History of World Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

Renaissance Latin literature

Renaissance Latin literature

Leonardo Bruni
Poggio Bracciolini
Marsilio Ficino
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Angelo Poliziano
Pietro Bembo
Lorenzo Valla

"Divine Comedy": Inferno - Purgatorio - Paradiso
Illustrations by G. Dore
Illustrations by W. Blake
Illustrations by S. Dali

"Song Book"

Boccaccio  "Decameron"
  DAY 1  DAY 2  DAY 3  DAY 4  DAY 5  DAY 6  DAY 7  DAY 8  DAY 9  DAY 10
Illustrations by Salvador Dali

Leon Battista Alberti

Nicolo Machiavelli
"The Prince"

Giorgio Vasari
 "Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects"

Pietro Aretino "Sonetti lussuriosi"  PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 5, PART 6
Illustrations by Agostino Carracci

Ludovico Ariosto "Orlando Furioso"
see also: Ariosto "Orlando Furioso" Illustrations by Gustave Dore

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Torquato Tasso "Jerusalem Delivered" BOOKS 1-10, BOOKS 11-20

Giordano Bruno

Saint Thomas Aquinas
Jean Buridan
Leonardo da Vinci

Giambattista Basile

"Stories from Il Pentamerone"
Illustrated by Warwick Goble

Bernardio Telesio

Dante and Virgil


Renaissance Latin literature

The term Renaissance Latin is associated, for 14th-century Italy, mainly with Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, though mention should also be made of the Florentine historian Leonardo Bruni and the humanist scholars Albertino Mussato, Coluccio Salutati, and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II). In verse there was a general return to classical models and elegance, while in prose Latin was still a necessary medium for the abundant humanistic, scientific, philosophical, and religious literature that was a mark of the new age.

In Italy there were three main centres of learning and literature in the 15th and 16th centuries: Florence, Rome, and Naples. Each had its own circle of writers and scholars. The Florentine group was noted for the Platonist philosophers Poggio Bracciolini, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and a poet and scholar, Angelo Poliziano. Rome was the centre for a grammarian, Pietro Bembo, and for Marco Vida, author of a Latin epic on the redemption, while Naples was the home of poets and scholars, notably Giovanni Pontano, Jacopo Sannazzaro, Lorenzo Valla, and Girolamo Fracastoro.

Germany and the Low Countries also made a large contribution in prose and verse to Latin literature in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many humanists owed their early education to the Brethren of the Common Life, a Dutch Christian community that laid great emphasis on the classics. Among these was Desiderius Erasmus, the greatest figure of the northern Renaissance. Bred in the rhetorical tradition of literary humanism, he had little interest in the scientific premonitions of the age. As an editor and expositor of classical texts and the writings of the Church Fathers, as a commentator on the ecclesiastical conflicts of his time, and as a scholar, wit, and satirist, he was unsurpassed by any humanist in northern Europe. A German abbot, Johannes Trithemius, was a historian and scholar with an immense range of interests and knowledge; Conradus Celtis was conspicuous as a humanist and poet; while Petrus Lotichius wrote elegant verse.

Spanish humanism was best seen in the scholar and friend of Erasmus, Juan Vives, while in England the statesman and scholar Sir Thomas More was the outstanding figure. Polydore Virgil, an Italian, brought the new methods of historical writing into England, though a poet and historian, Tito Livio Frulovisi, had written a life of Henry V that influenced later English writers. Among many Latin poets should be mentioned George Buchanan and John Barclay, both Scots. The strong English tradition of classical verse composition in the schools was shown in the Latin poems of such 17th-century poets as John Milton, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and Abraham Cowley.

In France, where, as in England, the Renaissance came late, some members of the group of writers known as La Pléiade wrote Latin verse. Despite the eventual triumph of the French vernacular, Latin poems continued to be written, and several hymns composed in classical forms were included in church services in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Frederic James Edward Raby


Leonardo Bruni


Leonardo Bruni, also called Leonardo Aretino (b. c. 1370, Arezzo, Florence [Italy]—d. March 9, 1444, Florence), Italian humanist scholar of the Renaissance.

Bruni was secretary to the papal chancery from 1405 and served as chancellor of Florence from 1427 until his death in 1444. His Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII (1610; “Twelve Books of Histories of the Florentine People”) is the first history of Florence based on a critical examination of the source material. An elegant Ciceronian stylist, he made Latin translations of many classical Greek works, including those of Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch, that furthered the study of Greek literature in the West. His Italian-language biographies of Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio aided humanism’s growing appreciation for Italian poetry.



Poggio Bracciolini


Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, (b. Feb. 11, 1380, Terranuova, Tuscany [Italy]—d. Oct. 30, 1459, Florence), Italian humanist and calligrapher, foremost among scholars of the early Renaissance as a rediscoverer of lost, forgotten, or neglected classical Latin manuscripts in the monastic libraries of Europe.

While working in Florence as a copyist of manuscripts, Poggio invented the humanist script (based on the Caroline minuscule), a round, formal writing that, after a generation of polishing by scribes, served the new art of printing as the prototype of “Roman” fonts. In 1403 he moved to Rome, where he became a secretary to Pope Boniface IX. In 1415, at Cluny, he brought to light two unknown orations of Cicero. At St. Gall in 1416 he found the first complete text of Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, three books and part of a fourth of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, and the commentaries of Asconius Pedianus on Cicero’s orations. Various expeditions in 1417 to Fulda, St. Gall, and other monasteries produced P. Festus’ De significatu verborum; Lucretius’ De rerum natura; Manilius’ Astronomica; Silius Italicus’ Punica; Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res gestae; Apicius’ work on cooking; and other lesser works. He also found at Langres in 1417 Cicero’s oration Pro Caecina and perhaps at Cologne seven other orations of Cicero. It is not known where and when he discovered the Silvae of Statius. Poggio made copies of the newfound works in his elegant script, several of which still survive.

He spent four years (1418–23) in England, where his hopes of continuing his discoveries were disappointed by the inadequacy of English libraries. In 1423 he was reappointed curial secretary in Rome and made further discoveries, including Frontinus’ De aquaeductibus and Firmicus Maternus’ Matheseos libri, the latter found at Monte Cassino in 1429. He translated into Latin Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, the histories of Diodorus Siculus, and Lucian’s Onos. His classical interests extended to the study of ancient buildings and the collecting of inscriptions and of sculpture, with which he adorned the garden of his villa near Florence. He succeeded Carlo Aretino as chancellor of Florence (1453). His last years were spent in exercising this office and in writing his history of Florence.

In his own writings, Poggio was gifted with a lively eloquence and a capacity for artistic representation of character and conversation that distinguish his moral dialogues from numerous similar contemporary works. The most important of these are De avaritia (1428–29), De varietate fortunae (1431–48), De nobilitate (1440), and Historia tripartita disceptativa convivalis (1450). A vein of sadness and pessimism runs through some and appears strongly in his De miseria humanae conditionis (1455). His Facetiae (1438–52), a collection of humorous, often indecent tales, contains vigorous satires on monks, clerics, and rival scholars such as Francesco Filelfo, Guarino, and Lorenzo Valla, with whom Poggio engaged in some of the most notorious and vituperative polemics of a polemical age. This same spirit animates his dialogue Contra hypocritas (1447–48). Poggio’s ability to handle Latin as a live idiom is best shown in his copious correspondence, which for its form as much as for its content stands out among the epistolari of the humanists.



Marsilio Ficino


Italian philosopher and theologian

born Oct. 19, 1433, Figline, republic of Florence [Italy]
died Oct. 1, 1499, Careggi, near Florence

Italian philosopher, theologian, and linguist whose translations and commentaries on the writings of Plato and other classical Greek authors generated the Florentine Platonist Renaissance that influenced European thought for two centuries.

Ficino was the son of a physician who was acquainted with the Florentine ruler and patron of learning Cosimo de’ Medici. After being trained in Latin language and literature, Ficino studied Aristotelian philosophy and medicine, probably at Florence. He was introduced to the Latin versions of the works of Plato and the Neoplatonists by such Western writers as Augustine of Hippo (5th century) and the leading medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas. He then acquired a thorough knowledge of Greek in order to read and interpret the classical philosophers in their original texts. Supported by Cosimo de’ Medici and his successors, he devoted the remainder of his life to the translation and interpretation of Plato and the succeeding Platonic school, whose thought he attempted to integrate more closely with Christian theology.

In 1462 Ficino became head of the Platonic Academy of Florence. Situated at the Medici villa at Careggi, outside Florence, the academy with its endowment of Greek manuscripts became one of the foremost intellectual centres of Europe. Ficino’s numerous translations from Greek into Latin include some Neoplatonic and early Christian writings and, above all, the complete works of Plato and the 3rd-century Neoplatonist Plotinus. Finished about 1470 but not printed until 1484, Ficino’s was the first complete translation of Plato into any European language. His versions of both Plato and Plotinus remained in general use until the 18th century.

Ficino was ordained a priest in 1473 and later was named a church official of Florence Cathedral. He was closely identified with the Medici family as protégé and tutor, and he retired to the Tuscan countryside after the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494.

Noteworthy among Ficino’s commentaries are those on Plato’s Symposium (1469), also called De amore (“On Love”), and on various treatises of Plotinus. Of his original writings the Theologia Platonica (1482; “Platonic Theology”), actually a philosophical study of the soul, and the Liber de Christiana religione (1474; “Book on the Christian Religion”) are the most significant. His thought also was expressed in a collection of letters and in De vita libri tres (1489; “Three Books on Life”), a series of tracts on medicine and astrology.

Ficino revised the thought of Plato in a Renaissance perspective. In conceiving the universe as a hierarchy of substances that descends from God to matter, he was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic and medieval views. Yet in assigning to the human soul a privileged, central place in this hierarchy and stressing that the soul through its universal, infinite aspirations and thoughts links the highest with the lowest beings and acts as a bond and knot of the universe, Ficino reveals his affinity with the thought of Renaissance humanism, which gave special emphasis to man and his dignity. Seeing a parallel in the Platonic and Christian concept of love, he explained in his commentary on the Symposium that the highest form of human love and friendship is a communion based ultimately on the soul’s love for God. This theory of spiritual, or “Platonic,” love dominated European poetry and literature during the 16th century.

Ficino’s interpretation of Platonism greatly influenced subsequent European thought. His teaching that man naturally tends toward religion, distinguishing him from the lower animals, and that all religions have a measure of truth, appears to have inspired 17th-century deist thought as exemplified in Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury. Not only the 17th-century Cambridge Platonists but similar movements in France and Italy reflect Ficino’s original Platonist revival.



Giovanni Pico della Mirandola


Italian scholar

born Feb. 24, 1463, Mirandola, duchy of Ferrara [Italy]
died Nov. 17, 1494, Florence

Italian scholar and Platonist philosopher whose De hominis dignitate oratio (“Oration on the Dignity of Man”), a characteristic Renaissance work composed in 1486, reflected his syncretistic method of taking the best elements from other philosophies and combining them in his own work.

His father, Giovanni Francesco Pico, prince of the small territory of Mirandola, provided for his precocious child’s thorough humanistic education at home. Pico then studied canon law at Bologna and Aristotelian philosophy at Padua and visited Paris and Florence, where he learned Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. At Florence he met Marsilio Ficino, a leading Renaissance Platonist philosopher.

Introduced to the Hebrew Kabbala, Pico became the first Christian scholar to use Kabbalistic doctrine in support of Christian theology. In 1486, planning to defend 900 theses he had drawn from diverse Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin writers, he invited scholars from all of Europe to Rome for a public disputation. For the occasion he composed his celebrated Oratio. A papal commission, however, denounced 13 of the theses as heretical, and the assembly was prohibited by Pope Innocent VIII. Despite his ensuing Apologia for the theses, Pico thought it prudent to flee to France but was arrested there. After a brief imprisonment he settled in Florence, where he became associated with the Platonic Academy, under the protection of the Florentine prince Lorenzo de’ Medici. Except for short trips to Ferrara, Pico spent the rest of his life there. He was absolved from the charge of heresy by Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Toward the end of his life he came under the influence of the strictly orthodox Girolamo Savonarola, martyr and enemy of Lorenzo.

Pico’s unfinished treatise against enemies of the church includes a discussion of the deficiencies of astrology. Though this critique was religious rather than scientific in its foundation, it influenced the astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose studies of planetary movements underlie modern astronomy. Pico’s other works include an exposition of Genesis under the title Heptaplus (Greek hepta, “seven”), indicating his seven points of argument, and a synoptic treatment of Plato and Aristotle, of which the completed work De ente et uno (Of Being and Unity) is a portion. Pico’s works were first collected in Commentationes Joannis Pici Mirandulae (1495–96).



Angelo Poliziano


Politian, Italian in full Angelo Poliziano, also called Angelo Ambrogini (b. July 14, 1454, Montepulciano, Tuscany [Italy]—d. Sept. 28/29, 1494, Florence), Italian poet and humanist, the friend and protégé of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and one of the foremost classical scholars of the Renaissance. He was equally fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin and was equally talented in poetry, philosophy and philology.

The murder of Politian’s father in May 1464 left the family poverty-stricken, and not later than 1469 Politian was sent to Florence. He started to write Latin and Greek epigrams and attracted the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom Politian dedicated the first two books of his Latin translation of the Iliad. In about 1473 he entered the Medici household and was able to study in the Medici library until, in 1475, he was entrusted with the education of Lorenzo’s eldest son, Piero, then aged three. In 1477 he was given as a benefice the priory of San Paolo. His translation of the Iliad, books ii–v, into Latin hexameters (1470–75) brought him his first renown. Between 1473 and 1478 he produced Latin and Greek verses that are among the best examples of humanist poetry: they include elegies, odes, and epigrams (of particular merit are the elegies In violas [“In Violets”] and In Lalagen and the ode In puellam suam [“In Regard to One’s Daughters”]). To the same period belong the strange and poetically experimental Sylva in scabiem (1475; “Trees with Mildew”), in which he describes realistically the symptoms of scabies.

His poetic masterpiece of this period is, however, a vernacular poem in ottava rima, Stanze cominciate per la giostra del Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici (“Stanzas Begun for the Tournament of the Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici”), composed between 1475 and 1478, which is one of the great works of Italian literature. In it he was able to synthesize the grandeur of classical literature with the spontaneity of Florentine vernacular poetry. The poem describes the love of “Julio” (i.e., Giuliano de’ Medici), for “Simonetta” (i.e., Simonetta Cattaneo; d. 1476) by means of a poetic transfiguration in which beauty is glorified according to humanist ideals. Stylistically it is influenced by Latin epic and encomiastic poems and reveals the author’s taste for refined poetry. It was interrupted at book ii, stanza 46, probably because of Giuliano’s death in 1478.

Politian was, with Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of those mainly responsible for the revaluation of vernacular literature. It is generally believed that it was he who wrote the dedicatory letter, tracing the history of vernacular poetry and warmly defending it, that accompanied the so-called Raccolta Aragonese (“The Aragon Collection”), a collection of Tuscan verse sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Federico d’Aragona in about 1477.

Politian was with Lorenzo and Giuliano when the latter was killed by the Pazzi on April 26, 1478; on this episode he wrote the dramatic report Pactianae coniurationis commentarium (1478). In May 1479, as a result of a quarrel with Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini, he was expelled from the Medici household. In December, instead of accompanying Lorenzo on a difficult diplomatic mission to Naples, he undertook a series of journeys in northern Italy. After visiting Venice and Verona he was attracted to Mantua, where, in the Gonzaga court, he found a new patron in Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga. It was for a court occasion that he wrote in Mantua Orfeo (1480; “Orpheus”), a short dramatic composition in the vernacular, based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and inspired by the same humanist ideal of beauty that pervades his Stanze. Orfeo is less refined than the Stanze, but it nevertheless reveals the author’s poetic genius. During his stay in Mantua, Politian repeatedly wrote to Lorenzo asking to be recalled to Florence, and in August 1480 he was at last invited to return and was again entrusted with Piero’s education. Thanks to Lorenzo he was appointed to the Florentine chair of Latin and Greek (autumn 1480) but was not readmitted to the Medici household and went to live outside of Florence.

At the Florentine university he gave four inaugural lectures in verse, known collectively as the Sylvae (“The Trees”): Manto (1482; “The Cloak”), on Virgil’s poetry; Rusticus (1483; “The Countryside”), on the bucolic poems of Hesiod and Virgil; Ambra (1485; “Amber”), on Homer; and Nutricia (1486; “The Foster Mother”), on the different genres of Greek and Latin literature.

In 1488 he took part in a diplomatic mission to Pope Innocent VIII; and in 1491 he traveled to Bologna, Ferrara, Padua, and Venice to trace manuscripts for the Medici library. Otherwise he spent the last years of his life in Florence. His writings of this last period include a Latin translation of Epictetus’ Manual (1479); a collection of Detti piacevoli (witty sentences), composed in the vernacular between 1477 and 1479; Greek epigrams; a number of vernacular canzoni a ballo (“songs for dancing”) and rispetti (“regards”), which show his taste for popular poetry; and Latin letters on problems of style and literature.

His most important work on classical philology is the Miscellanea (1489), two collections, each consisting of about 100 notes (centuria) on classical texts: these and other works laid the foundations for subsequent scholarly studies in classical philology.



Pietro Bembo

Titian. Pietro Bembo

Pietro Bembo, (b. May 20, 1470, Venice—d. Jan. 18, 1547, Rome), Renaissance cardinal who wrote one of the earliest Italian grammars and assisted in establishing the Italian literary language.

Of an aristocratic family, Bembo was educated principally by his father, a man of great authority in the Venetian republic. In 1513 the son became secretary to Pope Leo X in Rome. On Leo’s death (1521), he retired to Padua. He accepted the office of historiographer of Venice in 1529, and was shortly thereafter appointed librarian of St. Mark’s Cathedral. Created a cardinal in 1539, Bembo returned to Rome, where he devoted himself to theology and classical history.

Bembo wrote Latin lyric poetry of formal excellence and then turned to the vernacular, modeling his poetry on that of Petrarch. His way of making direct imitations of Petrarch was widely influential and became known as bembismo. A collected edition of his Italian poems, Rime, appeared in 1530. His other vernacular works include: Gli Asolani (1505), dialogues on platonic love, the systemization of which influenced Ludovico Ariosto, Baldassare Castiglione, and Torquato Tasso; a history of Venice; and Prose della volgar lingua (1525; “Discussions of the Vernacular Language”). In the Prose, Bembo codified Italian orthography and grammar, essential for the establishment of a standard language, and recommended 14th-century Tuscan as the model for Italian literary language. His view, opposed by those who wanted Latin and by others who wanted a more modern Italian as the model, had triumphed by the end of the 16th century.



Lorenzo Valla

Italian humanist

Latin Laurentius Vallensis
born 1407, Rome, Papal States [Italy]
died Aug. 1, 1457, Rome

Italian humanist, philosopher, and literary critic who attacked medieval traditions and anticipated views of the Protestant reformers.

Valla was the son of a lawyer employed at the papal court. His family was from Piacenza. Until he was 24 Lorenzo spent most of his time in Rome, studying Latin grammar and rhetoric. Unable to obtain a post as papal secretary in 1430, he left Rome and spent the next five years wandering about northern Italy. He taught rhetoric at the University of Pavia, where he made public his De voluptate (On Pleasure), a dialogue about the nature of the true good. That work surprised many of its readers by its then-unfashionable defense of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who maintained that, with the attainment of virtue, a wise man may live a life of prudent pleasure, free from pain. Valla then went on to attack stoicism, the philosophy of the control of the emotions through reason and its advocacy of a simple life. Valla caused a still greater sensation by an attack on the barbarous Latin used by the celebrated 14th-century lawyer Bartolus. The law faculty at Pavia took offense, and Valla found it expedient to leave.

He lived at Milan and Genoa before settling down, in 1435, as royal secretary and historian at the court of Alfonso of Aragon, king of Naples. He remained 13 years in Alfonso’s service, and it was during this time that Valla, then in his 30s, wrote most of his important books. His Declamatio (Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine), written in 1440, attacked the crude Latin of its anonymous author and from that observation argued that the document could not possibly have dated from the time of Constantine. As King Alfonso was at war with Pope Eugenius IV at this time, it was politically convenient to attack the foundation of papal claims to temporal power in Italy. The book was first printed in 1517 in Germany, the same year that Martin Luther circulated his Ninety-five Theses, criticizing papal policies. (See Researcher’s Note.)

Valla wrote other books in his years at Alfonso’s court. In his brief dialogue De libero arbitrio (“On Free Will”), Valla attacked the stoic philosopher Boethius (480–524/525), who had attempted to reconcile man’s free will with God’s foreknowledge; and in his Dialecticae disputationes (“Dialectical Disputations”), Valla reduced Aristotle’s nine “categories” to three (substance, quality, and action, which corresponded to noun, adjective, and verb) and denounced as barbarisms a number of the technical terms of scholastic philosophy, such as “entity” and “quiddity.” Valla preferred the language of ordinary people to the jargon of professional philosophers. His “Disputations” was at once a rhetorician’s attack on logic and an attempt to reduce philosophical problems to linguistic ones. The Elegantiae linguae Latinae (“Elegances of the Latin Language”), printed in 1471, was the first textbook of Latin grammar to be written since late antiquity; it became highly popular in grammar schools all over Europe.

Valla could make even grammar polemical and shocked contemporaries by his criticisms of the prose of the famous Roman rhetorician Cicero. Similarly, his first book, written when he was 20 and now lost, had apparently argued that Quintilian, another Roman rhetorician, was a better stylist than Cicero. Valla also produced a history of the reign of Ferdinand of Aragon, Alfonso’s father. Characteristically, he showed most interest in linguistic problems, such as how to write in classical Latin about things that did not exist in Roman times—e.g., cannons and parliaments. For his offenses against the “dignity of history” he was attacked in an Invective by Bartolomeo Facio, another humanist in Alfonso’s service. Valla responded with his “Recriminations Against Facio,” written in dialogue form and recalling the debates among the court humanists, to which the king loved to listen. This work also contains Valla’s celebrated emendations to the text of the Roman historian Livy.

