Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy

By Jansen, Katherine L. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy


Jansen, Katherine L., The Catholic Historical Review


Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy. By Alison Knowles Frazier. (New York: Columbia University Press. 2005. Pp. xx, 527.)

Alison Knowles Frazier's Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy is a scholarly "twofer": it is both a monograph on the important and ground-breaking subject of humanist hagiographers and their literary production of saints' lives, as well as an invaluable research tool, a hand-list of texts dating ca. 1420-1520 in both manuscript and printed editions, which by itself is an impressive piece of scholarship that comprises approximately onethird of the book's length.

Frazier's intent is to recover and explore the variety and significance of this ignored aspect of Renaissance scholarship, which by virtue of its uncomfortably close relation with the medieval hagiographical tradition no doubt explains in part why this literature has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. Happily, however, Frazier is a scholar of Renaissance humanism who is well trained in the discipline of medieval hagiography and sympathetic to its concerns. Consequently, this serendipitous meeting of mind and material has produced a study that reveals the refashioning of the hagiographical genre according to Quattrocento preoccupations and taste, but is always mindful of continuities with the Middle Ages.

The erudition and scholarship upon which Possible Lives is built is formidable, but lightly worn. Indeed, the author's tone is refreshingly modest, but no mere humility topos- it is instead the welcome frankness of a scholar who recognizes and wishes to share with her readers the limits of her material, analyses, and generalizations. Her method is the case study whereby each chapter presents problems that engaged hagiographers of the period. Topics include the Renaissance treatment of martyrdom; Bonizio Mombrizio's Sanctuarium, a celebrated legendary whose compositional circumstances remain problematic; saints' lives as humanist teaching texts; the representation of female sanctity, exemplified in Giacomo da Udine's Vita Helenae utinensis; and the hagiographical works of Raffaele Maffei, quondam scriptor of the papal chancery. Before turning to the textual problems that each of these topics presents, Frazier first situates the matter at hand in its proper bio-historico-political context which perforce shaped the text itself.That context is often revealing. For example, Frazier suggests that the simmering fear of Islamic expansion, fear that became all too concrete after the events at Constantinople, Negroponte, and Otranto in the second half of the Quattrocento should not be overlooked as shaping forces at work in texts such as Tommaso d'Arezzo's Tractatus de martyrio sanctorum.

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