Aug. 15, 2023

Episode 29: The Book Hunters

Episode 29: The Book Hunters

Get ready to step back into the heart of the Florentine Renaissance, where we unravel the fascinating tales of book hunters who reshaped the intellectual landscape of Europe. The episode takes us through the journey of renowned figures such as Niccolo Niccoli, Poggio Bracciolini, and Vespasiano de Bisticci. Discover Niccoli's unquenchable quest for ancient texts that shaped not just the minds of the Medici family but also landmark artists like Donatello and Brunelleschi. Traverse back to the compelling story of Bracciolini's relentless hunt for forgotten texts, including his most notable find, a complete manuscript of 'Der rerum natura' by Roman author Lucretius.

Despite not being a scholar himself, Cosimo de Medici's enthusiasm for intellectual pursuits and classical philosophy laid a cornerstone for the Renaissance. We delve into how the Council of Florence fueled the quest for classical texts, art, history, and philosophy. Through it all, we reveal the profound influence of Niccolo Niccoli, Poggio Bracciolini, and Vespasiano de Bisticci. Their relentless pursuit of knowledge, dedication to preserving ancient texts, and their role in disseminating these treasures to the world.

Map of Florence from Paul Strathern's "The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance."
Map of Florence (

Lives of Illustrious Men of the 15th Century by Vespasiano de Bisttici (Internet Archive)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance by Ross King
The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern

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Intro Music: Hayden Symphony #39
Outro Music: Vivaldi Concerto for Mandolin and Strings in D


I Take History With My Coffee Podcast
Episode 29
Title: The Book Hunters

"If he heard of students going to Greece or to France or elsewhere he would give them the names of books which they lacked in Florence, and procure for them the help of Cosimo de Medici who would do anything for him.  When it happened that he could only get the copy of a book he would copy it himself, either in current or shaped characters, all in the finest script, as may be seen in San Marco, where there are many books from his hand in one lettering or the other.”
Vespasiano de Bisticci, On Niccolo Niccoli, "Lives of Illustrious Men of the 15th Century" 

Welcome back to the I Take History With My Coffee podcast and thank you for continuing our exploration of the Early Modern period.

I’m going to begin with two book recommendations that relate to the subject of this episode.  First is the Pulitzer Prizing winning The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Paul Greenblatt.  This tells the story behind Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of the lost copy of Roman poet Lucretius’ work “De rerum natura.”  Second, is Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance.  This is about the bookseller and manuscript collector Vespasiano da Bisticci.  Both titles are available on Audible, the leading source of audiobooks and other digital media.  You will be able to download them with an Audible free trial.  Just go to to sign up today.  By getting a free trial, you would also be supporting this podcast.

As we saw in the last episode, though the Council of Florence ultimately failed to bring about a lasting union between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox religions, the council provided an impetus to pursuing classical texts, art, history, and philosophy.  Greek scholars flocked to Florence to attend the council, and this was an opportunity to inspire learning and to obtain additions to one’s library.  Cosimo de Medici, whose father reportedly owned only three books, sent agents across Europe since at least 1418.  By the time of the council, he already had a reputation for having a sizable library of manuscripts.  The council gave him the means to expand it further.  

Cosimo was not a scholar.  He had been brought up with a humanist education, but, like most people of the time, he could not read Greek.  He didn’t write books or commentaries.  Some said his interest was mainly in the bindings of books rather than what was between the covers.  At his core, he was a banker, a businessman.  Yet this underestimates his pursuit of intellectual activities.  Though he may not have been interested in history or art, Cosimo had a keen interest in classical philosophy, especially later in his life.  While attending the Council of Constance in 1414 in the service of Pope John XXIII, he met Manuel Chrysoloras, the foremost Greek classical scholar of the period.  Chrysoloras came to Italy in 1397 and taught in Florence until 1400.  Then he taught in Rome, Venice, and Bologna.  Many of his students, including Niccolo Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini, whom we will speak of in just a bit, would become significant figures of the Florentine Renaissance.  At Constance, Cosimo also met Poggio, beginning a lifelong friendship.  

During the time of the Council of Florence, it is easy to imagine the dinner conversations at the Medici palazzo, which the leading Latin and Greek scholars were invited to attend.  Cosimo attended the lectures of the renowned authority on Plato, Gemistos Plethon.  From these discussions, he was inspired to gather scholars together to translate and study the works of Plato.  We will discuss this academy more thoroughly when discussing Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo de Medici, “The Magnificent.”  Cosimo understood both Plato and Aristotle well and their relevance to his own life.  He reconciled his interest in the classical world with his Christianity.  For this reason, he was not only a patron of humanists, but it can be argued he was a humanist himself.   