Meanwhile, Valla had become embroiled in another controversy, theological this time, over his refusal to believe that the Apostles’ Creed had been composed by the Twelve Apostles. As a result, he was denounced by the clergy and investigated by the Inquisition, which found him heretical on eight counts, including his defense of Epicurus and his criticisms of Aristotle’s categories. Only Alfonso’s personal intervention saved him from the stake.

Valla left Naples in 1448 when Nicholas V, successor to Eugenius IV and a supporter of humanists, appointed him papal secretary, a post in which he was confirmed by Nicholas’ successor in 1455. Valla also taught rhetoric in Rome, where he remained until his death. In his 40s, he composed his last major work, In Novum Testamentum ex diversorum utriusque linguae codicum collatione adnotationes (“Annotations on the New Testament Collected from Various Codices in Each Language”), with the encouragement and advice of two famous scholars, the cardinals Bessarion and Nicholas of Cusa. The Adnotationes, not printed until 1505, applied the methods of humanist philology to a sacred text. Predictably, Valla was attacked for his disrespect to St. Jerome, the presumed author of the Latin translation of the Bible; during the Counter-Reformation the Adnotationes were to be placed on the Index, the Roman Catholic church’s list of condemned books. Valla also translated many works from Greek into Latin. Early in his Naples days he had translated Aesop’s fables, and Pope Nicholas commissioned him to translate the historians Thucydides and Herodotus.

Despite his heavy literary commitments, Valla never seemed to lack time or energy to engage in controversies. The Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini had criticized the “Elegances,” and Valla replied in his Antidoti in Poggium (“Antidotes to Poggio”). Both scholars are seen at their worst here, hurling at one another accusations of ignorance, of barbarism, of plagiarism, and even worse. Benedetto Morandi, a notary from Bologna, assailed Valla for his disrespect in arguing that Livy had made mistakes about Roman history; so Valla rebutted with his Confutatio in Morandum (“Refutation of Morandi”). In a little dialogue, De professione religiosorum (“On Monastic Vows”), Valla criticized the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on the grounds that what mattered was “not a vow, but devotion.”

Valla’s last public appearance was characteristic of his provocative, polemical style. In 1457 he was invited to deliver an encomium of St. Thomas Aquinas to an audience of Dominicans in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva at Rome, to celebrate the saint’s anniversary. Valla, however, delivered an antiencomium, a critique of St. Thomas’ style and his interest in logic that advocated a return to the theology of the Fathers of the church. It is uncertain whether Valla was a priest or not. He certainly held ecclesiastical benefices. He never married but had three children by his Roman mistress.

An aggressive man, even for that age of intellectual gladiators, Valla made enemies easily. A professional heretic, he was well suited for his role as a critic of authority and orthodoxy. As one colleague observed about his notorious comparison of Cicero and Quintilian: Valla wrote simply to disturb people. There is no doubt about his success in this respect. More than 50 years later, in the age of Luther and of the great European humanist Erasmus, his barbs were still felt. Many of his criticisms of established ideas were pedantic and quibbling, but some were penetrating. He was disliked for his “impudence,” “presumption,” “temerity,” and “sacrilege.” In an age when many traditions were held sacred, Valla’s sacrilege fulfilled an important intellectual and social function.

Ulick Peter Burke


The 14th century

William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Dante and Virgil in Hell


In the late Middle Ages, the northern Italian cities were the most prosperous states in Europe, with Florence, thanks to its geographical and economic circumstances, outstanding. The dialect of Tuscany resembled Latin, the mother tongue, and by 1300 it was generally recognized as the language of literature. Italian literature reached new heights, love poetry in particular, but also newer forms such as satire and comedy. The greatest among many fine lyric poets established a unique position in the Western literary tradition.



The 14th century

The literature of 14th-century Italy dominated Europe for centuries to follow and may be regarded as the starting point of the Renaissance. Three names stand out:
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

Dante Alighieri is one of the most important and influential names in all European literature, but it was only after his exile from his native Florence at age 37 (1302) that he set out to write more ambitious works. Il convivio (c. 1304–07; “The Banquet”), revealing his detailed knowledge of scholastic philosophy, though incomplete, was the first great example of a treatise in vernacular prose: its language avoided the ingenuousness of popular writers and the artificiality of the translators from Latin. De vulgari eloquentia (“On Vernacular Eloquence”), written about the same time, but in Latin, contained the first theoretical discussion and definition of the Italian literary language. Both these works remained unfinished. In a later doctrinal work, also in Latin, De monarchia (written c. 1313; On World Government), Dante expounded his political theories, which demanded the coordination of the two medieval powers, pope and emperor.

Dante’s genius found its fullest development in his Commedia (written c. 1308–21; The Divine Comedy), an allegorical poem in terza rima (stanzas of three lines of 11 syllables each, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc.), the literary masterpiece of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest products of any human mind. The central allegory of the poem was essentially medieval, taking the form of a journey through the worlds beyond the grave, with, as guides, the Roman poet Virgil and the lady of the Vita nuova, Beatrice, who symbolize reason and faith, respectively. The poem is divided into three cantiche, or narrative sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each section contains 33 cantos, with the very first canto serving as an overall prologue. Dante, through his experiences and encounters on the journey, gains understanding of the gradations of damnation, expiation, and beatitude, and the climax of the poem is his momentary vision of God. The greatness of the poem lies in its complex imaginative power of construction, inexhaustible wealth of poetry, and continuing significance of spiritual meanings. It is remarkable that Dante’s reputation suffered a 400-year eclipse after enjoying immediate popularity. It was revived in the Romantic period, and his work continues to influence modern poets both inside and outside of Italy.

Andrea Del Castagno
Dante Alighieri, 1450

Henry Holiday
Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita

"Divine Comedy": Inferno - Purgatorio - Paradiso

Illustrations by G. Dore

Illustrations by W. Blake

Illustrations by S. Dali

see also: Dante (Illustrations by Botticelli)

Dante Alighieri (1265—1321) was a prominent citizen of Florence, closely involved in the fractious politics of the time, hut his personal circumstances were far more important than his public career. In his twenties he fell in love with the young woman whom in his poetry he calls Beatrice. When she died young, in 1290, Dante was inconsolable. She was the subject of most of the poems in his Vita nuova, probably written in the years immediately following her death, and she plays a prominent part in his later, most famous work, Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy).

Divine Comedy has been described as a summary of the civilization of the Middle Ages and heralded the Renaissance. The work, a magnificent structure in 100 cantos, is divided into three sections, 'Hell', 'Purgatory' and 'Paradise', around which the poet takes a guided tour, firstly with Virgil around Hell and Purgatory. In Paradise, a world of joy and beauty, his guide is Beatrice. The poem is based on Dante's considerable knowledge of philosophy and other learned subjects and is undeniably a challenge to the modern reader. However, no one could fail to find certain passages extremely moving, others charming and delightful, yet others horrifying.

It seems to have been written mainly in the last decade of
Dante's life. A political revolution in Florence in 1300 had barred him permanently from his native city, and he spent his later years wandering, finally settling at Ravenna, where he completed the Divine Comedy just before his death. He was mentioned by Chaucer and was widely admired in 17th-century England. Out of fashion in the 18th century, he was enthusiastically revived by the Romantics. In the 20th century his greatest advocate was T. S. Eliot.

"Divine Comedy"

Dante's years of exile were years of difficult peregrinations from one place to another—as he himself repeatedly says, most effectively in Paradiso [XVII], in Cacciaguida's moving lamentation that “bitter is the taste of another man's bread and . . . heavy the way up and down another man's stair.” Throughout his exile Dante nevertheless was sustained by work on his great poem, possibly begun prior to 1308 and completed just before his death in 1321. In addition, in his final years Dante was received honourably in many noble houses in the north of Italy, most notably by Guido Novello da Polenta, the nephew of the remarkable Francesca, in Ravenna. There at his death Dante was given an honourableburial attended by the leading men of letters of the time, and the funeral oration was delivered by Guido himself.

The plot of The Divine Comedy is simple: a man, generallyassumed to be Dante himself, is miraculously enabled to undertake an ultramundane journey, which leads him to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He has two guides: Virgil, who leads him through the Inferno and Purgatorio, and Beatrice, who introduces him to Paradiso. Through these fictional encounters taking place from Good Friday evening in 1300 through Easter Sunday and slightly beyond, Dante learns of the exile that is awaiting him (which had, of course, already occurred at the time of the writing). This device allowed Dante not only to create a story out of his pending exile but also to explain the means by which he came to cope with his personal calamity and to offer suggestions for the resolution of Italy's troubles as well. Thus, the exile of an individual becomes a microcosm of the problems of a country, and it also becomes representative of the fall of man. Dante's story is thus historically specific as well as paradigmatic.

The basic structural component of The Divine Comedy is the canto. The poem consists of 100 cantos, which are grouped together into three sections, or canticles, Inferno , Purgatorio , and Paradiso . Technically there are 33 cantos in each canticle and one additional canto, contained in the Inferno, which serves as an introduction to the entire poem. For the most part the cantos range from about 136 to about 151 lines. The poem's rhyme scheme is the terza rima (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.) Thus, the divine number of three is present inevery part of the work.

Dante's Inferno differs from its great classical predecessors in both position and purpose. In Homer's Odyssey (Book XII) and Virgil's Aeneid (Book VI) the visit to the land of the dead occurs in the middle of the poem because in these centrally placed books the essential values of life are revealed. Dante, while adopting the convention, transforms the practice by beginning his journey with the visit to the land of the dead. He does this because his poem's spiritual pattern is not classical but Christian: Dante's journey to Hell represents the spiritual act of dying to the world, and henceit coincides with the season of Christ's own death. (In this way, Dante's method is similar to that of Milton in Paradise Lost, where the flamboyant but defective Lucifer and his fallen angels are presented first.) The Inferno represents a false start during which Dante, the character, must be disabused of harmful values that somehow prevent him fromrising above his fallen world. Despite the regressive nature of the Inferno, Dante's meetings with the roster of the damned are among the most memorable moments of the poem: the Neutrals, the virtuous pagans, Francesca da Rimini, Filipo Argenti, Farinata degli Uberti, Piero delle Vigne,Brunetto Latini, the simoniacal popes, Ulysses, and Ugolino impose themselves upon the reader's imagination with tremendous force.

The visit to Hell is, as Virgil and later Beatrice explain, an extreme measure, a painful but necessary act before real recovery can begin. This explains why the Inferno is both aesthetically and theologically incomplete. For instance, readers frequently express disappointment at the lack of dramatic or emotional power in the final encounter with Satan in canto XXXIV. But because the journey through the Inferno primarily signifies a process of separation and thus is only the initial step in a fuller development, it must end with a distinct anticlimax. In a way this is inevitable because the final revelation of Satan can have nothing new to offer: the sad effects of his presence in human history have already become apparent throughout the Inferno.

In the Purgatorio the protagonist's painful process of spiritual rehabilitation commences; in fact, this part of the journey may be considered the poem's true moral starting point. Here the pilgrim Dante subdues his own personality inorder that he may ascend. In fact, in contrast to the Inferno, where Dante is confronted with a system of models that needs to be discarded, in the Purgatorio few characters present themselves as models; all of the penitents are pilgrims along the road of life. Dante, rather than being an awed if alienated observer, is an active participant. If the Inferno is a canticle of enforced and involuntary alienation, in which Dante learns how harmful were his former allegiances, in the Purgatorio he comes to accept as most fitting the essential Christian image of life as a pilgrimage. As Beatrice in her magisterial return in the earthly paradise reminds Dante, he must learn to reject the deceptive promises of the temporal world.

Despite its harsh regime, the Purgatorio is the realm of spiritual dawn, where larger visions are entertained. Whereas in only one canto of the Inferno (VII), in which Fortuna is discussed, is there any suggestion of philosophy,in the Purgatorio, historical, political, and moral vistas are opened up. It is, moreover, the great canticle of poetry and the arts. Dante meant it literally when he proclaimed, after the dreary dimensions of Hell: “But here let poetry rise again from the dead.” There is only one poet in Hell proper and not more than two in the Paradiso, but in the Purgatorio the reader encounters the musicians Casella and Belacqua and the poet Sordello and hears of the fortunes of the two Guidos, Guinizelli and Cavalcanti, the painters Cimabue andGiotto, and the miniaturists. In the upper reaches of Purgatory, the reader observes Dante reconstructing his classical tradition and then comes even closer to Dante's own great native tradition (placed higher than the classical tradition) when he meets Forese Donati, hears explained—in an encounter with Bonagiunta da Lucca—the true resources of the dolce stil nuovo, and meets with Guido Guinizelli and hears how he surpassed in skill and poetic mastery the reigning regional poet, Guittone d'Arezzo. These cantos resume the line of thought presented in the Inferno (IV), where among the virtuous pagans Dante announces his own program for an epic and takes his place, “sixth among that number,” alongside the classical writers. In the Purgatorio he extends that tradition to include Statius(whose Thebaid did in fact provide the matter for the moregrisly features of the lower inferno), but he also shows his more modern tradition originating in Guinizelli. Shortly after his encounter with Guinizelli comes the long-awaited reunion with Beatrice in the earthly paradise. Thus, from the classics Dante seems to have derived his moral and political understanding as well as his conception of the epic poem, that is, a framing story large enough to encompass the most important issues of his day, but it was from his native tradition that he acquired the philosophy of love thatforms the Christian matter of his poem.

This means of course that Virgil, Dante's guide, must give way to other leaders, and in a canticle generally devoid of drama the rejection of Virgil becomes the single dramatic event. Dante's use of Virgil is one of the richest cultural appropriations in literature. To begin, in Dante's poem he is an exponent of classical reason. He is also a historical figureand is presented as such in the Inferno (I): “. . . once I was a man, and my parents were Lombards, both Mantuan by birth. I was born sub Julio, though late in his time, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false andlying gods.” Virgil, moreover, is associated with Dante's homeland (his references are to contemporary Italian places), and his background is entirely imperial. (Born under Julius Caesar, he extolled Augustus Caesar.) He is presentedas a poet, the theme of whose great epic sounds remarkably similar to that of Dante's poem: “I was a poet andsang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned.” So, too, Dante sings of the just son of a city, Florence, who was unjustly expelled, and forced to search, as Aeneas had done, for a better city, in his case the heavenly city.

Virgil is a poet whom Dante had studied carefully and from whom he had acquired his poetic style, the beauty of which has brought him much honour. But Dante had lost touch with Virgil in the intervening years, and when the spirit of Virgil returns it is one that seems weak from long silence. But the Virgil that returns is more than a stylist; he is the poet of the Roman Empire, a subject of great importance to Dante, and he is a poet who has become a saggio, a sage, or moral teacher.

Though an exponent of reason, Virgil has become an emissary of divine grace, and his return is part of the revival of those simpler faiths associated with Dante's earlier trust in Beatrice. And yet, of course, Virgil by himself is insufficient. It cannot be said that Dante rejects Virgil; rather he sadly found that nowhere in Virgil's work, that is, in his consciousness, was there any sense of personal liberation from the enthrallment of history and its processes. Virgil had provided Dante with moral instruction in survival as an exile, which is the theme of his own poem as well as Dante's, but he clung to his faith in the processes of history, which, given their culmination in the Roman Empire, were deeply consoling. Dante, on the other hand, was determined to go beyond history because it had becomefor him a nightmare.

In the Paradiso true heroic fulfillment is achieved. Dante's poem gives expression to those figures from the past who seem to defy death. Their historical impact continues and the totality of their commitment inspires in their followersa feeling of exaltation and a desire for identification. In his encounters with such characters as his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida and SS. Francis, Dominic, and Bernard, Dante is carried beyond himself. The Paradiso is consequently a poem of fulfillment and of completion. It is the fulfillment of what is prefigured in the earlier canticles. Aesthetically it completes the poem's elaborate system of anticipation and retrospection.

Assessment and influence

The recognition and the honour that were the due of Dante's Divine Comedy did not have to await the long passage of time: by the year 1400 no fewer than 12 commentaries devoted to detailed expositions of its meaning had appeared. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a life of the poet and then in 1373–74 delivered the first public lectures on The Divine Comedy (which means that Dante was the first of the moderns whose work found its place with the ancient classics in a university course). Dante became known as the divino poeta, and in a splendid editionof his great poem published in Venice in 1555 the adjective was applied to the poem's title; thus, the simple Commedia became La divina commedia, or The Divine Comedy.

Even when the epic lost its appeal and was replaced by other art forms (the novel, primarily, and the drama) Dante's own fame continued. In fact, his great poem enjoys the kind of power peculiar to a classic: successive epochs have been able to find reflected in it their own intellectual concerns. In the post-Napoleonic 19th century, readers identified with the powerful, sympathetic, and doomed personalities of the Inferno. In the early 20th century they found the poem to possess an aesthetic power of verbal realization independent of and at times in contradiction to its structure and argument. Later readers have been eager toshow the poem to be a polyphonic masterpiece, as integrated as a mighty work of architecture, whose different sections reflect and, in a way, respond to one another. Dante created a remarkable repertoire of types in a work of vivid mimetic presentations, as well as a poem of great stylistic artistry in its prefigurations and correspondences. Moreover,he incorporated in all of this important political, philosophical, and theological themes and did so in a way that shows moral wisdom and lofty ethical vision.

Dante's Divine Comedy is a poem that has flourished for more than 650 years: in the simple power of its striking imaginative conceptions it has continued to astonish generations of readers; for more than a hundred years it has been a staple in all higher educational programs in the Western world; and it has continued to provide guidance and nourishment to the major poets of our own times. William Butler Yeats called Dante “the chief imagination of Christendom”; and T.S. Eliot elevated Dante to a preeminence shared by only one other poet in the modern world, William Shakespeare: “[They] divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” In fact, they rival one another in their creation of types that have entered into the world of reference and association of modern thought. Like Shakespeare, Dante created universal types from historical figures, and in so doing he considerably enhanced the treasury of modern myth.

Ricardo J. Quinones


Dante Alighieri

"Divine Comedy"

Inferno: Canto I

Midway upon the journey of our life
  I found myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
  But of the good to treat, which there I found,
  Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
  So full was I of slumber at the moment
  In which I had abandoned the true way.

But after I had reached a mountain's foot,
  At that point where the valley terminated,
  Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
  Vested already with that planet's rays
  Which leadeth others right by every road.

Then was the fear a little quieted
  That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
  The night, which I had passed so piteously.

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
  Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
  Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
  Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
  Which never yet a living person left.

After my weary body I had rested,
  The way resumed I on the desert slope,
  So that the firm foot ever was the lower.

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
  A panther light and swift exceedingly,
  Which with a spotted skin was covered o'er!

And never moved she from before my face,
  Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
  That many times I to return had turned.



The intellectual interests of
Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, died 1374) were literary and rhetorical rather than logical and philosophical; his political views were more opportunistic than Dante’s and his poetic technique more elaborate though less powerful. Petrarch’s influence on literature was enormous and lasting—stretching through the Italian humanists of the following century to poets and scholars throughout western Europe. He rejected medieval Scholasticism and took as his models the classical Latin authors and the Church Fathers. This convergence of interests is apparent in his ethical and religious works. Humanist ideals inspired his Latin poem Africa (begun c. 1338) and his historical works, but the autobiographical dialogue Secretum meum (written 1342–58; Petrarch’s Secret) is most important for a full understanding of his conflicting ideals.

Canzoniere—a collection of sonnets, songs, sestine, ballads, and madrigals, on which he worked indefatigably from 1330 until his death—gave these ideals poetic expression. Although this collection of vernacular poems intended to tell the story of his love for Laura, it was in fact an analysis and evocation not of present love but of passion that he had overcome. The main element of this poetry was therefore in the elaboration of its art, even if it always reflected the genuine spiritual conflicts exposed in the Secretum. In addition to the Canzoniere Petrarch wrote a vernacular allegorical poem, the Trionfi (1351–74; Triumphs), in the medieval tradition, but it lacked the moral and poetical inspiration of Dante’s great poem.

The literary phenomenon known as Petrarchism developed rapidly within the poet’s lifetime and continued to grow during the following three centuries, deeply influencing the literatures of Italy, Spain, France, and England. His followers did not merely imitate but accepted his practice of strict literary discipline and his forms, including his preference for the sonnet—without which the European literary Renaissance would be unthinkable.

Andrea Del Castagno
Francesco Petrarca, 1450

Nicaise De Keyser
Petrarch and Laura

Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304—74) represented a milestone — his devotion to the Classics and his criticism of Aristotle suggest a Renaissance man, and he is regarded as the founder of Italian humanism. Although Petrarch considered them relatively unimportant, he is remembered especially for his lyrics, known as 'rime sparse', including the long series about Laura, Petrarch's Beatrice, whose identity is similarly obscure. He met her in 1327 in Provence, his home as a young man. Though his family had been exiled from Florence, Petrarch was often in Italy, and in 1341 was crowned Poet Laureate in Rome.

He remained a great traveller, employed on diplomatic missions by various Italian courts, and was known and admired throughout Europe. He was the favourite Italian poet of the English Renaissance and his love sonnets had immense influence on 16th-century English poets from
Sir Thomas Wyatt to Sir Philip Sidney.


Poems from the Canzoniere "Song Book"

Sonnet I

To Laura in Life

O you, who hears in scattered verse the sound

Of all those sighs with which my heart I fed,

When I, by youthful error was misled,

Unlike my present self in passion drowned;

Who hears the woes, the pleadings that abound

Throughout my song, by hopes and vain griefs bred;

If ever true love its influence over you shed,

Oh ! let your pity be with pardon crowned.

But now full well I see how to the crowd

For a long time I proved a public jest:

E'ven by myself my folly is allowed:

And of my vanity what's left is shame,

Repentance, and a knowledge deep impressed,

That worldly pleasure is a passing dream.

Translated by R. Nott

Sonnet XXIV

To Laura in Death

The eyes, the face, the limbs of heavenly mold,

So long the theme of my impassioned lay,

Charms which so stole me from myself away,

That strange to other men the course I hold;

The crisped locks of pure and lucid gold,

The lightning of the angelic smile, whose ray

To earth could all of paradise convey,

A little dust are now —to feeling cold.

