Vol. 6, Chapter VIII (Cont’d) 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.”

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of manuscripts, led by such men as Poggio or the monk Nicolas of Treves, who in 1429 brought to Rome 12 hitherto unpublished comedies of Plautus, were added the foundation of princely libraries in Florence, Rome, Urbino and other cities.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. 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 encyclopedic 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! 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.


65. Greek Teachers and Italian Humanists

The revival of the study of Greek, which had been neglected for eight centuries or more, was due, not to an interest in the original text of the New Testament, but to a passion to become acquainted with Homer, Plato and other classic Greek authors. Not even had Gregory the Great any knowledge of the language. The erection of chairs for its study was recommended by the Council of Vienne, but the recommendation came to nothing. The revival of the study of the language was followed by the discovery of Greek manuscripts, the preparation of grammars and dictionaries and the translation of the Greek classics.

If we pass by such itinerating and uncertain teachers as the Calabrians, from whom Petrarca and Boccaccio took lessons, the list of modern teachers of Greek opens with Emanuel Chrysoloras, 1350-1415. He taught in Florence, Milan, Padua, Venice and Rome and, having conformed to the Latin Church, was taken as interpreter to the council at Constance, where he died. He wrote the first Greek grammar, printed in 1484. The first lexicon was prepared by a Carmelite monk, Giovanni Crastone of Piacenza, and appeared in 1497. Provided as we are with a full apparatus for the study of Greek, we have little conception of the difficulty of acquiring a book-knowledge of that language without the elementary helps of grammar and dictionary.

A powerful impetus was given to Greek studies by the Council of Ferrara, 1439, with its large delegation from the Eastern Church and its discussions over the doctrinal differences of Christendom. Its proceedings appeared in the two languages. Among those who attended the council and remained in the West for a period or for life, were Plethon, whose original name was Georgios Gemistos, 1355-1450, and Bessarion, 1403-1472. Cosimo de’ Medici heard Plethon often and was led by his lectures on Plato to conceive the idea of the Platonic Academy in Florence.

Bessarion, bishop of Nicaea, became a fixture in the Latin Church and was admitted to the college of cardinals by Eugenius IV. The objection made in conclave to his candidacy for the papal chair by the cardinal of Avignon was that he was a Greek and wore a beard. He died in Ravenna. Like all Greeks, Bessarion was a philosophical theologian, and took more interest in the metaphysical mystery of the eternal procession of the Spirit than the practical work of the Spirit upon the hearts of men. He vindicated Plato against the charges of immorality and alleged hostility to orthodox doctrines, pointed to that philosopher’s belief in the creation and the immortality of the soul, quoted the favorable opinions of him given by Basil, Augustine and other Fathers, and represented him as a bridge from heathenism to Christianity. Bessarion’s palace in Rome was a meeting-place of scholars. At an expense of 15,000 ducats or, as Platina says, 30,000, he collected a valuable library which he gave, in 1468, to the republic of Venice.

George of Trebizond, 1395-1484, came to Italy about 1420, conformed to the papal church, taught eloquence and the Aristotelian philosophy in Venice and Rome, and was appointed an apostolic scribe by Nicolas V. He was a conceited, disputatious and irascible man and quarrelled with Valla, Poggio, Theodore of Gaza, Bessarion and Perotti. The 50 scudi which Sixtus IV. gave him for the translation of Aristotle’s History of Animals, he contemptuously threw into the Tiber. His chief work was a comparison of Aristotle and Plato, to the advantage of the former.

Theodore of Gaza, George’s rival, was a native of Thessalonica, reached Italy 1430, taught in Ferrara and then passed into the service of Pope Nicolas. He was a zealous Platonist, and translated several Greek works into Latin and some of Cicero’s works into Greek and also wrote a Greek grammar.

John Argyropulos, an Aristotelian philosopher and translator, taught 15 years with great success at Florence, and then at Rome, where Reuchlin heard him lecture on Thucydides. His death, 1486, was brought about by excess in eating melons.

