Born for Phoebus. Solar-astral Symbolism and Poetical Self-representation in Conrad Celtis and his Humanist Circles.

Thesis author: 
Áron Orbán
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2012 - Aug, 2018
Thesis supervisor: 
György Szőnyi
Thesis abstract: 

Fifteenth-sixteenth-century Germany – and Renaissance Europe in general − witnessed a growing interest in natural philosophy (including occult disciplines), the laws of nature, and the correspondences between micro- and macrocosm. Astrology grew especially popular in Germany by On the other hand, the enhanced self-consciousness or even pride of the Renaissance author compared to that of the earlier medieval one is a long established commonplace; indeed, humanist poets were inclined, in varying degrees, to self-fashioning, self-mythologizing. My interdisciplinary study focuses on the junction of these two basic habits of mind of German humanists around 1500. I reveal solar and astral (mainly astrological) symbolism in Neo-Latin poetical works and visual artworks of this period, and investigate how this cosmic symbolism was used for self-representative purposes. Among the German humanists I focus on Conrad Celtis (1459-1508), the “arch-humanist” of Germany, the first poet laureate of his nation, the “bringer of the muses” to the German land. Celtis's personality, poetic talent, ambition, scientific-philosophical interests, his assumed role − all this resulted in various interesting ways of "cosmic" self-representation; I argue that this is a core area of his whole poetical oeuvre. In the investigated period of German humanism (c. 1485-1510), some other poets who were friends of Celtis also employed astronomical, astrological, cosmological imagery in the construction of their (or the group's) humanist identities, in various ways, to various extent: Jakob Locher, Laurentius Corvinus (Rabe), Johannes Tolhopf, Augustinus Moravus; I involve in my research representative works of these authors, too.

The first chapter reviews the poetological background of the enhanced vates-ideology of the German humanists: the humanist revaluation of poetry in the Renaissance and the “defense of poetry” tradition. German poets and poetical theorists profited much from Florentine Platonism, which stressed the divine nature and cosmic context of poetry more than any other poetological tradition before.

The second chapter highlights Celtis’s interest in nature and cosmos − particularly astronomy-astrology − from various perspectives: the models provided by the Pythagorean-Platonic cosmological tradition, Celtis’s emphasis on micro-macrocosmical relations in general, and the historical-biographical context of these interests. The strong connections between the heavenly and sublunar spheres, macro- and microcosm was one of Celtis’s basic habits of mind, perhaps more than in any other German humanist. In general, there was a strong interrelation between astronomy-astrology and humanist literary activity in late fifteenth-century Central Europe, including Cracow, Nuremberg, Ingolstadt and Vienna, which were the main stages of Celtis’s life.

Chapters 3-6 explore Celtis’s and his friends’ strategies of “cosmic” self-representation through analyses of specific works. Chapter 3 demonstrates that natal astrology was an essential means of character-building in Celtis’s poetry (and in some of Tolhopf’s works, too). Celtis went into horoscopic details to an extent that was unprecedented in Neo-Latin poetry. The “support” of the stars, the heavens could be rendered palpable through horoscopes: individual astrology came in handy for Celtis and Tolhopf to emphasize the elect status of the German vates.

Celtis supported his vates-role by means of his horoscope of laureation, too (ch. 4), which he published at the end of his panegyrical Proseuticum. This horoscope, too, displayed exceptionally favorable planetary positions. Interestingly, the planetary positions were highly favorable at the day of laureation of several other humanists after Celtis, too; it remains an issue of future research whether horoscopes of laureations were made in these cases, too.

Solar symbolism − the subject of chapter 5 − is less clear-cut in Celtis than astrological symbolism: it is part of a complex Phoebean symbolism where the poet used all the traditional functions of Phoebus Apollo − Sun-god, god of poetry (also as an origin of furor poeticus), symbol of the ruler, to a lesser extent god of divination or medicine. The poets’ support by Apollo is a basic humanist topos, but the complex Phoebean symbolism in Celtis and some other humanists (Jakob Locher, Laurentius Corvinus) definitely surpasses the level of commonplaces: elaborate epiphanic scenes are staged, or events happening at a date or time determined by the Sun’s position. The operation of the cosmos and the Sun’s central role in it; the Sun as indicator of specific anniversaries; the poet’s divine support; the humanist vates who spreads the light of wisdom; the sunrise of a new Latin poetry; the symbiosis of poet and ruler − in all these Celtis was interested, and he could express all these with solar, Phoebean motifs that permeate his whole oeuvre.

Following classical tradition, Apollo was often paired with Bacchus, who similarly supported poets through furor poeticus. Chapter 6 highlights humanist works about Phoebean-Bacchic feasts, works that are based on real feasts of the sodalities but are stylized as rituals of an elite humanist circle. The role of the paganizing (but not anti-Christian) symbolism as a group-identity building factor comes to the foreground in these works. The inscriptions on Augustinus Moravus’s golden bowl, Celtis’s birthday poems, and Celtis’s odes about feasts at astronomically important dates show a similar tendency to construct an elite identity through cosmological-mythological symbolism.

After all these investigations, the enhanced use of solar-astral symbolism in poetical self-representation emerges as a specific trait of German humanism in Celtis’s time, not recognized as such in previous scholarship. In Celtis’s case, this symbolism is an organizing factor of his whole poetry, and the interpretation of many of his key works do require the understanding of this complex network of cosmological-mythological-poetological ideas. Furthermore, it is not only the scholars of specific German humanists who may be interested in the results of my study. The analyzed works mirror general basic characteristics of the intellectual life of the age: self-assertive individualism, an optimistic belief in cultural renewal, an enhanced interest in the secrets of nature, a predilection for mystique, allegories and micro-macrocosmical correspondences; in my view, the works investigated in this study provide a quite representative cross-section of Renaissance culture in general.