- History of the Florentine People., and ;History of the Florentine People.
The grand theme of Leonardo Bruni's fifteenth-century History of the Florentine People, often described as the first modern history because it seeks to embody humanist values, is history itself. What ought to be recorded and why? Who counts as important and for what reasons? Even more to the point is the peculiar twist that Bruni lends the ancient notion of historia as story. While Renaissance humanist historians, like their venerated ancient Roman forbears such as Livy, credited history with a plot or series of plots for the sake of demonstrating its meaning, Bruni seems the first to insist on its aesthetics in a more modern, socially conscious, and above all ethical way: historia can be understood as leading to cultural and moral improvements.
For Bruni this meant tracing out the uneven evolution of local dreams of a type of popular political freedom, and delineating their progressive realization and fatuous destruction through twelve brisk books, commencing with their primeval-misty Etruscan points of origin. It is significant that his title refers to the Florentine people and not just to Florence the city: an entire civilization, and not merely a city-state in the institutional sense, is viewed as groping its way over the centuries into familiar, if for his day rather novel, notions of elected and just self-government. What remains striking for the modern reader along these lines is how early, at least from Bruni's point of view and despite the succeeding dry periods of dithering defeats, an Italian population is to be understood as romanticizing various possibilities of quasi-democracy and treating them as a virtuous enterprise.
This is not to suggest that Bruni himself was any more or less than a man of his time. Born into poverty in Arezzo in 1370, he came to Florence as a young law student. The fortune that he now amassed oiled cooling wheels of intellectual as well as political progress. Marrying into money likewise proved no hindrance. A prissy snobbishness, leading into his sneering at the extramarital sexual relations of his colleagues, an attitude then unusual, seems not to have interfered with his "unbelievable eloquence," as a contemporary described his literary and oratorical abilities, or his mastery, in accord with humanist principles, of ancient Greek and Latin, or his translating into Latin a number of works of Aristotle, Plato, and Demosthenes, or his writing in Italian corrective lives of Petrarch and Dante, whose goal was to supplement admiration by eliminating traces of sentimentality. His appointment to Rome as papal secretary from 1404 to 1415 prepared him for even loftier, crimson-robed secular duties in his adopted home, as Florence's chancellor, or type of foreign secretary. A conscientious stewardship of this new position, as well as other duties undertaken for the city, beginning in 1427 and [End Page 486] lasting for almost twenty years, accompanied his devoted work on the Historia, with its taxing labors completed just two years before his death in 1444, even as an ornate, government-sponsored recopying of the manuscript into a presentation volume, combined with the prosperous reception of his other works, ensured his eventual recognition, if not colossal fame, as the best-selling Italian author of the fifteenth century.
Few if any of these facts may lessen the modern reader's likely amazement at never having heard of him. If Bruni is cited as a political thinker among a thin crop of Italian histories in English, the Historia is mentioned almost not at all. James Hankins's now two-thirds-complete translation of Bruni's major historical achievement is indeed the...