It was under the Medici, or in their day, that the humanists captivated the mind of Italy, turned it from religion to philosophy, from heaven to earth, and revealed to an astonished generation the riches of pagan thought and art. These men mad about scholarship received, as early as Ariosto,22 the name of umanisti because they called the study of classic culture umanità— the “humanities”—or literae humaniores—not “more humane” but more human letters. The proper study of mankind was now to be man, in all the potential strength and beauty of his body, in all the joy and pain of his senses and feelings, in all the frail majesty of his reason; and in these as most abundantly and perfectly revealed in the literature and art of ancient Greece and Rome. This was humanism.
Nearly all the Latin, and many of the Greek classics now extant were known to medieval scholars here and there; and the thirteenth century was acquainted with the major pagan philosophers. But that century had almost ignored Greek poetry; and many ancient worthies now honored by us lay neglected in monastic or cathedral libraries. It was mostly in such forgotten corners that Petrarch and his successors found the “lost” classics, “gentle prisoners,” he called them, “held in captivity by barbarous jailers.” Boccaccio, visiting Monte Cassino, was shocked to find precious manuscripts rotting in dust, or mutilated to make psalters or amulets. Poggio, visiting the Swiss monastery of St. Gall while attending the Council of Constance, found the Institutiones of Quintilian in a foul dark dungeon, and felt, as he reclaimed the rolls, that the old pedagogue was stretching out his hands, begging to be saved from the “barbarians”; for by that name the culture-conscious Italians, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, called their virile conquerors beyond the Alps. Poggio alone, undeterred by winter’s cold or snow, exhumed from such tombs the texts of Lucretius, Columella, Frontinus, Vitruvius, Valerius Flaccus, Tertullian, Plautus, Petronius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and several major speeches of Cicero. Coluccio Salutati unearthed Cicero’s letters ad familiares at Vercelli (1389); Gherardo Landriani found Cicero’s treatises on rhetoric in an old chest at Lodi (1422); Ambrogio Traversari rescued Cornelius Nepos from oblivion in Padua (1434); theAgricola, Germania, andDialogi of Tacitus were discovered in Germany (1455); the first six books of Tacitus’ Annales, and a full manuscript of the younger Pliny’s letters were recovered from the monastery of Corvey (1508), and became a prize possession of Leo X.
In the half century before the Turks took Constantinople a dozen humanists studied or traveled in Greece; one of them, Giovanni Aurispa, brought back to Italy 238 manuscripts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles; another, Francesco Filelfo, salvaged from Constantinople (1427) texts of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Demosthenes, Aeschines, and Aristotle, and seven dramas of Euripides. When such literary explorers returned to Italy with their finds they were welcomed like victorious generals, and princes and prelates paid well for a share of the spoils. The fall of Constantinople resulted in the loss of many classics previously mentioned by Byzantine writers as in the libraries of that city; nevertheless thousands of volumes were saved, and most of them came to Italy; to this day the best manuscripts of Greek classics are in Italy. For three centuries, from Petrarch to Tasso, men collected manuscripts with philatelic passion. Niccolò de’ Niccoli spent more than he had in this pursuit; Andreolo de Ochis was ready to sacrifice his home, his wife, his life to add to his library; Poggio suffered when he saw money being spent on anything else than books.
An editorial revolution ensued. The texts so recovered were studied, compared, corrected, and explained in a campaign of scholarship that ranged from Lorenzo Valla in Naples to Sir Thomas More in London. Since these labors in many cases required a knowledge of Greek, Italy—and later France, England, and Germany—sent out a call for teachers of Greek. Aurispa and Filelfo learned the language in Greece itself. After Manuel Chrysoloras came to Italy (1397) as Byzantine envoy, the University of Florence persuaded him to join its faculty as professor of Greek language and literature. Among his pupils there were Poggio, Palla Strozzi, Marsuppini, and Manetti. Leonardo Bruni, studying law, abandoned it, under the spell of Chrysoloras, for the study of Greek; “I gave myself to his teaching with such ardor,” he tells us, “that my dreams at night were filled with what I had learned from him during the day.”23 Who now could imagine that Greek grammar was once an adventure and a romance?
