“Portraying the Prince in the Renaissance: The Humanist Depiction of Rulers in Historiographical and Biographical Texts”
The collaborative research center “Transformations of Antiquity” at the Humboldt University in Berlin is now soliciting abstracts for an international conference, to be held 6-8 November 2014, devoted to the portrayal of rulers in historiographical and biographical texts written by Renaissance humanists in the period from 1350-1550. In the larger context of interdisciplinary research on the transformative reception of antiquity across the ages and the development of a nuanced theory of how such inter-epochal cultural change actually takes place, an équipe within the research center, led by Prof. Johannes Helmrath, has focused for the past nine years on the topic of Renaissance humanist historiography and its relationship to ancient sources, methods, practices, and models. Having hosted conferences and issued publications that approach this topic by way of language and media, literary practice and social context, and the transformation of ancient narrative strategies, the research group is now turning its attention to the portrayal of individuals in humanist texts.
An emphasis on contingency and human agency (as opposed, for example, to divine providence) has long been considered a hallmark of Renaissance historiography. The conference begins from this premise but also aims to review it critically. Rulers, who occupy a central place in both the organization and the content of so many historical works, will provide the focus. By investigating the manifold ways these individuals and their historical impact are portrayed, contributors will offer crucial insight into this essential aspect of humanist literary production and the broader humanist conception of history. The texts and authors discussed at the conference should represent the broadest possible chronological and geographical spectrum (within the boundaries set) in order to facilitate the identification and description of temporal continuity and change on the one hand, national and regional similarities and differences on the other.
But what exactly is an historical text? As difficult as this question can be for modern scholars, it is even thornier when applied to the Renaissance. As opposed to ancient authors like Nepos and Plutarch who distinguished clearly between biography and historiography, humanists were less scrupulous in observing the distinction between life-writing and the narration of historical events. On the contrary, the line between these activities is often blurred in humanist writings of an historical nature, which tend to be characterized by a hybridization of quite disparate text types and a successful integration of various discourses. Thus countless ostensible works of history, such as Paolo Emilio’s De rebus gestis Francorum (1539), are structured biographically along a line of founding figures and kings. On the other hand, writings whose titles suggest that they belong to the genre of biography, such as Lorenzo Valla’s Gesta Ferdinandi regis (1449), appear to modern eyes rather as examples of historiography. Yet again, a work like Thomas More’s Historia Richardi regis Angliae eius nominis tertii (1513) could legitimately be considered a biography. Thus when approaching the issue of how rulers were portrayed in works of history, it seems useful to undertake a broader investigation of historiographical and biographical texts.
A primary aim of the conference is therefore to encourage discussion of the distinguishing characteristics of and links between the various genres in which the historical portrayal of rulers features prominently. One thinks immediately of the nationally focused res gestae, decades, and historiae in which rulers play a decisive role, such as Antonio Bonfini’s Rerum Ungaricarum decades (1503), Elio Antonio de Nebrija’s Rerum a Ferdinando et Elisabe Hispaniarum regibus gestarum decades (1509), and Polydore Vergil’s Anglica historia (1514). The portrayal of individual rulers is also a key element in biographically arranged chronicles and annals, such as Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (1493) and Johannes Aventinus’s Annales ducum Boiariae (1521). In addition, historical epics like Basinio Basini’s Hesperis (ca. 1450-57, on Sigismondo Malatesta), Giovanni Mario Filelfo’s Amyris (1471-76, on Mehmed II), even Girolamo Vida’s Christiad (1535) should be considered, as could the edition of the medieval hexametrical work Ligurinus, curated by Conrad Celtis and other members of the sodalitas Augustana (1507). Nor ought biographical collections to be neglected; while Platina’s Vitae Pontificum (1479) clearly embodies a history of the papacy, the political history of early-fifteenth-century Europe is inscribed in the vignettes of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s De viris illustribus (ca. 1449). Discrete biographies, such as Tito Livio Frulovisi’s Vita Henrici V (1436), round out the list of traditionally recognized historical genres. Yet a case can be made for others as well, such as satires, funerary anthologies, panegyric orations and poetry, funeral orations, hagiographies, and commentaries, all of which have a strong biographical component.
Beyond the question of genre, the theme of the conference could also be approached by considering the various uses and transformations of ancient biographical models in humanist works. What influence was exercised by Suetonius and his thematic, as opposed to chronological, and thus highly selective mode of biography? To what extent were humanist texts characterized by Plutarch’s comparative framework? And what of other biographical modes, such as those of Jerome or Xenophon?
Many other approaches are possible. How are individual princes portrayed differently by various authors or across various genres? Do certain text types lend themselves to specific kinds of rulers (dead vs. living, good vs. bad, foreign vs. domestic, friendly vs. enemy, etc.)? What is the social and political context of a particular composition? What can be said about the causa scribendi, the stated and unstated intentions of the author? Was a work commissioned or not? Was it written in an encomiastic or invective mode? Beyond the auctoritas of ancient authors, one might also consider the authoritative status of specific ancient and even medieval rulers, such as Alexander, Augustus, or Charlemagne. How were contemporary kings and princes fit into bygone molds when their political or military accomplishments were described?
This call for papers is addressed to scholars of Renaissance humanism. Particularly welcome are contributions on humanism in Northern and Eastern Europe as well as on humanist works with a non-European subject. Abstracts may be submitted in English or German and should contain a maximum of 500 words. Please also submit a one-page CV. The deadline is 14 February 2014. Submissions should be sent as .doc or .docx files to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Host: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Date: November 6-8, 2014
Organizers: Patrick Baker, Johannes Helmrath, Ronny Kaiser, Maike Priesterjahn
Deadline for Abstracts: February 14, 2014
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