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Angelo Poliziano, A True Renaissance Man

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1454 of one of the great Latin and Greek scholars of the Florentine Renaissance, Angelo Poliziano. His real last name was Ambrogini, but he is universally known as “Poliziano” from the Latin name of his birthplace, Montepulciano. His father was murdered when he was ten years old, as part of the political intrigues that plagued all of Tuscany in that age. Before the age of fifteen, he was sent to live with relatives in Florence, where he began his university studies, and came to know some of the learned men that had made that city famous, most notably, the great Platonic scholar Marsilio Ficino. By the age of 16, he had learned Greek well enough to translate a large section of the Iliad into Latin hexameters, and earn for himself the title “homericus adulescentulus.” This project caught the favorable attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, commonly known as “the Magnificent”, who made Poliziano tutor to his two sons. (The younger of these, Giovanni, would become Pope Leo X in 1513, nearly two decades after Poliziano’s death.) In 1477, he was ordained a priest, and would later become a canon of the cathedral of Florence, one of the most prestigious ecclesiastical positions in the city.

In 1478, however, things began to change for the worse in Florence, first as a result of a conspiracy to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici, who survived the attempt, and his brother Giuliano, who did not. Poliziano wrote a commentary which is one of the most important sources of information about this event. That same year, the city was struck by plague, and the Medici household withdrew to a country estate. After some conflict with both Lorenzo and his wife, Poliziano left their company and traveled to the north of Italy. In an oration delivered to the senate of the Venetian Republic, he spoke passionately in favor of a plan to subsidize the study of Latin and classical literature. Within two years, he returned to Florence, where he was appointed to teach at the university at Lorenzo the Magnificent’s behest. This was the period in which he produced the work that would make him famous throughout Europe, the Miscelleanea, a series of philological and literary commentaries on a variety of classical works: the poetry of Ovid and Statius, the history of Suetonius, the rhetorical writing of Quintilian, and the Emperor Justinian’s famous legal code, the Digest.

In 1490, he began to turn his mind towards the study of both the philosophy and science of Aristotle, an example of the remarkable scholarly versatility which made him a true (one might almost say ‘stereotypical’) Renaissance man. However, Florence was about to undergo another period of trauma. In 1492, Lorenzo the Magnificent, long the most important patron of the city’s whole cultural life, died; once again, Poliziano’s own writing is one of the primary sources for the account of the event, in the form of a letter to a friend. Two years later, Poliziano was taken with a fever, and died on the night between September 28 and 29, 1494, at the age of forty. A modern forensic examination of his body has revealed that he was in fact poisoned with arsenic, although it is not at all certain why, by whom, or cui bono. He thus missed the French invasion of Italy that began the following month, which excited tremendous hostility in Florence towards his erstwhile patrons, the Medici family, and led to the feverish season when the city’s life was dominated by the preaching of Savonarola.

(A portrait of Poliziano in a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio, in the Sassetti Chapel of the church of the Most Holy Trinity in Florence.)

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