Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/581

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


critical. Lorenzo Valla, who died in 1457, was the author of a work De Elegantüs Latinae Linguae, which marked the highest level that had yet been reached in the critical study of Latin. He dealt with various points of grammar, with niceties of phrase and idiom, and with the discrimination of synonyms. His book appears to have been reprinted nearly sixty times between 1471 and 1536. After Valla, the next Italian Latinist who became an authority on the more minute refinements of style was Bembo, whose reputation was at its zenith in the pontificate of Leo X (1513-21). But Bembo's scope was much more limited than Valla's. Cicero's usage was a law from which Bembo never consciously swerved. In strong contrast with his timid and even morbid Ciceronianism,—a symptom that the Italian revival had passed its prime,—stands a quality which we recognise in the Latin writing of the more powerful and genial humanists. This is, briefly, the gift of writing Latin almost as if it were a living language. Politian had this gift in an eminent degree, and exhibits it in verse no less than in prose. Poggio, before him, had it too, though his Latin was much rougher and less classical. The same quality may be ascribed to Paulus Jovius (1483-1552), whose vivid and picturesque style in narrative was compared by Leo X,—with some exaggeration, but not without some justice,—to that of Livy. To write Latin as such men wrote it, demanded the union of general correctness with ease and spontaneity. The fact that several Italian humanists attained to this merit is a proof that the imitatio veterum was not necessarily lifeless or mechanical, but could serve a truly educative purpose, by helping men to regain a flexible organ of literary expression. Erasmus, though in touch with the Italian Renaissance, belongs to a stage beyond it. His ridicule of pseudo-Ciceronianism falls on the sect of Bembo. But his own Latin style, so admirable in its elasticity, edge, and force, is a result which only the Italian Renaissance had made possible.

Yet the cultivation of Latin style, while it was so salient a trait of the Italian revival, was only one of its manifold energies. The same study of the classical writers which incited men to imitate their form inspired also the wish to comprehend their subject-matter. There was a widespread desire to enter into the ideas and the meaning of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. Italians were especially eager to reconstruct an image, as distinct as possible, of the manner in which their ancestors had lived. But the aids to such study, now so abundant, did not yet exist. There were no dictionaries of mythology, of biography, of antiquities, no treatises on classical archaeology, no collections of inscriptions. A teacher in the earlier time of the Renaissance, when he dictated an all-embracing commentary to his pupils, had to rely mostly on the stores gathered by his own reading. The erudite labour done by the Italian humanists was of great variety and volume. Many of the more eminent scholars published notes, critical or