On the Original Title of Pico’s So-Called Oration ‘On the Dignity of Man’

     It is usually claimed, following Eugenio Garin, that the earliest edition of Pico’s so-called oration on the dignity of man did not carry a title. But, in fact, the posthumous 1496 Bologna edition of Pico’s works, where the oration first appeared in print, carries a prominent running title on every double page that carries that text: Oratio in coetu Romanorum (Oration in the Roman Assembly). The title refers to the oration’s original purpose as a speech to be delivered before the Roman debate of Pico’s 900 theses, which were first published in late 1486 (see my edition and study of Pico’s theses). Further links between the oration and 900 theses were obscured by the fact that the latter text was left out of the 1496 Bologna edition by Pico’s nephew-editor Gianfrancesco Pico, acting in complicity with Savonarola and his followers. Other Savonarolan adulterations in Pico’s corpus included the placement in it of apparent forgeries; on this, see chapt. 4 of my study.

    The running title Oratio in coetu Romanorum can be seen in sections of the 1496 edition published online by the University of Bologna/Brown University Pico group (for the title, see, e.g., Oration, 1496 edition).

    The title “Oration in the Roman Assembly” is not mentioned in the standard edition of the oration published by Garin (1942), nor is it noted in any of the dozens of other modern editions or translations of the text. The title further undercuts the popular view that the oration is an abstract treatise on the dignity of man theme – a view repeatedly expressed earlier in this century by scholars in the Burckhardtian tradition. Garin, for one, styled the oration, represented as a treatise on man, as the “manifesto of the Renaissance.” Echoes of Garin’s views can still be seen in recent Italian scholarship.

    The mistitle “on the dignity of man” was first applied to the text in the pirated 1504 Strassburg edition of Pico’s writings, apparently the work of the German “humanists” Jacob Wimpheling and Hieronymus Emser. The mistitle’s wide acceptance was promoted by the fact that the 900 theses did not appear in Pico’s collected works until 1557, decontextualizing the oration and allowing its easy transformation into a so-called humanist document.

    Interestingly, Gianfrancesco Pico dropped the running title “Oration in the Roman Assembly” from the final edition that he oversaw of his uncle’s works, published in Venice in 1519. The omission throws further light on the mishandling of Pico’s texts by his nephew and other Savonarolan editors.

    The question remains open as to whether the descriptive title Oratio in coetu Romanorum was Pico’s original title for his text. A note from Pico to Girolamo Benivieni, written in 1486, raises an alternate possibility, yielding something along the lines of Oratio ad laudes philosophiae (Oration in Praises of Philosophy). This title is in harmony with the main argument of Pico’s text, which develops a formal defense of the need for philosophy in the mystical ascent – a fitting opening for the formal debate at the Vatican of the 900 theses. On this alternate title and related issues, see pp. 18-19, n. 50, of my edition of the theses; see also the errata on that note.

Note originally posted on May 30, 1999. Minor modifications were added in 2000 and 2004.

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