In 1439 Greeks met Italians at the Council of Florence, and the lessons they exchanged in language had far more result than their laborious negotiations in theology. There Gemistus Pletho gave the famous lectures that ended the reign of Aristotle in European philosophy and enthroned Plato as almost a god. When the Council dispersed, Joannes Bessarion, who had come to it as Bishop of Nicaea, remained in Italy and gave part of his time to teaching Greek. Other cities contracted the fever; Bessarion brought it to Rome; Theodorus Gaza taught Greek at Mantua, Ferrara (1444), and Rome (1451); Demetrius Chalcondyles taught at Perugia (1450), Padua, Florence, and Milan (c. 1492–1511); Joannes Argyropoulos at Padua (1441), Florence (1456–71), and Rome (1471–86). All these men came to Italy before the fall of Constantinople (1453), so that that event played a minor role in the transit of Greek from Byzantium to Italy; but the gradual encirclement of Constantinople by the Turks after 1356 shared in persuading Greek scholars to go west. One of those who fled at the collapse of the Eastern capital was Constantine Lascaris, who came to teach Greek at Milan (1460–5), Naples, and Messina (1466–1501). The first Greek book printed in Renaissance Italy was his Greek grammar.
With all these scholars and their pupils enthusiastically active in Italy, it was but a short time when the classics of Greek literature and philosophy were rendered into Latin with more thoroughness, accuracy, and finish than in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Guarino translated parts of Strabo and Plutarch; Traversari, Diogenes Laertius; Valla, Herodotus, Thucydides, and the Iliad; Perotti, Polybius; Ficino, Plato and Plotinus. Plato, above all, amazed and delighted the humanists. They gloried in the fluid grace of his style; they found in the Dialogues a drama more vivid and contemporary than anything in Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides; they envied and marveled at the freedom with which the Greeks of Socrates’ time discussed the most crucial problems of religion and politics; and they thought they had found in Plato—clouded with Plotinus—a mystical philosophy that would enable them to retain a Christianity that they had ceased to believe in, but never ceased to love. Moved by the eloquence of Gemistus Pletho and the enthusiasm of his pupils at Florence, Cosimo established there (1445) a Platonic Academy for the study of Plato, and provided handsomely for Marsilio Ficino to give half a lifetime to the translation and exposition of Plato’s works. Now, after a reign of four hundred years, Scholasticism lost its domination in the philosophy of the West; the dialogue and essay replaced the scholastica disputatio as the form of philosophical exposition, and the exhilarating spirit of Plato entered like an energizing yeast into the rising body of European thought.
But as Italy recovered more and more of its own classic heritage, the admiration of the humanists for Greece was surpassed by their pride in the literature and art of ancient Rome. They revived Latin as a medium of living literature; they Latinized their names, and Romanized the terms of Christian worship and life: God became Iuppiter, Providence fatum, the saints divi, nuns vestales, the pope pontifex maximus. They fashioned their prose style on Cicero, their poetry on Virgil and Horace; and some, like Filelfo, Valla, and Politian, achieved an almost classic elegance. So, in its course, the Renaissance moved back from Greek to Latin, from Athens to Rome; fifteen centuries appeared to fall away, and the age of Cicero and Horace, of Ovid and Seneca, seemed reborn. Style became more important than substance, form triumphed over matter; and the oratory of majestic periods rang again in the halls of princes and pedagogues. Perhaps it would have been better if the humanists had used Italian; but they looked down upon the speech of theCommedia and the Canzoniere as a corrupt and degenerate Latin (which almost it was), and deplored Dante’s choice of the vernacular tongue. As a penalty the humanists lost touch with the living sources of literature; and the people, leaving their works to the aristocracy, preferred the jolly tales—novelle— of Sacchetti and Bandello, or the exciting mixture of war and love in the romances that were being translated or adapted into Italian from the French. Nevertheless this passing infatuation with a dying language and an “immortal” literature helped Italian authors to recapture the architecture, sculpture, and music of style, and to formulate the canons of taste and utterance that lifted the vernaculars to literary form, and set a goal and a standard for art. In the field of history it was the humanists who ended the succession of medieval chronicles—chaotic and uncritical—by scrutinizing and harmonizing sources, marshaling the matter into order and clarity, vitalizing and humanizing the past by mingling biography with history, and raising their narratives to some level of philosophy by discerning causes, currents, and effects, and studying the regularities and lessons of history.
