Leonardo Bruni

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Leonardo Bruni
Leonardo Bruni, engraving by Theodor de Bry

Leonardo Bruni (or Leonardo Aretino) (c. 1370 – March 9, 1444) was an Italian humanist, historian and statesman, recognized as the most important humanist historian of the Renaissance.[1] He has been called the first modern historian.[2]Leonardo Bruni was the son of Cecco Bruni, a small grain dealer in Arezzo. As a result of civil war, Bruni and his father were imprisoned in 1384, with the young Bruni held apart from his father in a castle room on the wall of which was a portrait of Petrarch. Bruni would later write that his daily viewing of the painting of this famous Italian poet and Humanist inspired him with an eagerness for Humanist studies. The years following the war and his imprisonment were difficult for Bruni. His father died in 1386, his mother in 1388; family resources declined sharply.

In spite of the family hardship, Bruni moved the forty miles to Florence, perhaps to live with relatives, and began his studies. From 1393 to 1397, he studied law in Florence and came to the attention of the medieval scholar Lino Coluccio Salutati. In 1396, another scholar, Manuel Chrysoloras, moved to Florence and did much to broaden Bruni’s career and education. In 1397, Bruni shifted to the study of Greek, in which Chrysoloras educated and then inspired him to complete a series of translations of several classical literary items from ancient times, many of which had been overlooked for centuries. These included works by Xenophon, Saint Basil, Procopius, Polybius, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Thucydides, and Aristotle. Before he was thirty-five, Bruni’s achievement in this work led to his stature among contemporaries as the leading authority on the subject of ancient literature. He was the first historian to write using the three-period view of history: Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modern. The dates Bruni used to define the periods are not exactly what modern historians use today, but he laid the conceptual groundwork for a tripartite division of history.


Leonardo Bruni was born in Arezzo, Tuscany circa 1370. Bruni was the pupil of political, and cultural leader Coluccio Salutati, whom he succeeded as chancellor of Florence, and under whose tutelage he developed his ideation of civic humanism. He also served as apostolic secretary to four popes (1405-1414). [2] Bruni's years as chancellor—1410 to 1411 and again from 1427 to his death in 1444—were plagued by warfare. Though he occupied one of the highest political offices, Bruni was relatively powerless compared to the Albizzi and Medici families. Historian Arthur Field has identified Bruni as an apparent plotter against Cosimo de' Medici in 1437 (see below). Bruni died in 1444 in Florence and was succeeded in office by Carlo Marsuppini.


De primo bello punico, 1471

Bruni's most notable work is Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII (History of the Florentine People, 12 Books), which has been called the first modern history book.[2] While it probably was not Bruni's intention to secularize history, the three period view of history is unquestionably secular and for that Bruni has been called the first modern historian.[2] The foundation of Bruni's conception can be found with Petrarch, who distinguished the classical period from later cultural decline, or tenebrae (literally "darkness"). Bruni argued that Italy had revived in recent centuries and could therefore be described as entering a new age.

One of Bruni's most famous works is New Cicero, a biography of the Roman statesman Cicero. He was also the author of biographies in Italian of Dante and Petrarch.[3] It was Bruni who used the phrase studia humanitatis, meaning the study of human endeavors, as distinct from those of theology and metaphysics, which is where the term humanists comes from.

One of Bruni's major contributions to the Renaissance was translating ancient classics of Aristotle, Plato, and others, from Greek into Latin, as he believed that "the foundation of all true learning must be laid in the sound and thorough knowledge of Latin" (Jensen 130). The translations made these ancient philosophical texts available to a much larger audience, making it possible for more people to be exposed to them and begin practicing the ideals from the thinkers of antiquity. Being so interested and captivated by ancient philosophical texts, Bruni exemplifies typical Renaissance humanism.

Bruni incorporated knowledge and ideas from the classical texts into politics, under the concept of civic humanism as noted by 20th century historins, the idea for which he so admired Cicero, the "ideal union of the active political and philosophical life" (Jurdjevic 1001). This concept affected Italy's politics as"civic humanism did, however, help to create and express new foci for the city's political culture in the Quattrocentro" (Jurdjevic 1015).

In addition to his translation of texts and prmotion of civic humanism, Bruni advocated learning, as he "and his friends certainly believed learning to be possible in their time" (Seigel 14).

Leonardo Bruni's Life of Cicero deserves to occupy an important place in the annals of early modern history-writing. Completed in October 1415, the Cicero marks a turning point in Bruni's career. It represents his first major foray into the field of historiography, preceding by a few months his completion of the first book of the more famous History of Florence. The Cicero contains many of the features upon which Bruni's reputation as a historian was later to be based. It is written in concise, elegant Latin; it demonstrates a high degree of sophistication in its handling of a wide range of source material; it reveals the workings of a mature, critical intelligence capable of formulating judgments that often go against the grain of accumulated tradition. Nor should we be surprised that Bruni's breakthrough into such territory took place within the framework of biography. Since the time of Petrarch, life-writing had been practiced by Italian humanists as the preferred form of historical composition. Bruni's mentor Coluccio Salutati was a devotee of the genre, and Bruni himself served his apprenticeship in history-writing by translating seven of Plutarch's Lives between 1405 and 1412.

