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of the great. Beaufort wanted either leisure or inclination to
minister to the wants and wishes of his guest ; and Poggio
began to feel all the inconveniences of straightened circum-
stances, aggravated by the reflection that he was situated at so
serious a distance from his native land. His communication
with his early friends, and the companions of his youthful
years, was interrupted. He experienced the embarrassments

* UEnfanCs History of the Council of Constance, vol. ii. p. 143.

(HAP. III. 113

lU'cessarily incident to those who are thrown into a new
circle of society, to the habits of which they are entirely
unaccustomed ; and his mind became the prey of discontent
and anxiety. He was also much chagrined on observing the
uncultivated state of the public mind in Britain, when com-
pared with the enthusiastic love of elegant literature which
polished and adorned his native country.* The period of
his arrival in England has been justly pronounced by one of
our most accurate historians, to be in a literary point of view
one of the darkest which occur in the whole series of British
annals.f Leland indeed and other writers enumerate long
lists of scholars, whom they indiscriminately grace with the
title of most learned. These champions of literature were
however nothing more than monks and astrologers, who
were regarded with superstitious admiration by an ignorant
age, but whose works are now deservedly buried in oblivion.
The occult sciences, scfiolastic philosophy, and the mysteries
of theology, absorbed the attention of the contemptible few
who advanced any pretensions to the cultivation of learning.
Of the principles of composition and the graces of style '
they were totally ignorant nay so imperfect was their
knowledge of the Latin tongue, that almost every sentence
of their writings is deformed by the barbarous introduction
of English words, miserably metamorphosed by a Latin
termination. J

* See Tonelli's Epiatolarium Poggii, lilt. i. epist. xi.

f See Henry's History of Great Britain, vol. x. p. 109128.

{ Thus William of Wyrcester tells us, that the duke of York returned
from Ireland, " et arrivavit apud Redbank prope Cestriam."

Henry's History vl supra-
Q i

114 CHAP. III.

The respectable author, whose opinion of the state of
British literature in the fifteenth century has been quoted
above, ascribes the neglect of learning which disgraces this
portion of our history to the following causes. The wars
in which the English had been so long engaged against
France The schism of the west The little encourage-
ment afforded to learned men and the scarcity of books.

With respect to the first of these causes, it may be
observed, that a state of warfare by no means in itself pre-
cludes the extension of science, and the cultivation of letters.
The most renowned luminaries of Greece flourished during
the devastation of the Peloponnesian war. Julius Caesar
and Cicero were not diverted from their literary pursuits by
the tumult of faction, and the din of arms. And at the
time when literature was revived in Italy, the provinces of
that country were frequently laid waste by hostile invasions,
and its cities were agitated by the discord of contending
parties. As to the second cause, namely, the distraction
occasioned by the schism, it may be remarked, that though
this distraction was felt to a superior degree in Italy, it did
not in that country operate as the slightest check to the pro-
gress of learning. The want of encouragement to learned
men, is rather a consequence than a cause of the forlorn
state of literature. Some degree of knowledge and taste is
requisite to form the character of a patron of the studious.

The neglect of the liberal arts which spread the gloom
of barbarism over our ancestors of the fifteenth century,
may perhaps be more justly ascribed to the operation of the

CHAP. III. 115

feudal system. This primary cause prevented that excita-
tion of the public mind, which is necessary to the successful
cultivation of literature. The feudal system was a system
of strict subordination, which prescribed to every member of
the political community his particular rank and place, and
surrounded him by a circle, beyond which he was forbidden
to pass. In the spirit of this system, till the reign of
Henry IV., no farmer or mechanic was permitted to send his
children to school ; and long after that period, a license
from his lord was necessary to enable a man of this descrip-
tion to educate a son for the church. Whilst the majority
of the people were thus impeded in their approach to the
fountains of knowledge, it was impossible for learning to
raise her drooping head. The feudal superiors, exalted by
the accident of their birth to the enjoyment of power and
plenty, had no motive to induce them to submit to the
labour of study. The younger branches of noble families
were early taught to depend upon their swords for sub-
sistence ; and the acquisition of learning was an object far
beyond the scope of the oppressed and humble vassal.

