Category: Eminent Biography

Eminent Biography: André Vauchez on Francis of Assisi

Last month, as it became clear that Cardinal Bergoglio would likely be elected Pope, his friend Brazilian Cardinal Claudio hugged him and gave him a message. “He said don’t forget about the poor,” Pope Francis explained at a Vatican press conference. “And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi.” Francis of Assisi inspired the Cardinal as a man devoted to peace and to the poor, a mission Pope Francis hopes to share. This is the first time a pope has chosen this evocative name.

In Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, André Vauchez illuminates the life of the saint whose life continues to resonate today. Originally published in French and translated by Michael Cusato, this is the most authoritative biography of Francis of Assisi in more than a generation. Below is an excerpt from the book:

André Vauchez and Michael F. Cusato—

You might be saying to yourself upon opening this book, “Not another life of Francis of Assisi!” There are already so many! Besides, he seems so well known, so familiar to us. Who has not heard of this saint who loved poverty, preached to the birds, and was the first to bear the stigmata? Writing a biography is a legitimate undertaking when it corrects the oblivion into which someone has fallen after playing such an important role while alive; or to rehabilitate the reputation of a man or woman who has been misunderstood or poorly treated by earlier authors. Francis belongs to neither of these categories. For a long time, he has been famous and universally recognized as one of the great spiritual figures of the human race, as was shown yet again when representatives of the principal world religions gathered in Assisi in 1986, at the call of Pope John Paul II, in order to pray for peace and to reflect on how to help bring it about in our world.

Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval SaintOne of the major problems posed by the biography of Francis is that everyone thinks he or she knows Francis well enough to interpret him however one wishes; his personality is so rich that it can indeed give rise to different “readings.” For centuries, we have celebrated him as the ascetic and the stigmatic, the founder of a great religious order and the paragon of Catholic orthodoxy. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, he was considered a romantic hero, upholding an evangelical and mystical Christianity which had been destroyed by the ecclesiastical institution. In our own day, we have placed more emphasis on the image of the defender of the poor, the promoter of peace between individuals and religions, the man in love with nature, the protector and patron of ecology, or even the ecumenical saint whom Protestants, Orthodox Catholics, and even non- Christians can relate to. To each his or her own Francis, one is tempted to say, just as Paul Valéry spoke of “[his] Faust,” thus claiming the right to interpret for himself this great literary myth. Such a situation, which attests to the importance of the person and the fascination which Francis has never ceased to exercise on people, is probably inevitable. It corresponds to the multifaceted character of the personality of the saint of Assisi that is mirrored in the variety of sources through which we know him. But the historian, faced with such multiple aspects, immediately feels uneasy and willingly leaves to popular writers the task of producing synthetic works (unsatisfactory from a scientific point of view), which, except for a few details, are scarcely remembered in a later era. Because this popular literature exists, moreover, the historian is more inclined to take refuge in erudition and “pure” research. Indeed, contemporary historiography has often been marked by the assumption, given the current state of our knowledge, that an authentic biographical reconstruction of the person of Francis may not even be possible.

However, Francis is neither a myth nor a legendary person, even if many legendae were written about him during the Middle Ages. And there is no reason that he should remain more out of reach than his contemporaries like Saint Louis or Frederick II, both of whom have been the subject of remarkable biographies and whose historicity no one has ever questioned. Surely, since Henri-Irénée Marrou, we know that absolute objectivity does not exist in this domain and that any claim to know things “as they really happened” is illusory. But a biographer who wants to produce a work of history must not renounce his or her objectivity simply because biography, like history, is written in the present and reflects the hopes of its time. The author of this book is well aware that it is the work of an individual belonging to a time, place, and culture that will by necessity determine his way of framing the questions. He is interested in Francis, for example, because he had for a long time lived and worked in Italy and has regularly visited Assisi and Umbria. He has been able to measure the profound impact of Franciscanism in that country, where he met numerous people for whom the saint of Assisi remains a living point of reference. As a medievalist, he has dedicated his research to the history of holiness and to the study of hagiographical texts— legends and miracle collections— which constitute the core of the documentation that we have at our disposal for knowing the figure of the “Poverello”— the Little Poor One.

Excerpted from Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saintby André Vauchez, translated by Michael F. Cusato, Yale University Press, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. All rights reserved.

Eminent Biography: Tim Jeal on Dr. Livingstone

Tim Jeal, credit Joyce Jeal

Read an excerpt from Livingstone on the London Yale Books Blog

Read a piece by Tim Jeal for The Daily Beast

Born March 19, 1813, David Livingstone became a living myth and national hero of Victorian Britain long before his death in present-day Zambia, having lost contact with the rest of the world for most of his last years. Tim Jeal, prize-winning biographer of Henry Morton Stanley who phrased the infamous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, celebrates Livingstone’s bicentenary with the release of a revised and expanded edition of his definitive biography, Livingstone.  Returning to the “Eminent Biography” section of our blog, Jeal delves into the darker character of Livingstone, the man and his life lesser known—if at all—to his contemporary adorers.

Tim Jeal—

Dr. Livingstone aged two hundred

Two hundred years ago, a man was born in a decaying Glasgow tenement, who would become a unique British hero, venerated more for his supposed ‘saintliness’ than for his deeds.   Sixty years later, people wept openly at his state funeral in Westminster Abbey. A missionary – as well as an explorer – he was said to have died on his knees in prayer in an African swamp, trying to bring Christianity to Africa.   So when I discovered as a twenty-six year-old author that Dr. Livingstone had a darker, more complex personality than his grieving mourners imagined, I was astonished.


Aged ten he had been put to work in a cotton mill, crawling under the machines up to twenty miles a day, twisting together fraying threads.  Yet he went on to become a church minister and a doctor.  These astonishing feats had been achieved at the cost of a proper childhood or youth, making him isolated and intolerant of less exceptional people.

Arriving in Africa as a medical missionary in 1841, he showed his originality – and horrified his conventional colleagues – by refusing to condemn polygamy and other customs which they considered barbaric. Yet though despising his co-workers, he himself would fail as a settled evangelist, making, in eight years, one convert – a chief, who promptly took back his wives.  Livingstone, I found, was not a modest man but a wildly ambitious one who had dreamed of preaching ‘beyond every other man’s line of things’ from his first months in Africa.  After failing to make conversions, it was convenient for a would-be explorer to conclude that only tribes deep in the interior, who had never seen whites, would accept Christianity.

In 1851, he reached the Zambezi at the heart of Africa, but was appalled to learn that local tribes sold women and children to the mixed race agents of Portuguese slave traders.  At present they were obliged to pay with slaves for the factory goods they coveted. But if he could show that boats could navigate the Zambezi from the coast, then European traders  would surely come and accept payment in nuts, ivory and animal skins.  So Livingstone would have to become an explorer, which he wanted to do anyway.  This meant deserting his wife, whom he had married in 1845, and their three children who had accompanied him on two journeys to the Zambezi region and almost died.

Livingstone and the LionBetween 1853 and 1856 Livingstone crossed Africa to the Atlantic from a point on the Zambezi close to Victoria Falls (which he ‘discovered’ and named).  Despite having suffered almost thirty bouts of malaria, he then tramped back across the entire continent to the Indian Ocean. During his journey, a man tried to murder a chief Livingstone  was sitting beside, and gun-toting warriors of another tribe surrounded him.   To the east of Victoria Falls, Livingstone found fertile and healthy country, ideal for a trading and missionary settlement, if the Zambezi proved navigable. Unwisely, he took a short-cut and so missed the impassable Cabora Bassa cataracts blocking the river. But back in England after his four thousand-mile trans-Africa epic, he was welcomed as the greatest explorer since the Tudor era.

