Francis Bacon rarely found himself at a loss for words. When he wanted to say that what his contemporaries revered as “antiquity” had been a time more primitive than his own, he expressed the thought with four lapidary Latin words: antiquitas mundi juventus saeculi—the age of antiquity is the youth of the world. Yet at times even Bacon proved willing to borrow a comely phrase or two. In the Advancement of Learning, published in 1605, he set out to describe the new kind of inquiry practiced by contemporary historians of antiquity. Their experimental, innovative research was very much to his taste. The antiquaries collected and studied the material remains of the past: ruins, inscriptions, weapons, utensils, even clothing. They preferred reconstructing past beliefs and rituals to devising the eloquent narratives that had traditionally made up the core of the historian’s art. To characterize their work, radically modern in method but eternally melancholy in its pursuit of endless, elusive fragments, Bacon quoted a Latin tag, taken from a source he did not name:
Antiquities, or remnants of history, are, as was said, tanquam tabula naufragii [like a plank from a shipwreck]: [they are found] when industrious persons, by an exact and scrupulous diligence and observation, out of monuments, names, words, proverbs, traditions, private records and evidences, fragments of stories, passages of books that concern not story, and the like, do save and recover [them] somewhat from the deluge of time.
Not long ago, the great Italian historian Riccardo Fubini identified the source from which Bacon drew his fragment of Latin.1 It was not an ancient text, as Bacon’s citation might lead one to expect, but a Latin work by a fifteenth-century Italian scholar: Italy Illuminated, written by Flavio Biondo, master of Roman antiquities and close friend of Leon Battista Alberti, the brilliant Italian architect and theorist of art. Biondo had gathered evidence about ancient and modern Italy as he traveled the peninsula. He now set out to compare what he had seen with the testimony of the ancient texts. He hoped to work out which modern place names corresponded to which
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.
The task proved impossible to complete, but Biondo did write an informative and immensely readable book. At the start, he asked his readers
that I be thanked for having hauled ashore some planks from so vast a shipwreck, planks which were floating on the surface of the water or nearly lost to view, rather than be required to account for the entire lost ship.
The modesty with which Biondo formulated his claims should not distract us—any more than it distracted Bacon—from the radical novelty of what he had written. When Biondo chose the metaphor of hauling planks ashore from a shipwreck, he forcibly directed his readers’ attention to the episode at the very center of his description of the district of Lazio, itself the center of Italy. In the 1440s, Alberti set out to raise one of the two Roman ships that lay on the bottom of the crystal-clear Lake Nemi in the Alban Hills, which belonged to Cardinal Prospero Colonna. Alberti had rows of empty wine barrels strung across the surface of the lake and fixed winches on either side of them. Divers from Genoa, “more like fish than men,” attached thick ropes ending in iron hooks to one of the sunken vessels. As the entire papal Curia watched, the winches turned, the ropes strained—and the ship fell apart. Only a fragment came up.
Undeterred by this catastrophic conclusion to their pioneering efforts as underwater archaeologists, Biondo, Alberti, and “all the fine minds of the Roman Curia” now began to have fun. Deprived of texts that could shed light on the ships—which were actually pleasure barges placed in the lake by Caligula—they scrutinized the planks that they had managed to bring ashore:
The ship [they decided in a joint report] was entirely made of larchwood, braced by beams three inches thick and caulked on the outside with pitch. The pitch was covered and protected by a coating of yellow or red material, as can be seen even now, and the entire surface was clad with sheets of lead to protect the ship and the caulking from the waves and rain. A mass of bronze nails (not iron as we use now) was driven into the sheets of lead to seal them….
Like modern archaeologists, the humanists set out to decipher the evidence in front of them: first to analyze its composition, layer by layer, and then to understand how each component had functioned in the ancient ship. When Biondo pointed to this episode, as a metaphor for his book as a whole, he did more than beg his readers to excuse his inability to bring ancient Italy back to life as a whole. He also highlighted the fact that he and his friends practiced an exciting, radically new discipline. They read objects, rather than books, using a method that had no clear ancient counterpart, and that would, over the centuries, split and transform itself into modern archaeology, as well as cultural history and the history of religion.
