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This important study takes a new approach to understanding Italian

Renaissance humanism, based not on scholarly paradigms or philo-
sophical concepts, but on a neglected yet indispensable perspective:
the humanists’ understanding of themselves. Through a series of close
textual studies, Patrick Baker excavates what humanists thought was
important about humanism, how they viewed their own history, what
goals they enunciated, what triumphs they celebrated – in short, he
attempts to reconstruct humanist identity. What emerges is a small,
coherent community dedicated primarily not to political ideology,
a philosophy of man, an educational ethos, or moral improvement,
but rather to the pursuit of classical Latin eloquence. Grasping the
significance this stylistic ideal had for the humanists is essential to
understanding both their sense of themselves and the importance
they and others attached to their movement. For eloquence was no
mere aesthetic affair, but rather appeared to them as the guarantor of
civilization itself.

p a t r i c k b a k e r is a senior research associate at Humboldt-

Universität zu Berlin. He has previously published an English trans-
lation of two monographic essays by the late Salvatore Camporeale
(co-edited with Christopher S. Celenza), entitled Christianity, Latin-
ity, and Culture: Two Studies on Lorenzo Valla.

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id ea s in con tex t

Edited by
David Armitage, Richard Bourke, Jennifer Pitts, and John Robertson

The books in this series will discuss the emergence of intellectual traditions and of
related new disciplines. The procedures, aims, and vocabularies that were generated
will be set in the context of the alternatives available within the contemporary
frameworks of ideas and institutions. Through detailed studies of the evolution of
such traditions, and their modification by different audiences, it is hoped that a
new picture will form of the development of ideas in their concrete contexts. By
this means, artificial distinctions between the history of philosophy, of the various
sciences, of society and politics, and of literature may be seen to dissolve.
The series is published with the support of the Exxon Foundation.

A list of books in the series will be found at the end of the volume.

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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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University Printing House, Cambridge cb2 8bs, United Kingdom

Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge.

It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of
education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.
Information on this title:

C Patrick Baker 2015

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception

and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without the written
permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published 2015
Printed in the United Kingdom by Clays, St Ives plc
The publication of this volume was made possible in part through the support of the
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, using funds provided to Collaborative Research
Centre 644 “Transformations of Antiquity.”
A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data
Baker, Patrick, 1976–
Italian Renaissance humanism in the mirror / Patrick Baker.
pages cm. – (Ideas in context)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-1-107-11186-8 (hardback) – isbn 978-1-107-53069-0 (paperback)
1. Renaissance – Italy – History. 2. Humanism – Italy – History.
3. Eloquence in literature. 4. Latin language. I. Title.
cb367.b35 2015
945 .05 – dc23 2015006640
isbn 978-1-107-11186-8 Hardback
isbn 978-1-107-53069-0 Paperback
Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy
of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication,
and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain,
accurate or appropriate.

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For My Parents

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Acknowledgments page viii

Introduction 1
1 The renaissance of eloquence 36
2 The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography
of humanism 90
3 The triumph of Cicero 133
4 Philology, printing, and the perfection of humanism 184
5 Humanism in the mirror 234

Appendix. The pantheon of humanism 281

Bibliography 291
Index 324


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This book began in 2004 in the Biblioteca Berenson of Villa I Tatti in

Florence, where for one year I had the great privilege of reading freely
in the literature of antiquity and the Renaissance. It was in my time
there as Reader in Renaissance Studies that I stumbled upon my sources
and conceived the study based on them. Therefore my first grazie must
go to Joseph Connors, whose lofty vision and determination to offer a
graduate student “a year off to read primary sources and think” is what
made possible my doctoral dissertation, fully rethought and revised for
the present offering. I also owe great thanks to the staff of the Biblioteca
Berenson, which for the past decade has consistently supported me in my
research, as well as to the rest of the I Tatti staff for the kindness they
have always shown to me and my family. Eve Borsook deserves a special
mention. If not for her example and encouragement to write “my kind of
book,” I might not have done so.
Beyond the generosity of Villa I Tatti, my work has been supported
by doctoral fellowships from Harvard University and the Scuola Normale
Superiore di Pisa. The transformation of a dissertation into a book was
substantially assisted by the American Academy in Rome, where I spent
the 2012–2013 academic year as the Lily Auchincloss Post-Doctoral Rome
Prize Fellow in Renaissance and Early Modern Italian Studies. I would
like to take this opportunity to express profound thanks to the Drue
Heinz Librarian, Sebastian Hierl. Many aspects of my research have also
been facilitated by funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
(DFG) and Sonderforschungsbereich 644 “Transformationen der Antike”
at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; the DFG graciously bore the cost of
indexing for this volume.
In preparing the manuscript I have received the indispensable assistance
of mentors and colleagues. My dissertation committee, composed of James
Hankins, Michael McCormick, and Christopher Celenza, was rigorous
and relentless in both criticism and generosity, and ultimately in friendship.

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Acknowledgments ix
Christopher Celenza has continued to be a trusted consigliere, helping me
to frame my ideas in terms of the questions that are truly worth asking.
To my graduate advisor James Hankins I owe an ineffable debt: not only
for nurturing my text all these years but for all he has taught me, for
his time, for his fellowship, for his humanitas. This book would not have
reached its current form without the careful eyes of Kim Bowes, Robert
Fredona, Johannes Helmrath, and Anthony Kaldellis, all of whom reviewed
various chapters. I am also grateful to Gary Ianziti and Ronald Witt for
many discussions and above all for their encouragement, as well as to the
anonymous readers at Cambridge University Press for helping to make this
book so much better than it was. It is a pleasure, finally, to express boundless
gratitude to my many research assistants over the years: Olga Bode, Janis
El-Bira, Tobias Enseleit, Christian Faust, Moritz Füser, Pia Kazmierczak,
Daniel Müller, Viktoria Overfeld, Ricarda Peters, Lukas Reddemann, and
Lisa Schlüter.
Many other individuals have contributed to this project through
their friendship, generosity, conversation, and criticism: Niall Atkinson,
John Baker, Leonard Barkan, Darcy and Treacy Beyer, the Bietolini
family, Harald Brandt, Jason Clower, John Gagné, Günter and Ulla
Grote, Nicole Hegener, Erik Heinrichs, Ronny Kaiser, Craig Kallendorf,
Brigitte Kammigan-Brandt, Joshua Liberatore, Evan MacCarthy, Elizabeth
Mellyn, Carol Nisbet, Fabio Pedron, Angiolo Pergolini, Diego Pirillo,
Maike Priesterjahn, Damiano Rebecchini, Dominique Kirchner Reill,
Albert Schirrmeister, Stefan Schlelein, Patrizia Tanini, and Don Wilcox.
Ultimately, nothing would have been possible without the inspiration of
my children Sofia and Henny and the support of my wife Katrin.

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Italian Renaissance humanism entered its heyday in the second quarter

of the fifteenth century. By then it had become a fixture in courts and
chanceries all over the peninsula, had gained a sturdy foothold in univer-
sities, and had seeped into the consciousness of political and economic
elites. Furthermore, Italian humanists could boast of a remarkable array
of achievements, having hunted down an impressive number of wholly or
partially lost ancient texts, reintroduced Greek to the Latin West, reformed
Latin style and orthography to accord with classicizing tastes, and broadly
instituted their brand of education in the classics. Finally, they were still
relatively impervious to the twin challenges of the vernacular at home and
cultural competition from across the Alps, both of which would eventually
undermine their hegemony. It was a time of triumph – and of reflection.
Having ascended to the apex of culture, Italian humanists turned around
to take a view of the path they had trodden. They ruminated on their
own education and development, recorded the deeds of the forerunners,
founders, and great exponents of the humanist movement, took stock of
the goals by which they had been guided, and honored the ideals that had
nourished them on their way.
One such piece of humanist self-reflection is provided by Leonardo
Bruni, the chancellor of Florence and the undisputed princeps of the city’s
intellectual life, who in old age committed to his Memoirs (ca. 1440)
an account of his youthful studies, vividly recalling his fateful decision
to abandon law and learn Greek with the Byzantine scholar and
diplomat Manuel Chrysoloras. Not only would he thus “come face to
face with Homer, Plato and Demosthenes . . . and converse with them
and become steeped in their marvellous teaching,” but he would also
win “useful knowledge” and “abundant pleasure” as well as “enhanced
repute,” since “for seven centuries now no one in Italy has cultivated the
literature of Greece and yet we recognize that all learning comes from

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2 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
there.”1 Bruni then goes on to describe his cohort of fellow students. He
singles out the Florentine patricians Roberto de’ Rossi and Palla Strozzi
as two who had made the most progress, notes that some students, such
as Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia, were of advanced age, and remarks that
the logician Pier Paolo Vergerio, although “an ornament of the schools of
Padua, was drawn by the reputation of Chrysoloras to come to Florence to
study under him there.”2 In a few, short paragraphs Bruni offers precious
testimony about a formative moment in the evolution of humanism: the
arrival of Manuel Chrysoloras and the enduring instauration of Greek
studies in Italy. This passage holds many further insights for the historian:
that Greek was pursued by rich and humble, young and old alike; that the
opportunity afforded by Chrysoloras attracted to the city non-Florentines
of established reputation in different fields; and that the young Bruni
claimed to have been lured away from the assured income of a legal career
by an idealistic longing to commune with the ancients.
Bruni’s Memoirs are also a valuable source for the way humanists viewed
humanism and their involvement in it, giving voice to the passionate zeal
for an (initially) unremunerative labor of love, to the regard for revered
teachers, to the perceived importance of certain cities, and so on. In another
sense, however, a source like the Memoirs is wholly unremarkable: it is far
from unique. Even a cursory reading of humanist letters, literary prefaces
and dedications, ceremonial speeches and poetry, biographies and works of
history reveals that their authors enjoyed few things as much as comment-
ing on the content, nature, and what they (usually) considered to be the
success of humanism. There were also more formal sources for thinking
about humanism, such as necrologies, funeral orations and anthologies,
verse compilations in praise of great poets, and dialogues discussing the
contributions of leading literati.3 Ultimately, exhaustive accounts and

1 Leonardo Bruni, Memoirs [De temporibus suis], ed. and tr. James Hankins with D.J.W. Bradley,
in Bruni, History of the Florentine People, ed. and tr. James Hankins, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.,
2001–2007), vol. III, pp. 320–321 (par. 25): “Homerum et Platonem et Demosthenem . . . intueri
atque una colloqui ac eorum mirabili disciplina imbui . . . Septingentis iam annis nemo per Italiam
graecas litteras tenuit, et tamen doctrinas omnes ab illis esse confitemur. Quanta igitur vel ad
cognitionem utilitas vel ad famam accessio vel ad voluptatem cumulatio tibi ex linguae huius
cognitione proveniet?” (tr. Bradley).
2 Bruni, Memoirs, pp. 322–323 (par. 26): “cum Patavii studio floreret, secutus Chrysolorae famam, sese
Florentiam contulerat ad eum audiendum.”
3 The following examples are meant only to be indicative, not exhaustive. Necrology: Mauro de
Nichilo, I viri illustres del cod. Vat. lat. 3920 (Rome, 1997). Funeral oration: Poggio Bracciolini,
Oratio funebris in obitu Leonardi Arretini, in Leonardo Bruni, Epistolarum libri VIII, recensente
Laurentio Mehus (1741), ed. James Hankins, 2 vols. (Rome, 2007), vol. I, pp. cxv–cxxvi. Funeral
anthology: for the anthology dedicated to the humanist patron Cosimo de’ Medici, see Alison

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Introduction 3
histories of humanism were even written.4 Literary self-reflection seems to
have been as automatic as it was unceasing in the humanist community.
This book is concerned with that self-reflection and the self-conception
of Italian Renaissance humanists embodied therein. By self-conception is
intended specifically what humanists thought they were doing qua human-
ists, what they thought the goals of their movement were, what cultural
significance it had for them, and how they viewed their common history.
The broad aim of this study is to reconsider the nature of humanism
without recourse to theoretical or philosophical categories, especially those
extraneous to the time period or not identified as relevant by the historical
actors themselves. On the contrary, the point is to take humanists on their
own terms and thereby to restore as much as possible of the spirit of their
movement to the body that has been so thoroughly dissected on the his-
torian’s examination table. This approach is motivated by a desire to give
humanists, for the first time in a modern historical monograph, the chance
to explain themselves, and thereby to contribute to the necessary project
of redefining our understanding of Italian Renaissance humanism.
I say necessary because no broad study has yet been undertaken into
what humanists thought humanism was. And yet it is a commonplace of
historical method that any object of inquiry must first be understood on its
own terms before it can be understood on ours.5 Without concern for this
fundamental insight, since World War II scholars have cast humanists as
republican ideologues, educational and moral reformers, philosophers and
legislators of social norms, devotees of a stylistic ideal, lovers of eloquence,

Brown, “The Humanist Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, Pater Patriae,” Journal of the Warburg and
Courtauld Institutes, 24 (1961), pp. 186–221. Verse compilation: Lacrimae amicorum in memory of
Celso Mellini, on which see Stefano Benedetti, Ex perfecta antiquorum eloquentia: oratoria e poesia
a Roma nel primo Cinquecento (Rome, 2010), pp. 133–160; Francesco Arsilli, De poetis urbanis, in
Coryciana, ed. Jozef Ijsewijn (Rome, 1997), pp. 341–559, on which see Rosanna Alhaique Pettinelli,
“Francesco Arsilli e i ‘poeti urbani,’” in Rosanna Alhaique Pettinelli (ed.), L’umana compagnia: studi
in onore di Gennaro Savarese (Rome, 1999), pp. 27–35. Dialogues: Lapo da Castiglionchio’s De
curiae commodis, in Christopher S. Celenza, Renaissance Humanism and the Papal Curia: Lapo da
Castiglionchio the Younger’s De curiae commodis (Ann Arbor, 1999); Angelo Camillo Decembrio, De
politia litteraria, ed. Norbert Witten (Munich, 2002). Another formal source was laudatory poems in
praise of a given city’s great humanists, e.g., Virgilio Zavarise’s poem commemorating the humanists
of Verona, in G. Banterle, “Il carme di Virgilio Zavarise cum enumeratione poetarum oratorumque
veronensium,” Atti e memorie dell’Accademia di Agricoltura, Scienze, e Lettere di Verona, s. VI, 26
(1974–1975), pp. 121–170. For further types of sources and examples, see Rosanna Alhaique Pettinelli,
“Presenze eterodosse in cataloghi di letterati della prima metà del Cinquecento,” in Vincenzo De
Caprio and Concetta Ranieri (eds.), Presenze eterodosse nel viterbese tra Quattro e Cinquecento: Atti
del convegno internazionale, Viterbo, 2–3 dicembre 1996 (Rome, 2000), pp. 105–121.
4 See the sources reviewed below, pp. 15–20.
5 Cf., e.g., Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and
Theory, 8 (1969), pp. 3–53, at 28–30.

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4 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
and a professional movement of novi homines attached to the disciplines
that comprised the studia humanitatis.6 Most of these views are indebted
at least as much to modern concerns as they are to contemporary sources.
On the other hand, under the spell of Paul Oskar Kristeller’s powerful and
influential – and ostensibly non-ideological – interpretation, humanism has
gradually lost any convincing raison d’être beyond the universal motivations
of careerism and financial gain. The upshot is a Lilliputian view in which the
comprehensibility of humanism decreases the more closely the magnifying
glass is applied to its features; and much as happened to Gulliver when
perched upon a Brobdingnagian bosom, microscopic familiarity has bred
Paying attention to what humanists thought was important about what
they were doing can correct our perspective in two indispensable ways.
First, it pushes essential characteristics of humanism to the fore, that is,
those traits and activities that humanists themselves discerned as central
to their identity, those by which they recognized each other and which
served to distinguish them as humanists in the eyes of others.8 Second, it
connects those characteristics to cultural aspirations and ideals that make
humanism comprehensible as a widespread movement, a movement, fur-
thermore, in which many individuals took pride in taking part or with
which they expressly sought to identify themselves. The first insight will
help us to understand better what humanism was, the second for what
purpose it existed. And with this information we can then retrieve not
only the magnificent sense of importance humanists enjoyed about them-
selves, but also the gigantic significance humanism had in its own day

6 Syntheses of past interpretations of humanism and scholarly currents can be found in: Angelo Maz-
zocco (ed.), Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism (Leiden, 2006); Riccardo Fubini, L’umanesimo
italiano e i suoi storici: origini rinascimentali – critica moderna (Milan, 2001), esp. Part III:
“L’Umanesimo e il Rinascimento nella storiografia moderna” (pp. 209–336); William Caferro,
Contesting the Renaissance (Malden, Mass., 2011), ch. 4: “Humanism: Renovation or Innovation?
Transmission or Reception?” (pp. 98–125); Paul F. Grendler, “The Italian Renaissance in the Past
Seventy Years: Humanism, Social History, and Early Modern in Anglo-American and Italian Scholar-
ship,” in Allen J. Grieco, Michael Rocke, and Fiorella Gioffredi Superbi (eds.), The Italian Renaissance
in the Twentieth Century. Acts of an International Conference, Florence, Villa I Tatti, June 9–11, 1999
(Florence, 2002), pp. 3–23; and, for scholarship since the year 2000, Mark Jurdjevic, “Hedgehogs
and Foxes: The Present and Future of Italian Renaissance Intellectual History,” Past and Present,
195:1 (2007), pp. 241–268.
7 See Kenneth Gouwens, “Perceiving the Past: Renaissance Humanism after the ‘Cognitive Turn,’”
The American Historical Review, 103 (1998), pp. 55–82, at 57: “an entire generation of social historians
has practically written humanism out of its narrative of the Renaissance.” Cf. Eckhard Keßler,
“Renaissance Humanism: The Rhetorical Turn,” in Mazzocco (ed.), Interpretations of Renaissance
Humanism, pp. 181–197, at 181–183.
8 Cf. Christopher S. Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy
(Baltimore, 2004), p. 119.

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Introduction 5
and in subsequent history. If Quattrocento humanists were first and fore-
most rhetoricians, if they were determined to revive classical Latin in their
time, if they cherished the beauty of eloquence – petty concerns from
the modern standpoint, esoteric if not elitist and thus considered of little
importance for broad cultural trends – we must wonder why the human-
ist program captivated contemporaries and generations, indeed centuries,
to come and managed enduringly to transform European culture. As this
study argues, it is because language was insolubly linked for humanists with
broader cultural conditions and ideals, and in a way that is inverse to our
understanding of the mechanisms of civilization. Whereas we tend to view
cultural excellence as the product of social stability, economic prosperity,
political power, and military might, the humanists believed it to be the
premise to these latter conditions. The remedy for Italy’s social, political,
and military ills, they reasoned, was cultural refinement. And there was no
greater refinement than linguistic refinement. As they saw it, reviving the
glory of ancient Latin language and literature was the path to reviving the
strength, the excellence, the greatness of Roman antiquity. From this per-
spective, humanism emerges as an elixir, a strategy for renewing civilization
via the literature that stood as the greatest testament to the possibility of
civilization itself.
∗ ∗ ∗
The sources for humanist self-conception have barely been tapped for their
invaluable evidence, and they have been largely ignored in recent work.9
They received the most sustained attention in the nineteenth century.
Georg Voigt drew substantially from the humanists’ claims about their
own movement, especially as found in letters and literary dedications, in his
magnum opus, whose title plainly states his understanding of humanism:
9 A related question, that of the humanist conception of the Renaissance, received a great deal of
attention in the 1930s and 1940s, and some of those studies inevitably drew on a smattering of
the sources alluded to above. See, e.g., Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought:
Five Centuries of Interpretation (Boston, 1948), esp. ch. 1: “The Early Humanist Tradition in Italy,”
who provides ample bibliography of previous studies in nn. 2 and 3 on p. 2; Franco Simone, “La
coscienza della Rinascita negli umanisti,” La Rinascita, 2 (1939), pp. 838–871 and 3 (1940), pp. 163–186;
Herbert Weisinger, “Who Began the Revival of Learning? The Renaissance Point of View,” Papers
of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, 30 (1945), pp. 625–638; Weisinger, “Renaissance
Theories of the Revival of the Fine Arts,” Italica, 20:4 (1943), pp. 163–170; and Weisinger, “The
Self-Awareness of the Renaissance as a Criterion of the Renaissance,” Papers of the Michigan Academy
of Science, Arts and Letters, 29 (1944), pp. 561–567. These studies, especially those of Ferguson and
Weisinger, as well as the earlier approach of Konrad Burdach (see Ferguson, The Renaissance in
Historical Thought, p. 2, n. 3), would later be criticized in Eugenio Garin, Rinascite e rivoluzioni:
Movimenti culturali dal XIV al XVIII secolo, new ed. (Rome, 2007), ch. 1: “Età buie e rinascita: un
problema di confini.”

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6 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums, oder, Das erste Jahrhundert
des Humanismus (The Revival of Classical Antiquity, or The First Century
of Humanism, 1859/1893).10 Attention to humanists’ explicit claims is also
manifest in the canonical interpretation of humanism bequeathed from
the nineteenth century, Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance
in Italy (1860).11 Burckhardt was heavily influenced by the biography of
the humanist Leon Battista Alberti, subsequently considered by scholars
a deceptive autobiography, which celebrated the perfection of the ideal
individual. Although only one of many sources and pieces of evidence that
underlie Civilization, it was instrumental for Burckhardt’s conception of
humanism as a distinctly modern culture of individualistic liberation from
the intellectual and spiritual straitjacket of the Middle Ages.12
Historiographical currents in the twentieth century took decidedly less
interest in humanist accounts of humanism. These played no perceptible
role in the major challenges to Burckhardt’s vision, which came in the 1950s
first at the hands of two German scholars, both émigrés who found their
permanent homes in American academic institutions: Hans Baron and Paul
Oskar Kristeller. Baron formulated his theory of civic humanism by focus-
ing his attention on Florence at the turn of the fifteenth century, which
at that time found itself menaced by the expansion of Milanese tyranny.13
Baron’s close reading of polemics and other texts of that period convinced
him that the renascent passion ignited by Petrarch for classical literature

10 Georg Voigt, Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums, oder, Das erste Jahrhundert des Humanis-
mus, 3rd ed. (Berlin, 1893). Although first published in 1859, the third edition of 1893 is the definitive
version in German; there is also an important Italian translation with an introduction by Eugenio
Garin and many additions to the notes: Il Risorgimento dell’antichità classica, ovvero il primo secolo
d’Umanesimo, tr. D. Valbusa, facsimile reprint ed. Eugenio Garin (Florence, 1968). On the much
neglected Voigt see Paul F. Grendler, “Georg Voigt: Historian of Humanism,” in Christopher S.
Celenza and Kenneth Gouwens (eds.), Humanism and Creativity in the Renaissance: Essays in Honor
of Ronald G. Witt (Leiden, 2006), pp. 295–325.
11 First published Jacob Burckhardt, Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: Ein Versuch (Basel, 1860). A
standard English translation is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, tr. S.G.C. Middlermore
(New York, 2002). For a resume of Burckhardt’s view of humanism and of the major scholarly
reactions to it, see Robert Black, “Humanism,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. VII:
c. 1415–c. 1500, ed. C.T. Allmand (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 243–277, at 243–252.
12 Anthony Grafton, Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance (Cambridge,
Mass., 2002), pp. 14–18. Grafton also notes that Burckhardt drew his inspiration for Civilization
from Vespasiano da Bisticci’s Vite, and that he carefully studied Vasari’s Vite and Giovio’s Elogia
in his “search for the ideal type of the Renaissance man” (p. 17). Important considerations on
Burckhardt’s use of the Alberti (auto)biography are also found in Karl A.E. Enenkel, Die Erfindung
des Menschen. Die Autobiographik des frühneuzeitlichen Humanismus von Petrarca bis Lipsius (Berlin,
2008), pp. 189–228; Enenkel argues that the Alberti vita is not an autobiography but rather a
biography by Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger.
13 Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in
an Age of Classicism and Tyranny (Princeton, 1955).

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Introduction 7
and eloquent Latin had become fused with the intellectual defense of the
republican commune against the growing trend towards signory in Italy.
Although long influential, Baron’s idealistic view has now been reduced
to a more grounded interpretation both of Renaissance republicanism and
of humanism’s relationship to it;14 nonetheless the concept of umanesimo
civile still holds sway in Italian scholarship.15 Kristeller, on the other hand,
based his interpretation not so much on a thorough reading of a selection
of texts as on his magisterial view of the whole corpus of humanist liter-
ature. He concluded that Italian humanism was a rhetorical and literary
movement, steeped in the (especially Latin) classical tradition, that took
shape in a professional class of notaries, teachers, secretaries, and diplomats.
In his view, humanism lacked any coherent civic ideology, was generally
devoid of sophisticated philosophical content, and was basically equivalent
to the studia humanitatis, the cycle of disciplines comprised of grammar,
rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.16 Contemporaneously with

14 James Hankins, “The ‘Baron Thesis’ after Forty Years and Some Recent Studies of Leonardo
Bruni,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 56:2 (1995), pp. 309–338; Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic
Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections (Cambridge, 2000); Kay Schiller, Gelehrte Gegenwelten:
Über humanistische Leitbilder im 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt, 2000) [an earlier English version
is “Hans Baron’s Humanism,” Storia della storiografia, 34 (1998), pp. 51–99]; the AHR Forum
devoted to Baron in The American Historical Review, 101:1 (1996), pp. 107–144 (contributions by
Ronald G. Witt, “Introduction: Hans Baron’s Humanism,” pp. 107–109; Witt, “The Crisis after
Forty Years,” pp. 110–118; John M. Najemy, “Baron’s Machiavelli and Renaissance Republicanism,”
pp. 119–129; Craig Kallendorf, “The Historical Petrarch,” pp. 130–141; and Werner Gundersheimer,
“Hans Baron’s Renaissance Humanism: A Comment,” pp. 142–144); Riccardo Fubini, “Renaissance
Historian: The Career of Hans Baron,” Journal of Modern History, 64:3 (1992), pp. 541–574,
esp. 569–574; Albert Rabil, Jr., “The Significance of ‘Civic Humanism’ in the Interpretation of the
Italian Renaissance,” in Rabil (ed.), Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy, 3 vols.
(Philadelphia, 1988), vol. I, pp. 141–174. For the outright rejection of Baron’s thesis, see Robert
Black’s review of Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic Humanism, in The English Historical Review,
116:467 (2001), pp. 715–716.
15 Especially through the writings of Eugenio Garin. See, e.g., his L’umanesimo italiano: filosofia e
vita civile nel Rinascimento (Rome, 1952/1993) [originally published as Der italienische Humanismus
(Bern, 1947)], esp. ch. 2: “La vita civile,” pp. 47–93. In his “Nota bibliografica,” Garin writes, “Fra
le opere d’insieme, che hanno riprospettato con originalità di indagini e di materiali i problemi di
cui si tocca in questo libro, sono da porsi in promo luogo le opere di H. Baron” (p. 257). And in
his “Avvertenza all’edizione 1994,” Garin writes, “Può darsi che talora certe ipotesi ci prendessero
la mano. Ma c’era non poco di vero in molte tesi sull’umanesimo civile che fra gli anni Trenta a
Quaranta cominciarono ad affacciarsi, e non solo nei primi saggi di Hans Baron e miei, ma in testi
di Chabod e di Nino Valeri” (p. xvii), adding in a related note, “Lo stesso Baron ebbe a ricordare
come già nel ’41 io sottolineassi l’interesse delle sue idee e come certe nostre linee di recerca si fossero
incontrate molto presto” (n. 10).
16 A good synthesis of Kristeller’s view can be found in his Renaissance Thought and its Sources, ed.
Michael Mooney (New York, 1979). It is also represented richly and manifoldly in his collection
Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, 4 vols. (Rome, 1956–1996). On Kristeller’s view of
humanism, see John Monfasani, “Toward the Genesis of the Kristeller Thesis of Renaissance
Humanism: Four Bibliographical Notes,” Renaissance Quarterly, 53:4 (2000), pp. 1156–1173; see also

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8 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Kristeller, the Italian scholar Eugenio Garin developed a contrary view of
humanism, one very much descended from Burckhardt.17 The two parted
ways at their respective conceptions of philosophy, which Kristeller under-
stood as a rigorous, systematic investigation of truth within a restricted
range of topics. Garin, on the other hand, had a broader understanding of
what constituted philosophy. He concentrated his work especially on the
close reading of literary texts, drawing out of them their authors’ philoso-
phies of life and general worldviews.18 Thus he considered humanism to be
a fundamentally philosophical movement, and one generative of important
new conceptions of man, of religion, and of social relations – a movement
of thought with certain common themes, analogous to the Enlightenment.
Garin also identified humanism with the general intellectual culture of the
Renaissance period as a whole, tending to broaden the concept precisely
where Kristeller narrowed it.19

the recent publication of essays on Kristeller and the influence of his thought, John Monfasani
(ed.), Kristeller Reconsidered: Essays on his Life and Scholarship (New York, 2006).
17 Garin articulated his position many times in diverse studies. Representative texts are his L’umanesimo
italiano and Medioevo e rinascimento: studi e ricerche (Rome, 1954/2005). On Garin, see Michele
Ciliberto, Eugenio Garin. Un intelletuale nel Novecento (Rome, 2011); Ciliberto, “Una meditazione
sulla condizione umana. Eugenio Garin interprete del Rinascimento,” Rivista di storia della filosofia,
63:4 (2008), pp. 653–692; Olivia Catanorchi and Valentina Lepri (eds.), Eugenio Garin. Dal Rinasci-
mento all’Illuminismo, Atti del convegno, Firenze, 6–8 marzo 2009 (Rome, 2011); Claudio Cesa,
“Momenti della formazione di uno storico della filosofia (1929–1947),” in Felicita Audisio and
Alessandro Savorelli (eds.), Eugenio Garin. Il percorso storiografico di un maestro del Novecento
(Florence, 2003), pp. 15–34; Massimiliano Capati, Cantimori, Contini, Garin: crisi di una cultura
idealistica (Bologna, 1997); Franco Cambi (ed.), Tra scienza e storia: percorsi del neostoricismo italiano:
Eugenio Garin, Paolo Rossi, Sergio Moravio (Milan, 1992); Black, “Humanism,” pp. 245–246.
18 Garin explained the difference between the two over philosophy in the autobiographical essay
attached to the new edition of his La filosofia come sapere storico: con un saggio autobiografico (Rome,
1990), pp. 146–147; this public statement substantially reproduces what he says in a personal letter to
Kristeller of September 25, 1953 (see James Hankins, “Garin and Paul Oskar Kristeller,” cited below,
who demonstrates the connection between the two writings). See also Celenza, The Lost Italian
Renaissance, ch. 2: “Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Twentieth Century: Eugenio Garin and
Paul Oskar Kristeller,” pp. 16–57; James Hankins, “Garin and Paul Oskar Kristeller: Existentialism,
Neo-Kantianism, and the Post-War Interpretation of Renaissance Humanism,” in Catanorchi and
Lepri (eds.), Eugenio Garin. Dal Rinascimento all’Illuminismo, pp. 481–505; Hankins, “Renaissance
Philosophy between God and the Devil,” in Hankins, Humanism and Platonism, vol. I, pp. 591–615,
at 604–615 [originally published in The Italian Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Proceedings of
a conference held at the Villa I Tatti, June 9–11, 1999 (Florence, 2002), pp. 265–289]; and Hankins,
“Two Twentieth-Century Interpreters of Renaissance Humanism: Eugenio Garin and Paul Oskar
Kristeller,” in Hankins, Humanism and Platonism, vol. I, pp. 573–590 [originally published in
Comparative Criticism, 23 (2001), pp. 3–19].
19 An example is his Rinascite e rivoluzioni, ch. 1: “Età buie e rinascita: un problema di confini,” where
the thought of fifteenth-century humanists like Bruni and Valla is joined with the revolutionary
stance of Cola di Rienzo, on the one hand, and early Enlightenment figures, on the other. Kristeller
articulated this major difference between his approach and Garin’s in a letter to Garin dated
September 21, 1953 (Pisa, Scuola Normale Superiore, Fondo Garin): “Quando concludi dalla mia
asserzione che gli umanisti italiani non furono filosofi (e penso al Poggio, al Guarino, a Pio II, al

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Introduction 9
The result has tended to be a broad and unsatisfying split between
Italian and Anglo-American scholarship.20 The former, following Garin
and concentrating on what seem to be representative writings, such as
histories, educational treatises, or works of political or moral philosophy,
conceives of humanism as an essentially ideological phenomenon growing
out of a reaction against medieval culture.21 The latter, taking its cue from
Kristeller, emphasizes continuity with the Middle Ages and has tried to
penetrate to the deeper meaning of humanism by way of the activities and
especially the professional interests of its participants.22 This interpretive
bifurcation is especially evident in related fields of Renaissance scholarship,
such as political, economic, social, or art history, where the focus is not
on humanism itself but in which some understanding of humanism is
nevertheless deemed necessary for the topic under discussion. In such
cases, Italian scholars are generally content to rely on Garin, Anglophones
to fall back on Kristeller. And no wonder, as both their interpretations
are eminently useful, broadly inclusive, and pliable enough to admit of all
kinds of research within their explanatory boundaries.
And yet, despite their clear advantages over the paradigms of Burckhardt
and Baron, neither of these interpretations can claim to be definitive. The
strength of Garin’s understanding is that it places humanism within an
intelligible intellectual and cultural context in European history; its weak-
ness is that it has great difficulty identifying the various aspects that make
up a humanist profile. It is strong on why, weak on what. The opposite is
the case for Kristeller, who developed his view largely in reaction to other
schools of thought he saw as too preoccupied with the coming of modernity

Filelfo ecc., ma non al Ficino o al Pico) che io rifiuto qualsiasi significato filosofico al Rinascimento,
non fai altro che identificare umanesimo e rinascimento, cioè mi attribuisci quell’uso di parole che
tu veramente segui nel tuo volume sull’umanesimo.”
20 Although certain currents of scholarship are attempting to bridge the divide. See, e.g., James
Hankins, “Machiavelli, Civic Humanism, and the Humanist Politics of Virtue,” Italian Culture,
32:2 (2014), pp. 98–109; Hankins, “Exclusivist Republicanism and the Non-Monarchical Republic,”
Political Theory, 38 (2010), pp. 452–482; Christopher S. Celenza, “The Platonic Revival,” in James
Hankins (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 72–96;
Celenza, “Lorenzo Valla and the Traditions and Transmissions of Philosophy,” Journal of the History
of Ideas, 66 (2005), pp. 483–506; Celenza, “Petrarch, Latin, and Italian Renaissance Latinity,” Journal
of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 35 (2005), pp. 509–536. The present study is also undertaken
in this conciliatory spirit.
21 An important recent example is Luca D’Ascia, “Coscienza della Rinascita e coscienza antibarbara.
Appunti sulla visione storica del Rinascimento nei secoli XV e XVI,” in Renzo Ragghianti and
Alessandro Savorelli (eds.), Rinascimento mito e concetto (Pisa, 2005), pp. 1–37.
22 Evidence of Kristeller’s ascendance is the canonization of his view in the New Cambridge Medieval
History: Black, “Humanism,” as well as in the three-volume synthesis of humanism edited by Albert
Rabil, Jr., Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy (Philadelphia, 1988).

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10 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
and with reigning ideological controversies – Burckhardt with liberalism,
Baron with republicanism and the civic applicability of Bildung, and Garin
with modern science, the Enlightenment, and the Gramscian notion of
organic philosophers – rather than with the phenomenon itself.23 To be
sure, Kristeller’s view of humanism was also shaped by ideological battles of
the twentieth century.24 But where others (like Baron and Garin) cleaved
to one side or another, Kristeller tried to purge humanism of all ideologi-
cal overtones according to the model of scientific research (Wissenschaft).25
Wanting to describe humanism in the least tendentious and most value-
free way possible, he reduced it to the barest facts he could. The result is
an interpretation surely sound in its component parts but that lacks a con-
vincing rationale. Kristeller can reliably tell us about many of humanism’s
salient characteristics, but he cannot tell us about one of the most, if not
the most, important: for what purpose did humanism come about, i.e.,
what did humanists strive for?26 What sense does a professional movement
guided by the revived studia humanitatis make in the larger context of
European history? Why did anyone want to be a humanist, especially in
its earlier stages when it held no widespread social or economic advantage?
At stake is the telos, the final cause, of humanism.27
An attempt has been made to answer this question by focusing on
humanists in their role as educators.28 Heavily influenced by his reading of
humanist educational treatises, Paul Grendler described humanism as an
educational ethos dedicated to instilling virtue in students by way of reading
the great literary works of the ancients.29 Grendler was responding in part

23 On Burckhardt, see Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas
(Chicago, 2000), Part III: “Jacob Burckhardt,” pp. 201–346; on Baron, see Fubini, “Renaissance
Historian”; Schiller, Gelehrte Gegenwelten; and Schiller, “Made ‘fit for America’: The Renaissance
Historian Hans Baron in London Exile 1936–38,” in Stefan Berger, Peter Lambert, and Peter Schu-
mann (eds.), Historikerdialoge. Geschichte, Mythos und Gedächtnis im deutsch-britischen kulturellen
Austausch 1750–2000 (Göttingen, 2003), pp. 345–359; on Garin, see Ciliberto, “Una meditazione”;
Cesa, “Momenti della formazione”; and Hankins, “Garin and Paul Oskar Kristeller.”
24 See Hankins, “Two Twentieth-Century Interpreters,” esp. pp. 581–586.
25 See Hankins, “Renaissance Philosophy between God and the Devil,” pp. 611–612.
26 Kristeller’s evident lack of interest in the causes of humanism has been pointed out by Ronald G.
Witt, In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni (Leiden, 2000),
pp. 3–4.
27 This issue has been insightfully addressed, though not from within the Kristellerian paradigm,
by Francisco Rico, El sueño del humanismo: (De Petrarca a Erasmo) (Madrid, 1993); and D’Ascia,
“Coscienza della Rinascita.”
28 The classic study of humanist education, to which all subsequent scholarship has added or
responded, is Eugenio Garin, L’educazione in Europa (1400–1600). Problemi e programmi (Bari,
29 Paul F. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600 (Baltimore, 1989).
On humanist educational ideals, see Humanist Educational Treatises, ed. and tr. Craig Kallendorf

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Introduction 11
to Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, who in a grand polemic against the
usefulness of the modern humanities had impugned their roots in Renais-
sance humanism.30 Through their examination of texts by marginalized
groups such as women, they had deconstructed the humanists’ education
in virtue and depicted it instead as the self-serving advertisement of a
new professional class. In their view, humanist rhetoric about virtue and
love of classical literature was little more than hot air aimed at inflating
their standing and lifting them into the university posts hitherto held by
scholastic theologians. Grendler’s work might have seemed a substantial
counter-argument, but his attempt at salvaging an ethos for the human-
ists suffered shortly thereafter from a forceful rebuttal by Robert Black.31
Black undermined Grendler’s position by comparing the claims of the
humanist educational treatises to actual classroom practice, such as he
was able to reconstruct it from documentary sources, and by revealing a
widespread misunderstanding about the supposed similarity between the
subjects proper to grammar-school and university-level education. From
his research into grammar education in Tuscany, Black concludes that
virtue played no part in the humanist classroom.
Another noteworthy attempt has been made to endow humanism with
an intelligible rationale, this one disavowing the explanatory power Kris-
teller attributed to the professional context. In an important article Hanna
Gray distilled the essence of humanism down to what she called the “pursuit
of eloquence.”32 Taking issue with Kristeller, she wrote:

To say that the humanists merely introduced a more classical tone into a
fixed series of activities does not indicate why it appeared so essential to
them to return to the classical models of the studia humanitatis, or why they
failed to recognize, indeed disclaimed, continuity with medieval practice.
To suggest that their attitudes are explicable in terms of their professional

(Cambridge, Mass., 2002), with Kallendorf’s introduction. Cf. Paul F. Gehl, A Moral Art: Grammar,
Society, and Culture in Trecento Florence (Ithaca, 1993).
30 Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal
Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 1986).
31 The debate began in Journal of the History of Ideas: Robert Black, “Italian Renaissance Education:
Changing Perspectives and Continuing Controversies,” 52:2 (1991), pp. 315–334; Paul F. Grendler,
“Reply to Robert Black,” 52:2 (1991), pp. 335–337; Robert Black, “Reply to Paul Grendler,” 52:3
(1991), pp. 519–520. Black has since written two monographs on the topic: Humanism and Education
in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the
Fifteenth Century (Cambridge, 2001); and Education and Society in Florentine Tuscany: Teachers,
Pupils and Schools, c. 1250 to 1500 (Leiden, 2007). For a recapitulation of Black’s view, see Black,
“Humanism,” pp. 258–262.
32 Hanna H. Gray, “Renaissance Humanism: The Pursuit of Eloquence,” Journal of the History of
Ideas, 24 (1963), pp. 497–514.

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12 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
concerns, which are naturally in competition with those of other professions,
does not explain how they articulated those concerns, how and why in a
particular age men should have turned to rhetoric and claimed for it a special
educational and cultural role.33

Her view was that the eloquence at the root of the studia humanitatis –
eloquence understood, that is, as the “harmonious union of wisdom and
style” – provided humanists with an antidote to the impotence they per-
ceived in scholasticism and a viable model for pursuing their own, different
kind of philosophy.34 More recently, Ronald G. Witt has concurred with
Gray’s critique, minimizing the importance of the professional context and
arguing that humanists were essentially driven by a stylistic ideal: the imi-
tation of the ancient Latin authors.35 According to his In the Footsteps of the
Ancients, humanism began as the preoccupation of a few individuals with
the imitation of classical Latin poetry, which imitation eventually spread
to prose and then was harnessed by Petrarch to a broader cultural program
of Christian piety and moral renewal. Through subsequent changes in
the persons of Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni, humanism became
institutionalized in chanceries and communal governments and eventually
lost its Christian emphasis, although it still represented a valid alternative
to the cultural standards inherited from the Middle Ages.
The vast differences between these schools of thought suggest that the
definition of humanism is today as open a question as it was when first
taken up by modern historiography one and a half centuries ago. What is
more, the claims to validity, or at least to thoroughness and universality, of
the prevailing interpretations of humanism have recently been challenged
by a provocative appeal in the form of Christopher S. Celenza’s essay,
The Lost Italian Renaissance.36 This work argues that our knowledge of
humanism is fatally limited by the field’s general ignorance of the sources,
and specifically of humanist literary texts, which for the most part lie

33 Ibid., p. 500. 34 Ibid., p. 498.

35 Witt, Footsteps. Witt enunciated the broad contours of this view earlier in his essay “Medieval
Italian Culture and the Origins of Humanism as a Stylistic Ideal,” in Rabil (ed.), Renaissance
Humanism, vol. I, pp. 29–70; and he refined it further in “Kristeller’s Humanists as Heirs of the
Medieval Dictatores,” in Mazzocco (ed.), Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism, pp. 21–35. Cf.
also Keßler, “Renaissance Humanism: The Rhetorical Turn.” For Witt’s view on the deep origins of
humanism, see The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval
Italy (Cambridge, 2011).
36 Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance. The validity and timeliness of Celenza’s argument have
achieved wide recognition among Renaissance scholars. See the reviews of Michael J.B. Allen in
Renaissance Quarterly, 58:2 (2005), pp. 576–577; Jurdjevic, “Hedgehogs and Foxes,” esp. pp. 265–
266; and Maurizio Campanelli, published electronically on H-Italy, H-Net Reviews, February 2006

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Introduction 13
unread in the dust of manuscript repositories and pre-modern editions.
In view of the unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) historiographical
dispute between the Kristeller and Garin camps, the reigning uncertainty
about humanism’s cultural importance, and now of Celenza’s critique, the
understanding of Italian Renaissance humanism clearly needs an overhaul.
Celenza emphasizes that such a reconsideration should not be limited to
well-known evidence but should rather prefer the examination of hitherto
neglected sources. Within such a framework, which one cannot but agree is
highly desirable, a more historicizing and text-driven approach to defining
Renaissance humanism must surely put a high priority on bringing to light
the great many humanist testimonies specifically of humanism.
The very little work done in this area indicates how fruitful such research
can be. In the past fifty-five years two studies have been specifically devoted
to the self-conception of the humanists. In 1960, Charles Trinkaus pub-
lished an article on Bartolomeo della Fonte’s inaugural orations at the
University of Florence in the 1480s, intending it as a mild corrective to
Kristeller’s view of humanists as a professional class with little in the way
of an ethos and nothing of a philosophy.37 Trinkaus argues that, for della
Fonte, humanism, being composed of the five disciplines of the studia
humanitatis (grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, moral philosophy) but
with a special emphasis on rhetoric, was a particularly humanizing pur-
suit – i.e., that it was of all pursuits the one most apt to make man more
human. Furthermore, it was highly useful in private and civic life, nor was
it in any way contrary to religion. Finally, humanism was definitely distinct
from philosophy, and the humanist, or rhetorician, not the philosopher,
was the highest human type. The orations also iterated several times a his-
tory of rhetoric, charting its rise in ancient Greece and Rome, its decline in
the wake of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, and its subsequent
reawakening with Petrarch. Based on what he judged to be della Fonte’s
manifest unoriginality in every area except textual scholarship, Trinkaus
concluded that the view of humanism found in the inaugural orations
represented not only della Fonte’s own opinion but also that of his cultural
milieu, and thus that it could be attributed generally to the scholars, the
students, and the patrons of humanism in Florence in the last quarter of the
fifteenth century. The other scholarly consideration of the self-conception

37 Charles Edward Trinkaus, “A Humanist’s Conception of Humanism: The Inaugural Orations of

Bartolomeo della Fonte,” Studies in the Renaissance, 7 (1960), pp. 90–147, at 90–91 and 123–125
for his work’s relationship to Kristeller’s view of humanism [reprinted in Trinkhaus, The Scope of
Renaissance Humanism (Ann Arbor, 1983), pp. 52–87, but without the appendices and bibliographies
of della Fonte].

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14 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
of the humanists is contained in John M. McManamon’s Funeral Oratory
and the Cultural Ideals of Italian Humanism.38 From his broad considera-
tion of humanist funeral orations throughout the entire fifteenth century
and all over Italy, McManamon arrives at very different conclusions about
humanism from Trinkaus’s. First, the true founder of humanism was not
Petrarch but rather the team of Manuel Chrysoloras and Leonardo Bruni.
Second, the great accomplishment of humanism was to have resurrected
the ancient tradition of bonae litterae and the artes liberales. There is no
talk of making man more human, although humanist education is praised
as leading students to virtue.
As Trinkaus’s and McManamon’s studies indicate, further investigations
into humanist accounts of humanism can shed much light on the human-
ists’ sense of their own contribution to the culture of their age, of their rela-
tionship to formal philosophy and other disciplines like law and medicine,
of their history, founders, and exemplary exponents, of their cultural ideals,
of their view of the past, of their hopes for the future, and so on. Yet their
example is also indicative of the difficulties inherent in using such sources.
For one they can reveal as much contradiction as concord, resulting from a
difference not only of authors but more importantly of genre, context, and
audience. Although both Trinkaus and McManamon considered ceremo-
nial orations, the former interpreted academic orations intended to defend
humanism’s value against other disciplines and to encourage a learned and
especially a humanist audience (or at least one sympathetic to humanism)
in its studies in Florence,39 whereas the latter considered funeral orations
intended to console and to honor the values of a civic, non-humanist
audience all over Italy. Another, graver problem with such sources is their
radical subjectivity. Consider the passages from Bruni’s Memoirs quoted at
the outset. No matter how intimately revealing the text may seem about
his decision to learn Greek, his regard for his teacher, and his estimation
of his fellow students, Bruni’s is still only one lone, albeit authoritative,
voice. Taken by itself, it floats tantalizingly in the void. In order for it to do
more than enunciate an idiosyncratic view, it must be considered together
with similar texts, all of which must ultimately be compared, weighed,
and searched for common patterns – surely an admirable goal but also

38 John M. McManamon, S.J., Funeral Oratory and the Cultural Ideals of Italian Humanism (Chapel
Hill, 1989), ch. 6: “Academic Ideals: ‘Perfected in the Arts Appropriate to Humanity’” and ch. 7:
“Ethos Enshrined.”
39 As Trinkaus notes, the University of Florence was by this time completely dedicated to humanistic
subjects, whereas other faculties like law had been relocated to Pisa. See Trinkaus, “A Humanist’s
Conception,” pp. 91–92.

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Introduction 15
premature, considering the very little work that has been done in this field
and the lack even of a detailed overview of the pertinent sources.
∗ ∗ ∗
There is a corpus of texts, however, that stands out as being particularly
worthy of scrutiny and promising of a broadly representative view: a motley
assortment of treatises, biographical collections, and dialogues that provide
global accounts of the humanist movement. Apart from the treatises, such
works were basically modeled on three ancient bio-historiographical gen-
res popular in the Renaissance: (1) bio-bibliographical registers of works
and achievements after the manner of Jerome’s De viris illustribus; (2) vita
collections in the tradition of Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, or Suetonius’
Lives of the Caesars and Lives of the Grammarians; and (3) dialogues mod-
eled on Cicero’s Brutus. The name of the first of these text types – De
viris illustribus, or On Famous Men – was often eponymously ascribed
to all such collective biographical works, and many authors incorporated
it, or some modified form of it, into their titles, no matter which spe-
cific generic form their work took. Throughout the Middle Ages works
of this kind served often, but not exclusively, as vehicles for what we
would commonly think of as literary history. Thus Gennadius (ca. 490),
Isidore of Seville (ca. 630), and Ildephonsus of Toledo (ca. 660) contin-
ued Jerome’s work in homonymous writings, whereas Peter the Deacon
commemorated members of his monastic community in his De viris illus-
tribus casinensibus, Benzo d’Alessandria narrated large spans of history by
way of brief biographical entries in his Chronicon (ca. 1320), and Boc-
caccio recorded the exploits of famous women in his De mulieribus claris
(ca. 1360).40
Growing thus out of an ancient (but also a medieval) tradition
of celebrating political, religious, and cultural heroes and other great
representatives of intellectual and literary traditions, collective biographies
in various forms developed in the fifteenth century into a sophisticated

40 Gennadius, Liber de viris inlustribus, ed. E.C. Richardson (Leipzig, 1896), pp. 57–97; Isidore of
Seville, El De viris illustribus de Isidoro de Sevilla. Estudio y edición critica, ed. C. Codoñer Merino
(Salamanca, 1964); Ildephonsus of Toledo, El De viris illustribus de Ildefonso de Toledo. Estudio
y edición critica, ed. C. Codoñer Merino (Salamanca, 1972); Peter the Deacon, De viris illus-
tribus casinensibus, in PL, vol. CLXXIII, pp. 1003–1050, with a supplement by Placidus Romanus
(pp. 1049–1062) [a modern Italian translation is Pietro Diacono, De viris illustribus casinensibus, tr.
and ed. G. Sperduti (Cassino, 1995)]; Benzo d’Alessandria, Il Chronicon di Benzo d’Alessandria e i
classici latini all’inizio del XIV secolo: edizione critica del libro XXIV: “De moribus et vita philosopho-
rum,” ed. M. Petoletti (Milan, 2000); Giovanni Boccaccio, On Famous Women, ed. and tr. Virginia
Brown (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

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16 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
tool for commemorating the pioneers and premier figures of humanism.41
Some of the biographies can seem schematic, and some appear to be little
more than lists, but even these are replete with useful information. In the
course of enumerating the activities and works of a range of humanists,
each text offers insight into how its humanist author understood the
development, essence, and aspirations of the movement in which he
himself was a participant. Not all such works set out to narrate the history
of humanism per se – indeed, what they have to say about humanism is
seldom inscribed in a formal narrative at all – but they are all nevertheless
attempts to take stock of humanism as a whole, to give an account of what
it was and what it meant. With careful interpretation and the requisite
attention paid to the stories the authors wish to tell, we can reconstruct
the narrative that lies beneath the surface and thus approach such sources
as humanist histories of humanism.42
Among all the sources for humanist self-conception, these biographical
collections promise to be the most considered and representative. Discrete
biographies and reminiscences in letters, literary dedications, ceremonial
orations, and commemorative poetry all abound in useful statements,
but these tend to be desultory, incomplete, or panegyrical. Collective

41 See Guglielmo Bottari, “Introduzione,” in Guglielmo da Pastrengo, De viris illustribus, et, De orig-
inibus, ed. Guglielmo Bottari (Padua, 1991), pp. ix–xciv; Rudolf Blum, “Die Literaturverzeichnung
im Altertum und Mittelalter: Versuch einer Geschichte der Biobibliographie von den Anfängen
bis zum Beginn der Neuzeit,” Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens, 24 (1983), coll. 1–256; Man-
fred Fuhrmann, “Die Geschichte der Literaturgeschichtsschreibung von den Anfängen bis zum
19. Jahrhundert,” in Bernard Cerquiglini and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (eds.), Der Diskurs der
Literatur- und Sprachhistorie (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), pp. 49–72; Massimo Miglio, “Biografia
e raccolte biografiche nel Quattrocento italiano,” Atti dell’Accademia delle Scienze dell’Istituto di
Bologna (Classe di Scienze Morali), 63 (1974–1975), pp. 166–199; Rosanna Alhaique Pettinelli, “La
critica nell’età umanistica,” in Giorgio Baroni (ed.), Storia della critica letteraria in Italia (Turin,
1997), pp. 116–174, at 119–133; Klaus Arnold, “De viris illustribus. Aus den Anfängen der humanis-
tischen Literatur-geschichtsschreibung: Johannes Trithemius und andere Schriftstellerkataloge des
15. Jahrhunderts,” Humanistica lovaniensia, 42 (1993), pp. 52–70; and Eric Cochrane, Historians and
Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago, 1981), pp. 393–400.
42 I have discussed the nature of such texts and made arguments for considering them proper works
of history in three articles: Patrick Baker, “A Labyrinth of Praise and Blame: On the Form and
Structure of Marcantonio Sabellico’s De latinae linguae reparatione,” in Johannes Helmrath, Albert
Schirrmeister, and Stefan Schlelein (eds.), Historiographie des Humanismus. Literarische Verfahren,
soziale Praxis, geschichtliche Räume (Berlin, 2013), pp. 209–240; Baker, “Writing History in Cicero’s
Shadow,” in Anna Heinze, Albert Schirrmeister, and Julia Weitbrecht (eds.), Antikes erzählen.
Narrative Transformationen von Antike in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (Berlin, 2013), pp. 75–90;
and Baker, “Collective Biography as Historiography: The De viris illustribus of Bartolomeo Facio,”
in Baker (ed.), Biography, Historiography, and Modes of Philosophizing: The Tradition of Collective
Biography in Early Modern Europe (forthcoming). See also Massimo Miglio, “Biografia e raccolte
biografiche nel Quattrocento italiano,” in P. Tuynman, G. C. Kuiper, and E. Keßler (eds.), Acta
conventus neo-latini amstelodamensis. Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Neo-Latin
Studies, Amsterdam, August 19–24, 1973 (Munich, 1979), pp. 775–785.

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Introduction 17
biographies, on the other hand, are more deliberate, comprehensive, and
comparative. This last attribute is of especial importance. Whereas the
author of an individual biography or a funeral oration generally erects an
oversized monument to his subject, praising him inordinately and attribut-
ing to him all manner of accomplishments, the collective biographer must
place each individual into a larger cultural landscape. Although the latter’s
intention is still to praise, he must, like the curator of a museum, take
a panoptic view when lining up many viri illustres next to one another.
When comparison with other figures is easy, obvious, and encouraged, it
becomes more difficult for any one person to be praised beyond measure,
or at least beyond the measure accorded to all. Finally, in addition to
being highly expressive and circumspect, these sources are also likely to be
more representative of humanists’ sincere self-understanding than those
which were generally written for a non-humanist audience and which
had the object of defending or selling humanism, such as educational
treatises or ceremonial orations. For these accounts of humanism seem
to have been written largely for a humanist audience (including patrons
who participated meaningfully in humanism), and they contain little of
the ideological grandstanding typical of other genres. To adapt Clifford
Geertz’s famous formulation: these sources are a humanist reading of
humanist experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves.43 It is
the object of this book to re-evoke that inner narrative.
Humanists began to write global accounts of their movement in the
fourth decade of the fifteenth century, in what appears to have been a
moment of intense self-awareness. Tendencies in this direction can be
detected in Sicco Polenton’s Scriptorum illustrium latinae linguae libri XVIII
(1437), which charts the development of Latin style across the auctores of
antiquity but also mentions the few who in modern times achieved the
old eloquence.44 In the next year Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger
published his dialogue De curiae commodis, one section of which celebrates
the great humanists of the papal curia.45 Shortly thereafter, in 1441, the
Hellenist Cyriac of Ancona dedicated to Pope Eugenius IV his Itinerarium,
an epistolary treatise describing his (Cyriac’s) travels and especially the
43 Cf. Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedalus, 101:1 (1972), pp. 1–37
[reprinted in Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973)].
44 Sicco Polenton, Scriptorum illustrium latinae linguae libri XVIII, ed. B.L. Ullman (Rome, 1928). The
moderns mentioned include: Albertino Mussato, Lovato dei Lovati, Dante, and Petrarch (pp. 126–
139), Giovanni Conversini da Ravenna (p. 166), and Francesco Barbaro (pp. 253 and 465) [as noted
in M.L. McLaughlin, “Histories of Literature in the Quattrocento,” in P. Hainsworth et al. (eds.),
The Languages of Literature in Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 1988), pp. 63–80, at 68–69].
45 Celenza, Renaissance Humanism and the Papal Curia.

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18 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
humanists he met along the way, their activities, and, in a typical lapse of
modesty, their praises of the author.46 These sources, however, lack a certain
maturity and comprehensiveness. Polenton mentions Italian humanists but
gives them very little space in his massive text, Lapo focuses exclusively on
humanists employed in the curia, and Cyriac confines himself to humanists
of his own acquaintance.
The first to embrace the phenomenon of humanism as a widespread
movement, to describe its history, and to give voice specifically to its aspira-
tions or cultural ideals, albeit on a small scale, was the Florentine Giannozzo
Manetti. His Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita (1440) contains
comparative biographies of the Three Crowns of Florence (Dante, Petrarch,
and Boccaccio), depicting all three as full-fledged humanists. Especially
when read in light of related treatments of Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati,
and Niccolò Niccoli in his coeval De illustribus longaevis (1439), and of a
section dedicated to humanists in his later Contra Judaeos et Gentes (1452–
1458), these biographies constitute Manetti’s attempt not only to defend
the humanist credentials of the Three Crowns but also to attribute to them,
especially the latter two, the foundation of a broad cultural movement.47
In the mid- to late 1440s Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, then at the episcopal
stage of his astonishing Church career, profiled in his De viris illustribus
the leading men and women of European politics and culture.48 Only
one humanist, Leonardo Bruni, receives an entry, but the article becomes
a history of the humanist movement, starting with Bruni as its greatest
exponent and then branching out into his teachers, fellows, and succes-
sors. Similarly, Biondo Flavio singles out humanism for special treatment
in a famous passage of his Italia illustrata (1453), a toponymic and cul-
tural gazetteer of Italy.49 This time the occasion arises not with Bruni but
with Giovanni da Ravenna, and the historical method is more rigorous:
Biondo goes into greater depth, seeks to explain the causes for the evo-
lution and spread of humanism, and clearly differentiates developmental

46 Cyriac of Ancona, Itinerarium, ed. Lorenzo Mehus (Florentiae: Ex novo Typographio Joannis Pauli
Giovannelli ad Insigne Palmae, 1742; facsimile reprint Bologna, 1969). On the dating of the work see
Mehus’ “Praefatio ad lectorem,” pp. xxxiv–xxxvi. According to Mehus (pp. xxxvi–xxxvii): “Multum
vero utilitatis ex hoc opusculo percipi potest tum propter praestissimos illius aetatis viros, qui in hoc
Itinerario memorantur, tum propter prima illorum studiorum rudimenta, quae nunc ad tantam
amplitudinem evecta conspicimus.”
47 The relevant sections of Manetti’s works are available in Giannozzo Manetti, Biographical Writings,
ed. and tr. Stefano U. Baldassarri and Rolf Bagemihl (Cambridge, Mass., 2003).
48 Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, De viris illustribus, ed. A. Van Heck (Vatican City, 1991).
49 Biondo Flavio, Italy Illuminated, ed. and tr. Jeffrey A. White (Cambridge, Mass., 2005–). Another
edition, already complete, is Biondo Flavio’s Italia Illustrata: Text, Translation, and Commentary,
ed. and tr. Catherine J. Castner, 2 vols. (Binghamton, NY, 2005–2010).

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Introduction 19
stages. Like Piccolomini’s treatment, it is only one small chapter in a much
larger text with a broader cultural and geographical purview; nevertheless,
Biondo portrays humanism as the cornerstone of Italian culture. A similar
emphasis is found in the De viris illustribus (1456) of Bartolomeo Facio, a
lesser-known Ligurian humanist at the court of Alfonso the Magnificent in
Naples.50 It, too, catalogues the achievements of great men across several
departments of contemporary life and gives humanists absolute priority.
The superior importance of humanism is made even clearer by the organi-
zation of the work: the humanists come first, and they greatly outnumber
the illustrious figures in law, medicine, the visual arts, war, and politics.
Finally, at the end of the 1480s, two texts appear, temporally coincidental
though hailing from different regions of Italy, that record the history of
humanism in dialogues imitating Cicero’s Brutus. That is, instead of in
a synthetic narrative, the great humanists and their accomplishments are
reviewed and judged over the course of informal conversation and speeches.
These are the first texts dedicated exclusively to humanism and which con-
sider it without reference to any broader intellectual or cultural context.
In Rome, Paolo Cortesi, best known for his polemic with Poliziano over
imitation and specifically Ciceronianism in Latin style, charts humanism’s
development according to the recovery of proper Ciceronian language in
his De hominibus doctis (ca. 1489).51 Criticism of style also drives the De lati-
nae linguae reparatione (ca. 1489) of Marcantonio Sabellico, an important
teacher and historian in Venice who has largely been forgotten by modern
scholars.52 As opposed to Cortesi, however, Sabellico does not use Cicero as
his measuring stick, and he offers a different vision of humanism’s origins
and cultural significance.
Humanist accounts of humanism continue into the sixteenth century,
most (in)famously with Erasmus’ Ciceronianus (1528), yet another imitation
of Cicero’s Brutus and the first writing in the genre to get its author into
serious trouble. Erasmus reaped the whirlwind for his unrepentant critique
and sometimes downright mockery of too-zealous humanist imitators of
Cicero all over Europe but especially in Italy, and he spent the rest of his
life soothing egos and ruing the day he had ever published, much less

50 Bartolomeo Facio, De viris illustribus liber, ed. Laurentius Mehus (Florentiae: Ex typ. Joannis Pauli
Giovannelli, 1745) [facsimile reprint in Anita Di Stefano et al. (eds.), La storiografia umanistica.
Convegno internazionale di studi, Messina 22–25 ottobre 1987, 2 vols. in 3 (Messina, 1992), vol. II,
pp. 11–164].
51 Paolo Cortesi, De hominibus doctis, ed. Giacomo Ferraù (Palermo, 1979).
52 Marcantonio Sabellico, De latinae linguae reparatione, ed. Guglielmo Bottari (Messina, 1999),
hereafter referred to as Sabellico, DLLR.

