De viris illustribus

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A copy of De viris illustribus printed by Nicolas Jenson about 1474

De viris illustribus, meaning "On Illustrious / Famous Men", represents a trope of ancient Roman exemplary literature that was revived during the Italian Renaissance and inspired the assembly or commissioning of series of portraits of outstanding men with a high didactic purpose.

With its inception in the circle of Cicero,[1] various works bear the titles De viris illustribus or De hominibus illustribus. From Cornelius Nepos' De Viris Illustribus, Aulus Gellius draws an anecdote of Cato the Elder; Cornelius Nepos also produced a Liber De Excellentibus Ducibus Gentium (Lives of Eminent Commanders). Suetonius' fragmentary Lives include grammarians, rhetoricians, historians, and poets. An anonymous De Viris Illustribus probably dating to the first half of the 4th century is a compilation of 86 brief biographies of individuals important to Roman history, from the legendary Alban king Proca to Cleopatra.[2] Jerome's collection of Christian biographies, De Viris Illustribus, contains 135 brief notices. Jerome's work was continued by Gennadius of Massilia's De Viris Illustribus.

During the Middle Ages the inspirational series took two paths: the specifically Christian models were enshrined in hagiography, in which miracles attracted the attention, but the qualities exemplified by martyrs were those of fortitude, faith and obedience. On the secular side, the worldly models, emulated by aristocrats alone, were contracted and codified in the "Nine Worthies" who were chivalric exemplars of valiant courtoisie, the instructive models of aristocratic courtly behavior.[3] The library of literary portraits was figured forth in visual reminders, in illuminated manuscripts, and in tapestry, among other media.

With the very first beginnings of the revival of classical learning in Italian Renaissance, a broader, carefully select group of men of renown from the distant and the recent past outstanding for their statecraft or their learning "emerged almost simultaneously in such diverse Italian centers as Milan, Naples, Siena, Padua,[4] Foligno,[5] Florence, Venice, Perugia and Urbino."[6] In literature, the notion was a Petrarchan one, expressed in his De Viris Illustribus, a collection of 36 short biographies On Famous Men and Boccaccio, inspired to emulation, wrote De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, a collection of 56 biographies On the Fates of Famous Men. Boccaccio also wrote a complement to it, De mulieribus claris, a collection of 106 biographies On Famous Women. Leonardo Bruni published translations of Plutarch's Lives.

These literary examples of viri illustres preceded the visual ones, based on literary documents rather than surviving Roman series, as the humanist Poggio Bracciolini wrote in his essay De nobilitate liber, the Romans should be emulated, "for they believed that the images of men who had excelled in the pursuit of glory and wisdom, if placed before the eyes, would help enoble and stir up the soul."[7] A series of instructive uomini illustri painted for Azzo Visconti in Milan, which was mentioned by Giorgio Vasari, and a series in Naples are both lost, but important early series of portraits of famous men survive in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena[8] and in the Sala Virorum Illustrium, Padua.

The Giovio Series of portraits of literary figures, rulers, statesmen and other dignitaries, many of which were done from life, was assembled by Renaissance historian and biographer Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) but subsequently lost. It is represented today by the set of copies made for Cosimo I de' Medici in the Uffizi Gallery.

The trope continues strongly today, not so much in universal biographical dictionaries, which verge on prosopography, but in specifically instructive collections of inspirational vitae, such as Profiles in Courage, and is reflected in the ironic title to portraits of all-but-anonymous sharecroppers in the American South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which is drawn from a passage in the Wisdom of Sirach that begins, "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us."


  1. ^ Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, "The Early Beginnings of the Notion of "Uomini Famosi" and the "De Viris Illustribus" in Greco-Roman Literary Tradition", Artibus et Historiae 3.6 (1982), pp. 97-115.
  2. ^ Christoph F. Konrad, Plutarch's Sertorius: A Historical Commentary (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. xlix. The compilation draws on Livy, through intermediaries such as an epitome and Florus, or on sources such as Nepos and Hyginus.
  3. ^ Horst Shroeder, Der topos der Nine Worthies in Literatur und bildender Kunst (Göttingen) 1971 is the standard survey.
  4. ^ Theodor E. Mommsen, "Petrarch and the decoration of the Sala Virorum Illustrium in Padua", Art Bulletin 34 (1952) pp 95-116.
  5. ^ The early 15th-century frescos of famous men in the Palazzo Trincio, Foligno are discussed by Mario Salvi, "Gli affreschi del Palazzo Trincio a Foligno" Bolettino d'arte 12 (1919) pp 139-80 (noted by Joost-Gaugier).
  6. ^ Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, "Poggio and Visual Tradition: 'Uomini Famosi' in Classical Literary Description" Artibus et Historiae 6.12 (1985), pp. 57-74, p. 57f
  7. ^ Quoted in Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, "Poggio and Visual Tradition: 'Uomini Famosi' in Classical Literary Description" Artibus et Historiae 6.12 (1985), pp. 57-74; Bracciolini is quoted p 58.
  8. ^ Nicolai Rubinstein, "Political ideas in Sienese art: the frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Taddeo di Bartolo in the Palazzo Pubblico", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 21 (1958) pp 179-207.