Francesco Filelfo (July 25, 1398 - July 31, 1481), was an Italian Renaissance humanist who played an important role in reviving classical learning in Italy. He was educated in Padua, Italy, and became a professor of eloquence in Venice at an early age. Appointed as secretary to the Venetian consul in Constantinople, he studied Greek under John Chrysoloras and amassed a large collection of Greek documents which he brought back to Italy with him in 1427. He gained a reputation as a professor of Greek and Latin literature in Florence, and was soon in great demand as a scholar. After falling out of favor with the Medici family in Florence, he traveled to Siena and then to Milan, where he served under two dukes before accepting Pope Sixtus IV’s call to Rome to occupy the chair of eloquence. He soon became displeased with the Pope, and after only a year in Rome he returned to Milan. He then accepted an invitation to return to Florence, but died of an illness just two weeks after arriving there.
Filelfo was a man of vast physical energy, inexhaustible mental activity, and quick passions; vain, restless, and perpetually engaged in quarrels with his peers. Everywhere he went, his lectures on Greek and Roman literature attracted crowds of students. He worked tirelessly at translating the works of Greek authors such as Aristotle, Plutarch, Xenophon, and Lysias into Latin, and carried out the duties of an Italian scholar, writing political pamphlets, epic poems and odes for his patrons, and a series of colorful libels and invectives against their enemies and his own. His translations of Plutarch helped to adapt Epicureanism to a form compatible with Christianity.
Francesco Filelfo was born July 25, 1398, at Tolentino, in the March of Ancona, Italy. He studied grammar, rhetoric and the Latin language at the University of Padua, where he acquired such a reputation for learning that in 1417, at the age of 18, he was invited to teach eloquence and moral philosophy at Venice. According to the custom of that age in Italy, his duty was to explain the language, and to illustrate the beauties of the principal Latin authors, especially Cicero and Virgil, who were regarded as the chief masters of moral science and of elegant diction.
Filelfo made his mark at once in Venice. He was admitted to the society of the first scholars and the most eminent nobles; and in 1419 he received an appointment from the state, as secretary to the consul general (baylo) of the Venetians in Constantinople. This appointment was not only an honor for Filelfo, confirming his trustworthiness and general ability, but it gave him the opportunity to acquire a scholar's knowledge of the Greek language. Immediately after his arrival in Constantinople, Filelfo placed himself under the tuition of John Chrysoloras, whose relative, Manuel Chrysoloras, was already well known in Italy as the first Greek to teach the literature of his ancestors in Florence.
At the recommendation of Chrysoloras, Filelfo was employed in several diplomatic missions by the emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Before very long, Filelfo married Theodora, the daughter of John Chrysoloras. He had now acquired a thorough knowledge of Greek, and had formed a large collection of Greek manuscripts. There was no reason why he should not return to his native country. Accordingly, in 1427 he accepted an invitation from the republic of Venice, and set sail for Italy, intending to resume his career as a professor. From this time forward until the date of his death, Filelfo's History consists of a record of the various towns in which he lectured, the masters whom he served, the books he wrote, the authors he illustrated, the friendships he contracted, and the wars he waged with rival scholars. He was a man of vast physical energy, of inexhaustible mental activity, of quick passions and violent appetites; vain, restless, greedy for wealth and pleasure and fame; unable to stay quiet in one place, and perpetually engaged in quarrels with his peers.
When Filelfo arrived at Venice with his family in 1427, he found that the city had almost been emptied by the Bubonic plague, and that there would be few students there. He moved to Bologna; but that city was too much disturbed with political dissensions to attend to him. Filelfo crossed the Apennines and settled in Florence, where he began one of the most brilliant and eventful periods of his life. During the week he lectured to large audiences of young and old on the principal Greek and Latin authors, and on Sundays he explained Dante to the people in the cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore. In addition to these labors, he translated portions of Aristotle, Plutarch, Xenophon, and Lysias from Greek to Latin.
At first he seems to have been on tolerably good terms with the Florentine scholars, but his arrogant temper antagonized the friends of Cosimo de' Medici. Filelfo had been appointed to his teaching position at the Studio of Florence with the support of Palla Strozzi and Cosimo de’ Medici. He remained close to Palla, but became estranged from Cosimo de’ Medici, who supported a rival scholar, Carlo Marsuppini. In October 1431, Filelfo was replaced at the Studio by Marsuppini. When he was reinstated two months later, Filelfo criticized his enemies in a public lecture at the cathedral which was so fierce that, according to one eye-witness, it "caused the earth to quake." In May, 1433, as Filelfo was walking to his lectures at the Studio, a thug attacked him and slashed his face. Filelfo blamed the attack on Cosimo, and when Cosimo was exiled by the Albizzi party in 1433, he urged the signoria of Florence to pronounce the sentence of death on him. When Cosimo returned to Florence, Filelfo's position in that city was no longer tenable. He claimed that one attempt on his life had already been made; and now he readily accepted an invitation from the state of Siena. In Siena, however, he did not remain more than four years. His fame as a professor had grown great in Italy, and he regularly received tempting offers from princes and republics. He decided to accept the most alluring of these, made by the duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti; and in 1440 he was received with honor by his new master in the capital of Lombardy.
