One thing is clear when we look at the cultural world of the early Rinascimento. There were no humanists. And the supposedly central cultural accomplishment of the period, humanism, was unknown. It simply did not exist. The term was coined only in the nineteenth century by a German teacher in the Gymnasium, as the great twentieth-century scholar of the subject Paul Oscar Kristeller pointed out long ago. The label “humanist,” however, did begin to be used in the late fifteenth century, apparently first by university students to refer to professors who focused on the studia humanitatis – that is, grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy – rather than on theology and law.
Less obvious, but in many ways more significant, is the way the search for humanism and humanists in the early Rinascimento, before they existed, has skewed the way scholars have looked at the cultural world of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Perhaps most importantly, it has created a canon of works and writers who are deemed to be pre-humanistic or even simply humanist that seriously distorts the range and complexity of the cultural world of the day. Moreover, many writers and thinkers have largely been overlooked (or consigned to the Middle Ages, a kind of humanist hell) by scholars because they do not fit into the anachronistic and rather procrustean mold of an imagined humanism. In turn, many luminaries who have made it into the canon have become curiously disjointed by a scholarly desire to highlight their supposed humanistic writings at the expense of their broader oeuvre.
Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374) provides a good case in point. Those who would see him as the first humanist tend to focus on his search for ancient Roman texts, his call for a Roman revival, and his enthusiasm for the recovery of an ideal ancient Latin based on Cicero to replace what he saw as corrupt medieval Latin. But as Ron Witt showed in his pioneering work In the Footsteps of the Ancients, all of this had crucial antecedents in a group of notaries and lawyers from the northeastern cities of Italy, perhaps most notably in love poets, chroniclers, and scholars such as Lovato Lovati (c. 1240–1309) and Albertino Mussato (1261–1329). Witt terms these scholars and statesmen as the first humanists, but his own work shows that their actual interests were much more broad-ranging and rich than the label normally would imply. Returning to the better-known Petrarch, his important religious speculations, heavily reliant on Saint Augustine, with a dose of the Franciscan spiritualism popular in his day, along with his rejection of the commercial culture of the cities of Italy have been relatively neglected or simply dismissed. Even what were probably Petrarch’s most famous works, his love poems, eventually collected in his Canzoniere, created problems for some who label him the first humanist, because they were written in Tuscan vernacular, rather than in classical Latin. In many ways they seemed little interested in a classical revival, fitting far more comfortably – and dangerously, from the humanism-search perspective – into a late medieval tradition of love poetry and its vision of an ideal, refined, mannered way of life.
In the end, as a pre-humanist Petrarch becomes considerably narrower than the famous and influential figure of his day; and his fascinating complexity either drops away or creates problems for accounts of him as the first humanist. When we turn to Dante or Boccaccio, things get, if anything, worse, with the former disappearing back into the Middle Ages and the latter apparently unable to resist the lure of the vernacular, writing a number of his most important works in Tuscan rather than in Latin. In sum, we might do better to focus on the much more complex and fascinating cultural world of the early Rinascimento and leave humanists to a later day.
Rethinking the Culture of the Early Rinascimento without Humanism
Turning to that culture, if we think of it as a series of loosely interconnected, loosely shared imagined discourses – imagined, at times, in a consciously reflected way or merely accepted as the given and obvious modes of understanding life and the world – the project of doing cultural history becomes suggestively different. From such a perspective much of the discussion in earlier chapters becomes cultural history; for we have looked at a series of evolving ways of living in and imagining the urban civiltà of the early Rinascimento that did not turn on a shared single vision, but rather involved loosely shared discourses on the nature of a number of themes central to the times: the significance of the society’s place in time and the primacy of first times; the social importance and disciplining power of virtù; the meaning and acceptance of social hierarchy and a hierarchical society; the implications of melding into a form of civic morality Christian ideals, civic traditions, and what might be labeled Rinascimento family values.
These central discourses were to a degree shared across society and provided the cultural lens that reduced the complexity of everyday life to discernible patterns that allowed action, reflection, and communication. But “to a degree” is a crucial caveat and one that complicates the picture significantly, because it is difficult to know in a precise way how deeply or consistently these discourses were shared across the highly differentiated society of the day. Did rural illiterate peasants imagine the world as did Dante or Petrarch? The latter obviously were educated men who were arguably comfortable reading Latin and conversing with the ancients, at times literally, while most peasants were illiterate and knew little of the urban world that was in many ways the motor of Dante and Petrarch’s cultural and social world. Yet the distance may not have been as great as it appears at first, and if one considers the urban lower classes, sharing the closer confines of the narrow streets and lively market squares of their cities, a great deal more may have been shared than is often assumed.
But, of course, as we can encounter those ways of imagining the world only indirectly half a millennium later, via written and material records such as artifacts (including what we label anachronistically “art”), distinguishing the degree to which a particular way of imagining life or the world was shared becomes a difficult and intriguing question. In the discussion that follows we will attempt to consider such issues precisely because they are as interesting as they are difficult. And one thing is fairly clear from the start: the new cultural history has provided a range of suggestive new perspectives and methodologies that help to reveal that complexity. Newer visions of the way culture functions in complex societies, for example, have tended to reject the traditional vision of culture as moving from high to low in society and the very labels “high culture” and “low culture.” In part this is because of the value judgments implied in “high” and “low” and related terms like “common,” “popular” and “vernacular” that are used to label culture. But more pertinently, it is because a circulatory model of culture seems more appropriate, especially in premodern societies, where the desire and the ability to impose one culture upon another were less developed and more limited by technologies of communication that were less easily monitored and controlled. This is not to argue that in the Rinascimento motives were lacking for pressing one way of imagining reality over another or that this was not attempted. In fact, most of the ways of imagining that we have presented as central to the period served the popolo grosso in one way or another and were pressed as ideal by writers and scholars drawn from their ranks or in their service. But that does not mean that they originated with the popolo grosso or were always consciously seen as serving their interests at the expense of others. In some instances that was the case, but many elements of these central discourses were much more generally accepted, and often taken up from other social milieus or even from other cultures such as that of the Middle Ages or the classical world.
For the Rinascimento a circulatory model of cultural diffusion creates some different questions about how such dissemination worked. Scholars were once confident that most cultural activity, and thus the dissemination of ideas, was oral, as levels of literacy were assumed to have been very low. Recent studies, however, suggest that the commercial nature of urban life in Italy had led to an impressive growth of literacy, at least in the cities of the north and center of the peninsula, even before the fourteenth century. The Florentine chronicler and inveterate counter Giovanni Villani, whom we have already encountered counting the number of laborers in the cloth industry, reported that in the 1330s there were more than 70 teachers in Florence alone, teaching elementary reading and writing to approximately 10,000 children. Paul Grendler, in his important study of schooling in the Renaissance, estimated that that meant that between 67 and 83 percent of Florentine males went to school and had some rudimentary knowledge of reading and writing.
Although these figures seem particularly high given earlier assumptions, they are supported to a degree by the famous Florentine Catasto drawn up almost a century later, in 1427, to help finance the war with Milan. The Catasto required the heads of households throughout the territories controlled by Florence to submit a written declaration of their family’s possessions. A full 80 percent signed their returns in their own hands. Also noteworthy was the growth of the number of teachers on public payrolls during the period; a partial list with the dates on which public stipends began includes Ivrea (1308), San Gimignano (1314), Treviso (1316), Turin (1327), Pistoia (1332), Savona (1339), Lucca (1348), Bassano (1349), Feltre (1364), Vigevano (1377), Sarzana (1396), Modena (1397), and Udine (1400). A number of cities even offered free education to all children of citizens. Missing from this list, however, are the more major cities such as Venice and Florence, where it appears teaching remained in the hands of private teachers and where education remained a matter of family investment and privilege rather than public policy. By contrast, in lesser cities the legislation that created public stipends often referred to the opportunity that education provided for promoting economic development and a city’s competitiveness.
The education provided by these teachers was usually elementary and functional, focusing on learning to read and write the basic business Latin necessary for writing contracts and carrying on business. In most cities, then, literacy meant a rudimentary knowledge of a practical late medieval Latin used by notaries and lawyers for commercial activity and by governmental bureaucrats for governing. This suggests why many writers in the fourteenth century, eager to establish their superior intellectual and social status, attempted to distinguish themselves from ordinary notaries and lawyers and the practical Latin that was used for their work. Petrarch was merely a leader of a more general movement that sought to create a separation of a literary elite from that business world. A purer ancient Latin based on the best Latin of the ancient world was the vehicle that marked out a supposedly superior intellectual attainment, and it did indeed create a significant scholarly/social divide. Just as working with one’s hands distinguished artisans from the popolo grosso, so too did working with one’s mind and writing true classical Latin (even by a select few lawyers and notaries) begin to distinguish true poets and intellectuals from more common notaries and lawyers and the larger mass of the population who read and wrote what was increasingly labeled an inferior medieval Latin.
Although obvious, it is worth pointing out that this new, supposedly superior cultural tool of ancient Roman Latin and the new literary elite it identified were thus presented not as new, but rather as old – a rebirth of the first perfect Latin along with a rebirth of cultural leaders based on that ancient culture. Significantly, Petrarch and many of his fellows made a point of noting that while they had been pressed by their families to study law, they had found it distasteful and escaped its common drudgery and corrupt Latin to focus on rediscovering the classics and, through them, a lost classical language. As a result, Latin actually became two languages: one a widely shared, practical language of law, commerce, and governance, and one a superior ancient language limited to an elite few. Across the fifteenth century, however, the two languages would eventually meld to a degree, as more and more lawyers and bureaucrats mastered a more refined classical Latin and integrated it into the more important documents of government and society. In turn, at much the same time many of the more common documents of commerce and everyday governance began to be written in the vernacular, in part because classical Latin lacked the rich vocabulary of late medieval Latin and was less capable of describing the full complexity of the modern world.
At first this might seem to imply that there was a deep rift between an elite world dominated by classical Latin, which had the potential of opening the culture of the ancients to a select few, and the wider literate urban populace without the ability to participate in that discovery of the past. But once again the gap may not be as great as often assumed. Obviously, for all their claims to the contrary, the masters of classical Latin still lived in the urban world of their day. Few had the luxury of attempting to live in rural isolation from its quotidian cultural demands, like Petrarch. And even the fortunate few were able to read only a limited number of classical texts in manuscript before printing made a wider range of literature available. Many would-be elite scholars were limited to working with a few classical texts, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that offered brief sketches of particular aspects of ancient culture or compendia of ancient thought, compiled in the Middle Ages. These compilations – often called florilegia or little books of flowers of ancient wisdom, both classical and Christian – were a source of knowledge easily transferred to the oral culture of the day, and along with tales of the lives of Church Fathers (obviously set in the ancient Roman world), Christian martyrs, saints, and local legends of Roman foundations and important historical events, they created a largely oral-based rich imaginary of the ancient world that was widely shared across society. Perhaps more significantly, the material remains of that ancient world were all around and, at times, imagined to be even more around than they actually were (when medieval ruins were assumed to be ancient). Eventually scholars would sort all of this out and make the divide between an elite Latin culture and a less learned one come closer to what Petrarch thought it should be, but that was still in the future.
In fact, before printing, culture was primarily oral. Even written texts retained essential features of oral communication in a way that is hard to fully appreciate today. The letter, the short story or novella, and, of course, even poetry, which intentionally mimed the rhythms and feel of speech, all retained a familiar orality. From that perspective a letter was merely a moment of oral communication frozen and transmitted over space and time, and given its shorter length, it could be and was regularly melted back down into oral communication. Letters often were meant to be copied and spread widely in that way. And, of course, they were frequently read out loud and thus returned to that oral culture. Much the same was true of the novella. Boccaccio’s Decameron is just the most famous example. Most of its stories were taken from an oral tradition that stretched back to the Middle Ages and earlier. But the popularity of the tales Boccaccio took from that tradition meant that they returned to the oral culture of his day, where they had a history of their own, popping up repeatedly and being recrystallized in many literary genres and cultural traditions. At first glance Petrarch’s love poetry seems distant from the rougher world of the streets of the cities of his day, as he no doubt intended it to be, but it should not be forgotten that his love poetry, like that of others was often converted into popular songs sung in those same streets, and almost certainly echoed the imagery of both at times.
Moving beyond written texts, one of the most important areas of cultural transmission was storytelling – a favored way of imagining the world and conveying knowledge. Neighborhood, street, shop, market, home, even church were all places where stories were exchanged, not just to pass the time, but also to imagine it, explain it, and even discipline it. And especially in the home, but also in church, markets, and streets, women’s voices played a significant role in passing on family traditions, lore, and that special disciplining form of rhetoric misleadingly labeled gossip. For gossip, as a form of social evaluation orally conveyed, was a powerful tool for imposing traditional values and discipline; in a way, it was the Greek chorus of everyday life and culture itself. When used wisely, it offered great power to those who deployed it, men as well as women. The market was also a special place for stories. The famed mountebanks (literally, those who mounted stages/banks to sell their goods) often attracted clients for their wares and nostrums with elaborate tales of their miraculous powers or exotic origins, putting a premium on their ability to capture the imagination of marketgoers and their ability to orally manipulate a shared culture based on their command of popular or intriguing stories.
Oral abilities, then, were widely respected, carefully cultivated, and provided a significant vehicle for conveying a shared culture. Streets and shops were also significant venues for stories, especially as work time was not yet clearly separated from play time, and thus both streets and shops pullulated with people ready to talk and relate the stories of the day. Finally, of course, churches were exceptional places of imagination and stories. The artwork that decorated them, the relics and ex votos that enriched their spiritual promise, and the sermons – one of the most popular forms of storytelling of the day – all had a particularly fecund ability to stimulate the imagination, creating stories often quite different from those intended – not to mention the gossip and stories told by the parishioners in this crucial place of social contact. But in all these venues it was the story that formed the human imagination of the world, creating modules of shared knowledge that could be endlessly recombined, making sense of life and its meaning, and helping to convey a shared culture.
Ennobling Love Poetry and Imagining Refined Desire and Elite Status
Perhaps the most important imaginative literature of the early Rinascimento was the poetry of love, because there were so many contradictory emotions associated with it. Actually, love poetry had been an important fascination of medieval literature, and if we include mystical poetry, with its love of the Divine, in many ways it was the first and most important poetry of that era. But the more mundane poetry of love between young people really gained momentum in Italy in the thirteenth century, stimulated by Provençal poetry carried to Italy by Troubadour poets. Fleeing the devastations of the Albigensian Crusades (that in many ways literally destroyed a flourishing Provençal culture), first at the medieval courts of the kings of southern Italy and Sicily, then more slowly in the north, attracted by the small but flourishing courts there, they introduced their love poetry in Provençal, the language of their homeland. It was a vital, rich, and at times quite earthy poetry that expressed the strong emotions of young love, both positively and negatively, and it found a responsive ear in Italy. In the flourishing urban centers of the north such as Treviso, Vicenza, Verona, and Padua, locals wrote love poems of their own in Provençal in imitation of the Troubadours, as well as in their own local dialects and even in Latin, to give it a higher tone. In Italy, given the oft-times violent social and political conflicts of the day, this poetry was not without a political and social agenda as well, which emphasized a refined love that demonstrated a nobility of manners and more traditional measures of status.
Beyond poetry, refined manners and love were often associated with a defense of the (largely imagined) more refined aristocratic ways of old elites, distinguishing them positively from the more direct and rough-hewn manners of the popolo (again largely imagined). In fact, for a time in the second half of the thirteenth century Provençal was for some with aristocratic pretensions the refined language par excellence, challenging the commonness of the vernacular and the working-world Latin of lawyers and notaries. It appears, however, that not all were content with this displacement of Latin and local vernaculars or with the implied dominance of Provençal and aristocratic cultural models that seemed to go with it. This was undoubtedly accentuated for some by a desire to escape what they saw as the intellectual influence of the clerical culture of French universities, which had been so important for medieval high culture, and perhaps Angevin influence from the south.
In the end, then, there was a reaction against French and Provençal culture and the love poetry associated with it, a reaction that stressed local traditions, both in Latin and the vernacular, while co-opting the uplifting and aristocratic nature of love to agendas that did not serve an old nobility so easily. Two of the most recognized love poets of the day, Dante (1265–1321) and Petrarch, might be seen in this light. Both were influenced by the Provençal tradition, but like many of the Italian love poets who preceded them, both tended to move their love poetry away from the more earthy and sensual forms of that tradition toward a more spiritual and ennobling vision of love. In fact, it is often noted, with considerable justice, that the ennobling aspect of their poetry was at times more significant than their claims of love. Dante’s love for the virtually nonexistent Beatrice – whom he claimed to have seen only a few times in his life and to have met just once – and Petrarch’s love for his equally distant Laura stress the ennobling spiritual aspect of their passion. Beatrice and Laura remain primarily imagined, and imagined in ways that demonstrate repeatedly the spirituality of Dante, and Petrarch’s aristocratic, refined nature. In essence they served as literary signs for forming consensus realities that confirmed the poets’ superiority. In turn, their way of imagining love served as a lesson on how passions might be disciplined so as to lead a refined person – a true noble – to a Christian and peaceful life, something distant, one might note, from the violence traditionally associated with nobles.
