A Florentine Reader

Despite his upbringing outside the city in Vinci, Leonardo’s intellectual and artistic development was marked by Florence and its history. Leonardo spoke the Tuscan of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, which later humanists, such as Pietro Bembo, helped to establish as the literary language of the entire Italian peninsula in the sixteenth century. He knew and could quote these “three crowns” of Florentine literary fame. The internecine strife between various factions was only the beginning of the development of civic humanism, which flourished in fifteenth-century Florence. The elaborations of civic life from Greek and Roman sources provided fresh, concrete ideals that blended with the political thought of the medieval Italian communes. Eloquent, humanistically educated statesmen—such as Leonardo Bruni, Matteo Palmieri, and, in the next century, Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini—wrote not only about ideal republican government but also about the privileges and responsibilities of individual citizens. Leonardo read the Florentine civic humanists, learning Florentine history from Bruni and imbibing Palmieri’s advice about the qualities of citizenship.

Although these political thinkers engaged moral themes, Tuscan friars and preachers such as Girolamo Savonarola prolifically described and defended religious ideals, considering moral behavior essential to the flourishing of righteousness in cities. Florence’s role as the epicenter of so much political thought and idealism cannot be downplayed, yet Leonardo could also praise Florence for another significant contribution to culture. In his short history of painting from Roman times to his own, two Florentine painters crowned the art since its ancient zenith: Giotto and Masaccio. They made him proud to be Florentine.

[J. G. Amato]

Girolamo Savonarola, 1452–1498

Operetta del amore di Iesu composta da frate Hieronymo da Ferrara

Florence: Gian Stefano di Carlo, 1505

Rare Book Collection KB1505 .S285 CB

Acquired on the Herman Augustus Spoehr Memorial Gift Fund

Girolamo Savonarola, prior of the Convent of San Marco, was the most printed author in fifteenth-century Florence. His success as the city’s prophet and moral reformer was due in large part to his innovative use of the press rapidly to disseminate his message. His Operetta del amore di Iesu (Little Work on the Love of Jesus), an early work, consists of six chapters on the doctrine and practice of loving Jesus and a final chapter of nine meditations on the crucifixion, written to further incite devotion. Stefano di Carlo, a Pavian printer active in Florence, also included two hymns and a prayer by Savonarola. The frontispiece, a woodcut depicting the crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist with Mary Magdalene embracing the cross, suggests the book’s subject as well as its intended audience, female religious and pious laywomen. This work went through seven editions between its first printing in May 1492 and 1500, and at least eleven editions in the following century. Three years before his hasty trial and execution in 1498, Savonarola consulted with Leonardo about plans for the Sala del Gran Consiglio in Palazzo Vecchio, and this edition was printed while Leonardo was in Florence. Leonardo owned similar devotional literature, possibly by Savonarola, but not this specific work. Vernacular devotional literature such as the Operetta serves as a salutary reminder of the abiding significance of Christianity in the Renaissance. A sixteenth-century inscription identifies fra Leonardo da Cortona as the book’s former owner.

[J. G. Amato]

Matteo Palmieri, 1406–1475

Libro della vita civile composta da Mattheo Palmieri

Florence: per li heredi di Philippo di Giunta, 1529

Rare Book Collection BT1554 .P2 1529

There was no better guide to becoming a citizen in fifteenth-century Florence than Matteo Palmieri’s On Civic Life. Palmieri was an apothecary by profession who used his learning and eloquence to rise high in the Florentine Republic, holding numerous political offices and representing Florentine interests abroad as a diplomat. Palmieri composed On Civic Life by 1436, though it was not printed until 1528. The celebrated Florentine Giunti press printed this edition in 1529.

Palmieri’s book, a model of vernacular eloquence, is a dialogue among three leading Florentine citizens, Agnolo Pandolfini, Luigi Guicciardini, and Franco Sacchetti, who retreated from the 1430 plague devastating the city to the safety of Palmieri’s villa in the Mugello. There they discussed the qualities of an ideal citizen, inspired by Palmieri’s reading of Quintilian, Cicero, and the early Florentine humanists. Palmieri strongly emphasized the relationship between learning and virtue. He actively promoted early literacy as a duty of Florentine parents and the foundation of a good society, suggesting how education instilled shared values.

Leonardo had a manuscript of Palmieri’s On Civic Life. It appears on the list of books he left at Santa Maria Novella at the beginning of 1504. He probably acquired it after returning to Florence in 1500. We should envision Leonardo revisiting Palmieri as he worked on the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo della Signoria and contributed to an ambitious if flawed plan to divert the Arno in protection of Florentine interests. Leonardo was certainly aware of the duties of a Florentine citizen.

[Paula Findlen]

Francesco Petrarch, 1304–1374

Le cose volgari

Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1504

Rare Book Collection KB1504 .P4

Gift of Mr. & Mrs. William H. Crocker

In 1501 the learned cardinal Pietro Bembo, himself a poet and linguist, instigated a revival of interest in the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch with the publication of an edition of the latter’s poetry entitled Le cose volgari (Vernacular Things). The poems enjoyed a wide readership, and would have been read aloud and memorized. Bembo’s edition not only brought Petrarch back into fashion but was also one of the first texts ever printed in italic, a typographic innovation of the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius that dates to 1501. The very first book printed in italic was an edition of Virgil, but the font became popular largely owing to the publication two months later of Bembo’s Petrarch; the font was rumored to closely resemble the poet’s own handwriting—although more practically it also saved space on the page.

This edition of Petrarch belongs to Bembo’s initiative to establish a canon of Italian literature, with Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch as its crown jewels. More than a thousand copies of the 1501 Cose volgari were printed in Venice, with a concluding note by the publisher Aldus Manutius promising to print “a Dante no less correct than this Petrarch.” Leonardo’s own Petrarch was a reprint of this Aldine edition that was issued three years later by a rival of Aldus, the Giunti of Florence. In the Codex Trivulzianus, Leonardo poked fun at Petrarch’s poetic apotheosis of Laura, the object of his unrequited love.

[Corey Dansereau]