Étiquette : Erasmus


The Greek language project, Plato and the Renaissance

By Karel Vereycken

Some friends asked me to elaborate on the following:

It is sometimes said that the introduction of Plato in the context of the Councils of Ferrara and Florence (1439) “triggered the explosion of the Italian Renaissance”.

And of the great humanist, the German Cardinal-philosopher Cusanus, it is said that he “brought to Florence Bessarion and Plethon, who were both Greek scholars of Plato and brought the entire works of Plato which had been lost in Europe for centuries”.

At the same time, goes the narrative, “the Medicis financed a crash program to translate the works of Plato. This excitement made the Italian Renaissance what it became”.

While Plato’s ideas and the renewal of greek studies did play a major role in triggering the European Renaissance, the preceding affirmations, as we shall document here, require some refinement.

Was the Italian Renaissance “triggered” by the Council of Florence?

The chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati.

Not really. It was rather –40 years earlier–, the “Greek language revival project” project of Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406), who would become the chancellor of Florence and invite the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to his city, that “triggered” a revival of Greek and Hebrew studies, which in return lead to the unification of the churches at the Council of Florence (1439).

The idea had regained interest from Petrarch and Boccaccio, which Salutati admired. Along with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), it is undoubtedly the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) who best embodies the ideals guiding the humanists of the Renaissance.

All his life, it is said, Petrarch tried to

rediscover the very rich teaching of classical authors in all disciplines and, starting from this sum of knowledge, most often scattered and forgotten, to revive and pursue the research that these authors had begun.

After following his parents to Avignon, Petrarch studied in Carpentras where he learned grammar, then in Montpellier, rhetoric, and finally in Bologna, where he spent seven years at the school of jurisconsults.

However, instead of studying law, which in those days paved the way to a brilliant career, Petrarch secretly read all the classics hitherto known, including Cicero and Virgil, despite the fact that his father occasionally burned his books.

Petrarch and Barlaam of Samara

Barlaam of Seminara crossing a river. XVth century manuscript.

Under the pontificate of Benedict XII, Petrarch tried to learn Greek language with the help of a learned monk of the Order of St. Basil, Barlaam of Seminara (1290-1348), known as Barlaam the Calabrian, who came to Avignon in 1339 as ambassador of Andronic III Paleologus in an unsuccesful attempt to put an end to the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

A philosopher, theologian and mathematician, Barlaam, while having limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, was one of the first to wish that the study of the Greek language and philosophy be reborn in Europe.

In his Treatise On my own ignorance and that of many others (1367), Petrarch declared himself proud of his Greek manuscripts – and of his library in general – and expressed his deep admiration for Barlaam :

I have at home sixteen works of Plato. I don’t know if my friends have ever heard the titles […]. And this is only a small part of Plato’s work, for I have seen, with my own eyes, a large number of them, especially in the Calabrian Barlaam, a modern model of Greek wisdom who began to teach me Greek while I was still ignorant of Latin, and who might have done so successfully if death had not taken him away from me and hindered my honest plans, as usual.

In 1350, two years after Barlaam’s death, Petrarch met the son of a banker, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The latter, like Petrarch, fell in love with the greek culture and language. In his youth, in Naples, he too had met Barlaam and learned a few words of Greek, meticulously copying alphabets and verses, adding the Latin translation and pronunciation indications.

Boccaccio and Leontius Pilatus

Leontius Pilatus

To increase his mastery of Greek, Boccaccio then called from Thessaloniki a disciple of Barlaam, Leontius Pilatus (died in 1366), an austere, ugly and very bad-tempered character. But this Calabrian lectured him on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and translated sixteen of Plato’s dialogues. How could one get angry with him?

Boccaccio offered him shelter and food for three years in his home and had a chair of Greek created for him in Florence, the firs time ever!

Unfortunately, Pilatus did not really master this language. Although posing as a native Greek, the man had poor knowledge of ancient Greek and his translations never got beyond the level of word-for-word. As for the lessons he gave Petrarch, they were so brutal that he disgusted him forever.

This did not prevent Pilatus, at the insistence of Boccaccio, from translating Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey into Latin from a Greek manuscript sent to Petrarch by Nicolaos Sigeros, the Byzantine ambassador to Avignon.

Hence, history being what it is, it was thanks to this highly imperfect translation that Europe rediscovered one of the great founding works of its culture!

Boccaccio’s book on famous women.

And on this fragile ground will rise a flame that will revolutionize the world.

Was it not I, » writes Boccaccio in his Genealogy of the Gods, « who had the glory and honor of employing the first Greek verses among the Tuscans? Was it not I who, through my prayers, led Pilatus to settle in Florence and who housed him there? I brought at my own expense copies of Homer and other Greek authors when none existed in Tuscany. I was the first of the Italians to whom Homer, in particular, was explained, and then I had him explained in public.

The hunt for manuscripts

What is important is that during these encounters Petrarch created a cultural network covering the whole of Europe, a network reaching into the East.

He then asked his relations and friends, who shared his humanist ideal, to help him find in their country or province, the Latin texts of the ancients that the libraries of abbeys, individuals or cities might possess. In the course of his own travels he found several major texts that had fallen into oblivion.

It is in Liege (Belgium) that he discovered the Pro Archia and in Verona, Ad Atticum, Ad Quintum and Ad Brutum, all by Cicero. During a stay in Paris, he got his hands on the elegiac poems of Propertius, then, in 1350, on a work by Quintilian. In a constant concern to restore the most authentic text, he subjected these manuscripts to meticulous philological work and made corrections by comparing them with other manuscripts. This is how he reconstructed the first and fourth decades of the Roman History of Titus Livius from fragments and restored some of Virgil’s texts.

These manuscripts, which he kept in his own library, later came out in the form of copies and thus became accessible to the greatest number of people. While acknowledging that the pagans lacked the « true faith, » Petrarch believed that when one speaks of virtue, the old and new worlds are not at war.

The « Circolo di Santo Spirito »

Florence: the Augustinian Convent Santo Spirito.

From the 1360s onwards, Boccaccio gathered a first group of humanists known as the « Circolo di Santo Spirito » (Circle of the Holy Spirit), whose name was borrowed from the 13th century Florentine Augustinian convent.

An embryonic form of a university, its Studium Generale (1284) was then at the heart of a vast intellectual center including schools, hospices and refectories for the needy.

Before his death in 1375, Boccaccio, who had recovered part of Petrarch’s library, bequeathed to the convent his entire collection of precious ancient books and manuscripts.

Then, in the 1380s and early 1390s, a second circle of humanists met daily in the cell of the Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili (1342-1394). The latter, who had studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Paris and Padua, where he came already into contact with Petrarch in 1970, rapidly became friends with Boccaccio. Hence, by attending the Cercle Santo Spirito from 1375 onwards, Coluccio Salutati in turn fell in love with Greek studies.

By inviting the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to Florence to teach Ancient Greek, it was Salutati who gave the decisive impulse leading to the end of the schism between East and West and thus to the unification of the Churches, consecrated at the Council of Florence in 1439.

Roger Bacon

A century before Salutati, the English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan monk residing in Oxford, author of one of the first Greek grammars, already called for such a « linguistic revolution ».

As wrote Dean P. Lockwood in Roger Bacon’s Vision of the Study of Greek (1919):

Obviously, Greek was the master-key to the great storehouse of ancient knowledge, Hebrew and Arabic to lesser chambers. Furthermore, we must no forget that in Bacon’s day the superiority of the ancients was an indisputable fact. The modern world has outstripped the Greek and the Romans in countless ways ; the medieval thinkers were still climbing toward the Hellenic standard.

