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Timothy Kircher (Guilford College)

Timothy Kircher

Timothy Kircher
Image Credit: Tonya Kircher

Fellow in Research Area 1: "Competing Communities"

May – June 2021

Respublica litterarum: The Petrarchan Model for Renaissance Epistolary Exchange

As a fellow at EXC 2020 "Temporal Communities", Timothy Kircher will study examples of letter collections created by Renaissance humanists. In our time of SMS and email communication, there has arisen a compensatory interest in humanist epistolography. The collections of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), in particular the Familiares and Seniles, are formative in this humanist tradition, since he renewed the genre of the personal letter cultivated by Cicero and Seneca.

In tracing the contours of what he calls epistolographic humanism, he is focusing on letter collections as cultural narratives. Since they are narratives, he attends to movements within the collections: developments, alterations, contradictions, and dialogue. The aim is to understand these histories of the self as histories of the times, especially as personal letters were often preserved and presented as public letters. The “personal” has weight as the “historical, as well as the “literary”: one may think here of the modern novel originating in the epistolographic stories of Richardson and Goethe. One question raised by his project concerns the motivating principle or logos of Renaissance humanism, as it undergoes historical variation.

His initial range of humanist letter-writers includes Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), Pier Candido Decembrio (1399-1477), Lapo da Castiglionchio the Younger (c. 1405-1438), Antonio Beccadelli (1394-1471), Isotta Nogarola (1418-1466), Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (1405-1464), Laura Cereta (1469-1499), and Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Each writer composed letters in Neo-Latin. In order to concentrate the scope of research, he is examining closely several letters from each humanist written to the same person or group of persons. Another variable the project addresses is whether the humanist created his or her own letter-collection, or whether later editors assembled it. A final concluding section entails a reading of the vernacular letters of Machiavelli.

Timothy Kircher is an historian of Renaissance humanism, having examined in particular the writings of Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72). Among his publications are The Poet’s Wisdom: The Humanists, the Church, and the Formation of Philosophy in the Early Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2006); Living Well in Renaissance Italy: The Virtues of Humanism and the Irony of Leon Battista Alberti (Tempe: ACMRS, 2012); and Before Enlightenment: Play and Illusion in Renaissance Humanism (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

His interests lie in understanding the relation between literary expression and philosophical inquiry, and especially in appreciating how certain humanists formulated this relation in response to dominant cultural voices of their times: those of mendicant clergy of the fourteenth and of civic humanists of the fifteenth century. As a central concern he studies the crossings of history, philosophy, and literature, in the effort to make manifest the way writers playfully illuminate the freedoms and restrictions of Renaissance culture, in ways that foreground the developments of the philosophical essay and the modern novel.

He has been invested in understanding the critical role of the humanities past, present, and future. In order to voice this understanding through broader institutional venues, he has been Chair of the Humanities Division at Guilford College, President of the American Boccaccio Association, and Member of the Board of Directors for the Renaissance Society of America for Associate Organizations and International Cooperation. Since 2015 he has edited a website that charts the place of the humanities in contemporary culture (humanitieswatch.org).