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Curiosity, Contingency, and Cultural Diversity: Montaigne's Readings at the Vatican Library*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

François Rigolot
Princeton University


One of the key episodes of Michel de Montaigne's trip to Rome (1580–81) was his visit to the Vatican Library, which he comments upon in his Journal de voyage, posthumously published. Strangely enough, few scholars have paid close attention to what Montaigne says about the selection of manuscripts and printed material he consulted there on 6 March 1581. He claims that he was given free access to that Wunderkammer, and scholarly research shows that his wish list indeed reflected his taste for irony, humor, and cultural diversity, ranging from Greco-Roman manuscripts to Egyptian papyrus and a Chinese booklet. At the same time, a case could be made for interpreting the selection, not as Montaigne's, but as the library custodian's, with Aquinas's sermons, anti-Lutheran material, and documents used at the Council of Trent. This paper tries to sort out to what extent the selection of books and items that Montaigne saw at the Vatican Library can be considered as the meeting ground between the interests of Montaigne himself as skeptic and the agenda of the Counter-Reformation.

Research Article
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2011

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The inventory made in the 1980s by the late Franca Caldari Bevilacqua was an essential point of departure for my work. I am much indebted to Massimo Ceresa, whose assistance with original documents at the Vatican Library was invaluable. I am also grateful to Marco Buonocore, who helped me find my way through the Seneca manuscripts, and to Philippe Desan and George Hoffmann for their willingness to read a draft of this paper and provide useful advice. A first version was presented at a Renaissance Colloquium in Princeton on 1 April 2010. I wish to thank the organizers and a number of colleagues whose remarks were crucial to redefining my project, especially Marina Brownlee, Carla Caponegro, Gian Mario Cao, Pietro Frassica, Meghan Gottschall, Anthony Grafton, Mary Harper, Sarah Kay, Alain Legros, Russell Leo, Nicos Panou, Elizabeth Petcu, Eileen Reeves, Nigel Smith, and Ronald Surtz. Once again my wife, Carol, kindly reread my text and made many useful suggestions.


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