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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 730-732
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'In the Footsteps of the Ancients': The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni
'In the Footsteps of the Ancients': The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. By Ronald G. Witt. [Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, Volume LXXIV.] (Leiden: E. J. Brill. 2000. Pp. xiii, 562. $162.00.)
Ronald Witt's new book, recipient in 2000 of the Renaissance Society of America's Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Book Prize, represents the culmination of decades of research on the emergence and development of humanism. In it he self-consciously aims to challenge, indeed to upend, conventional assumptions about the origins of humanism. Readers discover that they should no longer think of humanism springing fully formed from the mind and pen of Petrarch in the fourteenth century or of Florence as humanism's birthplace. The emergence of humanism required a lengthy process, and its earliest origins lie in the thirteenth century with the Paduan poet Lovato dei Lovati (1240/41-1309). Lovato broke with the northern Italian tradition of producing chivalric poetry in Provençal to write classicizing verse in Latin. His principal inspiration was Seneca, and his outlook was decidedly secular. The use of Latin, the study and imitation of classical authors, the choice of secular themes: these are the essential ingredients of what Witt calls "the new aesthetic." That this aesthetic first manifested itself in poetry makes perfect sense when one considers that the ars dictaminis, the medieval formal style for Latin composition, concerned itself with prose, not with verse.
Compared to Padua, early fourteenth-century Florence was "something of a cultural backwater for study of the ancient Latin writers" (p. 173). In the first half of the Trecento, Florence witnessed a growth in vernacular literature, which "in the short run hindered the development of humanism in Florence" (p. 229) because it detracted from Latin learning. Yet the many vernacular translations of classical literature familiarized Florentines with ancient culture and helped them value it, thus paving the way for the emergence of humanism in the second half of the Trecento.
The process of humanism's origins comes to a close with Leonardo Bruni and his generation at the beginning of the Quattrocento. Several developments indicate that humanism was by then fully formed. Dictamen, which "had to be dislodged from one genre of prose after another in something like a house-to-house campaign" (p. 443), experienced its complete demise with the emergence of a classicizing oratory. With the revival of oratory Cicero replaced Seneca as the principal source of inspiration and imitation. Under the auspices of Bruni "the first Ciceronianism" forged powerful links between classical oratory and political ideology in Florence. Cicero and his literary aesthetic served as the basis for the support of the city's republican constitution, contributed to the elaboration of a civic ethic independent of religious influence, and won over the Florentine patriciate for humanism.
Not surprisingly, Hans Baron's interpretation of Bruni's Laudatio Florentinae Urbis and the response of Baron's critics frames Witt's discussion of the [End Page 730] ties between a new humanist aesthetic and Florentine politics. While Witt acknowledges that the Florentine oligarchy adopted the language of republicanism in its own interest to prevent popular challenges to its authority, he argues for another source that shaped the ruling elite's conception of government: "extended contact with ancient literature and history, wherein the ancient civic ethic and republicanism were extolled" (p. 426). Witt denies that the Laudatio simply functioned "as a kind of rhetorical flourish" (p. 430) and, with Baron, believes that Bruni was genuinely committed to republicanism. Baron's "great flaw," however, was to see Bruni "primarily as a political man," not as a scholar (p. 431).
'In the Footsteps of the Ancients' is without a doubt an authoritative and erudite book. It fastens upon a topic that had previously escaped sustained scholarly attention. It combines the appeal of a fresh interpretation with a thorough and methodical approach, grounded in...