- The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy by Ronald G. Witt
As Ronald Witt explains at the beginning of this book, he began his research into Italian culture in 1977 with the idea of studying language, literature, and education in the kingdom of Italy from the Carolingian period until the fifteenth century. It was only later that he decided to divide his initial project into two parts and to publish first the book that dealt specifically with the (much better studied) first 150 years of the humanist movement; that book turned out to be the monumental “In the Footsteps of the Ancients”: The Origins of Italian Humanism from Lovato to Bruni (Boston, 2000). Indeed, the historiography of the earlier period has been a mess, with studies of varying quality on single localities, authors, or texts but nothing to provide a general overview. But Witt never lost sight of his original plan, and now we have the book to fill the gap in the historiography that originally stymied him. This will be an essential work for historians of medieval culture and not just in Italy, for in addition to sifting the wheat from the abundant chaff of earlier research, Witt’s deep familiarity with the original sources permits him to arrive at a comprehensive picture of Italian culture and education from the eighth to the thirteen centuries.
Witt introduces the concept of the dual Latin cultures of medieval Italy in part I, covering the period between the Carolingians and the late-eleventh century. Although the first of these cultures, focused on studying books and centered in ecclesiastical schools, is familiar to all scholars of medieval Europe, Italy was unique in possessing a second strata of education and culture largely in the hands of laymen, especially the legal professionals—notaries and judges—of northern Italy. Not only does this second culture, focused on law and expressed by the production and use of documents, [End Page 781] have no parallel elsewhere in Europe, but Witt shows in parts II and III that it grew in importance in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries as it expanded to include ars dictaminis, the study of Roman law, and eventually canon law. But the growing importance of legal studies had the effect of greatly restricting the role in Italian cul-ture of other kinds of literary activities. Little poetry was written in the twelfth-century kingdom of Italy, and what there was usually took as its subject local, civic concerns. The same was true of history, and even hagiography—often a subject that inspired more ambitious Latin prose—rarely achieved anything of literary interest.
In parts IV and V Witt turns his attention to the thirteenth century, beginning with an explicit comparison with the literary culture of twelfth-century France, where by the later part of the century the elements of Italian ars dictaminis merged into a broader study of rhetoric and composition, including manuals for composing sermons. By the thirteenth century, these influences fed back into Italy as they were taken up both by the papal initiatives in favor of preaching and in the education and practice of the growing class of notaries. Although still overwhelmingly laymen, these notaries were now educated at Bologna and elsewhere to an increasingly sophisticated mastery of Latin, and they put those skills to use as authors of histories, defenders of the active life of the towns, and eventually pioneers in returning to classical norms of eloquence. With this last development, seen in Lovato de’ Lovati, a notary of Padua, and his disciple and successor Albertino Mussato, we arrive at the starting point of “In the Footsteps of the Ancients.” In this book, therefore, Witt demonstrates how the unique culture of the Italian humanism grew out of the unique culture of medieval Italy.