How to Write a Letter

Communicating eloquently was an art form that required knowledge of Latin and rhetoric. During the Renaissance, writing letters became so important that people purchased guides to learn how to do it well. For an ambitious painter and aspiring architect and engineer such as Leonardo, recently arrived at the Sforza court, a good letter served as an introduction, starting with Leonardo’s famous missive to Ludovico Sforza, written shortly after his arrival in Milan in 1482.

Among the most basic and practical tasks of artists and engineers seeking commissions was writing letters of introduction that informed, delighted, and, if successful, led to employment. People in various occupations, however, had letters to write that required assistance—for example, diplomats drafting military declarations and diplomatic negotiations, or bankers and merchants placing orders and drawing up contracts.

Most vernacular letter-writing manuals taught aspiring merchants how to conduct a commercial correspondence. By contrast, humanist letter writing drew inspiration from classical exemplars such as the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium and the writings of Cicero. Humanists also copied, revised, and embellished their own letters for publication, offering themselves as contemporary models of eloquence. Leonardo himself owned Cicero’s rhetoric, collections of letters by Ovid and some of his contemporaries, and epistolary manuals by Cristoforo Landino and Gian Mario Filelfo. When he had to write to important patrons, he scrupulously entrusted both the final composition and handwriting to scribes or his younger, humanistically educated assistant Francesco Melzi. Nevertheless, if we wish to see how Renaissance epistolary culture bore its own influence on Leonardo, we need look no further than the introductions he wrote to his unpublished works.

[J. G. Amato]

Niccolò Perotti, 1429–1480

Rudimenta grammatices

Venice: Andreas de Paltasichis and Bonino Bonini, 1478

Rare Book Collection KA1478 .P365 CB

Humanist scholar Niccolò Perotti (1429-1480) was born in Sassoferrato, central Italy. His Rudimenta grammatices is distinctive for its comprehensiveness and method. It placed a novel emphasis on linguistic patterns, presenting verbal endings and principal parts in rows and columns alongside more traditional paragraph listings of verbal forms. The detail with which it explained grammatical rules was matched by its unusually broad scope, covering everything from basic pronunciation to rules for epistolary composition.

These features may explain why Leonardo relied so often on this particular resource to learn Latin. We can find in his notebooks tables organizing Latin verbs into various classes following a system unique to Perotti (Codex I, folios 137–138). Here Leonardo’s diligent efforts to master Latin vocabulary, grammar, and syntax late in life are fully revealed, since without a good grasp of Perotti’s rules he could not have read many books in his library.

[Nicholas Fenech]

Marcello Adriani, 1464–1521

Letter from Marcello Adriani to Francesco Vettori

Florence, June 25, 1507

Manuscript Collection MISC 0076

In 1507 the magistrates of the Ten of Liberty and Peace, Florence’s ruling body, sent important instructions in a letter to another Florentine government official, Francesco Vettori, urging him to keep Maximilian I (1459–1519) from traveling to Rome on the eve of his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. Maximilian I was intent on being crowned by Pope Julius II in order to reaffirm Italy’s place in the Holy Roman Empire and to challenge France’s influence on the peninsula. However, the city of Florence was divided between those loyal to France and those loyal to the Holy Roman Empire. Maximilian’s arrival would have betrayed Florence as the enemy to one or the other of Europe’s greatest powers, something the city could not afford to let happen. The letter expresses anxiety, desperation, and, ever so diplomatically, manipulation, in its goal to keep Maximilian in the north.

This letter exemplifies the qualities of rhetoric and tact that Leonardo admired. In so few words, through the fine art of letter writing, ten of the most powerful men in Florence wielded their skill in Renaissance diplomacy in an attempt to dissuade an emperor from his plans to be crowned. Within their persuasion lies deception for the sake of self-preservation. Vettori, a close friend of Machiavelli, later lamented that “the entire world is swindling”—perhaps he was influenced by his role in “swindling” Maximilian I. The “man without letters,” Leonardo, surely would have marveled at this compact missive’s ability to evoke fear and convey power in so few words.

[Rachel Savage]

Giovanni [Gian] Mario Filelfo, 1426–1480

Epistolare Marii Philelfi

Basel: Johannes Amerbach, 1489

Rare Book Collection KA1489 .F55 CB

At some point before 1495, Leonardo acquired a copy of Gian Mario Filelfo’s Epistolare. First published posthumously in Paris in 1482 by the Milanese cleric Luigi Mondello, Filelfo’s manual set a new standard for how to write good Latin letters. This 1489 Basel edition is one of many reprints, a sign of the growing importance of writing eloquent Latin letters during the Renaissance.

Filelfo was a talented if pugnacious master of grammar and rhetoric from Milan with an impeccable pedigree. His father, Francesco (1398–1481), was Milan’s leading humanist with strong ties to Florence; his mother, Teodora, the daughter of the famous Greek humanist Manuel Chrysoloras. Gian Mario briefly studied with the Florentine Greek master Giovanni Argyropoulos, whose name appears in one of Leonardo’s lists. Their worlds overlapped.

Leonardo’s surviving drafts of letters are in the vernacular, making the other letter-writing manual he owned (Cristoforo Landino’s Formulario) a more practical guide for his own efforts. What, then, did he do with Filelfo’s book? Perhaps it was part of the symbolic capital of his library, contributing to its learned patina by suggesting the possibility that Leonardo could read, perhaps even compose, a Latin letter. Perhaps Leonardo acquired it to translate some of the content, with the assistance of others who knew more Latin than he did, into his vernacular letter writing. War and peace, patronage and family, births, marriages, and deaths are among the subjects in Filelfo’s comprehensive guide to letters for every occasion. Leonardo composed letters dealing with all of these subjects.

[Paula Findlen]