On November 5, 1513, Leo issued a bull uniting two impoverished institutions of learning: the Studium sacri palatii—the College of the Holy Palace, i.e., the Vatican—and the Studium urbis, or City College; these now became the University of Rome, and were housed in a building soon known as the Sapienza.36 These schools had prospered under Alexander but languished under Julius, who diverted their funds to war, and preferred a sword to a book. Leo supported the new University handsomely until he too was enmeshed in the expensive game of competitive destruction. He brought in a bevy of devoted scholars, so that soon the institution had eighty-eight professors—fifteen in medicine alone—receiving from fifty to 530 florins ($625 to $6625?) a year. Leo, in these early years of his pontificate, did everything that he could to make the combined colleges the most scholarly and flourishing university in Italy.
It was one of his credits that he established the study of Semitic languages. A chair in the University of Rome was devoted to the teaching of Hebrew, and Teseo Ambrogio was appointed to teach Syriac and Chaldaic in the University of Bologna. Leo welcomed the dedication of a Hebrew grammar composed by Agacio Guidacerio. Learning that Sante Pagnini was translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew into Latin, he asked to see a specimen, liked it, and undertook at once the expense of the laborious enterprise.
It was Leo, too, who restored Greek studies, which had begun to decline. He invited to Rome the old scholar John Lascaris, who had been teaching Greek in Florence, France, and Venice; and with him he organized a Greek Academy in Rome, distinct from the University. To Lascaris’ pupil Marcus Musurus, chief aide to Manutius, Bembo wrote for Leo (August 7, 1513) a letter inviting the scholar to secure from Greece “ten young men, or as many more as you may think proper, of good education and virtuous disposition, who may compose a seminary of liberal studies, and from whom the Italians may derive the proper use and knowledge of the Greek tongue.”37 A month later Manutius published the edition of Plato that Musurus had completed, and the great printer dedicated the work to the Pope. Leo responded by granting to Aldus, for fifteen years, the exclusive privilege of reprinting the Greek or Latin books that Aldus had already issued, or would in that period publish; all who should encroach upon this privilege were by that deed excommunicated and subject to penalties; this privilegium ad imprimendum solum was the Renaissance way of giving to a printer a copyright on the editions that he had paid to prepare. Leo added to the privilege an earnest recommendation that the Aldine publications should be moderately priced; they were. The Greek college was established in the house of the Colocci on the Quirinal, and a press was set up there to print textbooks and scholia for the students. A similar “Medicean Academy” for Greek studies was about the same time founded in Florence. Under Leo’s encouragement Varino Camerti, who Latinized his name as Favorinus, compiled the best Greek-Latin dictionary yet published in the Renaissance world.
The Pope’s enthusiasm for the classics was almost a religion. He accepted from the Venetians “a shoulder bone of Livy” with the same piety as though it had been a relic of some major saint.38 Soon after his accession he announced that he would amply reward any person who should procure for him unpublished manuscripts of ancient literature. Like his father, he directed his emissaries and appointees in foreign lands to seek and buy for him any manuscripts of ancient pagan or Christian authorship and value; and sometimes he dispatched envoys for that sole and special purpose, and gave them letters to kings and princes soliciting co-operation in the search. His agents seem on occasion to have stolen manuscripts when these could not be bought; this was apparently the case with the first six books of Tacitus’ Annals, found in the monastery of Corvey in Westphalia, for we have a charming letter to the papal agent Heitmers, written by or for Leo after the Annals had been edited and published:
We have sent a copy of the revised and printed books in a beautiful binding to the abbot and his monks, that they may place it in their library as a substitute for the one taken from it. But in order that they may understand that this purloining has done them far more good than harm, we have granted them for their church a plenary indulgence.39
Leo gave the purloined manuscript to Filippo Beroaldo, with instructions to correct and edit the text, and print it in an elegant but convenient form. Said Leo in this letter of instruction:
We have been accustomed, even in our early years, to think that nothing more excellent or useful has been given by the Creator to mankind—if we except only the knowledge and true worship of Himself—than these studies, which not only lead to the ornament and guidance of human life, but are applicable and useful to every particular situation, consoling in adversity, pleasing and honorable in prosperity; insomuch that without them we should be deprived of all the grace of life and all the polish of society. The security and extension of these studies seem chiefly to depend on two circumstances: the number of learned men, and the ample supply of excellent texts. As to the first of these we hope, with the divine blessing, to show still more evidently our earnest desire and disposition to reward and honor their merits, this having been for a long time past our chief delight…. With respect to the acquisition of books, we return thanks to God that in this also an opportunity is now afforded us of promoting the advantage of mankind.40
Leo thought that the judgment of the Church should determine what literature would advantage mankind, for he renewed Alexander’s edict for the episcopal censorship of books.
