Poggio Bracciolini

Poggio Bracciolini
Gianfrancesco Poggio Bracciolini - Imagines philologorum.jpg
Engraving of Bracciolini [1]
Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini

11 February 1380
Died 30 October 1459(1459-10-30) (aged 79)
Nationality Italian
Occupation [Papal Secretary]
Children 5 sons and a daughter

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (11 February 1380[2] – 30 October 1459), best known simply as Poggio Bracciolini, was an Italian scholar and an early humanist. He was responsible for rediscovering and recovering a great number of classical Latin manuscripts, mostly decaying and forgotten in German, Swiss, and French monastic libraries. His most celebrated find was De rerum natura, the only surviving work by Lucretius.

Birth and education

Poggio di Guccio (the surname Bracciolini was added during his career)[3] was born at the village of Terranuova, since 1862 renamed in his honour Terranuova Bracciolini, near Arezzo in Tuscany.

Taken by his father to Florence to pursue the studies for which he appeared so apt, he studied Latin under Giovanni Malpaghino of Ravenna, the friend and protégé of Petrarch. His distinguished abilities and his dexterity as a copyist of manuscripts brought him into early notice with the chief scholars of Florence: both Coluccio Salutati and Niccolò de' Niccoli befriended him. He studied notarial law, and, at the age of twenty-one he was received into the Florentine notaries' guild, the Arte dei giudici e notai.

Career and later life

In October 1403, on high recommendations from Salutati and Leonardo Bruni ("Leonardo Aretino") he entered the service of Cardinal Landolfo Maramaldo, Bishop of Bari, as his secretary, and a few months later he was invited to join the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs in the Roman Curia of Pope Boniface IX, thus embarking on eleven turbulent years during which he served under four successive popes (1404–1415); first as scriptor (writer of official documents), soon moving up to abbreviator, then scriptor penitentiarius, and scriptor apostolicus. Under Martin V he reached the top rank of his office, as Apostolicus Secretarius, papal secretary. As such he functioned as a personal attendant (amanuensis) of the Pope, writing letters at his behest and dictation, with no formal registration of the briefs, but merely preserving copies. He was esteemed for his excellent Latin, his extraordinarily beautiful book hand, and as occasional liaison with Florence, which involved him in legal and diplomatic work.

Throughout his long office of 50 years, Poggio served a total of seven popes: Boniface IX (1389–1404), Innocent VII (1404–1406), Gregory XII (1406–1415), Antipope John XXIII (1410–1415), Martin V (1417–1431), Eugenius IV (1431–1447), and Nicholas V (1447−1455). While he held his office in the Curia through that momentous period, which saw the Councils of Constance (1414–1418), in the train of Pope John XXIII, and of Basel (1431–1449), and the final restoration of the papacy under Nicholas V (1447), he was never attracted to the ecclesiastical life (and the lure of its potential riches). In spite of his meager salary in the Curia, he remained a layman to the end of his life.

The greater part of Poggio's long life was spent in attendance to his duties in the Roman Curia at Rome and the other cities the pope was constrained to move his court. Although he spent most of his adult life in his papal service, he considered himself a Florentine working for the papacy. He actively kept his links to Florence and remained in constant communication with his learned and influential Florentine friends: Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), Niccolò de' Niccoli (1364–1437), Lorenzo de' Medici (1395–1440), Leonardo Bruni (Chancellor, 1369–1444), Carlo Marsuppini ("Carlo Aretino", Chancellor, 1399–1453), and Cosimo de' Medici (1389–1464).

In England

After Martin V was elected as the new pope in November 1417, Poggio, although not holding any office, accompanied his court to Mantua in late 1418, but, once there, decided to accept the invitation of Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, to go to England. His five years spent in England, until returning to Rome in 1423, were the least productive and satisfactory of his life.[4]

In Florence

Historia Florentina, 1478

Poggio resided in Florence during 1434−36 with Eugene IV. On the proceeds of a sale of a manuscript of Livy in 1434, he built himself a villa in the Valdarno, which he adorned with a collection of antique sculpture (notably a series of busts meant to represent thinkers and writers of Antiquity), coins and inscriptions, works that were familiar to his friend Donatello.

