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22.02.25 Refini, The Vernacular Aristotle

22.02.25 Refini, The Vernacular Aristotle

Eugenio Refini’s well-written volume, The Vernacular Aristotle: Translation as Reception in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, achieves two purposes. On the one hand, it enriches the current status of works that describe the way in which Aristotle became relevant to the Italian culture of the period between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries. On the other hand, it also provides a fascinating analysis of how translation became not only the transfer of an author’s thoughts into a new language, but also adaptation of that work according to the needs of the era and of the potential audience.

The volume is structured in five chapters, focusing on five topics, all based more or less on Aristotle’s reception. Throughout them, Refini develops a complex view on translation: a never-ending process, to which both translators and readers belong. Translators, for him, “are readers as much as readers are translators” (13). This context explains why, in medieval and Renaissance Italy, “Aristotle is read, translated, transformed and appropriated, giving shape to the multiple meanings that his reception creates over time” (16).

Chapter 1 focuses on a widely spread image of debasement in medieval and early modern art, in which Aristotle, on all fours, is mounted by the courtesan Phyllis. This case study is most appropriate at the beginning of the book, not only due to chronological reasons. The debasement of Aristotle is significant for his descent from academic language to the vernacular. Refini convincingly argues for a parallel between the image of Aristotle and the image of Grammar and the place the vernacular holds in relation to Latin. The painting of the mounted Aristotle and the adjacent story of the courtesan and the philosopher bring not only Aristotle, but philosophy itself down to earth. The vernacular voice of the courtesan defeats the language of philosophy and academic rhetoric. Aristotle himself, despite his logic, failed to resist the alluring seduction of the courtesan. Philosophy is also to be tamed, brought to people, by its descent from the height of Latin to the vernacular.

In the second chapter, Refini refers to Aristotle only tangentially. The focus is Dante’s establishment of the vernacular as a medium worthy of transmitting knowledge. He starts from Aristotle’s appearance in La Divina Commedia surrounded by his fellow philosophers, so he still remains the philosopher who knows all things. This image explains Dante’s focus on Aristotle in his earlier Convivio (The Banquet), where the taming of his philosophy takes place. The Convivio begins with Aristotle’s well-known statement from the beginning of the Metaphysics, that all men desire to know. Knowledge, though, takes place in language. Bringing knowledge to all people requires, then, Aristotle’s translation into the vernacular, since this desire of knowledge can only be accomplished by the expression of ideas in new languages.

In the third chapter, Refini argues that “the earliest Italian translations of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise On Virtues and Vices were the products of the interaction between wealthy laymen and academics trained within the scholastic tradition” (85). The author begins by describing two sculpted figures of Aristotle on the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. The two sculptures are separated by approximately one hundred years. The first, dating from around 1350, represents Aristotle as the emblem of dialectic, featuring also a Latin inscription, Aristoteles dialecticus (86). In the second, from around 1450, Aristotle personifies Justice, and the inscription is in the vernacular: Aristotile che diè lege, “Aristotle who declares laws.” The passing from one Aristotle to the other also represents the shift in Aristotle’s reception from the language of scholars to the language of laymen. Through Aristotle and the use of the vernacular, justice was portrayed as speaking the language of the people. This example of using a piece of art to set up the argument for the entire chapter is a pattern for Refini’s book, who begins every chapter in a similar manner.

In the same third chapter, before discussing various translations of the Nicomachean Ethics into the vernacular, Refini analyzes Petrarch’s De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia (On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others). Petrarch’s Latin text sounds the bell against blind allegiance to Aristotle, “which can perpetuate sterile learning and can never make knowledge truly productive” (90). It is a first step, expressed in Latin, toward transferring Aristotle’s thoughts towards a medium, the vernacular, that can actually transfer knowledge to the masses.

