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§ 64. Progress and Patrons of Classical Studies in the 15th Century.

The enthusiasm for classical studies and the monuments of antiquity reached its high pitch in Italy in the middle and latter half of the 15th century. Many distinguished classical students appeared, none of whom, however, approached in literary eminence the three Italian literati of the preceding century. Admirable as was their zeal in promoting an acquaintance with the writers of Greece and Rome, they were in danger of becoming mere pedants and imitators of the past. The whole field of ancient literature was searched, poetry and philosophy, letters and works of geography and history. Italy seemed to be bent on setting aside all other studies for the ancient classics. Cicero was taken as the supreme model of style, and his age was referred to as "that immortal and almost heavenly age."10071007    Burckhardt-Geiger, I. 277.

The services of the Italian Humanists in reviving an interest in ancient literature and philosophy were, however, quite enough to give distinction to their era, though their own writings have ceased to be read. One new feature of abiding significance was developed in the 15th century, the science of literary and historical criticism. This was opened by Salutato, d. 1406, who contended that Seneca could not have been the author of the tragedies ascribed to him, and culminated in Laurentius Valla and the doubts that scholar cast upon the authorship of the Apostles’ Creed and the Donation of Constantine. The Fall of Constantinople in 1453, with which the middle of the century was signalized, cannot be regarded as more than an incident in the history of the spread of Greek letters in the West, which would have been accomplished had the city remained under the Greek emperors.

To the discovery and copying of manuscripts, led by such men as Poggio or the monk Nicolas of Treves, who in 1429 brought to Rome 12 hitherto unpublished comedies of Plautus, were added the foundation of princely libraries in Florence, Rome, Urbino and other cities. Numerous were the translations of Greek authors made into Latin, and more numerous the translations from both languages into Italian. By the recovery of a lost or half-forgotten literature, the Italian Renaissance laid the modern world under a heavy debt. But in its restless literary activity, it went still further, imitating the literary forms received from antiquity. Orations became a marked feature of the time, pompous and stately. The envoys of princes were called orators and receptions, given to such envoys, were opened with classical addresses. Orations were also delivered at the reception of relics, at funerals and—the epithalamials—and even at the consecration of bishops. At a betrothal, Filelfo opened his address with the words, "Aristotle, the peripatetic teacher." The orations of this Latinist, most eminent in his day, are pronounced by Geiger a disgusting mixture of classic and biblical quotations.10081008    I. 261 sq. Not seldom these ornate productions were extended to two or three hours. Pius II.’s fame for oratory helped him to the papal throne.

All forms of classic poetry were revived—from the epic to the epigram, from tragedy to satire. Petrarca’s Africa, an epic on Scipio, and Boccaccio’s Theseid led the way. Attempts were even made to continue or restore ancient literary works. Maffeo Vegio, under Martin V., composed a 13th book of Virgil, Bruni restored the second decade of Livy. The poets not only revived the ancient mythologies but peopled Italy with new gods and nymphs. Especially active were they in celebrating the glories of the powerful men of their age, princes and popes. A Borgiad was dedicated to Alexander VI., a Borsead to Borso, duke of Este, a Sforzias to one of the viconti of Milan and the Laurentias to Lorenzo de’ Medici. The most offensive panegyric of all was the poetical effusion of Ercole Strozzi at the death of Caesar Borgia. In this laudation, Roma is represented as having placed her hopes in the Borgias, Calixtus III. and Alexander VI., and last of all in Caesar, whose deeds are then glorified.

