Poggio Bracciolini  

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"Beccadelli's disgraceful work did not, unfortunately, stand alone, for Poggio, Filelfo and Eneas Sylvius Piccolomini have much to answer for in the way of highly-seasoned anecdotes and adventures. No writing of the so-called Humanists, however, equals Beccadelli's collection of epigrams in impurity. The false heathen Renaissance culminates in this repulsive "Emancipation of the Flesh," sagaciously characterized by a modern historian as the forerunner of the great Revolution, which in the following centuries shook Europe to its centre." --History of the Popes () by Ludwig von Pastor

Imaginary portrait of Poggio Bracciolini
Imaginary portrait of Poggio Bracciolini

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(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.

Search for manuscripts

After July 1415 - Antipope John XXIII had been deposed by the Council of Constance and the Roman Pope Gregory XII had abdicated – the papal office remained vacant for two years, which gave Poggio some leisure time in 1416/17 for his pursuit of manuscript hunting. In the spring of 1416 (sometime between March and May), Poggio visited the baths at the German spa of Baden. In a long letter to Nicolli (p. 59−68) he reported his discovery of a "Epicurean" lifestyle − one year before finding Lucretius − where men and women bathe together, barely separated, in minimum clothing: "I have related enough to give you an idea what a numerous school of Epicureans is established in Baden. I think this must be the place where the first man was created, which the Hebrews call the garden of pleasure. If pleasure can make a man happy, this place is certainly possessed of every requisite for the promotion of felicity." ([...])

Poggio was marked by the passion of his teachers for books and writing, inspired by the first generation of Italian humanists centered around Francesco Petrarch (1304−1374), who had revived interest in the forgotten masterpieces of Livy and Cicero, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313−1375) and Coluccio Salutati (1331−1406). Poggio joined the second generation of civic humanists forming around Salutati. Resolute in glorifying studia humanitatis (the study of "humanities", a phrase popularized by Leonardo Bruni), learning (studium), literacy (eloquentia), and erudition (eruditio) as the chief concern of man, Poggio ridiculed the folly of popes and princes, who spent their time in wars and ecclesiastical disputes instead of reviving the lost learning of antiquity.

The literary passions of the learned Italians in the new Humanist Movement, which were to influence the future course of both Renaissance and Reformation, were epitomized in the activities and pursuits of this self-made man, who rose from the lowly position of scribe in of the Roman Curia to the privileged role of apostolic secretary.
He became devoted to the revival of classical studies amid conflicts of popes and antipopes, cardinals and councils, in all of which he played an official part as first-row witness, chronicler and (often unsolicited) critic and adviser.
Thus, when his duties called him to the Council of Constance in 1414, he employed his forced leisure in exploring the libraries of Swiss and Swabian abbeys. His great manuscript finds date to this period, 1415−1417. The treasures he brought to light at Reichenau, Weingarten, and above all St. Gall, retrieved from the dust and abandon many lost masterpieces of Latin literature, and supplied scholars and students with the texts of authors whose works had hitherto been accessible only in fragmented or mutilated copies.

In his epistles he described how he recovered Cicero's Pro Sexto Roscio, Quintilian, Statius' Silvae, part of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, and the commentaries of Asconius Pedanius at St. Gallen. Manuscripts of Columella, Silius Italicus, Manilius and Vitruvius were unearthed, copied, and communicated to the learned. He carried on the same untiring research in many Western European countries. In 1415 at Cluny he found Cicero's complete great forensic orations, previously only partially available. At Langres in the summer of 1417 he discovered Cicero's Oration for Caecina and nine other hitherto unknown orations of Cicero's.

At Monte Cassino, in 1425, a manuscript of Frontinus' late first century De aquaeductu on the ancient aqueducts of Rome. He was also credited with having recovered Ammianus Marcellinus, Nonius Marcellus, Probus, Flavius Caper and Eutyches.
If a codex could not be obtained by fair means, he was not above using subterfuge, as when he bribed a monk to abstract a Livy and an Ammianus from the library of Hersfeld Abbey.

De rerum natura

Poggio' discovery of the manuscript of '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).

See also

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