Dante in his Vita nuova (New Life) wrote a work that was innovative in that he included his own commentaries as a prose frame around his love poems, explaining their deeper and ultimately ennobling spiritual meaning. As such, it was a clever innovation that attempted to assure that no one would miss the consensus reality he sought to create of his love-induced spiritual superiority. Comprising thirty poems, most in sonnet form, plus an unfinished one on the death of his love, the “new” life that Dante refers to in his title was the spiritual discovery of self that his love for Beatrice awoke in him, giving him a new life. The poems are surrounded and explained by what might be labeled an emotional and spiritual self-fashioning that details the story of his first meeting with Beatrice, when he was nine and she eight, and then follows his love for her up to her death. At a deeper level, however, they present the story of a pilgrimage of self-discovery driven by love in which Dante’s love of beauty leads from the love of the beauty of Beatrice in the material world to the love of true beauty in the spiritual world and eventually to the love of God – the ultimate beauty and the one true life, loving God. This involves a deep rebirth of self, and for Dante that personal rebirth is possible only because of Christ’s life and loving death and rebirth to save humanity, the ultimate rinascita.
In his more famous Divine Comedy, virtually the whole early fourteenth-century civic world of Florence and the medieval intellectual tradition are melded in another personal pilgrimage. The work is a tour de force pilgrimage that traverses the spiritual universe of the early Rinascimento from Hell, through Purgatory, and on to Paradise, where the love of Beatrice leads Dante once more to the one true love – the love of God – with much the same conclusion, his personal rebirth. This journey seems in many ways a Christian rewriting of the classic pagan myth of Orpheus that had been quite popular in the Middle Ages, with a positive twist. Orpheus, the god of song and music, in the ancient story lost his newlywed Eurydice to death and decided to journey to the underworld to try to win his love’s resurrection with his singing ability. Dante, also a singer with his poetry, pursued his love Beatrice, also lost to death, beyond this life to the next in order to recover her love as well. Orpheus’s songs in Hades were so moving that Eurydice was restored to him on the condition that he lead her out of Hell and back to life without either one looking back. But as they left Hell, she could not resist looking back, and thus, tragically, he lost her to death once more.
Like Orpheus’s songs, Dante’s singing poetry was so moving that with the aid first of Virgil, a messenger sent by Beatrice to guide him through Hell and Purgatory, and then of Beatrice herself, who was waiting for him in Paradise, he also recovered his lost love. But from that moment the stories diverge dramatically. Beatrice, in Paradise, rapt with the love of God, showed Dante that his love of her was not the end of true love, but rather merely the path to the one true love of God. Rather than returning to this world with Beatrice in tow and losing her at the last moment, then, he returned to this life with the true Christian love for God to guide him. And rather than the tragedy of lost love – the fate of Orpheus – Dante’s song had a happy ending, making it a comedy rather than a tragedy, a Divine Comedy.
While in this rapid summation it might seem that Dante was operating light years from the urban civiltà of his day, Dante’s poetry comes alive with that world in the people he encounters on his pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, especially those in the violent and disturbing circles of Hell. In fact, although there are rural moments in each of those three realms, they all have an urban and even a Florentine feel, densely populated with the denizens of his city who have passed away, yet are still alive with its passions and conflicts. It is almost as if Dante could not imagine life even after death without the teaming life of the urban world he knew and that formed his cultural context at its most basic level. Thus his comedy is both high culture at its highest and most transcendent – a spiritual pilgrimage to paradise and God – and at the same time deeply embedded in the real nitty-gritty political and social world of the cities of his day.
And while the love of Beatrice ennobles and ultimately promises salvation for the poet, his more mundane love of friends, city, and homeland, and the strong negative emotions that his enemies evoke, suggest how powerfully this highest form of literature was filtered through the everyday shared culture of his time. Dante’s spiritual pilgrimage and Christian song frequently disappear, overwhelmed by the factional strife, loves, and hates of his city that he could not imagine escaping even in the afterlife. Yet love also ennobled, in the best sense of the term, a non-noble popolo grosso like Dante. At an historical moment when elite status remained a matter of hot debate and often violent deeds, here in the imaginary world of his Divine Comedy we see how love could become truly transcendent and how it marked him out as truly noble, safely numbered among the saved. And at the same time love (and hate) deeply colored his relations with his contemporaries and provided a crucial passion that bound him to his city and his fellow citizens, for better or worse.
For Petrarch, the discourse of love was apparently both less embedded in the civic world of his day and more physical and sensual in its description of his beloved Laura. And to that extent, at least, it was more erotic. Yet even with his often evocative descriptions of Laura, and his repeated admission of desires that he found troublingly nontranscendent, he too evoked divine love and transcendent passion. Given the ideals of spiritual love that the Italian love poetry of the day tended to exalt and that were deeply engrained in the discourses that circled around the powerful emotions of desire and love, it would have been difficult for a deeply Christian writer like Petrarch to avoid such connections. Perhaps what distinguished his poetry from that of Dante, which built upon similar Christian ideals, was the fact that Petrarch seemed incapable of completely making the jump to the spiritual love of God and finally accepting Laura as merely the path to a truer love of God. Or at least this is the way Petrarch chose to present his love in his poetry, in his self-examination in his many literary letters, and in his autobiographical and self-fashioning spiritual self-portrayal in Latin, the Secretum.
In each genre he returned over and over again to the fear that he ought to move on from his love of Laura to the ultimate love of the Divine, while confessing his inability to do so. In this he portrayed himself, for all his attempts to distance himself aristocratically from the everyday world of his day, as much like the adulterous lovers encountered in the criminal records of the fourteenth century – people who found love of another man’s wife such a powerful passion that they could not resist its pull, even when they were well aware that it was a dangerous and disruptive emotion. For Petrarch, however, it is precisely this heroic and deeply self-reflective battle to overcome this dangerous emotion for his Laura, who was married to another, that makes him in his self-presentation a spiritual and ennobled lover. Skating on the edge of dangerous self-destruction and fully aware that the stakes might be his own salvation, he created a refined poetry that sensually evoked all the contradictions and dangerous beauty of his emotions. This rich mix of a widely shared everyday vision of love as a powerful and dangerous emotion and its potential to be spiritually ennobling, self-destructive, or, paradoxically, both at the same time, in many ways set the stage for the development of an aristocratic form of love poetry that would come to dominate the genre and the clichés of romantic love right up to the present. In fact, it is difficult to read his poetry today with a fresh eye, as over and over again one encounters his best lines with a sense of tired déjà vu – they surround us, and often drown us, in the saccharine world of romantic sentiments hawked in greeting cards and the romantic fantasies of popular romance, not to mention great literature.
Boccaccio (1313–1375), for all his more earthy sensuality in the Decameron, was definitely influenced by both Dante and Petrarch, and his love poetry owes much to both. Along with poetry he wrote a number of romances and love stories early on that tended to play on his portrayal of his own love in the 1330s for Fiammetta (a code name or senhal, meaning “the flame,” for his love, who was apparently actually named Maria). She is often identified as a Neapolitan lady of substance, whom he came to know while working in the Florentine Bardi bank in Naples as a young man; and, as was the case in most of the love stories of the day, his love would have been adulterous if consummated, as she was married. That love seems to have influenced much of his early writings: several lyrics, two longish poems – the Filostrato (Destroyed by Love, based on the medieval tale of the Trojan lovers Troilus and Cressida) and the Teseida delle nozze d’Emilia (The Theseid of the Marriage of Emilia, an attempt to realize Dante’s call for a classical epic in the vernacular) – the Filocolo (Love’s Labors, a long, episodic narrative of love), the Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta, the Ameto, and the Amorosa Visione. While all of these works evoke Boccaccio’s passion for Fiammetta, sometimes rather tenuously, they swing through a wide range of emotions associated with love in the shared culture of the day, evoking everything from uplifting desire and pure passion to more earthly desires and lust, along with a deep appreciation of the negative emotions that love was seen as inciting: jealousy, melancholy, envy, and even hate. Boccaccio even explores a woman’s feelings in the Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta, making Fiammetta the narrator.
The last work of Boccaccio’s early period, which ended more or less with the first wave of the plague, was the pastoral romance Ninfale fiesolano (The Nymphs of Fiesole). Finally leaving Fiammetta behind, it is set in the hills above Florence in much the same area where the Decameron would be set. It retells the tragic love of a shepherd named Africo for a nymph named Mensola. Africo eventually seduces and impregnates Mensola, but then, consumed by shame for taking the virginity of a nymph dedicated to virginity, he commits suicide by a brook that is then named after him, the Africo. Poor Mensola is punished by the goddess she serves, Diana, who, finding her weeping for her sins, transforms her into another brook that flowed into the Africo, the Mensola; thus presumably she and her tears of repentance, in the form of the Mensola, would join the Africo eternally. Yet even this mythic tale of the dangers of love, with its romantic conceits apparently so distant from the urban world of Boccaccio’s day, circles back to Florence and its origins: for the son born to Mensola eventually founded the city of Fiesole on the hills above the two streams. Fiesole, in turn, founded Florence. Thus, even in this pastoral tale, the urban world of Florence underpins the tragic romance with a brilliant future and a founding myth. Rather ironically for romance and Boccaccio’s founding myth, today both streams have been redirected to make way for cars and urban development and have largely ceased to flow – tragic tears replaced by modernity.
The hills above Florence where the Mensola and Africo flowed provided the setting for Boccaccio’s most famous work, the Decameron. As noted earlier, he collected and retold 100 tales largely from the oral tradition of his day, many from the common lore of the streets of Florence. The collection is set in a frame story that features ten upper-class youths who, to overcome the sadness and horror of the Black Death raging in the city, have decided to pass their time telling tales, each relating one novella a day for ten days. This was not as callous as it might seem at first, as common wisdom supported by medical authorities recommended distancing oneself from the plague, both physically and spiritually, to avoid the dangers of melancholy and contamination; thus their flight, mannerly courting, pleasant surroundings, and light storytelling actually offered not just physical safety but also a form of emotional recovery, where youthful love played an important role.
Boccaccio’s stories, although they often seem to the modern eye more lusty than loving, also provide a window on how love could be imagined as ennobling the virtù-ous. An excellent example of love’s positive power to ennoble is provided by the first tale told on the fifth day, where the hero, a young Cypriot, started out so boorish and ignorant that he went by the name Cimone, because, as the tale explained, “he was never able to learn either letters or good manners and … [thus he went about] with raucous, deformed speech and with manners more befitting a beast than a man; as a result virtually in mockery everyone called him Cimone, which in their language had the ring of our dumb animal.” One day, wandering like a beast through the forest, he came upon a lightly clad young woman, Efigenìa, sleeping with two servants beside a pool, and he was literally un-dumbfounded by the sight of her beauty and the sudden love that overcame him. “In his brutish heart, which a thousand lessons had been unable to penetrate with civil pleasures (cittadinesco piacere), he felt suffused with a thought which his coarse and rough mind suddenly realized, she was the most beautiful thing ever seen.” In a manner that echoed Dante’s vision of the ascent from beautiful things and the love of individuals like Beatrice to the beauty of true knowledge and on to the love of the Divine and truth itself, Cimone’s suddenly kindled thoughts ranged over her physical beauty with loving desire, “and in the end he … he came to realize that divine things were more worthy of reverence than the earthly.” From a dumb animal he had been transformed by beauty and love into a philosopher.
In short order he became “the most elegant and mannered youth in Cyprus with a wider range of virtù than any other.” In the face of this miraculous transition Boccaccio’s narrator stopped the tale to query, “What, lovely ladies, are we to make of Cimone?” and proceeded to answer with a short but telling disquisition on the oft-noted tension between Fortuna, Amore, and Virtù: “It is clear that … invidious Fortuna had bound in a tiny corner of his heart with the strongest of ties that great virtù placed in his soul by heaven. These bounds were … overthrown by Love, for He [Amore] was so much more powerful than Her [Fortuna].” An audacious claim indeed, that Love’s power is so great that He easily defeats Fortuna, but one that the tale forcefully underlined, for with his newly released virtù Cimone overcame one by one the obstacles that Fortuna placed in the path of his love and eventually married Efigenìa to live happily ever after, inspired by a passionate love that had transformed him from a dumb animal into a civilized citizen of his urban society – a master of the virtù of the popolo grosso and a full participant in their civiltà. In retelling the tale of Cimone, its classical themes are refashioned to speak directly to contemporary conceptions at the very center of the shared culture of the day – fortune, virtù, love, and the civiltà of urban world of the Rinascimento.
Yet Boccaccio was also clearly impressed by the more traditional courtly graces and refined manners of the aristocratic nobility of Naples, where he had lived and worked as a young man. As a result, in the Decameron there is a suggestive mix of love, manners, and aristocratic refinement that Boccaccio found attractive, both in the stories told and in the frame narrative, and at the same time, paradoxically, a clear commitment to the superiority of virtù and the values of the popolo grosso. These essentially conflicting visions make it difficult to read the Decameron in any simplistic manner. Nonetheless, the way he consistently reworked the tales he told suggests that Boccaccio was seeking to ennoble a widely shared discourse on love in order to make it attractive to apopolo grosso elite increasingly anxious to distinguish themselves from their popolo roots. Tellingly, more questionable desires and more lusty passions, although also labeled love, were reserved for artisans and questionable characters like corrupt clerics, while refined love was the preserve of more elite characters who usually displayed popolo grosso behavior that, as in the case of Cimone, brought them success. That curious mix may have made the fortune of the tales, for it appealed to a future that would see the post-plaguepopolo grosso become progressively more aristocratic across the fifteenth century. But clearly, for all the difficulty of interpretation, his portrayal of love reflects, even in the rather stylized settings of many of the stories, a deeper connection to the urban values and world of the day than any imagined by Petrarch.
It should be noted, however, that virtually as soon as he finished the first draft of the Decameron, Boccaccio wrote a virulently anti-woman, anti-love work, the Corbaccio (The Ugly/Evil Crow, 1354–1355), that seems to brutally contradict that ennobling and positive vision of love. Its portrayal of women and love is so negative that it has led some scholars to attempt to rethink his earlier vision of love and the Decameron itself, trying to find a sterner moral meaning underlying the amorous and often laughing stories told there. In turn, it would be tempting to argue that the Corbaccio was not actually written by Boccaccio, especially as it frequently seems to copy word for word earlier texts of his, twisting their meaning into a negative vision of love and women. But rather than tackling that unlikely argument here, it might be claimed that it simply reflects darkly the other side of the coin of the strong emotions that Boccaccio, and the shared primary culture of his day, associated with love and women, and the dangers of both. From that perspective, women (and the love they were seen to evoke) could be at one moment ennobling and transcendent, yet quickly become dangerous, destructive, and demeaning – Ugly/Evil Crows.
Violence, in fact, was often seen as going hand in hand with love, especially as it was imagined in literature, where it was frequently depicted as a violent and uncontrollable passion. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio all ruefully admitted this from time to time, even as they celebrated love – for they recognized that it presented a real danger to the ideal of a peaceful urban civiltà that they dreamed of. Yet at a deeper Christian level, all three evoked strains of a discourse that saw a more Christian love promoting peace, friendship, and ultimately an ennobling and mannered life. Of course, Dante’s violently suffering sinners from the urban world suggest that even God’s love was ultimately intertwined with forms of discipline that could be brutal and violent. But, more pertinently, the optimistic, almost certainly overoptimistic, association of love and virtù that all three writers shared with their cultural world promised a more peaceful and positive self-discipline that ennobled young lovers, bound society together, and ultimately promised salvation.
First Times and Places: Finding the Old in the New
Significantly, as we have seen, the violence and disorder of the urban world of the Rinascimento was more surely associated with the new – new men, new ways of behaving, new institutions, and new values. With the plague wiping out large masses of the population and seemingly threatening to overthrow the old moral and social order; with new men and women migrating to the cities to replace population losses among the laboring and artisanal classes; with new men rising from those classes with new wealth struggling to join the ranks of the popolo grosso and even the political elites; with new economic realities emerging across society; with some cities expanding and gaining new territory and prominence and others falling behind, creating new alignments of power; and with new leaders emerging virtually everywhere, the new seemed to be breaking out all over. Yet even earlier – with the conflicts among the nobility, popolo, and popolo grosso in the second half of the thirteenth century – many had seen the problems of the day turning on dangerous innovations that had upset the established order and violently disrupted urban life. Simply put, over and over again the shared culture of the day imagined the new as decidedly bad.
Essentially the new was denied by framing change and innovation as old, the return and rebirth at the heart of the Rinascimento as a movement. And although such denial had existed much earlier, it accelerated across the period, becoming ever more firmly one of the major themes of intellectual life and political and social ideals. At all levels of society it played a central role in every area, from philosophy, theology, classical studies, and literature to the more humble world of sermons, chroniclers, and people telling stories and discussing life in the shops, squares, and markets. Ultimately the rejection of the new in favor of the old turned on a very traditional way of seeing the world that stressed that in the beginning, when first created, things were well made and good, but that with time they began to deteriorate and break down – a general vision shared in many societies and seemingly confirmed by everyday life, where material things invariably seem to deteriorate with time unless they are renewed, reformed, or even reborn.