But his government-sponsored Zambezi expedition failed ignominiously partly because of those cataracts, and partly because (though Livingstone could get on with his African carriers) he fell out with all the Europeans on his new expedition. Worse than that he initiated two missions, most of whose missionaries died of malaria. Their deaths led the government to recall the expedition.

Livingstone PortraitLivingstone returned in disgrace to Britain in 1864.  If he had been told then, that he would end his life a decade later with a vastly enhanced reputation, he would have been incredulous.  But during an unsuccessful search for the source of the Nile and a simultaneous mission to expose the Arab slave trade, he showed such bravery, such powers of endurance, such faith in his mission, and such hatred of the slave trade, that admiration is still the only possible response.   Thanks too to the heaven-sent arrival (as Livingstone saw it) of the Welsh-American journalist, Henry M. Stanley – the most enduring image of Dr Livingstone would be as a forgotten saint who unselfishly gave his life for Africans.  It made more journalistic sense for Stanley, who idolized Livingstone and smothered his misgivings about the explorer’s vindictiveness, to present him as a neglected saint rather than as a misanthropic recluse. This depiction of angelic Dr Livingstone would be communicated to the world in his bestseller, How I Found Livingstone in Central Africa.  In fact the Livingstone of his last journeys was a gentler more tolerant man than the one who had reviled the members of the Zambezi Expedition.   When Livingstone had only nine carriers and five deserted, condemning him to helplessness, he wrote: ‘I did not blame them very severely in my own mind for absconding; they were tired of tramping, and so verily am I … I have faults myself’.

Exploring the swampy sources of the Congo, which he hoped were the Nile’s, Livingstone became too weak to travel and died in the swamps of northern Zambia.  His bravery, his ‘faithful black followers’ who carried his body to the coast and his one-man war against the Arab Swahili slavers made him that rare type of hero who enabled his contemporaries to feel pride without guilt in an age of conquests and exploitation.

Tim Jeal
is the author of acclaimed biographies of Livingstone, Baden-Powell, and Stanley, each selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and the Washington Post. He was selected as the winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and lives in London.

The Great Agnostic and First American Male Feminist

Susan Jacoby, author of the new biography, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethoughthere reflects on the significance of Ingersoll as a religious and philosophical thinker, considering women’s and human rights in nineteenth-century America and arguing that he was a man well ahead his times—more like twentieth-century feminists than his own contemporaries on the issue of women’s rights.

The Great Agnostic and First American Male Feminist

Susan Jacoby—

Robert Green Ingersoll, known as “The Great Agnostic” when he was America’s most famous orator in the late nineteenth century, was also far ahead of his time in his attitude about equal rights for women. Although he was a prominent Republican during the Gilded Age, he would never have found a place in today’s Republican Party not only because of his advocacy of absolute separation of church and state but because of his insistence that women were entitled to all of the legal benefits and education granted men.

In “Eight Hours Must Come,” an essay published in 1890, Ingersoll not only broke with the robber barons by supporting an eight-hour work day but took the even more extraordinary—at the time, almost unthinkable—position of supporting equal pay for women.

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American FreethoughtEconomic justice, he said, must apply to women as well as to men and working men should remember that “all who labor are their brothers, and that all women who labor are their sisters.” The worst-paid, worst-treated workers in America were women, Ingersoll noted more than two decades before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  “Think of the sewing women in this city,” he wrote, “and yet we call ourselves civilized!”

Ingersoll’s rejection of the idea that women were, by nature, intellectually inferior to men—an article of faith for most men and most women in his era—was another of his distinguishing characteristics as a humanistic freethinker. The dedications of many volumes in Ingersoll’s collected works emphasize his high opinion of the capabilities of women: Volume I, “To Eva A. Ingersoll, My Wife, A Woman without Superstition;” Volume II, “To Mrs. Sue M. Farrell, in law my sister, and in fact my friend;” Volume XII, “To My Daughters, Eva and Maud, whose hearts have never been hardened, whose imaginations have never been poisoned, and whose lives have never been cursed with the dogma of eternal fire.”

That Ingersoll was a family man who adored his wife and two daughters was well known, and his spotless domestic reputation—despite the best efforts of scandal-hungry reporters—frustrated those who wished to equate freethought with “free love.”  The Great Agnostic’s twentieth-century biographers failed to recognize, probably because most of them were writing before the emergence of the second wave of American feminism in the 1970s, that Ingersoll held a radical view of women’s rights and wrongs that went far beyond the suffragist movement of his time.

In the battle over the subjugation of women, he sided with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who saw religion and centuries of religion-based law as the main cause of women’s oppression, rather than with those who saw the vote itself as the ultimate remedy for all of women’s ills. Like Stanton, Ingersoll viewed the franchise as necessary but not sufficient for women who wished not only to be the helpmates of men but the masters of their own lives. In this he resembled feminists of the 1970s and 1980s rather than the suffragists of his own time.

Before there were any reliable means of contraception, Ingersoll spoke about birth control as the precondition for women’s liberation. He also understood—unlike the ultra-conservative Congressional candidates who went down to defeat in the 2012 election because of their contemptuous comments about rape, abortion, and contraception—that  compulsory childbearing was used by both the church and individual men to stymie any other aspirations that women might possess.

Ingersoll said emphatically, “Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself…must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.” Women could never be truly free as long as they were forced to rely on the self-control of men to avoid unwanted pregnancy. “This is the solution of the whole question,” Ingersoll emphasized. “This frees woman. The babes that are then born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts.  They will fill homes with light and joy.”

Those who considered the very mention of birth control obscene would be horrified by the possibility that women might choose whether or not to have children, because involuntary motherhood guaranteed patriarchal control over all female behavior. Ingersoll described the ethos of  both men and women “who believe that slaves are purer, truer than the free, who believe that fear is a safer guide than knowledge, that only those are really good who obey the commands of others, and that ignorance is the soil in which the perfect, perfumed flower of virtue grows.”

Ingersoll was well aware that women, as a group, were more religious than men, but, in sharp contrast to Victorian moralists who considered the female sex “purer” than the male, he attributed feminine religiosity not to woman’s higher nature but to her lack of education and utter economic dependency on her husband.

In his preface to the prominent freethinker and feminist Helen H. Gardener’s Men, Women and Gods (1885), Ingersoll said flatly, “Woman is not the intellectual inferior of man. She has lacked, not mind, but opportunity…There were universities for men before the alphabet had been taught to women. At the intellectual feast, there was no place for wives and mothers. Even now they sit at the second table and eat the crusts and crumbs.”  Even worse, in Ingersoll’s opinion, was the tendency of many husbands to regard religious superstition as the guardian of their wives’ fidelity and their daughters’ chastity. “These men think of priests as detectives in disguise,” Ingersoll said, “and regard God as a policeman who prevents elopements.”

The result, in nineteenth-century America, was a union of religion and law in which women were expected to stay in a marriage even if they were regularly beaten and maimed by their husbands. In 1888, the New York World published a remarkable interview with Ingersoll in which he linked the right of a woman to divorce, and to obtain support for her children, with a case of domestic violence considered shocking even in a society where marital violence against women was rarely considered worthy of a headline. It seems that a man in the New York City borough of Queens had torn one of his wife’s eyes out of its socket and then, a year later, returned home in a drunken rage and tore out the other eye.

The blind wife could leave her husband and live separately from him, Ingersoll noted, but she would still be forced to stay legally married to her assailant and would “remain, for the rest of her days…a wife, hiding, keeping out of the way, secreting herself from the hyena to whom she was married.” (From 1787 until 1967, adultery was the only ground for divorce In New York State—a policy upheld in the twentieth century largely as a result of strong lobbying by representatives of the powerful Catholic Archdiocese  of  New York).