And yet I live—but that I live bewail,

Sunk the loved light that through the tempest led

My shattered bark, bereft of mast and sail:

Hushed be for aye the song that breathed love's fire!

Lost is the theme on which my fancy fed,

And turned to mourning my once tuneful lyre.

Translated by Lady Dacre


Boccaccio  "Decameron"  DAY 1  DAY 2  DAY 3  DAY 4  DAY 5  DAY 6  DAY 7  DAY 8  DAY 9  DAY 10

Boccaccio’s early writings, almost all of which are available in English translation, were purely literary, without any didactic implications. His first prose work, Il filocolo (c. 1336; “Love’s Labour”), derived from the French romance Floire et Blancheflor, was an important literary experiment. Inability to write on an epic scale was evident in his two narrative poems in eight-line stanzas, Il filostrato (c. 1338; “Frustrated by Love”) and Teseida (c. 1340; The Book of Theseus), while his Ameto, or, more properly, Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine (1341–42; “Comedy of the Florentine Nymphs”), a novel written in prose and verse, and his Fiammetta (c. 1343; Amorous Fiammetta), a prose novel, showed the influence of classical literature on the formation of his style. The Decameron (1348–53), a prose collection of 100 stories recounted by 10 narrators—3 men and 7 women—over 10 days, was Boccaccio’s most mature and important work. Its treatment of contemporary urban society ranged from the humorous to the tragic. Stylistically the most perfect example of Italian classical prose, it had enormous influence on Renaissance literature.

As a disciple of Petrarch, Boccaccio shared the humanist interests of his age, as shown in his Latin epistles and encyclopedic treatises. An admirer of Dante, he also wrote a Trattatello in laude di Dante (written c. 1360; “Treatise in Praise of Dante”; Eng. trans. The Life of Dante) and a commentary on the first 17 cantos of the Inferno. He contributed to allegorical poetry with L’amorosa visione (written 1342–43).

Andrea Del Castagno
Giovanni Boccaccio, 1450

J. W. Waterhouse
Boccaccio wrote his Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313—75), a close contemporary and friend of Petrarch, shared his admiration for Classical civilization, his love of the new Italian poetry and his wide-ranging interests. He was a great enthusiast for Dante, writing his biography and giving public lectures on the Divine Comedy. As a lyric poet, he was in neither Dante's nor Petrarch's class, his strong suit being narrative; like Petrarch, he became famous chiefly for what he would have considered a lesser work, The Decameron.

It is a collection of a hundred stories told by a party of young men and women sheltering in a house outside Florence to avoid the Black Death — the plague that carried off perhaps one-third of the population of Europe in the late 1340s. Most of the stories were written, or compiled, very soon after the epidemic. They were drawn from many sources and, provided rich material for other writers, notably Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales - although it is possible that Chaucer obtained them indirectly since he never mentions
Boccaccio by name. (As there was no law, or even conception, of copyright, writers felt no need to disguise their sources.)

Popular literature and romances

During the second half of the 14th century, Florence remained a centre of culture, but its literature developed a more popular character. The best-known representative of this development was bellman and town crier Antonio Pucci (died 1388), whose vast verse production included poems on local Florentine lore, as well as historical and legendary verse narratives. Florentine narrative literature was represented by the Pecorone (c. 1378; “Dullard”), stories by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino after a pattern established by Boccaccio, and Franco Sacchetti’s Trecentonovelle (c. 1390; “Three Hundred Short Stories”), which provide colourful and lively descriptions of people and places.

The recasting of the Carolingian and Arthurian cycles continued along lines established during the 13th century. Compilations in prose and verse became more common, and Franco-Venetian literature gained in literary value. Epic legends were turned into romantic stories, which appealed more to their illiterate audiences in town squares and other public places. Novels by Andrea da Barberino, cantari with legendary subjects by the above-mentioned Antonio Pucci, and the anonymous Pulzella gaia, Bel Gherardino, Donna del Vergiù, and Liombruno were written in a popular style combining irony and common sense.

Religious and historical literature

The most important author of religious literature was Jacopo Passavanti, whose Specchio di vera penitenza (“The Mirror of True Penitence”) was a collection of sermons preached in 1354. Less polished, but of greater literary value, were the translations of Latin legends concerning St. Francis and his followers collected in the anonymous Fioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of St. Francis).

Vernacular historiography of this period could be described as popular literature, with Florence as its main centre. Florence’s two principal chroniclers were Dino Compagni and Giovanni Villani. Compagni wrote his chronicle between 1310 and 1312, after having taken part in the political struggles of his town; his dramatic account of the episodes and the liveliness of his prose made it the most original work of medieval Italian historiography. Villani’s Cronica (“Chronicle”) in 12 books, written from 1308 to 1348, was less personal; it followed the medieval tradition by beginning with the building of the Tower of Babel and included many apocryphal tales. The last six books, which cover the period from Charles II’s Italian expedition (1265) to the author’s own time, are of importance to historians. Villani’s prose may lack the dramatic power of Compagni’s, but his work can nevertheless be described as the greatest achievement of Italian vernacular historiography during the Middle Ages. His Chronicle was versified by fellow Florentine Antonio Pucci.

From Boccaccio’s death to about the middle of the 15th century, reflective Italian poetry suffered a decline. The poetry that survives is popular in nature and written to be accompanied by music. The following period was to be characterized by critical and philological activity rather than by original creative work.

Sheila Ralphs
Anthony Oldcorn


The Renaissance

The Renaissance is the name given to the flowering of the arts, literature and politics that marked the transition from the European Middle Ages to the Modern Era. It began in the 14th century in Italy, where it reached its height in the early 16th century, and spread throughout Europe. The impulse for the Renaissance was the revival of interest in Classical (Greek and Roman) culture, and its predominant characteristic was humanism -an interest in human beings and in the potential of human nature, apart from religious values. Humanism was not anti-religion; on the contrary, the 16th century was an intensely religious age, but it did imply a reduction in the overwhelming authority that the Church had exercised in the Middle Ages.

There was a new spirit of freedom, summed up by the young humanist philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-94):

'Constrained by no limits [Man] shall ordain for himself the limits of his nature'.

The Renaissance

The age of humanism

The European Renaissance (the “rebirth” of the classical past) really began in 14th-century Italy with
Petrarch and Boccaccio. The 15th century, devoid as it was of major poetic works, was nevertheless of very great importance because it was the century in which a new vision of human life, embracing a different conception of man, as well as more modern principles of ethics and politics, gradually found their expression. This was the result, on the one hand, of political conditions quite different from those of previous centuries and, on the other, of the rediscovery of classical antiquity. With regard to the first point, nearly all Italian princes competed with each other in the 15th century to promote culture by patronizing research, offering hospitality and financial support to literary men of the time, and founding libraries. As a consequence, their courts became centres of research and discussion, thus making possible the great cultural revival of the period. The most notable courts were that of Florence, under Lorenzo de’ Medici “the Magnificent”; that of Naples, under the Aragonese kings; that of Milan, first under the Visconti and later the Sforza family; and finally the papal court at Rome, which gave protection and support to a large number of Italian and Byzantine scholars. To return to the second point, the search for lost manuscripts of ancient authors, begun by Petrarch in the previous century, led to an extraordinary revival of interest in classical antiquity: in particular, much research was devoted to ancient philosophy in general and in particular to Plato (Aristotle had been the dominant voice in the Middle Ages), a fact that was to have profound influence on the thinking of the Renaissance as a whole.

By and large, the new culture of the 15th century was a revaluation of man. Humanism opposed the medieval view of man as a being with relatively little value and extolled him as the centre of the universe, the power of his soul as linking the temporal and the spiritual, and earthly life as a realm in which the soul applies its powers. These concepts, which mainly resulted from the new interest in Plato, were the subject of many treatises, the most important of which were Giannozzo Manetti’s De dignitate et excellentia hominis (completed in 1452; On the Dignity of Man) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oratio de hominis dignitate (written 1486; Oration on the Dignity of Man). The humanist vision evolved during this period condemned many religious opinions of the Middle Ages still widely prevalent: monastic ideals of isolation and noninvolvement in the affairs of the world, for example, were attacked by Leonardo Bruni, Lorenzo Valla, and Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. Forthright though these attacks were, humanism was not essentially anti-Christian, for it generally remained faithful to Christian beliefs, and the papal court itself regarded humanism as a force to be assimilated rather than defeated.

In the first half of the century the humanists, with their enthusiasm for Latin and Greek literature, had a disdain for the Italian vernacular. They wrote for the most part in Latin prose. Their poetic production, inspired by classical models and written mostly in Latin and later Greek, was abundant but at first of little value. Writing in a dead language and closely following a culture to which they had enslaved themselves, they rarely showed originality as poets. Toward the end of the 15th century there were notable exceptions in Giovanni Pontano, Michele Marullo Tarcaniota, Politian (Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano), and Jacopo Sannazzaro. These poets succeeded in creating sincere poetry in which conventional and less conventional themes were expressed with new, original intimacy and fervour.

The rise of vernacular literature

Toward the middle of the 15th century Italian began to vie with Latin as the literary language. The Certame Coronario, a public poetry competition held in Florence in 1441 with the intention of proving that the spoken Italian language was in no way inferior to Latin, marked a definite change. In the second half of the century there were a number of works of merit written in Italian and inspired either by the chivalric legends of the Middle Ages or by the new humanist culture.

The “matter of France” and the “matter of Brittany,” which had degenerated into clichés, were given a new lease on life by two poets of very different temperament and education: Matteo Maria Boiardo, whose Orlando innamorato (1483; “Orlando in Love”) reflected past chivalrous ideals as well as contemporary standards of conduct and popular passions; and Luigi Pulci, whose broadly comic Morgante, published before 1480, was pervaded by a new bourgeois and popular morality.

The new ideals of the humanists were most complete in Politian, Jacopo Sannazzaro, and Leon Battista Alberti, three outstanding figures who combined a wide knowledge of classical antiquity with a personal and often profound inspiration. Politian’s most important Italian work is the incomplete Stanze cominciate per la giostra del Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici (1475–78; “Stanzas Begun for the Joust of the Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici”)—dedicated to Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano de’ Medici, assassinated in 1478 in the Pazzi conspiracy—which created a mythical world in which concepts of classical origin were relived in a new way. The same could be said of Sannazzaro’s Arcadia (1504), a largely autobiographical pastoral work in verse and prose that remained widely influential up to the 18th century. A more balanced view of contemporary reality was given in Alberti’s literary works, which presented a gloomy picture of human life, dominated by man’s wickedness and the whims of fortune. As for Lorenzo de’ Medici, statesman and patron of many men of letters, he himself had a remarkably vast and varied poetic output.

Pietro Bembo of Venice published his Prose della volgar lingua (“Writings on the Vulgar Tongue”) in 1525. In this work, which was one of the first historical Italian grammars, Bembo demanded an Italian literary language based on 14th-century Tuscan models, particularly Petrarch and Boccaccio. He found Dante’s work stylistically uneven and insufficiently decorous. He was opposed by those who thought that a literary language should be based on contemporary usage, particularly by Gian Giorgio Trissino, who developed Dante’s theories on Italian as a literary language. In practice the problem was both linguistic and stylistic, and there were in the first half of the 16th century a great number of other contributors to the question, though it was Bembo’s theories that finally triumphed in the second part of the century. This was largely due to the activities of the Florentine Accademia della Crusca, and this more scientific approach to the language question resulted in the academy’s first edition of an Italian dictionary in 1612.

During the first decades of the 16th century, treatises on poetry were still composed according to humanist ideas and the teachings of the Roman Augustan poet Horace. It was only after 1536, when the original classical Greek text of Aristotle’s incomplete Poetics was first published, that a gradual development became apparent in aesthetic theory. The traditional principle of imitation was now better analyzed, in the twofold sense of the imitation of classical authors and that of nature. The three theatrical unities (time, space, action) were among the structural rules then reestablished, while much speculation was devoted to epic poetry. The classical conception of poetry as a product of imagination supported by reason was at the basis of 16th-century rhetoric, and it was this conception of poetry, revived in Italy, that triumphed in France, Spain, and England during the following century.


Leon Battista Alberti


Leon Battista Alberti, (b. Feb. 14, 1404, Genoa—d. April 25, 1472, Rome), Italian humanist, architect, and principal initiator of Renaissance art theory. In his personality, works, and breadth of learning, he is considered the prototype of the Renaissance “universal man.”

Childhood and education
The society and class into which Alberti was born endowed him with the intellectual and moral tendencies he was to articulate and develop over a lifetime. He belonged to one of the wealthy merchant-banker families of Florence. At the time of his birth, the Alberti were in exile, expelled from Florence by the oligarchical government then dominated by the Albizzi family. Alberti’s father, Lorenzo, was managing the family’s concerns in Genoa, where Battista was born. Shortly thereafter he moved to Venice, where he raised Battista (Leo or Leon was a name adopted in later life) and his elder brother, Carlo. Both sons were illegitimate, the natural offspring of Lorenzo and a Bolognese widow, but they were to be Lorenzo’s only children and his heirs. An affectionate and responsible father, Lorenzo provided his sons with a Florentine stepmother (whom he married in 1408), and he attended carefully to their education.

It was from his father that Battista received his mathematical training. The useful intellectual tools of the businessman inspired in him a lifelong love for the regular, for rational order, and a lasting delight in the practical application of mathematical principles. “Nothing pleases me so much,” Alberti was to have a figure in one of his dialogues remark, “as mathematical investigations and demonstrations, especially when I can turn them to some useful practice as Battista here did, who drew from mathematics the principles of painting [perspective] and also his amazing propositions on the moving of weights.” As in Leonardo da Vinci’s case, mathematics led Alberti into several seemingly disparate fields of learning and practice. At one stroke, it resolved a diversity of problems and awakened an appreciation of the rational structure and processes of the physical world.

His early formal education was humanistic. At the age of 10 or 11, Alberti was sent to boarding school in Padua. There he was given the classical Latin training that was to be denied to Leonardo, illegitimate son of a poor notary in a rustic village of Tuscany. The “new learning” was largely literary, and Alberti emerged from the school an accomplished Latinist and literary stylist. Relishing his skill as a classicist, he wrote a Latin comedy at the age of 20 that was acclaimed as the “discovered” work of a Roman playwright—and was still published as a Roman work in 1588 by the famous Venetian press of Aldus Manutius. But it was the content rather than the form of the classical authors that absorbed Alberti as a youth and throughout his life. As for most humanists, the literature of ancient Rome opened up for him the vision of an urbane, secular, and rational world that seemed remarkably similar to the emerging life of the Italian cities and met its cultural needs. He brought his own emotional and intellectual tendencies to “the ancients,” but from them he drew the conceptual substance of his thought.

Alberti completed his formal education at the University of Bologna in an apparently joyless study of law. His father’s death and the unexpected seizure of his legacy by certain members of the family brought him grief and impoverishment during his seven-year stay at Bologna, but he persisted in his studies. After receiving his doctorate in canon law in 1428, he chose to accept a “literary” position as a secretary rather than pursue a legal career. By 1432 he was a secretary in the Papal Chancery in Rome (which supported several humanists), and he had a commission from a highly placed ecclesiastical patron to rewrite the traditional lives of the saints and martyrs in elegant “classical” Latin. From this point on, the church was to provide him with his livelihood. He took holy orders, thus receiving in addition to his stipend as a papal secretary an ecclesiastical benefice, the priory of Gangalandi in the diocese of Florence, and some years later Nicholas V conferred upon him as well the rectory of Borgo San Lorenzo in Mugello. Although he led an exemplary, and apparently a celibate, life, there is almost nothing in his subsequent career to remind one of the fact that Alberti was a churchman. His interests and activities were wholly secular and began to issue in an impressive series of humanistic and technical writings.

Contribution to philosophy, science, and the arts
The treatise “Della famiglia” (“On the Family”), which he began in Rome in 1432, is the first of several dialogues on moral philosophy upon which his reputation as an ethical thinker and literary stylist largely rests. He wrote these dialogues in the vernacular, expressly for a broad urban public that would not be skilled in Latin: for the non litteratissimi cittadini, as he called them. Based upon classical models, chiefly Cicero and Seneca, these works brought to the day-to-day concerns of a bourgeois society the reasonable counsel of the ancients—on the fickleness of fortune, on meeting adversity and prosperity, on husbandry, on friendship and family, on education and obligation to the common good. They are didactic and derivative, yet fresh with the tone and life-style of the Quattrocento (the 1400s). In Alberti’s dialogues the ethical ideals of the ancient world are made to foster a distinctively modern outlook: a morality founded upon the idea of work. Virtue has become a matter of action, not of right thinking. It arises not out of serene detachment but out of striving, labouring, producing.

This ethic of achievement, which corresponds to the social reality of his youth, found ready acceptance in the urban society of central and northern Italy in which Alberti moved after 1434. Travelling with the papal court of Eugenius IV to Florence (the ban of exile against his family was lifted with the restoration of Medici influence), Bologna, and Ferrara, Alberti made several congenial and fruitful contacts. The writings, both the Latin and vernacular ones, that he dedicated to his new associates are imbued with his characteristic notions of work, practice, and productive activity; and he took upon himself in turn the technical and practical problems that were absorbing his friends and patrons. In Florence his close associations with the sculptor Donatello and the architect Brunelleschi led to one of his major achievements: the systematization of the painter’s perspective. The book On Painting, which he wrote in 1435, set forth for the first time the rules for drawing a picture of a three-dimensional scene upon the two-dimensional plane of a panel or wall. It had an immediate and profound effect upon Italian painting and relief work, giving rise to the correct, ample, geometrically ordered space of the perspectival Renaissance style. Later perspectival theorists, such as the painter Piero della Francesca and Leonardo, elaborated upon Alberti’s work, but his principles remain as basic to the projective science of perspective as Euclid’s do to plane geometry.

His friendship with the Florentine cosmographer Paolo Toscanelli was of comparable practical and scientific importance. It was Toscanelli who provided Columbus with the map that guided him on his first voyage. Alberti seems to have collaborated with him in astronomy rather than geography, but the two sciences were closely bound at the time (and bound to perspective) by the conceptions and methods of geometric mapping rediscovered in the writings of the ancient astronomer and geographer Ptolemy. Alberti’s distinctive contribution to this current of thought took the form of a small treatise on geography, the first work of its kind since antiquity. It sets forth the rules for surveying and mapping a land area, in this case the city of Rome, and it was probably as influential as his earlier treatise on painting. Although it is difficult to trace the historical connections, the methods of surveying and mapping and the instruments described by Alberti are precisely those that were responsible for the new scientific accuracy of the depictions of towns and land areas that date from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

At the Este court in Ferrara, where Alberti was first made a welcome guest in 1438, the Marchese Leonello encouraged (and commissioned) him to direct his talents toward another field of endeavour: architecture. Alberti’s earliest effort at reviving classical forms of building still stands in Ferrara, a miniature triumphal arch that supports an equestrian statue of Leonello’s father. Leonello inspired a great humanistic undertaking as well as a mode of artistic practice on Alberti’s part by urging him to restore the classic text of Vitruvius, architect and architectural theorist of the age of the Roman emperor Augustus. With customary thoroughness, Alberti embarked upon a study of the architectural and engineering practices of antiquity that he continued when he returned to Rome in 1443 with the papal court. By the time Nicholas V became pope in 1447, Alberti was knowledgeable enough to become the Pope’s architectural adviser. The collaboration between Alberti and Nicholas V gave rise to the first grandiose building projects of Renaissance Rome, initiating among other works the reconstruction of St. Peter’s and the Vatican Palace. As the Este prince was now dead, it was to Nicholas V that Alberti dedicated in 1452 the monumental theoretical result of his long study of Vitruvius. This was his De re aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture), not a restored text of Vitruvius but a wholly new work, that won him his reputation as the “Florentine Vitruvius.” It became a bible of Renaissance architecture, for it incorporated and made advances upon the engineering knowledge of antiquity, and it grounded the stylistic principles of classical art in a fully developed aesthetic theory of proportionality and harmony.

During the final 20 years of his life, Alberti carried out his architectural ideas in several outstanding buildings. The facades of Sta. Maria Novella and the Palazzo Rucellai, both executed in Florence for the merchant Giovanni Rucellai, are noted for their proportionality, their perfect sense of measure. They are worthy successors to the art of Brunelleschi, initiator of the Florentine Quattrocento style of architecture. Other buildings look forward to the 16th century, particularly to Donato Bramante, the architect of St. Peter’s. The classical severity of Alberti’s Tempio Malatestiano, commissioned by Sigismondo Malatesta, the ruler of Rimini, and the new sense of volume and amplitude of the majestic Church of San Andrea, which he designed for Ludovico Gonzaga, the humanist Marquess of Mantua, announce the fullness of the High Renaissance style. Alberti was not only the foremost theorist of Renaissance architecture: he had become one of its great practitioners as well.

Architecture preoccupied him during the 1450s and 1460s, and he traveled a great deal to the various cities and courts of Renaissance Italy, but Rome and Florence remained his intellectual homes, and he continued to cultivate the interests they had always stimulated. In Rome, where republican life was precluded by the papal government, he was absorbed by technical and scientific matters. His response to certain problems entertained by members of the Papal Chancery led to two highly original works in this category. One is a grammar book, the first Italian grammar, by which he sought to demonstrate that the Tuscan vernacular was as “regular” a language as Latin and hence worthy of literary use. The other is a pioneer work in cryptography: it contains the first known frequency table and the first polyalphabetic system of coding by means of what seems to be Alberti’s invention, the cipher wheel. Although he had been dismissed from the Papal Chancery in 1464 because of the retrenchment ordered by Pope Paul II, Alberti undertook this study, of obvious importance to the papacy, at the request of a friend who stayed on as a papal secretary.