The influence of the feudal system in checking the
progress of intellect will be more plainly visible, if we con-
sider the circumstances of Italy during the period in ques-
tion. In that country, the ambition of adventurers, and
the extension of commerce, had broken the fetters of feud-
alism ; and had enabled the bold and daring in every species
of exertion to rise to the pitch of consequence which their
talents could vindicate. Hence the dormant powers of the
human mind were roused, and the expansion of learning

116 CHAP. III.

and the liberal arts was promoted. The equalizing tyranny
of the petty princes who usurped the sovereignty of various
cities of Lombardy, whilst it repressed the power of the
aristocracy> called into life the abilities of all the orders
of society. The precarious title by which these chieftains
held their exalted stations induced them to court popularity,
by freeing the mass of the people from invidious restraints.
During the residence of the popes at Avignon, and during
the continuance of the schism, the feeble rule exercised by
the pontifical deputies over the ecclesiastical cities enabled
the inhabitants of those cities to defy the authority which
endeavoured to confine their exertions within the limits of
slavish subordination. The factions which disturbed the
peace of the Italian republics tended also in an eminent
degree to call forth the full energy of abilities, which in
other circumstances would have been buried in obscurity.
Great talents are too frequently united with turbulence of
spirit. In times when the order of society is inverted by
the tumults of civil broils, while men of peaceful souls
retire trembling from the conflict, he who is endued with
the energy of genius, comes forth, conscious of his strength,
and despising every danger, exults in the hope of vindi-
cating his claim to promotion.

It is evident, that these various stimulants of intellect
which occurred in Italy did not occur in Britain On this
account, whilst the liberal arts were cultivated and respected
in the former country, they were neglected and despised in
the latter.

CHAP. III. 117

Another cause of incitement to the study of letters,
which operated in Italy, and was wanting in Britain, arose
from the subdivision of the former country into a variety
of petty states. These states maintained a constant inter-
course with each other, by the medium of ambassadors,
who were usually selected from among the most distinguished
candidates for literary fame. Thus one of the most honour-
able offices in the civil department of the state was pre-
sented to inflame the ambition of the studious, and the
diplomatic profession became the nurse of learning.

When the wish of acquiring knowledge was excited,
the numerous copies of the Avorks of the ancients, which
were scattered throughout Italy, afforded ample means of
instruction ; while the penury of Britain in this respect
repressed the exertions of inquiry, and excluded the nascent
scholar from the cultivated regions of classic taste. *

The vexation which Poggio experienced, when he
contemplated the gloomy contrast which Britain exhibited,
when compared with his native land, was encreased by the
receipt of letters from Italy, informing him, that whilst he
was wasting his days in the unprofitable pursuit of prefer-
ment, his late associates were enjoying, with scholastic
rapture, the perusal of some valuable manuscripts, which

* Though Poggio carefully examined the libraries of many of the English
monasteries, he discovered in them only one manuscript which he esteemed of
any value, namely the Chronicle of Sigebert, a monk who lived in the tenth
century. See Ton.^Tr. vol. i. p. 116.

118 CHAP. III.

had been discovered at Lodi by Gerardo Landriani, bishop
of that city. This prelate had rescued from a heap of
rubbish a very ancient copy of various works of Cicero,
written in a character so antique, that few were able to
decypher it. The manuscript in question contained, besides
Cicero^s treatise on Rhetoric, which was already in the hands
of collectors of books, the following works of the same elegant
writer, which had till this period escaped the researches of
the learned The three books De Oratore, entire Brutus
de claris Oratoribus and the Orator ad Brutum. Nobody
could be found at Milan who was able to read the character
in which these treatises were written. But Cosmo of Cre-
mona, a scholar of excellent accomplishments, decyphered
and copied the treatise De Oratore ; and the celebrated
Flavio Biondo* undertook and soon accomplished the task

* Flavio Biondo, who was born at Forli, in the year 1388, waa a descen-
dant of the illustrious family of Ravaldini. He kas himself recorded the fact,
that he studied Grammar, Rhetoric, and Poetry, under the instructions of Gio-
vanni Ballistario, of Cremona. At an early age he was commissioned by his
countrymen to conduct some negociations at the court of Milan ; and it was
during his visit to that city, that he executed the task of copying the newly-dis-
covered manuscript of Cicero's treatise, De Claris Oratoribus. In the year
1430, he was making preparations for a journey to Rome ; but Francesco Barbaro,
who held him in the highest esteem, and who had procured for him the privi-
leges of a Venetian citizen, having been lately appointed governor of the Ber-
gamese district, induced him to give up this design, and to accompany him to
Bergamo, invested with the confidential office of chancellor of that city. He
afterwards entered into the Roman chancery, under the patronage of Eugenius
IV., by whom he was employed in the year 1434, in conjunction with the bishop
of Recanati, to solicit, on his behalf, the assistance of the Florentines and Vene-
tians. He continued to hold the office of apostolic secretary during the ponti-
ficate of Nicholas V., Calixtus III., and Pius II. In the year 1459 he attended
the last mentioned pontiff to the council of Mantua. From that city he

