Giambattista VICO (23 June 1668 to 23 January 1744)
on 23 June 2018 his 350th birthday

Vico, born in Naples, the then capital of a part of the Spanish Empire and for a brief period spiritual hub in Europe, studied jurisprudence at his father’s request. However Vico broke off his law studies saying that jurisprudence was not systematic enough and based primarily on individual cases. Thereafter he learned the law autodidactically. Vico studied the Commentary on the Institutes authored by the German scholar at Marburg University, Hermann Vultejus (1555–1634), as an introductory course book about Roman law and for canon law he studied the works of the Dutch scholar Heinrich Canisius (1562–1610), who taught at the University of Ingolstadt from 1590. Finally Vico enrolled at the law faculty of Naples University in 1689 and received his Doctor iuris utriusque in Salerno in 1693 or 1694. In his own estimation not really suited to exercising the legal profession he assumed the position of tutor for Domenico Rocca, the margrave of Vatolla, a mountain village located south of Salerno which is entirely dedicated to Vico today and is home to a Vico museum. It is there that according to Vico he spent nine years of his life with the education of the margrave’s offspring.

Subsequently Vico embarked on acquainting himself with diverse domains. Vico mentioned four authors who impressed him most profoundly: Platon, Tacitus, Bacon and Grotius. In his autobiography Vico called this the point of origin of his juridical studies. It is reported that after reading Laurentius Vallas’ (1405 or 1407–1457) De latinae linguae elegantia, first printed in 1471, and due to the latter’s critique of the late medieval jurists’ writing in Latin, Vico ultimately decided to pursue Latin studies. Valla was also included by Savigny in his short biographies on the history of Roman law in the Middle Ages.

In 1695 Vico returned to Naples for good, married four years later and fathered eight children, three of which died early. In 1697 he was awarded a professorship in Rhetoric at Naples University. In 1723, a position for a juridical chair had been advertised in Naples, he failed for good in his endeavors to join the law faculty and thus to improve his financial and social situation. His lecture dealt with the interpretation of Digesta D,19,5,1 captioned: De praescriptis verbis et in factum actionibus (Actions on innominate contracts and actions on the special case). Initially Vico had not been aware that the tenure had already been awarded by the board, so it was with bitterness that he withdrew his application. Those were the darkest hours of his life, the 55-year-old admitted, as he had not been given a dignified position in his home country. His own professorship in Rhetoric was taken over by his son Gennaro in 1741.

In 1720 his juridical opus comprising three volumes was published in Naples: De universi iuris uno principio et fine uno, referred to by Vico himself as “il diritto universal” and which also contained a history of Roman law. Five years later Vico, for the first time, published his most influential works, Principia di una Scienza Nova, which in Vico’s own understanding can only be grasped after reading it thoroughly three times. It was followed in 1730 by the second edition, and finally in 1744 by the further expanded third and last edition. Apart from a number of other publications, his opere were printed in Naples in eight volumes in the period from 1858 to 1860, a hallmark of Vico’s was that which Savigny referred to as “being ignored”. Vico sank into oblivion, even during his lifetime; as he called himself “straniero nella sua patria”. Century after century, Vico was rediscovered and received anew, foremost in the Mediterranean region. Today his statue depicted above still stands in front of the Ministry of Justice in Rome next to the other great Italian jurists such as Bartolus de Saxoferrato, Gianbattista de Luca or the classical Roman jurists such as Ulpianus, a fact referred to by Savigny as vindication.

Vico divides the entire history of mankind into three periods, the age of the Gods, the heroes and the people, a conception which was to become widely popular in particular in the 19th century with its romantic leanings, from Savigny to Richard Wagner whose Ring of the Nibelung could be the setting of Vico’s ideas. According to Vico the dawn of mankind coincides with the law or as Wagner’s Wotan phrased it: “I am now a slave to those contracts”. The rule of law established the age of mankind because “most recently they (the people) reflect with a clear spirit”. The more laws are written in the local language, the more the plebeians would control them and become the sovereign of the State. Vico was also fascinated by the possibility of an ideal legal system, a “diritto universal”. Against this background, he traced the law in its historical dimension back to the Roman Law of Twelve Tables in the fifth century before Christ and whose extensive restoration he had had envisaged for quite some time. The German Historical School of Jurisprudence recognized Vico as a pioneer for emphasizing the historical dimension of jurisprudence, but considered a “diritto universal” as absurd, this was an unhistoric reflection of the historical dimension of the law. It might be an idea, a yearning to recognize a superior natural law as the foundation of any legal system, as Savigny seemed to believe to have found in the Ius Romanum. However Vico recognizes the dependency of the law on time, place, custom and even climate, in this regard he also paved the way for Montesquieu’s thinking or as Hermann Vultejus phrased it: libri juris non fuerunt omni tempore uniusmodi.

Vico was fascinated by Hugo Grotius and he embarked on writing a comprehensive commentary of the latter’s main opus “de iure belli ac pacis”, printed for the first time in 1625, which he ultimately did not complete. Vico considered the relationships between philosophy, philology and jurisprudence established by Grotius as essential elements, the same holds true for the shift towards theology. When studying the development of the law, the historicity of the legal statutes, Vico perceives that the law had more and more given in to clemency due to the principle of equality and thus almost fulfilled a plan of providence, for the tenets of Christianity were to become determinant, such was his hope. Even in Kant one can detect the impulses of Vico, for example that knowledge, intention and ability establish the human characteristics which in turn form the basic social structures.

Vico’s spirit knew no intellectual boundaries and refused to be trammeled by the boundaries of university faculties, he always saw himself as setting an example for others. The jurisprudence however always remained Vico’s starting point of his deliberations.

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