The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Three

The Revival of Antiquity

The Humanists

Who now were those who acted as mediators between their own age and a venerated antiquity, and made the latter a chief element in the culture of the former?

They were a crowd of the most miscellaneous sort, wearing one face today and another tomorrow; but they clearly felt themselves, and it was fully recognized by their time that they formed, a wholly new element in society. The 'clerici vagantes' of the twelfth century may perhaps be taken as their forerun- ners--the same unstable existence, the same free and more than free views of life, and the germs at all events of the same pagan tendencies in their poetry. But now, as competitor with the whole culture of the Middle Ages, which was essentially clerical and was fostered by the Church, there appeared a new civilization, founding itself on that which lay on the other side of the Middle Ages. Its active representatives became influential because they knew what the ancients knew, because they tried to write as the ancients wrote, because they began to think, and soon to feel, as the ancients thought and felt. The tradition to which they devoted themselves passed at a thousand points into genuine reproduction.

Some modern writers deplore the fact that the germs of a far more independent and essentially national culture, such as appeared in Florence about the year 1300, were afterwards so completely swamped by the humanists. There was then, we are told, nobody in Florence who could not read; even the donkeymen sang the verses of Dante; the best Italian manuscripts which we possess belonged originally to Florentine artisans; the publication of a popular encyclopedia, like the 'Tesoro' of Brunetto Latini, was then possible; and all this was founded on d strength and soundness of character due to the universal participation in public affairs, to commerce and travel, and to the systematic reprobation of idleness. The Florentines, it is urged, were at that time respected and influential throughout the whole world, and were called in that year, not without reason, by Pope Boniface VIII, 'the fifth element.' The rapid progress of humanism after the year 1400 paralysed native impulses. Henceforth men looked only to antiquity for the solution of every problem, and consequently allowed literature to turn into mere quotation. Nay, the very fall of civil freedom is partly ascribed to all this, since the new learning rested on obedience to authority, sacrificed municipal rights to Roman law, and thereby both sought and found the favour of the despots.

These charges will occupy us now and then at a later stage of our inquiry, when we shall attempt to reduce them to their true value, and to weigh the losses against the gains of this movement. For the present we must confine ourselves to showing how the civilization even of the vigorous fourteenth century necessarily prepared the way for the complete victory of humanism, and how precisely the greatest representatives of the national Italian spirit were themselves the men who opened wide the gate for the measureless devotion to antiquity in the fifteenth century.

To begin with Dante. If a succession of men of equal genius had presided over Italian culture, whatever elements their natures might have absorbed from the antique, they still could not fail to retain a characteristic and strongly-marked national stamp. But neither Italy nor Western Europe produced another Dante, and he was and remained the man who first thrust antiquity into the foreground of national culture. In the 'Divine Comedy' he treats the ancient and the Christian worlds, not indeed as of equal authority, but as parallel to one another. Just as, at an earlier period of the Middle Ages, types and anti- types were sought in the history of the Old and New Testaments, so does Dante constantly bring together a Christian and a pagan illustration of the same fact. It must be remembered that the Christian cycle of history and legend was familiar, while the ancient was relatively unknown, was full of promise and of interest, and must necessarily have gained the upper hand in the competition for public sympathy when there was no longer a Dante to hold the balance between the two.

Petrarch, who lives in the memory of most people nowadays chiefly as a great Italian poet, owed his fame among his contemporaries far rather to the fact that he was a kind of living representative of antiquity, that he imitated all styles of Latin poetry, endeavored by his voluminous historical and philosophical writings not to supplant but to make known the works of the ancients, and wrote letters that, as treatises on matters of antiquarian interest, obtained a reputation which to us is unintelligible, but which was natural enough in an age without handbooks.

