Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

From Cicero to Tasso: Humanism and the Education of the Novarese Parish Clergy (1565-1663) *

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

From Cicero to Tasso: Humanism and the Education of the Novarese Parish Clergy (1565-1663) *

Article excerpt

The humanistic program of education was one of the most important legacies left by the Renaissance to early modern society; The humane disciplines of grammar, letters, poetry, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy, inculcated from the authors of classical Greece and Rome, became the intellectual heritage of the educated elite of western Europe. At a time when a minority of the populace was literate and literacy itself meant possession of only rudimentary reading and writing skills, the most promising students pursued Latin grammar and the humanities as the doorways to professional studies and advancement. (1) Among this elite were lawyers, physicians, civil servants, teachers, scholars and, of most interest here, members of the clergy both Protestant and Catholic. At centers as theologically diverse as the University of Wittenberg, the Academy of Geneva, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the Jesuit Roman College, the classics and the humanities provided future pastors and priests with the literary and rhetorical skills, cultural depth, and moral reinforcement deemed necessary for successful and godly ministry. (2) In the case of the Catholic clergy, the role played by humanist studies can be measured by examining the educational background and the libraries of the parish clergy of the northern Italian diocese of Novara. In the century following the Council of Trent (1545-63) the Novarese parish clergy enjoyed a dramatic increase in educational opportunities with the establishment of schools, seminaries, and colleges in and around their diocese. Their studies were grounded in Latin grammar and the humanities, supported by grammars, dictionaries, and a variety of classical and Renaissance authors. Although the libraries of the priests provide an imperfect record of what they read, a number of priests appear to have developed a lifelong interest in humanist and secular works, and some continued the humanist tradition by taking up positions as schoolmasters in the towns and villages of the diocese.

The diocese of Novara was the western neighbor of the archdiocese of Milan and until the early eighteenth century part of the duchy of Milan. By Italian standards it was large and far flung, extending from the Lombard plain through the region of lakes Orta and Maggiore to the Italian Alps. In the early seventeenth century it included approximately 270 parishes served by over three hundred curates and almost two hundred canons, chaplains, and other priests. (3) Although the city itself had a population of over seven thousand souls, parishes of the surrounding countryside varied in size from several thousand in the larger towns of the plain to slightly over one hundred in the smaller villages of the lakes and mountains. Despite the remote location of many of its parishes, the diocese was in the mainstream of Catholic reform efforts of the sixteenth century. It enjoyed close ties with Milan, being part of the ecclesiastical province of Milan and as such participating closely in the reforms undertaken by Carlo Bo rromeo (1538-84), archbishop of Milan From 1564 to 1584, and a model of pastoral zeal and effective diocesan administration for many of his colleagues in Italy and throughout Europe. (4) Novara was bound by regulations passed by the Provincial Councils conducted by Borromeo, and its bishops were under the influence of the reformer. The most important of these was Carlo Bascape (1550-1615) who had been a collaborator and biographer of Borromeo and had served as general of the Clerics Regular of Saint Paul or Barnabite congregation prior to his appointment to the diocese of Novara in 1593.

One of the key elements of Borromeo's work, followed at Novara, was the development of a system of diocesan seminaries. The Council of Trent had viewed the ignorance and immorality of the Catholic clergy as major reasons for the development and spread of Protestantism in Europe. …

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