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Between Byzantium and Rome, between Autobiography and Literary Monument: the Humanist epistolarium of Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481).

In the study of 15th-century Italian Renaissance humanism many illustrious names of artists, literators, scholars and philosophers, often to be connected to flourishing cities and magnificent Renaissance courts in Florence, Venice, Rome, Ferrara or Milan, sound familiar and well-known. Among them, the less familiar name of the flamboyant Milanese humanist courtier Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481), though an exilic writer and a persona non grata to more than one patron, has not passed entirely unnoticed neither. Having served such heads of state as Pope Pius II, Cosimo de' Medici and Francesco Sforza, his status as a humanist is that of the extraordinary but 'marginalized' writer, the sharp-tongued brilliant but disillusioned scholar seeking for patronage and recognition. Yet, Filelfo's impact on the intellectual milieu of his time is much greater and far-reaching. Born at Tolentino, Filelfo first studied at Padua, where he acquired so great a reputation for learning that he was appointed professor of eloquence and rhetoric at the age of 18. In 1419, having received an appointment from the state of Venice, he travelled to Constantinople and was enabled to learn the most coveted of all possessions at that time, a scholarly knowledge of the Greek language his unique knowledge of Greek enabled him to translate substantial portions of Aristotle, Plutarch, Xenophon and Lysias. In Constantinople he also married Theodora, daughter of his teacher John Chrysoloras, to return to Venice in 1427 with over 40 invaluable Greek manuscripts. Dissatisfied with his reception in Venice, he moved on, first to Bologna, then to Florence where he quarrelled with the Florentine humanists and Cosimo de' Medici so that, in 1434, he had to leave the city for Siena. He ended up in Milan, where he remained, apart from a visit to Rome in 1475, for the rest of his life. In 1481 he was invited back to Florence, but died there soon afterwards. Since Filelfo's biography seems to consist of a record of the various towns in which he lectured, the masters whom he served, the books he wrote, the authors he illustrated, the friendships he contracted, and the wars he waged with rival scholars, his life and work, and especially his vast correspondence written both in Latin and Greek, touch upon all important persons, events and thoughts of the stirring times in which he lived. Ever again Filelfo had to balance between his duties as a humanist writer in the service of mighty patrons such as Filippo Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza, successive dukes of Milan, and his arrogant temper and self-conscious personality. As a consequence part of his oeuvre is filled with panegyrics and epics celebrating various princely patrons, with encomiastic odes for birthdays and inflated epithalamia and funeral orations, with rhetorical salutations greeting ambassadors and visitors from abroad or introducing one of his new courses at the start of the academic year, and with political pamphlets taking side in the great events of his country's history. Yet, it is in Filelfo's letters that one can follow his literary and intellectual endeavours from within. Moreover, in elegant and balanced phrases they testify in a direct way to his paper warfare with his numerous enemies both in Florence and Rome, his endless demands for payments, addressed to patrons and rulers, needed to fund his life of splendour and self-indulgence, his appealing intellectual journey between East and West, his philosophical programme based on accurate, large but somewhat superficial erudition and untiring devotion to study of uniting Plato's and Aristotle's views in a speaking synthesis useful for his contemporaries. Filelfo's legacy, as many of his humanist colleagues of the 15th century, was to have stored knowledge, to have accumulated and prepared it for the next generation so as to open golden fragments and books from Greek and Roman Antiquity and culture. Filelfo's pioneering work, offering the very cultural basis to men like Angelo Poliziano, Juan Luis Vives and Erasmus, can be traced in astonishing detail in almost day-to-day records. In Filelfo's vast correspondence, composed both in Greek and (mostly) Latin, cultural historians and historians of ideas but also literary historians and Neo-Latin scholars can enter the humanist world of 15th-century Italy in an unprecedented way. The fact, however, that most of Filelfo's vast Latin correspondence has been neither edited nor studied in detail remains a remarkable desideratum in the cultural and literary study of the Italian Quattrocento. The purpose of this project is therefore to open Filelfo's entire Latin epistolarium in a modern scholarly edition, a correspondence which is preserved almost integrally in the Codex 873 of the Milanese Biblioteca Trivulziana and has only very partially been published in a few 15th- and 16th-century editions. In addition and parallel to this, the project participants will study how Filelfo shaped and burnished the various layers of his social identity as a literary and scholarly author in his meticulously (re)constructed correspondence. For whereas Filelfo has been labelled as an important go-between in the transmission of Greek philosophical thought to the West his long stay in Byzantium made Greek language and literature an essential substratum in his literary and philosophical writings his correspondence is a unique source that enables us to re-evaluate and contextualise the traditional image of Filelfo as a humanist 'court scholar', university professor and philosopher, as well as one of the most significant author-translators writing in Greek and Latin, and translating from the Greek, during the Italian Renaissance.
Date:1 Oct 2009  →  30 Sep 2013
Keywords:Neo-Latin Literature, Renaissance Studies, Renaissance Humanism, Early Modern Epistolography
Disciplines:Language studies, Literary studies