The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878



Biography and in the in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

Outside the sphere of poetry also, the Italians were the first of all European nations who displayed any remarkable power and inclination accurately to describe man as shown in history, according to his inward and outward characteristics.

It is true that in the Middle Ages considerable attempts were made in the same direction; and the legends of the Church, as a kind of standing biographical task, must, to some extent, have kept alive the interest and the gift for such descriptions. In the annals of the monasteries and cathedrals, many of the churchmen, such as Meinwerk of Paderborn, Godehard of Hildesheim, and others, are brought vividly before our eyes; and descriptions exist of several of the German emperors, modelled after old authors--particularly Suetonius--which contain admirable features. Indeed these and other profane 'vitae' came in time to form a continuous counterpart to the sacred legends. Yet neither Einhard nor Wippo nor Radevicus can be named by the side of Joinville's picture of St. Louis, which certainly stands almost alone as the first complete spiritual portrait of a modern European nature. Characters like St. Louis are rare at all times, and his was favored by the rare good fortune that a sincere and naive observer caught the spirit of all the events and actions of his life, and represented it admirably. From what scanty sources are we left to guess at the inward nature of Frederick II or of Philip the Fair. Much of what, till the close of the Middle Ages, passed for biography, is properly speaking nothing but contemporary narrative, written without any sense of what is individual in the subject of the memoir.

Among the Italians, on the contrary, the search for the characteristic features of remarkable men was a prevailing tendency; and this it is which separates them from the other western peoples, among whom the same thing happens but seldom, and in exceptional cases. This keen eye for individuality belongs only to those who have emerged from the halfconscious life of the race and become themselves individuals.

Under the influence of the prevailing conception of fame an art of comparative biography arose which no longer found it necessary, like Anastasius, Agnellus, and their successors, or like the biographers of the Venetian doges, to adhere to a dynastic or ecclesiastical succession. It felt itself free to describe a man if and because he was remarkable. It took as models .Suetonius, Nepos (the 'viri illustres'), and Plutarch,-so far as he was known and translated; for sketches of literary history, the lives of the grammarians, rhetoricians, and poets, known to us as the 'Appendices' to Suetonius, seem to have served as patterns, as well as the widely-read life of Virgil by Donatus.

It has already been mentioned that biographical collections --lives of famous men and famous women--began to appear in the fourteenth century. Where they do not describe contemporaries, they are naturally dependent on earlier narratives. The first great original effort is the life of Dante by Boccaccio. Lightly and rhetorically written, and full, as it is, of arbitrary fancies, this work nevertheless gives us a lively sense of the extraordinary features in Dante's nature. Then follow, at the end of the fourteenth century, the 'vite' of illustrious Florentines, by Filippo Villani. They are men of every calling: poets, jurists, physicians, scholars, artists, statesmen, and soldiers, some of them then still living. Florence is here treated like a gifted family, in which all the members are noticed in whom the spirit of the house expresses itself vigorously. The descriptions are brief, but show a remarkable eye for what is characteristic, and are noteworthy for including the inward and outward physiognomy in the same sketch. From that time forward, the Tuscans never ceased to consider the description of man as lying within their special competence, and to them we owe the most valuable portraits of the Italians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Giovanni Cavalcanti, in the appendices to his Florentine history, written before the year 1450, collects instances of civil virtue and abnegation, of political discernment and of military valor, all shown by Florentines. Pius II gives in his 'Commentaries' valuable portraits of famous contemporaries; and not long ago a separate work of his earlier years, which seems preparatory to these portraits, but which has colors and features that are very singular, was reprinted. To Jacopo of Volterra we owe piquant sketches of members of the Curia in the time of Sixtus IV. Vespasiano Fiorentino has often been referred to already, and as a historical authority a high place must be assigned to him; but his gift as a painter of character is not to be compared with that of Machiavelli, Niccolo Valori, Guicciardini, Varchi, Francesco Vettori, and others, by whom European historical literature has probably been as much influenced in this direction as by the ancients. It must not be forgotten that some of these authors soon found their way into northern countries by means of Latin translations. And without Giorgio Vasari of Arezzo and his all-important work, we should perhaps to this day have no history of Northern art, or of the art of modern Europe, at all.

