THE EARLY RENAISSANCE
The term “Renaissance” is commonly and conveniently used to denote the transition from the medieval to the modern world, and it implies that this transition has special features which distinguish it from other historical periods. It has been portrayed as a whole by many able writers, but they have sometimes forgotten that in the long course of its gradual development its features did not always present the same appearance. A truer idea of it may perhaps be obtained by treating it on historical lines, a method which will not prevent us from taking note of its special characteristics—its eager curiosity, its questioning of tradition and authority, its insistence on the human side of man, its love of beauty for beauty’s sake, its cult of the ancient world.
The difficulty in dealing with such a movement is to know where to begin, for, wherever you begin, you will find it heralded by premonitions and precursors. Thus for the Renaissance there is St Francis with his love of nature and his sense of the importance of self-development, whose sermon to the birds marks, according to M. Sabatier, the dawn of individualism; there is Frederick II with his passion for intellectual discovery, his devotion to beauty, and his undying hatred of the Papacy; there is Roger Bacon with his scientific spirit and his zeal for educational reform; and there is Dante. How far is he a precursor of the Renaissance? On the one hand, is not his great poem a synthesis of medieval thought and the crown of medieval art? And is not his attitude towards the great writers of antiquity, with all its reverence, that of the medieval world rather than that of the Renaissance? On the other hand, his interest in individual character and above all the marked individuality of his treatment of nature and natural phenomena seem to be Renaissance characteristics. But we must not confuse individuality with individualism; still less must we forget that there is individuality in every work of genius, and that works of genius, as well in literature as in art, were not unknown in the Middle Ages. It is rather in the sphere of political thought, in his attitude towards the Papacy, in his indictment of individual Popes, and in his claim so nobly expressed in the De Monarchia for the independence of the temporal power that Dante appears most truly as a precursor.
It is noticeable that in the very year (1300) which Dante selects as the date of his great vision of the other world, the jubilee was celebrated for the first time at Rome with singular magnificence by that Boniface VIII who declared in his bull Unam Sanctam that it was necessary to salvation to believe that every human being should be subject to the Pope. A year after this declaration (1303) the same Boniface VIII was insulted and maltreated at his native Anagni by adherents of Philip IV of France without a finger being raised in his defence. He died broken in spirit a few weeks later. Eight years more, with the death of Henry of Luxemburg, the hero of the De Monarchia, the medieval Empire may be said to have come to an end. At any rate its glory departed, for the violent conflict between the new Emperor, Lewis of Bavaria, and Pope John XXII which broke out in 1322, the year after Dante’s death, lessened the prestige of both combatants, though the claims of the temporal power were supported by two powerful thinkers and writers, Marsilio of Padua and William of Ockham, and by a bold and revolutionary dreamer, Pierre Dubois.
All these were heralds of the dawn, rather than the dawn itself. Yet in Avignon, that “Babylon of the West,” where John XXII had his extravagant court, and whence William of Ockham fled in 1328, there was living a man who is generally regarded as the real “begetter” of the Renaissance, for he was the first to unite in his own person most of the characteristics that we associate with that movement. This was Petrarch, and, in order to understand the spirit which underlay these characteristics, it is well to turn to his De contemptu mundi or Secretum, that intimate work which takes the form of three dialogues between the author and St Augustine. Here we have brought face to face the man who may be said to have inaugurated the medieval world and “the first modern man,” the representative of the ascetic self-suppression of the Middle Ages and the representative of the cultivated individualism of the Renaissance. Throughout the discussion Petrarch shews the greatest reverence for St Augustine, whose Confessions were for forty years his constant companion, and the victory is nominally with his antagonist. But though Petrarch is ready at St Augustine’s bidding to sever one of the two “chains” which hold him in bondage, namely his love for Laura, he still clings to the chain of Glory—“the glory conferred by men and immortal fame,” the glory which he hoped to win by his De viris ittustribus and Africa, but which he really won by the poems in the vernacular inspired by this very love for Laura.
Francesco Petrarca (1304-74) was born at Arezzo, where his father, an exile from Florence, had found a temporary refuge, but he spent his boyhood with his family at Avignon and Carpentras. Later he studied law at Montpellier and Bologna, returning to Avignon on his father’s death in 1325 with a view to an ecclesiastical instead of a legal career. On a day in Holy Week 1327, he saw and loved Laura, who has been doubtfully identified with the wife of Hugues de Sade. His love was unrequited, but it made him an immortal poet.
The Canzoniere impresses one at once with its modem character. It is the intimate record of a real love-story, and thus has a living interest which is lacking to many of the sonnet-sequences that it inspired. It is true that we have no clear vision of Laura beyond her golden hair and her white skin, but she is at any rate a living woman. And Petrarch is a real human lover. Being artist as well as lover, he has arranged and revised his poems in the interests of art, but, in spite of some exaggerations and some reticences, his record is sincere. It is a record of alternating moods, of joy and melancholy, of discontent and resignation, of glory in his love and of shame for his bondage. The years pass by; his love grows colder, and his conscience reproaches him more loudly. He writes the fine canzone, I' vo pensando, and soon afterwards his Secretum (1342). He promises to break his “chain,” but it still holds him, though less firmly. Then he hears of Laura’s death (1348) and his tone changes. His grief for her loss is mingled with his praise of her perfections. His conscience no longer pricks him, and his love, purified from earthly desires, soars triumphantly into the region of spirit.
If Petrarch’s verse is modern in its content, it is also modem in its language. Nearly six hundred years have elapsed since he wrote, and his speech has not become antiquated. Though some of the sonnets, at any rate in the first part of the Canzoniere, are marred by the abuse of antithesis, by conceits, even puns and other rhetorical devices, in the majority the poetic style is maintained at a high artistic level. Indeed at his best Petrarch is one of the great masters of style; he can be consistently elevated without being over-emphatic or bombastic, he can be concise and pregnant without being obscure. But he is more than a master of style; he is a true poet. He does not habitually think in images, but when he uses a metaphor he does it with arresting effect. He not only calls up a picture, but he appeals to our deepest emotions, as for instance in the well-known sonnet, Movesi ‘l vecchierel (XII).
The poems of the second part, on the death of Laura, are as a whole superior to those written during her life. Artifice and rhetoric have now vanished. Petrarch’s mind is no longer divided between allegiance to his love and allegiance to his duty as a Christian. Moreover, if his earthly love is deficient in passion, as a spiritual lover he is truly inspired. It is his sonnets that have been chiefly if not exclusively imitated by his followers; but his genius moves most freely in his canzoni. In Chiare, fresche e dolci acque (XI), in Nella stagion che il del rapldo inchina (iv), in Si e debile il filo (III), in I’ vo pensando (XVII), as in the beautiful sonnet addressed to the Virgin Mary, and in the two patriotic sonnets, Spirto gentil and Italia mia, he shows himself a great lyrical poet. By far the least successful of his poems are his Trionfi, the illustrations to which, executed in every conceivable form of art, had an immense popularity from the last years of the fifteenth century onwards.
Another modern feature that distinguishes Petrarch’s poetry is his observation of nature, and we even find in it examples of what has been called “the pathetic fallacy,” namely the idea that nature sympathises with the joys and sorrows of the poet. His appreciation of natural scenery is also exemplified in the famous account of his ascent of Mont Ventoux (1335), and in a letter to Giacopo Colonna (Ep. I, 7) in which he describes the scenery of his beloved Vaucluse.
Partly from honest curiosity and partly from restlessness Petrarch was a great traveller. In 1333 he visited northern France, including Paris, and Flanders. In 1337 he paid his first visit to Rome, and four years later he was solemnly crowned on the Capitol with the laurel crown of poetry. From 1342 to 1353 he was continually moving from place to place, visiting Naples, Parma, where he spent some time, Verona, Florence, where he made the acquaintance of Boccaccio, Rome, and Padua, and returning from time to time to Avignon and Vaucluse. From 1352 to 1353 he made a considerable stay at Vaucluse and then, wearied with the “western Babylon”, he left it for ever. On arriving at Milan he took service with the Visconti, and he was employed by them as ambassador to Venice (1353), to the Emperor (Charles IV) whom he found at Prague (1356), and to the King of France (1360). From 1361 to 1371 he spent his time between Padua and Venice, and in the latter year he settled at Arquà (near Padua), where he died in 1374.
