Page images


Constantinople to solicit aid for the Eastern Empire against the Turks. After accomplishing his mission, he returned to Florence for the purpose of publicly teaching the Greek language. He remained there eight years only ; but in that time his lectures created a veritable furore, and the effect, both on the outer and inner life of the scholastic world was

To us, a few leading indications only are possible, Florence, from 1382 to 1434, was governed by an aristocratic faction, of whom the Medici were the foes, and ultimately the subverters. Now, far from the Medici being the original patrons of the literary impulse which glorified the republic throughout the last half of the fifteenth century, and with which their name is indissolubly connected, they were only carrying on the feeling and the policy of their quondam rivals the Albizzi. Already, a generation before Cosmo rose to supreme power, literary interests had become the pride and recreation of all classes in the State above the lowest. The Love of learning and discussion brought not only men of leisure, and men of business, and curious foreigners, but the keen and Testless leaders of political parties also, to listen to this or that expounder of classical lore. The lecture-room of Chrysoloras was especially crowded. Private literary re-unions or academies held their sessions at the Camaldolese convent degl' Angeli, and at the Augustine convent dello Spirito, and attracted the highest class of scholars. Here it is that we find the origin of those academical bodies which formed so characteristic a feature in the later literary life of Italy. The University of Florence itself started into fresh existence under the auspices of Palla Strozzi; but it would seem that the new intellectual impulse found a more congenial field for its special tendencies in these self-organised clubs, than in the regulation classes of university science; and it was doubtless an accident in favour of the freshness and freedom of the Revival literature that it should have sprung to life at a time when universities everywhere happened to be in a state of decay, and should, in consequence, have been thrown mainly on the voluntary principle for its embodiment.

The revived study of Greek, which dates froin the lectures of Chrysoloras, and was kept up, after him, through the influx of Greek scholars driven from their country by the advance of the Mahometan power, was more intellectually revolutionising, more paganising in fact, than the antecedent Latin culture had been. The minds of inquirers were led back to what had been the original sources of Roman taste and imagery. The field was essentially a novel one. Cicero and Virgil had always retained a name and reputation even through the darker middle ages. Sometimes scouted by Church asceticism, sometimes half christianised in popular myths, they had this special hold on remembrance, that the language in which they wrote was the groundwork of the spoken dialect, and was actually the language of scholasticism and of the Church. Greek literature, on the other hand, opened up a world of its own. The fascinations of its expressive vocabulary, the nice involutions of its grammar, were a charm to the subtle perceptions of the student's intellect. The ideal setting forth of beauty, the deep searchings of philosophy, to be found in its great writers, with whom no Christian associations existed, both worked as a spell on their own account, and gave also

a fresh zest and meaning to the Latin authors whose models they had been. And here we must duly estimate the share which the enthusiasm of fancy, both by national character and by circumstance, bore in the awakened intelligence of Italy. We are not inclined to state the full force of the enhanced zeal for antiquity earlier than Poggio's journey in search of MSS., A.D. 1416, and the fervour of emulation to which that journey gave rise; but assuredly the eager brightness of life at the chief literary centres, while this influx of new ideas was first pouring in, can hardly be over-estimated.

Florence, as we have seen, was pre-eminently such a centre, but Rome was not; and it is necessary to place clearly before us the different state of things which prevailed in the metropolis of Christendom. The Avignon exile had come to an end, but the great schism had intervened. There were Popes again at Rome; but Popes who had lost the allegiance of half Christendom. They were by no means, all of them, averse to the cause of learning. Innocent VII. (1406) tried to recall the Roman University into existence; and the language of his bull deserves to be cited, as showing the unsuspicious way in which he could then speak of the interests of culture and of religion as identical. He had resolved, with God's assistance, he said, to summon back the long-neglected studies to the city of Rome, ' in order that

learning might lead men to the knowledge of the truth, and ' teach them to obey God and the laws.' But the learning he would have recalled—his enterprise proved abortive-was rather the scholastic than the classical erudition. He wanted professors to fill his chairs of Theology, Jurisprudence, Medicine, Philosophy, and so forth; neither he nor his immediate successors had eyes to perceive that a mental culture independent of University traditions was forcing itself into recognition as a power in Italy, and would before long have to


be confronted in the guise of a friend or of a foe, by the representatives of Church supremacy. Even as a seat of the oldfashioned enlightenment, Rome had utterly lost caste since the critical times of Boniface VIII. Papal absenteeism, and the schism, and the internal feuds of the city, had reduced it to a most barbaric state. Boccaccio said, bitterly, that Rome in his time stood at the lowest, as once it had stood at the highest, point of worldly estimation. A nation of cowherds, the astute Tuscans called their benighted neighbours. The only apparent exception to this state of things is presented by the phenomenon of Rienzi's rule-Rienzi, the friend of Petrarch. His attempt at political regeneration, in 1347, had been a passionate but ill-instructed endeavour to assert the hereditary glories of classical times. But it was to the genius of patriotism, rather than of erudition, that the audacious tribune appealed ; and when he took his stand on the old monuments and inscriptions, a puerile ignorance was manifest in the teacher as well as in the taught. His flash, too, passed away without kindling any abiding fire. If the population of Rome remembered at all that they were descendants of the Gracchi and the Fabii, they were content to hold that faith for the most part in a confused legendary way. As time went on, other demagogues, with more classical knowledge, repeated the experiment of Rienzi; but we do not find that at any time their efforts harmonised practically with the culture which took its tone from Florence.