In a forceful statement that sounds very much like the 1970s’ feminist critique of male domestic violence, Ingersoll asked, “Must a woman in order to retain her womanhood become a slave, a serf, with a wild beast for a master, or with society for a master, or with a phantom for a master? Has not the married woman the right of self-defence? Is it not the duty of society to protect her from her husband?…She may not remain in the same house with him, for fear that he may kill her. What, then, are their relations? Do they sustain any relation except that of hunter and hunted—that is, of tyrant and victim?”

Ingersoll did not hesitate to talk about other threats to women, such as rape, that were unmentionable in polite society. “It is hard to appreciate the dangers and difficulties that lie in wait for woman,” he said. “Even in this Christian country of ours, no girl is safe in the streets of the city after the sun has gone down. After all, the sun is the only god that has ever protected woman. In the darkness she has been the prey of the wild beast in man.”  (Italics mine)

In the late nineteenth century, there were few women who dared to say, even if they thought, that patriarchal religion was a major obstacle to the full development of their sex.  Stanton and Gardener were the exceptions, and Stanton herself was pushed aside by the suffragist movement in the early 1890s after publishing her Woman’s Bible, a strongly worded collection of essays by female scholars who criticized and reinterpreted the endless biblical passages claiming divine sanction for the inferiority of women. The suffragist movement began to make real headway in public opinion only when it discarded any broader critique of women’s position in society and merged with the devoutly religious, female-led temperance movement, embodied by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In the temperance movement, both women and men portrayed alcohol consumption as the only source of male violence against women and children.

Ingersoll, by contrast, viewed the connection between alcohol and violence within the home as only one more manifestation of the failure of both religion and government to uphold women’s rights. Ingersoll was unimpressed by the argument that Christianity had elevated the status of women. He noted that Jesus “said not one word about the sacredness of home, the duties of the husband to the wife—nothing calculated to lighten the hearts of those who bear the saddest burdens of this life.”

Ingersoll was unusual in that he combined a basic belief in the intellectual equality of women and men with a romantic chivalry that owed more to his love of Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, and Keats than it did to contemporary social attitudes that placed women on a pedestal and required them to stay there. He often said that his favorite line of English verse was Shakespeare’s “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”

In his most popular and frequently delivered lecture, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child,” Ingersoll followed up an ardent defense of equal rights for women with a reflection on love that expressed his romantic side and his feelings about his wife. “And do you know,” he told his audiences, “it is a splendid thing to think that the woman you really love will never grow old to you. Through the wrinkles of time, through the mask of years, if you really love her, you will always see the face you loved and won. And a woman who really loves a man does not see that he grows old; he is not decrepit to her; she always sees the same gallant gentleman who won her hand and heart.”

That mutual, lifelong love was Ingersoll’s ideal did not prevent him from understanding that  for millions of women, real life bore no resemblance to the ideal and that women’s subsistence wages prevented most from exiting an intolerable marriage. “The question of wages for women is a thousand times more important than sending missionaries to China or to India,” he said. “There is plenty for missionaries to do here. And by missionaries I do not mean gentlemen and ladies who distribute tracts or quote Scripture to people out of work. If we are to better the condition of men and women we must change their surroundings.”

When Ingersoll died in 1899, The New York Times noted that he had not accumulated great wealth even though he commanded top fees as a lecturer. One of Ingersoll’s mistakes, according to the anonymous editorial writer, was that he left money in an unlocked drawer in his home, so that his wife and daughters could take what they needed without asking him. Yes, Ingersoll was a bad Victorian pater familias, but he was a great humanist and a passionate, premature defender of women’s rights and human rights. Why, he even gave the women in his family access to money!

Adapted from The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby (Yale University Press, 2013) Copyright © 2013 by Susan Jacoby. All rights reserved.

To Conquer Man’s World: An Excerpt on Delmira Agustini

Continuing the discussion of Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini, author Cathy L. Jrade explores the rebellious side of this Spanish American poet as she attempted to operate in a man’s world in this excerpt from Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction, and Vampiric Conquest. For Agustini, the eroticism and overt sexuality of her verse place her at the center of feminine discourse on modernismo, the literary movement advanced by Spanish-American writers around the turn of the twentieth century. Jrade‘s account of Agustini’s life and poetry further delves into Agustini’s verse as a model of artistic reimagining, in which the poet rewrites the language of male authority and female passivity, with unparalleled successes.

Cathy L. Jrade—

In an outburst of enthusiasm Luisa Luisi called Delmira Agustini (1886-1914) “the first woman poet of America.” Taken with Agustini’s imaginative power and groundbreaking alterations to modernista discourse, Luisi, like many of her contemporaries, was ready to overlook earlier women writers of world-class stature like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Gertrudis de Avellaneda and to declare the Uruguayan poet the first of her kind in Spanish America. This type of sweeping response to Agustini’s poetry was not untypical, for Agustini combined a creative rewriting of modernista tropes with an aggressively sexualized perspective never before found in texts written by Spanish American women. The eroticism of her verse enhanced and fed into the speculation that swirled around her tragically premature demise at the hands of her ex-husband, whom she had taken as a secret lover. Yet all the while she maintained the incongruous representation of herself as “la Nena” (the little girl).

On the public level Agustini played the part of the dutiful, infantilized young woman who abided by the staunchly paternalistic, conservative expectations of her class and gender. She acted out the role common among her contemporaries, who, according to José Pedro Barrán, understood their femininity to be “ a mixture of equal doses of childishness, virtue, and romanticism.” On the private level and in her writing, however, she decided to take full advantage of the liberties that were being heralded by diverse advocates of a more open and liberal society. She attempted to operate on equal footing with the men around her who were freeing themselves and their writings from the traditional sexual limitations, even more daringly, to respond to their language with her own, feminized discourse. By boldly assuming she could claim the same rights and freedoms as a man in her behavior and in her writing, she broke expectations, pushed aside barriers, and, whether she intended to or not, staked out an linguistic and imaginative space for women and women poets. The internal contradictions that appeared throughout her poetry as well as the paradoxical way in which she chose to live reflect the multifaceted dynamics that were at work in the Uruguay of the end of the nineteenth century. For those with a more traditional point of view unwilling or unable to recognize the complexity of her endeavors, she became “the most problematic figure of Uruguayan literature… and probably of Spanish American poetry.”

The divergent forces that came to play a central role in the shocking originality of Agustini’s verse, her deliberate proliferation of masks, and her scandalous life and death (all of which have fascinated casual readers, serious scholars, and creative writers alike) were part and parcel of her immediate milieu. Though often contradictory, if not restrictive and punishing, in nature, these forces had a direct impact on the way she came to formulate the language of desire from a woman’s point of view. Understanding the often subtle but far-reaching implications of the dominant patriarchal and modernist rhetoric of the day, Agustini developed an original way of expressing her own conflicted attitudes towards sexual and contemporary debates. To this end she reconfigured from a woman’s standpoint the male language of literary paternity through which she was able to assert her personal and poetic passions.

In broad terms the focus of my book is this hitherto unobserved rebellious and imaginative contribution to Spanish American poetry. I show the poems that have been read as presenting an intrepidly erotic stance are laced with innovative declarations of poetic goals. More specifically I map out how Agustini at first reenvisions the linguistic models she finds in the poetry  of modernismo’s principal figure, namely, Rubén Darío, converting him from the process into her poetic foil and the male other of her verse. Darío becomes, in this manner, both person and poetry; he becomes the one to seduce, to conquer, and the one with whom she will “breed” the new race of poets to which she refers in her later collections.