Petrarch had many interests: he loved music and played the lute with skill; he was a friend of the Sienese painter, Simone Martini, who worked in the Palace of the Popes at Avignon; and he was an enthusiastic gardener, labouring with his own hands. But he had an enquiring mind as well as a receptive one. He was not content to accept traditional views without questioning them. Rather he attacked with vigour most of the learning of his day—its astrology, its jurisprudence, its medicine, its logic, its theology—and he shewed that he apprehended the true principles of historical criticism by declaring in the preface to his De viris illustribus that he followed only those historians “whose greater credibility or superior authority commands respect.”
Petrarch is rightly termed the first humanist, for he was the first to find in ancient literature a larger measure than elsewhere of that learning and training in virtue which are peculiar to man. Moreover, he prized classical literature as a form of intercourse with great men. He found in the pages of Virgil and Horace, of Cicero and Seneca, especially in those of Cicero, a consecration of human aims and aspirations and a guide to human endeavour. He also learnt from them the true meaning of style, regarding it not as a mere rhetorical trick, as did the Ciceronians of a later period, but as the expression of the individual man. Thus his own Latin style, incorrect though it often is, has the merit of individuality. Especially it expresses his idea of beauty, his feeling for artistic perfection. Both his Africa and his De viris illustribus have come down to us in an incomplete state because he was for ever touching and retouching what he had written.
With Petrarch’s devotion to Latin literature it was natural that he should throw himself heart and soul into the search for manuscripts of new authors and new works. It must be remembered that a considerable number of the more important Latin authors were widely known in the Middle Ages—Terence, Sallust, Cicero (philosophical works and four rhetorical works), Virgil, Livy (Decades), Ovid (especially the Metamorphoses), Horace (Satires and Epistles), Valerius Maximus, Lucan, Persius, Seneca (tragedies and philosophical works), Pliny—the two Plinies, like the two Senecas, were regarded as one and the same—Martial, Statius (except the Silvae), Juvenal, Suetonius. Less widely known were Caesar and Quintilian, the latter chiefly in a mutilated form, while rarer still were Plautus (eight comedies only), Lucretius, Propertius, Tibullus, Vitruvius, and Apuleius.
In the fascinating pursuit of discovering new manuscripts and new works Petrarch had some predecessors—notably, Albertino Mussato of Padua (1262-1329), who has been called “the initiator of humanism”, Benzo of Alessandria (ob. c. 1330), who lived for some time at Milan and in its neighbourhood, and above all several enthusiasts at Verona, of whom the chief was Guglielmo da Pastrengo (ob. 1363). It was an obscure Veronese copyist, named Francesco, who at the close of the thirteenth century brought back from distant lands his “exiled compatriot” Catullus. This precious manuscript found a home in the chapter library of Verona, which, being one of the richest in classical works, made Verona the chief centre of nascent humanism in the first half of the fourteenth century. Among its leading humanists was Piero di Dante, the commentator on his father’s Divina Commedia, who lived there from 1332 to 1347.
Other early libraries which contained classical works were those of the Visconti at Pavia, which Galeazzo Visconti established in 1360 and which was greatly increased by his son Gian Galeazzo, and that of the Gonzaga at Mantua, the catalogue of which in 1407 contained the names of about 300 Latin volumes.
Petrarch’s passion for collecting books began when he was a student of law at Montpellier in 1319 and it continued throughout his life. Already at Vaucluse he possessed a considerable classical library and in Italy he made numerous additions to it. Some of the volumes were presents from his many friends and admirers, some he purchased, and some were copies which he made with his own hand or had made for him by professional copyists. On each of his numerous journeys—in France, in Flanders, at Rome, at Verona, at Genoa, at Mantua—he systematically visited monasteries and chapter-houses. He discovered a copy of Propertius in France, and he had a copy made of the Verona Catullus. But his chief quarry was Cicero. In 1333 he discovered at Liege the Pro Archia. Four speeches, all new to him, he acquired from his friend and rival collector, the Florentine Lapo di Castiglionchio. In 1345 he copied the whole of the letters to Atticus with his own hand at Verona. At the end of his life he possessed practically all that we now have of Cicero, except eight speeches, the Brutus, the Epistolae ad Familiares, and the fragmentary De republica. He also had copies of Varro’s De re rustica and De lingua latina and of Vitruvius.
In 1350 Petrarch and Boccaccio met, as we have seen, for the first time, but it was not till some years later that this acquaintance, which ripened into a close friendship, led to important results. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), when he met Petrarch, was known as the author of several works—of two prose romances, the Filocolo and the Fiarnmetta, the latter a psychological novel with a large autobiographical element, and of several narrative poems, of which the chief are the Teseide and the Filostrato. They all deal with love and they are all founded on Boccaccio’s own love-story. When he met Petrarch he was engaged on the work by which he is chiefly known to posterity, the famous Decameron. It was begun in 1348, the year of the Black Death, and was completed in 1353. The hundred stories of which it is composed are told in turn by seven young women and three young men, who, having met by chance in the Church of Santa Maria Novella at Florence, had agreed to leave the almost deserted city for a villa in the surrounding hills. The stories, as might be expected, vary in length, character, and merit. Some are compact little dramas dealing with a single action; some are long narratives of strange adventures; the majority are witty or at least amusing; a few, such as the beautiful story of Federigo degli Alberighi and his falcon (v. 9), are deeply pathetic. But nearly all alike are instinct with life and movement, and reveal the born story-teller. And they are set off by an incomparable gift for style, which is only occasionally marred by outbursts of misplaced rhetoric. Boccaccio has disciplined the vernacular Italian, as regards both language and syntax, in the school of ancient Rome, and the result is singularly successful. Few writers, even of modern times, handle a periodic and comparatively long sentence with greater ease and apparent simplicity. Italian critics have objected that, save in occasional conversations, the language has in Boccaccio’s hands lost some of its national flavour, but for the purpose of telling a story for the story’s sake, of carrying forward the reader without hindrance or effort, as on a gently flowing river, the style of the Decameron at its best, with its harmony, its graceful dignity, and its undercurrent of malice and humour, is a miracle of that art which resembles nature.
There is, however, a reverse side to the medal. The Decameron is frankly immoral, and that not so much because the author relates the doings of villainous monks and amorous women with evident relish as because he is an avowed apologist for free love and adultery. As a picture of Florentine society it would be unfair to take it too seriously; rather, it represents the experience of a man who, having been separated at an early age from his unwedded and deserted mother—a Frenchwoman of good family—had grown up without any home influence, and had spent his youth in the dissolute Court of Naples. His own relations with women account for the irony and cynicism which underlie the seemingly naive directness of his narration.
The year 1361 was a turning-point in Boccaccio’s life. He began to think of religion, and even of becoming a religious. However, on his friend Petrarch’s advice, he determined not to give up his literary life altogether, but to turn it into a new channel. Accordingly, down to his death in 1375, he devoted himself with amazing zeal, industry, and patience to the study and spread of ancient literature. His De claribus mulieribus and De casibus illustrium virorum, both written with a moral purpose, achieved a wide popularity and helped greatly to stimulate that interest in human nature which was one of the characteristics of the Renaissance. They were both printed (in Germany) at a comparatively early date, and the De casibus illustrium virorum was translated by John Lydgate into English verse and by Pierre Faivre into French prose. His Genealogia deorum with all its faults is the earliest modern handbook on mythology.