A marvelous new publication project has made it easy, for the first time, to work out what Bacon learned from his unnamed source—and, more important, has made it vastly easier than ever before to appreciate the Latin literature of the Italian Renaissance as a whole. The first volume of Biondo’s Italy Illuminated, edited and translated by Jeffrey White, appeared in 2005. Like the first two volumes of Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People, the six volumes of Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, Boccaccio’s Famous Women, Petrarch’s Invectives, and Poliziano’s Silvae, among many others, it forms part of a new series of books, sponsored by Harvard University’s center for Renaissance studies, the Villa I Tatti, and handsomely published by Harvard University Press. Modeled on the long-established Loeb Classical Library, also published by Harvard, and designed to make the most important Latin works of the Italian Renaissance available to a wider audience, the I Tatti Renaissance Library offers readers both the original texts, in serviceable editions based on the best available sources, and facing translations, most of them new, into English.
Across the country, on the shelves of Borders and Barnes and Noble branches and in the stacks of small college libraries, the most ambitious and innovative writings of the Italian Renaissance, in prose and verse, in fields that range from comedy to metaphysics and beyond—works that for centuries only scholars have been able to read—have suddenly become accessible to readers who know only English. At least in translation, Renaissance Latin is back. And as Biondo’s case shows, it has a vast amount to offer us: a fascinating, often innovative literature, couched in a language of considerable elegance and surprising vividness.
The I Tatti series—with twenty-three books published so far, and dozens more to come—has many historical lessons to teach. The first has to do with the variety, richness, and seductive beauty of the Latin language itself. Post-classical Latin, in a variety of forms, served as the medium of European learning for well over a thousand years. At the start of the Middle Ages, the creators of monastic culture used it for the liturgies and libraries of their houses. After the French Revolution, the great mathematician Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss still composed a fair amount of his cutting-edge work in Latin, to make it more widely accessible than it would have been in German. Yet the forms of Latin used in different contexts varied radically.
From the fourteenth century to the seventeenth, one kind of Latin—a revived classical language, purist and discriminating—played a special part in the drama of European culture. Italian humanists—scholars like Petrarch and Boccaccio—realized that the serviceable Latin used in their day for state documents and contracts, the liturgical Latin of the Church, and the technical, precise Latin of the university-trained lawyers, medical men, and theologians all differed, in multiple ways, from the Latin used by such great ancient writers as Cicero and Virgil. In turning back to the ancients, they bucked trends.
Purists, especially in the mendicant orders, denounced any study of the classics as a stimulus to skepticism. “How many false stories,” argued the Dominican Giovanni Dominici,
are told by the historians, when one tells a story this way, and the other in another! The great Livy himself bears witness to this. In this case the devil had only one thing in mind: to make the reader, while he sees celebrated writers appear as liars, feel similar doubts about the saints.2
Habitués of universities in the north—and, from the mid-fourteenth century on, in Padua—preferred meticulous studies of logic and semantics, carried out in a remorselessly technical and specialized language, to Ciceronian prose or Virgilian verse. Four of these young sophisticates informed Petrarch—the first of the humanists to become known as grand master of an intellectual movement—that he was “a good man without learning.” His scorching reply, a magnificent defense of the humanities, appears in the I Tatti volume of his Invectives, impeccably edited and translated by David Marsh.
Despite all opposition, the humanists triumphed—first in Italy and then across Europe. They hunted down and collected ancient books, bragging loudly every time they “rescued” or “restored” a lost classic—a process that often enough involved filching a manuscript from the monastery whose members had preserved it for centuries, making some imperfect copies, and losing the original. They revived ancient genres, from epic and comedy to history and the personal letter, and found ways to make careers as writers of fine Latin. They even convinced hard-bitten mercenary captains like Federigo da Montefeltro and brilliant diplomats like Lorenzo de’ Medici to build up libraries of classical texts, to send their sons (and even their daughters) to classical schools, and to hire classical scholars to serve as ambassadors and chancery secretaries. At their most ambitious, the humanists drew up sweeping surveys of the universe, of history, and of the world around them—works that had an immense impact on their contemporaries and that continued to find attentive readers in later ages among such connoisseurs of Latin as Thomas Browne, John Milton, and Samuel Johnson.
