Page images

and, magnificent and striking in their virtues, they were not less so in their vices.

First of the aristocracies of modern Europe, the Florentine became refined. Then rose Dante*, not a mere poet, but a great moral teacher, who came to form into shape and beauty that rough but noble morality that had made Florence the queen of cities. We know the quick succession of Petrarch and Boccacio f, men versed in ancient literature, though the “revival of letters " did not really take place till the middle of the fourteenth century. I

Now scholasticism was the mere product of the theological mind applying itself to ancient logic, and in its very nature was hopelessly stationary and unfruitful; it was the barren learning of the ecclesiastics who were contemporary with the rude but noble warriors who founded the aristocracies of Europe. In every nation it vanished when that aristocracy became refined and a native literature arose. This happened in Florence first, and in the other states of Italy almost immediately afterwards. Petrarch's was the last voice raised in Italy against the “insanum et clamosum scholasticorum vulgus,” each commentator puffing his own wares. Q Before his death scholasticism perished from Italy, and the speedy refinement of the aristocracy, accompanied by its political enfeeblement and the rise of the “ magnifici cittadini,"' ||

“ whom commerce had brought into wealth and power, gave a ready welcome to the literature and sciences of the ancients.

Born 1265, died 1321. † Born in Tuscany, 1313, died 1375.

See Hallam, Middle Ages, ii. 580. The dark ages were from the 6th to the 11th. The 12th and 13th centuries were marked by the beginning of the study of jurisprudence; see Hallam, Middle Ages, iii. 578. C. J. Fox exclaimed, after talking of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccacio, “Revival of letters !—where would you begin ? with the Medici ? then you leave those men behind you."

Petrarch, De Ignorantia Scrip. et aliorum. | Speech of Lorenzo, in Machiavelli, Ist. Flor. lib. viii.

The Sophists came to modern Italy in the first half of the 14th century. Their advent is called in history the “ Revival of Letters.” They were the Greeks who fled from the civil troubles of Constantinople, and came to teach the rising plutocracies of Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the other states of Italy the language and the arts of Greece. The “Scholasticorum vulgus,” to use Petrarch's phrase, received them with hatred; but the plutocratic element was then the strongest element in the Italian states, and that—like the plutocracy of ancient Sicily, Athens, and Rome-.received these teachers with enthusiasm ; and the rapid decay of the old, stern, warlike nobility of Italy, who were forced to live in towns, and became soon merged in the refined and elegant progeny of the rich merchants, explains why we do not read in the history of modern Italy of the same stubborn opposition to the introduction of the foreign learning as we do. in the histories of ancient Greece and Rome.

But as far as concerns the individual bearers of the old learning to the new nation, the Constantinopolitans who bore it to Italy have no better character than the Sicilian sophists who bore it to Athens, or the Athenian rhetors who bore it to Rome. The gratitude of posterity for having been taught Greek appears to me to have gained for these deserting sailors from a sinking ship a better fame than they deserve. Some of them were sent by the emperor as ambassadors to implore aid against the Turks, and, being offered comfortable berths in an Italian university, forgot their country and its troubles, and, like Carneades, stayed to teach the eager youth of the rising nation the learning of the falling one. It is curious, bearing in mind Plato's description of the triumphant reception of the sophists in Athens, to read of the sensation which the advent of these Greeks excited in Italy. Manuel Chrysoloras, for instance, sent as an envoy by the Emperor Manuel to implore aid from the Western Powers, became professor at Florence.

“At that time” (about 1390), says

[ocr errors]

Leonard Aretin, afterwards Chancellor of the republic of Florence, “ I was a student of civil law, but my soul was inflamed with the love of letters, and I bestowed some application on the sciences of logic and rhetoric. On the arrival of Manuel I hesitated whether I should desert my legal studies, or relinquish this golden opportunity, and thus, in the ardour of youth, I communed with my own mind.

Of professors and scholars in civil law a sufficient supply will always be found in our universities; but a teacher, and such a teacher of the Greek language, if he once be suffered to escape, may never afterwards be retrieved. Convinced by these reasons, I gave myself to Chrysoloras.”* After that time the learning and literature of the ancients became familiar to the rich youth of all the states of Italy. In none was it more cultivated than in Florence in the 15th century. Filelfo came to Florence in 1429, and lecturedt every day on Cicero's Tusculaus, Livy's first decad, Cicero's Rhetoric, Letters, and Orations, the Iliad, Terence, Thucydides, and Xenophon, besides a daily lecture on Morals. And Florence undoubtedly led the way in the idolatry for genius and learning then prevalent throughout Italy. “To collect books and antiques, to found professorships, to patronise men of learning, became almost universal fashions among the great. The spirit of literary research allied itself to that of commercial enterprise. Every place to which the merchant princes of Florence extended their gigantic traffic, from the bazaars of the Tigris to the monasteries of the Clyde, was ransacked for medals and manuscripts. Architecture, painting, and sculpture were munificently encouraged. Indeed it would be difficult to name an Italian of eminence, during the period of which we speak, who, whatever may have been his general character, did not at least affect a love of letters and of the

* Ap. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, chap. lxvi. † Ambrosii Traversarii Epist. p. 1016.