As a book-collector he was a worthy rival of Petrarch. His library, considerable for the time, could boast of some volumes more or less unknown to his friend, as for instance, Martial, a complete Ausonius, and the Ibis of Ovid. But his great discovery was the manuscript of Tacitus containing books XI-XVI of the Annals and books I-V of the Histories, which he “rescued” from the monastery of Monte Cassino and copied with his own hand.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century a knowledge of Greek, except in some parts of southern Italy, where it still survived as a spoken language, was very rare in Western Europe. Greek classical literature was scantily represented by translations of Plato’s Timaeus, of some of the works of Aristotle, and of Diogenes Laertius. Petrarch made a vain effort to learn Greek from a Calabrian monk named Barlaam. When a friend sent him a manuscript of Homer, he could only gaze at it with reverence and delight. But Boccaccio, urged by Petrarch, attained a greater measure of success. Hearing of the arrival at Venice of another Calabrian, Leontius Pilatus, who had spent some time at Constantinople, he brought him to Florence, had him appointed to a professorship, entertained him in his own house for three years—an act of real heroism, for the man was of a morose temper and repulsive in his habits—kept him at his work on a Latin translation of Homer, and, when it was finished, sent a transcript, which he made himself, to Petrarch. It was a bad piece of work, for Pilatus was as ignorant as he was pretentious.
Salutati. Marsigli. Gasparino
Eight months before Boccaccio’s death (1375), Coluccio Salutati (13311406) was appointed Latin Secretary to the Florentine Republic. He was a correspondent of Petrarch and Boccaccio, both of whom he greatly revered, and after the death of the latter he became the leader of the humanist movement at Florence. Grave and even severe in appearance, he had a genial and kindly nature and was always ready to give help and encouragement to others. He diligently carried on the search for manuscripts, and he was rewarded by finding at Vercelli a manuscript of the whole sixteen books of Cicero’s Familiar Epistles. For Cicero he had a special cult, but his own Latin style was neither classical nor, like Petrarch’s, expressive of his own individuality.
Contemporary with Salutati was the Augustinian monk, Luigi Marsigli (1330-1394), to whom Petrarch had given, shortly before his death, that precious volume of St Augustine’s Confessions which for forty years had been his constant companion. Marsigli had studied at Padua and at Paris, where he took a doctor’s degree, but in 1382 he returned to his native city of Florence, with a high reputation for learning. At Santo Spirito he formed a sort of Academy, where his fellow humanists assembled to hear from his lips eloquent discourses on theology, philosophy, and the wisdom of the ancients.
Next to Florence, the city which responded most warmly to Petrarch’s call to the study of Latin literature was Padua. Its university since the decline of Bologna about 1320 had risen to be the first in Italy, and though the Italian universities were not as a rule particularly favourable to the new studies, Padua, thanks partly to the enlightened patronage of the Carrara family, of whom Francesco I was a close friend of Petrarch, was an exception. Added to this, the spirit of Petrarch, who had spent the last four years of his life at Arquà, ten miles distant, was still a potent influence. In 1392 Giovanni Conversini of Ravenna (1347-1406)—not to be confused with Giovanni Malapighi, also of Ravenna (b. 1346), who lived with Petrarch as copyist for three years—was appointed to the Chair of Rhetoric. He only held the post for a year, but as Chancellor to the new lord, Francesco II, he had considerable influence, which he exercised for the benefit of humanism. In 1397 Gasparino da Barzizza, who was accounted the greatest Latin scholar of his day, became Professor of Rhetoric. He inaugurated the critical study of Cicero, paying special attention to the De Oratore, and he founded the Ciceronian tradition of style, without however becoming a slavish imitator of him. When Padua was captured by Venice in 1405 he still remained professor, till in 1422 he was succeeded by Vittorino da Feltre, who except for an absence of eighteen months at Venice had lived at Padua as student and teacher, and for part of the time in Gasparino’s house, since 1396
The one thing lacking at Padua was Greek, and it is significant of this want that in 1397 Pier Paolo Vergerio, Professor of Logic since 1391, gave up his post in order to attend the lectures of Manuel Chrysoloras, who had recently been appointed to a newly established Greek chair in the Studium or University of Florence. The appointment was a momentous event in the history of humanism, for it marks the re-introduction to Western Europe of that Greek thought and learning which Byzantine civilisation had guarded so faithfully. Chrysoloras left Florence in 1400, and between that date and his return to his native Constantinople in 1403 he lectured at Milan and Pavia. Later he paid several visits to Venice, and in 1414 he was sent as an envoy to the Council of Constance. He died in the following year, and his epitaph, written by Vergerio, may be read today in the old monastery at Constance. The three men who profited most by his teaching were Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti, and Guarino da Verona, and of these the last-named accompanied him on his return to Constantinople and lived in his house for five years. He returned home in 1408, bringing with him a rich prize of 54 volumes, of which some contained Greek manuscripts. But the most successful Italian collector of Greek manuscripts was the Sicilian, Giovanni Aurispa (13741450), who travelled in the East from 1405 to 1413 and again from 1421 to 1423, his second journey being far more fruitful than his first. From Constantinople he sent to Florence the famous Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Apollonius Rhodius which are now among the glories of the Laurentian library, and he brought back with him no less than 238 manuscripts. He had a friendly rival in Francesco Filelfo, who spent seven years in the Byzantine capital as secretary to the Venetian ambassador, married the great-niece of Chrysoloras, and returned in 1427 with some 40 manuscripts and a better knowledge of Greek than any of his countrymen. In a letter to Ambrogio Traversari, written from Bologna the year after his return, he gives a complete list of all his manuscripts that had already arrived, and he says that he is expecting a few more. We have also three interesting letters from Aurispa to Traversari, in which he in his turn records several of his finds.
In March 1438 an important stimulus was given to the study of Greek in Italy by the arrival of 500 Greeks, including the Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, to attend the Council of Ferrara. Owing to the outbreak of the plague, it was transferred in the following January to Florence, where it carried on its labours till the following July. It was at the prompting of the most learned of the Greek envoys, Georgios Gemistos Plethon (1356-1452), that Cosimo de’ Medici founded the famous Florentine Academy. Another envoy, Plethon’s most illustrious pupil, Joannes Bessarion (1403-1472), Bishop of Nicaea and afterwards Cardinal, remained in Italy to become the leader of Greek scholarship in that country and to bequeath his valuable library to the Venetian Republic. A third envoy, Theodore Gaza (1400-1475), who had fled from his home at Thessalonica just before its capture by the Turks in 1430, was the author of the well-known Greek grammar, the best of the fifteenth century. An earlier arrival was George of Trebizond (1396-1484), a native of Crete, whom we find at Venice and Padua before 1418. Together with Bessarion and Gaza he was later employed at Rome by Nicholas V to translate the works of Aristotle. Younger men were Demetrius Chalcondyles (1424-1511) of Athens, the editor of the editio princeps of Homer, who lectured successively at Perugia, Padua, Florence, and Milan; and Joannes Argyropoulos (1416-86), who first visited Italy in 1441, but did not take up his abode there till after the fall of Constantinople. After Chrysoloras he was the ablest of the Greeks who came to Italy. He lectured at Florence from 1456 to 1471, and at Rome from 1471 to 1486, where he died. He too was an active translator of Aristotle, but he was also a distinguished Platonist, and in his lectures he tried to reconcile the two philosophers.
Niccolò Niccoli. Leonardo Bruni
The merit of inviting Manuel Chrysoloras to Florence, the only Italian city in which Greek learning took real root, mainly belongs to Palla Strozzi, the noblest Florentine of his day. Learned, wealthy, and generous, he was, till his banishment in 1434, the mainstay of humanism in his native city. After the death of Salutati, the leading Florentine humanist was Niccolò Niccoli (1364-1437), of whom we have a charming and vivid, if over-indulgent, picture from the pen of Vespasiano da Bisticci, famous as a bookseller and copyist and as the biographer of all the humanists and patrons of humanism who were his contemporaries. Though Niccolò Niccoli had a caustic tongue and an irritable and suspicious temper, he was the friend, says his biographer, of all the learned men of Italy. He had wide interests, especially in everything connected with the ancient world, and he had the flair and the critical appreciation of a born collector. Pictures, mosaics, sculptures, vases, gems, coins, medals—he loved them all, and he carried his feeling for beauty into his daily life. His food was served in antique vases, and he drank from a crystal cup. Clad in a red gown which swept the ground, he was a conspicuous figure in the streets of Florence. Above all he loved manuscripts, and he spared neither pains nor expense in collecting them, purchasing some and making copies of others, either with his own hand or by those of professional copyists. When he had exhausted his own patrimony, the liberality of Cosimo de’ Medici, who allowed him to draw at will on his bank, enabled him to continue his work.
