Leonardo Bruni d'Arezzo
De Studiis et Litteris

W.H. Woodward, ed.,
Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), 119-33.

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned, proofread and posted by Raluca Preotu, 1998-1999.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, April 2001.


THIS short Treatise, cast as usual in the form of a Letter, is probably the earliest humanist tract upon Education expressly dedicated to a Lady; just as Baptista di Montefeltro, to whom it is addressed, may stand as the first of the succession of studious women who were a characteristic product of the Renaissance.

Baptista was the younger daughter of Antonio, Count of Urbino, who died in 1404. She was then twenty-one years of age, and was married, on June 14, 1405, to Galeazzo Malatesta, the heir to the lordship of Pesaro. The marriage was a most unhappy one. The worthless husband was so hated as a ruler that, after two years of power (1429-1431), he was driven from his city. His wife thereupon found a welcome refuge in her old home at Urbino. She lived for some twenty years a widowed and secluded life; she died, as a Sister of the Franciscan Order of Santa Chiara, in 1450.

Even before her marriage she had cultivated a taste for poetry and was powerfully attracted by the passion for the ancient literature which marked the close of the 14th century. Her husband’s father, the reigning lord of Pesaro, is known to us as "Il Malatesta degli Sonetti," and he aided and shared the literary tastes of his young daughter-in-law. They interchanged canzoni and Latin epistles, many of which are [Page 120] preserved in MS. collections [1]. The Emperor Sigismund passing through Urbino in 1433 was greeted by her in a Latin oration [2], which half a century later was still thought worthy of print. To her Lionardo Bruni, at the time probably Apostolic Secretary, addressed the Letter which is here given in English form. The date of its composition cannot now be determined. But we may fairly assume from the tenor of the opening words that it was written not much later than the year of her marriage (1405).

The interest of the tractate lies chiefly in the fact that it reveals, at an early stage in the history of Humanism, a concern for classical study on the part of the more thoughtful and earnest of the great ladies of Italy. Baptista is the forerunner of the Nogarola of Verona [3], of Cecilia Gonzaga, of Ippolita Sforza, and of her own more fortunate and distinguished descendants, Costanza and her daughter, another Baptista (1447-1472), the wife of the great Duke Federigo of Urbino.

There is evidence also, I think, of the bitterness with which the New Learning was regarded in Florence by the Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella, which had lately found expression in the work of Giovanni Dominici [4], who denounced the growing [Page 121] absorption of the intelligence of his day in pagan thought and letters. Bruni, however, as became his position, and in accord moreover, with all that we read of the ideals of the highest training of women during this century, in mapping out a course of reading for his correspondent holds fast by the supreme worth of morals and religion. He is anxious to shew the connection between the ancient world and the Christian standards of life. Hence the paragraph [5]upon the relation of profane learning to the art of noble living is very significant. It expresses with precision what we feel to have been the aim of Vittorino da Feltre in his education of Cecilia and Barbara, and it coincides in principle with the judgments on the education of girls laid down in the treatise of Maffeo Vegio [6]. The main features of this course of study best adapted to a woman seem to be these. Religion, as a subject of study not less than as a personal quality, demands the first place: morals, as recognised by the best intelligence of the ancient world, as well as by the Church, stand in close relation to Faith. Philosophy, disputation, the art of clever conversation and discussion, history, as a body of illustration of moral precepts, all these follow closely. Literature, in a broad sense covering the range of Latin antiquity and the greater Fathers, must be studied both for its matter and its form. The importance of this last is hardly to be exaggerated. For taste and fluency of expression are among the finer marks of distinction accepted by educated opinion.

It cannot be said that the study of Letters by women, in spite of some pedantry and occasional display, was, judging from the more prominent instances of which we have intimate knowledge, unfavourably regarded by social opinion, or that it established a new standard of womanly activity. Women, indeed, at this [Page 122] epoch seem to have preserved their moral and intellectual balance under the stress of the new enthusiasm better than men. The learned ladies were, in actual life, good wives and mothers, domestic and virtuous, women of strong judgment, and not seldom of marked capacity in affairs. The duchess Baptista, great in scholarship, was even more distinguished for her needlework. At the same time, before the century was out, Chairs at the Universities, both in Italy and in Spain, were occasionally occupied by women [7].

[Hain, 1571, gives the Cologne edition as the earliest, but no date is suggested (? 1472). A Florentine edition appeared in April 1477, which from its Prefatory Letter would seem to be the first current in that city. This was followed by a Roman issue. Two others, Padua, 1483, and Munich, 1496, were printed during the century. Very few editions are noted of later date.]


