BMCR 2008.06.25

The Reception of Plutarch’s Lives in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Two volumes

, The reception of Plutarch's Lives in fifteenth-century Italy. Renæssance studier ; 14. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2007. 2 volumes : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9788763505321 €82.00.

[Contents are listed at the end of the review.]

Pade’s elegant and richly illustrated book sets out to explore the revival of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the Italian Renaissance by examining the various translations produced in Italy during the first half of the fifteenth century and their diffusion in manuscripts and in printed books up to 1499. The book is divided in two volumes. The first contains an overview of the reception of the Lives from Antiquity to the first half of the Quattrocento; the second volume, which constitutes the core of Pade’s work, presents the text of all prefaces to the translations and a census of all manuscripts, as well as lists of scribes, manuscript owners and dated manuscripts, together with a bibliography and indices. The transcription of the prefaces, without claiming to be a final critical edition, nonetheless quotes a large number of the manuscripts, which gives a good impression of the reception of the text. Each entry makes useful reference to the section of volume one where the text is discussed; in addition to the text, it contains the incipit and explicit of each preface, references to some of the primary sources quoted in the text, a critical apparatus, and a brief overview of the manuscripts seen and not seen. Pade’s survey has identified two new translations and two prefaces that complement the findings contained in Giustiani’s pioneering article on the Lives in the Quattrocento.1 Above all, Pade’s book makes available for the first time the text of all the prefaces to the translations, as well as their location and date, and the names of patrons and translators. It is thus an indispensable reference to anyone interested in the reception of Plutarch.

In volume one, Chapter I traces the influence and reception of Plutarch’s works in Rome and Byzantium, from Plutarch’s death (roughly 120 AD) to the 13th century with Maximus Planudes. This chapter is perhaps the weakest part of the book: it consists of a long, often very descriptive account of ancient sources mentioning Plutarch. In this context, there are some imprecise and at times incorrect statements. For instance, on p. 51, Eunapius is characterised as a “Neoplatonic historian”, rather than as the historian of Neoplatonic philosophers; and on p. 52, the author states that “the general tendency of Plutarch’s thought recommended him to the Neoplatonists; here I will mention only Proclus (410 or 412-485), who regularly quotes him in his commentaries on Plato’s works, and Simplicius”. Yet the philosopher Proclus praises in his commentaries is the Neoplatonist Plutarch of Athens, not the author of the Lives, Plutarch of Cheronea; more important, Plutarch’s doctrine of the origin of the world had not been adopted but opposed by the Neoplatonists, who rejected his philosophy.2

Chapter II traces the revival of Plutarch in the Latin West from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. This developed in four main stages: the reception of the Institutio Traiani, a treatise on the theory of government allegedly written by Plutarch to the Emperor Trajan, in fact a late antique or medieval forgery, known only through a compilation of sixteen fragments by John of Salisbury; Petrarch’s interest in Plutarch; a fourteenth-century Latin version of Plutarch’s De cohibenda ira, translated at the request of Cardinal Pietro Corsini by the Greek scholar Simon Atumanus, then reworked by Coluccio Salutati into “better Latin”. Another important stage at the end of the fourteenth century is the translation of the Lives from demotic Greek into Aragonese commissioned by Juan Fernandez de Heredia. Heredia’s Aragonese Lives were eventually rendered into Tuscan, but seem to have been ignored by humanistic circles.

Chapter III is devoted to the reception of the Lives in Florence between the years 1390 and 1414. Coluccio Salutati’s role was central, by asking the humanist Iacopo Angeli to bring back from Constantinople a copy of Plutarch’s Lives and Moralia, and by encouraging his fellow humanists who had a good knowledge of Greek (through Manuel Chrysoloras’ teaching) to translate or retranslate Plutarch into humanistic Latin. Pade rightly concludes that Plutarch’s sudden popularity at the beginning of the Quattrocento was historically due to Chrysoloras. However, her attempt to place Plutarch more than any other author at the centre of Chrysoloras’ enterprise (p. 94-95) seems somewhat exaggerated: most of Chrysoloras’ pupils were also responsible for undertaking a number of translations of other important authors such as Ptolemy, Plato and Aristotle. More convincingly, the author explains how, as they discovered through Plutarch’s Lives the history of ancient Greece and Italy, and of prominent Republican Romans (Brutus, Cicero, Antonius and Cato minor), Florentine humanists reused the ancient opposition between republic and tyranny to emphasise the Republican origins of Florence, in the context of their opposition to Visconti’s Milan, presented as the embodiment of tyranny.

