The Florentine Renaissance


As the German emperors lost effective control of Northern Italy, many of the cities in this area became self-governing republics.  Florence was one of these cities.  Its wealth was mostly based on a widespread network of banking and commercial activities, and a group of families effectively controlled the political system.  This system resembled republican Rome, with the signoria or   governing council composed mostly of members of the merchant families, taking the place of the Roman Senate.[1]


Petrarch and the Humanities

Throughout the early Middle Ages there were always individual scholars that pursued the study of ancient thought and that transmitted this interest to a group of disciples.  Many of these masters were equally adept in the sciences and the humanities.  The institutionalization of higher education during the twelfth century provided opportunities to a wider learning audience, but it also resulted in increasing academic dogmatism and perhaps an excessive emphasis in professional training.  Also, the translation of most of Aristotle’s works during the late twelfth century after being lost to the West for many centuries caused an almost obsession with his thought in academic circles during the thirteenth century, to the neglect of other classical authors. 


The man most responsible for a revival of interest in the Humanities during the century was Francesco Petrarcha (anglicized Petrarch).  Petrarch was born at Arezzo in 1304, the son of a Florentine father.  Under pressure from his father he started legal studies at Montpelier and Bologna, but at the death of his father in 1326 he abandoned these studies to dedicate himself to the pursuit of literature. He took minor ecclesiastical orders in order to make a living, and he served in several clerical and diplomatic appointments at different cities in Italy and France, while his fame grew as a poet.  His study of classical poetry awakened in him a deep admiration for the civilization of Greece and specially Rome, mixed with a sense of nostalgia: “Among the many subjects which interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own. In order to forget my own time I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages, and consequently I delighted in history.”[2]


The Chancellor of Renaissance Florence

Coluccio Salutati was born in a province of the Florentine Republic in 1331.  In 1335 his family moved to Bologna.  Coluccio studied to become a notary at Bologna and served in several clerical positions.  During the time that Salutati received his secondary education in Bologna there was a growing interest in the classics in this city, and some of his teachers transmitted this interest to young Coluccio. His notarial studies also exposed him to Roman law and history, and he also developed an intense love of Roman poetry through his own personal reading. During the 1360’s, Salutati met in informal groups in Florence that shared an interest in the classics and a growing admiration for Petrarch.  He also had some communication with Petrarch by  correspondence in 1369.[3]


The political and economic system of the Florentine republic created a need for a number of administrative posts.  Foremost among the administrative offices was the position of Chancellor.  The duties of the chancellor of Florence included writing letters to foreign powers and province government officials, delivering speeches at official functions, keeping records of these interactions and acting as an advisor to the signoria on foreign affairs.  The position required literary and notarial skills, as well as a knowledge of history, and it was a perfect opportunity for the professional humanists that were emerging in this period.


In 1375 Salutati was appointed chancellor of Florence, and he remained in this office until his death in 1406. Salutati felt that the continued study of the Latin classics would improve his literary skills, so he was able to combine his professional and personal interests.  The income from his position now allowed him to begin accumulating a first-rate classical library.  During the later stages of his life, Salutati became very good at mentoring younger men and inspiring in them the same passion for the classics that he had.[4]


Leonardo Bruni, a disciple of Salutati and also a chancellor of Florence, celebrated the city and its renaissance: “…I do enjoy the solace of living in this city, which seems by far to surpass and excel all others.  It is eminent for its numerous inhabitants, its splendid buildings and its great undertakings; and in addition, some seeds of the liberal arts and of all human culture, which once seemed completely dead, remained here and grow day by day and very soon, I believe, will bring forth no inconsiderable light.”[5]


[1] Charles G. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 13-15.

[2] Francis Petrarch, “Familiar Letters”, in James Harvey Robinson, ed. and trans. Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898), 64.

[3] Ronald G. Witt, Hercules at the Crossroads, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1983), 85.

[4] Ibid., 117.

[5] 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.