In historic composition also, a new chapter was opened. The annals of cities and the careers of individuals were studied and written down. The histories of Florence, first in Latin by Lionardo Bruni and then down to 1362 by the brothers Villani, who wrote in Italian, and then by Poggio to 1455, were followed by other histories down to the valuable Diaries of Rome by Infessura and Burchard, the History of Venice, 1487–1513, by Bembo, and the works of Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who wrote in Italian. In 1463, Flavio Biondo compiled his encyclopaedic work in three parts on the history, customs, topography and monuments of Rome and Italy, Roma instaurata, Roma triumphans and Italia illustrata. Lionardo Bruni wrote Lives of Cicero and Aristotle in Latin and of Dante and Petrarca in Italian. The passion for composition was displayed in the despatches of Venetian, Mantuan and other ambassadors at the courts of Rome or Este and by the elaborate letters, which were in reality finished essays, for the most part written in Latin and introducing comments on books and matters of literary interest, by Politian, Bembo and others, a form of writing revived by Petrarca. The zeal for Latin culture also found exhibition in the habit of giving to children ancient names, such as Agamemnon and Achilles, Atalanta and Pentesilea. A painter called his daughter Minerva and his son Apelles. The habit also took root of assuming Latin names. A Sanseverino, howbeit of illegitimate birth, proudly called himself Julius Pomponius Laetus. This custom extended to Germany, where Schwarzerd gave up his original German patronymic for Melanchthon, Hausschein for Oecolampadius, Reuchlin for Capnio, Buchmann for Bibliander; Hutten, Luther, Zwingli, who were more patriotic, adhered to their vernacular names. Pedants adopted a more serious change when they paganized sacred terms and substituted mythological for Christian ideas. The saints were called dii and deae; their statues, simulacra sancta deorum; holy images of the gods, Peter and Paul, dii titulares Romae or S. Romulus and S. Remus; the nuns, vestales virgines; heaven, Olympus; cardinals, augurs, and the College of Cardinals, Senatus sacer; the pope, pontifex maximus, and his thunders, dirae; the tiara, infula Romulea; and God, Jupiter optimus Maximus!10091009    Burckhardt-Geiger, I. 274; Symonds, II. 396 sqq. Erasmus protested against such absurd pedantry as characterizing Humanism in its dotage. Another sign of the cult of the ancients was the imitation of Roman burial usages even in the churches. At Bruni’s death in 1443, the priors of Florence decreed him a public, funeral "after the manner of the ancients." Before the laying-away of his body in S. Croce, Manetti pronounced a funeral oration and placed the crown of laurel on the deceased author’s head.

The high veneration of antiquity was also shown in the regard which cities and individuals paid to the relics of classical writers. Padua thought she had the genuine bones of Livy, and Alfonso of Naples considered himself happy in securing one of the arms of the dead historian. Naples gloried in the real or supposed tomb of Virgil. Parma boasted of the bones of Cassius. Como claimed both the Plinies, but Verona proved that the elder belonged to it. Alfonso of Naples, as he was crossing over the Abruzzi, saluted Sulmona, the birthplace of Ovid.

The larger Italian towns were not without Latin schools. Among the renowned teachers were Vittorino da Feltre, whom Gonzaga of Mantua called to his court, and Guarino of Verona. Children of princes from abroad went to Mantua to sit at the feet of Feltre, who also gave instruction to as many as 70 poor and talented children at a time. Latin authors were committed to memory and translated by the pupils, and mathematics and philosophy were taught. To his literary curriculum Feltre added gymnastic exercises and set his pupils a good example by his chastity and temperance. He was represented as a pelican which nourishes her young with her own blood. Pastor, who calls this teacher the greatest Italian pedagogue of the Renaissance period, is careful to notice that he had mass said every morning before beginning the sessions of the day.

The Humanists were fortunate in securing the encouragement of the rich and powerful. Literature has never had more liberal and intelligent patrons than it had in Italy in the 15th century. The munificence of Maecenas was equalled and surpassed by Cosimo and Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence and Nicolas V. in Rome. Other cities had their literary benefactors, but some of these were most noted for combining profligacy with their real or affected interest in literary culture. Humanists were in demand. Popes needed secretaries, and princes courted orators and poets who could conduct a polished correspondence, write addresses, compose odes for festive occasions and celebrate their deeds. Lionardo Bruni, Valla, Bembo, Sadoleto and other Humanists were secretaries or annotators at the papal court under Nicolas V. and his successors.

Cosimo de’ Medici, d. 1464, the most munificent promoter of arts and letters that Europe had seen for more than a thousand years, was the richest banker of the republic of Florence, scholarly, well-read and, from taste and ambition, deeply interested in literature. We have already met him at Constance during the council. He travelled extensively in France and Germany and ruled Florence, after a temporary exile, as a republican merchant-prince, for 30 years. He encouraged scholars by gifts of money and provided for the purchase of manuscripts, without assuming the air of condescension which spoils the generosity of the gift, but with a feeling of respect for superior merit. His literary minister, Nicolo de’ Niccoli, 1364–1437, was a centre of attraction to literary men in Florence and collected and, in great part, copied 800 codices. Under his auspices, Poggio searched some of the South German convents and found at St. Gall the first complete Quintilian. Niccoli’s library, through Cosimo’s mediation, was given to S. Marco, and forms a part of the Medicean library. With the same enlightened liberality, Cosimo also encouraged the fine arts. He was a great admirer of the saintly painter, Fra Angelico, whom he ordered to paint the history of the crucifixion on one of the walls of the chapter-house of S. Marco. Among the scholars protected in Florence under Cosimo’s administration were the Platonist Ficino, Lionardo Bruni and Poggio. During the last year of his life, Cosimo had read to him Aristotle’s Ethics and Ficino’s translation of Plato’s The Highest Good. He also contributed to churches and convents, and by the erection of stately buildings turned Florence into the Italian Athens.

