Benedetto Varchi was one of the most versatile intellectuals of the sixteenth century, who offered highly innovative and original answers to the cultural challenges of his time. He devised a new theory of language that anticipated modern sociolinguistics and put the vernacular at the forefront of the philosophical and literary developments of his time. In turn, he renewed the scope of philosophy through a language that was conceptually accurate and stylistically pleasant and applied his theory to his translations of classical authors and his linguistic dialogue L’Hercolano. Varchi lectured extensively on the ancient classics, as well as Dante and Petrarch; he is the author of a major history of Florence commissioned by Cosimo de Medici.
Benedetto Varchi was born in Florence on March 19, 1503. His father was Ser Giovanni, a notary from Montevarchi (Busini 2008, pp. 92–93; Lo Re 2008, pp. 295–296); his mother was Diamante, widow of painter Benedetto del Ghirlandaio (Valori 2008, p. 117). After completing a Law degree at the University of Pisa (Ferrone 2003, p. 9), Varchi devoted himself to the study of philosophy and literature, and attended, at a very young age, meetings at the “Orti Oricellari” (Lo Re 2008, p. 295). His first mentors were Francesco Verino “Primo” and Piero Vettori (Pirotti 1971, pp. 10–11; Lo Re 2008, p. 30). Varchi’s republican sympathies forced him to flee Florence after Cosimo de’ Medici succeeded to duke Alessandro (January 1537): he followed Roberto Strozzi, who was the son of Filippo Strozzi, prominent banker and leader of Florentine expatriates, first to Venice then to Padua, serving as a tutor for Roberto’s younger brothers (Pirotti 1971, pp. 13–15). Varchi remained in Padua even after his relationship with the Strozzis soured and began to gravitate around a group of intellectuals linked to the University of Padua (Vasoli 2007, pp. 405–506). He was among the founders of the Paduan Accademia degli Infiammati, where he delivered several lectures on Greek and Latin classical authors (Theocritus, Horace, Tibullus), on Petrarch, and on contemporaries such as Pietro Bembo or Giovanni Della Casa (Lo Re 2008, pp. 191–256; Andreoni 2012, pp. 43–63). Varchi’s most ambitious endeavour at the Infiammati was the project (never completed) of translating and commenting on Aristotle: he lectured on the Nicomachean ethics and wrote vernacular commentaries on Ethics and Prior analytics (Lo Re 2008, pp. 216–229; Brancato 2018). In 1541, Varchi moved to Bologna and attended the lectures of Ludovico Boccadiferro, who taught philosophy at the University (Rotondò 1969; Lo Re 2008, pp. 242–243). Meanwhile, Cosimo de’ Medici, in recognition of Varchi’s rising reputation, invited him back to Florence to become member of the newly established Accademia Fiorentina. Thus after a brief sojourn in Ferrara, Varchi was pardoned and allowed to return to his hometown in 1543 (Pirotti 1971, p. 20; Firpo 1997, pp. 264–266; Lo Re 2008, pp. 287–295).
Back in Florence, Varchi continued his work on Aristotle and drafted a commentary on the Meteorologics, a text he might have studied with Boccadiferro (Gilson 2016); he was also appointed to lecture on Petrarch at the Accademia Fiorentina, where he defended Bembo’s linguistic theories and offered philosophical readings of Italian authors (Andreoni 2012, pp. 15–20). He was the first, for instance, to emphasize the Aristotelian content of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Andreoni 2012, pp. 98–106). Varchi’s innovative ideas and methodology entered into conflict with those of other academicians, especially Carlo Lenzoni, Pierfrancesco Giambullari, and Cosimo Bartoli (Plaisance 2004 , pp. 129–148; Firpo 1997, pp. 179–191, 268–270; Lo Re 2008, pp. 302–319). The rivalry between Varchi and these intellectuals was not limited to academic tensions: in 1545, the year Varchi was appointed consul at the Accademia Fiorentina, Lenzoni wrongly accused him of sexually assaulting a young girl. Varchi was once again pardoned by Cosimo thanks to Bembo’s help, but had to accept the charges and pay a fine to save the real perpetrator of the rape (Lo Re 2008, pp. 332–336; Lo Re 2010). During his consulship, Varchi gave several lectures on Dante but his workload as an academician decreased when Cosimo and his wife, Eleonora di Toledo, requested him to translate Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (1549; published 1551), and Seneca’s On benefits (1548; published 1554). Above all, at the end of 1546, Varchi was appointed as the official historian of the Duchy of Florence and was commissioned to write a history that would originally cover the final years of the last Florentine Republic (1527–1532); the work was eventually expanded to include events up to 1538 (Bramanti 2017, p. 147, 190). Varchi spent the last years of his life working on several other projects, the most important of which is L’Hercolano (printed posthumously in 1570), a dialogue on language that discusses sixteenth century debates on the questione della lingua and offers an original contribution. Varchi died a few hours after suffering a stroke, on December 19, 1565, leaving most of his works incomplete or unpublished (Brancato 2017, p. 55).
