Renaissance Quarterly 59.4 (Winter 2006): 1164-65.
THIS COLLECTION of sixteen essays on the career, scholarship, and thought of Paul Oskar Kristeller derives mainly from papers presented at the annual meetings of The Renaissance Society of America in Chicago in 2001 and in Scottsdale in 2002. John Monfasani has selected the best papers from the several sessions in which former pupils and colleagues examined aspects of Kristeller’s enormous scholarly output, supplemented by three essays written especially for this volume (Grendler, Murphy, and Tedeschi). Most papers contain evocations of this great scholar, as well as several revelations concerning his foibles and pet peeves.
The essays may be divided into four categories. Five papers are straightforward descriptions of aspects of Kristeller’s scholarship. The late Patricia H. Labalme’s piece combines acute analysis of his early study on music in Renaissance culture with a magisterial survey of the modern system of the arts, highlighting his role as a demanding reviewer of works on art history. Angelo Mazzocco discusses Kristeller’s theories on bilingualism in Renaissance Italy and the phased development of vernacular poetry and prose, while James Murphy concentrates on his contributions to Renaissance rhetoric. Martin L. Pine examines Kristeller’s famous thesis on the coexistence of humanism with scholasticism and his admiration for the philosophy of Pietro Pomponazzi. The late Frederick Purnell, Jr. contributes a treatment of his studies on the school of Salerno and Renaissance science, especially Averroism.
Although appreciative of the range and importance of Kristeller’s scholarship, five others papers temper their praise with criticism. These are “essays with a bite.” While seeing Kristeller’s continuing contributions to the study of Marsilio Ficino as defining his life as a scholar, Michael Allen finds that Kristeller’s depiction of his favorite philosopher was too rational and removed from the traditions of scholasticism and hermeticism from which Ficino sprang. Christopher Celenza argues that the hermetic tradition held little appeal for Kristeller precisely because it was marginal to the practice of philosophy as he learned it in the German university system. Paul Grendler combines a narrative of Kristeller’s unrealized project to write a history of the universities of Renaissance Italy with an appreciation of his contributions to our understanding of university curriculum, the study of theology, and the University of Heidelberg in the sixteenth century, against the background of his disagreements with other scholars. In her essay “Kristeller Ad Feminam,” Margaret L. King praises Kristeller’s almost prescient understanding of the careers and achievements of learned women of Renaissance Italy as displayed in his sole essay on women, which originated as a paper written at my invitation for the Cornaro Tercentenary held at Vassar College in April 1978. She then goes on to analyze the participation of women in humanistic culture (as authors, patrons, and dedicatees) from the indices of Iter Italicum. Not surprisingly, Ronald G. Witt reads Kristeller’s influential definition of humanism against his own pathbreaking study of its origins from Lovati to Bruni, approving of Kristeller’s emphasis on the medieval roots of humanist culture. However, he departs from Kristeller’s definition by placing the first humanists in the generations before Petrarch and finding that rhetoric became the central discipline of humanism only with the appropriation of the Ciceronian model after 1400.
Three excellent papers treat aspects of Kristeller’s early career in Germany and Italy. In overlapping essays, Paul Richard Blum and James Hankins discuss Kristeller as a young student of ancient philosophy. From his work in the Paul Oskar Kristeller Papers at Columbia, Blum traces the origins of his dissertation and book on Plotinus, and looks at his examination paper (in Latin) on the concept of forms and ideas in Cicero. Hankins views Kristeller’s education under such neo-Kantian philosophers as Ernst Hoffmann and Martin Heidegger as crucial to his conviction that the study of the history of philosophy was integral to philosophic understanding itself. In a sensitive, insightful essay, Warren Boutcher traces Kristeller’s formation as a humane philosopher under the tutelage of Heidegger and Giovanni Gentile, who were, ironically, spokesmen for Fascism.
Three essays examine Kristeller’s character and methods. Based on a close study of correspondence and informal memoirs, John Tedeschi describes Kristeller’s lifelong friendship with a fellow émigré scholar, Elizabeth Feist Hirsch, who taught history and philosophy at Bard College and Trenton State. My personal favorites are Arthur Field’s telling recollections of his work as Kristeller’s amanuensis on volumes 4 through 6 of the Iter and John Monfasani’s “Kristeller and Manuscripts,” which is the most successful paper in the collection in evoking Kristeller’s passion for, and achievements in, manuscript research. Finally, this volume is very well produced, with notes at the bottom of the page, a bibliography of works cited in the essays, and a full index.
To conclude, I realize that my one- or two-sentence descriptions cannot do justice to the richness and nuanced arguments of these essays and, even worse, may tend to fragment the unity of Kristeller’s achievement. I agree with James Hankins’s assessment that “Kristeller’s chief contribution as an interpreter of the Renaissance is ... his determined historicizing of humanism and Renaissance thought” (138). His concern for understanding events, thinkers, and periods in their historical context both informed, and derived from, his famous fear of anachronism. This, in turn, explains his insistence on basing humanistic scholarship on reading texts in their original languages, understanding the traditions that informed a thinker’s methods and values, and studying all texts of a particular school or individual. This was Kristeller’s noble legacy. Anyone interested in the achievement of Paul Oskar Kristeller and the growth of Renaissance studies in the last century will want to read this book.