I AM led to address this Tractate to you, Illustrious Lady, by the high repute which attaches to your name in the field of learning; and I offer it, partly as an expression of my homage to distinction already attained, partly as an encouragement to further effort. Were it necessary I might urge you by brilliant instances from antiquity: Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio, whose Epistles survived for centuries as models of style; Sappho, the poetess, held in so great honour for the exuberance of her poetic art; Aspasia, whose learning and eloquence made her not unworthy of the intimacy of Socrates. Upon these, the most distinguished of a long range of great names, I would have you fix your mind; for an intelligence such as your own can be satisfied with nothing less than the best. You yourself, indeed, may hope to win a fame higher even than theirs. For they lived in days when learning was no rare attainment, and therefore they enjoyed no unique renown. Whilst, alas, upon such times are we fallen that a learned man seems well-nigh a portent, and erudition in a woman is a thing utterly unknown. For true learning has almost died away amongst us. True learning, I say: not a mere acquaintance with that vulgar, threadbare jargon which satisfies those who devote themselves to Theology; but sound learning in its proper and legitimate [Page 124] sense, viz., the knowledge of realities--Facts and Principles--united to a perfect familiarity with Letters and the art of expression. Now this combination we find in Lactantius, in Augustine, or in Jerome; each of them at once a great theologian and profoundly versed in literature. But turn from them to their successors of today: how must we blush for their ignorance of the whole field of Letters!

This leads me to press home this truth--though in your case it is unnecessary--that the foundations of all true learning must be laid in the sound and thorough knowledge of Latin: which implies study marked by a broad spirit, accurate scholarship, and careful attention to details. Unless this solid basis be secured it is useless to attempt to rear an enduring edifice. Without it the great monuments of literature are unintelligible, and the art of composition impossible. To attain this essential knowledge we must never relax our careful attention to the grammar of the language, but perpetually confirm and extend our acquaintance with it until it is thoroughly our own. We may gain much from Servius, Donatus and Priscian, but more by careful observation in our own reading, in which we must note attentively vocabulary and inflexions, figures of speech and metaphors, and all the devices of style, such as rhythm, or antithesis, by which fine taste is exhibited. To this end we must be supremely careful in our choice of authors, lest an inartistic and debased style infect our own writing and degrade our taste; which danger is best avoided by bringing a keen, critical sense to bear upon select works, observing the sense of each passage, the structure of the sentence, the force of every word down to the least important particle. In this way our reading reacts directly upon our style.

You may naturally turn first to Christian writers, foremost amongst whom, with marked distinction, stands Lactantius, by common consent the finest stylist of the post-classical period. Especially do I commend to your study his works, ‘Adversus falsam Religionem,’ ‘De via Dei’ and ‘De opificio hominis.’ After Lactantius your choice may lie between Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, and Cyprian; should you desire to read Gregory of Nazianzen, Chrysostom, and Basil, be careful as to the accuracy of the translations you adopt. Of the classical authors Cicero will be your constant pleasure: how unapproachable in wealth of ideas and of language, in force of style, indeed, in all that can attract in a writer! Next to him ranks Vergil, the glory and the delight of our national literature. Livy and Sallust, and then the chief poets, follow in order. The usage of these authors will serve you as your test of correctness in choice of vocabulary and of constructions.

Now we notice in all good prose--though it is not of course obtrusive--a certain element of rhythm, which coincides with and expresses the general structure of the passage, and consequently gives a clue to its sense. I commend, therefore, to you as an aid to understanding an author the practice of reading aloud with clear and exact intonation. By this device you will seize more quickly the drift of the passage, by realising the main lines on which it is constructed. And the music of the prose thus interpreted by the voice will react with advantage upon your own composition, and at the same time will improve your own Reading by compelling deliberate and intelligent expression.

The art of Writing is not limited to the mere formation of letters, but it concerns also the subject of the diphthongs, and of the syllabic divisions of words; the accepted usages in the writings of each letter, singly and in cursive script, and the whole field of abbreviations. This may seem a trivial matter, but a knowledge of educated practice on these points may fairly be expected from us. The laws of quantity are more important, since in poetry scansion is frequently our only certain clue to construction. One might ask, further, what capacity in poetic composition or what critical ability or taste in poetical literature is possible to a man who is not first of all [Page 126] secure on points of quantity and metre? Nor is prose, as I have already hinted, without its metrical element; upon which indeed Aristotle and Cicero dwelt with some minuteness. A skilful orator or historian will be careful of the effect to be gained by spondaic, iambic, dactylic or other rhythm in arousing differing emotions congruous to his matter in hand. To ignore this is to neglect one of the most delicate points of style. You will notice that such refinements will apply only to one who aspires to proficiency in the finer shades of criticism and expression, but such a one must certainly by observation and practice become familiar with every device which lends distinction and adornment to the literary art.

