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The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
by Jacob Burckhardt

Part Three: The Revival of Antiquity


Universities and Schools

The influence of antiquity on culture, of which we have now to speak, presupposes that the new learning had gained possession of the universities. This was so, but by no means to the extent and with the results which might have been expected. (Note 1)

Few of the Italian universities show themselves in their full vigor till the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the increase of wealth rendered a more systematic care for education possible. At first there were generally three sorts of professorships--one for civil law, another for canonical law, the third for medicine; in course of time professorships of rhetoric, of philosophy, and of astronomy were added, the last commonly, though not always, identical with astrology. The salaries varied greatly in different cases. Sometimes a capital sum was paid down. With the spread of culture, competition became so active that the different universities tried to entice away distinguished teachers from one another, under which circumstances Bologna is said to have sometimes devoted the half of its public income (20,000 ducats) to the university. The appointments were as a rule made only for a certain time, sometimes for only half a year, so that the teachers were forced to lead a wandering life, like actors. Appointments for life were, however, not unknown. Sometimes the promise was exacted not to teach elsewhere what had already been taught at one place. There were also voluntary, unpaid professors. (Note 2)

Of the chairs which have been mentioned, that of rhetoric was especially sought by the humanist; yet it depended only on his familiarity with the matter of ancient learning whether or no he could aspire to those of law, medicine, philosophy, or astronomy. The inward conditions of the science of the day were as variable as the outward conditions of the teacher. Certain jurists and physicians received by far the largest salaries of all, the former chiefly as consulting lawyers for the suits and claims of the State which employed them. In Padua a lawyer of the fifteenth century received a salary of 1,000 ducats, and it was proposed to appoint a celebrated physician with a yearly payment of 2,000 ducats, and the right of private practice, the same man having previously received 700 gold florins at Pisa. When the jurist Bartolommeo Socini, professor at Pisa, accepted a Venetian appointment at Padua, and was on the point of starting on his journey, he was arrested by the Florentine government and only released on payment of bail to the amount of 18,000 gold florins. The high estimation in which these branches of science were held makes it intelligible why distinguished philologists turned their attention to law and medicine, while on the other hand specialists were more and more compelled to acquire something of a wide literary culture. We shall presently have occasion to speak of the work of the humanists in other departments of practical life. (Note 3)

Nevertheless, the position of the philologists, as such, even where the salary was large, and did not exclude other sources of income, was on the whole uncertain and temporary, so that one and the same teacher could be connected with a great variety of institutions. It is evident that change was desired for its own sake, and something fresh expected from each newcomer, as was natural at a time when science was in the making, and consequently depended to no small degree on the personal influence of the teacher. Nor was it always the case that a lecturer on classical authors really belonged to the university of the town where he taught. Communication was so easy, and the supply of suitable accommodation, in monasteries and elsewhere, was so abundant, that a private appointment was often practicable. In the first decades of the fifteenth century, when the University of Florence was at its greatest brilliance, when the courtiers of Eugenius IV, and perhaps even of Martin V thronged the lecture-room, when Carlo Aretino and Filelfo were competing for the largest audience, there existed, not only an almost complete university among the Augustinians of Santo Spirito, not only an association of scholars among the Camaldolesi of the Angeli, but individuals of mark, either singly or in common, arranged to provide philosophical and philological teaching for themselves and others. Linguistic and antiquarian studies in Rome had next to no connection with the university (Sapienza), and depended almost exclusively either on the favour of individual popes and prelates, or on the appointments made in the Papal chancery. It was not till Leo X (1513) that the great reorganization of the Sapienza took place, which now had eighty-eight lecturers, among whom there were the most able men of Italy, reading and interpreting the classics. But this new brilliancy was of short duration. We have already spoken briefly of the Greek professorships in Italy. (Note 4)

To form an accurate picture of the method of scientific instruction then pursued, we must turn away our eyes as far as possible from our present academic system. Personal intercourse between the teachers and the taught, public disputations, the constant use of Latin and often of Greek, the frequent changes of lecturers and the scarcity of books, gave the studies of that time a color which we cannot represent to ourselves without effort. (Note 5)

There were Latin schools in every town of the least importance, not by any means merely as preparatory to higher education, but because, next to reading, writing, and arithmetic, the knowledge of Latin was a necessity; and after Latin came logic. It is to be noted particularly that these schools did not depend on the Church, but on the municipality; some of them, too, were merely private enterprises. (Note 6)

This school system, directed by a few distinguished humanists, not only attained a remarkable perfection of organization, but became an instrument of higher education in the modern sense of the phrase. With the education of the children of two princely houses in North Italy institutions were connected which may be called unique of their kind.

At the court of Giovan Francesco Gonzaga at Mantua (1407-1444) appeared the illustrious Vittorino da Feltre, one of those men who devote their whole life to an object for which their natural gifts constitute a special vocation.

He directed the education of the sons and daughters of the princely house, and one of the latter became under his care a woman of learning. When his reputation extended far and wide over Italy, and members of great and wealthy families came from long distances, even from Germany, in search of his instructions, Gonzaga was not only willing that they should be received, but seems to have held it an honour for Mantua to be the chosen school of the aristocratic world. Here for the first time gymnastics and all noble bodily exercises were treated along with scientific instruction as indispensable to a liberal education. Besides these pupils came others, whose instruction Vittorino probably held to be his highest earthly aim, the gifted poor, whom he supported in his house and educated, 'per l'amore di Dio,' along with the highborn youths who here learned to live under the same roof with untitled genius. Gonzaga paid him a yearly salary of 300 gold florins, and contributed to the expenses caused by the poorer pupils. He knew that Vittorino never saved a penny for himself, and doubtless realized that the education of the poor was the unexpressed condition of his presence. The establishment was conducted on strictly religious lines, stricter indeed than many monasteries. (Note 7)

More stress was laid on pure scholarship by Guarino of Verona (1370-1460), who in the year 1429 was called to Ferrara by Niccolo d'Este to educate his son Lionello, and who, when his pupil was nearly grown up in 1436, began to teach at the university of eloquence and of the ancient languages. While still acting as tutor to Lionello, he had many other pupils from various parts of the country, and in his own house a select class of poor scholars, whom he partly or wholly supported. His evening hours till far into the night were devoted to hearing lessons or to instructive conversation. His house, too, was the home of a strict religion and morality. It signified little to him or to Vittorino that most of the humanists of their day deserved small praise in the matter of morals or religion. It is inconceivable how Guarino, with all the daily work which fell upon him, still found time to write translations from the Greek and voluminous original works. (Note 8)

Not only in these two courts, but generally throughout Italy, the education of the princely families was in part and for certain years in the hands of the humanists, who thereby mounted a step higher in the aristocratic world. The writing of treatises on the education of princes, formerly the business of theologians, fell now within their province. (Note 9)

From the time of Pier Paolo Vergerio the Italian princes were well taken care of in this respect, and the custom was transplanted into Germany by Aeneas Sylvius, who addressed detailed exhortations to two young German princes of the House of Habsburg on the subject of their further education, in which they are both urged, as might be expected, to cultivate and nurture humanism. Perhaps Aeneas was aware that in addressing these youths he was talking in the air, and therefore took measures to put his treatise into public circulation. But the relations of the humanists to the rulers will be discussed separately.



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