Rhetoric and Humanism in Quattrocento Venice

Article excerpt


Of the endless variations Italian Renaissance writings have to offer on that hoariest of humanistic themes, the qualities of the ideal orator, one of the most distinctive is found in a letter of 1489 from Ermolao Barbaro (1454-93) to his fellow Venetian patrician Marco Dandolo (1458-1535). The letter is one of condolence, following the death of Dandolo's maternal grandfather, the venerable statesman and humanist Bernardo Giustinian (1408-89), and opens by expressing regret that such a distinguished figure should have passed without adequate public tribute. (1) In compensation for the modest character that Giustinian's exequies had assumed, Barbaro's letter constitutes itself as a kind of funeral oration manque and evinces the idealizing tendencies conventional in that genre. Barbaro portrays the dead man as the perfect type of the Quattrocento Venetian patrician: a man who has devoted his talents and learning wholeheartedly to the service of his country, a beacon of justice and integrity in the conduct of his magistracies, a model of prudence in the councils of state. Above all, Giustinian is praised for the matchless eloquence for which he was celebrated in his lifetime, and which is testified in his diplomatic orations, a selection of which were published after his death. (2) Interestingly, however, more than on this formal Latin oratory, Barbaro's emphasis in this letter falls on Giustinian's vernacular performances in the Venetian Senate, which he describes at length, lauding the dead man's powers of persuasion in this context as unrivalled by any statesman of his age. (3)

Barbaro's praises of Giustinian's performance as Senate orator merit our attention for a number of reasons. One is, simply, that this brief but suggestive passage offers a rare window on an area of Renaissance rhetorical practice for which little documentation survives. A distinctive feature of the civic culture of the few surviving republics of fifteenth-century Italy--outside Tuscany, in this period practically limited to Venice and Genoa--was that "primary," political oratory continued to be practiced in their councils of state, as it had been in the medieval Italian communes and the city-states of classical antiquity. Frustratingly, however, this tradition of deliberative oratory remains largely closed to us in the concrete details of its practice: while the diplomatic and ceremonial oratory of Italian humanism is well documented to the point of, perhaps, embarrassing us with its riches, the jealously "private" practice of political debate is for the most part known to us only through indirect and necessarily unreliable testimonies, such as the occasional summaries or reconstructions of council speeches we find in diaries and histories of the period. This is particularly so in the case of Venice; less in the exceptional case of Florence, of whose ad hoc consultative committees--the so-called consulte and pratiche--extraordinarily detailed records survive. (4) In the light of this absence of documentary evidence, Barbaro's description of Giustinian's Senate eloquence acquires an undoubted historical interest: while it can hardly be claimed to fill the void just noted, it is valuable as an insider's view--and an unaccustomedly vivid one--of this quintessentially "insider" practice.

Besides this general interest, moreover, the passage under discussion acquires a more particular significance if we scrutinize more closely what Barbaro actually says--and, perhaps more revealing, what he does not say --about Giustinian's skills as political orator. As hardly needs to be noted, a near-universal feature of Italian humanists' writings on rhetoric and the figure of the orator is their emphasis on the need for eloquence to be anchored in wisdom and truth. This commitment to an ethicized rhetoric has been identified by Vittore Branca as particularly deeply rooted within Venetian humanistic culture, and Barbaro is frequently cited, again by Branca, as one of the most eloquent proponents of this ideal. …