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Coluccio Salutati and the Conception of the Poeta Theologus in the Fourteenth Century

Author(s): Ronald G. Witt


Source: Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4, Studies in the Renaissance Issue (Winter, 1977),
pp. 538-563
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Renaissance Society of America
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Coluccio Salutatiand the Conceptionof the


PoetaTheologusin the FourteenthCentury*

-W;

HE Italian humanists of the fourteenth century did


) more than reintegratethe pursuit of eloquence with
the concernfor ethics, two interestsunited in the dis-

'X6&
~~'

cipline of rhetoric since the time of Cicero but sepa-

rated in practice by thirteenth-centuryspecialistsof


in Italy.1Rathertheir achievementlay in
arsdictaminis
less
than
nothing
Christianizingthe Europeanmedieval rhetoricaltradition. They accomplishedthis by expressingin terms of those central
fields of rhetoric, ethics, and history an appreciationof the distinction
between the culture of the ancient world based on human reason and
Christiansociety founded on revealed truth.2While not denying the
ultimate influence of God upon human history, Petrarch,Boccaccio,
and Salutati (at least in his later life) tended to emphasizethe natural
characterof ancientsociety and thusto secularizeits historyand achievements. Such an understandingof the break in continuity encouraged
these humaniststo constructan ethic which was consciously Christian
while utilizing the works of pagan writers as building blocks.
Crucialto this effort at distinctionwas proper understandingof the
conception of the poeta theologus.As this study intends to show, all
three fourteenth-centurywriterseventuallysucceededin defendingthe
sacralcharacterof ancientpoetry, which in their own eyes gave it nobility, without having to resort to medieval arguments for a direct
divine influenceacting on the poet or for a secret tradition of divine
truth initially derived from God's Revelation. Although the ancient
* I would like to
expressmy appreciationto Hans Baron and MarcelTetel who read
this articlein its early drafts.
1 Helene Wieruszowski,PoliticsandCulturein MedievalSpainandItaly,Storiae lettera-

tura, 12 (Rome, 1971), p. 373.

2 What Aquinasaccomplishedfor philosophyby definingthe limits of naturalreason


and working out the implications,Petrarchin effect did for rhetoric.Twelfth-century
rhetoricianslikeJohn of SalisburyandPierrede Blois were apparentlyunableto integrate
pagan ethical doctrinesinto a Christianframework.Thus Christianand paganideaslay
side by side in their writings.

[ 538 ]

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SALUTATI

AND

THE POETA

THEOLOGUS

539

poetsfrequentlyexpressedtheologicaltruths,thesewere truthsaccesof
sibleto naturalreason.Whereasthe validityof thischaracterization
PetrarchandBoccacciocaneasilybe demonstrated
by referenceto their
more
difficult
to definebeon
are
the
work, Salutati's
thoughts
subject
causehe changedhis mind in the courseof his life. By his last years
Salutati,however,hadcometo the view heldby PetrarchandBoccaccio thatthe creativepowerof the ancientpoets,if itselfa divinelybestowedgift, was nonethelesspurelynaturalin its operations.
Sinceat leastthe sixth centuryB.C., enemiesof the poets had reeffectson moralsand
gardedthefictionsof poetryashavingdeleterious
fromancienttimesdefendersof
thepursuitof truth.3Correspondingly,
be'lies
had
of the poets'allegorically:
to
the
poetry attempted explain
neaththe alluringfictionson the exteriorwere concealedimportant
truths.Aristotlereflectedthispositionwhen he impliedthatthe poets
were theologians,'thosewho in the earliesttimesfirstreflectedupon
the gods.'4Generallyspeaking,earlyChristianscholarswere ambivalent aboutpaganpoetry.They fearedits sensualallurementsand susmightfindtheirbaserdesiresintensifiedby such
pectedthatChristians
the poemsas allegories,they
reading.On the otherhand,approaching
referfoundmanynaturaltruthsin themandevenpropheticstatements
made
latter
the
to
later
revealed
the
truth.5
poetsimring
Especially
for
Christian
apologeticpurposes.6
portant
3

Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R.
Trask (New York, 1963), p. 204, sees Plato's attack on Homer in the Republic as the
'culmination' of the quarrel. See also August Buck, Italienische Dichtungslehren vom
Mittelalter bis zum Ausgang der Renaissance, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur Romanische
Philologie, 94 (1952), p. 67.
4
Metaphysics, I, 3, 983b28-30. For Aristotle's use of the term 'theologians' for the
poets, see Curtius, EuropeanLiterature,pp. 217-218.
5 Alfredo Galletti, 'La
"ragione poetica" di Albertino Mussato ed i poeti-theologi,' in
Scritti varii di erudizione e di criticain onore di Rudolfo Renier (Turin, 1912), pp. 337-341.
Although Augustine, De civ. dei, 6:8, appears to reject allegorical interpretation of the
poets, elsewhere he seems to legitimize its use, thereby making the poets' fictions acceptable: ibid., 7:29. St. Jerome was the severest critic of the poets: Epist., xxI, 13. Yet he did
not forbid Christians' reading them and he himself occasionally interpreted the poets allegorically for his own purposes: Ferdinand Piper, 'Virgilius als Theolog und Prophet des
Heidenthums in der Kirche,' EvangelischerKalender, 13 (1862), 45-46, 53. For the attitude
of early Christian writers specifically to Virgil's Ecloga iv see P. Courcelle, 'Les exegeses
chretiennes de la quatrieme eglogue,' Revue des etudes anciennes, 59 (1957), 294-319.
6 Domenico Comparetti, Virgilio nel medio evo (Florence, 1967), pp. 121-124;
and
Karl Strecker, ' "Jam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto," ' in Virgilio nel Medio Evo:
Studi medievali, N.S. 5 (1932), 167ff. Jerome, however, unequivocally denied the validity
of seeing Virgil as 'a Christian without Christ,' i.e., one who had knowledge of Christian
truths before the advent of Christ: Epist., LIII, 7, cited in Comparetti, p. 124, n. 3.

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540

RENAISSANCE

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DespiteJerome'soutspokendenialof the existenceof thisprophetic


elementin ancientpoetry,theconceptionbecamea partof themedieval
traditionlong afterthe needfor apologeticswas past.If conservatives
denouncedthe poetsaslasciviousandtheologianslike St. Thomassaw
poetryas havinglesstruthcontentthanthatof any otherintellectual
discipline,friendsof the poetsinsistedon the wealthof truthfoundin
their writingswhen understoodallegorically.Writersas diverseas
Abelardand InnocentIII,moreover,treatedcertainof theirversesas
Christiantruth.7
foreshadowing
ThewritingsofAlbertinoMussato,considered
thefirstscholarof the
Renaissance
to defendpoetry,representthisinterpretation
of the poets
as prophetsof Christand Christiantruthcarriedto excess.8Mussato's
majorcontroversyarosein theperiodimmediatelyafterhis coronation
in Paduaaspoetlaureatein 1315,whena certainDominicanfriarof the
city, fra Giovanninoda Mantova,attackedpoetry along with other
secularartsas dangerousfor Christiansandtrivialin value.Mussato's
responseto this particularcriticism,however,was only the last of a
seriesof defensesknownto havebeenmadeby him between1309and
in thesewritingsMussatotakesAristotle'sconception
1316.Essentially
of the poet-theologians
seriously.Poetryis a divinesciencebecauseit
7 Galletti,'La
Literature,
pp. 217"ragionepoetica,"' pp. 341-350; Curtius,European
219. For St. Thomaspoetry had the leasttruth content of any of the disciplines:'poetica
scientiaest de his quaepropterdefectumveritatisnon possunta rationecapi;unde oportet
quod quasiquibusdamsimiltudinibusratio seducatur... ,' ScriptumsuperlibrosSententiarum,I, prol., a.5, ad. 3, Operaomnia,7 (Paris, 1873), 10; also quoted by Curtius,
p. 217. For medievaldebateon Virgil and other poets see also ComLiterature,
European

paretti, Virgilio, especially pp. 91-117 and 125-146. On Abelard and Innocent III see

Piper, 'Virgiliusals Theolog,' pp. 66-67 and 70. On the varying fortunesof Boethius'
condemnation of the scenicaemeretriculae
in the Middle Ages see Klaus Heitmann,
'Boethius'Verdammungder Musen in Mittelalter,'in RenataeLitterae,ed. Klaus Heitmann and Eckhart Schroeder (Frankfurt a. M., 1973), pp. 23-49.

8 On this debate, in addition to Galletti, 'La "ragionepoetica," ' pp. 331-358, and
Curtius,EuropeanLiterature,
Dichtungslehren,
pp. 214-221, see Buck, Italienische
pp. 6972; Manlio Dazzi, II Mussatopreumanista(1261-1329): l'ambientee l'opera (Vicenza, 1964),

pp. 108-123; GustavoVinay, 'Studi sul Mussato. I: il Mussato e l'esteticamedievale,'


Giornale storico della letteraturaitaliana, 126 (1949), 113-159; and Karl Vossler, Poetische

Theorienin deritalienischen
Litterarhistorische
Friihrenaissance,
Forschungen,12 (Berlin,
1900), pp. 5-12. The Mussato texts on poetry are published in Albertini Mussati Historia

AugustaHenriciVII. Caesariset alia quaeextantopera(Venice, 1636); and in JohannesG.