The leading Greeks, who emigrated to Italy after the fall of Constantinople, were Callistus, Constantine Lascaris and his son John. John Andronicus Callistus taught Greek at Bologna and at Rome, 1454-1469, and took part in the disputes between the Platonists and Aristotelians. Afterwards he removed to Florence and last to France, in the hope of better remuneration. He is said to have read all the Greek authors and imported six chests of manuscripts from Greece. Constantine Lascaris, who belonged to a family of high rank in the Eastern empire, gave instruction in the Greek language to Ippolita, the daughter of Francis Sforza, and later the wife of Alfonso, son of Ferdinand I. of Naples. He composed a Greek grammar for her, the first book printed in Greek, 1476. In 1470, he moved to Messina, where he established a flourishing school, and died near the close of the century. Among his pupils was Cardinal Bembo of Venice.

His son, John Lascaris, 1445-1535, was employed by Lorenzo de’ Medici to collect manuscripts in Greece, and superintended the printing of Greek books in Florence. He accompanied Charles VIII. to France. In 1513, he was called by Leo X. to Rome, and opened there a Greek and Latin school. In 1518, he returned to France and collected a library for Francis I. at Fontainebleau.

Among those who did distinguished service in collecting Greek manuscripts was Giovanni Aurispa, 1369-1459, who went to Constantinople in his youth to study Greek, and bought and sold with the shrewdness of an experienced bookseller. In 1423, he returned from Constantinople with 238 volumes, including Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Lucian. Thus these treasures were saved from ruthless destruction by the Turks, before the catastrophe of 1453 overtook Constantinople.

The study of Greek suffered a serious decline in Italy after the close of the 15th century, but was taken up and carried to a more advanced stage by the Humanists north of the Alps.

The study of Hebrew, which had been preserved in Europe by Jewish scholars, notably in Spain, was also revived in Italy in the 15th century, but its revival met with opposition. When Lionardo Bruni heard that Poggio was learning the language, he wrote contending that the study was not only unprofitable but positively hurtful. Manetti, the biographer of Nicolas V., translated the Psalms out of Hebrew and made a collection of Hebrew manuscripts for that pontiff. The Camalduensian monk, Traversari, learned the language and, in 1475, began the printing of Hebrew books on Italian presses. Chairs for the study of Hebrew were founded at Bologna, 1488, and in Rome 1514.

Passing from the list of the Greek teachers to the Italian Humanists, it is possible to select for mention here only a few of the more prominent names, and with special reference to their attitude to the Church.

Lionardo Bruni, 1369-1444, a pupil of Chrysoloras, gives us an idea of the extraordinary sensation caused by the revival of the Greek language. He left all his other studies for the language of Plato and Demosthenes. He was papal secretary in Rome and for a time chancellor of Florence, and wrote letters, orations, histories, philosophical essays and translations from the Greek, among them Aristotle’s Ethics, Politics and Economies, and Plato’s Phaedo, Crito, Apology, Phaedrus and Gorgias and his Epistles and six of Plutarch’s Lives. Foreigners went to Florence expressly to see his face. He was a pious Catholic.

Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, 1380-1459, was secretary of Martin V., then of Nicolas V., and lived mostly in Florence and Rome. He was the most widely known Humanist of his day and had an unbounded passion for classical antiquity and for literary controversy. He excelled chiefly in Latin, but knew also Greek and a little Hebrew. He was an enthusiastic book-hunter. He went to Constance as papal secretary and, besides discovering a complete copy of Quintilian’s Institutes, made search in the neighboring Benedictine abbeys of Reichenau and Weingarten for old manuscripts. In Cluny and other French convents he discovered new orations of Cicero. He also visited “barbarous England.” Although in the service of the curia for nearly 50 years, Poggio detested and ridiculed the monks and undermined respect for the church which supported him. In his Dialogue against Hypocrisy, he gathered a number of scandalous stories of the tricks and frauds practised by monks in the name of religion. His bold description of the martyrdom of the heretic Jerome of Prag has already been cited. When Felix was elected, Poggio exhausted the dictionary for abusive terms and called the anti-pope another Cerberus, a golden calf, a roaring lion, a high-priest of malignity; and he did equally well for the Council of Basel, which had elected Felix. Poggio’s self-esteem and quick temper involved him in endless quarrels, and invectives have never had keener edge than those which passed between him and his contestants. To his acrid tongue were added loose habits. He lived with a concubine, who bore him 14 children, and, when reproached for it, he frivolously replied that he only imitated the common habit of the clergy. At the age of 54, he abandoned her and married a Florentine maiden of 18, by whom he had 4 children. His Facetiae, or Jest-Book, a collection of obscene stories, acquired immense popularity.

