I have been preparing some sample entries for my work on English Humanist Scripts up to c. 1509, intended for the Handwriting of the Italian Humanists series. In doing that, I have returned to the manuscripts of Petrus Lomer, a scribe who we know solely from four manuscripts. One of those is now in the Library of the Universiteit van Amsterdam [MS. I F 74], having arrived there just under a century ago. Previously, it had circulated among private collectors and auction houses on both sides of the Atlantic. During its travels, it lost a quire or more of its content. The result is that it has sometimes been mistakenly assumed that it contained one work — Benvenuto da Imola’s Liber Augustalis – but, in truth, that short text occupies only the first folios and ends imperfectly. The second text, when it has been noticed, has, because it lacks its opening pages, been identified solely as a ‘theological treatise’. The small discovery for today is that the manuscript actually contains De seculo et religione by the godfather of Florentine humanism, Coluccio Salutati.
This is a treatise that received a fine edition by Berthold Ullman in 1957 (in that edition, what we have in the Amsterdam manuscript is the text from p. 28, l. 22 until the end). Unsurprisingly, this manuscript does not appear in the list of thirty-one witnesses to the work. Ullman’s listing does suggest something of the interest of this particular copy: the majority of codices were created because monastic communities considered Salutati’s work was relevant to them. This manuscript, uniquely, marries De seculo with Benvenuto, a more secular, historical text. We also learn something by realising that Lomer copied this work, for it was not the only occasion that he showed an interest in the writings of the Florentine chancellor who was the mentor to the likes of Leonardo Bruni: there is a copy of Salutati’s De fato et fortuna now in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Padua signed by Lomer. That manuscript was one of two he definitely produced in England; is the same true for De seculo? There is no way for knowing for certain, though what early annotations there are suggest, instead, that this copy was in Italy from its first years. Was Lomer providing texts of Salutati for different readers on order? Or is it a sign of his own intellectual interests — was he a particular devotee of Coluccio Salutati? It is in the nature of our knowledge of this elusive scribe that we cannot answer for certain. Yet.
It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.
I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.
That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.
This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.
I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.
It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.
However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.
Last month I received notice of a conference which I am sure proved stimulating but which I could not attend as I was then in Rome. What caught my attention, however, were the first words of the promotional e-mail:
While Renaissance and Early Modern Studies are focused on the two and a half centuries between 1500 and 1750,…
I must admit that it took me some time to move beyond that comma. Has the Renaissance that I study been abolished? Have we returned to calling Piero della Francesca or Andrea Mantegna ‘Primitives’ and now see art beginning only with Michelangelo and his followers? Since I have been away, has it been decided that humanism now starts only with Filippo Beroaldo the Younger and leaves out the generations of Leonardo Bruni and Pomponius Laetus? More to the point: what Renaissance after 1500? From where I am standing, it is mostly over, bar the shouting (between back-biting editors) – and that soon turned into the burnings of the Reformation. What brave new world is this?
When I explain my work, I sometimes describe my area of study as that part of the Middle Ages that we call the Renaissance. I do not say it because I believe in the essence of the ‘medieval’ any more than I have faith in the existence of ‘modernity’ but rather because most of the achievements we would recognise as ‘Renaissance’ – think of Brunelleschi’s dome capping Florence’s cathedral, Alberti’s design for the Palazzo Rucellai, Donatello’s statues of David, the art of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Lippi father and son, the new classicising Latin of Bruni or Poggio, the reform of manuscripts begun in the same circle, the establishment of libraries from San Marco in Florence to the Malatestiana in Cesena and the papal library in Rome, the philological work of Lorenzo Valla or Politian, the teaching of Guarino or Vittorino da Feltre the first sales from the Aldine press – fall within the fifteenth century. And that century, as we know, sits in most faculty corridors or on bookshop shelves within that millennium of civilisation that follows the Fall of Rome. Such distinctions necessarily simplify – we might not now believe Italian creativity dies with the invasions from 1494, or even with the re-born Sack of Rome in 1527 – but we might wonder how long into the sixteenth century lasts that cycle of fashions and their fruitful combination that marked the quattrocento.