Excerpted from Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction, and Vampiric Conquest. Copyright © 2012 by Cathy L. Jrade.

Read Jrade‘s “Eminent Biography” post on Agustini on the Yale Press Log.

Eminent Biography: Cathy Jrade on Delmira Agustini

One day, oddly
fainted on the ground,
I fell asleep on the deep plush textures of this forest . . .
I dreamed divine things! . . .
A smile of yours woke me, it seems to me . . .
and I do not feel my wings!. . .
My wings? . . .

I saw them melt between my arms . . .
was like a thaw!

from “Las alas” by Delmira Agustini, translated by Cathy L. Jrade. Copyright © 2012, by Cathy L. Jrade.

Cathy Jrade, credit Lauren Owens

While members of the “Forever 27 Club” have music in common, even before the advent of popular music and rock and roll, lyrics and youthful recklessness had often gone hand in hand.  When flirtation with the darker themes of modernity and humanity becomes a primary focus of attention, the elements of tragedy seem to follow closely behind. In her brief life, Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini (1886 – 1914) explored the worlds of desire and obsession, dreams and eroticism in her work, to achieve a legacy as the first major woman poet of Spanish America. Now, Cathy L .Jrade in her forthcoming book, Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction, and Vampiric Conquest, allows us a look at the complexities of Agustini’s writing, her relationship to the father of modernismo, Rubén Darío, and the tragic lovers’ fate that befell her.


Cathy L. Jrade—

While every student of Spanish American modernismo is familiar with the name and works of Delmira Agustini, critics have only begun to examine the complex web of references and images that fill her writing.  Most readers know her as the first major woman poet of modern Spanish America and would identify her with an aggressively sexualized discourse and oneiric visions of vampires, insects, death, and dying.  Yet from a very young age, Agustini was obsessed with writing, and this obsession, more than physical desire or mental anguish, informs her poetry.

My interest in Agustini is long-standing, but it was an experience in the classroom that really started me thinking about what Agustini was able to accomplish in her verse.  One day when teaching her visionary poem “Las alas,” I tried to impress upon my class the devastation of the poem’s final stanzas. The fall to earth and the melting of the wings seemed to me profoundly tragic, but my undergraduates hardly took note of these events. It was not simply that the poet, who had flown so high, who had soared with hope, confidence, and vision, was rendered impotent. The true tragedy was the prosaic ordinariness with which Agustini portrays the descent and the acceptance of its apparent inevitability. To make my point I had the students turn to Rubén Darío’s “Sonatina,” which we had studied earlier. The comparison was striking. The wings in Darío’s poem announced the certainty that he would achieve greatness, that his poet’s voice would be heard now and well into the future, and that female other would silently facilitate his endeavors and empowerment. My class and I began to explore why the same image was linked to two such different outcomes. From that moment I became convinced that Agustini’s verse concealed a broader, more complex story that I had to pursue.

In the course of my research I came to understand Agustini’s profound emotional and artistic attachment to Darío, a creative genius whose work has left an imprint on all later poets and whose brilliance has been the object of my own professional attention for years. I also came to recognize Agustini as a much more accomplished and dynamic poet than has traditionally been acknowledged. Critics have signaled her daring eroticism, her inventive appropriation of vampirism, her morbid embrace of death and pain, and her startling use of dualities and opposites. But what they have overlooked is her obsession with writing. Her poetry reflects a search for an alternate language, an imaginative dialogue with Darío’s magnificent recourse to literary paternity, and a thoughtful and audacious rejection of social and poetic conventions.

Like all her contemporaries, Agustini understood that Darío was the supreme poet of the day. It would be difficult to exaggerate Darío’s preeminence among writers. He has been acclaimed as the innovative and revolutionary poet who, with modernismo, changed the course of Spanish poetry. But his work extends beyond modernismo, the movement he named, defined, and headed. He is one of the great modern poets in any language and certainly the most important poet of the Spanish language since the seventeenth century.

Agustini sets for herself a daunting task. She takes Darío as her poetic other to seduce, to conquer, and, with him, to produce creative offspring. The story of her endeavor appears in her four volumes of verse and is presented in this book. Its protagonist is the most unlikely of young women in the most surprising of contexts. Protected and prodded, infantilized and thrust into the adult world of publications, Agustini is the product of an unlikely combination of factors.

Delmira was born on October 24, 1886, to Santiago Agustini and María Murtfeldt in Montevideo, Uruguay. Agustini’s father, a young, prosperous merchant, had inherited a sizeable fortune from his parents, who were French immigrants. Agustini’s mother was an Argentinian of German descent known for her strong will and domineering personality. They both sought to provide a propitious setting for the precocious, beautiful young poet.

The family lived surrounded by daily reminders of Uruguay’s considerable wealth and sense of well-being as buildings and plazas in the grand style of European capitals appeared around them. Agustini reaped the benefits of the exciting times into which she was. In an unpublished letter, she claims to have learned to read, write, and even compose verses by the age of three and to have published her first poems at twelve, and these endeavors were encouraged by her parents, who supplied her with a private room as well as the uninterrupted time she needed for her literary pursuits. Her father is known to have recopied her poetry, which she often set down at night and with considerable disorder and abandon.

By 1902 Agustini had begun to publish in La Alborada, a local magazine, and by 1903 she had been placed in charge of its society pages, a task she executed under the fashionable pseudonym Joujou. Because of her youth and her gender, she attracted a fair amount of attention and celebrity. In 1907, at the age of twenty-one, she published her first book of verse, El libro blanco (Frágil). Three years later Cantos de la mañana appeared. From this point forward, she gained ever-greater prestige even as the tensions between her image as la Nena (the young girl) and her increasingly more sexual poetry drew commentary, if not notoriety.

In February of 1913 Agustini published her third volume of poetry Los cálices vacíos. The volume opens with Darío’s words of praise, in which he states, “Of all the women writing poetry today, none has impressed my spirit as has Delmira Agustini, for her soul without veils and her heart of flowers.” As much as he might have wanted to laud Agustini’s work, his tribute is unquestionably mitigated by his language, by his comparing her only to women writers, and by his referring to her as “esta niña bella” (this beautiful girl). In this volume Agustini announced the forthcoming “Los astros del abismo,” a collection that was eventually published in 1924, ten years after her death, as El rosario de Eros.

Despite her success, her independent nature, and the strains that her literary life may have provoked within the context of her more mundane activities, Agustini married Enrique Job Reyes on August 14, 1913, after a five-year engagement. For reasons still not completely understood, Delmira left their conjugal home on October 6, 1913, one month and twenty-two days after their wedding. With the help of the radically new law underwritten by the liberal regime of President José Batlle y Ordóñez, she filed for divorce a few weeks after her return to her parents’ residence.

Agustini’s break with tradition went beyond these events.  After separating from and divorcing Reyes, she took him as her secret lover and continued to meet with him in a room that he had rented until, on July 6, 1914, he shot her and then turned the pistol on himself. Agustini died immediately and Reyes died later in the Hospital Maciel. She was not yet twenty-eight.

While her life and death continue to fascinate readers, critics, and creative writers, I find the previously unrecognized breadth of her artistic aspiration to be even more compelling. She sets out to rewrite the language of male authority and female passivity, and her achievements are unparalleled. Her verse becomes a model of artistic reimagining and provides a glimpse into the creative shifts that energize poetic production.  Not surprisingly, these groundbreaking endeavors had an enormous impact on the next generation of women writers and beyond. Agustini’s revealing and lasting reformulation of poetic discourse is the focus of my book.


Cathy L. Jrade is Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University. Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction, and Vampiric Conquest will be published in July by Yale University Press.



