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Alberico Gentili

Alberico GentiliBorn: 14-Jan-1552
Birthplace: San Ginesio, Italy
Died: 19-Jun-1608
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Protestant
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Scholar

Nationality: Italy
Executive summary: Scholar of international law

Italian jurist, who has great claims to be considered the founder of the science of international law, second son of Matteo Gentili, a physician of noble family and scientific eminence, was born on the 14th of January 1552 at Sanginesio, a small town of the march of Ancona which looks down from the slopes of the Apennines upon the distant Adriatic. After taking the degree of doctor of civil law at the university of Perugia, and holding a judicial office at Ascoli, he returned to his native city, and was entrusted with the task of recasting its statutes, but, sharing the Protestant opinions of his father, shared also, together with a brother, Scipio (afterwards a famous professor at Altdorf), his flight to Carniola, where in 1579 Matteo was appointed physician to the duchy. The Inquisition condemned the fugitives as contumacious, and they soon received orders to quit the dominions of Austria.

Alberico set out for England, travelling by way of Tübingen and Heidelberg, and everywhere meeting with the reception to which his already high reputation entitled him. He arrived at Oxford in the autumn of 1580, with a commendatory letter from the earl of Leicester, at that time chancellor of the university, and was shortly afterwards qualified to teach by being admitted to the same degree which he had taken at Perugia. His lectures on Roman law soon became famous, and the dialogues, disputations and commentaries, which he published henceforth in rapid succession, established his position as an accomplished civilian, of the older and severer type, and secured his appointment in 1587 to the regius professorship of civil law. It was, however, rather by an application of the old learning to the new questions suggested by the modern relations of states that his labors have produced their most lasting result. In 1584 he was consulted by government as to the proper course to be pursued with Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, who had been detected in plotting against Elizabeth. He chose the topic to which his attention had thus been directed as a subject for a disputation when Leicester and Sir Philip Sidney visited the schools at Oxford in the same year; and this was six months later expanded into a book, the De legationibus libri tres. In 1588 Alberico selected the law of war as the subject of the law disputations at the annual "Act" which took place in July; and in the autumn published in London the De Jure Belli commentatio prima. A second and a third Commentatio followed, and the whole matter, with large additions and improvements, appeared at Hanau, in 1598, as the De Jure Belli libri tres. It was doubtless in consequence of the reputation gained by these works that Gentili became henceforth more and more engaged in forensic practice, and resided chiefly in London, leaving his Oxford work to be partly discharged by a deputy. In 1600 he was admitted to be a member of Gray's Inn, and in 1605 was appointed standing counsel to the king of Spain. He died on the 19th of June 1608, and was buried, by the side of Dr. Matteo Gentili, who had followed his son to England, in the churchyard of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate. By his wife, Hester de Peigni, he left two sons, Robert and Matthew, and a daughter, Anna, who married Sir John Colt. His notes of the cases in which he was engaged for the Spaniards were posthumously published in 1613 at Hanau, as Hispanicae advocationis libri duo. This was in accordance with his last wishes; but his direction that the remainder of his manuscripts should be burned was not complied with, since fifteen volumes of them found their way, at the beginning of the 19th century, from Amsterdam to the Bodleian library.

The true history of Gentili and of his principal writings has only been ascertained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in consequence of a revived appreciation of the services which he rendered to international law. The movement to do him honor originated in 1875 in England, as the result of the inaugural lecture of Prof. T. E. Holland, and was warmly taken up in Italy. In spreading through Europe it encountered two curious crosscurrents of opinion -- one the ultra-Catholic, which three centuries before had ordered his name to be erased from all public documents and placed his works in the Index; another the narrowly-Dutch, which is, it seems, needlessly careful of the supremacy of Hugo Grotius. These two currents resulted respectively in a bust of Garcia Moreno being placed in the Vatican, and in the unveiling in 1886, with much international oratory, of a fine statue of Grotius at Delft. The English committee, under the honorary presidency of Prince Leopold, in 1877 erected a monument to the memory of Gentili in St. Helen's church, and saw to the publication of a new edition of the De Jure Belli. The Italian committee, of which Prince (afterwards King) Humbert was honorary president, was less successful. It was only in 1908, the tercentenary of the death of Alberico, that the statue of the great heretic was at length unveiled in his native city by the minister of public instruction, in the presence of numerous deputations from Italian cities and universities. Preceding writers had dealt with various international questions, but they dealt with them singly, and with a servile submission to the decisions of the church. It was left to Gentili to grasp as a whole the relations of states one to another, to distinguish international questions from questions with which they are more or less intimately connected, and to attempt their solution by principles entirely independent of the authority of Rome. He uses the reasonings of the civil and even the canon law, but he proclaims as his real guide the Jus Naturae, the highest common sense of mankind, by which historical precedents are to be criticized and, if necessary, set aside.

His faults are not few. His style is prolix, obscure, and to the modern reader pedantic enough; but a comparison of his greatest work with what had been written upon the same subject by, for instance, Belli, or Soto, or even Ayala, will show that he greatly improved upon his predecessors, not only by the fullness with which he has worked out points of detail, but also by clearly separating the law of war from martial law, and by placing the subject once for all upon a non-theological basis. If, on the other hand, the same work be compared with the De Jure Belli et Pacis of Grotius, it is at once evident that the later writer is indebted to the earlier, not only for a large portion of his illustrative erudition, but also for all that is commendable in the method and arrangement of the treatise.

Father: Matteo Gentili (physician)
Brother: Scipio
Wife: Hester de Peigni (two sons)
Son: Robert
Son: Matthew
Daughter: Anna

    University: University of Perugia
    Professor: Oxford University (1580-1608)

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