Varchi’s writing encompasses, in true Renaissance fashion, a wide variety of genres and forms, both fictional and nonfictional: lyric and pastoral poetry, comic theater, translations from Latin and Greek texts, literary commentary and editing, artistic theory, commemorative oration, dialogue, philology, and history. His major work, the Storia fiorentina (wr. 1547, pub. 1721; Florentine history), was commissioned by his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence. Its 16 short books take the form of a series of essays commenting on the period from 1527 to 1538. They have been judged harshly by some for their praise of Cosimo and his family, said to be dictated by the writer’s position as a Medici courtier and dependent. Varchi’s admiration for his benefactor, however, can also be seen as an expression of the general esteem in which Cosimo was held by 16thcentury humanists for his wide culture, his patronage of the arts, and his undoubted and muchprized quality of virtù (energy). Whatever the case, the Storia is a work of conscientious and systematic research demonstrating that concern of Renaissance historians, first found in Petrarch and illustrated later in contemporaries of Varchi such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini, not merely to trust received views or accept what previous historians had written, but to use and check evidence from a full range of sources: histories, chronicles, private memoirs, official documents, and, in Varchi’s case, personal knowledge and experience of facts and individuals. But while from this angle the Storia bears favorable comparison with the work of Varchi’s more illustrious contemporaries, and is indeed itself a useful historical source book, it lacks the theoretical framework, the evaluative vigor and the wider European or at least pan-Italian dimension to be found in the writing of, say, Machiavelli. Yet this makes it more of an “open” work, engaging more with the reader than other similar works of the period. Its alternations between, on the one hand, well-marshaled fact and analysis and, on the other, accumulations of events and opinions which seem to tumble out without order, hierarchy, or stylistic unity make it a hybrid more typical of earlier Renaissance historiography. At the same time—and this too raises questions in the mind of the reader—it can tend toward the mere emdition or chronicle characteristic of later Counter-Reformation writers such as Vincenzo Borghini or Scipione Ammirato.
In these historical essays Varchi is something of a transition figure between Renaissance and Counter-Reformation, and indeed a marked hostility to certain aspects of the spirit of the Counter-Reformation is to be found in the aversion to clerical involvement in politics very forcefully expressed in the Storia. In contrast, his essay work on artistic theory shows that in this area he had to a large extent completed the transition from the Platonist eclecticism characteristic of Renaissance artistic thought to the more rigid Aristotelian conventions of the new era, which divided learning into the two distinct categories of art and science and further insisted on the division of art into discrete forms and genres, each governed by its own rules and proprieties. His Due lezzioni (1549; Two lectures), initially delivered to the Accademia Fiorentina in 1546, consist of a pedestrian analysis of a Michelangelo sonnet followed by a somewhat sterile discussion on which of the two artistic forms, painting and sculpture, holds primacy over the other, leading Baxter Hathaway (1962) to describe Varchi as “one of the more timid and unoriginal of the Aristotelians.” His Orazione funerale…nell’essequie di Michelangelo Buonarroti (1564; Funeral oration for Michelangelo) is, in its expression, equally illustrative of the rhetorical excess which characterized the Counter-Reformation, the oration form being, as Peter M.Brown (1974) puts it, “thoroughly decadent, the plaything of erudition and of the pedestrian rhetoric of the letterato.” However, it would be wrong to see his Aristotelianism, of which he was, in Umberto Pirotti’s words, “a clear and elegant popularizer,” as entirely formal and monolithic, since, as his collected lectures on philosophy and aesthetics published in 1590 (Lezzioni) show, his theorizing raises significant contradictions between intellect and religious dogma, even if, like most of his contemporaries, he then leaves them serenely unresolved.
The vogue for rhetoric also found expression in the linguistic disputes that raged in 16th-century Italy, in particular the famous questione della lingua (“language question”), in which Varchi was a significant figure. His essay in dialogue form about written Italian, L’Ercolano (wr. 1565, pub. 1570; The dialogue of Ercolano), is his best-known work and, perhaps because of the more practical nature of the issue, shows greater originality of thought and insight than his writings on artistic theory. He steers a middle course between the two main theories current at the time: the one championed by Pietro Bembo which maintained that the “correct” language to be cultivated by writers was the archaic literary tongue of 14th-century Florence found in Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio; and the other, supported by such figures as Claudio Tolomei and Annibal Caro, which argued that “correct” Italian was that currently used in Florence for spoken purposes. The Ercolano, while providing a comprehensive survey of the whole question, shows great admiration for Bembo and his views, which as the century wore on were finally to prevail. But at the same time Varchi is concerned to reconcile Bembo’s prescriptions with a perceived need for making modern usage play a part in the language of literary composition. In this attempt to apply the linguistic lesson of the old writers to the contemporary idiom, Varchi is taking up the theme much present in his artistic theory of the relationship between art (in this case the 14th-century language) and nature (practical modern usage). The claim he lays in this work to systematic analysis of the topic and the evidence relating to it is not, however, fulfilled. He does present an impressive wealth of exemplification, but it is not always appropriately ordered, and the effectiveness of his arguments is not infrequently diminished by digressions and obvious factual errors. Yet it cannot be denied that this is somewhat counterbalanced by his vigor of argument in support of convictions which are manifestly deeply held and which, in the light of modern knowledge about language, can sometimes be seen to be both perceptive and prophetic.
