Barbara Burns talks to Marco Faini, whose book Standing at the Crossroads: Stories of Doubt in Renaissance Italy recently appeared in Legenda’s Italian Perspectives series.
BB. Congratulations on your new Legenda volume! Your focus is Renaissance Italy, and you describe this book as ‘a social and cultural history of doubt’. What kind of study can the reader expect?
MF. This is an attempt to describe how doubt becomes, in Renaissance Italy, a cultural object, the subject of descriptions, allegories, tales that circulate outside the elite world of the universities or humanist circles. Why, starting from the last decades of the fifteenth century, do we find so many stories of doubts and doubters in literary works in the vernacular, and also in the visual arts? Why do writers feel the need to reflect on doubt – on its nature, that is – instead than just voicing given doubts? Why does one find forms of sociability such as games and academies devoted to doubt? Doubt seems to become a shared and even pleasurable experience, but why is that so?
Certainly, doubt remains an individual condition affecting the body, mind, and soul – sometimes painfully so. Self-doubt, religious doubt, forms of skeptical thinking have a long tradition. Yet, at some point we see something new: an interest not in given doubts, but in understanding doubt per se, in exploring its potentiality, its spaces, its uses and its consequences. This is what I call a ‘culture of doubt’, the result of a combination of artistic, literary, and social experiences to which arguably large portions of the Italian populace were exposed. Not everyone could read a bulky philosophical work, but everyone could enter a church a see a fresco depicting the ‘Incredulity of Thomas’, a popular story of doubt. My book therefore tries to ascertain if, how, and to what extent the mindscape of early modern Italians was shaped by the ubiquitous presence of doubt, in turn fostered by unexpected changes in the religious, political, and cultural context.
BB. You are a native Italian, now lecturing at the State University of New York. By what route did you arrive where you are now?
MF. I have a degree in Philosophy and a PhD in Italian Studies. I first fell in love with early modern literature in high school when I was writing a project on François Rabelais. The works of Lucien Febvre on incredulity, and especially of Michail Bachtin on the carnival, were a revelation. For some reason, however, I turned to the study of philosophy. After completing my PhD, I was fortunate to receive fellowships and grants that took me to Germany, England, Canada, and the US (and, briefly, to Romania). I was able to encounter different methodologies and engage with colleagues working in various fields. With this book, I came full circle, bringing together my background in philosophy and my passion for the early modern period. I did not plan to move to the US, it just happened, but working at the University at Buffalo, in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, is an enriching experience as it gives me the opportunity to interact with specialists in French and Spanish culture.
BB. How did you get interested in the theme of doubt in particular?
MF. I encountered the theme of doubt quite randomly, while I was working on a minor character by the name of Fortunato Martinengo (whose portrait I chose for the cover of the book), who had founded an academy called ‘Of the doubtful’. I found this name mesmerizing, especially at a time when calling yourself doubtful was not the safest choice! My interest grew when I discovered that one of Fortunato’s friends had written sonnets on doubt and another a work called Four Books of Doubts. I felt that I was onto something, but it was only when I received a fellowship from the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence (Villa I Tatti) that I was able to turn my idea into a book project.
BB. The title of your book refers to the image of the man standing at the crossroads, one of the ways that doubt was portrayed in Renaissance iconography. Can you unpack this concept for us, and also describe some of the other ways in which early modern Italians depicted doubt?
MF. From the Middle Ages onwards, a pseudo-etymology connected the idea of doubt to that of the crossroads, the point where two or more paths converge or diverge. A doubtful person is like a traveller who does not know which path to take. Doubt refers to a paralyzing condition of uncertainty among two equivalent options.
Michelangelo Buonarroti imagined doubt as an armed man leaping like a locust and roaming the streets at night with fellow outlaws – a clear allusion to the unstable condition of doubt, but also to its potentially dangerous nature since, when set in motion, it can prove to be an untamable force. Others imagined doubt as a shapeless and disquieting monster. Or doubt was visualized as a young man walking in the dark, holding a lantern and a stick, symbols of reason and experience. A less positive view of doubt led some to imagine it as a young man holding a wolf by its ears: a paradoxical situation, since it is impossible to either carry it or let it go. Early modern people could be quite imaginative when it came to allegories!
BB. In this study you draw on a broad range of sources containing allegories and stories of doubt, from poems to paintings to pamphlets, many of them in the vernacular. Can you give us an example that enriched your perspective and falls outside conventional literary studies?
MF. Many of the materials discussed in this book do not come from the field of traditional literary studies: for example, manuals for confessors, religious tracts, or Inquisition trials. One of the best examples is perhaps Francesco Marcolini’s Sorti, a game of chance, or a boardgame if you like. It is a game of questions and answers, in which players use cards to make their way through a series of moral allegories. The answers to their questions are three-line poems, in which doubt is ubiquitous. This work shows how doubt could shape sociability; the pleasure of the game helped players to overcome the frequently distressing aspects of doubt. Games would teach people to adopt doubt as an everyday practice, because reality is deceptive, and dissimulation and secrecy are key.
BB. What was the most challenging aspect of this research project?
MF. The most challenging, and ultimately the most rewarding thing, was choosing to move away from the traditional canon of great humanists and philosophers usually associated with early modern doubt and skepticism. My challenge was to ascertain, as far as possible, whether Renaissance Italians, men and women, were exposed to a ‘culture of doubt’. But how does one access the mindscape of a distant time? It certainly isn’t possible to rely on sophisticated works that would have been beyond the reach of most readers. I had to discover other, more easily legible, sources: a novella or a sonnet are accessible to many, and so are a game of chance, or a work written in the form of short answers and questions, not to mention images. This proved difficult because I could not rely on a pre-existing corpus of sources, but instead had to build it empirically. Many people did not leave written traces behind, so I don’t know if early modern Italians were more or less doubtful than their ancestors or today’s Europeans. But the fact that doubt emerges from so many sources written with the purpose of entertaining readers suggests something about their attraction to this topic.
BB. Your description of Renaissance Italy, a period when the circulation of published news and the manipulation of information became widespread, leading to an increase in skepticism and doubt, sounds remarkably familiar in today’s world of fake news and discrediting of politicians and beliefs. Do you think that this complex early modern world has anything to teach us?
MF. I think many aspects of this research resonate with the challenges we’re facing today. You rightly suggest the manipulation of information, something that was to become a big issue slightly later – at the beginning of the seventeenth century – but whose roots can be traced back to the early sixteenth century. It is not by chance perhaps that the rising interest in doubt is contemporary to the early modern globalization of the world, the collapse of Western Christianity after what we call now the ‘Reformation’ and, in general, a time of momentous political and military events. The technological innovation of the printing press makes information about these developments readily available; news about ‘new’ people and ways of living flooded Italy and Europe. The consequences of such a scenario are still familiar to us, from the challenges of religious coexistence to a certain anxiety surrounding ‘facts’.
In addition, the early modern notion of ‘reality’ was complex and slippery: early modern Europeans experienced forms of what we would today call virtual reality – visions, prophecies, miracles, illusions, aberrations of the gaze were familiar experiences. All these conditions set the stage for a rising culture of doubt. Discovering how our ancestors learned not only to cope with doubt, but to put it to good use, can teach us valuable lessons: navigating doubt can be more effective than taking shelter in a naive trust in facts.