The I Tatti series helps us see what was so special, in a learned world that already spoke Latin, about the specially colorful varieties of the language that the humanists cultivated. A splendid collection of Humanist Educational Treatises, edited and translated with great precision by Craig Kallendorf, lets us watch some of the most influential humanist teachers at work. Part of their success lay in the mastery of techniques for learning. Battista Guarino, for example, makes clear that the proper study of the classics had to be active, not passive—had to take the form of a personal search for information, guidance, and stylistic models, carried out pen in hand:
Let them look for new maxims with specific applications. Writing glosses in books is also extremely profitable, the more so if they have some hope of publishing them someday, for we are more careful with such things when we are in pursuit of praise. Writing of this kind wonderfully sharpens the wit, polishes the tongue, produces fluency in writing.
Only ceaseless study of this sort, based on close encounters with every kind of ancient writing, could have enabled humanists to wield a dead language with the snap and sparkle attained by Petrarch, when he dealt with an impudent doctor: “Facile se ipsum excusat, quem non pudet; facile consolatur alium, qui non dolet“—“It is easy to defend yourself when you feel no shame, and easy to console others when you feel no grief.” Though Latin had never died, the Latin of the humanists—a Latin that set out to be classical in every detail, from spelling through syntax to the script in which it was recorded—was a new cultural force, a model of linguistic art for art’s sake.
At times, the pursuit of perfect Latinity could become an obsession. Niccolò Niccoli, the fifteenth-century Florentine bibliophile and connoisseur, “took great delight in ancient painting and sculpture,” which he collected with skill and taste, and knew ancient history and geography so well that “he could talk about every single province, city, locale, place—in short, about any region—better and in greater detail than people who had themselves lived in those places for long periods of time.” A “glutton for books,” he created a library of some eight hundred volumes, vast for the time, and after sharing it generously throughout his lifetime, he asked in his will that it become “a kind of public library which would be open to all scholars in perpetuity”—a secular, classical institution.3
Niccoli’s taste was impeccable: “He excelled all others in judging whether an author or an orator was polished or puerile.” Writer after writer came to him, asking for criticism, only to learn that his work was suited not for publication but for the outhouse. An aesthete who “could not bear the noise of a braying donkey, a saw, or a mousetrap moving around,” he loved and praised everything ancient. Yet Giannozzo Manetti, the Florentine humanist to whom we owe most of these vivid details, noted that Niccoli’s hypercritical classicism silenced him:
Seldom or never did he undertake to speak or write in Latin, the reason being, in my opinion, that he approved of nothing unless it were full and perfect, and so feared that his own writings, like those of others, would fail to satisfy him completely.
A way to solve this dilemma—one studied to brilliant effect by Ingrid Rowland—became fashionable in High Renaissance Rome, where some of the best Latinists tried to use only words that appeared in the writings of Cicero. They composed dazzlingly classical speeches and poems, some of them gloriously elegant—but also, in the opinion of their northern contemporary, the satirical Erasmus, made themselves incapable of discussing the modern, Christian world around them.4
For the most part, though, the writers whose works the I Tatti series has brought to light wielded the new classical Latin to wonderful effect, and simply inserted unclassical words and terms whenever the need arose. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the Sienese humanist who became Pope Pius II, describes the election that brought him to the papal throne in a cold, mordant key that anticipates the Italian styles of Machiavelli and Guicciardini:
The richer and more influential members of the college [of cardinals] summoned others to their presence. Seeking the papacy for themselves or their friends, they begged, made promises, even tried threats. Some threw all decency aside, spared no blushes and pleaded their own cases, claiming the papacy as their right. Among these were Guillaume, cardinal of Rouen; Pietro, cardinal of San Marco; and Giovanni, cardinal of Pavia; nor did the cardinal of Lerida neglect his interests. Each had a great deal to say for himself. Their rivalry was extraordinary, their energy unbounded. They neither rested by day nor slept at night…. A large group of cardinals gathered in the latrines. Here, as if in a secret, private meeting place, they worked on a plan to elect Guillaume pope….
