Franciscus Patricius

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
8 min readApr 25, 2022


Franciscus Patricius (25 April 1529–6 February 1597)

Today is the 493rd anniversary of the birth of Franciscus Patricius (25 April 1529 to 06 February 1597), who was born on this day in 1529. Patricius is known in Italian as Francesco Patrizi of Cherso (sometimes spelled with one “z” and sometimes with two), and known in Croatian as Franjo Petriš or Frane Petrić (he came from the island of Cres).

Patricius was a true “renaissance man” (and for which reason I will refer to him in the Latinate form), who wrote a number of treatises and dialogues on philosophical topics common at that time. Among these works is Ten Dialogues on History (Della historia. Dieci dialoghi). While reproductions of the original 1560 text are easy to find, a modern text is not. However, I did locate a mention of a modern text of the work (in Theoretiker humanistischer Geschichtsschreibung. Nachdr. exemplar. Texte aus d. 16 Jh. Kessler, Eckhard, comp. München, Fink, 1971), though I have not yet been able to acquire a copy of this.

Paul Richard Blum’s 2019 paper “History and theory: the paradox in Francesco Patrizi” summarizes the content of the dialogues:

“The first dialogue establishes that history is narration, specifically narration of things done by humans; as such, it is subject to rhetorical structures like beginning, order, purpose, as well as judgments concerning what to say and what to omit or what to avoid and on what to elaborate. At the center is the persistent query: what is history? To this, the second dialogue responds with a survey of the variety of histories. The third dialogue raises in the title the main question regarding its essence. Dialogues four and five address the purpose and the truth of history; dialogues six and seven differentiate universal history from particular history, followed in the eighth dialogue by a consideration of biography; the book concludes with dialogues on the usefulness and the validity (dignità) of history.”

We get a hint of the character of the dialogues from a quote embedded in William Stenhouse’s 2012 paper “Panvinio and Descriptio: Renditions of History and Antiquity in the Late Renaissance”:

“In 1560, Francesco Patrizi da Cherso wrote Della historia diece dialoghi (Ten Dialogues on History), set in Venice, in which he investigated contemporary historical practice, including the media that historians could use. ‘What are carved on the columns of Trajan and Antoninus, and on the arches of Constantine and Severus, if not the histories of their victories and triumphs?’, he asked. ‘I would add that history may not only be written, but also sculpted and painted, and these are more properly istorie, for they are objects of sight’. He went on to add that they are also, ‘truly narrations of events’. Just as Patrizi knew of developments in antiquarianism, Panvinio certainly could have known Patrizi’s book, if not the author.”

This passage is — dare I say? — remarkably modern in its recognition of the material culture as a source for history.

There is a chapter on Patricius in Paul Oskar Kristeller’s Eight philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, which mentions his work on history:

“Patrizi’s treatises on poetics, rhetoric, and the art of history obviously belong together, for the three subjects were linked in the theoretical literature of the sixteenth century, and already before then in the program of the studia humanitatis, although the humanists did not produce many separate treatises on these subjects, with the exception of rhetoric. Patrizi’s ‘Art of History’ (Della historia, 1560) is interesting as a contribution to a genre that was still fairly new at the time, and that may be considered as the first beginning of later literature on the methodology and philosophy of history. The most famous and influential author to write on this subject in the sixteenth century was Jean Bodin, whose treatise was published several years after that of Patrizi (1566). Most important is Patrizi’s Poetics, of which he published only two sections (Della poetica, 1586), five more remaining in manuscript. This work, which is composed in dialogue form, occupies a special position in the voluminous literature on the subject that was produced in sixteenth-century Italy. For Patrizi carries his anti-Aristotelian bias into a field which had been dominated by Aristotle’s Poetics for several decades, and which was still to be dominated by it far into the seventeenth and eighteenth century, not to speak of the attempted revival in our own time, often referred to as the Chicago school of criticism. Patrizi’s aim was to dethrone Aristotle and to construct another poetics that was partly original and partly based on Plato, an attempt that has not yet been sufficiently studied.”

