Book Review: Through a Text, Too Darkly — The Life and Oration of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

By Maxwell Massa

Overall, the ITRL is an improvement over earlier efforts, but it falls short of expectations, particularly when it comes to providing a way into the world of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola for those beginning the journey.

The I Tatti Renaissance Library 93: Life of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola by Gianfrancesco Pico and Oration by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver with Michael J. B. Allen. Harvard University Press, 432 pages, $35.

The I Tatti Renaissance Library (ITRL) is a publisher of Latin language literature from the Italian Renaissance with facing English translations. Their most recent offering, The Life of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the Oration [on the Dignity of Man], is an important entry in the series: it reissues one of the era’s cardinal works, while also providing a contemporary life, written by the author’s nephew, Gianfancesco (Giovanni Francesco), that has provided the basis for much later biographical writing. The volume was edited by Brian P. Cophenhaver, who was the director of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies from 2004 to 2011, and who is also responsible for numerous other titles in the series.

Given this pomp and pedigree, one would reasonably expect a magisterial performance, an opus of profound but accessible scholarship that, for any able reader with a serious interest, would offer an invaluable window into the Renaissance. Sadly, the overall impression left by this volume would best be described as mixed. There is much to admire here. This is an important new edition of a critical piece of humanist literature. But the organization of its riches is problematic, to the point that first time readers will be frustrated, even bewildered. Abundant annotation and plentiful auxiliary material ends up compensating for these flaws, but an important opportunity has been missed.

One thing stands: this edition, whatever its imperfections, was desperately needed. Prior to its publication, the most accessible version of the Latin text was probably that edited by Eugenio Garin, which was published in Florence eighty years ago. Time and scarcity have made this title inaccessible to readers (at least those without access to a serious institutional library), so the ITRL’s decision to reproduce the work in its original language with an accompanying rendering into English is exemplary. The Latin version of Gianfrancesco’s Life was republished in 1997 — in the first volume of Yale’s Complete Works of Thomas More, along with More’s translation. But that volume is difficult to find these days and it costs $125 new, when it is to be had.

Giovanni’s Oration presents a special challenge to the publisher because it has traditionally been billed by scholars as a “central” or “seminal” Renaissance document. (It sits in the same august position as Kant’s essay “What Is Enlightenment?” does in the nineteenth century.) This means that, unlike most other ITRL titles, it is likely to appeal to readers outside of a niche  who delight in neo-Latin compositions. Accordingly, Copenhaver should have pitched his introduction at those who would need assistance in understanding both the author and his times. Giovanni is an extremely opaque writer, his writing overflowing with hidden references to numerous traditions of mystic literature. Thus the need for proper orientation is essential. But Copenhaver does not accept this educative responsibility: 73 pages long, the editor’s opening essay covers a great deal of ground, but the material is presented in a desultory manner, with no clear navigable structure. For example, early on Giovanni is accurately characterized as being interested in the Christian Kabbalah. There follows a brief notice of the political sensitivity of this school of thought at the time that he was writing. But it takes roughly 40 pages for Copenhaver to provide a description of what the Jewish Kabbalah was, other than as a form of mysticism. Oddly, when Copenhaver finally does explore the nature of the Kabbalah, he points out that its “exegesis and theosophy were complicated, utterly unknown at the time except to a few learned Jews.” But, if the material was outside of mainstream awareness, why was it politically touchy? Copenhaver never informs us.

Adding to the difficulty for readers new to Renaissance thought is that the introduction is not easily navigable. First of all, the introduction is not divided into sections for easy reference in the table of contents. And then, on top of that, the internal sub-divisions that it does contain are feeble signposts for the material they mark: for example, an important description of the textual tradition occurs in a section subtitled “Chameleons Are Not What They Seem,” which is not very helpful. Copenhaver has previously published a 704-page tome on Giovanni’s Oration, so perhaps the intro’s cramped and disorganized structure springs from him attempting to edit down the material in that work to occupy a tenth of its original space. In any event, this set-up is inadequate when it comes to establishing the significance and proper historical context of what is at the center of the volume — the original Latin compositions. The impression that Copenhaver leaves is that these were ideas and images that made people mad when they were first published — but for mysterious reasons.

As to the translations themselves, they have been reasonably done. For Giovanni’s Oration there are at least two versions currently available: Elizabeth Livermore Forbes’s The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (published in 1956, but still very easy to find used) and Charles Glenn Wallis’s On the Dignity of Man. The Copenhaver version stands up well in comparison to both of these, though it doesn’t soar above them. What lifts the ITRL edition considerably above the others is that it is the only one that includes a robust collection of annotations, and that is a particularly desirable virtue for an author who makes frequent allusions to other works of obscure literature. The book also includes a number of illuminating ancillary works, specifically:

  • Selections from Pico’s 900 Conclusions
  • An Incomplete Early Draft of the Oration
  • Abraham’s Journey through the Sefirot
  • Notabilia to the Life and Oration of the Bologna Edition (1496)
  • Gianfrancesco Pico’s Argumentum to his edition of Pico’s Oration and Letters

Overall, the ITRL is an improvement over earlier efforts, but it falls short of expectations, particularly when it comes to providing a way into the world of Giovanni for those beginning the journey. Given a better introduction and more accessible organization, this volume would have been more than an enduring piece of scholarship — it would have had the additional value of helping to spread the word about a pair of Renaissance treasures. As it stands, at least at the moment, most readers will need to approach the book with additional reference material at hand. Let’s hope that a second edition will come along that has the uninitiated in mind.

Maxwell Olin Massa is a graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and currently works as a policy analyst in the DC area. In addition to having written on the rule of law, he is also a staff writer for Third Factor magazine and published House of Apollo, a novel of ideas, with Whiskey Tit Books in 2020. He was even a Chinese TV host for a year, once upon a time.

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