The Eclipse of Culture
Sergio Bertelli
It might seem strange that, introducing an exhibition that revolves around the Index librorum prohibitorum, I would start out by speaking of two different versions of the death of Niccolò Machiavelli (1527). But there absolutely is a connection, which I shall explain. The first version of the renowned Florentine’s demise closely follows the legend of the death of a literary figure from antiquity, the poet Lucretius Carus, who, according to Saint Jerome’s Chronicon, took his life by drinking a love potion (“a poculo amatorio in furorem versus“).


The Humanist Paolo Giovio (Paulus Jovius) disseminated a story of Machiavelli’s final hours, claiming he died from poisoning after taking “a medicine he concocted, which, while crazily joking about God, led to his death.” The mention of this ‘crazy’ dialogue refers to a dream — probably a hallucination — reported by another literary figure, Giovan Battista Busini, in a letter to Benedetto Varchi. Busini writes that a dying Machiavelli, conversing with souls of the saints, carried on an animated political debate. His interlocutors included all the major ancient philosophers: Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus… . Asked “with whom he wished to stay,” Machiavelli is said to have unhesitatingly responded that, rather than take anyone’s side, he would greatly prefer “to go to hell with the noble spirits, to discuss matters of state.” Irrisor et atheos (rogue and atheist)? Machiavelli in hell?


Machiavelli’s grandson, Giuliano de’ Ricci, replied to these fantastical reconstructions of the great man’s last moments, giving an utterly different version: “since I hold the recipe for these tablets of which he boasted, I imagine that at that time one could spread some false rumors about this, because in truth he died as a Christian, in his bed, visited by all his friends, in the arms of his wife and children.” It then seemed an opportune moment to introduce to Machiavelli’s deathbed a certain Fra’ Matteo, to whom the dying man “allowed himself to confess his sins.”


These apocryphal tales about Machiavelli’s death did not arise by chance, but mirrored an effort to Christianize the Florentine philosopher, thereby allowing the publication of his writings, circumventing the prohibitions of ecclesiastical censorship. Moreover a similar attempt had already been made while Machiavelli was still alive.
In fact, in 1523 Clement VII had commissioned Agostino Nifo to rewrite Machiavelli’s De principatibus (About Principalities) with a Catholic slant (the De regnandi peritia), without the author daring to protest, as he had earlier done with a pirated edition of his first Decemnale (Decennial). These were the initial signs of the Church’s ostracism of his work.


By 1559, when Paulo IV Carafa established the Index librorum prohibitorum, Machiavelli’s body of work was complete. In 1531 two famous printers, Antonio Blado and Bernardo Giunta, had vied to publish Machiavelli’s Discorsi (Discourses) and then, the following year, his Istorie fiorentine (Florentine Histories). In 1559 his Canti carnascialeschi (Carnival Songs) were published. But the notorious Index, in which Machiavelli’s works were repeatedly and entirely banned — condemned by both Paolo IV and then by the 1564 Council of Trent — already seemed like an absurdity. Indeed, Pius IV Medici di Marignano issued a moderating proclamation, annotating the ban with clauses marked donec corrigatur, that is, until the text was corrected, after which it could freely circulate.
Thus the way seemed to open up for an overall reassessment of Machiavelli’s corpus, and, in fact, Fra’ Matteo appeared on the scene at just the right moment so that Machiavelli might return to the womb of the Mother Church. Machiavelli’s grandsons — his namesake, Niccolò, and Giuliano de’ Ricci — were aware of corrections that had been made to Boccaccio’s texts and braced themselves for the expurgation of the Florentine’s writings (a move strongly supported by Cosimo de’ Medici). They also took comfort in a letter from Bishop Eustachio Locatelli, confessor to Pius V, who, on 22 February 1572, wrote to Lodovico Martelli that Machiavelli “would not be remembered to be a man of evil ideas” and that in Rome there was “nothing against him [...] so that the world could appreciate the efforts of this worthy man.” It was wishful thinking, soon to be disregarded. In 1542, with the papal bull Licet ab initio, Paul III established control over the printing and dissemination of books.
Two years later, with willing backing from the University of Paris, he compiled the first list of condemned books, and in 1559 Paul IV issued the first actual Index, containing a thousand titles, including the works of Abelard and Erasmus. But what worried the censors more was the spread of heretical, controversial and proselytizing texts by Luther and Calvin, unauthorized translations of sacred texts, books of necromancy, and all material clandestinely transported, in increasingly widespread form, in the saddle bags of merchants, or hidden in bales of wool from northern Europe.
It has been estimated that if, in the mid-fifteenth century, between two and three thousand codex manuscripts were preserved in Europe, after the invention of the printing press, more than ten million incunabula were in circulation (the list of titles in Hain-Copinger’s catalogue), in editions of slightly under five hundred copies; and that in the following century there were between three and four hundred million titles, with average printings of between two and five hundred. Supervising this output was obviously an enormous task, thus in 1571 the “Congregation of the Index” was established, and by 1596, under the papacy of Clement VIII, this body had compiled a new list of banned books. Therefore, the Church, completely inadvertently, organized and put in writing a detailed bibliography of religious, literary and philosophical ideas — a sort of immense synoptic catalogue of the culture of the time, which included a miscellany of works collected and recorded in the Index, even if they came from fields quite different from theology.