Cosimo’s grandson and worthy successor, Lorenzo de’ Medici, d. 1492, was well educated in Latin and Greek by Landino, Argyropulos and Ficino. He was a man of polite culture and himself no mean poet, whose songs were sung on the streets of Florence. His family life was reputable. He liked to play with his children and was very fond of his son Giovanni, afterwards Leo X. Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola were among the ornaments of his court. By his lavish expenditures he brought himself and the republic to the brink of bankruptcy in 1490.

Federigo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino, d. 1482, and Alfonso of Naples also deserve special mention as patrons of learning. Federigo, a pupil of Vittorino da Feltre, was a scholar and an admirer of patristic as well as classical learning. He also cultivated a taste for music, painting and architecture, employed 30 and 40 copyists at a time, and founded, at an expense of 40,000 ducats, a library which, in 1657, was incorporated in the Vatican.

Alfonso was the special patron of the skeptical Laurentius Valla and the licentious Beccadelli, 1394–1471, and also had at his court the Greek scholars, George of Trebizond and the younger Chrysoloras. He listened with delight to literary, philosophical and theological lectures and disputes, which were held in his library. He paid large sums for literary work, giving Beccadelli 1000 gold guldens for his Hermaphrodita, and Fazio, in addition to his yearly stipend of 500 guldens, 1,500 guldens for his Historia Alphonsi. When he took Manetti to be his secretary, he is reported to have said he would be willing to divide his last crust with scholars.

With Nicolas V., 1447–1455, Humanism triumphed at the centre of the Roman Church. He was the first and best pope of the Renaissance and its most liberal supporter. However, Humanism never struck as deep root in Rome as it did in Florence. It was always more or less of an exotic in the papal city.10101010    Gregorovius, VII, 539; Symonds, Rev. of Learning, II. 215. Nicolas caught the spirit of the Renaissance in Florence, where he served as private tutor. For 20 years he acted as the secretary of Cardinal Niccolo Abergati, and travelled in France, England, Burgundy, Germany and Northern Italy. On these journeys he collected rare books, among which were Lactantius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Irenaeus, 12 epistles of Ignatius and an epistle of Polycarp. Many manuscripts he copied with his own hand, and he helped to arrange the books Cosimo collected. His pontificate was a golden era for architects and authors. With the enormous sums which the year of Jubilee, 1450, brought to Rome, he was able to carry out his double passion for architecture and literature. In the bank of the Medici alone, 100,000 florins were deposited to the account of the papacy. Nicolas gave worthy scholars employment as transcribers, translators or secretaries, but he made them work night and day. He sent agents to all parts of Italy and to other countries, even to Russia and England, in search of rare books, and had them copied on parchment and luxuriously bound and clasped with silver clasps. He thus collected the works of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Appian, Philo Judaeus, and the Greek Fathers, Eusebius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Cyril and Dionysius the Areopagite. He kindled a feverish enthusiasm for the translation of Greek authors, and was determined to enrich the West with versions of all the surviving monuments of Hellenic literature. As Symonds puts it, Rome became a factory of translations from Greek into Latin. Nicolas paid to Valla 500 scudi for a Latin version of Thucydides and to Guarino 1,500 for his translation of Strabo. He presented to Nicolas Perotti for his translation of Polybius a purse of 500 new papal ducats,—a ducat being the equivalent of 12 francs,—with the remark that the sum was not equal to the author’s merits. He offered 5,000 ducats for the discovery of the Hebrew Matthew and 10,000 gold gulden for a translation of Homer, but in vain; for Marsuppini and Oratius only furnished fragments of the Iliad, and Valla’s translation of the first 16 books was a paraphrase in prose. He gave Manetti, his secretary and biographer, though absent from Rome, a salary of 600 ducats. No such liberal and enlightened friend of books ever sat in the chair of St. Peter.