Graevius, Thesaurusantiquitatumet HistoriarumItaliae, 9 vols. (Leiden, 1704-23), VI, pt. 2.

The letter of fra Giovannino is found in the 1636 edition, pp. 70-73. Dazzi gives an
Italiantranslationof a number of the metric lettersof Mussato,pp. 169-195.

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

541

hasas its subjectthe gods andcelestialthings.Likethe Holy Bibleit is


inspiredby God:
This work of art deals with nothing less than divine things.
This science was sent down from high heaven and has its place next to God himself.

WhereasGenesisdescribesthe originsof the universein prose, 'the


secretmuseteacheswith greaterobscurity.'9Otherparallelsbetween
what the poetsteachand what the Bible revealsshow that the poets
like the ChosenPeoplewere recipientsof truthsfrom God revealing
something of His true nature (Epist.,xvIII, 25-29): 'Our whole faithis
predictedby holy Maro.'10If the poetsspeakof various'gods,' they
shouldnot be takenliterally.They arein factpraisingin deathhuman
beingswho in life attaineddistinction.Christiansdo much the same
thing,onlytheypreferto callthesedeadheroes'saints'(Epist.,xvIII,4950). Boththepoetsandprophets,moreover,realizethatmen areinterested in mysteries:
Mystical words attractgood men;
Wondrous poetry makes them more attentive
When it signifies something other than what the words mean. (Epist., vII, 32-34)

Likepaganpoetrymuchof the Bible is in meterandrequiresan alleto be understood.


goricalinterpretation
Mussato'sbasicideathatancientpoetryin its highestformswas the
productof somesortof divineinspirationtied Mussatointo the medieval tradition.What set his accountapartfrom earlierChristiandefenseswas his thoroughparallelingof poetrywith Scriptureand the
completeconfidencewithwhichhe executedhistaskwithno indication
thatpoetrycouldbe dangerousto the faith.Abroadin the worldfrom
the beginningof time, Divine Providenceutilizedthe poetsto reveal
obscurelycertaintruthswhich only laterbecamemanifest.The poet,
9

Epist., rv, 44-48.

10Quoted by Giovanninofrom Mussato'sfirst letter (now lost) to him; Opera,p. 71.


In his rebuttalthe friarattackedthis method of applyingthe words of the poets to things
of which they had never dreamed,confirming his own position with the authorityof
Jerome,above,n. 6. Although St.Jeromemay have been instrumentalin leadingAquinas
to his low estimateof the poetic value of poetry, Giovannino'suse ofJerome againstthe
propheticinterpretationof Virgil is the first specificcitation of Jerome'sopinion in the
MiddleAges known to me. Mussato,unwilling to opposethe authorityofJerome on this
issue, replies (168-175): 'Haec data desursumvatem cecinisseputabam / Grata mihi
nimium monitus sed corrigor.'Yet obviously still cherishingbelief in the directinspiration of God working in the ancientpoets, he asks provocatively (172): 'Unde vix ille
Deus, quem sic monstraverat?'

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542

RENAISSANCE

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therefore,wastrulya vatesor vesselof Godandhis creationswereonly


partlythepoet'sown.11The overalleffectof Mussato'sdefense,consequently,wasto blurthedistinctionbetweenpoetryandtheologyandto
stressthe continuitybetweenancientpoetry and the Bible: the poet
adumbrated
truthswhich were subsequentlyenunciatedwith greater
clarityin the Holy Book of the Christians.
Althoughneitherreferredto Mussatoby name in this regard,his
opinionswere doubtlessknown to Petrarchand Boccaccio.12Both,
however,differedwith him on the issueof the divineinspirationof
view Scripture
likepoetryis filledwith allegories:
poetry.In Petrarch's
indeed,'I could almostsay theologyis poetryconcerningGod.' The
earliesttheologianswere the poets, men who, with theirawakening
awarenessof the existenceof a higherpower,pouredforthpraisesto
thatpowerin a heightenedform of speech.13
Beforethe philosophers,
the poetspursuedknowledgeof the divineandcameto realizethatthe
wereone.14If theypersistedin veilingtheir
godstheywerecelebrating
in
it
was
becauseof theirfearof the commonpeodiscovery allegory,
who
were
The
ple,
polytheists. apostlesafterthe deathof Christexperiencedsomethingof the samedreadof popularopposition(72). The
obscurenatureof both Scriptureand poetry, moreover,savedtheir
precioustruthsfrom distortionby vile handsandencouragedlearning
anddiligentexamination(68-71).
The gift of poetryis divinelybestowed.Supportedby Cicero'sstatementin ProArchiavm, 18, Petrarchin his CoronationOrationspeaks
of thepoeticartasworking'notwithouta certaininternalanddivinely
infusedpowerin the mindof thepoet-seer.'15
But if the gift is heaven1 Epist., vnI, 20. Only with qualification,therefore,can one accept the judgment of
e nel Rinascimento,
3 vols. (Florence,
GiuseppeSaitta,II pensieroitalianonell'Umanesimo
1961), I, 11, that Mussato'sposition leads to 'una commossa esaltazionedella potenza
creatricedello spiritoumano.'
12 GiuseppeBillanovich,'PietroPiccolo da Montefortetra il Petrarcae il Boccaccio,'

Medioevo e Rinascimento,Studi in onore di Bruno Nardi, 2 vols. (Florence, 1955), I, 18-19.

There is no reason,moreover,to questionSalutati'sknowledge of thesetexts as well. He


expressedadmirationfor the poetry and historiesof Mussatoin 1400 and copied Mussato's Somniumand Eceriniswith his own hand: Berthold L. Ullman, The Humanismof
ColuccioSalutati,Medioevo e umanesimo,4 (Padua,1963), p. 237.
13 Lefamiliari,ed. V. Rossi, Edizione nazionaledelle opere di FrancescoPetrarca,4
vols. (Florence, 1933-42), n, 301-302. Also see, Inv. I, Invective contramedicum,ed. Pier G.
Ricci, Storia e letteratura, 32 (Rome, 1950), p. 36.
14 Inv. m, Invective, p. 59.
15 Attilio Hortis, Scritti inediti di FrancescoPetrarca (Trieste, 1874), pp. 312-313. Pe-

trarchcites the samepassagefrom Cicero in Inv. I but without any comment: Invective,
P. 33.

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

543

sent,Petrarchis clearasto thenaturalsourceof the truthsexpressedby


the poets.As he explainsto hisbrotherin Fam.x, 4, the originaldesire
of thepoetsto seektruthandespeciallytruthaboutGodis 'apartof our
While recognizingthatthe ancientSibyllineprophecies
verynature.'16
were divinelyinspired,he nevergrantssuchpropheticabilitiesto the
Petrarchspecifically
thefamous
poets.17InhisDe otioreligioso
interprets
passage of Virgil's Bucolics iv, 6-7,
Once more the Virgin comes and Saturn'sreign,
Behold, a heaven-born offspring earthwarddescends!

not as predicting the advent of Christ but ratherof CaesarAugustus.


The imminent coming of the Savior was announced by various signs
throughout the world in Virgil's day and doubtlessthe poet had heard
of these, but 'becausehe did not hope for so great an event, he referred
them to the Roman Emperor, than whom he knew nothing greater.'
Christiantruth so unambiguouslyshinesforth for Petrarchthat he feels
no need to seek proofs of it in the writings of the pagans.18
16 Fam.
nl,301. He also distinguishesin the samepassagebetween Scriptureand ancient
poetry: 'sed subiectumaliud, Quis negat?illic de Deo deque divinis, hic de diishominibusque tractatur....'
17 On the prophetic power of the Sibyls see Rerum memorandarum
libri, ed. G. Billanovich, Edizione nazionale delle opere di Francesco Petrarca, v, pt. 1 (Florence, 1943),
pp. 210-213. Also, De otio religioso, ed. G. Rotondo (finished posthumously by Guido
Martellotti), Studi e testi, 195 (Vatican City, 1958), p. 29, and Fam. xxI, 8 (iv, 63).
18 De otio, p. 29. 'Nobis vero iam, gratias illi qui usqueadeo immeritos nos dilexit, hec
omnia sine ullis externis testibus clara sunt et ita se oculis fidelium divine lucis radii infundunt, ut nemo tam cecus sit qui non iustitie solem Christum mente perspiciat... .' As for
the Ec., IV:6-7, however, he grants that a 'religiosus et plus lector' can refer the passages to
Christ if he wishes. Vladimiro Zabughin, Vergilio nel Rinascimentoitaliano, 2 vols. (Bologna, 1921-23), I, 27, characterizes the attitude as 'timida, conciliante, onde l'interpretazione christiana della quarta Ecloga, pur non ammessa scientificamente rimane suggerita quale pia anagoge al "religioso lettore" .. .' For Petrarch's rejection of Virgil as a
prophet see also, Pierre de Nolhac, Petrarqueet l'humanisme,2 vols. (Paris, 1907), I, 128;
and his 'Virgile chez Petrarque,' in Virgilio nel Medio Evo, pp. 220-221. For Nolhac Petrarch took the side ofJerome against Augustine. For a different interpretation see Charles
Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness, 2 vols. (London, 1970), nI, 693. Trinkaus cites a passage of Petrarch's Inv. in (Invective, pp. 71-72): 'Primos nempe theologos apud gentes
fuisse poetas et philosophorum maximi testantur, et sanctorum confirmat autoritas, et
ipsum, si nescis, poete nomen indicat. In quibus maxime nobilitatus Orpheus, cuius
decimoctavo civitatis eterne libro Augustinus meminit. "At nequiverunt quo destinaverant pervenire," dicet aliquis. Fatebor. Nam perfecta cognitio veri Dei, non humani
studii, sed celestis est gratie. Laudandus tamen animus studiosissimorum hominum, qui
certe quibus poterant viis ad optatam veri celsitudinem anhelabant, adeo ut ipsos quoque
philosophos in hac tanta et tam necessaria inquisitione precederent. Credibile est etiam
hos ardentissimos inquisitores veri ad id saltem pervenisse, quo humano perveniri poterat