OHAP. III. 119

of transcribing Brutus de claris Oratoribus. From these
transcripts copies were speedily multiplied, and dispersed all
over Italy, while Poggio was waiting with the* utmost

returned to Rome, where he died on the 4th of June, 1463, leaving five sons,
all well instructed in literature.

Of his numerous publications the following aie the most considerable.

1. Roma Instaurata A work of great erudition, in which he gave a most
exact description of the buildings, gates, temples, and other monuments of an-
cient Rome, which still resisted the destructive band of time.

2. Roma Triumphans This is also a most elaborate treatise, which contains
an account of the laws, constitution, religion, and sacred ceremonies of the
Roman republic, collected from the incidental notices of these subjects, which
are scattered through the wide extent of Latin literature.

3. Of a similar description is his Italia Illustrata, in which he describes
Italy, according to its ancient division into fourteen regions, and details the
origin and history of each province and city. This work he composed at the
request of Alphonso, king of Naples.

4. A treatise, De Origine et Gestis Venetorum.

5. He undertook a work of still greater extent than any of those which have
been enumerated above, viz. A General History of the period extending from
the decline of the Roman Empire to his own times. He had finished three decads
and the first book of the fourth of this work, when its prosecution was inter-
rupted by his death.

" In all these works," says Tiraboschi, " though Biondo occasionally deviates
" into various errors, he displays a singular diligence in collecting from all
" authors whatever appertains to his subject ; and when it is considered, that
" they are the first essays in their kind, they cannot but give the reader a high
" idea of the prodigious learning and unwearied application of their author."

The historical works of Biondo, translated into Italian by Lucio Fauno,
were printed at Venice by Michel Tramezzino. A general collection of his
writings was also printed in folio, at Basil, by Frobenius, A. D. 1231 and 1539.
Apostolo Zeno Dissertazioni Vossiane, torn. i. p. 229, <|-c. Tiraboschi Storia
della Let. Ital. torn. vi. p. 3,4, 5,6,7.

120 CHAP. III.

impatience, till Leonardo Aretino could convey one of these
copies to the distant region in which his friend then resided.*

At this inauspicious period, Poggio was filled with
anxiety on account of the destitute condition of his mother,
and also by the dissolute conduct of one of his brothers.^
In these circumstances his uneasiness and vexation were
greatly aggravated by the receipt of a letter from Niccolo
Niccoli, containing grievous complaints against Leonardo
Aretino, and informing him, that the bond of friendship,
by which his correspondent and Leonardo had for so long a
space of time been united, was for ever sundered.

The quarrel which took place between Leonardo
Aretino and Niccolo Niccoli, originated in a cause, which
has, in every age, been productive of the fiercest and most
fatal contentions, namely, the uncontrolled gratification of
the passion, or rather of the appetite, of love. The follow-
ing are the principal circumstances which gave rise to this
unfortunate disagreement. Giovanni, the younger brother
of Niccolo, kept a mistress of the name of Benvenuta. As
the two brothers resided in the same house, Niccolo had fre-
quent opportunities of seeing this syren, whose charms and
allurements gained such an ascendancy over his better princi-
ples, ^hat after having for some time carried on an intrigue
with her in private, he at length, in defiance of all decency,
openly robbed his brother of his fair companion, and esta-

* Mehi Prtefatio, p. xlvi.
f Ton. Tr. vol. i. p. 117.


