December is for Decembrio

Because the Italian humanists of the Renaissance are not remembered in any current calendars, I took it upon myself to offer the month of December to Pietro Candido Decembrio, one of the leading humanist scholars of the 1400s. It’s only fair: he was rock-strong (Pietro), white-honest (Candido) and December (Decembrio) was not his middle name, but his surname.

Pietro’s academic and professional career epitomizes the Humanism and the Renaissance. He was born in Pavia, that breeding-ground of humanists, in 1399; he was an avid reader and consumer of ancient Latin literature. He was one of the first to benefit from the Greek-Byzantine migration of scholars into Italy following the Ottoman threat in the East. He studied under Manuel Chrysoloras, one of the leading Greek scholars in Italy and one of the channels through which ancient Greek literature started flowing again into Western Europe.

Pietro was a man of the early Renaissance, so in addition to being a scholar, he was a man close to the centres of power. In Genoa, he was in the service of the Dorias, one of the prominent noble families in that city-state. Moving north, he entered the court of Filippo Maria Visconti, the last Visconti duke of Milan, becoming his personal secretary. Later, he served as papal secretary, the king of Naples and the duke of Ferrara. He kept in touch with other magnates, such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the brother of King Henry V and the first English patron of humanism.

His political appointments should not overshadow his literary achievements. He studied ancient Latin and Greek literature, and he was one of the first to make Greek texts available to Latin readers. His translation of Plato’s Republic into Latin restored the knowledge in the West of one of the most important works of political philosophy. We are lucky to have his manuscript, which he wrote with his own hand and offered to Duke Humphrey around 1441.

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Pietro prefaced his Plato with copies of his letters exchanged with Duke Humfrey, British Library, Harley MS 1705

Pietro translated the Republic at Humphrey’s request and wrote the manuscript in a beautiful humanist script. Italian humanism was built on civic humanism, which was a form of republican thought inspired by classical ideas about government and civic virtue.

In translating the Republic, Pietro hoped that Plato’s ideas would find favour with the duke and come to influence the English political culture. He added notes in the margin directed to Humphrey, pointing him to important passages in the book.

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The Latin note in the margin reads: ‘Pay attention [to this], oh illustrious prince of Gloucester!’
It’s great when a humanist writes a book especially for you, it’s even better when they point out the important bits, drawing your attention to them.

 

To count humanists among your friends is no small matter. Humphrey must have been feeling proud when he inscribed the book with the words: ‘This book belongs to me Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, by the gift of Pietro Candido secretary of the duke of Milan’ (Cest livre est A moy Homfrey duc de gloucestre du don P. Candidus secretaire du duc de Mylan’).

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Humphrey collected 281 books which he donated to the University of Oxford when he died.

He wrote the words in French, and he wrote them in Gothic cursive script, which was a double sin in the eyes of the Italian humanists.

Pietro Candido Decembrio embodied all the values of the Renaissance: an appetite for the classical world, the desire to make Ancient Greek great in the West again, a sense of civic responsibility and republican pedagogy, cultivation of powerful personages, and a general sense of renewal and rebirth.

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