In December 1435, at age 56, tired of the unstable character of his single life, Poggio left his long-term mistress and delegitimized the fourteen children he had had with the mistress, scoured Florence for a wife, and married a girl not yet eighteen, Selvaggia dei Buondelmonti, of a noble Florentine family. In spite of the remonstrances and dire predictions of all his friends about the age discrepancy, the marriage was a happy one, producing five sons and a daughter. Poggio wrote a spate of long letters to justify his move, and composed one of his famous dialogues, An Seni Sit uxor ducenda (On Marriage in Old Age, 1436)[5]

From 1439 to 1442 during the Council of Florence, Poggio also lived in Florence.

Dispute with Valla

In his quarrel against Lorenzo Valla — an expert at philological analysis of ancient texts, a redoubtable opponent endowed with a superior intellect, and a hot temperament fitted to protracted disputation − Poggio found his match.[6] Poggio started in February 1452 with a full-dress critique of the Elegantiae, Valla's major work on Latin language and style, where he supported a critical use of Latin eruditio going beyond pure admiration and respectful imitatio of the classics.

At stake was the new approach of the humanae litterae (profane classical Greek and Latin literature) in relation to the divinae litterae (biblical exegesis of the Judeo-Christian "sacred scriptures"). Valla claimed that biblical texts could be subjected to the same philological criticism as the great classics of antiquity. Poggio held that humanism and theology were separate fields of inquiry, and labeled Valla's mordacitas (radical criticism) as dementia.[7]

Poggio's series of five Orationes in Laurentium Vallam (re-labeled Invectivae by Valla) were countered, line by line, by Valla's Antidota in Pogium (1452−53). It is remarkable that eventually the belligerents acknowledged their talents, gained their mutual respect, and prompted by Filelfo, reconciled, and became good friends.

Shepherd finely comments on Valla's advantage in the literary dispute: the power of irony and satire (making a sharp imprint on memory) versus the ploddingly heavy dissertation (that is quickly forgotten).

These sportive polemics among the early Italian humanists were famous, and spawned a literary fashion in Europe which reverberated later, for instance, in Scaliger's contentions with Scioppius and Milton's with Salmasius.

Erasmus, in 1505, discovered Lorenzo Valla's Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum (New Testament Notes), which encouraged him to pursue the textual criticism of the Holy Scriptures, free of all academic entanglements that might cramp or hinder his scholarly independence — contributing to Erasmus's stature of leading Dutch Renaissance humanist.[8] In his introduction, Erasmus declared his support of Valla's thesis against the invidia of jealous scholars such as Poggio, whom he unfairly described as "a petty clerk so uneducated that even if he were not indecent he would still not be worth reading, and so indecent that he would deserve to be rejected by good men however learned he was." (Quoted in Salvatore I. Camporeale in his essay on the Poggio-Lorenzo dispute).

Later years and death

After the death, in April 1453, of his intimate friend Carlo Aretino, who had been the Chancellor of the Florentine Republic, the choice of his replacement, mostly dictated by Cosimo de' Medici, fell upon Poggio. He resolved to retire from his service of 50 years in the Chancery of Rome, and returned to Florence to assume this new function. This coincided with the news of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

Poggio's declining days were spent in the discharge of his prestigious Florentine office − glamorous at first, but soon turned irksome − conducting his intense quarrel with Lorenzo Valla, editing his correspondence for publication, and in the composition of his history of Florence. He died in 1459 before he could put the final polish to his work, and was buried in the church of Santa Croce. A statue by Donatello and a portrait by Antonio del Pollaiuolo remain to commemorate a citizen who chiefly for his services to humanistic literature deserved the notice of posterity.
During his life, Poggio kept acquiring properties around Florence and invested in the city enterprises with the Medici bank. At his death, his gross assets amounted to 8,500 florins, with only 137 families in Florence owning a larger capital. His wife, five sons and daughter all survived him.

