Bruni, Leonardo ca. 1370–1444 Italian Historian and Humanist

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Bruni, Leonardo
ca. 1370–1444
Italian historian and humanist

Leonardo Bruni, the most important Italian humanist of the early 1400s, gained famed for his histories and biographies and his translations of ancient Greek works. His most ambitious project was a history of the city of Florence. Celebrated as the leading literary figure and best-selling author of his day, Bruni enjoyed great success in his lifetime.

Bruni's Life. Bruni was born to wealthy parents in the Tuscan city of Arezzo. In the early 1390s he entered the University of Florence. He intended to study law but instead fell into the literary circle of Coluccio Salutati, the chancellor of Florence. Salutati recommended his young friend for a position as secretary to Pope Innocent VII in Rome. Bruni held this post from 1405 to 1414, serving a series of popes. In 1414 he returned to Florence to begin a scholarly career, which brought him great fame. In 1427 he became chancellor of Florence. Other political and professional honors followed. When Bruni died in 1444, he was honored in Florence and famous throughout Europe.

Greek Translations. Bruni produced Latin versions of the works of numerous Greek writers and orators. He translated speeches by Demosthenes, biographies by Plutarch, and four of Plato's dialogues. He also created new translations of several of Aristotle's works. Bruni's methods of translation were controversial. Most translators of his time favored literal, word-for-word translations. Bruni, by contrast, preferred to translate a piece according to its "sense." He defended this method in On Correct Translation (ca. 1420).

Bruni's most popular translation from the Greek was St. Basil of Caesarea's Letter to Young Men (1400–1401). This piece, which argues that Christians can benefit from reading the works of pagan* authors, provided support for Salutati in an argument with clergy members over the value of the classics. The work came to embody the views of the humanist movement.

Historical Writings. Many scholars consider Bruni the first modern historian. He wrote on topics from ancient Greek and Rome to the Italy of his day. His works on ancient history used Greek sources to supplement the existing Latin histories of authors such as Livy. Many of Bruni's histories promoted particular political views. For example, in Commentary on Greek Affairs (1439), he implied that political decisions should be made by educated citizens rather than by the masses.

Bruni composed his masterwork, the History of the Florentine People, over the period between 1415 and 1444. It covers the history of Florence from the founding of the city in the first century b.c. to the beginning of the 1400s. The history focuses on how Florence maintained its freedom and expanded its empire but generally ignores the political struggles within the city. The work is both a celebration of the city's achievements and a model for good foreign policy.

Bruni's Humanism. In his own time Bruni was best known as a translator, orator, and historian. Modern scholars, however, focus on his role as a humanist thinker. In 1955 historian Hans Baron described Bruni as the first "civic* humanist," meaning someone who blended classical studies with a commitment to political involvement. The ideals of civic humanism were classical learning, liberty, and devotion to the common good. According to Baron, Florence in the early 1400s was the breeding ground for this new philosophy. Baron and some other scholars claim that it influenced later writers from Machiavelli through Thomas Jefferson.

Baron's ideas about Bruni remain influential. However, many other historians have pointed out flaws in his argument. Some note that the republican* ideas Baron describes had been discussed at least 100 years before Bruni's time. Others argue that Bruni's writings did not really promote democracy. Instead, they claimed that the ideal state is one ruled by "the best and the wealthy." Like most humanists of his time, Bruni supported existing governments, controlled mostly by aristocrats. However, he tried to improve the character of these regimes by providing examples of wise and virtuous conduct.

(See alsoHistory, Writing of; Humanism; Italian Language and Literature; Translation. )

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* civic

related to a city, a community, or citizens

* republican

refers to a form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others

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Bruni, Leonardo ca. 1370–1444 Italian Historian and Humanist

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