One of the first humanists to have a thorough knowledge of both Latin and Greek was the Florentine chancellor Leonardo Bruni. Bruni was fortunate to be instructed by the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, who was persuaded by the Florentines to come to Florence to teach Greek. As this selection illustrates, Bruni seized the opportunity to pursue his passion for Greek letters.

Leonardo Bruni,

History of His Own Times in Italy

Then first came the knowledge of Greek letters, which for seven hundred years had been lost among us. It was the Byzantine, Chrysoloras, a nobleman in his own country and most skilled in literature, who brought Greek learning back to us. Because his country was invaded by the Turks, he came by sea to Venice; but as soon his fame went abroad, he was cordially invited and eagerly besought to come to Florence on a public salary to spread his abundant riches before the youth of the city [1396]. At that time I was studying Civil Law. But my nature was afire with the love of learning and I had already given no little time to dialectic and rhetoric. Therefore at the coming of Chrysoloras I was divided in my mind, feeling that it was a shame to desert the Law and no less wrong to let slip such an occasion for learning Greek. And c>often with youthful impulsiveness I addressed myself thus: "When you are privileged to gaze upon and have converse with Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes as well as the other poets, philosophers, and orators of whom such wonderful things are reported, and when you might saturate yourself with their admirable teachings, will you turn your back and flee? Will you permit this opportunity, divinely offered you, to slip by? For seven hundred years now no one in Italy has been in possession of Greek and yet we agree that all knowledge comes from that source. What great advancement of knowledge, enlargement of fame, and increase of pleasure will come to you from an acquaintance with this tongue! There are everywhere quantities of doctors of the Civil Law and the opportunity of completing your study in this field will not fail you. However, should the one and only doctor of Greek letters disappear, there will he no one from whom to acquire them."

Overcome at last by these arguments, I gave myself to Chrysoloras and developed such ardor that what' ever I learned by day, I revolved with myself in the night while asleep.


Marriage Negotiations

Marriages were so important in maintaining families in Renaissance Italy that much energy was put into arranging them. Parents made the choices for their children, most often for considerations that had little to do with the modern notion of love. This selection is taken from the letters of a Florentine matron of the illustrious Strozzi family to her son Filippo in Naples. The family's considerations were complicated by the fact that the son was in exile.

Alessandra Strozzi to Her Son Filippo in Naples

[April 20, 1464] . . . Concerning the matter of a wife [for Filippo], it appears to me that if Francesco di Messer Tanagli wishes to give his daughter, that it would be a fine marriage.... Now I will speak with Marco [Parenti, Alessandra's son-in-law], to see if there are other prospects that would be better, and if there are none, then we will learn if he wishes to give her [in marriage!.... Francesco Tanagli has a good reputation, and he has held office, not the highest, but still he has been in office. You may ask: "Why should he give her to someone in exile?" There are three reasons. First, there aren't many young men of good family who have both virtue and property. Secondly, she has only a small dowry, 1,000 florins, which is the dowry of an artisan [although not a small sum, eithersenior officials in the government bureaucracy earned 300 florins a year].... Third, I believe that he will give her away, because he has a large family and he will need help to settle them....

[July 26, 1465] ... Francesco is a good friend of Marco and he trusts him. On S. Jacopo's day, he spoke to him discreetly and persuasively, saying that for several months he had heard that we were interested in the girl and ... that when we had made up our minds, she will come to us willingly. [He said that] you were a worthy man, and that his family had always made good marriages, but that he had only a small dowry to give her, and so he would prefer to send her outside of Florence to someone of worth, rather than to give her to someone here, from among those who were available, with little money.... We have information that she is affable and competent. She is responsible for a large family (there are twelve children, six boys and six girls), and the mother is always pregnant and isn't very competent....

[August 31, 1465] . . . I have recently received some very favorable information [about the Tanagli girl] from two individuals.... They are in agreement that whoever gets her will be content.... Concerning her beauty, they told me what I had already seen, that she is attractive and well-proportioned. Her face is long, but I couldn't look directly into her face, since she appeared to be aware that I was examining her . . . and so she turned away from me like the wind.... Shc reads quite well ... and she can dance and sing....

So yesterday I sent for Marco and told him what I had learned. And we talked about the matter for a while, and decided that he should say something to the father and give him a little hope, but not so much that we couldn't withdraw, and find out from him the amount of the dowry.... May God help us to choose what will contribute to our tranquility and to the consolation of us all.