In all his projects, Alberti employed his intellectual gifts in some “useful” work—useful to the artistic, cultivated, and courtly circles in which he moved, including painters and builders, mapmakers and astronomers, humanists, princes, and popes. In all of his work, his versatility remained bound to the social outlook that characterized the “civic Humanism” of Florence.

It is fitting that his final and finest dialogue should be set in Florence and be written in the clear Tuscan prose he had helped to regularize and refine. Although the republicanism of Florence was now eclipsed, and Alberti now moved as a familiar in the circle of the princely Lorenzo de’ Medici, De iciarchia (“On the Man of Excellence and Ruler of His Family”) represents in full flower the public-spirited Humanism of the earlier bourgeois age to which he belonged. Alberti is its chief protagonist, and no more appropriate figure is conceivable. For this dialogue, more than any other, celebrates the union of theory and practice that Florentine Humanism had attained and the ethic of achievement and public service that he himself had come to exemplify. De iciarchia was completed just a few years before his death. He died “content and tranquil,” according to the 16th-century biography by Giorgio Vasari.

Alberti was in the vanguard of the cultural life of early Renaissance Italy. He has been admired for his many-sided nature, as has Leonardo da Vinci, who followed him by half a century and resembles him in this respect. Yet in Alberti’s case, unity as much as versatility typifies the man and his accomplishments. Leonardo’s genius carried him further than Alberti: he saw more and saw more deeply. But Leonardo’s vision has a “modern,” fragmentary character, whereas Alberti attained a completeness in thought and life that fulfilled the Renaissance ideals of measure and harmony. His intellectual and artistic pursuits were all of a piece, and he struck a unique balance between theory and practice, realizing this dominant aspiration of his age at the very moment social and political events had begun to cause it to fade.

Joan Kelly-Gadol


Political, historical, biographical, and moral literature

Niccolò Machiavelli’s works reflected Renaissance thought in its most original aspects, particularly in the objective analysis of human nature. Machiavelli has been described as the founder of a new political science: politics divorced from ethics. His own political experience was at the basis of his ideas, which he developed according to such general principles as the concepts of virtù (“individual initiative”) and fortuna (“chance”). A man’s ability to control his destiny through the exercise of virtù is contested by forces beyond his control, summed up in the concept of fortuna. His famous treatise Il principe (The Prince), composed in 1513, in which he states his conviction of the superiority of virtù, revealed the author’s prophetic attitude, based on his reading of history and his observation of contemporary political affairs. Its description of a model ruler became a code for the wielding of absolute power throughout Europe for two centuries. Machiavellis Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (c. 1513–21; Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius), showed the same realistic attitude: public utility was placed above all other considerations, and political virtue was distinguished from moral virtue. His seven books on Dell’arte della guerra (1521; The Art of War), concerning the creation of a modern army, were more technical, whereas his historical works, including the Istorie fiorentine (1520–25; Florentine History), exemplified theories expounded in his treatises. Machiavelli also holds a place in the history of imaginative literature, above all for his play La Mandragola (1518), one of the outstanding comedies of the century.

Nicolo Machiavelli

"The Prince"

To us, the most remarkable characteristic of the great figures of the Renaissance was their versatility.

Leo Battista Alberti
(1404-72), best known as an architect, was also a painter, a poet, a philosopher, a musician and, by all accounts, a remarkable athlete.

In literature, however, the writers of the High Renaissance never quite measured up to their great predecessors,
Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. There was Ariosto's romantic epic Orlando Furioso, Castiglione's humanist dialogues in The Courtier, and Aretino's witty and scandalous satires.

The most famous literary figure of Renaissance Florence is
Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). He is best known as a political philosopher, author of The Prince, a candid guide to statesmanship which admitted the necessity of using unpleasant means to gain desirable ends. It shocked Elizabethan England, where the adjective 'machiavellian' came to mean downright villainous. Machiavelli wrote many other works, including an excellent comedy, La Mandragola.

Although more of a realist (or pessimist) than Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini was the only 16th-century historian who could be placed within the framework of the political theories he constructed. He drew attention to the self-interest of those involved in political action and made Machiavellis theories appear idealistic by contrast. One of Guicciardini’s main works, his Ricordi (1512–30; “Things to Remember”; Eng. trans. Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman), has a place among the most original political writings of the century. Guicciardini was also the first, in his Storia d’Italia (1537–40), to compose a truly national history of Italy, setting it in a European context and attempting an impartial analysis of cause and effect.

Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori et scultori italiani da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri (1568; Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) contained more than 200 biographies and was the first critical and historical appraisal of Italian art. The autobiography of the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (written 1558–66, published 1728) was remarkable for its vigorous spontaneity and its use of popular Florentine language.

Giorgio Vasar

A cover of the "
Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" 


The highest moral aspirations of the Renaissance are expressed in Baldassare Castiglione’s Cortegiano (published 1528; The Courtier), which deals with the perfect courtier, the noble lady, and the relationship between courtier and prince. It became one of the most influential books of the century. Giovanni della Casa was the author of another famous treatise, the Galateo (c. 1551–54; Galateo is the name of the chief speaker; Eng. trans. Galateo), a book on courtesy in which the author’s witty mind and the refinement of contemporary Italian society found full expression. The excesses of the period were also vividly reflected in the work of Pietro Aretino, a widely feared polygraph who was called “the scourge of princes” by Ludovico Ariosto. His Ragionamenti (1534–36; “Discussions”), a dialogue between a seasoned prostitute and a beginner, were written in a spontaneous style and showed a sensuous and unscrupulous nature.

Lyric poetry in the 16th century was dominated by the model of
Petrarch mainly because of the acceptance of the Renaissance theory of imitation and the teaching of Bembo. Almost all the principal writers of the century wrote lyric poems in the manner of Petrarch. Surprising originality was to be found in Della Casa’s poems, and Galeazzo di Tarsia stood out from contemporary poets by virtue of a vigorous style. Also worthy of note are the passionate sonnets of the Paduan woman poet Gaspara Stampa and those of Michelangelo.

The tradition of humorous and satirical verse also was kept alive during the 16th century. Outstanding among its practitioners was Francesco Berni, whose burlesque poems, mostly dealing with indecent or trivial subjects, showed his wit and stylistic skill. Didactic poetry, already cultivated by humanist writers, was also continued during this period, chiefly by Giovanni Rucellai, who recast in Le api (1539; “The Bees”) the fourth book of the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics, and by Luigi Alamanni, in six books on agriculture and rustic life called La coltivazione (1546).

The most refined expression of the classical taste of the Renaissance was to be found in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516; “Orlando Mad”; Eng. trans. Orlando Furioso), which incorporated many episodes derived from popular medieval and early Renaissance epics. The poem is in fact a continuation of Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato and takes up all of its interwoven stories where Boiardo left off, but its unique qualities derive from Ariosto’s sustained inspiration and masterful narrative technique and his detached, ironic attitude toward his characters. Orlando furioso was the most perfect expression of the literary tendencies of the Italian Renaissance at this time, and it exercised enormous influence on later European Renaissance literature. Ariosto also composed comedies that, by introducing imitation of Latin comedy, marked the beginning of Renaissance drama in the vernacular.

There were also attempts to renew the epic by applying Aristotle’s “rules” of composition. Gian Giorgio Trissino, a theorist on language, wrote his Italia liberata dai Goti (“Italy Liberated from the Goths”) according to the strictest Aristotelian rules, while Alamanni tried to focus the narrative on a single character in Girone il cortese (1548; “Girone the Courteous”) and Avarchide (1570), an imitation of the Iliad of Homer. Giambattista Giraldi, while more famous as a storyteller and a tragic playwright, was a literary theorist who tried to apply his own pragmatic theories in his poem Ercole (1557; “Hercules”).

Two burlesque medley forms of verse were invented during the century. Fidenziana poetry derives its name from a work by Camillo Scroffa, a poet who wrote Petrarchan parodies in a combination of Latin words and Italian form and syntax. Macaronic poetry, on the other hand, which refers to the Rabelaisian preoccupation of the characters with eating, especially macaroni, is a term given to verse consisting of Italian words used according to Latin form and syntax. Teofilo Folengo, a Benedictine monk, was the best representative of macaronic literature, and his masterpiece was a poem in 20 books called Baldus (1517). The tendency to parody, ridiculing the impractical excesses of humanist literature, was present in both fidenziana and macaronic verse.

Torquato Tasso, son of the poet Bernardo Tasso, was the last great poet of the Italian Renaissance and one of the greatest of Italian literature. In his epic Gerusalemme liberata (1581; Jerusalem Delivered) he summed up a literary tradition typical of the Renaissance: the classical epic renewed according to the spiritual interests of his own time. The subject of the poem is the First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem. Its structure dramatizes the struggle to preserve a central purpose by dominating and holding in check centrifugal urges toward sensual and emotional indulgence. Its pathos lies in the enormous cost of self-control. L’Aminta (1573), a joyous and uninhibited drama, was the best example of Tasso’s youthful poetry and belonged to the new literary genre of pastoral (dealing with idealized rural life). Gerusalemme liberata, however, was the result of a balance in the poet’s conflicting aspirations: a Christian subject dealt with in a classical way. In the subsequent Gerusalemme conquistata (1593; “Jerusalem Vanquished”), Tasso imitated Homer and recast his poem according to more rigid Aristotelian rules and the ideals of the Roman Catholic church’s reaction against the Protestant Reformation, known as the Counter-Reformation. Tasso’s conflict had ended in the victory of the moralistic principle: poetically the new poem was a failure. Tasso also wrote shorter lyric verse throughout his life, including religious poems, while his prose dialogues show a style no longer exclusively dominated by classical models. His delicate madrigals were set to music by the age’s most famous composers.

Pietro Aretino

Pietro Aretino

Pietro Aretino
"Sonetti lussuriosi"

Illustrations by
Agostino Carracci


My legs are wrapped around you neck,
Your cazzo's in my cul, in pushes and thrashes!
I was in bed, but now I'm on this chest.
What extreme pleasure you're giving me!
But lift me onto the bed again: down here,
My head hung low, you'll do me in.
The pain's worse than birth-pangs or shitting.
Cruel love, what have you reduced me to?

What are you going to do?

Whatever you like.

Give me your tongue a little, darling.
Reward who served you silently and well.

The potta will want its share of pleasure,
Otherwise potta and cul will stay at war.
Push harder, your cazzo's slipping out.
If I had had to wait
One minute longer for release,
I swear I would have died, sweetheart.

This little manuscript of Aretino’s
sonnets and other poems








Ludovico Ariosto


Ludovico Ariosto
"Orlando Furioso"
Canto 1-4

see also:

"Orlando Furioso"
Illustrations by
Gustave Dore


Orlando Furioso


Angelica, whom pressing danger frights,
Flies in disorder through the greenwood shade.
Rinaldo's horse escapes: he, following, fights
Ferrau, the Spaniard, in a forest glade.
A second oath the haughty paynim plights,
And keeps it better than the first he made.
King Sacripant regains his long-lost treasure;
But good Rinaldo mars his promised pleasure.

And from those ancient days my story bring,
When Moors from Afric passed in hostile fleet,
And ravaged France, with Agramant their king,
Flushed with his youthful rage and furious heat,
Who on king Charles', the Roman emperor's head
Had vowed due vengeance for Troyano dead.

In the same strain of Roland will I tell
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,
On whom strange madness and rank fury fell,
A man esteemed so wise in former time;
If she, who to like cruel pass has well
Nigh brought my feeble wit which fain would climb
And hourly wastes my sense, concede me skill
And strength my daring promise to fulfil.

Ariosto "Orlando Furioso"








Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonarroti

(b Caprese, ?6 March 1475; d Rome, 18 Feb 1564).

Italian sculptor, painter, draughtsman and architect. The elaborate exequies held in Florence after Michelangelo’s death celebrated him as the greatest practitioner of the three visual arts of sculpture, painting and architecture and as a respected poet. He is a central figure in the history of art: one of the chief creators of the Roman High Renaissance, and the supreme representative of the Florentine valuation of disegno. As a poet and a student of anatomy, he is often cited as an example of the ‘universal genius’ supposedly typical of the period. His professional career lasted over 70 years, during which he participated in, and often stimulated, great stylistic changes.

The characteristic most closely associated with him is terribilita, a term indicative of heroic and awe-inspiring
grandeur. Reproductions of the Creation of Adam from
the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (Rome, Vatican) or the Moses from the tomb of Julius II (Rome, S Pietro in Vincoli) have broadcast an image of his art as one almost exclusively expressive of superhuman power. The man himself has been assimilated to this image and represented as the archetype of the brooding, irascible, lonely and tragic figure of the artist.

Although his reputation as a poet has not been so high, his poetry has been praised by such diverse figures as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Eugenio Montale (1896–1981).



see also collection:




Ravished by all that to the eyes is fair,
Yet hungry for the joys that truly bless,
My soul can find no stair
To mount to heaven, save earth's loveliness.
For from the stars above
Descends a glorious light
That lifts our longing to their highest height
And bears the name of love.
Nor is there aught can move
A gentle heart, or purge or make it wise,
But beauty and the starlight of her eyes.

Translated by George Santayana


The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed,
If Thou the spirit give by which I pray:
My unassisted heart is barren clay,
Which of its native self can nothing feed:
Of good and pious works Thou art the seed,
Which quickens only where Thou say'st it may;
Unless Thou show to us Thine own true way,
No man can find it: Father! Thou must lead.
Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind
By which such virtue may in me be bred
That in Thy holy footsteps I may tread;
The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Thy praises everlastingly.

Translated by William Wordsworth


Yes! hope may with my strong desire keep pace,
And I be undeluded, unbetrayed:
For if of our affections none find grace
In sight of Heaven, then wherefore hath God made
The world which we inhabit? Better plea
Love cannot have, than that in loving thee
Glory to that eternal peace is paid,
Who such divinity to thee imparts
As hallows and makes pure all gentle hearts.
His hope is treacherous only whose love dies
With beauty, which is varying every hour;
But, in chaste hearts uninfluenced by the power
Of outward change, there blooms a deathless flower,
That breathes on earth the air of paradise.

Translated by William Wordsworth


Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

Translated by John Addington Symonds


by: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

HEN the prime mover of many sighs
Heaven took through death from out her earthly place,
Nature, that never made so fair a face,
Remained ashamed, and tears were in all eyes.
O fate, unheeding my impassioned cries!
O hopes fallacious! O thou spirit of grace,
Where art thou now? Earth holds in its embrace
Thy lovely limbs, thy holy thoughts the skies.
Vainly did cruel death attempt to stay
The rumor of thy virtuous renown,
That Lethe's waters could not wash away!
A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down,
Speak of thee, not to thee could Heaven convey,
Except through death, a refuge and a crown.

Translated by H.W. Longfellow


What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country's, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne'er walked the earth a greater man than he.

Translated by H.W. Longfellow







Torquato Tasso

"Jerusalem Delivered"
BOOKS 1-10, BOOKS 11-20


Jerusalem Delivered

The sacred armies, and the godly knight,
That the great sepulchre of Christ did free,
I sing; much wrought his valor and foresight,
And in that glorious war much suffered he;
In vain 'gainst him did Hell oppose her might,
In vain the Turks and Morians armed be:
His soldiers wild, to brawls and mutinies prest,
Reduced he to peace, so Heaven him blest.
O heavenly Muse, that not with fading bays
Deckest thy brow by the Heliconian spring,
But sittest crowned with stars' immortal rays
In Heaven, where legions of bright angels sing;
Inspire life in my wit, my thoughts upraise,
My verse ennoble, and forgive the thing,
If fictions light I mix with truth divine,
And fill these lines with other praise than thine.

Thither thou know'st the world is best inclined
Where luring Parnass most his sweet imparts,
And truth conveyed in verse of gentle kind
To read perhaps will move the dullest hearts:
So we, if children young diseased we find,
Anoint with sweets the vessel's foremost parts
To make them taste the potions sharp we give;
They drink deceived, and so deceived, they live.
Ye noble Princes, that protect and save
The Pilgrim Muses, and their ship defend
From rock of Ignorance and Error's wave,
Your gracious eyes upon this labor bend:
To you these tales of love and conquest brave
I dedicate, to you this work I send:
My Muse hereafter shall perhaps unfold
Your fights, your battles, and your combats bold.


Trissino’s Sofonisba (written 1514–15; the title is the name of the female protagonist) was the first tragedy of Italian vernacular literature to follow classical precedent; its structure derived from Greek models, but its poetic qualities were somewhat mediocre. Toward the middle of the 16th century Giambattista Giraldi (Cinzio) reacted against imitation of Greek drama by proposing the Roman tragedian Seneca as a new model, and in nine tragedies and tragicomedies—written between 1541 and 1549—he showed some independence from Aristotelian rules. He greatly influenced European drama, particularly the English theatre of the Elizabethan period. Perhaps the most successful tragedy of the century is Torquato Tasso’s Re Torrismondo (“King Torrismondo”).

The Italian comedies of the century, inspired by Latin models but also by the tradition of the novella, possessed greater artistic value than the tragedies, and they reflected contemporary life more fully: they could be considered as the starting point for modern European drama. To the comedies of Ariosto and Machiavelli should be added a lively play, La Calandria (first performed 1513; The Follies of Calandro), by Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, and the five racy comedies written by Pietro Aretino.

Giordano Bruno
, a great Italian philosopher who wrote dialogues in Italian on his new cosmology and antihumanist ideas, also wrote a comedy, Il candelaio (1582; The Candlemaker).

Since the mid-20th century the actor Angelo Beolco (“Il Ruzzante”) has become generally recognized as one of the most powerful dramatists of the 16th century. His works, often monologues written in a rural Paduan dialect, treat the problems of the oppressed peasant with realism and profound seriousness. Another dialect playwright of the same century, now also more widely appreciated, is the Venetian Andrea Calmo, who showed a nice gift for characterization in his comedies of complex amorous intrigue.


Giordano Bruno


Italian philosopher
original name Filippo Bruno, byname Il Nolano

born 1548, Nola, near Naples
died Feb. 17, 1600, Rome

Italian philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and occultist whose theories anticipated modern science. The most notable of these were his theories of the infinite universe and the multiplicity of worlds, in which he rejected the traditional geocentric (or Earth-centred) astronomy and intuitively went beyond the Copernican heliocentric (Sun-centred) theory, which still maintained a finite universe with a sphere of fixed stars. Bruno is, perhaps, chiefly remembered for the tragic death he suffered at the stake because of the tenacity with which he maintained his unorthodox ideas at a time when both the Roman Catholic and the Reformed churches were reaffirming rigid Aristotelian and Scholastic principles in their struggle for the evangelization of Europe.

Early life.
Bruno was the son of a professional soldier. He was named Filippo at his baptism and was later called “il Nolano,” after the place of his birth. In 1562 Bruno went to Naples to study the humanities, logic, and dialectics (argumentation). He was impressed by the lectures of G.V. de Colle, who was known for his tendencies toward Averroism—i.e., the thought of a number of Western Christian philosophers who drew their inspiration from the interpretation of Aristotle put forward by the Muslim philosopher Averroës—and by his own reading of works on memory devices and the arts of memory (mnemotechnical works). In 1565 he entered the Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples and assumed the name Giordano. Because of his unorthodox attitudes, he was soon suspected of heresy. Nevertheless, in 1572 he was ordained as a priest. During the same year he was sent back to the Neapolitan convent to continue his study of theology. In July 1575 Bruno completed the prescribed course, which generated in him an annoyance at theological subtleties. He had read two forbidden commentaries by Erasmus and freely discussed the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ; as a result, a trial for heresy was prepared against him by the provincial father of the order, and he fled to Rome in February 1576. There he found himself unjustly accused of a murder. A second excommunication process was started, and in April 1576 he fled again. He abandoned the Dominican Order, and, after wandering in northern Italy, he went in 1578 to Geneva, where he earned his living by proofreading. Bruno formally embraced Calvinism; after publishing a broadsheet against a Calvinist professor, however, he discovered that the Reformed Church was no less intolerant than the Catholic. He was arrested, excommunicated, rehabilitated after retraction, and finally allowed to leave the city. He moved to France, first to Toulouse—where he unsuccessfully sought to be absolved by the Catholic Church but was nevertheless appointed to a lectureship in philosophy—and then in 1581 to Paris.

In Paris Bruno at last found a congenial place to work and teach. Despite the strife between the Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants), the court of Henry III was then dominated by the tolerant faction of the Politiques (moderate Catholics, sympathizers of the Protestant king of Navarre, Henry of Bourbon, who became the heir apparent to the throne of France in 1584). Bruno’s religious attitude was compatible with this group, and he received the protection of the French king, who appointed him one of his temporary lecteurs royaux. In 1582 Bruno published three mnemotechnical works, in which he explored new means to attain an intimate knowledge of reality. He also published a vernacular comedy, Il candelaio (1582; “The Candlemaker”), which, through a vivid representation of contemporary Neapolitan society, constituted a protest against the moral and social corruption of the time.

In the spring of 1583 Bruno moved to London with an introductory letter from Henry III for his ambassador Michel de Castelnau. He was soon attracted to Oxford, where, during the summer, he started a series of lectures in which he expounded the Copernican theory maintaining the reality of the movement of the Earth. Because of the hostile reception of the Oxonians, however, he went back to London as the guest of the French ambassador. He frequented the court of Elizabeth I and became associated with such influential figures as Sir Philip Sidney and Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester.