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20 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
composed, his text.53 Other important contributions came in the form
of Pierio Valeriano’s dialogue De litteratorum infelicitate (ca. 1529), Paolo
Giovio’s dialogue De viris et feminis aetate nostra florentibus (1527) and
biographical collection Elogia virorum doctorum (1546), and Lilio Gregorio
Giraldi’s dialogue De poetis nostrorum temporum (1553).54
These sources have not been extensively used by historians of humanism,
though they have not been entirely neglected, either.55 Enlightenment
scholars like Apostolo Zeno and Lorenzo Mehus relied on them to recon-
struct the history of humanism and its literature, and, as mentioned above,
they were instrumental for Georg Voigt’s Wiederbelebung des classischen

53 See Betty I. Knot, “Introductory Note” to Ciceronianus, in Desiderius Erasmus, The Collected Works
of Erasmus, vol. XXVIII: Literary and Educational Writings 6, ed. A.H.T. Levi (Toronto, 1974–2006),
pp. 330–334.
54 These works are available in the following editions: Desiderius Erasmus, Dialogus ciceronianus,
ed. Pierre Mesnard, in Erasmus, Opera Omnia, ordinis primi tomus secundus (Amsterdam, 1971);
Pierio Valeriano, Pierio Valeriano on the Ill Fortune of Learned Men: A Renaissance Humanist and his
World, ed. and tr. Julia Haig Gaisser (Ann Arbor, 1999); Paolo Giovio, Notable Men and Women of
Our Time, ed. and tr. Kenneth Gouwens (Cambridge, Mass., 2013); Giovio, Gli elogi degli uomini
illustri, letterati, artisti, uomini d’arme, ed. Renzo Meregazzi (Rome, 1972); Lilio Gregorio Giraldi,
Due dialoghi sui poeti dei nostri tempi, ed. Claudia Pandolfi (Ferrara, 1999); and Giraldi, Modern
Poets, ed. and tr. John N. Grant (Cambridge, Mass., 2011).
In addition to the texts listed in these paragraphs, there are many kindred sources that, however,
do not pretend to offer global accounts of the humanist movement. Some are too briefly sketched,
such as the catalogue of humanists contained in Jacopo Foresti da Bergamo’s universal chronicle
Supplementum Chronicarum, on which see Achim Krümmel, Das “Supplementum Chronicarum” des
Augustinermönches Jacobus Philippus Foresti von Bergamo. Eine der ältesten Bilderchroniken und ihre
Wirkungsgeschichte (Herzberg, 1992). There are also works devoted to only one city instead of all
of Italy, e.g., Virgilio Zavarise’s poem commemorating the humanists of Verona, in Banterle, “Il
carme”; and the proem to Cristoforo Landino’s Comento sopra la Comedia, ed. Paolo Procaccioli
(Rome, 2001), which considers only Florentines (both works date to the second half of the fifteenth
century). Another fascinating source is the biographical collection (ca. 1492) of the Florentine
bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who, however, was not himself a humanist (although he surely
participated in the world of humanism): Vespasiano da Bisticci, Le Vite, ed. Aulo Greco, 2 vols.
(Florence, 1970–1976). Another source is Benedetto Accolti’s De praestantia virorum sui aevis. As
Robert Black argues, however, it was a rhetorical showpiece meant to impress its dedicatee, Lorenzo
de’ Medici, by sustaining an insincere and outlandish position, namely the superiority of modern
religion, arms, and philosophy over their ancient counterparts. See Robert Black, “Ancients and
Moderns in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and History in Accolti’s Dialogue on the Preeminence of Men
of his Own Time,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 43:1 (1982), pp. 3–32. Black has since somewhat
modified his view of the dialogue and the issue of Accolti’s sincerity, but its general interpretation
is still far from certain. See Black, “Benedetto Accolti: A Portrait,” in Celenza and Gowens (eds.),
Humanism and Creativity, pp. 61–83, at 74–82; for a different view of the dialogue, see D’Ascia,
“Coscienza della Rinascita,” pp. 13–15.
55 Until recently most such texts were not even available in modern editions. From Polenton to Giraldi,
only the works of Polenton himself, Giovio, and Erasmus were edited until about thirty years ago.
A satisfactory text of Giovio’s Elogia has still not been issued, though; see the “Nota al testo” of
the recent Italian translation: Paolo Giovio, Elogi degli uomini illustri, ed. Franco Minonzio, tr.
Andrea Guasparri and Franco Minonzio (Turin, 2006), pp. lxxxix–xcviii, at lxxxix–xcii. Even more
indicative of the neglect these sources have suffered is the fact that Cyriac’s Itinerarium and Facio’s
De viris illustribus are still available only in facsimile reprints of unreliable eighteenth-century

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Introduction 21
Alterthums.56 In the twentieth century, Eugenio Garin used Paolo Cortesi’s
De hominibus doctis to describe the literary ideas of the circle around
Pomponio Leto, and Michael Baxandall investigated Bartolomeo Facio’s
De viris illustribus as part of his larger treatment of the humanist criticism
of art.57 Furthermore, Biondo Flavio’s Italia illustrata has often been cited
as an important contemporary witness to the development and significance
of the humanist movement in the early Quattrocento.58 Finally, Erasmus’
Ciceronianus is a famous text and has received ample attention as part of the
cottage industry devoted to its author.59 Despite such studies, these texts
have rarely been considered as a unit with regard to their central purpose –
to portray humanism and to illustrate its larger cultural meaning – and
they have never been studied systematically to deepen our understanding
of humanism, much less of the humanists’ own understanding of
56 Zeno used Cortesi’s De hominibus doctis in his Dissertazioni Vossiane (Venice, 1752–1753) [mentioned
in Maria Teresa Graziosi, “Introduzione,” in Paolo Cortesi, De hominibus doctis dialogus (Rome,
1973), pp. vii–xxxii, at xxxii] and Sabellico’s De latinae linguae reparatione in his Degl’istorici delle cose
veneziane, i quali hanno scritto per pubblico decreto (Venice, 1718–1722) (mentioned in Guglielmo
Bottari, “Introduzione,” in Sabellico, DLLR, pp. 7–67, at 7, 23, 66). See also de Nichilo, I viri
illustres, p. 25. Mehus edited Bartolomeo Facio’s De viris illustribus (Florence, 1745) and Cyriac of
Ancona’s Itinerarium (Florence, 1742), and his conviction of their usefulness for writing a history
of humanism (which he never completed) emerges from his respective letters to the reader.
57 Eugenio Garin, “La letteratura degli umanisti,” in E. Cecchi and N. Sapegno (eds.), Storia della
letteratura italiana (Milan, 1965–1969), vol. III (1966), pp. 5–353, at 148 [cited in Giacomo Ferraù,
“Introduzione,” in Paolo Cortesi, De hominibus doctis (Palermo, 1979), p. 39]; Michael Baxandall,
“Bartholomeus Facius on Painting: A Fifteenth-Century Manuscript of the De viris illustribus,”
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27 (1964), pp. 90–107, at 90–97, later integrated
into Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of
Pictorial Composition, 1350–1450 (Oxford, 1971), pp. 97–111.
58 Bibliography available in Gabriella Albanese, “Mehrsprachigkeit und Literaturgeschichte im Renais-
sancehumanismus,” in Christiane Maass and Annett Volmer (eds.), Mehrsprachigkeit in der Renais-
sance (Heidelberg, 2005), pp. 23–56, at 24–25, n. 5, who notes, however, that the relevant passage’s
“Bedeutung bislang noch nicht adäquat gewürdigt wurde” (p. 24). To Albanese’s citations should
be added Ottavio Clavuot, “Flavio Biondos Italia illustrata: Porträt und historisch-geographische
Legitimation der humanistischen Elite Italiens,” in Johannes Helmrath, Ulrich Muhlack, and Gerrit
Walther (eds.), Diffusion des Humanismus: Studien zur nationalen Geschichtsschreibung europäischer
Humanisten (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 55–76.
59 E.g., Luca D’Ascia, Erasmo e l’Umanesimo romano (Florence, 1991); G.W. Pigman III, “Imitation
and the Renaissance Sense of the Past: The Reception of Erasmus’ Ciceronianus,” Journal of Medieval
and Renaissance Studies, 9 (1979), pp. 155–177; and H.C. Gotoff, “Cicero vs. Ciceronianism in the
Ciceronianus,” Illinois Classical Studies, 5 (1980), pp. 163–173.
60 Nevertheless, they have several times been recognized as a valuable corpus for doing just that. In
their introductions and notes to Paolo Cortesi’s De hominibus doctis and Marcantonio Sabellico’s De
latinae linguae reparatione, Giacomo Ferraù and Guglielmo Bottari, respectively, have given atten-
tion to humanist accounts of humanism, mentioning or briefly describing many of the works listed
above and comparing them to the texts whose editions they crafted. Neither, however, makes any
attempt at synthesis. Similarly, Konrad Krautter has placed Sabellico’s De latinae linguae reparatione
in the same tradition, which he understands more narrowly as the tradition of humanist literary
history, and has mentioned the desirability of a close comparison with Cortesi’s text – a study
which has not yet been undertaken; see Konrad Krautter, “Marcus Antonius Sabellicus’ Dialog ‘De

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22 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Considering how truly undiscovered the country of humanist accounts
of humanism is, it has seemed appropriate not to try to survey the whole vast
landscape of this literature in a pioneering study but rather to take as deep
a view as possible within a logically coherent and historically meaningful
panorama. This study will therefore be confined to the more comprehensive
accounts from the fifteenth century, from Manetti to Sabellico. The reasons
for this have mostly to do with developments within humanism, but
also partly with the nature of the sources and partly with the history of
scholarship. Regarding the starting point, as discussed above, sources of this
kind do not appear until the 1430s, and even the texts by Sicco Polenton,
Lapo da Castiglionchio, and Cyriac of Ancona lack the comprehensiveness
necessary for sustained and relevant comparison with those of Manetti,
Piccolomini, Biondo, and so on. The moment of self-awareness crystallized
in these latter authors’ works provides a logical first bookend.
Moving to the other chronological terminus, the end of the fifteenth
century makes a natural boundary for the present study, as the changes that
took place during the sixteenth century make it a separate period worthy of
study in its own right. First, that is when humanism ceased to be a distinctly
Italian phenomenon. Of course, non-Italians, especially Greeks, played a
major role in humanism throughout the Quattrocento. But the Greeks
generally adapted themselves to the needs of their Italian students, and the
inspiration, sources, and training of northern humanists were primarily Ital-
ian. By the Cinquecento many leaders of the movement were based north of
the Alps, and from the 1490s on humanist grammatical training was firmly
planted in schools outside Italy. The majority of the movement’s important
figures were non-Italians like Erasmus, Thomas More, Guillaume Budé,
and Philipp Melanchthon, and the dissemination of humanist writings
had undergone a major change: it was now based in international print-
ing centers like Venice and Paris, and later Basel and Lyon. The name
of Melanchthon calls to mind a larger historical development that also

latinae linguae reparatione’: Bemerkungen zur Struktur humanistischer Literaturgeschichtsschrei-

bung,” in P. Tuynman, G.C. Kuiper, and E. Keßler (eds.), Acta conventus neo-latini amstelodamensis:
Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Neo-Latin Studies, Amsterdam 19–24 August 1973
(Munich, 1979), pp. 635–646, esp. 635 and 641. These sources have also formed the basis for related
studies in Renaissance culture. In the field of literary criticism, for example, M.L. McLaughlin has
used many of them to assemble a theretofore missing history of the criticism of Latin literature in
the Quattrocento; see McLaughlin, “Histories of Literature in the Quattrocento”; and McLaughlin,
“Humanist Criticism of Latin and Vernacular Prose,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism
(Cambridge, 1989–), vol. 2: The Middle Ages, eds. Alastair Minnis and Ian Johnson, pp. 648–665.
And more recently, these texts have provided the bulk of the evidence for Gabriella Albanese’s study
of multilingualism in the Renaissance; see Albanese, “Mehrsprachigkeit.”

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Introduction 23
changed the nature of humanism: the Reformation. The vicissitudes of
confessionalization, the Inquisition, and the Index turned humanism in
different directions, on the one hand harnessing it to the needs of Protes-
tant education, on the other reshaping it by enforcing stricter standards of
orthodoxy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was a linguistic
shift. The Quattrocento is for all intents and purposes a Latin century in
Italy.61 The ennobling of the vernacular that began with Dante was largely
ignored in humanist culture and would not gain strength again until the age
of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, and it would not be the dominant
literary language until the sixteenth century.62 By limiting ourselves to the
major sources of the fifteenth century we can investigate more profoundly
the phenomenon of pre-Reformation, Latinate, Italian humanism.
Finally, a focus on the fifteenth century is desirable in light of this study’s
underlying motivation, namely to supply a neglected point of view from
which to re-evaluate our understanding of the nature of humanism. The
Baron thesis relies on events and writings from the turn of the century.
Kristeller and Garin parted ways especially over the philosophical status
of much fifteenth-century literature. The humanist educational treatises
span from 1403 to the end of the 1450s. The lion’s share of the evidence for
the institutional and professional meaning of the studia humanitatis also
comes from the Quattrocento, as is the case with the sources adduced by
Hanna Gray in her critique of Kristeller. Witt’s view, admittedly, is more
firmly entrenched in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but it is just
as decisively shaped by developments in the fifteenth. This is the period in
which the major interpretations of and debates over humanism are most
securely anchored, so this is where it will be most profitable to hear what
the humanists themselves have to say.
∗ ∗ ∗
Chapter 1 considers together Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s and Bartolomeo
Facio’s De viris illustribus and Biondo Flavio’s Italia illustrata, as all three

61 A secolo senza poesia, according to a view that discounts humanist Latin literature. See Letizia A.
Panizza, “The Quattrocento,” in Peter Brand and Lino Pertile (eds.), The Cambridge History of
Italian Literature (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 129–177, at 131; and Martin McLaughlin, “Latin and
Vernacular from Dante to the Age of Lorenzo (1321–c. 1500),” in The Cambridge History of Literary
Criticism, vol. 2, pp. 612–625, esp. at 625: “it must be remembered that the defence of the volgare
in the Quattrocento was proclaimed by only a few lone voices in a generally hostile environment.”
62 See Angelo Mazzocco, Linguistic Theories in Dante and the Humanists: Studies of Language and
Intellectual History in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Italy (Leiden, 1993). But cf. also Mazzocco,
“Kristeller and the Italian Vernacular,” in Monfasani (ed.), Kristeller Reconsidered, pp. 163–181, for
a summary and review of Kristeller’s important modification of this view.

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24 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
texts are thematically related and come from roughly the same period.
They give a general impression from the 1440s and 1450s of humanism as
a movement for the resuscitation of classical, especially Ciceronian, Latin,
and the latter two sources also emphasize a more general interest in the arts
and culture of classical antiquity. They depict a period of wonder, discovery,
recovery of the ancient literary past, and they convey the excitement of
individuals who know that they are experiencing (the flourishing of ) a
revolutionary cultural undertaking in its prime. This chapter provides a
kind of baseline, a standard of comparison for other authors and, in light
of that comparison, a description of the basic meaning humanism had for
a broad group of individuals across Italy in the fifteenth century.
Chapter 2 focuses on Giannozzo Manetti’s writings. Although two of
them chronologically predate the works of Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio,
their significance will appear more clearly after the discussions of the
first chapter. Manetti’s writings give special insight into the peculiar way
Florentines viewed humanism – a conception that, in light of the other
authors considered, turns out not to be as representative of broader trends
as the last century of scholarship has led us to expect. Manetti significantly
broadens the meaning of the term studia humanitatis with respect to the
previous authors. To the basic components of Latinity and reverence for
antiquity they describe he adds vernacular poetry, a concern for spirituality,
and the striving for Christian virtue. Furthermore, he blurs the boundaries
between humanism and scholasticism to depict an age of general cultural
flourishing. But the most striking aspect of Manetti’s humanism is that
it is a setting for a kind of lay monasticism, in which a combination of
self-abnegation and the study of Latin literature leads to the beatissima vita.
Chapters 3 and 4 deal respectively with Paolo Cortesi’s De hominibus
doctis and Marcantonio Sabellico’s De latinae linguae reparatione, both of
which date to the end of the 1480s. Both authors enunciate a triumphant
narrative for humanism, portraying their predecessors, as Cicero does in
his Brutus, as evolutionary stages on the way to the perfection of their own
day. For both of them, perfection equals the restoration of classical Latin
In Chapter 3 we shall see how Cortesi views humanism as the continua-
tion of an uninterrupted tradition, one that had moved to Greece with the
fall of the Western Empire, but now, with the fall of the Eastern Empire
to the Ottomans, returned to its home in Italy. Its central project was
to restore Latinity to its one-time greatness and purity in Cicero, which
Cortesi intimates has happened in Rome in his own day, and for which
this very dialogue is perhaps intended as the first sure proof.

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Introduction 25
Chapter 4 shows how Sabellico, on the other hand, conceives of human-
ism as a purely homegrown, Italian phenomenon. Like Cortesi he puts the
restoration of good Latin style squarely in the middle of the movement, but
he considers more authors than Cicero to be worthy of imitation. One of
the most interesting aspects of his work is its sophisticated understanding
of the mechanisms of cultural and intellectual change, both in the process
of Latin’s renewal and in the structures necessary to cement it. He pays
special attention to the new technology of printing and especially to the
flourishing of philology and textual criticism, which he sees as the guar-
antors of humanism’s success. As these topics suggest, to a certain extent
Sabellico takes a Venetian point of view.
The object of Chapter 5, finally, is to collate, compare, and contrast
the various views of humanism investigated in the previous chapters, and
thereby to arrive, to the extent possible, at a synthesis of humanist self-
conception in fifteenth-century Italy. The idea is not to take a lowest-
common-denominator approach, resting complacent after having found a
few mundane things that everyone has in common, like beards on Antonine
emperors. My object is to home in on shared traits that the humanists
themselves identify as important, as central to their identity as humanists.
Furthermore, our line of sight will mainly be trained not down but up: at
the cherished goals and ideals the humanists enunciate, and at the activities
and structures in everyday life they thought would earn them fame in the
great humanist beyond.
When reading these accounts of humanism, we cannot help but be
amazed at how greatly they differ from most reigning scholarly interpreta-
tions. For when humanists set to recording their own history, they did not
describe humanism as a set of institutional disciplines, a political ideology,
an activist mentality, a philosophy of life, or a vision of man. They did
not describe it as an educational ethos, nor did they necessarily equate it
with virtue. On the contrary, at heart it was for them something much
more basic, simple, and in our view perhaps unexciting: a linguistic enter-
prise, its medium Latin, its object eloquence. The primary immediate goal
humanists enunciated was the restoration of classical Latin style and the
banishment of medieval lexical, grammatical, and syntactical practices.
This sounds remarkably similar to what Hanna Gray told us about
humanism a little over fifty years ago. Yet there are very important differ-
ences between Gray’s view and the one reconstructed here, and grasping
them will help us to understand better what it is the humanists thought
they were doing. Gray enunciated her theory of humanism as “the pursuit
of eloquence” primarily to explain the humanist critique of scholasticism

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26 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
and to elucidate the nature of humanist work in the realm of philosophy.
As she writes,
True eloquence, according to the humanists, could arise only out of a
harmonious union between wisdom and style; its aim was to guide men
toward virtue and worthwhile goals, not to mislead them for vicious or
trivial purposes. It was this conception of eloquence which the humanists
placed in opposition to scholastic philosophy.63

The alternative they proposed was no philosophical system or program

in its own right but rather a rhetorical method that, by playing on the
strings of the will while simultaneously pulling on those of the intellect,
was more apt to lead their audience to live a good life.64 The examples
Gray gives in the works of Pico, Ermolao Barbaro, Melanchthon, Valla, and
Erasmus are all to her significant point, which was a helpful corrective to
Kristeller, but that point is only tangentially related to the view of eloquence
that, according to our authors, broadly informed humanist identity. First,
they never mention wisdom, not even the Catonian commonplace that
the rhetorician is the good man speaking well (although they doubtless
believed it).65 Second, they do not claim that eloquence or rhetoric is a
mode of philosophizing. Accordingly, Pico and Barbaro do not loom large
in their accounts, and Valla, albeit praised for his Elegantiae and teaching of
Latin, is not memorialized for his ideas. Finally, although our authors did
not doubt that eloquence had the persuasive power Gray describes, they
promoted it in contradistinction not to arid scholastic philosophy, which,
as we shall see in Chapter 2, could even be brought within the humanist
fold, but rather to barbaric medieval style in any and all fields of learning
and genres of literature. Indeed, philosophy, be it moral or natural, is only
one, and hardly the most important, of the many mansions of the word in
need of renovation.
The self-conception evinced by our humanist authors manifests the
greatest similarities with the theory that humanism was a stylistic ideal,
elaborated most clearly and thoroughly by Ronald Witt. In a sense, this
study can be thought of as taking up where Witt left off. For he ended

63 Gray, “Renaissance Humanism: The Pursuit of Eloquence,” pp. 498–499.

64 See ibid., esp. pp. 500–505. See also the related discussions in Keßler, “Renaissance Humanism”;
and above all in Salvatore Camporeale’s scholarship on Lorenzo Valla and the relationship between
rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. For a summa of Camporeale’s thought, see Camporeale, Chris-
tianity, Latinity, and Culture: Two Studies on Lorenzo Valla, eds. Patrick Baker and Christopher S.
Celenza, tr. Patrick Baker (Leiden, 2014).
65 Cato the Elder’s view of the vir bonus, dicendi peritus is recorded in Quintilian, Institutio oratoria,
12, 1, 1.

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Introduction 27
his seminal research into the origins and nature of humanism with the
figure of Leonardo Bruni, and it is precisely with Bruni that the accounts
considered here tend to start. Thus one of the upshots of this study is to
show that the yearning for classical eloquence was not only an impetus to
humanism but also that it persisted as the ethos of humanism throughout
the fifteenth century.
As the sources examined here consistently imply, argue, or outright
assert, this stylistic ideal turns out to be the root of the affinity humanists
had for ancient culture in general. That is, it is the Latin language and
literature of Roman antiquity that endowed the rest of classical culture
with special meaning for the humanists. Thus, they could be attracted
to ancient art and architecture, military strategy, political organization, or
philosophy, but the urgency they felt in connection with these things, their
desire to appropriate and possess them, ultimately stemmed from their
passion for ancient language. It bears repeating that this love was directed
almost exclusively at classical Latin. As the distinct linguistic hierarchy
established in the texts shows, Latin towers above the rest, Greek occupies
a distant second place (and is valued mostly as a handmaiden to Latin),
while other ancient languages like Hebrew are barely perceptible at the
bottom; the vernacular, in contrast, is largely portrayed as unimportant or
even as an ignoble competitor. To walk in the footsteps of the ancients
meant first and foremost to write Latin like them, or else to contribute to
the revival of their language through teaching. These were the marks of a
(great) humanist.
Yet the sources do more than give voice to a stylistic ideal. They pro-
claim a cultural paradigm in which the eloquence of bonae litterae has deep,
wide, and lasting civilizational consequences. As they testify, the pursuit
of eloquence was underlain by profound assumptions about human and
cultural excellence, and it was motivated by a desire to equal the perceived
greatness of classical, especially Roman antiquity. Our authors enunciate
various, overlapping views of what that means and how it should hap-
pen, but all agree about the connection, if not the identity, between the
language of antiquity and its preeminence, as well as about the imper-
ative of re-establishing both in their own day. For some the humanist
project amounted to a renewal of a backward and barbarous Italy, for oth-
ers it was the path to personal moral perfection. Others, in turn, equated
humanism with the fulfillment of individual and collective intellectual
potential, whereas others still saw it as a vehicle for Italian cultural coher-
ence and identity, and thus perhaps to a reversal of the peninsula’s political

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28 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Beyond describing humanism as an abstract ideal and a paradigm for cul-
tural flourishing, the sources also portray it as a community of individuals,
a coherent group held together by shared personal characteristics, activities,
rules of behavior, notions of honor, criteria for inclusion and exclusion,
and finally by a sense of belonging to an elite cadre with a distinct history,
a clear goal, and a common conviction of the inherent nobility of Latin.
Humanism emerges as a widespread movement, not anchored to any one
center or clique but diffused in many of Italy’s most important cities. This
movement was understood to be a distinct cultural entity or pursuit, more
or less separate from others like law or medicine or theology. It is gen-
erally portrayed as superior to these pursuits, and it is even celebrated as
the hallmark of the Renaissance as a whole, the premier manifestation of
the new classical orientation of the arts in Italy. Nevertheless, we must be
careful when comparing humanism to law or medicine, for none of our
authors identifies humanism as either a professional career (like doctor or
lawyer) or a defined program of study (like law or medicine), nor does any
of them strictly identify it with the five disciplines of the studia humanitatis
(although the term is used in a general way). For them, being a humanist
consisted rather in producing eloquent Latin literature, helping others to
do so by teaching, and by competing with others for distinction in these
pursuits. It also required, in order to belong to the truly elite group of
the illustrious, that one adhere to norms of sociability, and more impor-
tantly that one be a man and an Italian, or at least a Byzantine émigré;
the inscription above the portal to the higher realms of humanism read
“no women or barbari allowed.” The object of the authors examined in
this study was to celebrate the achievements of the greatest humanists, and
from their writings emerges a core group of viri illustres – what Johannes
Helmrath has dubbed the humanist corona66 – that remains remarkably
stable throughout the fifteenth century. This group endowed the rest of
the humanists with a sense of common history, identity, and orientation.
It is their example that the up-and-coming follow, to their reputation and
glory they hope to attain.
What is the import of these findings for the fundamental debate in
the field, still best encapsulated by the distinct positions of Kristeller and
Garin? First, I hope to offer a corrective to what must be recognized as the

66 Johannes Helmrath, “Streitkultur. Die ‘Invektive’ bei den italienischen Humanisten,” in Marc
Laureys and Roswitha Simons (eds.), Die Kunst des Streitens. Inszenierung, Formen und Funktionen
öffentlichen Streits in historischer Perspektive (Göttingen, 2010), pp. 259–293, at 264–265. See also
Harald Müller, Habit und Habitus. Mönche und Humanisten im Gespräch (Tübingen, 2006), esp.
pp. 55–78.

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Introduction 29
myopia of the Kristeller thesis. As noted above, Kristeller was strong on
what, weak on why. Thus, regardless of how precisely he described various
aspects of humanism, by failing to provide a convincing rationale for it
his vision of the whole remains essentially distorted. Emblematic is the
Iter Italicum.67 In the process of surveying an unprecedented number of
humanistic manuscripts, Kristeller amassed a body of evidence whose enor-
mousness cannot be convincingly accounted for by the professional and
disciplinary motives he ascribed in the rest of his scholarship to the codices’
authors, scribes, owners, and commissioners. Once we grasp the ethos that
informed humanism, however, and especially the humanists’ belief in the
transformative power, in the civilizational potential, of eloquence, we can
immediately make sense of these seven large volumes of tiny print arranged
in double columns: they become the embodiment not of thousands of pay-
checks or courses of study but of a combined commitment to the Good
Life of bonae litterae. They are a testament to the vocation of humanism.
If focusing on the ethos expressed by the humanists supplements the
Kristeller thesis with missing values and ideas, on the other it tempers
the idealism of Garin’s interpretation. Garin applied to humanism meta-
or trans-historical ideals, thereby explaining it as a stage in the history of
philosophy and of human mental evolution across the ages. To be sure, he
grounded his interpretation in relevant primary sources, but his selection
of these sources can be tendentious, and at decisive moments his evidence
is disproportionately Florentine. What my research suggests is that, despite
Garin’s sensitivity to the grand cultural importance humanists had of
themselves and their enterprise, the ideals he latched onto – the awakening
of the human mind through a dialogue with the ancients, or the desire
to construct a perfect civic community – were not representative of the
humanist movement at large. This does not necessarily mean that Garin’s
insights are invalid with regard to specific texts or on the philosophical plane
on which he posited them, but rather that they do not reflect how humanists
themselves broadly understood what they were doing, and thus that they
are less helpful for understanding humanism historically. If Kristeller’s
mistake was to ignore the content of humanist thought, one could say
that Garin erred by giving greater attention to specific content than to
the general form. That is, he underestimated the extent to which the
form itself of good letters was what mattered most to humanists – form

67 Paul Oskar Kristeller, Iter Italicum: A Finding List of Uncatalogued or Incompletely Catalogued
Humanistic Manuscripts of the Renaissance in Italian and Other Libraries, 7 vols. in 10 (London and
Leiden, 1963–1997).

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30 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
not in a mere aesthetic sense, but as the artful, perfected expression of
the human mind, an expression that was capable of effecting meaningful,
lasting cultural change, and that, in the eyes of humanists, was a sign that
such change might already have come. Thus humanism did constitute a
transformational period in human history, but not entirely or exactly as
Garin argued.
As should be obvious, this study will not topple these two schools of
thought, nor does it intend to do so. On the contrary, it will, if anything,
make Kristeller’s and Garin’s interpretations more meaningful by supplying
the deficiencies that significantly weaken them, as well as by showing how
they can be approached as complementary. Such reconciliation, however,
is not the primary motivation of this book. Instead its aim is to make
humanism more comprehensible in its own right: as a stylistic ideal, as a
paradigm for personal and cultural excellence, and as a movement made up
of a relatively small group of individuals, known to each other and to us,
whose powerful vision had an immeasurable impact on contemporaries and
posterity. When approached in this way, perhaps humanism will even rise
again as a central subject of Renaissance studies and of Western intellectual
history. Such is called for, at any rate, by the humanists’ own sense of the
value of humanism.
∗ ∗ ∗
Any study devoted to a reconsideration of the nature of humanism must
first confront a central terminological issue. As has long been known,
humanists did not actually call themselves “humanists” but instead
employed a wide variety of words such as oratores, poetae, and litterati.
Therefore the term “humanist” has long been embattled and is now
generally used only as a label of convenience by historians.68 To alleviate
some of the embarrassment, one of the aims of this study is to compile

68 The classic studies on the contemporary validity of the term “humanism” and its cognates are
Augusto Campana, “The Origin of the Word ‘Humanist,’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld
Institutes, 9 (1946), pp. 60–73; Paul Oskar Kristeller, “Humanism and Scholasticism in the Italian
Renaissance,” Byzantion, 17 (1944–1945), pp. 346–374, at 366 (reprinted in Renaissance Thought
and its Sources, pp. 85–105, at 99); and Vito R. Giustiniani, “Homo, humanus, and the Meaning
of Humanism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 46:2 (1985), pp. 167–195. A recent overview of
the meaning of the terms “humanist” and “humanism” is Jean-Louis Charlet, “De l’humaniste
à l’humanisme par les humanités: histoire de mots,” in Ladislaus Havas and Emericus Tegyey
(eds.), Hercules latinus: Acta colloquiorum minorum anno MMIV Aquis Sextiis, sequenti autem anno
Debrecini causa praeparandi grandis eius XIII conventus habitorum, quem Societatas Internationalis
Studiis Neolatinis Provehendis diebus 6–13 m. Aug. a. MMVI in Hungariae finibus instituet (Debrecen,
2006), pp. 29–39. See also Christopher S. Celenza, “Humanism and the Classical Tradition,” Annali
d’Italianistica, 26 (2008), pp. 25–49.

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Introduction 31
a lexicon of the terms humanists did use. In the meantime, we are stuck
with a word, “humanist,” that appears at best to be anachronistic: an
overly broad, retrospective application of a title (umanista) proper to the
educational context of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.69
But the word “humanist” has another defect as well, namely that it
admits all too easily of conflation with notions of vague human values
or humanitarianism, and for a time it was confused with the modern
philosophy of secular humanism – all errors that Paul Oskar Kristeller
was especially keen to dispel.70 In contrast, Kristeller forcefully and
vehemently argued that the humanitas in studia humanitatis has none of
these connotations but rather refers to the cultural and especially linguistic
refinement offered by the new learning of the Renaissance.71 Perhaps,
however, the problem is even greater. Perhaps it is our very terminological
confusion that is responsible, in the words of Ronald Witt, for “the nearly
total failure of modern scholars to consider important what the humanists
themselves considered the key to understanding their movement.”72 The
solution, I propose, is to take our bearings from the humanists themselves.
But who counts as a humanist? About whom should we investigate? Whom
should we interrogate? How can we identify humanists qualified to say
what humanism was if they did not consistently use a specialized term for
one another, thus tipping us off to who was a humanist and who was not?
This sounds like a thorny methodological problem, but actually there
has never been any major disagreement, either among modern scholars or
among the humanists themselves, as to who made up the core group of
the movement, figures like Leonardo Bruni, Antonio Beccadelli, Francesco
Filelfo, Lorenzo Valla, Niccolò Perotti, Pomponio Leto, Giovanni Pontano,
Angelo Poliziano, as well as all six of our authors. They knew who each
other were, were in communication and competition with one another,
and in the works to be investigated here certain of them even went through
a process of conscious self-reflection on the nature, status, and signifi-
cance of the entire group. There are disputes on the boundaries, as there
always are. Modern scholars will disagree about whether Nicholas of Cusa
was a humanist, for example, with Germans taking it for granted and

69 Campana, “The Origin of the Word ‘Humanist.’”

70 Kristeller, “The Humanist Movement,” which I have consulted in Renaissance Thought and its
Sources, pp. 21–32, at 21–23. Cf. Giustiniani, “Homo, humanus,” p. 187. On modern philosophies
of humanism, see ibid., pp. 174–183.
71 Cf. Benjamin Kohl, “The Changing Concept of the studia humanitatis in the Early Renaissance,”
Renaissance Studies, 6:2 (1992), pp. 185–202.
72 Witt, Footsteps, p. 506.

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32 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
most others scratching their heads. Kristeller and Garin parted ways pre-
cisely over the status of individuals like Ficino, Pico, Pomponazzi, Telesio,
and Bruno. The humanists themselves, as we shall see, disagreed about
Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, even about the “Renaissance man” Leon Bat-
tista Alberti. Rather than disorienting us, however, these disputes aid in
grasping the constitution of the humanist community by the very cri-
teria they adduce for inclusion and exclusion. Discussion and above all
disagreement about boundaries, definitions, and norms serves primarily
to reinforce, not to undermine them; indeed, it is essential for their very
So the humanist census-taker knows in which neighborhood to look,
but how do we know that we are knocking on the right doors? Or on
enough doors? Six is a small number, and readers will legitimately wonder
if the authors to be studied here are either too few or too idiosyncratic
to provide meaningful insight into the nature of such a multifaceted
movement as Renaissance humanism. Obviously we cannot be fully sure
whether our sample, so to speak, is representative, given the large number
of unpublished humanist texts and the manifold nature of all complex
historical groups, but we can be relatively certain that the self-conception
of humanism reconstructed here is representative of at least a significant,
and maybe even the preponderant, segment of the humanist movement.
As will become evident throughout the individual chapters, these accounts
of humanism are on the whole remarkably similar in their understanding
of the movement’s origins and mission. Furthermore, their authors were
active in different cities in Italy which just happened to be most of the
major centers of humanism: Manetti in Florence, Biondo and Cortesi in
Rome, Facio in Naples, and Sabellico in Venice. For his part, Piccolomini
provides us with testimony informed by a career that spanned all of Europe
and brought him into close contact with many of the temporal and intel-
lectual princes of the day. The geographical and temporal scope will thus be
as broad as possible within the parameters set. Moreover, nearly all of our
authors were generally recognized by their contemporaries as exemplary
humanists and had quite influential voices in their own time: Piccolomini,
the international diplomat and then the second humanist pope (as Pius
II); Biondo, a leading antiquarian and influential historian; Manetti,

73 Cf. Alois Hahn, “Transgression und Innovation,” in Werner Helmich, Helmut Meter, and Astrid
Poier-Bernhard (eds.), Poetologische Umbrüche. Romanistische Studien zu Ehren von Ulrich Schulz-
Buschhaus (Munich, 2002), pp. 452–465; Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method and
Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method, ed. Steven Lukes, tr. W.D. Halls (New York, 1982), ch. 3:
“Rules for the Distinction of the Normal from the Pathological,” esp. pp. 97–104.

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Introduction 33
considered by Vespasiano da Bisticci to be the greatest humanist of his
age; Cortesi, the new Roman Cicero and a successor to Pomponio Leto’s
school; Sabellico, the focal point of Venetian humanism at the turn of the
sixteenth century. Only Facio was a minor figure in his own time. Still, he
acted as official historiographer to Alfonso the Magnanimous in Naples,
earned the respect and esteem of greats like Antonio Beccadelli and Poggio
Bracciolini, and won the support of many all over Italy in a celebrated
dispute with Lorenzo Valla. On the other hand, Facio’s lesser stature might
actually endow him with greater significance: his is the closest we will get
to a bottom-up view of humanism. Is this study focused too much on
elites, then? There is always the danger of outliers, but I think it is less
acute when trying to grasp the essence of a cultural movement. For it is
in the nature of movements that they are led by charismatic captains at
the top, not foot-soldiers at the bottom.74 Thus when orienting himself,
Giovanni Umanista likely took his cues less from anonymous notaries and
grammar teachers than from the famous individuals he sought to imitate
and whose ranks he hoped to join, singular figures like Bruni or Poliziano,
Biondo or Piccolomini.
Thus I think this small corpus of works indeed promises a broadly rep-
resentative view, certainly one broad enough to get us seriously started in
re-evaluating the nature of Italian Renaissance humanism. I stress “get-
ting started.” For the self-conception these sources embody cannot simply
stand alone as a dazzling new definition, one that will outshine the inter-
pretations that now hold sway or that will spread illumination over all the
lingering questions. Self-understanding is not necessarily self-knowledge.
And even if it were, it would have very limited meaning for us unless
informed by scholarship that approaches humanism differently, consider-
ing, for example, its social context or penetrating to the deeper meanings
of its philosophical literature. The inner narrative of historical actors will
never line up with the one the historian constructs, if only because those
narratives start and end at different places and aim at answering different
questions.75 Rather, the usefulness of reconstructing the humanists’ self-
conception lies in recovering a neglected perspective, and moreover one
grounded in the period in question, from which to reconsider, challenge,
problematize, at times even to overturn – but also to elucidate – what we

74 Cf. Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge,
Mass., 1998), esp. pp. 1–53.
75 Cf. Jonathan Gilmore, The Life of a Style: Beginnings and Endings in the Narrative History of Art
(Ithaca, 2000), pp. 30–31. This study is an excellent guide to thinking about the inner workings,
evolution, beginning, and ending of cultural and artistic movements.

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34 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
(think we) already know (and will learn in the future) about humanism.
The idea is to glimpse the highly subjective world that the humanists
saw when they regarded themselves in the cultural mirror. This subjective
sense of self, which corresponds perfectly to no world except the interior
dimensions of the mind, is the most essential trait to capture. For who we
think we are is more important, to us at any rate, than who we actually
are (however that might be determined) or how we are perceived by others
(although that perception does have an influence). Our self-image, our
self-conception, is the cornerstone of our identity. A communist who does
not actually achieve the community of goods is still a communist, just as
a faltering monk may still seek the kingdom of heaven. When it comes
to identity, success in an endeavor, unswerving fealty to ideals in practice,
is secondary if not immaterial; one is who one projects oneself to be in
one’s own mind. Identity is perhaps the only aspect of human life entirely
defined by so-called actors’ categories.
Reconstructing this identity will supply a necessary term that has long
been missing from the humanist equation, one that provides humanism
with a rationale and thus endows it with greater intelligibility in itself
as well as in the general context of the Renaissance. Authoritative voices
have doubted the very possibility of finding a consistent ethos within
humanism. Kristeller argued against searching for one within the realm of
philosophy, noting dryly, “any particular statement gleaned from the work
of a humanist may be countered by contrary assertions in the writings of
contemporary authors or even of the same author.”76 More recently, Robert
Black has stressed the difficulties inherent in identifying enduring, universal
aims of any kind that might characterize Renaissance humanism.77 Earlier,
in what has become the standard overview of humanism in English, he
took a sober, down-to-earth approach to crafting a definition, concluding:
“a humanist is . . . someone who acts like other humanists; this is how
contemporaries would have identified humanists, and such a definition,
stripped of historicist paraphernalia, will work equally well for us.”78 But
what does it mean to act like a humanist, to do humanism? Does it simply
mean to be employed like other humanists, to write Latin like they did, to

76 Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and its Sources, p. 32 (from the essay “The Humanist Movement,”
at end). Quoted in Gouwens, “Perceiving the Past,” pp. 58–59, n. 11; Gouwens’ general discussion
is relevant.
77 Robert Black, “The Renaissance and the Middle Ages: Chronologies, Ideologies, Geographies,” in
Alexander Lee, Pit Péporté, and Harry Schnitker (eds.), Renaissance? Perceptions of Continuity and
Discontinuity in Europe, c.1300–c.1500 (Leiden, 2010), pp. 27–44, esp. 27–29.
78 Black, “Humanism,” p. 252.

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Introduction 35
have a similar education? Or did it entail something more sublime as well?
Surely it comprehended being motivated by similar ideals, sharing a sense
of belonging to a specific cultural undertaking. Acting like a humanist did
not only mean engaging in behavior typical of humanists; it also meant
acting on a set of shared assumptions, assumptions about the value of
what one was doing and its place in the culture of the age and in human
history. This ethos may be difficult to find. It may be less strictly defined
or less philosophical than we might like. It may look so different from
what we expect that we do not recognize it as such. I believe it has been
lurking in places where most scholars have not yet deigned to look. But
find it we must, for without accounting for this component, any definition
of humanism will be incomplete if not distorting. To say that humanists
worked in chanceries, wrote classicizing Latin, espoused a certain form
of education, convinced elites of the normative value of antiquity – but
without saying why they thought any of this was worth doing – would be
like minutely describing the Catholic Eucharist without mentioning that
the priest considers it “the source and summit of the Christian life”: the
worship of God and the refreshment of the human soul would appear as an
inexplicably intricate, deeply unsatisfying alimentary ritual.79 If this study
aspires to anything, it is to breathe some of the spirit back into the body,
to assist in re-endowing the creature of Italian Renaissance humanism with
∗ ∗ ∗
As a final note, I would like to mention two important studies of obvious
relevance to the themes of this book that appeared too late to be taken into
consideration: Brian Maxson’s monograph The Humanist World of Renais-
sance Florence, and Clémence Revest’s article “La naissance de l’humanisme
comme mouvement au tournant du XVe siècle.”80 Both approach human-
ism from a sociological standpoint and thus form a contrast (but also a
complement) to my own work. The reader is enthusiastically referred to
these insightful studies.

79 Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae 1324 (pars secunda, sectio secunda, caput primum, articulus 3:
“sacramentum eucharistiae”): “fons et culmen vitae ecclesialis.”
80 Brian Maxson, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, 2014); Clémence Revest,
“La naissance de l’humanisme comme mouvement au tournant du XVe siècle,” Annales: Histoire,
Sciences sociales, 68:3 (2013), 665–696.

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ch a p ter 1

The renaissance of eloquence

Group identity is born in retrospect. Founders of cultural movements

are generally ignorant of their status and are assigned it posthumously.
Only after a certain momentum has been built up, and the giants who
are perceived to have set things going are dying or departed, does an
inheriting generation look back with longing, scrambling to assemble the
elements of the past that might account for its own behavior, beliefs, and
budding esprit de corps. The structures erected can be fanciful, buttressed
as much by myth as by fact, but they are no less real on that account.
That is, although in part historically dubious, they are constitutive of a
group identity that is nevertheless authentic, that provides the individuals
it animates with meaningful explanations and powerful motives for action.
Something along these lines was happening in Italy in the fourth and
fifth decades of the fifteenth century. This is the period when humanists
began not only to “do” humanism, so to speak, but also to meditate on it.
They sought to identify their own essential characteristics, precisely define
their goals and higher aspirations, and investigate their particular history
and place within a broader realm of culture and learning, paying special
attention to those individuals they considered to be the founders of their
movement, the ones responsible for making what they did a recognizable
activity in its own right, separate from, and in certain cases in competition
with, other activities. This contemplation was motivated at least in part
by the passing of a great generation of forebears. In his funeral oration for
Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444), Poggio Bracciolini complained of the cruelty of
fate that had deprived him of all those to whom he had been bound most
dearly and tenderly by his youthful studia litterarum:

We lost first Coluccio Salutati, the common father of all learned men
and himself most humane and learned, then Roberto de’ Rossi and Niccolò
Niccoli, men outstanding in every kind of literature and especially the studia
humanitatis, then Lorenzo de Medici [the Elder], famous for his virtue, and


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The renaissance of eloquence 37
many other close friends as well. Only this one associate of our old studies
remained [i.e., Bruni], this one member of our once renascent academy, so
to speak, with whom I was accustomed to discuss not only our studies but
also my thoughts, always bringing our conversations back to the happiness
of our earlier days, when all those whom I have just mentioned were still

The sense of loss expressed by Poggio is personal, the lament of an old

man abandoned by his friends on the final leg of life’s journey. For the
next generation of humanists, though, the deaths of Salutati, Niccoli,
Bruni, and others marked a turning point, an occasion for transforming
the very significance of that loss. What for Poggio was the closing of an
important but socially and personally circumscribed cultural moment, his
descendents framed as the point at which a widespread movement, to which
they themselves adhered, entered its maturity. They did not merely bury
the dead; they erected a monument and with it a group identity, setting
the stage for an independent, geographically diffused cultural movement
(theoretically) open to anyone willing to invest in the ethos they channeled.
This chapter will focus on three such monuments from the 1440s and
1450s. Two are by individuals now considered to have been leading figures in
the humanist movement: Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini and Biondo Flavio.
The third is by an author of lesser stature, Bartolomeo Facio, but who
turns out to be the most revealing of the three sources on the subject of
humanist identity. When approaching these first self-conscious attempts to
take stock of humanism as a widespread movement, it would be reasonable
to expect them to reflect, or at least to take note of, cultural currents we
have become accustomed to associate intimately with early Quattrocento
humanism. For instance, they could promote a civic ideology, evince a
secular outlook, advertise a specific brand of education, rain invective on
cultural competitors in the world of scholasticism, or boast of the great
virtue to be found solely in the studia humanitatis. Yet at best only a
faint echo can be heard from these directions, and often nothing at all.

1 Poggio Bracciolini, Oratio funebris in obitu Leonardi Arretini, in Bruni, Epistolarum libri VIII, ed.
Hankins, vol. I, pp. cxvi–cxvii: “queri . . . deque fatorum injuria, quae me omnibus his privarunt,
quos mecum ab ineunte adolescentia litterarum studia summa caritate, et benivolentia devinxerunt.
Nam primo communem doctorum omnium parentem Colucium Salutatum humanissimum, ac
doctissimum virum, tum Robertum cognomento Rusum, deinde Nicolaum Nicolum, viros omni
litterarum genere, et humanitatis studiis praestantissimos, deinceps omni virtute virum celebrem
Laurentium de Medicis, pluresque alios summa mihi amicitia conjunctos eripuit nobis. Restabat hic
unus veterum studiorum, et quasi renascentis olim academiae socius, quocum non solum studia, sed
cogitationes quoque communicare solitus eram, revocans saepe sermones nostros ad illam prioris
aetatis nostrae jocunditatem, cum omnes hi viverent, quos modo nominavi.”

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38 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Instead, what we encounter, time and again, is something much more akin
to the stylistic ideal described by Ronald G. Witt.2 For all three authors
portray humanism primarily as the revival of classical, i.e., Ciceronian Latin
eloquence. Biondo and Facio extend their vision to include a broader revival
of the culture of antiquity, and Facio casts the renaissance of eloquence in
moral terms. A sense of recovery pervades all three authors, as does an idea
of the greatness of the times, an excitement about recent and emerging
achievements in the distinct realm of culture carved out by humanists.
∗ ∗ ∗
The first synthetic account of humanism to be considered is contained
in Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s (1405–1464) De viris illustribus, written
between 1445 and 1450.3 We could hardly begin with a more authoritative
voice. Of early Quattrocento figures, Aeneas Sylvius was one of the most
adept at releasing the potential for intellectual, social, economic, and polit-
ical advancement that was bound up in humanism. A law-school dropout
from an impoverished Sienese noble family, his mastery of Latin rhetoric
and of the proper forms of chancery and diplomatic communication made
him indispensable to several cardinals, anti-Pope Felix V, Emperor Freder-
ick III, and even to his erstwhile adversary, Pope Eugenius IV. His silver
tongue brought him further still. It made him an influential participant

2 Witt, Footsteps.
3 The bibliography on Piccolomini is immense. The foundational study remains Georg Voigt, Enea
Silvio de’ Piccolomini, als Papst Pius der Zweite, und sein Zeitalter, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1856–1863). For
more recent treatments, see at least R.J. Mitchell, The Laurels and the Tiara: Pope Pius II, 1458–
1464 (London, 1962); Eugenio Garin, Ritratti di umanisti (Florence, 1967), pp. 3–39; Enea Silvio
Piccolomini Papa Pio II. Atti del convegno per il V centenario della morte e altri scritti, ed. Domenico
Maffei (Siena, 1968); Gioacchino Paparelli, Enea Silvio Piccolomini: L’umanesimo sul soglio di Pietro
(Ravenna, 1978); Pio II e la cultura del suo tempo. Atti del I convegno internazionale – 1989, ed. Luisa
Rotondi Secchi Tarugi (Milan, 1991).
The most recent edition, and also the most complete and reliable, is Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini,
De viris illustribus, ed. Adrianus van Heck (Vatican City, 1991), hereafter referred to as Piccolomini,
DVI. On the state of the text see also Hermann Diener, “Fridericus dux Austriae Hernesti filius aus De
viris illustribus des Enea Silvio Piccolomini,” Römische Historische Mitteilungen, 28 (1986), pp. 185–
208. On DVI see Paolo Viti, “Osservazioni sul De viris aetate sua claris di Enea Silvio Piccolomini,”
in Pio II e la cultura del suo tempo, pp. 199–214. Viti (p. 202) notes that the autograph ms. (Biblioteca
Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 3887) of the DVI also contains letters signed “episcopus tergestinus,”
dated 1449 and 1450, and thus assigns it to this period, but Adrianus van Heck, “Ad lectorem,” in
Piccolomini, De viris illustribus, pp. v–xv, places the composition more broadly between 1445 and
1450. Diener (pp. 191–196) considers the issue of date at length on the basis of both internal and
external evidence; he places the drafting of the vita of Frederick III at the beginning of 1446 and
identifies November 26, 1449 as the terminus ante quem for the whole work. For a consideration
of the structure of Piccolomini’s DVI, see Viti, “Osservazioni,” pp. 202–204, and in greater detail
Sabine Schmolinsky, “Biographie und Zeitgeschichte bei Enea Silvio Piccolomini: Überlegungen
zum Texttyp von ‘De viris illustribus,’” Humanistica lovaniensia, 44 (1995), pp. 79–89.

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The renaissance of eloquence 39
at imperial diets and Church councils alike and eventually launched him
to the episcopacy and then the papacy itself. After Nicholas V (1447–1555,
born Tommaso Parentucelli) he was the second humanist to become pope,
at which point he assumed his second Virgilian name, Pius II (1458–1464).
Yet Piccolomini’s papacy, which is remembered most for ending in a failed
Crusade, is less important for his status as a humanist than are his many
literary works, which include histories, poetry, countless letters, a novel, a
lengthy memoir, an educational treatise, and the text to be discussed here,
the De viris illustribus.
In this work of collective biography, Piccolomini assembled the most
important personages of his time in politics and culture from all over
Europe: kings, queens, and princes, condottieri, popes, cardinals, bish-
ops, monks and friars, jurisconsults and men of letters. Although sizeable
and stylistically polished, the work seems nevertheless to have been left
unfinished.4 In his own opuscule of the same name, Bartolomeo Facio
claims that Piccolomini’s De viris illustribus was dedicated to Alfonso the
Magnanimous, which might suggest that it was at some point completed
and that the dedication copy has been lost.5 Whatever the case may be, the
literary work as it is extant today has no proem and no dedicatory letter,
and thus also no explicit explanation of its object.
As far as can be distilled from its contents, the central theme is the poli-
tics of the Church, of Italy, and of Europe in general.6 As the vast majority
of the individuals treated were men of action, it should be no surprise that
the intellectual component to their lives remains for the most part on the
margins of their biographies. It is considered as one of many aspects –
and hardly ever the most important – contributing to the composition of
their character. For example, Niccolò d’Este is reported to have loved liter-
ature (studia litterarum) and patronized its foremost representatives, even
employing the eminent schoolmaster Guarino Veronese and the Sicilian

4 See Van Heck, “Ad lectorem,” pp. vi–ix, and Schmolinksy, “Biographie und Zeitgeschichte,” pp. 82
and 86, who, however, disagree as to whether the beginning (Schmolinsky) or the end (Van Heck)
of the work is defective.
5 Assuming, that is, that the work Facio calls De egregiis dictis, ac factis clarorum hominum and says
was dedicated to Alfonso is indeed the same as the work that has come down to us under the title De
viris illustribus. See Facio, DVI, p. 26. See note 34 below, however, for a consideration that weakens
this hypothesis.
6 This pan-European vision might help to rehabilitate Piccolomini’s status as “Father of the Concept
of Europe,” recently called into question by Johannes Helmrath, “Enea Silvio Piccolomini (Pius
II.) – Ein Humanist als Vater des Europagedankens?,” in R. Hohls, I. Schröder, and H. Siegrist
(eds.), Europa und die Europäer. Quellen und Essays zur modernen europäischen Geschichte (Stuttgart,
2005), pp. 361–366.

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40 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
humanist Giovanni Aurispa as tutors to his sons.7 Such crumbs can be
gathered as they fall from Piccolomini’s table in order to reconstruct his
concept of humanism, but it must be recognized that they are not represen-
tative of the feast prepared.8 Aeneas Sylvius, although himself a leading –
if not the leading – humanist of his day, is here (as elsewhere) primarily
interested in politics. Nevertheless, one major humanist, Leonardo Bruni,9
is singled out for the honor of a full biography – a biography that quickly
turns into a brief history of humanism.
Piccolomini assigns Bruni the role of protagonist, if not of true founder,
of the renaissance of classical Latin. As he reports, Bruni distinguished him-
self as apostolic secretary to John XXIII and Martin V before taking charge
of the Florentine chancery. More importantly, “he wrote very elegantly,”10
putting his pen both to translations (of Aristotle, Plutarch, St. Basil, and
Xenophon) and to original compositions of all kinds, such as biographies,
orations, works of moral philosophy, histories, and dialogues.11 From these
works emerges the reason for Bruni’s great reputation and thus his inclusion
in Piccolomini’s work: “with his writing Bruni exceeded everyone . . . nor
has our age found his equal.”12
Somewhat surprising is the fact that, according to Piccolomini, Bruni
owed his famed eloquence not to his father figure, Coluccio Salutati,
but to his Greek teacher, the Byzantine scholar and diplomat Manuel
Chrysoloras.13 Citing from the beginning of the biography:

7 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 22.18–27.

8 Cf. Viti, “Osservazioni,” p. 205, who notes desultory references to the humanist activity of Francesco
Barbaro and Francesco Filelfo, as well as to Cosimo de’ Medici’s founding of the library in San
9 The bibliography on Bruni is quite large, although he still lacks a proper biography. As an ersatz
see the first eight essays in James Hankins, Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance,
2 vols. (Rome, 2003–2004), vol. I, pp. 9–239, along with The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni: Selected
Texts, trs. Gordon Griffiths, James Hankins, and David Thompson (Binghamton, NY, 1987) for a
biographical sketch (pp. 3–50) and an overview and contextualization of his writings (passim). See
also Cesare Vasoli, “Leonardo Bruni,” in DBI, vol. XIV (1972), pp. 618–633; and for a brief ritratto,
Lucia Gualdo Rosa, “Bruni, Leonardo (1370–1444),” in Colette Nativel (ed.), Centuriae Latinae.
Cent une figures humanistes de la Renaissance aux Lumières offertes à Jacques Chomarat (Geneva,
1997), pp. 1057–1062.
10 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 34: “scripsit hic admodum ornate.”
11 The “dialogues” mentioned are presumably the two dialogues that make up the Dialogi ad Petrum
Paulum Histrum but might also include the Isagogicon moralis disciplinae, which was written in
dialogue form.
12 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36: “omnes scribendo superavit Aretinus . . . nec etas nostra parem invenit.”
13 For Chrysoloras, see Riccardo Maisano and Antonio Rollo (eds.), Manuele Crisolora e il ritorno del
greco in Occidente. Atti del convegno internazionale: Napoli, 26–29 giugno 1997 (Naples, 2002); and
Mariarosa Cortesi, “Umanesimo greco,” in Lo spazio letterario del medioevo: 1. Il medioevo latino,
5 vols. (Rome, 1992–1998), vol. III, pp. 457–507.

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The renaissance of eloquence 41
He first studied literature under Salutati, who was then chancellor of Flo-
rence. And then he advanced further under Manuel Chrysoloras of Con-
stantinople, who . . . had come to Italy and reintroduced the ancient method
and Ciceronian style of writing. For Coluccio retained [in his style] certain
follies typical of his time. He was therefore surpassed by Leonardo, who in
some of his letters to Coluccio even warns him about his errors and exhorts
him to abandon the squalor of his age.14

At first sight it surely must seem strange that a Byzantine Greek was
responsible for reintroducing into Italy the ancient manner of writing
Latin, not to mention Ciceronian style. Such is especially the case in
light of the fact that Chrysoloras never gained a full command of Latin15
and that he certainly knew it less well when in Florence, one of his first
permanent residences in Italy. It was, however, a commonplace in fifteenth-
century humanism that only by learning Greek could one develop an
appropriate Latin style – an idea that goes back to Cicero himself.16 This
notion dovetailed, more importantly, with a broader humanist tradition
according to which Chrysoloras was the fountainhead of humanist Latin
eloquence. As Christine Smith has shown, Piccolomini joined Guarino
Veronese, Poggio Bracciolini, and others in voicing this communis opinio.17
Smith sees more than mere encomium at work here, arguing instead that
Chrysoloras provided the Italians with essential theoretical and conceptual
tools for the composition of Latin – a thesis that will be revisited in

14 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 34.2–10: “litteras sub Coluccio Pierio, qui tunc Florentinorum cancellarius erat,
edidicit. postea sub Manuele Chrisolora Constantinopolitano, qui . . . Italiam intraverat priscumque
modum scribendi ac ciceronianum morem induxerat, magis profecit. nam Coluccius ineptias
quasdam sui seculi retinebat; itaque superatus est a Leonardo, qui etiam in quibusdam epistolis ad
eum scribens suorum eum erratorum admonet suadetque, ut squalorem illum sui temporis deserat.”
Bruni had tried to save Salutati’s reputation from precisely this kind of attack by (unsuccessfully)
suppressing these letters from his epistolary. See James Hankins, “Notes on the Textual Tradition
of Leonardo Bruni’s Epistulae familiares,” in Hankins, Humanism and Platonism, vol. I, pp. 63–84,
at 72 [reprinted from Vincenzo Fera and Giacomo Ferraù (eds.), Filologia umanistica per Gianvito
Resta (Padua, 1997), vol. II, pp. 1023–1062].
15 So much is clear from Chrysoloras’ collaboration with Uberto Decembrio in translating Plato’s
Republic. Cf. James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1990), vol. I, p. 108.
16 James Hankins, “Lo studio del greco in occidente fra medioevo ed età moderna,” in Salvatore Settis
(ed.), I Greci: Storia Cultura Arte Società, vol. III: I Greci oltre la Grecia (Turin, 2001), pp. 1245–
1262, at 1252–1253 [reprinted in English in Hankins, Humanism and Platonism, vol. I, pp. 273–291].
On the study of Greek in the Renaissance, see Federica Ciccolella, Donati Graeci: Learning Greek
in the Renaissance (Leiden, 2009); and Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities,
pp. 99–121. Cicero’s view of Greek’s role in Latin eloquence is found in De oratore I, 4 and I, 34, 155.
17 Christine Smith, Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Eloquence,
1400–1470 (Oxford, 1992), pp. 133–135. Smith is wrong (p. 134), however, to attribute the same
opinion to Bruni on the basis of his Memoirs. There Bruni only discusses Chrysoloras’ role
in his Greek studies, not his acquisition of Latin eloquence. See Bruni, Memoirs, pp. 320–323
(pars. 24–26).

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42 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Chapter 3.18 For now, let it suffice to underline that, in Piccolomini’s view,
Bruni’s classical style was not born full-grown out of the head of Zeus, nor
much less from Salutati’s Latin, which is here described as defective, full of
errors (“follies”), and polluted by the “squalor of his age,” but instead from
Chrysoloras’ teaching.
Piccolomini then sets Bruni’s stylistic achievement within the context
of a short history of the Latin language, tracing its perfection, decline, and
rebirth in an arc that spans from Cicero to Bruni himself:

For literature, too, gives way to change, as one kind belongs to one age and
another to another. From its very founders, the Latin language developed
continually in the elegance of its expression and literary study up to the
time of Cicero, when it achieved its true fullness and could not possibly
have evolved further, since it was then at its apex. It remained there for
many years down to the likes of Jerome and Gregory [the Great], although
not without diminution, and thereafter it died out utterly. For after that
period no ornate writer of the language was to be found. Later, Francesco
Petrarca gave Latin a little luster, but it was Manuel who brought more light
to it, and he was followed by Leonardo.19

Piccolomini conceives of Latin historically and in terms of a natural pro-

cess of evolution and decline. Good Latin lasted from the time of Cicero
more or less to that of Gregory the Great, but then it died in the Middle
Ages. With Petrarch it began a slow and barely perceptible recovery, but it
was Chrysoloras and then Bruni who were responsible for its true resus-
citation. For Aeneas Sylvius, the best style of Latin was Ciceronian, and
thus the re-establishment of good Latin meant reascending to that ancient

18 See below, pp. 145–146.

19 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 34.11–20: “Patiuntur nempe et littere mutationem; nam alie sunt uno, alie alio
tempore. ab ipsis etenim lingue latine repertoribus ornatus dicendi et studia litterarum continuo
creverunt usque ad tempora Ciceronis, ubi vere plenitudinem acceperunt nec amplius crescere
potuerunt, cum jam essent in culmine. manserunt igitur postea per plures annos ac usque ad
Jeronimum atque Gregorium viguerunt, non tamen absque minutione, exin perierunt funditus;
nec enim post illa tempora qui ornate scripserit reperitur. post Franciscus Petrarcha aliquantulum
splendoris litteris dedit, sed Emanuel maiorem attulit lucem, quem secutus est Leonardus.” Aeneas
Sylvius’ source for the history of Latin literature might have been Bruni’s Vita del Petrarca. See
Leonardo Bruni, Opere letterarie e politiche, ed. Paolo Viti (Turin, 1996), pp. 537–557, at 554 (English
translation in The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni, pp. 85–100, at 97). Viti, “Osservazioni,” p. 209
notes that this vision of the history of Latin was “non nuova ma ormai comune . . . diffusa nella
tradizione umanistica.” He traces the drawing of its specific contours to Sicco Polenton’s Scriptorum
illustrium latinae linguae libri. For further considerations on this tradition and its origins ca. 1400
(but also somewhat in Boccaccio), see James Hankins, “Petrarch and the Canon of Neo-Latin
Literature,” Quaderni petrarcheschi, 17–18 (2007–2008), pp. 905–922.

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The renaissance of eloquence 43
Bruni led the climb – “for he was the most similar to Cicero”20 – but
he was followed by a team well equipped to reach the summit. Indeed,
the future pope dedicates half of the biography to these other humanists,
many of them Bruni’s personal friends, highlighting their contributions to
the rebirth of Ciceronian eloquence. The text is relatively short and will be
well worth considering in its entirety.
Niccolò Niccoli functioned as “arbiter of knowledge,” thanks to his
expertise in both Latin and Greek, his very great learning, and his excellent
judgment. At his death he left a priceless library.21 “Nevertheless he never
wrote or spoke in Latin,” and not only because he “distrusted his own
talent.” He was so used to criticizing others (verbally) that he feared the
criticism he might receive in return. He was indeed so abusive that he even
managed to alienate his one-time best friend, Bruni. Niccoli’s fastidiousness
was legend: “he approved not one living person, and of the dead only four:
Plato, Virgil, Jerome, and Horace.”22
In the same period flourished Ambrogio Traversari, general of the Camal-
dolensian Order.23 He was known for his many Latin translations of Greek
literature, as well as for his ability as a diplomat (orator). He represented
Eugenius IV at the Council of Basel and at Sigismund’s court in Hungary.
Poggio Bracciolini, “although he did not know Greek, spoke Latin
better than everyone.” Apostolic secretary in Constance, he wrote many
things, especially dialogues. In later life he suffered infamy for marrying a
much, much younger, and beautiful, woman; his defense consisted of the
“witty and elegant” Whether an Old Man Should Marry (An seni sit uxor

20 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.22–23: “nam simillimus Ciceroni fuit.”

21 Ibid., p. 35.17–18: “in libris autem circiter quatuor milia aureorum moriens reliquit.” On Niccoli’s
library, see Berthold L. Ullman and Philip A. Stadter, The Public Library of Renaissance Florence:
Niccolò Niccoli, Cosimo de’ Medici and the Library of San Marco (Padua, 1972).
22 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 35.7–18; 12: “arbiter of knowledge” (“arbiter de scientia”); 13–14: “never wrote
or spoke . . . ” (“numquam tamen vel scripsit vel locutus est latine”); 14: “distrusted his own talent”
(“diffidebat enim ingenio suo”); 16–17: “approved not one . . . ” (“nullum enim viventem com-
mendavit, ex mortuis solum quatuor: Platonem, Virgilium, Jeronimum et Oratium”). Piccolimini
offers precious testimony to Niccoli’s knowledge of Greek, which most modern scholars do not
credit (including Davies [below], p. 128). On Niccoli and the difficulty of knowing anything about
him with certainty, see Martin C. Davies, “An Emperor without Clothes? Niccolò Niccoli under
Attack,” Italia medioevale e umanistica, 30 (1987), pp. 95–148. See also Giuseppe Zippel’s work on
Niccoli, collected in his Storia e cultura del Rinascimento italiano, ed. Gianni Zippel (Padua, 1979),
and further bibliography in Davies, “Emperor,” p. 95, n. 1 and p. 101, n. 20.
23 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 35.19–23. For Traversi, see Charles L. Stinger, Humanism and the Church
Fathers: Ambrogio Traversari (1386–1439) and Christian Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance (Albany,
24 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 35.24–36.10; 35.24–25: “although he did not know Greek . . . ” (qui licet grece
lingue ignarus fuerit, nulli tamen in dicendo fuit inferior”); 36.9–10: “witty and elegant” (“non

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44 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
A number of other humanists receive shorter treatments. Guarino
Veronese is commemorated for his teaching of rhetoric in Ferrara and for
his translation work.25 The Augustinian Andrea Biglia was an historian.26
The Franciscan Antonio da Rho wrote on Latin style.27 Bartolomeo da
Montepulciano was secretary, counselor, and friend to Martin V.28 Giovani
Aurispa and Antonio Beccadelli also enjoyed great fame.29
Returning briefly to Bruni, Piccolomini then notes that he was succeeded
as Florentine chancellor by Carlo Marsuppini.30 Like his predecessor, Mar-
suppini knew Greek and Latin, and he was as elegant a poet as a prose
writer. He had already translated some Greek poetry into Latin at the time
of Piccolomini’s writing; greater things are expected of him still.
Finally, the biography concludes with a summary of the state of elo-
quence in Piccolomini’s native Siena. At one time it had employed the “vir
elegans” Berto di Antonio as chancellor, but now the city could boast of
the talents of another native son, Francesco Patrizi, who was famous for his
learning, his knowledge of “both languages,” and his teaching of rhetoric.31

infacetum neque inornatum”). One wonders if Piccolomini was ignorant of Poggio’s moderate
ability in Greek, or whether our author was simply in agreement with the many in his day who
considered Poggio’s ability to be considerably less than moderate. For Poggio, see Ernst Walser,
Poggius Florentinus: Leben und Werke (Hildesheim, 1974). For his knowledge of Greek, see ibid.,
pp. 228–232.
25 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 35.23–25. For the revered humanist educator Guarino, see Gino Pistilli,
“Guarini, Guarino (Guarino Veronese, Varino),” in DBI, vol. LX (2003), pp. 357–369.
26 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.10–12. On Biglia, see the article (no author) “Biglia, Andrea (Andrea da
Milano, Andrea de Biliis),” in DBI, vol. X (1968), pp. 413–415; Rudolph Arbesmann, “Andrea
Biglia, Augustinian Friar and Humanist,” Analecta Augustiniana, 28 (1965), pp. 154–218; and Joseph
C. Schnaubelt, “Andrea Biglia (ca. 1394–1435), His Life and Writings,” Augustiniana, 43 (1993),
pp. 103–159.
27 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.12–14. For Antonio da Rho, see David A. Rutherford, Early Renaissance
Invective and the Controversies of Antonio da Rho (Tempe, 2005); and Riccardo Fubini, “Antonio
da Rho,” in DBI, vol. III (1961), pp. 574–577. The work to which Piccolomini refers is likely De
imitatione eloquentiae.
28 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.14–20. For Bartolomeo da Montepulciano, see “Aragazzi, Bartolomeo,” in
DBI, vol. III (1961), pp. 686–688.
29 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.20–21. For Aurispa, known principally as a teacher and for bringing a hoard
of Greek manuscripts to Italy, see Emilio Bigi, “Aurispa, Giovanni” in DBI, 4 (1962), pp. 593–595. For
Beccadelli, who began the humanist academy in Naples, see Gianvito Resta, “Beccadelli, Antonio,
detto il Panormita,” in DBI, vol. VII (1965), pp. 400–406.
30 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 37.1–5. For Marsuppini, see Paolo Viti, “Marsuppini, Carlo,” in DBI, vol. LXXI
(2008), pp. 14–22.
31 For Berto di Antonio Berti, who served several times as chancellor of Siena and was a friend of Bruni,
see Piccolomini, DVI, p. 37.6–7; and Gianfranco Fioravanti, “Alcuni aspetti della cultura umanistica
senese nel ’400,” Rinascimento, ser. 2, 19 (1979), pp. 117–167 [reprinted in Fioravanti, Università
e città: cultura umanistica e cultura scolastica a Siena nel ’400 (Florence, 1980)]. For Francesco
Patrizi da Siena, now best known for his political thought, see Piccolomini, DVI, p. 37.9–11 (10–11:
“knows both languages” [“linguam utramque novit”]); and Felice Battaglia, Enea Silvio Piccolomini
e Francesco Patrizi: due politici senesi del Quattrocento (Florence, 1936).

