Finding a Job as a Humanist: The Epistolary Collection of Lapo Da Castiglionchio the Younger*

By McCahill, Elizabeth May | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Finding a Job as a Humanist: The Epistolary Collection of Lapo Da Castiglionchio the Younger*


McCahill, Elizabeth May, Renaissance Quarterly


The oft-declared devotion of Renaissance humanists to litterae included--indeed, fed upon--devotion to the genre of the personal letter. Long before Erasmus extended his epistolary cloak over Europe, Italian humanists devoted much of their time to writing, collecting, revising, and publishing their letters. Letters were not a casual form of communication between two individuals but carefully crafted literary texts to be shared and circulated. (1) They provided testimony of the relationship between the writer and the recipient, a vehicle for maintaining and building that relationship, evidence of the writer's Latin style, and (often of least-apparent importance) a medium for exchanging information. The Roman epistolary form had continued to exert a considerable influence throughout the Middle Ages. The ars dictaminis--which was developed to teach notaries how to write official Latin letters--had medieval elements, but its principles were based on ancient rhetoric. (2) However, with the discovery of Cicero's letters the humanists moved away from the rules of the dictamen and strove to imitate their hero more directly. (3) Upon finding Cicero's letters to Atticus and Quintus in 1345, Petrarch aborted his earlier plan to collect verse epistles and instead created a prose collection. (4) In the first letter of the Familiares, after claiming that the apparent inconsistencies and self-contradictions of his epistles result from the need always to consider his recipients, he says that the collection as a whole represents a record of his own psychological and stylistic development. (5) To create this balance of self and other, Petrarch privileged the literary possibilities of letters over their strictly memorialistic, historical potential. He included some letters he had sent in his collection but also wrote fictive ones; even the "real" letters were edited and altered, as he reveals by worrying that some friends may be offended by the changes he has made. (6) Thus, Petrarch presented letters as a genre open to experimentation, and his humanist successors hurried to follow his example. (7) Salutati (who found Cicero's Ad familiares in 1392) collected his private letters, as did Vergerio, Barzizza, Poggio, Bruni, Francesco Barbaro, Facio, Pier Candido Decembrio, Panormita, and others.

Although most of these collections appeared after the 1430s, already at that time a published corpus of letters was beginning to serve as a sign that one was a serious classical scholar. (8) Given this epistolary preoccupation, it is unsurprising that the young humanist Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger was eager to preserve and edit his letters. (9) A corpus of thirty-four letters--twenty-seven from Lapo and seven addressed to him--has survived, with minor variations, in five manuscripts, including MS Vatican City Ott. Lat. 1677. MS Biblioteca Comunale di Como 4.4.6 contains a much larger collection: sixty-four letters by and to Lapo, thirty-one of which do not appear in Ott. Lat. 1677 or in Luiso's edition of Lapo's letters. (10) Fubini claims that MS 4.4.6 is an earlier collection and that Lapo organized the Ott. Lat. 1677 grouping as the public edition of his letters. (11) However, it may represent only one stage in his epistolary plans. Lapo died suddenly of the plague when he was thirty-two, and most humanists did not circulate their letters until they were older. In the age before printing, an author's decision to publish was sometimes well-documented, but there are also numerous works, like Lapo's letters, regarding which the author's intentions are less clear. (12)

Whether Lapo intended the thirty-four letters of Ott. Lat. 1677 to be his definitive epistolary legacy or whether he collected them for further editing, they represent a little-studied account of the curial job market. (13) In the late 1430s Lapo was struggling to find a comfortable post, and in addition to displaying his dexterity with humanist epistolary language, his letters show how a young scholar might elicit the aid of the powerful churchmen and influential humanists who could help him in the competitive curial environment. …

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