Standing at the Crossroads. Doubt in Early Modern Italy (1500-1560)

What is BIVIUM?

At the end of the fifteenth century and in the first decades of the sixteenth century, extraordinary events drastically altered the course of Italian and European history. The discovery of the ‘New World’, the outbreak of the so-called ‘wars of Italy’, that of the Reformation, the conflicts with the Ottoman empire, the Sack of Rome (1527), caused a spread of apocalyptic expectations, the rise of new prophets and saints, and the multiplication of miracles and visions. What people had been holding true for centuries suddenly became outdated, unreliable, unsatisfying. The printing press contributed to spread the news at a previously unknown pace. What were the consequences of such tumultuous events on the mindset of Italian people? I argue that the exploration of how doubt was defined, represented, imagined, and experienced is a privileged way to assess changes in Italian mentality over the period comprised between the late 1400s and the 1560s. Doubt is a broader, more flexible category to understand this state of uncertainty than those of scepticism or unbelief traditionally adopted by scholarship. In a time when the spread of ‘fake news’ has become a crucial issue, investigating doubt as both a state of mind and a practice of questioning official narratives becomes paramount.

My project considers doubt as:

  1. a state of uncertainty and perplexity, that can result in the questioning of philosophical or religious truth or in its reinforcement;
  2. the perception that what appears to the senses may not match the true nature of things and the anxiety over the possibility of obtaining such a truth;
  3. the paralyzing awareness that we are not in a position to make a choice.

Doubt is therefore a condition that affects the mind, the soul, and the body. As such, it was not merely an intellectual habit nor it was just a vague sense of being unable to make up one’s mind. On the contrary, doubt was a very carefully defined concept – that philosophers and theologians distinguished from similar categories –, which possessed an equally recognizable bodily rhetoric. Unfortunately, scholars have paid so far little attention to doubt and its social implications, focusing on more recognizable philosophical strains, such as skepticism (and, later, libertinism), on outstanding individuals and works, and on a later period. BIVIUM is set to show that already at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in a much wider range of fields than is commonly accepted, doubt was a crucial issue. Second, these project deals with doubt as an issue cutting across all social strata and not merely as a scholarly practice. Third, it adopts an interdisciplinary methodology that brings together literature, religious studies, and philosophy.

This website intends to contribute to the discussion on European Renaissance culture and especially on topics such as doubt, incredulity, and uncertainty by providing information on publications and events regarding these subjects. At the same time, it aims to share on a regular basis the scientific results of the BIVIUM project. Finally, this will be a platform to test and experiment ideas and interpretations, and a place devoted to dialogue with colleagues in every field working on similar topics. Funded by the Horizon 2020 initiative of the European Commission, the BIVIUM project is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action coordinated by Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the University of Toronto, under Grant Agreement No 792225.