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The renaissance of eloquence 45
Admittedly, this roll call of humanists is far from complete. Other
important exponents of early Quattrocento humanism are conspicuously,
curiously absent, such as Pier Paolo Vergerio and Gasparino Barzizza (to
name only two). Not only did both achieve pan-Italian renown, but Verg-
erio was a friend of Bruni and fellow Chrysoloras student, and Barzizza
educated a whole line of humanists including Beccadelli and, like Bar-
tolomeo da Montepulciano, served Martin V as secretary.32 In addition, a
few eminent humanists crop up in other biographies but not in this one:
Vittorino da Feltre as tutor to Gianfrancesco Gonzaga’s progeny in Man-
tua, Francesco Barbaro as a leading litteratus in Francesco Foscari’s Venice,
and Francesco Filelfo as a teacher of rhetoric and an enemy of Cosimo
de’ Medici.33 Cosimo himself is remembered for his patronage of human-
ism, although strangely his building of the library of San Marco, while
mentioned, is not related to the book collection of Niccolò Niccoli that
formed its core.34 Furthermore, still other figures appear in Piccolomini’s
De viris illustribus who share important attributes with the humanists but
are not grouped with them in the Bruni biography. Three are full-fledged
biographees: Bernardino of Siena “devoted his youth to the study of elo-
quence”; the Sienese jurist Mariano Sozzini is called eloquens and is noted
as a writer of “elegant poetry and ornate prose”; and the Milanese bishop
Bartolomeo della Capra, whom modern scholars would unhesitatingly con-
sider a humanist, is accordingly described as a lover of poetry as well as a
master of prose and especially of epistolary style.35 Others include Rafaele

32 For Vergerio, author of the popular educational treatise De ingenuis moribus, see John M. McMana-
mon, Pierpaolo Vergerio the Elder: The Humanist as Orator (Tempe, 1996). For the influential
teacher Barzizza, see R.G.G. Mercer, The Teaching of Gasparino Barzizza: With Special Reference to
His Place in Paduan Humanism (London, 1979); and Lucia Gualdo Rosa (ed.), Gasparino Barzizza
e la rinascita degli studi classici. Fra continuità e rinnovamento. Atti del seminario di studi, Napoli –
Palazzo Sforza, 11 aprile 1997 (Naples, 1999).
33 For Vittorino, see Piccolomini, DVI, p. 25.27–28: “cui [i.e., Carlo Gonzaga] magister fuit Victorinus,
grece ac latine lingue peritissimus”; for Barbaro, p. 29.22–23: “Inter litteratos apud Venetos prima-
tum obtinet Franciscus Barbaro, qui latinam et grecam linguam novit”; for Filelfo, see p. 33.12–14:
“huic [i.e., Cosimo de’ Medici] Philelphus, qui oratoriam Florentie legit, infensus fuit; nam parti
adverse favebat; que res eum ex urbe precipitavit.”
34 Ibid., p. 33.5–9,11–12: “in Florentia claustrum Sancti Marci . . . confecit. ubi . . . bibliotheca mirabilis
latinis et grecis libris referta . . . favet hic vir etiam litteris et presertim oratoriis.” Inexplicably, the
rather long biography of another great litteratorum fautor, Alfonso the Magnanimous, makes no
mention of his extensive patronage of humanism; this omission would seem to militate against the
possibility that Alfonso was the dedicatee of Piccolomini’s work.
35 For Bernardino, see ibid., p. 37.13–14: “eloquentie studiis adolescentiam suam ac juri pontificio
tradidit”; as well as Raoul Manselli, “Bernardino da Siena, santo,” in DBI, vol. IX (1967), pp. 215–
226; and, among recent studies in English, Franco Mormando, The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino
of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy (Chicago, 1999). For Sozzini, see
p. 41.26–27: “fuit eloquens, carmen fecit elegans, prosa scripsit ornate”; and Paolo Nardi, Mariano

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46 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Adorno (Doge of Genoa) and Francesco Pizzolpasso (Capra’s successor
in Milan), both “highly lettered,” as well as the Franciscans Alberto da
Sarteano, a student of Guarino, and Antonio da Massa Marittima, who
knew Greek and Latin.36
These apparent irregularities might seem to detract from Piccolomini’s
account of humanism, but they actually help to draw its contours more
sharply. For the omission of the Franciscans suggests that they were not
associated in Piccolomini’s mind with humanism; of others, that humanism
was not what distinguished them on this rhetorical occasion. Let us begin
with the latter men. Sozzini is praised first and foremost as a jurisconsult,
Adorno as a statesman. Capra and Pizzolpasso appear in episcopal garb,
that is as ecclesiastical power brokers. In the context of the De viris illus-
tribus, devoted as it is to describing the political, and only secondarily the
cultural, landscape of Europe, it makes sense for these men to be consid-
ered separately and, primarily, with regard to their political role or status.
The individuals populating the biography of Bruni, on the other hand, are
described as having distinguished themselves primarily in the context of
humanism. That is, as opposed to the other “illustrious men” in Piccolo-
mini’s collection, their importance consisted mainly in having contributed
to the revival of classical Latin eloquence.37

Sozzini, giureconsulto senese del quattrocento (Milan, 1974). Interestingly, Sozzini is depicted as a
“Renaissance man” in the manner often associated with Leon Battista Alberti. The biography
continues (pp. 41.27–42.4): “pinxit scripsitque manu propria admodum pulcre, cum juvenis fuit,
pila lusit, jaciebat lapidem, luctari scivit, in musicis et litteris novit, saltavit. omnia scivit, que
hominem liberum scire phas est, sed cantare ignoravit. geometriam, arismetricam astrologiamque
novit.” For Capra, see p. 44.23–26: “fuit autem vir admodum doctus, sed poetice magis datus
quam aliis scientiis; semper enim Virgilium ante se habuit elegantesque versus fecit, scriptis tamen
et prosam ornatam maximeque in epistolari genere floruit”; and Dieter Girgensohn, “Capra,
Bartolomeo della,” DBI, XIX (1976), pp. 108–113.
36 For Adorno, see Piccolomini, DVI, p. 43.15–16: “vir litterarum multarum et prudentie singularis”;
and Giuseppe Oreste, “Adorno, Raffaele,” in DBI, vol. I (1960), pp. 304–305. For Pizzolpasso,
p. 44.29: “vir multarum litterarum et continui studii”; and Riccardo Fubini, Umanesimo e secolariz-
zazione da Petrarca a Valla (Rome, 1990), pp. 77–135. For Alberto da Sarteano, p. 40.7: “eloquentiam
doctus sub Guarrino”; and Enrico Cerulli, “Berdini, Alberto (in religione Alberto da Sarteano),”
in DBI, vol. VIII (1966), pp. 800–804. For Antonio da Massa Marittima, p. 40.29: “qui grecis et
latinis litteris eruditus erat”; and Riccardo Pratesi, “Antonio da Massa Marittima,” in DBI, vol. III
(1961), pp. 555–556.
37 A different view is taken by Schmolinsky, “Biographie und Zeitgeschichte,” pp. 83–84, who argues
that the sequence (found in Piccolomini’s autograph index nominum on the margins of fol. 92v
of Vat. lat. 3887 but not mirrored exactly in the actual sequence of biographies found in DVI)
of Bruni, Mariano Sozzini, Giovani da Imola, and Bartolomeo della Capra represents a mini-
group of “gelehrte Humanisten” (p. 83) within DVI. While I would agree with Schmolinsky that
Piccolomini intends to group together all learned men (Gelehrten) in this section of his work, I
would, for the reasons adduced in the present and following paragraphs, disagree with her that
Piccolomini considers all of these individuals primarily (or at all) to be humanists. Similarly, Viti,

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The renaissance of eloquence 47
This reasoning is supported by a structural aspect of Piccolomini’s work,
which tends to gather several individuals constitutive of a distinct, coherent
group under the heading of a single, exemplary biography. Bruni’s vita
provides the occasion for a sketch of leading humanists. Bernardino of
Siena’s, in turn, is a locus for a resume of influential Franciscans. In the
same way, Mario Sozzini’s biography ends with a description of the state
of civil and canon law in Siena, and Giovanni da Imola’s does the same
for Bologna. Although it might be an exaggeration to say that Piccolomini
has a precise method, it is nevertheless clear that he consistently uses the
biography of the most prominent individual in a given field as a voce
under which to describe that field in greater detail. Bruni is the voce for
As for the inexplicable displacement of Vittorino, Barbaro, and Filelfo,
perhaps it can be chalked up to what might be called Piccolomini’s stream-
of-consciousness style.38 For even though the De viris illustribus appears
to have been composed according to a few relatively strict organizing
principles – e.g., a division between Italians and non-Italians, religious
figures treated before secular ones, an order of descending hierarchy39 – the
appearance of individual figures, both biographical subjects and incidental
characters, nevertheless seems to be guided largely by association with the
present context or with what has come before.40 Considering also that the
text that has come down to us is not a finished copy but a draft, it should
be no surprise if it lacks rigor, completeness, or ascertainable coherence.
Therefore, the fact that these three individuals do not reappear in the Bruni
biography should probably not be seen as a statement on their status as

“Osservazioni,” p. 203, refers to this sequence as “meno omogenea” and likewise differentiates
between the individuals it comprises: “l’umanista Leonardo Bruni, San Bernardino da Siena, i
giurisperiti Mariano Sozzini e Giovanni da Imola, . . . l’arcivescovo di Milano Bartolomeo Capra.”
Elsewhere he groups Bruni, Giovanni da Imola, and Mariano Sozzini as “uomini di cultura” (p. 205)
but specifies that Bruni is “l’unico letterato inserito a pieno titolo nel De viris” (p. 206).
38 It cannot be explained, at least not consistently, by hypothesizing that Piccolomini did not desire
to mention individual figures more than once, and thus that these three could be omitted because
they had already taken the stage. As noted above (note 7), Guarino and Aurispa appear as humanists
in the biography of Niccolò d’Este before that of Bruni.
39 See Viti, “Osservazioni,” p. 202, and especially Schmolinksy, “Biographie und Zeitgeschichte,”
passim, who soundly refutes Voigt’s earlier view (quoted on p. 81) that DVI is “ohne sonderliche
Ordnung.” Cf. Voigt, Enea Silvio de’ Piccolomini, vol. II, p. 324.
40 Although the categories of illustrious men he treats are clearly chosen and rather strictly adhered to,
Piccolomini generally appears to meander his way through the individuals composing each of these
categories (popes, cardinals, secular rulers, etc.). Schmolinsky, “Biographie und Zeitgeschichte,”
specifically notes, for example, the odd placement of the biographies of Tommaso Fregoso (Thomas
Fulgosius, p. 84) and the anti-pope Benedict XIII (Petrus de Luna, p. 85).

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48 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Such a statement does, however, seem to be made with regard to
Bernardino of Siena, Alberto da Sarteano, and Antonio da Massa Marit-
tima, who are depicted as central figures in Franciscan preaching and the
hierarchy of the Order. Piccolomini describes Bernardino as a master ora-
tor, capable of “bringing people now to tears, now to laughter, and bending
their minds whichever way he wanted.”41 Unlike Bruni et alii, however,
Bernardino’s primary medium was the vernacular, not Latin.42 More impor-
tantly, Franciscan eloquence was fundamentally different from its human-
istic counterpart, as can be seen in the description of Alberto da Sarteano:
He first was taught eloquence and instructed in secular literature under
Guarino, but then he became a Minorite and learned the eloquence of God
under Bernardino, and he preached to the people quite graciously.43
The implication is clear: the classical Latin eloquence pursued by the
humanists was distinct from and indeed unsuited to the vernacular
eloquence of preaching; in their object as well as their application, the
former tended to be worldly while the latter was divine.
It is tempting to see in this distinction support for the notion, most
notably associated with the work of Riccardo Fubini, that humanism was
a secular or secularizing movement.44 Fubini traces a line of descent from
Petrarch to the most prominent humanists of the early Quattrocento, above
all Poggio and Lorenzo Valla, identifying in them an ideology of liberation
from medieval scholasticism and from the Church’s concerns and authority.
As opposed to a bygone tendency to associate humanism with paganism,
Fubini emphasizes instead that humanists offered an alternative moral
vision within the larger Christian tradition – an apostolic ethics not of the
cloth but of a proper life in the world. It was characteristic for them to
wage the polemics of their secular ideology on the battleground of patristic
exegesis, and these polemics could spill over into rabid anticlericalism.
41 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 37: “homines nunc ad lacrimas, nunc ad risum trahebat, flectebatque mentes
hominum, quocumque volebat.”
42 Schmolinsky, “Biographie und Zeitgeschichte,” p. 84, views the matter differently: “Eloquentia Dei,
die er [sc. Piccolomini] auch an den Schülern des Predigers [sc. Bernardino] hervorhob, sicherte
diesem einen Platz unter den humanistischen Gelehrten nahe dem Sienesen Sozzini.” But she
does not note that Piccolomini intentionally sets Bernardino’s eloquentia Dei against Guarino’s
litterae seculares (see note 43 below), thus clearly contrasting the eloquence of preachers with that
of humanists.
43 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 40.7–10: “eloquentiam doctus sub Guarrino litterisque secularibus apprime
instructus et ipse postea Minor factus sub Bernardino eloquentiam Dei didicit predicavitque populis
cum magna gratia.”
44 Most prominently in Umanesimo e secolarizzazione and “L’umanista: ritorno di un paradigma?
Saggio per un profilo storico da Petrarca ad Erasmo,” in Fubini, L’umanesimo italiano e i suoi storici,
pp. 15–72.

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The renaissance of eloquence 49
Piccolomini, whose own reputation teetered between worldly indulgence
and holy aspirations and who, after his election to the papacy, famously
urged the world to reject Aeneas and accept Pius, would seem to be a
touchstone for this issue.45 Significantly, he barely names any humanist
contributions to religious literature, and none at all in the case of Traversari,
who was an assiduous translator of the Greek Fathers.46 Furthermore, of
the humanists selected for his account, Antonio da Rho was a religious
who defended the study of secular literature, and Andrea Biglia wrote
against Bernardino, an embattled figure among the humanists, accusing
him of a hypocritical desire for fame, ignorance of the Bible, and for
flirting with heresy.47 Piccolomini does not adduce these titles, however,
and, arguing in the same manner, one could just as easily point out that
Traversari was an enthusiastic supporter of Bernardino, as, indeed, was
Piccolomini himself.48 Aeneas Sylvius does mention one (quite famous
and influential) humanist text critical of Bernardino: Poggio’s De avaritia,
which he judges as elegans. Yet here, instead of joining the chorus against the
Franciscan’s preaching, he quips disparagingly that Poggio wrote on avarice
“even though, in the manner of men more keenly aware of others’ vices than
of their own, he himself could in no way be thought liberal.”49 Rather than

45 For an English translation of the official letter, In minoribus, in which Pius discusses his character, see
Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius: Selected Letters of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini
(Pope Pius II), intr. and tr. Thomas M. Izbicki, Gerald Christianson, and Philip Krey (Washington,
DC, 2006), pp. 392–406.
46 He says only generically that Traversari “translated many Greek texts into Latin” (Piccolomini,
DVI, p. 35.20–21: “plurima ex grecis operibus in latinum vertit”). For Traversari’s patristic studies,
see Stinger, Humanism and the Church Fathers, pp. 83–166.
47 Antonio da Rho defended bonae litterae in his In Lactantium (1443); see Hankins, Plato in the
Italian Renaissance, vol. I, pp. 148–149; and Rutherford, Early Renaissance Invective, pp. 14–16.
Biglia’s impotent attack on Bernardino is entitled De institutis, discipulis et doctrina fratris Bernardini
(1426–1427); see Fubini, “Antonio da Rho.” For a discussion of San Bernardino and Poggio, see
Fubini, Umanesimo e secolarizzazione, pp. 183–219.
48 See Stinger, Humanism and the Church Fathers, pp. 61–66. In the biography of Bernardino in the
De viris illustribus, Piccolomini recounts that he was tempted to join the Franciscans after hearing
Bernardino preach in Siena: “Is cum Senis predicaret, me intantum commovit, ut paululum abfuerit,
quin et ego religionem suam ingrederer. sed amicorum preces me retraxerunt; quod pro meliori
recipio; nescimus enim, quid nobis magis expediat” (DVI, p. 38.19–22).
49 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.3–5: “scripsit De avaritia elegantem tractatum, quamvis ipse more
hominum, qui aliena potius quam sua pernoscunt vitia, nequaquam liberalis putetur.” The De
viris illustribus might also contain a silent, intertextual reproof of Poggio. Piccolomini’s description
of Bernardino (p. 37: “homines nunc ad lacrimas, nunc ad risum trahebat, flectebatque mentes
hominum, quocumque volebat”) is very similar to one found in De avaritia: “una in re maxime
excellit, in persuadendo ac excitandum affectibus flectit populum et quo vult deducit, movens ad
lachrymas et cum res patitur ad risum” (quoted in Fubini, Umanesimo e secolarizzazione, p. 190). As
Fubini explains (p. 191), though, Poggio ultimately accuses Bernardino for misusing the power of
his eloquence (“verum in una re . . . errare mihi videntur et ipse et caeteri huiusmodi praedicatores.
Nam cum multa loquantur, non accommodant orationes suas ad nostram utilitatem, sed ad suam

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50 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
take sides in this debate, Piccolomini is content to pass it over in silence,
and in the sequel he portrays Bernardino positively. As with hostility to
Bernardino in particular, there is no evidence of anticlericalism generally
in the text. Nor does the De viris illustribus fashion, transmit, report, or
reflect arguments against the Church’s or the pope’s worldly authority.
Indeed, Piccolomini praises Traversari’s diplomatic work for Eugenius IV
at the Council of Basel, which was aimed at nothing less than defending
papal supremacy against conciliarism, thus reinforcing the pontiff’s place
in the political matrix of Europe.50 The De viris illustribus as a whole takes
for granted the Church’s involvement in secular politics without rendering
moral judgment. This is a far cry from Lorenzo Valla’s coeval Oration on
the Donation of Constantine, in which Valla, perhaps the most prominent
humanist of the day to be passed over by Piccolomini, famously railed
against the “tyranny of the pope” and urged the supreme pontiff to be the
vicar of Christ rather than of Caesar.51 Ultimately, Piccolomini is aware of
the anticlerical and secular nature of some humanist writings, but he neither
promotes it nor portrays it as an identifying characteristic of humanism at
large. At most he can be thought to illustrate the largely secular framework
of early Quattrocento humanism, whose model of rhetorical excellence,
Cicero, was a pre-Christian author and whose representatives tended to
apply their eloquence to worldly, not religious, concerns (and certainly not
to popular preaching).
Equally remote from Piccolomini’s view of humanism is any sort of
civic orientation or application. This is especially surprising, considering
that Leonardo Bruni functions as his exemplary humanist. Ever since the
work of Hans Baron, Bruni has been primarily known to scholars as
an emblematic “civic humanist,” a scholar-statesman who harnessed the
love of literature to the cause of patriotism. According to Baron, Bruni
elaborated a republican identity for the city of Florence that cemented
a civic consciousness at home and warded off tyranny from abroad.52
In the view of Eugenio Garin, Bruni “paid special attention to the civic

loquicatatem”). Whether Piccolomini had Poggio’s text in mind, or whether both reflect a common
opinion, the fact remains that Piccolomini only reports the praise of Bernardino’s eloquence.
50 For Traversari’s work at the Council of Basel, see Stinger, Humanism and the Church Fathers,
pp. 186–192 (pp. 190–192 for his famous oration in defense of papal supremacy).
51 See Salvatore I. Camporeale, “Lorenzo Valla e il De falso credita donatione. Rhetorica, libertà ed
ecclesiologia nel ’400,” in Camporeale, Umanesimo, riforma e controriforma, pp. 463–589, esp. 470
and 574 (translated in Christianity, Latinity, and Culture, pp. 17–143, esp. 25 and 129–130).
52 Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, esp. pp. 191–269; Leonardo Bruni, Humanistisch-
philosophische Schriften mit einer Chronologie seiner Werke und Briefe, ed. Hans Baron (Leipzig,
1928). Cf. Hankins, “The ‘Baron Thesis.’”

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The renaissance of eloquence 51
virtues . . . [His] interest is always directed to worldly affairs and to the
affairs of his city, for the latter is considered the frame in which virtues
are maintained and tried.”53 J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner have
subsequently inscribed Bruni into the Renaissance keystone of a republican
arch spanning from antiquity to modernity. And James Hankins, while
significantly revising the Baron thesis and advising restraint with regard to
republicanism, has shown how Bruni used his works to teach civil prudence
to the elites at the helm of the ship of state.54 It is quite striking, then, that in
a work as dedicated to political affairs as the De viris illustribus Piccolomini
does not record Bruni’s efforts on behalf of his adopted city. Or rather,
when he does mention works now understood as representative of Bruni’s
civic ethos – the Laudatio Florentinae urbis and the History of the Florentine
People – he adduces them as evidence of Bruni’s stylistic mastery, not of
his patriotism or ideology.55 For Piccolomini, Bruni is the one who, after
nearly a millennium of neglect, restored not classical political thought but
classical eloquence. And so much is in accord with Bruni’s contemporary
reputation: he was fêted all over Europe as neither ideologue nor advisor
but as an historian, translator, and model of Latin style.56 Bruni’s hallmark
in the De viris illustribus is that scripsit . . . admodum ornate. Above, this
phrase was translated generically as “he wrote very elegantly,” but there
is more at stake than the English word “elegance” implies to a modern
audience.57 To get a sense for the significance of ornatus, we can turn to
De oratore (I, 32, 144), where Cicero explains that elegance, or ornate loqui,
is one of the four virtues contributing to proper Latin style (elocutio),
the other three being grammatical correctness, clarity of ideas, words, and

53 Eugenio Garin, Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance, tr. Peter Munz
(Oxford, 1965), p. 41 (original Italian version = L’umanesimo italiano, p. 52).
54 J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican
Tradition (Princeton, 2003), esp. pp. 86–91; Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, 3 vols. (Cambridge,
2002), vol. II, esp. pp. 118–159; Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. (Cambridge,
1978), esp. pp. 69–189; James Hankins, “Teaching Civil Prudence in Leonardo Bruni’s History of
the Florentine People, in S. Ebbersmeyer and E. Keßler (eds.), Ethik – Wissenschaft oder Lebenskunst?
Modelle der Normenbegründung von der Antike bis zur Frühen Neuzeit (Berlin, 2007), pp. 143–157;
Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic Humanism, esp. pp. 1–13 and 143–178.
55 Piccolomini adduces these works, which he calls De laudibus Florentine urbis and Gesta Florentino-
rum, as evidence of Bruni’s elegant style in DVI, pp. 34.23–35.6.
56 See James Hankins, “Life and Works,” in Hankins, Humanism and Platonism, vol. I, pp. 9–18, esp.
57 On the place of ornatus in Latin rhetoric, see Heinrich Lausberg, Handbuch der literarischen
Rhetorik. Eine Grundlegung der Literaturwissenschaft (Stuttgart, 2008), §538 and ad indicem; and
A.D. Leeman, Orationis ratio: The Stylistic Theories and Practice of the Roman Orators, Historians,
and Philosophers, 2 vols. (Amsterdam, 1963), vol. I, pp. 33–42, 124–135, and 299–310. I would like
to thank Shane Butler for pointing out to me the centrality and import of ornatus in Piccolomini’s

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52 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
syntax, and propriety of tone. Later in the same work (III, 14, 53) he clarifies
further that the ability to express oneself ornate ranks higher than the other
virtues; it is what makes the orator truly great, what makes him considered
“a god among men.”58
Piccolomini portrays Bruni’s approximation of Ciceronian style, his
ability to write ornate, as the essence of humanism. Furthermore, it is
the defining moment, the sine qua non of the past which all those who
consider themselves humanists have in common. As such, it is the source
of inspiration for their activity, which aims at the linguistic perfection once
reached by Cicero but that was still waiting to be reclaimed. For although
“with his writing” he “exceeded everyone,” Bruni was only “most similar to
Cicero” – not simply similar or equal to him. And while “our age” might not
have “found his equal,” the master still suffered from some serious defects:
In speaking he was a bit slow and if not forewarned he would not have been
able to say anything; therefore when speaking extemporaneously he looked
stupid. In poetry he achieved nothing; for although he possessed the art, he
lacked natural ability.59
The other humanists described by Piccolomini seem in part to serve
the function of filling the lacunas in Bruni’s ability. The new generation
mentioned at the end – composed of the promising young Marsuppini
(who wrote elegant prose and poetry) and the Sienese humanists – is
meant to represent the continuation of, and perhaps the potential for
completing, the humanist project.
To summarize, this project consisted primarily in literary activity, the
studia litterarum: in writing or speaking in Latin, in translating from Greek,
and in composing letters, orations, treatises, dialogues, and the like. Niccoli,
as one who creates nothing, might seem to be an exception to the rule.
Yet his refined judgment and great erudition make him the “arbiter of
knowledge”; that is, he performs the corrective, prescriptive function of
the critic. A humanist should also know “both languages”: Latin and
Greek. Here Poggio is the exception – Piccolomini apologizes for him –
but his superior Latin speech and his vast (Latin) literary output keep
him in the club. Most of the individuals mentioned are not said to write
poetry, and Bruni is explicitly described as having “achieved nothing” in
it. Nevertheless, Beccadelli was known first and foremost as a poet; this

58 Cicero, De oratore, tr. E.W. Sutton and H. Rackham, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1942/1988).
59 Piccolomini, DVI, p. 36.23–26: “in dicendo tardiusculus erat et nisi premonitus nihil dicere potuis-
set; ubi namque ex tempore locutus est, quasi amens videbatur. in carmine quoque nihil potuit;
nam etsi artem habuit, venam tamen nature non habuit.”

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The renaissance of eloquence 53
is likely the “reputation” to which Aeneas Sylvius refers. Marsuppini, as
Bruni’s successor, writes both poetry and prose elegantly. The central setting
for humanism is obviously Florence, although other Italian cities such as
Rome, Ferrara, Milan, and Siena share in its glory. Remarkably, little or
nothing is said about humanists in Naples or Venice. The humanists work as
secretaries, chancellors, ambassadors, or teachers. As seen with reference to
Niccolò d’Este and in connection with Bruni’s career, in these occupations
patronage could merge with what might otherwise be civic employment.
Other humanists live as private citizens, like Niccoli; others still, such as
Traversari, Bartolomeo da Montepulciano, and Antonio da Rho, lead the
religious life.
∗ ∗ ∗
Piccolomini’s view of humanism receives substantial corroboration from
one of the foremost historians of the fifteenth century, Biondo Flavio
(1392–1463).60 While describing the physical and cultural geography of
Italy in his Italia illustrata (1453),61 Biondo identifies many of the same

60 The foundational study of Biondo remains the introduction in Bartolomeo Nogara, Scritti inediti
e rari di Biondo Flavio (Rome, 1927), pp. xix–clxxxiii; see also Riccardo Fubini, “Biondo Flavio,”
in DBI, vol. X, pp. 536–559. For Biondo as an historian, see Denys Hay, “Flavio Biondo and the
Middle Ages,” Proceedings of the British Academy (1959), pp. 97–128 [reprinted in Hay, Renaissance
Essays (London, 1988), pp. 35–66].
61 I refer to the edition in the I Tatti Renaissance Library: Biondo Flavio, Italy Illuminated, ed. and tr.
White, hereafter referred to as Biondo, II. For the sake of clarity reference will always be made to
region and paragraph number, disregarding book number, as some books contain more than one
region, and White’s edition begins paragraph numeration anew with each region, not book. All
translations are White’s (with modifications noted when made). A complete non-critical edition
and translation of Italia illustrata with commentary is available: Biondo Flavio’s Italia Illustrata,
ed. and tr. Castner. As of the submission of my own manuscript, Paolo Pontari has published the
first two of three projected volumes of a critical edition of the Latin text (Rome, 2011–). The most
helpful treatments I have found of Italia illustrata, and the ones on which this paragraph and a
good portion of my analysis are based, are Jeffrey A. White, “Introduction” to Biondo, II, pp. vii–
xxvii; Clavuot, “Flavio Biondos Italia illustrata”; Clavuot, Biondos Italia illustrata – Summa oder
Neuschöpfung? Über die Arbeitsmethoden eines Humanisten (Tübingen, 1990), esp. pp. 55–137; Rita
Cappelletto, “Italia Illustrata di Biondo Flavio,” in Letteratura italiana. Le opere, vol. I: Dalle origini
al Cinquecento, ed. Alberto Asor Rosa (Turin, 1992), pp. 681–712; Paolo Viti, “Umanesimo letterario
e primato regionale nell’Italia illustrata di F. Biondo,” in Giorgio Varanini and Palmiro Pinagli (eds.),
Studi filologici, letterari e storici: in memoria di Guido Favati (Padua, 1977), vol. II, pp. 711–732;
Nogara, Scritti inediti, pp. cxii–cxxix, clxvi–clxxi; and Fubini, “Biondo Flavio,” pp. 548–551. Other
studies of Italia illustrata with a focus similar to mine are Viti, “Umanesimo letterario,” pp. 723–
730; Vincenzo Fera, “L’identità dell’Umanesimo,” in Gino Rizzo (ed.), L’identità nazionale nella
cultura letteraria italiana. Atti del terzo Congresso nazionale dell’ADI, Lecce-Otranto 20–22 settembre
1999, 2 vols. (Lecce, 2001), vol. I, pp. 15–31; and Albanese, “Mehrsprachigkeit,” who notes that the
importance of Biondo’s account of humanism has neither been widely recognized nor adequately
treated (p. 24) – an observation also made by White, “Introduction,” p. xiv, and Fera, “L’identità,”
p. 22.

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54 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
salient characteristics of the humanist movement that emerged in Piccolo-
mini’s De viris illustribus: its forerunner in Petrarch and founder in Manuel
Chrysoloras; its primary object of striving: the eloquent Latin style of
Cicero; its medium: translations and original writings, both prose and
poetry; other essential aspects: the study of Greek, a love of antiquity, and
book collecting; its temporal range: from the late fourteenth century to
the present; and its geographical focus: northern and central Italian cities.
The only significant disagreement between the two authors pertains to
the success of humanism: whereas Piccolomini thinks the climb towards
Ciceronian speech is still in progress, Biondo believes the summit has been
reached. Two further distinguishing features of Biondo’s text strengthen
our grasp of the humanists’ self-understanding. First, as we might expect
from the author of the Decades (1439–1452), the first history of late antiq-
uity and medieval Europe, and the Roma instaurata (1444–1446) and Roma
triumphans (1453–1460), works of towering antiquarian erudition, Biondo
offers a fuller and more nuanced history of the humanists’ revival of clas-
sical Latin eloquence; he explains the stages of its development as well as
the mechanisms of its diffusion. Second, Biondo endows humanism with a
larger cultural significance, portraying it as a cornerstone of modern Italian
Biondo Flavio enjoyed a brilliant career as apostolic secretary in the
curia of Eugenius IV (1431–1447) but fell out of favor upon the accession of
Nicholas V. In an attempt to regain a source of patronage during this period
of effective exile from Rome, he commenced work on the Italia illustrata,
a project initially promoted by Alfonso the Magnanimous of Aragon, who
desired a celebration of the achievements of the great men of the age.62
Harnessing encomium to his antiquarian and linguistic interests, Biondo
set to work “illustrating” the notable places and people of all eighteen of the
classical regions of Italy, which he eventually compressed into fourteen.63
He states the broad aim of Italia illustrata in the preface:

to discover if, through the practical experience of the history of Italy I

have gained, I shall be able to apply the names of current coinage to the

62 Alfonso’s desire for a resume of Italy’s illustrious men would eventually be satisfied for him by the
third work examined in this chapter, Bartolomeo Facio’s De viris illustribus. Biondo dedicated indi-
vidual portions of the Italia illustrata to various potentates, including Alfonso, Prospero Colonna,
and Malatesta Novello; the work as a whole bears a dedication to Nicholas V. See Clavuot, “Flavio
Biondos Italia illustrata,” p. 65, n. 41.
63 See White, “Introduction,” p. xii (and esp. n. 22), for an overview; a more comprehensive treatment
is found in Cappelletto, “Italia illustrata,” pp. 692–695. A summary of each region is provided in
Johann Clemens Husslein, Flavio Biondo als Geograph des Frühhumanismus (Würzburg, 1901).

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The renaissance of eloquence 55
appropriate places and peoples of Italian antiquity, to settle the authenticity
of the new nomenclature, to revive and record the names that have been
obliterated, and in a word to bring some light to bear upon the murkiness
of Italian history.64

But his work goes far beyond the intention announced in this programmatic
statement. In a longer, more in-depth description of his undertaking at the
beginning of book 1, Biondo notes:
I shall enumerate the pre-eminent men born in former times in her [sc.
Italy’s] cities and regions severally, as well as those who are living still,
especially those who have distinguished themselves with a reputation for letters
or for any great virtue; and I shall briefly set forth the noteworthy historical
events of her individual regions. So this work will be not just a description
of Italy, but also a catalogue of her famous and outstanding men, as well as a
summary of no small part of Italian history.65

In the process of compiling this bio-geographico-historical descriptio,

Biondo pioneered a new genre, chorography. This new text type (based
in part on Pomponius Mela’s De situ orbis and Pausanias), once placed
in the rich soil of Tacitus’ rediscovered Germania and Annius of Viterbo’s
imaginative Antiquitates, would go on to sprout under the lamp of German
pride and eventually flourish all over early modern Europe.66 Biondo claims
to have traversed all of Italy and to have based much of his account on
autopsy, but such assertions are somewhat overblown. At least as important
as personal experience were boundless reading and the help of numerous

64 Biondo, II, Pref.3: “ . . . tentare volui an per eam quam sum nactus Italiae rerum peritiam vetus-
tioribus locis eius et populis nominum novitatem, novis auctoritatem, deletis vitam memoriae dare,
denique rerum Italiae obscuritatem illustrare potero.”
65 Ibid., i.10: “viros praestantiores qui singulis in urbibus et locis pridem geniti fuerunt, eosque qui
sunt superstites, praesertim litterarum aut cuiuspiam virtutis gloria claros, enumerabo; atque res in
singulis locis scribi dignas breviter enarrabo, ut non magis haec Italiae sit descriptio quam virorum
eius illustrium praestantiumque catalogus ac non parvae partis historiarum Italiae breviarium”
(emphasis mine).
66 Conrad Keltis dreamed of a Germania illustrata, and Beatus Rhenanus came as close as anyone
to realizing the project in his Rerum Germanicarum libri tres (1531). On Biondo’s influence and
the new genre of chorography, see Johannes Helmrath, “Probleme und Formen nationaler und
regionaler Historiographie des deutschen und europäischen Humanismus um 1500,” in Matthias
Werner (ed.), Spätmittelalterliches Landesbewusstsein in Deutschland (Ostfildern, 2005), pp. 333–392
[reprinted in Helmrath, Wege des Humanismus. Studien zu Praxis und Diffusion der Antikeleidenschaft
im 15. Jahrhundert (Tübingen, 2013), pp. 213–278]; Ulrich Muhlack, “Das Projekt der Germania
illustrata. Ein Paradigma der Diffusion des Humanismus?,” in Helmrath, Muhlack, and Walther
(eds.), Diffusion des Humanismus, pp. 142–158; and Albert Schirrmeister, “Was sind humanistische
Landesbeschreibungen? Korpusfragen und Textsorten,” in Johannes Helmrath, Albert Schirrmeis-
ter, and Stefan Schlelein (eds.), Medien und Sprachen humanistischer Geschichtsschreibung (Berlin,
2009), pp. 5–46.

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56 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
friends and acquaintances.67 The Italia illustrata is the product of human-
ist Großforschung, with Biondo playing the part of lead researcher and
energetic project director. In this role he comes across as an enthusiast for
Romano-Italian history and culture, for the grandeur of classical antiquity
in all its manifestations, and for the movement of humanism in which he
was an active and, in his own opinion, a leading participant.68
In the fourth book (comprising the sixth region) of Italia illustrata,
devoted wholly to his native Romagna, Biondo digresses to include a short
but thorough account of the revival of eloquence then underway through-
out all of Italy.69 In so doing, he offers a brief history of humanism and with
it a statement of humanist self-conception and identity.70 The digression
is occasioned by the mention of Giovanni Malpaghini da Ravenna,71 one
of many illustrious men of the Romagna:
In the last century [Ravenna] . . . bore the learned grammarian and rhetori-
cian Giovanni Malpaghini, who was the first to bring back to Italy the
study of eloquence, now so flourishing here after its long exile, as Leonardo
Bruni used to say – a most solid and reliable authority on all matters, but
specially on this one. It is a subject that certainly merits discussion here in
my illustration of Italy.72

67 For an example of Biondo’s boasting, cf. Biondo, II, i.10: “Postquam vero omnem Italiam pera-
graturus ero . . . ” (“After I have ranged over all of Italy . . . ”). On the issue of autopsy in Biondo’s
work, see Rita Cappelletto, “‘Peragrare ac lustrare Italiam coepi.’ Alcune considerazioni sull’Italia
illustrata e sulla sua fortuna,” in Anita di Stefano et al. (eds.), La storiografia umanistica. Convegno
internazionale di studi, Messina, 22–25 ottobre 1987, 2 vols. in 3 (Messina, 1992), pp. 181–203, at
181–189, which also identifies several of Biondo’s collaborators in gathering information on Italy, its
history, and its geography; Cappelletto, “Italia Illustrata,” pp. 684–687; and Catherine J. Castner,
“Direct Observation and Biondo Flavio’s Additions to Italia Illustrata: The Case of Ocriculum,”
Medievalia et humanistica, n.s. 25 (1998), pp. 93–108. See also White, “Introduction,” p. xi, includ-
ing n. 20, which provides further bibliography on this point and relates an amusing example of
Biondo’s duplicity, as well as p. xx for Biondo’s collaborators.
68 For Biondo’s self-estimation as a participant in humanism, cf. the high value he assigns the Italia
illustrata itself (and his Roma instaurata) as a mark of the renovatio Italiae in Biondo, II, vi.53.
69 This digression spans paragraphs 25 to 31 of regio sexta (Romagna), which corresponds to Biondo,
II, pp. 300–309.
70 Cf. Clavuot, Biondos Italia illustrata – Summa oder Neuschöpfung, p. 33, who is followed by Fera,
“L’identità,” pp. 24–25.
71 The identity of Giovanni da Ravenna here as either Giovanni Malpaghini or Giovanni Conversini,
or a confused conflation of the two, is still disputed. I follow the judgment of Jeffrey A. White,
the editor and translator of the text for the I Tatti Renaissance Library, and of Witt, Footsteps,
pp. 339–346. See also Witt, “Still the Matter of the Two Giovannis: A Note on Malpaghini and
Conversini,” Rinascimento, 35 (1996), pp. 179–199. For an argument in favor of Giovanni Conversini,
see Albanese, “Mehrsprachigkeit,” pp. 29–30. For the view that Biondo conflates the two Giovannis
into one mythical persona, see Viti, “Umanesimo letterario,” pp. 725–726.
72 Biondo, II, vi.25: “Genuit quoque superiori saeculo . . . Iohannem grammaticum rhetoremque
doctissimum, quem solitus dicere fuit Leonardus Arretinus, omni in re sed potissime in hac una
gravissimus locupletissimusque testis, fuisse primum a quo eloquentiae studia – tantopere nunc

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The renaissance of eloquence 57
A few points in particular should be brought to the fore immediately: (1)
Giovanni was the first to bring eloquence back to Italy after a long period
of exile; (2) eloquence now flourishes in Biondo’s time; (3) the source of
this information is Leonardo Bruni.73
Then follows a history of the Latin language that is quite similar to that
found in Piccolomini’s De viris illustribus, although Biondo’s is fuller and
more detailed:
Those who have developed a sure and true taste for Latin literature realize
and appreciate that few authors, indeed hardly any, wrote Latin with any
measure of elegance after the time of the doctors of the Church, Ambrose,
Jerome, and Augustine – the very period of the decline of the Roman
empire – unless we are to include in their numbers St. Gregory and the
Venerable Bede, who came just afterwards, and St. Bernard, who was much
More attentive to historical reasoning than Aeneas Sylvius, Biondo connects
the decline of eloquence with that of the Roman empire. He is also a bit
more tolerant in setting the confines of proper Latin, willing to consider
not only Gregory the Great but also Bede and even St. Bernard, a clerical
writer of the twelfth century, as exemplars of good style.
Both authors, however, agree in considering the Middle Ages a period
essentially without eloquence, as well as in identifying the roots of human-
ism’s revival of eloquence in Petrarch:
The very first to rouse Latin poetry and eloquence was Francesco Petrarca,
a man of great talent and even greater industry, even if he never attained the
full flower of Ciceronian eloquence that we see gracing so many men of our
own time.75
From the age of Augustine to Petrarch, only three authors were worth
noting for their eloquence (two more than in Piccolomini, it might be

florentia longe postliminio – in Italiam fuerint reducta: digna certe cognitio quae a nobis nunc
illustranda Italia in medium adducatur.”
73 Fera, “L’identità,” p. 24, doubts that Bruni is truly a source for this view as Biondo presents it;
instead he believes Biondo is vying with Bruni’s own view of Florence’s importance as explained in
the Funeral Oration for Nanni Strozzi and the Memoirs (pp. 22–23).
74 Biondo, II, vi.26: “Vident atque intellegunt qui Latinas litteras vero et suo cum sapore degustant,
paucos ac prope nullos post doctorum ecclesiae Ambrosii, Hieronymi et Augustini <tempora>,
quae et eadem inclinantis Romanorum imperii tempora fuerunt, aliqua cum elegantia scripsisse,
nisi illis propinqui temporibus beatus Gregorius ac venerabilis Beda et, qui longo his posterior
tempore fuit, beatus Bernardus in eorum numerum sint ponendi.”
75 Ibid., vi.26: “Primus vero omnium Franciscus Petrarcha, magno vir ingenio maiorique diligentia,
et poesim et eloquentiam excitare coepit. Nec tamen eum attigit Ciceronianae eloquentiae florem
quo multos in hoc saeculo videmus ornatos” (White’s translation slightly modified).

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58 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
noted). The project, and the achievement, of humanism was to revive
eloquence and to spread it far and wide. In a noteworthy contrast to
Aeneas Sylvius, Biondo is confident that “Ciceronian eloquence” graces
“so many men of our own time.” Piccolomini’s most eloquent humanist
was Bruni, who was only “most similar to Cicero.”
Whether the stylistic Geist of Cicero was speaking through the mouths
of Biondo’s contemporaries or not, it is certain that Petrarch did not have
the spirit. In Piccolomini’s eyes he had given Latin “a little lustre.” Here
he fares a mite better, but only thanks to an exculpatory explanation: “we
do not criticize in him want or defect of natural ability so much as lack
of books.”76 This passage is reminiscent of Leonardo Bruni’s Dialogues,
in which the protagonist Niccolò Niccoli (Piccolomini’s “abusive” “arbiter
of knowledge”) bemoans the very possibility of having a Renaissance on
account of this same deficiency. Niccoli’s complaint is likely insincere,
yet it is not contradicted in the Dialogues, and the reader is left with a
sense of doubt about humanism’s possibility.77 Biondo Flavio, however,
has no misgivings. Writing half a century after Bruni, humanism and
the Renaissance are for him established facts. How did they manage to
overcome this challenge, one that could be summed up in a single word:
Aeneas Sylvius goes straight to Manuel Chrysoloras for the explanation,
but Biondo stops to emphasize the importance of the Latin schoolmaster
who occasioned his digression in the first place, Giovanni da Ravenna:
Giovanni Malpaghini as a boy knew Petrarch in his old age, and saw those
books no more than Petrarch did, nor did he leave anything in writing. And
yet by dint of his natural talent and (as Leonardo [Bruni] used to say) the
grace of God, . . . he managed to kindle in his students a passion for “good
letters” (as he put it) and for the imitation of Cicero, even if he was unable
to teach subjects he was entirely ignorant of.78

76 Ibid., vi.26: “in quo quidem nos librorum magis quam ingenii carentiam defectumque culpamus.”
77 Leonardo Bruni, Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, ed. Stefano U. Baldassarri (Florence, 1994).
For the interpretation of Bruni’s Dialogues, see David Quint, “Humanism and Modernity: A
Reconsideration of Bruni’s Dialogues,” Renaissance Quarterly, 38 (1985), pp. 423–445. Bruni would
later express greater optimism about humanism in his Vita del Petrarca, based on the success for
which he himself was largely responsible; see James Hankins, “Humanism in the Vernacular: The
Case of Leonardo Bruni,” in Celenza and Gouwens (eds.), Humanism and Creativity, pp. 11–29, at
14; Hankins, “Petrarch and the Canon”; and for a slightly different view, see D’Ascia, “Coscienza
della Rinascita,” pp. 3–7.
78 Biondo, II, vi.27: “Iohannes autem Ravennas Petrarcham senem puer novit nec eos aliter quam
Petrarcha vidit libros neque quod sciamus aliquid a se scriptum reliquit. Et tamen suopte inge-
nio et quodam dei munere, sicut fuit solitus dicere Leonardus, . . . auditores suos, si non satis quod
plene nesciebat docere potuit, in bonarum ut dicebat litterarum amorem Ciceronisque imitationem

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The renaissance of eloquence 59
Biondo names as his students Pier Paolo Vergerio, Ognibene Scola,
Roberto de’ Rossi, Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia, Poggio Bracciolini, Guarino
Veronese, and Vittorino da Feltre – many of the most important humanists
of the early fifteenth century.79
But the Latin magister did not suffice:

At the same time, Manuel Chrysoloras of Constantinople came to Italy,

a man pre-eminent in scholarship and all the virtues; he taught Greek to
nearly all those students of Giovanni Malpaghini, in Venice, in Florence
and in the Roman Curia, with which he was associated. His teaching lasted
only a few years, but it had the effect that those who did not know Greek
appeared ignorant in Latin.80

Like Piccolomini, Biondo puts Chrysoloras at the moment of humanism’s

definitive take-off, at the kernel of its identity. Yet he does more. Whereas
Aeneas Sylvius had simply asserted the humanists’ debt to Chrysoloras,
saying that the Byzantine “reintroduced the ancient method and Ciceronian
style of writing,” Biondo explains how this actually happened:

The arrival of Greek letters was no small help in the acquisition of eloquence;
and it was actually a stimulus to doing so, because, quite apart from the
sheer knowledge and the huge supply of historical and moral material they
gained from it, those who knew Greek attempted a good many translations
into Latin, and so by constant practice in composition, their skill in writing
improved, if they had any to begin with; or if they hadn’t, they acquired

Biondo’s explanation is clear: the practice of translation provided the bridge

from Greek to Latin eloquence.82

inflammabat.” Fera, “L’identità,” p. 24, believes that Biondo’s Giovanni is a “mistificazione ideo-
logica,” an ideal composite of Giovanni Conversini and Giovanni Malpaghini meant to embody
an “idealizzata figura di un mitico savio, un Socrate romagnolo.”
79 Biondo, II, vi.27.
80 Ibid., vi.27: “Interea Emanuel Chrysoloras Constantinopolitanus, vir doctrina et omni virtute
excellentissimus, cum se in Italiam contulisset, partim Venetiis, partim Florentiae, partim in Romana
curia quam secutus est, praedictos paene omnes Iohannis Ravennatis auditores litteras docuit
Graecas; effecitque eius doctrina paucis tamen continuata annis ut qui Graecas nescirent litteras,
Latinas minus viderentur edocti.”
81 Ibid., vi.30: “Nec parvum fuit cum adiumentum ad discendum eloquentiam tum etiam incita-
mentum Graecarum accessio litterarum, quod, qui eas didicere – praeter doctrinam et ingentem
historiarum exemplorumque copiam inde comparatam – conati sunt multa ex Graecis in Latini-
tatem vertere, in quo usu aut assiduitate scribendi, aut reddiderunt eam quam habebant eloquentiam
meliorem aut qui nullam prius habuerant inde aliquam compararunt.” This passage exhibits some
interesting similarities with Cicero, De oratore, 1, 4.
82 Cf. Witt, Footsteps, pp. 342–343. See also Chapter 3 below, pp. 144–146.

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60 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
At this point one thing was still lacking for the full rebirth of ancient
eloquence: books, especially those containing the eloquent works of the
ancients; Biondo stresses particularly the writings of Cicero and Quintil-
ian. In his view, the search for “the lost books of the Romans and old
Italy”83 began with the Council of Constance, which occasioned the ran-
sacking of Swiss and German monasteries. Among the earliest discoveries
he records were the first complete manuscript of Quintilian’s Institutio ora-
toria and Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, shortly followed (in Lodi) by Cicero’s
treatises on the art of rhetoric De oratore, Brutus, and Orator. Biondo
singles out especially Poggio Bracciolini and the humanist schoolmaster
Gasparino Barzizza for their praiseworthy efforts to find, safeguard, tran-
scribe, and proliferate these texts. He also mentions his own small role in
their transmission.84
Now, armed with the right literature, a special unit of humanist teachers
brought eloquence to every part of Italy. “The famous grammarian and
rhetorician Gasparino Barzizza instructed a number” of students in Padua,
Venice, and Milan “with his uncommonly good teaching, and roused many
more to follow his example in these studies.”85 Giovanni Malpaghini’s
influence is also to be seen here:
Two of [his] pupils . . . , Guarino and Vittorino, have educated a whole host
of students almost without number, the former at Venice, Verona, Florence,
and finally Ferrara, the latter at Mantua, and among their pupils were the
princes of Ferrara and Mantua.86
Chrysoloras, too, plays a role: “Francesco Filelfo, himself educated by
Chrysoloras’ own progeny at Constantinople, has taught a great many
people Greek and Latin letters in Venice, Florence, Siena, Bologna, and
finally at Milan.”87 Then several other teachers are mentioned by name,

83 Biondo, II, vi.28: “ . . . ex deperditis Romanorum et Italiae olim libris.”

84 Ibid., vi.29. For the history of the recovery of classical texts wholly or partially lost in the Middle
Ages, see Remigio Sabbadini, Le scoperte dei codici latini e greci ne’ secoli XIV e XV. Edizione anastatica
con nuove aggiunte e correzioni dell’autore a cura di Eugenio Garin (Florence, 1967); and L.D.
Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin
Literature, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1991), pp. 113–163.
85 Biondo, II, vi.28: “Gasparinus Bergomensis, grammaticus rhetorque celeberrimus, . . . meliori solito
doctrina nonnullos erudivit, plurimos ad ea imitanda studia incitavit.”
86 Ibid., vi.31: “Ex his autem quos Iohanni nostro Ravennati diximus fuisse discipulos . . . Guarinus
et Victorinus, hic Mantuae, ille Venetiis, Veronae, Florentiae et demum Ferrariae, infinitam paene
turbam, et in his Ferrarienses Mantuanosque principes, erudierunt.”
87 Ibid., vi.31: “Franciscus vero Philelphus ab ipsa gente Chrysolora Constantinopoli eruditus Venetiis,
Florentiae, Senis, Bononiae et demum Mediolani plurimos Graecas litteras docuit et Latinas.” For
the poet, teacher, and notoriously fickle Filelfo, see Diana Robin, Filelfo in Milan: Writings, 1451–
1477 (Princeton, 1991); and Paolo Viti, “Filelfo, Francesco,” in DBI, vol. XLVII (1997), pp. 613–626.

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The renaissance of eloquence 61
including George of Trebizond, who instructed Italians and foreigners in
Rome, and Lorenzo Valla, who educated all of Italy with his Elegantiae.88
In a few strokes, Biondo clearly outlines the steps that ensured human-
ism’s success, the mechanisms that turned it from a minor curiosity into
a widespread movement for the re-establishment of eloquence. It began
with a few dedicated individuals, the visionary Petrarch and early teachers
like Giovanni Malpaghini and Chrysoloras. Subsequently, the recovery of
the right books was the essential factor in transforming their zeal into a
sustained movement:
We can see that the benefit brought to our countrymen by so many books –
the tinder of eloquence itself – resulted in our age having richer and finer
resources at its disposal than Petrarch enjoyed.89

Add in the study of Greek, which gave the early humanists practice in
composition through translation, and eloquence was bound to put down
firm roots:
And so academies all over Italy have long been hives of activity, and they are
more and more active now with each passing day. The schools are generally
in the cities, where it is a fine and pleasant spectacle to see pupils surpassing
their teachers in the polish of their speech or writing, and not just after
their education is complete but even while they are actually declaiming and
composing under the teacher’s very rod.90

Finally, good teachers are the captains of the movement: as an army, they
“are striving might and main to fill Italy with good letters” (bonae litterae).91
If Biondo is optimistic about the success of this revival, poetry would
nevertheless seem to be lagging behind somewhat. Indeed, poetry is men-
tioned explicitly only twice in his account of humanism: in the impetus
Petrarch gave to the revival of “Latin poetry and eloquence,” and in the
“courses on rhetoric and poetry” George of Trebizond is said to have offered

88 Biondo, II, vi.31. For the Byzantine émigré George of Trebizond, see John Monfasani, George
of Trebizond: A Biography and a Study of His Rhetoric and Logic (Leiden, 1976); for Valla, most
famous today for his attack on the Donation of Constantine, see Maristella Lorch, “Italy’s Leading
Humanist: Lorenzo Valla,” in Rabil (ed.), Renaissance Humanism, vol. I, pp. 332–349.
89 Biondo, II, vi.30: “Quo ex tot librorum, ipsius eloquentiae fomitum, allato nostris hominibus
adiumento factum videmus ut maior meliorque ea quam Petrarcha habuit dicendi copia in nostram
pervenerit aetatem.”
90 Ibid., vi.30: “Hinc ferbuerunt diu magisque nunc ac magis fervent per Italiam gymnasia. Plerique
sunt in civitatibus ludi, in quibus pulcherrimum iucundumque est videre discipulos, non solum
postquam sunt dimissi, sed quousque etiam sub ipsa ferula declamant et scribunt, praeceptores
dicendi scribendive elegantia superare” (translation altered).
91 Ibid., vi.31: “ . . . Italiam bonis litteris implere pro viribus enituntur.”

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62 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
in Rome.92 Clearly Biondo has mainly prose in mind when speaking of
Latin eloquence. Nevertheless, poets are named throughout Italia illustrata.
And one of them, Giovanni Pontano, the versatile humanist who would
achieve fame in Naples, even gave Biondo cause to be sanguine about the
revival of classical verse. In an excursus on the Pontano family, from the
Umbrian town of Ponte di Cerreto, he writes:
Gioviano of the same Pontano family, a young man of great natural ability, is
now coming into his own: utterly dedicated as he is to the writing of iambic
and elegiac verse, he seems destined to match the glory of his countrymen
Propertius and Callimachus, or of Ovid, whom he resembles, or of Catullus
of Verona, his chief model.93
Still, unlike prose, which supposedly had already attained to ancient stan-
dards of excellence, poetry is merely “destined” to do so in the figure of
Pontano. As in Piccolomini’s work, here, too, poetry is running second
in humanism’s race. Having fallen behind when attention was turned to
imitating Cicero, only now, at mid-century, is it catching up.
Accustomed as we are to thinking of humanism as only one (small)
part of a larger artistic renaissance, we would expect Biondo to place the
humanists’ achievement in that broader cultural context. And so he does,
in a way. In a preface addressed to the humanist Pope Nicholas V, Biondo
characterized his time as one divinely blessed with a new flourishing of
culture. It is a time in which, “God being more gracious to us now, . . . the
cultivation of the rest of the arts and of eloquence, especially, has come alive
again.”94 The evidence for this Golden Age consists in the approximately

92 For Petrarch, see note 75 above; for George of Trebizond, cf. ibid., vi.31: “At the University of
Rome, George of Trebizond has alongside Italian students many Spaniards, French, and Germans,
some of them important and distinguished men, for his courses on rhetoric and poetry” (“Georgius
Trapezuntius publico Romae gymnasio Hispanos, Gallos Germanosque multos, in quis nonnulli
aliquando sunt magni praestantesque viri, simul cum Italicis oratoriae ac poeticae auditores habet”).
93 Ibid., iv.11: “Magne etiam indolis praedictae succrescit Pontanae gentis adulescens Jovianus, qui
iambico versu et scribendis elegiis assiduo deditus studio Propertii et Callimachi contribulium,
aut vicini Ovidii, aut quem magis imitatur, Catulli Veronensis, laudibus responsurus videtur.” For
Pontano and his poetry, see Carol Kidwell, Pontano: Poet and Prime Minister (London, 1991); Rodney
G. Dennis, “Introduction,” in Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, Baiae, tr. R.G. Dennis (Cambridge,
Mass., 2006), pp. vii–xxiv; and Julia Haig Gaisser, Catullus and His Renaissance Readers (Oxford,
1993), pp. 220–229.
94 Biondo, II, Pref.3: “ . . . propitiore nobis deo nostro meliora habet aetas nostra, et cum ceterarum
artium tum maxime eloquentiae studia revixerunt . . . ” Biondo eventually discarded this preface
and any mention of Nicholas V, as the pope did not patronize him as well as his predecessor
(Eugenius IV) had and actually dismissed him from the curia, ending his involvement in papal
politics. See White, “Introduction,” pp. xx–xxi; and Hay, “Flavio Biondo and the Middle Ages,”
pp. 100–101.

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The renaissance of eloquence 63
four hundred individuals whose achievements Italia illustrata describes,
not all of whom belong to the arts. Military and political figures, for
example, enjoy a certain prominence. One of the most celebrated is the
condottiere Alberigo da Barbiano, the leader of the Compagnia di San
Giorgio, to whom Biondo ascribes the revival of Italian military valor.95
Nevertheless, such individuals are greatly outnumbered by men of learn-
ing, who constitute about sixty percent of the approximately four hundred
persons treated.96 Of these the vast majority are humanists – those partici-
pating in the God-granted revival of eloquence – while jurists make up the
second-largest bloc. Twenty-five percent of all the individuals named by
Biondo are ecclesiastics, and the smallest group of meaningful size is that
of princes, leading citizens, and military men.97 The point of naming all of
these great individuals and describing their accomplishments, as Ottavio
Clavuot has explained, is “to show why Italy, despite its political fragmenta-
tion, ought to be considered a unit and what meaning it has in the context
of world history.”98 Geography is only one aspect of Italy’s coherence, oth-
ers being its Roman past, the rediscovery of its archaeological and linguistic

95 Clavuot, “Flavio Biondos Italia illustrata,” pp. 62–64. Cf. Biondo, II, vi.40–53. It should be noted
that Biondo’s enthusiasm for how Alberigo da Barbiano “changed the face of warfare in Italy”
(vi.40: “qui maximam in re militari Italica fecit mutationem”) builds up to a rather weak crescendo.
After claiming “that the expulsion of foreign soldiers from Italy . . . was of such importance that
her wealth increased and she had greater peace – certainly a more secure peace – ever afterwards,”
Biondo must then concede: “It is true that in the wars that have been waged after the foreigners were
thrown out, the pillaging of towns and cities does take place, but our people commonly restrain
themselves from wholesale destruction, burning, and murdering. And what is lost as plunder to one
Italian piles up as wealth for another, which the barbarous foreigner would have made off with”
(vi.50: “nostra fert opinio tanti fuisse externos milites . . . Italia pulsos esse ut postea et opibus magis
abundaverit et maiorem, certe tutiorem quieta [postea] semper habuerit. Nam etsi in bellis quae
post eam externorum eiectionem sunt gesta urbium oppidorumque direptiones committuntur, ab
excidio tamen incendio et sanguine nostri saepius temperant et quod uni in expilatione damno est
opes alteri Italico accumulat – quas externus barbarusque asportasset”). This changed state of affairs
no doubt offered some consolation, but it must have been cold comfort for one, like Biondo, who
longed for lasting peace and unity.
96 All of the information on the relative prominence of different cultural, religious, political, and
military groups comes from Clavuot, “Flavio Biondos Italia illustrata,” pp. 65–70.
97 Obviously, some of these groups intersect, such as humanists and ecclesiastics (a common enough
combination), but others rarely do, such as humanists and political or military leaders. Biondo’s
focus is clearly on men of learning, not men of action.
98 Clavuot, “Flavio Biondos Italia illustrata,” p. 57: “hat Biondo in der Italia illustrata darzustellen
versucht, weshalb Italien trotz politischer Zersplitterung als Einheit zu begreifen sei und welche
Bedeutung es für die Weltgeschichte habe.” This view contrasts with, and is to my mind superior
to, that of Denys Hay, “The Italian View of Renaissance Italy,” in J.G. Rowe and W.H. Stockdale
(eds.), Florilegium Historiale: Essays Presented to Wallace K. Ferguson (Toronto, 1971), pp. 3–17, esp.
7 [reprinted in Hay, Renaissance Essays, pp. 375–388], who describes Biondo’s conception of Italy
and his purpose in Italia illustrata as purely geographical and antiquarian.

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64 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
heritage, and the hope for its political and military independence from the
rest of Europe. The most important, however, is the cultural and political
Renaissance of the time.99
With this focus on culture, and considering Biondo’s programmatic
statement about “the rest of the arts,” it is surprising that he pays com-
paratively little attention to the renaissance of the belle arti. Indeed, he
almost entirely ignores it, naming only six artists and two musicians.100 It
is instead men of learning, especially humanists, who give Italy its coher-
ence and meaning as a valid cultural and possibly a political unit. Even
political and military actors pale in comparison, for their putative efforts
to unite Italy ultimately prove illusory, effectively useful only as a myth.
Humanism, on the other hand, provides modern Italians with a concrete,
modern identity.101 In the words of Jeffrey White, “Humanism makes the
reintegration of classical past and Italian present possible.”102
A relationship between humanism and modern identity has been familiar
to scholars ever since Burckhardt declared Renaissance Italians to be the
“firstborn among the sons of modern Europe.”103 Burckhardt connected
modernity with the sense of individuality that he postulated had developed
out of the peculiar political character of the medieval city-states. It could be
seen emblematically, he argued, in the allseitig Leon Battista Alberti as well
as in the celebrity achieved by the humanists. For Eugenio Garin, the new
sense of man that developed within humanism manifested itself in a proper
philosophy of life, an outlook that would determine Italian character and
thought for centuries to come. As he summarized in the epilogue to his
Umanesimo italiano,
If it is true that humanism consisted in a renewed confidence in man and his
possibilities and in an appreciation of man’s activity in every possible sense,
it is only fair to give Humanism credit for the new methods of scientific
investigation, the renewed vision of the world and the new attitude towards
objects with a view to using them and to dominating them. During the
15th and 16th centuries, the civilization of Italy, in spite of oscillations and
contrasts, witnessed the emergence of a fully fashioned idea of man. This

99 Clavuot, “Flavio Biondos Italia illustrata,” pp. 57, 64–76.

100 Ibid., pp. 65 (and n. 43) and 70 (and nn. 75–78). Furthermore, Biondo gives no synthetic account
of the history of the revival of the arts (p. 61), whereas he does for humanism (see below).
101 Ibid., pp. 61–75. See also Fera, “L’identità,” pp. 26–29. Cf. note 98 above.
102 White, “Introduction,” p. xiii.
103 Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, p. 93. The famous quotation is found in
the introduction to the second part of Civilization, “The Development of the Individual,” and is
adduced by Robert Black, “Humanism,” p. 246, in a discussion (pp. 245–246) that in large part
informs this paragraph.

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The renaissance of eloquence 65
idea was made possible by the studia humanitatis and by an active expansion
in the world.104

Biondo casts the relationship between humanism and Italian identity dif-
ferently. He does not posit in humanism a fresh understanding of man’s
nature or predict that it will lead to liberating epistemes and mentalities;
rather he implies that the common identity available in humanist cul-
ture has the potential to unite Italians at a crucial, felicitous moment of
changing political fortunes.105 After lamenting Italy’s medieval history of
invasion at the hands of German emperors and the long omnipresence
of foreign mercenaries across the peninsula, he rejoices at the expulsion of
English, Breton, and German troops and the attendant increase in peace,
security, and prosperity the Italians of his time enjoy. Homegrown condot-
tieri have renewed ancient Italian arms, the humanists have revived ancient
eloquence, and now he himself has restored knowledge of Italian history
with his works. The stage is set, he all but shouts, for a renovatio Italiae.
Humanism has (or Biondo hopes it will have) political consequences. By
uniting Italians with a common culture, one, moreover, that takes its bear-
ings from the ancient greatness of the Roman empire – whose hallmarks
are eloquence and military might and which represents the last point in
time in which Italians were confederated under one power – humanism
has the potential to cement the autonomy of the peninsula.
To summarize Biondo’s view, humanism is synonymous with the revival
of eloquence and good letters, bonae litterae, and it is the result of: (1) three
key founders: Petrarch, Giovanni Malpaghini da Ravenna, and Manuel
Chrysoloras; (2) the recovery of the “lost books of the Romans and old
Italy” (especially Quintilian and Cicero’s rhetorical works), which are “the
tinder of eloquence itself”; (3) the introduction of Greek, “no small help
in the acquisition of eloquence”; and (4) an army of “grammarians and
rhetoricians” who are “striving might and main to fill Italy with good
letters.” Biondo gives a much more detailed and incisive account than
Piccolomini, but ultimately he is in accord with the latter, who described
humanism as the effort to revive “the ancient method and Ciceronian
style of writing.” The two authors also agree on the central role played
by Chrysoloras, and both hold Leonardo Bruni in the highest esteem. For
Biondo he is also a personal friend (and sparring partner) and is the most

104 In the translation of Peter Munz: Italian Humanism, p. 221 [original Italian version in Garin,
L’umanesimo italiano, p. 252].
105 Biondo, II, vi.41–53.