In the sack of the Medici Palace (1494) some of the books collected by Leo’s ancestors had been dispersed. Most of them, however, had been bought by the monks of San Marco; and these salvaged volumes Leo, while still a cardinal, had repurchased for 2652 ducats ($33,150?), and had transferred to his palace in Rome. This Laurentian Library was returned to Florence after Leo’s death; we shall see its further fortune later.
The Vatican Library had now swollen to such proportions as to need a corps of scholars for its care. When Leo acceded to the papacy the head librarian was Tommaso Inghirami—a nobleman and poet, a conversationalist noted for wit and brilliance in a society of brilliant wits, and an actor whose success in the part of Phaedra in Seneca’s Hippolytus earned him the nickname of Fedra. When he died in a street accident in 1516 he was replaced as bibliotecario by Filippo Beroaldo, who divided his affections between Tacitus and the learned courtesan Imperia, and wrote such excellent Latin poetry as to receive six independent translations into French, one by Clement Marot. Girolamo Aleandro or Aleander, who became librarian in 1519, was a man of temper, learning, and ability. He spoke Latin and Greek, and Hebrew so fluently that Luther mistakenly pronounced him a Jew. At the Diet of Augsburg (1520) he strove with more passion than wisdom to halt the Protestant tide. Paul III made him a cardinal (1538), but four years later Aleander died through too assiduous care of his health and too frequent use of medicine.41 He was highly indignant at being taken off at sixty-two, and scandalized his friends with his exasperation at the ways of Providence.42
Private libraries were now numerous in Rome. Aleander himself had a considerable collection, which he bequeathed to Venice. Cardinal Grimani, envied by Erasmus, had eight thousand volumes, in a variety of languages; he willed these books to the church of San Salvador in Venice, where they were destroyed by fire. Cardinal Sadoleto had a precious library, which he put on a ship to send to France; it was lost at sea. Bembo’s library was rich in Provençal poets and original manuscripts—e.g., of Petrarch; this collection passed to Urbino, thence to the Vatican. Rich laymen like Agostino Chigi and Bindo Altoviti imitated the popes and the cardinals in collecting books, engaging artists, and supporting poets and scholars.
These abounded in Leo’s Rome beyond any precedent or later parallel. Many cardinals were themselves scholars; some, like Egidio Canisio, Sadoleto, and Bibbiena, had been made cardinals because they were scholars of long service to the Church. Most of the cardinals in Rome acted as patrons, usually by rewarding dedications; and the homes of Cardinals Riario, Grimani, Bibbiena, Alidosi, Petrucci, Farnese, Soderini, Sanseverino, Gonzaga, Canisio, and Giulio de’ Medici were surpassed only by the papal court as meeting places for the intellectual and artistic talent of the city. Castiglione, whose genial nature made friends with both the amiable Raphael and the dour and unapproachable Michelangelo, maintained a modest salon of his own.