Three things were clear to Roger Bacon : the need of Greek, the contemporary ignorance of Greek, and the feasability of acquiring Greek. The same may be said of Hebrew, but Bacon rightly put Greek first. Bacon’s program was simple :

1. Seek out the native Byzantine Greeks resident in Europe, preferably grammarians. The latter were very few, of course, but might be found in the Greek monasteries of Southern Italy.

2. From these and from any other available source let Greek books be sought. If this program were to be carried out, Bacon confidently prophetized taht results would not be long in forthcoming.

Leonardo Bruni

Leonardo Bruni.

Manuel Chrysoloras, arrived in winter 1397, an event remembered by one of his most famous pupils, the humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) and later chancellor of Florence at the time of the Council of Florence, as a great new opportunity: there were many teachers of law, but no one had studied Greek in northern Italy for 700 years.

Thanks to Chrysoloras, Bruni and Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder were able to read Aristotle and especially Plato in the original greek version.

Aristotle (Logic) versus Plato (Dialectics).

Until then, in Europe, Christians knew the names of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato by their reading of the church fathers Origen, St. Jerome and St. Augustine.

The latter, in his City of God, did not hesitate to affirm that the « Platonists », that is Plato and those who assimilated his teaching (Plato et qui eum bene intellexerunt), were superior to all other pagan philosophers.

As we have demonstrated elsewhere, in particular in our study on Raphael and the School of Athens, it is to a large extent Plato’s optimistic and Promethean philosophical approach, for whom knowledge comes above all from the capacity for hypothesis and not from the mere testimony of the senses as Aristotle claims, that clearly provided the sap that allowed the Renaissance tree to offer humanity so many wonderful fruits.

Traversari’s humanist circle

Bust of d’Ambrogio Traversari.

The most famous pupil of Chrysoloras was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), who became general of the Camaldolese order. Today honored as a saint by his order, Traversari was one of the first to conceptualize the type of “Christian Humanism” that would be promoted by Nicolaus of Cusa (Cusanus) and later Erasmus of Rotterdam (who framed the concept of “Saint-Socrates”) and the latter’s admirer Rabelais, uniting Plato with the Holy Scriptures, and the fathers of the Church.

Traversari, a key organizer of the Council of Florence, was also the personal protector of the great Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca and of the architect of the Dome Filippo Brunelleschi.

Traversari’s circle of humanists, which included Cusanus and Toscanelli, regularly met at the Florentine Santa Maria degli Angeli convent.

According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of the Court of Urbino, Traversari had weekly working sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent with the crème de la crème of European humanism:

According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of Urbino, Traversari led weekly work sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Florentine Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli with the cream of European humanism in the fields of literature, theology, science, politics, town and country planning, education and the fine arts. Among those :

  • The German cardinal-philosopher Nicolas of Cusa (Cusanus);
  • Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the great physician and cartographer, also friend and protector of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • The erudite manuscript collector Niccolò Niccoli, adviser to Cosimo the Elder, heir to the Medici’s industrial and financial empire. Considered at the time to be the richest man in the West, Cosimo was one of the patrons of the sculptor Donatello ;
  • Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future humanist pope Pius II;
  • Leonardo Bruni, the apostolic secretary of Pope Innocent VII and his three successors. He succeeded Coluccio Salutati at the chancellery of Florence (1410-1411 and 1427-1444).
  • The Italian statesman Carlo Marsuppini, passionate about Greek Antiquity, and successor of Bruni as Chancellor of the Republic of Florence after the latter’s death in 1444.
  • The philosopher, antiquarian and writer Poggio Bracciolini. After having advised no less than nine popes (!), he was appointed Chancellor of the Republic of Florence following the death of Marsuppini in 1453;
  • The politician and ambassador Gianozzi Manetti. In love with ancient Greek and Hebrew, his circle includes l’humaniste Francesco Filelfo, le traducteur Palla Strozzi and Lorenzo Valla ;

Chrysoloras in Florence

The Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras

Chrysoloras remained only a few years in Florence, from 1397 to 1400, teaching Greek, starting with the rudiments. He moved on to teach in Bologna and later in Venice and Rome. Though he taught widely, a handful of his chosen students remained a close-knit group, among the first humanists of the Renaissance. As said before, among his pupils were numbered some of the foremost figures of the revival of Greek studies in Renaissance Italy. Aside from Bruni and Ambrogio Traversari, they included Guarino da Verona and Palla Strozzi.

Chrysoloras went to Rome on the invitation of Bruni, who was then secretary to Pope Gregory XII. In 1408, he was sent to Paris on an important mission from the emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425). In 1413, he went to Germany on an embassy to the emperor Sigismund, the object of which was to decide on the site for the church council that assembled at Constance in 1415. Chrysoloras was on his way there, having been chosen to represent the Greek Church, when he died that year.

Chrysoloras translated the works of Homer and Plato’s Republic from Greek into Latin. His Erotemata (Questions-answers) which was the first basic Greek grammar in use in Western Europe, circulated initially as a manuscript before being published in 1484.

Widely reprinted, it enjoyed considerable success not only among his pupils in Florence, but also among later leading humanists, being immediately studied by Thomas Linacre at Oxford and by Erasmus when he resided at Cambridge. It’s text became the basic manual used by pupils of the Three Language College set up by Erasmus in Leuven in 1515.

Study during the Renaissance

Traversari meets Chrysoloras during his two stays in Florence in the summer of 1413 and in January-February 1414, and the old Byzantine scholar is impressed by the bilingual culture of the young monk; he sends him a long philosophical letter in Greek on the theme of friendship. Ambrogio himself expresses in his letters the highest consideration for Chrysoloras, and emotion for the benevolence he showed him.

It should also be noted that the rich humanist scholar Niccolò Niccoli, a great collector of books, opened his library to Traversari and put him in constant contact with the scholarly circles of Florence (notably Leonardo Bruni, and also Cosimo de Medici, of whom he was advisor), but also of Rome and Venice.

In 1423, Pope Martin V sent two letters, one to the prior of the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Father Matteo, and the other to Traversari himself, expressing his support for the great development of patristic studies in this establishment, and especially for the work of translation of the Greek Fathers carried out by Traversari.

The Pope had in mind the negotiations he was conducting at the time with the Greek Church: at the beginning of 1423, his legate Antonio de Massa returned from Constantinople and brought back with him several Greek manuscripts which were to be entrusted to Traversari for translation: notably the Adversus Græcos by Manuel Calécas, and for the classics the Lives and Doctrines of the Illustrious Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, a text which circulated for a long time only in Traversari’s Latin translation.

It was following these undertakings that Traversari expressed his great interest in seeing the schism between the Latin and Greek Churches resolved. At the end of 1423, Niccolò Niccoli provides Traversari with an old volume containing the entire corpus of the ancient ecclesiastical canons, and the learned monk expresses in his correspondence with the humanist his enthusiasm for being able to immerse himself in the life of the then united ancient Christian Church, and in the process he translates into Greek a long letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the prelates of the East.

Arrival of Plato’s mind

Were Bessarion and Plethon the first to bring the entire works of Plato to Europe?

Not really. While John Bessarion did indeed bring his own collection of the “complete works of Plato” in 1437 to Florence, they had already been brought to Italy earlier, most notably in 1423 by the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), who was the teacher of Lorenzo Valla (another collaborator with whom Cusanus exposed the fraud of the “Donation of Constantine” and a major source of inspiration of Erasmus).

In 1421 Aurispa was sent by Pope Martin V to act as the translator for the Marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos.

The Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus, here portrayed as King Balthasar.

After their arrival, he gained the favor of the emperor’s son and successor, John VIII Paleologus (1392-1448), who took him on as his own secretary. Two years later, he accompanied his Byzantine employer on a mission to the courts of Europe.

Giovanni Aurispa, the first Italian, in coordination with Traversari, to bring the complete works of Plato to the West.