Niccolò Niccoli, a prominent figure in Florentine humanist circles, was a friend of the young Cosimo de Medici. Despite being much older than Cosimo, Niccoli significantly influenced him. Niccoli came from a wealthy wool merchant family that prospered after the Black Death and was dedicated to discovering ancient texts and spreading their ideas. He formed a strong bond with Cosimo, and they even planned a journey to find lost Greek manuscripts. However, this plan was halted by Cosimo's father, who apprenticed Cosimo to the family banking business after disapproving of the trip.

Niccoli's eccentricities, like his penchant for wearing an Ancient Roman toga, raised eyebrows in Florence. However, he played a pivotal role alongside his friend Palla Strozzi in revitalizing the University of Florence, which still followed medieval scholasticism. In 1397, they established a chair for Ancient Greek studies, fulfilling Petrarch's wish and appointing Manuel Chrysoloras.  Niccoli's influence extended over Florence, impacting its intellectual life like a cultural minister.  Through their association with Cosimo de Medici, the artists Donatello and Brunelleschi, both of whom we will talk about in the next two episodes, met Niccoli, and he shaped their artistic tastes.

Niccoli's meticulous taste led him to collect rare manuscripts, even sending agents across Europe. His pursuit left him facing financial difficulties, but Cosimo saved him from bankruptcy.  His perfectionist nature prevented him from creating original works due to self-perceived inadequacies, though his writing had a unique impact. He often reproduced rare manuscripts from his collection and borrowed others for transcription, as printing was not yet common. Ironically, this unoriginal practice led to his most significant legacy: the distinct forward-leaning script he developed for copying manuscripts, later adopted by the first Italian printers as italic typeface after his death.

Upon Niccolò Niccoli's death in 1437, he left his collection of 800 manuscripts to Cosimo de' Medici. Niccoli considered his library a public resource accessible to scholars and artists. Around 400 of these manuscripts formed the core of the Medici Library, established by Cosimo in 1444 in the new Palazzo Medici on the Via Larga. This library became Europe's first extensive public one.  Original manuscripts could be borrowed, and the library's holdings constantly grew. At one point, Cosimo employed forty-five copyists who generated over 200 new manuscripts in two years. He also divided the remaining manuscripts between his private collection and a library he established at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice as a gesture of gratitude for hospitality during his exile. 

 The Medici Library was groundbreaking as it marked the emergence of secular learning outside the Church's dominion. Meanwhile, manuscripts placed in the San Giorgio Maggiore library extended secular knowledge within a religious institution. The Medici Library would be the model for the Vatican Library, established a generation later.  

The most successful of Niccoli’s agents was Poggio Bracciolini.  A name perhaps not as widely recognized as some of his contemporaries, Poggio played a significant role in the Renaissance movement, contributing to the revival of classical knowledge and the transformation of European intellectual and cultural landscapes.  Born on February 11, 1380, in Terranuova Bracciolini, Tuscany, Poggio's humble beginnings did not hinder his remarkable academic pursuits. Gifted with an insatiable curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, he was sent to Florence for his education. He imbibed the humanist ideals that would shape his life's work there. Poggio's keen interest in classical texts led him to study under some of the most renowned humanists of his time, including Manuel Chrysoloras.

After graduating in 1403, Poggio Bracciolini secured a position as a scrivener in the papal service. In 1410, Poggio was promoted to chief writer for Pope John XXIII’s letters and official documents. In 1414, he accompanied the Pope to the Council of Constance. Following this, he embarked on freelance manuscript hunting, scouring Swiss monasteries for forgotten texts. He occasionally employed less-than-honorable methods, such as copying manuscripts against explicit prohibitions and coaxing reluctant abbots with bribes.  Poggio's insatiable appetite for ancient knowledge was reportedly only matched by his fondness for fine dining and the company of attractive women.  He once stated that he’d instead work seated beside a beautiful woman 'in preference to a long-horned buffalo' (his metaphor for the conditions that prevailed in a medieval monastery.)