As a result of his recognition as a literary figure and because of his proficiency in Latin and Greek, Bruni received an appointment in 1405 as a secretary to Pope Innocent VII. Except for a brief period in 1410 and 1411, he would spend ten years with the papal court in Rome. In 1411, when he was forty-one years of age, he married. While little is known about his wife or her family, it is known that she brought to the marriage a dowry that reflects a family of wealth and status. Bruni also became a close acquaintance of Baldassarre Cossa, who became Pope John XXIII during the Schism of the Papacy until the famous deposition in 1415 at the Council of Constance. As a result of the loss of power by his patron, Bruni returned to Florence, where he settled into an active life in historical study and writing, Florentine politics, and personal investments.

It was as a historian that Leonardo Bruni became a great Renaissance scholar. Through translations, dialogues, biographies, commentaries, and his monumental Historiae Florentini populi (1610; history of the Florentine people), Bruni changed historical writing and thought so significantly that he was referred to as the “father of history” for at least two centuries after his death. Numerous Italian historians were influenced by his methods and style, and his impact extended into other disciplines. Although there is no complete chronology of Bruni’s historical works, the list is impressive. It begins with his Laudatio Florentinae urbis (in praise of the city of Florence) and the Dialoghi ad Petrum Paulum historum (dialogues dedicated to Pier Paolo Vergerio), both produced between 1401 and 1405.

Important works[edit]

Scrutinizing the past, Leonardo Bruni provided Europe with new interpretations of historic and civic responsibility. His contributions to many fields including historical study, literature, philosophy and politics substantially influenced the intellectual creativity of the Renaissance masters. He was among the most important masons for laying the stonework of the ideological structures of his time, for which later generations commemorate him with immeasurable affection and gratitude that may be best summarized in his epitaph by Marsuppini. Laudatio Florentinae urbis is an attempt to present a thorough view of the Florence city-state in its geographic and historical perspectives, a total view of the city. The work is based, in part, upon the model of Aristides’ eulogy of Athens in ancient Greece. Bruni sought to explain how Florentine institutions and politics evolved from the Italian past, in itself a new historical method. It was also in this work that Bruni’s civic Humanism emerged. He expressed the view that the health of the state must ever be based upon the educated and ethical sense of the citizenry, factors which, in his view, had contributed much to the glory and fame of Florence. Dialoghi ad Petrum Paulum historum was a combination of two dialogues that served as reproductions of conversations between scholars from two Florentine generations. Here Florence is presented as the preserver of the best features of republican Rome and classical Greece. Together the two works are credited with marking the beginning of a new history.

As a humanist Bruni was essential in translating into Latin many works of Greek philosophy and history, such as Aristotle and Procopius. Bruni's translations of Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, as well as the pseudo-Aristotelean Economics, were widely distributed in manuscript and in print. His use of Aelius Aristides' Panathenicus (Panegyric to Athens) to buttress his republican theses in the Panegyric to the City of Florence (c. 1401) was instrumental in bringing the Greek historian to the attention of Renaissance political philosophers (see Hans Baron's The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance for details). He also wrote a short treatise in Greek on the Florentine constitution.[4]

The final resting place for the “first modern historian” was deliberately designed with a rich symbolic system that would be easily understood by Bruni’s contemporaries. However, other than the image of Mary and the Child in the medallion on the tympanum, this monument lacks a good degree of religious significance. Instead, the sculptural architectonic framework and the triumphant-arch motif remind the viewers of ancient, or at least secular, approach. Bruni died in Florence in 1444, and is buried in a wall tomb by Bernardo Rossellino in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence.[5]



  1. ^ Gary Ianziti (2012). Writing History in Renaissance Italy: Leonardo Bruni and the Uses of the Past. Harvard University Press. p. 432. ISBN 978-0674061521. 
  2. ^ a b c d Leonardo Bruni; James Hankins (October 9, 2010). History of the Florentine People 1. Boston: Harvard University Press. 
  3. ^ "Leonardo Bruni" Catholic Encyclopedia
  4. ^ Stuart M. McManus, 'Byzantines in the Florentine polis: Ideology, Statecraft and ritual during the Council of Florence', The Journal of the Oxford University History Society, 6 (Michaelmas 2008/Hilary 2009), pp. 8-10
  5. ^ Levey, Michael; Early Renaissance,p. 57-9, 1967, Penguin


  • Field, Arthur: "Leonardi Bruni, Florentine traitor? Bruni, the Medici, and an Aretine conspiracy of 1437", Renaissance Quarterly 51 (1998): 1109-50.
  • Hankins, James: Repertorium Brunianum : a critical guide to the writings of Leonardo Bruni, Rome : Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo 1997
  • Ianziti, Gary. "Writing History in Renaissance Italy: Leonardo Bruni and the Uses of the Past" (2010)
  • "Leonardo Bruni". In Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • McManus, Stuart M., 'Byzantines in the Florentine polis: Ideology, Statecraft and ritual during the Council of Florence', The Journal of the Oxford University History Society, 6 (Michaelmas 2008/Hilary 2009), 1-23

External links[edit]

Latin texts online[edit]

German Texts Online[edit]