For all his severity, Pius had a delightful way of describing cities and countryside. He could mock himself charmingly, as when he described his stay among the barbarian inhabitants of the British borders, who had never seen wine or white bread, and whose eager young women he refused to sleep with, as he stayed up all night for fear of bandits “among the heifers and nanny goats, who kept him from sleeping a wink by stealthily pulling the straw from his pallet.” Pius’s Commentaries, presented in a most elegant and informative way by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta, may well be the most entertaining work in the whole series.
Even Pius did not lead so adventurous a life—or attain such precision and vividness as a descriptive writer—as Cyriac of Ancona, the merchant, adventurer and self-taught student of antiquities who became, so to speak, the Patrick Leigh Fermor of the fifteenth century. As Cyriac crossed and recrossed the Mediterranean, catching rides on Venetian and Genoese naval ships as one might now take suburban commuter trains and calmly examining gems with their captains, he pursued his lifelong effort “to speak with the dead”—a vocation that took him through the Aegean, down to Egypt, and into mainland Greece and led him to record his adventures in richly detailed letters as well as the notebooks in which he copied inscriptions. Cyriac documented his two stays at Cyzicus with characteristic care. He showed an equally characteristic nonchalance about the difficulties of surveying a site while Turkish and Christian forces battled one another across the Mediterranean and beyond. “But alas!” he wrote in 1444,
How unsightly a structure we returned to, compared to the one we inspected fourteen years ago! For then we saw thirty-one surviving columns standing erect, whereas now I find that [only] twenty-nine columns remain, some shorn of their architraves. And the famous walls, almost all of which were [then] intact, now in great part lie ruined and dashed to the ground, evidently by the barbarians. On the other hand, those exceptional, glorious marble figures of the gods on the [temple’s] outstanding, wondrous facade, remain unharmed in their nearly pristine glory, thanks to the protection of almighty Jove himself and the patronage of his exalted majesty.
Cyriac’s prose becomes even more vivid when he describes the life around him: the “close-packed vineyards and trees and pleasant meadows” of Laconia, for example, where he watched the local youths run their ancient foot-race, the androdromon pentastadion, and traced the remains of ancient custom in modern folkways:
We discovered that they somehow preserve an ancient manner of speaking, for they say that their dead, no matter what their religion was, have gone off “to Hades,” that is, to the lower world. Also, their meals consist of snapped beans seasoned generously with oil, and their loaves are made from barley.
The most elaborate and ambitious of the works so far presented in the I Tatti series are in prose: Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People, Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, and Polydore Vergil’s On Discovery. Each of them illustrates the range of ways in which these passionate classicists turned backward to antiquity, and by doing so found new ways to address central problems of the world around them. Bruni, in trying to demonstrate that Florence could trace its legitimate republican tradition back to deep antiquity, wrote a history of his city on the model of the ancient history of Rome by Livy. As he did so, he read Livy’s eloquent, stagy book in a very imaginative, critical way. From the ancient historian’s idealized account of virtuous Romans, Bruni reconstructed the virtuous and powerful world of their enemies, the Etruscans—from whom, he claimed, the modern Tuscans were descended. In Bruni’s historical imagination, Livy’s stories of Horatius, heroically defending the bridge across the Tiber, and Mucius Scaevola, thrusting his hand into the fire to show his contempt for death, metamorphosed into instances of Roman weakness, superstition and dishonesty:
It would have been more appropriate (if it is not irreverent to speak the truth) to honor the Tiber itself [rather than Horatius], for it was the river’s swirling waters that saved the city when Roman valor could not. The Etruscans, who controlled the Janiculum and held all the areas on the north side of the Tiber, long held the other parts of the city in the grip of a siege. The besieged formed a plan to attack the person of the king. This was their sole remaining hope as they were unequal to open warfare. So they resorted to cunning tricks to lure him furtively away from the main body of his troops. Hence the murder of the secretary and story of how Mucius Scaevola put his hand in the fire.