In February 1584 he was invited by Fulke Greville, a member of Sidney’s circle, to discuss his theory of the movement of the Earth with some Oxonian doctors; but the discussion degenerated into a quarrel. A few days later he started writing his Italian dialogues, which constitute the first systematic exposition of his philosophy. There are six dialogues, three cosmological—on the theory of the universe—and three moral. In the Cena de le Ceneri (1584; “The Ash Wednesday Supper”), he not only reaffirmed the reality of the heliocentric theory but also suggested that the universe is infinite, constituted of innumerable worlds substantially similar to those of the solar system. In the same dialogue he anticipated his fellow Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei by maintaining that the Bible should be followed for its moral teaching but not for its astronomical implications. He also strongly criticized the manners of English society and the pedantry of the Oxonian doctors. In the De la causa, principio e uno (1584; Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One) he elaborated the physical theory on which his conception of the universe was based: “form” and “matter” are intimately united and constitute the “one.” Thus, the traditional dualism of the Aristotelian physics was reduced by him to a monistic conception of the world, implying the basic unity of all substances and the coincidence of opposites in the infinite unity of Being. In the De l’infinito universo e mondi (1584; On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), he developed his cosmological theory by systematically criticizing Aristotelian physics; he also formulated his Averroistic view of the relation between philosophy and religion, according to which religion is considered as a means to instruct and govern ignorant people, philosophy as the discipline of the elect who are able to behave themselves and govern others. The Spaccio de la bestia trionfante (1584; The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast), the first dialogue of his moral trilogy, is a satire on contemporary superstitions and vices, embodying a strong criticism of Christian ethics—particularly the Calvinistic principle of salvation by faith alone, to which Bruno opposes an exalted view of the dignity of all human activities. The Cabala del cavallo Pegaseo (1585; “Cabal of the Horse Pegasus”), similar to but more pessimistic than the previous work, includes a discussion of the relationship between the human soul and the universal soul, concluding with the negation of the absolute individuality of the former. In the De gli eroici furori (1585; The Heroic Frenzies), Bruno, making use of Neoplatonic imagery, treats the attainment of union with the infinite One by the human soul and exhorts man to the conquest of virtue and truth.

In October 1585 Bruno returned to Paris, where he found a changed political atmosphere. Henry III had abrogated the edict of pacification with the Protestants, and the King of Navarre had been excommunicated. Far from adopting a cautious line of behaviour, however, Bruno entered into a polemic with a protégé of the Catholic party, the mathematician Fabrizio Mordente, whom he ridiculed in four Dialogi, and in May 1586 he dared to attack Aristotle publicly in his Centum et viginti articuli de natura et mundo adversus Peripateticos (“120 Articles on Nature and the World Against the Peripatetics”). The Politiques disavowed him, and Bruno left Paris.

He went to Germany, where he wandered from one university city to another, lecturing and publishing a variety of minor works, including the Articuli centum et sexaginta (1588; “160 Articles”) against contemporary mathematicians and philosophers, in which he expounded his conception of religion—a theory of the peaceful coexistence of all religions based upon mutual understanding and the freedom of reciprocal discussion. At Helmstedt, however, in January 1589 he was excommunicated by the local Lutheran Church. He remained in Helmstedt until the spring, completing works on natural and mathematical magic (posthumously published) and working on three Latin poems—De triplici minimo et mensura (“On the Threefold Minimum and Measure”), De monade, numero et figura (“On the Monad, Number, and Figure”), and De immenso, innumerabilibus et infigurabilibus (“On the Immeasurable and Innumerable”)—which reelaborate the theories expounded in the Italian dialogues and develop Bruno’s concept of an atomic basis of matter and being. To publish these, he went in 1590 to Frankfurt am Main, where the senate rejected his application to stay. Nevertheless, he took up residence in the Carmelite convent, lecturing to Protestant doctors and acquiring a reputation of being a “universal man” who, the Prior thought, “did not possess a trace of religion” and who “was chiefly occupied in writing and in the vain and chimerical imagining of novelties.”

Final years.
In August 1591, at the invitation of the Venetian patrician Giovanni Mocenigo, Bruno made the fatal move of returning to Italy. At the time such a move did not seem to be too much of a risk: Venice was by far the most liberal of the Italian states; the European tension had been temporarily eased after the death of the intransigent pope Sixtus V in 1590; the Protestant Henry of Bourbon was now on the throne of France, and a religious pacification seemed to be imminent. Furthermore, Bruno was still looking for an academic platform from which to expound his theories, and he must have known that the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua was then vacant. Indeed, he went almost immediately to Padua and, during the late summer of 1591, started a private course of lectures for German students and composed the Praelectiones geometricae (“Lectures on Geometry”) and Ars deformationum (“Art of Deformation”). At the beginning of the winter, when it appeared that he was not going to receive the chair (it was offered to Galileo in 1592), he returned to Venice, as the guest of Mocenigo, and took part in the discussions of progressive Venetian aristocrats who, like Bruno, favoured philosophical investigation irrespective of its theological implications. Bruno’s liberty came to an end when Mocenigo—disappointed by his private lessons from Bruno on the art of memory and resentful of Bruno’s intention to go back to Frankfurt to have a new work published—denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition in May 1592 for his heretical theories. Bruno was arrested and tried. He defended himself by admitting minor theological errors, emphasizing, however, the philosophical rather than the theological character of his basic tenets. The Venetian stage of the trial seemed to be proceeding in a way that was favourable to Bruno; then, however, the Roman Inquisition demanded his extradition, and on Jan. 27, 1593, Bruno entered the jail of the Roman palace of the Sant’Uffizio (Holy Office). During the seven-year Roman period of the trial, Bruno at first developed his previous defensive line, disclaiming any particular interest in theological matters and reaffirming the philosophical character of his speculation. This distinction did not satisfy the inquisitors, who demanded an unconditional retraction of his theories. Bruno then made a desperate attempt to demonstrate that his views were not incompatible with the Christian conception of God and creation. The inquisitors rejected his arguments and pressed him for a formal retraction. Bruno finally declared that he had nothing to retract and that he did not even know what he was expected to retract. At that point, Pope Clement VIII ordered that he be sentenced as an impenitent and pertinacious heretic. On Feb. 8, 1600, when the death sentence was formally read to him, he addressed his judges, saying: “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.” Not long after, he was brought to the Campo de’ Fiori, his tongue in a gag, and burned alive.

Bruno’s theories influenced 17th-century scientific and philosophical thought and, since the 18th century, have been absorbed by many modern philosophers. As a symbol of the freedom of thought, Bruno inspired the European liberal movements of the 19th century, particularly the Italian Risorgimento (the movement for national political unity). Because of the variety of his interests, modern scholars are divided as to the chief significance of his work. Bruno’s cosmological vision certainly anticipates some fundamental aspects of the modern conception of the universe; his ethical ideas, in contrast with religious ascetical ethics, appeal to modern humanistic activism; and his ideal of religious and philosophical tolerance has influenced liberal thinkers. On the other hand, his emphasis on the magical and the occult has been the source of criticism as has his impetuous personality. Bruno stands, however, as one of the important figures in the history of Western thought, a precursor of modern civilization.

Giovanni Aquilecchia


The classicist trend established by Pietro Bembo also affected narrative literature, for which the obvious model was Boccaccio’s Decameron. Originality and liveliness of expression were to be found in the 22 stories called Le cene (written after 1549; “The Suppers”) of the Florentine apothecary Anton Francesco Grazzini. The worldly monk Agnolo Firenzuola produced several stories, including the fable Asino d’oro (1550), a free adaptation of Apuleius’s Golden Ass. The cleric and short-story writer Matteo Bandello started a new trend in 16th-century narrative with 214 stories that were rich in dramatic and romantic elements while not aiming at classical dignity. This trend was partially followed also by Giambattista Giraldi in his collection of 112 stories called (with a Greek etymology) Gli ecatommiti (1565; “The Hundred Stories”).

Giovanni Aquilecchia
Anthony Oldcorn



Saint Thomas Aquinas

Italian Christian theologian and philosopher
also called Aquinas, Italian San Tommaso d’Aquino, byname Doctor Angelicus (Latin: Angelic Doctor)

born 1224/25, Roccasecca, near Aquino, Terra di Lavoro, Kingdom of Sicily
died March 7, 1274, Fossanova, near Terracina, Latium, Papal States; canonized July 18, 1323; feast day January 28, formerly March 7

Italian Dominican theologian, the foremost medieval Scholasticist. He developed his own conclusions from Aristotelian premises, notably in the metaphysics of personality, creation, and Providence. As a theologian he was responsible in his two masterpieces, the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles, for the classical systematization of Latin theology; and as a poet he wrote some of the most gravely beautiful eucharistic hymns in the church’s liturgy. His doctrinal system and the explanations and developments made by his followers are known as Thomism. Although many modern Roman Catholic theologians do not find St. Thomas altogether congenial, he is nevertheless recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as its foremost Western philosopher and theologian.

Early years
Thomas was born to parents who were in possession of a modest feudal domain on a boundary constantly disputed by the emperor and the pope. His father was of Lombard origin; his mother was of the later invading Norman strain. His people were distinguished in the service of Emperor Frederick II during the civil strife in southern Italy between the papal and imperial forces. Thomas was placed in the monastery of Monte Cassino near his home as an oblate (i.e., offered as a prospective monk) when he was still a young boy; his family doubtless hoped that he would someday become abbot to their advantage. In 1239, after nine years in this sanctuary of spiritual and cultural life, young Thomas was forced to return to his family when the emperor expelled the monks because they were too obedient to the pope. He was then sent to the University of Naples, recently founded by the emperor, where he first encountered the scientific and philosophical works that were being translated from the Greek and the Arabic. In this setting Thomas decided to join the Friars Preachers, or Dominicans, a new religious order founded 30 years earlier, which departed from the traditional paternalistic form of government for monks to the more democratic form of the mendicant friars (i.e., religious orders whose corporate as well as personal poverty made it necessary for them to beg alms) and from the monastic life of prayer and manual labour to a more active life of preaching and teaching. By this move he took a liberating step beyond the feudal world into which he was born and the monastic spirituality in which he was reared. A dramatic episode marked the full significance of his decision. His parents had him abducted on the road to Paris, where his shrewd superiors had immediately assigned him so that he would be out of the reach of his family but also so that he could pursue his studies in the most prestigious and turbulent university of the time.

Studies in Paris
Thomas held out stubbornly against his family despite a year of captivity. He was finally liberated and in the autumn of 1245 went to Paris to the convent of Saint-Jacques, the great university centre of the Dominicans; there he studied under Albertus Magnus, a tremendous scholar with a wide range of intellectual interests.

Escape from the feudal world, rapid commitment to the University of Paris, and religious vocation to one of the new mendicant orders all meant a great deal in a world in which faith in the traditional institutional and conceptual structure was being attacked. The encounter between the gospel and the culture of his time formed the nerve centre of Thomas’s position and directed its development. Normally, his work is presented as the integration into Christian thought of the recently discovered Aristotelian philosophy, in competition with the integration of Platonic thought effected by the Fathers of the Church during the first 12 centuries of the Christian Era. This view is essentially correct; more radically, however, it should also be asserted that Thomas’s work accomplished an evangelical awakening to the need for a cultural and spiritual renewal not only in the lives of individual men but also throughout the church. Thomas must be understood in his context as a mendicant religious, influenced both by the evangelism of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, and by the devotion to scholarship of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order.

When Thomas Aquinas arrived at the University of Paris, the influx of Arabian-Aristotelian science was arousing a sharp reaction among believers; and several times the church authorities tried to block the naturalism and rationalism that were emanating from this philosophy and, according to many ecclesiastics, seducing the younger generations. Thomas did not fear these new ideas, but, like his master Albertus Magnus (and Roger Bacon, also lecturing at Paris), he studied the works of Aristotle and eventually lectured publicly on them.

For the first time in history, Christian believers and theologians were confronted with the rigorous demands of scientific rationalism. At the same time, technical progress was requiring men to move from the rudimentary economy of an agrarian society to an urban society with production organized in trade guilds, with a market economy, and with a profound feeling of community. New generations of men and women, including clerics, were reacting against the traditional notion of contempt for the world and were striving for mastery over the forces of nature through the use of their reason. The structure of Aristotle’s philosophy emphasized the primacy of the intelligence. Technology itself became a means of access to truth; mechanical arts were powers for humanizing the cosmos. Thus, the dispute over the reality of universals—i.e., the question about the relation between general words such as “red” and particulars such as “this red object”—which had dominated early Scholastic philosophy, was left behind; and a coherent metaphysics of knowledge and of the world was being developed.

During the summer of 1248, Aquinas left Paris with Albertus, who was to assume direction of the new faculty established by the Dominicans at the convent in Cologne. He remained there until 1252, when he returned to Paris to prepare for the degree of master of theology. After taking his bachelor’s degree, he received the licentia docendi (“license to teach”) at the beginning of 1256 and shortly afterward finished the training necessary for the title and privileges of master. Thus, in the year 1256 he began teaching theology in one of the two Dominican schools incorporated in the University of Paris.

Years at the papal Curia and return to Paris
In 1259 Thomas was appointed theological adviser and lecturer to the papal Curia, then the centre of Western humanism. He returned to Italy, where he spent two years at Anagni at the end of the reign of Alexander IV and four years at Orvieto with Urban IV. From 1265 to 1267 he taught at the convent of Santa Sabina in Rome and then, at the request of Clement IV, went to the papal Curia in Viterbo. Suddenly, in November 1268, he was sent to Paris, where he became involved in a sharp doctrinal polemic that had just been triggered off.

The works of Averroës, the outstanding representative of Arabic philosophy in Spain, who was known as the great commentator and interpreter of Aristotle, were just becoming known to the Parisian masters. There seems to be no doubt about the Islamic faith of the Cordovan philosopher; nevertheless, he asserted that the structure of religious knowledge was entirely heterogeneous to rational knowledge: two truths—one of faith, the other of reason—can, in the final analysis, be contradictory. This dualism was denied by Muslim orthodoxy and was still less acceptable to Christians. With the appearance of Siger of Brabant, however, and from 1266 on, the quality of Averroës’s exegesis and the wholly rational bent of his thought began to attract disciples in the faculty of arts at the University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas rose in protest against his colleagues; nevertheless, the parties retained a mutual esteem. As soon as he returned from Italy, Thomas began to dispute with Siger, who, he claimed, was compromising not only orthodoxy but also the Christian interpretation of Aristotle. Aquinas found himself wedged in between the Augustinian tradition of thought, now more emphatic than ever in its criticism of Aristotle, and the Averroists. Radical Averroism was condemned in 1270, but at the same time Thomas, who sanctioned the autonomy of reason under faith, was discredited.

In the course of this dispute, the very method of theology was called into question. According to Aquinas, reason is able to operate within faith and yet according to its own laws. The mystery of God is expressed and incarnate in human language; it is thus able to become the object of an active, conscious, and organized elaboration in which the rules and structures of rational activity are integrated in the light of faith. In the Aristotelian sense of the word, then (although not in the modern sense), theology is a “science”; it is knowledge that is rationally derived from propositions that are accepted as certain because they are revealed by God. The theologian accepts authority and faith as his starting point and then proceeds to conclusions using reason; the philosopher, on the other hand, relies solely on the natural light of reason. Thomas was the first to view theology expressly in this way or at least to present it systematically, and in doing so he raised a storm of opposition in various quarters. Even today this opposition endures, especially among religious enthusiasts for whom reason remains an intruder in the realm of mystical communion, contemplation, and the sudden ecstasy of evangelical fervour.

The literary form of Aquinas’s works must be appreciated in the context of his methodology. He organized his teaching in the form of “questions,” in which critical research is presented by pro and con arguments, according to the pedagogical system then in use in the universities. Forms varied from simple commentaries on official texts to written accounts of the public disputations, which were significant events in medieval university life. Thomas’s works are divided into three categories: 1) commentaries on such works as the Old and New Testaments, the Sentences of Peter Lombard (the official manual of theology in the universities), and the writings of Aristotle; 2) disputed questions, accounts of his teaching as a master in the disputations; 3) two summae or personal syntheses, the Summa contra gentiles and the Summa theologiae, which were presented as integral introductions for the use of beginners. Numerous opuscula (“little works”), which have great interest because of the particular circumstances that provoked them, must also be noted.

The logic of Aquinas’s position regarding faith and reason required that the fundamental consistency of the realities of nature be recognized. A physis (“nature”) has necessary laws; recognition of this fact permits the construction of a science according to a logos (“rational structure”). Thomas thus avoided the temptation to sacralize the forces of nature through a naïve recourse to the miraculous or the Providence of God. For him, a whole “supernatural” world that cast its shadow over things and men, in Romanesque art as in social customs, had blurred men’s imaginations. Nature, discovered in its profane reality, should assume its proper religious value and lead to God by more rational ways, yet not simply as a shadow of the supernatural. This understanding is exemplified in the way that Francis of Assisi admired the birds, the plants, and the Sun.

The inclusion of Aristotle’s Physics in university programs was not, therefore, just a matter of academic curiosity. Naturalism, however, as opposed to a sacral vision of the world, was penetrating all realms: spirituality, social customs, and political conduct. About 1270, Jean de Meun, a French poet of the new cities and Thomas’s neighbour in the Rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, gave expression in his Roman de la Rose to the coarsest realism, not only in examining the physical universe but also in describing and judging the laws of procreation. Innumerable manuscripts of the Roman poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria (Art of Love) were in circulation; André le Chapelain, in his De Deo amoris (On the God of Love) adapted a more refined version for the public. Courtly love in its more seductive forms became a more prevalent element in the culture of the 13th century.

At the same time, Roman law was undergoing a revival at the University of Bologna; this involved a rigorous analysis of the natural law and provided the jurists of Frederick II with a weapon against ecclesiastical theocracy. The traditional presentations of the role and duties of princes, in which biblical symbolism was used to outline beautiful pious images, were replaced by treatises that described experimental and rational attempts at government. Thomas had composed such a treatise—De regimine principum (On the Government of Princes)—for the king of Cyprus in 1266. In the administration of justice, juridical investigations and procedures replaced fanatical recourse to ordeals and to judgments of God.

In the face of this movement, there was a fear on the part of many that the authentic values of nature would not be properly distinguished from the disorderly inclinations of mind and heart. Theologians of a traditional bent firmly resisted any form of a determinist philosophy which, they believed, would atrophy liberty, dissolve personal responsibility, destroy faith in Providence, and deny the notion of a gratuitous act of creation. Imbued with Augustine’s doctrines, they asserted the necessity and power of grace for a nature torn asunder by sin. The optimism of the new theology concerning the religious value of nature scandalized them.

Although he was an Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas was certain that he could defend himself against a heterodox interpretation of “the Philosopher,” as Aristotle was known. Thomas held that human liberty could be defended as a rational thesis while admitting that determinations are found in nature. In his theology of Providence, he taught a continuous creation, in which the dependence of the created on the creative wisdom guarantees the reality of the order of nature. God moves sovereignly all that he creates; but the supreme government that he exercises over the universe is conformed to the laws of a creative Providence that wills each being to act according to its proper nature. This autonomy finds its highest realization in the rational creature: man is literally self-moving in his intellectual, volitional, and physical existence. Man’s freedom, far from being destroyed by his relationship to God, finds its foundation in this very relationship. “To take something away from the perfection of the creature is to abstract from the perfection of the creative power itself.” This metaphysical axiom, which is also a mystical principle, is the key to St. Thomas’s spirituality.

Last years at Naples
At Easter time in 1272, Thomas returned to Italy to establish a Dominican house of studies at the University of Naples. This move was undoubtedly made in answer to a request made by King Charles of Anjou, who was anxious to revive the university. After participating in a general chapter, or meeting, of the Dominicans held in Florence during Pentecost week and having settled some family affairs, Thomas resumed his university teaching at Naples in October and continued it until the end of the following year.

Although Thomas’s argument with the Averroists had for years been matched by a controversy with the Christian masters who followed the traditional Augustinian conception of man as fallen, this latter dispute now became more pronounced. In a series of university conferences in 1273, Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar and a friendly colleague of Thomas at Paris, renewed his criticism of the Aristotelian current of thought, including the teachings of Thomas. He criticized the thesis that philosophy is distinct from theology, as well as the notion of a physical nature that has determined laws; he was especially critical of the theory that the soul is bound up with the body as the two necessary principles that make up the nature of man and also reacted strongly to the Aristotelians’ denial of the Platonic-Augustinian theory of knowledge based upon exemplary Ideas or Forms.

The disagreement was profound. Certainly, all Christian philosophers taught the distinction between matter and spirit. This distinction, however, could be intelligently held only if the internal relationship between matter and spirit in individual human beings was sought. It was in the process of this explanation that differences of opinion arose—not only intellectual differences between idealist and realist philosophers but also emotional differences. Some viewed the material world merely as a physical and biological reality, a stage on which the history of spiritual persons is acted out, their culture developed, and their salvation or damnation determined. This stage itself remains detached from the spiritual event, and the history of nature is only by chance the setting for the spiritual history. The history of nature follows its own path imperturbably; in this history, man is a foreigner, playing a brief role only to escape as quickly as possible from the world into the realm of pure spirit, the realm of God.

Thomas, on the contrary, noted the inclusion of the history of nature in the history of the spirit and at the same time noted the importance of the history of spirit for the history of nature. Man is situated ontologically (i.e., by his very existence) at the juncture of two universes, “like a horizon of the corporeal and of the spiritual.” In man there is not only a distinction between spirit and nature but there is also an intrinsic homogeneity of the two. Aristotle furnished Aquinas with the categories necessary for the expression of this concept: the soul is the “form” of the body. For Aristotle, form is that which makes a thing to be what it is; form and matter—that out of which a thing is made—are the two intrinsic causes that constitute every material thing. For Thomas, then, the body is the matter and the soul is the form of man. The objection was raised that he was not sufficiently safeguarding the transcendence of the spirit, the doctrine that the soul survives after the death of the body.

In January 1274 Thomas Aquinas was personally summoned by Gregory X to the second Council of Lyons, which was an attempt to repair the schism between the Latin and Greek churches. On his way he was stricken by illness; he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, where he died on March 7. In 1277 the masters of Paris, the highest theological jurisdiction in the church, condemned a series of 219 propositions; 12 of these propositions were theses of Thomas. This was the most serious condemnation possible in the Middle Ages; its repercussions were felt in the development of ideas. It produced for several centuries a certain unhealthy spiritualism that resisted the cosmic and anthropological realism of Aquinas.

