Leonardo Bruni’s letters translated
Retreating – with what I consider to be commendable restraint – from the spring sunshine that is bathing the ever-breathtaking Rome, I have had chance to update the list of the lectures I have recently given. Any of you who cares to study it will notice that the latest addition was given this month and, indeed, explains why I have been forced to come to Rome in the middle of term. As I explained in the previous post, I was asked to speak at a conference at the École française, the theme of which was the networks which underpinned the development and circulation of humanist rhetoric; my particular remit was to talk about the diffusion of humanist miscellanies in England. All arch posturing aside, I did wonder whether I should have declined the invitation, falling as it does two weeks before teaching ends at the University of Essex, but I am very glad that I have made the trip. The conference was both a stimulating and a friendly event, and it is also included a presentazione of a new work which deserves to receive attention in those territories of the res publica litteraria which, when they are not discoursing in the Tullian tongue, are English-speaking.
That proposition might seem preposterous when I explain that the work in question includes a parallel translation in French alongside its Latin text but when the text is the epistolary of Leonardo Bruni, I think I can justify the assertion. Florentine chancellor, historian of his city, orator and reviver of Ciceronian Latin, Bruni was – and was acknowledged in his lifetime – as the pre-eminent scholar of the new studia humanitatis. His status was, in fact, demonstrated by a couple of quotations provided in a paper by Vera Tufano at the conference which I have just attended. Talking of Bartolomeo Fazio’s invective against his colleague (and, many would say, his better) Lorenzo Valla, she drew attention to Fazio’s assertion that his opponent was not worthy to be compared to Guarino da Verona and Leonardo Bruni, ‘the two lights and ornaments of Italy’. Those two figures, similar in age but so different in their intellectual formation and careers, were often coupled together by contemporaries, though their reputations were of a rather different construction one from the other. Some of Guarino’s writings, particularly his translations of Plutarch but also his orations, enjoyed a wide circulation, but he was better known for his status as a teacher – a status which, as I have recently argued, was shrewdly fabricated by himself and by his students. It might be said that Guarino was well-known for being well known, while Bruni spoke to audiences in all corners of Europe through his writings, his Laudatio Florentinae urbis, his Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, his historical texts and, more than anything, his translations, primarily from Aristotle but also from Plutarch and (as was demonstrated at the conference when Giancarlo Abbamonte spoke of Fazio) from Xenophon. And, what is to the point, integral to Bruni’s familiarity were his familiar letters.
Bruni himself, like his friend Poggio Bracciolini, took care late in his life to compile his personal correspondence into an epistolary, organised in eight books. Bruni’s death took place 570 years ago to the day, on 9th March 1444; in its wake, Giannozzo Manetti supplemented the epistolary with a further book of his former mentor’s last letters. In an elegant discussion which was part of the the presentazione, Stefano Baldassarri suggested we might muse on how far Manetti might have gone beyond simply adding to the letter-collection and consider whether he might also have edited Bruni’s Latin. However that may be, this nine-book edition had – as I mentioned in my own paper at the conference – a nearly immediate international circulation, one copy of it being made in London before the decade was done. The epistolary also appeared in print from the 1470s, but any ‘modern’ research on these letters turns to the seminal edition printed just under three hundred years after Bruni’s demise and which was the fruit of the labours of Lorenzo Mehus. That work was the basis for comments on revision compiled by F. P. Luiso at the beginning of the twentieth century, but not published until 1980, under the editorship of Lucia Gualdo Rosa. Yet, despite a plan involving Gualdo Rosa herself and Paolo Viti which saw the publication of a censimento of manuscripts of Bruni’s letters, and despite talk of a project based at the Scuola normale superiore in Pisa, there has not been a new critical edition of the Epistolae. It is one of those undertakings so large and so complex that its very importance becomes a barrier to its completion.
The new French publication is provided by Laurence Bernard-Pradelle, who has already established herself as a translator of Bruni with a 2008 collection of his works fit to stand alongside Paolo Viti’s parallel Latin-Italian volume of 1996. Her latest work does not claim to be the critical edition of the epistolario that we continue to await. Some might wonder, with the Mehus being available both on-line and in a recent reprint with an important introduction by James Hankins, what this new publication can add which will be of use to scholars. The answer is that the editor has consciously not based her work merely on Mehus but has taken into account that of Luiso and others, and incorporated the uncollected letters, the ‘extravaganti’, into her work (signifying their non-canonical status by the wise tactic of a typographical change, placing them in a smaller font size). What is more, she has added short introductions to each book, as well as a listing of manuscripts and an extensive bibliography, providing yet more scholarly value. In my judgement, in other words, we should apply Plato’s dictum that the best should not be the enemy of the good: let us wish for a fully critical edition but celebrate what we do now have, while the fairies who grant our wishes steel themselves for what even they will consider a bracing challenge.