Leo, of course, was the patron par excellence. No one who could turn a good Latin epigram went away from him giftless. As in the days of Nicholas V, scholarship—but now also poetry—constituted a claim to some place in the vast officialdom of the Church. Lesser lights became apostolic scribes, abbreviatores, brief-writers; brighter luminaries rose to be canons, bishops, protonotaries; stars like Sadoleto and Bembo became secretaries to the Pope; some, like Sadoleto and Bibbiena, were made cardinals. Ciceronian oratory again resounded in Rome; epistles rose and fell in cadenced periods; Virgilian and Horatian verse flowed in a thousand rivulets into the Tiber as their final destination. Bembo set the stylistic standard pontifically; “far better to speak like Cicero;” he wrote to Isabella d’Este, “than to be pope.”43 His friend and colleague, Iacopo Sadoleto, shamed most of the humanists by combining an impeccable Latin style with impeccable morals. There were many men of high integrity among the cardinals of this age, and Leo’s humanists were, by and large, of finer temper and life than those of the preceding generation.44 Some, however, remained pagan in everything but their professed creed. It was an unwritten law that whatever one believed or doubted, no gentleman would utter anything critical of a Church that was morally so tolerant, and so munificent a patron.
Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena was a composite of all these qualities-scholar, poet, dramatist, diplomat, connoisseur, conversationalist, pagan, priest, and cardinal. Raphael’s portrait catches only a part of him—his sly eyes and sharp nose; it covers his baldness with a red hat, and his gaiety with an unwonted gravity. He was light of foot and word and spirit, escaping from every vicissitude with a smile. Employed by Lorenzo the Magnificent as secretary and tutor, he shared with Lorenzo’s sons the flight of 1494; but he showed his cleverness by going to Urbino, charming that urbane circle with his epigrams, and using some of his leisure to write and stage a risqué play—Calandra (c. 1508), the oldest of Italian prose comedies. Julius II brought him to Rome. Bernardo managed Leo’s election with so little fuss and friction that Leo at once made him apostolic protonotary, and the next day treasurer of the papal household, and six months later cardinal. His dignities did not prevent him from serving Leo as connoisseur of arts and organizer of festival pageantry. His play was performed before the Pope, who enjoyed it with a good stomach. Sent as papal nuncio to France, he fell in love with Francis I, and had to be recalled as too sensitive for a diplomat. When Raphael decorated his bathroom, it was, by the Cardinal’s choice, with the History of Venus and Cupid, a series of pictures recounting the triumphs of love; nearly all done in true antique Pompeian style, and overleaping Christianity into a world that had never heard of Christ. Leo, pretending not to notice the Venus in Bibbiena, was faithful to him to the end.
Leo relished drama in all its comic forms and degrees, from the simplest farce to the subtlest double-entendres of Bibbiena and Machiavelli. In the first year of his pontificate he opened a theater on the Capitol. There, in 1518, he witnessed a performance of Ariosto’s I Suppositi, and laughed heartily at the equivocal jests that stemmed from the plot—the effort of a youth to seduce a maiden.45 Such gala performances were more than mere comedy; they included artistic stage settings (in this case the scenery was painted by Raphael), a ballet, and entr’acte music by a chorus and an orchestra of lutes, violas, cornets, bagpipes, fifes, and a small organ.
To Leo’s pontificate belongs one of the major historical works of the Renaissance. Paolo Giovio was a native of Como. There, and in Milan and Rome, he practised medicine; but, inspired by the literary excitement that greeted Leo’s accession, he gave his leisure hours to writing a Latin history of his own times—i.e., from the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII to Leo’s pontificate. He was allowed to read the first sections to Leo, who, with his customary lavishness, pronounced it the most eloquent and elegant historical writing since Livy, and rewarded him at once with a pension. After Leo’s death Giovio used what he called his “pen of gold” to write a eulogistic life of his dead patron, and his “pen of iron” to indict Pope Adrian VI, who ignored him. Meanwhile he continued to labor at his immense Historiae sui temporis, finally carrying it to 1547. When Rome was sacked in 1527 he hid his manuscript in a church; it was found by a soldier, who then asked the author to buy his own book; Paolo was saved from this indignity by Clement VII, who persuaded the thief to accept, in lieu of more immediate payment, a benefice in Spain; Giovio himself was made bishop of Nocera. His History, and the biographies that he added to it, were acclaimed for their fluent and vivid style, but were denounced for their careless inaccuracies and their flagrant prejudice. Giovio blithely confessed that he praised or condemned the persons of his story according as they or their relatives had or had not lubricated his palm.46