READING HALL-THE DOORS OF WISDOM
 

The history of the popes, from the close of the middle ages

VOLUME V

INTRODUCTION.

 

LETTERS OF S. ANTONINUS.

 

The “Opera a ben vivere,” which is attributed to the great Florentine Bishop S. Antoninus, though written a generation later than Dominici’s treatise, is very similar in character. Though S. Antoninus’ letters to Diodota degli Adimari are not directly concerned with education, they contain a great deal of advice on this subject. They treat of the rule of life, demeanour, intercourse with others, Church-going and devotional practices, and in their practical good sense and strict yet simple piety, breathe throughout a spirit which is the very opposite of all exaggeration or cant. “All prayer,” he writes, “is pleasing to God, and that which comes most from the heart is most pleasing; but I have no objection to your saying the Office. Prepare yourself to endure sickness, poverty, or any other privation, contempt or persecution, household cares or temptations. Go to confession every month, and to communion every two months, on some feast-day. In society, even among relations, speak as little as possible and only when it is necessary. Be careful about your children; see that they live a good life, and guard them from dangerous company. Avoid evil not only in your actions but in your thoughts. Be watchful, keep yourself in hand; if bad thoughts come, turn away your mind to something else. When you are tempted to be proud think at once of your sins. When you are discouraged and inclined to despair, recall to mind the infinite goodness and mercy of Christ, and think of the story of the publican. It is easier to begin a good work than to persevere in it; but what is the use of beginning if the end is not reached. Fortify your soul by frequent spiritual reading and diligence in meditation. There is no harm in conversing with pious women, but do not trust every one too readily. Vows once made must be fulfilled as soon as possible. May God grant you His blessing.”

The votaries of the true Renaissance are entirely at one in principle with such saintly church reformers as Dominici and S. Antoninus. These men saw that it was possible to engraft the wisdom of the ancients on the root-stock of Christianity. The noble and pious Vittorino da Feltre was an eminent example of this school. Though he has left no writings behind him, the salutary influence of his famous College at Mantua was immense, and very widely diffused. Hardly inferior to him was Agostino Dati, a native of Siena (ob. 1479), whose great worth as an instructor has been specially brought out by recent authors. Antonio Ivani is another of these illustrious schoolmasters; his treatise on education in the family is truly Christian in its spirit. Francesco Barbaro, at the early age of 17, wrote a work on marriage, the family and education, which was much admired by his contemporaries; its tone is lofty and pious.

The most important work on education produced by the Christian Humanists of the 15th Century was written by Maffeo Vegio, a friend of Pope Pius II. In his six books on this subject, first printed at Milan in 1491, we find nothing that is not practical and fruitful. For a course of instruction for developing the reasoning powers, Vegio borrows his method from the sages of antiquity, while he derives the principles of Christian education from revelation, Holy Scripture, the works of the Fathers, and the example of the Saints. He strongly insists on the necessity of carrying out the precepts of Christian faith and morals in daily life. He lays great stress on the power of a living example, and in addressing parents repeatedly points to S. Monica and her noble son as a demonstration of the effects of a truly good and religious education. The “sweet and eloquent” Confessions of S. Augustine was a favourite book with all the Christian Humanists. “The good example of parents,” he says, “gives efficacy to their instructions, and their prayers bring down the blessing of God.” In point of style Vegio’s book is admirable. “There is a genial warmth in his writing which springs from conscious sincerity and earnest conviction, and sometimes kindles into enthusiasm. In every word and line we feel that he is penetrated with the importance and greatness of his subject.”

These numerous treatises, formulating with such una­nimity sound principles of Christian education, did much to counteract the dangers which the spirit of the Renaissance, permeating all the relations of life, brought with it. These dangers were especially manifest in its effect on the education of women, in breaking through the restraints which had hitherto encompassed their lives in the Middle Ages. The process could not fail to have a deleterious influence on morals, and we find the writings of the adherents of the Christian Renaissance full of warnings on this subject. Vespasiano da Bisticci sets examples of distinguished women before the Italian mothers, and exhorts them to “bring up their daughters in the fear of God and to live soberly and piously. Do not give them the Hundred Tales or any of Boccaccio’s works to read, nor yet Petrarch’s Sonnets, for though these may not be immoral, still they are not suitable for pure minds, which ought only to love God and their husbands. Let them read devotional books, Lives of the Saints, and history, so that they may learn how to live and behave and turn their thoughts to serious things and not to frivolity.”

In consequence of the disregard of these warnings, the movement in the direction of emancipation was attended with much that was unseemly and immoral. Nevertheless there were many who perfectly succeeded in harmonizing the new tendencies with the eternal principles of the Christian religion. “Both amongst the princely and noble families and in the burgher class in the 15th Century, we find many women who combined the highest intellectual culture with the most perfect womanliness and purity of life. Equally in the 16th Century, when the old restraints had become still more relaxed, if not wholly broken through, admirable examples of the noblest type of womanhood were not wanting.”

In the “Cortegiano” written by Raphael’s friend, the well-known scholar and diplomatist Baldassare Castiglione, we have a vivid description of the Court of Urbino, and of the society which assembled there, in what was probably the first example of the modern salon. Nothing can be more charming than this picture of the influence of a beautiful and noble woman, as it is portrayed in this classical book.

Castiglione lays down as a fundamental principle that the education of a lady in the higher circles should be such as to place her intellectually on a level with her husband. She should be sufficiently familiar with all the various branches of Science and Art to form an intelligent judgment on any subject that comes before her, though not herself a proficient in it. She should be equally well-versed in current literature; and thus equipped at all points, the refinement of her taste will shew itself, in her dress, which will be always becoming, in her conversation, which, alternately grave and gay, will never be too free or flippant; finally, in the grace and dignity of all her movements. At the same time, the domestic virtues must not be sacrificed to these intellectual attainments; she must care for her household and her children, and, while rivalling her husband in intelligence and knowledge, retain the grace and charm of womanly ways. Women, he maintains, though physically weaker than men, arc not inferior, because they understand so much better how to control and apply the powers they possess. Hence in all the various departments of life, in government, in war, in science, in poetry, women have achieved fame.

 

FAMOUS WOMEN OF THE RENAISSANCE.