Another leading member of the Florentine circle of humanists was Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo (1370-1444), generally known as Leonardo Aretino, who was Chancellor of Florence, first in 1410, and again from 1427 to his death. He was a close friend of Niccolò Niccoli, though their friendship was interrupted for a time by a violent quarrel. His chief service to learning was the translation into Latin—he prided himself on his Latin style—of five of Plato’s dialogues, half-a-dozen of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Ethics, Politics, and Economics of Aristotle. He also left an unfinished Latin history of Florence in twelve books. He was buried with great honour in Santa Croce, where his tomb by Bernardo Rossellino is one of the glories of the early Renaissance.
In the same church is the equally beautiful tomb which Desiderio da Settignano made for Leonardo’s successor in the chancellorship, Carlo Marsuppini (c. 1399-1453), also of Arezzo, who, though he wrote little, was regarded as Leonardo’s equal in learning. He was a cold and dour man, his only intimate friend being Niccolo Niccoli, and, unlike the rest of the humanists of his generation, was an avowed disbeliever in the Christian religion.
Manetti. Traversari. Poggio
His contemporary, Giannozzo Manetti (1395-1459), is remarkable as the most distinguished Hebrew scholar of Italy in the first half of the fifteenth century. To multifarious learning he united a marked capacity for the conduct of affairs. He was frequently employed on embassies to various courts and he held numerous administrative posts, in all of which he made a deep impression by the justice of his decisions and the uprightness of his character. He was for a short time secretary to Nicholas V, and he spent three years in the service of Alfonso, King of Naples, who held him in the highest esteem. He had, like Niccolò Niccoli, a fine library, in which Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were largely represented.
A favourite meeting-place of these Florentine humanists was the Carnaldulensian convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli just outside Florence, the Superior of which was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439). Much or his time was spent in translating the Greek Fathers, and he regarded pagan literature with some disquietude. When Cosimo de’ Medici bade him translate the Lives of Diogenes Laertius, he complied with reluctance and misgiving. His correspondence edited by Mehus, with the life prefixed to it, is one of our chief sources of knowledge for Italian humanism. For the last eight years of his life he was General of his Order.
Though he was born at Terranuova, a little distance from Florence, and though he spent most of his life at Rome, Gianfrancesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was proud to call himself a Florentine. While earning his livelihood as a notary and copyist, he attracted the attention of Salutati and Niccolò Niccoli, and through Salutati’s interest he obtained early in 1404 a post in the Papal Chancery, but, though his duties for the next fifty years kept him chiefly at Rome, he continued to maintain friendly relations with his Florentine friends, especially with Niccolò Niccoli, whom he regarded with the affectionate piety of a son, and with Leonardo Bruni. His services to humanism in the course of his long life were manifold: he inaugurated the serious study of Roman topography, and wrote a rapid but impressive survey of its ancient monuments as they existed at the close of the pontificate of Martin V; he copied inscriptions, collected coins and sculptures (chiefly torsos and noseless busts), and formed a small but select library of Latin authors. But the work by which he is best known is the discovery of new manuscripts of classical authors. It was indeed a happy chance which sent him as Apostolic Secretary to the Council of Constance in 1414, for it enabled him to undertake four highly successful journeys in pursuit of his quarry. On his first journey, made in the first half of 1415, he found in the abbey of Cluny a manuscript of Cicero which contained three speeches, known in France but unknown in Italy. His second journey (1416) brought him to the abbey of St Gall, where “in a filthy and dark dungeon at the bottom of a tower” he unearthed manuscripts of Valerius Flaccus (three and a half books) and Asconius, and a complete text of Quintilian. This last discovery aroused enthusiasm and from this time Quintilian’s influence was considerable, particularly on Valla, Vittorino da Feltre, Battista Guarino, and later on Erasmus. The third journey (1417) was even more fruitful, for he added to his trophies Lucretius, Manilius, Silius Italicus, and Ammianus Marcellinus—all probably discovered in tbe monastery of Fulda. Later in the same year he found the Pro Caecina at Langres, and seven other new speeches of Cicero at Cologne. Two other finds, Columella and the Silvae of Statius, belong either to the third or the fourth journey.
A little later (1421) Gherardo Landriani, Bishop of Lodi, discovered in his cathedral a manuscript of Cicero’s rhetorical works, including the Brutus, which was absolutely new, and the De Oratore and the Orator, which had hitherto been known only through imperfect copies. The precious manuscript was entrusted to Barzizza and greatly rejoiced his heart. It was lost soon afterwards, but not till copies of it had been made. In 1429 Poggio was permitted to borrow from Monte Cassino for the purpose of transcription a manuscript of Frontinus’ De aquaeductibus, and in the same year Nicholas of Cusa forwarded to Cardinal Orsini, in whose service he was, a manuscript containing twelve new plays of Plautus. The Cardinal kept it for some time under lock and key, greatly to the indignation of Poggio, who had spared no pains to get hold of it.
By 1429 the tale of Latin classical authors, as we now have it, was nearly complete. But a prolonged search in the library of Bobbio, the famous Lombard monastery founded by St Columbanus, where the saint died and was buried, which was carried out during the years 1493 to 1506, resulted in the discovery of various minor authors, of whom the most important was the Christian poet Prudentius. A little later—about the year 1500—Fra Giocondo of Verona, scholar and architect, discovered at Paris a manuscript of the hitherto unknown correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, and this was followed in 1508 by one of the greatest of the Renaissance acquisitions.
The Histories of Tacitus and books XI-XVI of the Annals had, as we have seen, been discovered by Boccaccio at Monte Cassino, and in 1426 the manuscript came mysteriously into the hands of Niccolò Niccoli, who lent it to Poggio. It is now in the Laurentian library (Mediceus II). In 1427 Poggio heard from a monk of Hersfeld of a manuscript of Tacitus’ three minor works, but it did not reach Rome till 1455. Finally in 1508 the first six books of the Annals (Mediceus I) were discovered in the Westphalian monastery of Corvey. Lastly, in 1527 Simon Grynaeus discovered books I-V of the fifth decade of Livy in the monastery of Lorsch near Worms, one of the most famous of medieval German libraries.
The discovery of manuscripts naturally stimulated the formation of libraries. The modest collection formed by Poggio was far surpassed by that of Niccolò Niccoli, who at his death in 1437 possessed 800 volumes. These he bequeathed to sixteen trustees, among whom were Cosimo de1 Medici, Leonardo Bruni, and Poggio, with the view of their being preserved in a library accessible to the public. Accordingly Cosimo, who, as we have seen, had advanced to Niccoli considerable sums of money, placed 400 of the manuscripts in the library which he had recently built for the monastery of San Marco, and added the remainder to his private collection. He also formed a third library in the Badia of Fiesole. The Medicean library received accessions from Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo, especially of Greek manuscripts collected for him by Janus Lascaris. When after Lorenzo’s death it was joined to that of San Marco, the united collection, which came to be known as the Laurentian library, consisted, according to an inventory made in 1495, of 1039 manuscripts, of which about 460 were Greek.
Older than the library of San Marco was that founded by Galeazzo Visconti (ob. 1378) at Pavia, and considerably increased, first by his son Gian Galeazzo (06. 1402), and then by his grandson Filippo Maria, who ruled from 1412 to 1446. In 1426 it contained 988 manuscripts, and it went on increasing under Francesco Sforza and his son Galeazzo Maria, who was a pupil of Filelfo. Another famous library was that of Federigo of Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and Captain-General of the forces to Francesco Sforza. The catalogue, which was in process of making when the duke died in 1482, enumerates 772 manuscripts, of which 73 were Hebrew, 93 Greek, and 604 Latin.
One of the greatest of private collectors was Cardinal Bessarion. In 1468, four years before his death, his collection, which he bequeathed to the republic of Venice, consisted of 482 Greek and 264 Latin manuscripts. Another collection was that made by Domenico Malatesta Novello, lord of Cesena, who built for it, in 1452, a library which still exists and is an interesting example of a chained library.
