Too many books?

Eric Haywood relates the life of Galateo, a fascinating Italian Renaissance man proud of his Greek origins

The Church of St Sebastian in Galatone, Italy

The Church of St Sebastian in Galatone, Italy


“Now, surrounded by so many books, we lead indulgent and shameful lives. So what is the use of learning?”

This is the heartfelt cry of Antonio De Ferrariis, known as Galateo (1448-1517), a true Renaissance man, who died 500 years ago last month and whose memory has recently been celebrated in his native Salento, the beautiful and fascinating heel of Italy.

Ask Italians what Galateo means to them and more likely than not they will answer: etiquette. Conoscere il galateo (to know the galateo) in Italian means: to know one’s manners. The expression comes from the 1558 work entitled Galateo by the author of the Catholic Church’s first Index of Prohibited Books, Giovannni Della Casa (1503-1556), who tried to impress upon his readers the importance, for instance, of not staring into one’s handkerchief after blowing one’s noise, or not wiping one’s fingers on the tablecloth, or not scratching one’s private parts when in company! But Antonio De Ferrariis has nothing to do with that, although his works did actually end up on the Index of Prohibited Books. Galateo (after his birthplace, Galatone) was the nickname he was given when he joined the Accademia Pontaniana, the then equivalent in Naples of the Royal Irish Academy, so to speak.

Galateo was a doctor (who at one time was private physician to the king of Naples and whose choice remedy for all ills was moderation and exercise), a cartographer (none of whose maps, unfortunately, have survived), a geographer (who described the Salento in captivating detail, was one of the very first Europeans to wonder whether the so-called discovery of the new world was such a good thing, especially for the unfortunate natives who had been “discovered”, and who reflected on the conflicting merits of what today we would call creationism and evolution); but above all he was a writer and philosopher. To become a physician in those days you had to study philosophy and Galateo liked to style himself: physician and philosopher.

He was born into a Greek family in a region which ever since antiquity had been predominantly Greek and where Greek culture was still very much alive. His father was a lawyer, but his grandfather and great-grandfather had been Greek Orthodox priests, and so too was one of his son-in-laws. Then as now Orthodox priests were allowed to be married and some, as in the case of Galateo’s family, while observing Orthodox rites belonged to the Latin church and recognized the authority of the pope. All his life Galateo proudly boasted of his Greekness, claiming that you could not be a true Italian unless you were also a true Greek. Greek learning was quite simply the best. Yet he never wrote in Greek. The vast majority of his works are in Latin, which is one of the reasons he remains largely unknown and continues to be confused with etiquette. His works however, most of them in the form of letters to his friends, are truly absorbing and speak to us in a much more engaging voice than many of the better known works of the Renaissance.

His outcry about the pointlessness of learning dates from the very same year (1513) as Machiavelli’s Prince and the famous letter in which Machiavelli (1469-1527) describes his greatest pleasure as “seeking nourishment” in “the ancient courts of ancient men”, or in other words as “talking with books”, as Petrarch (1304-74), the so-called father of the Renaissance, had put it many years before. Galateo, like Machiavelli, had fully bought into the Renaissance dream that learning and the wisdom of the ancients held the key to making the world a better place, but whereas Machiavelli had come to realize that books cannot ignore what he called “the actual truth of things” and could also usefully teach one how to “enter into evil”, Galateo held steadfastly to the belief that reality could and must be made to conform to one’s noblest aspirations and that the point of learning was to make humans better people. And when the dream showed itself to be an illusion, his hope turned to bitterness and rage.

He had every reason to feel bitter. The times in which he lived would have tested anyone’s faith in humanity. He was part of a violent society ruled by ruthless warlords: the arrogant and riotous feudal nobility of the Kingdom of Naples, then Italy’s largest state, who relentlessly tested and contested the legitimacy of the monarchy and derided men like Galateo as useless “pen-pushers”. In 1480-81 the Turks, who in 1453 had conquered Constantinople, occupied the charming town of Otranto, not far from Galatone, putting all the male inhabitants to the sword, enslaving the women and children, and sending shockwaves through Europe: the skulls of the “martyrs of Otranto”, beatified not long ago by Pope Benedict XVI, are still on display in Otranto’s beautiful cathedral! In the following years it was the turn of the Venetians to invade, as they sought to maintain full control of the access to what they considered to be their very own “lake”, ie the Adriatic Sea, and in the process destroyed Galateo’s property. Then, in 1494 the French king descended upon Naples and held the city for a few months, before his forces were decimated and forced to retreat by the onslaught of syphilis (what the Italians still call “il mal francese”, the French sickness): the French claimed to be the rightful heirs to the Neapolitan throne. And finally the Spanish came, claiming it was they who were the rightful heirs and after many months of brutal fighting turning Naples into a colony of the Spanish crown, which it remained for over 200 years.

At times Galateo’s uncompromisingly high standards, coupled with his obsessive diatribes against anyone or anything he disapproves of – the incompetent and hypocrites who rule the world, the corrupt who hold sway in the church – can grate on modern ears, as does his xenophobia (the least appealing characteristic of Renaissance intellectuals) and misogyny (women should be neither seen nor heard, according to him, like the women of ancient Athens!), but his no-holds-barred honesty, his conflicted sense of self and his fearless provocativeness make his works well worth reading. They also offer a more compassionate insight into the “actual truth of things” than Machiavelli’s: the young boys “imprisoned” in the royal court, for instance, to satisfy the lust of evil courtiers, or the oarsmen condemned to a lifetime of servitude in the galleys of megalomaniac rulers.

As we know, 2017 also marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and it is fitting that Galateo should be celebrated at the same time as Luther. He was extremely devout and his faith has been described as proto-evangelical. What mattered to him was reading the Bible, praying and leading a virtuous life. He wrote a dialogue, Eremita (The Hermit), in which the main character, a double of himself, manages to gain access to paradise on his own merits, despite the objections of St Peter and most of the other saints, but with the blessing of Moses, St John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary. It was intended primarily as a satire of the Church, which Galateo, like Luther, believed had betrayed its origins, primarily as a result of the simoniacal and nepotistic practices of those who had control of it, above all the popes. And yet, in 1510 he travelled to Rome to present the then pope, Julius II (1503-13), with a Greek transcription of the Donation of Constantine, written in his own hand.

The Donation of Constantine was purported to be the document by which Emperor Constantine donated Rome and its environs to the papacy when he moved the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople in the fourth century. But the Donation had been demonstrated in the 1440s to be a forgery. Galateo must have known this, for the research to prove it was a forgery had been carried out at the court of Naples. By choosing to ignore it, he presumably wished to signify his belief that the spirit of the Donation was truer than its letter. The Church had to reform itself and had to continue to exist: for the sake of Christendom in the face of the threat from Islam, for the sake of Italy in the face of the threat from barbarians from Spain and France, and for the sake of western civilisation, ie the civilisation of Greece, in the face of those who truly believed that learning was pointless. Entering into evil, not wanting the world to be a better place, all things considered, was not an option. We cannot not surround ourselves with books.

But if Galateo’s Latin means his works can only be closed books to us, we could do worse than visit the now very accessible and charming places where he spent his life: Galatone, Nardò, where he was educated, Lecce and Gallipoli, where he spent the latter part of his career. But also Naples, where his career began, Ferrara, where he was awarded his medical degree, and Venice, which like many Italians he believed to be the best governed city in Italy.
Eric Haywood is Associate Professor (emeritus) of Italian Studies at UCD. He is the author of Fabulous Ireland, Ibernia Fabulosa. Imagining Ireland in Renaissance Italy

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