Beggars and choosers

A manuscript once owned by Petrarch, Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 146

The masterpieces of the Renaissance wouldn’t have been possible without the rediscovery of classical antiquity, which directly and uncontroversially spawned the great artistic, intellectual and cultural revival of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The architects and agents of humanism were all seekers of ancient literary treasures, hunters of buried words and buried worlds. Living and working at the height of the medieval intellectual culture, they became increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of travel of medieval letters and started to develop a taste for lost worlds. This taste had fallen at the back of the palate during the medieval period, as intellectuals devoted more attention to the building of future heavenly homes than to the exploration of the classical past.

But one can’t visit ancient sites if there are no ruins to see. So the humanists understood that the best way to uncover the secrets of ancient Greece and ancient Rome were through the books which preserved them. In the West, most of these had been lost in the cultural upheavals following the collapse of Roman authority. Those that survived had fallen out of circulation, as tastes and interests shifted away from those of late Roman antiquity, and were no longer copied by the scribes of the new age.

As humanist scholars, like Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini, began scouting out books in old monasteries across Europe, more ancient works began to circulate again. Often copied and published by the discoverers themselves, these books brought a world back to life.

Novelty through antiquity.

No old book was minor enough to be overlooked. Starved of ancient letters, the classically-minded beggars of 14th- and 15th-century Europe couldn’t be choosers. The humanist West kept its arms open for any encounter. And many were surprising. Petrarch had rediscovered works which had been hugely influential in the ancient period. Nor did he spurn the works of more modest authors, like those included in a 10th-century manuscript from northern Italy which became part of his library (image above). Annotated by Petrarch himself, the book contains the works of the so-called ‘minor Latin orators’, a collection of rhetorical works by Fortunatianus, Julius Severianus, Augustine and Cicero, not that these authors were themselves minor, but their works fell outside the canon of ancient rhetorical education.

By the end of the Renaissance, most ancient literary works which had survived into the post-classical period had been re-discovered and re-released into the world. Europe had been renewed from its words up. And the renewal, once ignited, would keep going.

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