4.04 Ciceronianisms

What this distinction meant may best be understood in terms of the differing progress of Ciceronianism north and south of the Alps. Humanist pedagogy in Italy, following Poggio Bracciolini's unqualified praise of the Cicero of the orations, had drifted into an often servile and mechanical Ciceronianism, especially on the level of vocabulary study. Some scholars see this phenomenon as a particularly Roman one, tied to the desire of humanists at the papal court to develop an oratorical Latin worthy of the universalizing mission of the church. In this view the crucial innovators were Poggio and Lorenzo Valla. Valla in fact advocated a balanced and eclectic study of a variety of ancient models expressly for the sake of developing a sense of the changing usages of ancient Latin and a better appreciation of the best stylists in their proper historical context; he considered Quintilian an authority on rhetoric equal to Cicero. Many of Poggio's and Valla's followers, however, took the shortcut of proclaiming Cicero the one and only good model, or even of using Valla's Elegantiae as an alternative canonical text by which to judge contemporary Latin. Even a Roman insider like Antonio Mancinelli protested this narrow-mindedness among contemporary Italian schoolmasters. By the end of the fifteenth century neo-Ciceronian Latin had developed at Rome into a sort of jargon used by curialists to define who was in and who out of the ruling circle. (12)

Agnolo Poliziano detested this practice and Erasmus parodied it wickedly in his Ciceronianus. These great scholars had too broad an experience of both Latin and Greek authors to fall into the simplifying trap of making Cicero the sole model of style. Beneath the ridicule of Erasmus lay another, largely geographically defined difference of approach. The Northern humanists had never gone as far in revering Cicero as some Italians had; and they had fewer opportunities for composing and delivering Ciceronian orations than Italians, who were fond of trotting out a Latin orator (often the local schoolmaster) for every urban event. Northerners did not portray Latin as the illustrious forbear of their own modern vernaculars, a tendency most Italian humanists (Poliziano notably excepted) indulged at one time or another. Northern humanists, it is true, excelled at technical rhetoric and letter-writing on Ciceronian models. But the surviving works of Cicero on rhetoric are not complete, so the technicians had long recognized that they needed to look to other sources, especially Greek ones. And they did not limit their lexicon to that of Cicero. (13)

One thing humanists all over Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth century shared was a pugnacious willingness to argue that derived from scholastic models. Petrarch made many innovations in humanist thought, among them introducing a sustained polemic against the scholastics. In so doing he also imported into humanism the quarrelsomeness of the universities, where disputation pro and contra was a permanent fixture. The theme of attack earned a similarly permanent place in humanism, first as a critique of scholastic Latin, then as criticism of medieval philosophy. But criticism back and forth, not necessarily constructive, also became part of humanists' dealings with each other. They did not typically indulge in the formal disputations favored by university scholars, but they favored dialogue-form literary works, and they exercised themselves in rhetorical invective on classical models. (14) The prefaces and afterwords of printed books became a favorite forum for such invective. We saw Antonio Mancinelli's early exercise of the sort in sections 3.10 and 3.11; even elementary schoolbooks were not free of such invective. Northern humanists of De Spauter's day were willing to defend their eclectic choices of literary models against Italian Ciceronians with controversial philology as well as parody.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (12) The best, recent overview of Italian Ciceronianism is Dellaneva 2007, esp. vii-xxvi. Other useful treatments include Breen 1954, 53-55; Streckenbach 1979, 27-35; D'Amico 1983, 132-143; D'Amico 1988, 280-285; Jensen 1996, 73-77; Rowland 1998, 199-203; Godman 1998, 39-51; Gensini 1999, 13-15, 48-57; Cox 2003, 679-683; Bloemendal 2003, 9-14; Celenza 2004, 145-146; Crane 2005, 39-46.
  • (13) Monfasani 1988, 187-203; Henderson 1988, 181-184; Jenson 1996, 76; Tateo 1999, 290-298.
  • (14) Kristeller 1965, 11-18; Kristeller 1974, 8-11; Rummel 1995, 6-10, 41-52, 77-85; Celenza 2004, 91-93, 127-131; Bommarito 2005, 34-38.
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