Nicolas found an enduring monument in the Vatican Library, which, with its later additions, is the most valuable collection in the world of rare manuscripts in Oriental, Greek, Latin and ecclesiastical literature. Among its richest treasures is the Vatican manuscript of the Greek New Testament. There had been older pontifical libraries and collections of archives, first in the Lateran, afterwards in the Vatican palace, but Nicolas well deserves to be called the founder of the Vatican Library. He bought for it about 5,000 volumes of valuable classical and biblical manuscripts,—an enormous collection for those days,—and he had besides a private library, consisting chiefly of Latin classics. No other library of that age reached 1,000 volumes. Bessarion had only 600 volumes, Niccoli in Florence 800, Federigo of Urbino 772. The Vatican now contains 30,000 manuscripts and about 100,000 printed works. Free access was offered to its archives for the first time by Leo XIII.

The interest of the later popes of the Renaissance period was given to art and architecture rather than to letters. The Spaniard, Calixtus III., according to the doubtful report of Vespasiano, regarded the accumulation of books by his predecessor as a waste of the treasures of the Church of God, gave away several hundred volumes to the old Cardinal Isidore of Kiew and melted the silver ornaments, with which many manuscripts were bound, into coin for his proposed war against the Turks.

From the versatile diplomatist and man of letters, Pius II., the Humanists had a right to expect much, but they got little. This, however, was not because Eneas Sylvius had reason to fear rivalry. After being elected pope, he was carried about the city of Rome and to Tusculum, Alba, Ostia and other localities, tracing the old Roman roads and water conduits and examining other monuments. He was a poet, novelist, controversialist, historian, cosmographer. He had a heart for everything, from the boat-race and hunting-party to the wonders of great cities, Florence and Rome. His faculty of observation was as keen as his interests were broad. Nothing seems to have escaped his eye. Everything that was human had an interest for him, and his description of cities and men, as in his Frederick III and History of Bohemia, hold the reader’s attention by their clever judgments and their appreciation of characteristic and entertaining details.10111011    Burckhardt-Geiger, II. 21. Pius’ novels and odes breathe a low moral atmosphere, and his comedy, Chrisis, in the style of Terence, deals with women of ill-repute and is equal to the most lascivious of the Humanistic productions. His orations fill three volumes, and over 500 of his letters are still extant.

Under Paul II., the Humanists of the papal household had hard times, as the treatment of Platina shows. Sixtus IV., 1471–1484, has a place in the history of the Vatican library, which he transferred to four new and beautiful halls. He endowed it with a permanent fund, provided for Latin, Greek and Hebrew copyists, appointed as librarians two noted scholars, Bussi and Platina, and separated the books from the archives.10121012    See Pastor, II. 655 sqq., who dwells at length on this pope’s service to the library. The light-hearted Leo X., a normal product of the Renaissance, honored Bembo and other literati, but combined the patronage of frivolous with serious literature. In a letter printed in the first edition of the first six books of the Annals of Tacitus, 1515,—discovered in the Westphalian convent of Corbay, 1508,—he wrote that "from his earliest years he had been accustomed to think that, if we except the knowledge and worship of God Himself, nothing more excellent or more useful had been given by the Creator to mankind than classical studies which not only lead to the ornament and guidance of human life, but are applicable and useful to every particular situation."

As a characteristic development of the Italian Renaissance must be mentioned the so-called academies of Florence, Rome and Naples. These institutions corresponded somewhat to our modern scientific associations. The most noted of them, the Platonic Academy of Florence, was founded by Cosimo de’ Medici, and embraced among its members the principal men of Florence and some strangers. It celebrated the birthday of Plato, November 13, with a banquet and a discussion of his writings. It revived and diffused the knowledge of the sublime truths of Platonism, and then gave way to other academies in Florence of a more literary and social character.10131013    R. Rocholl, D. Platonismus d. Renaissancezeit, in Brieger’s Zeitschr. für K.-gesch., Leipz., 1892, pp. 47-106. Its brightest fame was reached under Lorenzo.

The academy at Rome, which had Pomponius Laetus for its founder, did not confine itself to the study of Plato and philosophy, but had a more general literary aim. The meetings were devoted to classical discussions and the presentation of orations and plays. Although Laetus was half a pagan, Alexander VI. was represented at his funeral, 1498, by members of his court. Cardinal Sadoleto in the 16th century reckoned the Roman academy among the best teachers of his youth. The academy at Naples, developed by Jovianus Pontanus, devoted itself chiefly to matters of style. The Florentine academy has been well characterized by Professor Jebb as predominantly philosophic, the Roman as antiquarian and the Neapolitan as literary.10141014    Cambr. Hist., I. 560.


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