Reading the Best Authors

“This then will be our first study: to read only the best and most approved authors.  Our second will be to bring to this reading a keen critical sense.  The reader must study the reasons why the words are placed as they are, and the meaning and force of each element of the sentence, the smaller as well as the larger; he must thoroughly understand the force of the several particles whose idiom and usage he will copy from the author he reads.”  Leonardo Bruni, “On the Study of Literature,” in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2007), p. 334.

Leonardo Bruni, the early fifteenth century humanist, wrote this paragraph after stating that readers must carefully choose the proper writers to read and imitate.  He had compared reading to eating properly for one’s age or physical condition. (See here:  Bruni on Study as Eating) For this reason, Bruni argues that readers must begin with the best authors and seek to understand the grammar and logic of their texts.

In the following sections Bruni recommends to his correspondent, Battista Malatesta, the daughter of the Count of Urbino, that she should read numerous Christian authors including Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Cyprian, and, especially, Lactantius Firmianus.  Additionally, he recommends Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great, if she had good Latin translations available.

What about the great Roman writers?

“A woman, on the other hand, who enjoys secular literature will choose Cicero, a man–Good God!–so eloquent! so rich in expression! so polished! so unique in every genus of glory!  Next will be Vergil, the delight and ornament of our literature, then Livy and Sallust and the other poets and writers in their order.  With them she will train and strengthen her taste, and she will be careful, when she is obliged to say or write something, to use no word she has not first met in one of these authors.” Ibid. [Italics in original]

His advice to Battista exemplifies the Renaissance humanist’s understanding of the imitative nature of learning from the great authors of antiquity.  In this case, he identifies both the Christian and pagan writers.  Notice that reading these texts trains her taste, that is, shapes her understanding.

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