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66 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
reliable witness to the development of the movement.106 The two authors
part ways only with regard to the completion of humanism’s central goal
and its larger cultural importance. For Piccolomini, ancient, Ciceronian
eloquence has not yet become common, and the group of people devoted
to it constitutes only one brick in the cultural edifice of Italy and the rest
of Europe. In Biondo Flavio’s Italia illustrata, however, “the full flower
of Ciceronian eloquence” can be seen “gracing so many men of our own
time,” and it is this eloquence that makes Italy whole.
∗ ∗ ∗
Having heard from two of the leading humanists of the fifteenth century,
we now turn to a less influential figure, Bartolomeo Facio (1400–1457).107
Of the authors whose texts are considered in this book, he brings us closest
to the point of view of the humanist everyman, that of a follower rather than
a trailblazer, a participant in rather than a shaper of the movement. Despite
this difference in status, his De viris illustribus (1456) depicts humanism in
essentially the same way as the first two authors did, namely as a project
to restore ancient Latin eloquence.108 This shared conception doubtless

106 Bruni appears as an authority throughout. For a complete list of passages cf. the index in Biondo,
II, p. 453.
107 On Facio, see Paolo Viti, “Facio, Bartolomeo,” in DBI, vol. XLIV (1994), pp. 113–121; and Gabriella
Albanese (ed.), Studi su Bartolomeo Facio (Pisa, 2000). For an introduction in English, see Paul
Oskar Kristeller, “The Humanist Bartolomeo Facio and His Unknown Correspondence,” in
Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. II, pp. 265–280, 507–529, at 275–276
[reprinted with additional appendices from its earlier appearance in C.H. Carter (ed.), From the
Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly (New York, 1965),
pp. 56–74]; Ennio I. Rao, “Preface,” in Bartolomeo Facio, Invective in Laurentium Vallam (Naples,
1978), pp. 7–42; and the brief overview in Jerry H. Bentley, Politics and Culture in Renaissance
Naples (Princeton, 1987), pp. 100–108. See also Ubaldo Mazzini, “Appunti e notizie per servire alla
bio-bibliografia di Bartolomeo Facio,” Giornale storico e letterario della Liguria, 4 (1903), pp. 400–
454; and Claudio Marchiori, Bartolomeo Facio tra letteratura e vita (Milan, 1971), although cf. the
criticisms of Marchiori’s work as derivative in Bentley, Politics and Culture, p. 101, n. 42 and as
unreliable in Albanese (ed.), Studi su Bartolomeo Facio, pp. 2, n. 2 and 47, n. 4. Further bibliography
in Viti, “Facio, Bartolomeo,” pp. 119–121.
108 This work has no modern edition; all references are to Bartolomeo Facio, De viris illustribus liber,
ed. Laurentius Mehus (Florentiae: Ex typ. Joannis Pauli Giovannelli, 1745), which I have consulted
in the facsimile reprint available in Di Stefano et al. (eds.), La storiografia umanistica, vol. II,
pp. 11–164, hereafter referred to as Facio, DVI. References are to Mehus’ original page numbers;
all translations are my own. More correct versions of portions of the text, based on manuscript
witnesses, have been provided by Baxandall, “Bartholomeus Facius on Painting,” pp. 90–97,
later integrated into Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators, pp. 97–111; and Gabriella Albanese, “Le
sezioni De pictoribus e De sculptoribus nel De viris illustribus di Bartolomeo Facio,” in Gabriella
Albanese and Paolo Pontari, “‘De pictoribus atque sculptoribus qui hac aetate nostra claruerunt.’
Alle origini della biografia artistica rinascimentale: gli storici dell’umanesimo,” Letteratura e Arte 1
(2003), 59–110, at 65–79. For the dating and a list of the known manuscripts of DVI, see Mariarosa
Cortesi, “Il codice Vaticano lat. 13650 e il De viris illustribus di Bartolomeo Facio,” Italia medioevale

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The renaissance of eloquence 67
owes something to the fact that all three men worked for years as secre-
taries to princes temporal or spiritual, in which role they performed many
of the same characteristically humanist tasks, such as overseeing official
correspondence and writing works of literature that smacked of antiquity.
Yet there were also important geographical, social, and biographical differ-
ences among them that make their agreement all the more remarkable. The
Sienese nobleman Aeneas Sylvius, having spent about two decades in and
(mostly) out of Italy, composed his De viris illustribus as a bishop. Biondo
Flavio of Forlı̀, once a power player in papal politics, wrote the Italia illus-
trata as an ex-curialist in fear of poverty. And Facio, a Ligurian transplant
in Naples, was handsomely rewarded for his own De viris illustribus by
one of the most powerful patrons of the day, Alfonso the Magnanimous.
The fact that Facio’s work was commissioned accounts in part for several
peculiarities in his point of view. Of all three authors he is the most vocal
about patronage, and he is alone in praising the virtue of humanists as well
as that of those who supported them. Furthermore, he is much stricter
about policing the internal and external boundaries of humanism. On the
one hand he divides his fellows into discreet groups based on their literary
production. On the other he explicitly sets them apart from, and above,
other cultural figures like jurists, physicians, and philosophers. Finally, he
portrays humanism as a truly great human endeavor, on par with, if not
superior to, artistic production, military valor, and the exercise of political
A native of La Spezia and a student of Guarino, Facio was described
by Kristeller as “a significant, if not an important figure” in Italian
humanism.109 In his younger years he was a teacher to the children of
Francesco Foscari, doge of Venice, and a functionary of the republic of
Genoa before finding his place in the Aragonese court of Alfonso the
Magnanimous in Naples (1444–1457). There he came into contact with
Lorenzo Valla, and the polemical exchange between the two has secured
for Facio whatever amount of fame he still enjoys.110 In his day, however,

e umanistica, 31 (1988), pp. 409–418, at 411–413. See also Aulo Greco, “Forme di letteratura e di vita
nel De viris illustribus di B. Facio,” in Greco, La memoria delle lettere (Rome, 1985), pp. 26–43. On
Facio’s works and their relationship to his patron in Naples, see Gabriella Albanese, “Lo scrittoio
di Facio e lo scriptorium di corte,” in Albanese (ed.), Studi su Bartolomeo Facio, pp. 1–32.
109 Kristeller, “The Humanist Bartolomeo Facio,” p. 266.
110 The debate between the two, over the Latinity and dignitas of Valla’s Gesta Ferdinandi regis, was
sparked in 1446 and ultimately consumed all of Italy, dividing the ranks of humanists into pro-
and anti-Valla camps. Cf. Facio, Invective in Laurentium Vallam; and Lorenzo Valla, Antidotum in
Facium, ed. Mariangela Regoliosi (Padua, 1981). A short description is also available in Ennio I.
Rao, Curmudgeons in High Dudgeon: 101 Years of Invective (1352–1453) (Messina, 2007), pp. 83–85.

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68 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
he was a respected friend and correspondent of leading humanists like
Antonio Beccadelli, Poggio Bracciolini, and Biondo Flavio. Furthermore,
he undertook, with the help of the Byzantine émigrés Theodore Gaza and
Niccolò Sagundino, to revise Pier Paolo Vergerio’s rudimentary translation
of Arrian’s Anabasis (of which he only finished a quarter before his death),
and he was known for several original works of history. In most endeavors
his chief object was the celebration of his benefactor, Alfonso, and it was
partly to this end as well that he composed his De viris illustribus.
Like Biondo’s Italia illustrata, Facio’s De viris illustribus includes great
men from all departments of culture and politics and from all over Italy,
occasionally (unlike Biondo) even ranging afield to the rest of Europe.
Facio treats fewer figures, but his biographies are on the whole much more
detailed. In contrast to Aeneas Sylvius he lacks a true European vision, but
he gives much more attention than the Sienese humanist to individuals and
their achievements outside the realm of politics. Facio divides his De viris
illustribus into nine distinct categories: poets, orators, jurisconsults, doctors
(including physicians, philosophers, and theologians), painters, sculptors,
great private citizens, condottieri, and kings and princes; each receives its
own section introduced by a programmatic preface. The first two groups –
poets (six biographies) and orators (thirty-five biographies) – represent the
world of humanism and make up half of the total work.111
The significance of Facio’s De viris illustribus has generally been
ignored.112 The work was dismissed by Eric Cochrane in his Historians
and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance. Even Kristeller overlooked its
importance despite defending it against unnamed detractors by whom it

111 The humanists recorded by Facio are (in the following order): poetae: Antonio Loschi, Anto-
nio Beccadelli, Francesco Filelfo, Giovanni Marrasio, Tito Strozzi, Giovanni Pontano; oratores:
Manuel Chrysoloras, Pier Paolo Vergerio, Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia, Leonardo Bruni, Ambro-
gio Traversari, Niccolò Niccoli, Carlo Marsuppini, Leonardo Giustinian, Leon Battista Alberti,
Vittorino da Feltre, Niccolò Perotti, Guiniforte Barzizza, Leodrisio Crivelli, Francesco Griffolini,
Francesco Barbaro, Antonio Cassarino, Poggio Bracciolini, Gaurino Veronese, Giovanni Aurispa,
Giannozzo Manetti, Jacopo Bracelli, Basilios Bessarion, George of Trebizond, Niccolò Sagundino,
Girolamo da Castello (a.k.a. Girolamo Castelli), Lampo Birago, Lorenzo Valla, Pier Candido
Decembrio, Timoteo Maffei (a.k.a. Timothy of Verona), Giovanni Tortelli, Gregorio Tifernate,
Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Jacopo da San Cassiano (a.k.a. Jacopo of Cremona), Theodore Gaza,
Gasparino Barzizza. For comments on the structure of DVI, see Gabriella Albanese, “Lo spazio
della gloria. Il condottiero nel De viris illustribus di Facio e nella trattatistica dell’umanesimo,” in
Albanese (ed.), Studi su Bartolomeo Facio, pp. 215–255, at 231ff.
112 Its biographies of artists are considered in Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators, pp. 97–111; and
Albanese, “Le sezioni De pictoribus”; its treatment of condottieri in Albanese, “Lo spazio della
gloria.” Albanese has done more than anyone to give Facio his due, both throughout Studi su
Bartolomeo Facio and (with Paolo Pontari) in “‘De pictoribus atque sculptoribus.’” See also Cortesi,
“Il codice Vaticano,” pp. 409–411, 418, who highlights the significance of Facio’s biography of Valla
both for their personal relationship and for questions of DVI’s authorship.

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The renaissance of eloquence 69
had “been criticized for the brevity of its presentation,” saying only generi-
cally that “the work reflects the range of human achievements that seemed
important to the author and his time.”113 Clearly, the human achievement
Facio considered most important was humanism, and it is as a contem-
porary witness to its character and meaning that his De viris illustribus
deserves our attention. Unlike Piccolomini and Biondo, however, Facio
offers neither a narrative history nor a discrete description of humanism,
nor does he endeavor explicitly to explain the causes and mechanisms
of the movement’s growth and evolution. Rather, he provides a series of
bio-bibliographical entries in the manner of Jerome’s De viris illustribus,
i.e., a series of vitae devoted more to cataloguing individuals’ writings
than to chronicling their lives’ other accomplishments. Yet this does not
make Facio’s work a mere list. On the contrary, it does the same thing
for humanism that Jerome did for Christianity: it depicts the landscape of
an intellectual and literary culture by means of a combined monument to
individual authors. Thus Facio’s vision of humanism remains a gestalt, but
it can be broken down by means of a close reading of the various biogra-
phies and a collation of the common characteristics that bind the various
individuals together as a group, as well as by paying heed to programmatic
statements in the various section prefaces, where Facio gives voice to his
understanding of fifteenth-century culture and of humanism’s place in it.114

Poetae and oratores

By dividing the humanists between poets and orators, poetae and oratores,
Facio is the first of our authors to explicitly differentiate humanists as a
group from other learned or professional categories and to endow them with
their own peculiar labels. The meaning of the first, poeta, is clear enough,
but the second is more problematic. Instinctively we think of an orator as
a public speaker, someone who delivers orations, and those familiar with
the lexicon of humanist Latin will quickly note that ambassadors were also
called oratores. Such a definition, however, covers only part of the range of
humanist usage, and it does not pertain to all the men grouped here under
this particular rubric. Indeed, Facio has a much broader concept in mind.

113 Cochrane, Historians and Historiography, pp. 396–397; Kristeller, “The Humanist Bartolomeo
Facio,” pp. 275–276.
114 The importance of the prefaces has been recognized and exploited to reconstruct Facio’s vision of
the relationship of men of politics and arms to civil society in Albanese, “Lo spazio della gloria,”
p. 231ff.

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70 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Grasping the comprehensive nature of the terms poetae and oratores is the
first step to understanding his conception of humanism.
Facio treats poets first, as he states in his preface, “because they are the
oldest and are attested before orators.”115 Poetry is also more difficult, he
explains later, since it must organize its words according to strict meter.116
Meter is indeed the key to understanding who counts as a poet. None
of those singled out as such dedicated himself exclusively to this field.
Rather, the deciding factor is the imitation of classical Latin meters, i.e.,
quantitative meters based on vowel length, in whatever poetry each wrote.
Apart from hexameter and certain forms used in hymns (e.g., iambic
dimeter), such meters had largely disappeared in the Middle Ages and been
replaced with simpler schemes based on stress accent and rhyme. Only with
Giovanni Pontano – the muse of Biondo’s poetic optimism, whom Facio
met in Naples but who would first truly flourish in the decades after Facio’s
writing – would the full range of classical lyric meters (such as sapphics
and alcaics) be restored.117
Orators, for their part, are quite similar to poets, “since both deal with
the force and the proper use of words.” Furthermore, both must “master
language” if they do not want to look “feeble and foolish.” Orators of Facio’s
day, however, suffer a disadvantage with respect to their ancient counter-
parts: the scope of their activity has been radically reduced. Of the “three
genres . . . which the ancient orators were accustomed to handling, . . . only
one has been left to our orators.” Facio refers to the three traditional cate-
gories of rhetoric – judicial or forensic, deliberative, and demonstrative or
epideictic – of which the first had become “the realm of the jurisconsults,”
and the second was no longer the bailiwick of Latin but of the vernacular.118

115 Facio, DVI, p. 3: “A Poetis vero, quoniam ii antiquissimi, et ante Oratores fuisse traduntur, scribere
116 More precisely, he says in his preface to the section on orators that prose is easier than poetry
because it does not adhere to strict meter. See note 118 below.
117 On the disappearance of classical meters in the Middle Ages and the rise of rhythmical verse,
see A.G. Rigg, “Latin Meter,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 13 vols. (New York, 1982–1989),
vol. VII, pp. 371–376; and D. Norberg, An Introduction to the Study of Medieval Latin Versification,
tr. Grant C. Roti and Jacqueline de La Chapelle Skubly (Washington, DC, 2004), pp. 48–80. See
also note 93 above.
118 Facio, DVI, p. 7: “I shall proceed from poets to orators, for the two are close kin. Their shared
attribute is a near equal concern with the power and proper use of words, and the fact that poets,
too, would seem barren and foolish if they lacked a method to their speech . . . But there have
always been more orators than poets, as their compositions are freer with regard to meter and thus
easier to craft. And yet, if we engaged in the three genres of oratory which were customary for
the ancients, perhaps the orator would be worthy of no less admiration [than the poet]. But of
the three genres only one has been left to our orators. For the judicial is the realm solely of the
jurisconsults, and we have given up the deliberative, as we no longer use it [i.e., deliberative Latin

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The renaissance of eloquence 71
Renaissance orators were consequently confined to demonstrative rhetoric,
the genre of praise and blame which classically took the form not only of
funeral orations, ceremonial speeches, and flashy display pieces, but also
of biography and history.119 Orators were thus rhetoricians who exercised
their activity – the mastery of language – in both spoken and written
Still, relatively few oratores, such as Ambrogio Traversari, Leonardo
Giustinian, and Guarino Veronese, are actually mentioned as delivering
orations.120 On the other hand, many humanists are said to have written
orationes. For example, Leonardo Bruni’s invective against Niccolò Niccoli
is entitled Oratio in nebulonem maledicum, and Poggio’s and Filelfo’s invec-
tives are called “orationes invectivas,” although none of these invectivae
was intended for oral delivery.121 Similarly, Facio refers to his own De viris
illustribus as an oratio.122 Furthermore, as in Piccolomini’s work, the orator
Niccoli is mentioned as never having written anything,123 nor is his rep-
utation said to rely on oratory. Finally, Chrysoloras, certainly not known

oratory] in a council or with princes but rather attempt to persuade and dissuade in the vernacular”
(“A Poetis ad Oratores transgrediar. His enim maxime cum poetis illa cognatio, atque affinitas
est, quod utrique circa vim, ac proprietatem verborum prope aeque desudant, et quod Poeta,
nisi dicendi rationem teneat, jejunus, atque ineptus . . . videatur . . . Sed oratorum semper utique
major numerus, quam poetarum fuit, quod liberioribus adstricta numeris illorum dictio est, atque
ideo contextu facilior. Quamquam si tria genera causarum persequeremur, quae antiqui oratores
tractare consueverunt, fortasse non minus admirandus orator, quam poeta videretur. Sed ex tribus
generibus unum modo oratoribus nostris relictum est. Nam et judiciale totum jureconsultorum
est, et deliberativum omisimus. Neque enim amplius in Senatu, aut apud Principes eo utimur, sed
vulgari sermone aut suadere, aut dissuadere aliquid nitimur”).
119 According to the standard Aristotelian conception of the three genres of rhetoric (Rhetoric, book I,
chapter 3), the thread running through all the species of demonstrative rhetoric is that the audience
is not asked to render judgment about what is shown, or demonstrated, to it; the audience is a
spectator (as opposed to judicial and deliberative rhetoric, where the audience must choose between
people, points of view, courses of action, and so on). See George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and
Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (London, 1980), pp. 72–75; and
Heinrich Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study, tr. Matthew T.
Bliss, Annemiek Jannsen, and David E. Orton (Leiden, 1998), §§61.3, 239–254.
120 Cf. Facio, DVI, pp. 11 (Traversari), 12–13 (Giustinian), and 17–18 (Guarino). For Giustinian, the
Venetian statesman and author of Latin orations, Latin translations of Plutarch, and popular
vernacular songs, see Franco Pignatti, “Giustinian, Leonardo,” in DBI, vol. LVII (2001), pp. 249–
121 Cf. Facio, DVI, pp. 5, 10, 17. The disjunction between spoken and written oratio is heightened
if one considers that the great model for humanist invective was Cicero’s (spoken) oration In
Pisonem. See Davies, “An Emperor without Clothes,” pp. 101–102 and passim. On Cicero’s In
Pisonem, see Severin Koster, Die Invektive in der griechischen und römischen Literatur (Meisenheim
am Glan, 1980), pp. 210–281.
122 Facio, DVI, p. 76: “nostra terminabit oratio.”
123 Ibid., p. 12, although here the explanation is more flattering: “Nevertheless he wrote nothing in
either Latin or Greek, having been content with the writings of the ancients” (“Nihil tamen latine,
aut graece scripsit scriptis veterum contentus”).

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72 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
for his speeches, writings, or style in Latin, is the very first orator in the
collection.124 In the context of Facio’s De viris illustribus, then, an orator
turns out to be someone who “deals with the force and the proper use of
words.” That is, anyone who works with oratio, which can mean variously
oration, any kind of prose work, style, or simply formal, ordered speech in
general (as opposed to informal speech less attentive to rules). An orator is
thus a master of language, of rhetoric, of eloquence.125
Thus the primary characteristic of Facio’s humanists is their proficiency
in language. But which one(s)? Typically the biographies begin by stating
specifically which languages the humanist knew.126 Nearly all are said to be
masters of Latin and Greek, and the combination is so common that it is
sometimes referred to simply as “both languages.”127 Only one humanist,
Giannozzo Manetti, is said to know a third: Hebrew. This is a reminder of
how uncommon, indeed unimportant, Hebrew was for fifteenth-century
humanists, apart from a few outliers like Manetti and Pico, and even of
how suspect it could be.128 We are a long way from the foundation of
the Collegium Trilingue at Louvain and the positive reception Reformers
like Melanchthon gave Hebrew. Facio reports Manetti’s achievement – one
we consider remarkable – without enthusiasm: “Giannozzo Manetti of
Florence is praised for his knowledge not only of Latin and Greek but also
of Hebrew.”129

124 Ibid., p. 8. Facio even apologizes for Chrysoloras’ deficient Latin, saying that he “was not ignorant
of Latin” (“litterarum quoque latinarum non ignarus”) and that he translated Plato’s Republic “as
well as he could” (“ut potuit”).
125 Cf. Cicero, De officiis, II.48. See also Giuseppe Billanovich, “Auctorista, humanista, orator,”
Rivista di cultura classica e medioevale, 7 (1965), pp. 143–163, at 160–162 for the use of orator as a
fifteenth-century term for ‘humanist.’
126 E.g., Leonardo Bruni (Facio, DVI, p. 9): “Bruni was one of the best educated in Greek and
Latin . . . ” (“Leonardus Arretinus Graecis, ac latinis literis in primis eruditus . . . ”); Carlo Mar-
suppini (p. 12): “Marsuppini knew Latin and Greek very well . . . ” (“Carolus Arretinus latinae, ac
graecae linguae doctissimus . . . ”); Francesco Barbaro (p. 15): “Barbaro the Venetian was trained in
Latin and Greek . . . ” (“Franciscus Barbarus Venetus latinis, ac graecis literis praeditus . . . ”).
127 E.g., Francesco Griffolini (Facio, DVI, p. 15): “Griffolini was an expert in both languages . . . ”
(“Franciscus Arretinus utriusque linguae peritia . . . ”).
128 See Paul Botley, Latin Translation in the Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Leonardo Bruni,
Giannozzo Manetti, and Desiderius Erasmus (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 102–104; Daniel Stein Kokin,
“The Hebrew Question in the Italian Renaissance: Linguistic, Cultural, and Mystical Perspectives,”
PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2006; and Erika Rummel, The Humanist–Scholastic Debate
in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). For a less pessimistic and also
less nuanced view, which does not cite Rummel, see Dvora Bregman, “Hebrew Literature and
Language,” in Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, ed. Paul F. Grendler, 6 vols. (New York, 1999),
vol. III, pp. 121–125.
129 Facio, DVI, p. 19: “Jannotius Manettus Florentinus litterarum non latinarum tantum, et graecarum,
sed etiam Hebraicarum cognitione laudatur.”

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The renaissance of eloquence 73
The vernacular, for its part, is never mentioned as a mode of humanistic
expression. Thus Facio is now the third author in a row to exclude the
vernacular from the world of humanism completely – and this despite
devoting entries to two authors now considered to be among the age’s
most important humanist contributors to the volgare: Bruni and Leon
Battista Alberti.130 Facio himself is known to have prepared an Italian
translation of Isocrates’ To Nicocles at the request of Alfonso’s son Ferrante.
Yet it was a duty he performed with obvious discomfort and from which he
tried to distance himself.131 When it came to literature, Facio’s sympathies
were solely with Latin. Moreover, as noted above, he laments the historical
reality that Latin oratores were excluded from the vernacular realm of
deliberative rhetoric.132 This passage merits closer attention. After claiming
the demonstrative genre for humanists but relinquishing the forensic to the
jurisconsults, Facio continues: “we have given up the deliberative, as we no
longer use it in a council or with princes but rather attempt to persuade
and dissuade in the vernacular.”133 The vernacular is portrayed here as
a competitor to Latin and, although a legitimate means of persuading
and dissuading, as excluded from the bona fide genus demonstrativum of
humanism. Thus although humanists would have used the vernacular when
participating in government business, they were only oratores when they
communicated in Latin.
The particular importance of Greek as a second language is underlined
by the ordering of the biographies. Chrysoloras is the first orator treated,
and the first thing said of him – and thus the first thing said of any orator – is
that “he was the first to bring Greek back to Italy after about seven hundred
years of disuse.”134 The next five humanists were all students of his. Like
Biondo Flavio, Bartolomeo Facio is keen to stress the central place of Greek
in humanism. Accordingly, nearly as many humanists as are given credit
for knowing Greek are also remembered for at least one translation. Most
are cited for more than one, many from several different authors, some for

130 For an overview of the relationship between Latin and the vernacular in Quattrocento Italian
humanism, including the role played by Bruni and Alberti, see M.L. McLaughlin, “Humanism
and Italian Literature,” in Jill Kraye (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism
(Cambridge, 1996), pp. 224–245. See also Hankins, “Humanism in the Vernacular.”
131 See Bentley, Politics and Culture, p. 69. 132 Cf. Witt, Footsteps, p. 451.
133 See note 118 above.
134 Facio, DVI, p. 8: “Manuel Chrysolora Constantinopolitanus literas graecas, quae jam supra septin-
gentos ferme annos in Italia obsoleverant, primus ad Latinos ex Graecia reportavit.” The meaning
of this strangely precise yet mysterious chronology is unclear. Facio’s source is undoubtedly Bruni’s
De temporibus suis. See Bruni, Memoirs, pp. 320–321 (par. 24).

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74 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
multiple genres, and a few even for translating both classical/pagan and
religious texts.135 Leonardo Bruni and George of Trebizond were especially
prolific; the lists of their translations go on for nearly an entire page each.136
Less common but still central to the humanist literary production Facio
reports were original works in Latin, with the main genres being letters,
works of history, dialogues, and poetry (especially love poetry and epi-
grams). Less frequently noted are works of moral philosophy, orations,
treatises, style guides, and biography.137
In addition to concerning themselves with language and producing clas-
sicizing writings – both original works and translations – Facio’s humanists
share a passion for classical culture in general. First, Chrysoloras’ restitu-
tion of Greek to Italy can be seen as a restoration of the Italians’ classical
heritage, a central component of which, beginning with Cicero’s contri-
bution to and transformation of Roman high culture, was Greek language
and literature.138 For Facio’s endless inventories of humanist translations
emphasize not so much the practice they afforded in Latin composition
(which was Biondo’s point), but rather the availability of Greek literature
itself. He also mentions that the ancients, too, engaged in translation –
specifically naming Cicero – thus implying that this is a way for the
humanists to imitate them.139 Greek and its literature are not the only
ancient things that Facio proudly announces have been brought back
into current use. He praises the restoration of ancient literary genres like
the elegy and the reintroduction of ancient cultural traditions, such as the
practice of poetic crownings (whose revival he erroneously attributes to the

135 Mentioned for translating both pagan and religious literature are Leonardo Bruni (Facio, DVI,
p. 10), Ambrogio Traversari (p. 11), Leonardo Giustinian (p. 12), Niccolò Perotti (p. 14), and George
of Trebizond (pp. 20–21).
136 Facio, DVI, pp. 10, 20–21. Of Bruni it is said (p. 10): “just about no one of our age left so
many monuments to his own industry” (“nec fere alius quisquam nostri temporis aeque multa
monumenta industriae suae reliquit”).
137 Facio mentions Manetti’s De illustribus longaevis (Facio, DVI, p. 19, which he calls De viris senioribus
omnium superiorum aetatem) and a work that might be Aeneas Sylvius’ De viris illustribus (p. 26,
here called De egregiis dictis ac factis clarorum hominum and said to be dedicated to Alfonso of
138 Cf. James Hankins, “Greek Studies in Italy: From Petrarch to Bruni,” Quaderni Petrarcheschi, 12–13
(2002–2003), pp. 329–339, at 338, who stresses that “throughout the Italian Renaissance, Greek
was always learned primarily for the enrichment of Latin culture; Cicero’s perspective on Greek
culture remained the dominant one.”
139 In his biography of Giovanni Aurispa, he mentions that the Sicilian humanist “translated
Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, just like Cicero had in his youth” (Facio, DVI, p. 19: “ . . . ac Xenophon-
tis librum, qui Oeconomicus inscribitur, in latinum traduxit, quem Cicero adolescens, ut scriptum
reliquit, e graeco in latinum converterat”).

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The renaissance of eloquence 75
emperor Sigismund).140 The general passion for everything antique can
perhaps best be seen in the biography of Niccolò Niccoli, who is singled
out for his “enthusiasm” not only “for Greek and Latin” but also “for . . . all
of antiquity”:
He called back into use painting, statuary, ancient script, and the other noble
arts which are entrusted to the minds and hands of artisans but which had
fallen into disuse among us. He discovered many lost books, and he most
diligently sought out the works of Cicero and of many other illustrious
authors. He assembled a vast collection of Greek and Latin books on all
kinds of art and learning . . . When about to die he donated his books to
the library that Cosimo de’ Medici had built in San Marco, so that even in
death he could be a benefit to the living.141
In the person of Niccoli humanism embraces “all kinds of art and learning,”
all the “noble arts,” the artes nobiles, of antiquity. Perhaps this is why in
other biographies Facio does not speak of bonae litterae, as Biondo does,
but rather of the apparently more global bonae artes and studia humanitatis
to refer to humanism.142 In addition to poetae and oratores, he also refers
to humanists simply as homines docti,143 learned men.

Praise and virtue

None of this eloquence or zeal for antiquity, none of the bonae artes or
the studia humanitatis would have been possible without money. As in the
works of Piccolomini and Biondo, here, too, the homines docti are said
to work as apostolic secretaries, chancellors, advisors, and diplomats to

140 Facio, DVI, p. 4: “Antonio Beccadelli . . . roused the elegy from its long sleep and brought it back
into the light” (“Antonius Panormita . . . elegiam, quae perdju jacuerat, rursus in lucem excitavit”);
pp. 72–73: “the emperor Sigismund was the first to crown poets with laurel after the ancient
custom” (“Sigismundus Imperator . . . primus Poetas more majorum laurea corona exornavit”).
141 Ibid., pp. 11–12: “Graece, et latinae linguae, omnisque antiquitatis studiosus picturam, statuariam,
ac veterem elementorum formam, caeterasque artes nobiles, quae vel ingenio, vel manu artificum
commendantur, quae jamdju apud nos consenuerant, in usum revocavit. Librorum quoque exor-
nandorum inventor, operum Ciceronis, et aliorum illustrium Auctorum diligentissimus inquisitor
fuit. Librorum magnam copiam tum Graecorum, tum latinorum cujuscumque artis, et doctri-
nae comparavit . . . Moriens Bibliothecae, quae erat in Marci Evangelistae Templo, quam Cosmus
Medices effecerat, libros suos, ut mortuus etiam viventibus prodesset, dedicavit.”
142 Facio uses bonae artes, e.g., in his biography of Antonio Beccadelli (Facio, DVI, p. 4); studia
humanitatis, e.g., in his biographies of Giovani Pontano (p. 6), Gasparino Barzizza (p. 28), and
Andrea Biglia (p. 40). To refer to a more general group of intellectual disciplines including theology
and philosophy, Facio uses liberales disciplinas, e.g., in his biographies of Aeneas Sylvius (p. 26)
and Alfonso of Aragon (p. 78).
143 E.g., Facio, DVI, p. 76.

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76 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
earn their keep and feed their passion.144 But Facio emphasizes another
element, one that was only implicit in the other authors, which stands
out in the biography of Niccoli quoted above: patronage. There Cosimo
de’ Medici is remembered for building the library at San Marco. So much
is repeated in his own biography, where it is said that he paid for the
purchase or copying of all the codices housed in it.145 He is also praised
for his own literary interests and the time he spent with “philosophers.”146
Pope Nicholas V is likewise honored for financing a library (the Vatican
Library), whose collection he secured by sending cohorts of humanists
to scour Europe for the “authors lost as casualties of war.” Facio also
mentions Nicholas’ patronage of Greek studies, which took the form of
fixed annual salaries to support translation activity.147 The greatest praise,
however, is reserved for Facio’s own patron, King Alfonso of Aragon. He
is mentioned constantly throughout De viris illustribus for his financial
support of individual humanists.148 Furthermore, his construction of an

144 The evidence for these occupations is too overwhelming to even begin to cite.
145 Cf. Facio, DVI, p. 57. Which is actually both true and strangely not in contradiction with what
Facio says about Niccoli’s will. Niccoli did indeed donate his books to Cosimo’s library at San
Marco. The vast majority of those books, however, were technically owned by Cosimo, who lent
Niccoli the money to buy them and was never paid back. See Ullman and Stadter, The Public
Library of Renaissance Florence, pp. 3–15; Eugenio Garin, La biblioteca di San Marco (Florence,
1999), pp. 15–23 [reprinted from La Chiesa e il Convento di San Marco a Firenze, 2 vols. (Florence,
1989–1990), vol. I, pp. 79–148].
146 Facio, DVI, p. 57: “Learned in both Latin and Greek, he divided his life between philosophers
and those who govern the republic, devoting as much time to letters as was left over from
his administration of public affairs” (“litteris non tam latinis modo, sed etiam graecis instructus
vitam inter philosophos, et eos, qui Rempublicam gerunt, mediam agit tantum litteris temporis
impertiens, quantum sibi a negociis Reipublicae superest”). For Cosimo de’ Medici as a patron
of humanism, see James Hankins, “Cosimo de’ Medici as a Patron of Humanistic Literature,” in
Francis Ames-Lewis (ed.), Cosimo “il Vecchio” de’ Medici, 1389–1464: Essays in Commemoration of
the 600th Anniversary of Cosimo de’ Medici’s Birth (Oxford, 1992), pp. 69–94.
147 Cf. Facio, DVI, pp. 75–76, esp. 76: “He established a library at huge expense containing a
nearly infinite number of Greek and Latin books. He sent humanists to Greece, Germany, and
France in search of the authors lost as casualties of war” (“Bibliothecam condidit innumerabilium
prope librorum tum graecorum, tum latinorum ingenti sumptu missis in Graeciam, Germaniam,
Galliam viris doctis, qui amissos bellorum casibus auctores conquirerent”). On Nicholas’ patronage
of the Vatican Library and translations from Greek, see Massimo Miglio, “Curial Humanism
Seen through the Prism of the Papal Library,” in Mazzocco (ed.), Interpretations of Renaissance
Humanism, pp. 97–112; and Charles L. Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome (Bloomington, 1985),
pp. 282–288.
148 Namely Beccadelli (Facio, DVI, p. 4), Filelfo (p. 5), Pontano (p. 6), Antonio Cassarino (p. 16),
Poggio (p. 17), Manetti (p. 19), Valla (p. 23), Pier Candido Decembrio (p. 24), Piccolomini (p. 26),
Theodore Gaza (p. 28). Add Facio himself, and Alfonso is explicitly said to have patronized more
than one quarter of the humanists mentioned in De viris illustribus. On Alfonso, see Alan Ryder,
Alfonso the Magnanimous: King of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily, 1396–1458 (Oxford, 1990); Bentley,
Politics and Culture, passim; and for a brief treatment of Alfonso as patron, Mario Santoro,
“Humanism in Naples,” in Rabil (ed.), Renaissance Humanism, vol. III, pp. 296–331, esp. 296–300.

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The renaissance of eloquence 77
important library (in Naples) is noted, and he is lauded beyond all others
for his personal excellence and largesse:
An enthusiast of philosophy, theology, and all antiquity, well educated in
the other liberal disciplines, endowed by nature with a remarkable memory,
he honors and supports each and every learned man of our age.149

What is the purpose of all this praise, which in this case is as incredible as
it is generous? Certainly Facio hopes with his De viris illustribus to repay,
justify, or induce more of the goodwill already shown to him by Alfonso,
as well as to honor friends and respected colleagues in general. But the
scope of the work is too broad for its contents to be explained by personal
interest alone. Here Facio’s general preface can provide further insight into
his greater design:
Of the many things that it might be worthy to entrust to posterity, the most
amenable seemed that of writing about the famous men of our time and of
recent memory. And I judged that in celebrating such men I would have
a very good chance of earning the thanks of many. For the knowledge of
famous men brings no little pleasure, and it also bears fruit. Their example
excites naturally well-ordered souls, acting like a kind of stimulus to honor,
to reputation, to glory. For when they see those names made immortal
through the writings of others, they put all their enthusiasm and energy
into pursuing virtue in the hopes of attaining immortal glory themselves. It
happens, however, that when we contemplate the lives of the ancients, the
soul submits to a kind of despair – despair of not being equal to their glory;
they take on the status of minor divinities, and we regard them with wonder,
as was the intention of the writers who honored and praised them. But with
the living, no matter how outstanding or distinguished they might be, the
vision of them before us excites hope – the hope that we might manage to
equal them in virtue or glory.150

149 Facio, DVI, pp. 77–78: “Philosophiae, Theologiae, atque omnis antiquitatis studiosus, ceterisque
liberalibus disciplinis excultus, memoriaque admirabili a natura donatus eruditos quosque nostri
saeculi viros ornat, ac fovet.”
150 Ibid., pp. 1–2: “Ex multis autem, quae mihi occurrebant digna, quae posteritati mandarentur,
illud prae caeteris jucundum fore existimavi, si de illustribus Viris aetatis, memoriaeque nostrae
scriberem. In quo illud saltem assequi me posse arbitratus sum, quod in ejusmodi Viris celebrandis
multorum mihi mortalium gratiam compararem. Habet enim in se non parum voluptatis, ac fruc-
tus clarorum hominum cognitio, quorum exempla animos natura bene constitutos, quasi stimuli
quidam ad decus, ad honestatem, ad gloriam concitant. Nam cum illorum nomen immortale
factum alienis scriptis vident, et ipsi toto studio, ac nixu virtuti incumbunt, quo immortalem
gloriam consequantur. Accedit eodem, quod cum nobis veterum exempla proponimus, subit ani-
mum desperatio quaedam, ne eorum gloriam adaequare valeamus, cum plane illos veluti Numina
quaedam habeamus, atque admiremur: usque adeo a scriptoribus celebrati, atque illustrati sunt.
Presentes autem, etiamsi excellentes, magnificique fuerint, quoniam in oculis nostris obversantur,
nobis non omnino auferre spem videntur, quin jis vel virtute, vel gloria pares esse valeamus” (the

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78 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Thus the purpose of Facio’s praise is to encourage his readers to virtue
through the promise of glory. The better Facio makes the humanists and
their patrons sound, the more likely it is that they will be imitated in
their pursuit and support of Latin eloquence and in their love of antiq-
uity. The glory he promises to his readers is ensured by his very own text,
which, by recording the greatness of his own time, makes the representa-
tives of that greatness ipso facto worthy of imitation. Here Facio achieves
a neat inversion of the relationship between facta and verba. It is initially
the deeds that inspire the words and make them worth writing. Once
those words, however, are used to glorify the deeds, they themselves
become an inspiration to further deeds, and, in this case, greater virtue.
Here the power of the word comes to exceed the power of the deed, at least
insofar as virtue is concerned.
Facio’s text is even more subtle, for he ends up arguing that this power
of the word makes his age superior to those preceding it. He begins by
positing a certain relativity of the virtue and culture of ages, claiming that
the only difference between them is the presence or absence of writers to
record them:
I often wonder why in so many centuries so few have written about illustrious
men, especially since there should have been some writers in every age to
make literary monuments to the men who excelled in any one art or study,
such that we could know who the most outstanding men were of each period.
For no age is so unrefined and devoid of virtue as to produce no renowned
or outstanding men. But since they lacked the praise of the eloquent, their
reputation died with them.151

The salient difference between ages is the presence or absence of eloquent

men willing and able to praise them. Yet Facio has already argued that it is
precisely praise that drives men on to greater virtue. To be more specific, it
is the praise of one’s contemporaries that functions in this way. Praise of the
ancients, on the other hand, leads to “despair.” Ancient writings on ancient
exemplars of virtue are therefore inadequate; the genre must be continued

word in italics, animum, is Albanese’s reading of ms. Vat. lat. 13650, reported in Albanese, “Lo
spazio della gloria,” p. 217; Mehus prints animus).
151 Facio, DVI, p. 2: “Admirari autem soleo, cur ex tot seculis tam pauci de illustribus Viris scripserint,
cum quidem singulis aetatibus aliqui scriptores extitisse debuerint, qui eos Viros, qui sua aetate in
aliqua arte, aut studio excelluerunt, literarum monumentis commendarent, ut singularum aetatum
praestantissimos quosque Viros scire possemus. Neque vero unquam ulla aetas adeo inculta, atque
virtutum expers fuit, quin aliqui praeclari, atque praestantes Viri in ea extiterint. Sed quoniam
caruerunt disertorum hominum praeconio, propterea illorum nomen una cum vita finitum est.”

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The renaissance of eloquence 79
or taken up – in this case resuscitated by Facio in his contribution to
humanism – in one’s own age. Eloquent men are thus necessary not only
to record the virtue of an age, but also to increase it. This is the grounds for
the excellence of Facio’s own time, and the responsibility for this greatness
lies wholly within the realm of humanism, the realm of the orators who
“deal with the force and the proper use of words.”
Yet another step can be taken with Facio’s text. His De viris illustribus
gives high praise to eloquence in its own right. It celebrates eloquent men
in the same pages with princes and kings, rich private citizens, and masters
of war – the typical sitters for portraits of virtue. Facio’s initial point was
that the eloquent praise of a thing turns it into an object of desire and
its attainment into virtue. Now eloquence is praised by eloquence. Thus
eloquence itself becomes an object of desire; the attainment of eloquence
becomes virtue.
Much ink has been spilled in the last thirty years over the relationship of
humanism to virtue. This is especially the case in the context of humanist
education, a subject that will be addressed in the following chapters.152
Here I would like to draw attention to two unexpected aspects of Facio’s
characterization that can help us to understand how humanists understood
humanism. First, Facio is the only one of our first three authors to make any
connection at all between virtue and eloquence. This suggests, as Anthony
Grafton and Lisa Jardine have argued, that the link posited between the
two that we find in the letters of Guarino Veronese, for example, or in
the oft-cited humanist educational treatises is more genre-specific than
has been widely appreciated.153 Whereas it suited the professional needs of
humanists intent on either defending humanism against competitors or on
selling humanism to a non-humanist or, more importantly, a potentially
humanist audience, it appears to have been less appropriate when speaking
to an audience composed of actual humanists. This does not necessarily
mean that the sentiment was not held or heartfelt, but certainly that it
was felt less urgently when talking to insiders. Biondo obviously wrote the
Italia illustrata in part with other humanists in mind, and he is silent about
virtue despite his unbounded enthusiasm for humanism. Aeneas Sylvius’
audience is unclear, but it is nothing short of astounding that he does
not call the humanists virtuous when recounting their accomplishments
in the context of the viri illustres of European politics and culture. For he

152 See below, pp. 127–129, 171, 206–207, 263.

153 Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities, pp. 1–28.

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80 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
is the author of one of the most cited of the aforementioned educational
treatises: De liberorum educatione, or The Education of Boys (1450).154 In
that work, whose date of composition coincides almost exactly with his
De viris illustribus, he consistently recommends his brand of education in
eloquence precisely in terms of the virtue it affords. Why leave out that
seemingly essential aspect of humanism when praising Bruni, the most
eloquent man of his age? To return to Facio, his primary audience included
his patron, Alfonso, from whom he hoped to continue reaping rewards for
the one thing he had to offer: eloquence. Of course he praises eloquence
as virtuous, just as he praises those who underwrite eloquence as virtuous.
Yet it seems wrong to attribute Facio’s statements entirely to petty self-
interest, and this brings us to the second noteworthy aspect of his point
of view. The humanist educators (including Piccolomini) tended to draw
a logical connection – admittedly fuzzy – between the labor of learning
or the specific curriculum on the one hand and the virtue attained on the
other, and they were keen to stress the social and political applications
of their instruction.155 Facio, however, does not assert a simple, generic
equation between humanism and virtue, nor does he say anything about
eloquence’s social value (in terms of mores), of its political usefulness, or of
the education required to attain it. Rather he makes a complex argument
about the power of the word and its relationship to the power of the deed;
indeed, he gives (eloquent) words the status of great deeds. In his view,
eloquence does not merely lead to virtue (although it can); eloquence itself
is virtuous. In his own way Facio, like Piccolomini and Biondo, presents
eloquence as a good in itself. It is the good which makes his age superior.

Drawing boundaries
The praise of eloquence finds its way into nearly every humanist biography.
For example, Antonio Loschi “toiled for eloquence.”156 Pier Paolo Verge-
rio “pursued eloquence with very great zeal and excelled in it.”157 Bruni,
“although not scorning the other arts, gave himself over to eloquence.”158
Traversari was “famed for his eloquence.”159 These quotations come from
154 In Humanist Educational Treatises, pp. 126–259.
155 Ibid., pp. vii–ix and passim; Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, pp. 117–121. See also note 154
156 Facio, DVI, p. 3: “eloquentiae operam dedit.” For the Milanese chancellor and papal secretary
Antonio Loschi, see Paolo Viti, “Loschi, Antonio,” in DBI, vol. LXVI (2006), pp. 154–160.
157 Facio, DVI, p. 8: “Eloquentiam summo studio secutus in ea re excelluit.”
158 Ibid., p. 9: “Caeteras artes non aspernatus eloquentiae sese dedit.”
159 Ibid., p. 11: “eloquentia claruit.”

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The renaissance of eloquence 81
the first eleven biographies alone. Evidence of the centrality of eloquence
abounds. Perhaps the most forceful indication that eloquence is at the heart
of humanism comes from the biography of Leon Battista Alberti:
The Florentine Baptista Alberti was not only eloquent, but he also seemed
to have been born for the rest of the liberal arts. To eloquence he added
philosophy and mathematics. An enthusiast of painting and learned in it to
boot, he issued one book on the art’s principles. He also wrote two books
on architecture and another two which he entitled Intercoenales. But still he
is more to be counted among the philosophers than among the orators.160

Looking past the factual inaccuracies of this description of Alberti’s oeuvre,

we note that it is Alberti’s eloquence, if anything, that identifies him as a
humanist.161 Nevertheless he devoted himself to too many other disciplines,
especially philosophy, and thus his humanist status is in doubt. Despite his
eloquence, “he is more to be counted among the philosophers than among
the orators.”162
Alberti’s biography thus indicates a boundary that, in Facio’s view at
least, separates humanists from devotees of other intellectual disciplines.
Philosophy – the natural philosophy of scholasticism – was a realm apart,
as were theology, law, medicine, mathematics, and music.163 Nothing

160 Ibid., p. 13: “Baptista Albertus Florentinus non eloquens modo, verum et ad omnes reliquas liberales
artes natus videtur. Eloquentiae, ac Philosophiae Mathematicas addidit. Picturae studiosus, ac
doctus de artis ipsius principjis librum unum edidit. Scripsit et de Architectura libros duos,
alios item duos quos intercoenales inscripsit. Inter Philosophos tamen magis, quam inter Oratores
numerandus.” The words italicized in the Latin text, “alios item duos,” are omitted by Mehus
but are supplied from ms. BAV, Vat. lat. 13650 by Albanese, “Le sezioni De pictoribus,” p. 69. For
Alberti, see Grafton, Leon Battista Alberti.
161 Alberti’s opuscule on art, De pictura, was written in three books, not one; his work on building,
De re aedificatoria, is composed of ten books; and the Intercenales, short works of wit in imitation
of Lucian, are collected in eleven books. Cf. Leon Battista Alberti, De pictura, ed. and tr. Cecil
Grayson (London, 1972), but now also On Painting: A New Translation and Critical Edition, ed.
and tr. Rocco Sinisgalli (Cambridge, 2011); L’architettura (De re aedificatoria), ed. and tr. Giovanni
Orlandi (Milan, 1966), as well as On the Art of Building in Ten Books, tr. Joseph Rykwert, Neil
Leach, and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); and Intercenales, ed. and tr. Franco Bacchelli
and Luca D’Ascia (Bologna, 2003), as well as Dinner Pieces, tr. David Marsh (Binghamton, NY,
162 Cf. Biondo’s similarly ambiguous description of Alberti. When treating Florence, he says that
Alberti was endowed with a “noble and versatile intelligence in many good arts” (Biondi, II, ii.32:
“nobili et ad multas artes bonas versatili ingenio”), but when reporting Alberti’s famous raising of
the ancient ships sunk in Lago di Nemi, he calls him “the great mathematician of our age” (iii.47:
“geometra nostro tempore egregius”).
163 Despite the exclusion of traditional, scholastic philosophy from humanism, it is obvious from their
numerous translations of ancient philosophers (as reported in the biographies) that the oratores
were actively interested in both moral and natural philosophy. Nevertheless, this interest did
not generally manifest itself in a traditional, scholastic context, such as disputations, summae, or
university professorships in philosophy. When it did cross the line, such as in Alberti’s too active

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82 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
prevented humanists from taking an interest in these fields. Indeed, many
are said to have studied, even to have loved, the one or the other, but they
are portrayed as alien to humanism proper.164
Not only does Facio distinguish humanism from these other pursuits,
he also implies that it stands above them in the hierarchy of praise and
glory. It is clear from the prefaces to each section that Facio has organized
his material in order of descending importance. Admittedly, the order of
the individuals within each group supposedly has no particular meaning:
“I will observe neither the rank nor the relative ability of the men treated
in each section, but each will be set down as he comes into my mind.”
Nevertheless, he has taken special care to “write about each individual class
and type separately.”165 While honoring all the various occupations and
pursuits, he intends to demonstrate why humanism is the highest.
After the humanists come the jurisconsults, who, as Facio explains in the
section preface, have the honor of preserving society through law. “Yet very
few have distinguished themselves” in his time, “nor have they achieved
glory for speaking or writing to the same degree as the orators.” Perhaps it
is a more difficult art to learn, he reasons, but the cause could also be its
great cost, which prevents most people from buying the necessary books

pursuit of mathematics and the scientific aspects of painting (or does Facio have other, unnamed
works or activities in mind?), the humanist is “rather to be counted among the philosophers than
the orators.”
164 For the sake of example, here follow some humanists said to have studied or loved these other
disciplines. The list is not exhaustive. Philosophy: Leonardo Giustinian (Facio, DVI, p. 12),
Vittorino da Feltre (p. 13), Francesco Barbaro (p. 15); theology: Giannozzo Manetti (p. 19),
Bessarion (p. 20), Piccolomini (p. 26); law: Vergerio (p. 8), Bruni (p. 9), Guiniforte Barzizza
(p. 14); medicine: Giovanni Marrasio (p. 5), Gregorio Tifernate (p. 25), Theodore Gaza (p. 28);
mathematics: Alberti (p. 13), Vittorino da Feltre (p. 13), George of Trebizond (p. 20). Only one
humanist is said to love music: Leonardo Giustinian (p. 12).
165 Facio, DVI, pp. 2–3: “It was my intention to commemorate the famous men of each skill and class
who enjoyed fame in my time. But if perhaps I omit anyone on account of either forgetfulness or
ignorance, please do not be angry with me. Once I have remembered or been told about them,
these people will be mentioned in a second book. At any rate I will observe neither the rank nor
the relative ability of the men treated in each section, but each will be set down as he comes
into my mind. I have only taken care of this one thing: to write about each individual class and
type separately. I think it will be more pleasing to the mind that way” (“Meum vero institutum
fuit de cujusque facultatis, atque ordinis Viris claris memorare, qui tempestate mea claruerunt.
Quod si fortasse quempiam per oblivionem, vel per inscientiam omisero, ne sit quaeso, qui mihi
succenseat. Post enim, ubi commeminero, vel admonitus fuero, in alterum librum conferetur.
Ego tamen neque dignitatem, neque excellentiam hominum in suo genere in jis commemorandis
observabo, sed ut quisque mihi prior occurrerit, ita a me literis mandabitur. Unum illud curae
fuerit, ut de singulis quibusque ordinibus, ac generibus seorsim scribam. Sic enim res, ut opinor,
fiet cognitu jucundior”). Facio’s claim to follow no particular order within each section is belied,
however, by a deliberate reordering of the biographies in what appears to be his working manuscript
of the text, BAV, Vat. lat. 13650. Cf. Cortesi, “Il codice Vaticano,” pp. 414–415.

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The renaissance of eloquence 83
and thus from pursuing it.166 Similar to law is medicine, the next category,
which likewise is said to contribute to the well-being of the city, this time
by preserving the health of its citizens. The section De medicis includes not
only physicians, however, but also philosophers and theologians – “since
there can be no doctors without philosophy”167 – thereby embracing all the
practitioners of the standard university disciplines of medicine, theology,
and philosophy. These individuals, along with the jurisconsults, were in
point of fact far more numerous than humanists, but in Facio’s account
they are treated in a mere eleven biographies. For their part, the jurists
numbered only nine, and Facio was sure to say in their regard that “very few
have distinguished themselves, nor have they achieved glory for speaking or
writing to the same degree as the orators” (emphasis mine). We have seen the
importance of glory and its intimate connection to eloquence. In contrast to
the forty-one humanists treated, Facio memorializes the combined twenty
jurisconsults and (broadly construed) doctors less for their writings than for
their teaching. In terms of geographical and temporal extension, therefore,
teaching, being of necessity a local phenomenon (in an age before e-
learning), must be secondary to writing, which in the form of manuscripts
and printed books could travel as far as zealous readers and enterprising
booksellers might take them – to say nothing of their Horatian potential
for permanence. Following Facio’s logic regarding eloquence and virtue,
teaching cannot help but seem ephemeral when compared with writing.
What Facio said about ages can thus be applied equally to disciplines: the
absence of written eloquence diminishes glory.
Facio also portrays humanists as more comprehensive in their interests
and their studies than the jurists and scholastics. Whereas many of the
humanists dedicated themselves to other disciplines, including law, philos-
ophy, theology, and medicine, they appear to be traveling a one-way street.

166 Facio, DVI, p. 29: “Now the jurisconsults will be treated. They are deserving of honor, as their
studies pertain to the preservation of human society. On that account men of this type have always
been held in high esteem in well-ordered cities . . . Yet very few have distinguished themselves in
our time or memory, nor have they achieved glory for speaking or writing to the same degree as
the orators. This is either because this art is more difficult to learn, or because of lack of money.
For these studies require a great number of books, and they cannot be fit into the family budget”
(“Nunc de Juris Consultis dicendum. Iis etenim suus dandus est honor, quorum studia pertinent
ad conservationem societatis humanae, atque ob eam quidem causam semper ejusmodi Viri in
civitatibus bene constitutis summo honore affecti sunt . . . Sed sane admodum pauci hac nostra
tempestate memoriaque floruerunt, nec porro tam multi, ut in dicendo, aut in scribendo Oratores
gloriam consecuti sunt, sive quod ars illa sit cognitu difficilior, sive, quod multi propter angustias
rei familiaris, magnam enim librorum vim postulant haec studia, amplecti non possunt”).
167 Ibid., p. 36: “Non erit autem indecens, ut arbitror, claros aliquot Philosophos, et Theologos
Medicis adjungere, quandoquidem absque Philosophia Medici esse nulli possunt.”

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84 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Indeed, only one philosopher is also described as a devotee of humanism:
the Augustinian Andrea Biglia, who taught moral and natural philosophy
at the University of Florence and wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Meta-
physics and De caelo. Interestingly, Piccolomini was wont to consider Biglia
a humanist, on account of his historical works but likely also due to his
association with the group around Leonardo Bruni and his teaching of
rhetoric. Facio, too, says that his “reputation is not much less among the
orators than it is among the philosophers.”168
Obviously, these categories are somewhat fluid, and attribution to any
particular one is a matter of subjective judgment. Could Facio not have
included Biglia with the humanists? And more importantly, should not
some of the humanists rather have been classified as theologians, philoso-
phers, or doctors? Facio himself was clearly of two minds with regard to
Leon Battista Alberti. Another case in point is Giovanni Marrasio, Facio’s
fourth poeta. True, his Angelinetum generally earns him humanist status (as
it does here), but, Facio complains, “he would have become even better in
this genre if he had continued his study of poetry. But he dedicated himself
to medicine, and after becoming a priest he gave up poetry.”169 Why not
just call him a doctor who in his youth wrote poetry? What makes him so
different from Biglia?
Probably little else than that Facio is primarily interested in glorifying
humanism (and did not want to reduce the already small number of
poets!). He sees it as his age’s greatest ornament, plainly superior to – more
honorable, more worthy of glory, more virtuous than – the other pursuits.
This applies just as well to the belle arti of painting and sculpture, whose
practitioners follow the doctors and are the last in the line of creators
(unless the great citizens, condottieri, and princes that follow them can be
considered creators of states), and who number only seven. Although their
pursuits are at the center of the modern perception of the Renaissance,
for the humanist Facio they are at the periphery of high culture.170 In his

168 Ibid., p. 40. Facio notes that Biglia taught philosophy, but also that he “cultivated the studia
humanitatis” and wrote a “history of his own times” and “a sizeable Latin dictionary” (“ . . . Senis
et alibi Philosophiam professus est. Studia quoque humanitatis coluit: historiam sui temporis
scripsit . . . Volumen praeterea de verborum latinorum interpretatione haud parvum reliquit. Inter
Oratores non multo minor, quam inter Philosophos judicatus . . . ”).
169 Ibid., p. 5: “ . . . fuissetque in hoc genere major evasurus, si poeticae studia persecutus esset. Sed
medicinae deditus, ac deinde Sacerdos factus ab eo studio discessit.”
170 Facio does, however, deploy the ut pictura poesis topos and admits that it might have been
convenientius to treat the painters directly after the poets. Cf. Facio, DVI, p. 43: “now we come
to painters, although it might have been more proper to put the painters after the poets. For, as
you know, there is a great affinity between the two, a painting being nothing other than a silent
poem” (“nunc ad pictores veniamus, quamquam fortasse convenientius fuit, ut post poetas pictores

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The renaissance of eloquence 85
work, humanism is not only central to the Renaissance. Humanism is the
Renaissance – the renaissance, or revival, of classical eloquence and thus,
so his argument goes, of a level of virtue only possible in a world where
eloquence reigns. The pursuit of eloquence renders Facio’s age superior to
those preceding it. Humanism makes his age superior.
∗ ∗ ∗
Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s De viris illustribus, Biondo Flavio’s Italia illus-
trata, and Bartolomeo Facio’s De viris illustribus are among the earliest
mature and self-conscious attempts to depict the movement of humanism.
The first was in all likelihood unknown to the latter two, and the second,
although undoubtedly a source for the third (whose author had in turn
supplied information for the Italia illustrata), did not determine its struc-
ture or contents.171 The clarity of their conceptions of humanism is thus
all the more striking, as is the substantial agreement among them. When
humanists decided to tell their own story, they had remarkably coherent
raw materials on which to draw. With their harmony they show them-
selves cognizant of occupying an independent, well-defined, and widely
recognized field of culture.
The names used for this field of culture in the first half of the fifteenth
century were litterarum studia (Piccolomini), bonae litterae (Flavio), bonae
artes, and studia humanitatis (Facio). Three emphases immediately come to
the fore, one on studia: “studies,” as the generalization of the object of one’s
zeal, enthusiasm, or exertion; another on bonae: which could be translated
simply as “good” (as in excellent) but whose primary meaning has the sense
of “morally good” and “beautiful”; and a final one on litterae: literature,
or the mark of learning and culture, which is the locus of the bonum and
the material object of the studia.172 Humanism is the nexus of these three

locarentur. Est enim, ut scis, inter Pictores, ac Poetas magna quaedam affinitas. Neque enim aliud
est pictura, quam poema tacitum”).
171 As mentioned above (p. 39), Facio seems to say that Piccolomini’s De viris illustribus was dedicated
to Alfonso. Being in the Aragonese court, he likely would have had access to Piccolomini’s work,
yet his De viris illustribus betrays no borrowing from Piccolomini’s. Piccolomini knew Facio’s De
viris illustribus, but not until years after his own was finished. See the correspondence between
the two men in Facio, DVI, pp. 107–108. Facio seems to have relied on Biondo in his treatment
of artists; see Albanese, “Le sezioni De pictoribus,” pp. 62, 69–70, and passim. Although Albanese
provides evidence that “i due testi di Biondo e Facio sono strettamente connessi tra loro” (p. 62)
with regard to the treatment of visual artists, this does not seem to be the case for their treatment
of humanists.
172 Cf. A. Ernout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine, histoire de mots, 4th ed.
(Paris, 1967), pp. 73 (bonus), 363 (littera), and 658 (studeo). Cf. also the Thesaurus linguae latinae
(Leipzig, 1900–), vol. II, coll. 2079–2127 (bonus and bonus [bene]) and vol. VII.2, coll. 1514–1529

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86 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
concepts. Decisive is also the meaning of humanitas, i.e., the essential trait
of human beings.173 If in his highest nature man tends to what is good (in
the broad sense of excellent, moral, and beautiful), then the connection
between humanitas and the obsession with eloquence, achieved through the
medium of bonae litterae, becomes immediately intelligible. The human-
ists’ enthusiasm for beautiful (eloquent) and morally good literature (i.e.,
the genres and species of ancient literature not devoted to purely theoretical
or practical disciplines like logic, law, or medicine) makes sense if one con-
siders that theirs was a world in which the good, the beautiful, the noble,
and the moral were generally thought to coincide. Indeed, this notion of
bonae litterae held into modern times, when its cognate belles lettres still
denoted “beautiful literature” or “good literature” in the sense of writing
that is morally good or has a morally good effect.174 Hence also the use of a
term like oratores (in Facio) to describe the devotees of humanism. On the
one hand, their medium was language (oratio, litterae), and so they should
rightfully call themselves oratores, or masters of rhetoric (in the broad sense
of the art or science of language). On the other hand, if, as Cicero and
Lorenzo Valla argued, man distinguishes himself from animals primarily
through his use of language, then studia humanitatis – the accumulated
zeal for humanitas – must comprehend the mastery of language necessary
to the orator’s eloquence.175 It is in this conception of man and his potential
that Facio’s equation of virtue and eloquence finds its true home.
Strangely, for us, Facio is the only one of our first three authors to use the
term studia humanitatis. More than terminology is at stake in this observa-
tion. Kristeller more or less equated humanism with the cycle of educational
and university disciplines that, in his view, made up the studia humanitatis:
grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.176 When these
categories arise in our authors, however, they do so in the form of genres
of writing or speaking, not as disciplines or subjects of study. Furthermore,
no author describes humanist involvement in education except insofar as
he sings the praises of humanist educators, whose contribution, in turn,
consists of teaching eloquent Latin, not Kristeller’s studia humanitatis. One
could argue that Facio, by explicitly separating humanists from lawyers,
173 Cf. Thesaurus linguae latinae, vol. VI.3, coll. 3075–3038 (humanitas).
174 Cf. Vito R. Giustiniani, “Homo, humanus, and the Meaning of Humanism,” Journal of the History
of Ideas, 46:2 (1985), pp. 167–195, at 168. On the medieval and Renaissance notion of grammar as
a moral art, see Gehl, A Moral Art.
175 See Giustiniani, “Homo, humanus,” pp. 168–169; and Salvatore I. Camporeale, Lorenzo Valla.
Umanesimo, riforma e controriforma (Rome, 2002), pp. 566–568 [tr. in Christianity, Latinity, and
Culture, pp. 121–123].
176 Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and its Sources, pp. 22–25, 88–100.

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The renaissance of eloquence 87
physicians, and philosophers, envisions humanism similarly to Kristeller.
Yet he divides humanists not along Kristeller’s lines but according to the
rubric of poetae and oratores. Although we can lump the humanists’ inter-
ests and teaching subjects into the categories discerned by Kristeller, it is
instructive that Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio did not do so when they
composed the first synthetic accounts of humanism.
It is equally instructive that they did not rely on negative definitions.
That is, they do not define humanism against an “other” that it was not
but rather on the basis of its own distinct characteristics. There is a strange
silence in their texts where we might expect to hear the anti-scholastic
polemics familiar from Petrarch or Valla, or else the “noisy advertisements,”
as Kristeller characterized the verbal assaults hurled in the “battle of the
arts,” meant “to neutralize and to overcome the claims of other, rivaling
sciences.”177 Instead, our authors portray humanism unmistakably on its
own terms: as the project to revive ancient, Ciceronian Latin eloquence.
Aeneas Sylvius and Biondo explicitly equate good Latin with Cicero, place
its ultimate demise in the fifth century (after the age of Jerome and Augus-
tine), and characterize just about all intervening times and writers as bereft
of eloquence. According to both, Petrarch began the renewal of good Latin
but did not achieve true eloquence. Then opinions diverge. For Piccolo-
mini it appears that this project was not yet complete in his own times,
although Bruni had become “most similar to Cicero,” whereas Biondo
claims twice that his age abounds in eloquence. In any case, they agree that
whatever eloquence there was owed its existence to a Greek, the Byzantine
educator and diplomat Manuel Chrysoloras. Biondo posits other necessary
factors, too, such as the inspirational teaching of Giovanni da Ravenna,
the hunt for lost ancient Latin literature, and the proliferation of humanist
In the big picture, the arrival of Greek is portrayed as the turning
point in humanism’s development and as the formative moment for it as
a movement, helping it to evolve beyond Petrarch’s linguistic limitations
and to spread throughout Italy. On the one hand it was necessary for
Latin eloquence. Piccolomini does not elaborate on this, but the message
of his oracle is clear: “Chrysoloras . . . reintroduced the ancient method

177 Ibid., p. 92. Cf. Rummel, The Humanist–Scholastic Debate; Francesco Petrarca, Invectives, ed. and
tr. David Marsh (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), esp. pp. 222–363 (De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia);
Garin, L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 31–35; and Camporeale, Umanesimo, riforma, e controriforma,
pp. 151–176 [tr. in Christianity, Latinity, and Culture, pp. 175–202, along with the Latin text
and the English translation of the relevant sections of Valla’s Encomium of St. Thomas Aquinas,
pp. 306–311 (§§13–20)].

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88 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
and Ciceronian style of writing.” Biondo is more specific, explaining that
ancient Latin eloquence reappeared thanks to the practice in Latin compo-
sition afforded by translation from Greek. On the other hand, knowledge
of Greek became an indispensable characteristic of humanism in its own
right. All three authors mention its mastery as an accomplishment, and
Facio goes further by making it central to a humanist profile. Chrysoloras
is the first orator in his collection, and nearly all the others are said to know
Greek and to have translated Greek texts into Latin. What is more, Facio
does not associate Greek with Latin style but instead treats it as a distinct
category of achievement. Once reintroduced to Italy by Chrysoloras, Greek
gave access to lost pagan and Christian literature alike, although the former
is mentioned more often.
While translations seem to have been the major product of the human-
ists’ erudition in Latin and Greek, they were accompanied by a vast array of
original compositions: letters, histories, poetry, dialogues, orations, invec-
tives, and so on. Indeed, some sort of output in a recognized genre of
classical Latin letters – either spoken or written – was fundamental to
humanist status. Niccolò Niccoli is the exception that proves the rule; he
produced nothing but demonstrated in other impressive ways his enormous
knowledge of and devotion to classical letters.
Niccoli also embodies Facio’s broader conception of humanism as a
passionate desire for Greco-Roman antiquity. “The arbiter of knowledge”
was an amateur antiquarian, in the best sense of both terms. He collected
statuary, reconstructed ancient orthography, and searched for lost works
of literature. Most importantly, he was instrumental in restocking the
library of ancient texts for the common benefit of the larger community
of humanists. The establishment of libraries, moreover, is set into high
relief by Facio, who connects not only Niccoli but also Cosimo de’ Medici,
Nicholas V, and Alfonso of Aragon to such benefaction.178
The latter three were among the great patrons of humanism, emblematic
of its underwriting by wealthy private citizens, princes, and popes. Facio is
emphatic about patronage, but its importance can just as well be inferred
from Piccolomini’s biography of Niccolò d’Este and Biondo’s dedication
to Nicholas. The boundaries of patronage could blur with professional

178 It is worth noting that Alfonso is at least implicated in the composition of all three of the texts
included in this chapter. There is no doubt that he was the initial impetus for Italia illustrata and
the dedicatee of Facio’s De viris illustribus, and he might have also patronized Piccolomini’s De
viris illustribus.