“Only my father and myself after him,” wrote Zbigniew Herbert in his magnificent poem “Transformations of Livy,”
read Livy against Livy
carefully examining what is underneath the fresco
this is why the theatrical gesture of Scevola awoke no echo in us.5
Like Herbert and his father, and long before, Bruni knew that “the empire will fall”—and wrote, in fine Livian Latin, a counter-history that exalted the states that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire.
A generation and more after Bruni, and in the very different Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Ficino set out to show that the ancient Neoplatonic philosophy embodied a “gentile theological tradition,” one that complemented the Mosaic revelation to the Jews and prepared its devotees for the final truths of Christianity. Ficino worked in full knowledge of the internal complications of Neoplatonism. He wrote and argued in styles that ranged from the logical and synthetic to the poetic and evocative, as he struggled to find ways to prove that the universe was orderly and governed by a Creator and to lay out the place within it of the immortal human soul. No optimist, Ficino suffered terribly from the attacks of Saturnian melancholy which, he argued, afflicted the great of soul as they did the most original artisans and artists. He realized that newly available ancient texts—like the magnificent, frightening Epicurean On the Nature of Things of the Roman poet Lucretius—challenged his efforts to create a synthesis of Christianity and pagan philosophy. Yet he found powerful, and influential, new ways to support his central thesis. “We saw recently in Florence,” Ficino notes,
a small cabinet made by a German craftsman in which statues of different animals were all connected to, and kept in balance by, a single ball. When the ball moved, they moved too, but in different ways…. There was heard too the blare of trumpets and horns and the songs of birds; and other things happened there simultaneously and a host of similar events occurred, and merely from one movement of one ball. Thus God through His own being…has only to nod His head and everything which depends on Him trembles.
Ficino, like so many of his contemporaries, saw human artists as earthly counterparts to the divine Creator. Here he drew on the inventive work of a brilliant artisan to give the ancient argument from design a fine new analogical form, and at the same time gave the lie to the ancient atomists and their dangerous critique of Platonic metaphysics: “Let us hear no more from Lucretius the Epicurean, who wants the world to come about and be borne along by chance.”
Polydore Vergil, born in Urbino, spent much of his career in England. He wrote a searingly critical history of his adopted land in which he demolished many a medieval legend, not winning himself many friends in the process. And he brought a keen sense of ambiguity to his breakthrough book—a vast study of inventions that went through thirty editions in Latin in his lifetime. As Brian Copenhaver shows in the introduction to his superb edition of Vergil’s complex, learned book, On Discovery, some ancient authorities denounced human inventions as a source of corruption; others saw them as a continual source of improvement in the human condition. The most reliable sources Vergil had were the ancients, whom he revered; yet he knew that modern men had invented “the time-piece that one often sees nowadays, made of metals, toothed wheels and weights, some pointing to the hours with pins, some announcing them with bells,” as well as the printing-press, thanks to which “in one day just one person can print the same number of letters that many people could hardly write in a whole year.”
When Polydore’s ancient sources conflicted or his modern ones remained silent, he had no way to decide who had invented the cannon, the stirrup, the mill, or the hat. So he concluded his massive and erudite book with a rather surly apology: “I would rather pass on reliable information in few words than use many to pursue uncertainties.” Yet On Discovery, as Copenhaver shows, had a profound and lasting impact. It proved to be one of the principal channels through which the antiquarian methods of the fifteenth century reached the ethnographers and historians of religion of the next two centuries.
