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" eyes true, said Lorenzo, and that of Siena to the brain." When Leo X.
was elected to the pontificate, the Roman wits thus interpreted a certain date of
the year MCCCCXL, which was inscribed on a tablet in the church of the Vatican :
Mult! rmci cardinales crcuverunt ra'cum decimum Lconem.
Roscoe" s Life of Loreuzo de' Medici, vol. ii. p. 119 Fabroni Vita Leonis. X.

2 u


skilfully and courageously frustrated his hostile attempts,
that they had proved themselves truly worthy of the
blessings of freedom. Nor were the Florentines less
accomplished in the arts of peace than in those of war.
Their moderation was universally acknowledged. By
their patronage of the liberal sciences they had acquired
an honourable distinction amongst the states of Italy. A
people of this character, Filippo observed, he could not
but esteem and love ; and he protested that he would
henceforth be as assiduous in cultivating their friendship,
as he had lately been active in troubling their repose.
He advised Poggio to treat the malevolent speeches of
calumniators with contempt ; and at the close of his
epistle, he assured him that he would always be ready
to exert his power and abilities to promote the welfare
of the Tuscan republic.

In his answer to this extraordinary letter, Poggio
expressed the grateful sense which he entertained of the
polite condescension manifested by the duke, in thus
honouring a private and obscure individual with his un-
solicited correspondence. He assured Filippo that he
was highly gratified by the flattering terms in which he
had complimented him on his literary attainments, but
yet more by the eulogium which he had pronounced upon
the city of Florence, and by the pledge which he had
given of his friendship for the Tuscan state. He then
expressed his hope, and indeed his confidence, that the
pacific professions of the duke would not be found falla-
cious, but that his actions would prove the sincerity of


his declarations. Proceeding to remind him of different
conjunctures in which the Florentines had testified their
good will towards him, he observed to his illustrious cor-
respondent, that whenever the administrators of the Tus-
can republic had engaged in hostilities against him, they
had not been prompted to take up anus by the ambi-
tious hope of extending their territories, but by a deter-
mination to defend their liberties. " And if," said he,
" liberty ought to be dear to any people, it ought to be
" dear to the Florentines ; for freedom is the very
" essence of our constitution. We are not ruled by the
" arbitrary will of an individual, nor by a faction of
" nobles. The mass of the people enjoy an equality
" of rights, and the way to civic honours is open to
" all. Hence it happens, that the high and the low,
" the noble and the ignoble, the rich and the poor,
" unite in the defence of their common freedom, and
" that in so glorious a cause they spare no expense,
" shrink from no labour, and dread no danger." Pog-
gio then proceeded to express his persuasion, that in
the wars in which the duke had engaged against the
Florentine state, he had imagined that he was fighting
in defence of his honour and glory ; for it was not
to be supposed, that so generous a prince could for a
moment entertain the unworthy desire to oppress a re-
public, whose power and splendour, the consequences of
its free constitution, were the pride of Italy. Nothing,
he assured the duke, could be more grateful to his
feelings, than the friendly dispositions towards his coun-
trymen announced in his letter, which he fondly regarded

332 CHAP. vni.

as the herald of a lasting peace. " Peace," said he, " I
" must always regard as preferable to war provided it
" be not the cloak of insidious stratagem. You see,"
" continued Poggio, " that your condescension encourages
" me to express my sentiments with the utmost freedom.
"At the same time do not imagine that I mean to in-
" sinuate any doubt of your sincerity. I am confident
" that your well known wisdom will prompt you to lay
" the foundations of a firm and lasting friendship, which
<; will be mutually advantageous to yourself and to the
" Florentine state. Let this be your conduct, and you
" will find me a joyful herald of your praise ; and incon-
" siderable as my talents may be, my efforts will be
" the means of exciting others, whose abilities will do
" ample justice to your merits.""*

If it was the intention of the duke of Milan, by
thus honouring Poggio with the offer of his friendship,
to make an experiment upon his vanity, the tenor of the
foregoing answer to his condescending epistle must have
convinced him that his experiment had entirely failed.
Divesting himself of the humility of the papal secretary,
Poggio addressed his illustrious correspondent with the
firm ingenuousness of a citizen of a free state. He pleaded
the cause of his country with all the energy of liberty ;
and though he prudently smoothed the harshness of dis-
trust by the polish of urbanity, the penetration of Filippo

