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Poggio Bracciolini and the Recovery of Ancient Literature

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 1380, the great Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini was born in a Tuscan village near Arezzo called Terranuova, which was renamed “Terranuova Bracciolini” in his honor in 1862. His scholarly talent was fostered early in his life by several prominent Florentines, and at the age of 24, he began working in Rome in the Papal Curia. Over the course of half a century, he would serve under seven different Popes, while maintaining close ties to the Florentine Republic and the culture of humanistic studies that flourished there. Late in life, he returned to Florence, and served in the highly prestigious office of the Republic’s chancellor. He died in 1459, and is buried in the Franciscan church of the Holy Cross, which is sometimes nicknamed “the Pantheon of Florence” for the large number of great figures who have their tombs there.   

In 1414, the 16th Ecumenical Council began in the Swiss city of Constance, to deal with the extremely complex problem known as the Great Schism of the West, which does not need to be explained here. As a member of the Papal chancery, Poggio was present, but in 1415, the execution of the Council’s affairs required a long adjournment, leaving him with little official business to occupy his time. He therefore began to investigate the libraries first of the nearby monasteries, and then of some others further afield, traveling to Fulda in central Germany, Cluny in Burgundy, and Monte Cassino in southern Italy.

These investigations led to the recovery of a remarkable number of classical works which had been preserved by the diligence of monastic copyists, but were otherwise little known. Most famously, it was Poggio who brought back to the world’s general attention Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. (The manuscript which he discovered was subsequently lost, but we have a copy made shortly thereafter by a friend of his; other manuscripts have since come to light, one at Leiden University.) At Cluny, he found the most complete known copy of Cicero’s legal speeches, while other works of the great orator were recovered elsewhere. At San Gallen (also the home of the oldest manuscripts of Gregorian chant) he found the works of Quintilian and Vitruvius, and at Monte Cassino, Ammianus Marcellinus. Several other lesser authors are also known to us thanks to his efforts, such as Valerius Flaccus, Manilius and the cookbook circulated under the name of Apicius. In addition to all this, Poggio was also one of the inventors of the handwriting style known as “humanist script”, based on the happily mistaken idea that Carolingian manuscripts were older, and therefore closer to the original writing style of the ancient Romans.

(An engraved portrait of Poggio Bracciolini from Icones quinquaginta virorum illustrium, 1597, by Jean Jacques Boissard (1528-1602). Typ 520.97.225, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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