The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Three

The Revival of Antiquity

Fall of the Humanists in the Sixteenth Century

Why, it may be asked, were not these reproaches, whether true or false, heard sooner? As a matter of fact, they were heard at a very early period, but the effect they produced was insignificant, for the plain reason that men were far too dependent on the scholars for their knowledge of antiquity--that the scholars were personally the possessors and diffusers of ancient culture. But the spread of printed editions of the classics, and of large and well-arranged handbooks and dictionaries, went far to free the people from the necessity of personal intercourse with the humanists, and, as soon as they could be but partly dispensed with, the change in popular feeling became manifest. It was a change under which the good and bad suffered indiscriminately.

The first to make these charges were certainly the humanists themselves. Of all men who ever formed a class, they had the least sense of their common interests, and least respected what there was of this sense. All means were held lawful, if one of them saw a chance of supplanting another. From literary discussion they passed with astonishing suddenness to the fiercest and the most groundless vituperation. Not satisfied with refuting, they sought to annihilate an opponent. Something of this must be put to the account of their position and circumstances; we have seen how fiercely the age, whose loudest spokesmen they were, was borne to and fro by the passion for glory and the passion for satire. Their position, too, in practical life was one that they had continually to fight for. In such a temper they wrote and spoke and described one another. Pog- gio's works alone contain dirt enough to create a prejudice against the whole class--and these 'Opera Poggii' were just those most often printed, on the north as well as on the south side of the Alps. We must take care not to rejoice too soon, when we meet among these men a figure which seems immaculate; on further inquiry there is always a danger of meeting with some foul charge, which, even if it is incredible, still discolors the picture. The mass of indecent Latin poems in circulation, and such things as ribaldry on the subject of one's own family, as in Pontano's dialogue 'Antonius,' did the rest to discredit the class. The sixteenth century was not only familiar with all these ugly symptoms, but had also grown tired of the type of the humanist. These men had to pay both for the misdeeds they had done, and for the excess of honour which had hitherto fallen to their lot. Their evil fate willed it that the greatest poet of the nation, Ariosto, wrote of them in a tone of calm and sovereign contempt.

Of the reproaches which combined to excite so much hatred, many were only too well founded. Yet a clear and unmistakable tendency to strictness in matters of religion and morality was alive in many of the philologists, and it is a proof of small knowledge of the period, if the whole class is condemned. Yet many, and among them the loudest speakers, were guilty.

Three facts explain and perhaps diminish their guilt: the overflowing excess of fervour and fortune, when the luck was on their side; the uncertainty of the future, in which luxury or misery depended on the caprice of a patron or the malice of an enemy; and finally, the misleading influence of antiquity. This undermined their morality, without giving them its own instead; and in religious matters, since they could never think of accepting the positive belief in the old gods, it affected them only on the negative and sceptical side. Just because they conceived of antiquity dogmatically--that is, took it as the model or all thought and action--its influence was here pernicious. But that an age existed which idolized the ancient world and its products with an exclusive devotion was not the fault of individuals. It was the work of an historical providence, and if the culture of the ages which have followed, and of the ages to come, rests upon the fact that it was so, and that all the ends of life but this one were then deliberately put aside.

The career of the humanists was, as a rule, of such a kind hat only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed. The first danger came, in some cases, from the parents, rho sought to turn a precocious child into a miracle of learning, with an eye to his future position in that class which then was supreme. Youthful prodigies, however, seldom rise above a certain level; or, if they do, are forced to achieve their further progress and development at the cost of the bitterest trials. For an ambitious youth, the fame and the brilliant position of the humanists were a perilous temptation; it seemed to him that he too 'through inborn pride could no longer regard the low and common things of life.' He was thus led to plunge into a life of excitement and vicissitude, in which exhausting studies, tutorships, secretaryships, professorships, offices in princely households, mortal enmities and perils, luxury and beggary, boundless admiration and boundless contempt, followed confusedly one upon the other, and in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence. But the worst of all was, that the position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for a livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place. He grew tired of the people, and had no peace among the enmities which he excited, while the people themselves in their turn demanded something new. Much as this life reminds us of the Greek sophists of the Empire, as described to us by Philostratus, yet the position of the sophists was more favourable. They often had money, or could more easily do without it than the humanists, and as professional teachers of rhetoric, rather than men of learning, their life was freer and simpler. But the scholar of the Renaissance was forced to combine great learning with the power of resisting the influence of ever-changing pursuits and situations. Add to this the deadening effect of licentious excess, and--since do what he might, the worst was believed of him--a total indifference to the moral laws recognized by others. Such men can hardly be conceived to exist without an inordinate pride. They needed it, if only to keep their heads above water, and were confirmed in it by the admiration which alternated with hatred in the treatment they received from the world. They are the most striking examples and victims of an unbridled subjectivity.

