Potestas Essendi

A Virtual Space for Thoughts on the Middle Ages, by Nicola Polloni

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Gundissalinus World Tour – pt. 2

Finally, the ‘Gundissalinus World Tour’ comes to an end. After the awesome days in Milwaukee, I flew to DC, where I enjoyed the wonderful weather and the restored Capitol dome (amazing!) for a couple of days, working on the next meetings. Then, a 10h30-long train trip to Columbia, SC: in a dream-like atmosphere, I drifted along brown-and-yellow woods, tiny lakes, small towns, chatting with nameless people for just the time of a coffee while the train passes the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

Columbia is just as I imagined the capital of South Carolina following the sweet descriptions my friends gave me last year: a calm, tidy, green town, with an effervescent atmosphere. The real surprise has been the USC campus: it’s not a campus, it’s like a huge and vast garden, or possibly an open museum surrounded by trees and flowers. I can’t imagine a better place for a student to spend his/her years at the university! The buildings, with their colonial style outside joined to a high-tech modern style on the inside, well, they were just astoundingly beautiful. The crowded streets, with hundreds of students, don’t spoil the sense of friendly order you can perceive throughout the whole campus; and the Horseshoe, with its benches and historical buildings – with their columns, windows, flags, and porches – gives you the rare sense to breathe the very history of that marvellous country.


Just this experience would have been enough. The best part of the week I spent in Columbia, though, has been the people with whom I stayed: Jerry and Lilla Hackett. It’s extremely difficult to summarise in just a few words how beautiful, exciting, stimulating, and unique those days have been for me. Jerry and Lilla are wonderful people, with such a kindness and fondness – so rare in these times – that I truly felt like home since the very first moment. And besides chatting and working on Gundissalinus and Bacon, we had a memorable week marked by unforgettable moments. Let me mention two of them, just to give you a taste of that week: the presidential election of Donald J. Trump and the concert of Bob Dylan, to which Jerry and Lilla invited me. Two moments I won’t ever forget, for different and contrasting reasons…


And then my talks. I had the occasion to briefly present to the USC Philosophy Department Grosseteste and the work the Ordered Universe Project is pursuing. Trying to explain to the colleagues the running of the project is so difficult: it’s a strange alchemy of people and skills, philosophy and science, laws of refraction and Aristotle’s physics… a joining of perspectives that works just perfectly. And it is always a pleasure to see how interested the people are regarding this pioneering project that, beside of producing so many crucial contributions to our understanding of Grosseteste, is also providing an example of how an interdisciplinary approach to humanities can and should be developed.

Nevertheless, the most amazing and intriguing event has been the workshop on Gundissalinus and Ibn Daud organised by Jerry. Only the warm air of South Carolina and the genius of Jerry could have thought on a meeting of this kind in America: and the outcomes have been astounding!! Four scholars – Jerry Hackett, Katja Vehlow, Caleb Colley, and I – talking about the role played by Gundissalinus and Ibn Daud in the history of medieval philosophy. And so many ideas, perspectives, new data and sources, Aquinas and Bacon, Peckham and Gundissalinus: simply amazing, extremely useful, just perfect! I won’t spoil anything (the proceedings are likely to be published soon, for the very high level of the discussion): just wait and see!


With the colloquium, the American part of the tour came to an end, and I had to fly back to Europe, with the usual sadness I feel when I have to leave the US. Next destination: Barcelona, where the VII congress of the Sociedad de Filosofía Medieval (i.e., SOFIME) was about to begin. Barcelona, or better, Cerdanyola del Vallés, the small town where the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona is located, and where I spent some fruitful months working on my dissertation during my PhD. It’s always like coming home: the streets, the concrete buildings, tapas y cañas. And my magister, the person who gave me method, knowledge, and perspective: Alexander Fidora.

The congress went perfectly well: many people, old friends and new ones, a lot of fun as only the Spanish academia is able to provide. My talk on the authorship of the De immortalitate animae received many interesting questions, and I have to say that some of them, as well as the overall acceptance of my hypothesis, were quite unexpected. Also regarding this point there will be some surprises, since it’s not just the De immortalitate animae but also another anonymous writing that is going to be hopefully attributed to Gundissalinus (a point that I clarified thanks to the ‘World Tour’ and the many discussions I had in the US). But no spoilers: just give me a couple of months and I’ll tell you exactly what I mean.


There’s no need to underline how interesting were many of the talks and lectures delivered in Barcelona: possibly, that’s normal (but not obvious) in such a prestigious gathering. What I should mention here is that the SOFIME assembly asked me to become Editor Assistant of the Revista Española de Filosofía Medieval and, also, person in charge of the digital communication of the society. It will be a honour and a great pleasure for me to contribute to the society with my skills, accompanied by a lot of humility. It has been such a great surprise, and I can’t describe how astounded I was in that moment (and even now). Let me just thank again my Spanish colleagues for their trust in me.

