Though I have six (!) book reviews queued up, I simply can’t resist posting about what I’ve just read in Joscelyn Godwin’s “The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance” (which, strictly speaking, should be #7 in the review backlog).
On pp.11-13, Godwin (who you may remember from his epic translation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) writes about the Roman Academy, a group of humanist scholars in mid-Quattrocento Rome with a shared obsession with Ancient Rome, and who held “the opinion that there is no other world than this one, and that when the body dies, the soul dies, too: and that nothing is worth anything except for pleasure and sensuality” (according to the Milanese ambassador to the Vatican, Agostino de’ Rossi). Pretty radical stuff for the time, wouldn’t you say?
The unofficial leader of the Academy was Bartolommeo dei Sacchi, A.K.A. “Platina”: when, in March 1468, the Pope had had enough of the Academy’s quasi-pagan heresy, Platina was one of the first to be seized and (so says Platina) tortured, even though ultimately none of the Academicians got convicted of anything. As an aside, Godwin mentions that Platina had already had a run-in with Paul II in 1464, when the Pope had dismissed the Papal Abbreviators, a a group of salaried Papal scholars, including Leon Battista Alberti.
This is the point where I say – hey, hold that thought. If Alberti had been kicked out of his scholarly Vatican job in 1464, and didn’t resume his architect work until S. Andrea in 1470, that would mean that he may well have been thrown the cryptography challenge as a kind of lifeline by a former Vatican boss. That is, that cryptography wasn’t just a spare time gig for Alberti, but rather that he must have seen it as a full-time career change. In “The Curse”, I reconstructed from De componendis cifris what I believe was the meeting between Alberti and Filarete (Antonio Averlino) in Rome in Autumn 1465 discussing their two very different conceptions of cryptography: but now, the knowledge that they were not only both ex-pat Florentine architects in their sixties but also both equally out of favour with their former set of patrons raises the stakes. Given the goldfish bowl-like nature of Roman society, it would have been rhetorically necessary for Alberti to dismiss Averlino’s competing cryptographic system – that is, Alberti couldn’t just ignore it and hope it would go away.
Alberti also worked on astronomy with the Florentine Paolo Toscanelli, who in turn was connected to Hellenophiles such as Filfelfo and George of Trebizond: so why is it such a surprise for people when I link Alberti and Averlino, when the two men were connected in so many ways through the dense network of lives, astronomy, architecture, and cryptography criss-crossing Quattrocento Northern Italy? Oh well…