Italian Aristotelianism

From the middle ages through the Renaissance, Italy was host to a flourishing development of relatively naturalistic Aristotelianism. Especially in northern Italy and unlike most of the rest of Europe, universities there tended to be dominated by medical rather than theological faculties. Albert the Great and Averroes were among the strongest influences on this tradition, and many of the Italians did not shy away from the controversial aspects of Averroes. Contemporary scholars debate how “Averroist” particular figures were, but it is no accident that the first printed editions of the collected works of Aristotle (16th century) included the commentaries of Averroes, and were published in northern Italy.

The long list of people who taught in Italy and have been described by scholars as broadly Averroist (with different caveats for each) includes John of Jandun (1285 – 1328), Marsilius of Padua (1275 – 1342), Taddeo da Parma (early 14th century), Gaetano da Thiene (1387 – 1465), Nicoletto Vernia (1442 – 1499), Agostino Nifo (1473 – 1545), and Marcantonio Zimara (1460 – 1532).

An important freethinking non-Averroist Aristotelian in the Renaissance was Pietro Pomponazzi (1462 – 1525). Other Italian scholastics who were largely naturalistic in their approach included Pietro D’Abano (1257 – 1313) and Biagio da Parma (1350 – 1416).

Leading Italian Aristotelian logicians included Paul of Venice (1369 – 1429), who wrote a giant summa of logic. Giacomo Zabarella (1533 – 1589) wrote extensively on logical methodology and natural philosophy, and also influenced German Protestant scholars..

Aquinas was Italian, and Italy was also home to the important Thomist, Thomas Cajetan (1469 – 1534).

In the 15th century, older Greek commentaries on Aristotle were rediscovered by Italian scholars. Some were misled into thinking that the heavily neoplatonizing readings of a commentator like Simplicius (490 – 560) must be closer to the original Aristotle than those of the much later Arab, Averroes.


Renaissance Aristotelianism has finally at least become a subject of specialized scholarship. Decades ago, John Herman Randall Jr. put forth the thesis that modern science actually originated from Italian Renaissance secular Aristotelianism, especially in the University of Padua. Consensus seems to be that Randall overstated his case, but he put it in very strong terms. A weaker version of that seems a lot more plausible to me than what are still more common attempts to associate modern science with Renaissance Platonism. Renaissance Platonism was interesting, but not remotely scientific or mathematical. People like Ficino and Pico and Bruno were actually more interested in magic.

Even theological Aristotelianisms always preserved a fair amount of naturalistic content. Unlike most medieval and Renaissance universities, the Italian ones were dominated by the faculties of medicine and law rather than the faculty of theology. Italian scholasticism therefore developed in a more secular context. Secular masters of arts played an important role across Europe, and theologians too addressed many philosophical concerns in a sophisticated way, so the distinction is relative. But especially strong currents of largely naturalistic scholasticism developed in Italy.

It is also a little known fact that more commentaries on Aristotle were produced in the 16th century than in all previous history. There is a good high-level overview in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (See also Languages, Books, Curricula.)