On 15 December 1423, 16 years prior to the Council of Florence of 1439, Aurispa arrived in Venice with the largest and finest collection of Greek texts to reach the west prior to those brought by Bessarion. In reply to a letter from Traversari, he says that he brought back 238 manuscripts.

These contained all of Plato’s works, most of them hitherto unknown in the West.

Plato’s works so far were only known very partially. In Sicily, Henry Aristippus of Calabria (1105-1162) had translated in Latin Plato’s Phaedo and Meno dialogues as early as 1160.

Evil neo-Platonist

Platonists (such as Petrarch, Traversari, Cusanus or Erasmus), have nothing to do and even violently opposed “Neo-platonist” (such as Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola) whose influence would create what could and should be called a “counter-Renaissance”. Already Leibniz strongly warned against the “neo-Platonists” demanding Plato be studied in his original writings rather than through his commentators, however brilliant they might be: “non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere.” [Plato should be studied, but “Not from Plotinus nor Marsilio Ficino, who, by always striving to speak wonderfully and mystically, corrupt the doctrine of so great a man. »]

George Gemisthos « Plethon »

George Gemistos « Plethon » in the mural painting of Benozzo Gozzoli.

Now, let us enter Plethon, who thought Plato and Aristotle could each one play their own role. George Gemistos « Plethon » (1355-1452), was a follower of the radical “neo-Platonist” Michael Psellos (1018-1080). Around 1410 Gemistos created a “neo-Platonic” academy in Mistra (near the site of ancient Sparta) and added “Plethon” to his name to make it resemble to Plato. He was also an admirer of Pythagoras, Plato, and the “Chaldean Oracles”, which he ascribed to Zoroaster.

Gemistos came for the first time to Florence when he was fifteen years old and became an authority in Mistra. So at the time of the Council the Emperor, John VIII Paleologus, knew they were going to face some of the finest minds in the Roman Church on their own soil; he therefore wanted the best minds available in support of the Byzantine cause to accompany him. Consequently, the Emperor appointed George Gemistos as part of the delegation. Despite the fact that he was a secular philosopher — a rare creature at this time in the West — Gemistos was renowned both for his wisdom and his moral rectitude. Among the clerical lights in the delegation were John Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Mark Eugenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus. Both had been students of Gemistos in their youth. Another non-clerical member of the delegation was George Scholarios: both a future adversary of Gemistos and a future Patriarch of Constantinople as Gennadios II. Initially, Gemistos was opposed to the unity of the western and eastern churches.

Not assisting at every theological debate during the Council of Florence in 439, he went in town to give lectures to intellectuals and nobles on the essence of Plato and Neo-platonic philosophy. Plethon also brought with him the text of the “Chaldean Oracles” attributed to Zoroaster.

While most of Plethon’s writing were burned, since he was suspected of heresy, a large number of Plethon’s autograph manuscripts ended up in the hands of his former student Cardinal Bessarion. On Bessarion’s death, he willed his personal library to the library of San Marco in Venice (where over 4000 Greeks resided). Among these books and manuscripts was Plethon’s Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato. This Summary was a summary of the Book of Laws, which Plethon wrote inspired by Plato’s laws. The Summary is a mixture of polytheistic beliefs with neo-Platonist elements.

While John Bessarion (1403-1472), a real humanist, took part in the Council in Ferrara (1437) and Florence (1439), and as the representative of the Greek, signed the decree of the Florentine Union, he held nevertheless to the principle: “I honor and respect Aristotle, I love Plato” (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem). For him Platonic thought would have the right of citizenship equal to Aristotelian thought in the Latin world only when it appeared in an irenic interpretation to Aristotelianism and as not in contradiction with Christianity, since only such an interpretation of Platonism could succeed at that time.

Cosimo di Medici and Ficino

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici

Did the Medicis finance a crash program to translate the works of Plato?

In 1397, Giovannni « di Bicci » de’ Medici (1360-1429) founded the Medici Bank. Giovanni owned two wool factories in Florence and was a member of two guilds: the Arte della Lana and the Arte del Cambio.

In 1402, he was one of the judges on the jury that selected Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design for the bronzes for the doors of the Baptistery of Florence.

In 1418, Giovanni di Bicci, wishing to endow his family with their own church, entrusted Filippo Brunelleschi, future architect of the famous dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fioro, the Duomo, with the task of radically transforming the basilica church of San Lorenzo and ordered Donatello to execute the sculptures.

Politically, the Medici family did not come to power until 1434, three years before the Council of Florence and at a time when the Renaissance was already in full swing.

Cosimo di Medici, the elder

Admittedly, Giovanni’s son and inheritor of his financial empire, Cosimo di Medici (1389-1464), known as the richest man of his epoch, became so inspired by Plethon that he acquired acomplete library of Greek manuscripts. He bought a copy of the Platonic Corpus (24 dialogues) from Plethon, and a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus, acquired in Macedonia by an italian monk, Lionardo of Pistoia. Cosimo also decided to initiate a project to translate from the Greek into Latin, the totality of Plato’s works.

However, as said before, Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), who after having been papal secretary became chancellor of the Florentine republic from 1427 till 1444, had already translated close to all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin.

It should be underlined that the translator chosen by Cosimo was Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), the son of his personal physician and only five years old at the time of the Council of Florence in 1439. Cosimo had some severe doubts concerning Ficino’s capacities as translator. When the latter offers in 1456 his first translation, The Platonic Institutions, Cosimo asks him kindly not to publish this work and to learn first the Greek language… which Ficino learns then from Byzantine scholar John Argyropoulos (1415-1487), an Aristotelian pupil of Bessarion who rejected the Council of Florence’s epistomological revolution.

But seeing his age advancing and dispite his unfortunate descent into corruption, Cosimo finally gave him the post. He allocates him an annual stipend, the required manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, close to Florence, where Ficino would set up his “Platonic Academy” with a handful of followers, among which Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).

The evil « neo-Platonic » Marsilio Ficino (left) with some followers of his fake Platonic Academy: Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano and Demetrios Chalkondyles.

Ficino’s “Academy”, taking up the ancient neo-platonic tradition of Plotinus and Porphyry (as Ficino states himself) would organize each year a ceremonial banquet “neglected since one thousand two hundred years” on November 7, thought to be simultaneously the birthday of Plato and the day of his death.

After the dinner, the attendants would read Plato’s Symposium and then each of them would comment one of the speeches. The comments are demonstrations, without any real dialogue and void of the essence of real platonic thinking: irony. On top of that it is remarkable that most gatherings of Ficino’s academy were attended by the ambassador of Venice in Florence, notably the powerful oligarch Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), father of “poet” cardinal Pietro Bembo, later special advisor to the evil Genovese “Warrior Pope” Julius II.

It was this alliance of the increasingly more degenerated Medici family, the Venetians Empire’s maritime slave trade and the neo-Platonists that gained dominant influence over the Curia of the Roman Catholic Church. The Medici’s clearly disliked Da Vinci (who never got an order from the Vatican and subsequently left Italy), and through their propaganda man Vasari made the world to belief that the Renaissance was their baby.

But before translating Plato, and at the specific demand of Cosimo, Ficino translated first (in 1462) the Orphic Hymns, the Sayings of Zoroaster, and the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus the Egyptian (between 100 and 300 after BC).

It will be only in 1469 that Ficino will finish his translations of Plato after a nervousbreakdown in 1468, described by his contemporaries as a crisis of “profound melancholy”.

In 1470, and with a title plagiarized from Proclus, Ficino writes his “Platonic Theology or on the immortality of the Soul.” While completely taken in by esoteric neo-Platonism, he becomes a priest in 1473 and writes “The Christian Religion” without changing his neo-platonic pagan outlook, since he launches then an entire new series of translations of the neo-Platonists of Alexandria: he translates the fifty four books of Plotinus “Enneads”, Porphyry and Proclus.