This vision was confirmed at more theoretical levels as well. Significantly, from a widely shared religious perspective God created things correctly in the beginning when they were perfect. And, as Genesis revealed, Adam then named those things with their true names – names that were not mere metaphors for what things were, but what they actually were. With the Fall humanity lost that original perfection, was exiled from the earthly paradise, and entered a material world of change and decay, where even language itself lost its direct connection to things, becoming merely metaphorical. The ultimate goal of history and Christian society was to return, renew, and reform history itself, regaining paradise and ultimately perfect communion with God.
Christianity, however, could be viewed in a totally different way that actually empowered the new, for the coming of Christ had opened a new age, as Joachim of Flora and others had claimed. From that perspective it could be argued that mankind was on a path of improving relations with God and of positive change headed toward the end of time, a Last Judgment that would reward the saved with eternal life at God’s side in paradise. Although the two views of time coexisted in the Rinascimento, it would not be until much later that time would be consistently imagined as linear, moving ahead toward a positive end and salvation – in sum, as progressing. Only then would the new gain a positive valence and “progress” really compete with tradition, reform, and rebirth.
Suggestive of the traditional shared vision of return and rebirth was the fact that in the fourteenth century circular ways of measuring time still predominated. Dates, in fact, were often given in indictions: a circular, repeating standard cycle of years of ancient origin associated with the reigns of emperors or rulers, rather than (or as well as) in years from the birth of Christ. Suggestively, the first large mechanical clocks, perfected at midcentury in cities like Padua and Venice, were actually conceived of as mechanical recreations – astronomical machines – of the circular movements of the heavens that were the base of cyclical time. They measured with circular gearing the repeating cycles of time that we still imagine today: hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, and years. And, as such, they were viewed not so much as new but as merely recreating the movements that had always been there from the first of the cosmos.
Looking at the urban world of the day with an eye to discovering first times, it is evident that cities were awash with remembrances of and connections to a range of first times that really mattered. Even at the level of the parish churches that marked out neighborhoods, each was founded on a central altar where the fundamental ritual of Christianity was repeated regularly and involved the literal rebirth of Christ in the miraculous transformation of bread and wine into His body and blood. In turn ingested by the faithful in the sacrament of communion, it literally reformed them spiritually and physically, reforming them freed from their sins. All this was imagined in terms of returns to crucial first times: the first time of Christ and his promise at the Last Supper; the first time of the individual sinner, when after baptism he entered the Christian community reborn as a member of the flock of the faithful. And, of course, the need to repeat the sacrament was required by the repeated cycle of falling away from renewed first times on the part of sinful individuals, which necessitated another sacramental return.
That, of course, was only the most central cycle associated with the churches that dotted the urban landscape. For under the altar upon which the mass was celebrated were the relics of saints, which had been collected for centuries and which were believed to make the altar an even more significant spiritual space, ensuring its connection at a deep and direct level to crucial first times and spaces of Christianity. Relics of the first great Christians, whether they were apostles, Church Fathers, saints, martyrs, or even merely the especially holy, were required for the very foundation of an altar and a church – connecting both to key first times. Such connections were hard to miss, as the lore of the day was rich with stories of saints’ lives and the miracles that they and their relics had performed. The ties they offered to better first times were ubiquitous and overdetermined, not just for theologians and clerics, but for all.
If we think of relics in a broader context, the most important dead of a community were also entombed in churches, often with inscriptions that recorded the impressive deeds of their first times, and the more humble were buried in the churchyard, also reinforcing a church’s connection to the past. Tombs and commemorative chapels were often supported by frescoes, statues, stained-glass windows, and other forms of decoration that also evoked the deep connections between the spiritual space of a church and the first times of religion. All this was enhanced in virtually every church with a collection of ex votos that thanked God and the saints for the little miracles of everyday life, often attributed to the power of relics or to the connection of a church to the various first times of Christianity. Hymns and the music of the mass also powerfully evoked the first times of Christianity. In a way, then, the churches of a Rinascimento city offered a form of spiritual time travel in their ceremonial, their relics, their decorations, and their very structure – a time travel that took the faithful back to the various first times of Christianity when God interfered with or even directly entered the world.
But that was just the beginning, albeit a ubiquitous one. In addition, the geography of the city was mapped onto the stories of religious first times, with districts, neighborhoods, streets, and squares named after saints, apostles, martyrs, and local holy people and evoking the stories of the oral tradition that went with their names. Neighborhood shrines commemorating all of the above also dotted the byways of cities, along with the ubiquitous crucifixes that decorated both the facades and the insides of houses, where religious images often adorned the basic accoutrements of everyday life as well. In turn, urban time was marked by church bells, and people even thought of the duration of time not in seconds or minutes, but in terms of the amounts of time it took to say basic prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer or a Hail Mary. The beginnings of many of the regular cycles of daily life were also marked by prayers – meals and going to bed being only the most obvious. Healing, food preparation, and even passing through thresholds or boundaries in the home involved prayer or ritualized signing, such as making the sign of the Cross. In sum, Christianity as a lived religion was largely dominated by a discourse of first times: the first time of Christianity itself; the first times of the Bible, both the New and Old Testaments; the first times of saints, martyrs, and the local holy; the repeated first times of the mass and sacraments; and the repeated first times of everyday life. All these first times were disseminated and disciplined by oral traditions and the urban space of the day itself, which was rife with religious recollection and stories crystallized in architecture, images, shrines, sounds, and place names.
Along with this Christian vision of first times, the early Rinascimento shared a general vision that the ancient world was an earlier and virtually perfect first time or series of first times that had been lost and, crucially, might also be recovered or reborn. This vision was aided by the fact that in much of Italy the impressive remains of at least the Roman part of the ancient world were ubiquitous, reminding people of earlier and more perfect civilizations. In addition, there was already in place a strong and highly articulated medieval conviction that the ancient world had been dominated by a superior civilization that needed to be recovered in order to bring society back to its ancient perfection. Significantly, that vision had been deeply incorporated into the rationale for and justification of the urban civiltà of the early Rinascimento, as discussed earlier. Virtually every city boasted and celebrated its own founding by ancients from better first times. The law codes of most were based on Roman law, in large part because of its oft-touted perfection. Often the political structures of government were, if not modeled on, at least justified in terms of copying superior Roman models. And when that was not the case, origins were found in other significant first times, often biblical. Local powerful families tried, often with impressive imagination, to trace their origins back to famous Roman figures or important families. Even local conflicts were explained in terms of ancient animosities.
From this perspective Dante’s guide, companion, and at times judge through Hell and Purgatory, Virgil, serves as a kind of living (if dead) model of an ancient Roman point of view, providing an ancient consensus reality that gives added weight to Dante’s experiences and judgments. The modern would-be great Christian and Italian, Dante, is first saved from the despair of being lost (“in a dark wood”) by that great ancient, whom many, at the time, believed had prophesized the crucial first time of the coming of Christ in his writings. Then together they begin the journey that will eventually return Dante to his first love, Beatrice, and Paradise.
On their spiritual pilgrimage the pagan Virgil and the Christian Dante share a quite mundane vision of what is wrong with the modern world, meeting and evaluating those sinners who had disrupted it as they pass through Hell. Not surprisingly, then, although Virgil is a pagan and Dante a Christian, in most cases they agree, because their shared goal is a return to that virtù that Dante imagined a great ancient like Virgil shared with him – precisely because he imagined virtù as that ancient measure reborn, even if in fact his vision of it was more contemporary popolo grosso than ancient Roman. Virgil, then, needed to be there not just to showcase Dante’s classical knowledge and disarm critics who might complain that he wrote in Tuscan dialect rather than in Latin. More significantly, he joined Dante’s pilgrimage to demonstrate that Dante’s path led not toward a dangerously new world but to a safely old one, a return to proven first times that included not just Christian first times, but also the first time and virtù of the great civilization of ancient Rome.
Petrarch’s famed search for the lost manuscripts of ancient Roman authors to serve as his own guide to a rebirth of ancient virtù as he imagined it was merely the most noted aspect of his ongoing self-presentation as a cultural leader committed to recovering the lost culture and the language of that first time. For Petrarch, however, this recovery was not envisioned as a goal for all or even a large part of humanity. Only an elite few were capable of recovering his imagined Roman past. And in a way this elitist vision was to become the dark companion of the recovery of classical culture for many intellectuals across the Rinascimento and beyond. As noted earlier, by insisting on a return to a first perfect Latin like that of Cicero, Petrarch managed to cut out most of those educated in a more practical legal and commercial Latin, rejecting them as unequipped to gain a true knowledge of the ancient world and its superior learning. In this way his return to first time was tightly tied to a vision that rejected much of the world of his day and eliminated most people from his dream of returning to the glories of ancient Rome.
Only a select group of intellectual aristocrats patronized by a few powerful notables could live in that imagined world. Of course, there had long been a strong tradition that knowledge was only for a chosen few who were capable of understanding deeper truths; this esoteric vision underlay much medieval thinking about religion and nature and had deep roots in the ancient world. In fact, it was still a significant element of Dante’s writing, although his use of the vernacular, which made his work more readily accessible, may reflect a greater willingness to share at least aspects of his learning and vision more widely. For Petrarch, however, his esoteric and elitist vision of ancient language and knowledge led him at times even to disavow his love poetry in the vernacular as not serious enough or up to the standards required for a return to the great days of ancient Rome. Be that as it may, he was anxious to be crowned in Rome as Roman poet laureate for his Latin epic poem, Africa, and the crowning was carried out there on Easter Sunday – yet another returning crucial Christian first time – April 8, 1341, in the palace of the ancient Roman Senate on the Capitoline hill. Petrarch reportedly followed his crowning with a laurel wreath that evoked the ancient symbol of victory and fame, in this case his own, with a speech that called for a rebirth of ancient Roman culture and poetry, interlaced with Christian motifs, including a literal recital of the Ave Maria.
Roman revival was always more than just a cultural ideal, even for Petrarch. Perhaps most notably, his desire to avoid the squabbles of urban life and politics was momentarily put aside when he publicly championed Cola di Rienzo (c. 1313–1354), a controversial leader who proclaimed himself tribune of the Roman people in 1347, promising to make Rome once again the capital of Italy and the world in the name of recreating the ancient Roman Empire. With the papacy at Avignon, the Roman nobility had essentially been ruling the city, when not tearing it apart with internecine strife. In 1347, however, Cola, with the support of the popolo and especially of the land-holding merchants (a form of Roman popolo grosso), had himself proclaimed tribune on the Capitoline hill – the ancient governmental center of the city, where just a few years earlier Petrarch had been crowned poet laureate. In ancient Rome the tribunes had been responsible for protecting the plebeians against the senatorial class. By claiming that title for himself,Cola was consciously harking back to that first time and promising to do the same in modern Rome.
Petrarch’s vision of Roman rebirth seemed to fit well with Cola’s claims, and his support for him suggests why seeing him primarily as a precursor or the father of a later movement that modern scholars have labeled humanism limits our understanding of him. For in Petrarch’s letters Cola became a liberator and a defender of contemporary republican values, planning to bring peace and prosperity to Italy not as something new, but as something safely old. In fact, the masking of the new in several quite different earlier first times is well illustrated by Petrarch’s instructions to Cola in a letter of 1347. Along with calling on him to rule for the good of the people and to overthrow the tyrants of Italy and the nobles of Rome, he reiterated some more practical advice for living a life of virtù, asking him to be a good Christian:I hear … that every day since you became ruler of the Republic … it is customary for you to receive the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body, with sincerest devotion and after a most searching examination of conscience. This is doubtless as it should be…. That most illustrious of Rome’s generals [Scipio Africanus] would have followed the same course, I believe, had he lived today. For he was as correctly committed to his sacred duties as his day permitted, an age shrouded in darkness and lacking the knowledge of heaven. [italics mine]
It is noteworthy that here we see that Petrarch’s call for a rebirth of Rome was not acritical and could feature the same “age of darkness” topos more usually associated with his condemnation of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and darkness. In the end, both kinds of darkness needed to be eliminated, and that required Christ and Christianity and their first times as well as Rome. In addition, Petrarch recommended that Cola pursue reading – not just any reading, but reading the history of the deeds of “virtù” of his ancient Roman predecessors. In this he counseled imitating Augustus (whose status as the first Roman emperor who destroyed the republic was quietly overlooked), who, according to Petrarch, even while eating and drinking had history books read to him. In sum, a significant daily dose of Christianity and its recurring first times along with a similar adherence to Roman models were necessary in order for Cola to succeed in his project of giving birth again to republican Rome.
But few were as enthusiastic as Petrarch about Cola’s plans for a rebirth of Rome or about his leading Italy. While there was a general agreement that a return to Roman greatness and first time was a worthwhile goal, there were understandably quite different opinions about what that might entail. Local signori were quite willing to discover that their cities had been founded by Roman generals and to have their own rule defended as a renewal of such imperial founding. Republican governments were equally willing to stress their city’s founding by the late Roman republic and modern renewal. Even local powerful families were eager to stress their ancient Roman roots. But evidently few were interested in stepping aside or even sharing their hard-won power with Cola. When he tried to revive a pro-papal, pro-Roman Guelph alliance in the center of Italy, calling the leaders of the cities there to a general “parliament” in Rome, the responses were few and unenthusiastic.
Much like Petrarch, Cola freely mixed his ancient Roman and Christian ideals in order to advance his claims. Thus he styled himself not just tribune, but also “Candidate of the Holy Spirit.” And in the name of allowing all the people of Italy to be protected by the Holy Spirit and Rome, he made them all Roman citizens – a move unlikely to win the support of local rulers who were not eager to share their subjects even with the “Candidate of the Holy Spirit.” These spiritual claims were equally unappreciated by the papacy. In fact, Pope Clement VI (1291–1352; pope 1342–1352), although he had originally supported Cola from Avignon as a counterweight to the Roman nobility, moved by Cola’s growing messianic pretensions deserted his cause and ordered his removal from power. It did not help that Cola had also begun to make claims that seemed to echo Franciscan Spiritual calls for a propertyless Church. More immediately, however, the Roman nobility, led by the Orsini family, were unenthusiastic about Cola’s rule as well as his dreams. In turn, the harsh measures that he had imposed as Tribune to pacify the deeply divided and violent city cost him the support even of many of the popolo.
All this came to a head in the last days of 1347, when Cola was driven out of Rome, fleeing into exile. To many, rather than an ancient Roman tribune reborn, he had become just another tyrant using the rhetoric of Roman renewal and rebirth to mask his grab for power. Paradoxically, however, Cola was reborn with papal support in the 1350s, when he became a part of the new Pope Innocent VI’s (c. 1282–1362; pope 1352–1362) plan to reestablish his own authority in Rome. Forgiven for the presumed heresy that lay behind his earlier claims of special affinity with the Holy Spirit, he was sent to Rome by the pope as papal senator in 1354. New title, much the same game – but things went no better for Cola reborn as a senator. This time the Roman nobility eliminated him once and for all – he was assassinated by supporters of the Colonna family in early October 1354. Even with the support of Petrarch, his return to first times and the rebirth of ancient Rome was one that would not prevail.
Boccaccio might appear to be the least likely advocate of a return to first times, especially as his Decameron seems to draw heavily on tales from a more recent past. But, like his friend Petrarch, he is not so easily pigeonholed. He apparently first met Petrarch in 1350, when he was in his late thirties and Petrarch in his late forties. Although he had already read and been influenced by the latter’s love poetry, it appears that Petrarch encouraged Boccaccio’s ongoing interest in his own two most favored first times, ancient Rome and the early Church. Thus Boccaccio began to overlay his discussions of virtù with a classical veneer, although, like Petrarch and Dante, his vision of it drew heavily on the values and imagined verities of his day. His De casibus virorum illustrium(On the Fortunes of Famous Men), De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women), and a virtual encyclopedia on the ancient gods, Genealogiae deorum gentilium (The Genealogy of the Pagan Gods), were all reworked completely. Each work in its way returned to crucial first times and in classical Latin explained what made men and women gain fame or, more often, lose it in those first times.
In his On Famous Women and The Fortunes of Famous Men the tension between virtù and fortuna is the key to a gendered reading of ideal and ennobling behavior and the loss of same, with the ancients serving as examples. With a strong Christian tone, Boccaccio’s famous pagan women tended to be chaste, obedient, and self-sacrificing, although he did include an occasional heroic or magnificent figure. The fortunes of his famous men were largely negative, primarily because, rather than following the dictates of fourteenth-century virtù and living lives of moderation, reason, and self-control, they succumbed to evil fortune, overcome by the violent emotions that his contemporaries saw as disrupting their society – love, jealousy, hate or a desire for vengeance – and destroying virtù. In his compendium on the origins of the gods, he presented the first times of the pagan gods but drew Christian lessons from that pagan first time. Like Petrarch, he held that behind such myths and stories, even if the pagans were unaware of it, there lay a Christian truth – for all truth was ultimately God’s (the first and ultimate truth from his perspective) and thus Christian. That way of seeing truth in first times made all of these works that focused on pagan lives and values suitable as models for and defenses of contemporary Christian values – and, as such, they were among Boccaccio’s most popular works in his day.
