Gravina, Gian Vincenzo

Lorenzo Bianchi

1This Italian jurisconsult (Roggiano, near Cosenza 1664 - Rome 1718), philosopher and man of letters who, while in Naples, was fascinated by the new philosophy of Descartes and Gassendi and always kept an anticonformist spirit with respect to tradition, went to Rome in 1689, where he obtained in 1699 the chair of civil law and in 1703 that of canon law.

2Among his literary and esthetic works, Della Ragion poetica libri due (Naples, 1716) which Montesquieu had in his library (Catalogue, no. [‣]), defends the imaginary power proper to poetic activity. He is also the historian of Roman law who published the Originum juris civilis libri tres (Lipsiæ, 1708; the first book appeared in Naples in 1701) which brought him European celebrity. It is a remarkable piece of erudition, in which Gravina studies Roman law in function of the social institutions and politics, and must certainly have seduced Montesquieu with its documentation relative to Roman laws. The Origins manifests as well Gravina’s conception of the state, which condemns tyranny as antijuridical and places the social contract at the heart of civil society, underscoring the priority of the rule of law. In 1766, J.-B. Requier translated this text into French under the significant and clearly allusive title L’Esprit des lois romaines.

3According to Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu had recognized the importance of Gravina’s work during his voyage to Naples in 1729; he also made some extracts, now lost, of the book to which he refers in the Pensées (nos. 1912 and 1913).

4Montesquieu cites Gravina twice in L’Esprit des lois I, 3 with respect to the “political state” and the “civil state”: “A society could not exist without a government. The coalition of all the individual forces, as Gravina states very well, forms what we call the political state” (“Une société ne saurait subsister sans un gouvernement. La réunion de toutes les forces particulières, dit très bien Gravina, forme ce qu’on appelle l’État politique”) and “the individual forces cannot coalesce without all the wills coalescing. The coalition of these wills, Gravina again states very well, is what we call the civil state” (“les forces particulières ne peuvent se réunir sans que toutes les volontés se réunissent. La réunion de ces volontés, dit encore très bien Gravina, est ce qu’on appelle l’État civil”). Montesquieu apparently refers here to two passages in the Origins (II, 17 and II, 18) which concern the public will (voluntas publica) that results from individual wills, from public power (summa potestas) that results from individual wills, as well as the power (potestas) constituted by the union of the forces of all (II, 18, 141).


Gian Vincenzo Gravina, Originum juris civilis libri tres, reprint (Naples : F. Mosca, 1713), Fabrizio Lomonaco, with presentation by Fulvio Tessitore, Naples: Liguori, 2004.

Esprit des lois romaines, ouvrage traduit du latin de Jean-Vincent Gravina. Par M. Requier, Amsterdam and Paris: Saillant, 1766.

Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu. Biographie critique, Grenoble: Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 1977.

Carla San Mauro, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. LVIII, “Gravina, Gian Vincenzo”, Rome: Istituto della Enciplopedia italiana, 2002, p. 756-764.