No one mentions notaries, secretaries and other such public functionaries and thinks of power and influence. It’s true, in countries subject to civil law, a notary is required to authenticate a power of attorney, write up a will or transfer property. But apart from that, notaries are not seen as agents of cultural innovation, but petty secular saints interceding between citizens and the state.
Things were much different in the late medieval period, from the 13th to the 15th century.
The notaries of the Italian cities had a secret. As professionals of law and writing, they operated in a culture which had been rocked by the Investiture Controversy, the cause célèbre of the 12th century in lands under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire. The conflict between Church and State was nowhere felt more deeply than in the Italian peninsula, the contested space as well as the laboratory of power experiments played out between the Pope and the Emperor. It is no wonder that Bologna, and not Paris, Oxford or Lisbon became the centre of European legal education.
By the 13th century, Italian education was synonymous with the study of law. And there were legions of notaries in every Italian city, particularly in the north, in Padua, Vicenza, Verona or Florence. Many of these notaries were far from the monotonous clerks they became much later. Not only were they experts in writing letters, specialists of political thought, but they also had access, more than other European professionals elsewhere, to the written culture of ancient Rome. Despite Italy’s relative lukewarm interest in the works of the pagan authors of antiquity, large numbers of old manuscripts containing these works were being preserved in Italian libraries, just waiting to be dug out and brought up to light.
It should be no wonder that because the northern Italian notary was the convergence point of legal theory, public writing and ancient culture that humanism had to start with them – which is to say that they put Europe on track towards the Renaissance.
Petrarch is usually credited with being the father of humanism, but as Ronald Witt has amply demonstrated, he represented the third or even the fourth generation of humanists who recovered the culture of ancient Rome and revolutionised the West. Before Petrarch, there had been the notaries, the men with a secret penchant for ancient Rome and classical culture, committed to walking differently, as one of them put it, in the footsteps of the ancient poets.
Take Albertano da Brescia, notary and judge, a lover of Seneca and Cicero. Take Lovato dei Lovati, whose poems are widely considered to be the earliest humanist writings. Take Albertino Mussato, the author of the first secular tragedy since ancient times. Take the oft-celebrated Brunetto Latini, who despite being a typically medieval encyclopedist, was also the first to undertake a translation of Cicero’s known works. Take Urso da Genova, who went against the grain of Provençal poetry typical of the Genovese and gave himself to classicising Latin verse. Take Benvenuto Campesani of Vicenza who celebrated the rediscovery of the Roman poet Catullus in a well-curated epigram. Or the Florentine Filippo Ceffi who translated Ovid for someone else’s wife. Or another Florentine, Francesco Bruni, who perfected the Latin epistolary style. Notary after notary after notary paving the way from the medieval relative indifference to the classics to the fresh Roman (and later Greek) air of Renaissance humanism.
As it is often the case, cultural change came from unexpected circles. It came from those whose jobs were not the envy of anyone (among the educated, of course), but whose taste, inclination and diligence were about to change the course of European cultural history.