In Chapter IV Pade interrupts her study of Florence (which she resumes three chapters later) and explores the situation in Venice in the years 1414-1440. The Venetian reception of Plutarch was mainly centred upon Guarino and two of his pupils, Francesco Barbaro and Leonardo Giustinian; it reflects and supports Venice’s self-representation as a new Athens, progressively relying upon Classical Greece (rather than Byzantium as in the past) as a source of historical models. Here Pade follows Patrizia Fontini Brown’s perspective according to which Venice, unlike mainland Italian cities such as Florence, did not seek its (mythical) roots in Roman past, but sought to represent itself as the heir of Athens and Constantinople. This would explain, according to Pade, why Guarino, after having translated the Roman Lives in Florence, came to Venice and rendered the Greek Lives, as well as the first 71 chapters of Herodotus. In addition, following the perspective of Margaret King, Pade insists on the fact that Venetian humanism was largely shaped by patricians from within the city (the most famous being Francesco Barbaro), by contrast to the situation in Florence, where the most prominent humanists, Salutati and Bruni, came from ouside the city. This would explain, for instance, why Guarino chose to translate the Life of Dion, which would appeal to an aristocratic audience (p. 185). But Guarino’s work also shows Venice’s “capacity for integrating foreign elements, in other words humanist studies as developed primarily in Florence, into a Venetian context” (p. 184).

In a very brief Chapter V entitled “Northern Italy: Other Translations” (pp. 225-230) Pade explores three versions of individual lives by the Milanese Andrea Biglia and by two students of Vittorino da Feltre in Mantua, Ognibene da Lonigo and Carlo Gonzaga.

Chapter VI examines the activities of Guarino in Ferrara in the 1430s. In Ferrara, Guarino became tutor of Leonello, the son of Niccolo d’Este III, before founding his own school, and subsequently becoming professor of rhetoric at the University of Ferrara. Pade usefully explores the way in which Guarino is trying to mould Leonello’s political persona on a hagiographic image of Julius Caesar, and how, through his reading of Caesar’s own writings, he also developed a positive image of Caesar. This is reflected in his translation of Plutarch’s Caesar, in which he omits or tones down any allusion to Caesar’s cruelty or to the unpleasant consequences of war (pp. 243-244). In this context, Guarino also becomes prominent in the so-called Scipio-Caesar controversy, against Poggio Bracciolini who defended Scipio the Elder against Caesar as the best Roman leader. This leads Guarino and Poggio Bracciolini not only to defend their respective patrons (Cosimo de’ Medici and Leonello d’Este) but also to reflect upon the best political regime, monarchy or republic.

In Chapter VII “Florence and the Roman Curia in the 1430s and ’40s” Pade explores the reception of Plutarch’s Lives in Medicean Florence and in Rome. She links the translations of the Lives of prominent heroes such as Timoleon, Camillus and Themistocles to the constitutional crisis of Florence in the 30s and 40s, and the shaping of Cosimo de’ Medici as a Republican having freed Florence from tyranny. Similarly, she connects translations by humanists working at the Curia (mostly Lapo da Castiglionchio, Giovanni Aurispa and Antonio Pacini) to the reestablishment of the papacy in Rome, seen as a second founding of Rome.

Chapter VIII “The remaining Lives” deals with the 1450s. By this time most individual Lives had been translated into Latin by various humanists, and started to be seen as parts of a corpus rather than individual texts. This chapter also mentions the first production of a collection of Lives by Vespasiano da Bisticci and some biographies made in imitation of Plutarch. Three appendices complete the first volume: Guarino’s annotations and revised translations; Lapo’s prefaces to Humphrey of Gloucester and Alfonso of Aragon; and a list of the fifteenth-century printed editions following Campano’s 1470 editio princeps.

