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‘Dear to Me above a Thousand Others’: Augustine at the Dawn of the Renaissance

By Shari Boodts

Saint Augustine (354-430) is one of the most influential thinkers of the Western World. His answers to life’s profound questions shaped Western civilization to an unparalleled degree. How did the Middle Ages come to know this great Father of the Church? How did his large oeuvre survive the nearly sixteen centuries since his death? This is the thirteenth post in a series that looks over the shoulder of medieval readers to discover how they shaped Augustine’s legacy, and created an image of the man that has endured to our times.

In his 2012 bestselling, yet controversial book The Swerve, How the Renaissance began, Stephen Greenblatt mentions Augustine literally once. This single mention is in reference to a palimpsest, a fourth-century unique copy of Cicero’s ‘On the Republic’ of which the text was scratched out in the seventh century to make room for Augustine’s homilies on the Psalms.

This small anecdote serves as the perfect illustration for a common misconception about the Middle Ages: that during the medieval period the great Latin Classics were forgotten or even – as with the palimpsest – actively wiped out to be replaced by one-dimensional and often tedious religious works, and that it was not until the Renaissance that inquisitive and unconventional minds rediscovered the long-forgotten gems of Classical Antiquity in the dusty corners of monastic libraries.

Luckily, the readership that frequents this particular website does not hold with this antiquated and generalizing notion. Nevertheless, Augustine’s seemingly underwhelming presence in the Renaissance does not bode well for my purpose to devote 1,000 words or so to the subject of Augustine and the early humanists. Still, as usual, it remains a likely possibility that Augustine will surprise us.

Saint Augustine in His Study,
Saint Augustine in His Study, by Sandro Botticelli in 1480

The Hermits of St. Augustine…again

One of the most remarkable scholarly enterprises regarding Augustine in the fourteenth century was the work of – who else – a member of the Hermits of St. Augustine. Around 1345 Bartolomeo da Urbino (d. 1350) compiled the Milleloquium Veritatis S. Augustini, a gargantuan collection of some fifteen thousand extracts organized alphabetically by subject, to which was added a remarkably full overview of the literary output of Augustine. While it inevitably contained some fragments wrongly attributed to Bishop of Hippo, it offers a unique insight into what was known of Augustine’s oeuvre and – at least as important – the then-current methods and categories of organizing knowledge. Dedicated to Pope Clement VI, it was a popular work, surviving in over fifty manuscripts. Like so many of the medieval compilations we’ve encountered in this series, the Milleloquium presented a fragmented Augustine, to make the massive Augustinian oeuvre easier to digest for the preachers, scholars, and artists who made abundant use of the compilation, but never before had the collection been so exhaustive.

Petrarca

You might wonder what Bartolomeo’s efforts, impressive though they may be, have got to do with Augustine at the dawn of the Renaissance. Bartolomeo happened to be a good friend of Francesco Petrarca, who has certainly earned the moniker ‘Founder of Renaissance Humanism’. At Bartolomeo’s request, Petrarca in fact wrote a poetic foreword for the Milleloquium. Of course, this is far from his only connection to Augustine. Petrarca singled out Augustine as the confidante with whom he conducted one of the most personal conversations he committed to paper, the Secretum. It is in this work that the phrase heading this post ‘dear to me above a thousand others’ was put in the mouth of Lady Truth when addressing Augustine. Written between 1347 and 1353, the Secretum’s dialogues portrayed Petrarca as a man struggling with his attachment to worldly glory and love, a man trying to reconcile his love for and curiosity toward the Classics with his Christian faith. Although it remains a matter of debate whether the Secretum reflects a true struggle or was intended more as a literary construct, the work shows a clear influence of Augustine’s Confessions, alongside, of course, Cicero’s dialogues.

15th century illustration of Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

There is a tendency to view the Humanists as a tightly-knit circle of often competing but essentially like-minded scholars, rebelling against the late medieval society that was dominated by scholasticism, but this image obscures part of the truth, namely that this circle was closely connected to a wider network that included many Augustinians Friars, who in this century knew a great many intellectual triumphs themselves. Petrarca demonstrates this very clearly. It was a member of the Order of Saint Augustine, Dionigi de Borgo, who directed Petrarca to the works of Augustine in 1333. Petrarca later in his life returned the favor, as he bequeathed his library, including his personal copy of Augustine’s Confessions, to Augustinian Friars. Incidentally, Boccaccio, that other great early humanist, did the same thing.

Coluccio Salutati

Today slightly less famous than Petrarca, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) was, during his lifetime, an extremely powerful man, both politically, as Chancellor of the Florentine Republic, and intellectually. He is on par with Petrarca when it comes to his formative influence on early Humanism, developing a Ciceronian prose style – stimulated by his discovery of Cicero’s Epistolae ad Familiares – and nurturing the career of other up-and-coming humanists such as Poggio Bracciolini and Leonardo Bruni. Salutati, like Petrarca, considered Augustine to be an important authority, but while Petrarca treated him in the Secretum foremost as a Christian authority, Salutati harnessed Augustine’s power as a literary authority. In 1378, when he was already the most important political figure in Florence, Salutati wrote a letter to a colleague in Bologna stressing the importance of a rhetorical style that incorporated the Classical authors, both through intertextual references and through the use of their Latin style. He wrote:

Read Augustine on Christian doctrine where he seems to touch [the heights of] eloquence, and certainly you will find the Ciceronian tradition renewed in the style of that great man…Augustine, exponent and champion of Christian faith, displayed such knowledge of the poets in all his writings that there is scarcely a single letter or treatise of his which is not crowded with poetic ornament. Not to speak of others, his “City of God” could never have been so strongly and so elaborately fortified against the vanity of the heathen if he had not been familiar with the poets and especially Vergil.

Coluccio Salutati
Coluccio Salutati

The palimpsest in Greenblatt’s The Swerve portrayed Augustine as a staple of the ‘medieval mindset’, literally a barrier between the Renaissance and the Latin Classics. Petrarca’s Secretum presents a somewhat ambiguous picture of Augustine. On the face of it, he is the voice for Christianity, the one admonishing Petrarca to abandon his worldly pursuits. But that also means that Augustine is to Petrarca a powerful voice, an authority at least level, if not superior, to the Classical authors he admires so much. Salutati echoes that interpretation of Augustine as an authority, but takes it a step further. To him, Augustine is, for all intents and purposes, the first Humanist, a literary master who absorbed and integrated the style of the heathen poets in such a subtle and intelligent way that he is an example to the fourteenth-century authors who aspire to the same. Even if the heightened attention to the authors of Classical Antiquity stands, to our modern eyes, squarely in the spotlight during the early Renaissance, Augustine is and always will be an unshakeable fixture of the stage set.

As we near the end of the Middle Ages, we are also nearing the end of this series. Next month, the penultimate post of the series will deal with Augustine in print.

Further reading:

Meredith J. Gill, Augustine in the Italian Renaissance: Art and Philosophy from Petrarch to Michelangelo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Click here to read more about Augustine and the Middle Ages

Shari Boodts is Senior Researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, where she directs a European research project on Patristic sermons in the Middle Ages. You can learn more about Shari at her website or Academia.edu page.



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