I will be accused of being obtuse: the term ‘Renaissance’ is surely being used with the meaning of ‘cultural flowering’ which sprouts in many parts of Christendom. But is such ‘flowering’ solely the province of the sixteenth century? Could not late medieval England boast of its tre corone – Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate – and celebrate the architecture of the likes of Richard Winchcombe, or the artistry of Nottingham alabasters? Would not Castile look earlier to the vernacular achievements of its three cultures in the time of Alfonso X? And, in the fifteenth century, the would-be nation of Burgundy has been described as having in its heyday its own Renaissance, and one which with its skill in oil paintings and tapestry found buyers in Italy. In Italy itself, why talk of creativity only in quattrocento or cinquecento terms: are Giotto, the Cosmati family, Pietro Cavallini, Dante and Mussato all to be forgotten? It does not seem obvious to me that these was unprecedented creativity that marks out the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – new markets, following the economic reorganisation created by the Black Death, and new technologies, most notably in print, certainly, but not necessarily new genius after a winter (or an autumn) of cultural decay.
Of course, it may be then said, the ‘Renaissance’ was a particular type of cultural flowering which began in Italy and slowly oozed out of the peninsula, eventually to stain all of Europe (meaning, most often, western Europe and paying less heed to culture in, say, Krakow or Buda). This is a claim with a long tradition – the Italian humanists themselves, like Polydore Vergil, liked to talk of the translatio studii which had transferred learning from their homeland to whichever country they were then visiting (following in the footsteps, it must be said, of earlier humanists). There was certainly an export of a type of education then becoming popular in Italy and eventually giving its name to humanism; that export was made possible, in large part, by the creation of a trade in printed books. Yet, was there really a similar combination of artistic fashions with interplay between them in Shakespeare’s London, say, as there had been in early Medici Florence or in the papal city of Nicholas V and Sixtus IV? Even if the answer to that was ‘yes’, the question would then be how much that particular cultural flowering – the Shakespearean moment, one episode in many – directly owed to the earlier activities in those Italian cities? Do we use the term ‘Renaissance’ more by analogy than by association?
Ah, says the early modernist, that is the point: our Renaissance need not be the young relative in the shadow of your quattrocento events; it is its own man. So be it: use the term as you choose. But, if it is to have a specific relevance to a particular part of one vernacular tradition, it cannot simultaneously be employed in some general sweeping definition, that can encompass all of the cultural activity of the sixteenth century or (even more incongruously) later. Hispanists perhaps are more fortunate: they can talk of their literary ‘Golden Age’ without straining to define it in unavoidably Italianate terms. Perhaps other nations need a similar separation. For late sixteenth-century England, then, who would like to invent a term?
Xenophon’s Hiero is a small work with a large Renaissance reputation. Translated at the beginning of the quattrocento by Leonardo Bruni, it was one of the first pagan Greek texts to receive a rendering into humanist Latin; it circulated widely across Europe, becoming the standard version until Erasmus’ re-translation. Bruni’s text now survives in nearly two hundred manuscripts, as the estimable David Marsh has shown [Catalogus Translationum, vii (1992)]. It also has a significant place within the humanist’s oeuvre: it is one of what I would call Bruni’s manifestoes – four remarkably assured works produced in a remarkably fruitful period of his early thirties, presenting his agenda for study and for action. The manifestoes include two original compositions: the Laudatio Florentinae urbis, a celebration of republican Florence; and the Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, heralding a reform of literary scholarship, in which Bruni’s mentor, Coluccio Salutati, is presented as both the arbiter and the previous generation, while Niccolò Niccoli is given the role of radical firebrand. Alongside them are two translations, each dedicated to one of the figures in the Dialogi: to Salutati is sent a translation of St Basil on the use of reading the pagans – a highly appropriate tract considering the immediately contemporary attacks on Salutati for his ‘unchristian’ studies. To Niccoli Bruni thought it suitable to send Xenophon’s short dialogue on tyranny, the Hiero – but why? In what way is that apt? That is the question at issue.