The central question addressed by Pade is why Plutarch’s Lives became the object of such a tremendous interest in the Renaissance, which Lives were translated, in which order and why. She points out that “the Lives only gradually came to be looked upon as a single corpus of text, and that to explain their popularity one has to investigate the fortuna of each single biography”. In addition, Pade states, “it is necessary to examine the intellectual climate and ideologies, either in the centres where a Life was translated or in the milieu of the dedicatee; likewise, the reception of the single translation must be examined, because the diffusion of translations and the composition of a manuscript containing translations may reflect the political sympathies of the copyist or of the commissioner of the manuscript” (p. 26). Pade only partially succeeds in bringing out this picture due to an overemphasis, in the reviewer’s opinion at least, on Hans Baron’s “civic humanism” perspective; this reduces humanistic enterprises to static relationships between patrons and scholars who are seen to be solely motivated by a political agenda, and does not pay sufficient attention to the more fluid process of circulation and transmission of knowledge. According to Pade, the Lives‘s reception “reflects to a large degree the political ideologies of the milieu in which they were produced and read” and “the Lives themselves, and often their prefaces too, would evoke aspects of the national myth or the self-representation of the city” (p. 27). As a result, Pade establishes distinctions between the Venetian and Florentine models that often seem too stark, without considering sufficiently the cultural and intellectual exchanges between different cities and humanist circles. For instance, in chapter V the author justifies treating Northern Italian humanists in a separate chapter on the grounds that they have “little or no connection to the Florentine or Venetian groups” (p. 225), notwithstanding the fact that some of them studied in Florence and had clear connections with Bruni, Niccoli and Traversari; in chapter III, the fact that the Milanese Giobbe Resa was the dedicatee of the Life of Marius by the Florentine Iacopo Angeli (p. 124-125) goes unnoticed as an example of the connections between Milanese and Florentine circles.

More important, Pade evades the philosophical and religious dimensions of the Lives. Yet Plutarch was above all a Platonic philosopher, and was perceived as such by medieval and Renaissance translators (see Henricus Aristippus’ statement, quoted p. 62, and the prefaces in the second volume, where Plutarch is seen as a philosophical figure comparable to Aristotle and Plato). In addition, the Lives demonstrate Plutarch’s acute knowledge of the philosophical traditions that precede him, as well as of Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions (including ancient oracular and demonological rites and practices). A discussion of these aspects, including the ways in which the first humanists chose to translate technical terms related to religion, oracular practices and demonology, or how they perceived the ancient traditions mentioned by the Lives, might have provided a useful complement to a political reading of the Latin Lives.

Finally, in following closely the chronology of the reception of each individual Life, the book’s structure is problematic. The first volume is divided into eight chapters: the first two deal with the reception of Plutarch down to the end of the fourteenth century; the remaining five focus on individual translations, divided both geographically and chronologically according to the major centres where the Lives were translated in the 15th century (Florence, Venice, Ferrara, and the Roman Curia) and the order in which they were translated. This has the unfortunate consequence of dividing up Florentine productions into two distinct chapters separated by three other sections (Republican and Medicean times), and of having separate chapters related to the same translator (for instance, Guarino’s activity in Venice and in Ferrara is treated in different chapters, as are Filelfo’s translations), as if these humanistic centres and individual translations developed in isolated blocks and independently from their authors. As a result, Pade’s book is at times repetitive (for instance in the treatment of each of Guarino’s translations), and fails to provide a precise account of each individual author’s enterprise, or a more general overview of the exchanges between Florence, Venice, Ferrara, and Rome.

In sum, although the first volume suffers by presenting only a limited perspective of the revival of Plutarch’s Lives in the Renaissance, Pade’s study is an important and original contribution, mostly because it makes available for the first time a vast amount of primary sources that help us to understand the shaping of humanist, and to a certain extent, contemporary understanding of the past. In that respect, this book opens up new avenues for research on the reception of Plutarch in the Renaissance, and will remain an indispensable reference for students and scholars alike.


Volume I

Acknowledgements 4

Introduction 15

Part I Text

1 The reception of Plutarch in the Roman Empire and in Greek literature down to the thirteenth century 37

2 The revival of interest in Plutarch in the Latin West 61

3 Florence and Florentine humanism 1390-1414 89

4 Venice 1414-1440s: Venice as heir to the Greek city states and “patrician humanism” 179

5 Northern Italy: other translations 225

6 Guarino at Ferrara in the 1430s 231

7 Florence and the Roman Curia in the 1430s and ’40s 259

8 The remaining Lives 323

9 Conclusion 343

10 Appendix 1 Texts relating to Guarino 349

11 Appendix 2 Lapo’s prefaces to Humphrey of Gloucester and Alfonso of Aragon 1437-38 377

12 Printed editions 385

List of illustrations 391

Volume II

Part II Prefaces, List of Translations

Part III Catalogues

List of Manuscripts Containing Latin Translations of Plutarch’s Lives and related texts 177

List of Scribes 275

List of Owners 277

List of Dated or Datable Manuscripts 279

Bibliography 281

Index of Manuscripts and Incunables 333

Index of Names 337.


1. V. R. Giustiani, “Sulle traduzioni latine delle ‘Vite’ di Plutarco nel Quattrocento”, Rinascimento 1, n.s., 1961, pp. 3-62.

2. J. M. Dillon , The Middle Platonists, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220, Ithaca, 1996, p. 230.