The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Three

The Revival of Antiquity

The Treatise, and History in Latin

From the oratory and the epistolary writings of the humanists, we shall here pass on to their other creations, which were all, to a greater or less extent, reproductions of antiquity.

Among these must be placed the treatise, which often took the shape of a dialogue. In this case it was borrowed directly from Cicero. In order to do anything like justice to this class of literature--in order not to throw it aside at first sight as a bore two things must be taken into consideration. The century which escaped from the influence of the Middle Ages felt the need of something to mediate between itself and antiquity in many questions of morals and philosophy; and this need was met by the writer of treatises and dialogues. Much which appears to us as mere commonplace in their writings, was for them and their contemporaries a new and hard-won view of things upon which mankind had been silent since the days of antiquity. The language too, in this form of writing, whether Italian or Latin, moved more freely and flexibly than in historical narrative, in letters, or in oratory, and thus became in itself the source of a special pleasure. Several Italian compositions of this kind still hold their place as patterns of style. Many of these works have been, or will be mentioned on account of their contents; we here refer to them as a class. From the time of Petrarch's letters and treatises down to near the end of the fifteenth century, the heaping up of learned quotations, as in the case of the orators, is the main business of most of these writers. Subsequently the whole style, especially in Italian, was purified, until, in the 'Asolani' of Bembo, and the 'Vita Sobria' of Luigi Cornaro, a classical perfection was reached. Here too the decisive fact was this, that antiquarian matter of every kind had meantime begun to be deposited in encyclopedic works (now printed), and no longer stood in the way of the essayist.

It was inevitable too that the humanistic spirit should control the writing of history. A superficial comparison of the histories of this period with the earlier chronicles, especially with works so full of life, color, and brilliancy as those of the Villani, will lead us loudly to deplore the change. How insipid and conventional appear by their side the best of the humanists, and particularly their immediate and most famous successors among the historians of Florence, Leonardo Aretino and Poggio! The enjoyment of the reader is incessantly marred by the sense that, in the classical phrases of Fazio, Sabellico, Foglietta, Senarega, Platina in the chronicles of Mantua, Bembo in the annals of Venice, and even of Giovio in his histories, the best local and individual coloring and the full sincerity of interest in the truth of events have been lost. Our mistrust is increased when we hear that Livy, the pattern of this school of writers, was copied just where he is least worthy of imitation--on the ground, namely, 'that he turned a dry and walled tradition into grace and richness.' In the same place we meet with the suspicious declaration that it is the function of the historian-- just as if he were one with the poet--to excite, charm, or overwhelm the reader. We ask ourselves finally, whether the contempt for modern things, which these same humanists sometimes avowed openly, must not necessarily have had an unfortunate influence on their treatment of them. Unconsciously the reader finds himself looking with more interest and confidence on the unpretending Latin and Italian annalists, like those of Bologna and Ferrara, who remained true to the old style, and still more grateful does he feel to the best of the genuine chroniclers who wrote in Italian--to Marino Sanuto, Corio, and Infessura--who were followed at the beginning of the sixteenth century by that new and illustrious band of great national historians who wrote in their mother tongue.

Contemporary history, no doubt, was written far better in the language of the day than when forced into Latin. Whether Italian was also more suitable for the narrative of events long past, or for historical research, is a question which admits, for that period, of more answers than one. Latin was, at that time, the 'Lingua franca' of instructed people, not only in an international sense, as a means of intercourse between Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Italians, but also in an interprovincial sense. The Lombard, the Venetian, and the Neapolitan modes of writing, though long modelled on the Tuscan, and bearing but slight traces of the dialect were still not recognized by the Florentines. This was of less consequence in local contemporary histories, which were sure of readers at the place where they were written, than in the narratives of the past, for which a larger public was desired. In these the local interests of the people had to be sacrificed to the general interests of the learned. How far would the influence of a man like Biondo of Forli have reached if he had written his great monuments of learning in the dialect of the Romagna? They would have assuredly sunk into neglect, if only through the contempt of the Florentines, while written in Latin they exercised the profoundest influence on the whole European world of learning. And even the Florentines in the fifteenth century wrote Latin, not only because their minds were imbued with humanism, but in order to be more widely read.