The humanist movement spread throughout Italy, but until the accession of a Florentine Medici to the papacy its leaders were almost all citizens or graduates of Florence. Coluccio Salutati, who became executive secretary or chancellor (cancellarius) to the Signory in 1375, was a bridge from Petrarch and Boccaccio to Cosimo, knowing and loving all three. The public documents drawn up by him were models of classical Latinity, and set an example that officials in Venice, Milan, Naples, and Rome bestirred themselves to follow; Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan said that Salutati had done him more harm by excellence of style than could have come from an army of mercenaries.24 The fame of Niccolò de’ Niccoli as a Latin stylist rivaled his renown as a collector of manuscripts; Bruni called him the “censor of the Latin tongue,” and, like other authors, submitted his own writings to Niccoli for correction before publishing them. Niccoli filled his house with ancient classics, statuary, inscriptions, vases, coins, and gems. He avoided marriage lest it distract him from his books, but found time for a concubine stolen from his brother’s bed.25 He opened his library to all who cared to study there, and urged young Florentines to abandon luxury for literature. Seeing a wealthy youth idling the day away, Niccoli asked him, “What is your object in life?” “To have a good time,” was the frank reply. “But when your youth is over, of what consequence will you be?”26 The youth saw the point, and put himself under Niccoli’s tutelage.
Leonardo Bruni, secretary to four popes and then (1427–44) to the Florentine Signory, translated several dialogues of Plato into a Latin whose excellence for the first time fully revealed the splendor of Plato’s style to Italy; he composed a Latin History of Florence for which the Republic exempted him and his children from taxation; and his speeches were compared with those of Pericles. When he died the priors decreed him a public funeral after the manner of the ancients; he was buried in the church of Santa Croce, with his History on his breast; and Bernardo Rossellino designed for his resting place a noble and sumptuous tomb.
Born like Bruni in Arezzo, and succeeding him as secretary to the Signory, Carlo Marsuppini awed his time by carrying half the classics of Greece and Rome in his head; he left hardly one ancient author unquoted in his inaugural address as professor of literature in the University of Florence. His admiration for pagan antiquity was such that he felt called upon to reject Christianity;27 nevertheless he became for a time apostolic secretary to the Roman See; and though he was said to have died without bothering to receive the sacraments,28 he too was buried in Santa Croce under gorgeous oratory by Giannozzo Manetti and an ornate tomb by Desiderio da Settignano (1453). Manetti, who pronounced this eulogy over an atheist, was a man whose piety rivaled his learning. For nine years he hardly stirred from his house and garden, steeping himself in classical literature, and learning Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek. Sent as ambassador to Rome, Naples, Venice, Genoa, he charmed all, and won friendships precious to his government by his culture, his liberality, and his integrity.
All these men except Salutati were members of the circle that gathered in the city house or country villa of Cosimo, and led the movement of scholarship during his ascendancy. Another friend of Cosimo almost equaled him as a host to learning. Ambrogio Traversari, general of the Camaldulite order, lived in a cell in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Florence. He mastered Greek, and suffered qualms of conscience in his affection for the classics; he refrained from quoting them in his writings, but revealed their influence in a Latin style whose idiomatic purity would have shocked all the famous Gregories. Cosimo, who knew how to reconcile the classics, as well as high finance, with Christianity, loved to visit him. Niccoli, Marsuppini, Bruni, and others made his cell a literary rendezvous.
