One of the most attractive and amiable characters among the humanists of the fifteenth century was the learned Augustinian friar, Andrea Biglia of Milan.
In view of Biglia's short lifetime (he died at about forty), he must be reckoned an extraordinarily fertile author. Scion of a noble house, Andrea Biglia was born in Milan, probably around or a little before 1394. Concerning his background, little is known, but it has been established that his father’s name was Pietro, that both his parents were buried in the Church of Sant' Eustorgio in Milan, and that he had a sister eight years younger than himself. His blood relative, Giovanni Biglia, rose to the high position of castellan of the castello of Pavia. The political affiliation of the Biglia family was to the Guelf party.
The family's commercial concern was metalworking, in which they enjoyed a monopoly throughout Italy. The family coat of arms, which Andrea had emblazoned on at least two, still extant, manuscripts of his own works, displays three gold bandlets on a blue field with B majuscule in its sinister portion. Gian Galeazzo, the first Duke of Milan, died in 1402. In the ensuing political turmoil that shook northern Italy generally and the Duchy of Milan in particular, the family Biglia, with their monopoly in metalworking, could hardly avoid involvement, for the forging of weapons and the casting of cannon are, after all, of the metal artificer's craft. And though still a boy, Andrea was himself pressed into the war effort, having to count levies in the treasury.
It was from this political strife that Andrea Biglia removed himself in 1412 to the tranquillity of the cloister. He took the habit of the Order of Saint Augustine in the Monastery of San Marco in Milan, which belonged to the Augustinian Province of Lombardy. His year of novitiate probably spent in this same house, he was sent to study philosophy in the Augustinian studium generale at Padua. But he must have finished his studies there by the summer of 1418, because in September of that year Biglia was at the university in Florence, where, holding the degree of lector, he taught moral philosophy, poetics and rhetoric for four successive academic years, from September 1419, to June 1423.
It was probably during his stay in Florence that he was ordained to the presbyterate. An entry in the registers of Agostino Favaroni da Roma, Prior General of the Augustinian Order, dated 29 November 1423 stated that Biglia, a baccalaureus at the university of Florence, had begun to lecture there on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. The Prior General gave him permission to leave Florence and to go either to the university of Bologna or at that of Padua until his promotion to the degree of magister (today called a doctorate) of theology. Biglia chose the University of Bologna. There, probably in 1425, Biglia achieved the degree of magister with great success, and then became a member of the faculty there.
Just as at Padua Biglia had come to know the intellectuals, Gaspafirro Barzizza, Raffaele Fulgosi, and Paolo Veneto (Nicoletti), and the future humanists, Vittorino da Feltre, Francesco Filelfo, Antonio Raudense, Pier Candido, and Sicco Polenton, and similarly at Florence he had made the acquaintance of the scholars, Niccolo Niccoli, Leonardo Bruni, and Ambrogio Traversari, so too at Bologna he met the future greats and near greats, Giovanni Lamila, Giovanni Toscabella, Leon Battista Alberti, Antonio Panormita, Giovanni Aurispa, Francesco Filelfo, Alberto da Sartiano, and Tommaso Parentuccelli, this last being the future Pope Nicholas V.
Biglia meanwhile had acquired celebrity as an exponent of profane and sacred oratory. Thus he was chosen by the Prior General of the Order, Agostino Favaroni da Roma O.S.A., to deliver the address to the General Chapter of Bologna on 27 May 1425 – a notable achievement for a friar still under the age of forty years. As well, on at least two occasions he was called upon by Duke Filippo Maria of Milan to eulogize the late Duke Gian Galeazzo. Biglia’s principal activity at this time, however, was in the lecture hall. During the school terms 1426-27 and 1427-28 Biglia was a professor at the university in Bologna, teaching natural and moral philosophy.
In August 1428, Bologna was shaken by violent antipapal riots in the course of which the cardinal legate was constrained to take to flight and the Augustinian Friars of San Giacomo also suffered at the hands of the insurgents. During a break in the hostility, Biglia departed abruptly for Milan, his native town. It is unclear how he was occupied during the academic year of 1428-29, although it may have been teaching in nearby Pavia. By summer in 1429, however, Andrea had moved on to Perugia, where he accepted a contract to teach at the university. Notwithstanding, by the first days of October, he quit Perugia for Siena. Already early in October he had departed from Perugia, in spite of the fact that he had contractually bound himself to teach at the university there for three successive years.
