Book Review: Giannozzo Manetti

Against the Jews and the Gentiles, Books I-IVby Giannozzo Manettiedited by Stefano Baldassarri & Daniela Pagiliaratranslated by David MarshHarvard University Press, 2017One of the newest additions to the magnificent I Tatti Library series from Harvard University Press is also on its face one of the riskiest, just on its title alone: Against the Jews and the Gentiles by the great and now totally forgotten Renaissance magistrate and scholar Giannozzo Manetti. Scholarly tracts retailing the ancient perfidy of the Jews have, we're accurately told, “a long and notorious history,” and when Manetti was amassing his research and writing his ten-volume Adversus Iudaeos et Gentes (originally planned for twice the length) in the 1450s, the weird bacillus of anti-Semitism was in virulent full form throughout the world. Manetti (1396-1459) and his learned colleagues did a great deal to usher in the full glories of the Italian Renaissance – Manetti's On the Dignity and Excellence of Man is something in the nature of a founding document of Renaissance humanism. But they were as infected with anti-Semitism as virtually everybody around them, and that presents a problem for a series like I Tatti, since the disinterested scholarship of producing scrupulous new bilingual editions of Renaissance literature risks colliding with the pointlessness and tastelessness of giving new life to the bigoted screeds that are the dark shadow underneath the bright successes of the Quattrocento.Manetti was a towering figure in his own day. The scion of a wealthy Florentine merchant family, he was a busy civil servant and diplomat and an indefatigable scholar, a student of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, an assiduous hunter after sources, and a pioneering translator (he was the first to translate the New Testament into Latin since St. Jerome). He corresponded with many of the foremost scholars of the day, enjoyed the patronage of his long-time friend Pope Nicholas V, and a prolific writer; I Tatti has produced excellent editions of great swaths of Manetti's work, but this latest feels immediately more sensitive. Brilliant as he was, it's easy to ask, why devote a new volume to a tract against the Jews?The endeavor is marginally helped by the fact that Manetti wasn't quite as anti-Semitic as most educated Florentines of his day, and his Against the Jews and Against the Gentiles (“gentiles” here meaning ancient pagans) doesn't quite read like the similarly-named tracts written all around it by other scholars. As the present editors Stefano Baldassarri and Daniela Pagliara point out, Manetti takes a less fiery, more critical stance in these first four books of his work, in which he spends most of his time recapitulating the life and times of Jesus Christ. His main goal in these sections is clearly to sing the praises of the Christian story, although he pauses regularly to swipe at what he sees as the primitive savagery of the Jewish traditions that were, in Manetti's view, the flawed predecessors of the purified Christian truth:

Turning now briefly to the laws of Moses, we shall review a few things in order finally to arrive at the commandments of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which are solid, eternal, and (as it were) blessed, rather than shadowy, transitory, and disastrous. Although the Old Law certainly contains the ten famous and salutary commandments about the love of the truth and almighty God and love of one's neighbor, there seems to be three singular and salient points that are missing, that clearly and openly demonstrate the imperfection of said Law. [I] First, concerning those who respect or break these laws, no goods as appropriate rewards or evils as condign punishments are promised, imposed, or set out, excepting some temporary, transient, and worthless ones. [II] Second, several of their solemn sacrifices seem unclean, silly (frivola), and bloody. [III] Third, some of their fixed and explicit commandments prohibiting various foods seems strangely servile and scarcely worthy of a free man.

Manetti's Latin in Adversus Iudaeos et Gentes (the book survives in only one copy) is silvery and fluid, and it's wonderfully translated by David Marsh – in an astonishing detail that's become standard with the I Tatti series, this is the first such translation. The scholarship here is typically restrained and superb – this will certainly be the definitive English-language version of this Manetti work, not that there'll be much in the way of competition.The remaining question is the most important: even given the translation and the scholarship, are the first four books of Manetti's Against the Jews and Against the Gentiles actually worth reading? And the answer is difficult; Manetti is unquestionably a major figure at the dawn of the Renaissance, and there's an undeniable interest in reading his long retelling of the Christ story, watching the ways he integrates the often varying strands of the four Gospels into one narrative that sometimes turns a slight squint of criticism toward its literary sources. And it's true that Manetti's personal emphasis usually seems to be on celebrating Christianity rather than condemning Judaism. But by modern standards, he's a verbose writer prone to redundant rhetorical flourishes – a bit irritating to read in long stretches, particularly with so little light to guide the way.