Omo sanza lettere

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A leaf from a manuscript containing works by Manuel Chrysoloras, who contributed to the rebirth of Greek letters in the West, Vatican, BAV, Barb.gr.160

At the turn of the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci described himself as an ‘omo sanza lettere’, a man without letters. He most likely meant that he had, to paraphrase Ben Johnson, little Latin and even less Greek.

Leonardo was one of the last men of the Middle Ages and one of the first of the Renaissance. During the medieval period, the inability to read and write Latin was a barrier towards career progression, but not to know Greek was absolutely alright. Most rulers couldn’t read Latin anyway. Few aristocrats invested time and money in the kind of education that included the learning of Latin. To be ‘without letters’ during most of the medieval period meant to lack access to Latin. Then something changed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Greek, like Ulysees, came back home after a long exile abroad.

The memory of ancient Greek never left the medieval West. Men and women of letters were well aware that Greek was as authoritative a language as Latin, that the New Testament had been written in Greek, that many Church Fathers wrote in Greek, that Cicero, the great master of rhetoric, therefore of language, had mastered Greek. But with no-one to teach Greek or to give Western culture intellectual challenges requiring knowledge of Greek, the West did happily without.

Things began to change in the late 14th century when a first wave of Byzantine scholars  arrived in the West as a result of diplomacy and political crises. Manuel Chrysoloras was one of the first who brought the West out of Hellenic amnesia. Many followed in his footsteps, to the point that by the 16th century, Western humanists were trained in both Latin and Greek. The return of the Greek language to Western shores meant also the return of Greek literature to Western readers. One after the other, the works of Greek antiquity recovered their old markets and conquered new ones.

 

 

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