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544

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Virgil's descriptionof the Underworld in the Aeneidhad become a


favorite with those interested in demonstratingthe poet's prophetic
powers. In Petrarch'scase, however, when addressingVirgil personally
in Fam. xxiv, 9, regarding what the poet actually found there after
his death, the humanist asks: 'How near the truth were thy earthly
dreams?'19Years later in Sen. rv, 5, in reference to the Underworld
again, Petrarchexpresslywrites that Virgil's descriptionwas composed
of countless 'fictions.'20Accordingly, although Petrarchbelieved the
poet's talent to be God-given (but then what talentis not?), he differed
with Mussatoand with a traditionof interpretationgoing back to the
early ChurchFathersas to the sourceof poetic truth.In Petrarch'sview
the ancientpoets as theologiansachieved the truth they knew by their
own efforts. While enthusiasticallydefending poetry, the humanist
recognized the naturallimitationsof its truth content.
Boccaccio was even clearer than Petrarch in his effort to present
pagan poetry as sometimes sacralbut never sacred.With Mussatoand
Petrarchhe insiststhat the poets must be interpretedallegoricallyand
that the truths contained under the cortexare important both for the
public welfare and for the private individual.21On the authority of
Aristotle,Boccaccio arguesin the De genealogiathat the poets were the
first to meditate on theological questions. Stirred by wonder at the
forces of nature,they createdsongs written in lofty but often obscure
speech (n, 703). The difficultyof the languageprotected their message
from corruptionat the handsof the vulgar and made their meaning all
ingenio, ut-secundum illud Apostoli suprarelatum-per ea que factasunt, invisibilibus
intellectisatqueconspectis,prime causeet unius Dei qualemcunquenotitam sortirentur;
atque ita deincepsomnibus modis id egisse, ut-quod publice non audebant,eo quod
nondum viva veritas terrisilluxerat-clam suaderentfalsos deos esse, quos illusa plebs
coleret.' Commenting on this passage,Trinkauswrites: 'Thus the affirmationof the
existenceof a secrettraditiondifferingfrom the manifestmeaning of their writings, in
which the divinetruthwas known by inspiredancientpaganbards-poets or theologians
-was clearlymade by Petrarch.It is this theory of the ancienttheologiapoeticawhich is
againtakenup by the Platonistsof the late Quattrocentoas an essentialpartof their conception of a theologia
platonica.'I understandthe passagecited as specificallydenying divine inspirationand maintainingthat the poets went 'as far as they were able to go by
human powers' (Trinkaus'translation).
19 Fam. Iv, 252.

20 Seniles,
4, 5 (Opera quae extant [Basel, 1581], p. 787): '. .

mente inferos adeat, ubi

fictionum nullus aut modus aut numerus.'


21 Genealogiedeorumgentiliumlibri,ed. Vincenzo Romano, Scrittorid'Italia,200-201
(Bari, 1951), I, 752-753. My translations are based on English translations of Books xIv

on Poetry(Princeton,1930).
and xv by CharlesG. Osgood, Boccaccio

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

545

the more preciousbecauseof the laborof interpretation


required(n,
714-716).Becausethemythstreatedby thepoetsregardedeitherphysical natureor humanactions,theirworksbelongedmore properlyto
physiologyor ethologythanto theology.But, so exaltedin men'seyes
was anythingrelatingto divinity,that,althoughthey 'got theirname
from no knowledgeor lore of the true God,' the poetswere still regardedastheologians.Moreover,besidesderivingtruthfrompoetryin
the fieldsof cosmologyor ethics,modernChristians
with properinter-

pretation can utilize the poets in the service of the Faith (II, 768-769).
Along with Petrarch,Boccaccio believed poetry a divine gift given
by God only to a few men.22But, at one point he was willing to go beyond Petrarchin granting the poets contact with divine truth. After
discussingthe varioustheoriesas to the originatorof poetry, Boccaccio
hazardshis own opinion:
I cannot believe that the sublime effects of this great art were first bestowed upon
Musaeus, or Linus, or Orpheus, however ancient, unless, as some say, Moses and
Musaeuswere one and the same.... Ratherit was instilledinto most sacredprophets
dedicated to God. For we read that Moses, impelled by what I take to be this poetic
longing, at dictation of the Holy Ghost, wrote the largerpart of the Pentateuchnot in
prose but in heroic verse. In like manner, othershave set forth the great works of God
in the metrical garmentsof letters, which we call poetic.

The pagan poets, perhapsconsciously, imitated the writings of these


prophetsbut there was an essentialdifferencebetween the two groups:
'whereas the holy men were filled with the Holy Ghost, and wrote
underHis impulse,the otherswere promptedby mere energy of mind,
whence such a one is called "seer."Under fervor of this impulse they
composed their poems' (II, 704-705).

The idea of a diffusionof truths from an original revelation recurs


nowhere else in Boccaccio'sdiscussionof poetry, and even in the passage cited above he appearsto have embraced the position primarily
becausehe felt forcedto decidebetween threealternativetheorieson the
origin of poetry. What does emerge consistentlyfrom the writer'svarious treatmentsof poetry, however, is the conceptionthat the source of
22

Ibid.,ni, 699: 'Poesisenim, quam negligentes abiciuntet ignari, est fervor quidam
exquisite inveniendi atque dicendi, seu scribendi,quod inveneris.Qui, ex sinu dei procedenspaucis mentibus,ut arbitror,in creationeconceditur,ex quo, quoniammirabilis
sit, rarissimisemper fuere poete. Huius enim fervoris sunt sublimes effectus, ut puta
mentem in desideriumdicendicompellere,peregrinaset inauditasinventionesexcogitare,
meditatas ordine certo componere, ornare compositum inusitato quodam verborum
atque sententiarumcontextu, velamento fabulosoatque decentiveritatemcontegere.'

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546

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truthin thepoetslieswithinthepoetsthemselves.
Theircreativeenergy,
if itselfa divinegift, functionswithoutsupernatural
aid in expressing
truthswhichat thehighestleveldealwith divinethings.23
The effectof
of poetrywasto placetheexaltedpowersascribedto
thisde-sanctifying
the art underhumancontrolwhile at the same time renderingthe
ancientpoetsmoreaccessible
asmento othermen.Paradoxically
while
to
divide
more
from
the
ancient
Christian
culture
tending
sharply
throughits denialof a divinerevelationto the poets,the approachof
PetrarchandBoccaccioto poeticinspiration
established
atthesametime
a closerhumanbondbetweenthe two ages.
ColuccioSalutati's
firstknowndefenseof poetryappearedin a letter
writtenon October25, 1378, to the BolognesechancellorGiuliano
Zonarini.In Septemberof thatyearSalutati,who hadaskedZonarini
to purchasefor him a manuscriptof Virgil in Bologna,receivedan
epistolarylecturefromthepiousZonarinion thedangersof readingthe
poet: ratherthanreadthis 'lyingseer'Salutatishouldbe spendinghis
23
e gli altriscritti
Ibid.,pp. 719-720; Vita di Dante, in II comentoalla divinacommedia
intornoa Dante,ed. Domenico Guerri,Scrittorid'Italia,84-86 (Bari, 1918), I, 41; and II
comento,ibid.,pp. 142-143. Therefore,he finds dealing with St. Augustine'sprophetic
interpretationof Eccles.4.6-7 an awkwardtask: ibid.,la,9-10. The extent to which the
text of II comentowas actuallywritten by Boccaccio, however, is debatable.See also II
dellavita di Dante,ibid.,I, 90, where Boccaccio drawsthe distinctionbeprimocompendio
tween the Scriptureand ancientpoetry as follows: 'quellafu dettatadallo Spiritosanto,
il quale e tutto verita, e questafu trovatadallo'ngegnodegli uomini, li quali di quello
Spiritoo non ebbono alcunaconoscenzao non 1'ebbonotanto piena.'Admittedly,while
the basicdistinctionis clear,the finalclauseleavesan ambiguity.The passagewas omitted
from the second compendio:
ibid.
FrancescoTateo, 'Retorica'e 'Poetica'fraMedioevoe Rinascimento
(Bari, 1960), pp. 7273, writing on Boccaccio'sdefinition of poetry (see above, n. 22), comments: 'Cosi e
significativoil passaggioda una considerazioneteologica delfervor(ilfurore,l'ispirazione
divina), che pur trasparein queste pagine, ad una considerazionedi esso meno determinata (un generico impulso, naturale,piu che divino), che spinge l'uomo alla poesia,
come ad ogni impegnataoccupazionedella sua anima.' On the historicalproblem of
priority in the invention of poetry Tateo (p. 80) suggests that 'secondo la mentalita
medievale, il definirela questionenon poteva toccare a lui [Boccaccio], ma solo alla
testimonianzadegli autori....' Buck, Italienische
Dichtungslehren,
p. 87, impliesthatboth
Petrarchand Boccaccio as well as Salutatibelieved that the poetatheologuswas inspired
'von einem gottlichenHauch.'While TrinkausinterpretsBoccaccioas denyingthe direct
influenceof the Holy Spirit (InMy Image,p. 695), he attenuatesthis affirmationlaterby
writing (p. 713) that Landinoin the next century 'stressesmuch more firmly and explicitly than had Boccaccio or Salutatithat the poet is divinely inspired.'The case of
Salutati,as we shallsee, is complex, but for Boccaccioit seemsclearthat the paganpoets'
discovery of truth was 'natural.'