But by far the greatest of these Renaissance libraries was that of the Vatican, which was practically founded by Pope Nicholas V. According to the inventory made at his death in 1455 it contained 353 Greek manuscripts and 824 Latin ones. By 1481, according to the catalogue made by Platina, the librarian of Sixtus IV, the total number of manuscripts had increased to 2527, of which 770 were Greek and 1757 Latin. At the death of Sixtus IV in 1484, about 1100 more had been added. Unlike the other Renaissance libraries, with the exception of that of Urbino, the Vatican was essentially a theological library. But, by reason that the search for manuscripts had been carried on by humanists who were mainly interested in pagan literature, it does not contain many novelties. In the Latin library we find Cyprian, Tertullian, and Lactantius, the last author being a favourite with the humanists by virtue of his style, and various Latin versions, new as well as old, of the Greek Fathers. The Greek library is described by Dr James as “commonplace” and “disappointing”. The earliest ages of Christian literature are hardly represented at all; there is only one volume of Origen; and there is no complete Greek Bible.
The formation of these libraries necessitated the extensive employment of copyists, who had greatly increased both in numbers and efficiency since the days of Petrarch. Both he and Boccaccio, and later Niccolò Niccoli, Manetti, and Poggio, had to copy many manuscripts with their own hands. But the demands of eager and wealthy collectors called forth a supply of competent professionals. Copyists of Greek manuscripts commanded a high rate of pay, and in this branch of the work the first place was held by Theodore Gaza. Cosimo de’ Medici employed for his library at Fiesole 45 copyists, who turned out 200 volumes in 22 months. The Duke of Urbino kept 30 to 40 at work for fourteen years. “There was not a single printed book in his library; he would have been ashamed to have one,” says his biographer, Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-98), who had helped him to form the library, as he had already helped Cosimo de’ Medici, and as he had probably helped Nicholas V, with whom he was on the friendliest of terms. It was his business to find the copyists, and to some extent, for he was not devoid of scholarship, to superintend their work. The services of Nicholas V were of a higher order. He was not only responsible for the Vatican library, but he wrote out for Cosimo de’ Medici with his own hand a classified list of desirable works, and he performed the same office for the Duke of Urbino, for Malatesta Novello of Cesena, and for Alessandro Sforza of Pesaro. The Canon of Parentucelli, as it is called, still survives to bear witness to his learning.
It will be seen that all these libraries, except those of Niccolò Niccoli and Cardinal Bessarion, were due to the munificence of various despots, of the Visconti and Sforza, of the Duke of Urbino, of Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici, who were none the less despots for being nominally private citizens, and of Nicholas V and his successors, who may be fairly counted in the same category. So in general the development of humanism owed far more to the enlightened enthusiasm of these powerful and wealthy patrons than to the action of the universities. These were mainly devoted to professional studies—law, medicine, theology. At more than one university there were sometimes as many as twenty professorships of law. Latin and Greek, on the other hand, were only provided for by occasional teachers, and humanist professors wandered from one university to another, or often to a town which did not possess a university, according as stipends were forthcoming. Padua, the leading university, was an exception, for its Chair of Rhetoric was held by a succession of distinguished humanists. Next to it in reputation were Pavia and, later, Pisa, whither the Florentine Studium, which, in spite of Manuel Chrysoloras and other distinguished professors, never attained great distinction, was transferred in 1472. For Florence, like Venice and Milan, discovered that it was far easier to find lodgings for students in a comparatively small town than in the capital itself. Ferrara, which was revived about 1420, obtained a brief renown from the presence of Guarino da Verona, for whom it founded a professorship in 1436. Among the students whom he attracted were a small band of English humanists. Bologna during the decade 1420-30 shewed a marked interest in humanist studies, among those who profited by its hospitality being Aurispa, Guarino and his pupil Lamola, Beccadelli, Filelfo, and the future Pope Nicholas V. But it was not till the second half of the fifteenth century that it appointed professors of Greek or Latin for any considerable period. Naples, unlike all the other Italian universities, except that of the Roman Curia, was entirely dependent on its ruling sovereign. Happily it had in Alfonso I an enthusiastic and liberal supporter of humanism.
In another essential development of humanism, namely education, the despots did good service. It was to the lords of Ferrara and Mantua —princes of the houses of Este and Gonzaga—that we mainly owe the work of the two great schoolmasters of the Renaissance, Guarino da Verona and Vittorino da Feltre.
Guarino. Vittorino da Feltre
The first in the field was Guarino da Verona (1374-1460), who, having returned, as we have seen, from Greece in 1408, lived at Florence from 1410 to 1414, and in the latter year established a school on humanist lines at Venice. But in 1419 he transferred it to Verona, his native town, where he had been appointed Professor of Rhetoric. Then in 1429 he accepted an offer from Nicholas III d’Este, the lord of Ferrara, to superintend the education of his eldest son Leonello, and at Ferrara he spent, with hardly a break, the remaining thirty-one years of his life. With the young prince were associated a large number of resident pupils, so that Guarino was able to carry on his essential work, and to develop more completely his methods of education.
The activities of his long life of ninety years were by no means confined to education; there were few, if any, sides of humanism which he did not represent with marked distinction. His interest in the search for manuscripts continued after his return from Constantinople, and he was closely associated with the discoveries of Plautus, Cicero, and Celsus. He wrote letters, like so many of the humanists, with a view to publication; he rivalled Manetti as an orator, and was in great demand for inaugural, matrimonial, and funeral speeches. His contribution to the translation of Greek authors consisted of several Lives of Plutarch, two orations of Isocrates, three works of Lucian, and the whole of Strabo. He also did good work as a textual critic, chiefly on Caesar, Cicero’s speeches, the two Plinies, Aulus Gellius, and Servius. Nor must it be forgotten that his studies embraced sacred as well as pagan authors, and that, ardent humanist though he was, he regarded humanism as an evolution from the medieval world rather than as a revolt against it.
Vittorino (1378-1446) began his life-work a few years later than Guarino, for though he joined him at Venice, probably in 1415, he does not appear to have helped in the conduct of his school. But in 1420 we find him receiving a number of students in his house at Padua, and three years later he was carrying on the same work at Venice with the difference that many, if not most, of his pupils were not university students. Then, before the year was out, he received an offer from Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, the lord of Mantua, to superintend the education of his children. He accepted the offer and remained at Mantua till his death in 1446. To the three Gonzaga boys, whose ages ranged from nine to three—another boy and a girl, Cecilia, were born later—were added the sons of the leading Mantuan families, of some of the other princes of northern Italy, and of personal friends, and lastly, free of charge, the promising sons of poor parents, these amounting at one time to as many as forty. The greater number were lodged in a palace of the Marquess, known as La Gioiosa, but which Vittorino preferred to call La Giocosa; the rest lived in a house close at hand.
The story of this greatest school of the Renaissance has been well and fully told by Professor Woodward, and it will be described in the general account of Renaissance education in the next volume of this History. But some of its features may be referred to here, so far as they throw light on the character of the Renaissance spirit. In the first place, it was before all things a classical education, au education based on the study of Greek and Roman literature. Latin was the ordinary language of conversation, and the writing of Latin prose was sedulously practised. But the importance of Greek literature by the side of Latin was steadily insisted upon—by Vittorino even more than by Guarino. Vittorino was not, indeed, Guarino’s equal as a Greek scholar, but he called to his assistance such proficients as George of Trebizond and Theodore Gaza.
As the result of this humanist education, Guarino’s son Battista could write in his treatise De ordine docendi et studendi (1459), which is based on the practice of his father’s school, that “ as to my own conviction, without a knowledge of Greek, Latin scholarship itself is, in any real sense, impossible.” Christian authors were read as well as pagan—Lactantius, whose classical style, as we have seen, made him a favourite with the humanists, Augustine, Jerome, and Cyprian. Other subjects besides Latin and Greek literature found a place in the curriculum, especially history and ethical philosophy, and Vittorino, at any rate, paid considerable attention to mathematics. Religious and moral training was regarded as of primary importance, and both Vittorino and Guarino insisted upon daily attendance at worship. Neither of them seems to have been in the least embarrassed by a sense of contradiction between pagan and Christian ideals, and their whole method was a practical answer to such a protest against the revival of classical learning as the Regola del governo di cura familiare of Giovanni Domenici of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella (c. 1400-05).
