About The Philokalia

About The Philokalia

At the dawn of the Renaissance, the print shops of Italy were the new intellectual centers of Europe. Elegant manuscripts of classical antiquity, unknown to the European universities, were being discovered for the first time in a thousand years, and feverishly brought into print for the first time. Also newly discovered was the early Greek Patristic age, brilliant and eloquently philosophical theologians before Augustine, long forgotten by the Latins.

Deeply philosophical, yet with moments of human tenderness, this tragedy explores the love of Beauty through Jacopo, a humble typesetter who finds himself in the company of the most dynamic men of the time, and Christoforo, a Neoplatonic poet.

As in my other tragedies (The Wedding Night, Perilous Ascent of the Pyranees), the tragic theme transcends itself into “something new and strange” (The Tempest), following the hint of Shakespeare’s final plays. There is great human failure, but the breaking of the tragic hero leads to an epiphany not possible without tremendous suffering.

The story is of course fiction. It presents a possibility for the publication of The Philokalia, a collection of deeply spiritual Greek desert writings, which in fact would not be published for another two hundred years. Although it is not impossible that a Byzantine exile in Venice might have possessed these writings, it is not likely that their value would be understood. That would not be possible until Paisius Velichkovsky spent his life searching for them and, having found them, lived them in a manner that could be passed on. Even in the story, the writings of The Philokalia vanish from the sight of the Renaissance intellect with Jacopo, the only one who has any hint of their depth. Jacopo’s own profound transformation is entirely veiled to everyone except, hopefully, the audience or reader of the play.

The Epilogue hints at the continuation of the Philokalic tradition in the East. Christoforo and Chrysologos, at the end of the drama, go to Mt. Athos in the company of a certain Michael Trivolis, who takes the monastic name of Maximus. This is a historical person of great importance in Russia. Many might be surprised to learn that St. Maximus the Greek, hero of the Philokalia’s hesychastic life who suffered under Ivan the Terrible, was a child of the Italian Renaissance. In his youth a follower of the Neoplatonic philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, he became a disciple of the fiery Dominican reformer Savonarola. When Savonarola was burned at the stake, if was the future St. Maximus the Greek of Vatopedi who gathered his ashes.

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), founder of the Aldine Press in Venice, was a true idealist of the Italian Renaissance. It was while he was employed as a tutor to nobility in Mantua, as we learn in the first scene of the play, that he was possessed of the new idea – revolutionary for its time – of literacy for all men. To achieve this, it was necessary to make books available for a wider population. The printing press made this possible.

The earliest printed books, like those of Gutenberg’s press, were made to look like genuine illuminated manuscripts, large and expensive, though not as costly as handwritten copies. Aldus made books smaller, simpler, and more affordable. Nevertheless, many of his editions are among the most beautiful ever printed. They were also made to last. Many still exist in collections, as in the San Francisco Public Library.

Erasmus is the famous humanist scholar who pioneered textual criticism. I believe I faithfully captured his unique personality, his natural piety, his idealism and scathing humor, his careful approach to research, and as well as his limitations as a man.

Pietro Bembo was primarily a poet and literary critic who, because of the exceptional splendor of his manuscript hand, was made Papal scribe and a member of the College of Cardinals. His romantic connection to Lucretia Borgia dominated much of his poetics.

Lucretia Borgia has lately become a darling for the film media, with several period-pieces and documentaries exploring the drama of her infamous family. Her father was Alexander VI, Pope of Rome. Her brother Caesar Borgia was among the great tragic figures of the age, failing at his brutal attempt to found a ruling dynasty.

The political landscape of Renaissance Italy was dominated by the war. The Italian Wars were a long series of conflicts among the city-states into which Italy was divided, involving most of the emerging European nations in alliances. The commercial dominance of Venice, supreme in the Mediterranean after the fall of Byzantium, was ended by the Cambrian League, an alliance of almost all Italy and Europe against it.

The Republic of Venice, in its days of prosperity, had been ruled by Senatorial families and powerful commercial guilds. During the wars, republican government gave way before an autocratic and secretive body, the Council of Ten. This was made up of ten senators who ruled by tyrannical intrigue and absolute power.

Those who might have read the very entertaining Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the famous (and flamboyant) sculptor and goldsmith, will recognize scenes directly lifted from that source. In particular the summoning scene in the old cathedral, with its hilarious climax, is robbed from those pages.


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