The Prodigious Memory of St Antoninus

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the feast of St Antoninus, a Dominican friar who became archbishop of Florence in 1446, and died in that office in 1459. He was born in Florence in 1389, and christened “Antonio”, but because of his small stature, was always known by the diminutive form “Antonino.”

The bull of his canonization, issued by Pope Adrian VI in 1523, tells the story of a prodigious feat of memory which gained him admission to the scholarly Dominican Order at a very young age. This excerpt, which is partly paraphrased from the original bull, was formerly incorporated into the Dominican Divine Office, and is a nice example of the extremely high quality of late Renaissance Latinity.

“Cum annum decimum tertium agens, beatus Antoninus Ordinis Praedicatorum habitum in conventu Faesulano summa humilitate deposceret, ob teneriorem aetatem, exilemque corporis formam, ferendo Religionis jugo impar est habitus. Verum ne pii adolescentis animum aperta praecipitique repulsa Prior offenderet, quaesito specioso diverticulo repondit, facturum se pro votis, cum universum Decretum, cui jam tunc studebat, memoriae commendasset. Responsa bona fide accepto, Decretorum lectioni totis viribus coepit incumbere, tantumque assidua lectione sedulaque oratione profecit, ut ejusdem anni spatio, Decretum integrum memoriae mandaverit; quod prae sui magnitudine, tam brevi tempore a quoquam vix legi potest. Priorem Faesulanum, subinde convenit, enixe rogans ut expleta conditione, promissi fidem liberaret. Qui facto memoriae periculo, reique veritate comperta, totum miraculo ducens, divino numine vocatum juvenem intellexit, eundumque ad habitum religionis admisit.”

(St Antoninus and Bl. John Dominici, by an anonymous Florentine artist, ca. 1600-30, from the Dominican convent at Fiesole. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

“When in his thirteenth year, the blessed Antoninus asked with the greatest humility for the habit of the Order of Preachers in the house at Fiesole, because of his excessively tender age and slightness of body, he was deemed unequal to bearing the yoke of religious life. However, so as not to offend the devout young man’s spirit with a flat-out and hasty refusal, the prior (Bl. John Dominici, whose biography Antoninus would later write) answered his request by putting him off with a jest, saying that he would do as the boy wanted, when he had memorized the whole of the Decretals, which he was already studying. (This means the Decretum of Gratian, the collection which formed the basis of all medieval canon law.) Taking this answer seriously, (Antoninus) began to devote himself with all his strength to the reading of the Decretals, and made such progress with frequent reading and persistent prayer that in the space of that same year, he committed to memory the whole of a text which for its size, one could hardly read in so short a time. (This is a rhetorical exaggerationm but not by much.) He then met with the prior at Fiesole, earnestly requesting that he respect his promise, since he had fulfilled the condition. And when the prior had tested his memory, and learned the truth of the matter, attributing the whole thing to a miracle, he understood that the young man was called by divine inspiration, and admitted him to the religious habit.”

(The first page of the Decretum Gratiani which St Antoninus had to memorize, from a manuscript of the later 12th century which runs to about 600 pages. Public domain image from the website of the Bibliothèque National de France.)

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