The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Three

The Revival of Antiquity

Propagators of Antiquity; Epistolography: Latin Orators

There were two purposes, however, for which the humanist was as indispensable to the republics as to princes or popes, namely, the official correspondence of the State, and the making of speeches on public and solemn occasions.

Not only was the secretary required to be a competent Latinist, but conversely, only a humanist was credited with the knowledge and ability necessary for the post of secretary. And thus the greatest men in the sphere of science during the fifteenth century mostly devoted a considerable part of their lives to serve the State in this capacity. No importance was attached to a man's home or origin. Of the four great Florentine secretaries who filled the office between 1427 and 1465, three belonged to the subject city of Arezzo, namely, Leonardo (Bruni), Carlo (Marzuppini), and Benedetto Accolti; Poggio was from Terra Nuova, also in Florentine territory. For a long period, indeed, many of the highest offices of State were on principle given to foreigners. Leonardo, Poggio, and Giannozzo Manetti were at one time or another private secretaries to the popes, and Carlo Aretino was to have been so. Biondo of Forli, and, in spite of everything, at last even Lorenzo Valla, filled the same office. From the time of Nicholas V and Pius II onwards, the Papal chancery continued more and more to attract the ablest men, and this was still the case even under the last popes of the fifteenth century, little as they cared for letters. In Platina's 'History of the Popes,' the life of Paul II is a charming piece of vengeance taken by a humanist on the one Pope who did not know how to behave to his chancery--to that circle 'of poets and orators who bestowed on the Papal court as much glory as they received from it.' It is delightful to see the indignation of these haughty gentlemen, when some squabble about precedence happened, when, for instance, the 'Advocati consistoriales' claimed equal or superior rank to theirs. The Apostle John, to whom the 'Secreta caelestia' were revealed; the secretary of Porsenna, whom Mucius Scaevola mistook for the king; Maecenas, who was private secretary to Augustus; the archbishops, who in Germany were called chancellors, are all appealed to in turn. 'The apostolic secretaries have the most weighty business of the world in their hands. For who but they decide on matters of the Catholic faith, who else combat heresy, re-establish peace, and mediate between great monarchs; who but they write the statistical accounts of Christendom? It is they who astonish kings, princes, and nations by what comes forth from the Pope. They write commands and instructions for the legates, and receive their orders only from the Pope, on whom they wait day and night.' But the highest summit of glory was only attained by the two famous secretaries and stylists of Leo X: Pietro Bembo and Jacopo Sadoleto.

All the chanceries did not turn out equally elegant documents. A leathern official style, in the impurest of Latin, was very common. In the Milanese documents preserved by Corio there is a remarkable contrast between this sort of composition and the few letters written by members of the princely house, which must have been written, too, in moments of critical importance. They are models of pure Latinity. To maintain a faultless style under all circumstances was a rule of good breeding, and a result of habit.

The letters of Cicero, Pliny, and others, were at this time diligently studied as models. As early as the fifteenth century a great mass of manuals and models for Latin correspondence had appeared (as off-shoots of the great grammatical and lexicographic works), a mass which is astounding to us even now when we look at them in the libraries. But just as the existence of these helps tempted many to undertake a task to which they had no vocation, so were the really capable men stimulated to a more faultless excellence, till at length the letters of Politian, and at the beginning of the sixteenth century those of Pietro Bembo, appeared, and took their place as unrivalled masterpieces, not only of Latin style in general, but also of the more special art of letter-writing.

Together with these there appeared in the sixteenth century the classical style of Italian correspondence, at the head of which stands Bembo again. Its form is wholly modern, and deliberately kept free from Latin influence, and yet its spirit is thoroughly penetrated and possessed by the ideas of antiquity.

But at a time and among a people where 'listening' was among the chief pleasures of life, and where every imagination was filled with the memory of the Roman senate and its great speakers, the orator occupied a far more brilliant place than the letter-writer. Eloquence had shaken off the influence of the Church, in which it had found a refuge during the Middle Ages, and now became an indispensable element and ornament of all elevated lives. Many of the social hours which are now filled with music were then given to Latin or Italian oratory, with results which every reader can imagine.

The social position of the speaker was a matter of perfect indifference; what was desired was simply the most cultivated humanistic talent. At the court of Borso of Ferrara, the Duke's physician, Girolamo da Castello, was chosen to deliver the congratulatory address on the visits of Frederick III and of Pius II. Married laymen ascended the pulpits of the churches at any scene of festivity or mourning) and even on the feastdays of the saints. It struck the non-Italian members of the Council of Basle as something strange that the Archbishop of Milan should summon Aeneas Sylvius, who was then unordained, to deliver a public discourse at the feast of Saint Ambrose; but they suffered it in spite of the murmurs of the theologians, and listened to the speaker with the greatest curiosity.

Let us glance for a moment at the most frequent and important occasions of public speaking.