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The renaissance of eloquence 89
employment, which humanists most often found as secretaries, chancel-
lors, diplomats, and teachers. Otherwise they are depicted as leading the
religious life, like Traversari or Antonio da Rho, or as enjoying the benefits
of private wealth, like Niccoli. Here we can note another interesting diver-
gence between Kristeller’s conception of humanism and the humanists’
view of themselves. For Kristeller, humanists could be defined best as a
professional class of rhetoricians, and their involvement with classical liter-
ature and language was inseparable from the exigencies of the professional
context in which they operated.179 Yet our authors, despite corroborating
the basic facts about where humanists tended to work, do not evince any
cognizance, beyond Facio’s sensitivity to patronage, of belonging to a group
defined by that employment.
Instead, Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio describe an energetic, pan-
Italian cultural movement not tied to any one person or milieu. The only
non-Italians mentioned are Greek émigrés like Manuel Chrysoloras and
George of Trebizond (as well as George’s international students in Rome).
Florence seems to be a particularly warm home for humanism in Piccolo-
mini’s text, but neither Biondo nor Facio favors it. Humanism pervades the
peninsula. By general consensus its leading exponent is Leonardo Bruni,
who is known not for civic engagement but for his Latin style. According
to Piccolomini, “in writing Bruni exceeded everyone. For he was the most
similar to Cicero, nor has our age found his equal.” Bruni, as Ciceroni
simillimus, embodied the renaissance of eloquence in the first half of the
fifteenth century.

179 See note 177 above.

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ch a p ter 2

The scholastic studia humanitatis and the

hagiography of humanism

If the similarity of Piccolomini’s, Biondo’s, and Facio’s presentations

encourages a monolithic view of humanism at mid-century, such an impres-
sion is undermined by a series of collective biographies written by the
Florentine Giannozzo Manetti (1396–1459) in the same period.1 Whereas
in the previous chapter humanism emerged as a distinct realm of cul-
ture identified squarely with the revival of Latin eloquence and to a lesser
degree with Roman antiquity and virtue, here it will appear as a general
cultural flourishing integrating vernacular poetry and scholasticism with
Latin rhetoric and Greek studies. In a neat sleight of hand Manetti nearly
dissolves humanism within the larger intellectual and literary culture of the
age, one that includes almost all of the disciplines and pursuits explicitly
(Facio) or implicitly (Aeneas Sylvius, Biondo) excluded in Chapter 1: natu-
ral philosophy, theology, mathematics, and music. Only law, both civil and
canon, is banished from the realm of the studia humanitatis. Manetti uses
this term in many places to describe something basically equivalent with
the artes liberales (the scholastic preparation of the trivium of grammar,
rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astron-
omy, and music), with natural philosophy and theology, and with what he
nebulously calls “the study of things human and divine.” Manetti does not
entirely dissolve humanism as a distinct cultural category, though. Despite
the conflation of the name studia humanitatis with scholasticism, human-
ism does ultimately emerge an integral, independent concept, although
not precisely in the form described by our first three authors. Here it is
still primarily a literary pursuit, but one which embraces vernacular as well

1 On Manetti, see Simona Foà, “Manetti, Giannozzo,” in DBI, vol. LXVIII (2007), pp. 613–617; Lauro
Martines, The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, 1390–1460 (Princeton, 1963); Christine Smith
and Joseph F. O’Connor, Building the Kingdom: Giannozzo Manetti on the Material and Spiritual
Edifice (Tempe, 2006), pp. xi–xiv; and Stefano U. Baldassarri (ed.), Dignitas et excellentia hominis:
Atti del convegno internazionale di studi su Giannozzo Manetti. Georgetown University – Kent State
University, Fiesole – Firenze, 18–20 giugno 2007 (Florence, 2008).


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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 91
as Latin eloquence. Furthermore, it begins with the rebirth of vernacular
poetry, before continuing with the revival of classical Latin and the reintro-
duction of Greek into Italy. In another departure, Manetti adds an element
of hagiography into his depiction of humanism and its exemplary expo-
nents. He not only defends the new learning as compatible with Christian
orthodoxy, but he even portrays it as the path to the good life.
Manetti emerged from a different cultural matrix and had notably dif-
ferent intellectual allegiances from our first three authors. He learned Latin
relatively late, when he was already in his twenties (ca. 1420), after training
to be a merchant in accordance with his father’s wishes. He undertook his
studies of Latin and classical literature in the Augustinian monastery of
Santo Spirito in Florence, where the new learning had flourished since the
Trecento.2 It was in Santo Spirito that Giovanni Boccaccio had deposited
his own personal library, and also where Salutati had received much of his
own advanced training. Eugenio Garin has emphasized that in this context
Manetti “absorbed the ideas of early humanism, the teaching of Petrarch,
Salutati, and [Luigi] Marsili” – not an intellectual genealogy boasted by
our first three authors.3 Thereafter Manetti learned Greek from the Camal-
dolese monk Ambrogio Traversari in another monastic setting, Santa Maria
degli Angeli. As a wealthy fiorentino of the highest social standing, Manetti
was heavily invested in the city’s chief source of cultural capital: the literary
production and reputations of the so-called Three Crowns of Florence,
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Against detractors both within and with-
out Florence, he insists doggedly on their humanist status, praising their
vernacular works as a matter of course and defending the orthodoxy of
their lives and studies. Petrarch is a liminal, if not a marginal figure in
Piccolomini and Biondo, and he is ignored by Facio. Dante and Boccaccio
suffer the fate of oblivion in our first three authors. The same pattern
recurs, as we shall see, in the texts of Paolo Cortesi and Marcantonio Sabel-
lico to be discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. But for Manetti, the nature and
the value of humanism stand and fall with these three Trecento writers.
Manetti’s texts are invaluable for giving us insight into the understanding
Florentines, or a leading group of Florentines, had of humanism in the
middle of the fifteenth century. This insight is of fundamental significance
for two reasons. On the one hand Manetti’s vision largely corroborates
that of Eugenio Garin. In Garin’s view, Dante and Petrarch inaugurated a

2 On the milieu of Santo Spirito, see Rudolph Arbesmann, Der Augustinereremitenorden und der
Beginn der humanistischen Bewegung (Würzburg, 1965), pp. 73–119.
3 Garin, Italian Humanism, p. 56 [Italian original in L’umanesimo italiano, p. 69].

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92 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
bona fide age of umanesimo by turning their backs on medieval authori-
ties and taking their orientation instead from ancient auctores, boasting a
revolutionary program (substantially animated by Petrarch) of humanitas
in the grandest anthropological, social, and political senses of the term.4
On the other hand, as much as Manetti accords with Garin, he diverges
in this respect from all the other authors considered in this study. This
incongruity suggests that the interpretation of humanism enunciated by
Garin and now taken for granted in Italian scholarship is representative of
a specific Florentine situation and perspective but less relevant to a broadly
Italian conception of what humanism was and meant.
In this chapter an attempt will be made to distill Manetti’s syncretic
notion of humanism from three different but related accounts contained
in collective biographies dating from 1439 to 1458.5 The main focus will
be on the Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita (The Lives of the
Three Illustrious Florentine Poets, 1440). This work contains the lives of the
Three Crowns Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio (these lives will generally
be referred to individually as the Vita Dantis, Vita Petrarchae, and Vita
Boccacii) as well as parallel biographies of two ancient philosophers, Socrates
and Seneca. These five vitae formed a unit and were handed down together
in the manuscript tradition.6 The parallel lives of Socrates and Seneca were
inspired by Plutarch’s Lives, but Manetti adds his own innovative twist:
in addition to comparing an ancient Greek to a Roman famous in the
same field – here moral philosophy – he sets up a comparison between
the three modern poets as well. There is an explicit comparatio at the end
of both sections, and the reader is also encouraged to measure the two
sections against one another for himself, and thus to weigh the ancients
against the moderns.7 The biographies contained in this collection are the

4 Particularly expressive of this view are Garin, Rinascite e rivoluzioni, pp. 49–88, esp. 75–76; Garin,
L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 25–46, esp. 25–28.
5 The relevant sections of these texts are all found in Manetti, Biographical Writings. This volume
contains the full text of the Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita (Vita) and of the Vita Socratis
(VSoc) and Vita Senecae (VSen), plus excerpts from De illustribus longaevis (DIL) and Contra Judaeos
et Gentes (CJEG). Baldassarri and Bagemihl’s text is the most extensive and philologically rigorous
partial edition of DIL. The entire Latin text of the sixth book of CJEG is available elsewhere: Il De
scriptoribus prophanis di Giannozzo Manetti, ed. Gianna Gardenal (Verona, 2008). For complete
bibliography of previous partial editions, see Manetti, Biographical Writings, pp. 319–320. References
will be made to the paragraph number of the work in question, not to page numbers, and the
lives of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio in the Vita will be referred to under the separate titles Vita
Dantis (VD), Vita Petrarchae (VP), and Vita Boccacii (VB) (e.g., VD, 6 = Vita Dantis, par. 6); all
translations are those of Baldassarri and Bagemihl, with modifications noted when made.
6 For the unity of these apparently separate works, see Stefano U. Baldassarri, “Introduction,” in
Manetti, Biographical Writings, pp. xv–xvi.
7 Ibid., p. xvi.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 93
most extensive encountered so far. As opposed to the more or less short
sketches presented by Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio, Manetti paints a full
portrait of each figure, describing his youth and education, achievements
and writings, and lastly his physiognomy and habits.
Details of these portraits crop up in two other biographical collections
by Manetti, and it will be useful to interpret the main text from time
to time in light of the variations among them, as well as of the other
biographies of humanists they include. The first, De illustribus longaevis
(On Famous Men of Great Age, 1439), contains the nucleus of the later
Vita Petrarchae and includes two other biographies relevant to this study,
namely those of Coluccio Salutati and Niccolò Niccoli. The second, Contra
Judaeos et Gentes (Against the Jews and the Gentiles, 1452–1458), is a massive
work meant to show the superiority of Christianity and the proper place
of ancient, non-Christian learning in the modern, Christian world. Its
sixth book contains a collective biography of the learned men of Manetti’s
age, who are set up as an example of the proper synthesis of ancient and
modern, pagan and Christian.8 Unfortunately, the state of the text of these
latter two sources is too uncertain for them to be used for any but the
most tentative and conservative analysis and comparison.9 Nevertheless,
their bearing on the main text under consideration in this chapter (the
Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita) suggests that they should

8 Descriptions of CJEG are available in Alfonso De Petris, “L’Adversus Judaeos et Gentes di Giannozzo
Manetti,” Rinascimento, ser. 2, 16 (1976), pp. 193–205, esp. p. 205: “In un eclettismo filosofico-
religioso a base di fede, del pensiero antico vengono recuperati quegli elementi che, alla pienezza dei
tempi, confluiscono nella nuova religione”; and Gianfranco Fioravanti, “L’apologetica anti-giudaica
di Giannozzo Manetti,” Rinascimento, ser. 2, 23 (1983), pp. 3–32.
9 Both are huge works only portions of which have been published (see note 5 above). I have not seen
the extant manuscripts, and it is therefore impossible to contextualize adequately the sections available
in print. Brief descriptions of the works are given in Baldassarri, “Introduction”; and as in note 8
above. A general overview of the manuscript tradition of CJEG is available in De Petris, “L’Adversus
Judaeos”; and Manetti, Il De scriptoribus prophanis, pp. 9–41. Exacerbating these difficulties is the
fact that printed excerpts of these works indicate lacunae whose contents are nowhere described
by the editor, nor are the criteria used in selecting and editing the passages announced. Finally,
none of the three works examined in this chapter has received sufficient scholarly attention, and
so there is no solid foundation upon which to build. In addition to the bibliography in notes 5
and 8 above, see the partial discussion and observations in: Stefano U. Baldassarri, “Clichés and
Myth-Making in Giannozzo Manetti’s Biographies,” Italian History and Culture, 8 (2002), pp. 15–33
[on the Vita and DIL]; Christoph Dröge, Giannozzo Manetti als Denker und Hebraist (Frankfurt
am Main, 1987), pp. 65–85 [on CJEG]; Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity
and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1970), vol. II, pp. 726–734 [on CJEG];
Nicola Badaloni, “Filosofia della mente e filosofia delle arti in Giannozzo Manetti,” Critica storica,
2:4 (1963), pp. 395–450, at 429–435 [on CJEG, DIL, VSoc, VSen]; Giannozzo Manetti, Vita Socratis
et Senecae, ed. Alfonso De Petris (Florence, 1979), pp. 3–105, 207–216 [on DIL, VSoc, VSen]. Also
useful is James Hankins, “Manetti’s Socrates and the Socrateses of Antiquity,” in Baldassarri (ed.),
Dignitas et excellentia hominis, pp. 203–219 [on VSoc].

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94 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
be consulted when it seems most appropriate and least tendentious, and
always under the guidance of restraint.
With these caveats in mind, we can now move on to the interpretation
of Manetti’s writings and the reconstruction of the view of humanism they
evoke. What follows has three parts. The first examines the elastic way
in which Manetti uses the term studia humanitatis. The second shifts the
focus to his history of humanism and depiction of its chief figures. In
the third, finally, Manetti’s hagiography of humanism, which is the most
intriguing and unique aspect of his account, will occupy the foreground.

Things human and divine

The Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita (hereafter referred to
simply as Vita) is an overtly apologetic text whose central purpose is to
defend the Three Crowns before the tribunal of Latin humanism. Manetti
explains in his preface:
Above all, I was moved by the desire to have their great merits, hitherto
hidden among the common people, spread to the erudite and the learned,
who until now have despised and dismissed all works of vernacular literature,
of which our poets are duly regarded as the chief ornaments.10
The erudite and learned despisers of vernacular literature are first and
foremost the group of humanists that flourished around Leonardo Bruni
and Niccolò Niccoli in the first decades of the fifteenth century.11 Their
extreme position on the superiority of proper Ciceronian Latin, as well as
their dismissal of the Three Crowns, were classically enunciated by Bruni
in his Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, composed in the opening years
of the fifteenth century.12 Bruni would ultimately soften his stance, first as
part of his public break with Niccoli (In nebulonem maledicum, early 1420s),
and then more fully in his Vite di Dante e del Petrarca (1436). This latter
work, significantly written in the “despised” vernacular, celebrates varying
civic contributions of Dante and Petrarch and recognizes the latter’s role
10 Manetti, VD, 6: “ . . . idque praecipue ea causa adductus feci, ut maximas eorum laudes, quae in
plebecula hactenus latere videbantur, ad eruditos et doctos viros tandem aliquando conferrem, qui
vulgaria cunctorum hominum scripta, qualia pleraque nostrorum poetarum praecipua et habentur
et sunt, semper contemnere atque floccipendere consueverunt.”
11 On which see George Holmes, The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400–1450 (London, 1969), ch. 1:
“The Humanist Avant-Garde.”
12 The dating of the Dialogi has long been a subject of contention. See Stefano U. Baldassarri,
“Introduzione,” in Bruni, Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, pp. 3–232, at 61–64. For the inter-
pretation of the Dialogi, see David Quint, “Humanism and Modernity: A Reconsideration of
Bruni’s Dialogues,” Renaissance Quarterly, 38 (1985), pp. 423–445.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 95
in humanism in a way similar to that found in Piccolomini and Biondo.13
There is no indication, however, that Niccoli ever changed his rigid classicist
views. Niccoli’s stance, furthermore, was shared by a broad segment of the
humanist movement, if, that is, the three authors examined in Chapter 1 can
be taken as representative. For none of them so much as mentions Dante
or Boccaccio, and Petrarch, when included in accounts of humanism, is
dispatched as an inspirational but nonetheless ineloquent figure. It is to
this view that Manetti intends to craft a reply, but he also has in mind
the civic lens of Bruni’s recent biographies and a larger tradition dating
back to Boccaccio’s Trattatello in laude di Dante (1357), which (as far as
he is concerned) have not treated the illustrious poets either adequately
or correctly.14 At stake are thus two connected issues: the Three Crowns’
status as humanists, and the kind of life – active or contemplative – proper
to humanism.
Manetti’s first order of business is to bolster the humanist credentials of
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, whose fame rested primarily on their
vernacular writings and whose un-Ciceronian Latin now undermined
their status in humanist circles. This he does first by playing a kind of
name game. To whatever learned interest, pursuit, or accomplishment he
mentions – be it scholastic university education, the writing of vernacular
poetry, or the reading of Latin authors – Manetti simply applies the label
studia humanitatis. He thereby conflates activities and qualities singled out
by our first three authors as essential to humanism, e.g., eloquence and
Latin style, with others they would have excluded, e.g., theological dispu-
tations and excellence in vernacular composition. In addition to dissolving
these linguistic and disciplinary boundaries, Manetti pushes humanism’s
temporal borders back to the thirteenth century, when Dante received
his education. Such a view would be simply incomprehensible to Aeneas
Sylvius and Biondo, who began their accounts of humanism with Petrarch,
and especially for Facio, who began his with Chrysoloras. The overall effect
is thus both to include all of the Three Crowns in humanist culture and to
vastly expand the sense of what humanism is.
Let us begin with the description of Dante’s university education in the
Vita Dantis:
He went to Paris for the sole purpose of studying, for at the time that city
was generally regarded as the best place in the world to study all things
human and divine. Putting everything else aside, he studied with incredible

13 See Hankins, “Humanism in the Vernacular”; and Garin, Rinascite e rivoluzioni, pp. 72–73.
14 Manetti, VD, 5.

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96 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
zeal and dedication both natural and divine sciences, learning so much that
in many of those debates which are commonly held there on these subjects
he managed to surpass, as everybody agreed, some great philosophers and
even some of those who are called “theologians.”15

In the context of Paris and the scholastic-style disputations in which Dante

is said to have excelled, the study of “things human and divine,” or “the
natural and divine sciences,” must be Aristotelian natural philosophy and
theology, although it is quite likely that Manetti, following Cicero, also
intends res humanae et divinae more generally as a formula for universal
knowledge. At any rate, there is no doubt that Dante, “putting everything
else aside,” pursued in Paris the scholastic education par excellence. Nev-
ertheless, one line later he is described as having been “safely and quietly
immersed in the studia humanitatis.” Lest there be any question of Manetti’s
having moved on to rhetoric without telling the reader, these studies are
immediately referred to as “calm and divine.”16
The conflation of humanist and non-humanist names and pursuits con-
tinues throughout the biography. At one point Manetti seems to portray
Dante in a way that would resonate with Facio, Biondo, and Piccolomini:
he endows him with “unparalleled eloquence,” remarking, “they say he
gave extremely elegant orations, which is attested by his many missions
to various illustrious princes and supreme pontiffs.”17 On the other hand,
Manetti lists Dante’s major works as vernacular poetry (La divina comme-
dia) and a scholastic treatise in Latin (De monarchia), genres unlikely to
pique the enthusiasm of someone like Facio.18 Moreover, Manetti refers to
Dante twice as a “philosopher,” and in his Divine Comedy “Dante not only
touched on subjects proper to poetry and poets, but also on moral, natural,
and divine things.”19 That is, he combined what would become humanistic

15 Manetti, VD, 32: “ . . . in Parisiensium urbem – studiorum dumtaxat gratia – se contulit, quippe in
hoc loco humanarum et divinarum rerum studia ceteris orbis terrarum locis celebratiora, consensu
omnium, ferebantur. Ibique ceteris omnibus posthabitis, naturalium ac divinarum rerum studiis
assiduam et paene incredibilem operam navavit, in quibus usque adeo profecit ut in frequentissimis
memoratarum rerum disceptationibus, pro more civitatis, et magnos quidem philosophos et quos
etiam ‘theologos’ vocant, una voce omnium, saepenumero superaret.”
16 Ibid., 33: “Dum itaque in huiusmodi humanitatis studiis quietissime simul atque securissime
viveret . . . ”; “pertranquilla ac divina studia” (translation modified; emphasis mine).
17 Ibid., 45: “summam eius elegantiam”; “Elegantissimum in orando fuisse perhibent, quod frequentes
eius legationes ad multos cum illustres principes tum ad summos pontifices manifeste declarant”
(translation modified).
18 Ibid., 51–54.
19 Ibid., 43 (“viro philosopho”) and 46 (“tanto ac tam gravi philosopho”); 52: “In hoc divino, ut dixi,
poemate non modo poetica ipsa et quae proprie ad poetas pertinent, sed moralia quoque naturalia
ac divina.”

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 97
subjects – poetics and moral philosophy – with the standard scholastic dis-
ciplines of natural philosophy and theology. And when recounting Dante’s
achievements and summing up his knowledge, Manetti writes:
he rapidly succeeded in attaining a vast knowledge of things human and
divine, thanks to the almost divine excellence of his intellect. And so in
mathematics – the science that studies numbers, dimensions and harmonics,
together with the movements and the revolutions of the stars – as well as
in both kinds of philosophy, moral and natural, and finally in the Sacred
Scriptures, which embrace all divinity.20

These studies (except moral philosophy) fall under the rubrics of scholas-
ticism and the artes liberales, yet elsewhere we read, “Up to the end of his
life, he diligently pursued the studia humanitatis – of which he had always
been fond . . . in a truly remarkable way.”21
A similar syncretism of scholasticism and humanism occurs in the Vita
Petrarchae, where the travails of the poet’s early education are recounted:
After studying Latin for four years and finishing his primary education,
he . . . was sent to Montpellier . . . to study civil law. This he disliked, for
he already delighted to an amazing extent in the delicious books of Cicero
and Virgil. After spending another four years there in the study of civil law,
he complied with his father’s wishes and went to Bologna, where he wasted
a further four years learning civil law. He thus spent about seven years in
the study of civil law to no purpose, as he attests in a letter where he com-
plains bitterly about having thrown away so much time. Nevertheless, . . . he
managed to read several works of Cicero and Virgil in secret . . .
Upon his father’s death, having finally become independent, he rid himself
of all civil law texts and their foolish commentaries. He was then in the early
years of his maturity and decided to dedicate himself completely to the
studia humanitatis.22

20 Manetti, VB, 15:“ob quandam tamen divinam ingenii sui excellentiam magnam humanarum et
divinarum rerum cognitionem brevi tempore comparavit. Quippe et in mathematicis – quae
scientia tum numeros tum dimensiones, tum consonantias, tum astrorum motus et conversiones
una complectitur – et in utraque philosophia, quae ad mores et ad naturalia pertinet, et in Sacris
denique Scripturis, quae omnem divinitatem penitus comprehendunt . . . ”
21 Manetti, VD, 38: “humanitatis studia – retenta semper animo . . . magna diligentia mirum in
modum usque ad extremum vitae prosecutus est.”
22 Manetti, VP, 3–4: “Inde quadriennio grammaticis eruditus, postea quam prima illa puerilia studia
transegit e vestigio ad Montem Pesulanum . . . ut ius civile cognosceret (non sine molestia, quod
suavibus Ciceronis et Maronis libris iam mirum in modum oblectaretur) vicina iam pubertate tra-
ducitur. Ubi quadriennio etiam in cognoscendo iure civili consumpto, non iniussu patris Bononiam
proficiscitur, quo in loco alterum itidem quadriennium in cognitione iuris prope contrivit. Septem
namque annos in studiis civilibus incassum amisit, ut ipse in epistula quadam aperte demonstrat,
in qua de hac tanta temporis iactura vehementius conqueritur, quamvis nonnullos Ciceronis et
Virgilii libros clanculum . . . legisset.

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98 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Yet, once free of “wasting” his time on civil law and its “foolish com-
mentaries,” no longer forced to indulge in Cicero and Virgil in secret, and
finally having the opportunity “to dedicate himself completely to the studia
humanitatis,” what did Petrarch do? He studied for the next twelve years in
Toulouse, Paris, and Naples, where he “made great progress in the study of
things human and divine.”23 As in the case of Dante, here, too, humanism
can be pursued in Paris and other university centers, and it consists in “the
study of all things human and divine,” the standard scholastic disciplines
of natural philosophy and theology.
Again as with Dante, Manetti ascribes to Petrarch something which in
Chapter 1 appeared as a humanist accomplishment. This time it is the
revival of good Latin: “among the many remarkable fruits of his studies,
the principal one was his revival of Latin elegance, which he brought back
to light out of darkness after it had been nearly defunct for over a thousand
years.”24 Manetti is not really in accord with our first three authors, though.
Piccolomini explicitly attributed the revival of Ciceronian Latin to Manuel
Chrysoloras’ reintroduction of Greek to Italy, and for Biondo it required
a combination of Petrarch’s inspiration, Giovanni Malpaghini’s teaching,
the reintroduction of Greek, the hunt for lost works of literature, and the
flourishing of humanist schools. Manetti, on the other hand, calls it “a
remarkable fruit of [Petrarch’s] studies” and a result of “his uncommon
and almost divine genius.”25 The revival of classical Latin is therefore the
offspring of a standard scholastic education and a superhuman intellect.
Blurring the contours of humanism even more, Manetti attributes
Petrarch’s “pursuit of the studia humanitatis in many different and dis-
tant lands” to “his worthy imitation of Pythagoras and Plato, those two
supreme philosophers.”26 Like Dante (again), Petrarch is portrayed as a
philosopher; or if not explicitly so, he is at least put into the proper com-
pany by way of his “imitation.” Nor did Petrarch neglect sacred literature:
“as soon as he had run through all the secular writings of non-Christian

Post obitum vero patris, utpote tunc primum sui iuris effectus, cunctis iuris civilis codicibus
eiusque ineptis commentationibus abdicatis, circa primos adulescentiae suae annos humanitatis
studiis omnino se dedicavit . . . ” (translation modified; emphasis mine).
23 Ibid., 4. For the quotation, see note 24 below.
24 Ibid., 6: “In his igitur humanarum et divinarum rerum studiis . . . versatus, usque adeo profecit ut
inter ceteros praecipuos laborum suorum fructus primus dicendi elegantiam, iam supra mille annos
paene defunctam . . . praecipua quadam ac prope divina ingenii excellentia e tenebris in lucem
revocavit” (translation modified).
25 See note 24 above.
26 Ibid., 13: “Cum haec igitur humanitatis studia per longinqua ac diversa terrarum loca (Pythagoram
et Platonem, duos summos philosophos, egregie imitatus) diutius perscrutaretur . . . ” (translation

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 99
authors, he at length devoted his efforts to sacred letters, taking incredible
pleasure in reading those venerable pages.”27 What we have here is a full
portrait of Petrarch as the exponent of the proper synthesis of Christian and
pagan, scholastic and humanistic, ancient and modern studies, all under
the general name studia humanitatis. The only subject explicitly excluded
from this rubric is law, whose study is “to no purpose” and “foolish.”
The biography of Boccaccio has the same general outline. First he was
forced by his father into an apprenticeship in shopkeeping and com-
merce, which is described as “an irreparable waste of time.” Then he
“wasted . . . almost as many years” on the study of canon law and its “mind-
less commentaries.” Yet “his nature . . . seemed to be particularly suited to
literary studies.” Indeed, “he was so born for poetry that he seemed to have
been created by God for it alone.”28 Although he was totally devoted to
poetry, he studied mathematics and “read the Bible with great interest and
pleasure.” In short, he was “a man intensely involved in the study of things
human and divine.”29
Poetry, mathematics, the Bible, the revival of Latin, scholasticism, music,
natural philosophy, theological disputations, things Christian and pagan,
human and divine – Manetti is intent on reducing humanism to a name
for general culture and learning. This impression is confirmed by pas-
sages from the collective biography found in Book VI of Contra Judaeos
et Gentes. In a section devoted to writers from the Duecento, Manetti
calls the age “illiterate and uncouth,” undoubtedly in reference to the
fact that it precedes Petrarch’s “divine” revival of good Latin. Neverthe-
less, we then read that the stilnovo poet Guido Cavalcanti managed to
write verse “with great elegance” that merited commentary by Dino del
Garbo, “an excellent philosopher,” and even by Giles of Rome, “regarded
as the prince of all theologians.”30 Brunetto Latini, the author of the Trésor

27 Ibid., 20: “simul ac cuncta profana gentilium volumina legendo percurrit, postremo sacris codicibus
operam dedit, quorum veneranda lectione incredibiliter delectabatur.”
28 Manetti, VB, 2–3: “se nihil aliud egisse quam irrecuperabile tempus incassum contrivise confirmat”;
“totidem . . . magna cum molestia frustra consumpsit”; “ineptissimas commentationes”; “suapte
natura . . . litterarum studiis aptior videbatur”; “ad ipsa poetica ita natus erat, ut paene ab ipso Deo
factus ad haec sola fuisse videbatur.”
29 Ibid., 5: “Sacros quoque Sanctarum Scripturarum libros libentius avidiusque perlegit”; “homini
circa cognitionem humanarum et divinarum rerum propterea occupatissimo.”
30 Manetti, CJEG, 1: “aetas illa indocta et rudis”; “elegantissime”; “optimus . . . philosophus”; “theol-
ogorum princeps et caput.” For Guido Cavalcanti, see Mario Marti, “Cavalcanti, Guido,” in DBI,
vol. XXII (1979), pp. 628–636. For Dino del Garbo, who wrote a Latin commentary on Cavalcanti’s
famous poem Donna me prega, see Augusto De Ferrari, “Del Garbo, Dino (Aldobrandino, Dinus de
Florentia),” in DBI, vol. XXXVI (1988), pp. 578–581. For Giles of Rome, see Francesco Del Punta,
S. Donati, and C. Luna, “Egidio Romano,” in DBI, vol. XLII (1993), pp. 319–341.

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100 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
immortalized among the sodomites in the Divine Comedy, is also said to
have had “great skill in speaking.”31 So elegance did crop up amid illit-
eracy, but its home was among philosophi, theologi, and vernacular poets
rather than Latin oratores. A later section devoted distinctly to Quattro-
cento humanists contains biographies of the Milanese chancellor and papal
secretary Antonio Loschi, the Florentine gentleman Roberto de’ Rossi, the
Venetian diplomat Francesco Barbaro, and others in a style that generally
resembles the short sketches of Facio’s collection.32 These vitae highlight
eloquence, knowledge of Latin and Greek (the Venetian patrician Marco
Lippomano is said to know Hebrew as well33 ), translations, and origi-
nal compositions, especially letters and orations. Interestingly, most are
Florentine/Tuscan or Venetian.34 Interspersed in the ranks, however, are
individuals who do not quite fit the mold crafted by our first three authors
(and who were at any rate not mentioned by them), such as the vernac-
ular chronicler Matteo Villani and Domenico di Bandino of Arezzo, a
friend of Salutati and the author of a universal encyclopedia (in Latin).35
Unlike Piccolomini, Biondo, or Facio, Manetti is not concerned to carve
out boundaries between classicizing, Latinate humanists and other literary
men of the period. Emblematic of Manetti’s catholic conception is Roberto
de’ Rossi, who was an intimate of Bruni and Niccoli and who here receives
rather more praise than most others. He is “regarded as a great humanist
(orator) and a leading philosopher of the time.” His knowledge is said
to encompass Greek and Latin literature, poetry, oratory, history, mathe-
matics, natural and moral philosophy, and metaphysics. “All the books of
Aristotle that he translated from Greek into Latin” are still available.36 Of

31 Manetti, CJEG, 2: “arte dicendi valuisse traditur.” It is not clear if Manetti intends the vernacular or
Latin here. For Brunetto Latini, see Giorgio Inglese, “Latini, Brunetto,” in DBI, vol. LXIV (2005),
pp. 4–12.
32 For Rossi, see Aldo Manetti, “Roberto de’ Rossi,” Rinascimento, 2 (1951), pp. 33–55; and Martines,
The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, esp. pp. 108–110, 154–165; for Barbaro, see Margaret
King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance (Princeton, 1986), pp. 323–325.
33 Manetti, CJEG, 29. For Lippomano, see King, Venetian Humanism, pp. 389–390.
34 Also noted in Fioravanti, “L’apologetica anti-giudaica,” p. 13.
35 For Villani, see Franca Ragone, Giovanni Villani e i suoi continuatori. La scrittura delle cronache
a Firenze nel Trecento (Rome, 1998), esp. pp. 214–233. For Domenico di Bandino, see Teresa
Hankey, “Bandini, Domenico (Domenico di Bandino),” in DBI, vol. V (1963), pp. 707–709; for
his massive but little-studied encyclopedia, see Markus Schürer, “Enzyklopädik als Naturkunde und
Kunde vom Menschen. Einige Thesen zum Fons memorabilium universi des Domenico Bandini,”
Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch, 45:1 (2010), pp. 115–131 and his forthcoming monograph Biographik als
enzyklopädisches Projekt. Studien zu Domenico Bandini und seinem Fons memorabilium universi.
36 Manetti, CJEG, 26: “magnus orator ingensque illius temporis philosophus haberetur . . . Inter cetera
rerum suarum monumenta omnes Aristotelis libri ab eo e greco in latinum traducti comperiuntur”
(translation modified). Rossi is a character in Bruni’s Dialogi, the second part of which is set at his

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 101
course, translations of Aristotle are in no way a disqualification of human-
ist status; Bruni, too, had rendered Aristotle in Latin, and he had even
used his versions of the Ethics and Politics, upon whose literary merits he
insisted, as a showcase for the humanist ad sensum style of translation.37
Yet Rossi is best known for his translation of the Posterior Analytics, one
of Aristotle’s logical treatises – not exactly a platform for Latin eloquence.
Faced with Rossi and his interests in logic, metaphysics, mathematics, and
natural philosophy, Facio would have been at pains to decide whether to
classify him among the oratores or the philosophi/medici. Manetti, however,
feels no such compunction. On the contrary, Rossi is an ideal complement
to his portrayal of the Three Crowns and to his view of humanism as
seamlessly interwoven with the many other strands of Italian intellectual
and literary culture (excluding only the study of law).
Whether Manetti succeeded in his defense of Dante, Petrarch, and Boc-
caccio is not a question we are in a position to answer, but it is worthwhile
to consider why he sought to defend them the way he does. What kind of
power might Manetti’s argument have had over humanists who were gen-
erally hostile to vernacular literature (and likely scholastic learning as well)?
Would such men have been convinced by his application of the term studia
humanitatis to pursuits they would not recognize as pertaining to them-
selves as poetae and oratores? Would it have been coherent to them at all?
Indeed, the Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita is so eclectic that
it has been criticized by its most recent editor, Stefano U. Baldassarri, for its
apparently “undiscriminating use of . . . sources and . . . tendency to accu-
mulate information regardless of its reliability or provenance.” Baldassarri
attributes to Manetti a “mosaic technique” of composition behind which
there is neither rhyme nor reason, according to which the author “copied
down all the information he found on a certain topic” and “then rearranged
the sources thus collected, often without making significant changes in the
language and the syntax of the original.” With regard to the Vita Dantis
Baldassarri concludes, “such a portrait could only be extremely eclectic, not
to say inconsistent.”38 James Hankins, however, while identifying the same
cut-and-paste method in a study of the related Vita Socratis, sees therein
rather more method than madness. According to Hankins, “the seem-
ingly random collection of material is in fact carefully curated to achieve a

37 See Paolo Viti, “Introduzione,” in Leonardo Bruni, Sulla perfetta traduzione, ed. Paolo Viti (Naples,
2004), esp. pp. 22–51.
38 Baldassarri, “Introduction,” p. xiii; and at greater length in “Clichés and Myth-Making,” where he
describes Manetti’s “method, or lack thereof” (p. 25; “mosaic technique” on p. 28).

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102 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
particular purpose; it achieves its effect” – in that case to present Socrates
as a classical model for the humanist movement – “pointillistically by the
arrangement and juxtaposition of facts, quotations and anecdotes.”39 In
my view, Manetti used the same procedure in his treatment of the Three
Crowns. For although the Vita may at first glance seem to be an incoherent
jumble of memorabilia, the Gesamtbild it portrays corresponds quite well
to the reality of Manetti’s own life, education, and activity as a humanist.
We recall that Manetti was a latecomer to humanism and a product of
the monastic milieux of Santo Spirito and Santa Maria degli Angeli. He
also learned Hebrew for purposes of Biblical scholarship. As for his “liter-
ary and intellectual personality,” Christine Smith and Joseph F. O’Connor
have argued that Manetti had a “pronounced attachment to Scholastic
and Aristotelian dialectic, Augustine’s understanding of the human condi-
tion, and Paul’s spirituality.”40 These conclusions are perfectly in line with
Manetti’s education and with his presentation of humanism in the Vita and
the Contra Judaeos et Gentes; Smith and O’Connor omit only the centrality
of classicizing Latin to his cultural orientation. It is also worth noting that
Manetti’s own personal experience of apprenticeship to worldly business
at the behest of his father, and thus of the deferral of his humanistic stud-
ies, mirrors the early lives of both Petrarch and Boccaccio as recounted
in the Vita, both of whom were forced to train for legal and mercantile
careers before they were able to embrace the studia humanitatis. Manetti,
then, portrays his own brand of humanism in the Vita, and, considering
his reputation, one likely shared by others as well. Manetti was extolled
as an exemplary humanist by none other than Vespasiano da Bisticci.41
Furthermore, he was chosen to give the laudatio at Leonardo Bruni’s
funeral (1444), at the end of which he personally crowned the deceased
chancellor of Florence with laurel.42 Manetti’s conception of humanism
doubtless resonated with other humanists, at least within the walls of
To deepen our understanding of this conception, let us consider a curious
digression found towards the end of the Vita Senecae, one of the companion

39 Hankins, “Manetti’s Socrates,” p. 204. 40 Smith and O’Connor, Building the Kingdom, p. xi.
41 Vespasiano included a relatively long biography of Manetti in his Vite and also wrote a separate
biography that is quite extensive, the Comentario della Vita di Giannozzo Manetti; both are in
Vespasiano da Bisticci, Le Vite, ed. Greco. On the relationship between Vespasiano and Manetti,
see Heinz Willi Wittschier, “Vespasiano da Bisticci und Giannozzo Manetti,” Romanische Forschun-
gen, 79:3 (1967), pp. 271–287. On the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano, see Giuseppe M. Cagni,
Vespasiano da Bisticci e il suo epistolario (Rome, 1969).
42 Cf. Giannozzo Manetti, Oratio funebris in solemni Leonardi historici, oratoris ac poetae laureatione,
in Bruni, Epistolarum libri VIII, ed. Hankins.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 103
pieces to the Vita of the Three Crowns. In this passage Manetti discusses
the controversy then raging over the Roman philosopher’s oeuvre, namely,
which works should be attributed to him and whether there were in fact
two Senecas. After rehearsing the various positions on the matter, Manetti
exclaims in frustration:
We believe it is much better in the end to leave it to the grammarians
to investigate such frivolous and idle things rather than waste time, the
most precious possession of all, by investigating minute and trivial matters
in vain. So we leave it to the grammarians and mere professors of literature
to resolve the issue in some fashion or other, adding this task to their
foolish little controversies. Let the men who think these childish and frivolous
investigations, which it is shameful even for boys to study, should be pursued
into old age, weigh these matters with diligence and accuracy from every

These grammarians and “mere professors of literature” have to be humanists

and could very well be identified with the teachers so highly praised by
Biondo Flavio. Biondo’s beloved Giovanni da Ravenna was, after all, a
grammaticus, as was Gasparino Barzizza.44 In support of this view is the
fact that none of the teachers mentioned in the history of humanism in
Italia illustrata – not even Guarino or Vittorino da Feltre – receives a
biography in Contra Judaeos et Gentes. For Manetti is not interested in
“minute and trivial matters” or “childish and frivolous investigations.” On
the contrary, proper humanists, in his view, devote themselves more broadly
to the “study of things human and divine.”
Manetti’s disparagement of the grammatici resembles similar criticism
familiar from Petrarch, who censured his friend Zanobi da Strada for exactly
such teaching.45 More importantly, it resembles the criticism leveled at a
certain kind of humanism several decades earlier by Cino Rinuccini in his
Invettiva contro a certi calunniatori di Dante e di messer Francesco Petrarca e di
43 Manetti, VSen, 45: “ac demum satis esse duximus frivola haec et inutilia grammaticis perquirenda
dimittere, quam tempus, cuiuscumque suppelectilis pretiosissimum, in parvarum et minimarum
rerum investigatione frustra conterere. Itaque haec, qualiacumque sint, grammaticis ac litterarum
dumtaxat professoribus solvenda dimittimus, atque hoc eis leviuscularum controversiarum opus
iniungimus, ut diligentius et accuratius hinc inde librentur qui puerilia haec et frivola usque ad
senectutem putant esse discenda quae ne pueris didicisse turpe erat.” Half a century later, it is
precisely this sense of the word grammaticus that Angelo Poliziano would take pains to combat
in his Lamia, endowing it instead with the grander sense of ‘philologist.’ See Angelo Poliziano,
Lamia, pars. 68–72, in Angelo Poliziano’s Lamia: Text, Translation, and Introductory Studies, ed.
Christopher S. Celenza (Leiden, 2010). See also all four of the excellent introductory studies, but
esp. pp. 39–41, for a concise treatment.
44 For Giovanni, see Biondo, II, vi.25; for Barzizza, ibid., vi.28.
45 See Black, Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, p. 31.

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104 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Messer Giovanni Boccaci (Invective against Certain Calumniators of Dante,
Petrarch, and Boccaccio).46 There the lyric poet and teacher of rhetoric
berates a younger generation of Florentine humanists just after the turn of
the fifteenth century – specifically the circle around Bruni and Niccoli –
for their obsession with the minutiae of Latin orthography and diphthongs
and their disparagement of the city’s great vernacular poets. It is this same
type of “erudite and learned men” to whom Manetti would like to spread
the appreciation of the Three Crowns.
Manetti, then, is in direct polemical discourse with the kind of human-
ism portrayed in Bruni’s Dialogi, as well as with that reconstructed in
Chapter 1 of this study. Much had, of course, changed between the first
and fourth decades of the Quattrocento, and it would be incorrect to view
Manetti as an epigone of Rinuccini.47 Manetti does not pay “tribute to
the arts of the trivium and the quadrivium,” as Rinuccini does. Indeed,
he nowhere defends scholasticism against its detractors but simply por-
trays it, implicitly, as a setting for Dante’s and Petrarch’s humanism.48 Nor
does the Vita simply play out one side of a “philosophico-literary debate
between defenders and accusers of the old medieval culture and the vernac-
ular tradition.”49 Manetti belongs to a different context, one in which, as
noted earlier, Bruni ended up softening his original hard line. Bruni mel-
lowed as he slowly became the éminence grise of a movement that was now
firmly established and that no longer had anything to fear from cultural
competitors.50 Moreover, his willingness to align himself with the cultural

46 See Antonio Lanza, Polemiche e berte letterarie nella Firenze del primo Quattrocento. Storia e testi
(Rome, 1972), pp. 92–100 and 259–267; Holmes, Florentine Enlightenment, ch. 1; Giuliano Tanturli,
“Cino Rinuccini e la scuola di Santa Maria in Campo,” Studi medievali, 3rd ser., 17 (1976), pp. 625–
674; Witt, Footsteps, pp. 402–403; and Garin, L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 33–34. Baron, The Crisis of
the Early Italian Renaissance, pp. 286–331, may be used with caution. Only a vernacular translation
of this work is extant, but the original was, significantly, written in Latin (“perché direttamente
indirizzato agli umanisti,” Lanza, Polemiche e berte letterarie, p. 93). It dates to the first decade of
the fifteenth century; Witt argues more precisely for 1405/1406. I have not been able to ascertain
the date of the Italian translation.
47 Hans Baron, in contrast, does treat Manetti as an epigone of Rinuccini in The Crisis of the Early
Italian Renaissance, pp. 322–323. For a description of Rinuccini’s intellectual milieu, see Antonio
Lanza, “Le polemiche tra umanisti e tradizionalisti nella Firenze tardogotica,” in Théa Picquet,
Lucien Faggion, and Pascal Gandoulphe (eds.), L’Humanisme italien de la Renaissance et l’Europe
(Aix-en-Provence, 2010), pp. 53–80.
48 Interestingly, Eugenio Garin argues that Dante himself was “isolated, archaic, and anachronistic on
the more properly philosophical and scientific territory” of the “Gothic university.” See Rinascite e
rivoluzioni, pp. 74–75: “In realtà, in quella ‘università gotica’ . . . , Dante appare un isolato, arcaico
e fuori tempo sul terreno più propriamente filosofico e scientifico.”
49 Thus Lanza, Polemiche e berte letterarie, pp. 93 and 98, characterizes Cino’s Invettiva.
50 See Hankins, “Humanism in the Vernacular”; and Hankins, “Petrarch and the Canon of Neo-Latin
Literature,” pp. 905–922.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 105
identity of his adopted city only could have increased after serving for years
as chancellor and taking a more active role in Florentine politics.51 As for
Niccolò Niccoli, the true bête noire of Rinuccini and the more cultur-
ally conservative Florentines, he had just died (1437) when Manetti wrote
the Vita, and by then, having lost nearly all of his friends, his position no
longer possessed authority.52 If Manetti aimed his text against the stragglers
of what George Holmes called the “Florentine Avant-Garde,” even more
so he sought to offer a corrective to a kind of humanism, especially as it
had developed outside of Florence, which took the young, fiery Bruni as
its model, the Bruni who had criticized the “squalor” of Salutati’s Latin in
his letters (as we saw reported by Piccolomini) and who recognized no lit-
erature as worthy of the name that was not graced with Ciceronian charm.
Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio (and the humanism they represent) did
not make their peace with vernacular literature as Bruni had, nor would
they have had any civic or cultural reasons for doing so. The Three Crowns
were not claimed by the cities and regions in which our first three authors
operated – Rome, Naples, and the larger context of Italy and the Empire –
nor was the Tuscan of Florence a language they had any stake in promoting.
The humanism of Chapter 1 is a purist movement; Manetti, on the other
hand, represents an eclectic strain.
An eclectic strain full of vigor, however. Rinuccini combined a humanist
penchant for Ciceronian style with respect for the Three Crowns as early
as the mid-1380s.53 Manetti was writing fifty years later. And about thirty
years after that Cristoforo Landino, professor of rhetoric and poetry at the
Florentine Studio, would take the innovative step of teaching a course on
Petrarch’s vernacular sonnets. As Eugenio Garin has noted, this decision
amounted to a “defense of the vernacular tradition as an essential element
of the renewed culture of humanism” – a defense that accorded fully with
the cultural politics of Medici Florence.54 In 1481 Landino then published
his Comento sopra la Comedia, in the preface to which he outlined Flo-
rence’s grand cultural tradition of vernacular and Latin literature as well
as of music, art, and architecture. The Comento on Dante was formally

51 For Bruni’s political involvement in Florence, see Hankins, “Life and Works,” vol. I, p. 10.
52 For Niccoli as the primary target of Rinuccini and others, see Lanza, Polemiche e berte letterarie,
pp. 93–96.
53 See Witt, Footsteps, pp. 366–370. Cf. also Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance,
pp. 332–353.
54 Garin, Rinascite e rivoluzioni, p. 71: “difesa della tradizione volgare quale elemento integrante
della rinnovata cultura umanistica.” See also the discussion of the lecture course as well as the
summary of the Comento sopra la Comedia in Simona Foà, “Landino (Landini), Cristoforo,” in DBI,
vol. LXIII (2004), pp. 428–433, at 429–430, 431.

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106 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
presented to the Signoria, on which occasion Landino held a public ora-
tion, and the work went on to be a great publishing success throughout the
sixteenth century. Garin explains that, in this context, Dante and Petrarch
had unquestionably become classics: “both are consecrated auctores; both
recognized as fathers of the new culture, of the rinascita, exalted among
the moderns precisely because restorers of the ancients.”55 Manetti gives ear-
lier voice to this tradition, a long, distinguished, emphatically Florentine
tradition not necessarily of defending scholasticism (as Rinuccini had) but
rather of asserting the foundational role Dante and Petrarch played in the
humanist turn – a turn towards the ancient authors as a source of cultural
and moral guidance.

The Three Crowns: Fathers of humanism

One might well wonder at this point if it is still possible to speak of a
distinct phenomenon called humanism, considering Manetti’s peculiarly
Florentine view and the lengths to which he has gone in the Vita to integrate
traditional scholasticism and vernacular literature with the new drive for
classicizing Latin, all within the confines of the studia humanitatis. What
saves the phenomenon, first, is Manetti’s own identification of certain of
its elements as new – the resuscitation of poetry and good Latin letters, the
revival of Greek studies, a cultural orientation towards classical antiquity –
and the identity of many of these elements with those considered essential
to humanism in Chapter 1. Second, Manetti puts his concept of humanism
on a firm foundation by narrating a distinct history of development and
by ascribing specific cultural characteristics to its foremost figures, thus
portraying humanists as a discrete group of individuals bound together by
a common history, shared traits, and a united cultural vision.
Manetti concurs with our previous authors about the importance of the
revival of Latin for learning and culture, and he is also in accord with the
general timeline they give for Latin’s ancient decline and modern reprise.
Reading at greater length in the biography of Guido Cavalcanti in Contra
Judaeos et Gentes:
Guido . . . was a highly educated man. He possessed a wide knowledge of
important subjects, as much as was possible in that illiterate and uncouth
age. Since at that time Latin style and the rhetorical art, not being held in
high esteem, had lost all of their strength and vigor, he composed with great

55 Garin, Rinascite e rivoluzioni, p. 72: “Della classicità di Dante e Petrarca nessuno dubita più.
Entrambi sono auctores consacrati; entrambi riconosciuti padri della nuova cultura, della ‘rinascita’:
esaltati fra i moderni proprio perché restauratori degli antichi.”

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 107
elegance some wonderful poems in the vernacular, which at that time was
much prized.56
All this changed with Petrarch’s revitalization of good Latin (“elegantiam
Turning back to the Vita, we read that Petrarch brought Latin “back to
light out of darkness after it had been nearly defunct for over a thousand
years.” Following the historical paradigm established by Bruni in his History
of the Florentine People, Manetti explains Latin’s initial demise thus:
It had died, in the first place, because of the inhuman ferocity of the Roman
emperors, who had wickedly oppressed the city of Rome with every sort
of cruelty, slaughtering numerous upright and learned men, and secondly
because of the savage rule of the Lombards, who sacked all of Italy during
their two-hundred-and-four-year occupation.57
Biondo and Piccolomini had given a similar chronology, agreeing that
the general use of eloquent Latin ended more or less with the death of
Augustine. Manetti basically concurs, but, following the judgment of his
fellow Florentine Filippo Villani, he places the end of ancient eloquence
in a different auctor: the poet Claudian.58 Describing Petrarch’s crowning
with laurel in Rome, he explains, “among the ancient Greeks and Latins
[it] was conferred solely upon emperors and the greatest poets.” Manetti
continues, “he alone deserved to be crowned poet laureate, a title which
had not been granted for over nine hundred and fifty years, from the time
of Claudian, who flourished under the elder Emperor Theodosius, until
our Petrarca.”59 The difference between “over a thousand years” (as stated
in VP, 6) and “over nine hundred and fifty years” (VP, 12) is relatively small
and perhaps not worth observing. Manetti might have meant to equate
56 Manetti, CJEG, 1: “Guido . . . vir apprime eruditus fuit. Nam et multarum et magnarum rerum,
quantum aetas illa indocta et rudis pati et ferre posse videbatur, cognitionem habuit. Et quia ea
tempestate elegantiae latinae et artis oratoriae facultas omnes vires cunctosque nervos suos penitus
amiserat, cum in honorem non haberetur, nonnullas peregregias cantilenas materno sermone, qui
tunc in pretio putabatur, elegantissime composuit” (emphasis mine).
57 Manetti, VP, 6: “ob inhumanam quandam primo Romanorum imperatorum crudelitatem, qui
urbem Romam omni saevitiarum genere, crebris proborum et doctorum virorum trucidationibus,
nefarie nimis vexaverant, ob saevissimum deinde Longobardorum dominatum, qui totam Italiam
quattuor supra ducentos circiter annos occupatam penitus devastaverant.” For Manetti’s reliance
on Bruni’s paradigm of decline, see Manetti, Biographical Writings, p. 302, n. 8.
58 Filippo Villani, De origine civitatis florentie et de eiusdem famosis civibus, ed. Giuliano Tanturli
(Padua, 1997). Tanturli reports in full several different versions of the text, varying widely among
one another. For Villani’s treatment of Claudian, see pp. 68–72 (redaction A–A1 xxi), 339–348
(redaction ß2 –ß3 , B II i), 431–433 (vernacular redaction ß3 , C I).
59 Manetti, VP, 12: “qua apud veteres Graecos et Latinos imperatores egregiosque poetas tantummodo
coronatos fuisse constat . . . Hanc poeticam lauream – per quinquaginta supra noningentos circiter
annos a Claudiani temporibus (qui imperante seniore Theodosio floruit) usque ad hunc nostrum
Petrarcham perpetuo intermissam – solus ipse non immerito assumpsit.”

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108 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
the two and to hold up Claudian as the last exponent of ancient Latin
eloquence generally. To be safe (and respectful to Manetti’s text), however,
one could hypothesize that Petrarch was the first both to resurrect ancient
Latin eloquence in prose and to revive it in poetry, the former strangely
having died out before the latter. Such would be in accord, at least, with
Manetti’s insistence elsewhere on Petrarch’s “peculiar and almost divine
grace of excelling in both forms of composition.”60
At any rate, with this reference to Claudian, Manetti emphasizes that
good Latin poetry is a particularly Florentine pursuit. For Claudian,
although an Alexandrian Greek, was generally believed at the time to
have been a Florentine (at least by his supposed fellow citizens): “hence
an honor that long ago an ancient Florentine poet had been the last to
obtain was renewed in the like manner by a modern Florentine bard, who
received it after the passage of many years.”61 Indulging yet again in Floren-
tine chauvinism, Manetti implies that not only the renaissance of poetry,
but poetry itself, is a Florentine affair. This focus on Florence is echoed
in the Contra Judaeos et Gentes, where, as noted, all of the humanists are
either Tuscan or Venetian.
The attention to Petrarch’s poetic excellence underlines another founda-
tional element of Manetti’s idiosyncratic concept of Renaissance human-
ism: the rebirth of poetry, both vernacular and Latin. Dante was the first
to play a part:62
This exceptional poet was the first to awaken poetry to life after it had been
moribund or asleep for about nine hundred years. He raised it from the

60 Ibid., 8: “Solus, igitur Petrarcha, hac praecipua et paene divina gratia praeditus, in utroque dicendi
genere valuit” (translation modified).
61 Ibid., 12: “ut quod florentinus et vetus poeta iamdiu antea ultimo accepisset, florentinus et novus
vates eodem modo accipiens post tot annorum curricula renovaret.” Claudian receives the first
biography in Villani’s De origine civitatis. See note 58 above. In accordance with the legend, Claudian
was portrayed in a fresco cycle of Florentine uomini illustri in the Palazzo Vecchio, for which Salutati
composed the epigram: “Egipto genitum nova me florentia civem / Legibus agnovit, magnis
iam digna poetis. / Infernos raptus cecini pugnasque deorum, Cesareas laudes, necnon stiliconis
honores.” See Teresa Hankey, “Salutati’s Epigrams for the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence,” Journal
of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 22 (1959), pp. 363–365, at 364; and Nicolai Rubinstein,
“Classical Themes in the Decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence,” Journal of the Warburg
and Courtauld Institutes, 50 (1987), pp. 29–43. For the historical Claudian, see Alan Cameron,
Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970). Cf. also the related
treatment of poetic crowning and the Florentine connection in Manetti’s funeral oration for Bruni:
Oratio funebris, pp. cv–cxiv, esp. cxiv.
62 Manetti reports in CJEG that, prior to or coeval with Dante, Guido Cavalcanti had managed to
compose “with great elegance some wonderful poems in the vernacular, which at that time was
much prized.” Nevertheless, in VD he chooses Dante as the sole protagonist of vernacular poetry’s
revival. Cf. Manetti, CJEG, 1: “nonnullas peregregias cantilenas materno sermone, qui tunc in pretio
putabatur, elegantissime composuit.”

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 109
ground where it was lying prostrate, so that he seems to have recalled it from
exile or restored its civic rights or brought it back to the light after it had
lain in the darkness of the grave for many years. And not only did he bring
it back to light, but he proved it to be perfectly consistent with our Catholic
faith, just as if the ancient poets had somehow been divinely inspired to sing
the sound and true doctrine.63

Let us overlook this additional fifty-year shift in the decline of poetry.

Dante was succeeded by Petrarch, and Petrarch by Boccaccio, who was
“born for poetry.” Manetti comments:
I believe this succession of distinguished poets to be the work of nature her-
self, which caused those extraordinary geniuses to flourish around the same
time, so that what had been lacking to the human race for almost a thousand
years – namely, poetry – might be restored to it after so many centuries, at
an opportune moment, almost as though on purpose. Otherwise, if it had
lain in darkness any longer, poetry might be thought to have abandoned the
human race completely.64

Thus, thanks to the efforts of these three poets, all of whom were dedicated
to the studia humanitatis, poetry – here celebrated in both its vernacular
and Latin forms – had returned to Italy after an absence of nine hundred
to over a thousand years.65
The next resuscitations in Manetti’s Renaissance are standard chapters
in the humanist revival of Latin eloquence as narrated by our first three

63 Manetti, VD, 47: “Quippe poeticam, diu antea per noningentos circiter annos vel demortuam vel
sopitam, summus hic poeta primum in lucem excitavit, iacentemque ac prostratam ita erexit ut vel
ab exilio per eum revocata, vel postliminio reversa, vel e tenebris in lucem excitata fuisse videatur,
cum iampridem tot annos demortua iacuisset. Ac non solum primum eam in lucem excitavit, sed
cum sana etiam catholicaque nostrae fedei doctrina convenire mirabiliter demonstravit, perinde ac
veteres poetae divino quodam spiritu afflati fuissent ac sanam et veram doctrinam cecinissent.”
64 Manetti, VB, 1: “In hac itaque vicissitudinaria horum praestantium poetarum successione, huius-
modi acerrima eorum ingenia ideo iisdem paene temporibus ex ipsa natura pullulasse arbitror, ut
in quo humanum genus per mille circiter annos destitutum fuisse videbatur, in eo – quasi oppor-
tune post tot saecula aliquantisper dedita opera – restauraretur, ne poetica ab hominibus omnino
recessisse crederetur, si diutius in tenebris iacuisset.”
65 One could resolve this time discrepancy by pointing to the fact that the three poets came from
different generations. Although this might partially account for the different time spans given,
nevertheless it would not account for how the revival of poetry could happen at three different
times. The reasonable solution to this problem is to posit, as Manetti does in the above quotation,
that the revival took place over the broad period from Dante to Boccaccio, and at the same time
not to expect too much from the numbers, which are all too round to admit of precision anyway.
One could also posit, as does Baldassarri generally about Manetti (“Clichés and Myth-Making”),
that such statements do not have precise meaning due to the nature of humanist epideictic rhetoric;
according to this line of thought, there is no problem to resolve because Manetti himself never
meant to establish an exact chronology. Whatever the case may be, Manetti presents us at the very
least with a general chronology.

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110 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
authors: the hunt for manuscripts and the reprise of Greek in the Latin
West. Yet here, too, Manetti adds his own twist by emphasizing the leading
roles of Petrarch and Boccaccio, neither of whom were even mentioned in
this regard by Piccolomini, Facio, or Biondo. After describing Petrarch’s
single-handed revival of good Latin, Manetti continues:
It was Petrarca, in fact, who first restored to us, by virtue of his unremitting
zeal, a large number of Cicero’s works that had been unknown and almost
lost to the Italians for many centuries, and it was Petrarca who also collected
his scattered epistles in the order in which we now read them.66

And a bit later:

Dissatisfied with the Latin books commonly available at the time, he set out
to search tirelessly for ancient manuscripts that would contain the works
he knew to have been written by Varro, Cicero, and other learned men.
At the age of twenty-five, for instance, he was in the Low Countries and
Switzerland, as he himself attests, seeking books with great care.67

Manetti is not so bold as to claim for Petrarch the responsibility for having
restocked the entire library of classical antiquity, but he does put Petrarch
at the founding of this key aspect of humanism. Interestingly, there is
an important difference between the kinds of works found by Petrarch
and those considered significant by Biondo. Manetti refers generically to
Cicero’s letters, whereas Biondo marks the sea change in eloquence specifi-
cally with the discovery of the Letters to Atticus (which he considered more
eloquent and more carefully crafted than the Familiares) and especially of
rhetorical works like De oratore, Orator, and Brutus, as well as with the
restitution of Quintilian’s complete text. As we have seen, Biondo goes so
far as to state that the letters of Cicero available to Petrarch were insufficient
for restoring ancient eloquence, and he excuses Petrarch’s rude style by his
ignorance of the right books. The availability of generically eloquent mod-
els was apparently not sufficient in Biondo’s mind; more sublime examples
had to be at hand, and he implies that theoretical works on rhetoric were
necessary to supply proper understanding.68 For Manetti, on the other

66 Manetti, VP, 6: “Nam et primus complures Ciceronis libros per multa saecula Italis antea occultos
ac propemodum amissos sua singulari diligentia nobis restituit, atque eius epistulas, prius hinc inde
varie dispersas, eo ordine quo nunc videmus in sua volumina redegit.”
67 Ibid., 18: “Itaque non contentus latinae linguae libris qui per id tempus vulgo habebantur, vetustos
codices quos et Varronem et Ciceronem aliosque doctissimos viros quondam posteris scriptos
reliquisse noverat assidue perquirebat. Unde inter Belgas et Helvetios, sicut ipse testatur, viginti
quinque aetatis annos natus accuratissime quaeritabat” (translation modified).
68 Biondo, II, vi.26, 30. See also Chapter 1, p. 57.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 111
hand, the simple discovery of Cicero’s letters was a formative moment in
humanism’s revival of good Latin.
Now for Greek. Petrarch’s searches for manuscripts were prompted by
an “inexhaustible desire to read,”69 and so was his “desire to learn Greek –
a language utterly unusual and foreign at that time and, so to speak,
repugnant to Italy.”70 Therefore he began to learn the language under the
monk Barlaam. His progress, unfortunately, was fatally checked by the
death of his teacher, and Greek would lie dormant a bit longer until taken
up by Boccaccio, who is according to Manetti (at least in one passage) the
real founder of Greek studies in Italy.71
Like Petrarch, Boccaccio was driven to learn Greek by a hunger left
unsated by available Latin literature. And like Petrarch, he found a Greek
to teach him the language: Leontius Pilatus. He hosted the teacher in his
own home and secured for him “a public stipend to give public readings
of Greek books. [Pilatus] is said to have been the first to give such public
lectures in Greek in our city.” Pilatus brought Greek manuscripts with him
to Florence, and “it was said that no one before him had ever brought
Greek books back to Tuscany.”72 Modern scholars generally consider the
instruction of Barlaam and Pilatus to be a false start before the gun properly
went off with Chrysoloras.73 Manetti, however, sees things differently:
These first fruits of Greek letters brought forth by the two distinguished
poets seem to have provided a kind of seedbed which, finding in later times
more fertile ground, germinated gradually day by day until they finally
flourished in our times, bearing the richest fruits.74

Only after citing this key intervention does Manetti pass on to the cus-
tomary description of Chrysoloras’ contribution. Yet he will not suffer

69 Manetti, VP, 18: “inexhausta quadam legendi cupiditate ferebatur.”

70 Ibid., 19: “linguam graecam, per ea tempora omnino novam et peregrinam atque, ut ita dixerim,
ab Italia longe abhorrentem, discere concupivit.”
71 Actually, it seems that Petrarch’s poor progress in Greek was rather the result of his unwillingness to
learn it. According to Roberto Weiss, Medieval and Humanist Greek: Collected Essays (Padua, 1977),
p. 179, Petrarch had many opportunities to learn Greek but spurned them because of his distaste for
Greek culture and religion: “si può insomma dire che se il Petrarca non imparò il greco fu proprio
perché non lo volle imparare” (cited in Hankins, “Greek Studies in Italy,” p. 331). Manetti offers a
brief history of Greek studies in VB, 6–8. See below.
72 Manetti, VB, 6: “atque ita curavit ut publica mercede ad legendum codices graecos publice conduc-
eretur; quod ei primo in civitate nostra contigisse dicitur ut graece ibidem publice legeret”; “quod
ante eum nullus fecisse dicebatur ut in Etruriam graeca volumina retulisset.”
73 See Hankins, “Greek Studies in Italy.”
74 Manetti, VB, 6: “Huiusmodi veteres duorum tam insignium poetarum graecarum litterarum primi-
tiae quasi seminarium quoddam extitisse videntur, quod uberiorem terram postea nactum gradatim
adeo in dies pullulavit ut, temporibus nostris florens, uberrimos iam fructus peperit.”