Eminent Biography: Emily Bernard on Carl Van Vechten’s Women

Emily Bernard, Credit Hilary Neroni

In her second piece for “Eminent BiographyEmily Bernard, author of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White, explores the relationships of Carl Van Vechten and the many women who circled through his interracial and inter-artistic world of the Harlem Renaissance. After all, it is Women’s History Month, and counting among his friends Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Ethel Waters, Van Vechten left no small trace of influence on their lives and contributions.

Emily Bernard—

His Women

The first time Carl Van Vechten saw the composer and singer Nora Holt she was dancing nude on a table at a party hosted by the artist Winold Reiss.  It was 1925, the same year that Reiss contributed drawings to the Harlem number of Survey Graphic, which was the forerunner to The New Negro, the first anthology of Harlem Renaissance writing.  “I went out last night with the Sheka of Harlem,” Van Vechten wrote of Nora that year to his friend H. L. Mencken.  “Her trail is strewn with bones, many of them no longer hard.”

Carl and Nora were friends for forty years, until his death in 1964.  Carl’s standards for friendship were high, and Nora met them.  She was interesting enough, colorful enough, daring enough.  He was devoted to her, and she to him.  “My adorable Carlo,” she wrote to him in 1954.  “I will never change for my heart has always possessed you, even though I know I share you with many people who love you almost as much as I.”  He belonged to her, and she to him.  He belonged to Zora Neale Hurston, as well.  She wanted to capture him in a book, “the way he is,” she said.  “The way nobody but me, knows.” He belonged to all of them, his women, his black women, a group that also included Dorothy Peterson, Nella Larsen, A’Lelia Walker and Ethel Waters.  They all loved him fiercely, abundantly, and bawdily, which was the way that Carl Van Vechten liked to be loved.

Carl had white women, too.  Take the tender, intimate triangle between him, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, known respectively to each other as Papa Woojums, Mama Woojums, and Baby Woojums.  There was Mabel Dodge Luhan, Rita Romilly and, of course, Fania Marinoff, who was not really one of his women, but simply the “most satisfying person alive,” he said in 1960.  In Carl’s diaries, there are numerous white women to count, tromping in and out of his apartment at all hours, confessing to love affairs, behaving in unseemly fashions, getting drunk, starting fights, sometimes with him.

Carl had men, too, black men.  There was Jimmie Cole, a black prostitute, who kept him occupied for several months during 1929.  He may or may not have loved Jimmie Cole, but he certainly loved Eric Walrond, Harold Jackman, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.  They were lovely men, talented and attractive, and he enjoyed their attention and affection.  But no one’s attention and affection rivaled that expressed by his black women.  Eric never wrote of Carl, “If Carl was a people instead of a person, I could then say, these are my people,” as did Zora Neale Hurston.  Harold never referred to Carl as “my Nordic lover,” as did Ethel Waters.  Countee never called his love for Carl a “love that has fluctuated from the erotic to the spirituelle and reached adulation akin to a saint conditioned by the culture of our own day,” as did Nora Holt.  Langston never composed for Carl “an amusing piece of doggerel,” to use the words of Larsen biographer George Hutchinson, that went like this:

Here’s hoping you live as long as you want to
And want to as long as you live;

If I’m asleep and you want to, wake me.
If I’m awake and don’t want to, make me.

That was Nella Larsen.

They were hard to miss, his women.  They were glamorous artists, writers and performers.  They loved Carl and they loved style.  He loved his women for their style, too.  Dorothy Peterson was “Beautiful Miss Peterson of the Purple Hair!”  When Nora wore clothes, they were dramatic and spectacular.  In an unpublished eulogy for A’Lelia Walker, Van Vechten wrote: “She looked like a Queen and frequently acted like a tyrant.  She was tall and black and extremely handsome in her African manner.  She often dressed in black.  When she assumed more regal habiliments, she was a magnificent spectacle.”  In a biographical sketch of Zora Neale Hurston, Carl applauded her for having “once appeared at a party we were giving attired in a wide Seminole Indian skirt, contrived of a thousand patches; still another time in a Norwegian skiing outfit, with a cap over her ears.”  His most satisfying person alive had a style that was offbeat and eclectic.  “She holds elegant dresses in great esteem,” he said of Fania Marinoff, “but never dresses in fashion, being more concerned with personal taste and a very good idea of what suits her.”  This was a trait she shared with Nella Larsen, whose main character in her 1928 novel Quicksand “loved clothes, elaborate ones,” in arresting colors: “dark purples, royal blues, rich greens, deep reds”—these were Carl’s colors, too, right down to the ink he used on his stationery.

His women carried style on their bodies and in their bodies, too.  To Carl, the styles of his women were affecting on a sensual level in every respect.  Ethel Waters’ performance the 1939 Broadway show “Mamba’s Daughters,” was “a profound emotional experience for any playgoer.”  It was “a magnificent example of great acting, simple, deeply felt, moving on a plane of complete reality,” as he described it in an ad he took out in the New York Times to praise her.  It was less an ad than a petition, and it was signed by people, white people, including Tallulah Bankhead, Burgess Meredith, Oscar Hammerstein and, of course, Fania Marinoff.

His women carried their style on them, in them, and next to them.  Loving and accessorizing with Carl was stylish at a time when it was stylish to go interracial.  It was stylish and also satisfying to thumb one’s nose at conservative and presumably straight black men who considered interracial socializing—particularly black women with white men, and most particularly black women with Carl Van Vechten—abhorrent.  “It is a most disgusting thing to see,” wrote Terrence Williams in his article, “Writer Scores Best Girls Who Entertain ‘Nordics.’”  The “best girls” were girls of “poise and finesse” who, according to Williams, preferred to spend their time with “Nordics” rather than black men.  “These indiscreet females of the species are out there in the cabarets, these big fashion balls, escorted by the Nordics.” The only Nordic Williams named was Carl Van Vechten.

If the best black girls preferred Van Vechten’s company to that of Terrence Williams, maybe it was because Carl saw them as fierce grande dames with magnificent hair, regal ways and singular styles—in other words, fascinating people, not members of a species.  Maybe it was because he saw them as women, not girls.

They were brazen, shameless and interesting people, his women.  Brazenly, I count myself among them.

Emily Bernard is an associate professor in the English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program, University of Vermont. Her books include Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White and Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Follow Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance on Facebook to help us collect like Van Vechten, gathering the writing and images of the Harlem Renaissance online.

Eminent Biography: Michael Hirst on Michelangelo

Born March 6, 1475 not far outside of Florence, Italy, Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni seemed already to have the credentials to become the quintessential Renaissance Man. His hometown—Caprese—has since been renamed Caprese Michelangelo in honor of this most highly celebrated of artists.  Michelangelo’s early life, however, was notable for his father Lodovico’s financial troubles: Although the Buonarrotis were bankers, family debt and dowries had given Lodovico, his elder brother, and their families much concern living under one roof. Nevertheless, Lodovico was able to send second son Michelangelo to Florence to study with Francresco da Urbino, and later to apprentice at the Ghirlandaio workshop, which would lead to a career closely involved with the Medici family and their influence over the Papacy in Rome.

Today, we publish art historian Michael Hirst’s major new biography, Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534. Hirst, the leading authority on Michelangelo, sheds fresh light on the years when Michelangelo built his reputation with the Pietá, the Sistine Ceiling frescoes, and many other masterpieces. This free excerpt from Chapter IX, entitled “A Vulnerable Artist”, describes Michelangelo’s Florentine years at the height of their anxiety, when the Medici family was overthrown in favor of the republic, following the 1527 sack of Rome. Hirst details Michelangelo’s changing public and political roles during the period, the artist’s subsequent flight to Venice, and the creation of his lost painting of Leda and the Swan, addressing his complex psychological relations with his family, friends, and powerful patrons.