But the wider question now confronts us, that of the subject matter of our studies, that which I have already called the realities of fact and principle, as distinct from literary form. Here, as before, I am contemplating a student of keen and lofty aspiration to whom nothing that is worthy in any learned discipline is without its interest. But it is necessary to exercise discrimination. In some branches of knowledge I would rather restrain the ardour of the learner, in others, again, encourage it to the uttermost. Thus there are certain subjects in which, whilst a modest proficiency is on all accounts to be desired, a minute knowledge and excessive devotion seem to be a vain display. For instance, subtleties of Arithmetic and Geometry are not worthy to absorb a cultivated mind, and the same must be said of Astrology. You will be surprised to find me suggesting (though with much more hesitation) that the great and complex art of Rhetoric should be placed in the same category. My chief reason is the obvious one, that I have in view the cultivation most fitting to a woman. To her neither the intricacies of debate nor the oratorical artifices of action and delivery are of the least practical use, if indeed they are not positively unbecoming. Rhetoric in all its forms--public discussion, forensic argument, logical fence, and the like--lies absolutely outside the province of woman.

[Page 127] What Disciplines then are properly open to her? In the first place she has before her, as a subject peculiarly her own, the whole field of religion and morals. The literature of the Church will thus claim her earnest study. Such a writer, for instance, as St Augustine affords her the fullest scope for reverent yet learned inquiry. Her devotional instinct may lead her to value the help and consolation of holy men now living; but in this case let her not for an instant yield to the impulse to look into their writings, which, compared with those of Augustine, are utterly destitute of sound and melodious style, and seem to me to have no attraction whatever.

Moreover, the cultivated Christian lady has no need in the study of this weighty subject to confine herself to ecclesiastical writers. Morals, indeed, have been treated of by the noblest intellects of Greece and Rome. What they have left to us upon Continence, Temperance, Modesty, Justice, Courage, Greatness of Soul, demands your sincere respect. You must enter into such questions as the sufficiency of Virtue to Happiness; or whether, if Happiness consist in Virtue, it can be destroyed by torture, imprisonment or exile; whether, admitting that these may prevent a man from being happy, they can be further said to make him miserable. Again, does Happiness consist (with Epicurus) in the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain: or (with Xenophon) in the consciousness of uprightness: or (with Aristotle) in the practice of Virtue? These inquiries are, of all others, most worthy to be pursued by men and women alike; they are fit material for formal discussion and for literary exercise. Let religion and morals, therefore, hold the first place in the education of a Christian lady.

But we must not forget that true distinction is to be gained by a wide and varied range of such studies as conduce to the profitable enjoyment of life, in which, however, we must observe due proportion in the attention and time we devote to them.

First amongst such studies I place History: a subject which [Page 128] must not on any account be neglected by one who aspires to true cultivation. For it is our duty to understand the origins of our own history and its development; and the achievements of Peoples and of Kings.

For the careful study of the past enlarges our foresight in contemporary affairs and affords to citizens and to monarchs lessons of incitement or warning in the ordering of public policy. From History, also, we draw our store of examples of moral precepts.

In the monuments of ancient literature which have come down to us History holds a position of great distinction. We specially prize such authors as Livy, Sallust and Curtius; and, perhaps even above these, Julius Caesar; the style of whose Commentaries, so elegant and so limpid, entitles them to our warm admiration. Such writers are fully within the comprehension of a studious lady. For, after all, History is an easy subject: there is nothing in its study subtle or complex. It consists in the narration of the simplest matters of fact which, once grasped, are readily retained in the memory.

The great Orators of antiquity must by all means be included. Nowhere do we find the virtues more warmly extolled, the vices so fiercely decried. From them we may learn, also, how to express consolation, encouragement, dissuasion or advice. If the principles which orators set forth are portrayed for us by philosophers, it us from the former that we learn how to em ploy the emotions--such as indignation, or pity--in driving home their application in individual cases. Further, from oratory we derive our store of those elegant or striking turns of expression which are used with so much effect in literary compositions. Lastly, in oratory we find that wealth of vocabulary, that clear easy-flowing style, that verve and force, which are invaluable to us both in writing and in conversation.