Search for manuscripts

After July 1415 — Antipope John XXIII had been deposed by the Council of Constance and the Roman Pope Gregory XII had abdicated — the papal office remained vacant for two years, which gave Poggio some leisure time in 1416/17 for his pursuit of manuscript hunting. In the spring of 1416 (sometime between March and May), Poggio visited the baths at the German spa of Baden. In a long letter to Niccoli (p. 59−68) he reported his discovery of an "Epicurean" lifestyle — one year before finding Lucretius — where men and women bathe together, barely separated, in minimum clothing: "I have related enough to give you an idea what a numerous school of Epicureans is established in Baden. I think this must be the place where the first man was created, which the Hebrews call the garden of pleasure. If pleasure can make a man happy, this place is certainly possessed of every requisite for the promotion of felicity." (p. 66)

Poggio was marked by the passion of his teachers for books and writing, inspired by the first generation of Italian humanists centered around Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), who had revived interest in the forgotten masterpieces of Livy and Cicero, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) and Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406). Poggio joined the second generation of civic humanists forming around Salutati. Resolute in glorifying studia humanitatis (the study of "humanities", a phrase popularized by Leonardo Bruni), learning (studium), literacy (eloquentia), and erudition (eruditio) as the chief concern of man, Poggio ridiculed the folly of popes and princes, who spent their time in wars and ecclesiastical disputes instead of reviving the lost learning of antiquity.

The literary passions of the learned Italians in the new Humanist Movement, which were to influence the future course of both Renaissance and Reformation, were epitomized in the activities and pursuits of this self-made man, who rose from the lowly position of scribe in the Roman Curia to the privileged role of apostolic secretary.

He became devoted to the revival of classical studies amid conflicts of popes and antipopes, cardinals and councils, in all of which he played an official part as first-row witness, chronicler and (often unsolicited) critic and adviser.

Thus, when his duties called him to the Council of Constance in 1414, he employed his forced leisure in exploring the libraries of Swiss and Swabian abbeys. His great manuscript finds date to this period, 1415−1417. The treasures he brought to light at Reichenau, Weingarten, and above all St. Gall, retrieved from the dust and abandon many lost masterpieces of Latin literature, and supplied scholars and students with the texts of authors whose works had hitherto been accessible only in fragmented or mutilated copies.

In his epistles he described how he recovered Cicero's Pro Sexto Roscio, Quintilian, Statius' Silvae, part of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, and the commentaries of Asconius Pedianus at St. Gallen. He also recovered Silius Italicus's Punica, Marcus Manilius's Astronomica, and Vitruvius's De architectura. The manuscripts were then copied, and communicated to the learned. He carried on the same untiring research in many Western European countries. In 1415 at Cluny he found Cicero's complete great forensic orations, previously only partially available.[9] At Langres in the summer of 1417 he discovered Cicero's Oration for Caecina and nine other hitherto unknown orations of Cicero's.[10] At Monte Cassino, in 1425, a manuscript of Frontinus' late first century De aquaeductu on the ancient aqueducts of Rome. He was also credited with having recovered Ammianus Marcellinus, Nonius Marcellus, Probus, Flavius Caper and Eutyches.

If a codex could not be obtained by fair means, he was not above using subterfuge, as when he bribed a monk to abstract a Livy and an Ammianus from the library of Hersfeld Abbey.

De rerum natura

Poggio's most famous find was the discovery of the only surviving manuscript of Lucretius's De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things") known at the time, in a German monastery (never named by Poggio, but probably Fulda), in January 1417. Poggio spotted the name, which he remembered as quoted by Cicero. This was a Latin poem of 7,400 lines, divided into six books, giving a full description of the world as viewed by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (see Epicureanism). The manuscript found by Poggio is not extant, but fortunately, he sent the copy to his friend Niccolò de' Niccoli, who made a transcription in his renowned book hand (as Niccoli was the creator of italic script), which became the model for the more than fifty other copies circulating at the time. Poggio would later complain that Niccoli had not returned his original copy for 14 years. Later, two 9th-century manuscripts were discovered, the O (the Codex Oblongus, copied c. 825) and Q (the Codex Quadratus), now kept at Leiden University.[11] The book was first printed in 1473.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt is a narrative of the discovery of the old Lucretius manuscript by Poggio.[12] Greenblatt analyzes the poem's subsequent impact on the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and modern science.[13][14][15]