The biography of Thomas Aquinas is one of extreme simplicity; it chronicles little but some modest travel during a career devoted entirely to university life: at Paris, the Roman Curia, Paris again, and Naples. It would be a mistake, however, to judge that his life was merely the quiet life of a professional teacher untouched by the social and political affairs of his day. The drama that went on in his mind and in his religious life found its causes and produced its effects in the university. In the young universities all the ingredients of a rapidly developing civilization were massed together, and to these universities the Christian church had deliberately and authoritatively committed its doctrine and its spirit. In this environment, Thomas found the technical conditions for elaborating his work—not only the polemic occasions for turning it out but also the enveloping and penetrating spiritual milieu needed for it. It is within the homogeneous contexts supplied by this environment that it is possible today to discover the historical intelligibility of his work, just as they supplied the climate for its fruitfulness at the time of its birth.

Thomas Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323, officially named doctor of the church in 1567, and proclaimed the protagonist of orthodoxy during the modernist crisis at the end of the 19th century. This continuous commendation, however, cannot obliterate the historical difficulties in which he was embroiled in the 13th century during a radical theological renewal—a renewal that was contested at the time and yet was brought about by the social, cultural, and religious evolution of the West. Thomas was at the heart of the doctrinal crisis that confronted Christendom when the discovery of Greek science, culture, and thought seemed about to crush it. William of Tocco, Aquinas’s first biographer, who had known him and was able to give evidence of the impression produced by his master’s teaching, says:

Brother Thomas raised new problems in his teaching, invented a new method, used new systems of proof. To hear him teach a new doctrine, with new arguments, one could not doubt that God, by the irradiation of this new light and by the novelty of this inspiration, gave him the power to teach, by the spoken and written word, new opinions and new knowledge.

The Rev. Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P.


Jean Buridan


Latin Joannes Buridanus
born 1300, probably at Béthune, France
died 1358

Aristotelian philosopher, logician, and scientific theorist in optics and mechanics.

After studies in philosophy at the University of Paris under the nominalist thinker William of Ockham, Buridan was appointed professor of philosophy there. He served as university rector in 1328 and in 1340, the year in which he condemned Ockham’s views, an act that is sometimes called the first seed of theological skepticism. Buridan’s own works were condemned and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books from 1474 to 1481 by partisans of Ockham.

A defender of the principle of causality, Buridan asserted a modified version of traditional moral determinism, declaring that men must will what presents itself as the greater good but that the will is free to delay the reason’s judgment by suggesting a more thorough inquiry into the value of motives. The dilemma of a particular kind of moral choice, between two evidently identical items, is illustrated by the celebrated allegory of “Buridan’s ass,” though the animal mentioned in Buridan’s commentary on Aristotle’s De caelo (“On the Heavens”) is actually a dog, not an ass. His discussion centres on the method by which the dog chooses between two equal amounts of food placed before him. Discerning both a symmetry of information and a symmetry of preference about the two items, he concludes that the dog must choose at random; this outcome leads to the investigation of theories of probability.

Among Buridan’s achievements in mechanics was his revision of Aristotle’s theory of motion, which had maintained that a thing is kept moving by the air surrounding it. Buridan developed a theory of impetus by which the mover imparts to the moved a power, proportional to the speed and mass, which keeps it moving. In addition, he correctly theorized that resistance of the air progressively reduces the impetus and that weight can add or detract from speed. His studies of optical images prefigured modern developments in cinematics. In logic he explicated doctrines of Aristotle, Ockham, and Peter of Spain. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon, Physics, De anima, Metaphysics, and Economics, his works include Summula de dialecta (1487) and Consequentie (1493).



Tommaso Campanella

original name Giovanni Domenico Campanella
born Sept. 5, 1568, Stilo, Kingdom of Naples [Italy]
died May 21, 1639, Paris, France

Italian philosopher and writer who sought to reconcile Renaissance humanism with Roman Catholic theology. He is best remembered for his socialistic work La città del sole (1602; “The City of the Sun”), written while he was a prisoner of the Spanish crown (1599–1626).

Entering the Dominican order in 1583, at which time he adopted the name Tommaso, he was influenced by the work of Italian philosopher Bernardino Telesio, an opponent of Scholastic Aristotelianism. Without permission from his order, Campanella went in 1589 to Naples, where his Philosophia sensibus demonstrata (1591; “Philosophy Demonstrated by the Senses”) was published. Reflecting Telesio’s concern for an empirical approach to philosophy, it stressed the necessity for human experience as a basis for philosophy. The work resulted in his arrest, trial, and brief imprisonment for heresy. On his release, he went to Padua, where he was arrested, charged with sodomy (1593), acquitted, and then charged with having engaged a Jew in a debate over matters of Christian faith. Sent to Rome for trial, he renounced in 1596 the heresy of which he had been accused.

Campanella’s interest in pragmatism and in political reform were already evident in such early writings as De monarchia Christianorum (1593; “On Christian Monarchy”) and Dialogo politico contra Luterani, Calvinisti ed altri eretici (1595; “Political Dialogue Against Lutherans, Calvinists, and Other Heretics”), in which he asserted that sinful humanity can be regenerated through a religious reformation founded on establishment of a universal ecclesiastical empire. These abstractions yielded to a more limited, though still utopian, plan of reform after his return to Stilo in 1598, where the misery of the people moved him deeply. In accordance with this plan, Campanella became in 1599 the spiritual leader of a plot to overthrow Spanish rule in Calabria. The plot was discovered, and he was arrested and taken to Naples. Forced under torture to confess his leadership in the plot, he feigned madness to escape death and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In prison Campanella reverted to Roman Catholic orthodoxy and wrote his celebrated utopian work, La città del sole. His ideal commonwealth was to be governed by men enlightened by reason, with every man’s work designed to contribute to the good of the community. Private property, undue wealth, and poverty would be nonexistent, for no man would be permitted more than he needed.

During Campanella’s prison term of 27 years, he also wrote lyric poems, of which only a few survive—in Scelta (1622; “Selections”). Considered by some critics to be the most original poetry in Italian literature of the period, the collection includes madrigals, sonnets, conventional love poems, and metaphysical hymns. His Metafisica (1638) expounds his theory of metaphysics based on a trinitarian structure of power, wisdom, and love. In the 30 books of the Theologia (1613–14), he reconsidered Roman Catholic doctrines in the light of his metaphysical theory.

One month after his release in 1626, Campanella was imprisoned in Rome on charges of heresy. He used flattery and his reputation as an astrologer to gain the favour of Pope Urban VIII, and he was freed in 1629. He tried in vain to get his new ideas accepted by Rome, but discovery of his complicity in an anti-Spanish plot in Naples in 1634 caused him to flee to France, where he was welcomed by King Louis XIII and Cardinal de Richelieu.





Italian philosopher, astronomer and mathematician
in full Galileo Galilei

born Feb. 15, 1564, Pisa [Italy]
died Jan. 8, 1642, Arcetri, near Florence

Italian natural philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who made fundamental contributions to the sciences of motion, astronomy, and strength of materials and to the development of the scientific method. His formulation of (circular) inertia, the law of falling bodies, and parabolic trajectories marked the beginning of a fundamental change in the study of motion. His insistence that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics changed natural philosophy from a verbal, qualitative account to a mathematical one in which experimentation became a recognized method for discovering the facts of nature. Finally, his discoveries with the telescope revolutionized astronomy and paved the way for the acceptance of the Copernican heliocentric system, but his advocacy of that system eventually resulted in an Inquisition process against him.

Early life and career
Galileo was born in Pisa, Tuscany, on February 15, 1564, the oldest son of Vincenzo Galilei, a musician who made important contributions to the theory and practice of music and who may have performed some experiments with Galileo in 1588–89 on the relationship between pitch and the tension of strings. The family moved to Florence in the early 1570s, where the Galilei family had lived for generations. In his middle teens Galileo attended the monastery school at Vallombrosa, near Florence, and then in 1581 matriculated at the University of Pisa, where he was to study medicine. However, he became enamoured with mathematics and decided to make the mathematical subjects and philosophy his profession, against the protests of his father. Galileo then began to prepare himself to teach Aristotelian philosophy and mathematics, and several of his lectures have survived. In 1585 Galileo left the university without having obtained a degree, and for several years he gave private lessons in the mathematical subjects in Florence and Siena. During this period he designed a new form of hydrostatic balance for weighing small quantities and wrote a short treatise, La bilancetta (“The Little Balance”), that circulated in manuscript form. He also began his studies on motion, which he pursued steadily for the next two decades.

In 1588 Galileo applied for the chair of mathematics at the University of Bologna but was unsuccessful. His reputation was, however, increasing, and later that year he was asked to deliver two lectures to the Florentine Academy, a prestigious literary group, on the arrangement of the world in Dante’s Inferno. He also found some ingenious theorems on centres of gravity (again, circulated in manuscript) that brought him recognition among mathematicians and the patronage of Guidobaldo del Monte (1545–1607), a nobleman and author of several important works on mechanics. As a result, he obtained the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589. There, according to his first biographer, Vincenzo Viviani (1622–1703), Galileo demonstrated, by dropping bodies of different weights from the top of the famous Leaning Tower, that the speed of fall of a heavy object is not proportional to its weight, as Aristotle had claimed. The manuscript tract De motu (On Motion), finished during this period, shows that Galileo was abandoning Aristotelian notions about motion and was instead taking an Archimedean approach to the problem. But his attacks on Aristotle made him unpopular with his colleagues, and in 1592 his contract was not renewed. His patrons, however, secured him the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua, where he taught from 1592 until 1610.

Although Galileo’s salary was considerably higher there, his responsibilities as the head of the family (his father had died in 1591) meant that he was chronically pressed for money. His university salary could not cover all his expenses, and he therefore took in well-to-do boarding students whom he tutored privately in such subjects as fortification. He also sold a proportional compass, or sector, of his own devising, made by an artisan whom he employed in his house. Perhaps because of these financial problems, he did not marry, but he did have an arrangement with a Venetian woman, Marina Gamba, who bore him two daughters and a son. In the midst of his busy life he continued his research on motion, and by 1609 he had determined that the distance fallen by a body is proportional to the square of the elapsed time (the law of falling bodies) and that the trajectory of a projectile is a parabola, both conclusions that contradicted Aristotelian physics.

Telescopic discoveries
At this point, however, Galileo’s career took a dramatic turn. In the spring of 1609 he heard that in the Netherlands an instrument had been invented that showed distant things as though they were nearby. By trial and error, he quickly figured out the secret of the invention and made his own three-powered spyglass from lenses for sale in spectacle makers’ shops. Others had done the same; what set Galileo apart was that he quickly figured out how to improve the instrument, taught himself the art of lens grinding, and produced increasingly powerful telescopes. In August of that year he presented an eight-powered instrument to the Venetian Senate (Padua was in the Venetian Republic). He was rewarded with life tenure and a doubling of his salary. Galileo was now one of the highest-paid professors at the university. In the fall of 1609 Galileo began observing the heavens with instruments that magnified up to 20 times. In December he drew the Moon’s phases as seen through the telescope, showing that the Moon’s surface is not smooth, as had been thought, but is rough and uneven. In January 1610 he discovered four moons revolving around Jupiter. He also found that the telescope showed many more stars than are visible with the naked eye. These discoveries were earthshaking, and Galileo quickly produced a little book, Sidereus Nuncius (The Sidereal Messenger), in which he described them. He dedicated the book to Cosimo II de Medici (1590–1621), the grand duke of his native Tuscany, whom he had tutored in mathematics for several summers, and he named the moons of Jupiter after the Medici family: the Sidera Medicea, or “Medicean Stars.” Galileo was rewarded with an appointment as mathematician and philosopher of the grand duke of Tuscany, and in the fall of 1610 he returned in triumph to his native land.

Galileo was now a courtier and lived the life of a gentleman. Before he left Padua he had discovered the puzzling appearance of Saturn, later to be shown as caused by a ring surrounding it, and in Florence he discovered that Venus goes through phases just as the Moon does. Although these discoveries did not prove that the Earth is a planet orbiting the Sun, they undermined Aristotelian cosmology: the absolute difference between the corrupt earthly region and the perfect and unchanging heavens was proved wrong by the mountainous surface of the Moon, the moons of Jupiter showed that there had to be more than one centre of motion in the universe, and the phases of Venus showed that it (and, by implication, Mercury) revolves around the Sun. As a result, Galileo was confirmed in his belief, which he had probably held for decades but which had not been central to his studies, that the Sun is the centre of the universe and that the Earth is a planet, as Copernicus had argued. Galileo’s conversion to Copernicanism would be a key turning point in the scientific revolution.

After a brief controversy about floating bodies, Galileo again turned his attention to the heavens and entered a debate with Christoph Scheiner (1573–1650), a German Jesuit and professor of mathematics at Ingolstadt, about the nature of sunspots (of which Galileo was an independent discoverer). This controversy resulted in Galileo’s Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari e loro accidenti (“History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and Their Properties,” or “Letters on Sunspots”), which appeared in 1613. Against Scheiner, who, in an effort to save the perfection of the Sun, argued that sunspots are satellites of the Sun, Galileo argued that the spots are on or near the Sun’s surface, and he bolstered his argument with a series of detailed engravings of his observations.

Galileo’s Copernicanism
Galileo’s increasingly overt Copernicanism began to cause trouble for him. In 1613 he wrote a letter to his student Benedetto Castelli (1528–1643) in Pisa about the problem of squaring the Copernican theory with certain biblical passages. Inaccurate copies of this letter were sent by Galileo’s enemies to the Inquisition in Rome, and he had to retrieve the letter and send an accurate copy. Several Dominican fathers in Florence lodged complaints against Galileo in Rome, and Galileo went to Rome to defend the Copernican cause and his good name. Before leaving, he finished an expanded version of the letter to Castelli, now addressed to the grand duke’s mother and good friend of Galileo, the dowager Christina. In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo discussed the problem of interpreting biblical passages with regard to scientific discoveries but, except for one example, did not actually interpret the Bible. That task had been reserved for approved theologians in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545–63) and the beginning of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But the tide in Rome was turning against the Copernican theory, and in 1615, when the cleric Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–1616) published a book arguing that the Copernican theory did not conflict with scripture, Inquisition consultants examined the question and pronounced the Copernican theory heretical. Foscarini’s book was banned, as were some more technical and nontheological works, such as Johannes Kepler’s Epitome of Copernican Astronomy. Copernicus’s own 1543 book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi (“Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs”), was suspended until corrected. Galileo was not mentioned directly in the decree, but he was admonished by Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621) not to “hold or defend” the Copernican theory. An improperly prepared document placed in the Inquisition files at this time states that Galileo was admonished “not to hold, teach, or defend” the Copernican theory “in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”

Galileo was thus effectively muzzled on the Copernican issue. Only slowly did he recover from this setback. Through a student, he entered a controversy about the nature of comets occasioned by the appearance of three comets in 1618. After several exchanges, mainly with Orazio Grassi (1583–1654), a professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, he finally entered the argument under his own name. Il saggiatore (The Assayer), published in 1623, was a brilliant polemic on physical reality and an exposition of the new scientific method. Galileo here discussed the method of the newly emerging science, arguing:

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.

He also drew a distinction between the properties of external objects and the sensations they cause in us—i.e., the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Publication of Il saggiatore came at an auspicious moment, for Maffeo Cardinal Barberini (1568–1644), a friend, admirer, and patron of Galileo for a decade, was named Pope Urban VIII as the book was going to press. Galileo’s friends quickly arranged to have it dedicated to the new pope. In 1624 Galileo went to Rome and had six interviews with Urban VIII. Galileo told the pope about his theory of the tides (developed earlier), which he put forward as proof of the annual and diurnal motions of the Earth. The pope gave Galileo permission to write a book about theories of the universe but warned him to treat the Copernican theory only hypothetically. The book, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, tolemaico e copernicano (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican), was finished in 1630, and Galileo sent it to the Roman censor. Because of an outbreak of the plague, communications between Florence and Rome were interrupted, and Galileo asked for the censoring to be done instead in Florence. The Roman censor had a number of serious criticisms of the book and forwarded these to his colleagues in Florence. After writing a preface in which he professed that what followed was written hypothetically, Galileo had little trouble getting the book through the Florentine censors, and it appeared in Florence in 1632.

In the Dialogue’s witty conversation between Salviati (representing Galileo), Sagredo (the intelligent layman), and Simplicio (the dyed-in-the-wool Aristotelian), Galileo gathered together all the arguments (mostly based on his own telescopic discoveries) for the Copernican theory and against the traditional geocentric cosmology. As opposed to Aristotle’s, Galileo’s approach to cosmology is fundamentally spatial and geometric: the Earth’s axis retains its orientation in space as the Earth circles the Sun, and bodies not under a force retain their velocity (although this inertia is ultimately circular). But in giving Simplicio the final word, that God could have made the universe any way he wanted to and still made it appear to us the way it does, he put Pope Urban VIII’s favourite argument in the mouth of the person who had been ridiculed throughout the dialogue. The reaction against the book was swift. The pope convened a special commission to examine the book and make recommendations; the commission found that Galileo had not really treated the Copernican theory hypothetically and recommended that a case be brought against him by the Inquisition. Galileo was summoned to Rome in 1633. During his first appearance before the Inquisition, he was confronted with the 1616 edict recording that he was forbidden to discuss the Copernican theory. In his defense Galileo produced a letter from Cardinal Bellarmine, by then dead, stating that he was admonished only not to hold or defend the theory. The case was at somewhat of an impasse, and, in what can only be called a plea bargain, Galileo confessed to having overstated his case. He was pronounced to be vehemently suspect of heresy and was condemned to life imprisonment and was made to abjure formally. There is no evidence that at this time he whispered, “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”). It should be noted that Galileo was never in a dungeon or tortured; during the Inquisition process he stayed mostly at the house of the Tuscan ambassador to the Vatican and for a short time in a comfortable apartment in the Inquisition building. (For a note on actions taken by Galileo’s defenders and by the church in the centuries since the trial, see BTW: Galileo’s condemnation.) After the process he spent six months at the palace of Ascanio Piccolomini (c. 1590–1671), the archbishop of Siena and a friend and patron, and then moved into a villa near Arcetri, in the hills above Florence. He spent the rest of his life there. Galileo’s daughter Sister Maria Celeste, who was in a nearby nunnery, was a great comfort to her father until her untimely death in 1634.

Galileo was then 70 years old. Yet he kept working. In Siena he had begun a new book on the sciences of motion and strength of materials. There he wrote up his unpublished studies that had been interrupted by his interest in the telescope in 1609 and pursued intermittently since. The book was spirited out of Italy and published in Leiden, Netherlands, in 1638 under the title Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze attenenti alla meccanica (Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences). Galileo here treated for the first time the bending and breaking of beams and summarized his mathematical and experimental investigations of motion, including the law of falling bodies and the parabolic path of projectiles as a result of the mixing of two motions, constant speed and uniform acceleration. By then Galileo had become blind, and he spent his time working with a young student, Vincenzo Viviani, who was with him when he died on January 8, 1642.




Leonardo da Vinci

Italian artist, engineer, and scientist

born April 15, 1452, Anchiano, near Vinci, Republic of Florence [now in Italy]
died May 2, 1519, Cloux [now Clos-Lucé], France

Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time.

The unique fame that Leonardo enjoyed in his lifetime and that, filtered by historical criticism, has remained undimmed to the present day rests largely on his unlimited desire for knowledge, which guided all his thinking and behaviour. An artist by disposition and endowment, he considered his eyes to be his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man’s highest sense because it alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge, and saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became the great theme of his studies. He applied his creativity to every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. He used his superb intellect, unusual powers of observation, and mastery of the art of drawing to study nature itself, a line of inquiry that allowed his dual pursuits of art and science to flourish.

Life and works » Early period: Florence
Leonardo’s parents were unmarried at the time of his birth. His father, Ser Piero, was a Florentine notary and landlord, and his mother, Caterina, was a young peasant woman who shortly thereafter married an artisan. Leonardo grew up on his father’s family’s estate, where he was treated as a “legitimate” son and received the usual elementary education of that day: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Leonardo did not seriously study Latin, the key language of traditional learning, until much later, when he acquired a working knowledge of it on his own. He also did not apply himself to higher mathematics—advanced geometry and arithmetic—until he was 30 years old, when he began to study it with diligent tenacity.

Leonardo’s artistic inclinations must have appeared early. When he was about 15, his father, who enjoyed a high reputation in the Florence community, apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrocchio’s renowned workshop Leonardo received a multifaceted training that included painting and sculpture as well as the technical-mechanical arts. He also worked in the next-door workshop of artist Antonio Pollaiuolo. In 1472 Leonardo was accepted into the painters’ guild of Florence, but he remained in his teacher’s workshop for five more years, after which time he worked independently in Florence until 1481. There are a great many superb extant pen and pencil drawings from this period, including many technical sketches—for example, pumps, military weapons, mechanical apparatus—that offer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in and knowledge of technical matters even at the outset of his career.

Life and works » First Milanese period (1482–99)
In 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan to work in the service of the city’s duke—a surprising step when one realizes that the 30-year-old artist had just received his first substantial commissions from his native city of Florence: the unfinished panel painting The Adoration of the Magi for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto and an altar painting for the St. Bernard Chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, which was never begun. That he gave up both projects seems to indicate that he had deeper reasons for leaving Florence. It may have been that the rather sophisticated spirit of Neoplatonism prevailing in the Florence of the Medici went against the grain of Leonardo’s experience-oriented mind and that the more strict, academic atmosphere of Milan attracted him. Moreover, he was no doubt enticed by Duke Ludovico Sforza’s brilliant court and the meaningful projects awaiting him there.

Leonardo spent 17 years in Milan, until Ludovico’s fall from power in 1499. He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the duke”). Leonardo’s gracious but reserved personality and elegant bearing were well-received in court circles. Highly esteemed, he was constantly kept busy as a painter and sculptor and as a designer of court festivals. He was also frequently consulted as a technical adviser in the fields of architecture, fortifications, and military matters, and he served as a hydraulic and mechanical engineer. As he would throughout his life, Leonardo set boundless goals for himself; if one traces the outlines of his work for this period, or for his life as a whole, one is tempted to call it a grandiose “unfinished symphony.”

