Along with Jerome Seripando O.S.A., the other Augustinian to become a cardinal in this era, Giles Antonini of Viterbo (1469-1532) is a person who cannot be overlooked in reporting the history of the Augustinian Order during the Protestant Reformation.
He was also called Aegidius of Viterbo, which is a Latin version of the name, Giles. He was one of the most educated men within the highly-educated circles of scholars during the Renaissance. Giles combined the skills of a scholar with those of a diplomat, and the humanism of the Renaissance with the zeal of a reformer. (For the special section on Augnet about the connections between Seripando and Giles of Viterbo, click here.)
Giles was born in the Italian city of Viterbo in 1469. His family were not wealthy. His father was Lorenzo Antonini, of Canepina, near Viterbo, his mother, Maria del Testa. At a time when young men routinely joined a religious order at the age of fifteen years, Giles did not enter until his eighteenth year, in June 1488. Beforehand he completed his studies of the humanities and also a course in philosophy.
In 1490 he was sent to the studium generale (international house of study) of the Order at Padua. In 1493 he published his first book about some of the writings of an earlier outstanding Augustinian scholar and Prior General, Giles of Rome O.S.A. When his book was published, Giles was only twenty-four years of age.
After a few years, he left Padua utterly discontented with the teachings of the Aristotelians and retired to Istria, where he became deeply engaged in the study of Plato for two years. Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, and today is shared by Italy (i.e., the portion that includes the city of Trieste), Croatia and Slovenia. In Florence Giles met Marsiglio Fincino (1432 – 1499), the head of the Platonic Academy Platonic Academy that had been founded at Florence under Lorenzo de Medici. Fincino, greatly impressed by the brilliance of mind of Giles, gave him a few special lectures, and dispelled the doubts that Giles still had about the possibility of an actual and profoundly spiritual rebirth of Christianity through a union with Platonic philosophy.
Writing to the Prior General of the Order, Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A., Giles said, "For no other reason Plato seems right because he turned from God less than any other philosopher - which not even Augustine could deny." And in his Historia Viginti Saeculorum, he called Platonic philosophy "most becoming for piety as is the opinion of my Augustine." Above all, however, it was a personal experience which prompted him to take this final step. He had been a student at the University of Padua, headquarters of the Aristotelians or Peripatetics, who were divided into Averroists and Alexandrians. He had taken part in the debates on the nature and immortality of the soul which formed the main topics of discussion.
Giles then departed for Rome, eager to defend the new theological system to the best of his ability. In making this decision, Giles doubtlessly was influenced by the fact that some of the basic ideas of St Augustine had been absorbed in some of the central doctrines of the Florentine Academy. He became an outstanding scholar of Hebrew, and had an unrivalled knowledge of Middle-Eastern languages in the Europe of his day. His greatest works were on the Hebrew cabala and rabbinic literature, which he used as a historical tool for the interpretation of the Bible.
As well as for his scholarship, Giles gained attention because of his ability as a preacher and orator. He was once described as "the Christian Cicero." He was a follower of humanism, and a man of the Renaissance.
Image (at left): Aegidius (Giles) of Viterbo, fresco portrait, 17th century, Priori Palace, Viterbo, Italy.
Praise of this nature led to his being ordered by the Prior General and the Pope to preach a series of sermons in various cities of Italy that competed to hear him. Giles was reputed to have had blameless morals, but as a preacher and later as Prior General he had to meet men and women of evil repute.
For example, there was Imperia, a famous cortesian. She was mistress of Agostino Chigi, who was a liberal benefactor of the Chigi Chapel (Cappella Chigi) located in the Chiurch of Santa Maria del Popolo. This included also Vanozza di Cattanei (1450 – 1511), a papal mistress, who was a devotee of the Augustinian church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. She died in 1511, and was buried in the Costa Chapel (Cappella Costa) there.