Poggio cultivated and maintained throughout his life close friendships with some of the most important learned men of the age: Niccolò de' Niccoli (the inventor of the italic script), Leonardo Bruni ("Leonardo Aretino"), Lorenzo and Cosimo de' Medici, Carlo Marsuppini ("Carlo Aretino"), Guarino Veronese, Ambrogio Traversari, Francesco Barbaro, Francesco Accolti, Feltrino Boiardo, Lionello d'Este (who became Marquis of Ferrara, 1441–1450), and many others, who all shared his passion for retrieving the manuscripts and art of the ancient Greco-Roman world. His early friendship with Tommaso da Sarzana stood Poggio in good stead when his learned friend was elected pope, under the name of Nicolas V (1447−1455), a proven protector of scholars and an active sponsor of learning, who founded the Vatican library in 1448 with 350 codices.

These learned men were adept at maintaining an extended network of personal relations among a circle of talented and energetic scholars in which constant communication was secured by an immense traffic of epistolary exchanges.

They were bent on creating a rebirth of intellectual life for Italy by means of a vital reconnection with the texts of antiquity. Their worldview was eminently characteristic of Italian humanism in the earlier Italian Renaissance, which eventually spread all over Western Europe and led to the full Renaissance and the Reformation, announcing the modern age.


1597 engraving of Poggio Bracciolini


Poggio, like Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (who became Pius II), was a great traveller, and wherever he went he brought enlightened powers of observation trained in liberal studies to bear upon the manners of the countries he visited. We owe to his pen curious remarks on English and Swiss customs, valuable notes on the remains of ancient monuments in Rome, and a singularly striking portrait of Jerome of Prague as he appeared before the judges who condemned him to the stake.

In literature he embraced the whole sphere of contemporary studies, and distinguished himself as an orator, a writer of rhetorical treatises, a panegyrist of the dead, a passionate impugner of the living, a sarcastic polemist, a translator from the Greek, an epistolographer and grave historian and a facetious compiler of fabliaux in Latin.

His cultural/social/moral essays covered a wide range of subjects concerning the interests and values of his time:

  • De avaritia (On Greed, 1428−29) - Poggio's first major work. The old school of biographers (Shepherd, Walser) and historians saw in it a traditional condemnation of avarice. Modern historians tend, on the contrary—especially if studying the economic growth of the Italian Trecento and Quattrocento—to read it as a precocious statement of early capitalism, at least in its Florentine form — breaking through the hold of medieval values that disguised the realities of interest and loans in commerce to proclaim the social utility of wealth. It is the voice of a new age linking wealth, personal worth, conspicuous expenditure, ownership of valuable goods and objects, and social status, a voice not recognized until the late 20th century.;[16]
  • An seni sit uxor ducenda (On Marriage in Old Age, 1436);
  • De infelicitate principum (On the Unhappiness of Princes, 1440);
  • De nobilitate (On Nobility, 1440): Poggio, a self-made man, defends true nobility as based on virtue rather than birth, an expression of the meritocracy favored by the rich bourgeoisie;
  • De varietate fortunae (On the Vicissitudes of Fortune, 1447);
  • Contra hypocritas (Against Hypocrisy, 1448);
  • Historia disceptativa convivialis (Historical discussions between guests after a meal) in three parts (1450):
1) on expressions of thanks
2) on the dignity of medical versus legal profession (a reprise of Salutati's 1398 treatment of the same subject, De Nobilitate Legum et Medicinae): Niccolo Niccoli, appealing to the lessons of experience, is arguing that laws are imposed by the will of the stronger to hold the state together − not God-given to rulers, nor a fact of nature − leading biographer Ernst Walser to conclude that "Poggio, in his writing, presents Machiavellism before Machiavelli." [17]
3) on literate Latin versus vernacular Latin in classical Rome; Poggio concludes that they were both the same language, not two distinct idioms.
  • De miseria humanae conditionis (On the Misery of Human Life, 1455), reflections in his retirement in Florence inspired by the sack of Constantinople.