There would be many other things to say and write, new collaborations and projects, the agreement for a new introductory monograph on Gundissalinus’s thought (to be published next Spring), and the many interesting people I’ve met here. But I have to admit to myself (and to you) that I’m beginning to be quite tired, after almost a whole month travelling from a place to another every few days. On Monday, I will finally fly back to Durham: the ‘Gundissalinus World Tour’ is over, but the many outcomes of this trip will have a long-lasting effect on my work and my research. And beside that, this month has been just amazing.

Gutta cavat lapidem.

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A bit of Siena in DC

As a Sienese, is always astonishing to find out that examples of the best artistic moment we had during the Middle Ages, the so-called ‘Sienese School’, can be spotted throughout the whole world! Here, (part of) the hall dedicated to Sienese medieval painting at the National Gallery of Art in DC.


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Gundissalinus World Tour – pt. 1

The first ten days in the US have passed: two lectures and many precious moments of enrichment, reflection, discussion and (often quite underestimated) fun. It all began in a very bad way: the journey Durham – South Bend lasted 45 (you’re not misreading: forty-five) hours, a time during which I had the occasion to cultivate a crucial and painful virtue: patience (a vast amount of it). But once the plane did land in Chicago, and I entered the train to South Bend, all the stress and the fatigue of the long trip suddenly disappeared.

Notre Dame is a strange place. A golden campus in the middle of nowhere, a peculiar geographical position thanks to which the Winter is so cold that once, when I tried to visit the campus (and even heading downtown: how foolish of me), I had to run home very fast since I couldn’t feel my feet and hands anymore. And all that after just 15 minutes at -23! It was February 2015, and I was there for my SIEPM fellowship, a crucial moment, I can see that now, looking backwards to my PhD. In those months spent in South Bend, Indiana, I had the occasion to make friends with the squirrels and learn from prestigious scholars; I tasted my first pineapple pizza and my first grapples; I saw the contradictions of the American welfare state and the astonishing wonders of the American dream. I loved it, and sometimes I hated it: but going back to South Bend has been like going home and meet with old good friends (and I do not mean the squirrels).

The return to Notre Dame could have been just great, but spending those day with Therese and David Cory has been more than brilliant. They had arranged a true American experience for me, from the typical eggs-bacon-jam breakfast to pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating, yummi dinners, excursions to multi-coloured farmer’s markets, and… football! What an astounding experience, being there, the crowded stadium, the golden helmets, an exciting game whose outcomes were uncertain till the very end. And a good one for the Fighting Irish!


Then, the day of my lecture finally came. I was a bit concerned, for the topic (epistemology) and the authors I had to deal with (Augustine, Isidore, Hugh of St Victor, and Gundissalinus): in such a prestigious university, considering the extremely high level of both faculty and students of the MI, what could I expect to be asked about? And again, the magic of Notre Dame – fondly required, especially with a paper on alchemy and necromancy – converted the very substance of that lecture in one of the best moments of discussion and debate ever, comparable only to what came a few days later (spoiler!). We spent a lot of time discussing the implications that astrology has on the human free will, the ‘political problem’ arising from alchemy as aurifiction rather than aurifaction (but in both cases it was a huge problem), the overall epistemological problems of Gundissalinus’s classification of sciences, and how these border-line disciplines survived the condemnations by the Church.


After Notre Dame, I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, right on the other side of Lake Michigan. Marquette University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in America for medieval philosophy (and beyond). A bit anxious for the ‘big happening’, I was so eager to know what the people at Marquette think about the first reception of Avicenna in the Latin West. And the two days I spent in Milwaukee have been, by this viewpoint, definitely astonishing! Indeed, it’s always a pleasure to discuss your research with scholars dealing with topics related to yours, especially when they are so great scholars as Richard Taylor. But the discussion after my talk had something else, something difficult to define or describe (so Plotinian). A two-hours discussion, talking with Richard Taylor, David Tweteen, and the other members of the Mid-West seminar on the sources of Gundissalinus’s epistemological system, its peculiar merging of al-Farabi and Avicenna, the cosmological derivation of the universe and the influence of Abraham ibn Daud on this peculiar aspect of Gundissalinus’s reflection. But we also had the chance to discuss the intriguing treatise On the Peregrinations of the Soul in the Afterlife, a curious writing describing the ascent and descent of the soul after its separation from the body. One of the most precious moments of discussion, in general, and whose outcomes could be crucial under many respects for our understanding of the dynamics by which Avicenna and ‘the Arabs’ became part of the Latin philosophical tradition.


