Bruni, Leonardo


Bruni, Leonardo
(1370-1444)
   Florentine humanist and chancellor. Born at Arezzo, in the early 1390s Bruni migrated to Florence. He intended to study law, but he had the good fortune to be drawn into the circle of the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati, where he became imbued with humanistic literary ideals and took advantage of the opportunity to learn Greek under the eminent Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras. This instruction was crucial not only for Bruni's development but also for the further development of Italian humanism, since the ablest of Chrysoloras' pupils became the first generation of Italian scholars to attain an effective mastery of the Greek language and hence to gain full access to the masterpieces of Greek literature. Bruni seems to have become deeply attached to Florence, but in 1405 he left the city to become apostolic secretary at Rome. He spent nearly all of the following decade in papal service.
   In 1415, after the Council of Constance forced the pope he was serving to resign, Bruni returned to Florence. He began work on his greatest literary production, Historiarum Florentinipopuli/History of the Florentine People, a history of the city from Roman times. During this period (1415-1427) as a private citizen, he produced a number of treatises on moral and scholarly subjects, of which the most important was De recta interpretatione / On the Correct Way to Translate, in which he challenged the medieval practice of translating ancient texts word for word. Bruni himself became a skillful translator, producing many Latin versions of Greek authors, including a series of biographies from Plutarch, speeches by Demosthenes and other Greek orators, a few of Plato's dialogues, and Aristotle's moral and political works. His most influential translation, however, was a letter of one of the major Greek patristic authors, St. Basil of Caesarea, whose Epistula ad adolescentes / Letter to Young Men (1401) encouraged young Christians to study the best works of ancient pagan literature. Renaissance humanists used this translation as justification for their study of pagan authors; hundreds of manuscript copies still survive.
   From an early date, Bruni had become interested in both history and current politics. His Laudatio Florentinae urbis / Panegyric on the City of Florence (1403) praised the city as the heir of the tradition of republican government that had made ancient Rome a powerful and civilized city, and he later produced several other works, of which the most important was the History of the Florentine People, that also glorified not only Florence but also its republican constitution. The Laudatio was written just after a military crisis that threatened to subordinate Florence to the duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Visconti, and some modern historians have cited it to explain the adoption of republican ideals of active citizenship by the city's leading intellectuals, a group that previously had regarded involvement in civic life as a hindrance to the higher calling of scholarship.
   This concept of "civic humanism," and even Bruni's personal commitment either to Florence or to republican political ideals have been challenged by other modern historians who have correctly observed that he did not hesitate to pursue a career in the autocratic papal curia at Rome. Yet it is also true that in 1415, after his appointment at Rome ended, he chose to come back to Florence, secured Florentine citizenship (which was not readily granted to non-natives), and devoted much of the rest of his literary career to his history of Florence. In the history, he restates his "republican" ideology, arguing that Rome had grown powerful and achieved literary greatness under republican government and that the rise of the emperors from the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus had introduced a crushing tyranny that snuffed out the free intellectual life of republican Rome and ultimately led to the dissolution of Roman power. Defenders of the concept of "civic humanism" view the literary and historical works of Bruni as marking the moment when humanism became the dominant cultural ideal of the Florentine ruling class.
   Florentines of his own time admired Bruni's political ideas. Impressed by the early sections of his History of Florence, they granted him citizenship and made him the official historiographer of the city. In 1427 the Signoria (governing council) appointed him to the city's most important administrative office, chancellor of the republic, a powerful position that he held for the rest of his life. Critics have rightly pointed out that the republicanism that Bruni extolled was not a democracy but an oligarchy based on the constitutional rule of the middling and wealthy property-owners (and in practice, on behind-the-scenes domination by a faction of rich merchants); but then neither the Florentine leaders nor Bruni himself ever claimed to endorse democracy, which they rejected as an unworkable political form that put power into the hands of the rabble. Bruni's writings defend the Florentine constitution as a mixed government, with some limited participation by all property-owning residents but with effective control safely in the hands of the well-to-do, the educated, and the competent. His own career was based on his embrace of this kind of social and political milieu. Starting life as a poor immigrant from a provincial town, he transformed himself into one of the most admired members of the ruling elite, a status marked at his death by the elaborate state funeral that the Signaría arranged and by the impressive marble tomb that the republic commissioned for him in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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