In this context a quick mention should be made of another first time to which Boccaccio returned repeatedly in later life, one that to some extent he constructed: the first time of Dante as the first great poet of the Tuscan vernacular. Not only did Boccaccio pen one of the first biographies of Dante in the 1350s, he wrote some of the most important early commentaries on the Divine Comedy. He even copied the poem by hand – a long labor of love – and gave the copy to Petrarch. Finally, late in life, in the 1370s, he took up a post where he lectured on Dante in Florence. In all this he played an important role in transforming Dante from a noted poet who wrote in a language unsuited to great literature, into a first in his own right: the first to elevate his Tuscan dialect into a language worthy of great literature on a par with classical Latin. Ironically, and partially as a result of this, Boccaccio, along with his friend Petrarch and the Dante he idolized, would become in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the writers of a first time of Italian as a literary language capable of expressing great ideas, albeit not without considerable opposition. One could go on, but the point is clear: for the Rinascimento the understanding that the old was good, and the new dangerous and bad, was a deep structural element of a primary shared culture, widely accepted and rarely questioned. It was enough to argue that something was new to demonstrate that it was bad. Positive change, then, was invariably framed in terms of renewal, revival, or rebirth.
Virtù, the Measure of Status and Behavior
As much as the old was an uncontested marker of the good, the concept of virtù was a generally accepted marker of status and the correct way of doing things. Yet at the same time, exactly what that meant was often highly contested and at the heart of many a contemporary debate. For craftsmen it was the skills that made the work of one person better than that of another and that ideally marked out the creations of all guild masters. For theologians and many writers writing in a more traditional moral vein, it was the opposite of vice and described by the traditional Christian virtues, even if the number and nature of those virtues could be contested. In the material world it was that inner quality that made things behave as they should and be what they were. Acorns become oak trees over time thanks to their inner virtù that makes them potentially oak trees.
But perhaps most significantly, as we have seen, the term was used widely as a measure of social status and behavior, and this had long been the case. In chivalric literature and in the context of more traditional medieval warrior values – which had not entirely disappeared, especially among older noble families and rural elites – it denoted a range of direct, forceful behaviors associated with masculinity. The warrior heroes of medieval epics and the popular genre of chivalric romance come immediately to mind, with their direct rough-hewn manners, straightforward and open speech, and ready use of violence; although in the chivalric romances of the Rinascimento the more extreme forms of this vision of virtù were often treated with irony. As we have seen, the popolo grosso, and many of the popolo as well, had their own quite different vision of virtù that tended to stress rational and moderate behavior over the more direct ways they associated with the old nobility and the urban lower classes and peasants. An ability to control the future and one’s emotions, guided by reason rather than emotion, was key and seen as more suited to urban life and the economic complexities of the day. At times this ideal behavior could fall well short of Christian virtue, as in this popolo grossovision virtùtended to slide off into the clever, cunning, and often formally sinful behavior that one sees laughingly presented in many novelle of the time.
The various ancient and medieval philosophical visions of the term also played a role in the debates about the nature of virtù. The Greeks and the Romans had agreed that the behaviors associated with virtù were ideally what should mark out one person as better than another, but had then disagreed about what those behaviors should be. Medieval writers, like Saint Thomas Aquinas, had continued the discussion, basing their arguments on classical authors such as Aristotle (Greek and pagan) and Saint Augustine (Roman and Christian), while also referring to contemporary ideals. In sum, virtù had long been a contested term, and in the first centuries of the Rinascimento it was anything but an easily defined element of its shared primary culture, even if it was widely agreed that it was a crucial measure of what made one person better than another.
The contested meaning of virtù, and at the same time the power of love and the denial of the new in the fourteenth century is nicely illustrated by a well-known novella of Boccaccio: the tragic love story of Ghismonda and Guiscardo that opens the tales of the fourth day of the Decameron. With its stories of tragic loves and death, that day at first seems hardly appropriate for storytellers one of whose stated goals was to take heart from their tales in the face of the plague. Significantly, however, many of the day’s tales of the heroic deaths of tragic lovers transform mourning into a celebration of the ennobling virtù of lovers (and of love itself) and, in doing so, seem to suggest that love and virtù were as central to transcending the horror of the plague as they were to the shared culture of the day.
The tragic love of Ghismonda for Guiscardo is set in a time and place different from the urban world of Boccaccio’s Florence – an apparently earlier time in the southern city of Salerno at a court ruled by a medieval prince, Tancredi, Ghismonda’s father. Tancredi had married his daughter at an early age to an older noble, who had quickly died, leaving her a youthful widow. As was often the case, she returned to live with her father and to wait patiently for another marriage alliance to be arranged by him in the interests of his family and his rule. To this point the story, if a bit sad, could not have been more normal and banal from a medieval noble or an urban popolo grosso point of view. But after several years of waiting patiently for a new marriage, things began to go awry. Ghismonda, noting that her father was not anxious to remarry her, apparently because he enjoyed her company too much and seemed unable or unwilling to find a suitable match for her, decided to take a lover rather than let her youth slip away.
This was the first of what would have been seen as unacceptable decisions for a young woman. Both medieval and Rinascimento literature were fascinated by such tales of formally illicit love outside of marriage. In many ways love outside of marriage was seen as the only true love – as was the case for Dante, Petrarch, and young Boccaccio – because it was based on the emotions of the couple involved, not on the calculations and reasoning of parents or relatives. Yet when women initiated such relationships in medieval literature, they were usually presented as at best flighty girls or lustful adults overwhelmed by strong passions or, at worst, as evil, licentious creatures leading men to their downfall. Ghismonda in Boccaccio’s telling, however, fits neither stereotype. Instead, he portrays her as intelligent, thoughtful, brave, and capable of devising clever strategies in order to have the lover she desired safely and secretly. The word he uses to describe this group of attributes is telling: virtù.
Ghismonda moved on almost immediately to a second, even more questionable deed, picking as her lover a young man who had attracted her attention at the court of her father, Guiscardo. Handsome, brave, mannerly, and also intelligent, Guiscardo had one overwhelming fault: he was not a noble. In fact, he was a new man and a mere page of base background at that – in sum, for all his attractive qualities he was at once new, base, and unworthy of the daughter of a prince and just the type of man Boccaccio’s Florentine contempararies feared most. Nonetheless, in the short run he was a fine lover from Ghismonda’s perspective, and they spend many happy days and nights together making use of a hidden entrance to her chambers and their careful planning to keep their affair secret. Unfortunately, according to Boccaccio, Fortuna – widely recognized as the nemesis of virtù – envious of their love, led her father to observe the lovers enjoying themselves in bed unbeknownst to them. Soon thereafter he threw Guiscardo in jail and, with tears in his eyes, reproved his daughter for her misconduct, focusing on what he saw as her major fault – not her affair, but rather her choice of a new man of base social condition as her lover.
Although the tale was set in the past, it turned then on a new man rising above his station to take the most precious possession of an aristocrat, his daughter. That crime was too great for even youthful love to negate, and in the end both lovers were doomed to tragic deaths, Guiscardo secretly murdered and Ghismonda heroically committing suicide after being presented with her lover’s heart in a golden chalice. From a medieval perspective it could be argued that this was a perfect, if tragic, ending to the tale; for justice had been done, and Tancredi, dishonored by his daughter’s affair and her base lover, had heroically exacted a cruel, but necessary, vengeance on the servant and the daughter who had dishonored him and his family. In the process he had literally eliminated the dangerously new and defended the social order he was required to protect as a prince. In sum, he would have been the hero of the tale and an exemplar of an earlier vision of virtù that still had its proponents in the fourteenth century.
Yet in Boccaccio’s telling of the tale Guiscardo and Ghismonda are the heroes, and her father is both the villain and the tragic victim of his own tears, wrath, and sense of honor. The point is made over and over again, but perhaps most clearly when Ghismonda defends her love to her father. “It’s true that I loved and love Guiscardo and as long as I live – which will not be for long – I will love him,” she forthrightly explains; then continues, “This, however, is not a result of my feminine weakness but rather your lack of desire to marry me and Guiscardo’s virtù.” Shortly thereafter she offers a long description of what that virtù entails:
But let’s move on to consider the origins of this situation. You will note that we are all made from the same flesh and created by the same Creator with souls of equal strength and potential and equal virtù. Virtù was what first created distinctions among us, who all were born and are born equal; and those who had the most virtù and demonstrated it the most were named nobles and the rest non-nobles. And even if later contrary practices have hidden this law, it has not been eliminated, or overturned by nature or good manners; for this reason the person who demonstrates virtù reveals to all his nobility and those who call him otherwise are in the wrong…. Look carefully at all your nobles and examine their lives, their manners, and their ways, then consider Guiscardo…. If you judge honestly you will admit that he is most noble and that all your nobles are peasants. [italics mine]
At the simplest level Ghismonda was claiming that her evaluation of Guiscardo as noble and worthy of her love was not based upon some dangerously new appreciation of the merits of a new man but rather on his virtù – and that judgment, she made clear, was tellingly old, going all the way back to the original social order created by God himself. Crucially, then, rethinking social distinctions on the basis of virtù was not new, but rather old, God-given, and thus not dangerous at all. Ghismonda’s argument also evoked the old at a deeper and not so immediately apparent level, for it was very similar to the arguments that Aristotle and medieval thinkers like Saint Thomas Aquinas had advanced for the way social distinctions should be drawn, even as both admitted it was often overlooked in favor of wealth, family status, and tradition. Thus the virtù card had the advantage of an ancient heritage as well as a medieval defense, and both again made the new safely old.
From this perspective, the true victim of the tale is Tancredi, whose way of understanding virtù Boccaccio presents as outdated and ultimately self-destructive. In his rage and unreasonable desire for vengeance, “crying like a baby,” he caused the death of his daughter, the person he loved more than any other, and the story stresses that he never quite realized that it was all unnecessary had he only reasonably (virtù-ously) considered his daughter’s logic and married her to the truly noble and not new at all Guiscardo. In this way the novella subtly allows the reader to conclude that this vision of virtù, with its emphasis on reason, self-control, mannered/measured behavior, and an ability to plan in order to deal effectively with the future, would have saved Tancredi from his tragic fate – if only he had been a Florentine popolo grosso rather than a medieval prince of Salerno. A story that in the Middle Ages could have been the sad but honorable triumph of a noble prince, thus became in Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century retelling a parable on the value of a particular contemporary vision of virtù that typified the values of the popolo grosso and a defense of that vision of things as not new and not dangerous, but rather as old and safe.
In fact, the theme of virtù runs deep in Boccaccio’s Decameron and helps to explain much of the often cruel humor of the tales. Those who do not practice virtù, because they are victims of their passions, are portrayed as the deserving victims of harsh jokes that reveal their lack of true virtù and subject them to demeaning laughter or worse. Many of the more tragic tales also turn on demonstrations of the sad things that happen when virtù is replaced by the direct violent emotions associated with medieval warrior elites of an earlier day (or with contemporaries who still aped those more direct ways); when lovers’ passion are not moderated by virtù; or when the foolish and gullible, lacking virtù, do not understand the true nature of religious faith.
Of course, older visions and understandings of virtù did not simply disappear. Rather, the shared primary culture of the day tested the concept and wrestled with it frequently, seeking its true nature in earlier, more perfect times or literature, especially in the writings of the ancients and the Church Fathers. But with the progressive dominance of the popolo grosso across the century and the integration of many of the old noble families into the urban, merchant culture of the day, the discourse on virtù came to be increasingly dominated by one fairly unified vision. Old, both God-given and defended by an appeal to classical culture (not always warranted), and ultimately reasonable in itself, it turned on reason sliding into cleverness, exercising self-control over violent or strong emotions, and progressively more mannered and graceful behavior. And although in many ways this went well beyond the requirements for living successfully in an urban, merchant world, it fit well with that life.
The triumph of this way of imagining virtù and the active life in civil society associated with it was neither easy nor smooth in the fourteenth century. A contrasting vision, with strong Christian and classical roots, one that still had many supporters, insisted that a life of virtù required a withdrawal from the everyday turmoil of urban life to pursue a spiritual life in isolation – the ideal contemplative life. Such a life was ideal for both clerics and scholars, for it provided the peace and freedom, otium (positive leisure), to pursue study and give full attention to the development of one’s mind and spiritual well-being. Boccaccio’s friend and regular correspondent Petrarch was a stout supporter of this position. And his dream of a return to the glorious days of ancient Rome envisioned a rebirth of an ancient virtù significantly different from that envisioned by Boccaccio in the Decameron and a society dominated by cultural heroes who lived a perfect existence focused on great ideas, safely withdrawn from the hustle and bustle ofpopolo grosso virtù.
Petrarch saw this as true of ancient Rome, because its great leaders and wealth had made it possible for a select few to live such lives and to create a literature that recorded that way of living for the future, where it could be rediscovered and revived. Petrarch’s mission was to do just that. A central component of his program of recovery of the ancient was a rediscovery of the works of Cicero, whom he saw not only as a great thinker and moral philosopher, but also as a great Latin stylist. Style and content went hand in hand, because he, like many in his day, believed that truth and beauty were deeply intertwined, if not merely the same thing seen from two different perspectives. What was true was beautiful, and what was beautiful was true. This was because it was the truth in a thing that created a harmony and a simple being-what-it-was that superior people perceived as beauty. Ideas expressed beautifully, then, were more likely to be true. Significantly, this implied that ideas expressed in corrupt and inelegant medieval Latin were not only ugly, but also, lacking the beauty of ancient Latin, almost certainly incorrect. In Cicero’s Latin, Petrarch discovered what he considered the most beautiful form of the ancient language, and he campaigned for replacing the Latin of his day with it. Actually, he was not the first to do so, but he used his position as a cultural leader to campaign for this and was supported by a number of like-minded scholars who shared his vision.
Petrarch spent much of his life tracking down Ciceronian texts and was especially interested early on in his letters. Letters were ideal in part because they were relatively short and thus easily copied and circulated. They were also attractive as they required the maximum of elegance in the minimum of space, something for which Ciceronian Latin was well suited. In many ways they were the poetry of prose. Shorter and more evocative than a closely argued medieval tome, they offered greater rhetorical brilliance and beauty. Cicero’s letters also attracted Petrarch because they were known primarily through a collection, the Tusculan Disputations, that portrayed Cicero as virtually a withdrawn Stoic sage, one who had left the confusion and turmoil of his Rome to retire to his country estates and live a contemplative life of virtù focused on his own moral and spiritual development. This Cicero fit perfectly with Petrarch’s ideal for his own life and the ideal he advanced for contemporary scholars. And although Cicero was clearly a pagan, Petrarch could imagine his virtù as being consonant with a Christian vision – once again just an earlier moment of the one truth that ultimately originated in God, reinforced by the beauty of Cicero’s ideas expressed in an elegant Latin and by the fact that Cicero’s ideas were old, not new.
Thus, as Petrarch sought ancient texts across Italy to help revive ancient culture and his vision of ancient virtù, discovering additional letters of Cicero was a major goal. Unfortunately for Petrarch’s imaginary Cicero, the real ancient writer and many of his other letters did not match up well with those of the Tusculan Disputations. One can imagine his dismay when in 1345 he discovered in the Cathedral Library of Verona a series of letters to a certain Atticus that presented a very different picture of his hero. In thoseLetters to Atticus Cicero wrote as an active citizen of republican Rome, forced out of public office, much to his regret, when Julius Caesar came to power. Moreover, they presented a Cicero who had plotted against Caesar, and who after his death was an active participant in the civil wars that ended with the triumph of Augustus and the fall of the republic that he had supported in words and deeds.
Poor Petrarch, his very being shaken, the actual ancient world having betrayed his dreams, did something that reveals how close he felt to his fallen ancient hero: he wrote Cicero, dead for more than a thousand years, a letter. Or, more accurately, he wrote his ghost, now safely consigned to Hell, a bitter letter. “Why did you involve yourself in so many contentions and useless quarrels and forsake the calm so becoming to your age, your position and … your life?” he asked reprovingly. And continued, “what vain splendor of fame drove you … to a death unworthy of a sage[?] … Oh how much more fitting would it have been had you … grown old in rural surroundings … meditating upon eternal life … and not aspiring to consular offices and military triumphs!” In the end, however, Petrarch was too clever to be cornered by history or ancient texts. He explained away his hero’s misdeeds, claiming that Cicero was “an historic example of a citizen who against his own will bore testimony to the superiority of the contemplative life,” arguing that his greatest works had been written in the “solitudo gloriosa” of his exile from power and the civic world of his day. Thus the activist Cicero was safely returned to a role model for Petrarch’s brand of virtù and his vision of the superiority of the contemplative life over the active.