As a painter, Leonardo completed six works in the 17 years in Milan. (According to contemporary sources, Leonardo was commissioned to create three more pictures, but these works have since disappeared or were never done.) From about 1483–86, he worked on the altar painting The Virgin of the Rocks, a project that led to 10 years of litigation between the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, who commissioned it, and Leonardo; for uncertain purposes, this legal dispute led Leonardo to create another version of the work in about 1508. During this first Milanese period he also made one of his most famous works, the monumental wall painting The Last Supper (1495–98) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie (for more analysis of this work, see section The Last Supper, below). Also of note is the decorative ceiling painting (1498) he made for the Sala delle Asse in the Milan Castello Sforzesco.

During this period Leonardo worked on a grandiose sculptural project that seems to have been the real reason he was invited to Milan: a monumental equestrian statue in bronze to be erected in honour of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo devoted 12 years—with interruptions—to this task. In 1493 the clay model of the horse was put on public display on the occasion of the marriage of Emperor Maximilian to Bianca Maria Sforza, and preparations were made to cast the colossal figure, which was to be 16 feet (5 metres) high. But, because of the imminent danger of war, the metal, ready to be poured, was used to make cannons instead, causing the project to come to a halt. Ludovico’s fall in 1499 sealed the fate of this abortive undertaking, which was perhaps the grandest concept of a monument in the 15th century. The ensuing war left the clay model a heap of ruins.

As a master artist Leonardo maintained an extensive workshop in Milan, employing apprentices and students. Among Leonardo’s pupils at this time were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de’ Conti, Francesco Napoletano, Andrea Solari, Marco d’Oggiono, and Salai. The role of most of these associates is unclear, leading to the question of Leonardo’s so-called apocryphal works, on which the master collaborated with his assistants. Scholars have been unable to agree in their attributions of these works.

Life and works » Second Florentine period (1500–08)
In December 1499 or, at the latest, January 1500—shortly after the victorious entry of the French into Milan—Leonardo left that city in the company of mathematician Lucas Pacioli. After visiting Mantua in February 1500, in March he proceeded to Venice, where the Signoria (governing council) sought his advice on how to ward off a threatened Turkish incursion in Friuli. Leonardo recommended that they prepare to flood the menaced region. From Venice he returned to Florence, where, after a long absence, he was received with acclaim and honoured as a renowned native son. In that same year he was appointed an architectural expert on a committee investigating damages to the foundation and structure of the church of San Francesco al Monte. A guest of the Servite order in the cloister of Santissima Annunziata, Leonardo seems to have been concentrating more on mathematical studies than painting, or so Isabella d’Este, who sought in vain to obtain a painting done by him, was informed by Fra Pietro Nuvolaria, her representative in Florence.

Perhaps because of his omnivorous appetite for life, Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1502 to enter the service of Cesare Borgia as “senior military architect and general engineer.” Borgia, the notorious son of Pope Alexander VI, had, as commander in chief of the papal army, sought with unexampled ruthlessness to gain control of the Papal States of Romagna and the Marches. When he enlisted the services of Leonardo, he was at the peak of his power and, at age 27, was undoubtedly the most compelling and most feared person of his time. Leonardo, twice his age, must have been fascinated by his personality. For 10 months Leonardo traveled across the condottiere’s territories and surveyed them. In the course of his activity he sketched some of the city plans and topographical maps, creating early examples of aspects of modern cartography. At the court of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo also met Niccolò Machiavelli, who was temporarily stationed there as a political observer for the city of Florence.

In the spring of 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence to make an expert survey of a project that attempted to divert the Arno River behind Pisa, so that the city, then under siege by the Florentines, would be deprived of access to the sea. The plan proved unworkable, but Leonardo’s activity led him to consider a plan, first advanced in the 13th century, to build a large canal that would bypass the unnavigable stretch of the Arno and connect Florence by water with the sea. Leonardo developed his ideas in a series of studies; using his own panoramic views of the river bank, which can be seen as landscape sketches of great artistic charm, and using exact measurements of the terrain, he produced a map in which the route of the canal (with its transit through the mountain pass of Serravalle) was shown. The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out, but centuries later the express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal.

Also in 1503 Leonardo received a prized commission to paint a mural for the council hall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio; a historical scene of monumental proportions (at 23 × 56 feet [7 × 17 metres], it would have been twice as large as The Last Supper). For three years he worked on this Battle of Anghiari; like its intended complementary painting, Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, it remained unfinished. During these same years Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06) (for more analysis of the work, see section The Mona Lisa and other works, below).

The second Florentine period was also a time of intensive scientific study. Leonardo did dissections in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and broadened his anatomical work into a comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human organism. He made systematic observations of the flight of birds, about which he planned a treatise. Even his hydrological studies, “on the nature and movement of water,” broadened into research on the physical properties of water, especially the laws of currents, which he compared with those pertaining to air. These were also set down in his own collection of data, contained in the so-called Codex Hammer (formerly known as the Leicester Codex, now in the property of software entrepreneur Bill Gates in Seattle, Washington, U.S.).

Life and works » Second Milanese period (1508–13)
In May 1506 Charles d’Amboise, the French governor in Milan, asked the Signoria in Florence if Leonardo could travel to Milan. The Signoria let Leonardo go, and the monumental Battle of Anghiari remained unfinished. Unsuccessful technical experiments with paints seem to have impelled Leonardo to stop working on the mural; one cannot otherwise explain his abandonment of this great work. In the winter of 1507–08 Leonardo went to Florence, where he helped the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici execute his bronze statues for the Florence Baptistery, after which time he settled in Milan.

Honoured and admired by his generous patrons in Milan, Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII, Leonardo enjoyed his duties, which were limited largely to advice in architectural matters. Tangible evidence of such work exists in plans for a palace-villa for Charles, and it is believed that he made some sketches for an oratory for the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana, which Charles funded. Leonardo also looked into an old project revived by the French governor: the Adda canal that would link Milan with Lake Como by water.

During this second period in Milan, Leonardo created very little as a painter. Again Leonardo gathered pupils around him. Of his older disciples, Bernardino de’ Conti and Salai were again in his studio; new students came, among them Cesare da Sesto, Giampetrino, Bernardino Luini, and the young nobleman Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s most faithful friend and companion until the artist’s death.

An important commission came Leonardo’s way during this time. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio had returned victoriously to Milan as marshal of the French army and as a bitter foe of Ludovico Sforza. He commissioned Leonardo to sculpt his tomb, which was to take the form of an equestrian statue and be placed in the mortuary chapel donated by Trivulzio to the church of San Nazaro Maggiore. After years of preparatory work on the monument, for which a number of significant sketches have survived, the marshal himself gave up the plan in favour of a more modest one. This was the second aborted project Leonardo faced as a sculptor.

Leonardo’s scientific activity flourished during this period. His studies in anatomy achieved a new dimension in his collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, a famous anatomist from Pavia. Leonardo outlined a plan for an overall work that would include not only exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs but would also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology. He even planned to finish his anatomical manuscript in the winter of 1510–11. Beyond that, his manuscripts are replete with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, and botanical studies. These investigations became increasingly driven by a central idea: the conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape. Furthermore, he believed that these functioning forces operate in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.

Life and works » Last years (1513–19)
In 1513 political events—the temporary expulsion of the French from Milan—caused the now 60-year-old Leonardo to move again. At the end of the year he went to Rome, accompanied by his pupils Melzi and Salai as well as by two studio assistants, hoping to find employment there through his patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the new pope, Leo X. Giuliano gave him a suite of rooms in his residence, the Belvedere, in the Vatican. He also gave Leonardo a considerable monthly stipend, but no large commissions followed. For three years Leonardo remained in Rome at a time of great artistic activity: Donato Bramante was building St. Peter’s, Raphael was painting the last rooms of the pope’s new apartments, Michelangelo was struggling to complete the tomb of Pope Julius, and many younger artists such as Timoteo Viti and Sodoma were also active. Drafts of embittered letters betray the disappointment of the aging master, who kept a low profile while he worked in his studio on mathematical studies and technical experiments or surveyed ancient monuments as he strolled through the city. Leonardo seems to have spent time with Bramante, but the latter died in 1514, and there is no record of Leonardo’s relations with any other artists in Rome. A magnificently executed map of the Pontine Marshes suggests that Leonardo was at least a consultant for a reclamation project that Giuliano de’ Medici ordered in 1514. He also made sketches for a spacious residence to be built in Florence for the Medici, who had returned to power there in 1512. However, the structure was never built.

Perhaps stifled by this scene, at age 65 Leonardo accepted the invitation of the young king Francis I to enter his service in France. At the end of 1516 he left Italy forever, together with Melzi, his most devoted pupil. Leonardo spent the last three years of his life in the small residence of Cloux (later called Clos-Lucé), near the king’s summer palace at Amboise on the Loire. He proudly bore the title Premier peintre, architecte et méchanicien du Roi (“First painter, architect, and engineer to the King”). Leonardo still made sketches for court festivals, but the king treated him in every respect as an honoured guest and allowed him freedom of action. Decades later, Francis I talked with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini about Leonardo in terms of the utmost admiration and esteem. For the king, Leonardo drew up plans for the palace and garden of Romorantin, which was destined to be the widow’s residence of the Queen Mother. But the carefully worked-out project, combining the best features of Italian-French traditions in palace and landscape architecture, had to be halted because the region was threatened with malaria.

Leonardo did little painting while in France, spending most of his time arranging and editing his scientific studies, his treatise on painting, and a few pages of his anatomy treatise. In the so-called Visions of the End of the World, or Deluge, series (c. 1514–15), he depicted with overpowering imagination the primal forces that rule nature, while also perhaps betraying his growing pessimism.

Leonardo died at Cloux and was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin. The church was devastated during the French Revolution and completely torn down at the beginning of the 19th century; his grave can no longer be located. Melzi was heir to Leonardo’s artistic and scientific estate.

Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing
Leonardo’s total output in painting is really rather small; only 17 of the paintings that have survived can be definitely attributed to him, and several of them are unfinished. Two of his most important works—the Battle of Anghiari and the Leda, neither of them completed—have survived only in copies. Yet these few creations have established the unique fame of a man whom Giorgio Vasari, in his seminal Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 2nd ed., 1568), described as the founder of the High Renaissance. Leonardo’s works, unaffected by the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all subsequent periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting.

The many testimonials to Leonardo, ranging from Vasari to Peter Paul Rubens to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Eugène Delacroix, praise in particular the artist’s gift for expression—his ability to move beyond technique and narrative to convey an underlying sense of emotion. The artist’s remarkable talent, especially his keenness of observation and creative imagination, was already revealed in the angel he contributed to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (c. 1472–75): Leonardo endowed the angel with natural movement, presented it with a relaxed demeanour, and gave it an enigmatic glance that both acknowledges its surroundings while remaining inwardly directed. In Leonardo’s landscape segment in the same picture, he also found a new expression for what he called “nature experienced”: he reproduced the background forms in a hazy fashion as if through a veil of mist.

In the Benois Madonna (1475–78) Leonardo succeeded in giving a traditional type of picture a new, unusually charming, and expressive mood by showing the child Jesus reaching, in a sweet and tender manner, for the flower in Mary’s hand. In his Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1480) Leonardo opened new paths for portrait painting with his singular linking of nearness and distance and his brilliant rendering of light and texture. He presented the emaciated body of his St. Jerome (unfinished; begun 1480) in a sobering light, imbuing it with a realism that stemmed from his keen knowledge of anatomy; Leonardo’s mastery of gesture and facial expression gave his Jerome an unrivalled expression of transfigured sorrow.

The interplay of masterful technique and affective gesture—“physical and spiritual motion,” in Leonardo’s words—is also the chief concern of his first large creation containing many figures, The Adoration of the Magi (begun 1481). Never finished, the painting nonetheless affords rich insight into the master’s subtle methods. The various aspects of the scene are built up from the base with very delicate, paper-thin layers of paint in sfumato (the smooth transition from light to shadow) relief. The main treatment of the Virgin and Child group and the secondary treatment of the surrounding groups are clearly set apart with a masterful sense of composition—the pyramid of the Virgin Mary and Magi is demarcated from the arc of the adoring followers. Yet thematically they are closely interconnected: the bearing and expression of the figures—most striking in the group of praying shepherds—depict many levels of profound amazement.

The Virgin of the Rocks in its first version (1483–86) is the work that reveals Leonardo’s painting at its purest. It depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt. The secret of the picture’s effect lies in Leonardo’s use of every means at his disposal to emphasize the visionary nature of the scene: the soft colour tones (through sfumato), the dim light of the cave from which the figures emerge bathed in light, their quiet attitude, the meaningful gesture with which the angel (the only figure facing the viewer) points to John as the intercessor between the Son of God and humanity—all this combines, in a patterned and formal way, to create a moving and highly expressive work of art.

Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » The Last Supper
Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–98) is among the most famous paintings in the world. In its monumental simplicity, the composition of the scene is masterful; the power of its effect comes from the striking contrast in the attitudes of the 12 disciples as counterposed to Christ. Leonardo portrayed a moment of high tension when, surrounded by the Apostles as they share Passover, Jesus says, “One of you will betray me.” All the Apostles—as human beings who do not understand what is about to occur—are agitated, whereas Christ alone, conscious of his divine mission, sits in lonely, transfigured serenity. Only one other being shares the secret knowledge: Judas, who is both part of and yet excluded from the movement of his companions. In this isolation he becomes the second lonely figure—the guilty one—of the company.

In the profound conception of his theme, in the perfect yet seemingly simple arrangement of the individuals, in the temperaments of the Apostles highlighted by gesture, facial expressions, and poses, in the drama and at the same time the sublimity of the treatment, Leonardo attained a height of expression that has remained a model of its kind. Countless painters in succeeding generations, among them great masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt, marveled at Leonardo’s composition and were influenced by it and by the painting’s narrative quality. The work also inspired some of Goethe’s finest pages of descriptive prose. It has become widely known through countless reproductions and prints, the most important being that produced by Raffaello Morghen in 1800. Thus, The Last Supper has become part of humanity’s common heritage and remains today one of the world’s outstanding paintings.

Technical deficiencies in the execution of the work have not lessened its fame. Leonardo was uncertain about the technique he should use. He bypassed traditional fresco painting, which, because it is executed on fresh plaster, demands quick and uninterrupted painting, in favour of another technique he had developed: tempera on a base, which he mixed himself, on the stone wall. This procedure proved unsuccessful, inasmuch as the base soon began to loosen from the wall. Damage appeared by the beginning of the 16th century, and deterioration soon set in. By the middle of the century the work was called a ruin. Later, inadequate attempts at restoration only aggravated the situation, and not until the most modern restoration techniques were applied after World War II was the process of decay halted. A major restoration campaign begun in 1980 and completed in 1999 restored the work to brilliance but also revealed that very little of the original paint remains.

Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » Art and science: the notebooks
In the years between 1490 and 1495, the great program of Leonardo the writer (author of treatises) began. During this period, his interest in two fields—the artistic and the scientific—developed and shaped his future work, building toward a kind of creative dualism that sparked his inventiveness in both fields. He gradually gave shape to four main themes that were to occupy him for the rest of his life: a treatise on painting, a treatise on architecture, a book on the elements of mechanics, and a broadly outlined work on human anatomy. His geophysical, botanical, hydrological, and aerological researches also began in this period and constitute parts of the “visible cosmology” that loomed before him as a distant goal. He scorned speculative book knowledge, favouring instead the irrefutable facts gained from experience—from saper vedere.

From this approach came Leonardo’s far-reaching concept of a “science of painting.” Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca had already offered proof of the mathematical basis of painting in their analysis of the laws of perspective and proportion, thereby buttressing his claim of painting being a science. But Leonardo’s claims went much further: he believed that the painter, doubly endowed with subtle powers of perception and the complete ability to pictorialize them, was the person best qualified to achieve true knowledge, as he could closely observe and then carefully reproduce the world around him. Hence, Leonardo conceived the staggering plan of observing all objects in the visible world, recognizing their form and structure, and pictorially describing them exactly as they are.

It was during his first years in Milan that Leonardo began the earliest of his notebooks. He would first make quick sketches of his observations on loose sheets or on tiny paper pads he kept in his belt; then he would arrange them according to theme and enter them in order in the notebook. Surviving in notebooks from throughout his career are a first collection of material for a painting treatise, a model book of sketches for sacred and profane architecture, a treatise on elementary theory of mechanics, and the first sections of a treatise on the human body.

Leonardo’s notebooks add up to thousands of closely written pages abundantly illustrated with sketches—the most voluminous literary legacy any painter has ever left behind. Of more than 40 codices mentioned—sometimes inaccurately—in contemporary sources, 21 have survived; these in turn sometimes contain notebooks originally separate but now bound so that 32 in all have been preserved. To these should be added several large bundles of documents: an omnibus volume in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, called Codex Atlanticus because of its size, was collected by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni at the end of the 16th century; after a roundabout journey, its companion volume fell into the possession of the English crown in the 17th century and was placed in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle. Finally, the Arundel Manuscript in the British Museum in London contains a number of Leonardo’s fascicles on various themes.

One special feature that makes Leonardo’s notes and sketches unusual is his use of mirror writing. Leonardo was left-handed, so mirror writing came easily and naturally to him—although it is uncertain why he chose to do so. While somewhat unusual, his script can be read clearly and without difficulty with the help of a mirror—as his contemporaries testified—and should not be looked on as a secret handwriting. But the fact that Leonardo used mirror writing throughout the notebooks, even in his copies drawn up with painstaking calligraphy, forces one to conclude that, although he constantly addressed an imaginary reader in his writings, he never felt the need to achieve easy communication by using conventional handwriting. His writings must be interpreted as preliminary stages of works destined for eventual publication that Leonardo never got around to completing. In a sentence in the margin of one of his late anatomy sketches, he implores his followers to see that his works are printed.

Another unusual feature in Leonardo’s writings is the relationship between word and picture in the notebooks. Leonardo strove passionately for a language that was clear yet expressive. The vividness and wealth of his vocabulary were the result of intense independent study and represented a significant contribution to the evolution of scientific prose in the Italian vernacular. Despite his articulateness, Leonardo gave absolute precedence to the illustration over the written word in his teaching method. Hence, in his notebooks, the drawing does not illustrate the text; rather, the text serves to explain the picture. In formulating his own principle of graphic representations—which he called dimostrazione (“demonstrations”)—Leonardo’s work was a precursor of modern scientific illustration.

Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » The Mona Lisa and other works
In the Florence years between 1500 and 1506, Leonardo began three great works that confirmed and heightened his fame: Virgin and Child with St. Anne (c. 1502–16), Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06), and Battle of Anghiari (unfinished; begun 1503). Even before it was completed, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne won the critical acclaim of the Florentines; the monumental, three-dimensional quality of the group and the calculated effects of dynamism and tension in the composition made it a model that inspired Classicists and Mannerists in equal measure.

The Mona Lisa set the standard for all future portraits. The painting presents a woman revealed in the 21st century to have been Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, hence, the alternative title to the work, “La Gioconda.” The picture presents a half-body portrait of the subject, with a distant landscape visible as a backdrop. Although utilizing a seemingly simple formula for portraiture, the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape has placed this work in the canon of the most popular and most analyzed paintings of all time. The sensuous curves of the woman’s hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating valleys and rivers behind her. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter’s faint smile—reflects Leonardo’s idea of the cosmic link connecting humanity and nature, making this painting an enduring record of Leonardo’s vision and genius. The young Raphael sketched the work in progress, and it served as a model for his Portrait of Maddalena Doni (c. 1506).

Leonardo’s art of expression reached another high point in the unfinished Battle of Anghiari. The preliminary drawings—many of which have been preserved—reveal Leonardo’s lofty conception of the “science of painting”; he put to artistic use the laws of equilibrium that he had probed in his studies of mechanics. The “centre of gravity” in the work lies in the group of flags fought for by all the horsemen. For a moment the intense and expanding movement of the swirl of riders seems frozen. Leonardo’s studies in anatomy and physiology influenced his representation of human and animal bodies, particularly when they are in a state of excitement. He studied and described extensively the baring of teeth and puffing of lips as signs of animal and human anger. On the painted canvas, rider and horse, their features distorted, are remarkably similar in expression.

The highly imaginative trappings of the painting take the event out of the sphere of the historical and put it into a timeless realm. The cartoon and the copies showing the main scene of the battle were for a long time influential to other artists; to quote the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the works became “the school of the world.” Its composition has influenced many painters: from Rubens in the 17th century, who made the most impressive copy of the scene from Leonardo’s now-lost cartoon, to Delacroix in the 19th century.

Art and accomplishment » Painting and drawing » Later painting and drawing
After 1507—in Milan, Rome, and France—Leonardo did very little painting. During his years in Milan he returned to the Leda theme—which had been occupying him for a decade—and probably finished a standing version of Leda about 1513 (the work survives only through copies). This painting became a model of the figura serpentinata (“sinuous figure”)—that is, a figure built up from several intertwining views. It influenced classical artists such as Raphael, who drew it, but it had an equally strong effect on Mannerists such as Jacopo da Pontormo. The drawings he prepared—revealing examples of his late style—have a curious, enigmatic sensuality. Perhaps in Rome he began the painting St. John the Baptist, which he completed in France. Leonardo radically used light and shade to achieve sculptural volume and atmosphere; John emerges from darkness into light and seems to emanate light and goodness. Moreover, in painting the saint’s enigmatic smile, he presented Christ’s forerunner as the herald of a mystic oracle. Leonardo’s was an art of expression that seemed to strive consciously to bring out the hidden ambiguity of the theme. Consummate drawings from this period, such as the Pointing Lady (c. 1516), also are testaments to his undiminished genius.