Since the authorities insisted on the fulfilment of the terms agreed upon, Biglia had a written statement presented by the prior of the Augustinian monastery, Fra Bernardino, in which he informed them that he was unable to teach in their city during the next two years." The reason for this inability is unknown. From what we know about his character, we can hardly assume that he acted without the knowledge and consent of his religious superiors. His sudden transfer from Perugia to Siena may well have been arranged in accordance with their wishes and directions, and it is quite possible that, in presenting Biglia's statement to the authorities, Fra Bernardino explained the particular circumstances connected with the transfer.
In Siena he was immediately offered another teaching contract at the university in spite of his continued opposition to the preaching methods of Siena's much loved son, the Franciscan missioner, Bernadino of Siena. Biglia started his work at the university of Siena at the beginning of the academic year 1429-1430. It was by good fortune that Biglia spent his years of study as well as of teaching at universities which were at that time the most active centres of Italian humanism. During his studies in Padua (1413[?]-1418) the lectures of the humanist Gaspatino da Batzizza on literature and of the Augustinian Paolo Veneto (Paolo Nicoietti) on philosophy attracted large crowds of students to that university. At that very time there were studying in Padua a number of young men who would later make a name for themselves in the history of humanism, such as Victorine ad Felece, Francesco Fidelio and Sacco Polenta, perhaps also Pier Candida Disembroil.
Biglia formed an especially cordial and lasting friendship with Polenton. In Florence (1418-1423) he associated with the most important humanists of the time: Niccolo Niccoli, Leonardo Bruni and Ambrogio Traversari. In Bologna during 1423-1428, Biglia met another circle of famous humanists among whom are to be mentioned particularly Leon Battista Alberti, Antonio Beccadelli Panormita, Giovanni Aurispa and his former fellow student at the university of Padua, Filelfo. In the house of Cardinal Archbishop Niccolo Albergati he also became acquainted with the latter's secretaty Tommaso Parentucelli da Savana who later as Pope Nicholas V became the great promoter of humanism. In Pavia (1428-1429) he met Beccadelli again.
When Biglia came to Siena in 1429, present there was the most prominent representative of post-classical canonistics, Nicolaus de Tudeschis (called Siculus or Panormitanus or Abbas modernus). Still extant is an inaugural speech, De laudibus disciplinarum (“In the praise of discipline”), that he delivered, most probably at the opening of the academic year 1329-1430. Andrea had as one of his students in Siena the young Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who later as Pope Pius II would become one of the most brilliant figures of the Renaissance. In Siena Biglia came into surroundings congenial to his interests and inclinations. In Sant’Agostino, the monastery of his Order in Siena, he found himself in the company of learned confreres. In 1434 there were no less than five other Doctors of theology living in the Augustinian house with Biglia: the Masters Gabriele da Spoleto, Bartolomeo da Massa, Leonardo da Sicilia, Paolo da Biella and Pietro da Genova.
Teaching at the university seems to have given Biglia great contentment. In 1431 he declined the chancellorship of the Universtiy of Pavia, which had been offered to him on behalf of his fellow countrymen by Antonio Beccadelli Panormita, one of his humanist friends. Biglia preferred, however, to remain in Siena. That particular city provided him with the genial company of other Augustinian scholars, occasions to practice his oratory, and leisure for writing, particularly at the nearby hermitage of Lecceto, where he made his translations of Aristotle. From time to time he retired to the idyllically-located Augustinian hermitage of Lecceto, a few miles west of Siena. In this hermitage hallowed by cherished traditions of Augustinian piety, he was able to enjoy restful seclusion as well as to dedicate himself to undisturbed scholarly composition.
In some of his writings at Lecceto, Biglia revealed a fine sense for scenic beauty. With his words, he painted a vivid portrait of Lecceto's impressive landscape, with its deep forest of ilex trees. He eloquently expressed his longing to live in a place like Lecceto where a person could find peace of soul and time for scholarly pursuits. Biglia knew from personal experience how, especially in the large houses of studies, the very centres of the intellectual life of the Order, the religious zeal of the community could adversely be affected by the external routine of lectures and disputations and by extracurricular activity. Even so, he insisted that, even in the busy life of a house of studies like that of Padua, a friar could preserve his religious fervour and live a saintly life as did so many brethren in the past.