Ficino, in his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” explicitly attacks the Promethean conception of man:

Nothing indeed can be imagined more unreasonable than that man, who through reason is the most perfect of all animals, nay, of all things underheaven, most perfect, I say, with regard to that formal perfection that is bestowed upon us from the beginning, that man, also through reason, should be the least perfect of all with regard to that final perfection for the sake of which the first perfection is given. This seems to be that of the most unfortunate Prometheus. Instructed by the divine wisdom of Pallas, he gained possession of the heavenly fire, that is, reason. Because of this very possession, on the highest peak of the mountain, that is, at the very height of contemplation, he is rightly judged most miserable of all, for he is made wretched by the continual gnawing of the most ravenous of vultures, that is, by the torment of inquiry…” (…) “What do the philosophers say to these things? Certainly the Magi, followers of Zoroaster and Hostanes, assert something similar. They say that, because of a certain old disease of the human mind, everything that is very unhealthy and difficult befalls us…

The Florentine Neo-Platonic Academy, backed by the libido-driven Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) “The Magnificent”, will serve as a “Delphic” operation: defend Plato to better destroy him; praise him in such terms that he becomes discredited. And especially destroying Plato’s influence by opposing religion to science, at a point where Cusanus and his followers are succeeding to do exactly the opposite. Isn’t it bizarre that Cusa’s name doesn’t appear a single time in the works of Ficino or Pico della Mirandola, so overfed with all encompassing knowledge?

Lorenzo did protect artists such as Sandro Botticelli, whose Birth of Venus examplifies Lorenzo’s neo-platonic symbolism.

Infected with this evil neo-Platonism, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516), the chief librarian of pope Julius II, will accomplish nothing but this when dictating to the painter Raphaël the content of the Stanza in the Vatican some decades later.

Neo-platonic “melancholy”, which Albrecht Dürer went after in his famous engraving, will become the matrix for the romantics, the destructive virus affecting the symbolists and the so-called modern school. As for the revolution that Greek studies will bring about in the sciences, I refer you to our article on this website: 1512-2012: From Cosmography to Cosmonauts, Gerard Mercator and Gemma Frisius.

To conclude, here is a short list of translators, and I certainly forgot some of them, and their mastery of foreign languages. Even if some of them can’t be called « humanists », let’s thank them for everything they allowed us to discover. I’m profoundly convinved, that without them, man would certainly not have set foot on the Moon!

Merci de partager !

Bruegel, Petrarca and the « Triumph of Death »

The Triumph of Death, Peter Bruegel the Elder, oil on panel, 1562, Prado, Madrid.

By Karel Vereycken, april 2020.

The Triumph of Death? The simple fact that the heir to the throne of England, Prince Charles, and even the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have tested positive to the terrifying coronavirus currently sweeping the planet, tells something to the public.

As some commentators pointed out (no irony) it “gave a face to the virus”. Until then, when an elderly person or a dedicated nurse died of the same, it “wasn’t real”.

Realizing that these “higher-ups” are not part of the immortal Gods of Olympus but are mortals as all of us, brings to my mind “The Triumph of Death”, a large oil painting on panel (117 x 162 cm, Prado, Madrid), generally misunderstood, painted by the Flemish painter Peter Bruegel’s the elder (1525-1569), and thought to be executed between 1562 and his premature demise.

In order to discover, beyond the painting, the intention of the painter’s mind, it is always useful, before rushing into hazardous conclusions, to briefly describe what one sees.

« Below, some people are crawling on their knees, hoping to remain unnoticed ».

What do we see in Bruegel’s « Triumph of Death« ? On the left, a skeleton, symbolizing death itself, holding a sand-glass in its hand, carries away a dead King. Next to him, another skeleton grabs the vast amounts of money no one can take with him into the grave. Death is driving a chariot. Below the charriot some people are crawling on their knees, hoping to remain unnoticed.

People are gambling and amusing themselves…

On the right, at the forefront, people are gambling and amusing themselves. A skeleton playing a musical instruments joins a prosperous young couple engaged in a musical dialogue and clearly unaware that Death is taking over the planet.

The message is simple and clear. No one can escape death, poor or rich, young or old, king or peasant, sick or healthy. When the hour comes, or at the end of all times, all mortals return to the creator since “physical” death triumphs over all of them.


Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019)

American thinker Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019), in his speeches and writings, used to remind us, with his typical loving impatience: all human wisdom starts by a personal decision to acknowledge a fact proven without contest: we are all born and each of us, sooner or later, will die. So far, our bodies have all been proven mortal.

The duration of our mortal existence on the clock of the universe, he reminded, is less than a nanosecond.

Therefore, knowing this boundary condition of our mortal existence, we, each of us, have to make a personal sovereign decision: how will I spend the talent of my life ? Will I spend that talent chasing the earthly pleasures of the flesh, or dedicate my life to defending the truth, the beautiful and the good, to the great benefit of humanity as a whole, living in past, present and future ?

In 2011, in a discussion, LaRouche explained what he meant by saying that humanity has the potential to become an “immortal” species:

I live; as long as I live, I may generate ideas.
These conceptions give mankind a chance to move forward.
But then the time will come when I will die.
Now, two things happen: First of all, if these creative principles,
which have been developed by earlier generations,
are realized in the future, that means that mankind is an immortal species. We are not personally immortal;
but to the extent that we’re creative, we’re an immortal species.
And the ideas that we contribute to society
are permanent contributions to the human society.
We are therefore an immortal species,
based on mortal beings. And the key thing in life is to grasp that connection.
To say that we’re creative and die,
doesn’t tell us the story. If we, in our own lives, who are about to die,
can contribute something that is permanent, which will outlive our death, and be a benefit to mankind in future times, we have achieved the purpose of immortality.
And that is the crucial thing.
If people can actually face, with open minds, the fact that we’re each going to die—but look at it in the right way,
then we are impassioned to make the contributions,
to discover the principles, to do the work that is immortal.
Those discoveries of principle which are immortal, which pass on from one generation to the other. And thus, the dead live in the living;
because what the dead do, if they have done that in their lifetime, they are alive, not as in the flesh, but they’re alive in principle.
They’re part, an active part, of human society.

Christian humanism

LaRouche’s outlook, the “moral” obligation to live a “creative” existence on Earth in the image of the Creator, was deeply rooted in the philosophical outlook of both the Platonic and the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose happy marriage gave us the beautiful Christian humanism which, in the early XVth Century, ignited an unprecedented explosion, on a mass-scale and of unseen density of economic, scientific, artistic and cultural achievements, later qualified as a “Renaissance”.

In Plato’s Phaedon, Socrates develops the idea that our mortal body is a constant impediment to philosophers in their search for truth: “It fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense, so that, as it is said, in truth and in fact no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body” (66c).  To have pure knowledge, therefore, philosophers must escape from the influence of the body as much as is possible in this life. Philosophy (Literally “The love of wisdom”) itself is, in fact, a kind of “preparation for dying” (67e), a purification of the philosopher’s soul from its bodily attachment.

Also the Vulgate’s Latin rendering of Ecclesiastics 7:40 stresses: « in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin”. This passage finds expression in the christian ritual of Ash Wednesday, when ashes are placed upon the worshippers’ heads with the words: “Remember Man that You are Dust and unto Dust You Shall Return.”

Is this a morbid ritual? No, it is a philosophy lesson. Christianity itself, as a religion, cherishes God’s own son made man, Jesus, for having renounced to his mortal life for the sake of mankind. It put Jesus’ death at the center. And in the XIVth century, Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), one of the leading intellectuals and founders of the Brothers of the Common Life, wrote that every Christian should shape his life in the “Imitation of Christ”. Both Nicolaus of Cusa (1401-1464) and Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) were powerfully influenced and trained by this intellectual current.