In latter-day scholarship on Bruni’s ‘manifestoes’, interest has characteristically been concentrated on the original works. The significance of the translations produced alongside them has only recently begun to be explored. The Hiero is presently the subject of what we can be sure will be a stimulating doctoral thesis, and it is also central to a piece by Brian Jeffrey Maxson in the most recent issue of Renaissance Studies. It is an article which has left me waking up early in the morning pondering the question with which I opened. You see, Maxson describes the Hiero, without reservation, as ‘pro-monarchical’, while I have always taken the work to be subtly critical of one-man rule. My understanding perhaps owes something to Leo Strauss’s suspicious reading of the text; Strauss’s analysis, in turn, has been dismissed as being ‘as perverse as one can be’ by one classicist who would see the dialogue as an endorsement of rule over willing subjects, as is developed more fully in the Cyropaedia [V. J. Gray in Classical Quarterly, new series, xxxvi (1986)]. But, more recently, other classicists have wondered whether the Cyropaedia is as straightforwardly positive as has usually been thought [eg Y. L. Too in Pedagogy and Power (Cambridge, 1998)]; if that work can be read with suspicion, it leads us back to wondering about the Hiero. How can such a small text be subject to such diverse views?
The dialogue is deceptively simple. In a moment of leisure, the tyrant Hieron sits down with the poet Simonides, who asks his interlocutor to teach him from his experience who is happier, the tyrant or the private man. Hieron responds bemoaning his lot, enumerating how at every point his pleasure is thwarted by his status. This takes up the main part of the work. When he has finished, Simonides offers him advice on how to improve his situation and make his subjects be willing to be ruled by him – he should treat his country as his fatherland, and surpass all others in generosity and in kindness. If he does that, he will be happy and no one will be jealous of his happiness. The End. The dialogue stops there, with Hieron given no chance to respond or to thank the poet. It stops but does not conclude: this is a work which is artfully open-ended.
Xenophon’s refusal to close off the work, to declare a ‘victor’ in the debate (if it can be called that) allows and perhaps encourages the multiple meanings that have been given to the work. We could, then, simply finish here and get up from the table: the point of it is that its point is hard to define. But that still leaves two questions: why Xenophon should have wanted his work to be so open to interpretation? And if there are several ways of reading the work, what was Bruni’s? Let me focus on that second question.
The humanist dedication is itself a work of art which can often frame the text that follows and establish its relationship with the dedicatee. Leonardo Bruni does that in the preface to his translation of St Basil or in his later Plutarch dedications. In the contexts of those, the preface to the Hiero might seem odd: it has hardly anything to say about the work. Instead, it provides a brief biography of its author, praising Xenophon for his mastery of both arms and letters, describing how, after a successful military career, he was forced into exile by envious citizens and then turned his hand to philosophy. Niccoli could not but want, Bruni says, to embrace Xenophon. There is no mention in this preface of the subject-matter of the Hiero or of its characters. They are presented without introduction, as it were – except that the dialogue has been placed in a context in which what matters is the relationship between philosophy and political fortunes. In other words, Bruni does not hint at a particular political reading – either pro-monarchical or pro-republican – but does imply that reading is about politics.
It may be more usual to have a more forceful direction provided by a preface, rather than the gentle steering that Bruni masters here. But this is not unique in his literary career: take, for instance, his wonderful jeu d’ésprit, the Oratio Heliogabali, a speech placed into the mouth of a fictitious Roman emperor, exhorting the prostitutes of Rome to lasciviousness. That travelled without a preface – to the perplexity of some readers, it must said. On occasion, you will find copies with an added scribal note, explaining to the reader that this is to be read ironically and that Bruni was not, in fact, promoting vice. In contrast, it must be said, you would very rarely find such guidance notes in a copy of the Hiero – readers may not have had the same difficulty in understanding the purpose of that dialogue.
