Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Your ancestors would not have behaved thus ...."

"The new learning had become an insidious solvent 
of any definiteness in religious beliefs"

Today's reading is from  Mandell Creighton's A history of the papacy from the great schism to the sack of Rome, Volume 4, 1887 pp. 46-49. In this passage, Creighton touches briefly on George Gemistos Plethon and Cardinall Bessarion, but the main focus is on Pomponius Laetus, the mysterious ringleader of the Pagan underground in Reinaissance Rome. Please refer to the original for sources, footnotes, etc.

The interested reader is also encouraged to further explore the the fascinating story of the Roman Pagan underground in several previous installments of this blog that are linked to at the bottom of this post.

The influence of Gemistos Plethon was carried to Rome by his distinguished scholar, Cardinal Bessarion, whose orthodoxy was above suspicion, but who nevertheless was in some degree imbued by his master's spirit. On the death of Gemistos, Bessarion wrote a letter of condolence to his sons. 'I hear,' he says, 'that our common father and guide, laying aside all mortal garments, has removed to heaven and the unsullied land to take his part in the mystic dance of the Olympian Gods.' This is strange language in a Cardinal's mouht, but does not show that Bessarion had any sympathy with the Paganism of Gemistos. It shows, however, the double life which the Humanists led: they were ready to talk the language of the Bible or the language of classical antiquit, as occasion needed. They had ceased to be conscious of much antagonism between the two, each of which corresponded to different sides of their nature. The new learning had become an insidious solvent of any difiniteness in religious belief.

Bessarion did much for the study of Plato. He freed himself from the extravagances of Gemistos, and in the controversy which raged between the partisans of Aristotle and those of Plato he held a moderating position. But George of Trapezus [George of Trebizond] carried his attack upon Plato so far that he drew from Bessarion a work 'Against the Calumnator of Plato' which raised the knowledge of Plato to a higher level than it had before reached, and established the claim of that philosopher to the attention of the orthodox. Bessarion, moreover, was the centre of a literary circle, and the Academy called by his name was famous throughout Italy. He formed a large library, which he bequeathed to Venice, where it formed the nucleus of the library of S. Marco.

The system of Academies rapidly spread throughout Italy, and gave men of the new learning a definite organisation whereby they became influential bodies with a corporate existence. In Rome Bessarion's example furnished a model to the Roman Academy, whose founder was another of those who owed something to the influence of Gemistos. He was a strange man who loved to shroud his private life in mystery. He called himself Pomponius, as being a good old Roman name, and to this he added Laetus, as a description of the joyousness of his tempera ment, though at times Lsetus was exchanged for Infortunatus. The real name of Pomponius Laetus was Piero : he was a native of Calabria, a bastard of the noble house of the Sanseverini. In early life he came to Rome and was a pupil of Lorenzo Valla, whom he succeeded as the chief teacher among the Roman Humanists. Whether he travelled in Greece or no we cannot say; but he seems to have come in the way of Gemistos, 1 who probably quickened his taste for a revived paganism. Pomponius, however, was not a Platonist, and did not devote his attention to the study of Greek antiquity. He had no interest in inaugurat ing a new religion, but was content to imbibe the inspira tion of the city of Rome, and gave himself unreservedly to its influence. 'No one', says his friend Sabellicus, 'admired antiquity more ; no one spent more pains in its investigation'. He explored every nook and corner of old Rome, and stood gazing with rapt attention on every relic of a bygone age : often, as he looked, his eyes filled with tears, and he wept at the thought of the grand old times. He despised the age in which he lived and did not conceal his contempt for its barbarism. He sneered at religion, openly expressed his dislike of the clergy, and inveighed bitterly amongst his friends against the pride and luxury of the Cardinals. A story is told that one day an enemy asked him publicly if he believed in the existence of God ; Yes, he answered, because I believe that there is nothing He hates more than you . The deity which Pomponius adored was the Genius of the City of Rome. He set an example, which was long followed, of celebrating the city s birthday with high festivities amongst a circle of congenial spirits. In later times men dated from the festivals of Pomponius the beginning of the downfall of faith.

The temper of Pomponius, as shown in the affairs of life, was that of a Stoic. He was poor and sought none of the prizes which literary men in his day so keenly pursued. When his wealthy relatives wished to claim him after he had become famous, and invited him to come and live at Naples, he returned them an answer which has become famous as a model of terseness. 'Pomponius Laetus to his relatives sends greeting. What you ask cannot be. Farewell.' He lived simply in a little house on the Esqui- line, and hired a vineyard in the Quirinal, which he culti vated according to the precepts of Varro and Columella. His other amusement was to keep birds, whose habits he carefully observed. He always dressed in the same manner; though simple in all things, he was scrupulously clean and neat. His only interests were in exploring classical antiquity and teaching the students who flocked to his lectures. He rose early in the morning, and often needed the help of a lantern to guide him to his school, where there was scarcely room for the overflowing audience which had already assembled. There was nothing striking in his appearance. He was a small common-looking man, with short curly hair that turned grey before its time, and little eyes deep-set beneath beetling brows ; only when he smiled did his face become expressive.

Pomponius was a genuine teacher, who was interested in his scholars. He did not try to make a name by writings, for he said that, like Socrates and Jesus, his scholars should be his books. He gave his attention to his lectures, and delighted in organising revivals of the old Latin comedies. Pie trained the actors and superintended the smallest details of stage management when any great man opened his house for the representation of a play of Plautus or Terence. He took the young men of Rome under his fatherly care, and would reprove their misdoings by a shake of the head and a remark, 'Your ancestors would not have behaved thus.'

The house of Pomponius was filled with relics of classical art, and the Academy which centred there was the home of very unorthodox opinions. After the Roman dissolution of the College of Abbreviators the Roman Academy became naturally the meeting place of the aggrieved scholars. There they abused the Pope to their hearts content, while Pomponius sat by and smiled. They vented their spleen by organising a foolish protest against the Church and its ceremonies ; and the example of Pomponius suggested to them a plan by which they bound themselves into an esoteric society. Instead of their baptismal names, given them from Christian saints, they chose new names from classical antiquity. Filippo Buonacursi called himself Callimachus Experiens, and we find besides Asclepiades, Glaucus, Petreius, and the like. The festival which Pomponius had instituted for the observance of the foundation day of the city suggested in like manner a parody of pagan rites. As a protest against Paul II., Pomponius Laetus was hailed as Pontifex Maximus, and many of the others took priestly titles. They held meetings in the catacombs, and parodied the beginnings of the Christian Church. It was an outburst of silly petulance on the part of men whose heads were turned by vanity, till they showed their spite against the Pope by threatening a revival of paganism.

The Heathen-Minded Humanists
  • Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy
  • Part Two describes the crisis of 1468;  
  • Part Three presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact.
  • Part Four  tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century; 
  • Part Five looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.]
  • Part Six (what you are reading right now) gives a nice thumbnail sketch of Pomponius Laetus.