Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Bruni on Writing History

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Bruni on Writing History

Article excerpt

Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) is rightly regarded as the central figure in early Renaissance efforts to redefine the form and function of history writing. In particular, Bruni's monumental Historiarum florentini populi libri XII (hereafter Historiae) is often singled out as an exemplary work, one that set the whole enterprise of history writing on a new plane. Yet while most would agree that Bruni deserves to be seen as the pivotal figure in this area, there remain discrepancies when it comes to determining the exact nature of his contribution. Some have insisted that it lies in his pioneering of new methods in historical criticism. Others see Bruni as the proponent of a rhetorical approach to history writing based primarily on the desire to revive classical literary standards.(1)

Both of these views have substantial claims to validity. Who can in fact forget the brilliance of the first book of the Historiae, where Bruni destroys the legends surrounding the founding and early history of Florence, and then recasts the story on the basis of hard evidence? But the question has been asked whether such critical rigor can be said to characterize the remaining books (II-XII) which form the bulk of the Historiae. And the answer has come back largely in the negative. Bruni himself appears to have regarded his first book as a thematic excursus whose conjectural methods were dictated by the need to reconstruct an obscure and remote period of the city's history. Once he reached his true subject - the recent history of Florence - Bruni settled into the pattern laid down by the canonical writers of ancient history. His method became the familiar one of narratio, complete with set-piece speeches, full-scale battle descriptions, and all the paraphernalia of classical historiography.(2)

Bruni's recourse to such classical rhetorical devices did not in itself preclude the application of critical categories. Nor did the use of conjectural methods in Book I necessarily guarantee the rigid adherence to truth that Bruni's later admirers have sometimes attributed to him. Recent scholarship has done much to overcome old dichotomies and to establish new parameters for the study of the Historiae. One thinks in particular of the work of Riccardo Fubini. In a series of important contributions, Fubini has adopted a contextualizing approach that presents Bruni's critical stance as a function of his identification with Florentine oligarchical politics of the early Quattrocento. According to this view, Bruni's Historiae are best seen as a projection of the values championed by the city's emerging political elites. Bruni's critique of earlier versions of the Florentine past is thus not the product of a pure scholar seeking to reconstruct the past. It corresponds instead to a new ethos, one of whose chief characteristics was a detached, skeptical attitude towards consolidated traditions, both cultural and political.(3)

Another Italian scholar, Anna Maria Cabrini, has focused more specifically on Bruni's text, examining how it operates with regard to the sources. Cabrini establishes the extent to which Bruni's concern for the city's image shapes his use of available materials. Her study demonstrates conclusively that the Historiae cannot be read in the one-dimensional way proposed by early twentieth-century positivists. Bruni does not approach his sources in an objective quest for truth. Rather, he subordinates them to his own purposes, which include the glorification of Florence as a political power of the first rank.(4)

Cabrini's dissection of Bruni's Historiae is exemplary in suggesting how Renaissance historians relate to their sources. Her reading provides a wealth of insight into the Renaissance practice of writing history and the underlying principles that guided one of its chief representatives. This is particularly true of the section on Bruni's handling of the chronicle of Giovanni Villani, the main source of the Historiae from the end of Book I to the beginning of Book VII. …

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