Eminent Biography: Emily Bernard on Carl Van Vechten

Emily Bernard, Credit Hilary Neroni

The friendships that formed the conversations of the Harlem Renaissance and the complex ideas of the relationships between art and race were the vein of black literary life of the early twentieth century. As editor of the volume of letters, Remember Me to Harlem: The Correspondence of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, Emily Bernard now writes on Carl Van Vechten, his notoriety as a white man with a passion for black people and culture, and his varied, interconnected role as advocate and patron for black art in Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. In this first “Eminent Biography” installment for the Yale Press Log, “Hands Across Time,” Bernard traces her own relationship with Van Vechten and how his private relationships have transformed experiences of race, literary and historical alike.

Emily Bernard—

Hands Across Time

Carl Van Vechten detested “sincerely.”  He reprimanded Langston Hughes more than once for signing his correspondence that way.  For Van Vechten, letters were opportunities for affection and imagination.  Over the course of many years of snooping through his mail, I rarely came across a recycled valediction. Once he wished Hughes “768 white penguin feathers for 76 black swans.”  A few years later, it was “four brightcolored roosters to you and a hen to make them happy!”  In July 1941, when Hughes was in California for work, Van Vechten ended a letter with “hands across the states.”

I could wax on loftily about the challenges and rewards I have discovered in doing archival work, but for me it all comes down to the pleasures of poking around in other people’s private business.  Van Vechten lived his life under the cultural spotlight, and kept his papers with the understanding that they would be archived and eventually be viewed by others.  Maybe his letters were, as they say in academia, “performative acts.”  But I read them as authentic, spontaneous, and transparent evidence of Van Vechten’s deep and varied well of emotions.  He rages, coddles, laments, whines, brags and gossips.  He is hyperbolic and sober; bitter and solicitous.  He thunders at Hughes for ignoring him in the same year that he confesses his love to Chester Himes, a black novelist and memoirist– and former prison inmate.  It seems to me that Van Vechten’s affection for Himes, whom he discovered in his late 70s, may have outdistanced his affection for Hughes, with whom he began a friendship thirty years earlier.   What is certain is that his attraction to black culture, art and style never waned.  And in those later years, when his hearing failed and simply getting around became difficult, his commitment to friendship remained a vital part of who he was.  His letters testify to this.

There are concrete things to say about Van Vechten’s relationships with black people and to black culture; there are rational arguments to make about whether or not he appropriated black art and enforced racial stereotypes in his fiction and nonfiction.  There is reason, and there is mystery; I feel my book is ultimately about the latter.  Van Vechten’s passion for blackness makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and for good reason.  Some of the things he said about black artists were unsettling; more than once he made the argument that the black artist should, essentially, “stay in his place,” and stick to blues, jazz and spirituals—the “cultural birthright” of African Americans, he believed.

As I conducted research for my book, I didn’t so much ignore these troubling aspects of his attitude toward blackness as I followed them into deeper territory.  Van Vechten’s fixed ideas about black art represented facets of his public position on racial difference.  But in his private world, there were subtleties, nuances, contradictions and layers.  His bonds with black friends were sparked by his admiration of the art they presented to the public, but they were maintained by those ineffable qualities that sustain any deep bond.  Within the many thousands of pages of his correspondence are tender silences and gestures toward the things that do not have to be said between friends.

I started this book because I wanted to spend time with Van Vechten in private.  I probably would have bored him, honestly.  In all fairness to myself, however, who could really hold a candle to fabulous performers and personalities like Nora Holt and Ethel Waters (the subjects of my next post)?  But just like Van Vechten, I live as intensely as I can on the page; in my case, more intensely than I do in real life.

The ineffable.  My students tease me for how often I use that word.  For me, it is the word that most truly describes my own relationship with Carl Van Vechten, which has lasted for almost twenty-five years now.  I couldn’t fully commit to him for most of those years, but we made it legal several years ago in a contract with Yale University Press.  During all the years that I waffled, I was unfaithful: I put other books before this one.  But then I would find myself back at the Beinecke Library at Yale, elbow deep in the Carl Van Vechten papers, bursting with uncomfortable laughter at something he said to Walter White that was slightly—more than slightly—off-color, so to speak.  I finally gave in to curiosity, and the myriad feelings that reading his correspondence ignited in me.

Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White started essentially in the late nineties, when I was researching my first book Remember Me to Harlem: The Correspondence of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten.  Since snooping is my forte, it seemed natural to put that skill to more use as I began to conceive of another book, this one devoted entirely to Van Vechten and his friends, his black friends.  I was fascinated by the way race did and did not play a role in their intimacy.  It was so much the way I experienced the role that race plays in my own intimate relationships. When they did talk about it they did so with both irreverence and awe.  Blackness—style, culture, art–was wonderful and humorous to all of them.  They ignored conventional boundaries of decorum when they talked about race, just as they flouted the social logic of Jim Crow by enjoying each others’ company at all.  As a black woman writing a book about a white man—and not just any white man, but one with a uniquely bad reputation in African American cultural history—I felt I was continuing in their tradition.

It is a singular gift, to leave one’s private life behind.  Not the carefully manicured self one presents in articles, essays and books, but the messy and unattractive bits.  The self who can’t seem to stay sober, as is evident in Van Vechten’s on and off attempts to stop drinking, which recorded in his daybooks.  The self that gossips unkindly about friends, and fights—sometimes physically—with his wife.  Van Vechten left behind phonographs, manuscripts, photographs and books, and these I wrote about in Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance.  But his tender gifts of self, his penguin feathers and brightcolored roosters—this is really what the book is about, and his imperfections are the treasures I hold most dearly.

Emily Bernard
is an associate professor in the English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program, University of Vermont. Her books include Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Follow Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance on Facebook to help us collect like Van Vechten, gathering the writing and images of the Harlem Renaissance online.

Eminent Biography: Donald Weinstein on Savonarola

What does it mean to be a prophet? In his new biography Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet, Donald Weinstein gives us one answer to this question, tracing the story of religious visionary Girolamo Savonarola from his early loss of faith in society to his later attempts to reform it. On Tuesday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compared GOP candidate Rick Santorum to “a latter-day Savonarola,” only adding to anxious questioning of whether this Renaissance man was a false or true prophet. In this excerpt from the prologue, Weinstein, a leading scholar of Savonarola and the Italian Renaissance, describes the fifteenth-century Florentine world that provided the backdrop for Savonarola’s prophecies and delves into the prophet’s ultimate repudiation of his vision, weighing the influences of religious fervor, ambition, and the excruciating torture of the Inquisition in shaping the friar’s final days.


Donald Weinstein—

On the morning of May 23, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola and two fellow Dominican friars, Domenico da Pescia and Silvestro Maruffi,were hanged and burned in the main square of Florence, the city they had hailed as the New Jerusalem. Relentless interrogation and bone-breaking torture had wrung incriminating admissions from each of them, most devastatingly from Savonarola, the triumvirate’s leader. In a written statement read by an official to a perplexed and uneasy public, fra Girolamo declared that his prophecies of Florentine glory and Christian renewal were bogus, inspired not by God but by his own ambition for worldly glory and political power.

One of his admirers, the apothecary Luca Landucci, heard the confession and recorded his feelings in his diary. “I was there to hear the statement and I remained dumbfounded and bewildered. I was grief stricken to see such a grand edifice come crashing to earth because it had been built so wretchedly on a single lie. I was expecting Florence to become a new Jerusalem out of which would come the laws and splendor and example of the good life, and to see the renovation of the Church, the conversion of the infidels, and the consolation of the righteous. Instead, I realized, everything was just the opposite. So I had to swallow the medicine: ‘All things, O Lord, are in thy will’.”