[September 13, 1465] ... Marco came to me and said that he had met with Francesco Tanagli, who had spoken very coldly, so that I understand that he had changed his mind....

[Filippo Strozzi eventually married Fiametta di Donato Adimari in 1466.]

A Renaissance Prince

Widely regarded as one of the truly outstanding princes of the Italian Renaissanee, Federigo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino (1422-1482), was a leading condottiere, an astute ruler, and a patron of humanist culture and Renaissance art. Vespasiano da Bisticci, an Italian book dealer, included an account of Federigo in his collection of biographies (known as The Vespasiano Memoirs) of the famous men he had known. In this selection, Vespasiano gives an example of the duke's eagerness to settle dissension among his subjects.

Vespasiano da Bisticci, The Vespasiano Memoirs

He gave himself entirely to his state that the people might be content, and one of the greatest of his merits was that when he heard of a quarrel he would send for the parties, and give his wits no rest till peace should be made. Amongst his many kind actions in mitigating dissension was the case of one of his subjects of honest birth who chose as wife a girl of a station similar to his c>wn with numerous kinsfolk, betwixt whom and the husband arose bad feeling, so that he was in no way inclined towards the wife whom he had taken. The affair came to the point at which he might have to defend his honour, which meant that he would probably be cut in pieces by one or other of the kinsfolk. The Duke, knowing the scandal which would follow, by way of avoiding it, ordered the parties to settle their quarrel on a certain day; and when they had come before him he began with those who had the, girl in charge; and, speaking in kindly eloquent words, gave them many and good reasons for what he advised them to do. As is the case with ignorant people, the more he said the more firmly they resisted. When he saw their disposition he turned to the young man any) said, "If I desired you to become a relative of mine, would you not consent, having regard for my station? Would it not seem to you a desirable relationship?" The young man replied that in this case it would not be fitting, between so great a man as the Duke and one like himself. Then the Duke said, "But will you not pay regard to something which satisfies me?" The young man, persuaded by the Duke, affirmed that he was content, whereupon the Duke said, "I think very highly of this young woman for her virtue and good' ness, as if she were my own daughter; so you are becoming a relative of me, and not of her family." By these words the Duke bound him, so that he was forced to consent, and he took her with the good wishes of all. The Duke took them both by the hand, wishing them good luck, and saying that their relationship with him began from that hour, that he wished them always to bear this in mind, and in all their neecls to make use of him. He gave them a noble marriage feast and they both went away highly pleased, and hereafter the husband and wife maintained an admireable carriage one towards the other. Acts like these, the bringing of peace to his subjects, are worthy of a prince.

The Subservience of Women in Medieval Thought

Whether a nun or wife of an aristocrat, townsman, or peasant, a woman in the Middle Ages was considered inferior to a man and by nature subject to a man's authority. Although there are a number of examples of strong women who flew in the face of such an attitude, church teachings also reinforced these notions. These two selections are from Gratian, the twelfth-century jurist who wrote the first systematic work on canon law, and Thomas Aquinas, the well-known scholastic theologian of the thirteenth century.

Gratian, Decretum

Women should be subject to their men. The natural order for mankind is that women should serve men and children their parents, fi'r it is just that the lesser serve the greater.

The image of God is in man and it is one. Women were drawn from man, who has God's jurisdiction as if he were God's vicar, because he has the image of the one God. Therefore woman is not made in God's image.

Woman's authority is nil; let her in all things be subject to the rule of man.... And neither can she teach, nor he a witness, nor give a guarantee, nor sit in judgement.

Adam was beguiled by Eve, not she my him.. It is right that he whom woman led into wrongdoing should have her under his direction, so that he may not fail a second time through female levity.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence....

The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman. Hence after the words, "To the image of God He created him," it is added, "Male and female He created them." Moreover it is said "them" in the plural ... lest it should be thought that both sexes were united in one individual. But in a secondary sense the image of God is founcl in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature.

Pico della Mirandola and the Dignity of Man

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was one of the foremost intellects of the Italian Renaissance. Pico boasted that he had studied all schools of philosophy, which he tried to demonstrate by drawing up nine hundred theses for public disputation at the age of twenty-four. As a preface to his theses, he wrote his famous oration, On the Dignity of Man, in which he proclaimed the unlimited potentiality of human beings.

Lorenzo Valla


Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) was the author of the standard Renaissance text on Latin philology. The text was titled: Elegences of the Latin Language. He was primarily active as a secretary to the King of Naples.

