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© Jeff Matthews        entry Jan 2015

Italian and Neapolitan Academies of the Middle Ages

here are at least two institutions in Naples, the Italian Institute for Historical Studies and the Institute for Philosophical Studies that—although they, themselves, are of relatively recent origin—go back to the tradition of the Italian learned Academies of the late Renaissance and early modern periods. Indeed, in a certain sense, such institutions (in Italy and elsewhere) may even be said to go back to Plato's original Grove of Academe) in Athens. And if we accept an expanded sense of Academy, such groups include even those who met at Cicero's villa (he called it "our academy), or those who. much earlier, sat with Pythagoras in Crotone and laid the foundations for modern geometry and even Western music. Beyond that, when Justinian closed Plato's Academy in Athens, those scholars left Greece for parts east where they founded a similar academy in Jundishapur in Persia. (And you never know—those who figured out the precession of the equinoxes lived even well before that: “Hey, we're having a few drinks at my cave tonight. BYOB—bring your own brain.”)

Beginning in the late 1400s and for centuries afterwards, there came to be about six hundred such academies in Italy. Their interests covered literature, culture, and the sciences and ranged over many subjects, from astronomy to theater, from poetry to politics, from linguistics to music and the figurative arts. Academies published in all these and many other fields. Membership in the Academies included pioneering scientists, literary polemicists and political thinkers. It would be unjust—and dead wrong—to think that many of these institutions, because we now view them as “pre-scientific” did not do important work. Those were times in which, for example, significant scientific work was often carried on by individuals working within such groups or, indeed, even by themselves. Important, also, is the fact that they spread knowledge and intellectual curiosity to a large audience drawn from a diverse social base and in so doing provided an alternative to medieval universities, which remained largely concerned with Scholastic philosophy—trying to integrate Christian theology and the classical Greek philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. Academies were, in that respect, practical workshops for the new ideas of Humanism; they worked in vernacular languages and showed them to be just as effective as classical Latin for scholarly discourse even as universities continued to use Latin. (In Naples, Latin was the language of instruction at the Frederick II university well into the 1700s.)

Recent archaeology has revealed such items within the ruins of
   della Porta's" academy of secrets" as this  fresco of  the Egyptian
    God, Set, and Isis (on the left) nursing the infant Horus.
photo: Napoli Underground (NUg)
In the "modern" sense of our own Middle Ages, the first "new" academy in Italy may have been an institution in Florence sponsored from about 1460 by Cosimo Medici. Although there is some reference in the literature to an earlier Neapolitan academy in the 1440s under King Alfonso, it is not at all clear what that might have been. At best it may been have an informal gathering of literati who sat around in the presence of the king and chewed the fat. At worst, it may not have existed at all and was a fiction conjured up by Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503) the founder of the first verifiable academy in Naples in order to lend some intellectual ancestry to his own academy, one that was widely respected throughout Italy and that flourished throughout the French Angevin dynasty and well into the Spanish Vice-Regency in the Kingdom of Naples. Part of the premises are still intact. (#37 on this map).

The academies in the 1400s and early 1500s were concerned mainly with literature and general culture; they produced theater and had social concerns about such things as the education of women. Indeed, women were accepted into some academies and in Naples formed the nucleus of the engravers that actually printed academy journals. The first "scientific" academy in Italy came a bit later; it  was the Academia  Secretorum Naturae in Naples (image, above right), founded around 1580 by the amazing polymath, Giambattista della Porta (see that link). The members met to uncover the "secrets of nature" and nicknamed themselves the Otiosi (Men of Leisure) in keeping with the good-natured habit among such societies of adopting whimsical names for the group. In order to join this group, you had to have contributed a new discovery or fact in natural science. Perhaps the best-known scientific community in Italy was the Academy of the Lynxes (for the “sharp-eyed” abilities of the lynx) in Rome. It was founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi. Della Porta, himself, became a member in the early 1600s after he was forced to leave Naples by the Inquisition. If Della Porta was, by today's criteria, “pre-scientific,” the most famous member of the Lynxes was not; he was as lynx-eyed as they come —Galileo. He was so honored to be a member that he took to signing his name Galileo Galilei Linceo.

Academies, by and large, have been replaced by universities, but at least a few of them have survived in name and function, such as the Accademia della Crusca, a society for scholars and Italian linguists and philologists founded in 1583 in Florence. It is the most important research institution on the Italian language as well as the oldest linguistic academy in the world. Even the Accademia della Crusca has a curious name; crusca means 'bran'. Bran is nutritional and they were making fun of the chaff turned out by those insufferable pedants across town at the Florentine Academy. The bran-boys & girls even held academic contests that they termed cruscate, a pun on crociate (crusades).

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