A Passionate Master


On July 6, 1417, the Venetian nobleman Francesco Barbaro sent a laudatory letter to Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to the Antipope John XXIII and a leading humanist of his time. Barbaro praised Poggio’s extraordinary success in ferreting out ancient texts from their moldering monastic hiding places while in Germany for the Council of Constance, to which Poggio had come along with the pope.

Marc Fumaroli
Marc Fumaroli; drawing by James Ferguson

This letter, with its congratulations to Poggio on finding the work of such important writers as Tertullian and Lucretius, said that he deserved immortal glory in the “republic of letters.” Marc Fumaroli, now the leading French historian of Renaissance intellectual history, observes that this is the first use of the phrase “republic of letters”—respublica litteraria. It referred to the small group of Renaissance scholars who were engaged in rediscovering, reinterpreting, and enlarging on important Latin and Greek texts. In doing so, as Fumaroli and others have argued, they formed a new kind of community that did much to define the Renaissance and the ways of thinking that led to “modern” culture.

Despite the prominence of the term “republic of letters” in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the Huguenot encyclopedist and philosopher Pierre Bayle called his journal News from the Republic of Letters—it has only recently had serious attention in France, Italy, and Germany, as well as the United States and United Kingdom. The subject has grown in importance as a way of understanding why the period in Europe from 1500 to 1800 is so important. No one has contributed more to this shift in perspective than Marc Fumaroli.

Fumaroli was born in Marseille in 1932, spent his childhood in Fez, in Morocco, his teenage years in Marseille, and was then educated at the University of Aix-en-Provence and at the Sorbonne. He began his teaching career in Lille before moving to Paris in 1976. He has remained there, first at the Sorbonne, and since 1986 at the Collège de France. In 1995 he was elected to the Académie française, that would-be modern Parnassus created by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 to honor the heroes of French learning. He has written or edited twenty books, the best known of which are commentaries on recent cultural politics in France or collections of texts such as L’État culturel (1991) and When the World Spoke French (2001; translation, 2011). In these books Fumaroli criticizes the present identity and cultural shallowness of France from the perspective of its past. But in most of his work he writes as a scholar speaking to other scholars.

Fumaroli is the most sure-footed guide we have to high culture in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. His works explore three main themes: the uses of classical rhetoric in the late Renaissance, the century-long so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, and the Republic of Letters.

What is perhaps his greatest book, L’Âge de l’éloquence (1980), is a vast study of…

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