Renaissance Latin poetry—as one of its best students, John Sparrow, ruefully remarked long ago—is the sort of subject that hardheaded historians describe as “fundamentally piffle.”6 When Evelyn Waugh wanted to send a particularly hapless antihero on a picaresque journey into Communist Eastern Europe, he took as his main character a classics master at a public school, Granchester, one Scott-King, “slightly bald and slightly corpulent,” who had become an expert on a seventeenth-century Neo-Latin poet, one Bellorius. The I Tatti volume Humanist Comedies, expertly edited and set into context by Gary Grund, does make harder reading than most of the others, and the two verse dramas it contains are less accessible than the three in prose. Yet Grund’s edition nicely shows how Renaissance comedy mixed ancient motifs with Christian lessons, and offers fascinating information on the rapid development of comic performance in the Renaissance from pantomimes carried out by characters, while a single narrator read all the lines, to full-blown performances on stages, acted out before scenery painted in the new one-point perspective.
Even more revealing are Michael Putnam’s edition of the shorter poems of Maffeo Vegio and Charles Fantazzi’s edition of Angelo Poliziano’s Silvae. A devout classicist, steeped in Ovid, Seneca, and Virgil, Vegio still found the ending of the Aeneid abrupt and disconcerting. Virgil’s epic concludes with Aeneas, furiously angry, standing over the body of the enemy, Turnus, whom he has just killed, in order to avenge Turnus’ killing of his own friend Pallas. Blood has called for blood, and the famously pious hero—that model of middle-aged endurance—winds up transported with rage. Vegio found this spectacle as unedifying as it was vivid. But he knew that Virgil had not completed the Aeneid, at least to his own satisfaction, and so he decided to round the poem out, and smooth off its jagged corners as he did so. He wrote a supplement, a thirteenth book, in which many of the happy events predicted earlier in the poem come true. Aeneas, after he marries Lavinia and rules the Latins and Trojans, dies and becomes a star.
By meticulous comparisons between Vegio’s book 13, Vergil’s books 1–12, and the work of Ovid, on which Vegio also drew, Putnam teases out the ways in which Vergio transformed the mood of the work as a whole—how he made Turnus, rather than Aeneas, the one who rages, and managed to stage the hero’s stellification, in Ovidian terms, not as a Christian rebirth to salvation but as the proper reward for a pagan’s supremely virtuous life on earth. Vegio’s scenes of festival and feasting have a nice Virgilian feel to them, as Aeneas and Latinus recall the struggles of the past in present tranquility—as well as a vivid period sense of the ways in which public ritual could seal and solidify a new community’s identity:
With such and other topics they stretched out night’s length. Then shouts of joy rush rumbling through the lofty halls, and a mighty roar fills the whole palace. Torches bring their light and glisten with expensive glow. The Trojans jump to their feet, the Latins follow, as the cithara resounds. The applause intensifies as they merge together into a single assembly, vary the rhythms of their dance and yield to the frolic.
Putnam teaches us to appreciate Vegio’s artistry—and his ability to reweave a troubling work of art until it clearly embodied the best pagan, but not Christian, morality. In his own way, Vegio glimpsed the incompleteness, the broken arch, that is a prominent feature of the epic’s architecture.
Poliziano, as Fantazzi shows, represents Italian humanism at its scholarly and artistic zenith. Like the critics of Hellenistic Alexandria, Poliziano practiced the crafts of scholarship as well as the arts of poetry, and at the very highest level. He rejected the hastily produced classical editions of his contemporaries as uncritical and incompetent, and devoted himself to studying the oldest manuscripts he could find, tracing the complex ways in which Latin poets had transformed Greek originals, and describing his most exciting results in the short essays that he entitled Miscellanea when he published some of them in 1489. From 1480 on Poliziano taught at the University of Florence, where he lectured on authors who had not previously been included in the curriculum, such as Quintilian and Statius. Potential critics he dismissed with a neat quotation from Tacitus: “We should not say that what is different is automatically worse.”