Although a good Catholic, Valla became a hero to later Protestants. His popularity among Protestants stemmed from his defense of predestination against the advocates of free will and especially from his expose of the Donation of Constantine, a fraudulent document written in the eighth century alleging that the Emperor Constantine had given vast territories to the pope.

Valla proved, beyond dispute, that the document contained non-classical Latin usages and anachronistic terms. He therefore concluded that the document was the work of a medieval forger whose "monstrous impudence" was exposed by the "stupidity of his language." The expose of the Donation was not intended by Valla to have the devastating force that Protestants attributed to it. He only demonstrated in a careful and scholarly way what others had long suspected. Using the most rudimentary textual analysis and historical logic, Valla proved that the document was filled with such anachronistic terms as fief, and made references that were meaningless in the fourth century. The proof that it was an invention seriously weakened the foundations of papal claims to temporal authority. In the same dispassionate way Valla also pointed out errors in the Latin Vulgate, still the authorized version of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church. Valla's work exemplifies the application of critical scholarship to old and almost sacred writings, as well as the new secular spirit of the Renaissance.

Such discoveries did not make Valla any less loyal to the church, nor did they prevent his faithful fulfillment of the office of Apostolic Secretary in Rome under Nicholas V. He revered the literal teachings of the Pauline Epistles. In his "Notes on the New Testament" he applied his knowledge to uncovering the true meaning to the letters which he believed had been obscured in the Vulgate Biblical edition.

Valla's discovery of the forgery lead to an increased interest in classical collectibles. It had now been shown that the way to discern the truth was to carefully examine the remnants of antiquity and one had to possess these to examine them.

The influences of Valla can be seen in the works of Erasmus who after reading Valla's "Notes on the New Testament" became convinced that nothing was more important than divesting the New Testament of its transcription errors. This in turn lead to Luther's crucial conclusions concerning the literal biblical meaning of penance.



Lorenzo de Medici to his son Giovanni


The Medici family was one of the most powerful families of the Italian Renaissance. Certainly on one in the family wielded greater power than Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492). Lorenzo assumed control of Florence from his ailing father when he was only sixteen years of age and became fully vested with the family's affairs at the age of twenty-one. While always careful to keep himself in the background he nonetheless dominated all facets of Florentine life. He was magnanimous and a strong supporter of the arts and a great believer in the new technology of the times, the printing press. Noting the political winds of the time Lorenzo believed that to secure the family's future they would need contact in the Papal States. He arranged to have his son, Giovanni, don the Cardinal's red robe at the age of 13 (the secret was kept until he reached the mature age of 16). Too ill to attend the ceremony conferring the title on his son Lorenzo sent this last bit of fatherly advice to Giovanni. In later years Giovanni did not serve the family well, however upon the death of the warrior pope Julius II, Giovanni assumed the papacy under the name of Leo X. A pious man, he served the Church well until he made the fateful decision to begin the sale of Indulgences which touched off the Reformation.


Lorenzo's Letter to Giovanni


You, and all of us who are interested in your welfare, ought to esteem ourselves highly favored by Providence, not only for the many honors and benefits bestowed on our house, but more particularly for having conferred upon us, in your person,, the greatest dignity we have enjoyed.

Endeavor therefore to alleviate the burden of your early dignity by the regularity of your life and by your perseverance In those studies which are suitable to your profession. It gave me greet satisfaction to learn that, in the course of the past year, you had frequently, of your own accord, gone to communion and confession. The influence of example is itself prevalent; but you will probably meet those who will particularly endeavor to corrupt and incite you to vice; because, as you may yourself perceive, your early attainment to so great a dignity is not observed without envy, and those who could not prevent your receiving that honor will secretly endeavor to diminish it, by inducing you to forfeit the good estimation of the public. To these difficulties you ought to oppose yourself with the greater firmness, as there is at present less virtue amongst your brethren of the college. I acknowledge indeed that several of them are good and learned men, whose lives are exemplary, and whom I would recommend to you as patterns of your own conduct.

With those of less respectable character converse not with too much intimacy; not merely on account of the circumstance itself, but for the sake of public opinion. Converse on general topics with all. On public occasions let your equipage and dress be rather below than above mediocrity. There is one rule which I would recommend your attention in preference to all others: rise early in the morning. This will not only contribute to your health, but will enable you to arrange and expedite the business of the day. You will probably be desired to intercede for the favors of the Pope on particular occasions. Be cautious, however that you trouble him not too often; and if you should be obliged to request some kindness from him, let it be done with that modesty and humility which are so pleasing to his disposition.