Writing once more on upon a subject which he had more extensively treated in his Admonitio de disciplina ordinis (“An Admonition about discipline in the Augustinian Order”), an oration delivered at the chapter general of Bologna in 1425, Biglia deplored the fact that the pristine religious fervour of the Order had declined. He stated that, as a result, he was forced to think back to years long past to find brethren whom he could recommend as models of religious observance. There is no mistaking the true ring of sincerity in his appeal for a better observance of the RuIe of St Augustine, in both letter and spirit.
Biglia’s writing also reveals the author as a thorough friend of reform. He was, however, clear-sighted enough to realize that a reform embracing the entire Order could be accomplished only by progressive steps. He saw promise for the future of the Order in the earnest beginnings toward reform that was being made in individual Augustinian houses. Besides smaller priories, Biglia mentioned the larger monasteries of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome and San Giovanni a Carbonara in Naples as places where there was a genuine enthusiasm for religious observance, and likewise he praised the hermitage of Lecceto. His love for his Order manifested itself also in the spirited defence of a tradition which, in his day, was probably the most cherished and the most tenaciously held by the Hermit Friars of St Augustine. This tradition, based on local legends and other apocryphal sources and found especially in medieval Lives of St Augustine written by members of the Order, represented Tuscany as the homeland of Augustinian hermit life.
The tradition proposed that, after his baptism in Milan and before his final departure to Africa, Augustine had retired into the forest solitude of the Tuscan hills; finding there followers of the founders of eremitical life, Paul the first Hermit and Antony, he had gathered these hermits into communities, lived with them for a while and given them a fixed mode of life in the form of a monastic rule, the Regula Sancti Augustini ("Rule of St Augustine"). Augustine's fabled companions in these first eremitical (“hermit”) settlements allegedly established by him were thus made the ancestors of the fratres heremitae ordinis S Augustini de Tuscia ("Briothers Hermits of St Augustine in Tuscany"), who formed the largest and no doubt most important of the groups which, at the Augustinian Grand Union in 1256, were incorporated into the one order of the Hermit Friars of St Augustine.
Accordingly, the same tradition ascribed to a number of Augustinian houses in Tuscany a venerable age. Some of them, the hermitages of Spelonca, Lecceto and Centumcellae were even credited with having been visited or founded by St Augustine himself. Moreover, in one of these Tuscan hermitages the tradition describes it as having been situated "in Monte Pisano "- Augustine was said to have written his Rule. The "Mons Pisanus" must have been one of the hills to the north of Pisa toward Lucca (Monte Pisani). In his treatise De ordinis nostri lorna et propagation (“On our Order and its spreading”), Biglia obviously follows the same tradition. Somewhat later in the same treatise, Biglia identifies the place with the hermitage of S. Giorgio della Spelonca.
There is no difficulty concerning the exact location of this hermitage. Only a short distance from Lucca, along the road which leads to Pisa, is the village S. Maria del Giudice, picturesquely situated at the foot of a chain of hills, and on top of one of the hills overlooking the village there can still be seen the remains of the hermitage. Biglia's assertion, however, that the beginnings of the hermitage go back to the time of St Augustine, is not supported by any known historical sources. The same holds true concerning the hermitages of Lecceto and Centumcellae. Biglia recounts one of the local legends of Lecceto in which we are told that, before founding his own Order, St Francis of Assisi had been a member of this famous Augustinian hermitage; and to Centumcellae he ascribes the same venerable age as to S. Giorgio della Spelonca.
To all appearances, a deep love for his Order, combined with genuine piety, made Biglia defend a tradition so tenaciously held in his day by the Hermit Friars of St Augustine. (For more information on Augnet, go to Later Italian legends.) fo to Augnet page Nor shall we go wrong in assuming that he was also under the spell of Lecceto, the very place in which he wrote this treatise. A host of legends lingered around the convent and forest of Lecceto. They told about the Christian converts of Siena who had found refuge there from the persecution under Diocletian, about many holy visitors who had come to the forest solitude of Lecceto: St Augustine, St Monica, St Ambrose, St Jerome, St William, St Galganus and St Francis of Assisi were all supposed to have passed some time there - an extremely improbable assertion.
The high regard in which Biglia was held in his Order at that time appears from a number of entries in the registers of Gerardo da Rimini, the Vicar General of the Order from 1431 to 1434 and then its Prior General from 1434 to 1443. And on 1st October 1432, Gerardo da Rimini O.S.A., the Rector Ordinis (the vicar for a Prior General who died in office), appointed Biglia as magister regens (“Master in charge”) in Siena. And then on 24th September 1435, Gerardo appointed him Vicar for the Province of Siena, but Providence had decided differently.