We have still not pinned down a particular meaning, a specific reading, to Bruni’s Xenophon – and that, I would suggest, is how Bruni would want it to be. He had, I suspect, no intention of closing down the open-ended nature of the dialogue. That said, he does re-weight the text somewhat by a simple act of translation. I am not thinking of his ‘straightening out’ of the text – at the point when Simonides teases Hieron about his catamite, in the Latin the young lover becomes a girl – but rather his emphasis on the word ‘tyrant’. Latin is notoriously a less supple language than Greek: the word ‘tyrannos’ could have connotations of rule that was either despotic or something less negative – the Latin ‘tyrannus’ has no such ambivalence. Perhaps a translator should consider using a different term to render ‘tyrannos’; Bruni did not. And what is more, he changes the title of the work so that it circulated not, primarily, as Hiero but more often as Tyrannus.
Bruni’s translation, then, comes in three parts: the short work itself, preceded by the shorter preface, itself preceded by the shortest, laconic (I nearly said Tacitean) part, the title. That title announces the dialogue to be about the tyrant, the evil monarch – an implicit contrast with the good citizen, Xenophon, who was its author. And yet this still does not tell us how to understand the dialogue; it does not reveal a straightforward message. But, then, how could it: if one were truly sitting in front of a tyrant, as Simonides was and as we might see ourselves as his successors, can we trust a word our interlocutor says? And can we, in turn, trust ourselves to be honest in his presence? Would we leave our conversation open-ended because we could not be open?
On a warm Sunday morning, when I should be tending to a garden which has become riotously overgrown, I can not take myself away from my desk. Working away, I noticed a reference to a recent publication of Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento: the letters of the acknowledged prince of humanists of the early quattrocento, Leonardo Bruni, in the eighteenth-century recension of Lorenzo Mehus, edited now by James Hankins. There is, it must be said, little on the web giving details of that new edition, but in my travels, I stumbled across a major resource provided by Google: an on-line and downloadable copy of the original Mehus edition itself. It is hard to overstate the significance of this. Not only was Bruni the pre-eminent humanist of his generation; the Mehus edition has defined work on his epistolary for over two centuries, as is demonstrated by the fact that the twentieth-century re-ordering of Bruni’s letters, by F. P. Luiso, edited by Lucia Gualdo Rosa and eventually published in 1980, necessarily re-inforces the status of Mehus even when it corrects and contradicts that edition.
I am not clear when this resource became available: the record says it was digitised in June 2007, but my previous searches have not discovered it and it is not yet listed in Dana Sutton’s indispensable listing of neo-latin texts on the web (he does list two incunable editions, one from 1487 and the other from 1495). The Google images are not perfect. They are taken from a University of Michigan copy with interesting but sometimes illegible handwritten marginalia (their contributor seems not to be identified). It is in the nature of such an edition that cross-referencing between the indices and the text is difficult. But the whole text is there, including Mehus’ dedications — themselves an interesting reflection on the eighteenth-century res publica litterarum — and the funeral orations on Bruni by Manetti and Poggio Bracciolini. It would be wonderful to have a true on-line edition of these letters but let us not be greedy. What is more urgent is an on-line version of Luiso’s Studi sul epistolario. If that were available, a scholar would have from the web the fundamental requirements for studying Bruni’s epistles.
That discovery may have kept me away from the unkempt herbs and rose-bush for a few hours, but the plants were kept from being cut back for yet longer. I continued my deskbound search and realised that it was not only Bruni whose letters, in their standard edition, are now on-line. The same is the case for Bruni’s mentor and predecessor as chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati. The Novati edition appeared in print in 1911 and full images of that edition — more elegant than the Google Mehus — are available on the Internet Archive.
So, both of these will be added to my own little list of humanist texts available on-line. But their presence, and more besides, really do mean I will have to re-organise how I present that information. After the gardening, of course.
UPDATE (2nd July 2009): these items have now been added to Dana Sutton’s listing of neo-Latin texts — a resource all the more impressive for being so responsive and so regularly updated. Thank you, Prof. Sutton!
