Humanist Circles in Renaissance Florence


The sciences and the professions consist of mostly objective knowledge, but the humanities are more the result of community life, and they are better experienced in an interactive setting rather than in formal lectures.  Some of the literary arts such as poetry and disputation are clearly group activities.  The humanities have a strong element of celebration, of the joy of shared humanity, of being alive and being part of a community.  So, not surprisingly,  the characteristic intellectual activity of our period was the informal gathering of friends,  in contrast with  the emphasis on university life of the previous two centuries.  For this community of scholars, “its ideal was a group of friends rather than a universal system.”[1]


One of these groups gathered around the Florentine poet Bocaccio at the Augustinian monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence.   Bocaccio had met Petrarch on a visit that the latter made to Florence in 1350.  They immediately became friends, and this friendship was maintained through visits and correspondence until Petrarch’s death.  As a result of this friendship, Boccacio also became interested in the classics, and he accumulated a sizable library of Latin works.  The discussion group at the monastery included laymen as well as monks.  Upon his death in 1375  Bocaccio bequeathed his library to the monastery.[2]


In the 1380’s and early 1390’s another circle of humanists met daily in the cell of Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili (1342-94) at this same monastery of Santo Spirito, taking advantage of Bocaccio’s donated library.  Marsili had studied philosophy and theology at the Universities of Padua and Paris.  He came into contact with Petrarch at Padua in 1370 and later became a friend of Bocaccio.  This group included Salutati and his “disciples”, and Salutati soon became the central figure of the circle.[3] In addition to these regular meetings, there were also more spontaneous ones at the homes of some of the members of the circle.


The most important of Salutati protégées was Leonardo Bruni, who became like a son to him after the death of his own son Piero.  Bruni had come to Florence around 1390 to study Law, but he did not finish these studies and instead he dedicated himself to the study of Greek.[4]  Bruni excelled in translating Classical Greek authors into Latin.  Another member of Salutati’s circle was Niccolo Niccoli, a wealthy heir of one of Florence’s leading families.  Niccoli wrote little, but he devoted his time and fortune to collecting classical art and manuscripts.


Giovanni Poggio Bracciolini came to Florence to study to become a notary, and he finished his studies in 1402.  He had been employed by Salutati since 1401. At Poggio’s request, Salutati used his influence to find him work in the Papal Curia in 1403.  In 1405, Bruni also got an appointment to the Papal Curia with Poggio’s help.[5]  Poggio took advantage of his travels with the Papal Curia to search for manuscripts in old monasteries, with outstanding results.  He unearthed, among other works, thirteen orations of Cicero and key works by Lucretius and Quintilian.  He had financial support for purchasing manuscripts from Niccoli and later from Cosimo de Medici. 


The departure of Poggio and Bruni and the death of Salutati decimated the humanist circle, but the spirit was maintained.  Niccoli remained in Florence and continued his friendship with Poggio and Bruni by correspondence.  Niccoli also started a long and fruitful friendship with Ambrogio Traversari, a monk from the monastery of S. Maria degli Angeli in Florence, who was involved in translating the Greek Fathers into Latin.  Niccoli persuaded Traversari to also translate some secular works.  A new humanist circle began to meet daily at Traversari’s cell in the 1420’s.  This cicle  included Niccoli, and the brothers Cosimo and Lorenzo Medici.  In 1415 Bruni returned to Florence, and in 1427 he was appointed chancellor with the help of the Medici family.  He held this position until his death in 1444.


Many of the classical authors, including Plato and Cicero, used the format of a dialogue set at an informal gathering to present their ideas.  The atmosphere described in these dialogues probably provided inspiration for the Florentine circles.  In turn, some of the participants in these circles also used the dialogue format in their writings.  Their descriptions may help illustrate the atmosphere of the actual meetings:


“I [Poggio] have often heard the [nature of true nobility] discussed by some of my eloquent and very close friends.  Some time ago, when I retreated from the city into the country for a change of air,  Niccolo Niccoli and Lorenzo de Medici, both learned men and my best friends, joined me at my request.   I particularly wanted to show them some sculptures I had brought from the city.”[6]


“Since the feast days for Christ’s resurrection were being celebrated and my good friend Niccolo and I [Bruni] had come together, we decided to go visit Coluccio Salutati, easily the leading man of his age in wisdom and eloquence and integrity… Coluccio turned to us with that expression he assumes when he is about to speak carefully; and when he saw he had our attention, he began a discussion of this sort: ‘Words cannot express, young men, how delighted I am with your presence: whether because of your character, or the studies we have in common, or the respect you pay me, I regard you with extraordinary friendship and affection.’”[7] 


[1] R. W. Southern, Medieval Humanism (Oxford: Basil Blacwell Publisher, 1970), 60.

[2] Charles L. Stinger, “Humanism in Florence” in Albert I. Rabil, ed., Renaissance Humanism, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988),  179-180.
[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Ibid., 308.

[5] Witt, Hercules at the Crossroads, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1983), 396-397.

[6] Poggio Bracciolini, “On Nobility” in Albert Rabil, Jr., ed., Knowledge, goodness, and power: the debate over nobility among quattrocento Italian humanists, (Binghamton, New York: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1991), 64.

[7] Leonardo Bruni, “The Dialogues” in Gordon Griffiths, et al., eds., The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni (Binghamton, New York: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987), 63-64.