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547

time with the sacredbooks.24If Zonarinihas such fears,Salutatiretorts


in his response,why does he not criticize as well the study of Plato,
Aristotle, Donatus, Priscian,and Cicero in the schools? On the contrary,Virgil is not only not harmfulto a Christianbut he is usefulboth
for his style and the profundity of his knowledge:
I admire the majestyof his language, the appropriatenessof his words, the harmony of
his verses, the smoothness of his speech, the elegance of his composition and the
sweetly flowing structureof his sentences.I admire the profundity of his thought and
his ideas drawn from the depths of ancient learning and from the loftiest heights of
philosophy.25

Of course,he admits,Holy Scriptureis readwith greaterprofit than


the poets but the dispassionatejudge sees that the poets both edify and
support the message of Scripture.26He then proceeds to show that
Virgil's poetry containstruth drawnfrom the heights of true theology.
In these poems, he argues,are to be found proofs of the Trinity (Buc.
vm, 72-74), the unity of essence of Father and Son (Aen. i, 664), the
institution of the Church (Aen. III, 409), hell (Aen. VI, 616-617), and

purgatoryand paradise(Aen.VI,743-744). While Christiansshouldnot


go to the poets to learn their faith, yet when their writings contain
somethingconsonantwith truth,then, Salutaticonfesses,he embracesit
'willingly and with happiness' (304). The great early thinkers of the
Church, moreover, knew the poets well and learnedfrom them much
which was beneficialfor style. Not only are modern Christiansadvised
to use the poets to learn grammarand eloquence and for purposesof
edification but also in order to read intelligently the early works of
Christianityso repletewith referencesto the pagan authors(304-305).
Salutatidoes not specificallyclaim that Virgil's poetry was in part
inspiredby divine revelation.It is for Zonarini to judge 'whether it is
characteristicof truth to emerge out of floods of falsitiesor whether
omnipotent God wanted to revealhimself to mortalsby the testimony
24

Epistolariodi ColuccioSalutati, ed. Francesco Novati, Fontiper la storiad'Italia, 15-18


(Rome, 1891-1911), I, 300. Unless otherwise indicated quotations given in the text for

the two lettersto Zonarini,the final letter to Giovannida San Miniato, and the letter to
Giovanni Dominici are taken from the English translationof these lettersby Ephraim
Emerton, Humanismand Tyranny (Cambridge, 1925), pp. 290-308,312-341, and 346-377.
25 Ibid., I, 301-302.
26 Ibid.,p. 302: 'sanctius
plane,fateor,et utiliuslectioni sacrepagine sineintermissione

temporisinsudare;sed hec inventa gentilium ac etiam, quos adeo horres,carminapoetarum, si quis ea alta mente libraverit,non parvum edificantatque prosunt ad ea que
fidei sunt et que legenda tuis litterispersuades.'

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548

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of all sectsand beliefs' (302). Zonarinihimself mustjudge how 'fitting'


a particular passage (Buc. VIII, 72-74) is as a description of the Trinity

(303). After quoting various lines of Virgil suggesting possible divine


inspiration,Salutatiimplies his own belief in God's direct influenceon
the poet: 'but clearly it pertainsto the glory of God omnipotent that
even through the ignorant, those wishing to say something else and
thosewho did not know him, He revealedso many secretsof thatwhich
was to come' (303). Thus, while expressinghimself cautiously,Salutati
in 1379 stood closer on the issue of the source of poetic inspirationto
Mussatothanto PetrarchandBoccaccio. Significantly,he omitted from
his list of Virgil'spredictionsa citationof Buc.Iv, 6-7. As Salutatidoubtlessknew, PetrarchandBoccacciohad interpretedthatpredictionas not
referringto Christ. Also by 1379 Benvenuto da Imola might already
have confided to Salutatihis intention to renderthe samejudgment in
his partiallycompleted commentary on Dante's Divina commedia.27
Zonarini'sreligiousscrupleswere not allayedby this responseand he
wrote back citing Buc. Iv, 6-7 (the very passageSalutatihad avoided
using), to prove that Virgil believed that God's operationswere eternally cyclical in contradictionto the teachingsof the Faith. The Bolognese chancellordid not seem to be aware of the disputeregardingthe
interpretationof this passagewithin the ranksof the defendersof poetry
themselves;ratherhe evidently selected these verses for criticism because they had formed a central focus for such defenses from early
Christiantimes.28
Salutatibegins his rebuttalby emphasizingthe general proposition
that the poets containtheologicaltruths:'What can we expect from the
songs of the poets, in which the divine spiritof truth commonly seems
ed. J. P. Lacaita,5 vols. (Florence,1887), I,
Commentum
superDantis Commediam,
55-56. Salutatiwas one of Benvenuto's consultantsin the preparationof the work:
27

Epist., II, 76-80.


28 Ibid.,I, 325. It would appearfrom the languageof this letter that Zonarinihad dis-

in responseto the above. We do not know if


patched a letter entitled Transcursorium
Salutatiansweredit. Domenico Silvestri,Salutati'sfriend,readit in any caseand wrote
off a bitter attackon Zonarini'sposition. Irritatedby Silvestri'sletter and probablysuspecting Salutatihad encouragedit, the Bolognesechancellorsentan unsignedthirdletter
to SalutaticontainingSilvestri'sletterin its folds. Apparentlythis thirdletterof Zonarini
on poetry arrivedat the beginning of April but was temporarilymisplaced.A month
later,on May 5, 1379,however, Salutati,havingfound it, wrote a reply andjoined to it a
note of apology from Silvestri.Silvestri'sattackon Zonarinihas been publishedby my
formerstudentSteven Marrone,'Domenico Silvestri'sDefense of Poetry,' Rinascimento,
2nd ser., 13 (1973), 125-132.

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549

to resoundeitherwithin the mysteryof the allegoriesor in the very

expression of the words.'29The crucial word 'resounds'is carefully


chosen to allow for interpretationsshortof one suggestinga directcause
and effect relationship.Dealing specificallywith the charge that Virgil
believed in the eternalcircularityof the divine activity, Salutatirefers
Zonarini to Eccles. 1.9-10:
There is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
'See, this is new?'

Through this passagethe Holy Spirit revealsto man not the repetitive
nature of God's operationsbut rather the circularityof naturalprocessesand the similarityof various events in human history (325-326).
Why then perverselyinterpretVirgil when he saysthe very samething?
Whether he arrived at this truth through the brilliance of his own
genius or by some divine revelationor whether, inspiredlike Caiaphas,
he spoke in ignorance,Virgil nonethelesswas a prophet (327). Writing
after the cessation of the civil wars, Virgil in these verses might be
speakingof an age ofjustice representedby the Virgin and of peace, the
'Saturniaregna.' By 'new offspring'he might be referringto the Platonic conception of pre-existentsouls lodged in the starscoming down
into human bodies or, in consonancewith the future Faith, to the infusion of souls createdfrom nothing into separatebodies. But usually
most interpreterstake 'new offspring' to refer to 'Christ, God's true
wisdom incarnate.'30
With this rebuttalSalutatiinformed Zonarinihe wished to consider
the discussionclosed. Despite the attempt to give alternativeexplanations, the obvious hesitancy, and sometimes ambiguous choice of
words, Salutatiappearsin these two lettersreally to have believed that
at least unknowingly great pagan poets like Virgil sometimes had uttered Christiantruths under the influence of divine inspiration.Like
Mussato, Salutatistresseda certaincontinuity of truth between pagan
and Christianepochs as the product of the constant operationsof the
Holy Spirit. Salutatiseems to have been somewhat less reluctant to
29 Epist.,I, 324: 'quid
sperarepossumusde poetarumcarminibus,in quibusplerumque
videturaut sub allegoriarummysterioaut in ipso verborumpropatulocertissimeveritatis
divinus spiritusresonare?'
30 Ibid., pp. 328-329: 'quod si novam progeniem, ut plerique opinantur,Christum,
veram Dei sapientiamincamatam,velimus accipere,adhuc tamen ab illa circulationis
obiectionein eo quod novam dixit et non redeuntemnonqueiterandamfacilepurgabitur
vates noster.'