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Very little is known of Varchi’s early philosophical education: We know that he studied logic with Verino; the only surviving works by this philosopher, three lectures on Dante, emphasize the “concordia” among Plato and Aristotle (Vasoli 2007, pp. 403–404). Many Platonic themes in Varchi’s lectures, such as that of love, may as well come from Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, an author Varchi knew well (Vasoli 2007, pp. 404–405); as a child, Varchi lived in the house next to Diacceto’s (Valori 2008, p. 117); in 1559, Varchi even wrote his biography, published in 1561 (Del Soldato 2013). The years in Padua were crucial to Varchi’s intellectual formation: in particular, his belief that the vernacular could replace Latin as the language of philosophy, an idea that was shared by some members of the Infiammati, determined at least in part his subsequent views on philosophy and language (Andreoni 2012, pp. 42–53; Siekiera 2013). Varchi was certainly influenced by his fellow academician Sperone Speroni. A student of Pietro Pomponazzi, Speroni borrowed from his mentor the idea that vernacular languages were perfectly apt to convey any philosophical truth; that Latin’s alleged superiority was based on false premises, given that incorrect Latin translations were the direct cause for misinterpreting ancient philosophy; and that accurate translations would enable every citizen of the world to access and practice philosophy (Fournel 1990, pp. 115–151; Vasoli 2007, pp. 406–408). Varchi’s position was different, however, in that, first, he did not reject the medieval Latin tradition altogether. For example, in his vernacular translation of Prior analytics, he deliberately chose to italianize Boethius’ Latin lexicon rather than rely on Cicero’s vocabulary (Brancato 2018a, pp. 112–115). Evidence also indicates that Varchi readily used Latin, particularly in contexts in which it was easier to do philosophy in Latin rather than in the vernacular. Thus when he gave public lectures on Ethics in Padua, he readily switched from Italian to Latin when his audience, which included students, complained that they could not understand the Italian vernacular (Lo Re 2008, pp. 218–224); he also chose Latin to write a short exposition on the three figures of syllogism that he used as preparatory material for his vernacular commentary on Prior analytics (Brancato 2018a, pp. 107–109). Secondly, and most importantly, Varchi’s ideas on the role of the vernacular were markedly different from those of Pomponazzi and Speroni. Pomponazzi and Speroni, who came from Northern Italy, considered that philosophy should be expressed by using any “natural,” spoken vernacular language, which excluded the literary language of Dante and Petrarch based on Tuscan. In contrast, for Varchi and another Infiammati philosophers such as Alessandro Piccolomini, whose native tongue was Tuscan, this distinction between literary and natural/spoken vernacular was much more blurred (Siekiera 2007, p. 6; Cotugno 2014). It is during the same period in Padua that Varchi developed his theory on language and explored ways to put this theory into practice. For instance, he wrote comparative grammars of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Tuscan with a view to test the capacity of the vernacular to reproduce the grammatical structures of ancient languages (Sorella 2007, pp. 17–41; Siekiera 2013, p. 151). As we shall see, these investigations eventually constituted the theoretical underpinning for his Hercolano.
As far as Varchi’s philosophical ideas are concerned, the figure who had the greatest impact was Lodovico Boccadiferro. A very charismatic mentor, Boccadiferro offered an interpretation of Aristotle that combined a strong attachment to traditional scholastic Latin authors with a clear interest in the recent advances of humanism. Boccadiferro’s lectures were characterized by a critical attitude towards all auctoritates (whether ancient or modern) and an openness towards the newly revived Greek commentators as well as Plato (Bianchi 2004, pp. 363–370). In that respect, Boccadiferro provided Varchi with an Aristotelian interpretative framework that was sufficiently flexible and versatile to be adapted to his lectures on Dante and Petrarch at the Accademia Fiorentina (Andreoni 2012, pp. 98–99).
