Bracciolini, Poggio (1380–1459)

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Bracciolini, Poggio (13801459)

A leading humanist and scholar of the Italian Renaissance, Poggio Bracciolini was born Giovanni Francesco Poggio Bracciolini in the village of Terranuova, in Tuscany. A scholar of Latin and Greek, he could write and speak in both of these languages. He was an expert copyist and a tireless collector of ancient manuscripts, bringing hundreds of unknown works to light for the first time, and inspiring a generation of scholars to make their own researches into the writing and philosophies of the ancients. As a young man he journeyed to Rome, where he became a papal secretary, serving first with Boniface IX. He traveled with the popes, in whose service he had access to the libraries of monasteries and churches where many books had been stored for centuries. While the popes were embroiled in the Great Schism that divided the Catholic Church between the rival popes and their supporters in Avignon and Rome, Bracciolini brought to light important discourses of the Roman orator Cicero. He painstakingly copied down hundreds of damaged fragments and manuscripts, including books of Vitruvius, Marcus Quintilian, Titus Petronius, Titus Maccias Plautus, and other Latin authors who had been completely unknown during the Middle Ages.

In 1452 Bracciolini left the service of the popes and returned to Florence. He had earned a reputation as a speaker and a writer of panegyrics (praise for the dead), as a translator, and a writer of essays on customs and morals, including On the Vicissitudes of Fortune, On Nobility, and On Marriage in Old Age. He was also known for satires and obscene fables written in beautifully expressive Latin, collected under the title Facetiae, as well as invectives, or essays that criticized members of the clergy for their hypocrisy and vice. He translated the works of ancient Greeks, including Xenophon, into Latin, then the universal scholarly language. His famous work, De Varietate Fortunae, is a meditation on the passing of ancient glories of Rome. He was an early archaeologist, studying the ruins of Rome and deciphering their mysterious inscriptions. In 1453 he headed the chancery of the Republic of Florence, becoming the city's official historian. While in office he wrote a history of the city, in imitation of the Roman historian Livy. Bracciolini's work remains one of the best sources of information on the early Renaissance in Florence.