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claima divinesourcebehindsomeof the creationsof ancientpoetryin


his two editionsof the De laboribus
Herculis.
Sometimebefore1383Salutatiundertookan analysisof the Senecan
tragediesconcerningHercules,Hercules
furensand Herculesoetaeus,
whosesubjectmatterled him to makeobservations
on poetryin general.31Nevercompleted,thistractwas specificallydesignedto explain
Seneca'smotivationin allowingHercules,who in Hercules
furensslew
hiswife andchildren,to becomea god in Hercules
oetaeus.
Of the eight
tragediesby this author,thesetwo, the firstand the lastof the series,
were so obviouslyfablesfor Salutatithatthey mustbe especiallyprofound in their meanings.Their significancecould only be reached
throughallegoricalinterpretation.32
Becausethe poetsembellishtheirpoetrywith gods,it shouldnot be
thoughtthat they were polytheists.By metaphorthey gave different
names to God dependingon the variety of functions,times, and
places.33
Justasmanis bornfromthe unionof maleandfemale,so the
the universeas comingto be throughdivineunion.
poetsrepresented
Thattheyreallyknewtheywerespeakingof two sidesof the samebeing is shownby the commonoriginof the namesof the motherand
fatherof the gods:JupiterandJuno both derivefrom 'iuvando,'or
'helping'(589).Etymologicalanalysisas well tellshim thatthe name
Hercules,'heroscleos'or 'strongandvalianthero,'was a genericterm
applicableto manymen.IndeedVarrolistedforty-threedifferentHercules (596). Becauseit is clearlyimpossibleto distinguishbetween
of Virgilandotherpoets,claims
them,Salutati,invokingtheprecedents
the rightto treatthemall as if they hadbeenone man.
Salutatibeginshis discussionof the allegoriesinvolvedin the fable
withthatpartof theplaynarrating
how Alcmena,daughHerculesfurens
ter of Creon,conceivedtwo children:the one to be calledYphycles,
fatheredby herhusband,Amphitryon,andthe other,Hercules,whose
sirewasJupiterhimself.An etymologicalstudydecodesthesecretsthat
have been concealedunderthe propernamesof the protagonistsand
31

Prima editio, De laboribusHerculis, ed. BertholdL. Ullman, 2 vols. (Zurich,1951), rn,


585-636. On the dating of the work, see Praefatioof this edition, p. vii.
32
Ibid., pp. 585-586.
33 The
poets' searchfor truth was influencedby Divine Providence (ibid.,p. 588):
'Videntesautem deum, totius mundi architectorem,omnia in sapientiafecissecunctaque
in providentiagubernare,cum tamen sapientiaipsanichil aliud sit quam ipse deus, et ex
deo per providentiaminfinitos videntes effectusdeum variis nominibus appellaverunt
cum tamen unum et eundem esse sentirent.'

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

551

shows that Seneca had 'certain'knowledge that the human soul was
infused in the body alreadyarticulatedinto its variousparts,but while
the body was still in the uterus.Awarenessof such a processcould only
have been acquiredthrough revelation.34Salutati'sexplanationis that
God 'wantedthis truthto be revealedthroughthis our poet.' If the poet
reallyknew the truthhe spoke, then God shouldbe praisedfor inspiring
him with the spirit of truth. On the other hand, if, as many think, the
poet did this unconsciously-even though his words can be read as
expressingtruth-then 'I renderthanksto the infinite wisdom of God
which made this truth availablein the context of this fable.'35His emphasison Seneca's'certitudeof truth' suggeststhat he believes the poet
conscious of the import of his words. But, whichever his position,
Salutatiseems to imply in these passagesthat in the deepestpart of this
work by Senecaone comes in contactwith the ultimatesourceof truth
and attainsknowledge not discoverableby unaidedreason.
In the remainderof the first book detailing Hercules' marriageto
Megaraandhis subsequentmurderof her and theirthreesons and in the
unfinishedsecond book devoted to discussingHercules'fabled descent
to the Underworld, Salutatifollowed the same procedureof analyzing
names for their original meanings and then defining the truths which
such identificationssuggested. Perhaps Salutati stopped work on the
treatiseat the news that Giovanni da Siena, to whom it was dedicated,
had died. More probably, as Salutatiproceeded with his analysis,he
realizedthathis conceptualframeworkwas too restricting.By the opening of the secondbook he had decidedto treatindividuallythe laborsof
Hercules, but this patently was difficultto reconcile with his original
intention of analyzingthe two Senecantragedies.36
34 Ibid., p. 592: 'Quod quiaverissimumest et ita tenendumfideliter,ut scripsi,et tamen
non nisi post fidei nostre documentainvenio humano generi revelatum, maxime admirationisest autorem veritatem huius tam difficilisrei et per philosophosdiversiset
contrariisdisputationibusexplicate sub huius fabule involucro reliquisse,ut inter fictionum latebrastam exquisiteveritatisprodeatcertitudo.'
35 Ibid.: 'ille,
inquam, deus et per hunc poetam nostrum hanc veritatem voluit apparere. Quod si poeta sensit,laudemusdeum, qui sibi veritatisspirituminspiravit.Sin
hec nostrivatisnon fueritintentio,sedpoema suumad id
autem, ut pluresarbitrabuntur,
quod intendo valeat adaptari,grates ago infinite dei sapientieque hanc veritatem in
huius fabule serie dederitdeprendisse.'Salutatibelieved in the authenticityof Seneca's
correspondencewith St. Paul (Epist.,I, 150), yet this is never usedas evidencein proving
the philosopher'sknowledge of Christiantruth.
36 De laboribus
Herculis,nr, 612. Ullman, however, ties his dating to the death of
Giovanni da Siena:ibid.,I, vii.

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Becausethe subsequent
effortto dealwith the Herculesmythsindicatescontinuedrelianceon the propheticinterpretation
of ancientpomust
said
be
about
the
of
etry,something
chronology the secondedition. Salutati'soriginalintentionin this editionhad been to prefacea
studyof the laborsin threebookswith a few introductory
chapterson
thenatureof poetry,but,ashe beganto write,he realizedtheextensive
natureof the subjectmadeanotherbook necessary.37
Therefore,when
in 1391he describedthe workas eventuallyto consistof fourbooks,38
it seemsprobablethatthe firstbook wasroughlyin its presentstateof
In 1405Salutatimentionedthatonly Book II hadbeen
completion.39
but
completed evenit wasnotyet corrected,whiletheotherthreebooks
Giventhe humanist'stime-consuming
remainedunfinished.40
producin thelastdecadeof hislife,it canbe assumedthat
tionof othertreatises
most of the De laboribus
Herculisas we have it was writtenin the last
halfof the 1380'sandthefirsthalfof the 1390's. As we shallsee,moredatedcorrespondence
over,Salutati's
belongingto thelateryearsof his
life indicatesthathe held a conceptionof poeticinspirationdiffering
Herculis.
markedlyfrom thatexpressedin passagesof the De laboribus
37

Ibid.,p. 76.
Epist.,IV, 253. It seemsclearthat the need of four books becameapparentas he was
Herculis,I, 73: 'Fateor,nec pudet, ingenue me de poetica dicere
writing De laboribus
meditantemnec tot nec taliaquot et qualiaserieprecedentisvoluminisexplicuicogitasse.
Putabamuno vel duobus capitulistotam illam materiamexpedire.'He ascribesthe decision to Divine Providence:ibid.,p. 76.
39 Ullman, The Humanism,
p. 25, n. 1, agreesthat 'most of Book I must have been
finishedby 1391.'If thisis the terminus
antequemfor Book I, the sectionof the De laboribus
Herculiswhich makesmost of the claimsfound in the book for some sort of divinerevelation to the paganpoets, then the position of Alfredvon Martin (SalutatiunddashumanistischeLebensideal[Berlin, 1916], p. 240, n. i) and Hans Baron (The Crisisof the Early
2nd ed. [Princeton,1966], pp. 297-299) that Salutatibecame 'more
ItalianRenaissance,
and more extremein his defenseof antiquity'is open to question.Von Martin'squotations from Salutati'sDe seculoet religione,ed. BertholdL. Ullman (Florence,1957), p. 37
-dated 1381-82-and his Defato etfortuna,Bk. n, c. 4 (Urb. Lat. 1184, fol. 13), dated
1396-97, designedto show Salutati'sconservativeattitudetoward the poets before the
last decadeof his life, do not effectivelyprove his point. The passagefrom the De seculo
condemns only the comic poets and that from the Defato criticizesmerely the 'poete
lasciviorisstili,'who arespecificallydistinguishedfrom Virgil andTerence (atleastin the
caseof the Eunuch).On the otherhand,in the Defato, Bk. II, c. 5, Virgil is referredto as
38

'divinissimus' (ibid., fol. 13v).


40
Epist.,iv, 76. Missingat the time of his deathwere the following partsof the work:
Book i, ch. 14; Book nIhasno ch. 4; andmany subjectssupposedlyto be treatedin Book
Iv were not written. The letter of Februaryi, 1405, indicatesthat he still intended to
finish the work 'si dederitDeus compleri'but there is no proof that he continuedwork
on the manuscript.