It was not for nothing, in the first place, that the ambassadors from one State to another received the title of orators. Whatever else might be done in the way of secret negotiation, the envoy never failed to make a public appearance and deliver a public speech, under circumstances of the greatest possible pomp and ceremony. As a rule, however numerous the embassy might be, one individual spoke for all; but it happened to Pius II, a critic before whom all were glad to be heard, to be forced to sit and listen to a whole deputation, one after another. Learned princes who had the gift of speech were themselves fond of discoursing in Latin or Italian. The children of the House of Sforza were trained to this exercise. The boy Galeazzo Maria delivered in 1455 a fluent speech before the Great Council at Venice, and his sister Ippolita saluted Pope Pius II with a graceful address at the Congress of Mantua (1459). Pius himself through all his life did much by his oratory to prepare the way for his final elevation to the Papal chair. Great as he was both as scholar and diplomatist, he would probably never have become Pope without the fame and the charm of his eloquence. 'For nothing was more lofty than the dignity of his oratory.' Without doubt this was a reason why multitudes held him to be the fittest man for the office even before his election.

Princes were also commonly received on public occasions with speeches, which sometimes lasted for hours. This happened of course only when the prince was known as a lover of eloquence, or wished to pass for such, and when a competent speaker was present, whether university professor, official, ecclesiastic, physician, or court-scholar. Every other political opportunity was seized with the same eagerness, and according to the reputation of the speaker, the concourse of the lovers of culture was great or small. At the yearly change of public officers, and even at the consecration of new bishops, a humanist was sure to come forward, and sometimes addressed his audience in hexameters or Sapphic verses. Often a newly appointed official was himself forced to deliver a speech more or less relevant to his department, as, for instance, on justice; and lucky for him if he were well up in his part! At Florence even the Condottieri, whatever their origin or education might be, were compelled to accommodate themselves to the popular sentiment, and on receiving the insignia of their office, were harangued before the assembled people by the most learned secretary of state. It seems that beneath or close to the Loggia de' Lanzi--the porch where the government was wont to appear solemnly before the people a tribune or platform (rostra, ringhiera) was erected for such purposes.

Anniversaries, especially those of the death of princes, were commonly celebrated by memorial speeches. Even the funeral oration strictly so called was generally entrusted to a humanist, who delivered it in church, clothed in a secular dress; nor was it only princes, but officials, or persons otherwise distinguished, to whom this honour was paid. This was also the case with the speeches delivered at weddings or betrothals, with the difference that they seem to have been made in the palace, instead of in church, like that of Filelfo at the betrothal of Anna Sforza to Alfonso of Este in the castle of Milan. It is still possible that the ceremony may have taken place in the chapel of the castle. Private families of distinction no doubt also employed such wedding orators as one of the luxuries of high life. At Ferrara, Guarino was requested on these occasions to send some one or other of his pupils. The clergy performed only the purely religious ceremonies at weddings and funerals.

The academical speeches, both those made at the installation of a new teacher and at the opening of a new course of lectures were delivered by the professor himself, and treated as occasions of great rhetorical display. The ordinary university lectures also usually had an oratorical character.

With regard to forensic eloquence, the quality of the audience determined the form of speech. In case of need it was enriched with all sorts of philosophical and antiquarian learning.

As a special class of speeches we may mention the address made in Italian on the battlefield, either before or after the combat. Federigo of Urbino was esteemed a classic in this style; he used to pass round among his squadrons as they stood drawn up in order of battle, inspiring them in turn with pride and enthusiasm. Many of the speeches in the military historians of the fifteenth century, as for instance in Porcellius, may be, in part at least, imaginary, but may be also in part faithful representations of words actually spoken. The addresses again which were delivered to the Florentine Militia, organized in 1506 chiefly through the influence of Machiavelli, and which were spoken first at reviews, and afterwards at special annual festivals, were of another kind. They were simply general appeals to the patriotism of the hearers, and were addressed to the assembled troops in the church of each quarter of the city by a citizen in armor, sword in hand.

Finally, the oratory of the pulpit began in the fifteenth century to lose its distinctive peculiarities. Many of the clergy had entered into the circle of classical culture, and were ambitious of success in it. The street-preacher Bernardino da Siena, who even in his lifetime passed for a saint and who was worshipped by the populace, was not above taking lessons in rhetoric from the famous Guarino, although he had only to preach in Italian. Never indeed was more expected from preachers than at that time especially from the Lenten preachers; and there were not a few audiences which could not only tolerate, but which demanded a strong dose of philosophy from the pulpit. But we have here especially to speak of the distinguished occasional preachers in Latin. Many of their opportunities had been taken away from them, as has been observed, by learned laymen. Speeches on particular saints' days, at weddings and funerals, or at the installation of a bishop, and even the introductory speech at the first mass of a clerical friend, or the address at the festival of some religious order, were all left to laymen. But at all events at the Papal court in the fifteenth century, whatever the occasion might be, the preachers were generally monks. Under Sixtus IV, Giacomo da Volterra regularly enumerates these preachers, and criticizes them according to the rules of the art. Fedra Inghirami, famous as an orator under Julius II, had at least received holy orders and was canon at St. John Lateran; and besides him, elegant Latinists were now common enough among the prelates. In this matter, as in others, the exaggerated privileges of the profane humanists appear lessened in the sixteenth century on which point we shall presently speak more fully.