The future looked very bright and promising for the young scholar. But suddenly on 27th September 1435, Andrea Biglia was carried off very rapidly by the bubonic plague (the Black Death) in only his fortieth year. A historian and subsequent Prior General, Ambrogio Massari da Cora O.S.A. was later to say of Biglia: “He died a young man; his name, had he lived long, would have been immortal.” In barely four decades of life Biglia had accomplished a great deal. In his brilliant but brief career, he had written some sixty-three compositions of various kinds. By provision of the Constitutions of the Augustinian Order, unless a friar had made some previous disposition before death, his effects, consisting mainly of his books, belonged to the Priory that had first received him into the Order – in Biglia’s case, this was the Priory of San Marco in Milan.
Apparently Andrea had left no last will and testament, and his library was in due course transported to Milan and incorporated into the collection of manuscripts in his home monastery. Some 146 years later, that is, in 1581, Giuseppe Pamfili O.S.A. published a list of thirty-seven works by Biglia, found personally by Pamfili in the manuscripts of the San Marco library. Yet another 120 years and the San Marco collection of Bigliana had shrunk to nine items, which were listed by Agostino De Rossi some time prior to his death in 1668.This original list by De Rossi was incorporated by D. A. Gandolfo into his own listing of Biglia's works and published in 1704. These same nine items were carefully examined in the San Marco library some forty years: later by Filippo Argelati and minutely described by him in his own similar listing of Biglia's works, which was published in 1741.
In 1796 if not earlier, all the Biglia manuscripts still then in the Monastery of San Marco were certainly dispersed during the suppression and confiscation of religious houses by the French under Napoleon. Today, the existence in manuscript in various European libraries of forty-one compositions by Biglia is known, and additionally there are the titles of another twenty-two of his works, either lost or as yet unidentified. Of the works known to be extant, thus far only twenty-one have appeared in print, either in whole or in part.
In summary, among the exponents of Italian humanism in the fifteenth century Andrew Biglia merits a place of honour. He was a skilled writer who, for the relative brevity of his productive life, was surprisingly prolific author who demonstrated his erudition, profound religious spirit, and lively love for the Augustinian Order. His writings pertinent to humanism were both numerous and significant. It may be surprising that someone with the erudition of Biglia would employ so much of his time in translation but it must be remembered that at the time Greek was still poorly known in the Latin West. Thus he performed a service worthy of his learning by offering the treasures of Greek learning to those who knew only Latin.
Biglia dedicated himself principally to the translation of the works of Aristotle, and two of his versions are still extant. The first comprising the eight books of the Physics, is found in the Codex 4, 36 of the Academy of Sciences in Budapest. The second, the three books of De anima, is preserved in the Bywater Codex 10 (Western Manuscript 40042) of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Both codices are based on the original manuscript of the translator. There was also his translation of one of the lives of Plutarch, the Vita Timoleontis, which is preserved in a fifteenth century codex in the Municipal Library of Macerata (5. 3C. 36.).
The most famous work of Biglia is his Rerum mediolanensiurn historia. It recounts the events of his native city of Milan from 1402 until 1431, and offers an outstanding example of the style and characteristics of humanist historiography. Composed from a Milanese point of view, it reflects the political ideal of a Lombardian patriot in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Differing from Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. and his other friends who were advocates of the independence of Florence, Biglia looks forward to the realization of his dream of a united Italy under the leadership of the Visconti. Since he was born in Milan and became an Augustinian in the Priory of St Mark there, Biglia felt obligated enough to the city and its government to become the official historian of the Visconti family.
It should be noted that because of the general thesis of his work, a theme that appears even more clearly in his funeral oration to the memory of Duke Giovanni Galeazzo, Biglia had a notable influence on the historical importance attached to the Visconti family by many Italian historians of the twentieth century. Biglia's Historia achieved wide manuscript circulation and reached two printed editions. Biglia had the good fortune to spend his years of study and teaching in those Italian cities that most cultivated humanism and experienced its flourishing: Padua, Florence, Bologna and Siena.
Andrea Biglia. A list (in Italian) of his writings. http://www.cassiciaco.it/navigazione/monachesimo/monaci/teologi/biglia.html