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THE USE OF ANTIQUITY FOR LIFE

 

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Anonymous, after Marcantonio Raimondi, Alexander Preserving the Works of Homer

Plato, tr. Bruni, Letters and Phaedo

Constantinus Lascaris, Erotemata

According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great, after defeating the Persian king Darius, was given a chest "which those in charge of the wealth of Darius thought to be the most precious thing there." Alexander asked his companions what he ought to store in his prize. "When many answered and there were many opinions, Alexander himself said that he would deposit the Iliad there for safe-keeping."

This story had a particular resonance for the antiquarians. Petrarch discovered many forgotten works of Cicero in remote monastic libraries. In this pursuit he was followed, and outdone, by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), the most passionate of the Renaissance book-hunters. When Raphael, or an assistant, painted "Alexander Preserving the Books of Homer" on the wall of the popes' private library, he was drawing a parallel between the heroism of Alexander and that of the scholars who had recovered many of the texts preserved in the Vatican.

The early students of classical literature were hindered by their ignorance of Greek. Neither Petrarch nor Boccaccio could read Homer in the original. Late in the 14th century, the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras began teaching Greek to the young humanists of Florence. One of his pupils, Leonardo Bruni (1370?-1444), became the first serious Latin translator of Greek texts since the sixth century, producing versions of Plutarch, Xenophon, and Plato, among many others. An early manuscript copy of his Latin Plato is shown here.

During the 15th century, knowledge of Greek was confined to small groups of Italian scholars, most of whom weretaught in person by Byzantine refugees. The Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) played a crucial role in the wider dissemination of the Greek language and literature. The first issue of the Aldine press, shown here, was a Greek grammar. Over the next twenty years Aldus would produce over 120 editions of ancient texts, making classical literature accessible to scholars across Europe.

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[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]