Bartolomeo Scala, 1430-1497, Chancellor of Florence: The Humanist As Bureaucrat

Bartolomeo Scala, 1430-1497, Chancellor of Florence: The Humanist As Bureaucrat

by Alison Brown

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Though Bartolomeo Scala has long intrigued historians, he is a figure whose importance has only recently been appreciated. In Alison Brown's biography Scala emerges as a man of more ability and character than anyone has imagined him to be. We begin to understand why he was employed as chancellor for the almost unrivaled period of thirty-two years. Ms. Brown's study


Though Bartolomeo Scala has long intrigued historians, he is a figure whose importance has only recently been appreciated. In Alison Brown's biography Scala emerges as a man of more ability and character than anyone has imagined him to be. We begin to understand why he was employed as chancellor for the almost unrivaled period of thirty-two years. Ms. Brown's study is not only the first extensive treatment of Scala's life but also a significant contribution to our knowledge of Italian Renaissance history and of the contrast between theory and practice in Medicean government.

Originally published in 1979.

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Bartolomeo Scala, 1430-1497, Chancellor of Florence

The Humanist As Bureaucrat

By Alison Brown


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05270-0


Childhood and Education

I came to the republic naked, disadvantaged, of the lowest parentage, full of confidence but absolutely penniless, without reputation, patrons or kinsmen. Scala to Angelo Poliziano, 1494

Like other self-made men Bartolomeo Scala could afford to boast of early hardship in his comfortable old age, but the evidence suggests he did not exaggerate. He was born just outside the small town of Colle di Val d'Elsa in south-western Tuscany on 17 May 1430, the son of a tenant miller. His father, called simply Giovanni di Francesco, held the mill at Onci according to the mezzadria system (receiving a half share of its profits in return for his labor), and we know from his tax return of 1429 that his declared possessions were minimal, his credits more than outweighed by his debts.

Bartolomeo's place of birth contributed as little to his future success as his parentage. Colle was provincial. It had been an independent commune from the twelfth century until the middle of the fourteenth century, when it accepted Florentine overlordship in return for military protection. Like an early Roman municipium, which owed allegiance to Rome without Roman citizenship, Colle received in return for its loyalty no citizenship rights in Florence: anyone wishing to emigrate to the metropolis had to pay taxes there for twenty years before being allowed to invest in the Florentine dowry bank and thirty years before exercising elective offices in the city. Although the economic crisis of the mid-fourteenth century had in practice led to a less rigid interpretation of the statutes, theoretically they should have made Bartolomeo's achievement impossible.

In one respect, though, he was fortunate. Like other Tuscan communes, Colle enjoyed an early tradition of learning which survived into the fifteenth century and must have helped to launch him on his successful career. Its statutes had granted special privileges to teachers and students and, although loss of sovereignty may have reduced its civic ambition "to be adorned with learned men," there is evidence throughout the fifteenth century of well-known grammarians still visiting the town. Colle never possessed a school for higher studies, however, and for more than elementary education it was necessary to study "in Siena or ... some other place removed from the said town of Colle where a studium is held." Siena was some twelve miles from Colle, Florence twice as far away. For the ambitious, the attraction of Florence with its intellectual preeminence and expanding administration must have been overriding, and it was there that Bartolomeo and subsequently two of his five brothers went to make their fortunes.

Bartolomeo never returned to live in Colle but his ties with it remained strong. He held the ambiguous status among his compatriots of one more honored than loved for success achieved outside his place of birth, profiting from his status in Florence to win privileges in Colle and at the same time exerting political influence there, to the chagrin of the natives. At other times he acted in Florence as spokesman for Colle in matters concerning their mutual interest, and he must have been influential in suggesting that the unusual privilege of full Florentine citizenship be offered to his compatriots to stiffen their resolve in the Pazzi war in 1479. He bought houses and land in the town after he was appointed chancellor of Florence, and he was qualified for political office there. Never an emotional man, he confessed to the Florentine war magistracy in October 1479 that his heart "shattered into a thousand pieces" when he witnessed the assault of Colle, and at the end of his life again paid tribute to its courage at that time. Whatever his feelings for the place of his birth, however, after he moved to Florence his first loyalties always lay with the city of his adoption, by which he was granted honors and full rights of citizenship.

His achievement in overcoming the disadvantages of his provincial birth and poverty was not unique. The appointment of Coluccio Salutati, a notary from Ruggiano, as first chancellor in 1375 established the precedent for a series of such appointments in the following century: of Leonardo Bruni, Carlo Marsuppini and Benedetto Accolti from Arezzo, of Poggio Bracciolini from Terranuova nearby. But in some respects Scala's achievement was greater than theirs, for he started with more disadvantages and achieved higher honors. We shall follow the steps of his slow but sure-footed ascent.