This education was not confined to boys. Among Guarino’s pupils were Isotta and Ginevra Nogarola of Verona; among Vittorino’s Cecilia Gonzaga (b. 1425), whose features are familiar to us from Pisanello’s beautiful medal, and Ippolita, daughter of Francesco Sforza and wife of Alfonso II of Naples. Both Isotta and Cecilia attained considerable distinction as humanists, being learned in Greek as well as Latin. Both took the veil at an early age. But the first of the learned women of the Renaissance was Battista di Montefeltro (1383-1450), to whom Leonardo Bruni dedicated his treatise De studiis et literis soon after her marriage in 1405 to Galeazzo Malatesta, heir to the lordship of Pesaro. The marriage was an unhappy one, and after her widowhood she too took the veil. This record of women who studied the humanities is a scant one, but it serves to shew that the Renaissance, even in its early days, was not averse to the higher education of women. Moreover, those eager students who retired from the world to the cloister were the forerunners of Eleonora of Aragon, the wife of Ercole d’Este, and her daughters Isabella, the wife of Francesco Gonzaga, and Beatrice, the wife of Ludovico il Moro, who helped to make the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, and Milan important centres of art and culture; of Elisabetta Gonzaga, sister of Francesco and wife of Guid’ Ubaldo of Montefeltro, who did the same for the Court of Urbino; of Catarina Cornaro, the Queen of Cyprus; of Vittoria Colonna and Olympia Morata.
When Tommaso Parentucelli (1398-1455), to the surprise of everybody, was elected Pope in March 1447, and took the title of Nicholas V, all the humanists were filled with joy. Poggio spoke of him as a “heavensent” Pope, and Guarino wrote him a long, laudatory letter of congratulation. If he was not in the first rank of scholars, he was a voracious reader both of Christian and pagan literature and had, as we have seen, a great knowledge of books. After studying at Bologna for seven years, he went to Florence and acted as tutor to the sons, first of Rinaldo degli Albizzi, and then of Palla Strozzi. Returning to Bologna he entered the service of the Bishop, Niccolò Albergata, afterwards Cardinal, and accompanied him on his many embassies. He thus became acquainted with other countries than his own, and, what he must have valued most, with the leading scholars of Italy. He had only been a short time Bishop of Bologna and Cardinal when he was elected Pope. He at once conceived and proceeded to put into execution the idea of making Rome the material and intellectual capital of Italy, and to this end he was stimulated by two ruling passions, a passion for building and a passion for books. He rebuilt the walls and a great part of the Capitol, he restored several churches, he began to rebuild St Peter’s from the foundations, and he planned and partly carried out extensive additions to the Vatican. His intellectual schemes were equally ambitious, and in the furtherance of them he gave his patronage freely to the leading humanists. He attracted them to his Court all the more readily because since the death of Bruni (1444) Florence, largely owing to the preoccupation of Cosimo de’ Medici with political affairs, had ceased for a time to be the chief centre of Italian humanism. Poggio was already a papal secretary, and the Pope’s personal friend, Manetti, who was to become his biographer, came at his invitation from Florence, and having been made a secretary with an annual stipend of 600 ducats was set to the double task of writing an Apology for Christianity and of translating the Bible into Latin. But the chief work upon which the Pope employed the humanists was the translation of Greek prose writers. The Greek Fathers were allotted to George of Trebizond; Aristotle to Bessarion and Theodore Gaza. As for the Greek historians, Diodorus Siculus was entrusted to Poggio, who had previously translated Xenophon’s Cyropaedia; Strabo to Guarino and Gregorio of Citta di Castello (Gregorius Tifernas); and Appian to Pier Candido Decembrio (1399-1477), who had lived for thirty years at Milan as secretary to the Visconti dukes, and whom the Pope now took into his own service. Polybius fell to Niccolò Perotti (1429-1480), who was a pupil of Valla, and Valla himself received 500 ducats for a translation of Thucydides. The same scholar began a translation of Herodotus, but did not live to complete it.
The Pope’s latest recruit was Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481), who visited him in 1453 in the course of a triumphal journey from Milan to Naples and presented him with a copy of his filthy satires. Nicholas V read them with approval, and offered their author a house in Rome, an estate in the country, and 10,000 ducats for a Latin translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But the Pope’s death in 1455 prevented the proposal from being carried out. Filelfo had been professor at Florence, but when Cosimo de’ Medici, whom Filelfo had violently opposed, was recalled from exile in 1434, he fled to Siena. In 1439 he took service first with Filippo Maria Visconti, and then with the new lord of Milan, Francesco Sforza. But on the latter’s death (1466) his star set, and, after fifteen years of a wandering life, he died in poverty at Florence. He had glaring faults, but his vigour, alike physical and intellectual, was amazing, while his knowledge of Greek and Latin literature and his power of composing in both languages did not fall far short of his pretensions.
A different and higher type of humanism is represented by Flavio Biondo (1392-1463), a native of Forli, who had been appointed a papal secretary by Eugenius IV. He was the true founder of classical archaeology, for in Roma triumphans, Roma instaurata, and Italia illustrata he treated the several topics of Roman antiquities, Roman topography, and Italian geography in a really scientific spirit. His Roma instaurata, written in 1446 and first printed in 1474, kept the field unchallenged till the appearance of the second edition of Marliani’s work seventy years later. Lacking Biondo’s critical faculty, but an ardent worker in the field of archaeology, was Ciriaco of Ancona (1391-c. 1453), who spent his time in transcribing inscriptions and exploring archaeological remains not only in Italy but in many countries of the East.
Valla. Alfonso of Naples
A greater name is that of Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457), the founder of critical scholarship and historical criticism. He learnt Greek at Florence from Aurispa, and in 1431 he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric at Pavia, where he had as fellow-professors Antonio Beccadelli (1394-1471), generally known as “il Panormita,” the author of the scandalous Hermaphroditus, and Maffeo Vegio (1406-58), an upright, tolerant, and sincere Christian, whose early devotion to Virgil had been succeeded by an even greater devotion to St Augustine and St Monica. In 1432 Valla published a treatise entitled De voluptate, in which under the form of a dialogue between Leonardo Bruni, Beccadelli, and Niccolò Niccoli he examined in turn the ethical doctrines of the Stoics, the Epicureans, and Christ. Valla’s mouthpiece is Niccolò Niccoli, who, while defending the Epicureans against the Stoics, maintains the inferiority of both systems to Christianity, which he declares to be a religion, not of gloomy asceticism, but of joyous freedom. From 1435 to 1448 Valla was in the service of Alfonso of Naples, and it was there that he translated sixteen books of the Iliad and wrote the famous treatise in which he proved the spuriousness of the Donation of Constantine (1440). Seeing that he had also denounced as spurious the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, and had questioned the traditional composition of the Apostles’ Creed by the Apostles in person, it argued great courage on the part of Nicholas V to give him a post at his Court. Valla’s criticism was by no means confined to the cherished traditions of the Church; he attacked the logic of Aristotle and the jurisprudence of Bartolus, thus following in the footsteps of Petrarch. He made a scientific study of the Latin language, and gave his results to the world in that abiding monument of his scholarship, the Elegantiae latinae linguae, which, first printed at Venice in 1471, went through fifty-nine editions between that date and 1536, and even at the present day may be consulted with profit.
If humanism is rightly defined as the cult of antiquity, then Alfonso of Aragon (1385-1458), who by the capture of Naples in 1442 finally dispossessed René of Anjou of the Neapolitan crown, was the ideal humanist. There was something of superstition in his cult. Every day he had read to him, besides a portion of the Bible, a few pages of Seneca and Livy, and when the supposed bones of the Roman historian were discovered at Padua, he sent Beccadelli to Venice to beg for an arm. As a patron of humanists he maintained an honourable rivalry with Nicholas V, and his patronage is said to have cost him 20,000 ducats a year.
