“Umanità contesa” – Alessandro Tuccillo’s new book on the Jesuit Giambattista Roberti, an eighteenth-century advocate of Atlantic slavery

The new book by Alessandro Tuccillo – who has just been appointed as associated professor at the Università di Torino – offers an accurate case study on conservative Catholic discourse against enlightened humanism and anti-slavery, focussing on two texts by Giambattista Roberti (1719-1786), an erudite Jesuit from Bassano, a small city on the Venetian mainland. The Annotazioni sopra la Umanità del secolo decimottavo [Annotations on Mankind in the Eighteenth-Century], published in 1781, highlights a fundamental feature of eighteenth-century apologetics: the Catholic offensive against the self-emancipation of humans championed by the Enlightenment. In his fight against “philosophism”, Roberti intended to bring the feeling of “humanity” back into the sphere of Christian piety. The Annotazioni were a direct response to the article “Humanité” in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alambert. They argued against the enlightened ideas of inviolable natural rights and the earthly finiteness of humans. The Lettera sopra i Negri [Letter on the Negroes], published in 1786, was a sort of additional chapter in this dispute on “humanity” between Catholicism and the Enlightenment: Roberti opposed the anti-slavery discourse of the philosophes, arguing that African slaved deported to the Americas should be “trained in Christianity”. Starting from the themes discussed in the Annotazioni and in the Lettera sopra i Negri, of which the book includes an annotated edition, Alessandro Tuccillo examines the genesis and development of Roberti’s apologetics against enlightened “philosophism”. It shows that, even in the hinterlands of the Italian peninsula, the debates about Atlantic slavery had become an intellectual battleground between conservative and progressive forces.  

Alessandro Tuccillo, Umanità contesa. L’apologetica di Giambatista Roberti contro il «filosofismo», Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, Roma 2020.