POSTSCRIPT (11th July 2009): and in another testimony to the cosmopolitan nature of the virtual world, I hear from Dr Hans Ramminger of Munich of a rather more legible version — but without the intriguing marginalia — of Mehus’ edition, provided by the Royal Library of Copenhagen. I have updated the links at lower right of the home page accordingly.
The wickedness of Wikipedia is a common theme — the worry that students garner their information from the on-line encyclopedia, at the expense of ‘real’ work, undertaken surrounded by piles of printed tomes. We have all heard the urban myths of lecturers going on the internet to add intentionally false entries to Wikipedia so that they can catch their students if they plagiarise. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but should every good scholar ignore it completely?
First of all, let us not become protective of print encyclopedias, which often fall far below the level of extensive, unquestionable knowledge that we naively expect of them. I should know, I have edited an encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I would rate only two printed volumes: the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hale, and the more recent and wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance by Gordon Campbell. To warn students off a true-ready reliance on what they read in print, I am fond of quoting an example from another encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one which sits quietly on the open shelves of the Bodleian and which states: ‘Petrarch was the first man to use the Latin term humanismus.’ As there is no such word in Latin, as it is a German term invented in the early nineteenth century, and as Petrarch did not employ any word or phrase cognate with humanismus, this is utter nonsense. Piffle. Twaddle. Moonshine. Balderdash. Codswallop. And claptrap. In short, hard copy does not equal hard facts.
What, of course, printed reference works do claim is some sort of academic recommendation, supplemented by the reputation of a worthy publisher: thus, the lists of advisors that appear at the front of any volume (completed with university affiliations), a page or so after the imprimatur of the publisher. These may encourage confidence where none should exist, but they do at least demonstrate a link, however tenuous, with academia. Wikipedia lacks such a patena of respectability, presenting itself instead as the standard-bearer of on-line democracy, encouraging anybody to contribute. In those areas of life which attract attention on the internet, this can create clashes, ‘vandalism’ and repeated re-writings without necessarily any improvement in veracity — but, then, we are not interested in articles on Britney Spears or which is the best George Clooney film (Michael Clayton, by the way). Most of the articles of interest to a student of the Renaissance are not battlefields in the same way: a reader is more likely to be caught out by accidental error than caught in the crossfire between contributors reflected in an entry.
Wikipedia has developed its own rules of engagement for contributors, centring on providing a NPOV (a Neutral Point of View). But there is a curious result from this: Wikipedia is consciously, achingly non-hierarchical but it can certainly be deferential. For example, the discussion board for contributors about Machiavelli has one of them objecting to a sentence in the entry because it makes assertions ‘Without reference to a reliable academic source‘ [their italics]. As another contributor points out, there is much about Machiavelli which is controversial within academia, but there does seem to be a tendency in Wikiworld to seek external justification for what is said by reference to the supposedly impartial truth found in the writings of academics. It leaves little room to realise that even the driest historical monograph can hide bias, blindspots and mistakes behind its dour binding.
There is an added issue with Wikipedia which is worth mentioning: it is not one but several encyclopedias. It exists in all the major European languages, including Latin, but the text in each language can be separate from that in others. Sometimes, an article is simply translated but often that is not the case. This can create some oddities: the character Burckhardt celebrated as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, has a stub of an entry in Latin with an external link — to his works in Italian; the corresponding Italian entry does not provide that link; and neither of these lead the reader to those Latin texts which are available on-line at the Biblioteca Italiana site. In other cases, if one only looked at the English entry, you would come away with only very limited information: for another humanist of the early quattrocento, Guarino da Verona, the most detailed articles are those in Italian and German. More generally, the rule for the reader should be that if you are interested in a subject, check the article in the range of languages listed in the left-hand bar of Wikipedia: even if you can not fully grasp the text, the links provided could lead you to more information than you could gain by only reading one version.