Poggio's most famous find in 1417 was a complete manuscript of De Rerum Natura by the Roman author Lucretius. This work lost since the fall of the Roman Empire, presented a quasi-scientific explanation of the universe influenced by Greek philosophers like Democritus and Epicurus. Lucretius argued for a universe governed by laws devoid of divine intervention. His work advocated pursuing pleasure, dispelling fear of death and gods through philosophy, and challenging conventional religion.  Poggio sent the manuscript to Niccoli in Florence, who transcribed it into his meticulous italic script. This proved fortunate, as the original manuscript was later lost, leaving Niccoli's copy as the sole source of its content.

After he permanently returned to Florence, he became a prominent figure in the humanist circle surrounding Cosimo de Medici. In 1427, Cosimo and Poggio went on a holiday to Ostia, exploring ancient ruins.  Poggio's works showcase his charm, wit, and originality, ranging from bawdy tales to profound philosophical dialogues. His satirical pieces often targeted the Church's corruption and the hypocrisy of priests.

Like Niccoli, Poggio's distinctive handwriting also left a lasting impact. He modeled his handwriting after the clear and separated script found in eleventh-century German manuscripts. This stood out from the later Gothic script that became prevalent among monastic scribes in medieval times, known for its speed but limited legibility.  His script caught the attention of early Italian printers, serving as the model for the Roman type used even today. At seventy-three, he was honored by being elected Chancellor of Florence.  He would die six years later.  

In previous episodes, I introduced the name of Vespasiano da Bisticci, humanist and bookseller. Born in 1421 near Rignano sull'Arno, not far from Florence, his life and work offer a fascinating glimpse into the   world of intellectual pursuits and book culture during that time.

Vespasiano was a bookseller, scribe, manuscript copyist, and skilled negotiator in selling and exchanging books. His shop in Florence became a gathering place for scholars, writers, and artists who sought access to a wide range of manuscripts, including classical works and contemporary writings. Vespasiano's ability to procure and curate rare and valuable manuscripts earned him a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable bibliophiles of his era.

His role extended beyond that of a mere merchant. Vespasiano was deeply engaged in the intellectual currents of his time, and his connections allowed him to interact with some of the most influential figures of the Renaissance. He maintained relationships with notable individuals like Cosimo de Medici, Poggio Bracciolini, and Niccolò Niccoli.

Vespasiano had limited proficiency in Latin and acknowledged his limitations as a writer. Despite this, his insight and discernment when evaluating significant figures were noteworthy.  His knowledge and passion for books led him to compile biographical profiles known as "Lives of Illustrious Men of the 15th Century." This work provides valuable insights into the lives of the scholars, writers, and artists he encountered. It's a treasure trove of firsthand accounts and anecdotes that offer a window into the intellectual and social milieu of the time.

The overall tone of his writings reflects that of a moralist. He highlighted the potential perils of the Renaissance era, particularly for women, cautioned against indulging in novels, and critiqued the Florentines’ engagement in usury and illicit gains. His writing also pays tribute to Pope Nicholas V, a renowned book enthusiast, while he is notably critical—perhaps excessively—of Pope Callistus III, whom he accused of neglecting books.

Interestingly, Vespasiano's manuscripts, intended initially as preliminary notes for more polished Latin biographies, remained undiscovered until Cardinal Angelo Mai uncovered them in 1839. Their publication in 1847 inspired the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt to embark on his significant work "Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" in 1860.  

In addition to his contributions to the world of books and scholarship, Vespasiano also shaped the Medici Library’s collection. Over twenty-two months, Vespasiano supervised the production of 200 volumes for Cosimo, created by a group of twenty-five copyists. These volumes predominantly comprised theological and liturgical texts, reflecting the prevailing themes of the era. His contributions weren't limited to Florence; he also played a crucial role in collecting and organizing the library of Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino. This library included catalogs from various institutions, including the Vatican, San Marco in Florence, the Visconti Library in Pavia, and Oxford.

Vespasiano retired in 1480, influenced by the rising prominence of the printing press, which displaced the beautifully illuminated manuscripts he cherished and traded.

Cosimo de Medici’s long-lasting cultural impact would be in the visual arts and architecture.  In the next episode, we will explore the work of Donatello, one of the great masters of 15th-century Florentine painting and sculpting.  An episode on the great architectural works of Brunelleschi and Michelozzo will follow that.  

As always, maps and other supporting resources for all episodes are listed in the episode description. In the meantime, for more historical content, please visit the “I Take History With My Coffee” blog at and also consider liking the I Take History With My Coffee Facebook page.  Feedback and comments are welcome at  Or you can leave a review on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify.  You can also help support this podcast by buying me a coffee at  If you know anyone else who would enjoy this podcast, please let them know.  And thanks for listening.