In the first decades of the fifteenth century, when the University of Florence was at its greatest brilliance, when the courtiers of Eugenius IV, and perhaps even of Martin V thronged the lecture-room, when Carlo Aretino and Filelfo were competing for the largest audience, there existed, not only an almost complete university among the Augustinians of Santo Spirito, not only an association of scholars among the Camaldolesi of the Angeli, but individuals of mark, either singly or in common, arranged to provide philosophical and philological teaching for themselves and others.
"True, child; for I carry within me the fruits of that fervid study which I gave to the Greek tongue under the teaching of the younger Crisolora, and Filelfo, and Argiropulo; though that great work in which I had desired to gather, as into a firm web, all the threads that my research had laboriously disentangled, and which would have been the vintage of my life, was cut off by the failure of my sight and my want of a fitting coadjutor.
The dispute was warmly carried on even in the fifteenth century; some proved that Aristotle taught the doctrine of an immortal soul; others complained of the hardness of men's hearts, who would not believe that there was a soul at all, till they saw it sitting down on a chair before them; Filelfo, in his funeral oration on Francesco Sforza, brings forward a long list of opinions of ancient and even of Arab philosophers in favour of immortality, and closes the mixture, which covers a folio page and a half of print, with the words, 'Besides all this we have the Old and New Testaments, which are above all truth. Then came the Florentine Platonists with their master's doctrine of the soul, supplemented at times, as in the case of Pico, by Christian teaching.
It is, then, in the natural order of things that Ludovico Gonzaga, one of the sons of Francesco and pupils of Vittorino, should have been proud to receive at his court the sycophantic and avaricious poet Filelfo, and to suffer under his systematic begging. He discharged his debt to the world of art with greater insight when in 1456 he invited to his court the great painter Mantegna.
Even the choleric Filelfo, now a very old man, who had been on anything but friendly terms with the Medici, addressed two bitter satires to Sixtus, in which the Pope was styled the real aggressor, while the great humanist offered to write a history of the whole transaction, that posterity might know the true facts.
In this the philologists notoriously led the way Filelfo, Poggio, Lorenzo Valla, and others while the artists of the fifteenth century lived in peaceful and friendly competition with one another. The history of art may take note of the fact. Florence, the great market of fame, was in this point, as we have said, in advance of other cities.
Finding Rome still the city of the Emperors and their superstition, he made it the city of man. He was the friend of Alberti, the Patron of all men of learning and poets. "Greece has not fallen," said Filelfo, in remembering him, "but seems to have migrated to Italy, which of old was called Magna Graecia."
Filelfo was to have received 10,000 gold florins for a metrical translation of Homer, and was only prevented by the Pope's death from coming from Milan to Rome. Nicholas left a collection of 5,000 or, according to another way of calculating, of 6,000 volumes, for the use of the members of the Curia, which became the foundation of the library of the Vatican.
Those who follow, and with whose personal characters, rather than their action as Pontiffs, we shall now be principally occupied, sacrificed the interests of Christendom to family ambition, secured their sovereignty at the price of discord in Italy, transacted with the infidel, and played the part of Antichrist upon the theater of Europe. Rosmini, Vita di Filelfo, vol. ii. p. 321.
In the same spirit of generosity he refused to enter into wordy warfare with detractors and calumniators, sparing the reputation even of his worst enemy when chance had placed him in his power. This moderation both of speech and conduct was especially distinguished in an age which tolerated the fierce invectives of Filelfo, and applauded the vindictive courage of Cellini.