Concedo Nulli

Medal with Erasmus portrait, casted by Quinten Matsijs in 1519.

Erasmus’ personal armory was the juxtaposition of a skull and a sand-glass, referring to death and time as the boundary conditions of human existence.

In 1519, his friend, the Flemish painter and goldsmith Quentin Matsys (1466-1530) forged a bronze medal to the honor of the great humanist.

On one side of the medal there is an efigee of Erasmus and a Latin inscription informs us that this is “an image taken from life”. At the same time we are told in Greek, « his writings will make him better. known »

The reverse side of the medal shows solemn inscriptions surrounding an unusual image. At the top of a pillar that stands in rough, uneven ground, emerges the head of a young man with a stubbly chin and wild, flowing hair. Like Erasmus on the other side of the medal, he seems to have a faint smile upon his face. On either side of the head are the words “Concedo Nulli”– “I yield to no one.” On the pillar is inscribed Terminus, the name of a Roman god who presided over boundaries. Again bilingual quotations surround a profile. On the left, in Greek, is the instruction, « Keep in mind the end of a long life. » On the right, in Latin, is the stark reminder, « Death is the ultimate boundary of things. »

Verso of the medal

Adapting as his own motto “I yield to no one”, Erasmus took the great risk of using such a daring metaphor. Accused of intolerable arrogance by his sycophants, he underlined that “Concedo Nulli” had to be understood as death’s own statement, not his own. And who could argue with the assertion that death is the terminus that yields to no one?

Mozart, Brahms and Gandhi

Centuries later, the great humanist composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was the exact opposite of a morbid cynic. Revealing his inner mindset, Mozart once said that the secret of all genius, was love for humanity: “neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius”.

But on April 4, 1787, Mozart wrote to his father, Leopold, as he lay dying :

I need hardly tell you how greatly I am longing
to receive some reassuring news from yourself.
And I still expect it ; although I have now made a habit of being prepared in all affairs of life for the worst.
As death, when we come to consider it closely,
is the true goal of our existence,
I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind,
that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me,
but is indeed very soothing and consoling !
And I thank God for graciously granting me
the opportunity (you know what I mean)
of learning that death is the key
which unlocks the door to our true happiness.
I never lie down at night
without reflecting that –young as I am– I may not live to see another day.

Johannes Brahms 1865 German Requiem, quotes Peter 1:24-25 reminding us that

“For all flesh is as grass,
and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.
The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.”

Also Mahatma Gandhi, expressed, in his own way, somthing similar, about how one has to live simultaneously with mortality and immortality:

« Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever. »

Memento Mori and Vanitas

Hieronymus Bosch, detail of « The Garden of Earthly Delights ».

Just as Hieronymus Bosch’s (1450-1516) painting of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” (Prado, Madrid), where the great Dutch master uses the metaphor of naked humans incessantly chasing delicious fruits, calls on the viewer to become aware of his close-to-ridiculous, animal-like attachment to earthly pleasures and calls on his free will and his sens of humor to free himself, Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death” painting, on a first level, is fundamentally nothing else than a complex Memento Mori (Latin “remember that you must die”).

With this painting, Bruegel pays tribute to his intellectual godfather’s motto Concedo Nulli, that is, as Erasmus did in his writings, Bruegel paints the ineluctability of death, not by praising its horror, but with the aim of inspiring his fellow citizens to walk into immortality. In the same way Erasmus’ « In praise of folly » was in fact an inversion of his praise of reason, Brueghel’s « Triumph of Death » was conceived as a triumph of (immortal) life.

For the Catholic faith, the aim of a Memento Mori was to remind (and eventually terrorize) the believer that after death, he or she might end up in Purgatory or worse in Hell if they did not respect the Church and her rites. With the invention of oil painting in the early XVth century, panel paintings of this genre for private homes and small chapels were considered aesthetic objects crafted for the sake of religious and philosophical contemplation.

Hence, starting with the Renaissance, the Memento Mori painting became a much demanded artifact, re-branded in the following centuries as “Vanitas”, Latin for « emptiness » or « vanity ». Especially popular in Holland and then spreading to other European nations, Vanitas paintings typically represented assemblages of numerous symbolic objects such as human skulls, guttering candles, wilting flowers, soap bubbles, butterflies and hourglasses.


The aristocrat, Holbein the Younger, Dance of Death.

A first source is of course, the famous designs and woodcuts executed by Erasmus intimate friend and illustrator of his “In Praise of Folly”, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), for his satirical “Dance of Death” (1523), which –breaking with the way the “Dance macabre” was used before by the Flagellants and other madmen to desensitize the population in order to push them into a fatalistic retreat of the outer world– introduces the new philosophical dimension that Bruegel will develop.

Vanitas, Philippe de Champaigne, 1671.

The close-to-embarassing anamorphosic representation of a giant skull in Holbein’s work « The Ambassadors » (1533), demonstrates his profound understanding of the Memento Mori metaphor.

Erasmus’ friend Albrecht Dürer‘s engraving « Knight, Death and the Devil » (1513), or his « Saint Jerome in his study » (1514) (with skull and hourglass) are two other examples.

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger. On the right, the « anamorphosic » skull on the floor, when seen from a tangent viewpoint.

Bruegel and Italy

Ironically, Peter Bruegel the elder has always been presented as a painter of the Northern School who was completely closed to the “Italian” Renaissance.

The reality is that while rejected the transformation of the Renaissance into a form of mannerism in the XVIth century, he took most of his inspiration directly from two Italian Renaissance sources.

Triumph of Death, fresco (1446) from the Palazzo Sclafini in Palermo, Sicily.

First, of course, the image of Death riding a horse, and even a group of persons such as the young couple engaged in their musical embrace, appear incontestably as taken from the Triumph of Deat”, a vast fresco from 1446 which decorated the walls of the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo, Sicily. Bruegel’s trip to Southern Italy is a well documented fact.

The second source, which undoubtedly also inspired the painter of the fresco, is a series of allegorical poems known as “I Trionfi” (“The Triumphs”: Triomph of Love, of Chastity, of Death, of Fame, of Time and of Eternity), composed by the great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, most likely following the “Black Death”, a pandemic outbreak which, starting with the 1345 banking crash, decimated a vast portion of the population of Europe.

Petrarca’s genius was precisely to offer to those terrified with the very idea of having to face their physical mortality, a philosophical answer to their anxiety.

As a result, his Trionfi became rapidly popular, not only in Italy but all over Europe. And for most painters, working on Petrarca’s themes became part of their common repertoire.

The Master of Petrarca’s Triumphs. Manuscript of the BnF. On the left, The Triumph of Love shows Laura on top of a charriot. On the right (The Triumph of Death) Death stands on Laura’s mortal remains.

To conclude, here is an excerpt (English) of the poem, where Petrarca blasts the mad lust of Kings and Popes for wealth, pleasure and earthly power. In the face of death, he stresses, they are worthless. Petrarca’s wording fits to the detail the images used by Bruegel in his painting The Triumph of Death :

(…) afar we might perceive
    Millions of dead heap’d on th’ adjacent plain;
    No verse nor prose may comprehend the slain
    Did on Death’s triumph wait, from India,
    From Spain, and from Morocco, from Cathay,
    And all the skirts of th’ earth they gather’d were;
    Who had most happy lived, attended there:
    Popes, Emperors, nor Kings, no ensigns wore
    Of their past height, but naked show’d and poor.
    Where be their riches, where their precious gems,
    Their mitres, sceptres, robes, and diadems?
    O miserable men, whose hopes arise
    From worldly joys, yet be there few so wise
    As in those trifling follies not to trust;
    And if they be deceived, in end ’tis just:
    Ah! more than blind, what gain you by your toil?
    You must return once to your mother’s soil,
    And after-times your names shall hardly know,
    Nor any profit from your labour grow;
    All those strange countries by your warlike stroke
    Submitted to a tributary yoke;
    The fuel erst of your ambitious fire,
    What help they now? The vast and bad desire
    Of wealth and power at a bloody rate
    Is wicked,–better bread and water eat
    With peace; a wooden dish doth seldom hold
    A poison’d draught; glass is more safe than gold;

Whether Bruegel, who saw undoubtedly the fresco in Palermo during his trip in the 1550s, had read Petrarca’s poem remains an open question. It can be said that many of his direct friends were familiar with the Italian poet.

