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Monday, February 28, 2011

Poggio Bracciolini

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

At a time when the production of manuscripts was accomplished by hand-copying them, Poggio Bracciolini was an Italian master.  An important personage in the early Renaissance and a humanist, he circulated manuscript copies of classical Latin texts from wherever he could obtain them, mainly libraries from monasteries in other countries such as Germany and France.

Born in Tuscany as Poggio di Duccio (Bracciolini was added much later), he studied with a protégé of Petrach in Florence  He quickly became known for his abilities as a copyist - a respected skill in the days before the printing press. When he was 21 he became a member of the Arte dei giudici e notai, the notaries' guild of Florence.  By the time he was 24, he left the position of secretary amanuensis to Cardinal Rudulfo Maramori, the Bishop of Bari, to become the amanuensis of Pope Boniface IX.  

Poggio was famous for his handwriting, which was not only elegant but pleasing and easy to read. While working in Florence as a manuscript copyist, he invented a round, formal script that eventually served as the prototype of "Roman" fonts.  (His good friend 
Niccolò de' Niccoli's script became the inspiration for italic type that was first used by Aldus Manutius in 1501 in his "pocket editions" of the classics.) 
Sample of Poggio's handwriting.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As one of a number of men at that time who were bent on creating a new intellectual era through the texts of antiquity, he sought to do his part in reviving the lost learning.  If he couldn't gain access to texts directly, he was not adverse to resorting to bribery or benign forms of fraud.  He did not want the ancient texts for themselves, but to make copies of them to distribute among the intelligentsia.

He is responsible for bringing to light many lost manuscripts.  He found two unknown orations of Cicero in 1415.  A year later he found the first complete text of Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, three books and part of a fourth of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, and commentaries on Cicero's orations by Asconius Pedianus.  From various other monasteries he discovered De significatu verborum by P. Festus, De rerum natura, by Lucretius, Astronomica by Manilius, Punica by Silius Italicus, Res gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus, a piece on cooking by Apicius, and many other works.  He continued to find other works by Cicero in the ensuing years.  Some of his copies of these works are still extant.

He spent the years of 1418-1423 in England with hopes of similar success in finding lost works, but was disappointed by what little he found there.  Back in Rome he made further discoveries.  He also copied inscriptions from the many surviving Roman monuments, which often were in churches as well as other buildings.  These proved to be invaluable as a source of information for areas of Roman history, including funeral customs and political propaganda.  Many of these were hard to read and vulnerable to deterioration and ruin.  

Fragments of Poggio's firsthand record of monument
inscriptions.  Image courtesy LOC/Vatican Exhibit

In 1453, he was made historiographer and chancellor of Florence.  He spent his last years serving in this office and writing his own history of Florence.  His own writing is considered eloquent.  One of his works, Facetiae (1438–52), is a collection of satires on various monks, clerics, and rival scholars.  In them he expresses some very scandalous and derisive arguments.  He is noted for his expressive and able use of Latin, particularly in his personal correspondence, of which there are many surviving texts.  However, he is often criticized for being inelegant at best in his Latin translations and for being superficially learned. Some of his translations are not considered very accurate, however it is thanks to him that we have many classical texts.

Historia Florentina, translated from Latin to Italian.
Published by Jacobus Rubeus, Venice, March 8, 1476.
Image courtesy of Christie's.

His interests in the classics included ancient buildings, coins, and sculpture, much of which he collected for the gardens of his own villa near Florence.  He was a friend of the sculptor Donatello, who made a statue to commemorate him upon his death.

Poggio devoted his heart and soul to reviving classical studies.  His work is emblematic of the secular attitude that lead the way to the Renaissance, and later the Reformation.  Regardless of any lack of fluency and flow in his Latin translations, his passion is to be commended and he merits our thanks for his discoveries.

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