My own impression, having spent some time looking over a range of Renaissance articles on Wikipedia, is that the limitation most often is not as much inaccurate as incomplete information. In the entries for Alberti, the English version has a list of works which is highly truncated — a reader would be in a dangerous land if they assumed that the article provided a sufficient base of knowledge. There may be a seemingly counter-intuitive principle in play: the more obscure a character, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry (if there is one) will present useful information. In some cases, of course, Wikipedia simply will not have any entry: I have recently sent off an article on an interesting humanist, Antonio Beccaria, who spent some years in England; he does not appear on the website. On the other hand, I have also written about the even less well-known Tito Livio Frulovisi, who does have a fairly good article — because (I admit it, gentle reader) I put it there. For the more recherché, if somebody has bothered to post an article, they are likely to have put some effort into doing it.
The inverse of this is that the better-known characters can not be as well served. So, Machiavelli himself has, in English, a long entry with a useful listing of his works. But the text makes some significant errors. For instance, looking at it this morning, I noticed it states that he considered The Prince his magnum opus. I can see how the contributor made this assumption — the famous letter to Vettori in which he describes his method of composition gives a sense of Machiavelli’s depth of engagement in the project at the time of writing — but it hardly fits with the fortunes of the text in his own lifetime: it circulated in manuscript, but, like the Discourses was only printed after his death. The only text that Machiavelli actively promoted himself by having it printed was one which we study much less nowadays, his Art of War. That work, and his History of Florence, hardly get a mention in this English Wikipedia article. A fuller treatment of his life, with some useful quotations, appears in Italian, though again attention is directed to a minority of his works.
If the guideline is, the bigger the name, the lower the value of the article, there’s another that can be added: names are better than things. Wikipedia is weaker talking about concepts than about characters. Take ‘civic humanism’, Hans Baron’s master-concept used to describe a tradition of Florentine republican justification: it does not appear in an article on its own, but instead the reader is re-directed to ‘classical republicanism’. This does not give much room to highlight the controversy which surrounds ‘civic humanism’. The wider concept of Renaissance humanism comes off even worse: the entry is hardly worth reading.
Yet, we should return to the comparison with print encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s sins are, in many ways, unoriginal: its weaknesses are the ones you could also find in most older encyclopedias. They too are often weakest on concepts, and least satisfying when they are talking about the most famous — and, so, most controversial — characters. What, of course, they often have lacked is the ability to develop. The future of reference works, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica knows, is on-line, where information can be added and corrected. A comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia suggests that, for our area, each has some advantages over the other: of the characters we have talked about, Machiavelli has a judicious article in Britannica, but most other humanists receive only a insubstantial summary. Even a significant figure like Leonardo Bruni is treated in this way, while Wikipedia gives more information (though it is, at present, skewed towards only a few of his works). In Britannica, the lesser humanists I mention are featured not at all. Where, of course, Wikipedia has a singular advantage is that it has the ability not just to be corrected: you can do the correcting.
So, if I should end by answering the question I set myself: of course we should not trust Wikipedia, just as we would not trust any other work or source. As historians, we trust nobody. But that does not mean we don’t use them and learn from them. The advice to students must be: read but read carefully. The advice to academics should be: if you don’t like something, change it. Admittedly, some entries might be beyond redemption but that is the case for a very few dealing poorly with concepts. Most are capable of improvement — and it is our job to do it. So, as I said, this morning the Machiavelli article talks erroneously of The Prince being his magnum opus. By this evening, I will make sure it does not anymore.
If you scroll right down to the bottom of the screen, you will see on the right-hand side a short set of links. I am building up a list of humanist (mainly quattrocento) texts available on-line and this is the first step.
There are some useful sites which act as gateways or collect together relevant texts. I have found especially useful the Society for Neo-Latin Studies webpages, and the neo-Latin section of The Latin Library. The texts I have cited come partly thanks to their assistance and partly through wider trawling. They are hosted on a range of websites and appear in a range of formats: some are html texts, others are as images of printed books (either early modern or later), one is a transcription with a link to images of a relevant manuscript. They differ in elegance – the text of Carbone’s funeral oration on Guarino is a sad specimen: it is taken from Garin’s indispensable Prosatori latini, and appears with ragged ends of each line, reflecting the line-ends in the printed text. The quality of the edition also varies.
