When Giles had been urged by Pope Clement VII to publish his works, he is said, by the Augustinian historian, Thomas de Herrera O.S.A., to have replied that he feared to contradict famous and holy men by his exposition of Scripture. The Pope replied that human respect should not deter him; it was quite permissible to preach and write what was contrary to the opinions of others, provided one did not depart from the truth and from the common tradition of the Church.
His major original work is an historical treatise: Historia viginti sæculorum per totidem psalmos conscripta. It deals in a philosophico-historical way with the history of the world before and after the birth of Christ, is valuable for the history of its own time. The six books of his important correspondence (1497–1523) concerning the affairs of his order, much of which is addressed to Gabriel of Venice O.S.A., his successor, are preserved at Rome in the Bibliotheca Angelica. Of particular interest is the circular letter of 27th February 1519, in which Giles made known his resignation of the office of General of the Augustinian Order.
Other known works of Giles are a commentary on the first book of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, three Eclogae Sacrae, a dictionary of Hebrew roots, a Libellus de ecclesiae incremento, a Liber dialogorum, and an Informatio pro sedis apostolicae auctoritate contra Lutheranam sectam ("Information for the Holy See against the Lutheran sect"). In summary, in the Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. there is a synthesis of careful classical formation, notable learning, and a sincere religious spirit. From what is known of his studies, it can be said that he sought to reconcile the elements of the new humanism with the ancient truths of the Christian faith.
In this regard he sought to explain the truths of the faith in a Platonic context, presenting them in a manner that would appeal to adherents of the humanistic culture. Giles followed in the footsteps of his teacher FuIarsilius Ficino, the greatest representative of the platonic academy of Florence. Ficino's synthesis of platonic philosophy with Christian doctrine as well as his enthusiasm for St Augustine left a profound imprint on the mind of this young Augustinian.
The impact that Giles had on his contemporaries led other advocates of humanism to present him in an idealized and one-sided manner. He is portrayed as a most eloquent orator, as one who had an unrivalled knowledge of the Bible, and as a sure intermediary with cultural humanism. This image, distorted by their enthusiasm for the man, scarcely offers a complete picture. It ignores his untiring activity as a promoter of reform of the church, his beneficial labour for the renewal of the Augustinian Order, and his effort to raise the calibre of studies within the Order.
Solid information about his career is scarce, in particular, data relative to his early years of study and formation only lately has this been remedied in part with a systematic and comprehensive study that will eventually give him his rightful place as the significant and unique personality that he was only a small part of his literary production has been published.
This includes some letters, some poetry, sermons (among them a classic discourse at the opening of the Fifth Lateran Council on 3rd May 1512), his treatise De llicetana familia in epistolary form, and indirectly some of his reform decrees as superior of the Augustinian Order. The remainder of his work, in particular his numerous writings on Hebrew philology, both exegetical and cabbalistic, his studies of Platonic philosophy and his Historia viginti saeculorum are still in manuscript form.
The greater part of these manuscripts is to be found in Rome at the Vatican Library and the Angelica Library, and in the National Libraries of Naples and Paris. In the light of his many and varied writings a complete picture of Giles emerges. He was not only a poet, orator, noted scholar of oriental languages, philosopher and theologian, but also a zealous and able promoter of the reform of the Order and the Church. His elevation to the cardinalate by Pope Leo X further helped the cause of reform and the advancement of studies.
In the last analysis, in order to form a clear judgment of his personality it must be remembered that he was a Renaissance man. In his work there is a mixture of the principles of the Christian tradition with the elements of the new culture. Also, whether dealing with questions of learning or matters pertaining to the general reform of the Church or the particular reform of the Augustinian Order, he knew how to present his ideas in the classical Latin of the humanists.
What follows are the words of the late Professor Rev F. X. Martin O.S.A., who has proven to be Giles’ principal biographer. In his words hereunder Fr Martin was writing in 1979 about Giles’ literary output.
