Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.30


L.R. Lind, The Letters of Giovanni Garzoni, Bolognese Humanist and Physician (1419 - 1505). Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992. ISBN 1-55540-111-2.


Reviewed by L.G. Kelly, University of Ottawa.

In contrast to past generations we moderns are not a century that places a high value on the art of letter-writing. Until the early twentieth century personal letters were still somewhat of a linguistic and social artform to be reread and savoured by the recipient in much the same way as we repeatedly listen to a cherished record of a favourite piece of music. And in a sense publication of letters is an attempt to share the pleasure of the original recipient with a wide circle of people who may be interested in the writer. Seneca Epistulae morales xl.1 sets out the task the reviewer faces in a book such as this:

... quanto iucundiores sunt litterae quae vera amici absentis vestigia, veras notas adferant.
In this light what sort of picture are we given of Giovanni Garzoni from this book?

Giovanni Garzoni (1419 - 1505) was one of those polymaths who abounded in fifteenth-century Bologna, and indeed all over humanist Europe. He was a physician in private practice in Bologna, respected enough to have been the family doctor to several prominent families, and physician to the Augustinian house in Bologna, and later to Pope Nicholas V. While lecturing in medicine at the university, he also had a reputation as a philosopher, rhetorician, teacher of literature and hagiographer. He was noted as an enthusiastic and perceptive Ciceronian, and indeed the present collection includes his little tract on the imitation of Cicero, De proprio Ciceronis imitandi studio. Though widely respected by his contemporaries, he was not a colourful figure and has largely been forgotten. In fact he had a rooted objection to publishing his writings, even though a number of his admirers copied several of his letters and circulated them in manuscript. There is no printed edition of his work before the eighteenth century, when there is a partial edition of some of his letters and other literary work. At this time Italian cities were publishing accounts their literary and artistic traditions, and when possible the works of their own authors, famous and obscure, to show what a rich literary tradition they had. And Bologna vied with the best of them.

The present edition offers the reader a comprehensive introduction, the text of his letters, a series of useful notes, De proprio Ciceronis imitandi studio, a list of his correspondents, a bibliography and an Index nominum.

The introduction has two parts. The first dealing with Garzoni's life, is a "names and dates" biography, drawn mainly from the eighteenth-century biographies and the rather exiguous modern material on him. Where possible, this is fleshed out by internal evidence from the letters. It is concise and wide-ranging. One of its best features is its comprehensive bibliographical footnotes. The second part is a discussion of the letters which attempts to set a chronology for them from internal evidence. The major points of discussion, however, revolve around the identity of his correspondents, who include a large number of well known humanists, the social and intellectual life of Bologna as Garzoni reveals it, and his beloved Cicero. This part of the introduction concludes with a discussion of editorial principles and the rather odd-looking stemma the editor had to deal with.

These letters are obviously in imitation of Cicero's Ad familiares, and the compiler of the original manuscripts probably thought of himself as a fifteenth-century Tiro. Lind is well cast in the role of Shackleton Bailey to his fifteenth-century Cicero. He divides the text of Garzoni's letters in two. The first set, called Epistolae familiares by the editor, appear in all the manuscripts. The second set, termed Epistolae extravagantes, appear in a number of manuscripts but not in the major authorities, B and F, two fairly complete manuscripts that agree in most particulars. After his death, the copies of these letters were returned to his family by the most important Dominican monastery in Bologna, which seems to have offered him patronage. Lind prefers to leave the letters in the order in which they appear in the major manuscripts to give some sense of how they were presented to the original readers. The editing itself is careful -- the textual tradition seems to have been made easier by some very meticulous fifteenth-century scribes. Lind does not translate -- I thoroughly agree with him on this -- the Latin has a flavour of its own, typical of fifteenth-century Italian humanism, and this would certainly be somewhat distorted in English. He does, how ever give a valuable English summary of each letter. These summaries include short comments on the background of the letter and the people and events mentioned in it.

What sort of image does this collection present of its author? Garzoni is plainly a scholar, widely read, completely at home in the Classical world of Cicero's Rome, and with some respect for the Middle Ages. He has the humanist habit of the casual but well-turned echo to make a point gracefully. His authors range from Plautus to Tacitus, with a good sprinkling of Greek philosophers. By far the majority of his classical references are taken from Cicero, but other prose writers that figure largely are Quintilian and Seneca. Of the poets, Vergil is by far the most frequent, followed by Horace and Ovid. Given the ascendancy of Ovid during the Middle Ages and in the centuries immediately following Garzoni, I find it interesting that Horace is quoted more often than Ovid. Garzoni is very familiar with the Fathers, in particular Lactantius, Jerome and Augustine. Other writers quoted include Aquinas and the humanists of his own generation. These "echoes" (they are too casual to be called quotations) look both forwards to the great collections of Elegantiae and Adagia like those of Valla and Erasmus, and backwards to Cicero's own use of quotations to make a point.

Garzoni certainly revered Cicero. Indeed a large number of his letters discuss stylistic matters, even if, as often happened at the time, desire outran performance. I find his style a little too choppy to be an entirely satisfactory imitation of Cicero ; but then we are at the beginning of both the humanist preoccupation with the artistry of Cicero, and of the stylistic mania Erasmus guyed in his Ciceronianus. Lind's discussion of Garzoni's style is extremely good, if marred by the careless statement that Quintilian (ca 30 AD - 100 AD) was a rival to Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC) (pp xxiv-xxv). That Quintilian respected Cicero highly is not in question; but the humanist period and the late seventeenth century after them set them one against the other, contrasting Cicero the orator with Quintilian the teacher.

This collection highlights the importance of religious conviction to the Italian humanist. But the humanist's religion was rather learned in tone, and Garzoni shows well how the medieval and humanist reconciliation of Christian and Pagan learning worked. It seems obvious from Garzoni's letters that there is no real division between Roman and Christian as far as he was concerned. In fact the synthesis between the two owes something to Augustine's De doctrina christiana, but takes it further than Augustine would have tolerated.

In these letters to friends Garzoni is not too reticent about presenting his private persona: we see the little points of conceit, the self-image he showed to his friends, the crochety elements of old age. He comes over as a man who was conscious of his own importance and qualities -- and he is in no way embarrassed by fulsome praise. As he was a doctor, there is much on health -- some of it professional in tone, some looking suspiciously like hypochondria. He also appears as a kindly man who was a good friend. But at the same time he is a scholar writing to scholars; at times he plays the older man, at times the social inferior to someone more important or influential. Much of this flavour has to do with Garzoni's cordial relationships with the local Dominicans whom he was trying to convert into rhetoricians. One of these, incidentally, was Savanorola.

Garzoni was prominent enough to be involved in the affairs of the town. There are very few prominent Bolognese who do not appear among his correspondents. As in Cicero's correspondence some difference is made between important acquaintances, and the close circle of friends with shared enthusiasms, gifts and knowledge. Some of these latter he gives us a certain taste of. He is full of references to current affairs, including war and the damage. He is not, however, as Cicero was, a member of the governing elite, and we rarely get the insider's view of local politics.

In all this edition is excellently done. Lind does not hide his liking for his man, but does not hide his faults either. It is a nice piece of editing, and the result is a very human portrait of an interesting character from the early Renaissance. We need more of this sort of primary source and perceptive comment on it to deepen our sense of early humanism.