Leonardo Bruni was one of the foremost humanists of the early 15th century in Italy. He dedicated himself to a career of studying and writing about classical Greek and Roman culture and drawing lessons from the era of the Roman republic that he felt could be applied to the circumstances of his adopted city of Florence in the early 15th century.
His translations of numerous classical Greek works made many of these available for the first time in Europe and helped to bring attention to several classical Greek authors whose writings had been lost during the Middle Ages. Because of his skills as an orator and his knowledge of Latin, Bruni twice served as chancellor of the Florentine republic (in 1410 and again from 1427–44) and also served as apostolic secretary for four different popes.
Born in Arezzo, not far from Florence, Bruni moved to the latter city at an early age, where he initially began studying rhetoric and law. However , he soon came under the influence of the Florentine humanist Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) who represented the first generation of Florentine humanists who strove to renew the study of the Roman poets and historians and who polished their rhetorical skills by studying classical oratory.
From Salutati, who served as an early apologist for the liberty and freedom of the Florentine republic, Bruni received his lifelong belief that humanism, with its emphasis upon rhetoric and classical learning, should serve the state. He, probably more than any other humanist in the Italian Renaissance, embodied the idea of “civic humanism.” In 1397 the Greek scholar Manuel Crisoloras took up residence in Florence and began teaching Greek there.
He quickly attracted a group of young humanists around him, eager to learn the language, and Bruni was among them. Bruni subsequently made excellent use of his command of the Greek language, translating a number of the works of Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, and Demosthenes into Latin.
One of Bruni’s most original and influential writings was his Laudatio florentiae urbis (Panegyric to the City of Florence, 1401–06), in which he attempted to refute the long-held notion that Florence had been founded by Julius Caesar. A strong backer of an independent republic of Florence, Bruni felt that it ill suited the city to tie its founding to a man he considered a tyrant and destroyer of the Roman republic.
Basing his arguments upon the recently discovered manuscript of Tacitus’s Historiae and the writings of Sallust and Cicero, Bruni argued that Florence had been founded during the flourishing of the Roman republic by veterans of Sulla’s army. Direct heirs to these sturdy Romans from republican times, the Florentines were quick to defend their liberties against all aggression.
In both this work and especially in his Historiae florentini populi, Bruni helped to pioneer new standards in historical writing and scholarship. He eschewed the notion that providence was the driving force behind causality and events, and instead looked to solid historical records and documentation to uncover the course of history, as well as to explain why events had unfolded.
Because of his learning and service to the republic of Florence, upon his death, he was given a state funeral and buried in the church of Santa Croce, with a marble tomb sculpted by Bernardo Rossellino.