The attacks and the satirical pictures began, as we have said, at an early period. For all strongly marked individuality, for every kind of distinction, a corrective was at hand in the national taste for ridicule. And in this case the men themselves offered abundant and terrible materials which satire had but to make use of. In the fifteenth century, Battista Mantovano, in discoursing of the seven monsters, includes the humanists, with any others, under the head 'Superbia.' He describes how, fancying themselves children of Apollo, they walk along with affected solemnity and with sullen, malicious looks, now gazing t their own shadow, now brooding over the popular praise they hunted after, like cranes in search of food. But in the sixteenth century the indictment was presented in full. Besides Ariosto, their own historian Gyraldus gives evidence of this, whose treatise, written under Leo X, was probably revised about the year 1540. Warning examples from ancient and modern times the moral disorder and the wretched existence of the scholars meet us in astonishing abundance, and along with these, accusations of the most serious nature are brought formally against them. Among these are anger, vanity, obstinacy, self-adoration, dissolute private life, immorality of all descriptions, heresy, theism; further, the habit of speaking without conviction, a sinister influence on government, pedantry of speech, thanklessness towards teachers, and abject flattery of the great, who st give the scholar a taste of their favours and then leave m to starve. The description is closed by a reference to the den age, when no such thing as science existed on the earth. these charges, that of heresy soon became the most dangers, and Gyraldus himself, when he afterwards republished a perfectly harmless youthful work, was compelled to take refuge neath the mantle of Duke Ercole II of Ferrara, since men had the upper hand who held that people had better spend their time on Christian themes than on mythological researches. justifies himself on the ground that the latter, on the contrary, were at such a time almost the only harmless branches of study, as they deal with subjects of a perfectly neutral character.

But if it is the duty of the historian to seek for evidence in which moral judgement is tempered by human sympathy, he 11 find no authority comparable in value to the work so often quoted of Pierio Valeriano, 'On the Infelicity of the Scholar.' It was written under the gloomy impressions left by the sack of Rome, which seems to the writer, not only the direct cause of untold misery to the men of learning, but, as it were, the fulfilment of an evil destiny which had long pursued them. Pierio is here led by a simple and, on the whole, just feeling. He does not introduce a special power, which plagued the men of genius on account of their genius, but he states facts, in which an unlucky chance often wears the aspect of fatality. Not wishing to write a tragedy or to refer events to the conflict of higher powers, he is content to lay before us the scenes of everyday life. We are introduced to men who, in times of trouble, lose first their incomes and then their places; to others who, in trying to get two appointments, miss both; to unsociable misers who carry about their money sewn into their clothes, and die mad when they are robbed of it; to others, who accept well-paid offices, and then sicken with a melancholy longing for their lost freedom. We read how some died young of a plague or fever, and how the writings which had cost them so much toil were burnt with their bed and clothes; how others lived in terror of the murderous threats of their colleagues; how one was slain by a covetous servant, and another caught by highwaymen on a journey, and left to pine in a dungeon, because unable to pay his ransom. Many died of unspoken grief from the insults they received and the prizes of which they were defrauded. We are told how a Venetian died because of the death of his son, a youthful prodigy; and how mother and brothers followed, as if the lost child drew them all after him. Many, especially Florentines, ended their lives by suicide; others through the secret justice of a tyrant. Who, after all, is happy?--and by what means? By blunting all feeling for such misery? One of the speakers in the dialogue in which Pierio clothed his argument, can give an answer to these questions-- the illustrious Gasparo Contarini, at the mention of whose name we turn with the expectation to hear at least something of the truest and deepest which was then thought on such matters. As a type of the happy scholar, he mentions Fra Urbano Valeriano of Belluno, who was for years a teacher of Greek at Venice, who visited Greece and the East, and towards the close of his life travelled, now through this country, now through that, without ever mounting a horse; who never had a penny of his own, rejected all honours and distinctions, and after a gay old age, died in his eighty-fourth year, without, if we except a fall from a ladder, having ever known an hour of sickness. And what was the difference between such a man and the humanists? The latter had more free will, more subjectivity, than they could turn to purposes of happiness. The mendicant friar, who had lived from his boyhood in the monastery, and never eaten or slept except by rule, ceased to feel the com- pulsion under which he lived. Through the power of this habit he led, amid all outward hardships, a life of inward peace, by which he impressed his hearers far more than by his teaching. Looking at him, they could believe that it depends on ourselves whether we bear up against misfortune or surrender to it. 'Amid want and toil he was happy, because he willed to be so, because he had contracted no evil habits, was not capricious, inconstant, immoderate; but was always contented with little or nothing.' If we heard Contarini himself, religious motives would no doubt play a part in the argument--but the practical philosopher in sandals speaks plainly enough. An allied character, but placed in other circumstances, is that of Fabio Calvi of Ravenna, the commentator of Hippocrates. He lived to a great age in Rome, eating only pulse 'like the Pythagoreans,' and dwelt in a hovel little better than the tub of Diogenes. Of the pension which Pope Leo gave him, he spent enough to keep body and soul together, and gave the rest away. He was not a healthy man, like Fra Urbano, nor is it likely that, like him, he died with a smile on his lips. At the age of ninety, in the sack of Rome, he was dragged away by the Spaniards, who hoped for a ransom, and died of hunger in a hospital. But his name has passed into the kingdom of the immortals, for Raphael loved the old man like a father, and honoured him as a teacher, and came to him for advice in all things. Perhaps they discoursed chiefly of the projected restoration of ancient Rome, perhaps of still higher matters. Who can tell what a share Fabio may have had in the conception of the School of Athens, and in other great works of the master?