* Poygii Opera, p. 333, 339.


would easily discern, that he was far from giving implicit
credit to his professions of friendship for the Florentine

Whatever might be the views of the duke in this
affair, not many months had elapsed after the occurrence
of this interchange of suspicious civility, before he found
that the privileged walls of the palace of Milan could not
protect a literary delinquent from the rage of scholastic
vengeance ; and that the interposition of his patronage
could not deter Poggio from reiterating his attacks upon
Francesco Filelfo. It has been already related, that this
wandering professor, when he was compelled to fly from
Florence, withdrew to Siena, where he arrived early in
the year 1435. In this city he commenced a series of
lectures on rhetoric, for which he was remunerated by
the payment of an annual salary of three hundred and
fifty gold crowns.* His literary labours were however
disturbed by the apprehensions which he entertained of
the machinations of his adversaries. But his fears for
his personal safety did not restrain the intemperance of
his pen. On the thirteenth of August, 1437, he trans-
mitted to one of his friends, named Pietro Picrleoni, a
new satire against Poggio and Cosmo de 1 Medici. Soon
after the publication of this satire, he visited the baths
of Petriolse, where he had not long resided before he
received a letter from Siena, informing him that a man
of a very suspicious appearance had been making minute

* Philelfi Opera, p. !3.

334 CHAP. vin.

inquiries into his present situation and habits of life.
On the receipt of this letter Filelfo returned to Siena,
where he soon recognized in the person in question,
the ruffian who had formerly made an attack upon him
in the streets of Florence. He immediately gave the
necessary information to the captain of the city guard.
This officer without loss of time apprehended the villain,
from whom, according to the barbarous practice of the
times, he endeavoured to extract a declaration of the
object of his visit to Siena by the pains of the rack.
By this uncertain mode of investigation, the prisoner
was compelled to confess, that he came to that city for
the purpose of assassinating Filelfo. The captain of the
guard did not deem it necessary to inquire whether any
person had suborned him to perpetrate so execrable a
deed ; but the ready conjecture of Filelfo fixed upon
the Medici an imputation, which a direct interrogatory
ably introduced on a new distension of his sinews, would
have induced the wretched Filippo to confirm by a judicial
declaration. An acknowledgment of guilt having been
thus extorted from the culprit, the captain of the guard
proceeded to condemn him to pay a fine of five hundred
pounds of silver. Filelfo, not satisfied with this penalty,
appealed to the governor of the city, who proceeding
upon his recorded confession, punished the offender by
cutting off his right hand. Nothing indeed but the
earnest request of Filelfo would have prevented the chief
magistrate from dooming the wretch to the punishment
of death. Filelfo was not, however, prompted by any
emotions of compassion to desire that the life of the

CHAP. viii. 335

assassin might be prolonged. " I interfered to prevent
his execution," said he, in a letter to ^Eneas Sylvius,
" because I wished that he should live mutilated and
" disgraced, rather than that he should be freed by a
" speedy death from the anguish of a suffering mind.
" For as it is the duty of a man of a magnanimous spirit
" to forgive slight offences, so justice and prudence require
" us to inflict vengeance on a common enemy of the
" human race. 1 '* Filelfo was so much alarmed by the
appearance of the Tuscan bravo, that he did not deem
himself secure in the precincts of Siena. He accordingly
returned from thence to Bologna. t After a short residence
in that place, in the month of May, 1439, he repaired to
Milan, to which city he was attracted by the munificence
of the dukc.| Encouraged by the protection of this
powerful patron, l?e exulted in his security, and proudly
bade defiance to his enemies. Mistaking the emotions of
wrath for the inspiration of the muse, he poured forth
torrent after torrent of abusive verses. Ringing over and
over again the changes of virulent scurrility, he renewed
his attack upon the person and reputation of Poggio.
The vengeance of Poggio was not long dormant. He
moved to the combat with the cumbrous artillery of a
long invective, in which he continued his invidious stric-
tures on the life and conversation of his adversary.
Adverting in the beginning of this composition to the

Pfiilelji Epistote, p. 18.
f Ibid.