Among the recipients of his bounty were Poggio, Theodore Gaza, George of Trebizond, and (after the death of Nicholas V) Manetti. But the humanists who were most closely associated with him were Valla, Bartolommeo Fazio (1400-1457), a pupil of Guarino and a fine Latinist, and II Panormita, who spent thirty-six years at his Court and that of his successor. In spite of Il Panormita’s high reputation, he was no more than a facile and agreeable writer of Latin verse and prose. It was a disquieting feature of humanism, and one which justified the apprehensions of Ambrogio Traversari, that his scandalous volume, which he wrote when he was past thirty, was received with favour, and even with acclamation, by good men like Guarino and King Alfonso.
The excuse is that these ardent humanists suffered from more than a touch of that pedantry which regards language and literature as having little relation to real life. The same pedantry was at the bottom of the scurrilous invectives, founded upon classical models, which they hurled against each other. Poggio, Valla, Filelfo, George of Trebizond, Guarino, Niccolò Niccoli, and Leonardo Bruni all figured in encounters of this sort; but the three who most distinguished themselves by the vigour of their attacks and the indecency of their personal allusions were Poggio, Valla, and Filelfo.
The great favour shown to the humanists was largely the result of that inordinate desire for fame which, starting from Petrarch, became so pronounced a feature of the Renaissance. The humanists, naively confident in the immortality of their writings, succeeded in persuading their patrons that they could confer on them eternal glory or eternal shame—or, worse still, consign them to oblivion. Thus there sprang up between princes and humanists a brisk traffic, in which no one was more successful than Filelfo. He even got money out of that shrewd condottiere, Francesco Sforza, for an epic poem, the Sfortias, which celebrated his illustrious deeds.
Another charge that has been brought against the humanists as a class is that they were hostile to the Christian religion. But this, at any rate for the period we are now considering, is not supported by the facts. It is true that Poggio attacked the corrupt practices of the Church, especially of the Roman Curia, with acrimony and irreverence. But he was not a disbeliever in Christianity. It is true that Valla brought his critical artillery to bear on some of the Church’s most cherished traditions; but he never waged war on the essential doctrines of the faith. Even Filelfo, who was as inimical as Poggio to the monks and friars, and who admitted none but pagan authors to his library, professed an almost zealous orthodoxy. In fact, almost the only humanist who openly proclaimed himself a pagan was Carlo Marsuppini. On the other hand, the two great schoolmasters, Vittorino da Feltre and Guarino da Verona, whose influence through their scholars must have reached far and wide, were, as we have seen, very sincere and orthodox Christians. The same may be said of Pier Paolo Vergerio, the author of the first treatise on humanist education, De ingenuis moribus, which, written in 1403 or soon after, remained a classic till the middle of the sixteenth century. Leonardo Bruni’s De studiis et literis, written a year or two later, shews the same Christian spirit. And of the humanists in general at this time it may be said that in spite of their devotion to Cicero and Seneca—Lucretius was hardly known to them—they were neither sceptics nor rationalists. In fact down to the very close of the fifteenth century the Church and humanism were in close alliance. It was not till 1516 that Pomponazzi published his famous treatise, On the immortality of the soul.
Revival of Art
Thus much of humanism. But humanism was not the whole of the Renaissance, and we must now take into account another manifestation of the Renaissance spirit which is equally well known to us in detail and in which the primacy of Florence was equally pronounced. The announcement of the competition for the second doors of the Florence Baptistery in the first year of the fifteenth century marks the beginning of a great revival of Italian art. The successful competitor, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1381-1455), had all the many-sidedness of the great Renaissance artists; but though there is, perhaps, no great exaggeration in his remark that “there are few important works in our country which have not been designed and executed by my hand,” he had a less powerful and a less far-reaching influence than either Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) or Donatello or Masaccio.
In spite of the story, told with such picturesque detail by Antonio Manetti (who was only twenty-three at the time of Brunelleschi’s death) and repeated by Vasari, of the visit paid by Brunelleschi and Donatello to Rome, and of the former’s long sojourn in that city, it may be said that the four great Florentines owed less to antiquity than to their medieval predecessors. Ghiberti in his Commentaries praises highly not only Giotto, but Taddeo Gaddi and Orcagna and the Sienese painters, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, and Duccio; and though he speaks with enthusiasm of certain recently discovered specimens of classical art, nothing can be more unclassical than his later doors (the “Gates of Paradise ”) with their four separate planes of relief and their strong pictorial effect. Donatello’s statues, with one exception, owe nothing to antiquity, and it must be remembered that in his day all that was known of classical sculpture did not amount to much more than five or six bronzes in or around the Lateran palace, the bronze horses at Venice, and a few sarcophagi at Florence, Pisa, and elsewhere, and that nearly all these belonged to the Graeco-Roman period, none to the great age of Greek sculpture. Only in the horse of his Gattamelata statue, which he began about 1445, can Donatello be said to have been helped by a classical model—the bronze horses at Venice. It is true that his Annunciation in Santa Croce, one of the most beautiful works of the early Renaissance, is set in a carved frame which shews rich Renaissance decoration; but it is not till nearly the close of his life, when he executed the pulpits of San Lorenzo, that he makes much use of classical forms in his architectural backgrounds.
Masaccio learned much from Giotto and much from Donatello, but, according to Leonardo da Vinci, it was the study of nature, “the mistress of all masters,” which enabled him to bring back painting to the true path upon which Giotto had set it. Similarly Ghiberti, speaking of his second doors, says that he strove to imitate nature as closely as possible. Donatello’s statues were inspired by the study of living models, and several of his prophets are evidently portraits of his fellow-citizens. Even Brunelleschi, the parent of Renaissance architecture, had reached middle age before he built a complete Renaissance building. The problem which occupied his mind during the earlier part of his career was how to finish a medieval one.
The great church of Santa Maria del Fiore still lacked a cupola to complete the work of Arnolfo and his successors, and owing to the immense span this was a problem of very great difficulty. After many years of pondering and investigation, in which he was helped far more by the neighbouring Baptistery than, as one story goes, by the Pantheon of Rome, Brunelleschi arrived at a solution, and in 1420 his model, which shewed a double cupola without centering, was accepted by the Opera del Duomo (the Building Committee). In 1436 the cupola was finished and there only remained the lantern; Brunelleschi’s design for this was accepted, but the work was not begun till shortly before his death. His palaces, the Palazzo Pitti (altered and added to in the seventeenth century) and the finer Palazzo Pazzi (now Quaratesi), shew little departure from medieval tradition, and it is only in his churches that he works out after his own fashion the principles which he had studied in Rome. But here again he was largely influenced by the Romanesque work of his own Florence, such as the SS. Apostoli, San Miniato, and the old Badia at Fiesole. In the old sacristy of San Lorenzo and in the Pazzi chapel of Santa Croce the classical work is merely decorative; on the other hand, in the churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito the classical pilasters and entablature have for the first time a real structural importance.
While profiting to the full by medieval tradition and practice, Brunelleschi was always improving upon them. Throughout his work on the Duomo he was perpetually hampered by the pedantry and prejudices of the Opera, and its successful completion was the triumph of individual genius over authority and tradition. In fact the most striking characteristic of Florentine art during the early Renaissance is the individualism and the enquiring spirit of its greatest exponents. All were occupied with important and difficult problems, whether of engineering or perspective or light. Brunelleschi is said to have “rediscovered the art of perspective,” and it was the master-passion of Paolo Uccello.
Later Piero de’ Franceschi (1416-1492), who, though not a Florentine, was born in Tuscany and worked under Domenico Veneziano at Florence, and who was reputed to be the first geometrician of his time, studied the subject scientifically and embodied his results in an unpublished treatise. He also paid close attention to problems of light and shade, as may be seen in his famous frescoes at Arezzo (begun in 1453). especially in the Vision of Constantine.