To be at the head of the states of Italy was then to be at the head of all the kingdoms of the earth ; and the Florentines had been for a century, to quote the pointed phrase of Boniface VIII., the fifth element of the world. +

Florence then enjoyed all the internal characteristics of a nation in its acme-perfect freedom for all social clements—the existence of an aristocracy without its predominance, which had ceased from the middle of the 13th century—and the existence of a plutocracy without the consequent extinction of other orders. The family of the Medici, who a century later obtained the sovereignty, were then but the most illustrious among the rising plutocrats.

Thus the Italians, with Florence at their head, bore along, during the 14th and 15th centuries, the torch of human knowledge. They did not, like the ancient Romans, merely receive and repeat the knowledge of their predecessors, but they decomposed and examined it; and though later ages have been unjust to them in this respect, and have lauded Descartes as the first decomposer of the ancient philosophy, yet in truth the honour belongs to Italy. The scholastic doctrines had long been overthrown in Italy I-the earliest nation of modern times—

Macaulay, Essay on Machiavelli. † When Boniface VIII. celebrated at Rome the jubilee of 1300, it appeared that twelve of the ambassadors from the different states and sovereigns on that occasion were Florentines. On this singular event the Pope is said to have asserted that the Florentines were a fifth element of the world. Roscoe, Illustrations of the Life of Lorenzo di Medici, p. 77.

| Libri ap. Whewell, Hist. of Inductive Sciences, ii. 126, says, “ If we had to write the history of philosophy, we should prove by a multitude of facts that it was the Italians who overthrew the ancient idol of philosophers. Men go on incessantly repeating that the struggle was begun by Descartes, and they proclaim him the legislator of modern philosophers. But when we examine the philosophical writings of Fracastoro, of Benedette, of Cardan, and above all, those of Galileo ; when we see on all sides energetic protests raised against the peripatetic doctrines, we ask what then remained for the inventor of vortices to

before Descartes appeared, and there, for the first time since the days of ancient Greece, real progress was effected. In all the exact sciences, the earliest cultivators of modern times were in Italy. Whether we trace the progress of the loftier speculations of mathematics, or the humbler study of anatomy, or of the science which peculiarly belongs to commercial nations, the science of statistics-it is to Italy we must look for their first dawn in modern times; and though the achievements of later nations have been more magnificent, we ought always to honour most highly among the bearers of the torch of human progress those who first, after more than ten centuries of stagnation, carried it forward by new and brilliant discoveries. *

The glory of Italy was unhappily short, and the torch was handed over to the German cities before any very

do in overturning the natural philosophy of Aristotle? In addition to this, the memorable labours of the school of Corenza, of Telesius, of Giordano Bruno, of Campanella, the writings of Patricius, who was besides a good geometer, of Nizolius, and of the other metaphysicians of the same epoch, prove that the ancient philosophy had already lost its empire on that side the Alps when Descartes threw himself upon the enemy now put to the rout. The yoke was cast off in Italy, and all Europe had only to follow the example, without its being necessary to give a new impulse to real science."

* To show the obligations of the human race to Italy, it may be instructive to refer to the accounts of Mondino, the father of modern anatomy, who taught at Bologna in 1315; of Fabricius of Aquapendente, professor at Padua for fifty years, under whom Harvey studied; of Hermolaus Barbarus (born at Venice, 1454), one of the most learned men of his age, and the author of the “ Traité de l'Accord de l'Astronomie avec la Médicine;" of Tartaglia of Milan, and his rival, Cardan; and of Dominique Cassini of Bologna ; and to the passages in Beckman, in which he attributes to the Venetians the invention of double-entry book-keeping (Hist. of Inventions, i. 1), to the Florentines

. the invention of insurance (i. 389), and other minor but very useful discoveries (i. 34. 62, ii. 100, iv. 390). See also Anderson's Origin of Commerce, i. 408; Hallam's Middle Ages, iii. 393; Playfair's Second Dissertation to the Encyclop. Brit.; and the accounts which may be found in many books of the Italian invention of copper-plate engraving, of paper from linen rags, of crystal glass mirrors and earthenware imitation of porcelain.

« PreviousContinue »