The most active and troublesome of the Italian humanists was Poggio Bracciolini. Born poor near Arezzo (1380), he was educated at Florence, studied Greek under Manuel Chrysoloras, supported himself by copying manuscripts, was befriended by Salutati, and secured appointment, at twenty-four, as a secretary in the papal chancery at Rome. For the next half century he served the Curia, never taking even minor orders, but wearing ecclesiastical dress. Valuing his energy and his learning, the Curia sent him on a dozen missions. From these he digressed, time and again, to search for classic manuscripts; his credentials as a papal secretary won him access to the most jealously guarded, or most carelessly neglected, treasures in the monastic libraries at St. Gall, Langres, Weingarten, and Reichenau; and his spoils were so rich that Bruni and other humanists hailed them as epochal. Back in Rome he wrote for Martin V vigorous defenses of Church dogmas, and then, in private gatherings, joined with other employees of the Curia in laughing at the Christian creed.29 He composed dialogues and letters in rough but breezy Latin, satirizing the vices of the clergy even while practising them to the extent of his means. When Cardinal Sant’ Angelo reproved him for having children, which hardly befitted a man in ecclesiastical dress, and for maintaining a mistress, which seemed unbecoming in a layman, Poggio replied with his usual insolence: “I have children, which is becoming to a layman, and I have a mistress, which is an old custom of the clergy.”30 At fifty-five he abandoned the mistress who had given him fourteen children, and married a girl of eighteen. Meanwhile he almost founded modern archeology by collecting ancient coins, inscriptions, and statuary, and by describing with scholarly precision the surviving monuments of classic Rome. He accompanied Pope Eugenius IV to the Council of Florence, quarreled with Francesco Filelfo, and exchanged with him enthusiastic invectives of the coarsest indecency, peppered with accusations of theft, atheism, and sodomy. Again in Rome, he worked with especial pleasure for the humanist Pope Nicholas V. At seventy he composed his famous Liber facetiarum, a collection of stories, satires, and obscenities. When Lorenzo Valla joined the papal secretariat Poggio attacked him in a new series of Invectivae, charging him with larceny, forgery, treachery, heresy, drunkenness, and immorality. Valla replied by laughing at Poggio’s Latin, quoting his sins against grammar and idiom, and setting him aside as a fool in his dotage.31 No one but the immediate victim took such literary assaults seriously; they were competitive essays in Latin composition; indeed Poggio proclaimed, in one of them, that he would show how well classic Latin could express the most modern ideas and the most private concerns. He was so adept in the art of erudite scurrility that “the whole world,” said Vespasiano, “was afraid of him.”32 His pen, like that of a later Aretine, became an instrument of blackmail. When Alfonso of Naples delayed in acknowledging Poggio’s gift of Xenophon’s Cyropaediatranslated into Latin, the irate humanist hinted that a good pen could stab any king, and Alfonso hastily sent him 500 ducats to hold his tongue. After enjoying every instinct and impulse for seventy years, Poggio composed a treatise De miseriis humanae conditionis,in which he reckoned that the ills of life outweigh the joys, and concluded, like Solon, that the luckiest people are those who escape being born.33 At seventy-two he returned to Florence, was soon made secretary to the Signory, and finally was elected to the Signory itself. He expressed his appreciation by writing a history of Florence in the style of the ancients—politics, war, and imaginary speeches. Other humanists breathed relief when at last, aged seventy-nine, he died (1459). He too was buried in Santa Croce; his statue by Donatello was erected on the façade of the duomo; and in 1560, in the confusion of some alterations, it was set up inside the cathedral as one of the twelve Apostles.34
It is clear that Christianity, in both its theology and its ethics, had lost its hold on perhaps a majority of the Italian humanists. Several, like Traversari, Bruni, and Manetti in Florence, Vittorino da Feltre in Mantua, Guarino da Verona in Ferrara, and Flavio Biondo in Rome, remained loyal to the faith. But to many others the revelation of a Greek culture lasting a thousand years, and reaching the heights of literature, philosophy, and art in complete independence of Judaism and Christianity, was a mortal blow to their belief in the Pauline theology, or in the doctrine of nulla salus extra ecclesiam—”no salvation outside the Church.” Socrates and Plato became for them uncanonized saints; the dynasty of the Greek philosophers seemed to them superior to the Greek and Latin Fathers, the prose of Plato and Cicero made even a cardinal ashamed of the Greek of the New Testament and the Latin of Jerome’s translation; the grandeur of Imperial Rome seemed nobler than the timid retreat of convinced Christians into monastic cells; the free thought and conduct of Periclean Greeks or Augustan Romans filled many humanists with an envy that shattered in their hearts the Christian code of humility, otherworldliness, continence; and they wondered why they should subject body, mind, and soul to the rule of ecclesiastics who themselves were now joyously converted to the world. For these humanists the ten centuries between Constantine and Dante were a tragic error, a Dantesque losing of the right road; the lovely legends of the Virgin and the saints faded from their memory to make room for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Horace’s ambisexual odes; the great cathedrals now seemed barbarous, and their gaunt statuary lost all charm for eyes that had seen, fingers that had touched, the Apollo Belvedere.