scandalous imputations which had been aimed at him by
Pilelfo, he thus compared his own history with that of
his antagonist. " Of myself I shall only say, that in
" consequence of these crimes which you impute to me,
" I have lived with honour and dignity in the service of
" seven successive pontiffs, from whom I have experienced
" the most satisfactory proofs of their kind regard ; whilst
" you, adorned as you represent yourself to be with
" virtues, have been wandering about like a Scythian
" flying from city to city ; oppressed with poverty, con-
" tinually reduced to the necessity of suing for foreign
" aid, never able to retain a fixed habitation for any length
" of time ; but, like a harpy, spreading such a foul con-
" tagion wherever you come, that they who afforded you
" an asylum were soon compelled to banish you."*
Upbraiding his antagonist with the obscurity of his origin,
Poggio affirmed that he was the offspring of an adulterous
intercourse between a parish priest and the wife of a
rustic, whose hands, he said, were so rough with continual
labour, that he was accustomed to use them instead of
a curry comb in dressing his horses.t Tracing the course
of Filelfo's early life, he noticed his residence in Padua,
and his visit to Venice and Constantinople, from all
which places he affirmed that he was driven by the infamy
of his vices. Narrating his transactions after his return
to Italy, he charged him with fraudulently retaining
certain books, in payment for which he had received sums

* Poggii Opera, p. 175.
f Poggii Opera, p. 176.

CHAP. vui. 337

of money from Leonardo Giustiniano and Guarino Ve-
ronese. He also enumerated many more instances of his
alleged dishonesty. Amongst other imputations of this
nature, he asserted, that Filelfo, being once admitted into
Leonardo Aretino's library, took advantage of the absence
of his host to steal a box of gold rings. He reminded
him of the precipitancy of his flight from Florence, and
affirmed that he left Siena in disgrace, and fled to Milan
in circumstances of the utmost distress. Having exhausted
all the topics of obloquy which suggested themselves to
his fertile imagination, Poggio concluded his invective
with the following peroration. " Since you are conscious
" that these things are true, I wonder that you do not
" withdraw from the light, and fly from the aspect of men
" into some distant solitudes, where the villany of Filelfo
" is unknown. But your mind, delighting in wickedness and
" blinded by passion, your obscene manners, your abandon-
" ed life, your secret vices, hurry you headlong to your fate,
" drive you onward by the instigation of the furies, prevent
" you from profiting by wholesome counsel, and render you
" insensible of the distinction between right and wrong.
" As Hercules traversed the world to benefit mankind by
" his labours, so you have visited every country and climate
" to disgust them by your vices. Whither would you
" betake yourself should you be deprived of the counte-
" nance of your present patron ? You have now wandered
" like a common mendicant through every district of Italy.
" What will you do if your present resources fail you ?
" Whose assistance will you implore ? To whose pro-
" tection will you commend yourself? I know what you

2 x

338 CHAP. vni.

" will do. You will enlist into some army ; and, such is
" your ambition, you will have the vanity to aspire to the
" chief command. But you will make your exit at the
" gallows an exit well befitting a mnn of your vicious
" character. For when your patron shall perceive that he
" does not obtain praise, but ignominy from your ridiculous
" writings his sentiments will be changed, and he will
" drag you from your obscene retreat, and inflict upon you
" the punishment due to your crimes."*

The exhibition of a few specimens of the virulence
which distinguished the hostility of these learned gladiators
is perhaps necessary to give a true idea of the character of
the combatants, and of the times in which they lived. It
may also be subservient to another useful purpose. The
odious nature of vice, as well as the beauty of virtue, is
most strikingly demonstrated by examples; and perhaps
nothing will tend more to convince men of the folly of
evil speaking, lying, and slandering, than the perusal of
tlfe invectives of Poggio, and the satires of Filelfo.