Many who came to witness the execution, Landucci reported, hoped for a sign that would prove the truth of Savonarola’s glorious prophecies. But no sign was forthcoming; he went to his death without a word and their remaining faith was shattered. Still, “a few good people” had so much faith that they braved official displeasure by secretly gathering the ashes that had been ordered thrown into the Arno.

The two contrasting faiths of Landucci’s account still shadow every telling of the Savonarola story. The hawk-nosed, raspy-voiced little mendicant preacher who briefly captivated the first city of the Renaissance with his gospel of republican liberty, civic empire, and universal Christian renewal—was he a God-intoxicated visionary or a thrusting opportunist? The trial record provides no universally satisfying answer. Savonarola’s devotees, his leading modern biographers among them, dismiss the confessions as concoctions of inquisitorial torturers and dishonest notaries and esteem him as a prophet and saintly martyr. Skeptics accept the same evidence as substantially genuine, proof of the corrupt motives that drove him.

But Savonarola is a protean figure who refuses to be confined to such theological pigeonholes as “saint” or “sinner”. I have followed him as he moved through the various phases of his spiritual odyssey, from world rejection to world reform, and have tried to understand the circumstances of each juncture. To deny that ambition played a role in Savonarola’s rise to prominence would be pointless. It is more fruitful to consider to what ends he directed his ambition and to what extent he remained true to those ends as he moved into the limelight and discovered his charismatic powers.

“Prophets,” wrote Henry Mayer in his fine biography of William Lloyd Garrison, the prophet of the abolition of American slavery, “however little they are honored in their time, are nonetheless connected to it.” J. H. Hexter in his introduction to the Utopia of Thomas More referred to Savonarola, in Machiavellian vein, as the most successful and unsuccessful prophet-without-arms of his time and place. Taken together the two observations sum up a main truth about prophets: not only do they profoundly connect to their time and place, they operate in profound tension with them. This explains both their spectacular success and their ultimate failure.

Savonarola’s bold engagement with the ills of his time and his radical vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth mesmerized the people of Florence and made devotees of philosophers, humanists, more than one reigning prince, and even a few Roman prelates; yet to achieve his vision was beyond the power, or the will, of an imperfect humanity. Savonarola came to grief not, as Machiavelli declared, because unarmed prophets are bound to fail, but because like all prophets, armed or not, he mistook his own vision for the fulfillment of history—or, as he would have said, for God’s design. It follows that a biography of Savonarola must be, as his first great modern biographer, Pasquale Villari, understood, a “life and times” in order to explain how he came to this vision, why it captivated so many, and why the society that acclaimed him as a prophet ultimately rejected and killed him.

Savonarola lived during the Renaissance, a period named for its fascination, bordering on obsession, with the culture of classical antiquity. There had been earlier classical revivals—since the time of Charlemagne we can count almost one a century—but none of them was so passionate to know and emulate everything about the ancient Greeks and Romans or went about it so methodically. The operatives in those earlier revivals were predominantly clerics in monastic and cathedral centers across Europe who justified their study of pagan philosophy, science, and literature by claiming that this helped them articulate and defend the theology and tenets of their Christian faith. But the protagonists of this new Renaissance were for the most part laymen—notaries, lawyers, scribes, teachers, government officials, physicians, businessmen, makers of the new civic culture of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy—who regarded a knowledge of classical Latin language and literature as enhancing their professions as well as opening new horizons of human art and experience.

The chief spokesman and ideologue of the new classical sensibility was Francesco Petrarca (1304–74), or Petrarch, to call him by his Latinized name. Although Petrarch also advanced the cause of Italian literature by continuing the practice of writing his sonnets, canzoni, and other forms of love poetry in the Tuscan vernacular, he believed that to enter the higher thought world of the writers and thinkers of antiquity it was first necessary to master their language. He and his fellow enthusiasts promoted a method of Latin study that began with the fundamentals of classical grammar, syntax, and vocabulary and advanced to the reading of ancient texts and training in rhetoric, the mastery of literary and oratorical styles. Like explorers of lost continents, classical scholars hunted for copies of ancient writings, identified lost or forgotten authors, compared and edited texts, and established rules for determining the authenticity, accuracy, and primacy of variant manuscripts, thus creating the discipline of philology. They copied inscriptions, studied ancient coins, and excavated and sketched Roman buildings and sites. They also prized ancient science and technology and recovered many influential texts on medicine, geography, agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, and military science.

Until the fifteenth century, humanists (as teachers of studia humanitatis came to be called to distinguish them from teachers of religious studies) had little access to the faculties of those strongholds of intellectual conservatism, the universities. Since they were obliged to find other means of earning a living and alternate outlets for their intellectual wares, this exclusion had the effect of furthering the dissemination of classical studies in the broader society. Humanists established new schools of the arts and taught in established grammar schools, served as tutors in wealthy households, worked as editors and translators, and dedicated their writings to patrons who could reward them with an honorarium or employment. For their schools they promoted an expanded liberal arts curriculum that included Latin grammar, rhetoric, poetry, music, arithmetic, and history.

By the second half of the fifteenth century the new arts curriculum was established in every Italian city from Milan to Palermo, in the Roman curia, and at princely courts in Italy and north of the Alps. In addition to their belated reception into university arts faculties, humanist-trained professionals served as official historians and biographers, private secretaries and public functionaries, propagandists and public orators. The “orator,” or ambassador, who, as the famous English quip had it, “goes to lie abroad for his country,” had to be competent enough to deliver a formal address in eloquent, polished Latin replete with references to classical writers and ancient history. Familiarity with the ancient poets and historians as well as competence in “good Latin” was expected of high Church dignitaries.

With the spread of humanist education among laymen (and sometimes among their sisters and daughters), preachers hoping to find favor among elite church congregations adopted techniques of classical rhetoric and sprinkled their texts with classical allusions. Ancient philosophy entered the cultural mainstream too, with the growing availability of Latin and vernacular translations of Plato, Aristotle, and others in the new medium of print. Petrarch’s call for the revival of Greek was also answered when the city of Florence offered the Byzantine envoy Manuel Chrysoloras a three-year professorship of Greek in 1397. He was followed by other learned diplomats and churchmen of the Byzantine Empire who came to Italy seeking help against the Turks and remained to initiate a solid revival of Greek language and thought.

The Renaissance was a time not only of new knowledge and linguistic sophistication but also of major changes in taste and aesthetic sensibility. Classical styles and motifs, never entirely absent from medieval culture, now increasingly dictated the forms and decorative details of churches, public and private palaces, monuments, and country villas. In art, classical style came irresistibly into its own in the fifteenth century. Taking their cue from antiquity, artists drew, painted, and sculpted the nude human form, going far beyond ancient art in their observation of anatomy and nature, rendered with new techniques of linear and aerial perspective.

Ancient myths, historical episodes, erotic scenes, and other “profane” subjects took their places in Italian art and literature alongside Christian ones as authors, often now writing in the volgare, or vernacular, drew upon classical comedy, romance, satire, and tragedy and adapted ancient forms to native traditions and experience. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) is a good example of this fusion: his ribald Italian comedies were inspired by Plautus and other ancient authors, but his plots revolved around the complications of everyday life and his characters were the crafty friars, hypocritical priests, grasping merchants, flirtatious young wives, and randy lovers whom he observed in the streets of Florence.