Innovative and Original Aspects
Varchi’s intellectual path was not linear: He was exposed to different cultural environments (ranging from informal meetings to public events, from academies to universities) and various disciplines (natural philosophy, logic, ethics, medicine, literature). This might give the modern reader the impression that he was an eclectic and unoriginal thinker. In fact, Varchi was particularly receptive to the cultural changes he witnessed and offered highly innovative responses to these changes, which were motivated by the belief that philosophy as a whole had to undergo a radical renewal through the creation of new language and a new method of learning (Andreoni 2012, pp. 187–188). This explains, for example, his investigations on method and the organization of knowledge, the reassessment of literary genres and the creation of a vernacular literary canon, or the particular place given to logic in the creation of a vernacular language that was suitable for philosophy (Andreoni 2017, p. 7; Siekiera 2013). As we have seen, for Varchi, the new philosophical language should be closely connected to the Italian literary tradition, a position that clashed with the opinion of philosophers such as Pomponazzi, because it gave Tuscan language pride of place. Over the course of his career, Varchi developed and refined a theory that in many ways anticipated modern-day sociolinguists’ concept of “class variation” (Ward 1991). In the Hercolano, Varchi compared classical and modern idioms and developed a new classification of languages in which the vernacular spoken by the upper classes of Florence is described as the most suitable language to express philosophy and the only language that naturally resembles the literary language. Varchi’s theoretical model followed that of Pietro Bembo in that it was based on the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio, but it also differed from it: It was also open to other authors censored by Bembo, such as Dante; and, in contrast to Bembo’s theory, it integrated idioms and syntactical structures taken from the spoken language (Sorella 1995, pp. 48–70; Marazzini 1999, pp. 77–86). Varchi’s theory was refined over the years, but an early practical application of this model can be appreciated in his translations, in particular that of Boethius’ Consolation, in which one can find almost verbatim quotations from Petrarch along with typically Florentine idiomatic expressions (Brancato 2018b, pp. 74–84).
Varchi’s strife for a renovation of philosophy is also reflected in his sustained interest in the new intellectual trends of his time, which he actively sought to appropriate in his own work. He was particularly attentive to the new scientific advances of his time, such as Ramus’ discussion on method (Vasoli 2007, pp. 422–427) or Andrea Vesalius’ use of anatomy (Andreoni 2012, pp., 106–110). More interestingly, Varchi did not hesitate to use first-hand material (such as contemporary testimonies or interviews) when secondary literature on a specific subject lacked. This was the case for his two lectures on the arts (Due lezzioni 1550), especially the second one, on the comparison between painting and sculpture. Rather than drawing on existing written sources, Varchi asked a number of artists (including Michelangelo) to express their opinion on the respective merits of the two artistic forms and published their responses (Mendelsohn 1982; Quiviger 1987; Collareta 2007). Similarly, in the History of Florence, when recounting the assassination of duke Alessandro (1537), Varchi included data taken from an interview with Scoronconcolo, one of the two murderers (Bramanti 2017, pp. 187–188).
Impact and Legacy
Upon his untimely death Varchi’s library was dispersed, a significant part of his correspondence was lost, and many of his works remained unpublished until the nineteenth century (Bramanti 2008, pp. xi-xv). His Storia fiorentina was immediately condamned after publication on account of its suspected immorality and inconvenient political content (Brancato and Lo Re 2016, pp. 223–224). In the twentieth century, his work was often dismissed as derivative and of poor literary quality; Guido Manacorda (1903) went as far as presenting Varchi as a debauched and sexually devious character, whereas Carlo Dionisotti (1980, pp. 427–433) viewed him as an intellectually dishonest courtesan (Lo Re 2008, pp. 13–39). More recent studies, however, have done much to recognize the centrality of Varchi’s works in sixteenth century Italian culture, although many of his writings are still awaiting detailed study and/or critical edition.
The versatile character of his work and his ability to answer the cultural challenges of his time in a highly innovative and indeed original way make him one of the most interesting figures of the sixteenth century. Varchi’s work is particularly significant for the history of Renaissance literary criticism. His academic lectures on Petrarch and Dante, even if they remained for the most part unpublished until the nineteenth century, circulated widely among his contemporaries and in the following centuries. In his lectures, Varchi is one of the very first authors to combine the insight of Horace’s literary criticism with the recently rediscovered Aristotle’s Poetics; he is also original in his comparative approach to Dante and Petrarch, paying particular attention (something that was highly unusual at that time) to the rhetorical, linguistic, and grammatical aspects of their texts. He is notable for having applied the humanistic philological tools to Dante and his method of collating several manuscripts of the Comedy formed the basis of modern Dante philology (Andreoni 2017, p. 4).
Varchi’s innovative ideas were in conflict with the conservative cultural environment of Florence. His lectures on Dante, especially those where he defined Dante as a truly Aristotelian philosopher, were often criticized and derided by his fellow academicians. His defense of Bembo’s ideas was openly rejected by Lenzoni, Giambullari, and Bartoli. Despite being marginalized in Florence, however, Varchi was at the center of a wide intellectual network that allowed many of his ideas to thrive and survive. He also had many pupils whom he involved in the production of his works and in the activities of the Accademia (Brancato 2018a, pp. 115–116). It is also thanks to Varchi’s original adaptation of Bembo’s ideas (adding to Bembo’s classicism a strong attention to the grammar of the spoken language) that the Prose della volgar lingua became the linguistic model for standard Italian language: The canon of vernacular authors that Lionardo Salviati (who happened to be Varchi’s pupil) used for the first Italian dictionary (Vocabolario della Crusca 1612) was precisely modeled on Varchi’s linguistic theory (Marazzini 1999, pp. 86–87, 90–93).
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