Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 30, 2004
Noel L. Brann The Debate over the Origin of Genius during the Italian Renaissance: The Theories of Supernatural Frenzy and Natural Melancholy in Accord and in Conflict on the Threshold of the Scientific Revolution Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002. 506 pp.; 1 b/w ills. Cloth $147.00 (9004123628)

Noel Brann’s magisterial volume offers a sweeping survey of the critical fortunes of a contentious but powerfully operative concept in quattrocento and cinquecento Italy: the notion of genial melancholy. In the course of revolving the problem, Brann, a historian of philosophy, Christian thought, and arcana, explores a constellation of ideas on which he has been musing for many years. He produced important articles on aspects of melancholy in medieval and Renaissance culture in the late 1970s. The convergence of hermetic, magical, and naturalist thought, which looms large in the present volume, was the subject of a 1985 article on melancholy and alchemy and is important to his recent study on the Abbot Trimethius.1

Once can scarcely overstate the importance of The Debate over the Origins of Genius during the Italian Renaissance for anyone interested in perceptions of artistic creativity in the peninsula during the early modern period. As an introduction and “threshold” to the literature dealing with ideas of prophetic and creative genius, Brann’s book will surely prove to be indispensable, and it is hard to imagine its being quickly superseded by future studies. True, the author makes no claim to offer an exhaustive discussion of all the material, his focus avowedly being upon the synthesis and subsequent rupturing of Platonic and Aristotelian opinions of the sources of genius. Yet it would be difficult to conceive of a book that could more richly evoke the patina of Renaissance thought and exchange, since the variety and number of texts examined here is prodigious.

As the 107th entry in Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History series, Brann’s volume, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes no claims to being “sexy” or enticingly avant-garde. On the contrary, this bulky book immediately announces its old-fashioned gravitas with an unapologetically wordy title, underscored on the flyleaf with the even wordier subtitle. The text’s affiliation with a tradition of “the history of ideas” in the manner of Paul Oskar Kristeller, Lynn Thorndike, and Ernst Cassirer is emphasized by the choice of Raphael’s ultracanonical School of Athens for the cover, with a detail of the central, contrasting figures of Aristotle and Plato repeated on the frontispiece, neatly illustrating the main terms of the book’s investigation. Brann’s approach tallies with one’s first impression of the book as object: it is weighty, self-assured, and untouched by the reflexive concerns of critical theory—or even gender theory, for all that his whole text deals obliquely (but sensitively) with the intersection between discourses on genius and the “witch craze” of the later sixteenth century.

For some, the unspoken disciplinary assumptions underlying Brann’s study may be problematic. After stating his aim to “establish that the Renaissance debate over the origin of melancholy genius constitutes something more than an interesting sideline of research for the curiously inclined” (12), the author offers no further justification for the kind of scholarly undertaking that his book represents, nor any culminating reflection on his project save a conclusion that is really just an historical epilogue. The material in the book is presented in such a way as to suggest (substantial authorial glosses and extrapolations notwithstanding) that it speaks for itself. There is, I think, no doubt that, if only through the sheer scope of the data collated, this volume fulfills Brann’s goal of establishing his subject as more than a slight, antiquarian concern. However, I did from time to time wish for a little more than a series of close readings, contextualized only by “labels” that rudimentarily place the authors discussed in a given religious or philosophical tradition. It would ultimately be churlish to criticize a book of such ambitious scale for what its author did not attempt to do, but at a certain level the disembodied nature of intellectual history is frustrating in a book as long and intricate as this. An authorial voice that was less traditionally self-effacing, or a stronger sense of the diurnal contingencies from which the texts emerged, would have greatly enlivened the study.

On the other hand, Brann’s book has a compelling epic thrust to it, and its central “saga” is memorable even if some of the subordinate elements in the narrative prove fugitive when one has finished reading. The volume is divided into six hefty chapters: the first sets the disciplinary scene for the discussion of Marsilio Ficino and his followers that comprises the second. The remaining four examine texts implicitly or explicitly opposed to Ficino’s conception of genius. The originality of Ficino’s position, as is almost too well-known to warrant repetition here, lies in his synthesis of Plato’s idea of divine furor with the Aristotelian view that greatness inhered naturally in the melancholy condition, coming to expression—poetic, philosophical, or prophetic—when the melancholy humor, black bile, was subject to moderate heat. Lest there be any suspicion that Ficino’s importance has been overstated in the past because of the inherently Florence- and Medici-centric nature of so much scholarship on the Renaissance from Walter Pater to Erwin Panofsky (and beyond), it is worth noting that one of the strengths of Brann’s book is his careful demonstration of the way in which Ficino’s work served as a point of departure, or as a sticking point, for many subsequent writers all over Italy and occasionally north of the Alps. These include not only thinkers from the ranks of the religious clergy, among them Battista da Crema, Ercole Sassonia, Alessandro Donati, Celso Mancini, and Tommaso Campanella, and hermeticists such as Cesare della Riviera, but also those writing tracts or observations on the arts, notably Bernardo Tasso, Romano Alberti, and Giovan Paolo Lomazzo. The overriding impression with which one is left is that Ficino’s marriage of naturalist and supernaturalist views of genius, though only briefly and tenuously consummated, has never been wholly dissolved. Brann’s exploration of the competing, equally vehement objections to and claims for the Ficinian theory in the later Renaissance furnishes, among other things, a barometer of the changing moods and anxieties attendant on the Catholic and Protestant reforms.

Because speculative, moralizing, and reflective texts from the late medieval and early modern periods can in one way be seen as a generic gestalt, by virtue of their obsessive philologizing, Brann faced a daunting task in orchestrating the material that he has so carefully collected and interpreted. Twice in the book, he identifies a basic triumvirate of disciplinary approaches to the question of genius, namely the medical, theological, and humanist perspectives. This threefold system serves as the organizing principle in chapter 1, where Brann sets up his stall for the subsequent discussion of Ficino, and again in chapter 4, where he rehearses some of the most salient objections to the Ficinian view of melancholy genius. Overall, however, this trio of categories is inadequate to embrace all the texts under consideration, and Brann extends his repertory of terms to include increasingly nebulous and overlapping labels—Averroism, Naturalism, Skepticisim, the Mystical, Prophetic, Poetic, Hermetic, Fideist, and so on. This is not to suggest that the urge to classify ever becomes an end in itself, nor is it dogmatic: the author’s taxonomic system is flexible enough implicitly to reveal its own provisional nature, and Brann is careful to point out the convergences and intermingling of his categories, as, for example, the points where Platonism and Hermeticism shade into one another. Yet his use of complex categorization, together with his sometimes confusing subordination of chronology to thematic concerns, makes the structure of the whole ultimately less serviceable than one might wish. It is sometimes a little difficult to remember exactly where one is in the text, and the sense of disorientation and déja vu is exacerbated by the fact that the author too often repeats certain formulations, and even whole phrases—flaws that should have been weeded out by an editor.

On balance, however, there is no doubt that the virtues of Brann’s book massively outweigh its limitations. It is a veritable powerhouse of Renaissance thought, and as a resource it should substantially help, among other things, to advance our understanding of how artists’ lives and talents might have been conceived by contemporaries in the period between the birth of Leonardo da Vinci and the death of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Piers Britton
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Redlands

1 Noel L. Brann, “Alchemy and Melancholy in Medieval and Renaissance Thought: A Query into the Mystical Basis of their Relationship,” Ambix 32 (1985): 127–48); Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).

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