Later in his career, however, Petrarch came to modify his stance somewhat. In his spiritual and psychological autobiography written in Latin, the Secretum (begun in 1342), he suggested that worldly virtù – the key to success in the active life – is found by turning inward. At first, this might seem simply a non sequitur: the contemplative life leads to success in the active life. But restated in a way that comes closer to Petrarch’s vision – as a claim that a strong inner, spiritual life brings strength even in the active world of everyday life – it sounds less contradictory; closer to the vision of another of his heroes from the ancient world, Saint Augustine, and similar to the compromise between Christianity and merchant capitalism worked out more fully by later Protestant theologians: inner purity and spirituality lead to earthly success, and that success is a sign and confirmation of inner purity.
Petrarch’s defense of a withdrawn, contemplative life also led him to conclude that in the ancient world the Roman Empire had been superior to the Roman republic. As long as there had been a republic, he argued, the civil strife of the republic had prevented the best and the brightest from dedicating themselves to a tranquil, scholarly life. The violent turmoil of the republics of his day once again seemed to confirm his contention. Needless to say, this antirepublican stance was an opinion that won wide approval from the many signori who were gaining power in the city-states of central and northern Italy and once again it did not hurt in the least that it presented their newly and often violently won rule not as new, but as based upon the ancient Roman Empire and its superior civilization. Not surprisingly, Petrarch was supported over the course of his later career by a series of signori and ended his career advising the rather bloody Paduan tyrant Francesco Carrara, albeit from the safety and isolation of his hillside retreat in Arquà in the hills just south of that city. Obviously, the leaders of republican cities that had held out against the rise of tyrants in the fourteenth century were less enthusiastic about this aspect of Petrarch’s thought, even as most claimed to follow their own programs of classical revival and visions of virtù.
As we have seen, however, republics like Florence and Venice had their own traditions that stressed the importance of an active civic life and republican forms over despotic ones. These traditions, however, were tested and crystallized as a powerful republican ideology as the fourteenth century drew to a close and in the first half of the fifteenth in the context of the long series of wars between those republics and the signori of Milan, discussed earlier as part of the Italian Hundred Years’ War. Florence, Venice, and Milan did not fight those wars just with money, professional soldiers, and diplomatic maneuvering; they also mobilized the intellectuals who staffed their bureaucracies and the cultural leaders of their cities to defend and legitimate their cause. Writers in both Florence and Venice stressed the importance of life in a republic and republican values for sustaining true virtù, using classical literature to defend their position. In this they squared off against writers in Milan, who, following in the footsteps of Petrarch, stressed the freedom and support that signori could give to those who withdrew from the troubles of the world to live a life of more contemplative virtù.
Clearly these verbal battles of the Italian Hundred Years’ War, often based on a close reading and interpretation of texts from the ancient world, were not merely intellectual exercises or even simply sophisticated scholarship. They were at times both, of course, but, crucially, they also grew out of more bloody battles and were deeply intertwined with the everyday life of their times. In fact, in these debates one sees an excellent example of the complexity involved in doing intellectual or cultural history well: it is possible to tell the tale of this defense of republican values simply as a series of responses to and debates on texts from the ancient world. But that misses a much more complex, messy, and rich picture that sees these writers as intimately involved in the life and primary shared culture of their times, using their readings of past texts to defend and reimagine the novelty of their cities as old, good, and necessary to live a meaningful life of virtù – and as a verbal battlefront in a series of long and disruptive wars.
Perhaps the best-known defense of republican values and a civic life of virtù is found in the advocacy by the Florentine Chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) of the superiority of an active life of civic virtù at the end of the fourteenth century in the midst of the wars with Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Salutati was one of the most noted examples of a growing desire in Florence, Venice, Milan, and elsewhere to have not just competent scribes and bureaucrats staffing the highest secretarial offices of government, but also scholars trained in the classical tradition, capable of writing letters and documents that came ever-closer to Petrarch’s ideal of capturing the elegance of classical Latin – letters and documents that demonstrated in their elegant prose both a deeper truth and a rebirth of the Roman past in city-states with a superior civiltà. Salutati, in fact, was widely recognized in his day as a powerful Latin stylist and thus a powerful representative of the superiority of his city. Even Gian Galeazzo Visconti recognized his importance, noting that a letter from Salutati could be as effective as a troop of 1,000 horsemen. Hyperbole or merely respect, Salutati’s impressive rhetoric set the tone for defending republics as the only places where one could live a fully civilized life – an active life of service to one’s city and one’s society, a life of true virtù.
Salutati turned to the Roman past to defend this vision, which in many ways had earlier typified the popolo grosso vision of a moral social order and civiltà built upon the civic morality of popolo power. He was aided in this by a new set of letters by Cicero discovered in 1392 that became known as the Familiar Letters. Once again they revealed Cicero to have been an active political participant in the civic life of ancient Rome. Moreover, they stressed the importance of such a life and participation in the civic world in fully realizing one’s moral and cultural potential – in becoming a truly virtù-ous citizen in a truly virtù-ous city state. Salutati’s Cicero became virtually the opposite of Petrarch’s, a citizen of a republic who held that an active life in the service of one’s city was the duty of every citizen and good person. From this Salutati went on to insist that in order to live a true life of virtù, a full and meaningful life, one had to participate in a republic as a good moral citizen, a good officeholder, and an active supporter of one’s government. In turn, he argued that it was impossible to lead such a life in a city ruled by a signore, because under a tyrant the active life was either a sham or no longer existed; thus only in a republican city such as Florence could one live a full and active civic life. In sum, looking to the past and Cicero’s letters demonstrated that contemporaries should defend republics not for any newfangled reason or simply to protect the interests of the popolo grosso, but rather because the great Roman society of the ancient world had at its best and most powerful been based on the active civic involvement of its citizenry. That had made Rome superior and allowed individual Romans to lead a meaningful and moral life. True life and virtù, then, were available only in a civic context, a republican one like that of contemporary Florence – not quite a thousand horsemen perhaps, but an effective rallying cry for Florence’s wars with Milan.
“Civic Humanism” or Republican Ideology and Civic Morality?
This vision, as articulated by Salutati, his pupils, and followers has been labeled “civic humanism.” Yet as neither humanists nor humanism had been yet conceptualized, it might be less anachronistic to see this stress on civic life, using classical and early Christian texts for its defense – while moving well beyond them – as just another facet of the much broader rebirth of classical culture and first times in general, already well established and expressed in terms of civiltà and civic morality. In fact, even in its particulars this vision was not particularly new, but as it became increasingly codified in Florence, Venice, and more generally, it became an important defense of republican values that would long outlive the Rinascimento and play a significant role in the formulation of modern republican theory. As it crystallized at the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century, however, it also helped to stimulate a significant rethinking of the traditional vision of the superiority of the Roman Empire – a vision obviously central to the many earlier medieval revivals of the Roman Empire and still of great weight.
Defenders of civic morality and republican values, following Salutati’s line of reasoning, began to argue more aggressively that the Roman republic was actually superior to the Roman Empire, because under the republic people had the opportunity to live full civic lives and thus were superior to those who had lived under Roman emperors. This encouraged many to reconsider the Roman origins of their own cities. As noted earlier, in a search for legitimacy and a way of claiming parity with contemporary Roman emperors from the north, many cities had discovered their own Roman foundations, usually by noteworthy emperors and often with an implicit or explicit claim that such foundations made them continuations of the empire on a par with contemporary German emperors. Now, however, Florentines suddenly discovered that their city had been founded not by an emperor at all, but rather during the last days of the republic; thus, in a way their republic was a continuation of that superior political, social, and moral way of life in a world increasingly dominated by tyrants and would-be rulers of mini-empires like Gian Galeazzo Visconti.
The neatness of the fit with contemporary events might suggest that this was merely propaganda, but it struck deeper chords. First, and crucially, the vision of virtù embedded in civic life, with its stress on a public and active life in an urban environment, almost perfectly overlapped with the values of the popolo grosso. Second, the emphasis on public service for the public good helped to reinforce the growing vision of the idea that public power for the public good was, in fact, the true goal of government – an ideal already well developed in Venetian republican ideology and elsewhere. Third, this vision was enfolded in and reinforced by a Christian and moral context that saw both public service for the public good and an active civic life as crucial elements of a civic morality that made life in the city superior to other ways of living. And last but not least, civic cultural leaders, using the Roman classics to defend this republican vision of civic morality, had proved their metal and merit to those in power, as even Gian Galeazzo had to admit.
This triumph of civic ideals couched in classical thought and the popolo grosso’s vision of the active life and civic morality, given its many resonances with modern civic and political values, has engendered much study. One of the most ambitious and influential has been Hans Baron’s The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, written in the mid-1950s in the heat of the cold war, a moment when republics faced authoritarian regimes in an apparent battle to determine the course of Western civilization, a moment when the military and cultural battles between the tyrants and republics of the Rinascimento seemed particularly relevant to an age that also saw its great conflicts involving republics defending their traditional values against authoritarian states. Yet, while those issues may have added weight to Baron’s interests, he was too good a scholar to let them dominate, and, in fact, another significant historical issue drove his interest in the topic: the question of the relationship between the history of ideas and political and social history. In Crisis he attempted to show the direct relationship between political change and intellectual change, believing firmly that the two were intimately and deeply intertwined.
For Baron, Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444) was the central figure for explaining the timing and triumph of what he labeled “civic humanism.” And it is interesting to follow his argument, as it still provides a suggestive reading of Florentine intellectual developments of the early fifteenth century. Like many of those involved in the move to find classical precedents for contemporary political agendas in Florence, Bruni did not come from an elite Florentine family, but rather from a provincial family from Arezzo involved in the grain trade. Salutati noted the young man’s talent in Latin and classical studies and made him a part of his chancellery staff. This allowed Bruni to move into the elite circles of Florentine cultural life and bureaucratic power.
When in 1396 the Greek scholar Emmanuel Chrysoloras arrived in Florence and began to teach Greek, Bruni rewarded Salutati’s faith in him by being one of the brightest and most successful of his students. Mastering Greek was the logical extension of the return to the classical past in order to find and defend the present, as most contemporaries believed that ancient Greek culture had been the base of Roman culture. Moreover, it was widely accepted that the Greek philosophers had discovered many fundamental truths independently, without the benefit of Biblical inspiration or Christ’s teachings. From this perspective a lack of knowledge of ancient Greek texts in the original Greek was a handicap in investigating the origins of Roman culture and the true first times more generally. Bruni’s successes in Greek, then, brought him into closer contact with Florentine intellectuals from elite families who were also interested in garnering a deeper knowledge of the classical world by learning Greek – men like Roberto de’Rossi, Palla di Nofri Strozzi, and Niccolò Niccoli. This ongoing wedding of men of power and wealth with public servants and leaders like Salutati and Bruni meant that such interests encouraged a shared vision of an active life in service to the state as the best life imaginable – a highly significant, if imagined, reality.
Was this the first glimpse of a future humanism? Perhaps. But evidently the term’s nineteenth-century coinage makes humanism an unlikely measure of an intellectual moment that occurred four or five centuries earlier. Actually, for Baron’s central thesis such labels were less necessary than demonstrating that the history of ideas did not develop in a political or social vacuum, simply as ideas passed down from one great thinker to another. The real issue was showing the way in which political events and ideas interrelated at a concrete historical moment. And for those deep connections two of Bruni’s works were especially important: his Laudatio Florentinae Urbis (1403–1404) and his Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum (written, Baron argued, in two parts, the first in 1401, the second between 1403 and 1406).
The Laudatio was labeled by Baron “[t]he pioneer to which must be traced the development that leads through Bruni’s History of the Florentine People to Machiavelli and the other great Florentine historians.” There are aspects of the Laudatio, however, that appear to fall rather short of “pioneerhood.” First, as the title suggests, it was part of a quite traditional late medieval and early Renaissance genre of works lauding a city – a tradition that often referred to a city’s classical foundations and the way its current organization and practices recreated those of the ancient world while also, of course, fulfilling Christian ideals. Bruni, however, was original in that he was one of the first to use a Greek source as a model for constructing his panegyric: the Panathenaicus of the Greek orator Aristides, a work that lauded ancient Athens. Although modeling a laud of Florence on an ancient text praising Athens might at first seem unlikely, Baron noted that Bruni stressed the parallel between the two as republics. Republican Athens in the Persian Wars defeated Persian despotism and saved Greek liberty from tyranny, much as republican Florence had just done by defeating the tyrant Gian Galeazzo Visconti. No matter that it was more fortune and disease that had defeated Gian Galeazzo, once again the classics had been imaginatively brought to bear on the present. Moreover, Bruni made the crucial point for Florence’s sense of destiny that just as Athens had become the political and cultural leader of the Greek world after its victory, so too Florence was destined to lead Italy. It would do so, however, not as a new power but as the rebirth of the glory days of another first time, that of ancient Athens – yet another rinascita.
Following Aristides again, Bruni noted that Athenian successes, both against the Persians and as leaders of the ancient world, were predicated upon the fact that they had always been a free people. This gave him the opportunity to point out that the same was true for Florence, provided, however, that he reject earlier traditions that had claimed that the city had been founded by Caesar – now demoted to the status of a tyrant. Thus, he marshaled historical evidence for reimagining the founding of the city by the republican general Sulla. This allowed him to claim that Florence deserved to lead Italy because the Florentines had also always been a free people from their very founding – a dubious claim, but a powerful rhetorical one that again fit well with the project of making the new old.
Turning to political institutions, Aristides, following Aristotle, had argued that Athens was a perfect example of the ideal of a mixed government, an ideal widely shared in Bruni’s day as well. According to this vision there were three basic forms of government, each of which had a fatal flaw: republics, which tended to devolve into mob rule; aristocracies, which tended to become oligarchies; and polities ruled by princes, who tended to turn into despots. The best governments were ones that included a balance or mix of all three forms, so that the weakness of each would be limited by the strengths of the others. It took some fairly clever reasoning to demonstrate that Florentine government was a republic with a perfect mix of the three, but Bruni made the attempt. More realistically, it might be argued that forcing Florentine government into an Aristotelian model of mixed government (already a traditional vision for Venice) was yet another clever rhetorical ploy that, much like the claim of republican foundations, had little to do with what actually was the case. Yet as a way of reimagining power, it was again a particularly potent use of the past to legitimate the present: Florentine government was not some new combination of magistracies and councils, judges and policing bodies developed over time, it was a rebirth of an ancient and proven ideal – creating a perfect urban environment in which to live an active life of virtù.
Bruni’s Dialogi (Dialogues) according to Baron’s much-questioned dating, were written at two different and significant moments: the first in 1401, during the darkest days of the war with Gian Galeazzo, and the second sometime between 1403 and 1406, after Florence had survived his threat to its independence. In the first the young turks, Bruni, Niccolò Niccoli, and Roberto de’ Rossi, led by Niccoli, argued that the great authors of Florence’s recent past – Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio – should be discarded because they were inadequate as Latinists and classical scholars. In the second, however, they retracted that radical conclusion, albeit in Niccoli’s case reluctantly. Their original arguments turned on their insistence that earlier scholars had relied too heavily on medieval authority and Aristotle, and more damning yet, that they had worked with ancient texts that were corrupt, badly transcribed and translated. Behind all this lay an essential failure – they had not mastered classical Latin well enough to realize their errors. Ironically, Petrarch’s insistence on perfect classical Latin had come back to bite him.
Implicit in this argument was the insistence that establishing perfect classical texts was a crucial end in itself. It came before dealing with contemporary issues or even the analysis of current problems – a premise that had a logic, if one accepted the vision that ancient culture had been virtually perfect and offered the answers to all questions. In a way, this mode of seeing the ancient world has strong parallels with certain religious fundamentalists, who see returning to the sacred texts of the Bible or the Koran as all that is necessary to live correctly. Yet from a scholarly perspective, this call for developing the most accurate classical texts ultimately made it possible to develop a deeper understanding of those texts and the classical world itself – an understanding that, with a certain poetic injustice, would eventually undermine the myth of a perfect classical past. But significantly, the call to establish perfect texts before using classical knowledge for a broader range of intellectual and practical purposes reflected a growing desire on the part of some to separate classical scholarship and an elite culture from the shared primary culture of the day.
This rejection of everything not ancient, including earlier Florentine greats such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, suggests a dangerous closed-mindedness. No matter that in Bruni’s second dialogue the young rebels backed down, for in their appeal to a higher order of learning that disqualified most of their predecessors and contemporaries, they were making a disciplinary move that would be at the heart of what many of the later humanists saw as their intellectual mission. Earlier classical enthusiasts such as Petrarch had made similar claims, perhaps even with similar dreams of restricting scholarship and culture to an elite led by themselves. But in many ways Baron was correct in seeing Bruni’s Dialogi as representing a sea change, for many who studied the ancient classics – especially certain lawyers, scribes, and notaries, along with a group of teachers and tutors and a number of the increasingly aristocratic elite – began to develop a more disciplinary approach to their studies that would earn them the label “humanists” as the fifteenth century came to an end. A deeper and more technical knowledge of ancient texts, rhetorical skill, and a highly demanding standard of writing in Latin, along with some Greek or even Hebrew, would become recognized as the essentials for a true sixteenth-century humanist. For these scholars, their learning and its discipline would increasingly become a mark of elite status, both intellectually and socially, with an aristocratic program of classical studies eventually becoming a movement that dominated Western high culture and learning, even if the term for their discipline, “humanism,” was coined only in the nineteenth century. Suggestively, this elevation of their studies into a marker of status was paralleled by similar developments in a number of arenas – certain artisans, for example, were becoming artists, and even elite prostitutes were becoming courtesans, as we will see.