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This leads to the conclusion,admittedlynot certain,that the latter


largelybelongedto a priorstageof his intellectualdevelopment.41
The beginningsectionwith its extensivediscussionof the originsof
poetry,its nature,andpurposewas designedto makethe subsequent
analysisof individuallegendsintelligible.With the exceptionof the
of the theoreticaldiscusfirsttwo chaptersdevotedto the continuation
of Jusion of Book I, Book II considersthe allegoricalinterpretations
piterandJunoandbeginstreatmentof the Herculeslegendsby analyzing thefablesconcerningthehero'sconceptionandbirth.Thethirdand
longestbook of the treatiseas it now standsis entirelygiven over to a
wide varietyof the laborsof the hero, while the fourthconcernsthe
as
descentinto the Underworldof Orpheus,Theseus,andAmphiaraus
well as Hercules.Had he finishedthe work, it would alsohave containedananalysisof thewivesof Herculesandof incidentslikeHercules'
deificationon Mt. Oethaand the secondcaptureof Troy. However,
only thoseelementsof the work relatedto Salutati'sconceptionof the
areto receiveconsideration
here.
valueof poetryfor Christians
At the outsetof the work SalutatiinterpretsAristotle'sdefinitionof
poetry to be 'a speechof blameor praise,'but finds thisconception
inadequatebecausepoetry sharesthis samepropertywith oratory.42
Nor is it sufficientto specifythatpoetsuse fictions,becauseoften the
element
andoratorsdo likewise.Ratherthedistinguishing
philosophers
of poetryis 'song'or 'metricalmelody':'indeedthepoetsbindallthings
with versesandseducetheirauditorswith a twofolddelectationhardly
(10). Not only is the melodyof poetrysweeterthan
comprehended'
thatof prosebut alsoit possessesall mannerof figures:'thatmarvelous
harmoniouschangingnow of words,now of things,now of deeds.'
Salutatiarrivesata new definitionof poetryasconcerned
Consequently,
with praiseand blameinsofaras these are articulatedin meter and
figurativespeech(14).
But in fact Salutati'sconceptionof poetrygoes beyondits strictly
of theoriginsof
moralaspectreflectedin thisdefinition.Hisdescription
suggestsitspatent
poetryasintimatelyrelatedto theologicalspeculation
of
Near
the
Salutati
the
work
opening
appearsto makethe
inadequacy.
41 Part of Book m, however, had to be written after 1389/90 becausethere is a reference in it to Salutati'sletter to Giovanni da San Miniato composed about this time:
Ullman, The Humanism, p. 59, n. 1. From letters dated 1398 (Epist., m, 311) and 1400

(ibid.,p. 380) Salutatihad not ceasedwork on the manuscriptin these years.


42 De laboribusHerculis, I, 10.

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origin of poetry antedatethe time of Moses and even that of Nimrod


and the Chaldeans,who, ordering the destructionof the idols, commanded all to worship fire. If before Nimrod the idols of gods were
worshipped,Salutatiargues,surelytheirpraiseswere celebratedin song
(9). Laterin Book I, however, he attributesthe beginningsof poetry to,
Enoch, son of Seth and grandsonof Adam, born in the two-hundredthirty-fifth year after the creation of the world (81-82). While here
Nimrod is describedas the earliestconvert to paganism,as in the first
explanationthe author makes no attempt to provide a sequentialaccount of how Hebrew and pagan poetry relate.What is importantfor
Salutatiis that both among Jews and pagansthe first theologianswere
the poets.43Fables and figurative language were needed not only in
order to communicate with common people but even for a dialogue
between wise men because the majesty of the ineffable God so transcendsour sensesandintellectthatone can only speakof him in imagery
and figures (15-16).

Salutatiwas aware of the problem of differentiatingbiblical from


secularpoetry, with which it appearsconfused at certainpoints in his
account. He makes the distinction clearly: in Scripturenot only the
inner layer of the poem is true but also the outward covering, while in
the poetry of the Gentilesthe exteriormay containfalsehoods.But, one
might ask, does this mean that when the poetry is consideredallegorically the inquiring mind will always find truth?Salutatibegins to say
just this but then quickly backs away from the position. Even in their
hidden meaning one cannot always expect to find unquestionable
truth.44A second differencebetween the two, moreover, concernsthe
time period to which the allegoriesrefer. FrequentlyScriptureutilizes
allegoriesto signify events to come, e.g., the sacrificeof Christwas prefigured in the voluntary immolation of Isaacby Abraham, father of
many nations. The poets, on the other hand, employ their fictions to
43 Salutati's
accountis veryconfused.On I, 9, he datespoetrybeforeMosesanddisfirstwiththepagans.He contradicts
cussesit asappearing
this,I, 81-82,whenhe makes
Enochthe firstpoet.Alsoseebelow,n. 51.
44Ibid.,p. 70: 'Etcumin primaverborumfrontetumveraproferantur,
ut semperin
divinascriptura,
tum falsa,sicutapudlitterarum
id
secularium
poetassepiusreperitur,
tamenquodsubfigmentorelinquitur
omninosit verum,autsaltempro
intelligendum
veroreceptumapudomnesgentesseuquamlibet
heresimvel hominum
philosophorum
sensibus
veritasnon
nationem.Ut etiamin reconditis
etprorsus
exquisita
irreprehensibilis
curetur,salvoquamin sacrislitteris,in quibusnefasest non verasecundumlitteram
imo sacrilegumfacinusintellectumqui non sit ipsaveritas
scribereet abominabile,
Similarly,ibid.,p. 87.
applicare.'

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555

designatepastevents.Thefictitiousprophesyof Anchiseson the future


greatnessof Aeneas'posteritywas from Virgil'sstandpointalready
accomplished.45
What methodologydoes Salutatioffer for ferretingout hidden
meaningsin poets?How can one be certainthat thesemeaningsare
legitimatelydrawnfrom the texts?Petrarchhadalreadyexpressedhis
of a
belief in the validityof a wide rangeof possibleinterpretations
to
the
literal
of
sense
the
lines.
Salutati's
poemprovidedtheyresponded
analysisof his own methodologyis muchmore elaborate.The commentatoris freeto assignall the fictionsof the poetsasreferringeither
to God, to creatures,or to anythingwhich pertainsto them (86). In
dealingwith createdbeings,the poetsareconcernedwith theirnature,
can be
production,and activities.The accuracyof an interpretation
checkedin two ways.If the etymologiesof the propernamesfoundin
the versessupportthe commentator's
conclusions,thenwithoutquestion the truemeaningof the authorhasbeenelicited.But, even if the
authorneverthoughtof referringin hisworkto God,nature,or morals
andthepropernamesdo not lendthemselvesto supportsuchan analythe commentatorwho makessuch a connectioncan
sis,nevertheless,
be certainthathe hasfound'a farmoreappropriate
meaningthanthe
The
doesnot derivethispurelyfromhisown
authordid.'46 interpreter
not
'One
should
wonder
at this.Indeedmanymortalsplan
ingenuity:
one
for
the directorof creation,prewhich
God,
something
purpose
another'
for
(86).
pares
The exampleusedto illustratethisprincipleis the sellingof Joseph
into Egyptby his brothers,an eventwhichprefiguredthe betrayalof
Christby Judas (86-87). Salutati'sconclusionhere is centralto the
justificationof his secondprincipleof interpretation:
45 Ibid.,pp. 13-14. This distinctionwould not, however, cover propheticstatements
of the poets regardingChristiantruth.
46 Salutaticlaimsuse of his own
judgment to interpretmyths even when his under-

standing contradicts the position of previous writers (I, 46): '. .. cum poetarum figmenta

posita sint in medio, nec uni homini, licet doctissimo,sed toti posteritatirelictasint: quis
audeataffirmarequod, quisquisille fuerit qui semel aliquidipsorumexponensattigerit,
reliquosquibusillud idem relictumsit a iure atquefacultateexpositionisexcludat?'After
all, Fulgentiusaddshis interpretationsto those of Anaximander,Xenophanes,Pisander,
and others. If interpretationsdiffer, let the readerjudge them on their merits (I, 47).
Salutatieven concedesat certainpoints that he sometimesgives differentinterpretations
of the same passage(m, 548-549 and 578). The readershould choose the interpretation
he wishes.

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... in thisrespectspiritualanddivinepoetrydifferfromthehumanandsecularkind,
sinceall the formeris true,whetherone looks to the literalor considersthe hidden
sense.The latter,however,althoughit mightbe true,almostalwaysis a figmentof
imagination.The formertype of poetry,sinceit hasas its authorthe Holy Spirit,is
ordainedto an infinityof meanings,nor is a truthcongruentto the letterableto be
conceivedwhich was not from the beginningintendedby the infinitespiritfrom
whosethronethattruthproceeds.Thelattersortof poetry,however,in so farasit is a
humaninvention,is so orderedto the meaningof the authorthatsometimesit is relatedby God,the authorof all things,to somethingotherthanthe manthoughtand
sometimesit meansonly what the manwishedto express.

