Saturday, January 15, 2005

BOOK: Giannozzo Manetti, "Biographical Writings"

Giannozzo Manetti: Biographical Writings. Edited and translated by Stefano U. Baldassarri and Rolf Bagemihl. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 9. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674011341. xix + 330 pp.

Manetti was a Florentine writer, orator and politician who lived in the first half of the 15th century. This book contains his short biographies of Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Socrates, Seneca, and very short biographical sketches of several other people, mostly less well known Renaissance authors and scholars.

As with many other books from the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, I found this fairly dull reading. I already had some very vague and minimal knowledge of the lives of Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Socrates, and Seneca, and I don't really care all that much about the extra details presented in the biographies in this book. Another thing I disliked is that these biographies consist almost exclusively of praise; I admit that the subjects weren't particularly evil people, but one still wonders if Manetti's presentation is not a bit too one-dimensional. But then, given what the editors say about Manetti's character on p. xiii, we shouldn't be too surprised; he seems to have been a bit of a self-satisfied bourgeois. When Seneca, who as a stoic would have advised people not to be too fond of perishable things, but who was himself obscenely wealthy ("Much of this he acquired by lending money in Britain; according to Dio, the excessive rates of interest that he exacted were among the causes of revolt in that country." -- Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy, ch. 28), is quite justly accussed of gross hypocrisy, it is hardly surprising that Manetti the wealthy merchant and businessman comes valiantly to his aid (p. 269).

I guess one should be reading this book not with the intention of learning about the lives of Dante et al., but to learn how Manetti and authors like him approached the writing of biography, and to see what sort of relationship with the past they tried to establish through this. The editors admit as much in the preface, p. xiv: "More importantly, all of them [= these biographies] [...] show the Florentine humanists' great self-awareness concerning the rediscovery of classical culture they were self-promoting." In fact the self-awareness is sometimes so great as to be downright annoying; Manetti keeps on attaching "our" to the names of classical authors, as if he was one of them and the intervening thousand or so years of history merely a trifle which we can easily ignore or pretend it doesn't exist.

The way these biographies are structured reminded me of Plutarch and Suetonius, especially the latter with whom Manetti seemed to share the characteristic that they were good at gathering information about their subject but were then not very critical of these sources when deciding what to include in their biographies and how to present it. But at least Suetonius would always include plenty of lurid anecdotes about each of his emperors, while such condiments are sadly lacking in Manetti's biographies. No wonder that I found him dull, like Plutarch but unlike Suetonius. Still, I liked the idea of pairing the lives of Socrates and Seneca in the same way that Plutarch always wrote about one Greek and one Latin person, trying to choose two people with roughly similar roles in life and in society.

Anyway, although as I said I found this to be for the most part dull reading, there were a few curious and/or amusing passages:

From pp. 71-73 it seems that Petrarch had to deal with plenty of obsessive fans, just like the famous pop stars nowadays.

On p. 237 Manetti says that in his time, the house in which Seneca had been born was supposedly still preserved: "the Spaniards [...] point out a certain house at Cordoba as his dwelling, asserting that it has been in continuous existence down to our times". I must admit that this sounds more like a story for naive tourists, but it's a nice story anyway.

At the end of the biography of Socrates, Manetti briefly mentions four other people named Socrates (p. 233). He does the same for Seneca, but there, apart from Seneca the philosopher and his namesake father the rhetor, he only finds one other Seneca, a bishop. (Incidentally, in Manetti's time it was apparently not known that the philosopher Seneca and his father the rhetor were two different people, leading Manetti to compute with some admiration that Seneca must have lived well over a hundred years, p. 279.)


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