Religious conservatives worried that the rising tide of classical culture was drowning Christian morals and values in a sea of “paganism” and blamed it for everything from the clergy’s fixation on money and power to the spread of sexual license. With little comprehension of such historical realities as the rise of an entrepreneurial economy, the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death, and the spread of secular culture, they applied simplistic moral dichotomies—greed vs. charity, ambition vs. humility, luxury vs. austerity, piety vs. worldliness—and called for a return to a “primitive Christianity” every bit as idealized as the classical antiquity of the humanists.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century the influential Dominican preacher and future cardinal Giovanni Dominici (1356–1420) mounted a public attack on the humanists, charging that they were perverting Christian youth by replacing the authority of the saints with that of the ancients. Dominici was no obscurantist but a sophisticated Thomist theologian, and he made his argument on a philosophical level, challenging humanist assumptions about the primacy of will over reason and questioning the rhetoricians’ faith in the correspondence between words and things. Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), the eminent classical scholar and first secretary of the Florentine Chancellery, replied for humanism. All knowledge, including studia divinitatis, begins with communication, Salutati memorably declared, and his thesis was elaborated by his successors into a humanist credo: language is the link to reality, the basis of human community and of the connection between past and present. Through language, therefore, we draw both upon our own knowledge of the world and upon the experience of all mankind and gain the information we need to make decisions and to act. Thus the study of language is central to all of human life, to religion as well as to government.

Such claims for language, history, and literary study may seem routine to us, for they have entered the mainstream of Western cultural tradition, but many conservatives viewed them as contradictory to Church teachings, which stressed human depravity and the need for divine revelation and saving grace. Penitential preachers thundered against “pagan” literature and “lascivious” art as provoking unbelief and godless license, and many were convinced that these were signs that Antichrist was at hand. Girolamo Savonarola was one of this chorus of apocalyptic doomsayers. If he had remained only that, however, he would have earned a mere footnote in the history of the era along with such other great fifteenth-century preachers and cultural reactionaries as Saint Bernardino da Siena, Giacomo delle Marche, Giovanni Capistrano, Vincent Ferrer, and Giovanni Dominici himself. How he found his distinctive voice with a message that fused spiritual and moral renewal with social justice and political liberty and, most remarkably, how he—outsider, mendicant preacher, crusader against “worldliness” in all its guises—persuaded Florence, first city of the Renaissance, to embrace him as its prophet are key questions of this biography.


Donald Weinstein is professor emeritus, University of Arizona. He is the author of several books on Italian history and is a world authority on Savonarola and the Italian Renaissance.

Eminent Biography: Peter McPhee on Robespierre

Was Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) a heroic martyr of the French Revolution, or a ruthless tyrant? In his new biography Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, Peter McPhee combines new research and a deep understanding of the French Revolution to provide a fresh and nuanced portrait of one of history’s most controversial figures. Here the author discusses Robespierre, and explains the challenges in writing a “human” biography of this divisive man.

Peter McPhee—

Maximilien Robespierre  is one of the most controversial figures in history. I have been intrigued by him ever since, as a student, I pondered how it could be that someone who articulated the highest principles of 1789 could come to be seen as the personification of the “Reign of Terror” in 1793–94. Was this a tragic case of the dangers of ideological and personal rigidity, as powerful literary dramatizations taught me? Or was it rather an extreme example of how great leaders may be vilified by those they have served and saved? Or was it something quite different?

Historians and biographers of contrasting sympathies have seen him as the embodiment of the French Revolution. For some he was responsible for the Revolution’s heroic struggle to defend itself against fearsome odds of counterrevolution and military invasion. For others he was responsible for the descent of a popular revolution into tyranny and mass killing in the “Reign of Terror.”

Despite the comparatively limited loss of life during the one year 1793–94 in which Robespierre was a member of the government, historians have drawn preposterous parallels with Mao, Pol Pot, and even Stalin and Hitler. He reminds Hilary Mantel, author of a major novel set during the Terror (A Place of Greater Safety), of “the conviction of [Islamic] militants, their rage for purity, their willingness to die”; for others, he resembles President Ahmedinejad of Iran. He has been likened both to Tony Blair and George Bush and to their enemy, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. For Slavoj Žižek, in contrast, he has become the ideological vehicle through which the perceived crisis of western capitalist democracy may be discussed. For Žižek, Robespierre’s refusal to compromise highlights the failings of current western liberalism and hesitant leadership faced with urgent crisis.

Was Robespierre the first modern dictator, inhuman, fanatical and dictatorial, an obsessive who used his political power to try to impose his rigid ideal of a land of Spartan“virtue”? Or was he a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading theFrenchRepublicto safety in the face of overwhelming military odds? Were the controls on individual liberties and the mass arrests and executions of “the Terror” the necessary price to pay to save the Revolution? Or was this year a time of horror, of unnecessary death, incarceration and privation?

My biography combines an understanding of society and politics at the time of the French Revolution with a new approach to Robespierre. It is a “human” biography which understands Robespierre as a remarkable young man living through an unpredictable and tumultuous revolutionary crisis. It is a tragic but heroic story. Unlike earlier biographies I place great emphasis on Maximilien’s difficult childhood and youth, asking how they formed the young provincial lawyer who arrived inVersailles in 1789. Maximilien was conceived outside wedlock, and was subject to cruel taunts about illegitimacy throughout his life. His response was to develop a backbone of steel but also to fearlessly advocate the rights of all children.

Was he the emotionally cold, even stunted, dictator of legend, incapable of intimate relationships? Robespierre emerges in my biography as a man of passion, with particularly close but platonic relations with women. Robespierre was also physically vulnerable, succumbing with increasing frequency to lengthy periods of physical and nervous collapse, closely correlated with moments of political crisis in the Revolution. Did he descend into madness in 1794? This biography explores the sad and tragic inability of Robespierre to step away from the crushing burdens of leadership.

The polarity of the images of Robespierre highlights the peculiar nature of biography. The writer is necessarily drawn into a shifting dialogue with someone who cannot respond to the author’s questioning or prejudices. This dialogue is intensely personal. In the words of Sylvia Plath’s biographer, Janet Malcolm, “it really isn’t for me to say who is good and who is bad, who is noble and who is faintly ridiculous. Life is infinitely less orderly and more bafflingly ambiguous than any novel … Every character in a biography contains within himself or herself the potential for a reverse image. … The distinguished dead are clay in the hands of writers …”

My great challenge in writing the biography is that relatively little is known of the first thirty-one of Robespierre’s thirty-six years of life, and few biographers have lingered over such evidence as we do have: it is the five years of Revolution that beckons. We possess eleven solid volumes–some 5,660 pages in all–of his works, but these consist overwhelmingly of his speeches and journalism during the revolutionary years. We have little by way of private papers: a few personal letters and poems written in his twenties. He never reflected publicly on his life and its meaning: he died suddenly and young. The reflections of others–from the lengthy accounts of his sister Charlotte and a master at his secondary school in Paris to the many comments by participants in the Revolution–are all coloured by the circumstances in which they were written. My biography nevertheless seeks to dissolve some of the barriers between the public and private in Robespierre’s life, necessarily constrained by the gaps in what we know.

Robespierre’s life cannot be reduced to the years of the French Revolution. The young revolutionary was formed by his childhood, schooling and working life, most of it spent in Arras, the small provincial centre of a distinctive region of northern France. This is a biography which therefore seeks to be as much about the “making” of Maximilien Robespierre as about his revolutionary career. Who was this man who arrived in Versailles in 1789,  just a few days before his thirty-first birthday?

Peter McPhee is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, where he was the university’s first provost. He has published widely on the history of modern France, including most recently Living the French Revolution, 1789-1799. He lives inAbbottsford,Australia.