Poggio did not, however, waste the whole of the lei-
sure time which he enjoyed in the retirement of his Tuscan
villa, in the disgraceful occupation of bestowing a literary
garb on the grossest abuse. At the commencement of the
year 1440 he published his dialogue on Nobility, a work
which greatly increased his reputation by the luminousness
of its method, the elegance of its diction, and the learned

. Poggil Opera, p. 186, 187.


references with which it was interspersed. In a short
prefatory address, by which he dedicated this dialogue to
Gerardo Landriani, bishop of Como, he observed, that it
was a remarkable circumstance, that this subject, which
opened so wide a field for discussion, had been in a manner
neglected by the learned. He professed his conviction of
his own inability to do justice to it, but expressed his hopes
that his example might induce scholars of more brilliant
talents to correct his errors, and to supply his deficiencies.

The interlocutors of this dialogue are Niccolo Niccoli
and Lorenzo de' Medici, the brother of Cosmo. The
scene of the conversation is laid in the villa of Poggio,
which these lovers of the fine arts had visited for the
purpose of inspecting some ancient statues which had been
lately conveyed thither from Rome. The sight of these
statues arranged in the garden of Poggio's rural retreat
reminds Lorenzo of the manners of the ancient Romans,
who, he observes, were accustomed to adorn the halls of
their palaces with the effigies of their ancestors, the lustre
of whose nobility they imagined reflected honour on them-
selves. This remark draws from Niccolo a declaration
of his opinion, that in founding their fame on the glory
of their progenitors, they were greatly deceived, as the
seat of true nobility is the mind. Lorenzo, granting the
position, that virtue is a source of nobility, affirms that
this honour may also be acquired by the ornaments of
wealth and dignity In proof of his assertion, he enlarges
on the meaning of the word nobilis, shewing, by various
quotations from Latin authors, that it i& used to signify in


general the quality of being remarkable, without any
reference to the cause of notoriety. He moreover observes,
that the common opinion of men attaches the idea of
nobility to eminence of station, splendour of birth, and
other adventitious circumstances of a similar nature. Nic-
colo, replying to this observation, that if the opinion of the
vulgar is to be regarded, their ideas are so various upon the
subject, that no certain criterion can be derived from them,
is desired to enumerate the characteristics of nobility which
occur in different countries. In compliance with this
request, he thus describes the nobles of his native land.
" To begin with the Italians, who have disseminated
" amongst other nations the arts which adorn human life,
" what a difference there subsists between the nobility of
u Naples, of Venice, and of Rome. The Neapolitans,
" who pride themselves on their patrician dignity, seem to
" imagine, that nobility consists in the indulgence of idle-
" ness and sloth ; for they enter into no active pursuits,
" but live in indolence upon the revenues of their estates.
" They deem it unbecoming a nobleman to attend to agri-
" culture, or to take any cognizance of the state of his
" affairs. They spend their time in loitering in the halls of
" their palaces, or in equestrian exercises. However bad
ft a man's moral character may be, or however mean his
" talents, if he be descended from an ancient family, he
" ranks amongst the nobility. As to merchandize, they
" regard it with contempt ; and so ridiculous is their pride,
" that though they be reduced to the most abject state of
" poverty, they would rather starve than suffer any branch
" of their family to form a matrimonial alliance with the


" most opulent tradesman. Nay, so great is their dislike
" of traffic, that they deem it more honourable to support
" themselves by robbery, than to gain a livelihood by
" engaging in any species of commerce. I know a Neapo-
" litan of a most illustrious family, who was regarded by
" his brother patricians in so degrading a light, because he
" had exposed to sale a quantity of wine, the produce of
" his estates, that he experienced the utmost difficulty in
" marrying his daughter, though he was able to bestow
" upon her a very large fortune.

" To this absurdity the customs of the Venetians
" afford a striking contrast. In their state the nobility
" compose a kind of faction distinct from the body of
" the people, and are all engaged in merchandize. All
" those who have discharged public offices, and all the
" members of the senate, are graced with the honours of
" nobility. And so vain are they of this distinction,
" that the foolish and needy son of a foolish and needy
" father, looks down with disdain upon a plebeian, whatever
11 may be his learning or his worth. The ranks of the
" Venetian nobility are sometimes recruited in an extra-
" ordinary manner. For he who has done any signal
" service to the state, however culpable may have been
" the means of which he has made use to promote this end,
" is immediately enrolled in the list of the patricians.

" The Roman nobles are taught to regard merchan-
" dize as a sordid pursuit, and they employ themselves in
" the cultivation of their lands, and in the breeding of


f ' cattle. So far are they from thinking it beneath their
" dignity to convert their agricultural knowledge into a
" source of gain, that property thus acquired will raise
" ignoble families to the honour of noble birth.