An important era in the interests of the new learning was formed by the Council of Constance (1414-1418). This famous Council was not merely a Convocation of Bishops of the Church, as former Councils had been. For the first time, what Hallam in speaking of it calls a Whig character, was visible in the composition of an Ecclesiastical Synod. It was a meeting of laity as well as of clergy. Abbots and doctors, doctors of law as well as of divinity, heads of orders, ambassadors of temporal sovereigns, were called to sit and vote. Many of the most learned scholars of the Humanist type were present. Manuel Chrysoloras was there, and died during the sitting of the Council; Ambrogio Traversari was there; Poggio Bracciolini was there. It was inevitable that in such a concourse the newest excitements of the world of letters should have been eagerly discussed in the intervals of formal business. There it was that, during a pause in the sessions, Poggio made his celebrated expedition, to which we have already alluded, in quest of the MSS. rumoured to lie hidden and neglected in various monastic and other libraries in the neighbourhood of Constance. His zeal eventually led him into France, and even as far as to Paris. The catalogue of his discoveries is a long one. The fatigues and expenses he incurred in his search, undaunted by inclement seasons, bad roads, and haunts difficult of access, make his enterprise, to philohiblist susceptibilities, quite as romantic as any tale of chivalry; and in the then but half-disused language of chivalry, he and his fellow-enthusiasts were wont to speak of their enterprise. Their mission, they said, was to rescue their glorious ancestors from the prison-houses of the Germans and the Gauls. The MSS. Poggio recovered were all of Latin authors. But the time had come when Latin authors were studied with more interest as handerson of Greek culture, than as representatives of a culture about to give way to Christianity, which was the light in which the Trecentisti had regarded them. And if any substantial reticence on the score of religion remained up to the date of Poggio's journey, it may be said to have been entirely cast away by the advanced school of philologists, after the intoxication-scarcely any other word will describe it-consequent on that event. Then set in that complete self-surrender, which ever marks the stage where enthusiasm passes into fanaticism; when judgment is transferred from the tribunal of man's innate conscience and taste, and rested on the mere technicalities of a special culture. It was, in its extreme, a species of intellectual fetichism which thenceforth spell-bound the lettered legion, the Poggios, Filelfos, Vallas, Aretinos, and their like. They sought for every scrap of ancient parchment as eagerly as the Mahometan seeks for the stray leaves of his Koran, and cherished them as devoutly. Their communications to each other on each discovery have quite a dramatic interest.

Now all this glamour of the so-called “age of Poggio’ was experienced at Florence more than anywhere else, and more in all the other states and towns of Italy than at Rome, where, as we have said, the unculture of the people was proverbial. At the moment of Martin V.'s election to fill the chair of St. Peter, the attention of the world to the great Church question kept other interests proportionally in the background. The new Pontiff's first and most pressing cares upon his elevation were --first, the re-organisation of the Roman State; and, secondly, the maintenance of the moral authority of the Holy See; both of which had been most grievously dislocated since the original removal to Avignon. Martin was no incapable politician, and the first part of his task was, on the whole, well performed ; but the moral resuscitation of the Papal authority, such as he

[ocr errors]

achieved it, must have been felt to be a very poor compromise. The nations of Christendom were anxious, on many grounds, to set up again the central authority of the Church, and were willing to give all outward honour to its newly-appointed representative; but, as a ruler of spirits, his word was essentially powerless; he could not attempt, by the old dogmatic devices, to control the mental activity of the age. The choice before him was either to adjust his relations to it, so as to accept its general impulse, harmonising it, as well as he was able, with traditionary Church assumptions; or, while possessing less spiritual prestige than even the Popes of Petrarch's time, to set himself in opposition to the intellectual novelties of the day, as they did." What would have made the latter course even a more disastrous one in his case than in theirs was, that the city and State of Rome could no longer be hid in a corner, as it were ; and that the contrast between its actual condition and the sentimental glorification of its past existence, which the Humanists were for ever repeating, must have been patent to every eye.

Pope Martin chose the only course that seemed reasonably open to him. He called men of learning about him, advanced them to high ecclesiastical posts, and made the culture of letters honourable in his dominions. But it was still possible at this time, without being conspicuously behindhand with the character of existing literary progress, to hold it in solution with the approved elements of trained scholasticism and churchmanship. The most far-seeing statesman in Martin's position need hardly have been aware that the intellectual saturnalia towards which philology was tending at Florence, must necessarily infect the whole Humanist movement.

Martin's successor was a man of less worldly temperament than himself, of narrower mental prejudices; yet, as regarded his position towards Humanism, Eugene IV. pursued a very similar course.

And on the whole, the general character of the Revival learning, as represented at the court of these two pontiffs, may be described as businesslike, liberal, and sympathetic towards the later tendencies, yet decorous enough to keep under suppression the wilder license of even Poggio himself, who held office in the chancery of both.

To exemplify by a few names. Cardinal Giordano Orsini was the most eminent, and, if some angry scholars are to be believed, the most jealous, of contemporary book-collectors. His discovery of twelve hitherto unknown Comedies of Plautus, set the literary world in ecstasies. He bequeathed his very valuable store of MSS., 254 in number, to the library of St.

« PreviousContinue »