Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
(Gian Francesco) Poggio Bracciolini (February 11, 1380 – October 30, 1459) served as a papal secretary under seven popes, as a Florentine/Roman scholar, writer and an early humanist. He recovered a great number of classical Latin manuscripts, mostly decaying and forgotten in German, Swiss, and French monastic libraries, including the only surviving copy of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, and disseminated manuscript copies among his learned friends.
He is also remembered today for his Facetiae, a collection of ribald tales, which included tales such as "Of a Fool, Who Thought His Wife Had Two Openings". Not surprisingly, Gershon Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke was dedicated to Poggio.
Poggio, like Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (who became Pius II), was a great traveller, and wherever he went he brought 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. On 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. Bracciolini's Facetiae, a collection of humorous and indecent tales expressed in the purest Latin Poggio could command are the works most enjoyed today: they are available in several English translations. This book is chiefly remarkable for its unsparing satires on the monastic orders and the secular clergy.
In the way of many humanists of his time, Poggio himself wrote only in Latin, and translated works from Greek into that language. His letters are full of learning, charm, detail, and amusing personal attack on his enemies and colleagues. 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 Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, the Antipope Felix V with inventive scurrilous abuse. But his most famous compositions in this kind are the personal invectives which he discharged against Francesco Filelfo and Lorenzo 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.
De Rerum Natura
One of Poggio's finds that has become especially famous was, in January 1417, in a German monastery (never named by Poggio, but probably Fulda), the discovery of the only manuscript of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura known at the time. Poggio spotted the name, which he remembered as quoted by Cicero. This was a Latin poem of 7,400 lines, divided into six books, giving a full description of the world as viewed by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. It has been translated as On the Nature of the Universe (Oxford World's Classics). The manuscript found by Poggio was not preserved, but he sent the copy he had ordered to Niccolo Niccoli, who made a transcription in his beautiful book hand (the creator of italic script), which became the model for the more than fifty other copies circulating at the time. Poggio complained that Niccoli didn't return his original copy for 14 years! Later two 9th-century manuscripts were discovered, the O ("Oblongus", ca. 825) and Q ("Quadratus") codices, now kept at Leiden University. The book was first printed in 1473.
Stephen Greenblatt, in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Sept. 2011). describes the discovery of the old Lucretius manuscript by Poggio. Greenblatt analyzes the poem's subsequent impact on the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation and modern science.