The Humanist Remains of Florence
Written by: Brian Jeffrey Maxson
Perfecting the Ancient Art of Rhetoric
Brian Jeffrey Maxson, the author of The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence, explores the beauty of language and the power of eloquence in Renaissance Italy.
Renaissance humanists – those individuals most central to the revival of classical letters central to Renaissance culture – argued that spoken eloquence was the most prized trait a man – and even in some cases a woman – could possess. When coupled with the study of ethics and history, spoken eloquence could lead a person to make good decisions and then persuade others to the morally correct point of view. For humanists the ancients had possessed rhetorical skill that needed to be revived in the present. Thus, by rigorous study of the surviving works of Cicero, Livy, Seneca, Plato, and other writers people could not only improve themselves but also anybody who heard their costumed words. Oral eloquence demanded constant practice, and eloquent words in Latin or Italian flowed through the city on the Arno during the fifteenth century.
Spoken eloquence could lead a person to make good decisions and then persuade others to the morally correct point of view.
For example, in the apartments adjoined to the Dominican Church Santa Maria Novella learned men flocked to debate the merits and drawbacks of the Italian versus the Latin language in the 1430s. Across the Arno, a monk at the church of Santo Spirito expected visitors to arrive with a topic for discussion in mind. The men present, such Coluccio Salutati, who was a prime mover behind hiring the teacher who reintroduced Greek learning to the Latin West after a millennium, then debated both sides of an issue. Salutati went on to host his own gatherings of the same type. At one such purported discussion the men evaluated the literary value of the now prized Italian authors Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio – were these men, they pondered, worthy of praise, since their best writings were in Italian, or scorn, since their Latin writings were so far, stylistically speaking, from the Ancients?
In a final example and in a different part of the city, the crenulated exterior and aged coats of arms of the now packed art museum the Bargello suggests the building’s previous life as the Palace of the Podestà, a government official charged with many legal matters. No similar remains mark the historic meetings on the corner of the Via del Proconsolo and the Via Ghibellina that borders the building to the north. Here again brilliant humanists during the Renaissance regularly loitered outside the celebrated book store of Vespasiano da Bisticci, who himself wrote dozens of colorful lives of the men of his age. Their lost debates on ethics, the family, historical figures, republicanism, Latin diphthongs, Plato, Aristotle, and the literary value of Dante were a sharp contrast from modern debates on that spot over what flavor of gelato or fast food to order at the current gelateria. While museums like the Bargello help support the modern Florentine economy, the debates at the bookstore sparked an educational revolution focused on the liberal arts and the study of Antiquity that dominated the western world for centuries and still finds its defenders as well as its practitioners.