Among the biographers of North Italy in the fifteenth century, Bartolommeo Fazio of Spezia holds a high rank. Platina, born in the territory of Cremona, gives us, in his 'Life of Paul II,' examples of biographical caricatures. The description of the last Visconti, written by Piercandido Decembrio--an enlarged imitation of Suetonius--is of special importance. Sismondi regrets that so much trouble has been spent on so unworthy an object, but the author would hardly have been equal to deal with a greater man, while he was thoroughly competent to describe the mixed nature of Filippo Maria, and in and through it to represent with accuracy the conditions, the forms, and the consequences of this particular kind of despotism. The picture of the fifteenth century would be incomplete without this unique biography, which is characteristic down to its minutest details. Milan afterwards possessed, in the historian Corio, an excellent portrait-painter; and after him came Paolo Giovio of Como, whose larger biographies and shorter 'Elogia' have achieved a world-wide reputation, and become models for subsequent writers in all countries. It is easy to prove by a hundred passages how superficial and even dishonest he was; nor from a man like him can any high and serious purpose be expected. But the breath of the age moves in his pages, and his Leo, his Alfonso, his Pompeo Colonna, live and act before us with such perfect truth and reality, that we seem admitted to the deepest recesses of their nature.

Among Neapolitan writers, Tristano Caracciolo, so far as we are able to judge, holds indisputably the first place in this respect, although his purpose was not strictly biographical. In the figures which he brings before us, guilt and destiny are wondrously mingled. He is a kind of unconscious tragedian. That genuine tragedy which then found no place on the stage, 'swept by' in the palace, the street, and the public square. The 'Words and Deeds of Alfonso the Great,' written by Antonio Panormita during the lifetime of the king, are remarkable as one of the first of such collections of anecdotes and of wise and witty sayings.

The rest of Europe followed the example of Italy in this respect but slowly, although great political and religious movements had broken so many bonds, and had awakened so many thousands to new spiritual life. Italians, whether scholars or diplomatists, still remained, on the whole, the best source of information for the characters of the leading men all over Europe. It is well known how speedily and unanimously in recent times the reports of the Venetian embassies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been recognized as authorities of the first order for personal description. Even autobiography takes here and there in Italy a bold and vigorous flight, and puts before us, together with the most varied incidents of external life, striking revelations of the inner man. Among other nations, even in Germany at the time of the Reformation, it deals only with outward experiences, and leaves us to guess at the spirit within from the style of the narrative. It seems as though Dante's 'Vita Nuova,' with the inexorable truthfulness which runs through it, had shown his people the way.

The beginnings of autobiography are to be traced in the family histories of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which are said to be not uncommon as manuscripts in the Florentine libraries--unaffected narratives written for the sake of the individual or of his family, like that of Buonaccorso Pitti.

A profound self-analysis is not to be looked for in the 'Commentaries' of Pius II. What we here learn of him as a man seems at first sight to be chiefly confined to the account which he gives of the various steps in his career. But further reflection will lead us to a different conclusion with regard to this remarkable book. There are men who are by nature mirrors of what surrounds them. It would be irrelevant to ask incessantly after their convictions, their spiritual struggles, their inmost victories and achievements. Aeneas Sylvius lived wholly in the interest which lay near, without troubling himself about the problems and contradictions of life. His Catholic orthodoxy gave him all the help of this kind which he needed. And at all events, after taking part in every intellectual movement which interested his age, and notably furthering some of them, he still at the close of his earthly course retained character enough to preach a crusade against the Turks, and to die of grief when it came to nothing.

Nor is the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, any more than that of Pius II, founded on introspection. And yet it describes the whole man--not always willingly--with marvelous truth and completeness. It is no small matter that Benvenuto, whose most important works have perished half finished, and who, as an artist, is perfect only in his little decorative speciality, but in other respects, if judged by the works of him which remain, is surpassed by so many of his greater contemporaries--that Benvenuto as a man will interest mankind to the end of time. It does not spoil the impression when the reader often detects him bragging or lying; the stamp of a mighty, energetic, and thoroughly developed nature remains. By his side our modern autobiographers, though their tendency and moral character may stand much higher, appear incomplete beings. He is a man who can do all and dares do all, and who carries his measure in himself. Whether we like him or not, he lives, such as he was, as a significant type of the modern spirit.