He also chose the lonelier road when he declined to give the normal prose oration in praise of his author at the beginning of each course. Instead, he recited and printed the Silvae: metrical introductions in the manner of Statius, densely allusive in style. The Rusticus or Countryman, a charming introduction to his courses on Hesiod and Virgil’s Georgics, evokes the Florentine countryside where Poliziano wrote as well as the imagined countrysides of his ancient poets. The Nutriciaoffers a comprehensive overview of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin poetry, sharp and critical, richly informed about the Hellenistic poets on whom the Romans drew so heavily, alert to the virtues of Lucretius and Lucan and to the faults of Ovid. The poem culminates, boldly, with the Florentine poets from Dante to Lorenzo himself and his son—a brilliant melding of history with panegyric, designed to show that the modern had a power all its own. Neo-Latin verse, in other words, could be very far indeed from piffle. Erudite, allusive, polished to a high gloss, Neo-Latin poetry amounted to a subtle form of scholarship, dense with implicit interpretations of the ancients. But it could be something more as well. In the Latin verse of Poliziano, as Richard Aldington wrote long ago,
when the subtle flavours of innumerable reminiscences of earlier writers were deliberately enjoyed, when every line and phrase was drenched in older poetry, yet there was something new about it all, some expression of the poet’s own personality.7
The I Tatti series is already beginning to transform the study and teaching of Renaissance culture. Consider just one example. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hans Baron, a brilliant German Jewish scholar, decided that the young Latinists of fifteenth-century Florence—above all Leonardo Bruni, the city’s longtime chancellor—had created an intellectual movement, one that he eventually christened “civic humanism.” These moderns, he argued, sought to revive not only classical texts, but classical values as well. They held that the best way to emulate the ancients, and the highest form of human achievement, was to lead an active life of republican citizenship. At the end of the 1930s, Baron moved to the United States, and his work, which now began to appear in English, had a powerful impact here—especially after his synthetic Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance was published in 1955 by Princeton University Press.
Ever since, the most erudite specialists in Renaissance culture—Gene Brucker, John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, James Hankins, William Connell, and many others—have debated the strengths and weaknesses of Baron’s thesis. Advanced courses on Renaissance Florence and on Renaissance intellectual history have devoted weeks of study and discussion to the works of Baron, his critics, and his supporters. Yet until the late 1960s, students could find virtually none of the key Latin documents on which Baron rested his case in an English translation. Bruni’s ambitious history, though much discussed, remained largely inaccessible. Thanks to the I Tatti library, students can now examine at first hand the tapestry of the Florentine past that Bruni wove so deftly from ancient historians, medieval chronicles, and official documents—a key document for Baron and his critics alike.
The I Tatti series is not the first, or only, enterprise of its kind. True, the new historical scholarship of nineteenth-century Europe, powered by a fascination with national cultures and literatures, underplayed the Latin literatures of Northern Europe as well as Italy. But throughout the twentieth century, Neo-Latin has been rediscovered, again and again.8 Great editorial enterprises have restored to their central positions in Renaissance culture the works of those superbly original Northern Latinists, Erasmus and Thomas More. In recent decades, new editions and translations have restored and opened up such vastly influential Latin texts as the De revolutionibus of Copernicus, the De humani corporis fabrica of Vesalius, and the Poetice of Julius Caesar Scaliger, all from the middle of the sixteenth century, and the Politica of Justus Lipsius, from its end. Productive centers of Neo-Latin scholarship have been established in Messina, Rome, Florence, Louvain, Oxford, and elsewhere, and a few comparable series exist elsewhere—notably at the heroic French publishing house Les Belles Lettres.9
Yet the I Tatti Renaissance Library stands out. The series as a whole has the unity and ambition that come from the energy, erudition, and vision of a single founder: James Hankins, professor of history at Harvard. A student of the great historian of philosophy Paul Oskar Kristeller and the renowned intellectual historian Eugene Rice, Hankins is past master of all the crafts of philology. More important still, he has a synoptic view of the whole “lost continent” of Renaissance Latin literature, as he has called it, and has included in his series works in every genre of Renaissance Latin—the only way to do justice to this vast submerged territory of erudition and eloquence.10 Like the Renaissance humanists he knows so well, finally, Hankins benefited from the enlightened support of a great patron, Walter Kaiser, who as director of the Villa I Tatti sponsored the series and made it possible.
