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The Project

Long misunderstood as a period in which the learned and unlearned alike turned their backs on philosophical authority, the Renaissance witnessed a renewed and intense preoccupation with Aristotle's works. Numerous studies in the past 30 years (e.g., by F. Edward Cranz, Charles B. Schmitt, Charles H. Lohr, John Monfasani, Luca Bianchi, Stefano Perfetti) have shown that new translations, commentaries, and other interpretations were undertaken in the Renaissance in order to better understand the Philosopher who studied under Plato but opposed some of his fundamental doctrines. Until now, scholars have mainly focused on the Latin tradition of interpreting Aristotle, which was closely tied to the context of the universities. It is becoming clear, however, that numerous works on Aristotle were also written in the vernacular, for a public that may not have known Latin or, if it did, felt more comfortable with learning communicated in the national languages of French, Italian, German, English, Spanish, or Dutch. It is these writings that are the focus of this project.

The case of Italy is particularly interesting, since most vernacular works that survive are from this area. We now know of around 300 manuscripts and over 200 printed editions of Aristotelian works in Italian for the period 1400–1650. The database associated with this project is cataloguing the various works and offering detailed descriptions. Along side this repertory, an important effort is being made to study a selection of the works discovered. These works show how strongly the need was felt, especially in the sixteenth century, to communicate knowledge in the language of the people. The result was not, as one might think, a 'dumbed down' version of learned works on logic, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, metaphysics, rhetoric, or poetics. (Several vernacular works were more sophisticated than their Latin counterparts.) Nor did the works in the vernacular necessarily represent a radical break with past conventions of commentary and translation. Study of vernacular philosophical works thus shows that there was a significant layer of non-Latin speakers who had very developed cultural interests. They often furthered these through gatherings in Academies, which discussed masterpieces from antiquity as well as recent Italian classics such as Dante. Through our research we hope to find out more about these associations, about habits of reading and interpretation in the period, and about the importance of vernacular culture.