf (ed.), Beyond Reception: Renaissance Humanism and the Transformation of Classical Antiquity. Transformationen der Antike, 62. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. vi, 208. ISBN 9783110635775. €79,95.

Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (csobrien@uni-heidelberg.de)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Beyond Reception is a collection of ten essays drawn from a conference in Berlin in 2015, on the interaction between various aspects of the classical tradition—rhetoric, philosophy and poetry—and Renaissance humanism. The theoretical approach behind the volume claims that the typical modern paradigm, reception, suggests too great a degree of passivity and instead proposes the model of 'transformation' or allelopoiesis ('reciprocal creation', p. 4) to assign a more active role to the receiving tradition. As the introduction acknowledges, the term 'reception' was itself adopted in preference to 'classical tradition' to suggest 'that the receiving culture took a more active role in appropriating the past than the earlier model had suggested' (p. 2). It seems to me that there is a risk of simply applying different terminology to a theoretical model that is largely similar; many of the concerns I had were actually addressed head-on by Kallendorf's contribution, which applies this theoretical framework to the case of Virgil. Other contributions apply this framework to attitudes towards ancient Latin authors (Abbamonte), the Greek Renaissance (Ciccolella), Renaissance rhetoric (Mack, along with Helmrath's contribution on Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini and the German diets), the Italian humanists (Hankins, Béhar) and Renaissance philosophy (Kraye and Palmer).

Abbamonte's chapter will appeal to classicists since it discusses the attitudes towards Latin authors during the Quattrocento from the perspective of Lorenzo Valla's linguistic theories. Abbamonte discusses humanist attempts to enlarge the range of Latin authors on the curriculum beyond the medieval canon of Cicero, Sallust, Virgil and Terence, along with Boethius, in light of the Renaissance rediscovery of numerous Latin texts. After outlining failed attempts to enlarge the canon at the start of the Quattrocento, Abbamonte demonstrates the enlargement that had occurred by its end and seeks the reason for this broadening of the canon, attributing this change to Valla's Elegantiae. Valla's grammatical analyses were based on a much wider range of Latin texts than previous analyses. Abbamonte illustrates the manner in which Valla's linguistic theories ultimately, if not immediately, had an effect on the canon of Latin authors via subsequent popular revisions of the Elegantiae by other authors, by means of their influence on lexicography and via their influence upon didactic practice whereby teachers subsequently commented on a larger range of Latin works during class. Ciccolella's contribution presents, in many respects, a useful parallel to that of Abbamonte, since in the course of treating the revival of Greek culture in the Renaissance, she discusses the pedagogy of the Greek language. While noting the lack of attention paid to sixteenth/seventeenth-century Greek scholars in the West (i.e. the generations subsequent to the more widely studied Bessarion and Trapezuntius), she presents a detailed case study of Cretan schools under Venetian rule and outlines the manner in which both Greek and Latin lost ground in Venetian Crete in favour of Italian.

The chapter by Hankins is drawn from his forthcoming monograph and investigates the issue of 'virtue politics', a clear nod at virtue ethics, which Hankins presents as the central theme of humanist political writing, in contrast to the oft-repeated claim that republican liberty is the major topic.1 By 'virtue politics', Hankins understands concern with the moral legitimacy of the ruling class and attempts to improve the virtuous character of rulers (p. 97). While several publications make a connection between moral and political philosophy, Hankins goes beyond this to provide an insightful structure for reading a range of humanist texts that might otherwise appear divergent and connect them to a much broader canvas, since 'virtue politics' overlaps with the modern notion of 'political meritocracy' to some extent (p. 97, n. 5).2 Hankins also addresses the acquisition of virtue, contrasting the range of methods suggested by Aristotle with the humanists' focus on liberal education and comparing it with parallels in the Confucian tradition. A particularly interesting feature of Hankin's essay is the manner in which he sets Renaissance virtue politics in a longer-term historical context by evaluating the concept within the framework of Fukuyama's analysis of modern political institutions (pp.110-113).3 Hankins considers the extent to which humanist virtue politics may have contributed to the development of modern political institutions against the background of Fukuyama's three core features of the best-functioning modern states: impersonal political order, rule of law, and accountability.

Kallendorf examines the theoretical framework of the collection from the perspective of the humanist (perception of) Virgil. Given the centrality of Virgil as a school text from antiquity to the early modern period, his writings are particularly suitable to the type of analysis that Kallendorf conducts. He takes up many of the examples of transformation proposed by the second chapter (Bergemann et al.), but illustrates them with examples that are more relevant to the subject at hand. One of the reasons that Kallendorf's essay is effective is that he addresses head-on many of the concerns scholars are likely to have with the theoretical framework of the volume. First, he outlines precisely why it is that he sees the transformation paradigm as superior to the reception model. It foregrounds change and makes clear that there is no objective viewpoint from which to observe the past (p. 136). Second, he stresses that these transformation categories are not intended to be imposed as normative, but rather as an aid to understanding humanism. To illustrate how Kallendorf applies the theoretical framework to Virgil, here are some examples: Encapsulation (unchanged integration into the receiving culture) is illustrated by quotations from Virgil on coins minted by Renaissance rulers (p. 137). Appropriation is demonstrated by folio editions of Virgil accompanied by commentaries from late antiquity or the Renaissance, i.e. in a context in which his work would have never appeared to his original readers (p. 138). Perhaps most interesting of all are the examples supplied of reconstruction/supplementation (Vegio's Book XIII completing the plot and ethical framework of the Aeneid) and obfuscation (the well-known Christian interpretation of Eclogue 4).