Filelfo's life at Milan illustrates the social importance of the scholars of that age in Italy. It was his duty to celebrate his princely patrons in panegyrics and epic poems, to abuse their enemies in libels and invectives, to salute them with encomiastic odes on their birthdays, and to compose poems on their favorite themes. For their courtiers he wrote epithalamial and funeral orations; ambassadors and visitors from foreign states he greeted with the rhetorical praises then in vogue. He delivered daily lectures to the students of the university, reviewing the weightiest and lightest authors of antiquity, and pouring forth a flood of miscellaneous erudition.
Filelfo continued his translations from the Greek, and carried on a paper warfare with his enemies in Florence. He wrote political pamphlets on the great events of Italian history; and when Constantinople was taken by the Ottoman Turks, he procured the liberation of his wife's mother by a message addressed in his own name to the sultan. In addition to a fixed stipend of some 700 golden florins yearly, he was continually in receipt of special payments for the orations and poems he produced; if he had been a man of frugal habits or of moderate economy, he might have amassed a considerable fortune. As it was, he spent his money as fast as he received it, living a life of splendor and self-indulgence. In consequence of this prodigality, he was always poor. His letters and his poems abound in demands for money from patrons, some of them couched in language of the lowest adulation, and others savoring of literary blackmail.
During his second year in Milan, Filelfo lost his first wife, Theodora. He soon married again, this time a young lady from a good Lombard family, Orsina Osnaga. When she died, he was married a third time to another woman of Lombard birth, Laura Magiolini. To all his three wives, in spite of numerous infidelities, he seems to have been warmly attached.
On the death of Visconti, Filelfo, after a short hesitation, transferred his allegiance to Francesco Sforza, the new duke of Milan; and began a ponderous epic, the Sforziad, of which 12,800 lines were written, but which was never published. When Sforza died, Filelfo turned his thoughts towards Rome. He was now 77 years old, honored with the friendship of princes, recognized as the most distinguished of Italian humanists, courted by pontiffs, and decorated with the laurel wreath and the order of knighthood by kings.
Crossing the Apennines and passing through Florence, he reached Rome in the second week of 1475. Pope Sixtus IV now ruled in the Vatican; and Filelfo had received an invitation to occupy the chair of rhetoric with ample rewards. At first he was vastly pleased with the city and court of Rome; but his satisfaction turned to discontent, and he gave vent to his ill-humor in a venomous satire on the pope's treasurer, Milliardo Cicala. He soon became displeased with Pope Sixtus himself, and after a year he left Rome, never to return. Filelfo reached Milan to find that his wife had died of the plague in his absence, and was already buried. For some time Filelfo had wanted an opportunity to display his abilities and add to his fame in Florence. Years had healed the differences between him and the Medici family; and on the occasion of the Pazzi conspiracy against the life of Lorenzo de' Medici, he had sent letters to his papal patron Sixtus, strongly denouncing his participation in a plot so dangerous to the security of Italy. Lorenzo now invited Filelfo to teach Greek in Florence, and Filelfo traveled there in 1481. Two weeks after his arrival, at the age of 83, he succumbed to dysentery, and was buried at the age of 83 in the Church of the Annunziata.
By the time of Filelfo’s birth, Petrarch and the students of Florence had already initiated the revival of classical culture in Italy. They had generated a lively interest in antiquities, rediscovered many important Roman authors, and freed Latin scholarship, to some extent, from the restrictions of earlier periods. Filelfo was destined to carry on their work in the field of Latin literature, and to play an important role in the recovery of Greek culture.
Filelfo deserves commemoration among the greatest humanists of the Italian Renaissance, not for the beauty of his style, for his genius, or for the accuracy of his scholarship, but for his energy, and for his complete adaptation to the times in which he lived. His writing was erudite but not profound; his knowledge of the ancient authors was extensive but superficial; his style of writing was vulgar and his rhetoric ordinary. His literary works have not retained their importance, but during his lifetime he did a great service to the humanities by his untiring activities as a teacher and a translator, and by the facility with which he used his stores of knowledge. Filelfo was the first important professor of Greek in Italy after Guarino Veronese. He excelled at instruction, passing rapidly from place to place, stirring up the zeal for learning by the passion of his own enthusiastic temperament, and acting as a pioneer for men like Angelo Poliziano and Erasmus.
His translations of Plutarch helped to adapt Epircureanism to a form compatible with Christianity.
Filelfo’s letters and writings provide a vivid picture of the life of a scholar during the Italian Renaissance. The Italian universities were under the administration of the local government in each city, and were a source of price and prestige. Each government was anxious to acquire professors who would attract large numbers of students and make the operation of the universities worthwhile. Filelfo’s reputation was such that he was in great demand as a teacher, and continually received offers of employment, including calls to Rome from three different popes.
In addition to his teaching duties, a professor was expected to serve his patrons by being present at social events and by writing works of prose and poetry for special occasions, political pamphlets praising the government, and passionate invectives and accusations against his enemies. Filelfo carried on a constant war of words on his own behalf, belittling his opponents with satire and exaggerated criticism and being slandered and criticized in return. These invectives touched every aspect of personal life and carried accusations which, if true, would have destroyed the honor and reputation of the person at whom they were directed.
Filelfo’s writings include numerous letters (last edition by Legrand, Paris, 1892), speeches (Paris, 1515), and satires (Venice, 1502); besides many scattered pieces in prose, published under the title "Convivia Mediolanensia," and a great many Latin translations from the Greek. In both these languages he wrote with equal fluency.
A complete edition of Filelfo's Greek letters (based on the Codex Trevulzianus) was published for the first time, with French translation, notes and commentaries, by Emile Legrand in 1892 at Paris (C. xii. of Publications de l'école des lang. orient.).
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