It was the same with Boccaccio. For two centuries, when but little was known of the 'Decameron' north of the Alps, he was famous all over Europe simply on account of his Latin compilations on mythology, geography and biography. One of these, 'De Genealogia Deorum,' contains in the fourteenth and fifteenth books a remarkable appendix, in which he discusses the position of the then youthful humanism with regard to the age. We must not be misled by his exclusive references to 'poesie,' as closer observation shows that he means thereby the whole mental activity of the poet-scholars. This it is whose enemies he so vigorously combats--the frivolous ignoramuses who have no soul for anything but debauchery; the sophistical theologian, to whom Helicon, the Castalian fountain, and the grove of Apollo were foolishness; the greedy lawyers, to whom poetry was a superfluity, since no money was to be made by it; finally the mendicant friars, described periphrastically, but clearly enough, who made free with their charges of paganism and immorality. Then follows the defence of poetry, the praise of it, and especially of the deeper and allegorical meanings which we must always attribute to it, and of that calculated obscurity which is intended to repel the dull minds of the ignorant.

And finally, with a clear reference to his own scholarly work, the writer justifies the new relation in which his age stood to paganism. The case was wholly different, he pleads, when the Early Church had to fight its way among the heathen. Now--praised be Jesus Christ !--true religion was strengthened, paganism destroyed, and the victorious Church in possession of the hostile camp. It was now possible to touch and study paganism almost (fere) without danger. This is the argument invariably used in later times to defend the Renaissance.

There was thus a new cause in the world and a new class of men to maintain it. It is idle to ask if this cause ought not to have stopped short in its career of victory, to have restrained itself deliberately, and conceded the first place to purely national elements of culture. No conviction was more firmly rooted in the popular mind than that antiquity was the highest title to glory which Italy possessed.

There was a symbolical ceremony peculiar to the first generation of poet-scholars which lasted on into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, though losing the higher sentiment which inspired it--the coronation of the poets with the laurel wreath. The origin of this custom in the Middle Ages is obscure, and the ritual of the ceremony never became fixed. It was a public demonstration, an outward and visible expression of literary enthusiasm, and naturally its form was variable. Dante, for instance, seems to have understood it in the sense of a halfreligious consecration; he desired to assume the wreath in the baptistery of San Giovanni, where, like thousands of other Florentine children, he had received baptism. He could, says his biographer, have anywhere received the crown in virtue of his fame, but desired it nowhere but in his native city, and therefore died uncrowned. From the same source we learn that the usage was till then uncommon, and was held to be inherited by the ancient Romans from the Greeks. The most recent source to which the practices could be referred is to be found in the Capitoline contests of musicians, poets, and other artists, founded by Domitian in imitation of the Greeks and celebrated every five years, which may possibly have survived for a time the fall of the Roman Empire; but as few other men would venture to crown themselves, as Dante desired to do, the question arises, to whom did this office belong? Albertino Mussato was crowned at Padua in 1310 by the bishop and the rector of the University. The University of Paris, the rector of which was then a Florentine (1341), and the municipal authorities of Rome, competed for the honour of crowning Petrarch. His self-elected examiner, King Robert of Anjou, would have liked to perform the ceremony at Naples, but Petrarch preferred to be crowned on the Capitol by the senator of Rome. This honour was long the highest object of ambition, and so it seemed to Jacobus Pizinga, an illustrious Sicilian magistrate. Then came the Italian journey of Charles IV, whom it amused to flatter the vanity of ambitious men, and impress the ignorant multitude by means of gorgeous ceremonies. Start- ing from the fiction that the coronation of poets was a prerogative of the old Roman emperors, and consequently was no less his own, he crowned (May 15, 1355) the Florentine scholar, Zanobi della Strada, at Pisa, to the great disgust of Boccaccio, who declined to recognize this 'laurea Pisana' as legitimate. Indeed, it might be fairly asked with what right this stranger, half Slavonic by birth, came to sit in judgement on the merits of Italian poets. But from henceforth the emperors crowned poets wherever they went on their travels; and in the fifteenth century the popes and other princes assumed the same right, till at last no regard whatever was paid to place or circumstances. In Rome, under Sixtus IV, the academy of Pomponius L‘tus gave the wreath on its own authority. The Florentines had the good taste not to crown their famous humanists till after death. Carlo Aretino and Leonardo Aretino were thus crowned; the eulogy of the first was pronounced by Matteo Palmieri, of the latter by Giannozzo Manetti, before the members of the council and the whole people, the orator standing at the head of the bier, on which the corpse lay clad in a silken robe. Carlo Aretino was further honoured by a tomb in Santa Croce, which is among the most beautiful in the whole course of the Renaissance.