blished Benvenuta in his own apartments.* It may easily be
imagined, that Giovanni did not tamely submit to such an
injury. In consequence of his resentment, the neighbourhood
was daily disturbed by the outrages of fraternal discord.
One of the worst effects produced by such disgraceful connec-
tions as that which Niccolo had formed with Benvenuta, is
the absolute ascendancy which artful and wicked women
thereby gain over men of weak minds ; and which they uni-
formly exercise, in setting their lovers at variance with their
relations and friends. The history of Niccolo confirms the
truth of this observation. By the crafty insinuations of his
mistress his affections were alienated from those with whom he
had formerly been united by the bonds of consanguinity and
friendship. Influenced by her suggestions, he dropped all
intercourse with his five brothers, and quarrelled with Lorenzo
de"* Medici, whom he had till this unfortunate transaction
been proud to enumerate amongst his dearest associates. In
the height of her insolence, Benvenuta had the audacity to
defame the character of the wife of Jacopo, one of the
brothers of Niccolo. Jacopo, for some time, endured her
insolence with patient contempt ; but at length exasperated
by her petulance, he asked the advice, and demanded the

* It is rather an extraordinary circumstance, that Ambrogio Traversari, the
celebrated superior of the monastery of Camaldoli, in several of his letters to
Niccolo Niccoli, requests his correspondent to present his compliments to this
Benvenuta, whom he distinguishes by the title ot fasmina jidelissima. Shall
we suppose, that the reverend ecclesiastic was so little acquainted with the
private history of the Florentine gentry, as to be ignorant of the intercourse
which subsisted between Beuveuuta aud his friend or shall we conclude that
he did not regard this intercourse as a breach of moral duty ?

Ambrogii Traversarii Epislola, lib, viii. ep. ii. iii. v. <J-c.

122 CHAP. III.

assistance of his brothers. They sympathized with him
in his resentment, and readily gave him the aid which he
required. Proceeding to the house of Niccolo, they seized
the termagant beauty, and exalting her on the back of one
of their attendants, to the great amusement of the by-
standers, they inflicted on her a species of chastisement, in
the administration of which convenience and severity are
consulted much more than modesty. Niccolo was a helpless
witness of the pain and disgrace suffered by Benvenuta.
This spectacle had such an effect on his feelings, that,
vowing vengeance against his brothers, he retired to his
house, and delivered himself up to the most immoderate
transports of grief. Hearing that he was thus afflicted,
several of his acquaintance paid him visits of condolence,
from which they returned, ridiculing his folly, and fully
persuaded that his anger had impaired his reason. In this
conjuncture, Leonardo Aretino, being aware that Niccolo
was not in a mood to listen with patience to the remon-
strances which he thought it his duty to make to him on
the extravagance of his conduct, cautiously avoided going
to his house. This circumstance did not escape the ob-
servation of the mourner, who sent word to Leonardo, that
he was surprised that he had not received from him the
common offices of friendly consolation. To this message
Leonardo replied, that he was surprised that Niccolo should
expect consolation from his friends on so trifling a subject
of sorrow as the chastisement of his cook-maid ; and that
he thought it was time for him to put an end to his folly.
This message added fuel to the flame of Niccolo's wrath.
He now kept no measures with Leonardo ; but abjured his

CHAP. III. 123

friendship, and eagerly embraced every opportunity of in-
veighing against him with the utmost bitterness.* Leonardo
did not submit with patience to the angry maledictions
of his former associate. In a bitter invective which he pub-
lished against Niccolo, under the designation of Nebula
Makficus, he returned railing for railing ; and, notwith-
standing the mediation of their common acquaintance, and,
amongst the rest of Poggio, the breach of friendship which
had been thus unhappily occasioned by -the intemperate
passions of Niccolo, daily became wider.-f'

Whilst the feelings of Poggio were thus wounded by
the dissension of his dearest friends, he earnestly solicited
from his patron some recompense for the long journey
which he had undertaken, at his invitation, and in reli-
ance on his promises of preferment and support. His
solicitations were for a long time entirely fruitless. He
found, by mortifying experience, that men of exalted rank
are much more ready to make promises than to fulfil their
engagements. *< At length, 1 ' to adopt his own expression,
" the mountain laboured, and produced a mouse. 1 ' 1 The

* Leonardi Aretini Epis. lib. v. ep. iv.

f Mchus, in his list of the works of Leonardo Arctino, intimates that a
copy of this invective is preserved in the library of New College, Oxford. A
strict and laborious search, made by direction of the Warden of New College,
in the month of November, 1801, has ascertained the fact, that it does not now
exist there. The catalogue of that valuable repository of learning does indeed
make mention of a MS. volume, as containing the oration in question. On an
accurate examination of this volume, however, no trace was found of Leonardo's
Invective, nor any appearances to justify the suspicion, that this or any other
work has been withdrawn from it by the rapacity of literary peculation.