Another feature of the Florentine painters and sculptors was their sympathy with human nature and their belief in the high calling of man. Much of their work is an embodiment of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!” Energy, sometimes restrained, sometimes animated, but always combined with dignity is a noticeable characteristic of Donatello’s work. His St George, his Gattamelata, and some of his Madonnas are models of dignified restraint, while his bronze reliefs on the altar of Sant’ Antonio at Padua and on the pulpits of San Lorenzo at Florence, and his glorious “ Cantoria” are no less remarkable for their lively and rhythmical animation. It is the same with Masaccio. Note the massive dignity of his Madonna in our National Gallery, and the contrast in the fresco of the Tribute-money between the calm dignity of Christ and the energetic indignation of St Peter. Indeed, all his frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine shew the same sense of the essential nobility of the human form and the same power of representing the character of an action by gesture as well as by expression. So too, going outside Florence, we find in the reliefs which Giacopo della Quercia (1367-1438), the great Sienese sculptor, executed for the portal of San Petronio at Bologna, a feeling for the human figure in dramatic and energetic action which proclaims him as the forerunner of Michelangelo.
But the beauty of woman and the joyousness of childhood appealed as powerfully to many of the Renaissance artists as the vigour and energy of man. Giacopo della Quercia was also the sculptor of the lovely figure of Ilaria del Carretto in the cathedral at Lucca. The charm of Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), the favourite painter of the Medici, is largely due to the delicate beauty of his women and children, and those of a greater artist than Lippi, Luca della Robbia (1400-1482), show equal beauty, and beauty of a more intellectual type. His “Cantoria” with its glorious dancing and singing children is a worthy companion to that of Donatello, the supreme sculptor of childhood.
The study of man in general leads to the study of individual man, and when this coincides with a strong desire for posthumous fame, portraiture rapidly develops. Yet during the first half of the fifteenth century avowed portraits of living persons were rare at Florence. Donatello immortalised his friends under the guise of prophets, and made busts of women and boys as Magdalens or John the Baptists. Masaccio and Filippo Lippi introduced portraits of Florentine citizens into their frescoes. Even Fra Angelico adopted this method of portraiture. But in the Courts of northern Italy and of Naples portraiture was open and avowed, and those despotic, art-loving princes found in Antonio Pisano, commonly known as Pisanello (1397-1450), a portraitist of rare genius. His medals of Filippo Maria Visconti, Francesco Sforza, Sigismondo Malatesta and his younger brother Malatesta Novello, of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga and his daughter Cecilia, Leonello d’Este, and the numerous medals of Alfonso of Naples, all executed between 1440 and 1450, form a remarkable record which may be completed by those of Vittorino da Feltre, the great schoolmaster of Mantua, and of Pier Candido Decembrio, who served the Visconti so long and so faithfully.
Remarkable as are the obverses of Pisanello’s medals, even more remarkable are the reverses. The best of these, notably those of the medals of Cecilia Gonzaga, Malatesta Novello, and Leonello d’Este (the marriage medal), shew all the power of design, the sense of the capacities and the limitations of the artist’s medium, the economy, the restraint, the simplicity, the perfect workmanship of the best Classical art. Yet they owe little, if anything, to Classical influence. So in Luca della Robbia’s work, whether it be his bronze doors, or his terracotta reliefs, or his “Cantoria,” or his monument to Bishop Federighi, we find the same felicity of artistic expression, the same instinctive perception of the treatment appropriate to his medium. And his debt to antiquity is even less than Pisanello’s.
Luca della Robbia’s work, if less mystical than Fra Angelico’s, is just as instinct with Christian sentiment. Donatello’s few authentic Madonnas, less winning than Luca’s, arrest us by their look of yearning tenderness and sad foreboding. In the painters the religious feeling is less marked. Masaccio certainly has it, but Paolo Uccello was too much occupied with the scientific side of his art to care for its spiritual side, and Filippo Lippi, though he owed much to the influence of Masaccio and something to that of Fra Angelico, had but a small share of their religious spirit. His pictures charm us by their grace and geniality and the evident pleasure with which he painted them, but they are eloquent of his love for the things of this world.
In the Courts of northern Italy the secularisation of art proceeded more rapidly than at Florence. At Verona the fresco of the Crucifixion, painted towards the close of the fourteenth century by Altichiero and Avanzo, shews that the painters are chiefly interested in the contemporaneous figures with which the canvas is crowded. The same interest in the world around him is manifest in the half-dozen existing pictures and in the sketch-books of their follower and fellow-citizen, Pisanello, who became famous as a painter by his work at Venice, Rome, Verona, Mantua, Pavia, and Milan, long before he made his first medal. He was partly influenced by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1428), whose work in Venice he was called on to complete, and whom we know best by the Adoration of the Magi, painted at Florence in 1423. The long procession of sumptuously dressed figures proclaims that the painter, unlike his fellow-Umbrians, was above all things interested in the pageant of life.
This early emancipation from the tutelage of the Church in the cities of northern Italy is due mainly, if not entirely, to the despots who ruled them. Like every other class of men, they differed greatly in character. It is a mistake to regard Sigismondo Malatesta as a normal type. We do, however, find in the despots certain common traits which help to throw light on the general character of the Renaissance. In the first place, they were, on the whole, generous and intelligent patrons of art and learning, even if their love of art was sometimes a mere taste for magnificence, and if their sympathy with learning was largely prompted by a desire for posthumous fame. Another characteristic was their abundant energy and vitality. Knowing that their tenure of power depended mainly on success, they were ruthless towards their opponents and unscrupulous in their dealings with their neighbours, but they governed their States well and justly. The family crimes which were almost traditional in the annals of the Carraras, the La Scalas, and the Estes, and which were not uncommon in other princely families, were more or less a matter of indifference to their subjects. But this very indifference is significant, for it testifies to a general feeling that the despot was above law and morality, and was free to shape his conduct according to his own pleasure. The same feeling is shewn in the scant regard paid by the despot and his subjects to legitimate birth. In default of legitimate issue, illegitimate sons succeeded their fathers as a matter of course. Alfonso I of Naples, in many respects a model of virtue, had only two children, an illegitimate son who succeeded him, and an illegitimate daughter whom he married to Leonello d’Este, the successor and eldest of the eight bastards of Nicholas III. Federigo of Montefeltro, another just and admirable ruler, was illegitimate himself, and the father of illegitimate children.
There were some despots whose power rested, not on birth at all, but solely on the right of conquest. Machiavelli’s example is Francesco Sforza, who “from a private individual became Duke of Milan through great virtu” and by virtu the author of The Prince means, not virtue, but vigour, ability, and, above all, success—the qualities which the Renaissance prized most, and which Marlowe’s Mortimer, a true Renaissance figure, sums up in the line:
Who now makes Fortune’s wheel turn as he please.
Such was the Renaissance—not a rebirth, not a sudden transformation from darkness to light, but a gradual transition from the medieval to the modern world. And this transition was stimulated by the advent of a new spirit—a spirit of enthusiasm, of adventure, of pride in the dignity of man, of belief in individual effort, of criticism of old traditions, of search for new knowledge, a spirit guided and sustained by intercourse with the great writers of antiquity—poets, philosophers, historians—many of whom had been recently disinterred from dust-laden repositories, and who were all studied with a new reverence and a more enlightened understanding. Thus humanism, or the belief in the supreme value of ancient literature and culture, exercised a widespread influence. Art, however, remained to a large extent unaffected by it. Painting, except in mere decorative accessories, was untouched by it; sculpture was influenced by it only to a slight extent; even the transition from Gothic to Classical architecture was gradual, and when Brunelleschi at last produced his first complete building in the Classical style, he did so in no spirit of slavish imitation. Like the painters and the sculptors, he made observation and experiment his starting-point, and if he profited by Classical models he adapted them to the needs of his individual genius.
For it was a note of the Renaissance that the individual claimed to express, not only his artistic personality, but his ideas and opinions, unhampered by tradition or authority. He claimed, in fact, the right of criticism and free enquiry. And, provided this claim was limited by a regard for the individuality of others and for the social organism of which the individual was part, it was individualism in the best sense. Another note of the Renaissance was belief in the goodness of human life and in the dignity, even in the perfectibility, of man. And this belief was the ultimate basis of humanism, that is to say, of the study of that classical literature which provided better than any other subject that training in knowledge and virtue which is the prerogative of man.