A 1599-1600 survey of monastery libraries also proved to be a valuable source of information for reconstructing the ideas of the early modern and Baroque eras. It involved 1,382 monasteries and 8,195 individual libraries (with the exception of those of the Dominicans and the Jesuits, who did not respond to the census). The scope of the Council of Trent’s censorship was extremely broad, and the rules, repeatedly renewed, prohibited the publication of: translations of sacred texts into the vernacular (Regula IV); the entire print production of Protestant works (Regula V); controversial texts “discussing works from our time” (Regula VI); books “purposely dealing with lewd or obscene matters” (Regula VII; books about geomancy, hydromancy, chiromancy and treatises on poisons (Regula IX); and finally, printing any work without the advance approval of the Master of the Apostolic Palaces (Regula X).


But the clause donec corrigatur (forbidden until corrected) — which had allowed some circulation of Christianized Machiavellian ideas — proved to be the ruination of bibliophiles. Sixteenth-century incunabula and seventeenth and eighteenth-century printed texts were systematically destroyed, shredded, or defaced with entire sections crossed out, to prevent the reading of incriminating passages. While the Index, frequently updated and promulgated (the last one was issued in 1948!), turned out to be an excellent bibliography of its times, it remains undoubtedly perplexing why certain authors were included, even though they delineate a clear and decidedly reactionary stance. It perversely eclipsed an entire portion of European culture, subjecting authors to distressing self-censorship. Examples include Vincenzo Borghini’s sugarcoated version of Boccaccio’s Decameron (1573), Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio’s Hecatommithi (1574), Dante’s Vita nova (1576), and Baldassar Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1584). But the case of Torquato Tasso is even more distressing and dramatic; humiliated by the censors, he provided them with an advance copy of Gerusalemme liberata, before it appeared in print!


A heavy, leaden mantle descended upon Catholic European culture, altering the approach taken to readings as well as decisions about what to publish, with an orientation toward religious books. Major publishing houses pulled back, focusing on sacred history, such as the Annales ecclesiastici by Cardinal Cesare Baronio (1588-1607), or the Bibliotheca selecta de ratione studiorum by the Jesuit Antonio Possevino (1603). The narrow-mindedness of the Index is still startling. One might expect the condemnation of heretical or necromantic texts, or the translation of the Bible by Giovanni Diodati (1576-1649), one of many who fled Lucca for Geneva and turned to Calvinism. But the Clementine Index became more severe than previous lists, due to the intolerance of Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santoro, who was put in charge of the Holy Office and who, with the Observatio, attempted to reinstitute instances of censorship that had been revoked or mitigated. The 1,168 books and authors on the 1564 list were joined by 1,543 other banned entries. Santoro spared neither medical and legal texts nor many literary works he deemed improper. The expurgation of texts continued over the years that followed. But even allowing for such rigidity, it is difficult to understand the condemnation of exceptional work like that of René Descartes (banned on 20 December 1663), albeit with the extenuating donec corrigatur. What could have led Clement XII, in June 1734, to add to the Index Pierre Coste’s French translation of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding— a condemnation reaffirmed in 1761, when the Italian translation was incorporated into the list, and in 1827, when Locke’s entire corpus was banned? And what was the thinking behind the inclusion in the Index of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, almost a half century after its publication? It seems to go without saying that these lists would include works such as Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique, the “bible” of free thinkers, or Pietro Giannone’s Istoria civile del Regno di Napoli (banned in early July of 1723, when its first four volumes had just been printed).