By the time Scala reached Florence, the golden period was over. The papal court had left the city, and so had the Greek delegates to the Council of Florence. Many of the first generation of scholars who had brought it fame by their teaching and by their discovery and translations of ancient manuscripts had died; others had left with the papal court. The economic and political climate had changed, too, and for almost the whole decade from 1444 to 1454 public teaching was reduced and the university itself was intermittently closed.

It was during the latter part of this decade that Scala was a student in Florence. He recalls: "there was a great shortage of books and teachers ... everyone tried to achieve what he could by his own exertions." A fellow student of Scala's, Jacopo Ammannati, later a cardinal, also remembered the hardship of their student years together when they lived "close to each other" and "were both very badly off." So again Scala's account of his early poverty is corroborated by other evidence. According to Ammannati, a self-made man like himself, they both achieved success and prosperity "by hard work and God's favor," studying the same subjects with "almost the same teachers."

What were these studies and who were Scala's teachers? Ammannati was taught poetry and oratory by Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppini before leaving Florence by the beginning of 1449 as secretary to Cardinal Capranica. So Scala, too, must have studied these liberal arts subjects, and if his teachers were "almost the same" as Ammannati's, Marsuppini must have been one of them, for Bruni died in 1444 when Scala was only fourteen years old.

In addition to poetry and oratory, Scala also studied law in Florence. It was an obvious subject for a boy with a career to make, since it opened the way to offices in the papal and state chanceries, as well as in the law courts and universities. As he is described as a iurisperitus in 1454, he must have studied law as his principal subject in the university since at least 1449, perhaps combining it with other subjects as Francesco Filelfo had done as a student at Padua: law diebus ordinariis and diebus extraordinariis oratory in the morning and philosophy in the afternoon. Despite the economic troubles of the university at this time, surviving accounts show that when it reopened briefly in 1451 there were more lawyers on the roll than other teachers. Of these, Benedetto Accolti was probably the most preeminent, but there were also Domenico Martelli, Otto Niccolini and Girolamo Machiavelli, who were all leading and active citizens in Florence. Although he is not listed as a lawyer in the university accounts, Carlo Marsuppini was "the most learned of all the men I have ever known in civil law," according to one law student. He evidently combined theory with practice, on the one hand as a humanist restoring legal texts to their original condition unadulterated by the work of later glossators, "just as Petrarch first recalled the Latin language, which had long been in decline and unknown to us, to the light of day"; on the other, with unrivaled skill "solving the riddles of Roman law and loosing the bonds of criminals fettered on unproven charges."

We do not know if Marsuppini taught law to Scala, although it is possible to see traces of his influence in Scala's later dialogue On Laws and Legal Judgments. His influence on Scala in the field of poetry and oratory is, however, indisputable, reflected immediately in a practice "Oration on justice," which Scala wrote less than three months after Marsuppini was appointed to the Chair of Poetry and Oratory in 1451, and subsequently in a series of other writings. Scala later played an identical role to Marsuppini's as liaison between the Medici and the Florentine chancery, in which as a lawyer and humanist he was able to offer the same combination of intellectual and practical talents. For these reasons it is difficult not to see Marsuppini as the most formative influence on Scala during his university years in Florence.

In August 1454, with Marsuppini dead and the university closed, Scala went to complete his education at the feet of Francesco Filelfo in Milan. He lived in the household of Count Filippo Borromeo, possibly acting as tutor to his sons, and although he stayed only a year before returning to Florence, it was a formative year for him in several respects. It was the only occasion on which he lived outside the Florentine state and it opened him to ideas and a way of life very different from those offered by Florence: in place of the civic patriotism and respectful antiquarianism of its humanists, the stimulating but irresponsible Filelfo; in place of the bourgeois republicanism and old-fashioned communal institutions of Florence, a more socially diversified but administratively centralized state. They left their mark on Scala, as we shall see.

Scala arrived in Milan with letters of commendation to Francesco Filelfo, not from the Medici (who disliked Filelfo), but from members of two much older and more distinguished Florentine families, Donato Acciaiuoli and Andrea Alamanni. They both formed part of the young intellectual pressure group in Florence at that time, the self-named "chorus of the Florentine academy" who were clamoring to have the university reopened. They must have come to know Scala as students, and their friendship with this miller's son and their respect for his "not inconsiderable talents" are an early tribute to Scala's ability, confirmed a decade later when these same "academicians" supported him as their personal candidate for the chancellorship.

