Jane Everson highlights the social networks of the Italian academies, the first of their kind in Renaissance Europe.
Their members were literati and men of erudition, all of them completely idle intellectually, and ready to write in verse or prose on any subject, however frivolous, for their amusement. … The names of these academies and academicians sound strangely in our ears today: the Impastato [the Doughy One], the Raggirato [the Swindled One], the Propagginato [the Propagated one], the Smarrito [the Lost and Strayed], and the like. And the members recited their talks, or as they called them, their ‘prattlings’ on salads, on cakes, on hypochondria … they sang of the vulgarest things and often the dirtiest.
Thus wrote Francesco de Sanctis, the 19th-century literary critic, whose scorn for the academies would matter little if it were not that his monumental History of Italian Literature continues to influence the Italian school curriculum and intellectual opinion. Ironically de Sanctis was a victim of the very playfulness that he regarded as alien to learning, but which, in the Renaissance, was inextricably linked to the pursuit of knowledge, as the oft-quoted tag serio ludere (serious play) reminds us.
De Sanctis’ hostile and mistaken ideas derived from his failure to detect the playful satire of a much earlier critic of the academies, Anton Francesco Doni (1513-74), whose satire on them is contained in his revised Libraria (1557). The work exemplifies perfectly the combination of serious scholarship and playfulness that characterised the academies. Doni does discuss those for which there is a sound historical record, but he also invents others for satirical purposes, such as the Accademia degli Ortolani (the Academy of the Kitchen Gardeners), whose members have nicknames like Porro (Leek), Cipolla (Onion) and Cocomero (Watermelon), which de Sanctis later interpreted as fact. Doni concludes his survey by asserting that academicians ‘gather together wherever they fancy – in every region, city, castle, town or private house; they are innumerable and discuss countless topics and are reputed above all other professions; to date no way has been found to repress them.’
The historical reality of the academies of the Renaissance is, however, different from the jaundiced views of de Sanctis and the playful satire of Doni, though until very recently it is their views which have predominated. Current research is now opening up the multifaceted and fascinating world of the academies and their intellectual interests, revealing their complex pan-European networks and the way in which they functioned as the Renaissance equivalent of modern social media.
The idea of the academy goes back to ancient Greece and the Platonic Academy in Athens. The idea began to be revived in 15th-century Florence, but the first formally constituted academies emerged in Siena in the 1520s. The earliest for which records of members, debates and publications survive is that of the Intronati – and straightaway the playful dimension of the academies is emphasised. Intronati means ‘dazed’ or ‘struck dumb’ and in taking this name members sought to emphasise their openness to new ideas, to be struck dumb by intellectual discoveries or original thought. They chose for their academy an emblem which also exemplified this, a gourd or mortar surrounded by two pestles and the explanatory motto Meliora latent (the best lies hidden). They gave themselves nicknames that further illustrated that fundamental aim, such as il Frastagliato (the Shattered One). The idea caught on and soon, as Doni complains, academies popped up in every town and city worthy of the name throughout the peninsula. Members were drawn from all social classes – including artisans like the Rozzi of Siena – and multiple membership of several academies by one individual was common. Galileo, for example, was a member of academies in Padua, Florence and Rome. Rivalry between Tuscan cities stimulated the foundation of an academy in Florence, the Umidi, whose members, not surprisingly, gave themselves nicknames of different types of fish. Though not all academies took punning names the idea was so attractive that it persisted into the 17th century, giving rise in Bologna to the Accademia dei Gelati [the Frozen Ones], based around a double pun. Their frozen state is a playful contradiction, since they are far from intellectually frozen. Their emblem, a wood of frozen trees, seems literal, but the motto, nec longum tempus, reveals that their frozen state will not last for long. Members took nicknames relating either to the cold, frozen immobile world of winter – il Rinchiuso (shut in to keep warm) – or to the sense of renewal brought about by the spring – il Rifiorito (flowering afresh) – and gave themselves amusing individual emblems like that of L’Inesperto (a snowball rolling downhill and about to engulf the Hapless One).
The suggestion that the academies had no serious or worthwhile activities is misleading. The range of topics debated within academies, which later found their way into the publications of these institutions, is vast: virtually every discipline, from astronomy and astrology to zoology, is included in the publications of one or other academy. The earliest academies, like the Intronati, were mainly interested in literature and culture. They were responsible for composing, producing and promoting drama and comic theatre, but they were also deeply involved in debates of a sociological nature – on the education of women and their place in society, for instance. Indeed women sometimes became members of academies and might even play an important role in academy publications, as can be seen from the women working as engravers for academies in Naples. The Accademia della Crusca (meaning chaff or bran), which grew out of earlier Florentine academies, spearheaded the debates about correct Italian, provoking heated exchanges in late 16th-century Italy, culminating in the first comprehensive dictionary of the Italian (or indeed any European) language, published 400 years ago this year, in 1612. This dictionary standardised educated, written Italian, providing the basis for cultural unity in place of the political unity that remained unrealised for centuries thereafter.
The Accademia della Crusca still flourishes today, as does one of the earliest academies with scientific interests, the Lincei (the lynx-eyed) in Rome. In addition to Galileo, whose work on sunspots was published in 1613 under the auspices of this academy, the Lincei included a number of foreigners in its membership, often as what came to be called ‘corresponding members’. Indeed one of the most fascinating aspects to emerge from our research is the multinational nature of membership almost from the outset. In Padua the Accademia dei Ricovrati (those who have recovered their wits) included a considerable number of foreign members. Several of these, like the Patin family, were political exiles from France and on taking up residence in Padua the daughters of the family joined the academy, too. Others came into contact with the academy through studying at the university there. The Oziosi (the Leisured Ones) in Naples had a notable Spanish presence, since many of the leading members of the viceroy’s court joined this prestigious academy and contributed to its debates on both arts and sciences. During his residence in Italy in 1638-39 John Milton would have come into close contact with the Oziosi, while lodging with its president, Giambattista Manso. When such foreign members returned home they carried with them the idea of the academy, as well as the various discoveries, publications and ideas developed there. Thus when the Royal Society was established in London in 1660 it was modelled, directly or indirectly, on the Italian academies and from the start was in correspondence with them, receiving and reviewing publications in its Transactions. Networking and the communication of ideas lay at the heart of the idea of the academies, reminiscent of modern social media.
Our project is devoted to making newly accessible to a global audience the publications of the academies held in the British Library. The library’s collections of books printed in Italy is virtually unrivalled. Here are to be found, catalogued in a dedicated database, the major publications of the Italian academies, their discussions and debates, scientific experiments and discoveries, and here de Sanctis’ scathing comment can be properly tested and refuted. The members of academies were indeed literati and men and women of erudition. They did indeed write on many subjects, but they were far from idle intellectually, and the topics they treated were those at the forefront of early modern science and culture.
Jane Everson is principal investigator of the AHRC collaborative research project The Italian Academies 1525-1700: The First Intellectual Networks of Early Modern Europe. For more information visit http://www.italianacademies.org
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