Another man deserves a brief mention in connection with this subject--a man who, like Benvenuto, was not a model of veracity: Girolamo Cardano of Milan (b. 1500). His little book, 'De propria vita,' will outlive and eclipse his fame in philosophy and natural science, just as Benvenuto's Life, though its value is of another kind, has thrown his works into the shade. Cardano is a physician who feels his own pulse, and describes his own physical, moral, and intellectual nature, together with all the conditions under which it had developed, and this, to the best of his ability, honestly and sincerely. The work which he avowedly took as his model--the 'Confessions' of Marcus Aurelius--he was able, hampered as he was by no stoical maxims, to surpass in this particular. He desires to spare neither himself nor others, and begins the narrative of his career with the statement that his mother tried, and failed, to procure abortion. It is worth remark that he attributes to the stars which presided over his birth only the events of his life and his intellectual gifts, but not his moral qualities; he confesses (cap. 10) that the astrological prediction that he would not live to the age of forty or fifty years did him much harm in his youth. But there is no need to quote from so well-known md accessible a book; whoever opens it will not lay it down il] the last page. Cardano admits that he cheated at play, that e was vindictive, incapable of all compunction, purposely cruel in his speech. He confesses it without impudence and without feigned contrition, without even wishing to make himself an object of interest, but with the same simple and sincere love of fact which guided him in his scientific researches. And, what is to us the most repulsive of all, the old man, after the most shocking experiences and with his confidence in his fellowmen gone, finds himself after all tolerably happy and comfortable. He has still left him a grandson, immense learning, the fame of his works, money, rank and credit, powerful friends, the knowledge of many secrets, and, best of all, belief in God. After this, he counts the teeth in his head, and finds that he was fifteen.

Yet when Cardano wrote, Inquisitors and Spaniards were already busy in Italy, either hindering the production of such natures, or, where they existed, by some means or other putting them out of the way. There lies a gulf between this book and the memoirs of Alfieri.

Yet it would be unjust to close this list of autobiographers without listening to a word from one man who was both worthy and happy. This is the well-known philosopher of practical life, Luigi Cornaro, whose dwelling at Padua, classical as an architectural work, was at the same time the home of all the muses. In his famous treatise 'On the Sober Life,' he describes the strict regimen by which he succeeded, after a sickly youth, in reaching an advanced and healthy age, then of eighty-three years. He goes on to answer those who despise life after the age of sixty-five as a living death, showing them that his own life had nothing deadly about it. 'Let them come and see, and wonder at my good health, how I mount on horseback without help, how I run upstairs and up hills, how cheerful, amusing, and contented I am, how free from care and disagreeable thoughts. Peace and joy never quit me.... My friends are wise, learned, and distinguished people of good position, and when they are not with me I read and write, and try thereby, as by all other means. to be useful to others. Each of these things I do at the proper time, and at my ease, in my dwelling, which is beautiful and lies in the best part of Padua, and is arranged both for summer and winter with all the resources of architecture, and provided with a garden by the running water. In the spring and autumn, I go for awhile to my hill in the most beautiful part of the Euganean mountains, where I have fountains and gardens, and a comfortable dwelling; and there I amuse myself with some easy and pleasant chase, which is suitable to my years. At other times I go to my villa on the plain; there all the paths lead to an open space, in the middle of which stands a pretty church; an arm of the Brenta flows through the plantations-- fruitful, well-cultivated fields, now fully peopled, which the marshes and the foul air once made fitter for snakes than for men. It was I who drained the country; then the air became good, and people settled there and multiplied, and the land became cultivated as it now is, so that T can truly say: "On this spot I gave to God an altar and a temple, and souls to worship Him." This is my consolation and my happiness whenever I come here. In the spring and autumn, I also visit the neighbouring towns, to see and converse with my friends, through whom I make the acquaintance of other distinguished men, architects, painters, sculptors, musicians, and cultivators of the soil. I see what new things they have done, I look again at what I know already, and learn much that is of use to me. I see palaces, gardens, antiquities, public grounds, churches, and fortifications. But what most of all delights me when I travel, is the beauty of the country and the places, lying now on the plain, now on the slopes of the hills, or on the banks of rivers and streams, surrounded by gardens and villas. And these enjoyments are not diminished through weakness of the eyes or the ears; all my senses (thank God!) are in the best condition, including the sense of taste; for I enjoy more the simple food which I now take in moderation, than all the delicacies which I ate in my years of disorder.' After mentioning the works he had undertaken on behalf of the republic for draining the marshes, and the projects which he had constantly advocated for preserving the lagoons, he thus concludes:

