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13.02.15, Weinberg & Matter, eds., The Ogdoas of Alberto Alfieri

13.02.15, Weinberg & Matter, eds., The Ogdoas of Alberto Alfieri

The early Italian Renaissance had no shortage of canonical texts about education, civic virtue, and humanism; the works of Leonardo Bruni, Pier Paolo Vergerio, and Guarino of Verona, among others, were widely known and often used in classrooms and princely courts. Their authors were humanist scholars, teachers, and proponents of educational reform who sought to train current and future leaders in the principles of Classical thought. The fifteenth-century Genoese schoolmaster Alberto Alfieri aspired to join this elite circle of educated men, with his contribution of eight dialogues called the Ogdoas, penned between 1418 and 1421 while he was teaching school in the Genoese colony of Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula.

However, it appears that Alfieri was largely unsuccessful in his attempt to impress his patrons and to disseminate his ideas. The text survives in only one copy in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana and has heretofore never been translated from its original Latin. The sole extant copy was bound together with five other texts by an unknown compiler in the fifteenth or sixteenth century; the editors propose that the codex was a composite of treatises intended for classroom use, but note further that the Ogdoas had "very little potential for adoption as a textbook in sixteenth-century Italy" (45). Alfieri himself, aside from this text and one notarial document in the Genoese archives, remains completely unknown. The text likely never reached its intended dedicatee, Jacopo Adorno, nor is there any evidence that it was known by the Visconti family of Milan, whom Alfieri repeatedly sought to glorify. In evaluating the text, the editors describe it as "an inconsistent work, sometimes repetitive, largely imitative of classical and medieval works" (41), guilty of grammatical errors and "larded with medieval forms and obscure terms" (42). More importantly, according to the editors, Alfieri's work displays "little originality" and "clearly gives too much importance to his personal sympathies and interests, while ignoring blatant historical evidence of cruelty and misrule by his Visconti heroes" (42). In short, it was neither great literature nor an innovative pedagogical text, and seems to have been largely ignored by its contemporaries.

What, then, is the value of such an obscure and poorly-written text to modern scholars of the Renaissance? Alfieri does provide information about events in early fifteenth-century Genoa and Milan to which he was likely an eyewitness, as well as details about the colony in Caffa that we did not previously possess. The Ogdoas shows the myriad ways in which Greek ideas and language were percolating into Italy in the early Quattrocento. Alfieri's clumsy attempts to imitate Platonic philosophy, his invocation to a Muse in the second line of the work, and his simulation of Virgil's Aeneid ("Now of the fall and mournful fate of the Snake-Bearing Duke [Visconti] / And of his children, and of the blessed realms of the gods, I will sing" (57) all underscore the strong influence of humanism and ancient history in the early fifteenth century. The work also offers intriguing clues about attempts to synthesize elements of Christian belief, Gnosticism, and pagan philosophy. And one can see elements of Italian history, such as the fierce conflict between ducal Milan and republican Florence, in Alfieri's conception of the ideal state and his distinct preference for a despotic form of government over a democratic one. Despite the fact that Alfieri was a Genoese citizen and that he wrote the Ogdoas while in Caffa, the work may have some significance as an example of Lombard humanism. Like his fellow humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481), who wrote the ponderous epic poem Sforziad in honor of the Sforza rulers of Milan, Alfieri displays a deferential attitude toward his lord. Panegyrics in honor of powerful political patrons were not unusual then (or now), and humanists across early modern Europe wrote poems and letters in praise of their masters, but these two examples from Lombardy seem more servile.

The two editors include a first-rate introduction of forty-five pages that provides necessary and stimulating information about the Milanese and Genoese context in which Alfieri was trained. The introduction includes a prose summary of each of the different parts of the work (the prologue, the eight dialogues, and the closing elegy), complemented by thorough footnotes that show careful research into the origins of Alfieri's ideas. The historiography on the Ogdoas is limited but the editors describe the relevant scholarship in lucid terms. The heart of the book is the facing translations (Latin- English) of the eight dialogues. The prose here is somewhat stilted but this is likely a faithful rendering of the author's original language rather than a problem with translation.

The title of the work comes from the Greek word for "eight", and clearly makes reference to the fact that Alfieri has written eight dialogues. As the editors point out, however, the number eight has great significance in Pythagorean philosophy and in the Hermetic corpus too. Some of these Greek works, such as that by Hermes Trismegistus, were not translated until much later in the fifteenth century. So did Alfieri know Greek and was he reading from original sources? He did receive a classical education; he was surrounded by Greek-speaking émigrés in Caffa; and he might have been familiar with Manuel Chrysoloras who tutored other humanists (like Leonardo Bruni) in Florence, Milan, and Venice. If he did read Greek, then Alfieri is a great example of an early humanist; even if he did not read Greek, he still demonstrates how Greek ideas were transmitted to early Renaissance Italy.

The core of the work is the eight dialogues, which feature as protagonists various members of the Visconti family from Milan. The ghosts of these deceased family members meet in the afterworld to learn about more recent events. Their conversations are clearly a pretext through which Alfieri can inject his observations about morality, justice, education, and salvation. Like Machiavelli and other moralists of the time, Alfieri offers observations about how to define and recognize "virtue", although equating virtue with endurance and sacrifice has an odd ring to it. The dialogues emphasize, perhaps inadvertently, the bloody and ruthless nature of the Visconti family, which suffered from internecine warfare and repeated assassinations as they struggled for dominion over each other. The editors rightly observe that Alfieri often glosses over such events in his portrayal of the family, presumably in an effort to win patronage and return from his perceived exile on the Black Sea.