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112 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
the Byzantine diplomat to take all the glory. Summing up the permanent
revival of Greek, Manetti writes:
This Manuel Chrysoloras was the fountainhead from whom many eminent
disciples flowed, who afterwards disseminated the Greek language, as though
it were a new seed of letters, not only through Tuscany but also through
several of the chief regions of Italy as well . . . But someone might ask: why
say all this about Greek letters? What is your point? My point is to show that
we owe all our knowledge of the Greeks to our Boccaccio, who first brought
back to Tuscany at his own expense a teacher and Greek books which had
previously lain far away from us, over land and sea.75
Here it seems as if Manetti truly attributes the revival of Greek to Boccaccio.
Before putting too much stock in this affirmation, however, a parallel
passage should be considered from the biography of Niccolò Niccoli found
in the coeval De illustribus longaevis:
It is obvious that the learned Chrysoloras taught Greek to many men, as
though planting a seedbed, and that all this is something for which our
Niccolò deserves the credit, as it was he who called this foreign teacher to
Florence and Tuscany “from the heart of Greece,” as they say.76
A few lines earlier in this vita, however, Manetti states that “our Niccolò”
does not actually deserve the credit all alone, but that he had “joined
forces with Coluccio Salutati . . . to bring to Florence over land and sea
from far-off Constantinople the most distinguished of the Greeks, Manuel
Chrysoloras, in order to have him lecture here.”77 Furthermore, as opposed
to Petrarch and Boccaccio, who learned Greek because they were still

75 Ibid., 8: “Hic est ille Emmanuel Chrysoloras a quo multi peregregii discipuli primitus profluxerunt,
qui postea peregrinam Graecorum linguam non modo per Etruriam sed per nonnullas etiam
nobiliores Italiae partes, quasi novum litterarum semen . . . Sed quorsum haec tam multa de litteris
graecis, dicet quispiam? Quorsum? Ut totum hoc quicquid apud nos Graecorum est Boccacio
nostro feratur acceptum, qui primus praeceptorem et libros graecos, a nobis per longa terrarum
marisque spatia distantes, propriis sumptibus in Etruriam reduxit” (emphasis mine). Incidentally,
Manetti’s source is Boccaccio’s own De genealogia deorum, XV, 7, 3–7, where Boccaccio describes
his founding of Greek studies in a passage ostensibly aimed at defending his citations of Greek
poetry in Latin writings. The importance of this passage of Boccaccio as a source for the history
of Greek in the Renaissance has been highlighted by Albanese, “Mehrsprachigkeit,” pp. 32–33. For
the passage in question, see Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogie deorum gentilium, ed. Vittore Zaccaria
(Milan, 1998), pp. 1540–1545.
76 Manetti, DIL, 23: “Nam ab hoc eruditissimo viro multos graece edoctos, velut seminarium quod-
dam, profluxisse manifestum est, quae omnia a Nicolao nostro accepta referre debemus, qui pere-
grinum praeceptorem e media, ut aiunt, Graecia Florentiam usque in Etruriam evocavit.”
77 Ibid., 23: “Proinde cum Colucio Salutato . . . dedita opera Manuelem quendam Chrysoloram con-
stantinopolitanum, Graecorum omnium facile principem, e Constantinopoli per tot maris ter-
rarumque spatia legendi causa Florentiam usque accersiverant.” Note the linguistic echo to the
Boccaccio passage in “over land and sea.”

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 113
hungry after having devoured Latin literature, Niccoli did so for a reason
that finds an echo in Biondo: “since without this knowledge the study of
Latin seemed crippled and weak.”78
One must wonder, then, like Manetti’s imaginary interlocutor, “What is
the point?” Why cite Boccaccio as the true founder of Greek studies, while
noting the assistance of Petrarch, and then in a related text cite Niccoli as
the true founder, while noting the assistance of Salutati? Here it is useful to
recall the caveat of Stefano U. Baldassarri, who, in line with his criticism of
Manetti’s “mosaic technique” of composition, counsels caution generally
when reading humanist Latin literature.79 In Baldassarri’s judicious view,
one should be wary when any single individual is memorialized as the
anything, in light of the humanist tendency to hyperbole. Still, it might
not be necessary to take an entirely reductive approach to these passages. For
what matters here is not their truth or sincerity, but rather the way Manetti
tries to place the Three Crowns in the context of the Renaissance and the
studia humanitatis. He knows that Chrysoloras is the most important cause
for the permanent revival of Greek throughout Italy – as he makes clear in
both of the passages referred to above – and also that Niccoli and Salutati
deserve the credit for bringing him to Florence. Nevertheless, the central
aim of his Trium illustrium poetarum florentinorum vita is, as noted at its
outset, to “have the great merits [of the Three Crowns] . . . spread to the
erudite and the learned, who until now have despised and dismissed all
works of vernacular literature.” What better way to save the reputation of
these vernacular writers among “the learned and erudite” – i.e., humanists –
than by stressing their importance for the revival not only of classical Latin
but also of Greek?
It is this same desire to legitimate the Three Crowns’ status as humanists
that motivates Manetti’s calculated praise of Dante’s, Petrarch’s, and Boc-
caccio’s works. In the comparatio concluding the Vita, he declares Dante’s
general preeminence in learning; Petrarch’s superiority to Dante “in broad
knowledge of Latin letters and the sure mastery of ancient history,” as well
as “Latin verse and prose”; and Boccaccio’s overall distinction for “knowl-
edge of Greek letters . . . and prose works in the vernacular.”80 Except for
the vernacular literature, these pursuits would have earned the respect of

78 Ibid., 23: “sine quibus nostra haec studia manca ac debilia esse videbantur.”
79 Baldassarri, “Clichés and Myth-Making,” esp. pp. 16–17. Baldassarri also notes the similarities
between these passages, among others.
80 Manetti, VB, 15: “cum integra latinarum litterarum scientia, tum etiam certa veterum historiarum
perceptione superatur”; “In carmine quoque et soluta oratione Dantes ab eo itidem vincitur”; “in
graecarum scilicet litterarum cognitione . . . et in materna ac soluta oratione.”

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114 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Niccoli, the young Bruni, and the whole humanist tradition represented in
Chapter 1. As we shall see below, it is significant that unlike Bruni, whose
praise in the Vite di Dante e del Petrarca was set primarily in civic terms
(Dante was a patriot and Petrarch’s works are an ornament to the city),
Manetti chooses to highlight specifically literary accomplishments.
Yet Manetti is not content simply to bolster the humanist credentials of
the Three Crowns; he also wants to put them at the origins of a tradition
of cultural flourishing and excellence that not only imitates but equals, and
might just surpass, antiquity. Thus he repeatedly compares them positively
to the ancients. He reports Salutati’s eulogy of Boccaccio: “yielding to
none of the ancients.”81 He likens Dante to Cicero for “making his peace
with books again” after his exile, and to Cato for being “a glutton for
books.”82 He puts Dante in the company of Homer and Virgil for being
“the first Italian to ennoble the art of writing poetry in the vernacular,” since
they achieved the same in their respective culturo-linguistic contexts.83 He
attributes Dante’s choice to pursue poetry to a desire to attain the greatest
glory possible:

Good poets, in fact, were at the time more difficult to find than philosophers,
mathematicians, and even theologians – as has been the case since the world’s
inception and continues to be so in our own times. Good poetae and oratores
have always been very rare.84

Thus Dante aspired to the glory of poetae and oratores – of humanists – who
were rare even in antiquity, and there is no doubt but that he attained it.
Manetti even goes so far as to compare Dante with Socrates, who had been
a humanist icon since Petrarch and Salutati and was an increasingly well-
known figure (and properly bowdlerized for a Christian audience) thanks to

81 Ibid., 13: “nulli cessurus veterum.”

82 For Cicero, Manetti, VD, 32. For Cato, ibid., 44: “helluo libri.”
83 Manetti, VD, 39: “Hanc suam materni sermonis poeticam hic noster poeta primus apud
Italos . . . non secus nobilitavit.” Here Manetti gives classical justification for the vernacular’s value,
and he might be implying that Greek and Latin were also natural languages. Latin’s status as an
artificial or natural language was a hotly contested point in the first half of the Quattrocento. See
Mazzocco, Linguistic Theories in Dante and the Humanists; Fubini, Umanesimo e secolarizzazione,
pp. 1–75; and Mirko Tavoni, Latino, grammatica, volgare. Storia di una questione umanistica (Padua,
84 Ibid., 46: “Etenim poetae boni ea tempestate quam aut philosophi aut mathematici aut denique
theologi longe pauciores erant, quod etiam antea, a conditione orbis terrarum usque ad haec
nostra tempora, repetitum fuisse constat. Semper enim poetae boni et oratores paucissimi fuerunt”
(translation modified). Note the contrast to Facio’s De viris illustribus, in which poetae and oratores
far outnumber philosophi and theologi.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 115
Bruni’s translations of a significant portion of the Platonic corpus.85 Dante
is compared to Socrates once (explicitly) for his natural predisposition to
sensuality, once (implicitly) for his unbelievable capacity for intellectual
Manetti’s praise of Petrarch is particularly important considering the
shabby treatment the latter received in Chapter 1 (and will continue to
receive in subsequent chapters of this study). For Aeneas Sylvius and
Biondo, Petrarch was an inspiring figure but ultimately worthy of admi-
ration for little more than his passion and diligence. In their view, his
works show either little or no eloquence. For Manetti, on the other hand,
Petrarch’s Latin was and is (still) eloquent. At least, such is the impression
he would like to convey. In one place he says, “with his unparalleled elo-
quence he presented himself as a model for future writers both in prose and
in verse”;87 and in a parallel passage in De illustribus longaevis, Petrarch is
said to have “presented himself as a model for us to imitate.”88 James Hank-
ins has argued that Manetti’s careful phrasing (“he presented himself . . . ”)
was meant to distance himself subtly from Petrarch’s own judgment; if
so, it might reveal a greater affinity than initially seemed the case between
his assessment of Petrarch’s style and that formulated by Aeneas Sylvius
and Biondo.89 Nevertheless, the fact remains that Manetti does his best to
portray Petrarch’s style in a positive light. Moreover, like Dante, Petrarch
is compared to Cato, although in this case for his late attempt to learn
Greek.90 Also like Dante, “his chief concern in composing [his] many
writings seems to have been to bequeath a glory after death not at all infe-
rior to the one he enjoyed in his lifetime – nay, an even greater one.”91 His
fame was so great that “all the peoples of every country possessing some
degree of culture were seen to venerate his name.”92 Significantly, the Latin
word translated here as “possessing some degree of culture” is humaniores,

85 James Hankins, “Socrates in the Italian Renaissance,” in M.B. Trapp (ed.), Socrates, from Antiquity
to the Enlightenment (Aldershot, 2007), pp. 179–208.
86 Sensuality: Manetti, VD, 43; intellectual absorption: ibid., 44. Although the explicit comparison
here is to a description by Cicero of Cato, a deaf ear cannot be turned to the repeated echoes of
Socrates’ similar behavior in Manetti’s own Vita Socratis: VSoc, 16, 28, and 43.
87 Manetti, VP, 7: “Et suo quodam excellentiori quodam genere dicendi seipsum posteris in soluta
oratione et carmine ad imitandum praestitit” (translation modified).
88 Manetti, DIL, 4: “ . . . et suo excellentiori quodam genere dicendi se ipsum nobis ad imitandum
praestitit” (translation modified; emphasis mine).
89 Hankins, “Petrarch and the Canon,” n. 15. 90 Manetti, VP, 19.
91 Ibid., 22: “Quas ob res in hac tanta scriptorum suorum confectione id praecipue curasse visus est, ne
moriens minorem, vel maiorem potius, nominis sui gloriam relinqueret quam vivens reportasset.”
92 Ibid., 8: “Cuncti etiam paulo humaniores omnium gentium populi eius nomen venerari videbantur”
(translation modified).

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116 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
linguistically and culturally related to studia humanitatis. The association
is clear: real humanists honor Petrarch.
The excellence of the Three Crowns is carried forward, in Manetti’s
account, by the humanists who sprouted from the “seedbed” they prepared.
The biography of Coluccio Salutati in the De illustribus longaevis offers a
very different picture from that presented by Aeneas Sylvius, who criticized
him for his poor Latin style:
he was naturally inclined and constantly spurred to take up rhetoric and
poetry . . . It can scarcely be described how much praise and glory he attained
in these disciplines, for to all the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him
he added so much diligence in reading and practice that he easily came to
surpass all his contemporaries, as if he had been born and made for these
studies by some god. The many literary works in both genres that he left for
future generations to read bear witness to this.93
The intervention of “some god” brings to mind Boccaccio’s similar beati-
tude, and the extended praise of his works recalls the (self-)assessment of
Petrarch as “a model for us to imitate.” Yet, as in his praise of Petrarch,
here, too, Manetti judiciously avoids commenting directly on the quality
of Salutati’s style, preferring to focus instead on his diligence and his excel-
lence in comparison with his contemporaries. Rather than call attention to
the shortcomings of these figures, Manetti brushes over their imperfections
in his portrayal of a general age of continuous flourishing. Thus, unlike
Piccolomini, who seemed to relish Bruni’s rebuke of his teacher’s stylistic
imprisonment in the literary “squalor of his age,” Manetti notes with pride
that Salutati was honored with the laurel wreath after death, thus putting
him in the company of Petrarch and making him “just like the ancient
poets many centuries earlier.”94 Salutati is also praised for his way of life;
the description of his reaction to his son’s death is the perfect portrait of
Stoic fortitude:
Indeed, during the whole illness he never absented himself from his son’s
sickbed, so that he was there to inhale his last breath; but he immediately
laid out his son’s body, closed his eyelids with his own hands, then his lips,
and arranged his hands and arms in the shape of a cross. Finally, having

93 Manetti, DIL, 12–13: “ad oratoriam et poeticam, suapte natura et quotidianis quibusdam stimulis,
agebatur . . . Quibus quidem in rebus quantum laudis et gloriae consequeretur vix dici potest,
siquidem cunctis naturae muneribus ornatus tantam legendi et exercendi sui diligentiam adhibuit
ut ceteris sui aetatis hominibus facile praestitisse et quasi ad ea natus et ab aliquo deo factus esse
videretur. Testes huius rei sunt plura litterarum monumenta quae in utraque facultate posteris
legenda reliquit” (translation modified).
94 Ibid., 14: “ut instar veterum poetarum . . . post multa temporum curricula.”

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 117
looked at his face again and again, he departed – wondrous to say – without
showing any sign of sorrow.95

Here is yet another implicit positive comparison of a major figure in the

history of humanism to the excellence of the ancients.
Niccolò Niccoli, whose importance in relation to Greek studies was
seen above, receives even better treatment than the other humanists. For
in addition to being likened to the ancients (to Cato, as were Dante and
Petrarch),96 he is the only one said to have surpassed them. Specifically,
Manetti is awed by Niccoli’s donation of his personal book collection to
found a public library upon his death:

The more I think about his bequest of so many noble volumes, the more I
am convinced that this admirable act is enough to put him beyond praise.
As a matter of fact, leaving aside poets and orators, was there ever any
philosopher who bequeathed a library like this?

Manetti explains that, of the greatest philosophers, neither Plato nor Aris-
totle even makes reference to his books in his will. Theophrastus does, but
only to make a personal dedication.

He did not, however, intend to establish a public library, as did our Niccolò,
in which the books would be splendidly and well preserved as a perpetual
memorial to the donor and for the eternal benefit of all scholars. It is
impossible to imagine the high praises that writers would have showered on
the bequest of such a splendid and precious library – not a private but a
public one – if it had been founded in those ancient times, in what might
be called the age of learning.97

95 Ibid., 15: “ab eius namque latere toto aegrotationis suae tempore numquam discedebat ut extremum
filii spiritum forte hauriret, quem ut toto pectore accepit, illico supinum cadaver statuit, palpebras
oculorum propriis manibus composuit, labia clausit, manus insuper et brachia in crucem constituit.
Ad extremum, cum vultus eius etiam atque etiam intueretur, nullum maestitiae signum, mirabile
dictu, exinde discedens prae se tulit.” Cf. Garin, L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 69–72, who portrays
Manetti himself as a staunch anti-Stoic.
96 Like Dante, he is called a “glutton for books,” ibid., 29.
97 Ibid., 31: “Hanc solam tantorum ac tam nobilium librorum legationem mecum ipse considerans
tanti facere soleo ut ex hoc uno eius dignissimo facto satis hominem laudare non posse putem. Qualis
enim, omissis poetis et oratoribus, philosophus umquam fuit qui huiusmodi librariae dumtaxat
supellectilis testamentum faceret? . . . non publice, ut Nicolaus noster, bibliothecam fieri et construi
voluit, in qua ad perpetuam rei memoriam et ad perennem quandam doctorum hominum utilitatem
optime simul atque speciosissime reconderentur. Quare si huiusmodi tam praeclarae ac tam pretiosae
supellectilis non privata, sed publica et communis omnium legatio priscis illis temporibus et eruditis,
ut ita dixerim, saeculis instituta fuisset, quantis et quam summis in caelum laudibus a scriptoribus
efferretur non satis dici posset.”

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118 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
At least in this one respect, Niccoli surpasses the greatest ancient philoso-
phers; and thus his own time, with its “poets and orators,” surpasses “the
age of learning.”98

Holy humanism
Manetti portrays a continuous line of great humanists from Dante, through
Salutati and Niccoli, to the great Florentines and Venetians of his own day.
He depicts a period of cultural flourishing that stands up to the ancients and
includes vernacular and Latin literature, scholasticism and eloquence, all
of which he packs into the general category of the studia humanitatis. This
constitutes a radical expansion of what humanism meant to Piccolomini,
Biondo, and Facio, but the limit of its significance has not yet been sounded.
For Manetti adds another new aspect to the concept of humanism, one
that brings it to a higher plane: the choice to be made between the active
and the contemplative life. This is the standard by which Manetti makes
his Plutarchan comparison of the Three Crowns.99 Specifically, the studia
humanitatis offers for the first time (outside the monastery) the possibility of
shunning the active life of civic participation and employment in preference
for a quiet existence of contemplation and study. At the highest level, the
contemplative life turns into an opportunity for holiness, and the studia
humanitatis becomes the direct path to beatitude.100
Although coinciding on many essential points, in this respect Manetti
diverges noticeably from the position of Eugenio Garin, according to whom
“early humanism” – meaning humanism from Petrarch through the whole

98 In point of fact, we know of several public libraries donated by private individuals in Roman
antiquity. The earliest was the bequest of Gaius Asinius Pollio. See T. Keith Dix and George
W. Houston, “Public Libraries in the City of Rome: From the Augustan Age to the Time of
Diocletian,” Mélange de l’École française de Rome: Antiquité, 118 (2006), pp. 671–717. Literary
references to ancient public libraries are found in several Roman authors including the Elder
(Natural History, 7.115 and 35.10) and Younger Pliny (Ep., 1.8), Ovid (Tristia, 3.1), Suetonius
(Caesar, 44; Augustus, 29), and Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, 7.17, 11.17, 16.8). I am indebted to Tom
Hendrickson for these references.
99 Manetti, VB, 14: “Hoc ergo tamquam principio quodam vere in hac nostra comparatione
100 On the issue of the contemplative and the active life in Renaissance humanism, see Garin,
L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 25–132; Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Active and the Contemplative Life in
Renaissance Humanism,” in Brian Vickers (ed.), Arbeit, Musse, Meditation. Betrachtungen zur “Vita
activa” und “Vita contemplativa” (Zürich, 1985), pp. 133–152; Victoria Kahn, “Coluccio Salutati
on the Active and Contemplative Lives,” in Vickers (ed.), Arbeit, Musse, Meditation, pp. 153–
179; Letizia A. Panizza, “Active and Contemplative in Lorenzo Valla: The Fusion of Opposites,”
in Vickers (ed.), Arbeit, Musse, Meditation, pp. 181–223; Ursula Rombach, Vita activa und vita
contemplativa bei Cristoforo Landino (Stuttgart, 1991), esp. pp. 33–55; and Paul A. Lombardo, “Vita
Activa versus Vita Contemplativa in Petrarch and Salutati,” Italica, 59 (1982), pp. 83–92.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 119
first half of the fifteenth century – “was a glorification of civic life and
of the construction of an earthly city by man.”101 In Garin’s view, primo
umanesimo entailed a commitment to the active life, to the usefulness,
the applicability of humanae litterae to the here and now. Even Petrarch’s
“withdrawal into solitude” he interpreted in a social and civic key.
[Petrarch] insisted above all that it is necessary to find first one’s own self and
to discover oneself as a man among men. The love of the fatherland and the
love of one’s neighbor are not only not incompatible with, but are closely
connected with, the inward education which is the condition of all fruitful
earthly activity . . . Solitude was not a monastic retirement into a barbarous
isolation, but an initiation into a truer society, into a more effective form of
love. The appeal in favor of inwardness . . . has nothing to do with isolation
as usually understood, but is an exaltation of the world of man, of the world
of values and of actions, of language and of the sociability that links men
through time and space and defies all limits.102
Hence Petrarch’s distaste for scholasticism, which he saw as “pure con-
templation” disconnected from real life. And “even though he did not
actually defend the primacy of virtue active in this world, he insisted nev-
ertheless upon the necessity of recognizing its value side by side with that
of contemplative virtue.”103 Garin, arguing on the basis of another text,
the De excellentia et praestantia hominis, fits Manetti into this tradition,
summarizing the Florentine’s worldview thus: “man shines mainly through
his earthly works, in his daily construction of the earthly city, in the seri-
ous dedication to civic life.”104 A radically different picture emerges from
Manetti’s biographical works. That humanists could take various positions
on whether the active or the contemplative life was superior, and also that
they were fully capable of recognizing the relative merits of each path for
different kinds of people, was pointed out by Kristeller.105 The discrepancy
seems quite important in this case. For the treatise on the dignity of man
was written at the behest of a philohumanist patron, Alfonso the Magnan-
imous, as a response to the pessimism about man’s nature embodied in
Pope Innocent III’s De contemptu mundi. In contrast, Manetti composed
the Vita as an apology for the Three Crowns with a specifically humanist

101 Garin, Italian Humanism, p. 78 [original Italian = L’umanesimo italiano, p. 94]. Garin explains
his position fully in the first two chapters of this work (L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 25–97; Italian
Humanism, pp. 18–81).
102 Ibid., pp. 20–21 [L’umanesimo italiano, pp. 28–29].
103 Ibid., p. 25 [L’umanesimo italiano, p. 33].
104 Ibid., p. 60 [L’umanesimo italiano, p. 74]. See pp. 56–60 [69–74] for Manetti generally and the
concept of the dignity of man.
105 Kristeller, “The Active and the Contemplative Life,” pp. 138–143.

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120 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
audience in mind. Indeed, he intended it in part as a complement, if not
a rebuttal, to Bruni’s Vite di Dante e del Petrarca, whose primary criterion
for judgment was not literary but the civic contribution of the two poets.
Furthermore, Manetti intended his biography of Niccolò Niccoli, another
text of great relevance for this issue, as a mirror of the ideal humanist.
Considering the centrality of the Florentine milieu for the promotion of
the active life, not to mention for Garin’s interpretation of humanism gen-
erally, we should give particular weight to Manetti’s dissent when trying
to reconstruct how humanists viewed this issue with regard to their own
activity as humanists.106
When it came to declaring in these biographical writings which kind of
life was more amenable to humanistic pursuits, Manetti’s sympathies were
clearly with the contemplative life. His position emerges distinctly in the
biography of Dante. Although Manetti praises the poet’s civic participation
(office-holding and ambassadorial duties) and devotion to his city (up
to the point of his exile), he does so with great reservation.107 At one
point he sighs, “We can only imagine what an extraordinary man this
divine poet could have been if he had been granted the opportunity to
study with greater calm and tranquility, rather than in such uncertain and
tempestuous conditions.”108 Nevertheless, Manetti does not hide the fact
that Dante clearly preferred the active life and only devoted himself to
letters when excluded from it. Accordingly Dante is twice compared to
Cicero for having “made his peace with books again”109 in compensation
for his forced retirement from political life. Almost to his chagrin, Manetti
is forced to admit Dante’s superiority to the other Two Crowns despite the
poet’s preference for the active life:
Having set everything else aside and devoted themselves solely to [the con-
templative] life, Petrarca and Boccaccio should have surpassed Dante, for
they led longer, more quiet and peaceful lives. Yet this is not true at all; in
fact, although Dante did not reach old age and never enjoyed much tran-
quility in his life . . . , he rapidly succeeded in attaining a vast knowledge
of things human and divine, thanks to the almost divine excellence of his

106 Cf. ibid., 140–143. Florence’s centrality for Garin’s understanding of Quattrocento humanism is
implicit throughout L’umanesimo italiano.
107 Manetti, VB, 14–15.
108 Manetti, VD, 38: “Quod si quietiora ac tranquilliora non autem fluctuantia et procellosa studia
divinus poeta habuisset, qualem et quantum virum futurum coniectura augurari possumus.”
109 Ibid., 32 and 38: “in gratiam rursus cum libris redire.”
110 Manetti, VB, 15: “Petrarcha itaque et Boccacius huic soli, ceteris posthabitis, dediti, eum pro-
fecto superare debuerunt, quo quidem et diuturniorem et longe quietiorem ac pacatiorem vitam

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 121
Despite Manetti’s reservations about worldly engagement, a fruitful com-
bination of the active and contemplative lives could be found among lesser
lights. Salutati would seem to have enjoyed the most success:
He wrote all this and much more while deeply involved in both private and
public business. He looked after his large family with ten children while
carrying on his shoulders the whole weight of the city as chancellor of the
Florentine people. He died happily at seventy-six, leaving a rather ample
patrimony to his many young sons, together with a large number of books
and the singular glory of his name. His above-mentioned books won for
him the laurel crown.111
A less happy but still successful mix of the two kinds of life is attributed
to Leonardo Bruni. After devoting a whole page to the Aretine’s numerous
works, Manetti observes:
And he wrote all this while leading a very busy life, partly agitated by the
constant instability of the Roman curia, in which he served diligently for
many years as papal secretary under various popes, partly distracted hither
and yon by the affairs of the Florentine people, whose chancellor he was for
a long time, and partly burdened by his own family cares. So his literary
achievements should be considered even more admirable and praiseworthy
than if he had written so many lengthy works while leading a quiet and
leisured life.112
These examples of Bruni and Salutati show that Manetti was not opposed
to the active life in principle. On the contrary, Boccaccio’s biography shows
that he respected the need for work, money, and patronage, even if they
might be seen as necessary evils, in order for studies not to be hindered.
The third Crown “was often preoccupied by his poverty, for he saw it
obstructing the smooth course of the studies whose heights he hoped to

tenuerunt. At id longe secus est; quamquam enim Dantes neque senuerit neque etiam id quod
datum est vitae tranquillum habuerit . . . , ob quandam tamen divinam ingenii sui excellentiam
magnam humanarum et divinarum rerum cognitionem brevi tempore comparavit.”
111 Manetti, DIL, 14: “Atque haec omnia pluraque alia in maximis privatarum et publicarum rerum
occupationibus memoriae mandavit. Magnum namque familiae ac decem liberorum onus gubern-
abat et florentini populi scriba omne civitatis pondus suis humeris sustinebat . . . Nam septuagesimo
sexto aetatis suae anno feliciter obiit; quippe amplo satis patrimonio [et] pluribus adulescentibus
filiis et magna librorum copia simul cum singulari quadam nominis sui gloria relictis, ob memorata
rerum suarum monumenta lauream promeretur.”
112 Manetti, CJEG, 31: “Atque haec omnia ipsum in vita semper occupatissima – partim continuis
romanae curiae fluctibus agitatum, in qua quidem per multos annos pluribus summis pontificibus
in secretariatus officio diligentissime inserviverat, partim florentini populi, cuius scriba diutius
fuerat, negotiis hinc inde distractum, partim denique rei familiaris molibus oppressum – scripsisse
constat. Quod admirabilius ac longe laudabilius fore non iniuria existimatur et creditur quam si
in vita quieta et otiosa talia tantaque scripsisset.”

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122 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
reach.” Nevertheless he refused to find a remedy. Manetti’s description has
the odor of criticism:

By nature he was so irascible and resentful that, though terribly harassed by

lack of money, he never consented to live at any prince’s court, not even for
a short while. That is why, in my opinion, he was never satisfied with his
resources and why his writings are filled with bitter complaints about his
conditions in life.113

Lest this passage be seen as a justification for money-making and profit,

attention should be given to the beginning of the same biography. There
Boccaccio’s early education in an abacus school and subsequent appren-
ticeship to a merchant, said to have been forced upon him by his father
“for the sake of gain,”114 are described as “an irreparable waste of time,
for his nature abhorred these money-grubbing arts and seemed particu-
larly suited to literary studies.”115 Similar language occurs in the biography
of Niccoli, who “put aside all business matters as trivial and useless and
turned to the study of the Latin language,”116 for he “never longed to amass
wealth like the greedy.”117 Manetti’s position is opposed to that of, say,
Leonardo Bruni, who was the first modern to provide a theoretical defense
of wealth in terms of virtue.118 Instead he sets the contemplative life of study
against and above the active life of commerce, which in comparison he calls
“money-grubbing,” “a waste of time,” and “trivial and useless.” Although
himself the active inheritor of healthy commercial interests, Manetti in
no way sanctions a life purely or predominantly dedicated to amassing

113 Manetti, VB, 12: “Suapte natura adeo indignabundus erat ut, quamquam tenuitate patrimonii
vehementer angeretur, cum nullis tamen terrarum principibus commorari vel paululum tolleraret;
ex quo factum esse arbitror ut, numquam rebus suis contentus, pluribus scriptorum suorum locis
statum suum vehementius deploraret.”
114 Ibid., 4: “lucrandi gratia.”
115 Ibid., 2: “se nihil aliud egisse quam irrecuperabile tempus incasum contrivisse confirmat, quoniam
suapte natura ab huiuscemodi quaestoriis artibus abhorrebat ac litterarum studiis aptior videbatur.”
116 Manetti, DIL, 17: “omnibus mercaturis velut frivolis et inanibus rebus praetermissis, ad latinae
linguae cognitionem se contulisse dicitur.”
117 Ibid., 21: “Neque postea ullo umquam tempore aut comparandis opibus, ut cupidi, inhiavit.”
118 Bruni made the argument in the dedicatory letter to Cosimo de’ Medici of his translation of
the pseudo-Aristotelian Oeconomics. Text in Bruni, Sulla perfetta traduzione, pp. 262–263. An
older edition is available in Bruni, Humanistisch-philosophische Schriften, pp. 120–121. An English
translation with introduction, along with excerpts of Bruni’s notes to the text, is available in The
Humanism of Leonardo Bruni, pp. 300–317.
119 For the wealth and commercial activity of Manetti and his family, see Martines, The Social World,
pp. 131–138 and 176–191.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 123
Boccaccio’s case shows that Manetti respected the need to work in order
to support one’s studies if necessary, but his ideal was a life of cultivated
leisure. Its fulfillment can be seen in Niccoli:
Being thus free of all public and private concerns, he enjoyed leisure – not
the indolent and worthless kind, but rather leisure of a cultivated and nobler
sort. Accordingly he spent his time partly reading, partly transcribing old
manuscripts, and partly sharing in the affairs of his friends. Whatever time
was left over he spent amassing and collecting books from every source.120
Leisure, like wealth, can be used for both noble and ignoble purposes. It
can be a means to a life of study, or it can be desired for its own sake and
thus squandered. In this respect, and also in another as we shall soon see,
Niccoli appears as the humanist par excellence, an amasser not of wealth
but of books.
Petrarch took the ideal of noble leisure to a higher level. Having no
contact with civic affairs (he was born an exile) and wary of the conditions
of service, he is said to have shunned offers to join several courts. In his
younger years he was, admittedly, affiliated with courts in both Avignon
and Milan, in the latter even distinguishing himself as a diplomat.121 But
he tended to separate himself not only from mundane duties but even
from human contact. His first retreat was “the Sorgue,” a spring outside of
Avignon where “he led a retired life for many years, completing the studies
that enabled him to leave behind him so many works.”122 The second was
Arquà, outside of Padua, where
he finally embraced a solitary life as more befitting the study of things
human and divine. Accordingly, he renounced all worldly pomp and honors
and went to live a retired life in the Euganean Hills. There he built himself
a small house to protect his privacy . . . In this place, perfectly convenient
and suited to his studies, he spent the rest of his long life, composing a large
number of works.123

120 Manetti, DIL, 22: “Per hunc itaque modum publicis simul atque privatis occupationibus carens
otio non desidioso illo et ignobili se litterato et generoso fruebatur. Proinde partim legendo,
partim vetustos codices transcribendo, partim amicorum negotiis impartiendo, quod reliquum
erat temporis in cumulandis et congregandis undique voluminibus consumebatur” (translation
121 Manetti, VP, 9–10.
122 Ibid., 21: “complures ibi annos quietissime habitavit atque studia sua ita peregit ut multa memoriae
123 Ibid., 13: “ . . . demum vitam solitariam, utpote huiusmodi humanarum ac divinarum rerum studiis
accommodatiorem, adamavit. Proinde, ceteris omnibus mundi pompis et honoribus posthabitis, in
Euganeis collibus . . . se in otium contulit; ubi et domum parvam, solitudinis gratia, instruxit . . . In
hoc tam opportuno atque tam accommodato loco in studiis suis usque ad extremum vitae longius
versatus, multa memoriae mandavit.”

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124 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
The Florentine humanist Roberto de’ Rossi made a similar life decision:
[He] set aside public offices, wife and children – in short, the secular world
with all its pomps – and attained great and admirable knowledge of various
literatures, Greek as well as Latin, including poetry and oratory, history,
mathematics, natural and moral philosophy, and finally metaphysics. Even-
tually, he excelled so much in the aforesaid fields of study that he came to
be regarded as a great orator and a leading philosopher of the time.

Unlike Petrarch, however, Rossi enjoyed the company of other people and
even won for himself “a troop of disciples, the sons of distinguished and
noble families.”124 The description of Rossi illustrates Garin’s view of how
the contemplative life can intersect with the active, but Manetti’s portrayal
of Petrarch does not. As far as Manetti is concerned, Petrarch eschews the
vita activa entirely in his eremitic pursuit of solitude. As a consequence he
achieves holiness, even saintliness.125
The sleight of hand Manetti employed to incorporate scholasticism
into the studia humanitatis appears clumsy in comparison to the masterful
operation involved in his saintly makeover of Petrarch. Here he reaps the
greatest advantage from his “mosaic technique,” juxtaposing anecdotes
involving prodigies, portents, and a saintly way of life with the details of
Petrarch’s birth, education, and literary production. He thereby obscures
Petrarch’s reputation as an unserious, lascivious love poet and replaces it
with one for ascetic self-abnegation, control of the passions, concern for
the soul, and holy meditation.
His soul was no less beautiful than his body. Even . . . when he seems
in his lyrics to have indulged amorous passions . . . , he actually never
departed more than a finger’s breadth, so to speak, from the most austere
gravity . . . From adolescence to almost the last year of his life, for instance,
he maintained a fixed regime of fasting. In addition to fasting on Fridays he
also drank only water, as though seasoning his fasts with bitter salt. He used
to rise faithfully in the middle of the night to sing the praises of Christ, a
habit he always observed with great care, except in case of illness.

124 Manetti, CJEG, 26: “Robertus Russus . . . ceteris omnibus cum civitatis magistratibus tum
uxor<e> et liberis tum denique saeculo et pompis suis posthabitis, assiduam quandam et
admirabilem diversarum litterarum, et poeticae et oratoriae, historiarum et mathematicorum et
philosophiae naturalis ac moralis ac demum metaphysicae graecae ac latinae linguae cognitionem
navavit. Quocirca in omnibus praedictorum studiorum generibus usque adeo profecisse creditur
ut magnus orator ingensque illius temporis philosophus haberetur atque ob hanc singularem et
praecipuam doctrinae et eruditionis suae excellentiam factum est ut eius domus magna quadam
generosorum et nobilium discipulorum caterva quotidie frequentaretur.”
125 Manetti’s pious makeover of Petrarch has also been observed by Baldassarri, “Clichés and Myth-
Making,” p. 25, who identifies the sources for Manetti’s sketch.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 125
In short, he was so far from indulging amorous passions that, owing to
his almost religious self-control and his severe, holy habits of life, not a
few people claimed that he observed perpetual chastity and virginity. Such
claims will not surprise us if we bear in mind his plain and meager diet, his
habits of drinking water and eating just uncooked vegetables and fruit, his
regular and unremitting fasts – all of which, far from harming him, brought
him intense pleasure.126

What is more, “he formed close relationships with the most holy and
learned men of his time, and he often asked them in his letters to remember
him unceasingly in their prayers.”127 In the twilight of his existence “he
dwelt sweetly in uninterrupted contemplation of the holy mysteries and in
long meditation on eternal life.”128 Even his great learning and fame take
on a holy aspect. Manetti relates that “antiquity would have marveled . . . ,
recording it as a miracle,” how “noble and clever men came not only
from other parts of Italy, but also from Transalpine Gaul for the sole
purpose of seeing him.”129 As if this were not enough, Manetti goes on to
describe how Petrarch was sought out and venerated in the manner of a live

A blind grammar school teacher finally succeeded in meeting him after

having searched for him all over Italy . . . He was so overcome with the desire
to meet him that he had his son and his pupil, who were carrying him, lift
him up in their arms so that he might cover the poet’s head and right hand

126 Manetti, VP, 16–17: “Nec minor animi sui decor quam corporis fuit . . . et quamquam . . . in odis
suis . . . lascivis amoribus indulsisse videretur, a gravitate tamen censoria ungue latius, ut dicitur,
non recedebat . . . Siquidem ieiunium a pueritia animose coeptum usque ad extremum fere vitae
suae annum accuratissime simul atque constantissime sine intermissione retinuit; idque ieiunium
ita accurate custoditum, inedia sextae feriae, cum solo aquae potu, quasi acriori sale, condiebat.
Media insuper nocte ad dicendum Christo laudes igitur surgebat, qui mos ab eo magna cum cura
servabatur nisi forte aliqui morbi nonnumquam interrupissent.
Quid plura? Tantum abest ut ipse lascivis amoribus inhaereret ut ob religiosam quandam vitae
continentiam atque severitatem et sanctimoniam morum non defuerint qui ipsum perpetuam
castitatem ac virginitatem continuisse traderent; quod forte mirari desinemus, si abstinentiam et
asperitatem victus, si aquae haustum, si crudas herbas, si pomorum esum, si praeterea quotidianum
et perpetuum ieiunium, quibus non modo non offendebatur sed vehementius oblectabatur.”
127 Ibid., 20: “et cum religiosissimis simul atque doctissimis eius temporis viris magnam per epis-
tulas familiaritatem contraxerat, ita ut eos crebro per litteras precaretur ut sui in divinis eorum
orationibus . . . sine intermissione meminissent.”
128 Ibid., 23: “in continua quadam altissimarum rerum contemplatione simul atque diuturna aeternae
vitae praemeditatione . . . suavissime commorabatur.”
129 Ibid., 11: “ . . . quod ita mirabile est ut quiddam huic nostro simile mirata antiquitatis pro miraculo
litteris mandaverit. Etenim . . . non modo de Italia sed de ulteriori etiam Gallia nobiles quosdam
et ingeniosos viros, sola visendi gratia . . . ad se ipsum venisse testatur” (emphasis mine, translation

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126 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
with kisses, as though, being unable to see him, only actual physical contact
with him would satisfy his extraordinary and almost insatiable desire.130
Even Petrarch’s death was apparently accompanied by a prodigy:
When Petrarca breathed his last sigh he exhaled something like a surpassingly
white cloud that, like burning frankincense, went up to the roofbeams and
stayed there for a short while before vanishing little by little into the limpid
air. This extraordinary event . . . is considered a miracle, clearly confirming
that the divine spirit of the poet returned to God.131
As inventive as these stories may seem, all of them derive from fourteenth-
century accounts and thus are nothing new (some even come directly
from Petrarch’s own letters!).132 They had, however, been jettisoned by
later biographers, including Bruni, and Manetti’s decision to reincorporate
them into Petrarch’s persona amounts therefore to an insistence on the
validity of the older view.133 What is more, Manetti’s concern for reporting
prodigies and miracles and holy ways of life extends beyond the biography
of Petrarch. It is found throughout the Vita Dantis134 as well, and it also
crops up in a rather unexpected place: the biography of the notoriously
“abusive” Niccolò Niccoli in De illustribus longaevis.135 Indeed, in his person
not only does the preference for the vita contemplativa result in holiness,
but with his passionate and single-minded pursuit of the studia humanitatis
he follows “the true path to a good and happy life.”136 Behold the apotheosis
of humanism.
As a youth Niccoli was forced by his father to study business but felt that
he “was born for higher and nobler goals.” Once out from under his father’s

130 Ibid., 11: “caecum namque grammaticum per totam ferme Italiam ipsum quaeritasse ac tandem
aliquando convenisse tradit; atque prae nimio conveniendi sui desiderio ipsum sublatum manibus
filii et discipuli, quibus ambobus pro vehiculo utebatur, caput eius et dexteram manum crebris
osculationibus petiisse describit, quasi tactu ipso eximio et paene insatiabili sui desiderio satisfac-
eret, quandoquidem visu satiari non posset.”
131 Ibid., 23: “Ipsum scilicet moribundum in extrema ultimi spiritus sui efflatione aerem quendam
tenuissimum in candidissimae nubeculae speciem exhalasse, qui instar incensi thuris usque ad
laquearia tabulati altius elatus ibidem vel paululum requievit; postremo in aerem limpidissimum
paulatim resolutum evanuisse. Hoc adeo mirabile . . . pro miraculo habitum, divinum poetae
spiritum ad Deum revertisse propalam indicavit.”
132 See Baldassarri, “Clichés and Myth-Making,” p. 25.
133 For the biographies of Petrarch, see Angelo Solerti, Le vite di Dante, Petrarca e Boccaccio, scritte
fino al secolo decimosesto (Milan, 1904–1905).
134 See Manetti, VD, 10, where a dream foretells Dante’s birth and portends his destiny as a poet; and
VD, 53, where Dante appears after his death in his son’s dream to tell him where to find a hidden
manuscript of Paradiso.
135 Niccoli was called “abusive” by Bruni, who entitled his invective against Niccoli Oratio in nebu-
lonem maledicum; Piccolomini calls him “maledicus” in Piccolomini, DVI, p. 35.15.
136 Manetti, DIL, 19: “veram bene beateque vivendi viam.”

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 127
thumb, “he put aside all business matters as trivial and useless and turned
to the study of the Latin language.”137 The pattern is familiar: the “higher
and nobler goals” of “the study of the Latin language” are contrasted with
the “trivial and useless” study of business. And now we see why:
He disregarded all the other arts, although they might appear to be more
useful and profitable, in favor of studying Latin literature. He had a unique
love for humanistic studies (peritia humanitatis), from which all virtues
derive, and decided to follow his passion. It is obvious that the principal
aim of the studia humanitatis has to do with virtue, for in them, much more
than in other disciplines, the object is moral rectitude – an object that is
always found when truly sought. And it is from moral rectitude that justice,
fortitude, modesty and all the other virtues spring forth and derive.138
Throughout his biographies, Manetti has broadened the content and mean-
ing of the studia humanitatis to include philosophy, theology, mathematics,
music – in short, to include all of the artes liberales. Now, however, he offers
a version of the studia humanitatis that accords perfectly with that of Pic-
colomini, Biondo, and Facio. For Niccoli is said to have “turned to the
study of the Latin language,” and to have “disregarded all the other arts . . . in
favor of studying Latin literature.” Furthermore, Manetti adds an element
to the mix that was surprisingly missing from our first three authors: the
equation of humanist education and virtue.
That the study of Latin could be related to virtue in any way is bound
to baffle most modern readers. Yet the claim that the acquisition of elo-
quent Latin and the study of the Roman classics instilled in the student the
virtue necessary for proper personal development, social maturity, political
action – in short, for humanitas – is a familiar one from the letters in which
Guarino describes his own school, as well as from the humanist educational
treatises written by Pier Paolo Vergerio, Leonardo Bruni, Aeneas Sylvius
Piccolomini, Battista Guarino, and Maffeo Vegio.139 For about thirty years
now there has been great debate over these texts: Are the humanists’ claims
137 Ibid., 17: “quasi ad altiora et digniora nasceretur”; “omnibus mercaturis velut frivolis et inanibus
rebus praetermissis, ad latinae linguae cognitionem se contulisse dicitur” (emphasis mine).
138 Ibid., 18: “post latinarum litterarum eruditionem ceterarum artium studia neglexit quamquam util-
iora ac vendibiliora viderentur; humanitatis vero peritiam, unde virtutes eruuntur, unice adamavit
adamatamque sibi delegit et voluit. Haec enim humanitatis studia ad virtutem apprime spectare
et pertinere manifestum est. Nam in his ipsis prae aliis artium studiis honestum quaeritur quaesi-
tumque haud dubie reperitur. Ex honesto autem iustitia, fortitudo, modestia ceteraeque virtutes
emanare et effluere viderentur” (translation altered).
139 For the texts in question and discussions of them, see Humanist Educational Treatises; McMana-
mon, Pierpaolo Vergerio the Elder, pp. 89–103 (on Vergerio’s De ingenuis moribus); The Humanism
of Leonardo Bruni, pp. 235–254 (on Bruni); Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humani-
ties, pp. 1–28 (on Guarino); Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy, pp. 110–141, 407–410; Garin,

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128 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
about virtue true? What actually went on in the humanist classroom?
What was its intention, its effect on students, its usefulness to individu-
als, society, and the political regime?140 Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine
challenged the traditional view of Eugenio Garin, subsequently restated by
Paul Grendler, which essentially takes the educational ideal elaborated by
the humanists as a statement of fact.141 Treating Guarino’s letters and other
descriptions by his students as advertising material rather than pure con-
fessions of the heart, Grafton and Jardine argue instead that such accounts
cannot be taken as an indication of what happened in the classroom, nor as
a reliable guide to how virtue was transmitted there, if at all. In their anal-
ysis, when the humanist classroom did initiate students “into the whole of
ancient culture and the concomitant elevated attitudes and beliefs,” such
did not follow from the content or the method of the curriculum. Rather it
took place “as a lived emulation of a teacher who projects the cultural ideal
above and beyond the drilling he provides in curriculum subjects.” Thus
humanist education worked, when it worked as advertised, not because of
a specific content or method but because of “a charismatic teacher.”142
It is fascinating to see that the controversial conclusion deduced by
Grafton and Jardine is enunciated and expounded by Manetti:
Niccolò thus became a friend and a disciple of a certain Luigi Marsili – an
exceptional man of that time for his piety, holiness, and the excellence of
his learning – so as to learn the true path to a good and happy life while
studying the bonae artes . . . Having given himself over to learning from this
unique and erudite man, he studied with such care and diligence under his
guidance that he never left his side. Thus it happened that, in addition to a
deep understanding of many different subjects, he also acquired from him
an excellent moral character and a fine pattern of life . . . For it commonly
happens that we imitate the behavior of those with whom we consort and
become a kind of copy of the person imitated, and this happens more easily
and more often when we respect and admire such persons.143

Ritratti di umanisti, pp. 69–106 (on Guarino); Garin, L’educazione in Europa; Garin, L’umanesimo
italiano, pp. 90–93; L’educazione umanistica in Italia, ed. Eugenio Garin (Bari, 1949).
140 For the history of scholarship on humanist education and a resume of this debate, see Black,
Humanism and Education, pp. 12–33.
141 See note 139 above. 142 Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities, p. 27.
143 Manetti, DIL, 19–20: “Quocirca in familiaritatem et disciplinam cuiusdam Lodovici Marsilii sese
recepit, viri per ea tempora et religione et sanctimonia vitae et excellentia doctrinae praestantissimi,
ut una cum bonarum artium studiis veram bene beateque vivendi viam exinde perciperet . . . In
huius ergo singularissimi atque eruditissimi viri disciplina deditus, ita in huiusmodi ludo diligenter
accurateque perseveravit ut ab eius fere latere numquam recederet. Ex quo factum est ut praeter
singularem quandam plurimarum rerum cognitionem, egregios quoque mores et optima instituta
vitae ab eo reportaret . . . Fit enim plerumque ut mores eorum imitemur imitatique similitudinem
quandam exprimamus cum quibus diutius conversamur; atque id ipsum facilius ac frequentius

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 129
Thus virtue did not actually flow directly from the studia humanitatis.
Instead the study of Latin acted as a conduit by which the moral rectitude
of the teacher passed to the student. Its effect on Niccoli was nothing short
of marvelous:
Our Niccolò was so taken with Luigi’s learning . . . that he put aside all
the desires most people naturally have for riches, honors and children and
devoted himself entirely to the study of the bonae artes. From that time on
he never longed to amass wealth like the greedy, nor sought honors like the
ambitious, nor indulged in matrimony in order to raise a family. Instead,
he remained poor, unknown and celibate, entirely free of all worldly cares,
living happily with his books in the greatest quiet and tranquility.144
Niccoli is the picture of a humanist monk. According to Kristeller, the secu-
larization of the monastic ideal is “characteristic of Renaissance humanism”
and “even more significant than [its] outright defense or rejection.” But
what we see in Manetti is more than what Kristeller described as a simple
“transfer of the ideal of the solitary life from the monk and hermit to the lay
scholar.”145 According to this passage, the pursuit of humanism entailed a
life of poverty, humility, and celibacy – the very Christian virtues lived out
by monks. Here Manetti offers a new lay version not only of the monastic
ideal of solitude but also of the monastic life proper: an escape from the
business of the unclean secular world not by way of prayer or meditation on
sacred texts, but by way of the study of secular Latin literature. If Petrarch
led a holy life in addition to being a humanist, Niccoli led a holy life because
he was a humanist.
Curiously, the actual facts of Niccoli’s life in no way accord with Manetti’s
presentation.146 For example, he lived on a mass of inherited and borrowed
wealth and was sustained by the friendship, patronage, and unflagging sup-
port of Cosimo de’ Medici, yet he complained bitterly of this dependence.
He was a notoriously “abusive” (maledicus) critic feared for his ferocious

contingit si cum aliqua observatione et admiratione intuemur” (translation altered). For the
Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili, see Paolo Falzoni, “Marsili, Luigi,” in DBI, vol. LXX (2008),
pp. 767–771; and Arbesmann, Der Augustinereremitenorden, pp. 73–119.
144 Manetti, DIL, 21: “Ita huius doctrina, ita mores, ita instituta mirabili quoddam dicendi lepore
condita Nicolao nostro placuerunt ut ceteris vel divitiarum vel honorum vel suscipiendorum
liberorum, quae maxime ab hominibus suapte natura expetantur, cupiditatibus posthabitis totum
se in otium ad bonarum artium studia converteret. Neque postea ullo umquam tempore aut
comparandis opibus, ut cupidi, inhiavit, aut aucupandis honoribus, ut ambitiosi, inservivit, aut rei
uxoriae, procreandi prolis gratia, indulsit, sed potius egenus et inglorius et caelebs, omni saeculari
cura liber et vacuus, in summa quiete et tranquillitate una cum libris suis feliciter vivebat.”
145 Kristeller, “The Active and the Contemplative Life,” pp. 139–141 (quotations on 139); cf. also
Lombardo, “Vita Activa,” p. 86.
146 For Niccoli, see Davies, “An Emperor without Clothes.”

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130 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
and cruel censure of others. At times he acted like a sociopath, throughout
the course of his life alienating the affection of nearly all his friends, Bruni
and Poggio included; only the monk Traversari never broke with him. He
quarreled constantly with his brothers. He could not stand the fame of
others and thus chased away the eminent humanists, like Guarino and
Filelfo, who were invited to teach Greek at the University of Florence. And
finally, he was infamous throughout Italy for having an illicit affair with
his housekeeper, Benvenuta, whom he was reputed to keep at home as a
Clearly, poverty, humility, and celibacy were components of neither the
life nor the reputation of Niccolò Niccoli. Nevertheless, Manetti’s text
need not be read in a sardonic spirit or merely as a product of rhetorical
ornatio. Much of what he reports in the biographies is, as we have seen,
legendary, and some of it intentionally so. Manetti does not intend to take
a photograph of humanism but rather to paint an idealized portrait of it.
Like his extension of the studia humanitatis to Dante’s scholastic education
in Paris, or his attribution to Boccaccio of the flourishing of Greek studies,
his beatification of Niccoli serves the purpose of filling in the details of
that ideal. Niccoli had died only two years earlier, and his memory was fair
game. Manetti clearly sought to rehabilitate Niccoli’s reputation. Poggio
had already begun this process in his funeral oration for Niccoli, and
much of Manetti’s biography is drawn from that source.147 More was at
stake here, however. As usual with his mosaic technique, there is a specific
design behind Manetti’s choice of passages to cut from other works and
paste into his own. With what must have been a profound sense of irony,
Manetti transformed Niccoli into the scion of a noble line of humanists
beginning with the very three poets that he, Niccoli, had so famously
despised: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Beyond devoting themselves to
the studia humanitatis, all these men lived holy lives of divine study, moral
purity, and even humanistic beatification.
Would it be proper to call Manetti’s portrayals of Petrarch and Niccoli
the hagiography of humanism? Indeed, the texts bear more than a pass-
ing resemblance to the practices of the Christian tradition of hagiography,
viz. the glorification of the subject’s holiness and the citing of miracles

147 The similarities were noted by Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, pp. 322–323 (as
cited in Manetti, Biographical Writings, p. 305, n. 6). Baron, however, interprets both Manetti’s
and Poggio’s ritratti as following in the tradition of Cino Rinuccini’s Invettiva, and thus as critical
of Niccoli. For Poggio’s Oratio in funere Nicolai Nicoli civis florentini, see the text in Poggio
Bracciolini, Opera omnia, ed. Riccardo Fubini, 4 vols. (Turin, 1964), vol. I, pp. 270–277; and the
discussion in Walser, Poggius Florentinus, pp. 203–204.

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The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism 131
and divine signs as proof, the purpose being to provide holy examples
for the reader and ultimately to save his soul. It is rather unlikely that
Manetti intends to lead anyone to eternal salvation through the inspira-
tional retelling of a holy life accredited by God Himself, but his readers
nonetheless would have recognized the narrative elements of hagiography
that pervade his writings. Manetti is consciously co-opting a popular genre
and using it to portray humanism in a particular way. He intends to show
that the studia humanitatis is a, if not the, proper pursuit for a modern
Christian. Dante and Petrarch studied theology in Paris, the center of
Christian learning. What is more, their lives were surrounded and con-
firmed by divine signs and miracles. Petrarch lived the life of an ascetic
hermit in addition to resurrecting good Latin. And now, Niccoli, whose
engagement with secular Latin literature amounts to a regime of spiritual
exercises, approximates the ideal of Christian monasticism – but in the
world. Here we see the glorification of holiness that is one of the essential
aspects of hagiography. And we might also glimpse the second: a soterio-
logical purpose. For the genre of biography, as a species of demonstrative
rhetoric, uses praise of the subject to persuade the reader to imitate that
subject (as described by Facio in his De viris illustribus). Thus in writing
these biographies, Manetti not only describes his subjects as good Chris-
tians who devoted themselves to the studia humanitatis, he encourages
the reader to follow in their footsteps. With little hyperbole and only a
slight escape into metaphor, we can justifiably call this the hagiography of
Manetti’s collective biographies convey a conception of humanism that
is related to but nonetheless distinct from the one found in Piccolomini,
Biondo, and Facio. As in their writings, here, too, humanism entails the
resuscitation of Ciceronian Latin, the search for classical literature, the
collection and copying of manuscripts, the study of Greek, and the general
love of antiquity (although all of these receive a different shading). Yet
Manetti’s humanism also includes the revival of poetry, both in Latin and
in the vernacular. Furthermore, its contours, instead of being rigidly fixed
at points of contact with other learned contexts, are much softer. They even
blend into the confines of scholastic philosophy and theology and seem
closed off only to law (and perhaps medicine). Moreover, a new spiritual,
sacred side to learning pervades Manetti’s conception. In the end, despite

148 But still, of course, to be distinguished from actual Christian hagiography written by humanists,
on which see Alison Knowles Frazier, Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy (New
York, 2005).

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132 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
the name studia humanitatis, humanism comes to signify all liberal, i.e.,
non-professional, branches of knowledge, and to embrace things divine as
well as human. The recurring phrase “things human and divine” signifies
a range of meanings, from the standard scholastic disciplines to the private
reading of sacred and secular texts. It comes close to standing for “uni-
versal knowledge.” This knowledge is best achieved in the pursuit of the
contemplative life, a new possibility for lay existence offered by the studia
humanitatis, excellence in which elevates the mere scholar to saintliness.
Even if outright sainthood should remain out of reach, the pursuit of the
studia humanitatis – understood not as a set of propositions, disciplines,
or curricular contents but as a way of life – is nevertheless the sure path to

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ch a p ter 3

The triumph of Cicero

After the flurry of writings around the middle of the fifteenth century,
the next pieces of sustained humanist literary self-reflection do not come
until about thirty years later. Both are ultimately products of the Roman
academy of Pomponio Leto, although neither can be said directly to reflect
the intellectual and cultural milieu that he created. Rather each writing
announces new directions in humanism related to fresh social, political,
and technological circumstances. They are also linked to particular civic
settings: Paolo Cortesi’s De hominibus doctis to Rome, Marcantonio Sabel-
lico’s De latinae linguae reparatione to Venice.
In his De hominibus doctis, Paolo Cortesi emphatically portrays human-
ism as the movement to reconstitute Ciceronian Latin eloquence.1 This
conception has much in common with the one reconstructed in Chapter 1,
especially as seen in Piccolomini’s praise of Bruni as Ciceroni simillimus.
Here, however, the concept is simultaneously narrower and more expansive.
On the one hand, whereas Ciceronian language was an object of striving
and thus of inspiration in the accounts of Piccolomini and Biondo, for
Cortesi it has become restrictive, a measuring stick, a prescription for
rhetorical excellence to which all true, full-fledged humanists must adhere

1 The text is available in two modern critical editions: Paolo Cortesi, De hominibus doctis, ed. Giacomo
Ferraù (Palermo, 1979), and De hominibus doctis dialogus, ed. and tr. Maria Teresa Graziosi (Rome,
1973). All citations are to Ferraù’s edition, hereafter cited as Cortesi, DHD; all translations are my
own. The most comprehensive examinations of the text to date are the introductions of Ferraù
(“Introduzione” and “Nota al testo,” pp. 5–91) and Graziosi (“Introduzione,” pp. vii–xxxii), both
of which are based on previous studies that are fully incorporated into the new ones: Giacomo
Ferraù, “Il De hominibus doctis di Paolo Cortesi,” in Umanità e storia. Scritti in onore di Adelchi
Attisani (Naples, 1971), vol. II, pp. 261–290; and Maria Teresa Graziosi, “Note su Paolo Cortesi e il
dialogo De hominibus doctis,” Annali dell’Istituto universitario orientale di Napoli. Sezione romanza,
10 (1968), pp. 355–376. Other short but important considerations of DHD are found in Robert
Black, “The New Laws of History,” Renaissance Studies, 1:1 (1987), pp. 126–156, at 132–137; D’Ascia,
Erasmo e l’Umanesimo romano, pp. 117–124; and Martin McLaughlin, Literary Imitation in the Italian
Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Literary Imitation in Italy from Dante to Bembo (Oxford,
1995), pp. 217–221. For earlier scholarship, see the bibliography in Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 7–8.


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134 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
to be worthy of the title. On the other hand, linguistic virtuosity fully
transcends the aesthetic dimension. Cortesi links eloquence – the ability to
express oneself at the highest level – necessarily and fundamentally to the
ability to think at the highest level, and thus to the excellence of any kind of
intellectual or literary effort or production. In short, eloquence opens the
way to the highest potential of the human mind. Cortesi intimates that this
eloquence has finally returned in its full form to Italy, indeed to its ancient
home in Rome, thanks to the combination of the efforts of humanists
and world-changing historical events. Specifically, he emphasizes the role
of Byzantine émigrés, especially Manuel Chrysoloras, in retrieving classi-
cal eloquence from Greece in a renewal of the old translatio studii, now
brought on by the Ottoman conquest of the waning Byzantine empire.
If Cortesi largely agrees with Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio as to the
centrality of Latin eloquence in humanism, he also evinces certain com-
monalities with Manetti regarding the cultural significance of bonae litterae.
In the biographies of Petrarch and especially Niccoli we saw humanism por-
trayed as a good in itself, as a way of life. Cortesi also depicts humanists
as pursuing Latin eloquence for its own sake, for the sheer love and pas-
sion they feel for literature, out of their yearning to participate in a grand
ancient tradition. Accordingly, he advises against political involvement,
recommends rising above base economic interests, and prescribes a set of
standards of sociability and good conduct for participation in the humanist
sodalitas litterarum. He describes the humanist milieu in a way that makes
it intelligible as a social and intellectual arena for distinction and honor,
and thus he can help us to understand humanism in a way that avoids
the drawbacks of Kristeller’s hard-headed positivism, the teleological ide-
alism of Garin, and the cynicism about humanists’ motives encouraged
by Grafton and Jardine’s ostensible deconstruction of their rhetoric. As
might be expected from a product of the Roman context, Cortesi subtly
indicates that Roman humanism is the best and – now differing radically
from Manetti – that it is superior specifically to Florentine humanism. In
this respect his dialogue is especially valuable, as it gives insight into how
non-Florentine humanists, who had equally proud traditions, who were
far more numerous, yet who have received far less attention than their
Florentine counterparts, understood the larger enterprise in which they
were all engaged.
Although little known today, Paolo Cortesi (1465–1510) was a leading
humanist in Rome at the turn of the fifteenth century.2 Apart from studies

2 This biographical sketch is based on John F. D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism in Papal Rome:
Humanists and Churchmen on the Eve of the Reformation (Baltimore, 1983), passim but esp. pp. 76–80;

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The triumph of Cicero 135
in San Gimignano (his family’s base outside Rome), perhaps under Michele
Marullo, he received his training from two of the more distinguished
teachers in Rome: Platina and, most influentially, Pomponio Leto.3 Cortesi
carried forward the tradition of Leto’s Accademia Romana (beginning ca.
1490), in the sense that he opened his home to daily, informal gatherings
of Rome’s literary elite.4 He overtook Platina’s position as papal scriptor
in 1491, held the post of apostolic secretary from 1498 to 1503, and was
apostolic protonotary to Alexander VI, Pius III, and Julius II. Thereafter
he left Rome permanently for his family villa, the Castrum Cortesianum
(or Cortesium), outside San Gimignano, in order to devote himself to
writing and to concentrate on assembling the patronage necessary to further
his ecclesiastical career.5 De hominibus doctis dates to his Roman period,

Roberto Ricciardi, “Cortesi (Cortesius, de Cortesiis), Paolo,” in DBI, vol. XXIX (1983), pp. 766–
770; Roberto Weiss, “Cortesi, Paolo (1465–1510),” in Dizionario critico della letteratura italiana, ed.
Vittore Branca, 2nd ed. (Turin, 1986), vol. II, pp. 56–58; Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 5–6; Graziosi,
“Introduzione,” pp. vii–xiii; Pio Paschini, “Una famiglia di curiali nella Roma del Quattrocento: i
Cortesi,” Rivista di storia della Chiesa in Italia, 11 (1957), pp. 26–48. There is debate about Cortesi’s
date of birth: the traditional date given is 1465, but this was challenged by Graziosi, “Introduzione,”
p. vii, who prefers 1471. Graziosi’s redating was itself challenged by Elena Miele, in her review of
Graziosi’s edition in La rassegna della letteratura italiana, ser. 7, no. 82 (1978), pp. 254–256, and by
Ricciardi, “Cortesi, Paolo,” p. 766, but Graziosi’s new date was accepted by Ferraù, “Introduzione,”
p. 5. The traditional date of 1465 may be supposed correct in light of the document stipulating
Cortesi’s employment as papal scriptor, which was dated October 20, 1481, and claims that he
was sixteen at the time; in support of this position see John Monfasani, “The Puzzling Dates of
Paolo Cortesi,” in Fabrizio Meroi and Elisabetta Scapparone (eds.), Humanistica per Cesare Vasoli
(Florence, 2004), pp. 87–97, at 87–92. For the documentation of Cortesi’s employment, see Paschini,
“Una famiglia,” p. 27; Massimo Miglio, “Una famiglia di curiali nella Roma del Quattrocento: i
Cortesi,” Miscellanea Storica della Valdelsa, 108:3 (2002), pp. 41–48; and Philippa Jackson, “Investing
in Curial Offices: The Case of the Apostolic Secretary Paolo Cortesi,” in Philippa Jackson and Guido
Rebecchini (eds.), Mantova e il rinascimento italiano. Studi in onore di David S. Chambers (Mantua,
2011), pp. 315–328. In general on Cortesi, see also the other three essays, by S. Gensini, G. Fragnito,
and M. Giannini, collected in Miscellanea Storica della Valdelsa, 108:3 (2002); all four essays were
initially supposed to appear in the acts of the 1991 conference “Paolo Cortesi e la cultura del suo
tempo,” which were never published. I would like to thank Philippa Jackson for pointing out to me
several of these bibliographical references.
3 For Platina, see below, note 84. For Leto, see Cortesi, DHD, 139.23–140.3. In addition to the
bibliography listed in ibid., p. 140, n. 39, see Maria Accame Lanzillotta, Pomponio Leto: vita e
insegnamento (Tivoli, 2008); Anna Modigliani et al. (eds.), Pomponio Leto tra identità locale e cultura
internazionale. Atti del convegno internazionale (Teggiano, 3–5 ottobre 2008) (Rome, 2011); and the
online resource Repertorium Pomponianum:
4 Contemporary descriptions cited in Paschini, “Una famiglia,” pp. 35–36, and in D’Amico, Renaissance
Humanism, pp. 102–107, who uses them to reconstruct the milieu (for the date of 1490, p. 77). An
account of Cortesi’s Academy is also available in John F. D’Amico, “Humanism in Rome,” in Rabil
(ed.), Renaissance Humanism, vol. I, pp. 264–295, at 277–278.
5 See D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, p. 78. Peter Partner, The Pope’s Men: The Papal Civil Service
in the Renaissance (Oxford, 1990), p. 139, views Cortesi’s decision to withdraw from papal service as
an ill-advised way to amass patronage and casts it instead as an effective retirement. Paschini, “Una
famiglia,” p. 37, hypothesizes that Cortesi fled Rome after having incurred the disfavor of the volatile
Cesare Borgia.

