Literary Criticism of Jacopo Mazzoni

Born in Cesena, Italy, the Italian scholar Jacopo Mazzoni’s (1548–1598) major work was a philosophical treatise called De Triplici Hominum Vita, Activa Nempe, Contemplativa, e Religiosa Methodi Tres, 1576 (On the Three Ways of Man’s Life: The Active, the Contemplative, and the Religious). In this text Mazzoni attempted to reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. What concerns us here is Mazzoni’s aesthetics, which were formulated in connection with his enduring interest in Dante’s work. Just as Giraldi laid down a defense of the romantic epic, so Mazzoni found it necessary to defend Dante’s allegory against critics who condemned its subject matter as being fantastic and unreal. In his essay Della difesa della Commedia di Dante (1587; On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante), the central issue at stake is the nature of poetic imitation. In defending Dante’s poem, Mazzoni formulated a comprehensive and systematic aesthetics of poetic imitation.

In his introduction, Mazzoni opposes the view, which he finds common among philosophers, that metaphysics is a comprehensive science, of which all the other arts and sciences are a part. Instead, following Aristotle, Mazzoni insists that the real distinction between the various arts and sciences lies in their differing ways of knowing and constructing the same object.7 A particular art or science, then, is distinguished by its mode of knowing and constructing a given object (DCD, 39–40). In explaining this basis of distinction, Mazzoni claims to be following Plato. There are three types of objects, says Mazzoni, and three ways in which they can be approached. These objects are “idea,” “work,” and “idol.” These are, respectively, the objects of the “ruling” arts, the “fabricating” arts, and the “imitating” arts. The objects are therefore approached as observable, fabricable, or imitable. Mazzoni offers an example also given by Plato. Let us suppose that the object is a bridle. The “ruling” art here will be the art of horsemanship, which is concerned only with the idea of how the bridle must work; the art of the bridle-maker will have “work” or fabrication as its object, since this is the art that will actually make the bridle; the imitating arts will be concerned with the bridle only inasmuch as it is imitable, by means of an “idol” or image (DCD, 40). Unlike Plato, however, Mazzoni wishes to establish a firm distinction between the imitating arts and the fabricating arts; after all, Plato had seen the fabricating arts (for example, bridle-making) as imitating the idea of the object; Mazzoni retorts that while the art of bridle-making does indeed represent or copy the idea supplied by the ruling art, it also serves other purposes, such as managing horses. So, while all the arts may involve some kind of imitation, states Mazzoni, what distinguishes the imitative from other arts is that they have no other end or purpose beyond that of representation (DCD, 41).

12614186Mazzoni further explains that the idol or image which is the object of the imitative arts arises from human artifice or fantasy. In other words, arts such as painting and sculpture do not properly imitate actually existing objects but objects devised by their own imagination. Mazzoni draws upon a distinction made by Plato in his dialogue, the Sophist, between two kinds of imitation. The first kind, which imitates actual things, is “icastic”; the second type, which imitates things of the artist’s invention, is “phantastic” (DCD, 46).

Acknowledging that poetry is an imitative art, Mazzoni seeks to define it according to its medium, its subject matter, its efficient cause, and its final cause. The proper medium or instrument of poetry, he urges, is harmony, number, and meter, all taken from music since they produce pleasure in an orderly fashion (DCD, 57–58). While Mazzoni has insisted that the imitative arts such as poetry deal with objects of fantasy, he nonetheless rejects “the opinion of many” that the subject matter of poetry is merely “the fabulous and false.” He appeals to the authority of Aristotle and even of Plato (for whom certain types of poetry which gave a truthful presentation of the gods were acceptable) to affirm that the poet may indeed depict the truth as well as portraying fantasies; to put it another way, the poet may use “icastic” imitation. Again following Aristotle (who had urged that poetry should imitate what is probable), Mazzoni states that the appropriate subject of poetry is the “credible”: this category would include both truth and falsity (since what is false can sometimes be presented in a credible fashion) (DCD, 72–73).

What does it mean, in practice, for the poet to treat his subject in a “credible” fashion? Mazzoni urges that the poet must always use particular and concrete means that will appeal to the senses; he can by all means talk of things which are speculative and abstract, but his manner of speaking will differ from that of the scientist or the philosopher; the poet must present even complex ideas by means of images and idols; he must instruct by using comparisons and similitudes taken from physical things. Why? Because the poet must address “the people, among whom are many rude and uneducated.” By way of example, Mazzoni cites a passage from the end of Dante’s Paradiso, presenting an image of the Trinity as three circles. Had Plato witnessed Dante’s inventiveness, Mazzoni suggests, he would have recognized the poet’s superiority in this regard, and consequently the superior potential of poetry (DCD, 78).