We would gladly close this part of our essay with the picture of some pleasing and winning character. Pomponius Laetus, of whom we shall briefly speak, is known to us principally through the letter of his pupil Sabellicus, in which an antique coloring is purposely given to his character. Yet many of its features are clearly recognizable. He was a bastard of the House of the Neapolitan Sanseverini, princes of Salerno, whom he nevertheless refused to recognize, writing, in reply to an invitation to live with them, the famous letter: 'Pomponius Laetus cognatis et propinquis suis salutem. Quod petitis fieri non potest. Valete.' t An insignificant little figure, with small, quick eyes, and quaint dress, he lived, during the last decades of the fifteenth century, as professor in the University of Rome, either in his cottage in a garden on the Esquiline hill, or in his vineyard on the Quirinal. In the one he bred his ducks and fowls; the other he cultivated according to the strictest precepts of Cato, Varro, and Columella. He spent his holidays in fishing or bird-catching in the Campagna, or in feasting by some shady spring or on the banks of the Tiber. Wealth and luxury he despised. Free himself from envy and uncharitable speech, he would not suffer them in others. It was only against the hierarchy that he gave his tongue free play, and passed, till his latter years, for a scorner of religion altogether. He was involved in the persecution of the humanists begun by Pope Paul II, and surrendered to this pontiff by the Venetians; but no means could be found to wring unworthy confessions from him. He was afterwards befriended and supported by popes and prelates, and when his house was plundered in the disturbances under Sixtus IV, more was collected for him than he had lost. No teacher was more conscientious. Before daybreak he was to be seen descending the Esquiline with his lantern, and on reaching his lecture-room found it always filled to overflowing. A stutter compelled him to speak with care, but his delivery was even and effective. His few works give evidence of careful writing. No scholar treated the text of ancient authors more soberly and accurately. The remains of antiquity which surrounded him in Rome touched him so deeply that he would stand before them as if entranced, or would suddenly burst into tears at the sight of them. As he was ready to lay aside his own studies in order to help others, he was much loved and had many friends; and at his death, even Alexander VI sent his courtiers to follow the corpse, which was carried by the most distinguished of his pupils. The funeral service in the Aracceli was attended by forty bishops and by all the foreign ambassadors.

It was Laetus who introduced and conducted the representations of ancient, chiefly Plautine, plays in Rome. Every year, he celebrated the anniversary of the foundation of the city by a festival, at which his friends and pupils recited speeches and poems. Such meetings were the origin of what acquired, and long retained, the name of the Roman Academy. It was simply a free union of individuals, and was connected with no fixed institution. Besides the occasions mentioned, it met at the invitation of a patron, or to celebrate the memory of a deceased member, as of Platina. At such times, a prelate belonging to the academy would first say mass; Pomponio would then ascend the pulpit and deliver a speech; someone else would then follow him and recite an elegy. The customary banquet, with declamations and recitations, concluded the festival, whether joyous or serious, and the academicians, notably Platina himself, early acquired the reputation of epicures. At other times, the guests performed farces in the old Atellan style. As a free association of very varied elements, the academy lasted in its original form down to the sack of Rome, and included among its hosts Angelus Coloccius, Johannes Corycius and others. Its precise value as an element in the intellectual life of the people is as hard to estimate as that of any other social union of the same kind; yet a man like Sadoleto reckoned it among the most precious memories of his youth. A large number of other academies appeared and passed away in many Italian cities, according to the number and significance of the humanists living in them, and to the patronage bestowed by the great and wealthy. Of these we may mention the Academy of Naples, of which Jovianus Pontanus was the centre, and which sent out a colony to Lecce, and that of Pordenone, which formed the court of the Condottiere Alviano. The circle of Lodovico il Moro, and its peculiar importance for that prince, has been already spoken of.

About the middle of the sixteenth century, these associations seem to have undergone a complete change. The humanists, driven in other spheres from their commanding position, and viewed askance by the men of the Counter-reformation, lost the control of the academies: and here, as elsewhere, Latin poetry was replaced by Italian. Before long every town of the least importance had its academy, with some strange, fantastic name, and its own endowment and subscriptions. Besides the recitation of verses, the new institutions inherited from their predecessors the regular banquets and the representation of plays, sometimes acted by the members themselves, sometimes under their direction by young amateurs, and sometimes by paid players. The fate of the Italian stage, and afterwards of the opera, was long in the hands of these associations.