Cristoforo Landino and Coluccio Salutati on the Best of Life

By McNair, Bruce G. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Cristoforo Landino and Coluccio Salutati on the Best of Life


McNair, Bruce G., Renaissance Quarterly


AN IMPORTANT ISSUE IN THE study of fifteenth-century Florentine humanism is whether or not later Quattrocento humanists advocate a withdrawal from public life and abandon the "civic" humanism of Salutati, Bruni, and the early Quattrocento humanists.(1) There is no lack of studies on this question using the categories of vita activa and vita contemplativa.(2) In broad terms, the early fifteenth-century Florentine humanists, reacting against the medieval scholastic world view, are seen as advocating the supremacy of the vita activa though still valuing the vita contemplativa, while the midfifteenth-century humanists, under the influence of the Medici and Marsillo Ficino's Platonic studies, are considered to have reversed the earlier emphasis on the "civic" outlook for the supremacy of the contemplative life and a withdrawal from public affairs.(3)

Cristoforo Landino is often cited as a prime example of these later "uncivic" humanists, and h's Disputationes Camaldulenses (1472) is given as evidence for this position.(4) Eugenio Garin, for example, argues that Landino urges a withdrawal from public affairs for a contemplative life. However, Arthur Field in his recent study of the Platonic Academy in Florence holds that Landino is concerned with politics and seeks to influence the Florentine political structures.(5)

Field in particular argues that Landino values social involvement and through his writings and lectures in the Florentine Studio he institutionalizes Ficino's Platonic studies and aids political stability and Medici control in Florence. Field holds that Landino seeks to give poetry a philosophical basis by mens of the allegorical interpretation of poets. According to Field, through the use of allegorical interpretations Landino instructs his students in the morals of Ficino's Platonic philosophy, with the goal that they will avoid political ambitions opposed to the Medici. In regard to the Disputationes, Field concentrates on the second half of the work, arguing that it is an allegorical account of the ascent of the soul and not a defense of the contemplative life. However, Field's examination does not place Landino's thought in the larger context of the philosophical traditions with which Landino is conversant.

I agree with Field that Landino emphasizes social involvement and the Disputationes describes the soul's ascent, though I do not think the work indicates a strong ideological support for political control by the Medici. Whereas Field examines primarily the text of the Disputatioties, I will consider the philosophical tradition on which Landino relies in book I of the work in relatlon to the categories of the active and contemplative lives. I will show that Landino's terminology has been misunderstood and consequently his views on social involvement misinterpreted. I will argue that Landino follows Thomas Aquinas for his views of the best life and his use of Thonias places him in a philosophical tradition adopted by Coluccio Salutati. Based on these points, I will argue that there is not as strong a discontniuity between Landino and the earlier Florentine humanists regarding a civic outlook as has been generally accepted. Moreover, I will show that Landino's views have similarities with those of his contemporary thinkers, notably Ficino and Pico. In this way the philosophical context in which Landino is writing reveals his relation to earlier and later Florentine humanists and leads us to reevaluate his status as an "uncivic" humanist teaching Ficino's Platonism in support of the Medici.

The Disputationes Camaldulenses is among Landino's best known works. Briefly stated, it is a dialogue ill four books concerning the best life (book I), the highest good (book 2), and an allegorical interpretation of the first six books of Virgil's Aeneid (books 3 and 4).

If one reads the title to book I found in the first printed edition of the Disputationes, "Christophori Landini Florentini Ad Illustrissimum Federicum Principem Urbinatum Disputationum Camaldulensium Liber Primus De Vita Contemplativa Et Activa Feliciter Incipit" ("From Christophorus Landinus of Florence to the most illustrious Federicus Prince of Urbino, book i of the Camaldulensian Disputations concerning the contemplative life and the active life auspiciously begins") several lines later one will read Landino's description of the work as the sermones, "quos Leonem Baptistam Albertuni .

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