Regarding credibility, says Mazzoni, a second conclusion is incumbent upon the poet: if the poet has a choice between two circumstances, one credible but false, and the other true but incredible, he must always follow the path of the credible. Finally, since poetry should give more importance to what is credible than what is true, poetry should be placed under the category of ancient “sophistic.” Although the term “sophist” had long acquired negative connotations, Mazzoni cites Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists to argue that the Sophists had certain virtues. They treated everything rhetorically – which Mazzoni understands as “credibly” – and confidently represented their claims by means of idols and images, just as the poet should (DCD, 80). Philostratus, observes Mazzoni, did not, like Plato and Boethius, consider the sophistic art as “low and scandalous” but as a worthy and noble pursuit which in some ways participated in the “rectitude of true philosophy” (DCD, 82). True philosophy, says Mazzoni, directs the intellect by truth and the will by goodness. But not all sophistry is opposed in these regards to philosophy. Plato, he claims, was opposed only to the species of sophistry which misdirected the intellect and the will (DCD, 83). Mazzoni considers that another, second species of sophistic – which Philostratus called the old sophistic – does set feigned things before the intellect but does not mislead the will; this kind, he notes, was not condemned by the ancients. It is under this ancient sophistic that Mazzoni classifies phantastic poetry, which often contains under the cover of fiction “the truth of many noble concepts” (DCD, 83).

The last species of sophistic – called the second sophistic by Philostratus – employs true names and real actions as the basis for discussions “appropriate to the rules of justice.” Under this species Mazzoni places icastic poetry, which “represents true actions and persons but always in a credible way” (DCD, 84). Mazzoni concludes that poetry is a “rational faculty” and must be classified with those rational faculties which are concerned not with truth but with “the apparent credible.” He cites the authority of Plato, who had called the poet a “marvelous sophist” who never represents the true but always the apparent. Plutarch, also, had “shown that poetry willingly accepts the lie in order better to please.” Hence, Mazzoni sees poetry as a “sophistic art” whose proper genus is imitation, whose subject is the credible, and whose end or purpose is delight; given these qualities, poetry is often obliged to accommodate falsehood (DCD, 85). But if the subject of poetry – the credible – is the same as that of rhetoric, how does it differ? Mazzoni’s answer is that rhetoric deals with the credible insofar as it is credible, whereas poetry treats of the credible inasmuch as it is marvelous. This definition, he insists, does not exclude truth since truth, in both nature and human history, can be marvelous (DCD, 86). Mazzoni also argues that Plato did not view all poetry as falsifying (DCD, 87–88).

As for the “efficient cause” of poetry (i.e., the agency which makes it possible), Mazzoni locates this in what he calls the “civil faculty.” By this term, which he himself defines as “moral philosophy” (DCD, 98), he refers to the general social discourse which lays down the rules for ethical behavior. He divides the civil faculty into two parts. The first is concerned with the laws behind the justness of human actions, and this part is called politics or civil law. The second part has to do with the laws of “recreational activities” (or what Mazzoni calls the laws of cessation of serious and difficult activities), and this part is called poetics. In other words, the civil faculty comprehends both the serious work performed in the state as well as the recreational activities or games which provide relief from that work (DCD, 90–91). Among all “games,” says Mazzoni, none is “more worthy, more noble, and more central” than poetry.

Mazzoni now takes up the question of the “final cause” or purpose of poetry. The same object, he says, can have different aims when considered from differing perspectives. For example, the principal purpose of the tongue is to provide the sensation of taste; yet, in animals, it can also be used for defense; and in humans, it is an instrument of speech, an instrument of reason (DCD, 94). In the same way, poetry can be viewed, in three different modes, as having three different ends or purposes: in its mode of imitation, its end is to provide a correct imitation or representation; considered as amusement, poetry’s purpose is simply to produce delight; thirdly, it can be considered as “amusement directed, ruled, and defined by the civil faculty” (DCD, 95). In this mode, poetry has usefulness or moral betterment as its purpose: it “orders the appetite and submits it to the reason” (DCD, 98). What is interesting here is that Mazzoni uses this threefold definition of poetry to answer Plato’s charges against poetry. The sort of poetry banished by Plato, says Mazzoni, was that which, unregulated by the civil faculty, produced a “free” delight which was independent of any law and which “disordered the appetite . . . producing complete rebellion against reason and bringing damage and loss to a virtuous life” (DCD, 97). Mazzoni even cites Plato as conceding that poetry can bring useful things to our minds by means of the delight it can offer. Not only this, but in the second, third, and tenth books of the Republic and in the second book of the Laws, observes Mazzoni, Plato suggests that the poetic faculty is the civil faculty and provides instruction in a sweetened way to those who are otherwise not amenable to learning (DCD, 99). Mazzoni’s strategy here employs considerable irony: rather than refuting Plato’s arguments against poetry, he searches Plato’s texts for support of his own more comprehensive and stratified view of poetic imitation, thereby evincing the actually complex nature of Plato’s scattered views of poetry, foregrounding these over the conventionally reductive view usually assigned to the Greek philosopher.

