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
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
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 arrogance.
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 Press, 2017.