Not all were content with this self-proclaimed status of sixteenth-century humanists as the intellectual elite of their day, especially the increasingly narrow and stringent standards for membership in their new intellectual aristocracy that they defended. In fact, already in the sixteenth century humorous and often quite biting attacks on humanists demonstrate that there was a perception that in their striving for elite status they had all too often defined themselves out of the world of practical concerns and meaningful cultural debates. Often these attacks are dismissed as early forms of anti-intellectualism. At one level they were just that, but they were often expressions of real concern about the narrowness of humanist scholarship as well, especially in the context of claims to set the standards for and dominate intellectual life. Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), one of the most virulent critics of the first half of the sixteenth century, who at times tried to display his own humanist credentials in order to garner posts and patrons, provides a typical send-up of the stereotypic self-satisfied humanist scholar who is laughed at as a pompous learned fool in his bitterly witty comedy, Il marescalco.
The comedy concludes with a humorous marriage scene involving the lead character, the Marescalco, who hates women, much preferring young boys. Throughout the play he has been resisting a match arranged for him by his local signore, the duke of Mantua, which allows Aretino to laughingly reprise traditional debates about whether it is better to marry or to avoid the entanglements that marriage entails. Unbeknownst to those summoned to the wedding celebration, the duke has provided the perfect bride for the Marescalco, a young male page dressed and passing as a woman. To add to the humor of the moment and the suffering of the Marescalco, the duke has also asked the Pedant – a character in this comedy already on the way to becoming a stock character of laughter at the expense of humanists – to deliver the marriage ceremony, which he proceeds to do with equal amounts of misplaced enthusiasm, and misplaced classical knowledge, and a large amount of learned foolishness, all buoyed by a misplaced sense of his own elite status.
Tellingly, the Pedant immediately begins on the wrong foot: “[L]et us begin latine (in Latin), because Cicero in his Paradoxes says that we should not speak of holy matrimony in the vulgar tongue.” The use of Cicero as an authority on marriage ceremonies, even if Cicero never wrote a work called Paradoxes, as well as the insistence that his speech must be given in Latin, immediately identifies him as a humanist, and a particularly pompous one at that. At the same time, the mistaken reference serves to undercut any claims to true intellectual accomplishments. The duke’s man interrupts, undoubtedly underlining what a reader or an audience must have been thinking at the prospect of hearing the Pedant deliver the marriage ceremony in Latin, ordering him to instead “[s]peak to us as much as you can in everyday language, because all this ‘ibus, ibas’ [Latin case endings] business is too constipated to be understood.”
But, of course, that would undermine the Pedant’s claims to superiority, and he objects: “Do you want me to lose the gravity of my oration? One must first pace a bit, glancing now up, now down, in the manner of the followers of Demosthenes.” The perfect imperfect humanist rhetorician, he then begins his peroration, returning to Latin and literally starting at the beginning with Creation and the Garden of Eden. This drags out the ceremony with a ridiculous play of preening and misplaced, misused Latin, until the audience is saved from his foolishness by the revelation that the Marescalco’s bride is actually a boy, whereupon the laughter at the Pedant is lost in a tide of broader laughter, and the comedy ends with a transgressive humor true to Aretino at his best. Yet clearly behind the clever send-up of the Pedant’s pretensions lies a deeper dissatisfaction with, and mocking of, the claims of intellectual superiority of humanists and their overreliance upon classical texts as the measure of all things.
And although it would be difficult to take much seriously in this send-up of the Pedant, his attempt at high Latin rhetoric calls attention to one aspect of classical scholarship of an earlier period that is often seen as setting apart “proto-humanists” as a group well before the label existed – a fascination with rhetoric and writing and speaking with classical style. Aretino’s pedant’s failures in this area draw laughter, but from early on some intellectuals, in the broader return to the classics and first times, sought to separate themselves from their peers by stressing their mastery of Latin rhetoric. Hand and hand with this went an attack on more traditional forms of medieval argumentation and rhetoric that lacked the style and grace that ancient masters such as Cicero were held to have epitomized. Particularly disliked was the scholastic method of argument associated with medieval universities and medieval interpretations of Aristotle. Although it is a great oversimplification, at its height in the Middle Ages – perhaps best exemplified by Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica – this style of analysis, based on a rigorous use of dialectic and close reasoning, took theology and metaphysics to new levels and to many at the time seemed capable of answering all questions, or at least all questions that could be answered rationally. But it also produced heavy and turgid prose that could become quite mechanical and make for arguments that were anything but elegant or beautiful in terms of language.
Rinascimento writers, who prided themselves on their mastery of rhetoric, much preferred other forms of argumentation, such as the letter and the dialogue. The letter, with its short form, required masterful style to convey its message; the dialogue offered an opportunity to create beautiful speeches that evoked actual debates and often real intellectual figures. But these and other forms of writing that demonstrated rhetorical ability and the truth of ideas via their beautiful expression were often less capable of developing complex ideas; thus, it is frequently assumed that more technical or complex subjects such as theology and philosophy suffered because of this rhetorical turn. Not all were won over to the rhetorical turn proclaimed by Petrarch, however, and many of those who claimed they were did not consistently eschew close analysis for rhetorical elegance. Still, rhetorical skill and the beauty of a text became an increasingly significant criterion that defined certain writings as intellectually superior. And there was a deeper logic to this position, for, as we have seen, beauty and truth were often seen as interchangeable. What was true was beautiful, and what was beautiful was true, and that meant that ideas expressed in beautiful Latin could be presumed to be true. In the face of such claims, however, Aretino’s Pedant and the many other pedants of sixteenth-century comedy should not be forgotten; their laughable attempts at rhetoric revealed more vanity and folly than truth and beauty.
The establishment in the early fifteenth century of a new program of education outside the universities – the studia humanitatis – is often portrayed as playing a major role in establishing a higher standard of classical Latin and rhetoric. Among the leaders in this movement were two noted scholars and their schools: Vittorino da Feltre (1378–1446) at Mantua, supported by the Gonzaga lords, and Guarino da Verona (c. 1374–1460) at Ferrara, with the support of the Este rulers there. Guarino was well known for his study of Greek and for the years he spent in the east searching for lost ancient Greek manuscripts and perfecting his command of that language. Upon his return to Italy, he settled for a while in Bologna, where he met another student of Greek, Leonardo Bruni, who helped him secure a post teaching in Florence. After teaching there for five years, he moved on to Venice, where he founded a school for the sons of rich Venetian nobles and worked with Vittorino da Feltre, whom he also tutored in Greek. Presumably the two men shared ideas about the ideal form of education for scholars and civic leaders, one that stressed ancient languages and reading the classics in both Latin and Greek. In 1429, after a failed attempt to move his school to his home town of Verona, Guarino was invited by the duke of Ferrara to tutor his son Leonello, and at the age of fifty-five opened a school there. With the duke’s patronage, it flourished, and Guarino’s educational program quickly became a model for what would become known as the studia humanitatis.
Once again his innovations were presented as traditional: in place of the typical medieval university education based on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy), he took his students back to the classical world via an incremental program of study divided into three levels. The first level, as might be expected, focused on classical Latin. The second went on to study advanced Latin grammar and style, in both prose and poetry, along with basic Greek. These skills were then used to read history and ancient literature. The final level considered rhetoric and philosophy, seen as the highest accomplishments of a truly educated person. For rhetoric, Cicero was the measure, but a wider range of noted Roman orators was studied as well. For philosophy, Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, were central. Accompanying this course of study Guarino commissioned a series of teaching manuals and wrote a widely used treatise of Latin grammar.
Pupils came from all over Italy and Europe to study at his school. And as many of them were the sons of notable and powerful families, they spread the fame of his school and of the studia humanitatis as a superior form of education, distinct from traditional university education. Guarino, to his credit, insisted that his training should be open to the less well-off, and the dukes of Ferrara supported his vision with the patronage necessary to bring in a few promising students from more humble backgrounds. But in the end it was a training that really made sense only for the sons of the upper classes and bureaucratic elites seeking to move up in the intellectual/scholarly world. Few sons of the lower classes could hope to find the powerful connections or support to move ahead as scholars or high-level bureaucrats in the Church or government – those few who did were the exceptions that proved the rule.
Vittorino da Feltre, although he had studied Greek with Guarino in Venice and was slightly younger, actually opened his school in Mantua in 1423, six years before Guarino. After studying literature and the natural sciences at the University of Padua, followed by Greek with Guarino, he won a chair in rhetoric at Padua. He too opened a school for the sons of nobles in Venice, but when Gian Francesco Gonzaga, lord of Mantua, invited him to educate his sons and his daughters – the latter an idea that was gaining ground, even if many opposed it on moral grounds – Vittorino jumped at the opportunity. In many ways his school was even more traditional as it stressed the trivium and quadrivium associated with university instruction, also emphasizing a more stoic ethos of self-mastery in a Christian context. Thus students spent considerable time in physical exercise and reading religious texts that stressed self-control, obedience to the dictates of religion, and moral values. The ideal was that teachers and pupils would live and work together and once again that the school would be open to all ranks of society. It too quickly attracted students from all over Italy and Europe as well as patronage from a wider circle of aristocratic supporters. Success followed rapidly, as an impressive number of scholars and civic leaders studied there and the school continued at least another twenty years after Vittorino’s death.
If those who had studied in the schools that stressed the studia humanitatis had set themselves clearly apart from the vast majority of fifteenth-century people who appealed to the classical world as the basis for their arguments and ideas, perhaps we might identify among their number a group that might be labeled proto-humanists. But although many who embraced this educational ideal were successful, they usually followed the studia humanitatis not as a separate and superior path to knowledge, but as, at best, a superior manifestation of the general fascination with and respect for the ancient world. Actually, scholars and intellectuals of the fifteenth century who are labeled humanists by modern scholars tend to be individuals who seem particularly important or successful, rather than the group who studied with Guarino or Vittorino. Not surprisingly, then, mediocre figures are seldom identified or studied as important precursors – ironically, even in humanism’s imagined lineage only the elite find a place. To avoid the pitfalls of this anachronistic popularity contest, perhaps a better way to look at these figures is to focus on the fact that most of those now labeled humanists saw themselves until late in the fifteenth century as merely part of a much broader movement that sought to place ancient language, literature, and rhetoric at the service of a society and a shared culture that valued above all returning to better first times – in sum, in the service of a Rinascimento.
As humanists at the end of the fifteenth and across the sixteenth century developed their scholarly interests into a discipline that created and identified a superior intellectual elite, the virtù associated with intellectual leadership narrowed in a way that transformed the use of ancient texts and ancient languages from a significant aspect of virtually every field of knowledge to the scholarly discipline of an elite few – a discipline that sought to dominate all other knowledge. Those who had not mastered that knowledge, who could not demonstrate that they possessed that virtù, were progressively defined out of the world of knowledge that really mattered, at least from the perspective of humanists. Thus when it became absolutely necessary to know exactly what Aristotle had said in the original Greek about the nature of government, or what Galen had held on the humors, without turning to other disciplinary traditions such as medieval political theories or the observations of surgeons, a widely shared faith in the superiority of the ancient world had splintered off to become a discipline that would accomplish many positive things, gain wide respect, but at the same time become the butt of jokes and be seen by its naysayers as both narrow and an impediment to knowledge.
Fifteenth-Century Classical Scholarship
If we look at those often labeled humanists or proto-humanists from the fifteenth century, most again had a wider vision of their classical scholarship, even those who prepared the ground for a more disciplinary approach to such scholarship. One scholar often singled out is Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457). His proof that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery is often seen as an early triumph of humanistic discipline. It will be remembered that the donation of the Roman Empire to Pope Silvester, supposedly made in 324 by the Emperor Constantine in return for the former’s curing him of leprosy, had been one of the primary documents defending the papacy’s claims to temporal authority. By the 1440s, however, when Valla proved that it was a forgery, it was in many ways a dead letter, as no secular rulers were ready to deliver up their lands and power to popes on its authority. Still, Valla’s proof that it was a forgery was a disciplinary tour de force. He demonstrated that the Latin of the text contained a number of words that were not in use in the fourth century, when it was supposedly written, and showed that several of the key phrases were particular to the much later Carolingian period. But his analysis went beyond the text’s Latin, also exhibiting a perceptive historical awareness, as he pointed out that leprosy was relatively unknown in Constantine’s time. Only in the early Middle Ages had it become the scourge that the Donation invoked as the reason for Constantine’s gift. In sum, the search for an understanding of the way Latin developed, along with a more scholarly understanding of the past, had allowed Valla to prove that what had once been a key text of the Christian tradition was not at all what it seemed. It should be noted, however, that this proof, often pointed to as one of the triumphs of early humanists, was largely ignored – for when Church figures listed claims for papal authority, the Donation still regularly appeared, Valla’s proof notwithstanding.
A closer look at this widely recognized “humanist” hero of the fifteenth century once again suggests some of the problems involved in creating humanists for this period. Certainly much of Valla’s scholarly production qualifies him as one of the most important classical scholars of his day, yet he was much more, and strongly influenced by medieval mysticism and his own brand of Christian Epicureanism. At the same time that he wrote on the development of ancient Latin and taught rhetoric at Pavia in the 1430s, he argued for a form of Epicurean Christianity that stressed the mystical pleasure of the search for union with God as the highest Christian good, something that had a long medieval tradition, albeit with a classical pedigree recognized already in the Middle Ages. In his De voluptate (1431) Valla attacked the contemporary vision (that could be traced back to ancient Stoics) that had dominated Christian thinking at least from the time of Petrarch’s enthusiasm for Cicero, claiming that rather than control of one’s emotions, the cultivation of pleasure was the true goal of a Christian life. Pleasure was not something to be avoided as a sin, but rather a God-given emotion that taught the true path to a good life. Like everything else created by God, it was good and natural to humans and served a holy end. When correctly understood and pursued, it actually led to a moral life and ultimately to God.
Moving from court to court seeking patronage, Valla eventually settled at the court of Naples, becoming secretary to Alfonso I, king of Naples. While there, his defense of Epicureanism caught up with him, and the Inquisition attempted to try him for heresy. Thanks to powerful protectors, he escaped that danger and actually soon found himself at the papal court, where from 1448 he served as secretary to a series of popes. In that capacity he augmented his fame as a student of the classics, translating a number of Greek texts into Latin, most notably works by the historians Thucydides and Herodotus. Yet he also continued to work on theological issues and expanded his theories about the essentially Epicurean nature of Christianity, attempting to sidestep the materialistic and atheistic underpinnings of that classical philosophy. Recovering perfect texts in that context did not mean accepting or attempting to recreate in the modern world everything they taught; in fact, it required a careful rejection of much of their teaching and a deep rethinking of the rest in terms of contemporary Christian thought and values. What stands out in his long and successful career serving some of the most powerful masters and patrons of his day, then, was that while he made important contributions to what was developing toward a humanist discipline, he worked well beyond those interests, using his classical knowledge eclectically to serve his wide-ranging interests in Christian mysticism, legal theory, and history.
Still, perhaps his most important work from the perspective of that future tradition was his Elegantiarum Latinae Linguae (1435–1444), which attempted in a systematic way to look at how Latin grammar and language had developed over time and to eliminate from contemporary Latin what he saw as the medieval corruptions that had disfigured the language. In that work he drew a clear distinction between his own day and an earlier, less learned time. And that distinction turned on what he labeled a “rebirth” of ancient culture in his modern urban world – a rinascita, however, that he argued was much more wide-ranging than a mere revival of classical languages or its disciplinary imperatives. Noting that painting, sculpture, architecture, and the other liberal arts, along with literature, had long been “virtually dead,” he claimed that “now they are reawakened to a new life and flourish among an impressive group of excellent artisans and learned men of letters.” [italics mine] And he continued to enthuse, “[H]ow much happier we ought to be about our epoch when if we work just a little harder, I am confident that soon we will restore even more than the city, the language of Rome and with that all the disciplines (discipline).” Significantly, although the recovery of Latin was central to this vision, it was a much broader recovery that he dreamed of – and in many ways less elite, including artisans and manual arts as well as philology and scholarship.
In this light Leon Battista Alberti (1402–1472), another noted figure frequently labeled as a proto-humanist, also had a close relationship to the artisan culture and to the more practical disciplines of his day. Rather like Boccaccio, who in his Decameronuplifted the popular novelle from the shared primary culture of the day, giving it that touch of refinement that made it more palatable for elites, Alberti frequently took the practices of artisans or the commonplaces of a shared primary culture and gave them the theoretical basis and the classical finish needed to transform them into something more suitable to a more aristocratic society. Yet it might be suggested that frequently his classical veneer was just that. Most notably, for example, in his famous work written in Italian, not Latin, that explained the mathematical underpinnings of perspective, Della pittura (On Painting, 1436), his theories relied extensively on medieval theories and practical knowledge, rather than on classical authors. In fact, his explanations of optics were heavily based on the eleventh-century Muslim thinker Alhazen (Ibn al-Haythan), made more widely available in the West by thirteenth-century Franciscan thinkers such as Roger Bacon and John Peckham. Tellingly, they also drew extensively on the practical skills of the artisan-painters of his day, who were actually working out the techniques necessary to create the impression of a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. In this case as in many others, one is forced to wonder whether we are seeing Alberti as a neo-humanist, then, or as a much wider-ranging intellectual using the past to inform and uplift the present in the spirit of a more general and ongoing Rinascimento.