The individual volumes in the series have attained a level of finish that does extraordinary credit to all involved in their making. The Latin texts, though not full, critical editions, are correct, well punctuated, and readable. The English translations have an unusual clarity, elegance, and precision. Typographically, too, these handy little volumes—which Edmund Wilson would have loved—have a special elegance. Most exciting, the whole series is the collective product of an interdisciplinary and intergenerational group of scholars. The names of senior historians, philosophers, and literary scholars mingle with those of graduate students and assistant professors on the library’s title pages. All of these scholars, old and young, have rallied to the cause of lost Latin literature, and all of them serve it with energy and devotion.
In these handsome, blue-jacketed volumes we confront the protagonists of one of old Europe’s most challenging literary and intellectual movements, speaking in their own voices, and given new life by young and old practitioners of the very crafts that their authors invented. Marshaled on one shelf, they make a spectacle to rejoice all those who still believe in the fundamental health of the humanities in America (and to give indigestion to the pipsqueak pundits of the right and the left, so many of whom use their quarter-hours of fame to bray that literature and history professors are self-indulgent theory mavens, houris of the humanities, who regard a hard day’s work reading the classics as a cat regards a bath). Scattered through bookstores and libraries, assigned in courses and recommended in conversations, they will infect readers for generations to come with the historical sense and political cynicism, the skepticism and the idealism, and the unflagging love of Latin of the Renaissance humanists. Tanto operi, one might say, nullum par encomium.
October 5, 2006
Riccardo Fubini, Storiografia dell’-umanesimo in Italia da Leonardo Bruni ad Annio da Viterbo (Rome: Storia e Letteratura, 2003). ↩
Giovanni Dominici, Lucula noctis, edited by Edmund Hunt (University of Notre Dame, 1940), p. 412, called to my attention by Alison Frazier’s excellent study Possible Lives (Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 19. ↩
See Berthold L. Ullman and Philip A. Stadter, The Public Library of Renaissance Florence (Padua: Antenore, 1972). ↩
Ingrid Rowland, The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome (Cambridge University Press, 1998). ↩
John Sparrow, Visible Words: A Study of Inscriptions in and as Books and Works of Art (Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 139. The unnamed historian was quoting a phrase of G.M. Trevelyan’s. See also the pioneering and very important collection, Renaissance Latin Verse: An Anthology, that he edited in collaboration with Alessandro Perosa (Duckworth, 1979). ↩
Aldington’s discussion of Poliziano appears, appropriately, in his introduction to The Portable Oscar Wilde (Viking, 1946), p. 12. Poliziano’s immense erudition, fostered by study of sources few of his contemporaries knew, nourished what Aldington describes in Wilde as a “technique of strange erudition made poetic.” This also characterized the prose of his varied, demanding, and sometimes mysterious letters, which are being edited and explicated for the I Tatti series, with great learning, by Shane Butler. Butler shows that Poliziano revised the letters he received from friends like Pico della Mirandola, as well as his own. He selected, omitted, and burnished texts to assemble a vivid but sometimes deliberately deceptive mosaic of the social and cultural world he lived in—a project that, like his scholarship, bears comparison in more than one way with his poetry. ↩
See the rich discussion by Christopher Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and the thoughtful review by William Stenhouse, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, September 29, 2004. ↩
In addition, many Neo-Latin texts are now available for reading or downloading on the Web. Useful sites include White Trash Scriptorium: www.ipa.net/~magreyn/ and Dana Sutton’s excellent Analytic Bibliography of On-Line Neo- Latin Tests: www.philological.bham.ac.uk/bibliography/index.htm. ↩
See James Hankins, “A Lost Continent of Literature,” in The Lost Continent: Neo-Latin Literature and the Rise of Modern European Literatures: Catalogue of an Exhibition at the Houghton Library, March 5–May 5, 2001, edited by James Hankins, Harvard Library Bulletin, new series, Volume 12, Nos. 1–2 (Winter–Spring 2001), pp. 21–27, adapted on the I Tatti Renaissance Library Web page: www.hup.harvard.edu/ itatti/neolatin_lit.html. ↩