April 17, 2008

Blessed John Baptist Spagnoli of Mantua

April 17, 1447 - March 20, 1516 - Optional Memorial - April 17

Blessed John Baptist Spagnoli of Mantua, was born at Mantua on April 17, 1447, son of the Spanish Peter Modover and of Constance Maggi, of Brescia., a Spanish nobleman assigned to the court in Mantua. He studied in Padua where a wild life put him briefly at the mercy of loan sharks, and got him thrown out of his father’s house. He then drifted through Venice and experienced a conversion.

He did his early studies in his native city, under the guidance of Gregory Tifernate and of George Merula, his former school-fellow, and later at Padua, at the school of Paul Bagelardi. While still very young (16), he entered the Mantuan Congregation of the Carmelite Order at Ferrara, where he made his religious profession in 1464. In 1469 he gained a bachelor's degree, and in 1475 that of master of theology at the university of Bologna.

His exceptional talents quickly gained for him the esteem and the trust of his superiors. Already in 1466, when he was not yet twenty years old, he was charged with giving the official discourse at the chapter of Brescia. He served as prior at Parma in 1471 and at Mantua in 1479, and in 1483 was entrusted with the highest responsibility of Vicar General of the Congregation, a total of 6 times until, in 1513, he was elected Prior General of the entire Order.

His activity was not limited to the confines of his own religious family. In 1481, while he was regent of studies at Bologna, he was a member of the juridical commission in the process against George Novara; in 1513 he was invited to participate in the Fifth Lateran Council; in 1515 he was charged by Pope Leo X with a mission of peace between the king of France and the duke of Milan.

But in a special way he dedicated the fruitfulness of an uncommon literary genius to the service of his Order and of the Church. As the principal proof of his love for Carmel there remains the Apologia pro Ordine Carmelitano; and testimony of his complete devotion to the Church are not only his poems in honor of Popes Innocent VIII, Julius II and Leo X, but also all those writings like the Objurgatio cum exhortatione ad capiendo, arma contra infideles ad reges et principes Christianas /An objurgation with an exhortation to taking up arms against the infidels, to Christian kings and princes/. They reveal his active participation in the most significant problems of Christianity at that time. The events which were then disturbing the life of his nation stirred his spirit. His poems Pro pacata Italia post helium ferrariense /For a peaceful Italy, after the war of Ferrara/, In Romam bellis tumultantem /To Rome tumultuous with wars/, De hello veneto commentariolus /Commentary on the Venetian war/, his Trophaeus pro Gallis expulsis pro duce Mantuae/ A memorial for the Duke of Mantua, after the expulsion of the French/ and, above all, De calamitatibus temporum /About the calamities of the times/ — reprinted about thirty times between 1489 and 1510 alone — show how Bl. Baptista, even when his vision was at times restricted by political interests bound up with certain courts and when he wrote in the courtly style proper to so many humanists, deeply felt the drama that was upsetting Italy in those days. The friendship that bound him to John Pico della Mirandola, to Pomponius Leto, to Jovian Pontano, to Philip Beroaldo, to John Sabbadino degli Arienti, to Andrew Mantenga and to other distinguished personages of the epoch, is proof of his high prestige in the world of culture. He was, in fact, one of the most famous protagonists of the humanistic movement, especially because of that Bucolica seu adolescentia in decem aeglogas divisa /Pastoral or youthful poems, divided into ten eclogues/. About one hundred and fifty editions of this work can be listed, over a hundred of which were published in the XVI cent. alone. This poem induced his contemporaries, even Erasmus of Rotterdam, to proclaim him the Christian Vergil.

The influence of his poetry — the fame of which is acknowledged even by Shakespeare, who repeats some lines of Baptist in Love's Labours Lost — was felt especially in English literature: Alexander Barclay paraphrased his Eclogues, Edmund Spencer imitated him in his Shepheardes Calender, John Milton did the same in his Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity.

The labors resulting from the tasks assigned to him and his intense literary activity did not take him away from the Carmelite ideals of the interior life and from his special devotion to Our Lady. The exercise of the virtues and the renunciation of the world were the themes of De Beata Vita /About a happy life/, a dialogue that he wrote when he was just sixteen years old. His aspiration to solitude and his desire for the presence of God were constantly found in his successive works and in his correspondence. He composed various poems in honor of Our Lady, and one poem in three books — Parthenices Mariana /On Mary's Virginity/ — which had a rapid diffusion throughout Europe (in some seventy editions, fifteen of which appeared in the XV cent. and about fifty in the XVI). He labored to have the custody of the sanctuary of Loreto entrusted to his Congregation; in 1489 he obtained this custody, though only for a few years.

The six Parthenices /Books on virginity/ composed in honor of the martyrs Catherine, Margaret, Agatha, Lucy, Apollonia and Cecilia, and the poems in honor of St. John Baptist, of St. George and of other saints, together with the twelve books De sacris diebus /On the holy days/, are other indications of his religious piety.

Struck by the spreading corruption of the clergy and of the people, he expressed his anxiety for reform, not only with apposite literary means — as in his ninth eclogue De moribus curiae romanae /On the habits of the Roman Curia/ — but also with a vibrant discourse pronounced in 1489 in the Vatican basilica before Pope Innocent VIII and the cardinals. Some particularly severe phrases led Luther himself to depend upon the authority of the blessed in taking a position against Rome; and in an Anthologia... sententiosa collecta ex operibus Baptistae Mantuani /A sententious anthology... collected from the works of Baptist of Mantua/, published at Nürnburg in 1571, the Protestants even pointed to the Carmelite as a precursor of the German reformation. It is superfluous to note the essential difference between the spirit of reform of Bl. Baptist, who intended to work within the Church, and the Lutheran reform, which was to lead to schism.

Bl. Baptist died in his native city on March 20, 1516; and his cult, which began immediately after his death, was approved by Pope Leo XIII on Dec. 17, 1885. He was beatified in 1890. His body is preserved in the cathedral of Mantua; and his memorial is observed on April 17.

Note: While not a poet of genius, he was a superb Latin stylist, imitating Virgil. He wrote over 55,000 lines of Latin verse; has been criticized for excessive use of pagan mythological images in his work. But was referred to as the Good old Mantuan by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour Lost (Act IV, scene 2, line 95ff.). His eclogues were used in European schools for a century and a half after his death as a model of style. Besides Shakespeare, Boswell and Nashe quoted him. He used his friendship with scholars as an opportunity of encouraging them to live a Christian life. He was a friend with many of the leading Renaissance humanist, including the two Pico della Mirandolas, with whom some correspondence survives.

Your Carmelite library may contain a beautiful 1502 edition of his poetry!

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