The general of the Camalduensian order, Ambrogio Traversari, 1386-1439, combined ascetic piety with interest in heathen literature. He collected 238 manuscripts in Venice and translated from the Greek Fathers. He was, perhaps, the first Italian monk from the time of Jerome to his own day who studied Hebrew.

Carlo Marsuppini, of Arezzo, hence called Carlo Aretino, belonged to the same circle, but was an open heathen, who died without confession and sacrament. He was nevertheless highly esteemed as a teacher and as chancellor of Florence, and honorably buried in the church of S. Croce, 1463, where a monument was erected to his memory.

Francesco Filelfo, 1398-1481, was one of the first Latin and Greek scholars, and much admired and much hated by his contemporaries. He visited Greece, returned to Italy with a rich supply of manuscripts, and was professor of eloquence and Greek in the University of Florence. He combined the worst and best features of the Renaissance. He was conceited, mean, selfish, avaricious. He thought himself equal if not superior to Virgil and Cicero. In malignity and indecency of satire and invective be rivalled Poggio. His poisonous tongue got him into scandalous literary feuds with Niccolo, Poggio, members of the Medici family and others. He was banished from Florence, but, recalled in his old days by Lorenzo, he died a few weeks after his return, aged 83. He was always begging or levying contributions on princes for his poetry, and he kept several servants and six horses. His 3 wives bore him 24 children. He was ungrateful to his benefactors and treacherous to his friends.

Marsilio Ficino, 1433-1499, one of the circle who made the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent famous, was an ordained priest, rector of two churches and canon of the cathedral of Florence. He eloquently preached the Platonic gospel to his “brethren in Plato,” and translated the Orphic hymns, the Hermes Trismegistos, and some works of Plato and Plotinus, — a colossal task for that age. He believed that the divine Plotinus had first revealed the theology of the divine Plato and “the mysteries of the ancients,” and that these were consistent with Christianity. Yet he was unable to find in Plato’s writings the mystery of the Trinity. He wrote a defence of the Christian religion, which he regarded as the only true religion, and a work on the immortality of the soul, which he proved with 15 arguments as against the Aristotelians. He was small and sickly, and kept poor by dishonest servants and avaricious relations.

Politian, to his edition of Justinian’s Pandects, added translations of Epictetus, Hippocrates, Galen and other authors, and published among lecture-courses those on Ovid, Suetonius, Pliny and Quintilian. His lecture-room extended its influence to England and Germany, and Grocyn, Linacre and Reuchlin were among his hearers.

Three distinguished Italian Humanists whose lives overlap the first period of the Reformation were cardinals, Pietro Bembo, 1470-1547, Giacopo Sadoleto, 1477-1547, and Aleander, 1480-1542. All were masters of an elegant Latin style. For 22 years Bembo lived in concubinage, and had three children. Cardinal Sadoleto is best known for his polite and astute letter calling upon the Genevans to abandon the Reformation, to which Calvin replied.

Not without purpose have the two names, Laurentius Valla, 1406-1457, and Pico della Mirandola, 1463-1494, been reserved for the last. These men are to be regarded as having, among the Humanists of the 15th century, the most points of contact with our modern thought, — the one the representative of critical scholarship, the other of broad human sympathies coupled with a warm piety.

