Tomasso Campanella Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Tomasso Campanella 1568–1639

Italian philosopher and poet. The following entry contains discussion of Campanella's life and works published from 1922 through 1992.

An important philosopher of the late Italian Renaissance, Campanella proclaimed himself to be the prophet of a new age that combined the best ideas of the old world with those of a new, modern society. His Utopian vision is most clearly conveyed in his La Citta del sole (1623; City of the Sun), his most famous work. A man of action as well as of words, Campanella attacked both the Church establishment and the Spanish monarchy: he was involved in planning a revolt against Spain—which was unsuccessful—and was repeatedly imprisoned for his heretical beliefs. Contributing numerous volumes of philosophical and political writings, Campanella is also recognized as a courageous and rebellious individual, often hailed as one of the first great reformers of the modern age.

Biographical Information

The son of an illiterate shoemaker, Campanella was born Giovanni Domenico in Stilo, Calabria, on September 5, 1568. At a young age he displayed remarkable intellectual abilities. He joined the Dominican order at fourteen years old to study the philosophy of Aristotle. To his superiors' dismay, Campanella soon displayed Anti-Aristotelian tendencies, preferring a more intuitive and less analytical natural philosophy. In 1588 Campanella was sent to the theological house of studies at Cosenza where he first encountered the writings of Bernardino Telesio, a natural philosopher who also objected to Aristotle's teachings. He read Telesio's De rerum natura juxta propria principia (1565, 1586), and was thrilled to discover a kindred spirit. Telesio died before the two could meet, but his writings continued to inspire Campanella, becoming the cornerstone of his own philosophy. In 1589 Campanella completed his first significant work in just seven months' time, Philosophia sensibus demonstrata, in which he attempted to vindicate Telesio from the attacks of his detractors, especially Giocomo Antonio Marta. Around that time Campanella encountered a Jewish rabbi, Abraham, from whom he acquired strong interests in astrology and magic. As these interests (as

well as his anti-Aristotelianism) were contrary to Dominican teachings and traditional Thomistic doctrines, Campanella was arrested, charged with heresy, and tried. He was instructed to reject Telesian doctrine and was ordered back to Calabria in 1592. Ignoring his sentence, Campanella went to Padua where he encountered Galileo and Paolo Sarpi. For almost a year Campanella continued to develop his thinking along Telesian lines in works like Apologia pro Telesio (c. 1593-94) and Nova physiologia iuxta propria principia (c. 1593-94). He was again arrested in 1594 by the order of the Holy Office in Padua who seized all of his manuscripts. Campanella was accused of many offenses, including being critical of Church doctrine, and was severely beaten and tortured. In his own defense he wrote several volumes including Defensio Telesianorum, all of which, unfortunately, have been lost. Released in December 1597 Campanella returned to his native Stilo on condition that he confine himself to the monastery in Calabria. The socio-political upheavals of the time and Campanella's belief in astrology and prophecies, however, compelled him otherwise. Convinced that great changes were at hand and that he was both a prophet and a leader of the millennium, Campanella helped instigate a revolt in Calabria against the Spanish monarchy. Unsuccessful in his attempt to replace the existing form of government with a Utopian republic founded on religion and natural magic, he was subsequently arrested in 1599, but feigned madness to avoid being put to death. He spent the next twenty-seven years in prison, eight of which were spent in a windowless dungeon. During this period Campanella penned what is often considered his most significant prose and poetry, including City of the Sun, Monarchia di Spagna (1620), Metaphysics (1638), and Theologia (c. 1613). He also wrote letters appealing to the Pope, cardinals, or to anyone who could help him gain his freedom. Successful in these efforts he was released by the Spanish authorities in 1626. He was arrested less than one month later, however, by the Holy Office because of his philosophical opinions, and remained in prison until January, 1629. After spending nearly thirty years in prison and being continuously kept under observation by both the Papal and Spanish authorities, Campanella left Italy for France in 1634, where he was received with favor by Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII. During his last years, as throughout his life, Campanella engaged in political and literary activities: he attempted to influence French politics by initiating anti-Spanish campaigns and prepared the final editions of his works. Campanella died on May 21, 1639 in France at a Dominican monastery in Rue St. Honoré.

Major Works

Throughout his life, Campanella wrote more than one hundred volumes ranging from metaphysics and theology to political theory and Utopian fiction. His philosophical writings include Philosophia sensibus demonstrata, De sense rerum et magia, and De gentilismo non retinendo (1636), and contain strong anti-Aristotelian notions influenced by the new empirical ideas of Telesio and Galileo. This new mode of thinking is clearly evident in the City of the Sun as Campanella combines elements of abstract and rational modes to form the philosophical foundation of his ideal society. Moreover, his Monarchia del Messia (c. 1605) and Atheismus triumphatus (c. 1605-7) confim his theocratic convictions toward governing the new society, while his Monarchia di Spanga and Ecloga in Principis Galliarum delphini admirandam nativitatem (1639) provide the means to realize his Utopian ends. Campanella's poetry also reveals both his optimism in his role as a prophet of the new age and his frustration at his inability to fulfill the mission. "I live as I write" wrote Campanella in a letter to Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Considered in their totality, the scope and complexity of Campanula's writings indeed reflect his turbulent yet courageous life.

Critical Reception

Reaction to Campanella's ideas varied from repeated imprisonment and torture to a milder form of censure from his contemporaries Gaspar Schopp and Samuel Sorbière, the latter once referring to Campanella as a "most inefficient and ignorant monk." Campanula's supporters such as Tobias Adami and Gabriel Naudé, however, lauded his extraordinary intelligence. During his own lifetime, both Campanella's admirers and detractors lacked objective critical analysis, while critics in the eighteenth through the twentieth century grappled with determining the extent his anti-Aristotelianism. Many recent critics are concerned with Campanella's political writings and with examining the apparent contradiction between his overtly stated antipathy to Machiavelli and the strategic opportunism of his political theories. This focus also sparked an interest in examining the City of the Sun in relation to the whole tradition of utopian writing. The majority of recent criticism, however, focuses on the historical elements of Campanella's philosophy, interpreting his paradoxical thought as reflecting the social and political climate of the late Italian Renaissance.