Finally, there exist certain Latin essays in contemporary history which stand on a level with the best Italian works of the kind. When the continuous narrative after the manner of Livy--that Procrustean bed of so many writers is abandoned, the change is marvelous. The same Platina and Giovio, whose great histories we only read because and so far as we must, suddenly come forward as masters in the biographical style. We have already spoken of Tristano Caracciolo, of the biographical works of Fazio and of the Venetian topography of Sabellico, and others will be mentioned in the sequel.

The Latin treatises on past history were naturally concerned, for the most part, with classical antiquity. What we are most surprised to find among these humanists are some considerable works on the history of the Middle Ages. The first of this kind was the chronicle of Matteo Palmieri (449-1449), beginning where Prosper Accedence ceases. On opening the 'Decades' of Biondo of Forli, we are surprised to find a universal history, 'ab inclinatione Romanorum imperii,' as in Gibbon, full of original studies on the authors of each century, and occupied, through the first 300 folio pages, with early mediaeval history down to the death of Frederick II. And this when in Northern countries nothing more was current than chronicles of the popes and emperors, and the 'Fasciculus temporum.' We cannot here stay to show what writings Biondo made use of, and where he found his materials, though this justice will some day be done to him by the historians of literature. This book alone would entitle us to say that it was the study of antiquity which made the study of the Middle Ages possible, by first training the mind to habits of impartial historical criticism. To this must be added, that the Middle Ages were now over for Italy, and that the Italian mind could the better appreciate them, because it stood outside them. It cannot, nevertheless, be said that it at once judged them fairly, let alone with piety. In the arts a strong prejudice established itself against all that those centuries had created, and the humanists date the new era from the time of their own appearance. 'I begin,' says Boccaccio, 'to hope and believe that God has had mercy on the Italian name, since I see that His infinite goodness puts souls into the breasts of the Italians like those of the ancients souls which seek fame by other means than robbery and violence, but rather on the path of poetry, which makes men immortal.' But this narrow and unjust temper did not preclude investigation in the minds of the more gifted men, at a time, too, when elsewhere in Europe any such investigation would have been out of the question. A historical criticism of the Middle Ages was practicable, just because the rational treatment of all subjects by the humanists had trained the historical spirit. In the fifteenth century this spirit had so far penetrated the history even of the individual cities of Italy that the stupid fairy tales about the origin of Florence, Venice, and Milan vanished, while at the same time, and long after, the chronicles of the North were stuffed with this fantastic rubbish, destitute for the most part of all poetical value, and invented as late as the fourteenth century.

The close connection between local history and the sentiment of glory has already been touched on in reference to Florence. Venice would not be behindhand. Just as a great rhetorical triumph of the Florentines would cause a Venetian embassy to write home posthaste for an orator to be sent after them, so too the Venetians felt the need of a history which would bear comparison with those of Leonardo Aretino and Poggio. And it was to satisfy this feeling that, in the fifteenth century, the 'Decades' of Sabellico appeared, and in the sixteenth the 'Historia rerum Venetarum' of Pietro Bembo, both written at the express charge of the republic, the latter a continuation of the former.

The great Florentine historians at the beginning of the sixteenth century were men of a wholly different kind from the Latinists Bembo and Giovio. They wrote Italian, not only because they could not vie with the Ciceronian elegance of the philologists, but because, like Machiavelli, they could only record in a living tongue the living results of their own immediate observations and we may add in the case of Machiavelli, of his observation of the past--and because, as in the case of Guicciardini, Varchi, and many others, what they most desired was, that their view of the course of events should have as wide and deep a practical effect as possible. Even when they only write for a few friends, like Francesco Vettori, they feel an inward need to utter their testimony on men and events, and to explain and justify their share in the latter.

And yet, with all that is characteristic in their language and style, they were powerfully affected by antiquity, and, without its influence, would be inconceivable. They were not humanists, but they had passed through the school of humanism and have in them more of the spirit of the ancient historians than most of the imitators of Livy. Like the ancients, they were citizens who wrote for citizens.