But how can one justify, for example, the condemnation of Cesare Beccaria (February 1766)? Moving forward, the banning of William Roscoe (in March 1825), for the candor he displayed in his biography of Leo X, might seem understandable. But, again, it seems difficult to accept the inclusion in the Indexof Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (November 1751, just two years after its publication — a condemnation that extended to the Italian translation), as well as his Lettres persanes (May 1762). Closer to our own time, the Church failed to moderate its stance. Quite the contrary. The fermentation of new ideas, sometimes instigated from below and which sprang from the peripheral areas of the Catholic world, always frightened the hierarchy in Rome. Gregory XVI considered Paroles d’un croyant (1833), by the French priest Félicité-Robert de Lamennais, an exponent of the new liberal Catholicism, to be an “opus reprobatum et damnatum” (June 1834 and, again, July 1836). These more broadminded ideas formed the basis for the Roman Curia’s attack on the latter’s Affaires de Rome (February 1837) — a condemnation that is more understandable, as this work was also a prelude to the ‘modernist’ movement’s call for renewal. This is the context for the condemnation of Antonio Fogazzaro, whose novels Il Santo (1905, banned in April 1906) and Lelia (1910, banned in May 1911) incurred the harsh judgment of the Roman Inquisition, which also condemned the priest Romolo Murri, going so far as to excommunicate him for having promoted a movement for the democratization of the Church. Not a single one of his important writings, beginning with Democrazia e cristianesimo (1906, banned in July 1909), was spared. Ernesto Buonaiuti also suffered a similar fate, when the Fascist Concordat of 1929 resulted in his being dismissed from his professorship at the university.


Doesn’t the inclusion in the Index of Benedetto Croce’s Storia d’Europa nel secolo decimonono (July 1932), and finally all his work (June 1934), seem like supreme folly? Wasn’t this one of the final outbursts of obscurantism? And on the contrary, what can we say about the absence from the Index of names like the Marquis de Sade, Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler? An entry in Umberto Zanetti Bianco’s Diari attests to the final outbursts of an illiberal climate in the Vatican during that ill-fated period; dated 30 August 1943, it records the Vatican’s opposition to the dissolution of the Fascist Accademia d’Italia, and its fear of the rebirth of the Galileian Accademia dei Lincei.


The 10th of May 1933 will endure as indelible proof of how the fight against the forces of culture went beyond the boundaries of religious orthodoxy. A bonfire of books was prepared in the Opernplatz in Berlin, and that night twenty thousand volumes were hurled into the flames. Before the fire was lighted, nine young men, as if swearing an oath, loudly chanted purifying words, and the names of Marx, Freud and Heinrich Mann were held up for public reproach and mockery. But it should not be forgotten that in the libraries of the Communist world as well, a specific section, labeled “Hell”, was reserved for books that were banned.


In her works, Ileana Florescu has replaced fire with water, perhaps to emphasize a restitution, a regeneration of the censored book, perhaps because water is the third lens, or rather a magnifying glass that impresses in our memory titles that might seem above suspicion. But aren’t those flashes and bursts of light that gleam and transform the sea into a pyre, or, contrarily, those thundering and smoky ocean floors, a clear reference to the dangers of censorship, and don’t they function as a warning?


Florescu has chosen from the Index authors such as Machiavelli, Erasmus and Copernicus, but also Giovanni Diodati and Jean de la Fontaine, John Locke and Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Beccaria, Hume and Kant, Larousse, Balzac and Stendhal, Hugo and Dumas, Fogazzaro, Bonaiuti and Croce. In the Middle Ages, facing suspicion of witchcraft, people resorted to God’s judgment. The person under investigation would be bound and thrown into the water; those who drowned were innocent (and rehabilitated post mortem!), but if they floated, it was thought to prove that the Devil was supporting and protecting them. It would be provocative to ask the artist which of the texts that she threw into the waters of Sardinia or Maine immediately sank, and which, instead, floated. Copies salvaged from this censorious furor have fortunately endured.


This is the most profound message that flows from a propitiatory gesture — the book hurled into water or fire. It reminds us not only how difficult it is to transmit knowledge, but also how vital it is to have the right to communicate. The Roman Index was not officially abolished until 1966, but the Portuguese clergy’s recent condemnation of José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ warns how ecclesiastical censorship still endures, albeit without resorting to fire or water.