What Mazzoni does next is even more surprising. He takes the very framework of Plato’s banishment of poetry and brings out its potential to accommodate poetry as defined in a more comprehensive manner. Plato’s ideal republic, he observes, consists of three classes of people: the artisans (including lower- and middle-class citizens), the soldiers, and the magistrates (including the powerful citizens who rule the state). Mazzoni argues that, in accordance with this constitution of the state, there are three main kinds of poetry created by the civil faculty: the heroic, the tragic, and the comic. Heroic poetry is aimed primarily at the soldiers, spurring them to imitate the glorious deeds narrated in such verse. Tragedy, which characteristically depicts the “dreadful and terrible downfall of great persons,” is aimed at the ruling classes, its function being to moderate “the pride characteristic of their state,” so as to discourage them from becoming “insolent in their rule,” and to “keep them always under the justice of the laws.” And comedy is aimed at the lower classes, to “console them for their modest fortune,” to “implant in the minds of humble citizens obedience to their superiors, so that . . . they should not be moved to disobedience or rebellion, and so that they should always remain content with their condition” (DCD, 105). These three types of poetry, then, because they are “ruled by the civil faculty,” bring not only delight but also “utility and benefit to the republic, instructing in an almost concealed way” the three social classes (DCD, 106).

Mazzoni’s next strategy is little short of remarkable, given the era in which he wrote. He offers, consecutively, three definitions of poetry. In the first of these, he designates poetry as an “art” that is “made with verse, number and harmony, . . . imitative of the credible marvelous, and invented by the human intellect to represent the images of things suitably.” The second definition calls poetry a “game” which is also invented by the human intellect “in order to delight.” The final definition, also denominating poetry as a “game,” sees it as “invented by the civil faculty to delight the people in a useful way” (DCD, 108). These definitions stress, respectively, the imitative function of poetry, its status as a game, and its higher status as a “game modified by the civil faculty.” Only poetry of the third kind, insists Mazzoni, is governed by the civil faculty, and it is this mode of poetry which should stand as the ideal of the “good poet,” the foremost exemplar in this regard being Dante (DCD, 109).

The underlying significance of Mazzoni’s text goes far beyond a mere defense of poetry or of allegory. His text is to a great extent structured by his progressive and increasingly comprehensive definitions of poetry. In repeatedly defining poetry according to increasingly comprehensive criteria, he is effectively laying bare the process of his own thought, a transparency which rescues from its reductive closure in Plato (and to some extent Aristotle) the definition of poetry, and which reopens the possibilities of a broader conception of the nature of poetry. Moreover, Mazzoni engages not merely in a rebuttal of Plato but rather in a rereading of Plato and Aristotle. By citing some of the less well-known passages from their works, he effectively rescues their texts from the conventionally reductive readings based on the commonly cited sources of their views (such as the tenth book of the Republic). Mazzoni evinces what he considers to be the actual but hitherto unpursued implications of their own arguments to redefine the nature of poetic imitation. By stratifying and refining the definitions of Plato and Aristotle, he shows how, within Plato’s own constitutional framework, poetry has an important ideological function with respect to all the social classes in a political constitution. It is only poetry whose sole end is to produce delight, poetry produced by the human intellect without the guidance of the civil faculty, which can incite social disorder. The best poetry is indeed socially responsible, since it derives from the very same source – the civil faculty – as the ideal of political justice and order. A final strategy of Mazzoni’s text is its attempt to rescue rhetoric from its scandalous reputation and to name poetry as a species of such a redeemed rhetoric. The redemption of both rhetoric and poetry rests upon Mazzoni’s redefinition of their connection with truth, and of his reassessment of the value of truth itself: he deploys Aristotle’s text to show that, as far as these disciplines are concerned, it is credibility rather than truth which stands as an appropriate ideal. In this insistence also, Mazzoni is modern, rescuing sophism, relativism, and author– audience interaction from the tyranny of absolute truth imposed by Plato and his successors.


1 Giacopo Mazzoni, On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante: Introduction and Summary, trans. Robert L. Montgomery (Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1983), pp. 37–38. Hereafter cited as DCD.

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