In 1503 at Ferrara Giles had met her daughter, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia was by then the wife of Alfonso d’Este, who was the son and heir of the Prince of Ferrara. It is often suggested that, after her marriage with Alfonso in December 1501, Lucrezia displayed good moral conduct for a number of years. Some credit for this is given to Giles. During Lent of 1508, Giles undertook the task of preaching to the prostutuites of the city of Rome. According to a contemporary writer, that gave Giles a potential congregation of 6,800 women. An observer at this sermon by Giles said that he won the enthusiastic attention of his congregation. He worked such a change that some of them left Rome to return to their families, and others entered religious houses as penitents.
Although his sermon had no major effect on this deeply-rooted practice in Rome, the immediate results nevertheless were a tribute to the common sense and virtuosity of Giles. The fame of Giles as a preacher dated from the 1490s. More than once he was called to Rome to preach before Pope Alexander VI. Pope Julius II also had a particularly high regard for him as a preacher. Time and again Julius summoned him to preach a sermon or a series of sermons on special occasions, and at two events that he considered of vital importance to his pontificate – the Lateran Council and the concluding of a treaty with the emperor, Maximilian I.
But it was not mere oratorical flair that gave Giles (1469 – 1532) the first rank among outstanding preachers, but the substance of his delivery as well. In 1510 Paolo Cortese ranked him with the Franciscan Bernardine of Siena (1380 – 1444), John Capistrano (1385 – 1456), Roberto de Lecce, Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. (a proponent of humanism in Convento Santo Spirito, Florence: 1450 - 1498) and the ill-fated Dominican firebrand Girolamo Savonariola (1452 – 1498).
Giles presented doctrines in the cultured phrases of humanists, but it was his urgent sense of the need for religious reform that provided the vital spark to his sermons. It was his integrity as a person and his qualities as a priest that, combined with his intelligence and great learning, made Giles stand out from others who were preaching reform at that time. This was the opposite to what Giles preferred, for in 1503 he had become a member of the Augustinian observant movement by joining the Augustinian community of the Eremo (hermitage) of Lecceto.
Giles wrote a small volume called On the Lecceto Community, which indicated how partial he was to the life of contemplation and relative solitude that was undertaken there amongst the woods not far from the walled town of Siena. This small volume is also telling of the way that even a highly intelligent and scholarly Renaissance man like Giles - once called "an intellectual prodigy" - accepted the legends and traditions that the Lecceto hermitage-house went back to the time of Augustine, and that Augustine himself may even visited it. Indeed, it was not until the seventeenth century that pious legends and edifying myths were generally culled from historical evidence.
Giles had over two years at Lecceto before the Pope called upon him to live in Rome. When in 1506 the office of Prior General of the Augustinians became vacant, Giles was appointed Vicar General directly by Pope Julius II until a General Chapter was due in the following year. The Pope himself had been elected in 1503, and was aware that Giles was an influential preacher, possibly the best in Italy during part of his lifetime.
Pope Julius II wanted the talents of Giles applied in cities and on theme which would assist the papal defence of the Papal States in central Italy. He thus took steps that made it very evident that Giles should be elected the Prior General in 1506. Giles was obviously reluctant to accept the responsibility, but members of the Order of Saint Augustine were as insistent as the Pope that he should shoulder this burden. The Pope appointed Giles as president of the General Chapter. This was a very clear way that the Pope could indicate to the delegates that he would approve of the election of Giles.
It could also assist because at that time the president could nominate local Augustinians to be voting delegates to stand in for any other Augustinians who did not travel to the Chapter from other nations. The General Chapter was held in Naples. It enjoyed at the hospitality of the Viceroy of Naples, who was its host. The Viceroy fed the 800 Augustinian delegates, seventy Augustinian theologians, and the dukes and public figures who attended.
Immediately after Giles stated in total sincerity that he did not want to be Prior General, the delegates at the General Chapter disregarded his wishes and voted him unanimously to the position. This was eleven years before the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation by the posting of theses by his fellow Augustinian, Martin Luther. Giles of Viterbo constantly thought of reform because of the great and valid concern he had for the current condition of the universal Church and the Augustinian Order.
(Continued on the next page.) AN4326