" The Florentines seem to have more correct notions
" of nobility than any of the above-mentioned communities.
" For amongst us those are accounted noble who are des-
" cended from ancient families, and whose ancestors have
" held distinguished places in the administration of public
" affairs ; but their nobility is by no means dependant upon
" the nature of their occupation. For some of them engage
" in merchandize ; others live upon the income of their pro-
" perty, and amuse themselves with the rural diversions of
" hawking and hunting. The Genoese who live on the coast
" are all indiscriminately engaged in commerce, and their
" nobility depends upon their origin. The Lombard nobles
" reside in fortresses built upon the mountains, and, by their
" predatory excursions, strike terror into the traveller. The
" nobility of the Terra Firma of Venice live on the revenue
" of their estates, and spend their time in rural sports.
" Amongst them, nobility depends upon high descent, and
" independence of property. Why should I mention other
" nations whose customs differ but little from our own ?
" The Germans esteem those noble who inherit a patrimony
" sufficient for their maintenance ; and they bestow this title
" on those formidable plunderers who retire from towns and
" cities to the security of their castles. Throughout the
" whole of France the privilege of nobility is held by one
" uniform tenure. The Gallic lords live in the country,

CHAP. viii. 343

" and think it a disgrace for a man of exalted birth to reside
" in a town. They despise merchants as a vile and abject
" race of beings. Prodigality and carelessness with regard
" to futurity they esteem a certain indication of a noble
" spirit. The nobility of France is continually increased
" by the accession either of the wealthy, or of the retainers
" of the great barons. For the sons of merchants and
" tradesmen who have inherited large fortunes from their
" fathers, by purchasing an estate and living in the country
" on its produce, compose an inferior order of nobility, and
" transmit to their sons all the honours of the aristocracy :
" and those who have lived in the service of the great barons,
" by receiving from their liege lords a grant of land, attain
" to the rank of nobility. The customs of the English are
" in this respect very similar to those of the French. In
" Spain nobility is attached to the descendants of ancient
" houses who are possessed of competent property, whether
" they reside in cities or in the country."

Having thus noticed the different ideas of nobility
which are entertained in the European states, Niccolo pro-
ceeds slightly to animadvert upon the notions of the Asiatics
upon this subject ; and from this induction of particulars,
he draws the general inference, that nobility, in the vulgar
acceptation of the term, cannot be traced to any fixed prin-
ciples. On Lorenzo's intimating that the title of noble
should be granted to all those who are esteemed so by the
institutions of their country, Niccolo refuses his assent to
this proposition, and proceeds to argue the matter at large
with much sound reasoning, proving that nobility docs not

344 CHAP. vin.

depend upon externals. Lorenzo in reply to Niccolo adduces
the definition of nobility proposed by Aristotle, who asserts
in his dialogue on Politics, that the virtuous descendants of
virtuous and wealthy ancestors are noble. This definition is
examined by Niccolo, who maintains that it is faulty, be-
cause a virtuous man does not lose his nobility, should he
happen to be deprived of his wealth. In opposition to the
opinion of the Stagyrite, he quotes the opinion of Plato and
the Stoics, who assert, that true nobility consists in virtue.
Lorenzo acknowledges that virtue is requisite to true nobility ;
but still contends that to complete the idea of this distinc-
tion, to virtue must be added those external advantages
which render a man conspicuous. Niccolo grants that these
are desirable adjuncts ; but at the same time adheres to his
original position, that purity of moral principle is an indis-
pensable characteristic of genuine nobility, and concludes
the conference by inviting the company to enjoy the coolness
of the evening in walking along the banks of the river.*

Though this dialogue on nobility was received with
great applause by the generality of learned men, the
description which it contained of the Venetian nobles
offended the patriotic pride of Gregorio Coriario, prothono-
tary of the apostolic see, who remonstrated with Poggio on
the unfavourable light in which he had represented the
patricians of his country, as a kind of faction distinct from
the body of the people, and as being ready to confer the

Online LibraryWilliam ShepherdThe life of Poggio Bracciolini → online text (page 23 of 31)