What now was the subject and general character of these speeches? The national gift of eloquence was not wanting to the Italians of the Middle Ages, and a so-called 'rhetoric' belonged from the first to the seven liberal arts; but so far as the revival of the ancient methods is concerned, this merit must be ascribed, according to Filippo Villani, to the Florentine Bruno Casini, who died of the plague in 1348. With the practical purpose of fitting his countrymen to speak with ease and effect in public, he treated, after the pattern of the ancients, invention, declamation, bearing, and gesticulation, each in its proper connection. Elsewhere too we read of an oratorical training directed solely to practical application. No accomplishment was more highly esteemed than the power of elegant improvisation in Latin. The growing study of Cicero's speeches and theoretical writings, of Quintilian and of the imperial panegyrists, the appearance of new and original treatises, the general progress of antiquarian learning, and the stores of ancient matter and thought which now could and must be drawn from, all combined to shape the character of the new eloquence.

This character nevertheless differed widely according to the individual. Many speeches breathe a spirit of true eloquence, especially those which keep to the matter treated of; of this kind is the mass of what is left to us of Pius II. The miraculous effects produced by Giannozzo Manetti point to an orator the like of whom has not been often seen. His great audiences as envoy before Nicholas V and before the Doge and Council of Venice were events not to be soon forgotten. Many orators, on the contrary, would seize the opportunity, not only to flatter the vanity of distinguished hearers, but to load their speeches with an enormous mass of antiquarian rubbish. How it was possible to endure this infliction for two and even three hours, can only be understood when we take into account the intense interest then felt in everything connected with antiquity, and the rarity and defectiveness of treatises on the subject at a time when printing was but little diffused. Such orations had at least the value which we have claimed for many of Petrarch's letters. But some speakers went too far. Most of Filelfo's speeches are an atrocious patchwork of classical and biblical quotations, tacked on to a string of commonplaces, among which the great people he wishes to flatter are arranged under the head of the cardinal virtues, or some such category, and it is only with the greatest trouble, in his case and in that of many others, that we can extricate the few historical no- tices of any value which they really contain. The speech, for instance, of a scholar and professor of Piacenza at the reception of the Duke Galeazzo Maria, in 1467, begins with Julius Caesar, then proceeds to mix up a mass of classical quotations with a number from an allegorical work by the speaker himself, and concludes with some exceedingly indiscreet advice to the ruler. Fortunately it was late at night, and the orator had to be satisfied with handing his written panegyric to the prince. Filelfo begins a speech at a betrothal with the words: 'Aristotle, the peripatetic.' Others start with P. Cornelius Scipio, and the like, as though neither they nor their hearers could wait a moment for a quotation. At the end of the fifteenth century public taste suddenly improved, chiefly through Florentine influence, and the practice of quotation was restricted within due limits. Many works of reference were now in existence, in which the first comer could find as much as he wanted of what had hitherto been the admiration of princes and people.

As most of the speeches were written out beforehand in the study, the manuscripts served as a means of further publicity afterwards. The great extemporaneous speakers, on the other hand, were attended by shorthand writers. We must further remember that not all the orations which have come down to us were intended to be actually delivered. The panegyric, for example, of the elder Beroaldus on Lodovico il Moro was presented to him in manuscript. In fact, just as letters were written addressed to all conceivable persons and parts of the world as exercises, as formularies, or even to serve a controversial end, so there were speeches for imaginary occasions to be used as models for the reception of princes, bishops, and other dignitaries.

For oratory, as for the other arts, the death of Leo X (1521) and the sack of Rome (1527) mark the epoch of decadence. Giovio, but just escaped from the desolation of the eternal city, described, not impartially, but on the whole correctly, the causes of this decline: 'The plays of Plautus and Terence, once a school of Latin style for the educated Romans, are banished to make room for Italian comedies. Graceful speakers no longer find the recognition and reward which they once did. The Consistorial advocates no longer prepare anything but the introductions to their speeches, and deliver the rest--a confused muddle--on the inspiration of the moment. Sermons and occasional speeches have sunk to the same level. If a funeral oration is wanted for a cardinal or other great personage, the executors do not apply to the best orators in the city, to whom they would have to pay a hundred pieces of gold, but they hire for a trifle the first impudent pedant whom they come across, and who only wants to be talked of, whether for good or ill. The dead, they say, is none the wiser if an ape stands in a black dress in the pulpit, and beginning with a hoarse, whimpering mumble, passes little by little into a loud howling. Even the sermons preached at great Papal ceremonies are no longer profitable, as they used to be. Monks of all orders have again got them into their hands, and preach as if they were speaking to the mob. Only a few years ago a sermon at mass before the Pope might easily lead the way to a bishopric.'