Yet perhaps what made Alberti’s work most original at the time was his own deeper understanding of mathematics and his ability to use it in many of his technical treatises to help explain artisanal techniques or classical theories. This was especially true in his works on architecture and painting, particularly his Della pittura and De re aedificatoria (On Building, 1452), which harkened back to the classical work of the Roman Vitruvius. These skills were also displayed in his books on mathematical games – Ludi mathematici (Mathematical Games, 1450–1452) – and on cryptology – De componendis cifris (On Writing Codes) – as well as in his reported collaboration with the noted Florentine scholar Paolo Toscanelli. Toscanelli is perhaps best known today for his map claiming that the Far East could be reached by sailing west, a copy of which Columbus carried with him on his first voyage, but he was most noted in his day as a mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer.
Alberti was also not averse to the ultimate sin of humanists from the later disciplinary perspective writing in Italian, even when he gave some of his works Latin titles. Worse yet, he produced a Tuscan grammar, Grammatica della lingua toscana, as if that dialect were capable of gaining the stature of a truly learned language comparable to Latin. Still, from an early age he also made a name for himself as a master of Latin style, even passing off a Latin comedy he wrote at the age of twenty, Philodoxeos (Lover of Glory), as the work of an ancient Roman comic poet. A partial list of his other writings, however, suggests his range of interests and the way treating him as a humanist limits his much broader cultural explorations: De commodis litterarum atque incommodes (On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies (1428 or 1432); Intercoenales (Table Talk, c. 1429); Vita S. Potito (Life of Saint Potitus, 1433); De iure (On Law, 1437); Vita (Autobiography, 1437); Apologi (One Hundred Aesopic Tales, 1437); Pontifex (The Bishop, c. 1437); De amore (On Love, c. 1437); Theogenius (The Origin of the Gods, c. 1440); Profugiorum ab erumna libri III (Remedies for Misfortune, c. 1441); Canis (My Dog, c. 1440); Musca (The Fly, c. 1440); De equo animante (On the Life of the Horse, c. 1440); Descriptio Urbis Romae (Rome Described, 1440s); Momus o del principe (Momus, or On the Ruler, 1450); and De iciarchia (On the Ideal Ruler, 1468).
Not content merely to write on a wide range of topics, he also attempted to practice many of them, although with what success remains a matter of debate. He advised several popes on their plans for rebuilding Rome and collaborated on a number of major architectural projects in Florence and elsewhere. He also worked as a painter, although critics have not been enthusiastic about the limited number of works attributed to him. All this was augmented by an aggressive program of self-fashioning and by laudatory reports about his good looks, witty conversation, athletic abilities, and wide-ranging learning. In what is believed to be his own brief autobiography (c. 1438), he boasted that he was capable of jumping with his feet together over a standing man; throwing a coin so high in the Duomo that it touched the ceiling; taming wild horses; climbing mountains; composing music; and playing the organ, among other feats. Clearly he was a man who attempted to capture the imagination of his contemporaries, and in many ways succeeded.
Alberti’s illegitimate birth is often pointed to as his one handicap, and frequently analyzed for its impact on a psyche that clearly was driven to succeed and to set its master apart and above the rest of society. Such theories are interesting, but it should be noted that illegitimacy was not all that rare during the period and that the drive to sustain a more aristocratic status and glory was ubiquitous. Perhaps more significant for Alberti was the fact that his branch of the Alberti family had been exiled from Florence, which meant that, much like Dante and Petrarch, for much of his life, and especially during his formative years, he was an outsider. In addition, and perhaps more important for those who would consider his psyche, his father never legitimated him, as he might have done before his death. Thus when his father died, the young student Alberti suddenly found himself, according to his account, cut off from his rightful inheritance and the support of his family, forced to struggle on his own for what he saw as his deserved place in society. Something that he clearly did with an impressive drive and success.
Alberti’s troubled relationship with his family has recently led to reevaluations of his treatise on the central role of the family in the Rinascimento, I Libri della famiglia (The Books of the Family). Once seen as a paean to patriarchal values and the patrilineal ideal – the centrality of the male line of descent within a family – it seemed to argue that this form of the family was the very building block of the civiltà of the period. As such, it was viewed as a fundamental text on what we might call Rinascimento family valuesand the way in which the family was seen as underpinning and upholding civic morality. The fact that most of the defenders of this vision portrayed in the book are members of the very Alberti clan that Leon Battista felt had betrayed him and with whom he had troubled relationships has led to questions about just how seriously he used such figures to defend that vision. Moreover, the work is presented as a dialogue, which makes reading it as a defense of any specific point of view still more problematic.
Yet reflecting on the popularity and nature of the dialogue as a literary form may actually offer a way of reading Alberti’s work that allows one to think more clearly about the issues presented and perhaps also to read the many other works written as dialogues during the period. For in many ways the dialogue is the most oral of the written forms of the period and tends to reflect the range of the shared discourses on a topic. From this perspective the different Albertis portrayed present a series of positions from the discourse of the shared primary culture on family and family values, allowing readers to evaluate them based on the characters who argued them. Then as now, the point was not necessarily to correctly identify the real people behind the characters, but rather to judge their arguments based on their individual characteristics. Thus some of the old scions of the Alberti line come across as crusty and decidedly anticivic in their hard-line defense of the great family line over all else, and both they and their logical arguments are decidedly unattractive. Others are presented as more moderate, attractive, and more attuned to the civic values of their day and win sympathy.
Leon Battista portrays himself as an unmarried young man who speaks more from his reading than from experience. Yet rather than being disqualified by that fact, he seems a compelling young scholar whose learning and knowledge of the ancient world make him attractive and make his comments particularly relevant. Moreover, as the shared primary discourse of the day privileged classical culture and ideals over contemporary practical experience, his lack of experience in family matters was not particularly significant. In fact, one might argue that the practical experience of the more senior members of the family, who may well have mistreated him in real life, from this perspective is trumped by his superior knowledge of the ancient world, which underpins his defense of the family as the basic building block of society.
All this is perhaps best seen when Leon Battista puts speeches in the mouth of his similarly young, impressive, and scholarly relative Lionardo Alberti, perhaps better known at the time for his knowledge of classical literature. Lionardo draws on that knowledge to provide a virtually “pre-Rousseauian” explanation of the genesis of the tight relationship between the family and the society and the civiltà of his day:
Families increase in population no differently than do countries, regions and the whole world.… And for the procreation of children, no one can deny that man requires women. Since a child comes into the world as a tender and delicate creature, he needs someone to whose care and devotion he comes as a cherished trust.… Woman, therefore, did first find a roof under which to nourish and protect herself and her offspring. There she remained, busy in the shadow.… And since woman was busy guarding and taking care of the heir, she was not in a position to go out and find what she and her children required for maintenance of their life. Man, however, was by nature more energetic and industrious, and he went out to find [these] things.… In this way it seems clear to me that nature and human reason taught mankind the necessity of having a spouse. [italics mine]
Here a highly gendered and traditional view of marriage in the name of first time, reason, and nature – all key measures of the shared primary culture of the day – posits the patriarchal family as the crucial foundation of a well-ordered society. Women should remain at home, weak but nurturing, while men, “more energetic and industrious,” leave the task of continuing the family line and ultimately the social order itself to those very same weak women. The misogynistic illogic of this vision notwithstanding, Lionardo builds the case for this marriage-based family unit as the basic building block of social discipline and order, which in turn serves as the base for all other corporate organizations, including government. The discussion, in fact, begins by noting that familial reproduction was not just a matter of concern to the family, but had crucial significance for “countries, regions and the whole world.” Earlier this had been stressed when he pointed out that not only did families produce the future citizens of society in terms of procreation, they also produced them by training them to live together peacefully and successfully: “Children whose character is excellent are a proof of the diligence of the father, and an honor to him. It is generally thought better for a country, if I am not mistaken, to have upright citizens of virtù rather than many rich and powerful ones.”
What might at first sound familiar and relatively ahistorical here begins to take on more specifically Rinascimento resonances, with marriage, procreation, family, child rearing, morality, and citizenship coming together in a vision of a society based on virtù. Clearly this was more ideal than real, as a number of the older and more experienced members of the Alberti clan lament. Yet as an ideal based on both classical ideals and contemporary values, it was rich in explanatory power, for if fathers did not train their heirsin the virtù that Lionardo envisioned; if honor as practiced was often less concerned with a good civic order and more with private family goals; and if citizens were not particularly moral, then what we have called civic morality, theoretically inculcated by the family, would not be capable of effectively disciplining the vibrant and chaotic cities of the Rinascimento. This seemed patently true to most observers; thus, Lionardo provided both the theoretical explanation for the travails of his day and a solution that his contemporaries could hear and accept. Like Leon Battista himself, his young relative showed how ancient learning and common wisdom overlapped to provide a powerful vision for explaining and perhaps even mastering their everyday world.
The Venetian noble and scholar of ancient languages Francesco Barbaro (1390–1454), after an earlier visit to Florence in 1415, wrote a similar treatise, De re uxoria (Concerning Wives), on the centrality of marriage and the family, with, if anything, an even more patriarchal and aristocratic vision of civic morality. Once again, however, even as he proudly displayed his classical learning in this and other works, Barbaro was much more than a proto-humanist. Destined for a significant political career, he early on made a reputation for himself studying with some of the leading scholars of his day, including Vittorino da Feltre. His rich and powerful family and their interregional connections also gave him the opportunity to travel, and in 1415 he visited the Florentine banking family the Medici, where he befriended both the young Cosimo de’ Medici, future ruler of the city, and his brother Lorenzo. It was in this context that he penned De re uxoria as a gift for the marriage of Lorenzo and Ginevra Cavalcanti, the social event of the year in Florence.
As the title suggests, the work focused on the choosing and training of a wife, but the central concern with picking and training wisely turned once again on the premise that the family was the base of the political, social, and moral order. In fact, not far behind the sternly patriarchal vision of women as silent and obedient, virtually childbearing vessels of aristocratic status, the real concern of Barbaro’s treatise was the husband – for he had to pick, train, and discipline his wife in order to ensure her virtù and that ofhisfamily and household and eventually of his civic world itself. If the husband accomplished this, his sons would be viriliter (manly), successful, and capable of serving their family and their city, thus playing their part in ensuring an orderly and prosperous society. As might be expected given Venice’s closed ruling class, Barbaro placed more emphasis on noble lineage and the way nobility flowed “naturally” from noble parents to noble offspring. Noble lineage was not absolutely necessary, he conceded, but it offered much greater security as new men were far less stable, lacking that very family tradition that allowed virtù to be imbibed virtually at the breast of a noble mother and the disciplining hands of a noble father.
A child’s early years were crucial. In a well-ordered household a noble wife’s dignity, prudence, and thrift taught children the basics of virtù: “The child’s moral education …” he argued, “in infancy continues under the mother’s guidance, until a pious, dutiful, and self-restrained young person is prepared for intellectual training under his father’s direction.” At that point a father has to lead his sons beyond the feminine world of the household to the civic world that will be their arena as adults, impressing on them the discipline and reasoned approach that will allow them to serve and prosper in the broader society, in many ways imagined as merely the noble family writ large. Treatises on the family replaying these themes could be easily multiplied, for even if the veneer was rediscovered ancient truths, the driving force was an emphasis on civic values and a contemporary vision of virtù. In the end, in the early Rinascimento virtù, honor, love, and the central values of the shared primary culture of the day all circled back to the family and the civic morality that it underpinned.
Returning to Florence and the ability of writers like Alberti to give the shared primary culture and artisanal skills a classical veneer, a more openly positive view of the world of artisans was presented by a slightly younger Florentine contemporary of Alberti, Antonio di Tuccio Manetti (1423–1496), not to be confused with the better-known Giannozzo Manetti (1396–1459). Tellingly, the more famous Giannozzo is often portrayed as an important humanist and the less well-known Antonio as merely an architect, a biographer of famous men, or the mathematician who mapped out mathematically Dante’s Divine Comedy and its deeper numerological symbolism. Both Manettis, however, again led the highly variegated life of fifteenth-century scholars who used the classics in the service of a much broader range of interests. In fact, Antonio is best known today for his biography of the noted Florentine architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi and for his funny but troubling novella about how that same Brunelleschi, with the help of some of the most important artisans of his day, tricked a gullible young wood carver into believing that he had been turned into someone else, the Novella del grasso legnaiuolo (the Novella of the Fat Woodcarver).
In each work he celebrates Brunelleschi’s virtù. Suggestively, however, that virtù turns not just on his technical skills and mastery of his crafts, but also on his clever understanding of the world and his ability to overcome all obstacles to reach his goals, even in the case of the hoax that convinces the poor fat woodcarver that he has lost his identity. That tale is a masterful celebration of the Florentine’s beloved beffa, the clever, often cruel, trick that rewards those who have virtù and thus are truly superior at the expense of those who lack same. Although the biography of Brunelleschi and the novella are often treated as separate works, the novella actually seems to have served as an introduction to the biography, and the former ends by offering the biography to those who want to learn more about the clever author of the beffa. Significantly, both works celebrate the superior intellects and skills (virtù) of a group of artisans in Florence in the early to mid-fifteenth century, men whom Manetti portrays as deserving that superior status – in his telling they are heroes of Florentine arts and production and are well on their way to becoming artists rather than artisans.
The story of the downfall of the fat woodcarver at Brunelleschi’s hands is a novella that seems totally contemporary, especially as it turns on a deep and thoughtful understanding of and familiarity with the everyday world of an artisan in Florence. In fact, the tale can be read as a virtual guided tour of the masculine spaces of work there, as I have argued elsewhere, offering virtually the touch, the feel, the sounds of the city. It appears that nothing could be further from classical culture, until one realizes that it is also a clever spin-off from the tales of a highly popular classical text, Ovid’s Metamorphosis. With a good dose of sex, quick action, and plenty of references to other ancient literature, that work is a collection of stories about people who have lost or changed their identities in “marvelous” ways – exactly the fate of the fat woodcarver as engineered by Brunelleschi and his friends. Much like Boccaccio, then, Manetti once again took the traditional Florentine beffa and uplifted it into a novella with a classical veneer. One could enjoy it without realizing its classical precedent; but superior people, those in the know, were also aware of how it replayed Ovid’s transformations in the familiar world of Florence, with its artisan heroes playing the main roles and demonstrating their thoroughly modern virtù.
More often cited today as an early humanist, Antonio’s older namesake, Giannozzo Manetti was if anything more eclectic in his use of the classics and an even less likely candidate for that title. His knowledge of ancient languages, not just Latin and Greek but also Hebrew, certainly marked him out as a classical scholar of note. But he was a man of many masters and many interests that required a much broader range of skills. He first worked as a banker in his youth, then moved on to serve several princely rulers, including Alfonso I of Naples, Pope Nicholas V, and Cosimo de’ Medici. For the pope he began collecting Hebrew manuscripts for the Vatican library; for Alfonso he translated the Psalms of the Bible from Hebrew; and he is often seen as one of the pioneers of a more rigorous biblical scholarship with his new translations of the New Testament from Greek. He too was a biographer whose interests went well beyond the ancients: along with his moralizing biographies of Socrates and Seneca, he wrote on a number of the most important “moderns,” including Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and his patron Pope Nicholas V. The moralizing nature of his biographical writings reflects his apparently deep Christian faith and the way he believed a careful reading of ancient culture, including the first texts of Christianity, revealed the deeper moral truths shared by pagan and Christian culture.
What is often seen as his most important and pioneering humanist work, De dignitate et excellentia hominis (On the Dignity and Excellence of Man), fits well in this broader context. While it can be read as a paean to the possibilities of humanity and human creative powers, those powers ultimately, and always, were the gift of God, a vision having strong affinities with medieval theology. Still, the work was criticized in its day as giving humans Godlike powers and skirting the edge of heresy, if not crossing the line. For historians who saw humanists as emphasizing the importance of the humans in this world and their ability to act and create with almost Godlike powers, such accusations helped Manetti’s work gain its pioneering humanist label. But that vision has been successfully attacked for ignoring the strong Christian dimension of the culture of the day (and of later humanist thought as well), and Giannozzo’s work, when looked at more closely, illustrates why. Humans may be more creative and powerful, even Godlike, for Manetti, but this was because God made humans in his “image and likeness” and gave them the power to create. This is certainly a positive vision, but, crucially, the power of humans that Manetti evokes was neither secular nor based on man; it was divine, and it came from God and only from God.