Laurentius Valla, the only Humanist of distinction born in Rome, taught at Pavia, was secretary to the king of Naples, and at last served at the court of Nicolas V. He held several benefices and was buried in the Lateran, but was a sceptic and an indirect advocate of Epicurean morality. He combined classical with theological erudition and attained an influence almost equal to that enjoyed by Erasmus several generations later. He was a born critic, and is one of the earliest pioneers of the right of private judgment. He broke loose from the bondage of scholastic tradition and an infallible Church authority, so that in this respect Bellarmin called him a forerunner of Luther. Luther, with an imperfect knowledge of Valla’s works, esteemed him highly, declaring that in many centuries neither Italy nor the universal Church could produce another like him. He narrowly escaped the Inquisition. He denied to the monks the monopoly of being “the religious,” and attacked their threefold vow. In his Annotations to the New Testament, published by Erasmus, 1505, he ventured to correct Jerome’s Vulgate. He doubted the genuineness of the writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite and rejected as a forgery Christ’s letter to King Abgarus which Eusebius had accepted as genuine. When he attacked the Apostolic origin of the Apostles’ Creed and, about 1440, exposed the Donation of Constantine as a fiction, he was calling in question the firm belief of centuries. In pronouncing the latter “contradictory, impossible, stupid, barbarous and ridiculous,” he was wrenching a weapon, long used, out of the hand of the hierarchy. His attack was based on the ground of authentic history, inherent improbability and the medieval character of the language. Not satisfied with refuting its genuineness, Valla made it an occasion of an assault upon the whole temporal power of the papacy. He thus struck at the very bulwarks of the medieval theocracy. In boldness and violence Valla equalled the anti-papal writings of Luther. He went, indeed, not so far as to deny the spiritual power and divine institution of the papacy, but he charged the bishop of Rome with having turned Peter into Judas and having accepted the devil’s offer of the kingdoms of this world. He made him responsible for the political divisions and miseries of Italy, for rebellions and civil wars, herein anticipating Machiavelli. He maintained that the princes had a right to deprive the pope of his temporal possessions, which he had long before forfeited by their abuse. The purity of Valla’s motives are exposed to suspicion. At the time he wrote the tract he was in the service of Alfonso, who was engaged in a controversy with Eugenius IV.

Unfortunately, Valla’s ethical principles and conduct were no recommendation to his theology. His controversy with Poggio abounds in scandalous personalities. In the course of it, Valla was charged with seduction and pederasty. His Ciceronian Dialogues on Lust, written perhaps 1431, are an indirect attack upon Christian morality. Valla defended the Platonic community of wives. What nature demands is good and laudable, and the voice of nature is the voice of God. When he was charged by Poggio with having seduced his brother-in-law’s maid, he admitted the charge without shame.

Pico della Mirandola, the most precocious genius that had arisen since Duns Scotus, was cut down when he was scarcely 30 years of age. The Schoolman was far beyond him in dialectic subtlety, but was far inferior to him in independence of thought and, in this quality, Pico anticipated the coming age. He studied canon law, theology, philosophy and the humanities in Ferrara and learned also Hebrew, Chaldee and Arabic. In his twenty-third year, he went to Rome and published 900 theses on miscellaneous topics, in which he anticipated some of the Protestant views; for example, that no image or cross should be adored and that the words “This is my body” must be understood symbolically, — significative, — not materially. He also maintained that the science of magic and the Cabbala confirm the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. These opinions aroused suspicion, and 13 of his theses were condemned by Innocent VIII. as heretical; but, as he submitted his judgment to the Church, he was acquitted of heresy, and Alexander VI. cleared him of all charges.

To his erudition, Pico added sincere faith and ascetic tendencies. In the last years of his short life, he devoted himself to the study of the Bible with the purpose of preaching Christ throughout the world. He was an admirer of Savonarola, who blamed him for not becoming a full monk and thought he went to purgatory. Of all Humanists he had the loftiest conception of man’s dignity and destiny. In his De dignitate hominis, he maintained that God placed man in the midst of the world that he might the more easily study all that therein is, and endowed him with freewill, by which he might degenerate into the condition of the beast or rise to a godlike existence. He found the highest truth in the Christian religion. He is the author of the famous sentence: Philosophia veritatem quaerit, theologia invenit, religio possidet, — philosophy seeks the truth, theology finds it, religion has it.

Mirandola had a decided influence on John Reuchlin, who saw him in 1490 and was persuaded by him of the immense wisdom hid in the Cabbala. He also was greatly admired by Zwingli. He was the only one, says Burckhardt, “who, in a decided voice, fought for science and the truth of all the ages against the one-sided emphasis of classic antiquity. In him it is possible to see what a noble change Italian philosophy would have undergone, if the counter-Reformation had not come in and put an end to the whole higher intellectual movement.” Giordano Bruno, one of the last representatives of the philosophical Renaissance, was condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition and burnt on the Campo de’ Fiori in 1600. To the great annoyance of Pope Leo XIII., his admirers erected a statue to his memory on the same spot in 1889.


66. The Artists

Haec est Italia diis sacra. — Pliny.

