"We call those studies liberal, then," he wrote, "which are worthy of a free [liber] man: they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practiced or sought and by which the body or mind is disposed towards all the best things."
The Harvard series, published under the imprimatur I Tatti Renaissance Library, is named after the villa near Florence that the art critic Bernard Berenson bequeathed to Harvard. The university press has already published 20 volumes. Adam Kirsch, who describes some of the works in Harvard magazine, tells how these works nourished the writers who flourished in the time of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Fra Angelico, Renaissance artists who continue to draw huge crowds to our art museums.
What's astonishing in these revived texts is how they testify to the changes in attitudes toward what we should learn. The humanist writers saw the study of art and literature as necessary for teaching virtue and building character. In that sense they were "useful," essential to the critical thinking that produces the wisdom for the whole of society.
They remind the reader of how precious a book can be, an appreciation that is swiftly evaporating in the age of the Internet. Printing books was once a labor of love, literally. Cosimo de' Medici, the rich ruler of Florence, hired 45 scribes who completed 200 volumes in 22 months. "Gold, silver, gems, fine raiment, a marble palace . . . such things as these give one nothing more than a mute and superficial pleasure," wrote Petrarch. "Books delight us through and through, they converse with us, they give us good advice; they become living and lively companions to us."
Petrarch might have been writing about politically correct professors when he observed that the more educated men become, the more aggressively perverse they become. It was more important to Petrarch to be a man of character than a learned man. "If You [cq] choose to grant me nothing else," he prays, "let it at least be my portion to be a good man. . . . If learning alone is granted us, it puffs up and ruins and does not edify."
If the scholars don't want to learn from these authentic masters, now those of us who live outside the walls of academe can.