Chapter 4 reveals the atmosphere of fifteenth-century Florence. A larger emphasis is placed on Domenico Da Prato and Leonardo Bruni. At the same time, the issue of translation as depending on more than authors and translators is further nuanced by focusing on the role patrons and readers play in shaping the body of knowledge. Translation is, as Refini says, “not only the space where past and present meet, but also the tool with which the present engages in a cultural contest with the past” (133). The idea that permeates the chapter is the dialogical nature of translation: translators are in dialogue with writers, translators with readers, and readers among themselves. Perhaps the more important dialogue at the time was that of the Latinate world with the vernacular world.

The last chapter continues the work of analyzing various translations and adaptations of Aristotle’s moral philosophy, emphasizing, as Refini says, the constant element: “a strong focus on the practical dimension of moral philosophy” (191). There is a more substantial discussion of Aristotle’s philosophy, as it appears in various abridged adaptations of his ethical works or in more or less original works primarily based on his texts. One such example is the Genovese theologian Jacopo Campora, whose De immortalitate animae, written in the vernacular, draws primarily on Aristotle’s De Anima, turning to the Church Fathers and other medieval interpreters for any ambiguities that appear in the prince of philosophers.

One of the book’s topics is the distinction between “words” and “sense” in translations. This question appears prominently in chapter 3, where Refini analyzes the discussion about translation that Antonio Colombella, an Augustinian friar from Recanati, brings forward in his prologue to his own translation of The Nicomachean Ethics. The prologue is addressed to Pancrazio Giustiniani, the patron who wanted to have Aristotle’s Ethics in the vernacular, work done sometime at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Among various aspects that make his task as translator difficult, Colombella refers to the distinction mentioned above between words and sense. Refini reminds us that this distinction falls “within the enduring debate over verbum de verbo and ad sensumtranslations” (101). The solution Colombella offers is flexibility: the translator must establish the true meaning of the text while also maintaining the elegance of the new version. Perhaps any translation is similar to a pedagogical work in philosophy: you must remain faithful to the philosophical ideas of the author, but also make sure that they are delivered through a medium that can be comprehended by new pupils; otherwise, the ideas would remain sterile and have no fruit. The need for adaptation is felt more strongly when the translation appears in the vernacular, which lacks an established philosophical terminology.

In this context, one could say that the title for the first chapter, “Taming the Philosopher,” could also provide the title for the entire volume. Refini ingeniously shows how the mind of someone who often gets the title of “The Philosopher,” Aristotle, was tamed for readers through translation and adaptation into the vernacular. As such, Refini’s beautifully written book brings forward one difficult question: who is Aristotle, or, for that matter, any other author, when his work is translated into a different language? The question is complicated by the dialogue between an academic language, one accessible to scholars who have an understanding of the philosophical notions of the author, and the vernacular. If we are to apply Plato’s image from book X of The Republic, where the artists produce copies that are three times removed from the forms, the Aristotle of medieval and Renaissance Italy seems to be present on all of these levels: Aristotle’s own ideas, the way they are expressed in the original, and their expression in the vernacular.

The answer that transpires from Refini’s text is that, in medieval and Renaissance Italy, Aristotle is all of these Aristotles at the same time, without being one of them separately at any moment. The vernacular Aristotle is that which gets actualized in the process of multiple translations/interpretations that take place when his ideas come to life in different bodies: diverse languages, cultures, and even individuals. This ocean of adaptations has the specific flavor of medieval and Renaissance Italy, with its interests and preoccupations. So, Aristotle is the philosopher who knows all things, philosophy itself that needs to be brought from the height of heavens to the common understanding of people, or the one who can provide background arguments for the Christian virtues of the era. In Refini’s account, the translations of Aristotle into the vernacular are shown to be Aristotle as embodied in the culture and the interests of the era.

Refini’s last words are definitory for his entire book: “the idea of accessing Aristotle in the vernacular (or, depending on the point of view, the idea of making him speak in the vernacular) hinged upon the attempt to avoid hypostatizing the past so as to make it live in and be relevant to the present” (231). Aristotle takes life when his words are read, translated, adapted, or interpreted. As Aristotle himself would agree, forms (ideas) are always expressed in a body (language): it is their only way to be alive.

Once again, a beautifully written book, of interest to scholars who study reception of Ancient philosophy in medieval and Renaissance Europe, but also, more generally, to scholars in translation studies.