From Venetian Visitor to Curial Humanist: The Development of Agostino Steuco's "Counter"-Reformation Thought

By Delph, Ronald K. | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

From Venetian Visitor to Curial Humanist: The Development of Agostino Steuco's "Counter"-Reformation Thought


Delph, Ronald K., Renaissance Quarterly


THE STUDY OF ITALIAN humanism in the age of the Reformation has focused almost exclusively on the relationship between humanism and the Italian Spirituali. This emphasis can be traced back to the many works of Delio Cantimori. Cantimori persistently argued that humanism, with its emphasis on scriptural studies, philology, and spiritual and ecclesiastical renewal promoted evangelical spirituality and church reform among Italians. He saw the Spirituali -- many of whom were humanists -- as pious, devout individuals caught between their own evangelical convictions and the traditions of a spiritually unsatisfying and morally corrupt ecclesiastical system. It was the dynamics of this spiritual crisis, fueled by the clash between evangelism and the doctrines of the church, that formed the basis of many of Cantimori's works on humanism and reform in Italy.(1)

Recent scholarship forces us to rethink the interplay between humanism and reform in Italy as outlined by Cantimori. Studies on Pier Paolo Vergerio, Reginald Pole, Gasparo Contarini, and Gregorio Cortese have analyzed the career and writings of these figures against a background of familial, civic, and political concerns. The picture that emerges from these studies is one in which concrete social and political forces played an important role in shaping religious beliefs and sharply limited or spurred the degree to which an individual was prepared to embrace reform. These studies are particularly important for understanding humanism and reform because they situate humanists within a cultural context and demonstrate how, thus positioned, they worked out their ideas on reform.(2)

This new direction in research represents a part of a "post-Cantimori paradigm shift" which seeks to substantially refocus attention on the issues and participants that shaped the debate on reform in Pre-Tridentine Italy. Essential to this paradigm shift is an awareness of how religion and the sacred permeated all aspects of life in sixteenth-century Italy. The struggle for reform was intense precisely because the religious practices and institutions through which Italians traditionally gained their salvation also undergirt the social and political systems of Renaissance urban culture. Consequently, the issue of reform left hardly any facet of life untouched.(3)

While bringing a much needed degree of nuance to the study of humanism and religious thought in early sixteenth-century Italy, this scholarship still concentrates overwhelmingly on the Spirituali and the humanist sympathizers of Luther and Erasmus. Yet this ignores a vast number of Italian humanists who defended the hierarchy and institutions of the Church and who, unlike the Spirituali, never argued against the necessity of good works in salvation.(4) It seems to me however, that post-Cantimori scholarship now provides a model for understanding Counter-Reformation humanism as a major expression of Italian culture and religious thought.

Close inspection of the careers and writings of Counter-Reformation humanists will show that a great deal of the hostility these men displayed toward reform and Pauline spirituality had its roots in the civic and social setting in which they wrote. Moreover, just as familial concerns and political issues shaped the ideas of the Spirituali, so, too, must we determine the extent to which ties of patronage and political institutions influenced the ideas of these humanists who opposed reform.

Analyzing humanists' Counter-Reformation thought within the context of the richly textured culture in which they operated in no way diminishes their contribution to the debate. To the contrary, such an analysis will produce a clearer picture of the important role these humanists played in shaping Italian attitudes toward reform. Humanist arguments against reform provide a guide to the social and political network in which they moved. Having situated humanists within their cultural milieu, their arguments should be analyzed to show how specific social and political concerns combined with their religious beliefs to shape their hostility to reform. …

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