Article abstract: Through his tireless efforts, Poggio discovered and copied manuscripts of classical Latin authors that had been lost for centuries and which, if not for him, might have remained lost forever.
Giovanni Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, better known as Poggio, was born in Terranuova, part of the Republic of Florence, in 1380. He received his earliest education in nearby Arezzo, but at the age of sixteen or seventeen moved to Florence to complete his studies and train for the profession of notary. He was taught Latin by John of Ravenna and may have been a student in Greek under Manuel Chrysoloras, although this is disputable because Poggio never gained mastery of Greek. Since he was from a poor family, Poggio copied manuscripts for the book trade to support himself in these endeavors in Florence.
Poggio’s knowledge of Latin caught the attention of Coluccio Salutati, a student of Petrarch and Florence’s first Humanist chancellor. It was probably at this time that Salutati nurtured in the young Poggio a love for the classics and the determination to search for lost manuscripts. Also at this time, Poggio met and became a close friend of Niccolò Niccoli, a wealthy Florentine with whom he shared a lifelong passion for classical artifacts and classical manuscripts. These two men, along with Leonardo Bruni, Ambrogio Traversari, and Leon Battista Alberti, carried on the intellectual movement begun by Petrarch in the late 1300’s and continued by Salutati in the early 1400’s.
In 1403, Poggio entered the Papal Curia as a scriptor (scribe). He soon advanced to the post of apostolic secretary and, except for an unhappy interlude from 1418 to 1422, when he served Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, in England, spent the next fifty years in service to five different popes.
During the early years of his career in the Curia, Poggio developed the Humanist style of writing. The letters of this hand, simpler and rounder in formation and easier to read than Gothic, directly imitated the Carolingian script of the eleventh century. The earliest example of Humanist script is in a manuscript of Cicero’s letters to Titus Pomponius Atticus in Poggio’s own hand and dated 1408.
Poggio’s main interest throughout his lifetime was in the area of classical studies—including archaeology, architecture, coins, epigraphy, and statues, as well as manuscripts. Upon entering Rome for the first time in 1403, Poggio was struck by the decay of the once-noble city. He was the first to use a truly scientific approach to the study of the city’s ruins. Comparing the sights with descriptions from Livy (Titus Livius), Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, and Sextus Julius Frontinus, Poggio was able to catalog in part the remains of ancient Rome. He accurately assigned to the Republican era a bridge, an arch, a tomb, and a temple. Among the buildings dating to the Empire, he described several temples, two theaters (including the theater of Pompey the Great), the Colosseum, the Column of Trajan, and the mausoleums of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. His treatise, De varietate fortunae (1431-1438; on the vicissitude of fortune), is the most important document for the physical state of Rome in the fifteenth century. Many artifacts which he discovered on his travels were used to decorate his villa outside Florence.
Poggio’s most significant contribution to classical scholarship came in the area of ancient manuscripts. It is reported that as early as 1407 Poggio was in the monastery of Monte Cassino looking for lost texts. The Council of Constance in 1414, however, opened up the monastic libraries of the transalpine countries to Italian scholars. The council meetings, designed to establish one single pope in Rome, afforded the apostolic secretary much leisure time in which to explore the monasteries in search of ancient Latin manuscripts.
From 1415 to 1417, Poggio made his most important and most numerous discoveries in the monasteries of France, Germany, and Switzerland. In 1415, at Cluny, Poggio unearthed two previously unknown orations of Cicero. At Saint Gall the next year came his astounding discovery of the entire Institutio oratoria (c. 95 c.e.; On the Education of an Orator, better known as Institutio oratoria) by Quintilian, which had previously been known...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)