'These are the true recreations of an old age which God has permitted to be healthy, and which is free from those mental and bodily sufferings to which so many young people and so many sickly older people succumb. And if it be allowable to add the little to the great, to add jest to earnest, it may be mentioned as a result of my moderate life, that in my eightythird year I have written a most amusing comedy, full of blameless wit. Such works are generally the business of youth, as tragedy is the business of old age. If it is reckoned to the credit of the famous Greek that he wrote a tragedy in his seventythird year, must I not, with my ten years more, be more cheerful and healthy than he ever was? And that no consolation may be wanting in the overflowing cup of my old age, I see before my eyes a sort of bodily immortality in the persons of my descendants. When I come home I see before me, not one or two, but eleven grandchildren, between the ages of two and eighteen, all from the same father and mother, all healthy, and, so far as can already be judged, all gifted with the talent and disposition for learning and a good life. One of the younger I have as my playmate (buffoncello), since children from the third to the fifth year are born to tricks; the elder ones I treat as my companions, and, as they have admirable voices, I take delight in hearing them sing and play on different instruments. And I sing myself, and find my voice better, clearer, and louder than ever. These are the pleasures of my last years. My life, therefore, is alive, and not dead; nor would I exchange my age for the youth of such as live in the service of their passions.'

In the 'Exhortation' which Cornaro added at a much later time, in his ninety-fifth year, he reckons it among the elements of his happiness that his 'Treatise' had made many converts. He died at Padua in 1565, at the age of over a hundred years.

This national gift did not, however, confine itself to the criticism and description of individuals, but felt itself competent to deal with the qualities and characteristics of whole peoples. Throughout the Middle Ages the cities, families, and nations of all Europe were in the habit of making insulting and derisive attacks on one another, which, with much caricature, contained commonly a kernel of truth. But from the first the Italians surpassed all others in their quick apprehension of the mental differences among cities and populations. Their local patriotism, stronger probably than in any other medieval people, soon found expression in literature, and allied itself with the current conception of 'Fame.' Topography became the counterpart of biography; while all the more important cities began to celebrate their own praises in prose and verse, writers appeared who made the chief towns and districts the subject partly of a serious comparative description, partly of satire, and sometimes of notices in which jest and earnest are not easy to be distinguished. Next to some famous passages in the 'Divine Comedy,' we have here the 'Dittamondo' of Uberti (about 1360). As a rule, only single remarkable facts and characteristics are here mentioned: the Feast of the Crows at Sant' Apollinare in Ravenna, the springs at Treviso, the great cellar near Vicenza, the high duties at Mantua, the forest of towers at Lucca. Yet mixed up with all this, we find laudatory and satirical criticisms of every kind. Arezzo figures with the crafty disposition of its citizens, Genoa with the artificially blackened eyes and teeth (?) of its women, Bologna with its prodigality, Bergamo with its coarse dialect and hard-headed people. In the fifteenth century the fashion was to belaud one's own city even at the expense of others. Michele Savonarola allows that, in comparison with his native Padua, only Rome and Venice are more splendid, and Florence perhaps more joyous--by which our knowledge is naturally not much extended. At the end of the century, Jovianus Pontanus, in his 'Antonius,' writes an imaginary journey through Italy, simply as a vehicle for malicious observations. But in the sixteenth century we meet with a series of exact and profound studies of national characteristics, such as no other people of that time could rival. Machiavelli sets forth in some of his valuable essays the character and the political condition of the Germans and French in such a way that the born northerner, familiar with the history of his own country, is grateful to the Florentine thinker for his flashes of insight. The Florentines begin to take pleasure in describing themselves; and basking in the well-earned sunshine of their intellectual glory, their pride seems to attain its height when they derive the artistic pre-eminence of Tuscany among Italians, not from any special gifts of nature, but from hard, patient work. The homage of famous men from other parts of Italy, of which the sixteenth Capitolo of Ariosto is a splendid example, they accepted as a merited tribute to their excellence.

Of an admirable description of the Italians, with their various pursuits and characteristics, though in a few words and with special stress laid on the Lucchese, to whom the work was dedicated, we can give only the title: Forcianae Questiones, by Ortensio Landi, Naples, 1536. Leandro Alberti is not so fruitful as might be expected in his description of the character of the different cities. A 'Commentario' (by Ortensio Landi, Venice, 1553) contains among many absurdities some valuable information on the unfortunate conditions prevailing about the middle of the century.

To what extent this comparative study of national and local characteristics may, by means of Italian humanism, have influenced the rest of Europe, we cannot say with precision. To Italy, at all events, belongs the priority in this respect, as in the description of the world in general.