So the humanists, by and large, acted as if Christianity were a myth conformable to the needs of popular imagination and morality, but not to be taken seriously by emancipated minds. They supported it in their public pronouncements, professed a saving orthodoxy, and struggled to harmonize Christian doctrine with Greek philosophy. The very effort betrayed them; implicitly they accepted reason as the supreme court, and honoured Plato’s Dialogues equally with the New Testament. Like the Sophists of pre-Socratic Greece, they directly or indirectly, willfully or unwittingly undermined their hearers’ religious faith. Their lives reflected their actual creed; many of them accepted and practised the ethics of paganism in the sensual rather than in the Stoic sense. The only immortality they recognized was that which came through the recording of great deeds; they with their pens, not God, would confer it, would destine men to everlasting glory or shame. A generation after Cosimo they would agree to share this magic power with the artists who carved or painted the effigies of patrons, or built noble edifices that preserved a donor’s name. The desire of patrons to achieve such mundane immortality was one of the strongest generative forces in the art and literature of the Renaissance.
The influence of the humanists was for a century the dominant factor in the intellectual life of Western Europe. They taught writers a sharper sense of structure and form; they taught them also the artifices of rhetoric, the frills of language, the abracadabra of mythology, the fetishism of classical quotation, the sacrifice of significance to correctness of speech and beauty of style. Their infatuation with Latin postponed for a century (1400–1500) the development of Italian poetry and prose. They emancipated science from theology, but impeded it by worshiping the past, and by stressing erudition rather than objective observation and original thought. Strange to say, they were least influential in the universities. These were already old in Italy; and at Bologna, Padua, Pisa, Piacenza, Pavia, Naples, Siena, Arezzo, Lucca, the faculties of law, medicine, theology, and “arts”—i.e., language, literature, rhetoric, and philosophy—were too mortised in medieval custom to allow a new emphasis on ancient cultures; at most they yielded, here and there, a chair of rhetoric to a humanist. The influence of the “revival of letters” operated chiefly through academies founded by patron princes in Florence, Naples, Venice, Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, and Rome. There the humanists dictated in Greek or Latin the classic text they proposed to discuss; at each step they commented in Latin on the grammatical, rhetorical, geographical, biographical, and literary aspects of the text; their students took down the dictated text, and, in the margins, much of the commentary; in this way copies of the classics, and of commentaries as well, were multiplied and were scattered into the world. The age of Cosimo was therefore a period of devoted scholarship, rather than of creative literature. Grammar, lexicography, archeology, rhetoric, and the critical revision of classical texts were the literary glories of the time. The form, machinery, and substance of modern erudition were established; a bridge was built by which the legacy of Greece and Rome passed into the modern mind.
Not since the days of the Sophists had scholars risen to so high a place in society and politics. The humanists became secretaries and advisers to senates, signories, dukes, and popes, repaying their favors with classic eulogies, and their snubs with poisoned epigrams. They transformed the ideal of a gentleman from a man with ready sword and clanking spurs into that of the fully developed individual attaining to wisdom and worth by absorbing the cultural heritage of the race. The prestige of their learning and the fascination of their eloquence conquered transalpine Europe at the very time when the arms of France, Germany, and Spain were preparing to conquer Italy. Country after country was inoculated with the new culture, and passed from medievalism to modernity. The same century that saw the discovery of America saw the rediscovery of Greece and Rome; and the literary and philosophical transformation had far profounder results for the human spirit than the circumnavigation and exploration of the globe. For it was the humanists, not the navigators, who liberated man from dogma, taught him to love life rather than brood about death, and made the European mind free.
Humanism influenced art last because it appealed rather to intellect than to sense. The chief patron of art was still the Church, and the chief purpose of art was still to convey the Christian story to the letterless, and to adorn the house of God. The Virgin and her Child, the suffering and crucified Christ, the prophets, Apostles, Fathers, and saints remained the necessary subjects of sculpture and painting, even of the minor arts. Gradually, however, the humanists taught the Italians a more sensual sense of beauty; a frank admiration for the healthy human body—male or female, preferably nude—permeated the educated classes; the reaffirmation of life in Renaissance literature, as against the medieval contemplation of another world, gave art a secret secular leaning; and by finding Italian Aphrodites to pose as Virgins, and Italian Apollos to serve as Sebastians, the painters of Lorenzo’s age, and later, introduced pagan motives into Christian art. In the sixteenth century—when secular princes rivaled ecclesiastics in financing artists—Venus and Ariadne, Daphne and Diana, the Muses and the Graces challenged the rule of the Virgin; but Mary the modest mother continued her wholesome dominance to the end of Renaissance art.