Italian Humanism reproduced the past. Italian art was original. The creative productions of Italy in architecture, sculpture and painting continue to render it the world’s chief centre of artistic study and delight. Among Italian authors, Dante alone has a place at the side of Michelangelo, Raphael and Lionardo da Vinci. The cultivation of art began in the age of Dante with Cimabue and Giotto, but when Italian Humanism was declining Italian painting and sculpture were celebrating their highest triumphs. Such a combination and succession of men of genius in the fine arts as Italy produced, in a period extending over three centuries, has nowhere else been known. They divided their triumphs between Florence and Rome, but imparted their magic touch to many other Italian cities, including Venice, which had remained cold to the literary movement. Here again Rome drew upon Florence for painters such as Giotto and Fra Angelico, and for sculptors such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo.

While the Italy of the 15th century — or the quattrocento, as the Italians call it — was giving expression to her own artistic conceptions in color and marble and churchly dome, masterpieces of ancient sculpture, restless, in the graves where for centuries they had had rude sepulture, came forth to excite the admiring astonishment of a new generation. What the age of Nicolas V. was for the discovery of manuscripts, the age of Julius II. was for the discovery of classic Greek statuary. The extensive villa of the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, which extended over several miles and embraced a theatre, lyceum, temple, basilica, library, and race-course, alone furnished immense treasures of art. Others were found in the bed of the Tiber or brought from Greece or taken from the Roman baths, where their worth had not been discerned. In Alexander VI.’s pontificate the Apollo Belvedere was found; under Julius II. the torso of Hercules, the Laocoön group and the Vatican Venus. The Greek ideals of human beauty were again revealed and kindled an enthusiasm for similar achievements.

Petrarca’s collections were repeated. Paul II. deposited his rich store of antiquities in his palace of San Marco. In Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici was active in securing pieces of ancient art. The museum on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, where Nicolas V. seems to have restored the entire palace of the senate, dates from 1471, one of its earliest treasures being the statue of Marcus Aurelius. The Vatican museum was the creation of Julius II. To these museums and the museums in Florence were added the galleries of private collectors.

In architecture, the Renaissance artists never adopted the stern Gothic of the North. In 1452, Leon Battista Alberti showed to Nicolas V. a copy of his De re aedificatoria, a work on architecture, based upon his studies of the Roman monuments. Nicolas opened the line of great builders in Rome and his plans were on a splendid scale.

The art of the Renaissance blends the glorification of medieval Catholicism with the charms of classical paganism, the history of the Bible with the mythology of Greece and Rome. The earlier painters of the 14th and 15th centuries were more simple, chaste and devout than those of the 16th, who reached a higher distinction as artists. The Catholic type of piety is shown in the preponderance of the pictures of the Madonna holding the infant Saviour in her arms or on her lap and in the portraiture of St. Sebastian and other saints. Heavenly beauty and earthly sensuality meet side by side, and the latter often draws attention away from the former. The same illustrious painters, says Hawthorne, in the Marble Faun, “seem to take up one task or the other — the disrobed woman whom they called Venus, or the type of highest and tenderest womanhood in the mother of their Saviour — with equal readiness, but to achieve the former with far more satisfactory success.” One moment the painter represented Bacchus wedding Ariadne and another depicted Mary on the hill of Calvary. Michelangelo now furnished the Pietà for St. Peter’s, now designed the Rape of Ganymede for Vittoria Colonna and the statue of the drunken Bacchus for the Roman Jacopo Galli. Titian’s Magdalen in the Pitti gallery, Florence, exhibits in one person the voluptuous woman with exposed breasts and flowing locks and the penitent saint looking up to heaven. Of Sandro Botticelli, Vasari said that “in many homes he painted of naked women a plenty.” If, however, the Christian religion furnished only to a single writer, Dante, the subject of his poem, it furnished to all the painters and sculptors many subjects from both Testaments and also from Church history, for the highest productions of their genius.

