Collections, Education, and Translations: the Role of Latin in Renaissance Libraries of the 15th century Italy

Federica Signoriello

The fourteenth and fifteenth century, the beginning of what is commonly termed the Renaissance, saw a great increase in the number of private or individual collectors of books. Their collections were different from those of the previous centuries, which belonged to monasteries and were usually kept for the use of monks only. Renaissance libraries were mostly lay, and their collections were built around a variety of subjects. Moreover, they were multilingual, as the dominion of Latin steadily made room for ancient Greek and Hebrew. Even the vernaculars spoken around Europe were gaining more and more prestige and found their ways on the shelves. In addition to new languages, translations from Greek to Latin, from Hebrew to Latin and from Latin to the vernaculars, increased year after year. Latin, however, was still at the heart of the ever changing landscape of Renaissance libraries.

In this paper, I am exploring three phenomena which may clarify the last statement – my boundaries being the fifteenth century in northern and central Italy. First, this is a crucial time for libraries as we know them. Private and religious collections merged into the first public libraries, so to speak. I focus on this phase by touching upon the most important examples, i.e. the Visconti library in Pavia, the Vatican library, San Marco in Florence and Federico da Montefeltro’s collection in Urbino. Second, Latin was undoubtedly the language of intellectuals, although contemporary satire, especially that which targeted university teachers, challenged this assumption by mocking a poor command of it. With the aid of the inventories of the libraries mentioned above, I am tracking the evolution of education in Latin, especially in the transition from religious to lay. Third, still by exploring library collections, I am expanding upon the use of Latin in research, translations and renditions.


Federica Signoriello studied Italian Literature, Humanism and Textual Criticism at University of Milan (Italy), she completed her Ph.D. in Italian Studies at the University College London with a thesis entitled Satire of Philosophy and Philosophers in Fifteenth-Century Florence. The hybrid nature of comic poetry has fed her interest in related subjects, such as history of scholarship, the relationship between vernaculars and Latin, Neo-Latin literature and fifteenth century Neoplatonism. She has published articles on Luigi Pulci and on the tradition of Carnival songs; she is also editorial assistant for the journal Albertiana and has been co-guest editor for InVerbis (2016, 2). She is currently investigating the life and poetry of Alessandro Braccesi, in both Latin and Italian, with the aim of editing his unpublished texts. Her other interest, which overlaps with her academic background, is librarianship: she has been working for many years in user services, acquisitions, cataloguing and cataloguing of rare books, in particular at the Warburg Institute, Cambridge University Library, the British Library and now at the library of the European University Institute in Florence.