Giles of Viterbo himself is largely responsible for scholars' unsatisfactory knowledge of what he wrote. His talents, as much as his defects, explain why he has defeated the efforts of a succession of bibliographers and biographers to produce an even near-satisfactory list of his writings. Disregarding the example of his beloved patron, St Augustine with his Retractationes, Giles never drew up a list of what he had written.
In reality Giles had a piercing mind, a sharp turn of phrase, and an unusual gift for expounding a problem but, intellectually speaking, he did not give himself time to draw breath. He was a Renaissance man to his fingertips, many-sided, restless, eager to be abreast of the latest advance in scholarship, and equally anxious to know the most recent news of explorations in the Far East and the New World.
He belonged to the Age of Discovery, but he never gave himself time (as it were) to colonize and develop what he had just discovered: he pushed on towards new horizons. At one time he was looking for the rare works of classical authors such as Pindar, Lucian, Plutarch and Galen; then he was seeking high and low for works in Hebrew literature, writing to Germany about them in 1513, and six months later arranging that a friar travelling to Damascus would procure him some texts there.
Apart from the restless nature of his intellectual outlook he was a very busy man in practical affairs. He was one of the most popular preachers in Italy, in an Age of Preachers, so much sought after that Julius II reserved to himself the right to decide the times and places where Giles would preach. Yet, the time devoted to preaching was slight compared to the demands on his energies as Prior General of the Augustinian Order.
For twelve years, during a period of crises, he had the hardly enviable task of directing the activities of an international body - the Order of St Augustine - which included men such as Martin Luther in Germany, Girolamo Seripando in Italy (later cardinal legate at the Council of Trent), Louis Chantereau (confessor to Queen Claude, wife of Francis I) in France, Dionisio Vasquez (court preacher to Charles V) in Spain, George Browne in England (later first Anglican archbishop of Dublin in Ireland). These men were merely the more prominent members of the reform movement within the Augustinian Order, a movement which was widespread but which still owed much to the example and leadership of Giles himself.
Even during those frantically busy years as the Augustinian Prior General he continued to study, to make notes, to draft out the latest work on which he was engaged. For example, at the end of his time as prior general he was sent by Pope Leo X to visit Spain as cardinal legate in 1518-19, and he used the opportunity to have a copy made of the Koran. It can be seen from the list of Giles's writings that he was very much the Renaissance uomo universalis (“the universal man”). His first publications were his editions of three philosophical works of Giles of Rome, and these he produced in 1493 when he was still a student, only twenty-four years old. He went on to manifest a considerable interest in Latin and Greek literature, as we know from the manuscript in his library, and from the Latin poems he wrote, most of which are unpublished.
He also turned his pen to Italian poetry, composing the Caccia d'amore and a series of madrigals addressed to Vittoria Colonna. He wrote a novel, Cyminia, in Italian — again a manifestation of the literary fashion of the time. He undertook two major works, a theological commentary on Peter Lombard but in the spirit of Plato, and a spiritual commentary on the history of the church (or, more precisely, on the papacy) expressed as his 'Historia XX Saeculorum'. But the greatest and dominant interest in his life became, and continued to be, biblical studies. It was for this reason that he became an expert Hebraist, learned Arabic and Turkish, and turned much of his attention to Jewish literature, particularly the Talmud and the Cabbala.
In 1513 he felt obliged to defend himself against the charge of spending extravagantly on Hebrew works, but his Hebrew teacher and scribe, Elijah Levita, enthusiastically, even if not wisely, disclosed in 1516 that Giles had spent an 'enormous amount' of money on these works and had been prepared to spend even more. The tragedy of Giles, from a literary point of view, was that he finished writing so little of what he began, and thus published so little. His contemporaries were aware of these facts, and Pope Clement VII, who greatly admired him, sent an admonitory papal brief on 22nd July 1530, exhorting him to publish some of the fruits of his considerable theological and biblical learning.
The Scechina was one result of the effort which Giles then made, but it really was too late for him to change his mentality and become used the discipline of committing his literary work to print. He was still engaged in study and note-taking at the time of his death in November 1532.Photo GalleryThree photos on this page show the Augustinian Order in the Czech Republic. For Augnet's gallery on the Czech Republic, click here.