In Antwerp, the painter was a frequent guest of the Scola Caritatis, a humanist circle animated by one Hendrick Nicolaes, where Brueghel met poets, translaters, painters, engravers (Cock, Golzius) mapmakers (Mercator), cosmographers (Ortelius) and bookmakers such as the Antwerp printer Christophe Plantijn, who’se renowned printing shop would print Petrarca’s poetry.

Also in Antwerp, indicating how popular Petrarca’s poetry had become in the Low Countries and France, the franco-flemish Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594) published his first musical compositions, including his madrigals on each of the six Trionfi of Petrarca, among which the « Triumph of Death ».


All evil, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) hoped, can give birth to something good, far bigger and superior to the evil that provoked it. Therefore, we can hope that the current pandemic breakdown crisis will lead some of the leading decision-makers, with our help, to reflect on the sens and purpose of their lives. The worst would be to return to yesterday’s “normalcy” since that kind of “normal” is exactly what drove the planet currently to the verge of extinction.

At last, it should be stressed that in the same way Lyndon LaRouche, by his ruthless (Concedi Nulli) commitment to defend the sacred creative nature of every human individual, contributed to the enduring immortality of Plato, Petrarca, Erasmus and Bruegel, it is up to each of us to carry even further that battle.

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Le « rêve d’Erasme », le Collège des Trois Langues de Louvain


Le Collège des Trois Langues de Louvain (1517-1797)

Erasme, les pratiques pédagogiques humanistes et le nouvel institut des langues.

Sous la direction de Jan Papy, avec les contributions de Gert Gielis, Pierre Swiggers, Xander Feys & Dirk Sacré, Raf Van Rooy & Toon Van Hal, Pierre Van Hecke.

Edition Peeters, Louvain 2018.
230 pages, 60 €.


En Belgique, il y a un an, dans la vieille ville universitaire de Louvain, et ensuite à Arlon, une exposition très intéressante a échappé à notre attention.

Réunissant des documents historiques, gravures et manuscrits de la bibliothèque universitaire ainsi que de nombreuses pièces de l’étranger, du 19 octobre 2017 au 18 janvier 2018, l’évènement a voulu, à l’occasion du 500e anniversaire de sa fondation, retracer l’origine et mettre à honneur l’activité du fameux « Collège Trilingue » érigé en 1517 grâce aux efforts du grand humaniste chrétien Erasme de Rotterdam (1467-1536).

Quand on parle de civilisation européenne, c’est bien cette institution, bien que peu connue et de taille modeste, qui en fut l’un des artisans majeurs.

Car tout comme Guillaume le Taciturne (1533-1584), l’organisateur de la révolte des Pays-Bas contre la tyrannie habsbourgeoise, les visionnaires More, Rabelais, Cervantès et Shakespeare s’inspireront de son combat exemplaire, de sa verve et de son grand projet pédagogique.

Vitrail récent représentant Jérôme de Busleyden devant sa résidence à Mechelen. C’est là qu’il introduisit Erasme auprès de Thomas More.

L’occasion pour les Editions Peeters de Louvain de consacrer à cet anniversaire un beau catalogue et plusieurs recueils, publiés aussi bien en néerlandais, en français, qu’en anglais, réunissant les contributions de plusieurs spécialistes sous l’œil avisé (et passionné) de Jan Papy, professeur de littérature latine de la Renaissance à l’Université de la ville, appuyé d’une « équipe trilingue louvainiste » qui n’a pas épargné ses efforts pour relire attentivement toutes les publications ayant trait au sujet et explorer des sources nouvelles dans diverses archives d’Europe.

L’histoire de cet établissement humaniste en est une non seulement d’une remarquable visée scientifique et pédagogique, mais aussi d’efforts obstinés, voire de combats courageux, couronnés d’un succès international sans précédent. Mettant à profit le legs de Jérôme de Busleyden (1470-1517), conseiller au Grand Conseil de Malines, décédé en août 1517, Érasme s’attela aussitôt à la création d’un collège où des savants de renommée internationale prodigueraient un enseignement public et gratuit du latin, du grec et de l’hébreu. Dans ce collège ‘trilingue’, étudiants-boursiers et professeurs vivaient ensemble.

peut-on lire sur la jaquette du catalogue de plus de 200 pages.

Pour les chercheurs, il ne s’agissait pas de retracer de façon exhaustive l’histoire de cette entreprise mais de répondre à la question :

Quelle fut la ‘recette magique’ qui a permis d’attirer aussi rapidement à Louvain entre trois et six cents étudiants venant de partout en Europe ?

Portrait d’Erasme de 1517 par son ami le peintre anversois Quinten Metsys.

En tout cas, la chose est inédite, car, à l’époque, rien que le fait d’enseigner et en plus gratuitement, le grec et l’hébreu —considéré par le Vatican comme hérétique— est déjà révolutionnaire. Et ceci, bien que, dès le XIVe siècle, initié par les humanistes italiens au contact des érudits grecs exilés en Italie, l’examen des sources grecques, hébraïques et latines et la comparaison rigoureuse des grands textes aussi bien des pères de l’Eglise que de l’Evangile, est la voie choisie par les humanistes pour libérer l’humanité de la chape de plomb aristotélicienne qui étouffe la Chrétienté et de faire renaître l’idéal, la beauté et le souffle de l’église primitive.

Pour Erasme, comme l’avait fait avant lui Lorenzo Valla (1403-1457), en promouvant ce qu’il appelle « la philosophie du Christ », il s’agit d’unir la chrétienté en mettant fin aux divisions internes résultant de la cupidité (les indulgences, la simonie, etc.) et des pratiques de superstition religieuse (culte des reliques) qui infectent l’Eglise de haut en bas, en particulier les ordres mendiants.

Pour y arriver, Erasme désire reprendre l’Evangile à sa source, c’est-à-dire comparer les textes d’origine en grec, en latin et en hébreux, souvent inconnus ou sinon entièrement pollués par plus de mille ans de copiages et de commentaires scolastiques.

Frères de la Vie Commune

Wessel Gansfort, détail d’un portrait posthume peint récemment par Jacqueline Kasemier.

Mes recherches propres me permettent de rappeler qu’Erasme est un disciple des Sœurs et Frères de la Vie commune de Deventer au Pays-Bas. Les figures fondatrices et emblématiques de cet ordre laïc et enseignant sont Geert Groote (1340-1384), Florent Radewijns (1350-1400) et Wessel Gansfort (1420-1489) dont on croit savoir qu’ils maitrisaient précisément ces trois langues.

Le piétisme de ce courant dit de la « Dévotion Moderne », centré sur l’intériorité, s’articule à merveille dans le petit livre de Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), L’imitation de Jésus Christ. Celui-ci souligne l’exemple personnel à suivre de la passion du Christ tel que nous l’enseigne l’Evangile, message qu’Erasme reprendra.

Rudolphe Agricola.