Born 1503 in Florence. Studied jurisprudence in Pisa, from 1521; qualified as notary, but main interest was in literature and humanist studies; learned Greek with Pietro Vettori and translated many Latin and Greek authors; taught himself Provengal and translated a Provençal grammar into Italian. Banished from Florence for supporting the Republicans, 1530, and went into exile with the Strozzi family to escape Medici rule. Traveled widely in Italy, including to Bologna, Padua, and Venice. Recalled to Florence, 1543, by Cosimo I de’ Medici, who appointed him state historiographer; received into the Florentine Academy, 1543, and consul, from 1553; changeable relationship with his patrons the Medici, falling in and out of favor several times; finally became one of Cosimo’s leading acolytes and was commissioned by him to write a recent history of Florence and to compose orations. Died in 1565.
Essays and Related Prose
Due lezzioni, 1549
Orazione funerale…nell’essequie di Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1564
L’Ercolano (dialogue), 1570; edited by Maurizio Vitale, 1979
Lezione su Dante e prose varie, 1590; edited by Giuseppe Aiazzi and Lelio Arbib, 2 vols., 1841
Storia fiorentina, 1721; edited by Gaetano Milanesi, 3 vols., 1857–58
Other writings: poetry and a play. Also translated many classical works.
Collected works edition: Opere, 2 vols., 1834; Opere, edited by
Antonio Racheli, 2 vols., 1858–59.
Bonora, Ettore, “Il purismo fiorentino e la nuova filologia,” in Storia della letteratura italiana, vol. 4, edited by Emilio Cecchi and Natalino Sapegno, Milan: Garzanti, 1966:607–26
Brown, Peter M., Lionardo Salviati: A Critical Biography, London: Oxford University Press, 1974: especially 80–93
Hathaway, Baxter, The Age of Criticism: The Late Renaissance in Italy, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1962.
Izzo, Herbert J., “The Linguistic Philosophy of Benedetto Varchi, Sixteenth-century Florentine Humanist,” Language Sciences 40 (1976):1–7
Manacorda, Guido, Benedetto Varchi: L’uomo, il poeta, il critico, Rome: Polla, 1976 (original edition 1903)
Montevecchi, Alessandro, Storici di Firenze: Studi su Nardi, Nerli, e Varchi, Bologna: Patron, 1989
Papuli, Giovanni, Benedetto Varchi: Logica e poesia, Manduria: Lacaita, 1970
Pirotti, Umberto, “Benedetto Varchi e la questione della lingua,” Convivium 28 (1960):257–342.
Pirotti, Umberto, “Aristotelian Philosophy and the Popularization of Learning: Benedetto Varchi and Renaissance Aristotelianism,” in The Late Italian Renaissance, 1525–1630,
edited by Eric Cochrane, London: Macmillan, and New York: Harper and Row, 1970:168–208
Pirotti, Umberto, Benedetto Varchi e la cultura del suo tempo, Florence: Olschki, 1971
Quiviger, Francis, “Benedetto Varchi and the Visual Arts,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 50 (1987):219–24
Rossi, Sergio, “Varchi, Michelangelo e la disputa sul ‘Primato’ delle arti,” in his Dalle botteghe alle accademie: Realtà sociale e teorie artistiche a Firenze dal XIV al XVI secolo, Milan: Feltrinelli, 1980:89–122
Vitale, Maurizio, Introduction to L’Ercolano by Varchi, Milan: Cisalpino-Goliardica, 1979 (reprint of 1804 Milan edition)
Vitale, Maurizio, La questione della lingua, Palermo: Palumbo, 1984:90–94 (original edition 1960)
Ward, Michael T., “Benedetto Varchi as Etymologist,” Historiographia Linguistica 16 (1989):235–56
Ward, Michael T., “Benedetto Varchi and the Social Dimensions of Language,” Italica 68 (1991): 176–94
Weinberg, Bernard, A History of Literary Criticism in tbe Italian Renaissance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961
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