This section of Augnet neither purports to nor intends to be a general history of the Renaissance. These pages are not even a general history of the Order of Saint Augustine during that period. This section arose because the question has been asked as to how and why the Order of Saint Augustine built some of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in its churches in both Florence and Rome.
These are the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence, begun about the year 1444, and the Church of Saint Augustine (Sant’Agostino) in Rome in 1479. What made the Order of Saint Augustine both willing and able to step early in a new architectural direction? How and why did the Order embrace the Renaissance so rapidly? The explanation that this was simply good fortune is too simplistic; the probable chain of circumstances were more historically complex than that.
Architecture was only one expression of the Renaissance. Literature, philosophy and art were other important areas of development that constituted what is called the Renaissance, and the Order of Saint Augustine had association with all of those areas as well. What follows in this series of pages in Augnet is a sequential presentation of persons – either members of the Order of Saint Augustine, or else persons associated with it – whose activity offers light on the topic.
Francesco Petrarch, author.
For both convenience and simplicity, this review concentrates on persons in Rome and Florence. Florence was the primary centre for the birth of the Renaissance in Italy, and the Augustinians there were assistants to its birth. Two Italian authors with the stature of giants had direct association with members of the Order of Saint Augustine: Petrarch and Boccaccio. During most of his life, this was the case for Francesco Petrarch (1304 - 1374), who is called "the Father of Humanism."
(For the Augnet page about humanism, click here.)
From Augustine, Petrarch learned that the only proper study for a human being to engage in was to study oneself, to look within oneself and work within oneself to guarantee eternal salvation. This idea would eventually develop into the hallmark of humanist belief, the dignity of humanity. For the humanists, humanity is something special in creation and has a special relationship to God.
It was a member of the Order of Saint Augustine, Denis de Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A., who met Petrarch at Avignon in 1333 and directed him to the works of Augustine. He became the spiritual director of Petrarch, and other Augustinians became his friends. Petrarch then had contact with Augustinians for the remaining forty-one years of his life.
(Augnet has four pages on Petrarch. To go to them, click here.)
Santo Spirito Church, Florence
While all this had been happening in Avignon and Padua and Arqua, the Augustinians in the community at the Church of Santo Spirito, Florence were gaining a wonderful influence over humanism locally. The goal of the Augustinian community at Santo Spirito in Florence with the Christian humanists was to draw them into its circle. The intention was to teach them that a revival of the Classics should consist in imitating a truly Latin style. As well, there was the message that these ancient goals and ideals could be absorbed without also adopting their pagan spirit.
Giovanni Boccaccio, author
In 1351 Petrarch developed a friendship with the slightly older Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375), another great humanist. Like Petrarch, he also had friends in the Order of Saint Augustine. In his struggle to overcome the more sensual side of his nature, Boccacio was in touch with the Augustinians at the Convento Santo Spirito in Florence. It was there that Boccacio had wished to be buried. He died in 1375, weary of the world and having remorse about much of what he had written.
In his last will and testament of 28th August 1374 (the feast day of Saint Augustine) he left his many costly manuscripts to the Convento Santo Spirito of the Order of Saint Augustine in Florence. The affinity of Petrarch and Boccaccio with the Augustinians was no doubt assisted by the influence that Augustine of Hippo had upon their thought, as upon that of Dante before them. They were very familiar with Confessions and City of God by Augustine, not only as books but as the source or inspiration of some of the images that they used in their writing. This also had been the case with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) sixty years previously.
Luigi Marsigli O.S.A.
Soon after 1374, the Convento Santo Spirito in Florence was the venue for the first "academy" of the Renaissance. This was an informal gathering place where modern thinkers, literati (writers) and artists met spontaneously for mutual support, debate, and the exchange of ideas. This was the initiative of Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. (1342 – 1394). He was a humanist. He had taught theology at the studium generale (international house of study) of the Order in Paris, and had exchanged letters with the aged Petrarch at Arqua. He died at the age of fifty two years, but the academy at Santo Spirito continued.
Similar academies began under other auspices in Rome, Naples, and also a second academy opened in Florence. Decades after the death of Luigi Marsigli O.S.A., another noted Augustinian humanist in the Convento Santo Spirito was Andrea Biglia O.S.A. (c. 1395 - 1435). Born in Milan, he was a forceful and brilliant preacher, an active reader in philosophy and rhetoric, and an impartial historian.
Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A.
Many decades later another Renaissance figure at Santo Spirito was Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. (1450 - 1498). At the famed university in Padua, one of his teachers was an English Augustinian, Thomas Penketh O.S.A.. He became famous (or infamous in the eyes of some people) for becoming a very public opponent of Girolamo Savonarola O.P. (1452 – 1498). On one occasion in the pulpit, Mariano da Genazzano was scathing and highly vilifying of Savonarola in a manner that was inexcusable.
Savonarola, a Dominican friar, was briefly a great influence on the religious and civic affairs of Florence. He was just as quickly executed when his activity ran foul – rightly or wrongly - of both Church and State. This was a very public confrontation between a member of the Order of Preachers - a Dominican – and a member of the Order of Saint Augustine – an Augustinian. A similar public confrontation involved these same two mendicant orders again about twenty years later.
It involved Johann Tetzel O.P. (1465 – 1519), the preacher of indulgences and Martin Luther O.S.A., the professor of theology and a leader in the Augustinian Observance movement. In 1517 Tetzel was preaching indulgences at Jüterbog, a small town outside of Saxony, not far from Wittenberg, where the indulgences were not allowed to be preached. In protest, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31st October 1517.
Like later in the instance of Tetzel and Luther, the battlefield chosen in Florence for this confrontation was the pulpit. Some of the effort of Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. to bring Savonarola into public disfavour in Florence was not the work of God but the command of Lorenzo de’Medici, the embattled ruler of Florence. This matter of the preaching of Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. is raised here only for the purpose of illustrating that the Order of Saint Augustine had the patronage of the powerful and wealthy in Florence. It accepted the support of public figures who were not known for maintaining the highest moral and ethical standards. This is not to suggest that other religious orders did not have similar assistance.
(Augnet has pages on Martin Luther. To go to them, click here.)
(Continued on the next page.)