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136 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
whereas he wrote his two other major works in the quiet of his Tuscan
retreat. They were a piece of humanist theology with a standard scholastic
name, the Liber sententiarum (1504), and an exposition of the Renaissance
cardinalate, De cardinalatu (1510).6 Cortesi is best known today, however,
for what he later considered juvenilia: his epistolary debate with Angelo
Poliziano over the correct method of literary imitation, and specifically
over the propriety of the exclusive imitation of Cicero.7 As is well known,
Cortesi championed the cause of Ciceronianism, which Poliziano belittled
as mindless “aping” and to which he counterposed his own characteristic
eclecticism.8 The young Cortesi’s position was more sophisticated than
Poliziano initially imagined (and than Erasmus would later caricature in
his Ciceronianus), and in the sixteenth century it would be cited approvingly
by Pietro Bembo for the benefit of his own Ciceronianism on the Latin
side of the questione della lingua.9
It is in the aftermath and the context of this debate that Cortesi com-
posed his dialogue De hominibus doctis (1489–1490).10 In reply to Poliziano,

6 On the Liber sententiarum see D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, passim but p. 78 for general
comments and pp. 148–168 for analysis. An English translation (by William Felver) of the preface to
the first book is available in Leonard A. Kelley (ed.), Renaissance Philosophy: New Translations (The
Hague, 1973), pp. 32–36. There is no modern printed edition. On De cardinalatu see D’Amico,
Renaissance Humanism, passim but pp. 78–80 for general comments and pp. 227–237 for an in-depth
7 The Latin text and an English translation of the correspondence are available in Ciceronian Con-
troversies, ed. JoAnn Dellaneva, tr. Brian Duvick (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), pp. 2–15, otherwise in
Latin with Italian translation in Eugenio Garin (ed.), Prosatori Latini del Quattrocento (Milan, 1952),
pp. 902–911. Many scholars have written on this famous debate, but an exceptionally full treat-
ment of the two humanists’ theory and practice of imitation is provided by McLaughlin, Literary
Imitation, ch. 10: “The Dispute between Poliziano and Cortesi,” pp. 187–227. For a different view
of the matter, see Vincenzo Fera, “Il problema dell’imitatio tra Poliziano e Cortesi,” in Vincenzo
Fera and Augusto Guida (eds.), Vetustatis indagator. Scritti offerti a Filippo Benedetto (Messina,
1999), pp. 155–181. For broader treatments of Ciceronianism and humanist disputes over imitation
in Latin style, see Christopher S. Celenza, “End Game: Humanist Latin in the Late Fifteenth
Century,” in Latinitas Perennis, vol. II: Appropriation and Latin Literature (Leiden, 2009), pp. 201–
242; D’Ascia, Erasmo e l’Umanesimo romano, ch. 4: “La polemica sull’imitazione nell’umanesimo
italiano” (pp. 105–160); and Marc Fumaroli, L’Âge de l’éloquence: rhétorique et “res literaria,” de la
Renaissance au seuil de l’époque classique (Geneva, 1980), esp. pp. 77–230. Cortesi described his letter
to Poliziano as “youthful” in his later De cardinalatu (Castrum Cortesium, 1510), p. lxxxxv: “non
tam videri maturitate potest quam aetatis spe et ingenii significatione grandis” (cited in Ferraù,
“Introduzione,” p. 44, n. 63). For Poliziano, philologist extraordinaire and intimate of Lorenzo
de’ Medici, see Vittore Branca, Poliziano e l’umanesimo della parola (Milan, 1952); and for more
recent literature: Vincenzo Fera and Mario Martelli (eds.), Agnolo Poliziano: poeta, scrittore, filologo
(Florence, 1998).
8 For Ciceronianism in Rome, see D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, pp. 123–134.
9 Cf. Celenza, “End Game,” pp. 201–212.
10 The date of DHD is still not certain. See Ferraù, “Nota al testo,” pp. 61–64, and the less precise
considerations in Graziosi, “Introduzione,” pp. xxi–xxii. The date of Cortesi’s exchange with
Poliziano is equally uncertain. It is usually put at the end of the 1480s, but McLaughlin (Literary

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The triumph of Cicero 137
Cortesi had defended the exclusive imitation of Cicero as the only sure way
to achieve a correct style. Now he developed his position further, elaborat-
ing a theory of stylistic imitation and meaningful expression that posited a
dynamic relationship between ars, i.e., the rules that govern proper speech
and the knowledge of them, and imitation of the most excellent model(s).11
In short, imitation was still the key to stylistic excellence, but it could not
be done properly without knowledge of what was good and bad, proper
and improper, i.e., without ars.12 This was no idle theory but rather a
model that explained for Cortesi the fifteenth-century revival of classical
Latin eloquence, so much of whose ars had been lost since antiquity. And
this is precisely the theme of De hominibus doctis. In the dialogue Cortesi
traces the historical development of humanism, which in his eyes had been
devoted primarily to eloquence and had progressed in time via the gradual
recovery of the ars of rhetoric and corresponding improvements in proper
stylistic imitation.13 De hominibus doctis is itself an emblematic act of imi-
tation, namely of Cicero’s dialogue Brutus, which traces the development
of Greek and Roman eloquence in antiquity by means of a register and
critique of its major representatives.14 In his own work, Cortesi charts the
humanists’ progress in reviving and progressing towards the old Latin elo-
quence in modern times, judging them, by the standard of Cicero, ever
more positively as they approach his own generation.15
De hominibus doctis takes the form of a dramatic dialogue. As in its
model, Cicero’s Brutus, one authoritative speaker, here “a certain Antonio,”
holds forth while two minor characters, Paolo Cortesi himself and his close

Imitation, p. 202) has argued for an earlier date of 1485, which is accepted in Ciceronian Controversies,
p. vii. Some scholars believe that DHD predates the epistolary debate with Poliziano: see Fera,
“Il problema”; Monfasani, “Puzzling Dates,” pp. 92–97; Piero Floriani, Review of Cortesi, De
hominibus doctis dialogus, ed. Graziosi (1973), Giornale storico della letteratura italiana, 152 (1975),
pp. 148–152; and Weiss, “Cortesi, Paolo,” p. 56.
11 A different view is taken by Black, “New Laws,” p. 135, who claims that Cortesi had “rejected his
original position on imitation . . . when he wrote De hominibus doctis” and that “Cortesi’s views
have changed since his original dispute with Poliziano.” It seems rather more correct to say that
Cortesi added several levels of sophistication to his original position, but not that it is repudiated in
DHD. I agree with Black, though, that there was a greater affinity between Cortesi and Poliziano
than is usually recognized (pp. 132–140), and also that Cortesi was influenced by Poliziano’s critique
in the further development of his own ideas (p. 136).
12 For a slightly different interpretation, see D’Ascia, Erasmo e l’Umanesimo romano, pp. 117–124.
13 On the historical nature of Cortesi’s dialogue, see Baker, “Writing History in Cicero’s Shadow.”
14 For Cortesi’s adaptation of the Brutus and of DHD’s relationship to Cicero in general, see Ferraù,
“Introduzione,” pp. 9–17.
15 An appreciation for irony demands citing, in light of Cortesi’s program of judging all the important
humanists of the fifteenth century, a passage from his letter to Poliziano: “I too am the sort of
person, as Cicero says, who would not wish to judge another, even if I could, nor could I, even if I
wanted to” (Ciceronian Controversies, p. 7).

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138 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
friend Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III, play supporting roles.16
(For purposes of clarity, from now on the character of Paolo Cortesi in the
dialogue will be referred to as Paolo, the author as Cortesi.) The job of
these lesser characters is to agree or to disagree, to interject their own
opinions or to ask questions, or sometimes just to move the discussion
along after it gets bogged down in digressions – all of which is aimed at
making the dialogue lively and giving it the feel of a real-life conversation.
The dialogue is set on an island in Lago di Bolsena, in the territory of
the Farnese, where a group of young men from Rome has come to engage
in learned conversation.17 After touching on various topics including the
beauty of the setting and the greatness of Alessandro’s ancestors, the group
falls into a discussion about “who exactly it was whose minds roused our
studies from their sleep.” Antonio, who is a bit older than the others and
who has introduced the topic of “men of all kinds of learning,” is chosen
to “set forth what he thinks about them.”18
Although the references to “our studies” (studia) and “men of all kinds
of learning” (multi omni genere doctrinae), as well as others that crop up
like “learned studies” (studia doctrinae),19 at first appear rather generic, the
precise theme quickly materializes when Paolo says, “I especially admire
those men whose efforts opened the way to eloquence. So, Antonio, . . . it
would greatly please us to hear what you think de hominibus doctis” – about
these learned men.20 Antonio later sums up his task as follows: “So, you
are asking me to judge and describe those who are considered well spoken
and who have done the most to achieve some praise for eloquence.”21 Who

16 The precise identity of Antonius remains unknown (Cortesi, DHD, 103.23: “quendam Antonium”),
which for our purposes does not matter. Vladimir Zabughin, Giulio Pomponio Leto: saggio critico,
2 vols. (Rome, 1909–1912), vol. I, pp. 82 and 209, identifies Antonio as Antonio Augusto Baldo
(or Valdo), whereas Graziosi, “Introduzione,” pp. xxiii–xxiv, identifies him instead with Giovanni
Antonio Sulpizio da Veroli. Ferraù, “Introduzione,” p. 9, accepts Zabughin’s identification, but
D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, pp. 77 and 267, n. 67, agrees with Graziosi; neither justifies
his preference. For Alessandro Farnese, see Cortesi, DHD, 103.18–20: “Alexander Farnesius, ado-
lescens . . . summa mecum benevolentia coniunctus”; and Rosemary Devonshire Jones, “Paul III,”
in Peter G. Bietenholz and Thomas B. Deutscher (eds.), Contemporaries of Erasmus: A Biographical
Register of the Renaissance and Reformation, 3 vols. (Toronto, 2003), vol. III, pp. 53–56. In Cicero’s
Brutus the supporting roles are played by Cicero’s friend Atticus and protégé Brutus.
17 Information on the setting and the circumstances of the dialogue is gathered from the dedicatory
letter, 103.10–104.3, and from the dialogue itself, 105.1–107.13.
18 Cortesi, DHD, 103.22–25: “quinam essent hi, quorum ingeniis sunt sopita studia excitavit, rogavimus
omnes Antonium . . . ut . . . quid de his viris sentiret explicaret”; “men of all kinds of learning”:
106.14–15 (“multi omni genere doctrinae floruerunt”).
19 Ibid., 103.12.
20 Ibid., 106.17–20: “hos etiam amo, quorum industria sunt nobis aditus ad eloquentiam patefacti.
Sed quoniam, Antoni, . . . erit nobis pergratum si de his doctis hominibus quid sentias explicabis.”
21 Ibid., 107.8–10: “Quaeritis igitur quanti et quales in disertorum numero habiti sint et qui mihi ad
aliquam eloquentiae laudem maxime accessisse videantur.”

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The triumph of Cicero 139
are these well-spoken homines docti? None other than all the great figures
in the humanist movement from 1400 to 1480, as well as, perhaps, Dante,
Petrarch, and other forerunners.22 Cortesi in no uncertain terms conceives
of humanism as the movement to restore eloquence, and he equates the
efforts to revive eloquence with the history of humanism.
That humanism must be understood more precisely as the movement to
restore Ciceronian eloquence is nowhere stated explicitly in the dialogue,
but such can be inferred from several factors. First, Cortesi’s reputation as
a Ciceronian was second to none.23 It is true that later in life, as can be
seen in his De cardinalatu, Cortesi appears to have moved away from the
strict Ciceronianism of his youth.24 Nevertheless, it is precisely this style
that characterizes De hominibus doctis and that won it praise from one of
the other great Ciceronians in Rome, Adriano Castellesi.25 Furthermore,
as mentioned above, this dialogue appeared directly after the exchange
with Poliziano and acted as a theoretical expansion of the position taken
there. Accordingly, many of the most important passages from the let-
ter to Poliziano are integrated, often verbatim, into De hominibus doctis.26
Finally, as Martin McLaughlin has noted, “The De Hominibus Doctis repre-
sents the application of Ciceronian standards to the Latin of Quattrocento
humanists.”27 Not only is Cicero the implicit touchstone of good Latin,

22 Ferraù, “Introduzione,” p. 38, notes that “non un nome di quelli che pure hanno rilievo in una
odierna prospettiva viene trascurato.” The exception is the great Florentine humanists of Lorenzo de’
Medici’s circle, whose absence is in part explained by Cortesi’s decision not to treat contemporaries,
in part by a subtle polemic against their particular brand of humanism. See below, pp. 166–167.
23 Martin McLaughlin (Literary Imitation, pp. 202–206, 217–227) has revised the general view of
Cortesi as a “reactionary Ciceronian,” by which is meant someone who thinks Cicero must be
imitated in every way and is “the sole source of Latin diction” (p. 217). Such, he notes, is “an
extreme position that belongs to the sixteenth not the fifteenth century” (p. 217). Cortesi’s position,
on the contrary, is that Cicero is the best author and thus the only one to be imitated in the
development of one’s own style, but that the proper imitator does not resemble the object of his
imitation in the manner of Poliziano’s ape but rather as a son does a father, resembling him in
many ways but still retaining his own essence. McLaughlin emphasizes that Cortesi shared the goal
of self-expression with Poliziano and that the two only disagreed on the means to achieving it,
Poliziano favoring eclecticism, Cortesi Ciceronianism. On the nature of Cortesi’s Ciceronianism,
see also the brief but insightful remarks in John Monfasani, “The Ciceronian Controversy,” in The
Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. III, pp. 395–401, at 396.
24 See D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, pp. 79–80, and McLaughlin, Literary Imitation, pp. 224–226.
Black’s characterization of an outright rejection (“New Laws,” p. 135) seems too strong. There is,
however, more support for his position in Fera, “Il problema,” pp. 178–181.
25 See Paschini, “Una famiglia,” p. 29; D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, pp. 132–133; and Ferraù’s
apparatus fontium in Cortesi, DHD, which records the imitation and adaptation of Cicero’s rhetor-
ical works and speeches in nearly every sentence. Although the modern Latinist might find the
imitation less than perfect, contemporaries were convinced of its success. Cf. the praise offered by
Lucio Fosforo in a congratulatory letter: “apparet te in legendo Cicerone operam non amisisse, ita
eum effinxisti, ipsum certe audire videor” (in Cortesi, DHD, 99.4–6).
26 See Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 44–46.
27 McLaughlin, Literary Imitation, p. 217.

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140 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
he is also held up several times as a model for stylistic imitation in the
dialogue; indeed, his is nearly the only ancient name explicitly mentioned
in this connection, and the most highly valued.28
Before continuing to an analysis of the dialogue, two words about its
curious fortuna might be of interest. Cortesi was evidently proud of his
opus, dedicating it to no less prominent a patron than Lorenzo il Mag-
nifico, clients of whom the Cortesi family had long been, and submitting
it to the approval of the same Poliziano who had so recently rebuked
him.29 Poliziano’s response was short but approving, and the work received
high praise from several other prominent individuals.30 It failed, however,
to secure the patronage Cortesi sought from Lorenzo de’ Medici. Then
it suddenly and inexplicably disappeared, suppressed by the author him-
self after its initial circulation among friends, colleagues, and potential
patrons.31 Cortesi apparently continued to polish it over the years, and
several of its judgments were integrated into the later De cardinalatu. Yet
De hominibus doctis remained unknown and was not destined to see the
light of day again until its discovery at the end of the seventeenth century,
when it was diffused rapidly in Florence and elsewhere; it was first printed
in 1734.32
The investigation that follows is divided into three parts, each dealing
with a different aspect of Cortesi’s conception of humanism. The first
traces the history of the movement as outlined through the course of the
dialogue, illustrating and explaining Cortesi’s periodization of the move-
ment and its progress through the contributions of important individuals.
The second section distills the elements that, in Cortesi’s view, made up

28 As a stylist to be imitated, see Cortesi, DHD, 121.4–5, 135.8–136.2, 172.11–13; the latter two passages
emphasize the difficulty of the proper imitation of Cicero. The only other ancients mentioned for
style are Livy, who is ranked lower than Cicero: “in his History [Bruni] strives after a Livian kind
of style; I would not dare call it Ciceronian” (121.4–5: “Consectatur in historia quiddam Livianum,
non ausim dicere Ciceronianum”); and Plautus, in imitation of whom Antonio Beccadelli is said
to have failed (145.3–5).
29 See Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 41–42.
30 Poliziano’s epistolary reaction to the dialogue is printed in Cortesi, DHD, 99.14–100.3. Black, “New
Laws,” pp. 138–139, demonstrates that Poliziano was even influenced by Cortesi, regarding the need
for an ars historica, in the opening lecture to his 1490–1491 course on Suetonius. Cortesi’s work
was approved by Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini and Adriano Castellesi. See Paschini,
“Una famiglia,” pp. 28–29, and Ferraù, “Nota al testo,” pp. 62–64.
31 For a theory on why Cortesi decided not to publish his dialogue, see Monfasani, “Puzzling Dates,”
pp. 95–97.
32 See Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 65–67. The first edition was Paolo Cortesi, De hominibus doctis
dialogus nunc primum in lucem editus [ . . . ] cum adnotationibus. Accedit auctoris vita (Florence,
1734) [reprinted in Filippo Villani, Liber de civitatis Florentiae famosis civibus, ed. Gustavo Camillo
Galletti (Florence, 1847), pp. 215–284].

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The triumph of Cicero 141
a general humanist profile and constituted the humanist milieu. Finally, a
third section describes the larger cultural meaning and significance Cortesi
attributed to humanism, showing that the restoration of eloquence was no
mere matter of taste.

From homines docti to oratores

Cortesi divides his historical account of humanism’s restoration of Cicero-
nian Latin into four distinct (albeit slightly overlapping) periods cor-
responding to chronological development and stylistic improvement:
(1) fourteenth-century forerunners of humanism beginning with Dante;
(2) the first phase of true humanism, from roughly 1400 through the third
quarter of the century, from Leonardo Bruni to Platina; (3) a second, later
phase represented substantially by Roman humanists, roughly 1460–1490;33
(4) his own contemporaries.34 Of these the second period is given the most
attention (it constitutes about three-quarters of the whole text) and con-
tains the most detailed treatment; it provides nearly all of the information
on humanism’s historical development. The first period, on the contrary, is
presented as an afterthought, with Antonio urged by Alessandro to go back
and say what he thinks about Dante and Petrarch after he has already begun
with fifteenth-century figures.35 The third period is dealt with quickly and
rather superficially. The fourth is not directly described at all, as Antonio

33 See Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 38–39.

34 It is tempting to make both more and less of these divisions, but ultimately they are the ones
indicated by Cortesi. One could make more by trying to discover a more subtle breakdown in
the second period. Antonio often treats humanists in mini-groups that seem to cohere according
to geography, occupation, or shared period of flourishing, and a general chronological flow from
Bruni to Platina is obvious (according to geography, e.g., the series Manetti–Alberti–Palla Strozzi–
Benedetto Accolti–Poggio is related to Florence; according to occupation, e.g., the series George of
Trebizond–Pomponio Leto–Antonio Loschi–Vittorino da Feltre–Gasparino Barzizza–Ognibene da
Lonigo–Lorenzo Valla embraces teachers; according to floruit, e.g., the observations that Boccaccio
was “about ten years younger than Petrarch” (Cortesi, DHD, 115.7–116.1: “Ioannes Boccaccius, sed
decennio fere minor quam Petrarcha”), and “Guarino was a contemporary of Bruni” (122.1–2:
“Leonardi igitur fere aequalis fuit Guarinus Veronensis, doctus magister”). Yet such groupings are
desultory, irregular, and inconsistent, and ultimately Antonio must be taken at his word when
he begs “for indulgence if chronological order is not observed, since all the humanists lived at
about the same time and were more or less contemporaries, and since their life spans in large
part overlapped” (117.1–4: “quoniam uno tempore omnes ac prope aequales fuerunt multique
sunt multorum aetatibus implicati, dabitis veniam si minus aetatum ordines servabuntur”). One
could also make less of this periodization by observing that nothing substantial seems to separate the
second from the third period and that some of their members overlap chronologically. Nevertheless,
Antonio clearly indicates a historical break (167.11–12: “sed iam ad inferiorem, si placet, aetatem
veniamus”), and thus Cortesi apparently wants these humanists, predominantly figures related to
Pomponio Leto’s academy in Rome, treated as a case apart.
35 See Cortesi, DHD, 113.5–13.

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142 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
refuses to discuss his contemporaries;36 nevertheless, some of its salient
characteristics can be reconstructed from comments made throughout the
text. Cortesi characterizes each of these periods by describing the contri-
butions of singular individuals to particular themes, especially the recovery
of general canons of style, the growing ability to imitate Cicero, and the
revival of ancient literary genres that had been lost in the Middle Ages.
In the words of Cortesi’s Antonio, humanism has its origins in an age
completely bereft of eloquence, in the “dregs of all time” when the “orna-
ments of writing were absent” and “eloquence had utterly lost its voice.”37
This period brought forth famous works of literature, but none attained
to the standards and achievements of true eloquence. Enter Dante, whose
“famous poem” testifies to his “incredibly great talent” and to the “wonder”
of his “daring to treat such difficult and abstruse subjects in the vernac-
ular.” In one sense he was eloquent: “it is unbelievable how ardent and
forcible he was in persuading and moving.” And yet he did not possess the
proper linguistic skills: “if only he had excelled as highly in committing his
thoughts to Latin literature as he did in spreading the renown of his mother
tongue.”38 Dante was no humanist. Enter Petrarch, “whose intelligence and
industry is proven by his large number of books.” Unfortunately, “his style
is not really Latin and is sometimes downright frightful. His thoughts are
many but disjointed, the words are cast down at random, and everything
is composed rather more diligently than elegantly.”39
Nevertheless, Petrarch, as opposed to Dante, was able to play a founda-
tional role for humanism (in a manner similar to that found in Piccolomini
and Biondo):

He possessed such a great abundance of talent and memory that he was the
first to dare to call the pursuit of eloquence (studia eloquentiae) back to light:

36 For Antonio’s refusal, which he justifies by the lateness of the hour but which Alessandro and
Paolo ascribe to other motives, see Cortesi, DHD, 185.2–187.4. Four living humanists are, however,
treated in the text: Pomponio Leto, Giovanni Pontano, Ermolao Barbaro, and Giorgio Merula. For
the significance of their inclusion, see Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 38–54, esp. 53–54, and below,
pp. 166–167.
37 Cortesi, DHD, 114.20–115.1: “in faece omnium saeculorum . . . illa scribendi ornamenta defuerunt”;
107.11: “ita reperiam eloquentiam obmutuisse.”
38 Ibid., 113.14–114.8: “praeclarum eius poema plane bene indicat incredibilem ingenii magnitudinem.
Mirabile illud certe fuit, quod res tam difficiles tamque abstrusas vulgari sermone auderet expli-
care . . . In permovendo autem et incitando non est credibile quam sit concitatus et vehemens.
Utinam tam bene cogitationes suas Latinis litteris mandare potuisset, quam bene patrium ser-
monem illustravit.”
39 Ibid., 114.9–14: “cuius de ingenio industriaque ex tam multis eius libris existimari potest . . . Huius
sermo nec est Latinus et aliquando horridior; sententiae autem multae sunt sed concisae, verba
abiecta, res compositae diligentius quam elegantius.”

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The triumph of Cicero 143
for Italy was first enlivened, and equally persuaded and moved to this pursuit
by the affluence of his ability.40

Like Dante, Petrarch possessed the rhetorician’s signature capacity to per-

suade (impellere) the mind and to move (incitare) the emotions or passions,
but he lacked the proper language for real eloquence: “His vernacular poetry
shows how much this man could have achieved with his talent, if only he
had possessed the glory and magnificence of Latin.” His works can be
recommended for their usefulness (utilitas) rather than for pleasure (delec-
tatio); they are like “strong medicine, taken not because it is sweet but
because it is healthy.” Ultimately, though, “they please somehow despite
their inelegance,” and Petrarch is “held in high honor for his broad knowl-
edge and his reputation for native intelligence.”41 Petrarch, therefore, but
not Dante, is a kind of spiritual father of humanism; he cannot himself be
considered a true humanist, but he gave impetus to the movement through
his inspirational message, through his overwhelming desire for the ancient
eloquence he was unable to achieve.
Petrarch’s immediate successors did not move beyond his accomplish-
ment. Boccaccio’s “most remarkable intelligence” was “oppressed” by the
“fatal evil” of his style, and “Giovanni [Conversini] da Ravenna and Coluc-
cio Salutati, who never managed to rid themselves of harsh and gloomy
language, can be judged similarly.”42 Antonio notes that Boccaccio’s De
genealogia deorum is still read, since “it is useful, but it cannot be compared
to Petrarch’s ability.” On the other hand Giovanni’s Dialogues “can barely

40 Ibid., 114.14–17: “Fuit in illo ingenii atque memoriae tanta magnitudo ut primus ausus sit eloquentiae
studia in lucem revocare: nam huius ingenii affluentia primum Italia exhilarata et tanquam ad studia
impulsa atque incensa est” (emphasis mine). As for Piccolomini, the model for Cortesi here might
be Leonardo Bruni. Cf. Bruni’s Vite di Dante e del Petrarca in Bruni, Opere letterarie e politiche,
pp. 537–557, at 555–556. See also Chapter 1 above, note 19.
41 Cortesi, DHD, 114.18–115.6: “Declarant eius rhytmi, qui in vulgus feruntur, quantum ille vir
consequi potuisset ingenio, si Latini sermonis lumen et splendor affuisset . . . Sed, ut saluberrimae
potiones non suavitatis sed sanitatis causa dantur, sic eo non est delectatio petenda sed transferenda
utilitas, quanquam omnia eius, nescio quo pacto, sic inornata delectant. Huic ob multarum rerum
doctrinam et ingenii famam honores amplissimi habiti sunt.”
42 Ibid., 116.1–10: “huius etiam praeclarissimi ingenii cursum fatale illud malum oppres-
sit . . . Eodemque modo de Ioanne Ravennate et Coluccio Salutato iudicare licet, qui nunquam
etiam ab orationis asperitate moestitiaque abesse potuerunt.” The identification of Giovanni da
Ravenna with Conversini and not Malpaghini follows Witt, Footsteps, pp. 339–346. On Gio-
vanni Conversini, a teacher and author of many works including short treatises, an autobiography
(Rationarium vitae), and a dialogue on political philosophy (Dragmalogia), see Benjamin Kohl,
“Conversini (Conversano, Conversino), Giovanni (Giovanni da Ravenna),” in DBI, vol. XXVIII
(1983), pp. 574–578.

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144 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
be read through even once,” and Salutati’s letters, “which used to be held
in honor, are not in circulation.”43
The position taken (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) in all
three authors in Chapter 1, and then combatted by Manetti, is here restated
and expounded: no Trecento figure, not even Salutati, achieved the Latin
style necessary to be worthy of the title of humanist. A similar stance will be
taken implicitly by Sabellico in Chapter 4. Few aspects of the texts under
consideration in this study could be more surprising to us. Scholars have
long been unsure what to call the forerunners of Petrarch in Padua and
elsewhere, men like Lovato dei Lovati and Albertino Mussato. Whereas
most prefer the designation “prehumanist” or “proto-humanist,” Roberto
Weiss and Ronald Witt have insisted on calling them humanists proper.44
Here we see, instead, that, outside of Florence, humanists tended to think
of Petrarch as the “prehumanist,” whereas they neglected his ancestors
and direct heirs altogether. This turn of events has been attributed, at
least with regard to Petrarch, largely to the change in taste evident in the
circle around Leonardo Bruni and its subsequent polemic against Petrarch’s
Latin.45 However steadfastly Manetti struggled to keep this rising tide of
anti-Petrarchan sentiment from sweeping the rest of Italy, Cortesi’s De
hominibus doctis shows how little effect he had.46
Echoing Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio, Cortesi claims that true
humanism only began with assistance from outside Italy, in the form of a
teacher who could help the Italians overcome the inherited roughness of
their style: Manuel Chrysoloras. Through his teaching Chrysoloras man-
aged to turn the longing for eloquence inspired by Petrarch into, if not
eloquence proper, then the true beginning of such:
After the studies of the greatest arts had lain so long, sorrowful and alone,
in mourning, everyone knows that Chrysoloras the Byzantine brought the
teaching of them to Italy from beyond the sea. Under his tutelage the
Italians, once completely lacking in practice and ars, learned Greek and
applied themselves earnestly to the pursuit of eloquence.47

43 Cortesi, DHD, 121.14–18: “Dialogi Ioannis Ravennatis vix semel leguntur et Coluccii Epistolae,
quae tum in honore erant, non apparent; sed Boccaccii Deorum Genealogiam legimus, utilem illam
quidem, sed non tamen cum Petrarchae ingenio conferendam.”
44 See Witt, Footsteps, pp. 18–19.
45 See Hankins, “Petrarch and the Canon of Neo-Latin Literature.”
46 Incidentally, Cortesi’s characterization of Petrarch’s works as useful and medicinal might also
indicate that another of Hankins’ findings (see previous note), namely that Petrarch’s fame outside
of Italy rested on his status as a moral philosopher, might apply inside Italy as well.
47 Cortesi, DHD, 111.8–13: “Nam posteaquam maximarum artium studia tam diu in sordibus aegra
desertaque iacuerunt, satis constat Grisoloram Bisantium transmarinam illam disciplinam in Italiam

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The triumph of Cicero 145
As we saw in Chapter 1, attributing the revival of Latin eloquence to
Chrysoloras was common among Quattrocento humanists, who, however,
tended not to explain the mechanism at work. Antonio is not as explicit as
we might like, but he does hint, along Biondo’s lines, that the mechanism
had to do with Chrysoloras’ students’ translation and imitation of Greek
works, especially historiography, hailed here and elsewhere as “the single
greatest rhetorical genre.”48
There was, however, something more fundamental. As Antonio explains
a bit later, in a digression aimed at establishing the proper relationship
between ars and imitatio:
without theoretical knowledge (artificium) we just as easily strive after vice
as virtue in our imitation . . . For no one is so full of natural ability and so
diligent in imitation as to be able to compose well without knowledge of
the ars of speech.49
This had been the stumbling block for Petrarch and the other forerunners
of humanism, who in their imitation of the ancients could not distin-
guish between usus and abusus. It was this sensitivity that Chrysoloras
provided. He was no mere language teacher in the strict sense, but rather
an authority on the theory, the ars behind the stylistic eloquence that was a
common hallmark of the ancient Greek and Latin literary traditions. This
explanation resembles somewhat the one provided by Christine Smith,
who likewise argues that Chrysoloras provided the humanists with the
conceptual and theoretical tools they had hitherto lacked.50 In her esti-
mation, however, Chrysoloras’ contribution consisted essentially in teach-
ing humanists how to “transfer . . . master terms and concepts” from one
branch of knowledge to another. She argues that humanists adopted from
Chrysoloras the “decompartmentalization of knowledge characteristic of
Byzantine learning,” which “emphasized the relations, rather than the dis-
tinctions, between branches of human learning, fostering the formation
of the cultivated generalist . . . rather than the narrow specialist or profes-
sional.” Smith concludes that “this method placed an abundance of new

advexisse; quo doctore adhibito primum nostri homines totius exercitationis atque artis ignari,
cognitis Graecis litteris, vehementer sese ad eloquentiae studia excitaverunt.”
48 Ibid., 113.1–3: “incredibile eorum studium fuit in scribendis vertendisque ex Graecis in Latinum
sermonem historiis. Sed cum historia munus sit unum vel maximum oratorium.” This is an echo of
Cicero, De oratore, 2, 15, 62: “Videtisne quantum munus sit oratoris historia? Haud scio an flumine
orationis et varietate maximum.” See note 116 below.
49 Ibid., 120.3–9: “sine artificio tam facile possumus vitia quam virtutes imitando consectari . . . Nulli
est enim tanta ubertas ingenii, nulli tam diligens imitandi industria quam sine huius [sc. disserendi]
artis ratione bene disposita ac praeclare inventa possit effingere.”
50 Smith, Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism, pp. 133–149. See also Chapter 1, note 17.

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146 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
terms, categories, and concepts in the hands of Italian humanists, which
they were free to apply to the subjects that interested them.”51 Smith may
be correct about the benefits of this aspect of Byzantine education, but it
is clearly not what Cortesi had in mind, nor is it, in my opinion, likely
to be what Guarino and others appreciated so much about their beloved
teacher.52 Cortesi shows concern not for the ability to speak in general
terms about a wide variety of subjects but rather for the very ability to
speak eloquently, regardless of the subject. What hindered Petrarch was
not overspecialization but rather ignorance of what makes certain word
combinations sound good and others not. He did not know which authors
and passages were worth imitating in which circumstances. In Cortesi’s
view, Chrysoloras acted as the guide to proper composition, illuminating
for Petrarch’s heirs the distinction between “virtuous” and “vicious” imita-
tion. This marked the true starting point of humanism, whose development
consisted in the steady recovery of the “ars of speech” and the increasingly
correct application of this ars to the imitation of the best model, Cicero.
With Chrysoloras’ students begins Cortesi’s second period, whose first
and greatest representative is Leonardo Bruni.53 According to Antonio, “he
was the first to reform the uncouth method of writing, giving it a rhythmic
kind of sound, and he provided humanists with something really quite
brilliant.”54 Bruni is praised generally for his style and specifically for his
orations and translations, but above all for his revival of the ancient genre
of funeral oratory and his historiography.55 Regarding his excellence in the
latter, Bruni is judged “easily to tower over all who came after him.”56
Yet Bruni’s reputation is not nearly as pristine here as it was in Biondo’s
or Facio’s work, and even Piccolomini’s awareness of Bruni’s limitations
pales in comparison to the harsher criticism of him that apparently marked
Cortesi’s time. Referring to current dissatisfaction with Bruni, Antonio
notes, “I see that he is no longer refined enough, nor is he acceptable

51 Ibid., p. 137.
52 Cf. Witt, Footsteps, p. 343, n. 14, for similar skepticism about Smith’s explanation.
53 For Bruni, see Cortesi, DHD, 117.7–118.13, 120.21–121.26, and 185.21–22.
54 Ibid., 117.8–118.2: “hic primus inconditam scribendi consuetudinem ad numerosum quendam
sonum inflexit et attulit hominibus nostris aliquid certe splendidius.” Cortesi might be referring to
prose rhythm, an issue that he discusses at length elsewhere in DHD. See below, note 81.
55 It has been argued that funeral oratory was actually first revived by Pier Paolo Vergerio, not Bruni.
See McManamon, Funeral Oratory, p. 10; and McManamon, Pierpaolo Vergerio the Elder, esp.
p. 39. Witt, however, disagrees and gives Vergerio’s style a poor evaluation. See Witt, Footsteps,
pp. 371–372, n. 91, and 377–381. On Bruni as an historian, see the recent synthesis by Gary Ianziti,
Writing History in Renaissance Italy: Leonardo Bruni and the Uses of the Past (Cambridge, Mass.,
56 Cortesi, DHD, 121.7–8: “omnibus, mea sententia, qui post eum fuerunt, facile praestiterit.”

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The triumph of Cicero 147
to a more delicate palate.” And Alessandro adds, “I have always praised
Leonardo as learned and eloquent and the prince of his age. But you
know how humanists are nowadays, praising nothing unless it is cultivated,
elegant, polished, ornate.”57 Nevertheless, it is agreed that Bruni represents
a major advance with respect to his predecessors.58
After Bruni comes Guarino Veronese, who is treated in a similar manner:
first praise for what he has done, then criticism.59 In this case Guarino’s
high reputation rests entirely on his activity as a teacher: “His home was
like a kind of workshop of the bonae artes,” and “just about everyone
who achieved some fame for writing in that age acknowledged himself a
product of his school.”60 Guarino’s writings, however, do not recommend
him nearly as highly. In addition to relating George of Trebizond’s criticism
of Guarino’s style – “abrupt and juvenile” – Antonio reports the view that
“Guarino would have helped his reputation if he had written nothing
at all; . . . his writings not only do his name no honor, they continually
diminish it.” Nevertheless Antonio ultimately defends Guarino’s Latin
as possessing “a certain gravitas,” saying, “if he did not achieve perfect
eloquence (whose form he saw as if through a fog), he is at least worthy of
some praise for his writings.”61
Thus the dialogue continues, praising, critiquing, and comparing
humanists, all the while noting their contributions to the ars of speech.
Other teachers like Vittorino da Feltre and Gasparino Barzizza are men-
tioned besides Guarino, but it is George of Trebizond who stands out
for Cortesi as the next great instructor in the precepts, the artificium, of

57 Ibid., 121.13–14: “Et ego video hunc nondum satis esse limatum nec delicatiori fastidio tolerabilem”;
121.23–26: “Sane quidem semper Leonardum ut doctum hominem, ut eloquentem, ut illius aetatis
principem laudavi. Sed nosti morem nostrorum hominum, qui nihil nisi excultum, nisi elegans,
nisi politum, nisi pictum probant.”
58 See ibid., 121.14–22. According to Black, “New Laws,” p. 142, “Cortesi damned . . . Leonardo
Bruni . . . with faint praise.” In my view, however, the praise is not faint but rather relative, and in
the context of the dialogue as a whole there does not seem to be any reason to take the positive
assessment of Bruni as anything but genuine, esp. considering the fact that Bruni is listed at the
end of the dialogue as one of the four greatest humanists of the fifteenth century (see below, p. 153).
59 For Guarino, see Cortesi, DHD, 122.1–123.16.
60 Ibid., 122.4–5: “huius domus quasi officina quaedam fuit bonarum artium”; 122.12–15: “ut omnes
fere illius aetatis, qui aliquam sunt scribendi laudem consequuti, sese omnino faterentur ex huius
hominis umbraculis . . . profectos” (the line numbers are incorrect on this page of Ferraù’s ed.,
which gives 3–4 and 11–14, respectively, for these quotations).
61 Ibid., 123.2–16: “Hunc Georgius Trapezuntius exagitat ut praefractum et in compositione puerilem.
Memoria teneo quendam familiarem meum solitum dicere, melius Guarinum eius famae consuluisse
si nihil umquam scripsisset; . . . non modo nomen eius non illustretur scriptis, sed etiam in dies magis
obscuretur . . . nec temere Guarino gravitatem quandam in scribendo . . . adimo; . . . at laudandus
est ut qui multum nostris hominibus profuerit et ut qui, si non perfectam eloquentiam (cuius
speciem quasi per caliginem quandam viderat) at aliquam in scribendo laudem sit consequutus.”

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148 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
eloquence.62 Once again, it is a Greek who brings to his Italian students
the theoretical knowledge of eloquence, his own mastery of which is here
attributed to his study of the Peripatetics, who “treat the art of speaking
(ratio dicendi) more deeply than other philosophers.”63 Lorenzo Valla is also
given credit for making an important contribution to the broad diffusion
of correct Latin with his teaching and writings.64 An “expert on Roman
history and lexicography,” Valla was “an incredibly learned writer whose
sharpness of mind is generally agreed to have revivified all of Italy.”65 Nev-
ertheless, he was “annoying and abusive” (molestus . . . et stomachosus), and,
what is worse in Cortesi’s eyes, he did not achieve the highest style. For,
although “Valla wrote so diligently about the proper use (ratio) of Latin
vocabulary, he himself does not seem to have spoken Latin well enough.”66
Antonio elaborates:

Writing and teaching rely on different principles. Valla tried to explain the
meaning of words and to teach ways (although not correct ones) to structure
speech, and he certainly cleaned up the polluted language of his time and
improved his pupils. But there is a different way of writing, which Valla
either disregarded or didn’t know. A fine, sweet, and incorrupt Latin style
requires a certain cementing and grouping of words [i.e., periodic structure],
by which concinnitas is produced with respect to sound.67

62 For Vittorino, see ibid., 140.6–141.2; for Barzizza, 141.2–5; for George, 139.17–23. For the possibility
that the figure of “Gasparinus Veronensis” (141.2) is to be identified with Gaspare da Verona instead
of Barzizza (who properly would be Bergomensis, not Veronensis), as well as the possibility that
Cortesi simply conflates the two, see ibid., pp. 141–142, n. 42.
63 Ibid., 139.20–23: “adhibuit in scribendo illa adiumenta quae habuerat a Peripateticis, qui, praeter
coeteros philosophos, rationem dicendi latioribus quibusdam praeceptis complectuntur.” Interest-
ingly, Cortesi is the first humanist to make recourse to Aristotle in his theory of imitation, which
he does in his letter to Poliziano (Ciceronian Controversies, pp. 10–12). See McLaughlin, Literary
Imitation, p. 205, although Cortesi’s idea of art imitating nature has also been attributed to Seneca
(Ciceronian Controversies, p. 237, n. 22).
64 For Valla, see Cortesi, DHD, 142.5–144.20.
65 Ibid., 142.5–7: “scriptor egregie doctus, cuius ingenii acumine constare inter omnes audio Italiam
esse recreatam, sed erat acer et maledicus et toto genere paulo asperior, diligentissimus tamen
Romanarum rerum atque verborum investigator.”
66 Ibid., 142.9–10: “molestus erat et stomachosus”; 144.6–10: “tam diligenter Valla de ratione verborum
Latinorum scripserit, ipse non bene satis loqui Latine videatur.”
67 Ibid., 144.10–17: “Non est enim . . . eadem ratio scribendi quam praecipiendi. Conabatur Valla vim
verborum exprimere et quasi vias (sed eas non rectas) tradebat ad structuram orationis, in quo tamen
et inquinatam dicendi consuetudinem emendavit et multum acuit iuventutem. Sed est certe alia
scribendi ratio quae a Valla aut praetermissa est aut ignorata. Florens enim ille et suavis et incorruptus
Latinus sermo postulat sane conglutinationem et comprehensionem quandam verborum, quibus
conficitur ipsa concinnitas ad sonum.” As if to emphasize that Cicero’s periodic style is meant,
Cortesi silently quotes Cicero’s Brutus and Orator in his description. See Cortesi, DHD, p. 144,
apparatus fontium.

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The triumph of Cicero 149
Valla was famous for championing Quintilian over Cicero, so it should
come as no surprise that he did not write in Ciceronian periods. To Cortesi’s
mind, however, Valla’s preference was a mistake resulting from a lack of
ars, which his age, despite its many advances, had not yet recovered.
The same difficulty, Cortesi argues, inhibited progress in the restoration
of ancient literary genres. As noted above, Bruni is honored for reviving
ancient funeral oratory and receives high marks as an historian. Neverthe-
less, “in history he strove after a Livian kind of style; I would not dare call
it Ciceronian.”68 Biondo Flavio, the Quattrocento’s other foremost histo-
rian, also comes in for criticism. Even though “he wrote many good works
of history” and “excelled his contemporaries in invention,” ultimately he
“seems to be an example for others that they should write with greater
artificium and in a better style.”69 Oratory suffered from the same lack
of theoretical knowledge. Consider Poggio, who was “like the picture of
eloquence for his times,” and who “left orations that show his fluency
and wondrous mental powers.” Alas, “if he had had as much artificium
in writing as natural ability, he surely would have attained more glory for
speaking than all his contemporaries.”70 Similarly, Leonardo Giustinian’s
famous funeral oration for Carlo Zeno is criticized as “good but not noble
enough in its language and relying more on a certain kind of copia than on
an understanding of the rules of rhetoric (oratorium artificium).” The fault
is not Giustinian’s but of his age, “which thought that eloquence in speech
came from abundance, but did not know when enough was enough.”71
Likewise in poetry.72 Antonio Beccadelli’s achievement in reviving ancient

68 Ibid., 121.4–5: “Consectatur in historia quiddam Livianum, non ausim dicere Ciceronianum.”
69 Ibid., 148.3–149.2: “prosequutus est historiam diligenter sane ac probe . . . Admonere enim reliquos
videtur ut maiori artificio ac illustrioribus litteris historiam aggrediantur. In excogitando tamen
quid scriberet omnibus his viris, qui fuerunt fere eius aequales meo quidem iudicio praestitit.” The
discussions of historiography in De hominibus doctis would themselves go on to spark humanist
theorizing on historiography. See Cortesi, DHD, p. 138, n. 37; Black, “New Laws,” p. 139; Patrick
Baker, “Launching the ars historica: Paolo Cortesi’s Dialogue with Cicero on Historiography,” in
Machtelt Isräels and Louis A. Waldman (eds.), Renaissance Studies in Honor of Joseph Connors, 2
vols. (Florence, 2013), vol. II, pp. 453–462; and Baker, “Writing History in Cicero’s Shadow.”
70 For Poggio, see Cortesi, DHD, 135.3–136.6; quotations: “illis temporibus in Poggio Florentino
quaedam species eloquentiae apparuit, in quo si tale artificium fuisset quale ingenium ad scribendum
fuit, omnes profecto eius aequales dicendi gloria vicisset. Is orationes reliquit, quae et facundiam et
mirificam ingenii facilitatem ostendunt.”
71 Ibid., 129.4–7: “bona illa quidem sed non satis splendida verbis et quae magis copiam quandam
quam oratorium artificium prae se ferat. Nam haec aetas ponebat eloquentiam in orationis quadam
abundantia nec plane cognovit quid esset satis.” On the funeral oration for Carlo Zeno see McMana-
mon, Funeral Oratory, pp. 88–91. For the Venetian patrician Giustinian, see Cortesi, DHD, 129.1–5
and King, Venetian Humanism, pp. 383–385, with further bibliography.
72 It is interesting that poets considered excellent by Facio only thirty years earlier – Loschi, Marrasio,
Strozzi – are not even mentioned by Cortesi.

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150 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
meters is recorded, but little progress seems to have been made thereafter.
Indeed, the age could boast of few poets, so few, in fact, that even one
as bad (in Antonio’s estimation) as Porcellio could achieve the “highest
popularity.”73 Chief among Porcellio’s many faults, narrated here at length,
was his lack of varietas, the metrical and stylistic variety that makes a
collection of poems lively (since a constant meter and even style would
otherwise lead to boredom).74 Porcellio wrote Virgilian hexameters which
“had nothing to recommend them but evenness.” The problem was not
Porcellio’s alone, but rather of “his age,” which “utterly lacked varietas.”75
Much worse, as can be gathered from the critique of Maffeo Vegio’s “pre-
sumptuous” continuation of the Aeneid, the age also “lacked knowledge of
the hidden artificium” of poetry, preferring instead to rely on “inspiration”
(vi naturae).76 Although the specific object of critique here is Vegio, Cortesi
likely has in mind the Neoplatonic poetics being propounded in his own
day in Florence by Cristoforo Landino and especially by Marsilio Ficino,
who had famously declared that “poetry is not a product of ars but of some
frenzy (furor).”77
Yet progress in all these genres, as well as in general Latin style, can be
perceived in other humanists starting around the middle of the century.
Giovanni Pontano “first restored poetry to greater splendor and grasped
metrical variety,” and he was therefore “the prince of all the great humanists
in this connection.”78 Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini distinguished himself in

73 For Porcellio, a retainer of princes in Naples, Rimini, and Milan who was crowned poet laureate
in 1452 by Frederick III, see Cortesi, DHD, 151.4–152.10. In addition to the bibliography provided
by Ferraù in n. 57, see Ulrich Pfisterer, “Filaretes Künstlerwissen und der Wiederaufgefundene
Traktat De arte fuxoria des Giannantonio Porcellio de’ Pandoni,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen
Institutes in Florenz, 46 (2002), pp. 121–151; and Fedele Marletta, “Per la biografia di Porcelio dei
Pandoni,” La Rinascita, 3 (1940), pp. 842–881.
74 For the meaning and importance of varietas in poetry, see Cortesi, De hominibus doctis dialogus (ed.
Graziosi, 1973), p. 99, n. 88.
75 Cortesi, DHD, 152.1–7: “ad summam nominis famam pervenerat; ex quo potest quanta tum fuerit
ex omni numero poetarum paucitas. Exametri enim eius . . . nihilque afferant praeter aequalitatem.
Caruit omnino varietate haec aetas.”
76 Ibid., 127.6–8: “Audax iste . . . qui Maroni voluerit vicarius succedere”; 127.10–14: “Nam, cum poeta
vi naturae inflammetur . . . ; cum . . . reconditum artificium non agnoscant.” For the epic poet
Vegio, who served in the curia of Eugenius IV as abbreviator and then datary, see ibid., 127.2–8; and
Michael J. Putnam’s “Introduction,” in Maffeo Vegio, Short Epics, ed. and tr. Michael J. Putnam,
with James Hankins (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), pp. vii–lviii, esp. p. vii and the bibliography in n. 1.
77 For Ficino and Landino as the targets of this polemic, see Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 46–53, esp.
51–52; Black, “New Laws,” p. 136, n. 52, considers this notion “far-fetched.” Ferraù cites Ficino
on p. 47, from a letter to Baccio Ugolini, in Marsilio Ficino, Opera (Basilea, 1576), pp. 634–635:
“ . . . poesim non ab arte sed a furore aliquo proficisci.”
78 For Pontano, see Cortesi, DHD, 152.14–19; quotations from 152.14–17: “Modo enim hoc scribendi
genus magnificentius renovatum est et cognita primum numerorum varietas a Pontano principe
huius memoriae doctissimorum hominum.”

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The triumph of Cicero 151
oratory, history, and poetry and “could be called the only true humanist in
this army of learned men.”79 Antonio Campano was the first to have “a more
flowery and brilliant kind of style.” His orations “are highly approved,” and
his writing “seemed to flow as if composed according to a kind of rhythm.”
Cortesi notes, however, that the restoration of rhythmic clausulae to Latin
prose was not a result of theoretical knowledge but of Campano’s fortunate
imitation of the right sources, “such that his speech had a very agreeable
and rhythmical cadence.”80 True understanding of prose rhythm, a topic
that Cicero had treated at length in his Orator and that crops up several
times in De hominibus doctis, would have to wait.81 Be that as it may,
eloquence was moving forward. Several other individuals are singled out
for the quality of their Latin style, such as the rival philologists Niccolò
Perotti and Domizio Calderini, and extremely high praise is reserved for the
Byzantine Theodore Gaza and for Cortesi’s former teacher Platina.82 Gaza
was “the first to join the highest eloquence with the highest philosophy.”
His life was so virtuous and his style so excellent that “he was rightly judged

79 For Piccolomini, see ibid., 153.5–154.8; quotation from 154.2–3: “Licet enim hunc prope solum
oratorem ex hac acie doctorum adducere.” For the translation of orator as “true humanist” in this
context, see the discussion on p. 154 below.
80 For the Neapolitan Campano, professor of rhetoric in Perugia, member of the papal curia, and
bishop of Crotone and then Teramo, see ibid., 155.10–156.8; quotations: “Hoc in viro primum
apparuit florentius ac splendidius quoddam orationis genus . . . Orationes autem eius valde proban-
tur . . . Utebatur facili et ita candido quodam scribendi genere ut numeris quibusdam adstrictus
fuere videatur; quamquam numerus orationis abest ingeniis nostris, ita tamen imitandi quadam
industria orationem inflexerat ad sonum ut cadat plerumque iucunde et numerose.” In addition
to the bibliography on p. 156, n. 62, see also Flavio Di Bernardo, Un vescovo umanista alla corte
pontificia: Giannantonio Campano (1429–1477) (Rome, 1975); Frank-Rutger Hausmann, “Giovanni
Antonio Campano,” in DBI, vol. XVII (1974), pp. 424–429; and Susanna de Beer, The Poetics of
Patronage: Poetry as Self-Advancement in Giannantonio Campano (Turnhout, 2012).
81 There is a digression devoted specifically to the issue of prose rhythm in DHD, 156.7–158.4. As
Ferraù notes (ibid., p. 157, n. 63), knowledge of classical numerus had actually been available since
Barzizza’s De compositione (1423) and is evinced in the works of Piccolomini and Bruni. Bruni
even considers it an important component of preserving the tenor of the Greek original in Latin
translations; see his De interpretatione recta in Bruni, Opere letterarie, pp. 150–192, specifically at 158,
162, 166, and 192, as well as in the general discussion on pp. 164–178. Nevertheless this knowledge
was seldom put into practice before the 1490s, on which see John O. Ward, “Cicero and Quintilian,”
in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. III, pp. 77–87. Prose rhythm is alluded to several
times in the Brutus; see A.E. Douglas, “Introduction,” in Marcus Tullius Cicero, Brutus, ed. A.E.
Douglas (Oxford, 1966), pp. ix–lxii, at xxx.
82 For the tireless commentator and lexicographer Perotti, archbishop of Siponto, who was best
known for his Cornucopiae and for his feud with Calderini, see Cortesi, DHD, 159.6–10, and Jean-
Louis Charlet, “Perotti (Niccolò),” in Nativel (ed.), Centuriae Latinae, pp. 601–605. For Calderini,
who served as secretary to Cardinal Bessarion and specialized in commentaries on difficult texts,
see Cortesi, DHD, 159.9–161.5 with related bibliography; see also Alessandro Perosa, “Calderini
(Calderinus, Caldarinus, de Caldarinis), Domizio (Domitius, Domicius, Domicus),” in DBI, vol.
XVI (1973), pp. 597–605; and Maurizio Campanelli, Polemiche e filologia ai primordi della stampa:
le Observationes di Domizio Calderini (Rome, 2001).

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152 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
the leading man (princeps) by the common consent of Italy.”83 Platina, in
addition to his “affable and perfectly urbane style,” was, “to the extent
permitted by his age, the wisest of men.”84
Further advances, albeit not perfection, were then to be achieved in
Cortesi’s third period. The twenty-four humanists grouped together by
Antonio into this “more recent generation”85 were for the most part active in
Rome and were affiliated specifically with Pomponio Leto’s circle, although
humanists unaffiliated with Rome do also appear.86 In comparison to the
second period, the information on this generation is sparse and tends to
be superficial. Nevertheless a focus on poetry and oratory emerges. Poetic
distinction is said to have been earned by the Pomponiani Settimuleio
Campano, Paolo Marsi, and Flavio Pantagato, as well as by Bonino Mom-
brizio, professor of Latin and Greek in Milan, and Cherubino Quarqualio,
a friend of Ficino and secretary to cardinals Cosimo Orsini and Giovanni
Conti.87 Antonio reserves his highest praise, however, for the Hungarian
student of Guarino, Janus Pannonius – “the one to overshadow all the
rest in poetic glory” – although this praise is challenged by Alessandro,
according to whom Janus had all the faults of the earlier poets and “did not
even once suspect what in the world varietas was.”88 In oratory, honorable

83 For Gaza, an intimate of Bessarion renowned both for teaching Greek and for translating Greek
scientific texts into Latin, see Cortesi, DHD, 160.15–162.1; quotations: “in eo primum cum summa
philosophia summam eloquentiam coniunctam”; “Iure igitur totius Italiae consensu est princeps
iudicatus.” See also Concetta Bianca, “Gaza, Teodoro,” in DBI, vol. LII (1999), pp. 737–746.
84 For the papal librarian and biographer Platina (Bartolomeo Sacchi), see Cortesi, DHD, 166.1–
167.10; quotations: “quantum illius aetatis iudicio patiebatur, non dubitarem eum unum inter
multos sapientissimum appellare. Erat enim is cum sermone comis et perurbanus . . . ” See also
Mary Ella Milham’s “Introduction” to Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health: A Critical
Edition and Translation of De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, ed. and tr. M.E. Milham (Tempe,
1998), pp. 1–45.
85 See note 34 above.
86 On the Roman connection of the majority of humanists in this generation, see Ferraù, “Intro-
duzione,” pp. 38–39, and passim in the notes to each figure in Cortesi, DHD, pp. 168–185.
87 For Settimuleio Campano (called il Campanino), who was arrested and tortured along with Platina
in relation to the plot against Paul II, see Cortesi, DHD, 168.20–169.2 with related bibliography. For
Paolo Marsi, a professor of rhetoric in Rome, see Cortesi, DHD, 176.3–11 and Paolo Pontari, “Marsi,
Paolo,” in DBI, vol. LXX (2008), pp. 741–744. For Flavio Pantagato (Giovan Battista Capranica),
elected bishop of Fermo in 1478 and killed there in 1484 via defenestration for alleged philander-
ing, see Cortesi, DHD, 176.12–177.9 and Massimo Miglio, “Capranica, Giovan Battista (Flavius
Panthagatus),” in DBI, vol. XIX (1976), pp. 154–157. For Bonino Mombrizio, see Cortesi, DHD,
174.7–10 and Serena Spanò Martinelli, “Mombrizio (Montebretto), Bonino,” in DBI, vol. LXXV
(2011), pp. 471–475. For Quarqualio, see Cortesi, DHD, 180.11–182.1 with related bibliography.
88 Cortesi, DHD, 172.8–10: “nec ipse unquam suspicatus est quaenam essent numerorum varietates.”
For more on this exchange and its implications for Italian exceptionalism in humanism, see below,
pp. 164–165. On Janus Pannonius, bishop of Pécs, a friend of and then conspirator against King
Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, see Cortesi, DHD, 171.14–20. See also Marianna D. Birnbaum,
Janus Pannonius, Poet and Politician (Zagreb, 1981); and Ian Thomson, Humanist Pietas: The
Panegyric of Ianus Pannonius on Guarinus Veronensis (Bloomington, Ind., 1998), pp. 1–65.

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The triumph of Cicero 153
mention is given to Antonio Lolli and to Ludovico Carbone, the latter
of whom pronounced the funeral oration for Guarino Veronese. Bernardo
Giustinian’s Oratio apud Sixtum IV, held in Rome on December 2, 1471, is
described as “affluent and rich in its language.”89 Historiography, however,
and another activity one might expect to find – philology – are barely
At the end of the dialogue Antonio picks out four individuals from the
whole history of humanism for special praise:
Leonardo Bruni, the prince of his age, will please us enough if we look to
him for dignity of expression and copia. No less agreeable was Theodore
Gaza’s learned, pithy, and sweet style. As for Antonio Campano, what
magnificence, what ornament did his style lack? And who showed more
natural ability than Poggio in his ease in speaking, who so much native
intelligence? It is amazing how much each one pleases in his own way.91
Notably, all of these humanists belong to the second period, whose weak
division, which as we saw above started around mid-century, seems to be
incorporated in the choice of two earlier humanists, Bruni and Poggio, and
two later ones, Gaza and Campano. Poggio’s especial importance likely
comes as much from his ability in speaking as from another attribute:
“He applied his whole soul to imitating Cicero, which he practiced every
Nevertheless, none of these humanists was simply good without reserva-
tion, for all, per the title of the dialogue, were merely homines docti (learned
89 For the esteemed orator (but otherwise obscure) Antonio Lolli, who was a papal chaplain and
apostolic secretary to Pius II and secretary to Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, see Cortesi, DHD,
180.11–182.2 with related bibliography; see also the final paragraph before the “Fonti e Bibl.” section
(p. 441, col. 1) of Marco Pellegrini, “Loli (Lolli), Gregorio (Goro),” in DBI, vol. LXV (2005),
pp. 438–441. For Ludovico Carbone, a popular orator and a professor of rhetoric and humanae
litterae in Ferrara, see Cortesi, DHD, 184.6–185.2 with related bibliography and Lao Paoletti,
“Carbone, Ludovico,” in DBI, vol. XIX (1976), pp. 699–703. For the Venetian statesman, orator,
and historian Bernardo Giustinian, see Cortesi, DHD, 183.5–8; quotation: “affluenti et copioso.”
For the identification of this oration, which the text merely describes as “illa Romae habita” (183.8),
see ibid., p. 183, n. 94. Further on Giustinian, see Patricia H. Labalme, Bernardo Giustiniani, a
Venetian of the Quattrocento (Rome, 1969) and King, Venetian Humanism, pp. 381–383.
90 Flavio Pantagato is said to have written a Life of Trajan (Cortesi, DHD, 177.8–9; Ferraù [ibid.,
p. 177, n. 86] cannot confirm the existence of this work), and Lorenzo Bonincontri di San Miniato
is said to have written a work of history “as well as he could” (183.9–184.1: “quoquo modo potuit”).
Lorenzo’s commentary on Manilius (184.1–5) is the only philological work explicitly mentioned in
this generation.
91 Ibid., 185.21–186.1: “Leonardus Arretinus, illius aetatis princeps, satis nos delectabit, si in eo ampli-
tudinem et copiam requisiverimus; nec minus iucunditatis habet erudita illa Theodori Gazae et
sententiosa et mollis oratio. Iam vero Antonio Campano quod lumen orationis, quae ornamenta
desunt? Quid Poggi ingeniosa in dicendo facilitas, quis coeterorum praeclara ingenia? Mirum est
quantum in suo quisque genere delectet.”
92 Ibid., 135.8–9: “tendebat toto animo et quotidiano quodam usu ad effingendum M. Tullium.”

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154 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
men), not, as Facio or Biondo would have said, oratores (orators). This is
an important distinction for Cortesi, one which he signals near the begin-
ning of the dialogue when his own character, Paolo, says, “let’s continue
with the discussion we had started about learned men (hominibus doctis);
I wouldn’t dare yet call them orators (oratoribus).”93 As Giacomo Ferraù
has explained, the point is to call attention to the distance separating the
humanists from the objects of their imitation: the oratores of ancient Rome,
the Latin stylists whose history Cicero had written in his Brutus (the work
that provides Cortesi with his own literary model).94 Admittedly, one doc-
tus homo in the dialogue is called an orator – Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini –
and thus Antonio’s description of him was translated above as “the only
true humanist (solum oratorem) in this army of learned men (ex hac acie
doctorum).”95 Is this praise hyperbolic?96 At any rate it is not extended to
anyone else, not even the four greats exalted at the end of the dialogue. For
all intents and purposes, the men of Cicero’s time were oratores, whereas
the humanists were homines docti whose project was to become oratores
through the revival of studia doctrinae, or studia eloquentiae. The path was
long, and, as Cicero himself reminds us, “nihil est enim simul et inventum
et perfectum” (Brutus, xviii.71).
Was the humanist project then ever completed? Did it ever produce true
oratores? No unequivocal answer emerges from De hominibus doctis, but
Cortesi implies that such has indeed happened in his own generation. One
indication is given at the end of the dialogue. There Paolo and Alessandro
beg Antonio to give his opinion about living humanists, which he politely
but steadfastly refuses to do. While making excuses he notes that Paolo
would take greater pleasure in “the praises of the living than of the dead,

93 Ibid., 110.2–4: “Sed pergamus potius ad ea quae coepimus de hominibus doctis, oratoribus enim
non ausim iam dicere.”
94 Ferraù, “Introduzione,” p. 9, n. 10. At one point in the dialogue, the appellation homines docti is
made equivalent to diserti, or “the well-spoken,” a term that indicates eloquence but on a level
inferior to one who is truly eloquens. See Cortesi, DHD, 107.8–9: “Quaeritis igitur quanti et quales
in disertorum numero habiti sint et qui mihi ad aliquam eloquentiae laudem maxime accessisse
videantur.” See Thesaurus linguae latinae, fasc. V.1.2, sub voce “disertus,” IV (col. 1377). The phrase
as used by Cortesi here is borrowed from Cicero’s Brutus, xxxv.135 (see Cortesi, DHD, p. 107,
apparatus fontium), where it is applied to orators who flourished before Latin reached its maturity
in the generation of Antonius and Crassus.
95 See above, note 79.
96 The possible insincerity of Antonio’s praise is suggested by the fact that Cortesi’s treatment of
Piccolomini is modeled very closely on Cicero’s portrait of Marcus Porcius Cato in the Brutus
(xv.61ff.) (see Ferraù, “Introduzione,” p. 12). As emerges in the Brutus (lxxxv.294), Cicero’s portrait
of Cato is itself insincere. Cortesi’s treatment of Piccolomini might then be equally insincere,
although such depends on the meanings Cortesi intended to attribute to his various intertextual
borrowings and his assumptions about his readers’ ability to recognize the source.

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The triumph of Cicero 155
since you perhaps think that the studia eloquentiae have been advanced
by more illustrious writings in our time.”97 Paolo does not respond, but
Antonio’s assumption that his interlocutors esteem their contemporaries
more highly than their predecessors is partly confirmed by Alessandro, who
attributes Antonio’s reticence to a fear of “diminishing the glory of those
you have mentioned through a comparison to the living.” He elaborates:

This is what I think about them in general: they devoted themselves whole-
heartedly to every kind of learning, but they did not achieve the beauty
and flower of Latin style, which you cannot deny has been more elegantly
cultivated by the men of our age and increased with greater artificium.98

Antonio concurs about the excellence of “our fellows,” saying that they
“have recently discovered (inventum) or explained (illustratum) what was
unknown for about a thousand years.”99
Another indication that humanists of Cortesi’s time have become true
oratores is provided by the way in which Antonio and the others judge their
predecessors. By ascribing Bernardo Giustinian’s deficiencies in oratory, or
Porcellio’s in poetry, or Valla’s in periodic syntax, or Poggio’s in general
style to their age’s ignorance of oratorium artificium, the implication is that
the current age, on the contrary, does possess knowledge of these rules;
otherwise it could not judge them on such grounds.100 This theoretical
knowledge is what the forerunners of humanism completely lacked, and
what teachers like Chrysoloras, George of Trebizond, and Pomponio Leto
helped their students to recover by guiding them in the proper imitation
of the best ancient sources. Cortesi’s schema suggests that if the history
of humanism is equivalent to steady progress in reconstructing the ars

97 Cortesi, DHD, 185.16–19: “Quanquam tu quidem, Paule, quod fortasse hac aetate illustrioribus
litteris eloquentiae studia aucta putes, vivorum magis laudibus delecteris quam eorum qui vita
excesserunt” (emphasis mine).
98 Ibid., 186.4–9: “ . . . ne forte minuere eorum, quos collegisti, gloriam videreris, si eos cum his qui
vivunt conferres. Equidem de quibusdam sic existimo: ipsos multum in omni genere doctrinae
esse versatos, sed nondum lumen et florem Latinae orationis attigisse, quam tu negare non poteris
ab huius aetatis hominibus et excultam esse politius et maiori artificio amplificatam” (emphasis
99 Ibid., 186.16–19: “ . . . in quo gloriari nobis liceat, id esse nuper ab ingeniis nostrorum hominum
vel inventum vel illustratum quod mille iam prope annos ignoratum sit.”
100 A parallel passage is the collective judgment on the style of Giovanni Aurispa, Pier Candido
Decembrio, and Niccolò Sagundino (whom Cortesi here erroneously calls Niccolò Euboico: see
ibid., p. 125, n. 19): “their knowledge was rude and rustic, lacking the polish of more refined
efforts. The more elegant method of writing had not yet been introduced” (124.5–125.3: “sed
istorum omnium fuit disciplina horrida et agrestis, sine nitore elegantioris industriae: nondum
erat politior haec scribendi ratio importata”). The implication, of course, is that it has now been

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156 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
oratoria, then that history reaches its end, becomes perfectum, when a later
generation of humanists (thinks that it) grasps that ars so well that it can
judge its predecessors precisely on such grounds.101
Finally, the excellence of Cortesi’s own generation is demonstrated by De
hominibus doctis as a work of literature. At the most basic level it is intended
as a stylistic tour de force, an illustration of the proper imitation of Cicero.102
This applies not only to general lexis and syntax but also to numerus or
cursus, the prose rhythm that Campano had hit upon by lucky imitation
but whose artificium he and the rest of his age supposedly lacked.103 In the
dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Cortesi boasts that his dialogue
pleases both for its copia and for its orationis cursus, thereby declaring his
recovery of this hitherto unassimilated aspect of Cicero’s style.104 And to
the extent that Cortesi claims to have written down a dialogue that actually
happened,105 he implicitly praises the other two interlocutors as well for
their Ciceronianism. Furthermore, De hominibus doctis is not only a stylistic
imitation of Cicero’s language but also a formal imitation of his Brutus,
and the intertextual parallels between the two dialogues amount to the
declaration of a manifesto. According to the Brutus, where Cicero traces
the development of oratory in Greece and then in Rome, Latin historically
reached its maturity in the generation of Antonius and Crassus and its
ultimate perfection in his own time – perhaps in the likes of Hortensius,
Marcellus, and Caesar but certainly in himself.106 Likewise, Cortesi seems
to identify a kind of maturity in the Latin of Piccolomini, Campano,
101 Only in the realm of historiography does doubt linger about the current generation’s mastery of its
precepts; in that connection Paolo says that “we lack these tools, and if we write anything worthy
of praise at all in this genre it is only by accident or chance” (ibid., 137.11–13: “nostros autem
his instrumentis omnino carere atque eosdem in hoc praesertim scribendi genere nihil admodum
laudis consequi posse, nisi quando temere aut casu”).
102 This is not to say that Cortesi’s Latin is just like Cicero’s; in reality it exhibits noteworthy lexical
aberrations from the master (see Ferraù, “Nota al testo,” p. 90). Yet strict lexical adherence to
Cicero was not part of Cortesi’s Ciceronianism, on which see above, note 23. As for the high
degree of difficulty in properly imitating Cicero, see Cortesi, DHD, 135.9–136.2, which echoes a
passage from his letter to Poliziano (Ciceronian Controversies, p. 10), and 172.13–15.
103 Cf. Hermann Gmelin, Das Prinzip der Imitatio in den romanischen Literaturen der Renaissance
(Erlangen, 1932), pp. 180–181.
104 Cortesi, DHD, 104.1–3: “tantum me illa vel copia vel illo orationis cursu delectavit ut decreverim
eum ipsum sermonem mandare litteris.”
105 See ibid., 103.15–104.3.
106 Cicero, Brutus, xxxvi.138, xliii.161. In the latter passage Cicero says, “I set this down precisely for
this reason, that the time when Latin eloquence first came to maturity may be marked, and that
it may be made clear that it now had been brought to all but the highest perfection. Henceforth
no one could expect to add anything considerable to it unless he should come better equipped
in philosophy, in law, in history” (tr. G.L. Hendrickson). Of course the one “better equipped”
is Cicero himself, as the sequel ironically implies (162): “‘Shall we ever find such a one as you
contemplate,’ said Brutus, ‘or is he indeed already here?’ ‘I cannot say,’ I replied.”

