Political Views in the Preaching of Giovanni Dominici in Renaissance Florence, 1400-1406. (*)

By Ben, Nirit; Debby, Aryeh | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Political Views in the Preaching of Giovanni Dominici in Renaissance Florence, 1400-1406. (*)


Ben, Nirit, Debby, Aryeh, Renaissance Quarterly


INTRODUCTION

In a letter to the well-known merchant, Francesco Datini, Chiara Gambacorta, a nun from an aristocratic Pisan family, wrote:

I know that the venerable preacher, our father, the Friar Giovanni Dominici, will preach in our central church this Lent. So I beg you, for your love of Christ, that you hear his sermons . . . heal in your soul and in your body. Such perfect food are his sacred sermons!

I believe that he has already begun to preach feast days. Now you have the means to turn entirely good; I have never heard any one instruct so perfectly all kinds of people. (1)

Such a testimony shows the favorable impression and strong impact the Dominican preacher made on his listeners. (2)

The role of religion in Florentine history has attracted much attention in the past few decades. (3) Most scholars when discussing preaching in Renaissance Florence have focused on Savonarola (1452-1498). Two historians, Marvin Becker and Daniel Lesnick, have discussed the political role of preachers, but mostly in relation to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. David Peterson has written on Archbishop Antoninus (1389-1459) and his contribution to the institutional history of the Church, while more recently Peter Howard has discussed the public theology of the archbishop and the spiritual guidance he offered. (4)

Little attention has been paid to the important Dominican preacher Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419), who was active in Florence in the first decade of the fifteenth century. (5) In his book on apocalyptic expectations Roberto Rusconi (1979) has included Dominici, and Peter Denley (1982) has written on his opposition to the studia humanitatis. More recently, such historians as Giorgio Cracco (1990) and Daniel Bornstein (1993) have examined Dominici's place in the religious life of his times, especially during his Venetian sojourn. For all that, Dominici's main activity, his career as a preacher, has been overlooked, and almost the entire corpus of his sermons remains unpublished. Only Daniel Lesnick, in a pioneering article on civic preaching (1990), dealt briefly with the political aspect of Dominici's sermons, placing him within a tradition of Dominican civic preaching that began with Remigio de' Girolami and Giordano da Pisa and climaxed with Savonarola.

This study documents the charismatic preacher as a leading actor on the stage of Renaissance Florence, preaching as a powerful mode of political propaganda. It places Dominici's preaching and his political message within the Florentine context of his time, while acknowledging his place within the overall tradition of Dominican civic preaching. The political thought of Giovanni Dominici was influenced by traditional Dominican, Aristotelian thinking about the bene comune, and by the "civic humanist" thought of Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni. Dominici has often been presented as an adversary of the humanists, and as a traditionalist in his thought; yet he seems to have paid considerable attention to what the humanists had to say about government. He presented an ambivalent attitude toward Florentine civic ideals. On the one hand, he supported such ideals as the active life and Florence's descent from the Roman republic. On the other hand, he criticized humanist rhetoric and the rise of the professional po litician, central values in the civic world of Florence in the opening years of the fifteenth century.

DOMINICI'S LIFE AND WRITINGS

Giovanni Dominici was born in Florence in 1356, son of the silk merchant Domenico di Banchino and his wife, Paola Zorzi, a Venetian noblewoman. (6) His father died before Dominici's birth, and he was educated by his mother. Wanting him to be a merchant, she sent him to Venice for two years (1371-1372). Yet upon his return, when only seventeen, Dominici decided to join the Dominican order at Santa Maria Novella. He became a follower of the mystic and church reformer Catherine of Siena, whom he met in Pisa in 1376-1377. …

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