124 CHAP. III.

wealthy and powerful Bishop of Winchester presented his
client with a benefice, the annual income of which was
nominally one hundred and twenty florins ; but in con-
sequence of various deductions, its revenues did not in fact
amount even to that inconsiderable sum. Poggio had
always entertained great objections to the clerical life. His
objections were not founded upon a contempt of the institu-
tions of religion. On the contrary, they proceeded from
the exalted idea which he entertained of the duties of the
clerical office. Sensible, as he himself says in a letter to
Niccolo Niccoli, of the serious charge which they impose
upon themselves, who undertake the cure of souls, he was
diffident of his qualifications to execute the duties of an
office, the faithful discharge of which, demanded the most
indefatigable industry, and the most scrupulous correctness
of moral conduct.* Influenced by these considerations,
which certainly bear very satisfactory testimony to the purity
of his principles, though he was soon promoted to a much

* " Nam ut alias ad te seripsi, non ignoro, quam grave sit subire onus
" Clerici, et quanta cura oporteat eos torqueri, si qua sint conscientia, qui ex
" beneficio vivunt. Quum enim pracmia non dentur, nisi laboranti, qui non
*' laboratut ait Apostolus, non manducet. Hsec tamen dicuntur facilius quam
" fiant, et ut vulgo aiunt, satius est in manibus Dei incidere quam hominis.
' Sed tamen si opus Petri, hoc est prornissio perficeretur, relinquerem ista sacra,
" ad quae nonnisi invitus accedo, non quod Religionem spernam aliquo inodo,
" sed quia non confido me talem futurum, qualem describunt esse debere."

Ambrosii Traversarii Opera, torn. ii. p. 1123.

These were the sentiments of Poggio, in the season of serious meditation.
On another occasion, when irritated by the sarcasms of Cardinal Julian, he
ascribed his abjuration of the priesthood to a somewhat different motive. " Nolo
" esse Sacerdos, nolo Beneficia ; vidi enim plurimos, quos bonos viros cense-
" bam, maxime autem liberales, post susceptum sacerdolium avoras esse et

CHAP. III. 125

richer living, lie wished to exchange it for a benefice without
cure of souls. To meet his wishes in this respect a cauonicate
was offered him ; but it is uncertain whether this arrange-
ment was perfected.* However this may be, he was weary of
his residence in England, and impatiently longed to return
to his native land. At this juncture, he received from Italy
two proposals, the one on the part of Alamano Adimaro,
Archbishop of Pisa and Cardinal of St. Eusebius, who
invited him to accept the office of Secretary to the Roman
pontiff; the other from Piero Lamberteschi, who offered
him a situatron, the nature of which is not precisely
known, but which was probably that of public professor in
one of the Italian universities. Poggio seems to have
received the proposal of Lamberteschi with considerable
satisfaction. On this subject he thus expresses himself in
a letter to Niccolo Niccoli.

" The day before yesterday, I received two letters
" from you, and one from Piero Lamberteschi. These
" letters I have read with great attention. I am pleased
" with Piero's plan, and I think I shall follow your advice.
" He says, that he will do his endeavour to procure me
" five hundred gold florins for three years' services. Make

" nulli deditos virtuti, scd inertias, otio, voluptati. Quod ne mihi quoque
" accidat veritus, decrevi procul a vestro online consummere hoc, quidquid
" superest, temporis pcrigrinationis mere ; ex hac enim magna capitis Sacerdo-
" turn rasura, conspicio non solum pilos abradi, sed ctiam conscientiam et vir-
" tutem."

Poffgii Epislolae Ivii ep. xxvii.

See Tonclli Epiatolarium Poggii, lib. i. ep. 18.

120 CHAP. III.

" them six hundred, and I will agree to the proposal. He
" lays before me flattering hopes of future profitable con-
" tingencies, and I am inclined to believe, that these hopes
" may probably be realized : yet I think it more prudent
" to covenant for something, than to depend upon hope
" alone. I like the employment to which he invites me,

Online LibraryWilliam ShepherdThe life of Poggio Bracciolini → online text (page 9 of 31)