I come now to Poetry and the Poets--a subject with which every educated lady must shew her self thoroughly familiar. For we cannot point to any great mind of the past for whom the Poets had not a powerful attraction. Aristotle, in constantly quoting Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides and other poets, proves that he knew their works hardly less intimately than those of the philosophers. Plato, also, frequently appeals to them, and in this way covers them with his approval. If we turn to Cicero, we find him not content with quoting Ennius, Accius, and others of the Latins, but rendering poems from the Greek and employing them habitually. Seneca, the austere, not only abounds in poetical allusions, but was himself a poet; whilst the great Fathers of the Church, Jerome, Augustine, Lactantius and Boethius, reveal their acquaintance with the poets in their controversies and, indeed, in all their writings. Hence my view that familiarity with the great poets of antiquity is essential to any claim to true education. For in their writings we find deep speculations upon Nature, and upon the Causes and Origins of things, which must carry weight with us both from their antiquity and from their authorship. Besides these, many important truths upon matters of daily life are suggested or illustrated. All this is expressed with such grace and dignity as demands our admiration. For example, how vividly is the art of war portrayed in Homer: the duties of a leader of men: the chances of the field: the varying temper of the host! Wise counsel, too, is not wanting, as when Hector upbraids Aeneas for too rashly urging the pursuit. Would, indeed, that in our own day our captains would deign to profit by this ancient wisdom, to the security of the common-wealth and the saving of valuable lives! Consider, again, how fitly Iris, descending upon Agamemnon in his sleep, warns against the sloth of rulers--could Socrates, Plato or Pythagoras more pointedly exhibit the responsibility of a king of men? There are the precepts also, not fewer nor less weighty, which pertain to the arts of peace. But it is time to pass to our own Poets, to Vergil, who surpasses, it seems to me, all philosophers in displaying the inner secrets of Nature and of the Soul:

[Page 130]
"Know first, the heaven, the earth, the main,
The moon’s pale orb, the starry train,
                Are nourished by a soul,
A bright intelligence, whose flame
Glows in each member of the frame
                And stirs the mighty whole.
Thence souls of men and cattle spring,
And the gay people of the wing,
And those strange shapes that ocean hides
Beneath the smoothness of the tides.
A fiery strength inspires their lives,
An essence that from heaven derives,
Though clogged in part by limbs of clay
And the dull ‘vesture of decay [8].’ "

Nor can we deny a certain inspiration to a poet who, on the very eve of the Redeemer’s birth, could speak of ‘the Virgin’s return,’ and ‘the Divine offspring sent down from on High.’ So thought Lactantius, who held that the Sibyl here alludes directly to the Saviour. Such power of reading the future is implied in the name ‘vates,’ so often given to the true poet, and we must all recognise in such one a certain ‘possession,’ as by a Power other and stronger than himself.

We know, however, that in certain quarters--where all knowledge and appreciation of Letters is wanting--this whole branch of Literature, marked as it is by something of the Divine, and fit, therefore, for the highest place, is decried as unworthy of study. But when we remember the value of the best poetry, its charm of form and the variety and interest of its subject-matter, when we consider the ease with which from our childhood up it can be committed to memory, when we recall the peculiar affinity of rhythm and metre to our emotions and our intelligence, we must conclude that Nature herself is against such headlong critics. Have we not often felt the sudden uplifting of the Soul when in the solemn Office of the [Page 131] Mass such a passage as the ‘Primo dierum omnium’ bursts upon us? It is not hard for us, then, to understand what the Ancients meant when they said that the Soul is ordered in special relation to the principles of Harmony and Rhythm, and is, therefore, by no other influence so fitly and so surely moved. Hence I hold my conviction to be securely based; namely, that Poetry has, by our very constitution, a stronger attraction for us than any other form of expression, and that anyone ignorant of, and indifferent to, so valuable an aid to knowledge and so ennobling a source of pleasure can by no means be entitled to be called educated. If I seem to have dwelt at undue length upon this matter, please believe that my difficulty has rather been to restrain myself, so keenly do I feel upon it. I do not forget that one of your own House has expressly taken up a position in a contrary sense. He, indeed, justly commands the respect of all. But there are disputants of another class. Their attitude is merely this: ‘the themes of the ancient poets are chosen from stories of love and sin.’ But I point to the tale of Penelope and Ulysses, of Alcestis and Admetus, which are but typical of many others, and I ask, ‘Where can you find nobler examples of constancy and devotion, or more pointed lessons in the highest virtues of womanhood?’ ‘True,’ it is replied, ‘but there are stories of a different kind, of Phoebus and Danae, of Vulcan and Venus.’ But who can fail to understand that such fictions are not to be read literally, that such episodes are insignificant in number as compared with that great array of noble figures which stand forth from the pages of Vergil and Homer, and that it is unjust criticism to ignore the beauties of any work of art and to call attention only to its blemishes? ‘Yes, but, like Cato, we are willing to sacrifice the beauties so we be not soiled by the blots: hence we would neither read the poets ourselves nor put them into the hands of others.’ Plato and Aristotle, however, studied the poets, and I decline to admit that in practical wisdom or in moral earnestness they yield to our modern critics. They were [Page 132] not Christians, indeed, but consistency of life and abhorrence of evil existed before Christianity and are independent of it. Suppose we turn to the Scriptures. We must admit that they contain not a few narratives which compare unfavourably with any treated by the poets, but we do not for that reason prohibit the Bible. When I read the loves of Aeneas and Dido in the Aeneid I pay my tribute of admiration to the genius of the poet, but the matter itself I know to be a fiction, and thus it leaves no moral impression: and so in other instances of the kind, where literal truth is not the object aimed at. The Scriptures, on the other hand, whose literal accuracy no one questions, not seldom cause me misgivings on this head.