In looking through the long list of distinguished sculptors, painters and architects who illuminated their native Italy in the Renaissance period, one is struck with the high age which many of them reached and, at the same time, with the brief period in which some of them acquired undying fame. Michelangelo lived to be 89, while Correggio died before he was 44. Titian, had he lived one year longer, would have rounded out a full century, while death took the brush out of Raphael’s hand before he was 37, a marvellous example of production in a short period, to be compared with Mozart in the department of music and Blaise Pascal in letters. And again, several of the great artists are remarkable examples of an extraordinary combination of talents. Lionardo da Vinci and Michelangelo excelled alike as architects, sculptors, painters and poets. Lionardo was, besides being these, a chemist, engineer, musician, merchant and profound thinker, yea, “the precocious originator of all modern wonders and ideas, a subtle and universal genius, an isolated and insatiate investigator,” and is not unjustly called, on his monument at Milan, “the restorer of the arts and sciences.” His mural picture of the Last Supper in Milan, best known by the engraving of Raphael Morghen, in spite of its defaced condition, is a marvellous reproduction of one of the sublimest events, adapted to the monks seated around their refectory table (instead of the reclining posture on couches), and every head a study. As for Michelangelo, he has been classed by Taine with Dante, Shakespeare and Beethoven among the four great intellects in the world of art and literature.

Distinguishing in the years between 1300-1550 two periods, the earlier Renaissance to 1470 and the high Renaissance, from that date forward, we find that Italian art had its first centre in Florence, and its most glorious exhibition under Julius II. and Leo X. in Rome. The earlier period began with Cimabue, who died about 1302, and Giotto, 1276-1336, the friend of Dante. According to the story, Cimabue found Giotto, then ten years old, drawing sheep on a stone with a piece of charcoal and, with his father’s consent, took the lad to Florence. These two artists employed their genius in the decoration of the cathedral erected to the memory of St. Francis in Assisi. The visitor to S. Croce and other sacred places in Florence looks upon the frescos of Giotto. His Dante, like Guido Reni’s Beatrice Cenci, once seen can never be forgotten. Symonds has remarked that it may be said, without exaggeration, that Giotto and his scholars, within the space of little more than half a century, painted upon the walls of the churches and the public places of Italy every great conception of the Middle Ages. Fra Angelico da Fiesole, 1387-1455, is the most religious of the painters of this period, and his portraiture of saints and angels is so pure as to suggest no other impression than saintliness.

The mind is almost stunned by the combination of brilliant artistic achievement, of which the pontificate of Julius II. may be taken as the centre. There flourished in that age Perugino, 1446-1524, — Raphael’s teacher, — Lionardo da Vinci, 1452-1519, Raphael, 1483-1520, Michelangelo, 1475-1564, Correggio, 1493-1534, Andrea del Sarto, 1487-1531, and Titian, 1477-1576, all Italians.

Of Raphael, his German biographer has said his career is comprised in four words, “he lived, he loved, he worked, he died young.” He was an attractive and amiable character, free from envy and jealousy, modest, magnanimous, patient of criticism, as anxious to learn as to teach, always ready to assist poor artists. Michelangelo and he labored in close proximity in the Vatican, Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel, Raphael in the stanze and loggie. Their pupils quarrelled among themselves, each depreciating the rival of his master; but the masters rose above the jealousy of small minds. They form a noble pair, like Schiller and Goethe among poets. Raphael seemed almost to have descended from a higher world. Vasari says that he combined so many rare gifts that he might be called a mortal god rather than a simple man. The portraits, which present him as an infant, youth and man, are as characteristic and impressive as Giotto’s Dante and Guido Reni’s Beatrice Cenci.

Like Goethe, Raphael was singularly favored by fortune and was free from the ordinary trials of artists — poverty, humiliation and neglect. He held the appointment of papal chamberlain and had the choice between a cardinal’s hat and marriage to a niece of Cardinal Bibbiena, with a dowry of three thousand gold crowns. But he put off the marriage from year to year, and preferred the dangerous freedom of single life. His contemporary and admirer, Vasari, says, when Raphael felt death approaching, he “as a good Christian dismissed his mistress from his house, making a decent provision for her support, and then made his last confession.”

The painter’s best works are devoted to religious characters and events. On a visit to Florence after the burning of Savonarola, he learned from his friend Fra Bartolomeo to esteem the moral reformer and gave him, as well as Dante, a place among the great teachers of the Church in his fresco of the Theologia in the Vatican. His Madonnas represent the perfection of human loveliness and purity. In the Madonna di San Sisto at Dresden, so called because Sixtus IV. is introduced into the picture, the eye is divided between the sad yet half-jubilant face of the Virgin Mother, the contemplative gaze of the cherubs and the pensive and sympathetic expression of the divine child.