Kraye's contribution is very ambitious, outlining different aspects of the Renaissance transformation of Aristotelianism, Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Pyrrhonian skepticism. Kraye presents a broad range of the material in a coherent structure, reviewing scholarship from the past forty years in light of the theoretical framework expounded by Bergemann et al. in the second contribution with a view to evaluating the boundaries (or lack thereof) between Renaissance humanism and philosophy. Naturally, Ficino is discussed, both from the perspective of Platonism (though somewhat unusually indirectly via humanist and philosopher Paolo Beni's evaluation of Ficino's use of the Timaeus, which makes sense given that Kraye's article addresses the interaction between humanism and philosophy), as well as in terms of his interaction with Epicureanism (illustrated by his interest in Lucretius' De rerum natura). Ficino's use of the Timaeus in the service of his project of developing a Christian Platonism is presented as an example of both appropriation and assimilation, while his subsequent destruction of his own commentary on Lucretius is cited as an example of negation. Kraye does not limit herself to Italian humanism, discussing also the influence of Stoicism in the Northern Renaissance: Erasmus' movement from assimilating Seneca to Christianity to appropriation of his rhetoric is contrasted with Lipsius' movement in the opposite direction from initial appropriation of Stoic ethics to greater willingness to assimilate Stoicism to Christianity in his handbooks on Stoic philosophy.

Palmer's contribution complements Kraye's by examining the relationship between humanism and philosophy, with Palmer concentrating on the authorial strategies of the humanists to define themselves in opposition to scholasticism, which result in concealing their philosophical innovations by ascribing these contributions to classical sources. The chapter also contains a particularly interesting digression on the philosophical canon as taught at English-speaking universities between 2010-2015 and philosophy publications from the 'top ten' academic presses in 2014, illustrated by a number of graphs and pie charts (pp. 166-174). While much of this confirms what many professional philosophers will probably intuit (i.e., the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in introductory philosophy courses and research or the popularity of Kant in terms of publications, along with the absence of the Renaissance), it is useful to have hard data to back this up. The link between both strands of the chapter is that both the pre-scholastic Middle Ages and the pre-seventeenth-century Renaissance, which Palmer demonstrates are the least studied eras today (at least by philosophers at Anglophone universities), are presented as being affected by the same 'self-fashioning technique': Petrarch, Bruni, etc. present the Renaissance as a break from the 'Dark Ages', while Descartes and Bacon denounce Renaissance thought (p. 165). Descartes, in particular, is portrayed as an integrator and assimilator of old ideas to such a successful degree that he can present his own work as innovative, while erasing his sources. The chapter outlines how both humanist self-presentation and subsequent evaluation affect our present understanding and underevaluation of the early Renaissance.

There are a couple of details that are not clear to me regarding the chapter 'Transformation: A Concept for the Study of Cultural Change' by Bergemann, Dönike, Schirrmeister, Toepfer, Walter, and Weitbrecht (edited and translated by Patrick Baker). First, Maximilian Benz is credited in a footnote (n. 11, p. 24) as author of a section within the article (pp. 24-25), i.e. two pages within a seventeen-page article with six officially listed co-authors, but yet is not credited as one of the article's authors. Second, none of the six officially listed authors receives a biographical note in the section on contributors. The chapter is a translation of a previously published German article, intended to function as a second introduction to the volume's methodological framework, outlining different types of transformation, such as appropriation, assimilation and obfuscation, etc.4 While some of the examples selected to demonstrate aspects of the methodological framework fit with the subject matter of the volume (e.g. Petrarch's crowning as poeta laureatus, Raphael's School of Athens), not all do (e.g. James Joyce's Ulysses, Apocalypse of Peter).

Beyond Reception is an interesting volume that contains some outstanding contributions. Hankin's, Kraye's and Palmer's chapters, in particular, can be read with both profit and pleasure, while Kallendorf's contribution makes a strong and persuasive argument in support of the theoretical and methodological framework of the book. Despite the range of the topics covered, several of the chapters are in dialogue with each other and the theoretical views outlined by the editors in the introduction are articulated in various ways throughout the volume, offering both a review of the development of scholarship within Renaissance studies, as well as a prospectus of the shape of things to come.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, Patrick Baker, Johannes Helmrath and Craig Kallendorf
Transformation: A Concept for the Study of Cultural Change, Lutz Bergemann, Martin Dönike, Albert Schirrmeister, Georg Toepfer, Marco Walter and Julia Weitbrecht
The Transformation of Attitudes towards Ancient Latin Authors and the Legacy of Lorenzo Valla, Giancarlo Abbamonte
The Greek Renaissance: Transfer, Allelopoiesis, or Both? Federica Ciccolella
How Did Renaissance Rhetoric Transform the Classical Tradition? Peter Mack
Political-Assembly Speeches, German Diets, and Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Johannes Helmrath
The Virtue Politics of the Italian Humanists, James Hankins
"Haec Domus Omnium Triumphorum": Petrarch and the Humanist Transformation of the Ancient Triumph, Roland Béhar
Tradition, Reception, Transformation: Allelopoiesis and the Creation of the Humanist Virgil, Craig Kallendorf
Renaissance Humanism and the Transformations of Ancient Philosophy, Jill Kraye
The Effects of Authorial Strategies for Transforming Antiquity on the Place of the Renaissance in the Current Philosophical Canon, Ada Palmer


1.   Hankins, J., Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy, (Cambridge, MA, 2019).
2.   See for example Kraye, J. (ed.), Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts, (1997) or The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, (2008).
3.   As outlined for example in Fukuyama. F., The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, (New York, 2011) or Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, (New York, 2014).
4.   Bergemann, L. et al., 'Transformation: Ein Konzept zur Erforschung kulturellen Wandels', in H. Böhme et al. (eds.), Transformation: Ein Konzept zur Erforschung kulturellen Wandels, (Munich, 2011), 39-56.

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