Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

A Hydra in the Gardens of Adonis: Literary Allusion and the Language of Humanism in Egidio of Viterbo (1469-1532)*

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

A Hydra in the Gardens of Adonis: Literary Allusion and the Language of Humanism in Egidio of Viterbo (1469-1532)*

Article excerpt

  "In Hydra hac nostra, ac divinarum rerum vestigatione, quo magis
  disserendo definiendoque pugnatur, eo dubitationum capita numerosiora
  suboriuntur"
(In this our Hydra, and the search into divine matters, the more the
struggle rages by discussing and defining, the more numerous are the
heads of doubts that arise). (1)

Deep within his early sixteenth-century Commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences, entitled ad mentem Platonis--a critical point in his analysis of the theological intricacies of God the Son's eternal generation from God the Father--the Augustinian friar Egidio of Viterbo describes his labors as a fight with the mythical Hydra: a task as difficult, that is, as one of the labors of Hercules. (2) A fight with the Hydra expresses generically the engagement in a difficult task. Here it reflects the confronting of an opponent who keeps shifting the terms of a debate, adding new claims and arguments as soon as an earlier one is defeated. The analogy also reflects the inclination, common during the period, to see in the episodes of Greek and Roman myth literary analogies applicable to common situations scholars faced. Here, however, it also reflects Egidio's personal conviction that the pagan myths embody specific religious truths. In Egidio, the inclination to use literary analogy derived from Greco-Roman myth is strongest when he is most deeply engaged in a detailed analysis of Christian theology.

This study examines Egidio's use of stories and figures from Platonic dialogues and other ancient writings to reinforce his theological arguments. One of many Sentences-commentaries produced by friars, Egidio's work remains unpublished, except for sections edited in the 1950s by Eugenio Massa and for sections edited for individual studies. (3) Egidio composed it between the end of the fifteenth century and the first decade of the sixteenth. This was the period during which he moved across several boundaries, from cultivator of belles-lettres to a devoted student of scripture, and from heir of Aristotelian Scholasticism at Padua to poet at Naples, and finally then to student of Ficinian Platonism at Florence. At the end of the period he found himself superior of his order at Rome, where he was both a reformer and an eclectic scholar.

Egidio knew that the work of literary and theological synthesis in which he participated--by composing a theological work ad mentem Platonis--had a long tradition rooted in antiquity. From his association with Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), he knew the early Greek philosophical allegorizations of Homeric myth. He knew the writings of Jewish and Christian philosophers who, influenced by Neoplatonism, had interpreted the biblical account of humanity's creation in God's image as testimony to the rational soul's ability to transcend physical nature. He appreciated Origen of Alexandria's third-century allegorical exegesis of the Bible as well as Ficino's own mystical allegories. Yet Egidio could not inherit a fully formed and universally accepted method of synthesis of scripture, myth, and mystical writings, for none existed. He thought creatively, moreover, about the theological arguments he inherited.

The Libri sententiarum of Peter Lombard were a perfect yet largely unexploited medium for such creative syncretism. The Sentences remained the standard theological textbook in Italy of Egidio's time and it continued to be the subject of commentaries even into the seventeenth century. Egidio began his Commentary after having completed studies at the Augustinian studium generale, known as the College of Saints Philip and James, located in Padua. He also studied at the University of Padua, a center of both humanism and of metaphysics in via S. Thomae, which "meant Aristotelian metaphysics interpreted from the perspective of one ... of the most influential Scholastics." (4) Since 1436, Thomas had been the patron saint of the arts faculty there. Egidio, however, also attended lectures given at the University of Padua by Agostino Nifo (1473-ca. …

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