En 1475, le père d’Erasme, qui maîtrise le grec et aurait écouté des humanistes réputés en Italie, envoie son fils de neuf ans au chapitre des frères de Deventer, à l’époque dirigé par Alexandre Hegius (1433-1498), élève du célèbre Rudolphe Agricola (1442-1485), qu’Erasme a eu la possibilité d’écouter et qu’il appelle un « intellect divin ».

Disciple du cardinal-philosophe Nicolas de Cues (1401-1464), défenseur enthousiaste de la renaissance italienne et des belles lettres, Agricola a comme habitude de secouer ses élèves en leur lançant :

Soyez méfiant à l’égard de tout ce que vous avez appris jusqu’à ce jour. Rejetez tout ! Partez du point de vue qu’il faut tout désapprendre, sauf ce que, sur la base de votre autorité propre, ou sur la base du décret d’auteurs supérieurs, vous avez été capable de vous réapproprier.

Erasme reprend cet élan et, avec la fondation du Collège Trilingue, le portera à des hauteurs inédites. Pour ce faire, Erasme et ses amis appliqueront une nouvelle pédagogie.

Désormais, au lieu d’apprendre par cœur des commentaires médiévaux, les élèves doivent formuler leur propre jugement en s’inspirant des grands penseurs de l’antiquité classique, notamment « Saint Socrate », et ceci dans un latin purgé de ses barbarismes. Dans cette approche, lire un grand texte dans sa langue originale n’est que la base.

Vient ensuite tout un travail exploratoire : il faut connaître l’histoire et les motivations de l’auteur, son époque, l’histoire des lois de son pays, l’état de la science et du droit, la géographie, la cosmographie, comme des instruments indispensables pour situer les textes dans leur contexte littéraire et historique.

L’art et la science au peuple. Le début du XVIe siècle a connu un engouement pour les sciences.

Cette approche « moderne » (questionnement, étude critique des sources, etc.) du Collège Trilingue, après avoir fait ses preuves en clarifiant le message de l’Evangile, se répand alors rapidement à travers toute l’Europe et surtout s’étend à toutes les matières, notamment scientifiques !

En sortant les jeunes talents du monde étroit et endormi des certitudes scolastiques, l’institution devient un formidable incubateur d’esprits créateurs.

Certes, cela peut étonner le lecteur français pour qui Erasme n’est qu’un littéraire comique qui se serait perdu dans une dispute théologique sans fin contre Luther. Si l’on admet généralement que sous Charles Quint, les Pays-Bas et l’actuelle Belgique ont apporté leurs contributions à la science, peu nombreux sont ceux qui comprennent le lien unissant Erasme avec la démarche d’un mathématicien tel que Gemma Frisius, d’un cartographe comme Gérard Mercator, d’un anatomiste comme André Vésale ou d’un botaniste comme Rembert Dodoens.

Or, comme l’avait déjà documenté en 2011 le professeur Jan Papy dans un article remarquable, en Belgique et aux Pays-Bas, la Renaissance scientifique de la première moitié du XVIe siècle, n’a été possible que grâce à la « révolution linguistique » provoquée par le Collège Trilingue.

Car, au-delà de leurs langues vernaculaires, c’est-à-dire le français et le néerlandais, des centaines de jeunes, étudiant le grec, le latin et l’hébreu, accèderont d’un coup, à toutes les richesses scientifiques de la philosophie grecque, des meilleurs auteurs latins, grecs et hébreux. Enfin, ils purent lire Platon dans le texte, mais aussi Anaxagore, Héraclite, Thalès, Eudoxe de Cnide, Pythagore, Ératosthène, Archimède, Galien, Vitruve, Pline, Euclide et Ptolémée dont ils reprennent les travaux pour les dépasser ensuite.

Vestiges de l’ancienne muraille de Louvain. Au premier plan, la tour Jansénius, au deuxième, la tour Juste Lipse.

Comme le retracent en détail les œuvres publiées par les Editions Peeters, dans le premier siècle de son existence, le collège dut traverser des moments difficiles à une époque fortement marquée par des troubles politiques et religieux.

Le Collège Trilingue, près du Marché aux poissons, au centre de Louvain, a notamment dû affronter de nombreuses critiques et attaques de la part d’adversaires « traditionalistes », en particulier certains théologiens pour qui, en gros, les Grecs n’étaient que des schismatiques et les Juifs les assassins du Christ et des ésotériques. L’opposition fut telle qu’en 1521, Erasme quitte Louvain pour Bâle en Suisse, sans perdre contact avec l’institution.

En dépit de cela, la démarche érasmienne a d’emblée conquis toute l’Europe et tout ce qui comptait alors parmi les humanistes sortait de cette institution. De l’étranger, des centaines d’étudiants y accouraient pour suivre gratuitement les cours donnés par des professeurs de réputation internationale. 27 universités européennes ont nommé dans leur corps professoral d’anciens étudiants du Trilingue : Iéna, Wittenberg, Cologne, Douai, Bologne, Avignon, Franeker, Ingolstadt, Marburg, etc.

Le Wentelsteen, l’escalier du Collège Trilingue. Crédit : Karel Vereycken

Comme à Deventer chez les Frères de la Vie Commune, un système de bourses permet à des élèves pauvres mais talentueux, notamment les orphelins, d’accéder aux études. « Une chose pas forcément inhabituelle à l’époque, précise Jan Papy, et entreprise pour le salut de l’âme du fondateur (du Collège, c’est-à-dire Jérôme Busleyden) ».

En contemplant les marches usées jusqu’à la corde de l’escalier tournant en pierre (Wentelsteen), l’un des rares vestiges du bâtiment d’alors qui a résisté à l’assaut du temps et du mépris, on imagine facilement les pas enthousiastes de tous ses jeunes élèves quittant leur dortoir situé à l’étage. Comme l’indiquent les registres des achats de la cuisine du Collège Trilingue, pour l’époque, la nourriture y est excellente, beaucoup de viande, de la volaille, mais également des fruits, des légumes, et parfois du vin de Beaune, notamment lorsque Erasme y est reçu.

Avec le temps, la qualité de son enseignement a forcément variée avec celle de ses enseignants, le Collège Trilingue, dont l’activité a perduré pendant longtemps après la mort d’Erasme, a imprimé sa marque sur l’histoire en engendrant ce qu’on qualifie parfois de « petite Renaissance » du XVIe siècle.

Erasme, Rabelais et la Sorbonne

Quitte à nous éloigner du contenu du catalogue, nous nous permettons d’examiner brièvement l’influence d’Erasme et du Collège Trilingue en France.

A Paris, chez les chiens de garde de la bienpensance, c’est la méfiance. La Sorbonne (franciscaine), alarmée par la publication d’Erasme sur le texte grec de L’Evangile de Saint Luc, fait interdire dès 1523 l’étude du grec en France. En Vendée, à Fontenay-le-Comte, les moines du couvent de Rabelais confisquent alors sans vergogne ses livres grecs ce qui incitera l’intéressé à déserter son ordre mais pas ses livres. Médecin, Rabelais traduit par la suite Galien du grec en français. Et, comme le démontre la lettre de Rabelais à Erasme, le premier tient le second en haute estime.

L’Abbaye de Thélème, gravure au burin, d’après la description donnée par Rabelais dans Gargantua, son conte philosophique.

Dans son Gargantua (1534), esquissant les contours d’une Eglise du futur, Rabelais évoque le Collège Trilingue sous le nom d’abbaye de Thélème (Thélème = désir en grec, peut-être une référence à Désiré, prénom d’Erasme), un magnifique bâtiment hexagonal à six étages, digne des plus beaux châteaux de la Loire où l’on puisse retrouver, « les belles grandes librairies, en Grec, Latin, Hébrieu, François, Tuscan et Hespaignol, disparties par les divers estaiges selon langaiges », référence on ne peut plus claire au projet érasmien.

