Vera Amicitia. Classical Notions of Friendship in Renaissance Thought and Culture

Ed by Patrizia Piredda and Matthias Roick, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2021. 288 pages

Vera Amicitia in the website of Peter Lang

Friendship is one basic structure of human sociability, a bond that can reach beyond schemes and prejudices, age and gender. Even in the worst scenarios of enmity, friendship may unexpectedly rise to soothe the agony of solitude and pain. In some ways, everyone knows what friendship is, but when we try to grasp one stable and universal definition of it, we struggle. As Patrizia Piredda writes in the Introduction, “the notion of friendship, like all notions, includes a vast range of different meanings, some of which remained stable over the centuries, while other changed, disappeared, or emerged from time to time. The mobility of these meanings depends on how we refer to the notion of friendship in different contexts, and how we react to changes in the social, political, and cultural outlook” (Introduction, p. 1). Matthias Roick explains that “the notion of friendship is one of the central tenets of Renaissance moral and political thought. […] Of course, these relationships and bonds serve different purposes and appear in widely different forms over time and space”, as far as “new types of aristocracy and court culture made it necessary to reflect on the changed forms of sociability” (Preface, p. xi).


The book consists of 8 chapters, each of which highlights “the ways in which authors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (writers, philosophers, philologists, politicians, etc.) appropriated Greek and Latin paradigms of friendship, on the one hand, applying them to understand their own social and political context while, on the other hand, they created new paradigms of friendship in both the public and private spheres” (Back cover). The eight chapters examine many facets of friendship such as speaking sincerely (parrhēsia), flattery, justice, love, pleasure, good, utility, virtue, good life, and truth. They also explore how authors of the Renaissance such as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Thomas More, Erasmus, Juan de Mariana, Feliciano Silvestri, Johannes Caselius, the members of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft, and the engravers of emblems received and elaborated the legacy of ancient philosophers and authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Plutarch, Cicero, and Seneca. The choice of the authors and genres blends some classics with less renowned works and context, thus providing a very insightful view into the pervasiveness of friendship in the thought and culture of the Renaissance, including the restricted circles of courtiers and the erudite societies.


Although we usually attribute a role to friendship in shaping and enriching our private lives, we often forget that this was not the case in the past, when the boundaries between public and private were outlined very differently. Even today, friendship is a concept that turns up in political discourse and public communication: friendship among the nations and the people, friendship in communicating to different publics and users, friendship in adjusting social practices to diverse groups. The inseparability of the public and private spheres as the two poles of friendship seems to be one of the red threads that bind the various parts of this highly remarkable book. One aspect profoundly engages the authors, namely the difference between the friend and the “flatterer”. In the Introduction, we read that the real “opposite” of the “true” friend is not the enemy or foe but precisely the flatterer, who is “masked and devious. While it is easy to oppose enemies because they clearly reveal what they are and their purposes through discourtesy, discord, and inhospitality, it is hard to oppose the flatterers who conceal their real intentions. The flatterer is also dangerous because he prevents the deceived friend from truly knowing himself” (Introduction, p. 9).


This observation suggests two considerations that are promptly addressed by the editors: the first concerns the very notions of “truth” and “true friendship”, borrowed from Greek philosophers through the filter of Roman thinkers such as Cicero and Seneca. False friendship, from such a perspective, should be understood as an “unjust” and “incorrect” form of friendship, not the opposite of “true” friendship but its distortion, which is the case of the flatterer (unjust and deceitful). The second consideration is quite topical because friendship in the public and political spheres remains affected by the same flaws that existed in the Renaissance, namely nepotism, corruption, and clientelism that plagued the courts. One could easily apply such a statement to our modern worlds, which differs from that of the Ancien Régime only in that in the latter, privilege, birth-rights, injustice, and racial/gender/social inequality were publicly displayed and commonly accepted as something natural and necessary, while we today denounce them as aberrations and moral flaws. Thus, reflecting on friendship in the Renaissance also permits us to understand something about our time and culture.


Vera amicitia, therefore, is a valuable book that provides the scholar of the European Renaissance with insightful analysis of the central role of friendship as a barycentre-notion of the court culture of that time. And in doing so, I would like to add, it also makes an interesting attempt to explore that which Foucault called the “archaeology of knowledge”, namely the investigation of how deeply our basic concepts, assumptions, and prejudices root into the Renaissance, which is, in the end, the youth of the contemporary Western civilisation.

Content of the volume:

Preface (Matthias Roick)
Introduction (Patrizia Piredda)
Authentic and Counterfeit Friendship: A Reading of Montaigne through Ancient Reflections on Frankness and Flattery (Sara Diaco)
How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend: The Solitude of the Tyrant in Early Modern Treatises (Cecilia Asso)
Friendship and Virtues in the Good Society: Thomas More’s Utopia (Patrizia Piredda)
The Thousand Faces of Friendship: An Iconological Survey of the Emblem Books of the Herzog August Library (Valeria Butera)
Private or Political Friendships? Machiavelli’s Sociability after 1512 and His Strategies of Retreat and Rehabilitation (Stefano Saracino)
Virtue and Discord: Notions of Friendship in Commentaries on Cicero’s De amicitia in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Matthias Roick)
“Ich werde aber in meiner gefreundter Dienst verreisen”: Sociability and Friendship in the Letters of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (1617–1650) and Beyond (Gabriele Ball)
The Notion of Friendship in Johannes Caselius’s Occasional Poetry (Clemens Cornelius Brinkmann)

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