1902 Encyclopedia > Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini
Italian humanist

POGGIO (1380-1459). Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, eminent in the annals of the revival of learning, was born in 1380 at Terranova, a village in the territory of Florence. He studied Latin under John of Ravenna, and Greek under Manuel Chrysoloras. His distinguished abilities and his dexterity as a copyist of MSS. brought him into early notice with the chief scholars of Florence. Coluccio Salutati and Niccolo de' Niccoli befriended him, and in the year 1402 or 1403 he was received into the service of the Roman curia. His functions were those of a secretary; and, though he profited by benefices conferred on him in lieu of salary, he remained a layman to the end of his life. It is noticeable that, while he held his office in the curia through that momentous period of fifty years which witnessed the councils of Constance and of Basel, and the final restoration of the papacy under Nicholas V., his sympathies were never attracted to ecclesiastical affairs.

Nothing marks the secular attitude of the Italians at an epoch which decided the future course of both Renaissance and Reformation more strongly than the mundane proclivities of this apostolic secretary, heart and soul devoted to the resuscitation of classical studies amid conflicts of popes and antipopes, cardinals and councils, in all of which he bore an official part. Thus, when his duties called him to Constance in 1414, he employed his leisure in exploring the libraries of Swiss and Swabian convents. The treasures he brought to light at Reichenau, Weingarten, and above all at St Gall, restored many lost master-pieces of Latin literature, and supplied students with the texts of authors whose works had hitherto been accessible only in mutilated copies. In one of his epistles he describes how he recovered Quintilian, part of Valerius Flaccus, and the commentaries of Asconius Pedianus at St Gall. MSS. of Lucretius, Columella, Silius Italicus, Manilius, and Vitruvius were unearthed, copied by his hand, and communicated to the learned. Wherever Poggio went he carried on the same industry of research. At Langres he discovered Cicero's Oration for Caecina, at Monte Cassino a MS. of Frontinus. He also could boast of having recovered Ammianus Marcellinus, Nonius Marcellus, Probus, Flavius Caper, and Eutyches. If a codex could not be obtained by fair means, he was ready to use fraud, as when he bribed a monk to abstract a Livy and an Ammianus from the convent library of Hersfeld.

Resolute in recognizing erudition as the chief concern of man, he sighed over the folly of popes and princes, who spent their time in wars and ecclesiastical disputes when they might have been more profitably employed in reviving the lost learning of antiquity. This point of view is eminently characteristic of the earlier Italian Renaissance. The men of that nation and of that epoch were bent on creating a new intellectual atmosphere for Europe by means of vital contact with antiquity.

Poggio, like a still more eminent humanist of his age, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, was a great traveller, and wherever he went he brought, like Aeneas Sylvius, enlightened powers of observation trained in liberal studies to bear upon the manners of the countries he visited. We owe to his pen curious remarks on English and Swiss customs, valuable notes on the remains of antique art in Rome, and a singularly striking portrait of Jerome of Prague as he appeared before the judges who condemned him to the stake.

It is necessary to dwell at length upon Poggio's devotion to the task of recovering the classics, and upon his disengagement from all but humanistic interests, because these were the most marked feature of his character and career.

In literature he embraced the whole sphere of contemporary studies, and distinguished himself as an orator, a writer of rhetorical treatises, a panegyrist of the dead, a violent impugner of the living, a translator from the Greek, an epistolographer and grave historian, and a facetious compiler of fabliaux in Latin. Of his moral essays it may suffice to notice the dissertations On Nobility, On Vicissitudes of Fortune, On the Misery of Human Life, On the Infelicity of Princes, and On Marriage in Old Age. These compositions belonged to a species which, since Petrarch set the fashion, were very popular among Italian scholars. They have lost their value, except for the few matters of fact embedded in a mass of commonplace meditation, and for some occasionally brilliant illustrations.

Poggio's History of Florence, written in avowed imitation of Livy's manner, requires separate mention, since it exemplifies by its defects the weakness of that merely stylistic treatment which deprived so much of Bruni's, Carlo Aretino's, and Bembo's work of historical weight.

A somewhat different ocriticism must be passed on the Facetiae, a collection of .humorous and indecent tales expressed in such Latinity as Poggio could command. This book is chiefly remarkable for its unsparing satires on the monastic orders and the secular clergy. It is also noticeable as illustrating the Latinizing tendency of an age which gave classic form to the lightest essays of the fancy. Poggio, it may be observed, was a fluent and copious writer in the Latin tongue, but, not an elegant scholar. His knowledge of the ancient authors was wide, but his taste was not select, -and his erudition was superficial. His translation of Xenophon's Cyropaedia into Latin cannot be praised for accuracy.

Among contemporaries he passed for one of the most formidable polemical or gladiatorial rhetoricians; and ;a considerable section of his extant works are invectives. One of these, the Dialogue against Hypocrites, was aimed in a spirit of vindictive hatred at the vices of ecclesiastics; another, written at the request of Nicholas V., covered the anti-pope Felix with scurrilous abuse. But his most famous compositions in this kind are the personal invectives which he discharged against Filelfo and Valla. All the resources of a copious and unclean Latin vocabulary were employed to degrade the objects of his satire; and every crime of which humanity is capable was ascribed to them without discrimination. In Filelfo and Valla Poggio found his match; and Italy was amused for years with the spectacle of their indecent combats. To dwell upon such literary infamies would be below the dignity of the historian, were it not that these habits of the early Italian humanists imposed a fashion upon Europe which extended to the later age of Scaliger's contentions with Scioppius and Milton's with Salmasius.

The greater part of Poggio's long life was spent in attendance to his duties in the papal curia at Rome and elsewhere. But about the year 1452 he finally retired to Florence, where he was admitted to the burghership, and on the death of Carlo Aretino in 1453 was appointed chancellor and historiographer to the republic. He had already built himself a villa in Valdarno, which he adorned with a collection of antique sculpture, coins, and inscriptions. In 1435 he had married a girl of eighteen named Vaggia, of the famous Buondelmonte blood. His declining days were spent in the discharge of his honourable Florentine office and in the composition of his history. He died in 1459, and was buried in the church of Santa Croce. A statue by Donatello and a picture by Antonio del Pollajuolo remained to commemorate a citizen who chiefly for his services to humanistic literature deserved the notice of posterity.

Poggio's works were printed at Basel in 1538, " ex aedibus Henrici Petri." Dr Shepherd's Life of Poggio Bracciolini is a good authority on his biography. For his position in the history of the revival, students may consult Voigt's Wiederbelebung des classichen Alterthums, and Symonds's Renaissance in Italy. (J. A. S.)

The above article was written by: J. A. Symonds.

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