These compositions, all written in Latin − and reviving the classical form of dialogues, between himself and learned friends[18] − belonged to a genre of socratic reflections which, since Petrarch set the fashion, was highly praised by Italian men of letters and made Poggio famous throughout Italy. They exemplify his conception of studia humanitatis as an epitome of human knowledge and wisdom reserved only to the most learned, and the key to what the ancient philosophers called "virtue" and "the good". And thus, they are invaluable windows into the knowledge and Weltanschauung of his age − geography, history, politics, morals, social aspects — and the emergence of the new values of the "Humanist Movement". They are loaded with rich nuggets of fact embedded in subtle disquisitions, with insightful comments, brilliant illustrations, and a wide display of historical and contemporary references. Poggio was always inclined to make objective observations and clinical comparisons between various cultural mores, for instance ancient Roman practices versus modern ones, or Italians versus the English. He compared the eloquence of Jerome of Prague and his fortitude before death with ancient philosophers. The abstruse points of theology presented no interest to him, only the social impact of the Church did, mostly as an object of critique and ridicule. On the Vicissitudes of Fortune became famous for including in book IV an account of the 25-year voyage of the Venetian adventurer Niccolo de' Conti in Persia and India, which was translated into Portuguese on express command of the Portuguese King Emmanuel I. An Italian translation was made from the Portuguese.

Poggio's Historia Florentina (History of Florence), is a history of the city from 1350 to 1455, written in avowed imitation of Livy and Sallust, and possibly Thucydides (available in Greek, but translated into Latin by Valla only in 1450–52) in its use of speeches to explain decisions. Poggio continued Leonardo Bruni's History of the Florentine People, which closed in 1402, and is considered the first modern history book. Poggio limited his focus to external events, mostly wars, in which Florence was the defensor Tusciae and of Italian liberty. But Poggio also pragmatically defended Florence's expansionist policies to insure the "safety of the Florentine Republic", which became the key motive of its history, as a premonition of Machiavelli's doctrine. Conceding to superior forces becomes an expression of reason and advising it a mark of wisdom. His intimate and vast experience of Italian affairs inculcated in him a strong sense of realism, echoing his views on laws expressed in his second Historia disceptativa convivialis (1450). Poggio's beautiful rhetorical prose turns his Historia Florentina into a vivid narrative, with a sweeping sense of movement, and a sharp portrayal of the main characters, but it also exemplifies the limitations of the newly emerging historical style, which, in the work of Leonardo Bruni, Carlo Marsuppini and Pietro Bembo, retained "romantic" aspects and did not reach yet the weight of objectivity later expected by the school of modern historians (especially since 1950).[19]

His Liber Facetiarum (1438−1452), or Facetiae, a collection of humorous and indecent tales expressed in the purest Latin Poggio could command, are the works most enjoyed today: they are available in several English translations. This book is chiefly remarkable for its unsparing satires on the monastic orders and the secular clergy. "The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made pope." Poggio's book became an internationally popular work in all countries of Western Europe, and has gone through multiple editions until modern times.

In addition Poggio's works included his Epistolae, a collection of his letters, a most insightful witness of his remarkable age, in which he gave full play to his talent as chronicler of events, to his wide range or interests, and to his most acerbic critical sense.

Revival of Latin and Greek

In the way of many humanists of his time, Poggio rejected the vernacular Italian and always wrote only in Latin, and translated works from Greek into that language. His letters are full of learning, charm, detail, and amusing personal attack on his enemies and colleagues. It is also noticeable as illustrating the Latinizing tendency of an age which gave classic form to the lightest essays of the fancy.

Poggio was a fluent and copious writer in Latin, admired for his classical style inspired from Cicero, if not fully reaching the elegance of his model, but outstanding by the standards of his age. Italy was barely emerging from what Petrarch had termed the Dark Ages, while Poggio was facing the unique challenge of making "those frequent allusions to the customs and transactions of his own times, which render his writings so interesting... at a period when the Latin language was just rescued from the grossest barbarism... the writings of Poggio are truly astonishing. Rising to a degree of elegance, to be sought for in vain in the rugged Latinity of Petrarca and Coluccio Salutati..."[20] His knowledge of the ancient authors was wide, his taste encompassed all genres, and his erudition was as good as the limited libraries of the time allowed, when books were extremely rare and extraordinarily expensive.[21]

