Poggio Bracciolini, Vatican jokester (SCOWAH Chronicles, no. 5)

Poggio Bracciolini was born in Tuscany in 1380. He studied Latin and Greek and was received into service as secretary of the Roman curia, where, for fifty years he witnessed such momentous events as the Councils of Constance and Basle. It was during his travels that Poggio employed his scholarly observations to search out and restore lost manuscripts of Latin literature. Burrowing through monasteries Poggio found and copied whole manuscripts by hand. His single-minded determination supplied students with the complete texts of the ancient writers, including Cicero and Quintilian, where previously they had only mutilated bits and pieces to study.  A biographical essay appears in the Eleventh Edition (1910-1911) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (vol. 21).

It wasn’t until Poggio was seventy that he published his FacetiƦ, possibly for the purpose of practicing his Latin. These were the bawdy stories and jokes told by the Papal secretaries.

Poggio tells us “Since the times of Pope Martin, we had the habit of choosing a quiet place in which we could tell one another the news, and speak of various matters, either serious or frivolous, to distract our minds.” The “bugiale,” or “The Liars Club,” proved to be a rich source for the jests and bawdy anecdotes that found their way into the FacetiƦ. In Anecdota SCOWAH, no. 5, Albert Rapp describes the book as “an instantaneous success. It circulated quickly through Italy, France, Germany, England and Spain. It was read avidly by those who could handle the Latin tongue. His bawdy tales are made up mostly of ignorant clergy and the wife outwitting her husband; there are also a number of moron tales.” No one was spared. Although he died in 1459, modern folklorists and scholars continue to use Poggio as their role model.

Selected Reading List

The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree (Yale University Press, 2010)

"The Facetiae of Poggio the Florentine," by Albert Rapp, Anecdota SCOWAH, no. 5 (Roxburghe Club, 1962). This keepsake may be requested in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center.

Infinite Jest : Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art by Paul Barolsky (University of Missouri Press, 1978)

The Life of Poggio Bracciolini by William Shepherd (Harris Brothers, 1837)

Renaissance in Italy by John Addington Symonds (Modern Library 1935), vol. 1-2

Three Renaissance Silhouettes by Sidney Hellman Ehrman (G. P. Putnam's sons, 1928)

This concludes the SCOWAH Chronicles, a series of profiles featuring some of our favorite characters, and based on the exhibition The Objects of Our Affection: Wonderful Characters from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor. Every year on April Fool's Day the San Francisco Public Library presents a themed exhibition celebrating this extraordinary collection. On view now in the Skylight Gallery, Sixth Floor, through May 31.