Grimm says, Raphael’s Madonnas are not Italian faces but women who are lifted above national characteristics. The Madonnas of da Vinci, Correggio, Titian, Murillo and Rubens contain the features of the nationality to which these painters belonged. Raphael alone has been able to give us feminine beauty which belongs to the European type as such.

The last, the greatest, and the purest of Raphael’s works is the Transfiguration in the Vatican. While engaged on it, he died, on Good Friday, his birthday. It was suspended over his coffin and carried to the church of the Pantheon, where his remains repose in his chosen spot near those of his betrothed bride, Maria di Bibbiena. In that picture we behold the divinest figure that ever appeared on earth, soaring high in the air, in garments of transparent light, and with arms outspread, adored by Moses on the right hand and by Elijah on the left, who represent the Old Covenant of law and promise. The three favorite disciples are lying on the ground, unable to face the dazzling splendor from heaven. Beneath this celestial scene we see, in striking contrast, the epileptic boy with rolling eyes, distorted features, and spasmodic limbs, held by his agonized father and supported by his sister; while the mother imploringly appeals to the nine disciples who, in their helplessness, twitted by scribes, point up to the mountain where Jesus had gone. In connecting the two scenes, the painter followed the narrative of the Gospels, Mat_17:1-14; Mar_9:2-14; Luk_9:28-37. The connection is being continually repeated in Christian experience. Descending from the Mount of Transfiguration, we are confronted with the misery of earth and, helpless in human strength, we look to heaven as the only source of help.

Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was 10 years older than Raphael, and survived him 44 years. He drew the inspiration for his sculptures and pictures from the Old Testament, from Dante and from Savonarola. He praised Dante in two sublime sonnets and heard Savonarola’s thrilling sermons against wickedness and vice, and witnessed his martyrdom. Vasari and Condivi both bear witness to his spotless morality. He deplored the corruptions of the papal court.

For Rome still slays and sells Christ at the court,

Where paths are closed to virtue’s fair increase.The artist’s works have colossal proportions, and refuse to be judged by ordinary rules. They are divided between painting, as the frescos in the Sistine chapel of St. Peter’s, architecture as in St. Peter’s dome, and works of statuary, as Moses in Rome and David in Florence. His Pietà in St. Peter’s, a marble group representing the Virgin Mary holding the crucified Saviour in her arms, raised him suddenly to the rank of the first sculptor of Italy. His Last Judgment, on the altar wall of the Sistine chapel, represents the dominant conception of the Middle Ages of Christ as an angry judge, and is as Dantesque as Dante’s Inferno itself. The artist’s last work in marble was the unfinished Pietà, in the cathedral of Florence; his last design a picture of the crucifixion. In his last poems, he took farewell of the fleeting pleasures of life, turned to God as the only reality and found in the crucified Saviour his only comfort. This is the core of the evangelical doctrine of justification rightly understood.

The day of Michelangelo’s death was the day of Galileo Galilei’s birth in Florence. The golden age of art had passed: the age of science was at hand.

Among the greater churches of Italy, — the cathedrals of Milan, Venice, Pisa, Siena, Florence and Rome, — St. Peter’s stands pre-eminent in dimensions, treasures of art and imposing ecclesiastical associations. This central cathedral of Christendom was not dedicated till 1626 by Urban VIII. Its reconstruction was planned on a colossal scale by Nicolas V., but little was done till Julius II. took up the work. Among the architects who gave to the building their thought, Bramante and Michelangelo did most. On April 18, 1506, Julius II. laid the first stone according to Bramante’s design. A mass being said by Cardinal Soderini, the old pope descended by a ladder into the trench which had been dug at the spot where the statue of St. Veronica now stands. There was much fear, says Paris de Grassis, that the ground would fall in and the pope, before consecrating the foundations, cried out to those above not to come too near the edge. Under Leo X., Raphael was appointed sole architect, and was about to deviate from Bramante’s plan, when death stayed his hand. Michelangelo, taking up the task in 1535, gave to the structure its crowning triumph in the dome, the noblest in Western Europe, and the rival of the dome of St. Sophia.

That vast and wondrous dome,

To which Diana’s marvel was a cell, — 

Christ’s mighty shrine above his martyr’s tomb.