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The triumph of Cicero 157
Gaza, and Platina, and, by parallelism with the Brutus, perfection in his
own day – perhaps in figures like Leto and Pontano (who technically belong
to an earlier generation but were still alive and active), and most likely in
himself. By writing a dialogue that is a proper imitation of the Brutus in
every respect (form, style, subject matter), Cortesi indicates that he is a
true orator and the Cicero of his own age.
And indeed, this view seems to have found an echo in a fresco portraying
rhetoric (1492–1494) in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican painted by
Pinturicchio’s workshop, a detail of which is reproduced on the cover of
this book. In line with the larger cycle of the liberal arts of which it is a part,
the personification of rhetoric ought to be flanked by its ancient Roman
exemplar, Cicero; the image to the right of the seated figure, however, is a
portrait of none other than Paolo Cortesi himself.107 The student has taken
the place of the master.

The humanist milieu

The striving for eloquence is clearly the sine qua non of Cortesi’s humanism.
Accordingly, although once referring to the humanists’ endeavor as studia
humanitatis, he more regularly calls it, as had Biondo Flavio, studium or
studia eloquentiae, the “study” or “pursuit of eloquence.”108 But how exactly
did humanists pursue eloquence? What activities did they engage in and
what did they produce? In what context and under what circumstances did
they operate? What was their position in society? Who were they? What

107 Sabina Poeschel, “An Unknown Portrait of a Well-Known Humanist,” Renaissance Quarterly, 43:1
(1990), pp. 146–154.
108 Studia humanitatis: Cortesi, DHD, 167.14; studium eloquentiae: 117.6–7; studia eloquentiae: 111.13,
114.15, 185.17–18. Cortesi freely uses a variety of other terms that stand in an uncertain or undefined
relationship to humanism, none of which however occurs with the frequency or consistency
of studia eloquentiae. For example, educators like Chrysoloras and Guarino are said to provide
instruction in the maximae artes (111.8), bonae artes (122.5, incorrectly numbered as 122.4), and
honestissimae artes (122.15, incorrectly numbered as 122.14). These, especially bonae artes, are in
all likelihood synonyms for studia eloquentiae. Elsewhere, however, there are vague references to
other terms whose nature and content are unclear: artes elegantes et ingenuae (101.19, attributed
to Lorenzo de’ Medici); ingenuae artes (103.19, referring to Alessandro’s education); graviores artes
(133.1, attributed to Ermolao Barbaro); gravissimae disciplinae (101.20–21, attributed to Lorenzo de’
Medici, where it likely refers to politics); disciplinae maximae (136.11, which are said to be above
the visual arts and music); studia and studium doctrinae (103.12, 134.8, 164.9 and passim, where it
has a general sense of “learning” of subjects or skills as opposed to the natural ability or talent of
ingenium; see also below, pp. 179–182). Only one individual’s artes are specifically enumerated: in
the dedicatory letter, Lorenzo de’ Medici is attributed with eloquence but also with other artes,
such as music, mathematics, and philosophy, that are not (the first two), or are not typically (the
last), attributed to the humanists in the dialogue. However, the praise of Lorenzo is pure panegyric,
not critique, and thus it cannot be collated directly with that of the humanists.

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158 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
kind of lives did they live? How, in short, did Cortesi envision the humanist
On the level of ideals, the pursuit of eloquence is closely coupled with a
passion for antiquity. But while the latter would appear to be a necessary
trait of humanists, it is nevertheless not alone sufficient grounds to be
included in their number. Such can be inferred from an important pas-
sage near the beginning of the dialogue. When challenged by Alessandro
for not mentioning Dante and Petrarch, Antonio defends his choice to
begin with Chrysoloras and thus to pass over Italians from the Trecento,

I began with Chrysoloras . . . because eloquence generally seems to have risen

in his time . . . I would not dare to deny that Dante and Petrarch burned with
an overwhelming zeal for antiquity. But Dante is like an ancient painting:
the colors are gone and only the outlines remain to give some kind of

As for Petrarch, we saw above that “his style is not really Latin and is some-
times downright frightful.”110 Therefore, although he and Dante possessed
the zeal for classical antiquity that was generally understood to be a trait of
humanists, and on account of which some people (like Alessandro) might
actually consider them such, in Cortesi’s eyes it could not make up for
their utter lack of Latin eloquence. This is because – as is implied in the
comparison of Dante to a faded painting – eloquence itself is considered
the essence of antiquity. Love of antiquity that fails to grasp that essence
ends up a somewhat pleasing but nonetheless hollow form.
In the pages of De hominibus doctis, passion for eloquence and antiq-
uity manifests itself in certain activities, most commonly either teaching
eloquence to others or, preferably, producing writings that embodied it.
Perhaps overstating the case a bit, Cortesi claims in his dedicatory let-
ter, “anything that is written down, of whatever kind, is in and of itself
praiseworthy.”111 On the other hand, those who leave no writings tend to
forfeit their title as proper humanists. Accordingly, otherwise accomplished
individuals who have written nothing are purposefully excluded from the

109 Ibid., 113.8–17: “a Grisolora exordium coepi . . . quoniam illis temporibus erexisse se admodum
eloquentia videri solet . . . Ego vero negare non ausim flagrantissimum in Dante et in Petrarcha
studium fuisse priscarum rerum; sed in Dante tanquam in veteri pictura, detractis coloribus,
nonnisi lineamenta delectant.”
110 See above, note 39.
111 Cortesi, DHD, 104.8–9: “quicquid litteris mandatur, qualecumque sit, per se laudabile est.”

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The triumph of Cicero 159
dialogue,112 and Paolo even digresses at one point to wage a polemic against
those who criticize the works of others while producing none of their own:
Those who try to appear wise but write nothing upset me very much, unless
they really are wise or contribute to educating the young. This hateful and
useless brand of people harms the living and posterity alike, tearing the works
of others to pieces but daring to write nothing themselves. They claim to
be motivated by modesty and an awareness of their own limitations, but all
they do is hinder the studies of more gifted men.113

Antonio agrees: “such people are rightly left out of our account, since they
did nothing while living to be included.”114 Whether or not Cortesi has
specific individuals in mind here is unclear. One such person does, however,
mysteriously appear in the dialogue: Niccolò Niccoli, Manetti’s paragon of
virtue who in reality was infamous for perfectly corresponding to Paolo’s
description. Fittingly, he is mentioned as having “achieved high fame”
not for contributing to eloquence but “in cultivating friendships with the
greatest humanists.”115 Considering his notoriety for losing the friendship of
the great humanists, one must question the sincerity of this passage. Is this
indirect criticism, veiled in order not to estrange the dedicatee, Lorenzo de’
Medici, whose grandfather Cosimo was counted among Niccoli’s closest
friends? Be that as it may, Niccoli is the only individual treated in the
dialogue who was neither a writer nor a teacher.
Of writings, Cortesi has the highest respect for historiography, which
he calls “the single greatest rhetorical genre” and elsewhere “a great genre
and the most difficult of all.”116 In prose, oratory seems to follow history in

112 See ibid., 168.2–7: “I do not doubt that many accomplished men have been passed over, but this
is their own fault for having left no writings. For we said in the beginning that our discussion
would include those who we know were praised by our forefathers or who submitted writings to
the judgment of critics” (“Nec enim ego dubito multos praeteritos fuisse ex veteribus eruditos
homines, sed hoc accidit culpa eorum qui nihil scriptum reliquerunt. Diximus autem nos a
principio eos in hunc sermonem relaturos, quos aut a maioribus laudatos accepimus aut quorum
scripta in existimantium arbitrio versentur”).
113 Ibid., 168.8–14: “Nam isti, qui nihil scribendo volunt videri sapere (nisi alioqui doctissimi sint aut
erudiant iuventutem) nullo modo mihi placent. Odiosum sane genus hominum et inutile videtur,
non solum vivis, sed etiam posteris nocere, cum aliena lacerant, ipsi nihil audeant scribere atque
id se facere modestia et conscientia ingenii commotos dicant, ingeniosiorum quidem hominum
studia retardant.” This digression is a creative adaptation of Cicero, Brutus, xxiv.91–92.
114 Cortesi, DHD, 168.17–18: “Merito isti nullo loco sunt numerandi, qui nihil in vita effecerunt ut
115 For Niccoli, see ibid., 123.17–124.2: “Hisdem temporibus fuit Nicolaus Nicolus, qui magnam
gloriam adeptus est in colendis amicitiis doctissimorum hominum.” See Chapter 2 above,
pp. 129–130, on Niccoli’s reputation as an overly harsh critic.
116 See Cortesi, DHD, 121.5: “cum historia sit rerum omnium difficillima”; 136.4–6: “est magnum
munus historia et, ut paulo ante dixi, omnium rerum difficillimum.” Once again, this is a creative

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160 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
importance. Textual scholarship is mentioned almost as an afterthought.117
It is translation, though, that seems to occupy the lowest rung – a notable
change of fortune from its high estimation in the works of Facio and
Biondo. Antonio sneers that humanists through mid-century “preferred to
produce translations,” and that “there seemed to be as great a desire to write
something as there was a paucity of original compositions.” He attributes
this predilection to a lack of ability:
as if at the dawn of literature, they did not trust themselves and, like toddlers,
could not move to and fro unless in a carriage or with a guide to follow. And
so, since translation was easier, providing all these aids to learning seemed to
them a good way to be highly esteemed by posterity.118

As for the relationship between prose and poetry, Cortesi does not appear
to conceive of a hierarchy. But he does demand specialization in one or
the other, thus being the only one of our authors to prescribe, rather than
simply describe, a division in humanism between poets and prose writers.
Antonio reasons:
We are not made by nature to be able to excel at several things at the same
time. Therefore we should let nature be our guide and follow only where she
herself leads or takes us. That way we could reach perfection in one genre
rather than stretching ourselves across the study of multiple different arts.119

Accordingly, two humanists – Martino Filetico, a student of Guarino and

himself a teacher, and the otherwise obscure Daniel Francinus – are said
to have failed to develop a decent style on account of wanting to excel

adaptation of Cicero, De oratore, 2, 15, 62: “Videtisne quantum munus sit oratoris historia? Haud
scio an flumine orationis et varietate maximum.” See note 48 above. For a discussion of Cortesi’s
intention in adapting the quotation as he does, see Baker, “Launching the ars historica.”
117 Philology is mentioned in relation to only three humanists: Domizio Calderini (Cortesi, DHD,
159.9–161.5), Giovanni Andrea Bussi (154.11–155.1), and Lorenzo Bonincontri di S. Miniato (184.4–
5), of whom de’ Bussi is criticized for lacking the proper ratio and relying too much on conjecture.
Antonio could very well be referring to philology when he describes the achievement of living
humanists thus: “our fellows have recently discovered (inventum) or explained (illustratum) what
was unknown for about a thousand years” (see above, note 99).
118 Cortesi, DHD, 146.2–10: “Atque ego in ipsis et in aliis quos enumeravimus intelligo homines
libentius ad interpretum munera esse conversos: sed nos tamen colligimus omnes, ut appareat
quam multi scribendi cupiditate flagrarint, quam pauci aliquid ex suo protulerint . . . Quia veluti
tum nascentibus litteris sibi ipsi diffiderant et erant tanquam anniculi infantes qui nonnisi in
curriculo aut praeeunte duce inambulant. Itaque, cum esset facilius illud vertendi munus, bene de
posteris suis mereri videbantur si tam multa adiumenta ingeniis suppeditarent” (emphasis mine).
119 Ibid., 179.2–180.3: “Neque enim ita facti a natura sumus ut possimus pluribus simul rebus excellere:
itaque in hoc arbitror sequendam esse naturam ducem atque eo tantummodo eundum quo ab
ipsa trahimur et ducimur, ut simus potius simplici in genere perfecti quam nos totos variarum
multipliciumque artium studiis applicemus.”

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The triumph of Cicero 161
in both poetry and prose.120 The rule was not ironclad though: human-
ists like Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini and Antonio Campano distinguished
themselves in both genres.121
All of this literary production was of course in Latin. As we saw above,
Antonio recognizes the high quality of the vernacular works of Dante and
Petrarch but laments that these writers could not channel their extraor-
dinary ingenia into Latin composition. No other vernacular efforts are
mentioned in the dialogue, which suggests that for Cortesi, as for all our
other authors except Manetti, humanism had nothing to do with the volgar
The relationship of Cortesi’s humanism to the vernacular is, however,
a bit ambiguous and requires clarification. Cortesi is known to have com-
posed verse in the vernacular, and a contemporary account of his academy
portrays him expounding on decorum in Dante’s and Petrarch’s vernacular
poetry.122 What is more, Ciceronians in general were not averse to the
vernacular (e.g., Pietro Bembo), and as John Monfasani has pointed out:
Ciceronianism had consequences for how one viewed the vernacular, but,
contrary to common belief, in the case of many Ciceronians it meant
embracing the vernacular as the ordinary language of discourse and also as
a literary language.123

Such might have been the case for the mature Cortesi, who in his De
cardinalatu would classify the various vernaculars, defend Tuscan as the
best, and explain how its speech can be properly ornamented.124 But if
Cortesi did ultimately embrace the vernacular as a literary language, he

120 See ibid., 178.7–179.2; applied to both is the description: “when working at one he studied the
other too little and excelled in neither” (178.10–12: “cum in altero laboraret, in altero parum studii
poneret, in neutro excellebat”). On Filetico, see, in addition to the bibliography in ibid., p. 178,
n. 88, Concetta Bianca, “Filetico (Filettico), Martino,” in DBI, vol. XLVII (1997), pp. 636–640.
For Francinus, see Cortesi, DHD, p. 179, n. 89.
121 For Piccolomini, see ibid., 153.5–154.8; for Campano, 155.11–159.5, whose epigrams are specifically
mentioned (159.3).
122 See D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism, p. 106, and McLaughlin, Literary Imitation, p. 221. In
“Humanism in Rome,” p. 280, D’Amico explains the Roman humanists’ “cultivation of Petrarchan
verse” as “a form becoming to court life.”
123 Monfasani, “The Ciceronian Controversy,” p. 398. As Monfasani notes, Bembo was only one of
many Ciceronians to champion the vernacular and even to prefer it for everyday use. Indeed,
the vernacular’s value for quotidian concerns had been defended continuously since Dante, who
considered it the natural language of discourse as opposed to Latin, an artificial literary language.
Dante’s position, in various forms, had adherents among Quattrocento humanists, most notably
Leonardo Bruni. See Mazzocco, Linguistic Theories in Dante and the Humanists.
124 See the chapter De sermone in Book Two, reproduced in full in Carlo Dionisotti, Gli umanisti e il
volgare fra Quattro e Cinquecento, ed. Vincenzo Fera (Milan, 2003), pp. 56–65. See also Dionisotti’s
comments on Cortesi’s stance towards the vernacular, pp. 65–69.

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162 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
nevertheless does not seem to have accepted it as a language of learned
discourse in the period when he wrote De hominibus doctis.125 For he
presents his dialogue, which is aimed precisely at showcasing his own
literary talent, as the written form of an actual, informal but highly learned
conversation in perfect Ciceronian Latin. Furthermore, as we have seen,
he characterizes the age of Dante and Petrarch as a time when “eloquence
had utterly lost its voice.”126 And in his description of Dante, he directly
attributes the poet’s “unintelligibility” in certain matters to the vernacular’s
inability to express complex ideas.127 For the Cortesi of De hominibus doctis,
there is no doubt that humanism’s central goal of reviving eloquence was
a strictly Latin affair.
In addition to Latin, Greek features prominently in Cortesi’s humanists.
Special emphasis is placed on this accomplishment for figures in the first
half of the fifteenth century, who, as Antonio says, devoted so much effort
to translation from Greek into Latin. As time passes, however, Greek is
mentioned less and less often, and the impression is that it is not essential
to a humanist profile.128 The reason for this is likely that, as knowledge
of the oratorium artificium increased and humanists, to continue Cortesi’s
own metaphor, grew up linguistically, Greek was no longer seen as an
essential guide to proper composition and eloquence in Latin. This is not
to say that knowledge of Greek decreased or became less widespread – the
opposite is in fact the case129 – but only that its importance for humanism
waned in Cortesi’s eyes as it lost its initial usefulness for Latin. On the
other hand, Cicero claimed that knowledge of Greek was always necessary
for good Latin, and so perhaps Cortesi’s characters take knowledge of
Greek for granted as their review reaches their own time. It is also possible,
however – indeed probable – that the scant attention paid to Greek is in
part a reflection of Cortesi’s own apparent ignorance of the language as
well as of the priorities of Pomponio Leto’s Academy, where the knowledge
of Greek was less prized than elsewhere.130

125 McLaughlin, Literary Imitation, p. 221, dates Cortesi’s interest in the vernacular to a period posterior
to DHD.
126 See above, note 37. 127 See below, pp. 180–181.
128 Not counting Byzantine émigrés: in Cortesi’s first period (Dante to Salutati), no humanist is said to
know Greek; in the second period (Bruni to Platina), there are eight, all of whom flourished before
mid-century; in the third period (Settimuleio Campano to Ludovico Carbone), three. Significantly,
Biondo Flavio is said to have written history “without knowledge of Greek” (Cortesi, DHD, 148.4–
5: “Flavius enim Blondus sine Graecis litteris prosequutus est historiam diligenter . . . ”).
129 Hankins, “Lo studio del greco.”
130 Cortesi’s command of Greek is uncertain. On the subordinate status of Greek in late fifteenth-
century Rome, see D’Amico, “Humanism in Rome,” pp. 279–280. Regarding Leto’s teaching, note
the lack of any significant Greek element in the activity traced by Accame Lanzillotta, Pomponio

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The triumph of Cicero 163
If Cortesi portrays humanists as primarily occupied with Latin elo-
quence, he does not bind this pursuit to any disciplinary categories. He
never considers excluding anyone from the ranks of humanism, as Facio
did with Alberti, simply for having additional interests or even a career in
a traditional university field like law or philosophy. Antonio Beccadelli’s
expertise in law is mentioned without further comment, and Francesco
Accolti d’Arezzo is praised as “the one great humanist who was a truly
great jurisconsult,” as well as for his vast learning “in all the arts and
disciplines.”131 This is a surprising change, as not even the ecumenical
Manetti allowed such a combination. Even more unexpected is the special
relationship philosophy has to humanism in De hominibus doctis. On the
one hand, several humanists, especially the Byzantine émigrés, are said to
have studied it. At times Cortesi appears to have moral philosophy in mind,
as when he says that Piccolomini’s philosophical studies were reflected in the
sententiae of his orations,132 or when he attributes Theodore Gaza’s virtue
to his pursuit of “the study of philosophy with his way of life, not with
mere words.”133 Yet Gaza was an Aristotelian. And although the description
of Gaza might seem to imply a typical humanist criticism of scholastic phi-
losophy, Cortesi partially connects the humanist recovery of eloquence to
Aristotelian rhetoric.134 As seen above, George of Trebizond’s study of the
Peripatetics made him one of the great teachers of oratorium artificium.135
Furthermore, John Argyropoulos was “just about a perfect Peripatetic and
quite an agreeable writer,” and “his student Donato Acciaiuoli was rather

Leto, pp. 85–189; Accame Lanzillotta, “L’insegnamento di Pomponio Leto nello Studium Urbis,”
in Lidia Capo and Maria Rosa Di Simone (eds.), Storia della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia de
“La Sapienza” (Rome, 2000), pp. 71–91; and Maurizio Campanelli and Maria Agata Pincelli,
“La lettura dei classici nello Studium Urbis tra Umanesimo e Rinascimento,” in ibid., pp. 93–
195, at 168–174. See also D’Amico’s description of the interests of Leto’s Academy in Renaissance
Humanism, pp. 91–92 and 97–102.
131 For Beccadelli, see Cortesi, DHD, 145.2; for Accolti, 182.5–183.3: “fuit unus doctissimorum
hominum iurisconsultissimus. Nihil est enim litteris mandatum, nihil in artibus disciplinisque
omnibus traditum quod ab hoc homine non sit aut cognitum aut investigatum.” For Accolti, see
the anonymous entry “Accolti, Francesco (detto Francesco Aretino o, per antonomasia, l’Aretino),”
in DBI, vol. I (1960), pp. 104–105.
132 See Cortesi, DHD, 153.17–154.1. Piccolomini is not known to have studied philosophy. We have
very little information about his education, though, beyond that he studied law under Mariano
Sozzini in Siena.
133 Ibid., 161.6–12; quotation at 8–10: “nec erat is in eorum numero qui, usurpatione disciplinae, verbis
magis quam vita philosophiae studia persequuntur.”
134 In addition to the textual passages cited here, Cortesi might also have found value in Aristotle’s
discussion of prose rhythm and periodic structure, two aspects of elocutio dear to Cortesi, in
chapters 8 and 9 respectively of Book III of the Rhetoric.
135 See above, note 62.

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164 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
well spoken.”136 Ultimately, however, Cortesi cites relatively few examples
of cohabitation between humanism and traditional university disciplines
(as the praise of Accolti also implies). Nor does he ever extend this cohab-
itation to medicine or theology,137 which he simply omits. Nevertheless,
the reason that such pursuits are generally ignored would appear to be not
that they are illicit but rather that they were comparatively less common or
less suitable areas for distinction in Latin eloquence. Unlike Facio, Cortesi
does not feel obliged to distance humanism from the university, perhaps
because the two had become well enough integrated in his time.138
Humanism’s integrity does need defending, however, when it comes
to national boundaries. Antonio’s review contains only one northern
humanist – Janus Pannonius, or Jan the Hungarian – whose treatment
shows that humanism was, or ought to be, in Cortesi’s mind an essentially
Italian enterprise. First, Antonio proffers a bit of backhanded praise for
Janus’ poetry: “It was truly amazing that this foreigner (externus), this bar-
barus, whose people are usually less receptive to the Muses, achieved the
highest admiration and fame for his talent.”139 Alessandro then immedi-
ately objects:

Why are you extolling this foreigner (externum) so highly, as if he really

did win more of every kind of praise than the Italians (nostros) and even
scared them away from writing? If you’re being ironic, then you do well to
encourage the barbari by praising Janus; but if you’re serious, be careful that
you don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you praise him as intelligent

136 Cortesi, DHD, 164.1–6: “Joannes Argiropolus Bisantius, prope perfectus peripateticus et sane toler-
abilis scriptor . . . Huius auditor fuit Donatus Acciaiolus, homo non indisertus.” For Argyropoulos,
professor at the Florentine Studio and teacher of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Landino, and Poliziano, see
N.G. Wilson, From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance (London, 1992),
pp. 86–90; and Emilio Bigi, “Argiropulo, Giovanni,” in DBI, vol. IV (1962), pp. 129–131. For
Acciaiuoli, translator of Aristotle and of Leonardo Bruni (into Italian), see Garin, Medioevo e
rinascimento, pp. 199–267.
137 Although many of Cortesi’s humanists are ecclesiastics. We should also remember that one of
Cortesi’s major works was his Liber sententiarum, a standard work of theology in Ciceronian
138 It was precisely in the period between Facio’s and Cortesi’s writings – the second half of the fifteenth
century – that humanism began to flourish in universities, whereas in the first quarter of the century
humanists had avoided universities, and in the second they only began to stake their claim there;
see Paul F. Grendler, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore, 2002), pp. 205–222; and
for a more recent consideration with a different focus, David Lines, “Humanism and the Italian
Universities,” in Celenza and Gouwens (eds.), Humanism and Creativity, pp. 327–346. Consider
also that Cortesi’s teacher, Pomponio Leto, taught at Rome’s university, the Sapienza, and that his
friend Poliziano taught at the Florentine Studio.
139 Cortesi, DHD, 171.17–20: “Illud certe mirabile in hoc homine fuit, quod externus, quod barbarus
(quae gens durior ad Musas videri solet) ad summam admirationem et ingenii famam pervenerit.”

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The triumph of Cicero 165
and highly learned, then I wholeheartedly agree. So praise him this way
now, and don’t try to deprive our people (nostris) of their glory.140

Here we have a case of Italian exceptionalism: humanism is Italian, and

only Italians can be the best humanists and achieve the highest praise. For-
eigners (externi) might participate in humanism, but as barbarians (barbari)
they are not particularly suited to it – even if they, like Janus, had studied
with Guarino. This haughtiness towards the barbari and their supposedly
natural inability with the Latin language would endure throughout the
sixteenth century and was sometimes even acknowledged by the “barbar-
ians” themselves.141 Still, Alessandro seems also to belie his pride by a kind
of jealousy and perhaps even uncertainty over the undisputed mastery of
Italians within humanism; for if their status were secure, there would be no
reason to defend it so vehemently. Be that as it may, Alessandro’s tirade is
the dialogue’s only indication, admittedly oblique, that humanism was in
the process of breaking free of Italy’s borders and developing independently
across the Alps.142
What of the Byzantines, who appear in good number and who receive
almost unconditional praise?143 As non-Italians they should logically be
externi, foreigners, but they are never labeled that way, nor is there ever any
indication that they might be barbari. On the contrary, they seem to be
welcomed into the group of nostri. As we shall see below in greater detail,
Cortesi recognizes a cultural kinship between Italian humanists and the
Greek diplomats and refugees who, starting with Chrysoloras, were some
of their most important teachers. As carriers of the tradition supposedly

140 Ibid., 172.1–7: “Quid tu tantum externum effers, quasi vero iste, non modo nostros omni genere
laudum superarit, sed etiam a scribendo deterruerit? Si iocaris, belle mihi videris eum laudando
suffragari barbaris; sin asseveras, cave ne plus quaestionis suscipias quam possis sustinere. Eum
laudas si ut ingeniosum ac plane doctum, prorsus assentior: modo ita laudes, ne gloriam nostris
praereptam velis.”
141 See Kristian Jensen, “The Humanist Reform of Latin and Latin Teaching,” in Kraye (ed.), The
Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, pp. 63–81, at 65–66. Cf. also Caspar Hirschi,
The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany
(Cambridge, 2012), pp. 142–152.
142 On the diffusion of humanism from Italy to the rest of Europe, see Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich
(eds.), The Renaissance in National Context (Cambridge, 1992); Rabil (ed.), Renaissance Humanism,
vol. II; Johannes Helmrath, “Diffusion des Humanismus: zur Einführung” in Helmrath, Muhlack,
and Walther (eds.), Diffusion des Humanismus, pp. 9–29; and Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The European
Diffusion of Italian Humanism,” in Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. II,
pp. 147–165, with related bibliography on p. 147.
143 The dotti bizantini who appear in DHD are: Manuel Chrysoloras (111.8–113.12), Nicolò Sagundino
(124.4–125.3, treated erroneously as two different people: Nicolò Euboico and Nicolò Sagundino),
George of Trebizond (139.17–23), Theodore Gaza (160.15–162.7), Cardinal Bessarion (162.9–163.10),
and John Argyropoulos (164.1–5). Only Sagundino is moderately criticized.

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166 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
lost to Italy in the fifth century and being revived there in the fifteenth,
there is no question of the Byzantines’ place in humanism.
In addition to his outspoken hierarchy between nostri and
externi/barbari, Cortesi establishes a gradation within Italy as well, silently
aggrandizing Rome and marginalizing Florence. As the dialogue progresses,
what began as a pan-Italian vision (in the generations of Bruni and Valla)
slowly narrows to focus almost exclusively on the Eternal City. By the 1460s
the great humanists (with the exception of Pontano) are increasingly asso-
ciated with Rome (Campano, Perotti, Calderini, Gaza, Bessarion, Platina),
although many can still be claimed by Florence (Benedetto Accolti, Argy-
ropoulos, Acciaiuoli, Matteo Palmieri).144 In the third period, as noted
above, the focus is almost exclusively on Rome, and not one Florentine
is named. The competition between these two loci of humanism is as
palpable as it is unspoken. That Cortesi has not forgotten the intimates
of his dedicatee – men like Ficino, Landino, Pico, Poliziano, and Bar-
tolomeo della Fonte – but is purposefully neglecting them emerges from
an oblique reference to Poliziano, who is called “our friend” and whose
critique of Ciceronians (“apes of Cicero”) is taken up and applied to those
who imitate Cicero without the proper ars.145 It is tempting to attribute the
oblivion of Florence to Antonio’s refusal to talk about contemporaries, but
Giacomo Ferraù has demonstrated that Cortesi’s procedure amounts to a
damnatio memoriae of sorts.146 For four contemporaries are indeed men-
tioned – Giorgio Merula, Pomponio Leto, Ermolao Barbaro, and Giovanni
Pontano – three of whom act as foils for Florentine humanism: Merula
had a heated polemic with Poliziano;147 Barbaro defended rhetoric against
Pico;148 and, as we have seen, the praise of Pontano’s poetic ars must be

144 For the Romans, see Cortesi, DHD, 155.10–163.10, 166.1–167.10, to whose number Piccolomini
might be added (153.5–154.8); for the Florentines, 164.1–165.4 and 135.1–3 for Accolti, whom Cortesi
seems to see as actually belonging to the earlier generation of Florentines like Palla Strozzi and
Poggio (134.7–135.4: “Tum etiam ex eo genere numerabatur Pallas Stroza . . . Nec longo intervallo
aberat Benedictus Arretinus . . . Nam illis temporibus in Poggio Florentino”).
145 This is said specifically in relation to Andrea Contrario, a Venetian active mostly in Rome. See
ibid., 172.13–15: “But he strayed far from the best kind of imitation and, as our friend shrewdly says,
acted not like a student but an ape” (“Sed aliquanto tamen abest ab optimo genere imitandi et, ut
scite amicus noster ait, non ille quidem ut alumnus, sed ut simia effingit”). Fera, “Il problema,”
p. 157, denies that Poliziano is the friend cited.
146 See Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 53–54. See also Paolo Viti, “La Valdelsa e l’Umanesimo: i Cortesi,”
in Gian Carlo Garfagnini (ed.), Callimaco Esperiente poeta e politico del ’400 (Florence, 1987),
pp. 247–299, at 293–299.
147 On the philological and personal rivalry between Merula and Poliziano, see Roberto Ricciardi, La
polemica fra Angelo Poliziano e Giorgio Merula: ricerche e documenti (Alessandria, 2010).
148 On this debate, see Ermolao Barbaro and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Filosofia o eloquenza?,
ed. Francesco Bausi (Naples, 1998).

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The triumph of Cicero 167
understood in part as a silent rebuke to the divine frenzy of Ficino and
Landino. Leto’s presence, on the other hand, combined with that of an
overwhelming number of his students in the third period, serves to portray
him as the true inheritor of humanism, thus making his student Cortesi
the following generation’s heir apparent. Other strands of humanism, such
as Ficino’s poetics or Poliziano’s eclecticism, are not presented as viable
alternatives but rather are ignored as deviant.
The marginalization of Florence which we see here, as well as in Cortesi’s
quick dispatching of the Three Crowns and even of Salutati, the revered
Florentine chancellor renowned especially for the power of his rhetoric,
makes little sense in a work dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent.149 Yet
it is undeniable, and it is a needfully sobering reminder that the modern
understanding of humanism has been unduly dominated by developments
in Florence. One thinks of the enormous influence of Hans Baron’s “civic
humanism” thesis, based entirely on events and writings dealing with
Florence at the turn of the fifteenth century. More important, because
implicitly claiming a universal scope, is Eugenio Garin’s L’umanesimo ital-
iano – another work of inestimable impact on scholarship – in which
the discussion of Quattrocento humanism revolves almost entirely around
Florence. Subsequently, no other homes of humanism have received the
same magnitude of microstudies of individual figures or intellectual cir-
cles. Not even the papal curia, despite its warm, unflagging hospitality to
humanism from the very beginning of the fifteenth century, occupies as
much space on university bookshelves or digital databases.150 The upshot,
or “revenge,” as Randolph Starn has written, “of Florentine exceptionalism
is to make whatever lies beyond Florence look unexceptional, ordinary, and
routine.”151 And to those used to hearing about the Platonism of Ficino
and Landino, the poetics of divine frenzy, the philological breakthroughs

149 On the reputation of Salutati’s rhetoric, see Ronald G. Witt, Hercules at the Crossroads: The Life,
Works, and Thought of Coluccio Salutati (Durham, NC, 1983), esp. pp. 111–177. On p. 159 Witt
reports the famous detto attributed to Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan, viz. that “a letter of Salutati
was worth a thousand horses.”
150 On the relationship between the papal curia and humanism, see James Hankins, “The Popes
and Humanism,” in Humanism and Platonism, vol. I, pp. 469–494, esp. 470–477; and Hankins,
“Roma caput mundi: Humanism in High Renaissance Rome,” in Humanism and Platonism,
vol. I, pp. 495–507. The main studies on humanism in Rome are D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism;
John W. O’Malley, Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine, and Reform in the
Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 1450–1521 (Durham, NC, 1993); and now Elizabeth McCahill,
Reviving the Eternal City: Rome and the Papal Court, 1420–1447 (Cambridge, Mass., 2013).
151 Randolph Starn, “Afterword: Where is Beyond Florence?,” in Paula Findlen, Michelle M. Fontaine,
and Duane J. Osheim (eds.), Beyond Florence: The Contours of Medieval and Early Modern Italy
(Stanford, 2003), pp. 233–239, at 234.

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168 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
of Poliziano, or about Pico’s attempts at religious, intellectual, and cultural
syncretism, the imitative nature of Roman Ciceronianism must at first
glance seem unexceptional, ordinary, if not downright boring.152 Similarly,
Charles Stinger felt it necessary to explain the seemingly strange absence
of advanced Greek studies in Roman humanism, to account for why
no specific intellectual program or cultural ideology evolved from Greek
wisdom, as happened in Florence with the civic humanists’ rediscovery of
the political and moral values of the Periclean polis and with the Platonic
Academy’s dedication to Neo-Platonic metaphysics and aesthetics.

Despite recognizing that “Latin classicism in Renaissance Rome . . . meant

more than a merely literary revival,” he nevertheless offered a purely reduc-
tive explanation:
Humanism in Rome was in large part a courtier culture, finding its expres-
sion in oratory, in poetry, and in elegant and witty conversation within
the setting of the orti litterari. This placed a premium on refinement of

Regardless of the factual accuracy of this statement, its reasoning neglects

the enormously significant fact that the pursuit of Latin eloquence had
been a – and as the texts of Piccolomini, Biondo, and Facio suggest, the –
driving force of humanism throughout the fifteenth century. Thus Rome
did not represent an aberration from Florence but rather the continuation
of a mainstream tradition. What our sources indicate is that it was the
ideal of Latin eloquence that nourished the souls of humanists all over
Italy and that characterized their efforts outside of Florence (and in it as
well, we must remember) throughout the entire Quattrocento, whereas the
peculiar accomplishments of Laurentian Florence were just that – peculiar
to Laurentian Florence, but not representative of broader trends in Italian
humanism. This is one of the most important messages De hominibus doctis
holds for us.
If Cortesi differentiates humanists according to civic affiliation and intel-
lectual persuasion, he links them in their common reliance on patronage
and in their association with princes.154 In a short digression prompted
by the mention of Cosimo de’ Medici, Alessandro interjects, “I think the

152 For an example of the underestimation of Roman Ciceronianism, see D’Amico, Renaissance
Humanism, pp. 115–143; see also Kenneth Gouwens, “Perceiving the Past: Renaissance Humanism
after the ‘Cognitive Turn,’” The American Historical Review, 103 (1998), pp. 55–82, at 63–64, who
criticizes this view.
153 Stinger, The Renaissance in Rome, pp. 287–288. 154 Cf. Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 25–26.

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The triumph of Cicero 169
princes of that age greatly aided the best minds.” And Paolo concurs:
“You’re right. Their studies were nourished with rewards and came of age,
as it were, in the bosom of princes.”155 Patronage is also emphasized in
the dedicatory letter, where it is the first theme sounded after humanism
itself. Principes like Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici are praised for having
“given such great aid to the humanists’ search for learning that they seemed
themselves to have taken up the protection (patrocinium) of the neglected
disciplines.” As for Lorenzo, “you have increased their glory not only by
supporting the studies of gifted men, but also by spending all of your
free time from affairs of state on the elegant and noble arts.”156 Several
more princes are said in the body of the dialogue to participate directly
in humanism. Three are even portrayed as humanists in their own right.
Two of them, Nicholas V and Pius II, distinguished themselves as such
long before achieving temporal, and in their case spiritual, power, while
the third, Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, was first and foremost
a condottiere.157 Nicholas is also praised for having “supported humanists
with money and honors.”158 Other rulers are lauded just for associating
with great humanists. Thus Cosimo de’ Medici crops up in the section on
Ambrogio Traversari, where their friendship is explained by the fact that
“this great man always had humanists around him, whose company and
conversation helped him, as it were, pleasantly to relax his mind when he
was free from official duties.”159 Similarly, the description of Lorenzo Valla
occasions a cameo of his patron Alfonso of Aragon: “Alfonso enriched his
great and unbelievable virtues with this additional praise, that he was not
only on very close terms with humanists, but that he even ate together with

155 Cortesi, DHD, 128.10–14: “Mea quidem sententia est principes illius aetatis multum summis
ingeniis profuisse. / [Paul.] Est ut dicis: aluntur profecto praemiis haec studia et quasi in principum
sinu pubescunt.”
156 Ibid., 101.11–20: “Quorum studiis principes illius aetatis tantum ad facultatem perquirendae doc-
trinae profuerunt, ut pariter desertarum disciplinarum patrocinium suscepisse viderentur; quo in
genere avus et pater tuus, sapientissimi homines, extiterunt qui, cum florerent omnibus virtutibus,
hac tamen laude ingeniorum excitandorum longe coeteris praestiterunt. Tu vero, huius gloriae
praeclarus amplificator, non modo extollis ingeniosorum hominum studia, sed etiam in maximis
occupationibus omne domesticum tempus ad artes elegantes atque ingenuas confers.”
157 For Nicholas V, see ibid., 130.2–131.2; for Pius II (Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini), 153.5–154.9; for
Malatesta, 152.20–153.4.
158 Ibid., 131.1–2: “ab eo sunt docti homines et opibus aucti et honoribus.”
159 Ibid., 128.6–9: “Carus is fuit Cosmo Medici, nam semper magnus ille vir secum habuit palam
doctos homines quorum in congressu et sermone, cum esset publicis muneribus vacuus, tanquam
in iucundo quodam animi laxamento requiescebat.”
160 Ibid., 144.2–5: “Nam Alphonsus ipse ad summas incredibilesque eius virtutes adiecerat etiam hanc
laudem, ut, non solum hominibus doctis familiarissime uteretur, sed etiam haberet in convictu.”

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170 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Princely patronage was necessary, in Cortesi’s mind, if humanists were to
pursue the proper kind of life for their studies: a contemplative one.161 The
better humanists towards the end of the second period, like Campano,
Gaza, and Platina, tend to be professional literary men who relied on
the favor of popes and cardinals for employment and other support.162
On the other hand, the fame of Giannozzo Manetti, who (despite the
clear preference for the vita contemplativa expressed in his biographical
works) combined humanism with an active political life, is said to be
“dimmer” than that of other humanists; he is held up as an example that
“sure ability in one activity is worth more for fame and reputation than
combining several different activities in which one is not the best.”163 Worse
than pursuing one’s own political career is involving oneself in political
intrigue. Alessandro cites Cola Montano, whose republican rabble-rousing
led to the murder of Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan (1476) and thus
to his own “sad end,” as an example that “nothing is more unsuitable
than turning literature, which is nourished by leisure and which requires
free time for practice, to ruinous civil discord.”164 Cortesi’s opposition to
political involvement was undoubtedly shaped by the harsh suppression of
Pomponio Leto’s Academy in 1468 in response to its supposed involvement
in a coup against Paul II.165 Even more so than our first three authors,
who elicited surprise by ignoring the purported political dimension of
humanism that is so familiar to us, Cortesi, like Manetti, belies any essential
link between humanism and civic or republican engagement.
If political involvement was off limits to humanists, so was petty com-
petition with one another for popular fame. Citing the fate of Andrea
Contrario and Francesco Griffolini, who wished each other dead rather
than countenance the other’s reputation (and who, incredibly, each died in
the manner desired by the other), Antonio complains that some humanists
161 Cf. Ferraù, “Introduzione,” pp. 37–38.
162 This was a distinctive mark of Roman curial humanism. See D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism,
pp. 3–37. For the mechanisms of patronage and the duties and rewards of curial officials, see
Partner, The Pope’s Men.
163 Cortesi, DHD, 134.3–6: “Ex quo profecto intelligi potest plus valere ad famam et celebritatem
nominis unius simplicis generis virtutem absolutam quam multa annexa genera virtutum non per-
fectarum.” It is worth noting that this passage undermines Burckhardt’s notion of the “Renaissance
164 Ibid., 175.7–12: “tristem exitum habuit. / [Alex.] . . . Nihil est enim, ut opinor, incongruentius quam
litteras, quae aluntur ocio et usui commodoque parantur, ad perniciem hominum seditionemque
convertere.” On Cola Montano, professor of Latin in Milan and an early promoter of the printing
press, see Paolo Orvieto, “Capponi, Nicola, detto Cola Montano,” in DBI, vol. XIX (1976),
pp. 83–86.
165 Cf. Anthony F. D’Elia, A Sudden Terror: The Plot to Murder the Pope in Renaissance Rome
(Cambridge, Mass., 2009).

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The triumph of Cicero 171
have “turned competition, which is otherwise quite useful, to injury, and
everywhere the whole vulgar mob unanimously rushes to judgment.”166
Proper competition, instead, is dignified and aimed at winning the approval
of a learned judge.167
A quiet, contemplative life of literary study was attended by true glory
and virtue, as opposed to the ostensible virtue of noble birth or military
accomplishments. At last, one of our authors chants the tune familiar
from the humanist educational treatises and the letters of Guarino. It is
surprising that we must wait until the end of the fifteenth century for this
to be the case. When describing Guarino’s school Cortesi writes:

His house was like a workshop of the bonae artes. And although in those
days grave and everlasting war raged in Italy, and the state of affairs was such
that just about all young men thought that greater glory was to be sought in
war rather than in learning, Guarino never interrupted his teaching efforts.
His house was full of the noblest youths who had entrusted themselves
to his instruction. Everyday they discussed the meaning of texts, practiced
speaking, and were thoroughly educated in Greek and Latin.168

To emphasize the virtue of this purely rhetorical education over that of

military honor or of the high birth of his students, Antonio then describes
Guarino’s school as “a kind of training ground in the most honorable arts
(honestissimarum artium).”169 And later in the dialogue, Antonio cites Cam-
pano, who supposedly grew up an impoverished shepherd, as an example
of “how little an obscure birth hinders the attainment of virtue” – virtue
which he acquired through his “turn to the more serious arts.”170
Nevertheless, virtue did not grace all humanists, as we saw above in
the rabble-rouser Cola Montano and the dishonorable competitors Andrea
Contrario and Francesco Griffolini. Another example of vicious humanism
comes in the person of Francesco Filelfo, here criticized for his greed:

166 Cortesi, DHD, 173.13–15: “Utilissimum certamen convertunt ad iniuriam atque omnis undique
concurrit ad iudicandum consentiens indoctorum turba.”
167 As in the case of Niccolò Valla, who desired only the approval of Theodore Gaza. See ibid., 170.3–5.
168 Ibid., 122.4–12 (incorrectly labeled as 3–11): “huius domus quasi officina quaedam fuit bonarum
artium. Nam, cum illis temporibus diuturno gravissimoque bello Italia flagraret et is esset rerum
status ut nemo fere adolescens non sibi potius gloriam bello quam doctrina quaerendam putarit,
nunquam sunt ab eo instituendi ac docendi studia intermissa. Erat referta domus nobilissimis
adolescentibus qui se in eius disciplinam tradiderant: quotidie et commentabantur et declamabant
ac ita diligenter Graecis Latinisque litteris erudiebantur.”
169 Ibid., 122.15 (incorrectly labeled as 14): “tanquam ex ludo quodam honestissimarum artium.”
170 Ibid., 158.6–15: “Is enim meo iudicio coeteris exemplo esse potest quam parum obsit ad virtutem
comparandam obscuro loco nasci . . . gravioribus artibus applicaretur.” Ferraù (ibid., p. 158, n. 64)
considers the story of Campano’s youth apocryphal.

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172 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
He was an utterly mercenary writer, one who preferred money to literary
fame. For it is common knowledge that there was no Italian prince of his
age whom he did not visit, none to whom he did not pay compliments with
his writings, in order to dig money out of him.171
There is thus a fine line between relying on princes for patronage and
being a hired pen: on one side lies the virtuous pursuit of honorable praise,
reputation, and remuneration, on the other base economic calculation. Be
that as it may, Alessandro defends Filelfo: “To me he seems wise for having
procured enrichment with literature, especially since eloquence tends to
become more hateful and suspicious the greater it is.”172 This defense makes
us wonder whether the virtue of a Campano or a Gaza was the rule among
humanists or the exception.
Like Giannozzo Manetti, Paolo Cortesi envisions a hierarchy within
humanism based on adherence to a set of values. The two agree that the
yardstick is the contemplative life. Cortesi goes further, though, positing
standards of civil discourse, aloofness from the uneducated, and honorable
commerce with patrons. His ideal is a leisured existence, detached from
petty, mundane concerns, devoted to eloquent expression and the glory it
This ideal can be brought into better perspective by considering the
relationship of Cortesi’s homines docti to their model, the ancient oratores
and especially Cicero. As has been emphasized many times, eloquence is
a fraught endeavor for Cortesi’s humanists, simultaneously bringing them
closer to the ancients but, so long as true eloquence remained out of reach,
highlighting the distance between them. The divide between ancients and
moderns, however, is deeper and wider than Cortesi intimates, for the
milieu of the humanists was markedly different from that of the orators
of Cicero’s time. Most importantly, ancient Roman orators were first and
foremost just that – orators. Theirs was an essentially spoken art,173 whereas
humanists, except when performing their poetry or delivering orations –
genres which all our authors depict as minor – concentrated mostly on
written works. Therefore the ancient orators’ preparation included delivery
and memory in addition to the precepts of invention, arrangement, and

171 Ibid., 150.3–7: “Sed erat vendibilis sane scriptor et is qui opes quam scribendi laudem consequi
malebat. Constat enim neminem principum illis temporibus in Italia fuisse, quin adierit, quin
cum scriptis salutaverit, ut ex his pecuniam erueret.”
172 Ibid., 151.1–3: “Mihi vero ille . . . hoc facto sapiens videtur, qui ex litteris divitias quaesierit, propterea
quod eloquentia, quo maior est, eo hominibus invisior ac suspectior.”
173 See Cicero, Brutus, xxviii.108, where he makes a neat distinction between orators and “men of
letters” (studiosi litterarum). Another nice distinction between writers and true orators is found
at lxxvii.267, with regard to “Marcus Bibulus, whose activity in writing, and writing carefully, is
surprising, since he was no orator” (tr. Hendrickson).

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The triumph of Cicero 173
style, while the humanists focused on the latter.174 Even written works
were meant to be read aloud in antiquity and were thus also more oriented
towards performance than those of humanists, which were intended for
silent reading (a partial cause, one imagines, for the slow development of
the ancient numerus bemoaned by Cortesi’s characters).175
Audiences were also different. Obviously both groups, since highly edu-
cated, aimed for the approval of their learned peers. Ancient orators, how-
ever, also had to be approved by the common people. Furthermore, Cicero
argues that the ignorant multitude and the expert will agree in identifying
good and bad orators, the only difference between them being that the
former will know that an oration was good or bad, the latter also why.176
This is the opposite of Cortesi’s position that the “vulgar mob” is not a
good judge and thus that humanists should shun its fickle praise.
Another important difference is that ancient Roman orators were
emphatically political operators, effective oratory being necessary for high
advancement in the cursus honorum. Cortesi’s humanists, on the other
hand, had for the most part no political power; their eloquence was mainly
useful (when its use was considered) for a kind of career advancement
that, while unavoidably intermingled with political figures (such as their
patrons or civic employers), was almost always disconnected from direct
political activity. Reconsiderations of the Baron thesis have revealed a simi-
lar distance from ideological engagement and direct political participation
even in Florentine humanism. In the case of the pivotal figure of Leonardo
Bruni, James Hankins has argued that he was “not the fiery republican
ideologue and populist of Hans Baron’s imagination.” Indeed, his “famous
orations” were
not intended to reflect either historical reality or Bruni’s own political con-
victions. Their primary purpose was to serve as propaganda vehicles, and
their primary audience was foreign elites.177

Similarly, but pulling the levers of power even less directly themselves,
curialists in Rome were instrumental in crafting a new image of papal

174 Cortesi does, however, pay attention to both of these pillars of ancient oratory in relation to
humanist orations. See, e.g., Cortesi, DHD, 183.6–7, where Bernardo Giustinian is said to use
the excellence of his delivery to cover up for his sub-par Latin, and 180.6–11, where Bartholomeo
Lampridio is mocked for his terrible memory and subsequent oratorical flops. The performative
aspect of Latin received greater stress in Rome in the period directly following Cortesi’s departure
from the city, roughly 1500–1530. See Benedetti, Ex perfecta antiquorum eloquentia.
175 See Paul Saenger, Space between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford, 1997).
176 See Cicero, Brutus, xlix.184–liv.200.
177 See Hankins (ed.), Renaissance Civic Humanism, pp. 11–12, and the essays by Hankins, Mikael
Hörnqvist, and John Najemy. Quotation at p. 12.

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174 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
hegemony through their letters, orations, diplomacy at Church councils,
and transformation of the liturgy.178 Yet it is not for these works and services
that they gained distinction as humanists in Cortesi’s world, but rather for
their contribution to the revival of Latin eloquence. And their audience,
far from being composed of foreign elites or domestic politicos, was made
up of other humanists.
This brings us to a final distinguishing characteristic of the Renaissance
milieu: if for ancient orators eloquence was in the service of a career,
usually political, for humanists like Cortesi a career in a chancery, at the
curia, or as a personal secretary was ideally in the service of eloquence.
Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine have argued in the opposite direction in
From Humanism to the Humanities, assuming that there was nothing “in
it,” so to speak, for humanists beyond a professional opportunity. Thus
with regard to female humanists, to whom no career path was open, they
conclude that all humanist learning could be was a hollow “end in itself,
like fine needlepoint or the ability to perform ably on lute or virginals.”179
In fact, Cortesi does see humanism primarily as an end in itself – but
a glorious, not a hollow one. Of course, he also sees it as a way to get
his bread buttered. Humanists naturally sought advancement, patronage,
even high rank. And why not? No matter how much of the monastic ideal
the humanists adopted, they could not achieve glory, much less feed their
stomachs, by ostensibly humbling their station. Humanists enunciated no
ideal of holy poverty; there was no institutional apparatus (of Orders,
cloisters, or monasteries) to support all but the desert hermit humanists
who rejected even its modest comfort; and there was no equivalent servus
servorum humanitatis. Cortesi wrote all of his works with preferment in
mind, and he penned his own masterpiece, De cardinalatu, as a means to
winning a red hat for himself. But these were not his paramount goals, nor
did he present them as the goals of (or as criteria for judging) the human-
ists in his intellectual and cultural community. What Cortesi’s humanists
did seek, as Christopher Celenza has argued for humanism in general,
was distinction in the world of Latin letters.180 And what Cortesi sought
personally was to be recognized as the Cicero of his generation. In giv-
ing voice to the goals and ideals of Italian humanists towards the end of
the fifteenth century, Cortesi betrays none of the propaganda, advertising,

178 Hankins, “The Popes and Humanism,” pp. 478–484; O’Malley, Praise and Blame.
179 Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities, p. 56.
180 See Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance, pp. 115–133, esp. 119, where Celenza gives his argument
in a nutshell: “esteem and honor depended mostly on what their fellow intellectuals thought of
their literary effort.”

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The triumph of Cicero 175
or cynicism that Grafton and Jardine identified in humanist discourse.
Nor do I think it sensible, much less necessary, to read Cortesi cynically.
De hominibus doctis is not an attempt to sell humanism to outsiders but
a declaration of preeminence to other members of the same community.
Cortesi is announcing, “I am the best of us, recognize my excellence,”
not “I have something that you need, and you can buy it from me.” If
we want to understand what was “in it” for humanists, to understand
why they chose to participate in the humanist community as opposed to
another, why they evince rapture at a well-formulated period and could
wish their stylistic enemies dead, in short, why they make an ideal of Latin
eloquence, we must resist the temptation to reduce their behavior entirely
to the lowest common denominator of economic and political advantage.
We must learn to listen – not naı̈vely but intelligently and with searching
sympathy – when they tell us. What Cortesi tells us is that, as opposed
to Cicero’s oratores, for whom eloquence was a means to an end, for the
homines docti of the Italian Renaissance, eloquence was the end.

Culture and barbarism

Eloquence as an end in itself might seem a mere, or worse a rarefied,
aesthetic goal, one whose realization, while noteworthy, remains at the
periphery and not at the center of civilization. For Cortesi, however, reviv-
ing ancient eloquence meant restoring the hallmark of Roman culture in
his own times, culture understood in its original, restricted, magnificent
sense as the cultivation and refinement of human life. Eloquence was the
gateway to creative flourishing, the vehicle for transcending the supposed
barbarism of the Middle Ages and restoring the splendor of antiquity.
One way to understand the importance claimed for eloquence is to take
notice of “the reasons for which the studia eloquentiae were utterly removed
from Italy”181 in the first place. Using an historical paradigm made popular
by Biondo Flavio, Antonio explains:182

181 Cortesi, DHD, 108.10–11: “hae causae quae eloquentiae studia funditus ex Italia sustulerunt.”
182 Ferraù, “Introduzione,” p. 23, believes that Bruni is the source for Cortesi. Yet Cortesi does not
attribute the decline of language to the Romans’ loss of liberty under the emperors, as does
Bruni; and for Bruni the barbarian invasions are not the first strike against Roman culture but the
deathblow. Biondo’s paradigm in the Decades seems to fit better. See Angelo Mazzocco, “Decline
and Rebirth in Bruni and Biondo,” in Paolo Brezzi and Maristella de Panizza Lorch (eds.),
Umanesimo a Roma nel Quattrocento (Rome, 1984), pp. 249–266. Consider also the description
and discussion of Biondo’s view of the vernacular as a corruption of Latin resulting from the
barbarian invasions in Mazzocco, Linguistic Theories, ch. 1 and esp. p. 17. For Bruni’s view, see his
Vite di Dante e del Petrarca, pp. 554–555.

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176 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
First, the transfer of the imperial seat from Italy to Greece seems to me to
have contributed most to the expulsion of eloquence. Thereafter the entrance
to Italy was left open to barbarian cruelty, and the means of Roman rule
collapsed. The barbarian nations, angry at their long servitude and eager to
wipe out the Roman name, fell upon Italy like on easy prey. Great calamities
ensued: citizens were driven from their homes; savage peoples were mixed
into our race; cities were overthrown; and the commonwealth, once so
prosperous, perished. These peoples, however, were not content with their
spoils, but kept possession of Italy for about one thousand years, shaking
it with the bitterest violence. Hence our intermixing with the barbarians;
hence the childish, polluted manner so many have of speaking Latin; hence
the destruction and burning of an infinite abundance of books. For these
reasons budding minds were robbed of all ability and, submerged deep in
barbarism, became enfeebled.183

Constantine’s translatio imperii from Rome to Constantinople weakened

Italy, leaving it vulnerable to attack.184 The Gothic invasions wiped out
what was left of Roman administration, destroyed Italy’s well-being, and
uprooted Roman culture, which was connected to linguistic purity and
was represented above all by books. An age of stultifying barbarism began.
Cortesi envisions humanism as the inverse of this barbarous removal
of cultivated eloquence from Italy: a translatio studii in which the literary
culture of ancient Rome returns after one thousand years to its modern
counterpart. The preservers and carriers of this culture are learned Byzan-
tines like Chrysoloras, George of Trebizond, Cardinal Bessarion, and John
Argyropoulos, who pass on their knowledge of the ars to their Italian
protégés.185 As we saw above, Chrysoloras sparked humanist eloquence by

183 Cortesi, DHD, 108.12–109.1: “Ac primum mihi quidem videtur translatio illa domicilii imperii
Romani ex Italia in Thraciam non minimam attulisse eloquentiae iacturam; qua profecto emigra-
tione et aditus Italiae patuerunt barbaricae nationes, odio diuturnae servitutis ac delendi nominis
Romani cupiditate, in Italiam tamquam ad certam praedam confluxerunt; ex quo tantae calamitates
sequutae sunt ut cives suis sedibus pellerentur, immanes gentes in nostrum genus infunderentur
et civitates everterentur et fortunatissima quondam respublica dilaberetur. Nec vero solum hae
nationes una tantum praeda contentae fuerunt, sed etiam mille prope annorum Italiae posses-
sionem acerbissima vexatione tenuerunt. Hinc colligatio affinitatis cum barbaris, hinc multis
involucris inquinata Latine loquendi consuetudo, hinc direpta atque exusta infinita librorum
copia. Quibus rebus factum est ut nascentia ingenia omni ope destituta et penitus in barbariem
immersa languerint.”
184 On the origin of the notion that Constantine’s translatio imperii caused Rome’s decline, see
Patricia Osmond de Martino, “The ‘Idea of Constantinople’: A Prolegomenon to Further Study,”
Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques, 15:2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 323–336.
185 For an overview of the role played by Byzantines in the development of Italian humanism, see Deno
J. Geanakoplos, “Italian Humanism and Byzantine Émigré Scholars,” in Rabil (ed.), Renaissance
Humanism, vol. II, pp. 350–381.

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The triumph of Cicero 177
bringing his teaching “to Italy from beyond the sea,” and George of Trebi-
zond used his knowledge of Aristotelian rhetoric to increase the diffusion
of the oratorium artificium in Italy. The other Byzantines are also presented
as classroom teachers (Gaza, Argyropoulos) or informal points of reference
for Italians seeking to increase their eloquence (Gaza, Bessarion). This cul-
tural transfer began with the Ottoman threat to Byzantium at the turn of
the fifteenth century.186 Then “the Greeks (Graeci) brought many things
to Italy, and likewise the Italians (nostri) went to Constantinople to study
as if to a kind of home of learning (domus doctrinae).”187 When the domus
doctrinae was conquered, however, “Latin letters received a deep wound,”
the only consolation being that “more Byzantine scholars flooded into Italy
then ever before.”188
It is unclear where exactly Byzantine expertise comes from. Since Cicero
in his Brutus cites the Greeks as the source of ancient Roman eloquence,
which moved from East to West along with philosophy in the first trans-
latio studii, perhaps Cortesi sees the Greeks as perpetually eloquent and
learned, ever able throughout the ages to pass on their art to others. On
the other hand, he might well perceive the Byzantines as the inheritors
of a continuous Roman cultural tradition dating to the days of Constan-
tine’s translatio imperii, with the culture of the old empire following the
capital across the sea to the Nova Roma at Byzantium. Such would be in
accord with Cortesi’s claim that eloquence was “removed” and “expelled”
from Italy, not destroyed, in the wake of the translatio imperii. Cortesi also
would have known that the Byzantines considered themselves, correctly, to
be Romans and called themselves such (Rhomaioi), although this identifi-
cation was generally rejected in the Latin West.189 But no matter whether
Constantinople represented a true home or simply a place of exile for
Roman culture, it was the source from which humanist eloquence flowed.
Now it is clear why Cortesi considers the Byzantine émigrés to be neither
barbari nor externi but rather to belong to nostri (although in discussing
the conquest of Constantinople he explicitly calls them Graeci). When

186 For the role of the Turks, see Cortesi, DHD, 131.3–10.
187 Ibid., 131.13–15: “a Graecis multa in Italiam importarentur et nostri item studiorum causam
Bisantium tanquam ad domum quandam doctrinae proficiscerentur.”
188 Ibid., 131.3–4: “magnum vulnus res Latinae ex direptione Bisantii”; 132.3–4: “plures post importu-
nam illam cladem in Italiam confluxisse quam unquam antea.” Argyropoulos is said explicitly to
have come to Italy as a refugee (164.3–4: “is, cum bello Bisantino domo pulsus in Italiam venisset,
multos docuit”).
189 On the Roman identity of what is commonly called the Byzantine empire, see Anthony Kaldellis,
Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformation of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical
Tradition (Cambridge, 2007).

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178 Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror
Chrysoloras began his teaching, he was reinstating the common culture
that linked the descendents of the Western and Eastern Romans of late
antiquity. To the extent that they were the modern carriers of a shared
past, these Graeci were as much nostri as native-born Italians. The sharply
qualified praise of a barbarus like Janus Pannonius also makes more sense
now, as does the prejudice against his people as “less receptive to the Muses.”
If it was northern European peoples who expelled eloquence from Italy in
the first place, why should they be receptive to it now that the Italians were
busy putting their shattered culture back together? Such would seem to be
the thought process of Alessandro.190
Cortesi’s vision of a translatio studii emphasizes continuity with the
ancient past, linking the cultural greatness of ancient Rome and its ora-
tores to modern Rome and its homines docti through a common, time-
less pursuit. Significantly, Cortesi nowhere uses the metaphor of rebirth,
of renaissance, to describe humanism, and thus although his historical
paradigm announces decline it does not imply death. Rather, the ancient
studia eloquentiae had moved away, or fallen asleep, or been taken prisoner,
or lost their voice, or been abandoned in the dark; and now they are being
saved from ruin, wakened from sleep, freed from barbarism, or returned
to light by the humanists.191 This may seem like hair-splitting, but if we
are to take Cortesi on his own terms and not on those to which we have
become accustomed, we should recognize that, as far as he was concerned,
humanists were not reanimating something that had utterly passed out of
existence, as is implied in the metaphor of death and rebirth – a main-
stay of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century descriptions of the visual arts.192
Rather, they were restoring an ancient tradition that had been lost for
a thousand years to them but which had enjoyed continuous thriving in
the New Rome of Byzantium. Now the Eastern Romans, in the face of
the Ottoman conquest, were returning to Italy, the ancient center of the
imperium, bringing its culture, its eloquence, back with them. Over the

190 Distaste for the barbari was a hallmark of the historical Alessandro Farnese. See Léon Dorez, La
Cour du Pape Paul III, 2 vols. (Paris, 1932), vol. I, p. 23.
191 For the metaphor of waking eloquence from sleep, see Cortesi, DHD, 103.22–23; for freedom
from barbarism, 101.8–10; for the return to light from darkness, 101.7–8; for muteness, see above,
note 37; for abandonment, 101.12–13; for being saved from ruin, 103.12.
192 See Salvatore Settis, “Art History and Criticism,” in Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and
Salvatore Settis (eds.), The Classical Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 2010), pp. 78–83, esp. 80;
and Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (New York, 1969/1972), ch. 1:
“‘Renaissance’ – Self-Definition or Self-Deception.” Cf. also Garin, Rinascite e rivoluzioni, pp. 5–
47, and esp. 39–47, where Garin distinguishes between the humanist revolutionary dream of
renovatio, “che . . . vuole cambiare il mondo” (p. 41), and the Vasarian sense of rinascita as a
“momento di un ciclo naturale” (p. 46).

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The triumph of Cicero 179
course of the fifteenth century Rome gained in importance, once again
becoming, as Cortesi presents it, the center of humanistic culture. And
now, in Cortesi and his generation, Rome might have fully regained its
oratores, evidence for which is provided by De hominibus doctis itself.
It has been argued that the linguistic restoration of High Renaissance
Rome was linked, at least on a subconscious level, to a new imperial vision
of the papacy, and that the linguistic orthodoxy required by Ciceronianism
doubled as a tool of social and religious control.193 It is thus tempting to
link Cortesi’s modern translatio studii with yet another translatio imperii,
but Cortesi himself does not do so. There is not one hint in the dialogue
that the cultural restoration of ancient Rome is connected to its political
or military restoration, much less that the city has regained its status as
the seat of a world empire, political or cultural. De hominibus doctis is
not the Elegantiae, the Latin style manual in which half a century earlier
Lorenzo Valla had programmatically and somewhat drunkenly proclaimed,
romanum imperium ibi esse, ubi romana lingua dominatur (“The Roman
Empire exists where the Roman language holds sway”).194 It is possible that
the connection between language and power was so obvious to Cortesi as
to need neither elaboration nor even a wink. Yet a celebration of papal
imperialism does not fit very well with a dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Then again, neither does the dialogue’s glorification of Roman humanism
at the expense of Florentine developments.
Thankfully, if we are searching for a deeper significance to De hominibus
doctis, there is no need to speculate. For Cortesi clearly infuses humanism
with a transcendent cultural meaning, one related not to military power or
lordship – whose glory he rejects in no uncertain terms in the description
of Guarino’s school – but to the fulfillment of man’s highest creative
potential. If the effect of the Gothic invasions was that “budding minds
were robbed of all ability and, submerged deep in barbarism, became