Scala was ambitious as well as able, as we can also see from Donato Acciaiuoli's commendation. His ambition to meet Filelfo was quickly achieved and only a month later he was congratulated by Donato on becoming an intimate friend of so learned a man. Filelfo was a gifted but difficult person: one of the foremost scholars of Greek in Italy and an exciting teacher who had drawn large crowds to his lectures in Florence in the early 1430s, making the city "reverberate" with his vernacular orations on liberty and justice at a time when the Medici and Albizzi parties were fighting to establish control of the city. He was a man of wide-ranging interests, but litigious and perhaps superficial, his ambition outrunning his achievements.

Scala was too young to have known Filelfo in Florence, for Filelfo was made to leave when Cosimo de' Medici returned triumphantly in 1434. But some of Filelfo's zestful disrespect for the shibboleths of the Medicean Florentines may have remained to influence Scala in Milan. While there, Scala practiced a genre of historical writing frowned on in Florence, eulogistic biography, and in it he supported Valla's radical opinion that new Latin terms should be adopted for new institutions, only modifying his intention both of writing a eulogistic biography of the Medici and of using new words for new institutions on his return to Florence. Scala also probably acquired his limited knowledge of Greek from Filelfo in Milan, where he borrowed manuscripts from Filelfo's rich library (which he was later accused of not returning) as well as from the son of his patron Filippo Borromeo. Filelfo, too, was a client of the Borromeo family, and his greatest kindness to Scala may have been to introduce Scala to Filippo Borromeo as a tutor for his son Giovanni. Scala in his turn repaid his debt of gratitude both to his patron and to Filelfo in writing a biography of Filippo's father Vitaliano, in which he described Filelfo as "the most learned of the scholars of his day."

Vitaliano Borromeo had been one of the leading feudatories of the Milanese state, a banker and patron as well as a rich landowner, whose fifteenth-century brick palace still survives in central Milan. Decorated inside with Aesop's Fables and Petrarch's Triumphs by Michelino Besozzo and other artists, it contrasts strikingly with the massive stone edifices built by his Florentine counterparts, and could have provided Scala with the inspiration for the house he later built for himself in Florence, decorated with a frieze of fables of his own invention. Scala never knew Vitaliano personally, although he based his biography on the first-hand evidence of people he met in his house. His patron was Vitaliano's son Filippo who succeeded his father as count of Arona and was, like him, a banker who also played a responsible political and diplomatic role in the state. In everything but their feudal rank and standing the Borromei resembled the Medici family in Florence, and Scala's experience in their household was not wasted when he later worked as a member of the Medici household, not least the courtly servility he must have learnt in Milan. While he was there he also met Duke Francesco Sforza and doubtless also his powerful centralizing secretary Cicco Simonetta, whose influence, too, can be detected in the reforms Scala later introduced into the Florentine chancery.

After Scala returned to Florence in the autumn of 1455, he was apparently without employment but still in close contact with his friends in Milan. In one letter we find him searching for scarlet cloth to match a sample he had been given, possibly acting as an intermediary between the Borromei in Milan and their relations in Florence. In another, to Filelfo's son Xenophon, he vows "by all the gods and by the sacrosanct and inviolable law of friendship" that he has returned all the books borrowed from his father: the missing volumes of Diodorus Siculus he suspects are "hiding among your father's manuscripts" and he urges Xenophon to get his father to hunt for them and tell him as soon as they are found. To Filelfo himself he writes a letter of great interest, which shows him for the first time in contact with the Medici family and acting as emissary between Filelfo and Giovanni di Cosimo,· then, as Scala says, busily engaged in building his villa at Fiesole: "having dined," Scala wrote to Filelfo, I set out in the afternoon for Fiesole where Giovanni was rusticating, absorbed in his building. My business with him was of some importance, and after we had discussed many matters together, I eventually gave him your greetings, in your own words, and showed him your letter and your poem. He read them very carefully and then spoke most warmly in your praise, saying he had written to you that very day, and urging you, if you thought him worthy of the kindness, to undertake the work of interpreting Petrarch's poems, which in themselves are somewhat obscure. If you did so, he would be completely indebted to you, and you would earn the eternal gratitude of all devoted readers of Petrarch, of whom there are many, particularly in this city. I, too, not only advise and urge you, but beg and beseech you, to do so, for I think it would be no small addition to your glory.

Filelfo had begun his Commentary on Petrarch's poems at the behest of Filippo Maria Visconti some years earlier but, although he apparently never got beyond the first one hundred and five poems, these were in great demand and frequently printed. Giovanni de' Medici had been asked to bring about a reconciliation between his father Cosimo and Filelfo in 1447, and Scala was evidently working for the same objective. Cosimo, however, steadfastly refused to have anything to do with Filelfo, although his sons and grandson were less unrelenting.


Excerpted from Bartolomeo Scala, 1430-1497, Chancellor of Florence by Alison Brown. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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