Born in Arezzo in 1370, Leonardo Bruni studied under the tutelage of the famous political and cultural figure, Coluccio Salutati. Later, Bruni succeeded his master Salutati as Chancellor of the republic of Florence initially in 1410, and then again in 1427. Throughout his career, Bruni remained a staunch republican who believed in the rule of law and the ideals of a republican form of government. In his oration for the funeral of Nanni Strozzi, he proclaimed,
We do not tremble beneath the rule of one man who would lord it over us, nor are we slaves to the rule of a few. Our liberty is equal for all, is limited only by the laws, and is free from the fear of men.
His political ideals were heavily influenced by Plato and Aristotle. By translating their work into Latin, Bruni helped disseminate the philosophies of ancient Greek thinkers within the circle of Italian Renaissance intellectuals.
Bruni was a rather prolific writer and translator. Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII (History of the Florentine People, 12 Books) is among his most famous contributions, In this, he divides the time of human history into Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modernity, a historic perspective that is most widespread today. Bruni also produced the biographies of Cicero, Dante, and Petrarch, noted authors with whom he aligned himself.
In the summer of 1404, Bruni finished his Laudatio Florentinae urbis, in which he spared no effort in praising the city of Florence for her cleanliness as well as advanced civil and military life. While Bruni benefited from the fame of Florence, as one of her distinguished citizens, the Republic, in return, became all the more well-known as the panegyric (text) was circulated around towns and city states. It is acknowledged that Bruni’s writing aimed at demonstrating the unique role that Florence had played in the historic defense of republican liberty.
The renowned humanist died in 1444 and was buried in Santa Croce in a tomb monument designed by Bernardo Rossellino. Despite the achievements and fame that Bruni gained during his lifetime, he asked only for a simple tomb slab. The idea behind this request may be detected through his own laudatory text of the beauty of Florence.
Do nothing for ostentation nor allow hazardous or useless display, but instead use great moderation and follow solid proportion.
Placed near the transept of the church, the arch-motif wall tomb was inscribed with the coat of arms of Bruni’s family at the very top of the architectural framework, and an epitaph by Carlo Marsuppini, the successor of Bruni in public offices. (Interestingly, the writer of Bruni’s epitaph was also buried in Santa Croce, across the nave from the tomb of Bruni.) A figure of Bruni carved out of marble lies peacefully on the sarcophagus, holding his own work “History of the Florentine People” on his chest.
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.
Rossellino, a contemporary citizen to Bruni, must have been familiar with Bruni’s writings and his ideals of Florence as the perfect city-state. Continuing the spirit of Cicero, Leonardo Bruni was advocating for the secularization of the political authority, as well as the reconstruction of citizenry. Likely with this in mind, Rossellino chose a design that was more compatible with Bruni’s secularized humanism to accompany him for all the centuries that follow. The tomb later became the prototype of fifteenth-century burial design, creating its own legend in the fields of sculpture and architecture.
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.
Since Leonardo departed this life, History is mourning, Eloquence is mute, and it is said that the Muses, both Greek and Latin, could not restrain their tears.
Text and photos: Hongye Wu.
Guest blogger Hongye Wu is a senior at Tufts University where she majors in Political Science and Art History. Born and raised in Guangzhou, China, she currently studies in Florence through the study abroad program of Syracuse University.