An Italian humanist, he was was the eldest of the six sons of Bartolomeo
Niccoli (died before 1401), a rich wool merchant who belonged to the Florentine Wool
Guild. Bartolomeo was one of
the Sei di Mercanzia (commercial tribunal) in 1377, and in 1382, he became a
member of the Council of the Commune, but overall, his political career was
a minor one. His other sons, Piero, Iacopo, Bernardo, Giovanni, and Vittorio,
were to have have little success in politics. Iacopo moved to Bologna where
he taught law in 1402, and managed to become ambassador for Florence to
Alfonso of Aragon in 1420.
In accordance with his father's wishes, Niccolò followed
him in commercial pursuits, but in the 1390s, he abandoned this to devote
himself exclusively to the humanities.
His main contribution to classical literature consisted in his work as a
copyist and collator of ancient manuscripts. He corrected the text,
introduced divisions into chapters, and made tables of contents. His lack of
critical faculty was compensated by his excellent taste. In Greek (of which
he knew very little) he had the assistance of Ambrogio Traversari. Along
with Poggio Bracciolini, he developed the humanist script (litterae
antiquae). Many of
the most valuable manuscripts in the Laurentian library are by his hand,
amongst them those of Lucretius and of twelve comedies of Plautus.
Niccolò's private library was considered the largest and best in Florence
after Cosimo de' Medici's. He was known for his book-hunting, acquiring only
those with the finest bindings, and his critics accused him of never having
read them. He also possessed a small but valuable collection of ancient
works of art, coins and medals. His collection of books numbered some 800 at
his death which he bequeathed to a public library at the convent of San
Marco in Florence.
He regarded himself as an infallible critic, and could not bear the
slightest contradiction; his quarrels with Filelfo, Guarino and especially
with Traversari created a great sensation in the learned world at the time.
His hypercritical spirit (according to his enemies, his ignorance of the
language) prevented him from writing or speaking in Latin. His sole literary
work was a short tract in Italian on Latin Orthography, which he withdrew
from circulation after it had been violently attacked by Guarino.
Despite his disdain for public office, he was appointed to a number of posts
including member of the Florentine Councils of the Comune (six times between
1392 and 1404); one of the Ufficiali dello Stato in 1414, and again in 1434;
one of the Ufficiali of the defectus in 1436 until his death. He had become
close to Cosimo de' Medici, and also to his brother Lorenzo.
His relationship with his brothers had deteriorated rapidly after the death
of their father. The family sustained financial losses, and the brothers
accused Niccolò of expropriating their father's inheritance. He in turn laid
the blame on them, and a number of disputes ended up in court. They all
seemed to despise each other, but he did care for the children of his brother Giovanni,
particularly Cornelio, who was born in 1412. He treated him like his own son,
and named him his heir in his will.
By the late 1410s, the former housekeeper and mistress of his brother
Giovanni, Benvenuta di Pagano, became Niccolò's mistress. Apparently, this was the
source of the quarrels between him and his brothers, and his friends and colleagues,
some of whom considered the liaison incestuous. The scandal lead to the
rupture of his friendship with Lionardo Bruni, and culminated in Benvenuta
being dragged into the street and beaten naked in public. The humiliation
caused Niccolò to go into seclusion for some time. Benvenuta, however, seems to have
been Niccolò's common-law wife for over fifteen years when the attack
occurred, therefore the reason for the dispute seems more likely to stem from Niccolò's
financial quarrels with his brothers. As for his learned colleagues,
competition and the settling of old scores causing them to turn on him seems
a more probable explanation. In any case, Niccolò was in constant strife
for the rest of his life, much of it stemming from his own
Place of birth and death: Florence
Place of burial: church of Santo Spirito, Florence (his tomb was destroyed
in the fire of 1470)
R. Browning and A. Moffatt. Maistor: Classical, Byzantine, and
Renaissance Studies for Robert Browning. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, vol. 78. Rome: Istituto della
Enciclopedia italiana, 2013.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn., vol, 19. Cambridge, England:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1911.
A. Field. The Intellectual Struggle for Florence: Humanists and the
Beginnings of the Medici Regime, 1420-1440. Oxford: Oxford University