But I am ready to admit that there are two types of poet: the aristocracy, so to call them, of their craft, and the vulgar, and that the latter may be put aside in ordering a woman’s reading. A comic dramatist may season his wit too highly: a satirist describe too bluntly the moral corruption which he scourges: let her pass them by. Vergil, on the other hand, Seneca, Statius, and others like them, rank with the noblest names, and may, nay must, be the trusted companions of all who aspire to be called cultivated.

To sum up what I have endeavoured to set forth. That high standard of education to which I referred at the outset is only to be reached by one who has seen many things and read much. Poet, Orator, Historian, and the rest, all must be studied, each must contribute a share. Our learning thus becomes full, ready, varied and elegant, available for action or for discourse in all subjects. But to enable us to make effectual use of what we know we must add to our knowledge the power of expression. These two sides of learning, indeed, should not be separated: they afford mutual aid and distinction. Proficiency in literary form, not accompanied by broad acquaintance with facts and truths, is a barren attainment; whilst information, however vast, which lacks all grace of expression, would seem to be put under a bushel or partly thrown away. [Page 133] Indeed, one may fairly ask what advantage it is to possess profound and varied learning if one cannot convey it in language worthy of the subject. Where, however, this double capacity exists--breadth of learning and grace of style--we allow the highest title to distinction and to abiding fame. If we review the great names of ancient literature, Plato, Democritus, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Varro, Cicero, Seneca, Augustine, Jerome, Lactantius, we shall find it hard to say whether we admire more their attainments or their literary power.

But my last word must be this. The intelligence that aspires to the best must aim at both. In doing so, all sources of profitable learning will in due proportion claim your study. None have more urgent claim than the subjects and authors which treat of Religion and of our duties in the world; and it is because they assist and illustrate these supreme studies that I press upon your attention the works of the most approved poets, historians and orators of the past.


1. Two Canzoni by Baptista of a religious cast and a Letter from her to Martin V. are printed in Dennistoun, The Dukes of Urbino, i. 409.

2. We remember that Gianlucido Gonzaga composed an hexameter poem of two hundred lines on the emperor's visit to Mantua soon afterwards.

3. Upon the sisters Isotta and Ginevra Nogarola, who were pupils of Guarino, see Sabbad. Vita di Guarino, p. 123. In them, he says, 'L'umanismo si sposa alla gentilezza femminilè.'

4. Regola del Governo di Cura Familiare, dal B. Giovanni Dominici: ed. Salvi, Fir. 1860. This work is the most important protest, in literary form, against the revival of ancient learning which has come down to us. Giovanni was Vicario of the Convent of Sta Maria Novella, and his book set the temper of the Dominicans for the next century. Its publication fell within the years 1400-1405. Bruni’s version of the Homily of S. Basil was intended as a direct retort to Giovanni: and Humanists were always glad to defend the reading of the classics by the authority of this Father. See Aen. Sylv. De Liberor. Educ., inf. p.150.

5. Infra, p. 133.

6. De Educatione Liberorum, the work often attributed, wrongly, to Filelfo. Vid. Lib. iii. § 12, 13, for his judgment upon the education of girls.

7. Dennistoun, op. cit. ii. 123.

8. Vergil, Aeneid VI. (Conington’s version).

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