The last manifestation of Leonardo’s art of expression was in his series of pictorial sketches Visions of the End of the World (c. 1514–15). There Leonardo’s power of imagination—born of reason and fantasy—attained its highest level. Leonardo suggested that the immaterial forces in the cosmos, invisible in themselves, appear in the material things they set in motion. What he had observed in the swirling of water and eddying of air, in the shape of a mountain boulder and in the growth of plants, now assumed gigantic shape in cloud formations and rainstorms. He depicted the framework of the world as splitting asunder, but even in its destruction there occurs—as the monstrously “beautiful” forms of the unleashed elements show—the self-same laws of order, harmony, and proportion that presided at the world’s creation. These rules govern the life and death of every created thing in nature. Without any precedent, these “visions” are the last and most original expressions of Leonardo’s art—an art in which his perception based on saper vedere seems to have come to fruition.

Art and accomplishment » Sculpture
Leonardo worked as a sculptor from his youth on, as shown in his own statements and those of other sources. A small group of generals’ heads in marble and plaster, works of Verrocchio’s followers, are sometimes linked with Leonardo because a lovely drawing attributed to him that is on the same theme suggests such a connection. But the inferior quality of this group of sculpture rules out an attribution to the master. No trace has remained of the heads of women and children that, according to Vasari, Leonardo modeled in clay in his youth.

The two great sculptural projects to which Leonardo devoted himself wholeheartedly were not realized; neither the huge, bronze equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza, on which he worked from about 1489 to 1494, nor the monument for Marshal Trivulzio, on which he was busy in the years 1506–11, were brought to completion. Many sketches of the work exist, but the most impressive were found in 1965 when two of Leonardo’s notebooks—the so-called Madrid Codices—were discovered in the National Library of Madrid. These notebooks reveal the sublimity but also the almost unreal boldness of his conception. Text and drawings both show Leonardo’s wide experience in the technique of bronze casting, but at the same time they reveal the almost utopian nature of the project. He wanted to cast the horse in a single piece, but the gigantic dimensions of the steed presented insurmountable technical problems. Indeed, Leonardo remained uncertain of the problem’s solution to the very end.

The drawings for these two monuments reveal the greatness of Leonardo’s vision of sculpture. Exact studies of the anatomy, movement, and proportions of a live horse preceded the sketches for the monuments; Leonardo even seems to have thought of writing a treatise on the horse. He pondered the merits of two positions for the horse—galloping or trotting—and in both commissions decided in favour of the latter. These sketches, superior in the suppressed tension of horse and rider to the achievements of Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata and Verrocchio’s statue of Colleoni, are among the most beautiful and significant examples of Leonardo’s art. Unquestionably—as ideas—they exerted a very strong influence on the development of equestrian statues in the 16th century.

A small bronze statue of a galloping horseman in Budapest is so close to Leonardo’s style that, if not from his own hand, it must have been done under his immediate influence (perhaps by Giovanni Francesco Rustici). Rustici, according to Vasari, was Leonardo’s zealous student and enjoyed his master’s help in sculpting his large group in bronze, St. John the Baptist Teaching, over the north door of the Baptistery in Florence. There are, indeed, discernible traces of Leonardo’s influence in John’s stance, with the unusual gesture of his upward pointing hand, and in the figure of the bald-headed Levite. While there are few extant examples to study of Leonardo’s sculptural work, the elements of motion and volume he explored in the medium no doubt influenced his drawing and painting, and vice versa.

Art and accomplishment » Architecture
Applying for service in a letter to Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo described himself as an experienced architect, military engineer, and hydraulic engineer; indeed, he was concerned with architectural matters all his life. But his effectiveness was essentially limited to the role of an adviser. Only once—in the competition for the cupola of the Milan cathedral (1487–90)—did he actually consider personal participation, but he gave up this idea when the model he had submitted was returned to him. In other instances, his claim to being a practicing architect was based on sketches for representative secular buildings: for the palace of a Milanese nobleman (about 1490), for the villa of the French governor in Milan (1507–08), and for the Medici residence in Florence (1515). Finally, there was his big project for the palace and garden of Romorantin in France (1517–19). Especially in this last project, Leonardo’s pencil sketches clearly reveal his mastery of technical as well as artistic architectural problems; the view in perspective gives an idea of the magnificence of the site.

But what really characterizes and immortalized Leonardo’s architectural studies is their comprehensiveness; they range far afield and embrace every type of building problem of his time and even involve urban planning. Furthermore, there frequently appears evidence of Leonardo’s impulse to teach: he wanted to collect his writings on this theme in a theory of architecture. This treatise on architecture—the initial lines of which are in Codex B in the Institut de France in Paris, a model book of the types of sacred and profane buildings—was to deal with the entire field of architecture as well as with the theories of forms and construction and was to include such items as urbanism, sacred and profane buildings, and a compendium of important individual elements (for example, domes, steps, portals, and windows).

In the fullness and richness of their ideas, Leonardo’s architectural studies offer an unusually wide-ranging insight into the architectural achievements of his epoch. Like a seismograph, his observations sensitively register all themes and problems. For almost 20 years he was associated with Bramante at the court of Milan and again met him in Rome in 1513–14; he was closely associated with other distinguished architects such as Francesco di Giorgio, Giuliano da Sangallo, Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, and Luca Fancelli. Thus, he was brought in closest touch with all of the most significant building undertakings of the time. Since Leonardo’s architectural drawings extend over his whole life, they span precisely that developmentally crucial period—from the 1480s to the second decade of the 16th century—in which the principles of the High Renaissance style were formulated and came to maturity. That this genetic process can be followed in the ideas of one of the greatest men of the period lends Leonardo’s studies their distinctive artistic value and their outstanding historical significance.

Art and accomplishment » Science » Science of painting
Leonardo’s advocacy of a science of painting is best displayed in his notebook writings under the general heading “On Painting.” The notebooks provide evidence that, among many projects he planned, he intended to write a treatise discussing painting. After inheriting Leonardo’s vast manuscript legacy in 1519, it is believed that, sometime before 1542, Melzi extracted passages from them and organized them into the Trattato della pittura (“Treatise on Painting”) that is attributed to Leonardo. Only about a quarter of the sources for Melzi’s manuscript—known as the Codex Urbinas, in the Vatican Library—have been identified and located in the extant notebooks, and it is impossible to assess how closely Melzi’s presentation of the material reflected Leonardo’s specific intentions.

Abridged copies of Melzi’s manuscript appeared in Italy during the late 16th century, and in 1651 the first printed editions were published in French and Italian in Paris by Raffaelo du Fresne, with illustrations after drawings by Nicolas Poussin. The first complete edition of Melzi’s text did not appear until 1817, published in Rome. The two standard modern editions are those of Emil Ludwig (1882; in 3 vol. with German translation) and A. Philip McMahon (1956; in 2 vol., a facsimile of the Codex Urbinas with English translation).

Despite the uncertainties surrounding Melzi’s presentation of Leonardo’s ideas, the passages in Leonardo’s extant notebooks identified with the heading “On Painting” offer an indication of the treatise Leonardo had in mind. As was customary in treatises of the time, Leonardo planned to combine theoretical exposition with practical information, in this case offering practical career advice to other artists. But his primary concern in the treatise was to argue that painting is a science, raising its status as a discipline from the mechanical arts to the liberal arts. By defining painting as “the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature,” Leonardo gave essential significance to the authority of the eye, believing firmly in the importance of saper vedere. This was the informing idea behind his defense of painting as a science.

In his notebooks Leonardo pursues this defense through the form of the paragone (“comparison”), a disputation that advances the supremacy of painting over the other arts. He roots his case in the function of the senses, asserting that “the eye deludes itself less than any of the other senses,” and thereby suggests that the direct observation inherent in creating a painting has a truthful, scientific quality. After asserting that the useful results of science are “communicable,” he states that painting is similarly clear: unlike poetry, he argues, painting presents its results as a “matter for the visual faculty,” giving “immediate satisfaction to human beings in no other way than the things produced by nature herself.” Leonardo also distinguishes between painting and sculpture, claiming that the manual labour involved in sculpting detracts from its intellectual aspects, and that the illusionistic challenge of painting (working in two rather than three dimensions) requires that the painter possess a better grasp of mathematical and optical principles than the sculptor.

In defining painting as a science, Leonardo also emphasizes its mathematical basis. In the notebooks he explains that the 10 optical functions of the eye (“darkness, light, body and colour, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest”) are all essential components of painting. He addresses these functions through detailed discourses on perspective that include explanations of perspectival systems based on geometry, proportion, and the modulation of light and shade. He differentiates between types of perspective, including the conventional form based on a single vanishing point, the use of multiple vanishing points, and aerial perspective. In addition to these orthodox systems, he explores—via words and geometric and analytic drawings—the concepts of wide-angle vision, lateral recession, and atmospheric perspective, through which the blurring of clarity and progressive lightening of tone is used to create the illusion of deep spatial recession. He further offers practical advice—again through words and sketches—about how to paint optical effects such as light, shadow, distance, atmosphere, smoke, and water, as well as how to portray aspects of human anatomy, such as human proportion and facial expressions.

Art and accomplishment » Science » Anatomical studies and drawings
Leonardo’s fascination with anatomical studies reveals a prevailing artistic interest of the time. In his own treatise Della pittura (1435; “On Painting”), theorist Leon Battista Alberti urged painters to construct the human figure as it exists in nature, supported by the skeleton and musculature, and only then clothed in skin. Although the date of Leonardo’s initial involvement with anatomical study is not known, it is sound to speculate that his anatomical interest was sparked during his apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s workshop, either in response to his master’s interest or to that of Verrocchio’s neighbor Pollaiuolo, who was renowned for his fascination with the workings of the human body. It cannot be determined exactly when Leonardo began to perform dissections, but it might have been several years after he first moved to Milan, at the time a centre of medical investigation. His study of anatomy, originally pursued for his training as an artist, had grown by the 1490s into an independent area of research. As his sharp eye uncovered the structure of the human body, Leonardo became fascinated by the figura istrumentale dell’ omo (“man’s instrumental figure”), and he sought to comprehend its physical working as a creation of nature. Over the following two decades, he did practical work in anatomy on the dissection table in Milan, then at hospitals in Florence and Rome, and in Pavia, where he collaborated with the physician-anatomist Marcantonio della Torre. By his own count Leonardo dissected 30 corpses in his lifetime.

Leonardo’s early anatomical studies dealt chiefly with the skeleton and muscles; yet even at the outset, Leonardo combined anatomical with physiological research. From observing the static structure of the body, Leonardo proceeded to study the role of individual parts of the body in mechanical activity. This led him finally to the study of the internal organs; among them he probed most deeply into the brain, heart, and lungs as the “motors” of the senses and of life. His findings from these studies were recorded in the famous anatomical drawings, which are among the most significant achievements of Renaissance science. The drawings are based on a connection between natural and abstract representation; he represented parts of the body in transparent layers that afford an “insight” into the organ by using sections in perspective, reproducing muscles as “strings,” indicating hidden parts by dotted lines, and devising a hatching system. The genuine value of these dimostrazione lay in their ability to synthesize a multiplicity of individual experiences at the dissecting table and make the data immediately and accurately visible; as Leonardo proudly emphasized, these drawings were superior to descriptive words. The wealth of Leonardo’s anatomical studies that have survived forged the basic principles of modern scientific illustration. It is worth noting, however, that during his lifetime, Leonardo’s medical investigations remained private. He did not consider himself a professional in the field of anatomy, and he neither taught nor published his findings.

Although he kept his anatomical studies to himself, Leonardo did publish some of his observations on human proportion. Working with the mathematician Luca Pacioli, Leonardo considered the proportional theories of Vitruvius, the 1st-century bc Roman architect, as presented in his treatise De architectura (“On Architecture”). Imposing the principles of geometry on the configuration of the human body, Leonardo demonstrated that the ideal proportion of the human figure corresponds with the forms of the circle and the square. In his illustration of this theory, the so-called Vitruvian Man, Leonardo demonstrated that when a man places his feet firmly on the ground and stretches out his arms, he can be contained within the four lines of a square, but when in a spread-eagle position, he can be inscribed in a circle.

Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote: “Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire … this body of the earth is similar.” He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans.

Art and accomplishment » Science » Mechanics and cosmology
According to Leonardo’s observations, the study of mechanics, with which he became quite familiar as an architect and engineer, also reflected the workings of nature. Throughout his life Leonardo was an inventive builder; he thoroughly understood the principles of mechanics of his time and contributed in many ways to advancing them. The two Madrid notebooks deal extensively with his theory of mechanics; the first was written in the 1490s, and the second was written between 1503 and 1505. Their importance lay less in their description of specific machines or work tools than in their use of demonstration models to explain the basic mechanical principles and functions employed in building machinery. As in his anatomical drawings, Leonardo developed definite principles of graphic representation—stylization, patterns, and diagrams—that offer a precise demonstration of the object in question.

Leonardo was also quite active as a military engineer, beginning with his stay in Milan. But no definitive examples of his work can be adduced. The Madrid notebooks revealed that, in 1504, probably sent by the Florentine governing council, he stood at the side of the lord of Piombino when the city’s fortifications system was repaired and suggested a detailed plan for overhauling it. His studies for large-scale canal projects in the Arno region and in Lombardy show that he was also an expert in hydraulic engineering.

Leonardo was especially intrigued by problems of friction and resistance, and with each of the mechanical elements he presented—such as screw threads, gears, hydraulic jacks, swiveling devices, and transmission gears—drawings took precedence over the written word. Throughout his career he also was intrigued by the mechanical potential of motion. This led him to design a machine with a differential transmission, a moving fortress that resembles a modern tank, and a flying machine. His “helical airscrew” (c. 1487) almost seems a prototype for the modern helicopter, but, like the other vehicles Leonardo designed, it presented a singular problem: it lacked an adequate source of power to provide propulsion and lift.

Wherever Leonardo probed the phenomena of nature, he recognized the existence of primal mechanical forces that govern the shape and function of the universe. This is seen in his studies of the flight of birds, in which his youthful idea of the feasibility of a flying apparatus took shape and that led to exhaustive research into the element of air; in his studies of water, the vetturale della natura (“conveyor of nature”), in which he was as much concerned with the physical properties of water as with its laws of motion and currents; in his research on the laws of growth of plants and trees, as well as the geologic structure of earth and hill formations; and finally in his observation of air currents, which evoked the image of the flame of a candle or the picture of a wisp of cloud and smoke. In his drawings based on the numerous experiments he undertook, Leonardo found a stylized form of representation that was uniquely his own, especially in his studies of whirlpools. He managed to break down a phenomenon into its component parts—the traces of water or eddies of the whirlpool—yet at the same time preserve the total picture, creating both an analytic and a synthetic vision.

Art and accomplishment » Leonardo as artist-scientist
As the 15th century expired, Scholastic doctrines were in decline, and humanistic scholarship was on the rise. Leonardo, however, was part of an intellectual circle that developed a third, specifically modern, form of cognition. In his view, the artist—as transmitter of the true and accurate data of experience acquired by visual observation—played a significant part. In an era that often compared the process of divine creation to the activity of an artist, Leonardo reversed the analogy, using art as his own means to approximate the mysteries of creation, asserting that, through the science of painting, “the mind of the painter is transformed into a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.” With this sense of the artist’s high calling, Leonardo approached the vast realm of nature to probe its secrets. His utopian idea of transmitting in encyclopaedic form the knowledge thus won was still bound up with medieval Scholastic conceptions; however, the results of his research were among the first great achievements of the forthcoming age’s thinking because they were based to an unprecedented degree on the principle of experience.

Finally, although he made strenuous efforts to become erudite in languages, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, and history, as a mere listing of the wide-ranging contents of his library demonstrates, Leonardo remained an empiricist of visual observation. It is precisely through this observation—and his own genius—that he developed a unique “theory of knowledge” in which art and science form a synthesis. In the face of his overall achievements, therefore, the question of how much he finished or did not finish becomes pointless. The crux of the matter is his intellectual force—self-contained and inherent in every one of his creations—a force that continues to spark scholarly interest today. In fact, debate has spilled over into the personal realm of his life—over his sexuality, religious beliefs, and even possible vegetarianism, for example—which only confirms and reflects what has long been obvious: whether the subject is his life, his ideas, or his artistic legacy, Leonardo’s influence shows little sign of abating.

Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich



Giambattista Basile

Giambattista Basile
"Stories from Il Pentamerone"
Illustrated by Warwick Goble

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Giambattista Basile Giambattista Basile (1566 or 1575 – February 23, 1632) was an Italian poet, courtier, and fairy tale collector.

Born to a Neapolitan middle-class family, Basile was, during his career, a courtier and soldier to various Italian princes, including the doge of Venice. According to Benedetto Croce he was born in 1575, while other sources have February 1566. In Venice he began to write poetry. Later he returned to Naples to serve as a courtier under the patronage of Don Marino II Caracciolo, prince of Avellino, to whom he dedicated his idyll L’Aretusa (1618). By the time of his death he had reached the rank of "count" Conte di Torrone.

He is chiefly remembered for writing the collection of Neapolitan fairy tales titled Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (Neapolitan for "The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones"), published posthumously in two volumes by his sister Adriana in Naples, Italy in 1634 and 1636 under the pseudonym Gian Alesio Abbatutis.

He recorded and adapted the tales, believed to have been orally transmitted around Crete and Venice, several of which were also later adapted by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, the latter making extensive, acknowledged use of Basile's collection. Examples of this are versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.

While other collections of stories have included tales that would be termed fairy tales, his work is the first collection in which all the stories fit in that category. Although he did not transcribe them from the oral tradition as a modern collector would, he wrote them in the dialect, and in many respects was the first writer to preserve oral intonations.

Lo cunto is known as the Pentamerone, a title first used in the 1674 edition, because it is constructed roughly upon the model of the Decamerone of Boccaccio.

Although the work fell into some obscurity, as a work in dialect, the Brothers Grimm, in their third edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales praised it highly as the first national collection of fairy tales, fitting their romantic nationalist views on fairy tales, and as capturing Neapolitan voice. This drew a great deal of attention to the work.

This collection (Basile's Pentamerone) was for a long time the best and richest that had been found by any nation. Not only were the traditions at that time more complete in themselves, but the author had a special talent for collecting them, and besides that an intimate knowledge of the dialect. The stories are told with hardly any break, and the tone, at least in the Neapolitan tales, is perfectly caught . . . . We may therefore look on this collection of fifty tales as the basis of many others; for although it was not so in actual fact, and was indeed not known beyond the country in which it appeared, and was never translated into French, it still has all the importance of a basis, owing to the coherence of its traditions. Two-thirds of them are, so far as their principal incidents are concerned, to be found in Germany, and are current there at this very day. Basile has not allowed himself to make any alteration, scarecely even any addition of importance, and that gives his work a special value. - Wilhelm Grimm

The Pentamerone is structured around a fantastic frame story in which fifty stories are related over the course of five days rather than the ten of the Tuscan compendium. The frame-story is that of a cursed, melancholy princess named Zoza ("mud" or "slime" in Neapolitan, but also used as a term of endearment). She can not laugh, whatever her father does to amuse her, so he sets up a fountain of oil by the door, thinking people slipping in the oil would make her laugh. An old woman tried to gather oil, a page boy broke her jug, and the old woman grew so angry that she danced about, and Zoza laughed at her. The old woman cursed her to marry only the Prince of Round-Field, whom she could only wake by filling a pitcher with tears in three days. With some aid from fairies, who also give her gifts, Zoza found the prince and the pitcher, and nearly filled the pitcher when she fell asleep. A Moorish slave steals it, finishes filling it, and claims the prince.

This frame story in itself is a fairy tale, combining motifs that will appear in other stories: the princess who can not laugh in The Magic Swan, Golden Goose, and The Princess Who Never Smiled; the curse to marry only one person, and that one hard to find, in Snow-White-Fire-Red and Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa; the heroine falling asleep because of saving the hero and so losing him to trickery in The Sleeping Prince and Nourie Hadig.

The now-pregnant slave-queen demands (at the impetus of Zoza's fairy gifts) that her husband tell her stories, or else she would crush the unborn child. The husband hires ten female storytellers to keep her amused; disguised among them is Zoza. Each tells five stories — most of which are more suitable to courtly than juvenile audiences. The Moorish woman's treachery is revealed in the final story (related, suitably, by Zoza), and she is buried, pregnant, up to her neck in the ground and left to die. Zoza and the Prince live happily ever after.

Many of these fairy tales are the oldest known variants in existence.

The text was translated into German by Felix Liebrecht (1846), into English by John Edward Taylor (1848) and again by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1893) and into Italian by Benedetto Croce in 1925. A further English translation was made from Croce's version by Norman N Penzer in 1934. A new, modern translation by Nancy L. Canepa was published in 2007 from Wayne State University Press.




Bernardio Telesio

born 1509, Cosenza, Kingdom of Naples [Italy]
died October 1588, Cosenza

Italian philosopher and natural scientist who inaugurated the Renaissance empiricist reaction against the practice of reasoning without reference to concrete data.

Born of noble parentage, Telesio received a doctorate in 1535 and joined the group of thinkers known as the Accademia Cosentina. After spending nine years in a monastery, he lived in Naples and Cosenza. The first two books of his major work, De natura juxta propria principia (“On Nature According to Its Own Principles”), were published in 1565, and the complete edition of nine books appeared in 1586. Although Telesio had been encouraged in his writings by contemporary Roman Catholic popes, this work and two of his minor works remained on the Roman Catholic church’s Index of Forbidden Books from 1596 until 1900.

The central proposition of De natura held that the only way to understand the things of the natural world was to study nature itself. This should be done, Telesio asserted, with attention to the physical properties of matter and to the aspects of heat and cold. He stated that matter is not “pure potency,” the concept ascribed to Aristotle, but rather a tangible datum, and his studies of plants and animals led him to believe that heat is the source of life, a conclusion based on the warmth that he perceived. Cold complements heat as the other active principle that explains all natural phenomena. Such a shift to evidence that is available to the senses, in place of the Aristotelian emphasis on conceptual analysis without reference to sense data, led Francis Bacon to refer to Telesio as “the first of the moderns.”

Despite his stress on the study of nature, however, and the relative lack of theological speculation in his works, Telesio also maintained a belief in God, the human soul, and immortality. Later philosophers who further developed his empirical method include the Italian thinker Tommaso Campanella and the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.


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