The days I spent in Milwaukee were then crowned by two further events. The first one is my attendance at Richard Taylor’s graduate course, where I met Marquette’s graduate students. They are so prepared and working on many interesting issues, and it is awesome to see how philosophy and research perpetuate themselves into the new generations – and the spirit of Avicenna appeared. Philosophy and knowledge in general have a development similar to what the Persian philosopher stated (following another friend of us) on the individuals who perpetuate the species through their offspring. But we often forget that when we give to anyone even just a glimpse of reflection (a lecture, a lesson, or just a few words), we are performing a maieutic operation, so important and  so precious. The second event in Milwaukee is quite unrelated to academia or medieval philosophy, but not less historical: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and that’s a sort of ‘huge happening’ that I am so proud to have witnessed, even if just watching it on TV. Baseball is such a mental game – I’d even say, the ‘perfect’ game – and its discovery has been one of the best gifts I received by the period I spent in Notre Dame last year. As a chess game with a different ‘spirit’, baseball is like a medieval disputatio: you have to possess a vast knowledge of the authorities, reflect carefully, perform efficiently… and also have a bit of luck!

From Milwaukee I flew to Washington DC (with another flight cancelled and rebooked!), where I am now, revising my paper for the Colloquium at the University of South Carolina. Tomorrow afternoon, a long train trip (10:30h) will take me to Columbia, SC: I am sure I will have many things to add to this short update very, very soon. And in three days: presidential election!



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Remembering Boethius

23 October – St Severinus Boethius


Today is a special day. I spent four years in Pavia as graduate student and postdoctoral researcher, and Boethius’s mortal remains in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro became a constant, intimate presence during that time. There would be plenty of reason for which Boethius should be duly celebrated in this day. He is the ‘noble’ father of medieval philosophy, and his writings and translations shaped the philosophical debate for centuries. As a man of letters, his Consolatio has been the basis on which myriads of pupils will study, through the Middle Ages and up to the present time. As a learned intellectual, he felt the urgency to contribute to the Christian theological debate, and he did so by writing memorable pages that marked a milestone for the subsequent history of theology and philosophy.  And finally, as a statesman, his intellectual honesty costed his own life.

Let’s just recall the famous metrum 9 of De consolatione philosophiae, III, possibly one of the most significant texts of the whole history of medieval philosophy and literature, with a pervasive history of the effects:

O qui perpetua mundum ratione gubernas,
Terrarum caelique sator, qui tempus ab aeuo
Ire iubes stabilisque manens das cuncta moueri,
Quem non externae pepulerunt fingere causae
Materiae fluitantis opus uerum insita summi
Forma boni liuore carens, tu cuncta superno
Ducis ab exemplo, pulchrum pulcherrimus ipse
Mundum mente gerens similique in imagine formans
Perfectasque iubens perfectum absoluere partes.
Tu numeris elementa ligas, ut frigora flammis,
Arida conueniant liquidis, ne purior ignis
Euolet aut mersas deducant pondera terras.
Tu triplicis mediam naturae cuncta mouentem
Conectens animam per consona membra resoluis;
Quae cum secta duos motum glomerauit in orbes,
In semet reditura meat mentemque profundam
Circuit et simili conuertit imagine caelum.
Tu causis animas paribus uitasque minores
Prouehis et leuibus sublimes curribus aptans
In caelum terramque seris, quas lege benigna
Ad te conuersas reduci facis igne reuerti.
Da, pater, augustam menti conscendere sedem,
Da fontem lustrare boni, da luce reperta
In te conspicuos animi defigere uisus.
Dissice terrenae nebulas et pondera molis
Atque tuo splendore mica; tu namque serenum,
Tu requies tranquilla piis, te cernere finis,
Principium, uector, dux, semita, terminus idem.

I like to think that after all the disgraces that Boethius suffered in his life, he finally had the occasion to see the Maker of the world, as Dante imagines in his Divina Commedia:

Per vedere ogni ben dentro vi gode
l’anima santa che ‘l mondo fallace
fa manifesto a chi di lei ben ode.

Lo corpo ond’ella fu cacciata giace
giuso in Cieldauro; ed essa da martiro
e da essilio venne a questa pace.

Is Thomas Aquinas talking to Dante and showing him how Boethius and the souls of many other philosophers (Isidore of Seville, Richard of St Victor, Peter Lombard, Bede) are enjoying God’s vision in the first crown of the wise spirits. And it’s worth noting that the last soul mentioned by Aquinas is the very Siger of Brabant, with whom Aquinas had a tough controversy:

Questi onde a me ritorna il tuo riguardo,
è ‘l lume d’uno spirto che ‘n pensieri
gravi a morir li parve venir tardo:

essa è la luce etterna di Sigieri,
che, leggendo nel Vico de li Strami,
silogizzò invidiosi veri.