Filelfo was born at Tolentino, in the March of Ancona. He is believed to be a third cousin of Leonardo da Vinci. At the time of his birth, Petrarch and the students of Florence had already brought the first act in the recovery of classic culture to conclusion. They had created an eager appetite for the antique, had rediscovered many important Roman authors, and had 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 be an important agent in the still unaccomplished recovery of Greek culture.
His earliest studies in grammar, rhetoric and the Latin language were conducted at Padua, where he acquired so great a reputation for learning that in 1417, when he was eighteen, he was invited to teach eloquence and moral philosophy at Venice. According to the custom of that age in Italy, it now became his duty to explain the language, and to illustrate the beauties of the principal Latin authors, Cicero and Virgil being considered 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, which enabled him to reside as notary and chancellor to the Baile of the Venetians in Constantinople. This appointment was an honour for Filelfo as a man of trust and general ability, and gave him the opportunity of acquiring the most coveted of all possessions at that moment — a scholar's knowledge of the Greek language. Immediately after his arrival in Constantinople at end 1420, Filelfo placed himself under the tuition of John Chrysoloras, whose name was already well known in Italy as that of his uncle Manuel Chrysoloras, the first Greek to profess the literature of his ancestors in Florence.
As the same time he assumed his charge of chancellor for the bailo Benedetto Emo (summer 1421-summer 1423), with diplomatic missions : at end 1421 he accompanied Emo during an embassy to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, who was the candidate supported by Venice for the succession of the late Sultan Mehmed I, the Byzantines, by contrast, supporting the pretender Mustafa. This would have been difficult for the pupil of John Chrysoloras. The final victory of Murad II resulted in the siege of Constantinople in spring 1422. It was during the great assault of 22 August 1422 that his professor, mortally ill, dictated to him his will. Nominated executor of this will with the widow of the dead, Manfredina Doria, he was certainly also designated tutor of Chrysoloras'girls. After his completing his term as chancellor in July 1423, he entered the service of the emperor John VIII Palaeologus who sent him immediately to Sigismond, king of Hungary. Before his departure, his marriage with Theodora, the daughter of John Chrysoloras, was decided, and was concluded when he returned from Hungary after sixteenth months of absence (end October 1424). With a new teacher, Chrysococes, 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 professorial career. From this time forward until the date of his death, Filelfo's biography 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 of gold 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 plague, and that his pupils would be few. He therefore moved to Bologna; but the city was too much disturbed with political dissensions to attend to him; so Filelfo crossed the Apennines and settled in Florence. At Florence 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 Duomo.
In addition to these labours of the chair, he found time to translate portions of Aristotle, Plutarch, Xenophon and Lysias from the Greek. Nor was he dead to the claims of society. At first he seems to have lived with the Florentine scholars on tolerably good terms; but his temper was so arrogant that Cosimo de' Medici's friends were not long able to put up with him. Filelfo hereupon broke out into open and violent animosity; and when Cosimo was exiled by the Albizzi party in 1433, he urged the signoria of Florence to pronounce upon him the sentence of death. On the return of Cosimo to Florence, Filelfo's position in that city was no longer tenable. His life, he asserted, had been already once attempted by a cut-throat in the pay of the Medici; and now he readily accepted an invitation from the state of Siena. In Siena, however, he was not destined to remain more than four years. His fame as a professor had grown great in Italy, and he daily received tempting offers from princes and republics. The most alluring of these, made him by the duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, he decided to accept; and in 1440 he was received with honour by his new master in the capital of Lombardy.
Filelfo's life at Milan curiously illustrates the multifarious importance of the scholars of that age in Italy. It was his duty to celebrate his princely patrons in panegyrics and epics, 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 lucubrations then so much in vogue. The students of the university he taught in daily lectures, passing in review the weightiest and lightest authors of antiquity, and pouring forth a flood of miscellaneous erudition.
Not satisfied with these outlets for his mental energy, Filelfo went on translating from the Greek, and prosecuted a paper warfare with his enemies in Florence. He wrote, moreover, political pamphlets on the great events of Italian history; and when Constantinople was taken by the Turks, he procured the liberation of his wife's mother, Manfredina Doria, 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; so that, had he 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 in a style of splendour 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 savouring of literary brigandage.
During the second year of his Milanese residence Filelfo lost his beloved first wife,the Greek Theodora. He soon married again; and this time he chose for his bride a young lady of good Lombard family, called Orsina Osnaga. When she died he took in wedlock for the third time a woman of Lombard birth, Laura Magiolini. To all his three wives, in spite of numerous infidelities, he seems to have been warmly attached; and this is perhaps the best trait in a character otherwise more remarkable for arrogance and heat than for any amiable qualities.
On the death of Visconti in 1447, Filelfo, after a short hesitation, transferred his allegiance to Francesco Sforza, husband of Bianca, Visconti's only child, who would become duke of Milan in 1450. In order to curry favor with this parvenu, he began his ponderous epic, the Sforziad, of which 12,800 lines were written, but which was never published. Some years after the deaths of Francesco and Bianca (1466 and 1468 respectively), Filelfo turned his thoughts towards Rome. He was now an old man of seventy-seven years, 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 good emoluments. 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-humour in a venomous satire on the pope's treasurer, Milliardo Cicala. Sixtus himself soon fell under the ban of his displeasure; and when a year had passed 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 past he had been desirous of displaying his abilities and adding to his fame in Florence. Years had healed the breach between him and the Medicean family; and on the occasion of the Pazzi conspiracy against the life of Lorenzo de' Medici, he had sent violent letters of abuse to his papal patron Sixtus, denouncing his participation in a plot so dangerous to the security of Italy. Lorenzo now invited him to profess Greek at Florence, and thither Filelfo journeyed in 1481. But two weeks after his arrival he succumbed to dysentery, and was buried at the age of eighty-three in the Church of the Annunziata.
Filelfo deserves commemoration among the greatest humanists of the Italian Renaissance, not for the beauty of his style, not for the elevation of his genius, not for the accuracy of his learning, but for his energy, and for his complete adaptation to the times in which he lived. His erudition was large but ill-digested; his knowledge of the ancient authors, if extensive, was superficial; his style was vulgar; he had no brilliancy of imagination, no pungency of epigram, no grandeur of rhetoric. Therefore he has left nothing to posterity which the world would not very willingly let die. But in his own days he did excellent service to learning by his untiring activity, and by the facility with which he used his stores of knowledge. It was an age of accumulation and preparation, when the world was still amassing and cataloguing the fragments rescued from the wrecks of Greece and Rome. Men had to receive the very rudiments of culture before they could appreciate its niceties. And in this work of collection and instruction Filelfo excelled, 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.
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.).
- Rosmini, C. (1808). Vita di Francesco Filelfo da Tolentino. Milan.
- Robin, M. (1991). Filelfo in Milan. Writings 1451-1477. Princeton.
- Viti, P. (1997). "Filelfo, Francesco". Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. Rome. p. 624.
- Ganchou, Th. (2005). "Les ultimae voluntates de Manuel et Iôannès Chrysolôras et le séjour de Francesco Filelfo à Constantinople". Bizantinistica VII: 195–285.
- Meserve, Margaret (2010). "Nestor Denied: Francesco Filelfo’s Advice to Princes on the Crusade against the Turks". Osiris 25 (1): 47–65. doi:10.1086/657262.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press