The Holy Spiritenvisagedand intendedall the possible 'true'interpretations of Scripturewhereasthe ancient poets, becauseof some sort of
divine influence, might have expressed truths far greater than they
realized. It is the task of the interpreter-Salutati refers to him here
significantlyas the 'mystic interpreter'(86)-to read the poets piously
in search of the divine truths buried in the allegorieswritten unconsciously under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Virgil is Salutati'sfavorite case in point. In Book II Salutatiprovides
several examples of prophecy from Virgil's work, some alreadycited
in his controversywith Zonariniin 1378-79. If understood'piously'the
verses (Aen. I, 664-665),
Myson,whoartalonemy strength,
my mightypower
O son,whoscorestthemightyfather's
darts,
Typhoean
refer to the unity of essenceand multiplicity of personsin God. Similarly other verseslike Ec. vIII, 73-75, and Aen. I, 229-230, reveal divine
mysteriesbeyond the ken of human reason (82-84). As Salutatiwrites
of Virgil in Book I: 'And if perchancehe is said to have prophesied
somethingtrue, as many believe, this was not the intentionof Maro but
of God revealing his mysteries even through the Gentiles and of the
power of truthcoming forth even out of lies' (14). There is no question
that the poets were secretlymonotheistsand that the multitude of gods
who decoratetheir pages were merely names for the multiform powers, acts, and effectsof the same divine being. Yet, Salutatiis reluctant
to grant them consciousunderstandingof the truthsthey uttered concering the essenceof this one god.
Early in Book iv he returnsto considerationof the relationshipof
divine inspirationto the poetry of the Gentiles (457-462). Although
the Scripturesnever speak of punishmentafter death for evil souls in
hell, this can be inferredfrom a variety of passages.While many philos-

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

557

ophersdidnot acceptthe existenceof hell asa placeof punishment,the


poetscommonlyacceptedits reality.How did the poetscome to this
knowledge?They did not write simplyinspiredby 'a certaindivine
spirit'but rather'by the inspirationof the divinewill andof the genuine andpuretruth.'47In thiscase,Salutatiseemswilling to admitthat
the poets consciouslyrecognizedthe truthabouthell but that they
thenusedthe truthfor theirown purposes.
A readerof theDe laboribus
Herculis
cannotbutbe impressed
with the
of divineinfluenceon the poets,a
author'ssenseof the pervasiveness
whichtendsto bridgethe gulf betweenpaganandChrispervasiveness
tianreligiousexperience.The 'mysticinterpreter,'
sittingdown to read
a text of ancientpoetry,musteverbe readyto encounterdivinetruth.
aestheticandscholarlyinterestsin ancientpoetrywere
PerhapsSalutati's
reinforced
by thisview of the far-reaching
activityof the
significantly
him
which
to
these
as in a sense
texts
encouraged
regard
Holy Spirit
would
sacred.Moreover,thisreligiousconcern
onlyincreasehisinterest
in correctspellingand accuratetexts.48If etymologywas one of the
keys to unlockingthe meaningof the poets,one musthave the right
wordsin theproperform.Otherwisethe originalinsightor inspiration
-perhaps the divine intention-behindthe poet could not be adequatelygrasped.
in
The defenseof poetryfoundin Salutati'sprivatecorrespondence
the lastdecadeanda halfof his life differssignificantlyfromhis treatment in the De laboribus
Herculis.The most extensivediscussionsare
foundin threelettersto Giovannida SanMiniato,originallya devotee
of the Muses,who abandonedthe literaryfor the militaryprofession,
Of the
only to desertthatin turnfor the spiritual
joys of monasticism.
in
was
one
written
about
another
three,
1389/90,
September1398/99,
and the last and longest,on January25, 1404/5. Two other letters,
writtentowardthe end of the humanist'slife, treatthe samesubject.
Onecomposedin 1398dealtwith thereporteddestruction
of thestatue
of Virgilin Mantuaby CarloMalatesta
andthe other,unfinishedat the
47 Ibid., II,
461: 'Quod si verum est infernum esse, quod divina testantur eloquia, certum esse potest divino quodam spiritu poetas inflatos non a se solummodo repperisse
fingendo sed in hanc veritatem inspiratione divini numinis et vere germaneque veritatis
incidisse. Denique sive poete fmxerint sive, quod vero similius esse crediderim, tanquam
verum aliquod expresserint inferos esse et ad aliud hanc ordinaverint veritatem, certum
est divini Christianique dogmatis intentionem esse quod infernus sit....'
48 On Salutati's
emphasis on spelling and textual accuracy see Ullman, The Humanism,
pp. 99-106 and 108-111.

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558

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time of Salutati'sdeath, constituteda generalresponseto the attackon


secularletters by fra Giovanni Dominici in his Luculanoctispublished

in 1405.49

As in the letters to Zonarini and the De laboribusHerculis,Salutati


refers in these five letters to the Church Fathers,first, as authorities
recognizing the legitimacy of studying the poets and, secondly, as evidence that such knowledge can enrich a Christian'sown writing.50
Again he repeatedlyemphasizesthe figurativenatureof poetry and the
necessityof speakingin allegorieswhen dealing with mattersof which
our intellect can form no conception (Epist., m, 226, and Iv, 176ff.).

Poetry is 'a divine not a human invention.' As we know from dreams


and portents, when God Himself communicateswith men, he utilizes
figurative language, as do the poets, to expresshis message (Epist.,Iv,
181). Moreover, Scripturestands out as 'the most holy and perfect
poem of celestialand salutarythings' (Epist.,in, 231). Given by God,
Scriptureoffersin its early books the first expressionsof poetry. EchoHerculisin his letter of 1404/5, Saluing the account of the De laboribus
tati identifiesthe Hebrews, Enoch, Noah, Abraham,and Moses as the
first poets.51This mode of speakingwas then 'usurped'from these divinely inspiredpoets by the Gentile poet-theologiansand by all those
who 'spoke piously and rationallyabout God.' The Christiansderived
it from 'all the prophetsand sacredwritings and found it mingled with
the Holy Gospel by our SaviourHimself.'
There are, however, certain elements in these letters markedly in
49 Letters to Giovanni da San Miniato are found in Epist., m, 221-231, 539-543, and

Iv, 170-205. For the dating of the letters, see Berthold L. Ullman, Studiesin theItalian
Renaissance, Storia e letteratura, 51 (Rome, 1955), pp. 229-230 and 249-251; also The
Humanism, pp. 59-60. I accept Ullman's dates of circa 1389 for Epist., m, 221-231;
1398/9 for m, 539-543; and 1404/5 for IV, 170-205. On Lucula noctis see Ullman, The

Humanism,pp. 63-65, and notes. Salutatialso wrote two defensesof Virgil defending
him from charges of error and immorality: Epist., m, 246-276, dated by Novati as 1398?
and by Ullman about 1378 (The Humanism, p. 55, n. 2); and m, 232-238, dated by

Novati 1397?Becausethese are not defensesof poetry but ratherrefutationsof specific


mistakes,they do not concernthis discussion.Vergerio'sattackon Malatestais found in
ed. LeonardSmith,Fontiper la storiad'Italia,74 (Rome,
EpistolariodiPierPaoloVergerio,
1934), pp. 189-202. Another defenseby an unidentifiedwriter is publishedby D. J. B.
Robey, 'Virgil'sStatueat Mantuaand the Defense of Poetry: An UnpublishedLetterof
1397,' Rinascimento,2nd ser., 9 (1969), 191-203.
50 Epist., m, 290-291, 542, and rv, 182.

51Ibid.,rv, 18o-181. It shouldbe emphasizedhere thatno 'secrettradition'is involved.


Salutatiseesthe poets taking over the poetic form ('quemmorem') and not the content
of Hebrew poetry.

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

559

contrastwith Salutati'sposition on poetry as it is expressedin the works


consideredup to this point. Taken together these letters indicate that
Salutati'sview of poetry alteredin his lateryearsto such an extent that,
while maintaininga significantdifferencein tone, he drew much closer
to the 'naturalistic'conception of poetic creativity identified with Petrarchand Boccaccio.
In none of the five lettersconcerneddoes he cite versesfrom the poets
to demonstratetheir power to utter truthsknown only by Revelation
to Christians.He also makes no claim for any action of the Holy Spirit
on the poets. Rather, he explicitly denies such contact by specifying
that the poets' knowledge was of human origin. In the first letter to
Giovanni da San Miniato, dated 1389/90, he explains how the poets
aimed to express in figures 'that secret of the highest divinity, which
they perceived,celebrated,and representedaccordingto theirreason,or
rather,since it was before God's revelation, by their estimativepower
What Virgil thought about the final end of man is said
[extimatione].'52
to have been 'accordingto the understandingof the Gentiles' (Epist.,
III, 231). In dealingin 1398 with the destructionof Virgil's statue,while
still endorsingthe principlethat Scripturediffersfrom paganpoetry becausetrue at both levels of meaning, Salutatimakesit clearthat the two
differ also becauseof the source of the truthsexpressedin each.
It is characteristicof divine poetry to use truth for a sign by which anothertruth lurking mysteriously beneath might be hidden so that the second truth like a companion
can then come forth. However, although it can use a truth to signify other things, it is
appropriatefor human poetry, which does not immediately spring from the pure
truth, not to rejectfictions and other foolish devices although its aim is to lead to and
produce the truth.53

By 1404/5 the distinctionbetween the two differentsourcesof truth


ratherthan the differencein the truth content of the externallevel be52
Ibid.,III, 226. The passagein contextreads:'et quiatam arduamremeloqui,que
sensum omnem transcendebat,ut pure intelligerentur,non poterant, figuras quasdam
excogitaverunt,quibusillud summedivinitatisarcanum,quod rationevel potiusanteDei
revelationemextimationeperceperant,celebrarentatque referrent,et quanto sublimius
loquendi genus etiam excultorumhominum ingenia reperirepotuerunt,sive naturasive
arte sive quodam usu et exercitatione dicendi, huic mysterio, quo maior adderetur
auctoritas,dicaverunt.
53
Ibid.,p. 292. Buck, Italienische
p. 87, appearsto me to distort SaluDichtungslehren,
tati's meaning here when he explicatesthe passageas meaning 'Die allegorischeInterpretationwird dannauchwieder mit der theologischenPoetik in Verbindunggebracht:
Jede Dichtung ist letzten Endes gittlichen Ursprungs:auch aus heidnischenDichtern,
die den christlichenGott nicht kannten,leuchtetoft der Strahlder g6ttlichenWahrheit.'