Once again what is most striking about Giannozzo is how much broader his interests were than a later humanist discipline would have permitted. In fact, many of the writers that we have been considering have been labeled “civic humanists” for their supposedly new emphasis on the vision that the best life was one of service to government and society, a service that was enhanced by the rhetorical and literary skills that the study of ancient culture and thought offered. But, as we have seen, in many ways this label misses the fact that this vision of an active life actually dips well back into the early Rinascimento, with everyone from chroniclers, notaries, civic leaders, preachers, and prominent literary figures weighing in on whether the ideal life should be an active one in service to one’s family, community, or city or a withdrawn life of Christian contemplation. That this vision was often defended using classical thinkers and classical texts, both Christian and pagan, did not make it proto-humanist – it was much too complex and richly intertwined with contemporary life, Christian values, civic morality, and a popolo grosso vision of virtù and the urban civiltà of the day to be reduced to such a simple formulation.
A Powerful Dream of First Times: Marsilio Ficino and Knowledge
Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and his followers have often created problems for those who would label the most important thinkers of his day humanists. For his fascination with the relationship between Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy and Christianity seemed distant from the rhetorical and philological interests of later true humanists and from those of the supposed civic humanists. Even the attempt to label him and his followers “Christian humanists” seems to fall short, as in reality they created a series of religious and philosophical discourses about the ultimate significance of first times and what those first times revealed about the meaning of life and truth, discourses much more typical of the broadly shared interests of the primary culture of the day. Of course, Ficino’s studies were aided by a close analysis of classical texts. Yet crucial for the reading of those texts was a generally accepted and traditional religious belief that God had given humans such as Adam, Moses, and Solomon, along with other early thinkers, the true knowledge of things in various first times. This way of seeing the world made the knowledge of first things – whether it be first philosophy, religion, or language – extremely valuable, because each had been given by God and thus offered the ultimate truth. The study of first things was not merely a religious or historical concern, then; it was self-evidently the best approach to knowledge available.
Although Ficino had been trained in the medieval Aristotelian tradition, like many philosophers and theologians of his day, in his early twenties he learned Greek and became fascinated with Plato, whom he began to translate into Latin. The quality of his translations and his impressive insights into the deeper meanings of ancient Greek texts earned him wide recognition in learned circles in Florence and the attention and support of Cosimo de’ Medici, perhaps helped by the fact that Cosimo’s personal physician was Ficino’s father. With time and Medici patronage, his translations of and commentaries on Plato’s dialogues, along with treatises inspired by Neo-Platonic ideas on the immortality of the soul and love, made him the darling of the circle of intellectuals that surrounded three generations of the Medici family. But as the intellectual historian Francis Yates pointed out more than a generation ago, Ficino offered much more, and the Medici and their circle were if anything more fascinated by his broader, more esoteric writings. In fact, at the same time that Ficino was being encouraged by his Medici patrons to translate Plato, he was being pressed more aggressively to translate a series of texts that were believed to be more ancient – first texts that were ultimately the source of Plato’s philosophy.
No matter that most of those texts actually came from the Hellenistic period in the first centuries after the birth of Christ and represented later Neo-Platonic traditions in a syncretistic mix with various forms of religious and magical thought popular at the time. What impressed Ficino, his patrons, and his peers was that these texts came with the claim that they had been written down at a time very close to the beginning of the world itself and thus seemed to come as close as possible to the first knowledge from God Himself. This knowledge, the Prisca Theologia (the First Knowledge from God), offered the ultimate answers to all questions. And significantly, these texts made it absolutely clear that knowledge was power, much as has been suggested by modern thinkers. And indeed, how could it be otherwise, for these texts were essentially God’s instructions for understanding and using the world.
Some sense of the excitement and importance of Ficino’s understanding of these texts can be garnered by a quick overview of how they intersected with and enriched the widely shared primary cultural concepts of time and metaphor. First time, of course, had always been one of the greatest and most important times for understanding the true nature of the world, for in the beginning God made the world, and He made it good, as the Bible and many other texts insisted. This meant that in the first time things were made perfectly as God intended. In the Garden of Eden, Adam was instructed to name the things that God had made, which was, of course, the beginning of language. But it was much more, because it was the beginning of metaphor, as names were not the things named themselves but a representation of those things. Yet because God had given Adam the power to give things their true names, they were not mere arbitrary signs or empty metaphors; rather, they were deeply true to the very nature of the things named and thus in many ways participated in the power of the named thing itself. Over time humanity had lost track of the true significance of things, their names, and the metaphorical relationship between them; thus words and language had lost their power and became merely descriptive. Modern metaphors, even in Latin, therefore, were at best pleasing but merely hollow echoes of the first true language and true metaphors.
Especially important for recapturing first names and knowledge were the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly an ancient Egyptian from around the time of Moses – a critical first time when God was busy passing His knowledge to humanity in various forms, including the Ten Commandments. This writer stressed the close and metaphorical relationship between God and humanity, for humans were literally a metaphor in this world for God, who existed beyond it. God had created humans in his image and likeness once more – literally as a metaphor for Himself. Moreover, the essence of humans was that they were Godlike and creative – for as God created the world in the beginning, humans recreated it daily, both physically and imaginatively. No small claim, but, suggestively, not only did it have a certain logic given the metaphoric way of seeing the world and first time, it was an idea that in the fifteenth century had wider resonances with a similar metaphoric vision of nature and widespread magical practices. Unfortunately for all this, Hermes Trismegistus was not a contemporary of Moses as claimed; he was actually a composite pseudonym given to a series of Hellenistic texts from the second century after Christ, texts that were heavily influenced by the Neo-Platonic thought of that period and by many of the same religious currents that had had an important impact on early Christianity.
Ficino, however, did not base his ideas on Hermes alone. He was also deeply impressed with ancient Greek religion and the philosophers who preceded Plato, especially the number philosopher Pythagoras. Once again, however, he knew most of them, and particularly Pythagoras, largely via Hellenistic texts which pictured him as a thinker fascinated by the metaphoric quality of number, who purportedly argued that the underlying reality of number demonstrated that there is just one God – the One above and beyond all numbers guaranteeing their order and the unchanging rules of mathematics. In turn, as the most perfect and ordered system of knowledge known, number seemed to be one of the most basic underlying metaphorical systems of this world, very similar to the original true language of Adam – a vision that appears to have strong echoes in modern physics. Be that as it may, for both Pythagoras and Ficino the power of number was reflected in and revealed by the close relationship between numbers and music. The pleasure one felt in hearing music and its beauty were not an accident, but rather tied to the way in which good music reflected aurally the basic rhythms and numerical order of Creation itself. And once again, in creating such harmonies based on number humans were acting as a true metaphor for God, creating in the here and now the deep harmonies of truth, just as God had created them.
The metaphorical vision of Ficino, in turn, made time relatively easy to explain. Time became just a metaphor for change. All things seem to break down and pass away. That process is seen as time, which is thus merely a metaphor for the constant change of things. For Ficino, then, without change there is no time. And at a deeper level both change and time were ultimately the result of motion – all change requires movement that transforms one thing into something else. Crucially, however, all motion and thus all change descended from God. To be more specific, God initiated movement without moving Himself, as medieval theologians had long argued; His first movements descended through the stars (dominated by decans, demigods associated with the 360 degrees of the basic circle of the outer shell of the cosmos), then through the circles of the planets (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon) to arrive at the center of the cosmos, Earth. Significantly, if all motion descends and that is the root of all change and time, then the wise man or magus who understands how this works can predict, and perhaps even influence, change in this world.
Each of the planets and decans had their own metaphoric qualities and their own metaphors in the world that influenced or actually drove change below. For example, Saturn was associated metaphorically with intellectual contemplation, Jupiter with discursive reasoning, Mars with emotions and imagination, and the Sun with words, songs, and sounds. Moreover, the decans not only pass down motion and change to the world, they literally do so with a crucial responsibility to “form” the world. To understand how this works we have to return to Ficino’s conception of Platonic forms. For Ficino, as for Plato, the problem with this world was that it was constantly changing and thus ultimately impossible to know – change and time again. Simply put, the thing we knew a minute ago or an hour ago changes, and thus the moment we think we know it, it becomes something else, and our knowledge becomes false. This is the ultimate predicament of knowing anything in a material world of time and change.
The solution for Plato, his followers, and Ficino, along with many others in the Christian tradition across the Middle Ages, was the realization that the material world is simply not the real world – it cannot be real, because it has no permanence or knowability. What we encounter in this world, and mistakenly take for real, is constantly changing. In the true immaterial world beyond time, space, and – crucially – change, there exist eternally unchanging things – forms. As these forms are not made of matter, they do not break down with time, which means in turn that nothing changes in that real world. These forms, then, are the real, unchanging reality – the real things – upon which the unstable things we encounter in this world are modeled as metaphors; thus a chair, in the classic example, is a passing materialization of the eternal form of chair, a cat a similarly temporary materialization of the form of cat, and so on.
As material things in this world, cats and chairs come and go, change over time, and pass away; yet for all their change, we still can know cats and chairs if we discover the real eternal forms behind their changing manifestations. If, for example, we mistakenly identify a chair as a cat, Plato and Ficino can explain our error – we have mistaken the form that stands behind a chair for the form that stand behind a cat. Useful, perhaps, for those who tend to confuse cats and chairs; but all this becomes much more significant when one realizes that Plato and Ficino believed that behind more abstract ideas, such as beauty and good, stood eternal forms as well; thus, those much more value-laden labels, which might seem dangerously relative and subjective otherwise, were anything but. Philosophers and those with a knowledge of the forms could identify true beauty or true good as they were reflected metaphorically in this world just as surely as they could identify cats and chairs – no small accomplishment.
Ficino, however, took things a significant step further by putting these ideas firmly into what he saw as a Christian context. For him, reality itself involved a tripartite scheme based on the Trinity. Before time, everything existed in the oneness of God. With the Creation that unity was separated out as unchanging forms in the Holy Spirit, which Ficino saw as equivalent to Hermes’ Nous or Spirit. Finally, in the last created material world, matter was formed into impermanent metaphors for the forms, what we think of as things, like cats and chairs. And it was that world of change that Christ entered with a human material body as fully God and fully man – one of the most fundamental tenants of Christianity. Thus God, the Holy Spirit, and Christ played out in Creation as the One (God), the underlying spiritual reality of forms (the Holy Spirit), and the savior of the material world of time and change (Christ). In its symmetry and its apparent perfect fit with what Ficino and his followers saw as the deeper meaning of Christianity, this interpretation of the ultimate order of things was a beautiful and appealing vision of breathtaking symmetry and order that made sense of everything.
But, if true, it offered much, much more in Ficino’s eyes: the ultimate power over this world. For if a magus or philosopher could learn to influence or control change – holding things to their forms or even manipulating their constant forming – he could influence or even control it. Chairs could become cats. More significantly and practically, the high-minded magus could help to form justice in a ruler or beauty in the dreary routine of daily life. Clearly this was a very positive vision of human power over the universe, in many ways not unlike a modern scientific vision: know the reality behind change, its origin, control it, and one controls the material world. Of course, it was also a dangerous knowledge, as power could fall into the wrong hands, but once again one that has its parallels with modern scientific knowledge. Perhaps the most telling difference was that in the Rinascimento most agreed that this knowledge should remain esoteric – in other words, a secret knowledge limited to an aristocratic, intellectual elite – whereas in the modern world there is the faith that the open dissemination of scientific knowledge is positive – a faith that has increasingly been challenged, however, as the dangerous implications of much of what science has accomplished has reawakened promethean fears.
This potential power that the magus had was evoked with poetic optimism in a work known as the Egyptian Genesis, attributed to Hermes, which Ficino translated; it described God’s creation of the cosmos with a powerful promise of human power: “Now the Nous, father of all beings being life and light, brought forth a Man similar to himself whom he loved as his own child. For Man was beautiful, reproducing the image of his Father [note the God/man metaphor], as indeed it was with his own form [in Man] that God fell in love and gave over to him his works.” Man at this point was still outside of time, space, and the material world, but
Then Man, who had full power over the World … leant across the [heavenly] spheres … and showed himself to Nature below in the beautiful form of God…. Nature smiled with love…. And he, having seen this form like himself in Nature [again a metaphor], reflected in the water, he loved her and wished to dwell with her. The moment he wished this he accomplished it and came to inhabit the irrational form [i.e., matter]. Then nature having received her loved one embraced him, and they were united, for they burned with love.
Here the Fall – a literal fall into matter and the material world – is not a result of Original Sin or a turning away from God in the Garden of Eden, but rather a result of human love positively depicted. Man fell in love with the form of God in himself and, seeing it reflected in nature, out of love willingly united with nature and entered this world of matter, time, and change. As such, it was a fall of sorts. Yet rather than being a punishment, as it was in Genesis, it was a voluntary act of love for nature and God. Humanity is portrayed even more positively as a metaphor for God and literally his reflection in the material world of nature. We are here a long way from original sin, serpents, and apples, or the vision of humans as alienated pilgrims passing through a strange and sinful world hoping to win salvation.
Those who understood this deeper secret knowledge or gnosis (the ultimate secret knowledge at the heart of religion) knew how to draw on the connections reflected in the metaphors found in the material world to control what happens and even its very nature. This is the power that the magus commands in a number of ways. First, and in a way most simply, because the magus knows how all motion and thus all change descends from the outer spheres, through the stars and their constellations, down to the planets and eventually reaches Earth, he can use the observable motions of the heavens to predict what changes will happen on Earth. Observable repetitions of the motions of the great stellar constellations and the planets will produce similar repetitions of events on Earth. This science – one of the most potent based on observation in the premodern world and perhaps more responsible for the faith given to an empirical methodology than normally realized – was the basis of a long tradition of astrology. But once again Ficino’s studies of Hermes seemed to confirm this science, demonstrating that it came from the very first writers, who had learned it virtually directly from God. Like many before him who had made similar claims, Ficino used this knowledge to cast horoscopes and was so noted for his skill that he was commissioned to write them even for popes.
More active power turned on the fact that our own spirits are part of the Nous, the Spirit of the Universe – in Ficino’s Christian terms, the Holy Spirit. As the Nous is everywhere in everything as the ordering principle giving things their form and meaning, our spirits have potentially great power. Actually, they are nothing but pooling places for this ordering force of the universe; this explained for Ficino how we think and act. Using this spiritual force within us, we are capable of employing our understanding of the reality that stands behind this world (the forms) to perform correct and powerful deeds. When we understand correctly the essentially metaphorical nature of material things, we interact with them as they should be interacted with – we do not try to sit on a cat or pet a chair. More significantly, we do not expect justice from an unjust person or beauty when we encounter something ugly. But the magus goes beyond this by trying to use his understanding of the true reality of things outside of time and space to draw as much as possible of that true reality into this world. In this the magus is literally drawing the out-of-time into time and maximizing the reality of the things in this world of change – in a way making the metaphorical quality of things as real as possible.
Crucially, Ficino’s way of seeing reality could be traced back to his discovery of what he believed were first texts and the Prisca Theologia; yet his belief in their significance was firmly rooted in a Rinascimento conviction that first times were best and in traditional ways of seeing the world. And virtually all agreed that the best of all first times for ideas and a spiritual life was the first time when God freely gave men the knowledge necessary to live successfully in His creation, whether it was God allowing Adam to use His knowledge to give things true names and thus with language to create the true metaphors between things and forms; or God giving Moses the Ten Commandments to order the social life of humans according to His plan for human society; or God giving to Hermes Trismegistus and the earliest philosophers the secret metaphorical order of nature and the real world beyond it.
All these firsts warranted – no, they required – a return to their first truths and a rebirth of a first time that had been lost, a rinascita. Once again, in what might seem rather esoteric and thoroughly unmodern ideas we find the underlying shared primary culture of the Rinascimento. And, crucially, to reduce Ficino’s complex use of ancient texts, his complex ideas, his deep involvement in his society and culture, and his powerful influence on the intellectuals of his day to a mere strain of later humanist thought (or to dismiss him as a deviation from mainstream humanists) is to put him into a box that dangerously ignores much of what he was about and much of his attraction for his contemporaries. His most important contributions to the modern world are often seen as his translations and commentaries on Plato, but his contemporary impact was much greater, even if it was all a magnificent misunderstanding based on texts that were not first at all.
Ficino and other thinkers who followed in his footsteps or who moved in a more otherworldly direction – seeing this world as a mere reflection of and metaphor for the real world outside of time and space – returned to what we might still label the classics of the ancient world, but they were a different set of texts than those sought out by the more civic-oriented classical scholars of an earlier generation and the early Rinascimento. Yet the more withdrawn, contemplative, and elite intellectual life they envisioned was frequently better suited to a more aristocratic and courtly society and to the educated courtly elite that was developing in his day. Such ideas were more satisfying to those who had less opportunity to contest political power openly, offering instead the more nebulous promise of influence and power via the hidden metaphors of Creation for those in the know. Often labeled magic, such hidden powers are frequently seen as power for the powerless and the lower classes; yet it may say something about courtly society and the princely regimes of the high and later Rinascimento, which we are about to look at more closely, that this new/old approach to power attracted even the best intellectuals and the most powerful. And once again this attraction was the new viewed as the old – rebirth, not change. Still, in its search for the underlying reality that stood behind change and time and the power and virtù that such knowledge offered, it queerly anticipated a very different future and faith, modern science and the modern itself.