What particularly strikes me, however, is the paucity of texts available on-line, and the curious nature of what does appear. It might be said that the web of the new millennium need not have any space for a dead language but the democracy of the on-line universe is a Babel of idioms, including the lingua franca of Old Europe (I particularly like the Finnish Latin news station). The Latin of the quattrocento humanists, of course, could be accused of being neither one thing nor the other: not given to the freedom of medieval Latin, at the same time, it does not meet the standards expected of neo-Latin. That said, neo-Latinists are a tolerant bunch and do mention fifeenth-century texts in the on-line resources they are compiling. Whatever the reasons for the relatively low number of texts – at a time when the I Tatti Library series is making many works accessible in hard-copy – what is most striking is the curious nature of what is available.
Often, the texts which can be viewed are not the major works by that author. The best example of this is Leonardo Bruni, the pre-eminent Florentine humanist of the early quattrocento. His De Studiis, as you can see, is available — a relatively minor work but one in which there is modern scholarly interest. Apart from that, Biblioteca Italiana provides a copy of his short tract on whether all Romans spoke Latin which though it may be of interest could hardly be called a work through which he made his reputation. If we wanted to read a work which was seminal to his intellectual formation, we would want to see his Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum or his Laudatio Florentinae Urbis. Neither is available, and with the latter of these there is a particular irony. The Laudatio, his praise of Florence which has become a foundation text of civic humanism, was a best-seller in his own lifetime and one of the works for which he was best known — but, after his death, in the age of new-fangled print, it was somehow forgotten and not edited until the twentieth century, by Hans Baron. So, as one medium gave way to another, this small but significant work lost its leading status. Is this happening again? Is the dictum that history repeats itself being proven true?
If bonæ litteræ seems a curious title for this blog, think how much more curious it would seem if it read bone littere.
Bonæ litteræ - literally, ‘good letters’ – is well-known in humanist circles as the term favoured by Erasmus to describe polished literature. It was one of a chain of fashionable slogans used by devotees of the humanist enterprise. The earliest, and most enduring, was studia humanitatis, a phrase signifying ‘the studies of what it is to be human’ or, perhaps better, ‘the understanding about how to become truly human.’ The exact meaning matters less than its resonance: this was a phrase in a re-found oration of Cicero’s which could succinctly signify the commitment of a coterie of early quattrocento Florentines to rediscover and revive classical learning. Later in the century – and this is what the textbooks emphasise – studia humanitatis became to signify a defined educational curriculum. At that point, the phrase lost its innovative glow, and other slogans took its place.
The early humanists – men like Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini – not only wanted to write afresh, they wanted their texts to look fresh. And so, there was a reform both of handwriting and of the presentation of the book, with a large display script of separated letters – the origin, when manuscripts turned into printed books, of Roman type – and an insistence that margins should not be stuffed with commentary in a tiny hand but should stand wide and white, so as not to detract from the classical or classicising text in front of the reader. As one small but significant part of this agenda, there was a reform of spelling. In Latin, there are several words which have two vowels together which make one sound, what is called a diphthong. If one of those vowels is missed out, it can transform the word into a completely different one: so, for example, aequus means ‘fair’ or ‘right’, but equus means ‘horse.’ In medieval script, the two words had become indistinguishable as marking the diphthong had fallen into disuse. So, ‘bone littere’ would be a thoroughly medieval name for this blog. The early humanists insisted on returning to the full spelling and writing both vowels, which would give us bonae litterae. But the humanist also tended to elide together the two vowels to signify they should be pronounced as one sound, and the most usual form became that which you see in this title.
In short, it may be that de minimis curat non lex: the law may not be concerned with the tiniest matters - but a scholar certainly should be.