Leonardo Bruni and Biography: The Vita Aristotelis
Ianziti, Gary, Renaissance Quarterly
Leonardo Bruni's life of Aristotle, written in 1429, (1) has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. A learned article has been flanked by two new editions of the text, both armed with introductions, notes, and critical apparatus. (2) It is now possible to examine the Vita Aristotelis in greater detail than ever before. The work deserves further attention, inasmuch as it represents one of the first modern attempts at writing an extended, monographic account of the life and times of a classical author. (3)
A concern of the recent literature has been to determine just how Brunian biography can be distinguished from its classical and medieval varieties. One answer to that question is offered by Edmund Fryde. Fryde presents the Aristotle as exemplifying -- in the biographical mode -- the critical approach to the sources that is often singled out as the hallmark of Bruni's involvement with history writing as a whole. Bruni is thus credited with "critical judgement" in handling a wide range of source materials. (4) He is praised for having made "very few factual mistakes." (5) His methods are sound and anticipate those of modern scholarship. His results concerning the life of Aristotle have indeed been largely "confirmed by modern scholars." (6) In Fryde's view then, the Vita Aristotelis should be seen as the forerunner of scholarly biography, where critical tools are brought into play to establish factually accurate accounts of past lives.
Independent confirmation of Fryde's thesis comes in part from James Hankins. Hankins too stresses "the critical approach to his sources" as the key to Bruni's innovation with respect to ancient and medieval biography. Indeed, in the Vita Aristotelis, "we find in embryo many of the techniques of later historical scholarship." (7) Like Fryde, Hankins also points to the wide range of sources consulted by Bruni as another sign of his superiority over previous biographers. (8) It must be noted, however, that Hankins differs from Fryde in several important respects. He is keenly aware, for example, of what he calls the "hagiographic" character of Bruni's portrait of Aristotle. (9) In writing the Vita Aristotelis Bruni was no impartial scholar: he was a declared partisan with a stake in Aristotle's reputation. From the beginning Bruni had made the re-evaluation of Aristotle one of the pillars of his literary career. (10) His translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (1416-17) created a stir of controversy, and from that time forward he found himself obliged to defend his views on many fronts. Hankins notes that Bruni's views amounted to a fundamental re-orientation with regard to what might be called the medieval Aristotle. Bruni's Aristotle was no longer the master of logic and dialectic familiar to the schools; he was rather being proposed as the best guide to life in the secular city, the author of treatises on how to regulate human society according to rational principles. Bruni's translations accordingly made Aristotle speak a new language, a language accessible not only to specialists but to the wider audience of educated lay people as well. (11) It was Bruni's conviction that Aristotle had written eloquently on a range of subjects of public interest, but that he had been badly served by his medieval translators. (12)
Bruni thus saw himself as bringing into view a new Aristotle, one whose teachings had remained hidden since antiquity, but which would now become available to serve as guideposts. As Hankins points out, such a passionate commitment on Bruni's part could hardly fail to have an impact on the Vita Aristotelis. Bruni's mission as biographer was to re-fashion Aristotle's image into a likeness that would be in keeping with his new role. If Bruni's portrait "at times approaches the hagiographic, it is because Bruni needed to defend his Aristotle against the attacks of contemporary humanist detractors. …