Marguerite de Valois, reine de Navarre. Soeur de François Ier, femme de lettres, poétesse, lectrice d’Erasme et protectrice de Rabelais.

Contre la Sorbonne, en 1530, le Collège Trilingue d’Erasme servira explicitement de modèle pour la création, à l’instigation de Guillaume Budé (ami d’Erasme), du « Collège des lecteurs royaux » (devenu depuis le Collège de France) par François Ier, avec les encouragements de sa sœur Marguerite de Valois reine de Navarre (1492-1549) (grand-mère d’Henri IV), poétesse, femme de lettres et lectrice d’Erasme.

Dans le même élan, en 1539, Robert Estienne est nommé imprimeur du roi pour le latin et l’hébreu, et c’est à sa demande que François Ier fit graver par Claude Garamont une police complète de caractères grecs dits « Grecs du Roi ».

Pour les mettre à l’abri des foudres des sorbonagres et des sorbonicoles, François Ier déclare alors les lecteurs royaux conseillers du roi. A l’ouverture, il s’agit de chaires de lecture publique pour le grec, l’hébreu et les mathématiques mais d’autres chaires suivront dont le latin, l’arabe, le syriaque, la médecine, la botanique et la philosophie. Aujourd’hui, il aurait sans doute ajouté le chinois et le russe.

Ce qui n’empêche pas qu’à peine un an après sa publication, en 1532, Pantagruel, le conte philosophique de Rabelais déchaîne les foudres de la Sorbonne. Accusé d’obscénité, en sus d’apostasie, Rabelais s’en tire de justesse grâce à l’un de ses anciens condisciples, Jean du Bellay (1498-1560), diplomate et évêque de Paris, qui l’emmène à Rome à titre de médecin.

A son retour, les esprits calmés, la bienveillance de François Ier et de Marguerite de Navarre, lui permettent de retrouver son poste à l’Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon.

Si certains historiens de l’Eglise estiment qu’Erasme, à Louvain en particulier, a exagéré et parfois même suscité des réactions hostiles de la part de certains théologiens à son encontre, rappelons tout de même que lors du Concile de Trente (1545-1563), l’œuvre complète d’Erasme, taxée d’hérésie, fut interdite de lecture pour les catholiques et mise à l’Index Vaticanus en 1559 où elle restera jusqu’en 1900 !

Si Thomas More, en qui Erasme voyait son « frère jumeau », a été béatifié en 1886 par le pape Léon XIII, canonisé par Pie XI en 1935 et fait saint patron des responsables de gouvernement et des hommes politiques par Jean-Paul II en l’an 2000, pour Erasme, il va falloir attendre.

Interrogé en 2015 au sujet d’un geste éventuel de réhabilitation en faveur d’un chrétien qui a tant fait pour défendre le christianisme, sa Sainteté le pape François, dans sa réponse écrite, a vivement remercié l’auteur pour ses réflexions.

Reconstruisons le Collège Trilingue !

Reconstitution sous forme d’image numérique, sur la base de documents historiques, du Collège Trilingue de Louvain. Crédit : Visualisations Timothy De Paepe

Ce qui reste du Collège Trilingue aujourd’hui : au fond d’une cour, entourée de bâtiments plus récents et sans intérêt, une petite porte donnant sur la salle d’escalier et une façade refaite au début du XVIIe siècle.

Dans le catalogue de l’exposition, le professeur Jan Papy retrace également le destin qu’ont connu les bâtiments qui abritaient jadis le Collège Trilingue.

Il mentionne notamment la tentative d’un des recteurs de l’Université Catholique de Louvain, de récupérer l’édifice en 1909, un projet qui échoua malheureusement à cause de la Première Guerre mondiale.

Le bâtiment est ensuite transformé en dépôt et en logements sociaux. « Dans la chapelle du Collège Trilingue, on fume alors le hareng et la salle de cours sert d’usine à glace… »

Aujourd’hui, à part l’escalier, rien n’évoque la splendeur historique de cette institution, ce qui fut forcément ressentie lors des commémorations de 2017.

Jan Papy regrette, bien que l’Université ait célébré les 500 ans avec « tout le faste académique requis », que l’ « on ne peut cependant s’empêcher d’éprouver des sentiments équivoques à la pensée que cette même Université n’a toujours pas pris à cœur le sort de cet institut qu’Erasme avait appelé de ses vœux et pour lequel il avait tant œuvré ».

Les restes du bâtiment, certes, dans leur état actuel, n’ont pas grande « valeur », du point de vue « objectif ». Ce n’est qu’en fonction de l’attention subjective que nous leur attribuons, qu’elles ont une valeur inestimable et précieuse comme témoignage ultime d’une partie de notre propre histoire.

Passage actuel (Busleydengang), à partir du Marché à poissons, vers le Collège Trilingue au centre de Louvain.

A cela s’ajoute que reconstruire le bâtiment, dont il ne reste pas grand-chose, coûterait à peine quelque petits millions d’euros, c’est-à-dire pas grand-chose à l’aube des milliards d’euros que brassent nos banques centrales et nos marchés financiers. Des mécènes privés pourraient également s’y intéresser.

Demain ? Reconstitution du portail d’origine donnant sur Collègue Trilingue à partir du marché à poissons. Crédit : Visualisations Timothy De Paepe

De notre point de vue, la reconstruction effective du Collège Trilingue dans sa forme originale, qui constitue en réalité une partie du cœur urbanistique de la ville de Louvain, serait une initiative souhaitable et incontestablement « un énorme plus » sur la carte de visite de la ville, de son Université, des Flandres, de la Belgique et de toute l’Europe. N’est-il pas un fait regrettable, alors que tous les jeunes connaissent les bourses Erasmus, que la plupart des gens ignorent les idées, l’œuvre et le rôle qu’a pu jouer un si grand humaniste ?

Des images en trois dimensions, réalisées dans la cadre de l’exposition sur la base des données historiques, permettent de visualiser un bel édifice, du même type que ceux construit par l’architecte Rombout II Keldermans à l’époque (Note), apte à remplir des missions multiples.

Crédit : Visualisations Timothy De Paepe

Enfin, chaque époque est en droit de « ré-écrire » l’histoire en fonction de sa vision de l’avenir sans pour autant la falsifier. Rappelons également, bien qu’on tende à l’oublier, que la Maison de Rubens (Rubenshuis) à Anvers, un Musée qui attire des milliers de visiteurs chaque année, n’est pas du tout le bâtiment d’origine ! Comme le reconnaît le site du Musée actuel :

La maison de Rubens reste sans doute inchangée jusqu’au milieu du 18e siècle, après quoi elle est entièrement transformée. Les façades sur la rue sont démolies et reconstruites selon le goût de l’époque. La demeure du XVIe siècle est aussi en grande partie remplacée par une bâtisse neuve. Le bâtiment est confisqué par les Français en 1798 et devient une prison pour les religieux condamnés au bannissement. La maison est rachetée par un particulier après l’époque napoléonienne. L’idée de faire de la maison un monument naît dans le courant du XIXe siècle. La Ville d’Anvers en fait l’acquisition en 1937. Les années suivantes seront mises à profit pour rendre autant que possible à la demeure son aspect à l’époque de Rubens. Le musée Maison Rubens ouvre ses portes en 1946. C’est la maison que vous visitez aujourd’hui.

L’annonce officielle d’une reconstruction du bâtiment pourrait éventuellement se faire le 18 octobre 2020, date anniversaire du jour où le Collège Trilingue ouvrait ses portes. Moi j’y serais !

Note: On pense à la Cour de Busleyden et le Palais de Marguerite d’Autriche à Malines ou à la Cour des marquis (Markiezenhof) de Bergen-op-Zoom

Merci de partager !
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