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came the basic criterionfor separatingScriptureand pagan poetry. In


his late letter SalutatidescribesScriptureas hiding truth 'undera covering of falsity' like poetry.54Among the exampleshe cites of outward
fictions in the Bible arethe Song of Solomon and the parablesof Christ.
The languageof the Scripturein referringto God'sactionsis alsolargely
figurative. When God is said to 'see' or 'repent,' such words cannot
surely be taken in their normal meaning.
But if both Scriptureand pagan poetry are alike in that at the literal
level they sometimes contain fictions, a new distinctionbetween the
two seems necessary.Whether or not Salutaticonsciouslyrealizesthis,
he subtly shifts in the course of this letter to a new formulationof the
distinction by emphasizing that Scriptureis divinely inspired while
poetry is strictly of human origin:
is reallya poem,though
But,I prayyou, who wouldsaythatanyportionof Scripture
it be composedin verse,eventhoughthe narrativebe in poeticform,thatis, hiding

truth under a false covering of words?A poem is one thing, a narrativein poetic form
is another.A poem is man's invention, a fiction or the relationof something fictitious;
but Holy Scriptureis not of human invention, is neither fiction nor relatedas something fictitious, but is absolutetruth even though in a pervertedor inappropriateform
of speech. (Epist., iv, 199-200)

In some senseas a compensation,immediatelyafterdenying such inspiration to poetry, Salutatiinsists on the ultimately divine origin of
all truth:
The concept of the mind which teachesand makes plain that which is, is not God, but
may more properly be said to be from God. Perhapsyou think this is not God; but,
when it is carriedback to God it is without doubt God in reality, differingin form of
expressionbut not in substance.So that, if truth is found in the Prophets and in other
sacredwritings, whether of the heathen or of believers or in your abhorredsongs of
the poets, it makes no difference. (Epist.,iv, 200)

Earlier in the letter Salutati writes much the same thing:


Since the truth [of the poets] is true,it hasa marvelousharmonywith theological truth,
nor is it to be excluded from the sanctuaryof theology. Between truths and truths
there is no dissensionand nothing which makes them mutually destructiveor exclusive. (Epist.,Iv, 184 [my trans.])

Yet this recognition that all truthis in the final resultderivedfrom God
and that through human reasonthe poet discoveredcertaintheological
54 Epist., iv, 178-180. Salutatihad previously spoken of the figurative language of
Herculis,I, 8-9
Scripturewithout brandingit falsehood: see for example, De laboribus
and 15-16.

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SALUTATI AND THE POETA THEOLOGUS

561

truthsis not at all equivalentto the beliefthat thesetruthswere implanteddirectlyin the poet'smindby the Holy Spirit.
theletterto Dominiciwrittena yearor so laterbreaks
Unfortunately,
off just beforethe point where, afterstressingthe poetic qualityof
Scripture,Salutatiwould haveto offera distinctionbetweenthe two.
Nevertheless,
by describingthe 'outwardlayer'of the Songof Songsas
'eroticand lascivious'and the languageof the Scriptureas 'departing
from the properandusualmeaning,'Salutatiappearsto be preparing
thewayfora distinctiondrawnon thelinesfoundin theletterof 1404/5
(Epist., IV, 236).

Salutati's
beliefin somekindof divineinspiration
actingon thepoets,
which is expressedin the lettersto Zonariniand in the De laboribus
renderedsucha distinctionimpossible.Forthisreasonin those
Herculis,
discussions
the crucialfactorwas the truthvalueof the literalmeaning
in Scripture.BehindSalutati'sshiftto the new criterionlay his abandonmentof the belief in poetic inspirationas at timesinfluencedby
divineagency.
To distinguishthusbetweenthe humanoriginsof the poets'truth,
evenin itsloftiestexpressions,
andthedivinesourceof Scripture,
wasto
the
the
difference
between
and
Christian
worlds.
But,
emphasize
pagan
thisview thatthepoets'inspiration
waspurelytheirown
paradoxically,
couldatthesametimefostera senseof affinitywiththeancientsfounded
on acceptanceof a common humannature.Once Virgil'screative
powerwas understoodin naturalterms,the man andhis work could
becomemoresusceptibleto understanding
in humanterms.Petrarch's
lettersto variousancientpoetsdemonstrate
how the processworked.
Forthe samereason,moreover,both he andBoccacciotreatedancient
andmodernpoetryaspartsof a singleartderivingits inspiration
from
the energyof the humanmind.
It is, of course,debatablewhetherthisapproachelevatedthe creative
power of the poet to a higherdegreethan did the fifteenth-century
Neoplatonicconceptionof thepoet,whichsawhimasheirto a divinely
revealedbody of truths,composedunderthe guidanceof a heavenly
influence.55
Onething,however,is certainandthatis, if oneregardsthe
55 As hasbeen seen,all threefourteenth-centuryhumanistssharedwith many medieval
scholarsthe belief that the poets knew truthsthey did not expressunveiledto the public.
Apartfrom Salutatiin his earlymaturity,however, none of the threebelievedin a direct
divine inspirationin the pagan poets. In the case of Boccaccio, Trinkaus(In Our Image,
In,695) seemsto agreewith this. Yet his analysiselsewhereimpliesthat all three,like the

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562

QUARTERLY

of humansocietyandhistoryas characteristic
of modersecularization
in
this
the
then
respect fourteenth-century
proponentsof poetry
nity,
morecloselytheconceptionof creativityheld
seemto haveapproached
in the fifteenth.
by our own age thandid theirsuccessors
For Salutati,on the otherhand,thisdelineationof two culturesled
in the endto a profoundquestioningof thevalueof paganlettersfor a
for a humanist.One
Christian,a kindof thinkingpotentiallydisastrous
and
scholarhas noted the 'cautious' 'diplomatic'approachtakenby
Salutatiin his defenseof paganlettersfoundin the unfinishedletterof
of his own lifelong
1406to Dominici.56Openingwith an affirmation

adhesionto the teachingsof the Church and his complete devotion to


Christiantruthas opposed to paganerror,the old man continueswith a
discussionof the uses of the liberalartsfor a Christian.57As he assesses
the value of each, it becomes clear that Salutatiis endeavoringto subordinate the arts strictly to the service they can render the faithful.
While it can be argued that the discussionwas conditioned by the
quality of his correspondentand the specific issue-whether secular
lettersshould form a part of the educationof young Christians-none
of his other lettersin defenseof poetry and the liberalarts,includinghis
last one to fra Giovannida SanMiniatoa year or so earlier,had had such
a subduedtone. It seemsmore probablethat this attitudewas partlythe
product of the same orientationwhich less than six months earlierhad
led him to brandthe ethicalwritings of the pagan philosophersas useless to Christiansand their rhetoricas empty sound.58A lover of arguFlorentinePlatonistsof the next century,believedthat the paganpoets had been divinely
Dichtungslehren,
pp. 87ff., handles
inspired:see notes 18 and 23 above. Buck, Italienische
the problem of continuity much as Trinkausdoes. Centraltexts for defining the Neoplatonic theory of theologiaplatonicaare Ficino's discussionin Platonicatheologiade imde l'immortalite
lib. xiii, c. 2, in MarsileFicin. Theologieplatonicienne
mortalitate
animorum,
des ames, ed. and trans. Raymond Marcel, 3 vols. (Paris, 1964-70), nI, 203-204,

and

'Laudi
CristoforoLandino'sprologue to his commentaryon Dante's Divina Commedia:
di Cristoforo
Landinoet di Alessandro
della poesia et de poeti,' in Dante con l'espositione
Vellutello(Venice, 1564). See also Charles Trinkaus, 'The Unknown Quattrocento
Poetics ofBartolommeo

della Fonte,' Studies in the Renaissance,13 (1966), 42, n. 6. For a

general characterizationof the differencebetween the early and late Renaissance,see


William Bouwsma, 'Changing Assumptionsin Later RenaissanceCulture,' Viator,7
(1976), 421-440.
56Joseph Cinquino, 'Coluccio Salutati, Defender of Poetry,' Italica, 26 (1949), 135.

57Epist.,iv, 214-215. For a summaryof the argumentsrelatingeach of these areasto


Christianeducation,see Ullman, The Humanism,pp. 65-68.
58 See
my ColuccioSalutatiandthePublicLetters(Geneva,1976), p. 84.

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563

ment to the end, Salutatiin his correspondence


with Dominiciwould
not allowhimselfto admithis doubts,but it appearsthathis own faith
in the enterpriseof humanismwas in questionand thathe couldnot
bringhimselfin its defenseto do morethanstressthe ancillaryrole of
secularlettersin Christianeducation.
Duke University

RONALD G. WITT

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