Giannozzo Manetti: The Life of a Florentine Humanist, by David Marsh

Erin Maglaque enjoys a comprehensive new study of a central figure in Italian humanism

January 23, 2020
Source: iStock

Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459) was a Florentine humanist, merchant, statesman and scholar, best known for his treatise On the Dignity and Excellence of Man (1452): a text that David Marsh rightly calls “a manifesto of the new worldview of Renaissance humanism”.

Manetti wrote of the crowning achievements of humanity: intelligence, memory, creativity and beauty, and of humankind’s shared divinity with God. For him, the major achievements of his age – including navigators’ recent “discoveries” of the Canary Islands, the Azores and the western coast of Africa – were evidence of man’s miraculous intelligence. He marshalled the artistic achievements of Italian culture, too, as evidence of human brilliance and empathy: one only need gaze upon Giotto’s work, he writes, to see that in his subjects’ “faces and attitude he expressed such clear signs of their…diverse movements and emotions”. Manetti was a self-conscious defender of human dignity, that most Renaissance of values.

Marsh has produced the first authoritative English biography of this quintessential quattrocento humanist, synthesising a great deal of Italian and English scholarship on Manetti and his intellectual, social and political worlds. It might more properly be called a literary biography, however, since it proceeds chronologically through Manetti’s many orations, treatises and letters, offering a close contextualisation and analysis of each. Beyond Manetti’s own writings and archival evidence of his involvement in civic affairs, our main sources for his biography come from the Life and longer Commentary on the Life, the latter composed 20 years after Manetti’s death, by the Florentine humanist and bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-98). Yet the difficulties of using humanist biographies as source material for contemporary biography are rather too summarily dismissed by Marsh, who writes that the reader “should bear in mind” that Vespasiano’s biographies, “while generally accurate historically, may be excessively flattering”. He does not provide further critique, leaving the reader to wonder how Vespasiano’s own preoccupations may have shaped his writing.

The author provides plenty of rich analysis of Manetti’s own writings, however, touching on important themes that characterise Italian humanism of the quattrocento: from his emulation of his friend and mentor Leonardo Bruni to his Hebrew scholarship (which was truly innovative, Marsh argues, if largely forgotten with the coming of the printing press to Italy a decade after Manetti’s death). He also offers detailed readings of fascinating texts: in his discussion of Manetti’s Consolatory Dialogue (1438), written on the death of his four-year-old son, Marsh gives us a glimpse of the ambiguities of emulation, imitation and emotion in humanist texts of this period. Given Manetti’s grief over his young son’s death, and his close working relationship with his older son (who would become his amanuensis and literary executor), the biography might have been enriched by a more detailed consideration of Manetti’s family life: his wife, for example, is mentioned only once, although her family seems to have been well connected to the intellectual society of Cosimo de’ Medici’s Florence. Overall, however, this is a careful biography of an important Renaissance Florentine, and will reward readers who can place Manetti’s writings, and Marsh’s rich analysis of them, in their wider contexts.

Erin Maglaque is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Sheffield, and author of Venice’s Intimate Empire: Family Life and Scholarship in the Renaissance Mediterranean (2018).


Giannozzo Manetti: The Life of a Florentine Humanist
By David Marsh
Harvard University Press
320pp, £39.95
ISBN 9780674238350
Published 29 November 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Just an average Renaissance man

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