Soon after 1374, the Convento Santo Spirito in Florence was the venue for the first "academy" of the Renaissance. This was the initiative of Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. (1342 – 1394). As a scholar of Latin literature, especially of Boethius, he was a follower of humanism.
Luigi Marsigli O.S.A.* was described as "the apostle and soul of the literary renaissance in Florence." (* This Augustinian is not to be confused with Count Luigi Marsigli 1685 -1730) Thanks to Luigi Marsigli O.S.A the Augustinian monastery of Santo Spiritu in Florence became a meeting place for a group of early Platonizing humanists, and a kind of literary academy for the cultivation of ancient literature. Marsigli, one of a number of Augustinians who were friend of Francesco Petrarch, exercised had an extraordinary influence on those Florentine humanists who, at the turn of the fourteenth century, made Florence the intellectual centre of Italy.
This academy was an informal gathering place where modern thinkers, literati (writers) and artists met spontaneously for mutual support, debate, and the exchange of ideas. Some were clerics (priests), but most were not. In earlier years Marsigli had taught theology at the studium generale (international house of study) of the Order in Paris, and had exchanged letters with the aged Petrarch – who is called "the father of Humanism" - at Arqua. One of his students was the Italian humanist Niccolo Niccoli, a copyist and collator of ancient manuscripts in whose handwriting are extant many of the most valuable treasures of the Laurentian Library. In frequent attendance at the learned meetings at Santo Spiritu was Coluccio Salutati, another great humanist, who had come to Florence in 1371 to be chancellor or Latin secrtary for the Republic. The educational activity of Luigi can best be summarized by quoting a few sentences from an oration written by Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini on the occasion of Niccolo Niccoli's death:
“When there flourished in this city the extraordinary virtue of the most learned man, Luigi Marsigli of the Order of St Augustine, Nicholas became one of his most devoted pupils in order to profit from him not only in learned studies but also in the moral conduct of life. At that time the house of Luigi was filled with brilliant young minds who had proposed to imitate his way of life. His house was also frequented by the best and most outstanding men of this city who streamed to him as though to some divine oracle. He generously taught and instructed many who became great scholars. Among these there distinguished themselves especially Joannes Laurensis, Robertus Rossus and our Nicholas, who, dismissing everything else, did not leave the side of Luigi and was thus instructed in the best rules of life. Moreover, he learned moral austerity, elegance of speech and boldness in castigating vice from him who was most ready and equipped for exposing wickedness.”
The teaching of Marsigli had left a deep impression on his pupil's mind. The latter never forgot his master's fundamental principle that scientific investigation and Christian sentiment must go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, even from such friends as Poggio, Niccolo Niccoli would never tolerate words of disrespect for his faith; he detested all materialists and unbelievers. This, then, is the great merit of Luigi Marsigli that, by using his influence as the most highly esteemed figure in the group of Florentine humanists, he raised up a dam against the dangerous tendencies of those fanatics of the classical ideal who wished to bring about a radical return to paganism both in thought and manners.
Like St Augustine had also done in his day, Marsigli strove to bring the revived element of classical culture into harmony with the Christian ideal and the political and social civilization of the period. Besides theological works, Luigi left commentaries on three sonnets of Petrarch and a number of letters which offer interesting glimpses of the moral and political life of the period. Along with Petrarch, Marsigli shared a disdain for the teaching methods and scholarship of the universities, as well as concerns about the potential conflicts of classical learning and Christian faith. In one of his few letters still extant, Marsigli in 1373 wrote of a desire for "a life of leisured reading... because in this context one thinks and speaks of the life to come." This is very much akin to the otium ("holy leisure") that Augustine of Hippo desired. The goal of Marsigli and many of the Augustinian community at Santo Spirito in Florence was to draw the Christian humanists into their circle. The intention was to teach them that a revival of the Classics should consist in imitating a truly Latin style and in the absorption of their great ideals without also adopting their pagan spirit. Similar academies began under other auspices in Rome, Naples, and also a second academy later opened in Florence. Not that a person such as Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. was untroubled by vice in the church simply because he was a priest and a member of a religious order.
He said the papal court no longer ruled through hypocrisy — so openly did it then flaunt its vices — but only though the dread inspired by its interdicts and excommunications. Marsigli died at the age of fifty-two years, but the academy at Santo Spirito continued.
Decades after his death, another noted Augustinian humanist in the Convento Santo Spirito was Andrea Biglia O.S.A. (c. 1395 -1435). Born in Milan, Biglia was a forceful and brilliant preacher, an active reader in philosophy and rhetoric, and an impartial historian. He became noted for his teaching and preaching in Siena, Italy. He acknowledged his admiration for Petrarch, a pioneer humanist to whom he referred as maestro. In a sermon in 1425 Biglia, in very humanist terms, said that Augustine of Hippo had possessed "the acuteness of Aristotle, the eloquence of Plato, the intelligence of Varro and the worthy seriousness of Socrates." In 1425 he also preached to the Augustinian General Chapter at Bologna. Photo Gallery
For the Augnet photo gallery on the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence (including the above pictures), click here.