The Humanities and Public Service


The Humanities and Education

Pier Paolo Vergerio, an educator influenced by Salutati, expressed the values of humanistic studies:  “We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only.”[1]  But “ennobling” goes beyond the practical.  The study of the humanities can also help build the human spirit, a dimension that transcends performance in society.  Bruni also emphasizes this aspect: “those subjects that are related to life and behavior, which are called the humanities (studia humanitatis) because they become a man, and perfect him.[2]


Public Service

Salutati struggled his whole life with his dual and sometimes conflicting tastes for the life of learning and for public service.  He wrote often on this subject, but remained ambivalent on it to the end.  In a letter to a friend who was contemplating joining a monastery, he wrote in 1398:


I grant that the contemplative life is more sublime for its high level of thought; more delectable with the sweetness of tranquility and meditation; more self sufficient since it requires fewer things; more divine since it considers divine rather than human things; more noble since it exercises the intellect, the higher part of the soul, which among living things is the unique possession of man.  I grant, finally, that it is more lovable because of itself and, as Aurelius says, that it is to be sought for love of the truth; nonetheless, the active life that you flee is to be followed both as an exercise in virtue and because of the necessity of brotherly love. [3]


Salutati was able to channel his understanding of the active life based on brotherly love into a Christian patriotism.  He and Bruni, as chancellors, provided civic leadership. For them the best way to serve one’s neighbor was by supporting and defending the city-state institution, which in turn looked after the common good of all the citizens.  Bruni exalted the virtues of public service:  “And when a free people are offered this possibility of attaining offices, it is wonderful how effectively it stimulates the talents of the citizens… In our city, therefore, since this hope and prospect is held out, it is not surprising that talent and industriousness should be conspicuous.”[4]


The Rise of the Medici and the First Public Library

The increasing wealth and power of the Medici family during the 1420’s alarmed the other ruling families, but the Medici emerged from an attempt against them in 1431 with increased power.  Cosimo was “elected” head of the signoria, in 1434, and he held this position until his death in 1464.   Bruni had earlier supported and praised Cosimo, but their relationship became strained after Cosimo consolidated his power.  Poggio, Niccoli, and Traversari remained in friendlier terms with Cosimo, who used his influence to support the appointment of Poggio as chancellor in 1453. Cosimo was careful not to overdo his power, and his personal learning made him fit the classical model of a scholar-statesman.  He had financed many of the manuscript acquisitions of Poggio and Niccoli, and when Niccoli died in 1437, Cosimo funded the establishment and housing of Niccoli’s library as the first public library in the history of Europe.[5]


[1] Leonardo Bruni, “A Letter to Niccolo Strozzi,” in Gordon Griffiths, et al., eds., The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni (Binghamton, New York: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987), 252.

[3] Coluccio Salutati, “Letter to Peregrino Zambeccari” in Ronald G. Witt, ed., The Earthly Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 111.
[4] Leonardo Bruni, “Oration for the Funeral of Nanni Strozzi” in Griffiths, et al., eds., The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni, 125.

[5] Mark Jurdjevic, “Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici,” Renaissance Quarterly vol. 52, (1999), 1009-1012.