Good instruction in Greek was uncommon and hard to obtain in Italy. Proficient teachers, such as Ambrogio Traversari, were few and highly valued. Manuel Chrysoloras used to be occasionally credited as having instructed Poggio in Greek during his youth, but Shepherd cites a letter by Poggio to Niccolò Niccoli stating that he began the study of Greek in 1424, in Rome at age 44 (Shepherd, p. 6). Poggio's preface to his dialogue On Avarice notes that his task was made the harder "because I can neither translate from the Greek language for our benefit, nor are my abilities such that I should wish to discuss in public anything drawn from these writings"[22] Consequently, his knowledge of Greek never attained the quality of his Latin. His best-efforts translation of Xenophon's Cyropaedia into Latin cannot be praised for accuracy by modern standards. But he was the first critic to label it a "political romance", instead of history. He also translated Lucian's Ass, considered an influence of Apuleius's Latin masterpiece, The Golden Ass.


Among contemporaries he passed for one of the most formidable polemical or gladiatorial rhetoricians; and a considerable section of his extant works is occupied by a brilliant display of his sarcastic wit and his unlimited inventiveness in "invectives". One of these, published on the strength of Poggio's old friendship with the new pontiff, Nicolas V, the dialogue Against Hypocrites, was actuated by a vindictive hatred at the follies and vices of ecclesiastics. This was but another instance of his lifelong obstinate denouncing of the corruption of clerical life in the 15th century. Nicholas V then asked Poggio to deliver a philippic against Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, who claimed to be the Antipope Felix V — a ferocious attack with no compunction in pouring on the Duke fantastic accusations, unrestrained abuse and the most extreme anathemas.

Invectivae ("Invectives") were a specialized literary genre used during the Italian Renaissance, tirades of exaggerated obloquy aimed at insulting and degrading an opponent beyond the bounds of any common decency. Poggio's most famous "Invectives" were those he composed in his literary quarrels, such as with George of Trebizond, Bartolomeo Facio, and Antonio Beccadelli, the author of a scandalous Hermaphroditus, inspired by the unfettered eroticism of Catullus and Martial. All the resources of Poggio's rich vocabulary of the most scurrilous Latin were employed to stain the character of his target; every imaginable crime was imputed to him, and the most outrageous accusations proffered, without any regard to plausibility. Poggio's quarrels against Francesco Filelfo and also Niccolo Perotti pitted him against well-known scholars.

Humanist script

a sample of Poggio's handwriting

Poggio was famous for his beautiful and legible book hand. The formal humanist script he invented developed into Roman type, which remains popular as a printing font today (his friend Niccolò de' Niccoli's script in turn developed into the Italic type, first used by Aldus Manutius in 1501).[23]


  • Poggii Florentini oratoris et philosophi Opera : collatione emendatorum exemplarium recognita, quorum elenchum versa haec pagina enumerabit, Heinrich Petri ed., (apud Henricum Petrum, Basel, 1538)
  • Poggius Bracciolini Opera Omnia, Riccardo Fubini ed., 4 vol. Series: Monumenta politica et philosophica rariora. (Series 2, 4–7; Torino, Bottega d'Erasmo, 1964-1969)
  • Epistolae, Tommaso Tonelli ed. (3 vol., 1832–61); Riccardo Fubini ed. (1982, re-edition of vol. III of Opera Omnia)
  • Poggio Bracciolini Lettere, Helen Harth ed., Latin and Italian, (3 vol., Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1984-7)
  • The Facetiae, Bernhardt J. Hurwood transl. (Award Books, 1968)
  • Facetiae of Poggio and other medieval story-tellers, Edward Storer transl., (London: G. Routledge & Sons & New York: E.P. Dutton, 1928) Online version
  • Phyllis Walter Goodhart Gordon transl., Two Renaissance Book Hunters: The Letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicolaus De Niccolis (Columbia Un. Press, 1974, 1991)
  • Beda von Berchem transl., The infallibility of the Pope at the Council of Constance; the trial of Hus, his sentence and death at the stake, in two letters, (C. Granville, 1930) (The authenticity of this work is in debate since the earliest edition discovered was in German in the 1840s.)