Epistolary Bros & Polished Prose

John Addington Symonds, The Revival of Learning:

What Salutato accomplished for the style of public documents, Gasparino da Barzizza effected for familiar correspondence. After teaching during several years at Venice and Padua, he was summoned to Milan in 1418 by Filippo Maria Visconti, who ordered him to open a school in that capital. Gasparino made a special study of Cicero’s Letters, and caused his pupils to imitate them as closely as possible, forming in this way an art of fluent letter-writing known afterwards as the ars familiariter scribendi. Epistolography in general, considered as a branch of elegant literature, occupied all the scholars of the Renaissance, and had the advantage of establishing a link of union between learned men in different parts of Italy. We therefore recognise in Gasparino the initiator, after Petrarch, of a highly important branch of Italian culture. This, when it reached maturity, culminated in the affectations of the Ciceronian purists.

It must be understood that neither Salutato nor Gasparino attained to real polish or freedom of style. Compared even with the Latinity of Poggio, theirs is heavy and uncouth; while that of Poggio seems barbarous by the side of Poliziano’s, and Poliziano in turn yields the palm of mere correctness to Bembo. It was only by degrees that the taste of the Italians formed itself, and that facility was acquired in writing a lost language. The fact that mediæval Latin was still used in legal documents, in conversation, in the offices of the Church, and in the theological works which formed the staple of all libraries, impeded the recovery of a classic style. When the Italians had finally learned how to polish prose, it was easy to hand on the art to other nations; while to sneer at their pedantry, as Erasmus did, was no matter of great difficulty. By that time their scrupulous and anxious preoccupation with purity of phrase threatened danger to the interests of liberal learning. [p. 106, 1888 Henry Holt edition]


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