Latin Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by A. M. Piazzoni]


The path begun by Petrarch and Salutati had led to the incorporation of some important graphic elements proper to Caroline into a bookhand that was already fully formed: Gothic. That progression of graphic reform reached its fulfillment with the complete reproduction of Caroline, a script that had been dead for centuries, accomplished by Poggio Bracciolini around 1400.

Poggio Bracciolini and humanistic minuscule

A pupil of Coluccio Salutati and his trusted scribe, Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) began copying texts in the Caroline script in Florence at a very young age, also imitating the general appearance of the page. An example of a manuscript that was certainly copied by Bracciolini is one made in 1402-1403 containing the treatise De verecundia by his master Salutati (today in Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Strozzi 96) which is the first example of HUMANISTIC MINUSCULE, a term used for what was then defined as ANTIQUA, produced as a particular imitation of the Caroline of the 11th-12th centuries, from which it also derives abbreviations and graphic practices.

In 1403 Bracciolini went to Rome, where a few years later he became secretary of the antipope John XXIII. He was involved in the affairs of the Great Schism of the West and participated in the Council of Constance, where the antipope was deposed, and returned again to Rome in 1423, as secretary of Pope Martin V. He maintained this position with his successors, Eugene IV and Nicholas V. The Brief of Nicholas V dated April 30, 1451, Iam diu decrevimus, was signed by Poggio. It is the first surviving document that refers to the foundation of the Vatican Library. In 1453 Bracciolini returned to Florence as Chancellor of the Republic.

He was one of the greatest discoverers of the Classics of early Humanism (for example the Institutio oratoria of Quintilian, the De rerum natura of Lucretius, various texts of Cicero, Lactantius, Tertullian, Celsus and others), which he obtained from the various regions of Europe that he visited during the numerous journeys he made on account of his position. The trips also allowed him to meet with humanists from other regions frequently. During the years 1417-1418, for example, while he was in Constance, he copied Vat. lat. 3245. This manuscript contains texts by Cicero, and was copied in a beautiful script without chiaroscuro, utilizing the letter forms of Caroline, and has regular spacing between letters and words, few ligatures and abbreviations. It also shows a meticulous attention to correct spelling. He reintroduced, for example, the Classical use of h (writing nihil instead of nichil, as it was spelled in the Middle Ages) and the distinction of the diphthong ae, the practice of which had been lost, and/or often replaced by the ȩ (e with cedilla).

miunuscola umanistica2.jpg
Alphabet of Humanistic minuscule (Vat. lat. 3245)

Poggio Bracciolini was not only a scribe and re-discoverer of the Classics, but as he was a very active person, he dedicated himself to doing translations from the Greek (for example, from Xenophon and from Diadorus Siculus), wrote his own works (several dialogues and a history of Florence), and studied ancient tombstones in depth. From this last activity he created a capital alphabet, formed from epigraphic capitals, which he employed in his manuscripts.

Niccolò Niccoli and humanistic cursive

Another great pioneer was the Florentine Niccolò Niccoli (1365-1437). He practiced the art of wool-trading, but while attending the humanistic circles of Salutati and Bracciolini he developed the interest and passion for books, which he read, annotated and sometimes copied. As the protector and friend of Bracciolini, he was very attentive to the research of the Classics that the latter had conducted during his travels. On several occasions he also contributed to the recognition of the “discovered” works and promoted research by other humanists, giving suggestions about the texts to be researched in European monasteries. Taking advantage of the rich proceeds of his activity, he amassed a huge library, which at his death totaled about 800 manuscripts (one hundred of which were Greek). The volumes were bequeathed by Niccoli to Cosimo dei Medici and formed the first nucleus of the library of the Dominican Convent of San Marco, today in the Laurentian Library of Florence.

From a paleographic point of view, he played an important role in the rediscovery of the antiquae formae script by elaborating a variant of HUMANISTIC CURSIVE, a script in which some traces of semi-Gothic are mixed with minuscule. About ten autographic manuscripts of his have been preserved, which were also finely produced in the imitation of the layout, lines and the decoration of ancient codices. He was in correspondence with the important humanists of his time, sharing his interests and actively participating in the spread of the study of the Classics, the Greek language, and the new humanistic culture.