Julian H. Franklin discusses Praticius’ skepticism in his book Jean Bodin and the Sixteenth-Century Revolution in the Methodology of Law and History, which identifies the position of Patricius as “historical pyrrhonism,” which he defines as the position, “that historical knowledge is impossible.” Skepticism was common among renaissance humanists and Platonists, but Patricius seems to have been among the few philosopher to apply this skepticism to history:

“The historian, begins Patrizzi, was either contemporary with the action or was not. And in the latter case his veracity is hardly worth discussing. He may or may not have distorted what he learned. But even granting his integrity he is clearly dependent on the truthfulness of others. For whether the past be ‘recent or remote,’ ‘there is nothing that can be known of it but what our forbears have transmitted through their writings.’ In the first distinction, therefore, that between original and secondary authors, the issue of historical veracity is narrowed to the prime observer.

“But this original observer, notes Patrizzi, will either be a party to the action or a neutral. And in the former case he will have the strongest motives to distort. He will either vilify his enemies from hatred, glorify his party from affection, keep silent on his hidden interests, or perhaps do all of these together. The partisan observer, therefore, is so very likely to have lied that everything depends upon the neutral.

“The difficulty here, however, is that a neutral reporter is not very likely to be knowledgeable. Unattached to either party, he will not have been privy to their counsels and must depend on what the actors tell him. These, however, are not very likely to reveal themselves to neutrals, as is especially clear in the behavior of the prince who is in possession of the secrets of the state. The prudent ruler, holds Patrizzi, is a natural enemy to truth since the basis of his power is in cunning while his authority depends on reputation. If he communicates his secrets, it is normally to confidants and servants, who have every motive to preserve then in affection, interest, or fear. It is very likely, therefore, that the ‘honest neutral,’ even granting his existence, will know onl the outcome of an action and not the inner motivations on which the value of a history depends.”

This kind of skepticism of the very possibility of historical knowledge may be compared to Descartes’ well-known dismissive attitude to history expressed in his Discourse on Method, but Patricius is more explicit and more radical than Descartes, and his Ten Dialogues on History were written a generation before Descartes was born. Jean Bodin (1530–1596) may have written his Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (1566; Method for the Easy Comprehension of History) in response to Patricius’ historical skepticism. Here is the opening paragraph of Bodin’s Method:

“Of history, that is, the true narration of things, there are three kinds: human, natural, and divine. The first concerns man; the second, nature; the third, the Father of nature. One depicts the acts of man while leading his life in the midst of society. The second reveals causes hidden in nature and explains their development from earliest beginnings. The last records the strength and power of Almighty God and of the immortal souls, set apart from all else. In accordance with these divisions arise history’s three accepted manifestations — it is probable, inevitable, and holy — and the same number of virtues are associated with it, that is to say, prudence, knowledge, and faith. The first virtue distinguishes base from honorable; the second, true from false; the third, piety from impiety. The first, from the guidance of reason and the experience of practical affairs, they call the ‘arbiter of human life.’ The second, from inquiry into abstruse causes, they call the ‘revealer of all things.’ The last, due to love of the one God toward us, is known as the ‘destroyer of vice.’ From these three virtues together is created true wisdom, man’s supreme and final good. Men who in life share in this good are called blessed, and since we have come into the light of day to enjoy it, we should be ungrateful if we did not embrace the heaven-offered benefit, wretched if we abandon it. Moreover, in attaining it we derive great help from history in its three phases, but more especially from the divine form, which unaided can make mankind happy, even though they have no experience of practical affairs and no knowledge of secret physical causes. Yet if the two latter are added, I believe that they will bring about a great increase in human well-being.”

Chapter VIII of this work, “A System of Universal Time” lays out the importance of chronology for history:

“Those who think they can understand histories without chronology are as much in error as those who wish to escape the windings of a labyrinth without a guide. The latter wander hither and thither and cannot find any end to the maze, while the former are carried among the many intricacies of the narrative with equal uncertainty and do not understand where to commence or where to turn back. But the principle of time, the guide for all histories, like another Ariadne tracing the hidden steps with a thread, not only prevents us from wandering, but also often makes it possible for us to lead back erring historians to the right path. So we see all very good writers have so much regard for time as to include not only the years, but even the separate parts of the year. Others do not omit even the very months and days, or the moments of the day, in which a thing has happened, because they understand that without a system of time hardly any advantage is culled from history.”

Bodin takes this chronological imperative in a suitably radical philosophical sense, and in this chapter inquires into the origins of the world and whether history has a beginning and an end, which is similar to the more philosophical sections on historical time in St. Augustine’s City of God.

Jean Bodin (c. 1530–1596)



Nick Nielsen