An Oration Delivered at the University of Padua
for Bertuccio Lamberti, Canon of Concordia
on His Receiving Honors in the Liberal Arts
1487 — Graduation ceremony, University of Padua
Gracious fathers, officers of the academy, and gentlemen worthy of the highest honor, if it were fitting for me to be afraid, now that I have bravely plunged in and stand here in your presence in this great assembly, I would stutter and stammer, and I would gradually lose my composure. But I know that my coming here is fitting, though it is by no means very brave. So let the fear end here.
I am well aware that many of you may think it outrageous that I, a young girl to whom higher learning is denied, would come before an assembly of men so learned and so luminous and not worry about my sex or talent for speaking, especially in this city where the liberal arts are flourishing now as they once did in Athens. Nonetheless, the bonds of affection and kinship that exist between me and Bertuccio compel me, however unwilling I should be, to shoulder this burden. Indeed, I would rather be accused of audacity than be blamed for refusing to honor so close a friend as he with loyalty, devotion, and service. Moreover, the very things that at first seemed to deter me now urge and demand that I take on this duty. And so I have dared to come here to speak relying on your great gentility and leniency, which, I trust, will allow you to forgive me if I should speak inelegantly and unintelligently Indeed, there is such power in this particular virtue of yours that I hold it as proof that you are endowed with all the other virtues. I would say more about these virtues of yours if I were not afraid of detaining and boring you with such a lengthy oration — and if I were arrogant enough to think I could do your virtues justice.
Thus I shall not launch into the one theme I was called here to address, but I shall outline it in general terms. Certainly it is more difficult to find an ending for your praises than to embark on them. Having voiced these concerns, I have decided to begin my oration with a new example. Since it behooves me to speak about my kinsman, lest I should appear to be avoiding the duty assigned to me, I shall speak briefly. I have chosen to discuss the tripartite nature of good in humans according to the teachings of Cicero, Plato, and the Peripatetics,* since these philosophers believe that truth and justice spring from a good that is threefold. These goods belong to the soul, the body, and to those things that certain great philosophers believe are governed by fortune.
Listen closely then, distinguished gentlemen, although I know you expect to hear nothing too learned from me, for lest you think that I might use sophisticated and facile jargon in order to impress you (a thing I always avoid at all cost) | shall do what I trust you will like. For the splendor of a noble lineage (and you know this) should be honored with praises since the virtues of such a lineage are very much in keeping with its nobility. Such virtues add glory to a family, and they alone make men noble and great. But what quality or characteristic is it more important to praise in my kinsman than his character? How shall I praise his excellent studies? How do I speak of his mind, which is capacious, alert, flexible, and open to learning? His tenacious memory? His special love of the liberal arts? It is too superficial to say he was born in the most famous marketplace in the world, in Venice, if we do not add that his education in religion and devotional literature was superb. Because of his graceful demeanor toward everyone he had many friends, many advocates, and many men were desirous of his friend. ship. And the more these things have added to his stature, the less self. importantly he has carried himself. Just consider his carriage and the dignity of his appearance. And it is clear to everyone how innocently and with what piety he has spent his youth. For you will not easily find a son who either is or has been more respectful toward his parents, and finally, so that I may cover much in a single sentence: you see here a man who is as mature in virtue as he is young in years. And had this virtue of his not been apparent to all, I would never have dared to extol it in so great an assembly.
I shall now attempt to progress to more important matters. I shall pay tribute in brief to Bertuccio’s great wealth, his strength of body, and other things of this sort. But the achievements of the mind, like those of the soul, last forever, whereas there is a beginning and end of the goods of the body and fortune. For I have never believed that money, magnificent houses, and material goods — the things with which most men are obsessed — should be included among true goods. A hunger for things can never be filled or satisfied. For who would deny that these fragile and constantly shifting pathways are not perilous and slippery? Where is now the magnificent city of Thebes, so glorious once in its luxury and buildings? Where now are Cyrus and Darius and the extravagances of the Persians? Where are the Macedonians and their kings Philip and Alexander? Where are the Spartans and their King Lycurgus? Where is the strength of invincible Hercules? Spurina is known less for the duration of his beauty than he is for his loss of it, when he wounded his face. Who can possess such things with impunity? For Necessity by the same law apportions lots to both distinguished citizens and the rabble. For was not Croesus, king of the Lydians, deprived of his immense wealth and immense riches by Cyrus? And a lowly woman robbed Cyrus of his life and kingdom, and of course Xerxes, who creaked across land and sea on a massive bridge made from the branches of trees, having lost his entire army, fled to his kingdom, which was now contented to see the raft that was his boat. I could go on reciting useless things where now is Rome — the city that ruled over barbarian tribes and tyrannized the Greeks, as if she were some empress or a queen? Truly all things wither and die. Grim death pursues all transitory things.
The advantages obtained through virtue and the intellect, however, are useful to future generations. Because our Bertuccio, even when he was a boy, always applied all his energy and enthusiasm, his superb memory and intellectual acuity to eloquence, he has now become an orator of the first order and a uniquely gifted speaker. These qualities add considerable elegance and beauty to his physical advantages and his good fortune. For it is speech that makes men superior to all other animals. After all, is there any subject that is so boorish, dull, idiotic, or uninteresting that it does not come to life when it is garnished with and framed by an oration? What is more praiseworthy than eloquence? What is more exceptional or more gratifying than the admiration of one’s listeners, the hope of one’s clients, or the gratitude of those one has defended? There is nothing so incredible or tangled that it can’t be rendered believable and straightforward by an oration. States and their princes foster and support such training in the rhetorical arts since it enables men to become more humane, more pleasing, and more noble. For this reason this sphere within philosophy has won a place for itself un der that sweetest of rubrics, the humanities, since it softens and civilizes those who are of a crude, uncultivated nature.
I come to praise a young man for his studies in philosophy and his energetic pursuit of learning that has always been considered divine know. edge by the wisest men, and deservedly so. For other disciplines provide knowledge about the world men inhabit, but this one teaches clearly what man himself is, what he should seek, and what he should avoid. And there is no rational principle, no preeminent methodology, nothing that pertains ultimately to the good life that philosophy does not pursue in its investigations. Has anyone steeped in philosophy ever died lost in the throes of error? These studies burnish minds, they sharpen and strengthen the power of reason, and when men’s minds lapse into error, these anchors correct and guide them. This is why Stratonicus’ rightly called this discipline the one safe haven. By intellectual struggle we are able to seek and understand the mysteries. Philosophy is the one craftsman and schoolmistress suited to in. structing us in the good life. For what surpasses its utility? What happier pursuit is there than the quest for honorable pleasure? What is more suited to the grandeur of cities than the study of philosophy? Therefore the almost divine Plato wrote that those republics would be fortunate whose rulers were philosophers or whose governments were administered by men schooled in philosophy.
The invention of philosophy, the most sacred of disciplines, has been attributed to various men. The Africans believed it was Atlas, to the Thracians it was Orpheus or Zamolxis, to the Thebans it was Linus, to the Egyptians, Vulcan, and to the Gauls, their Druids. “Other peoples attributed philosophy’s primordial beginnings or at least some part of its beginnings to other figures. Whether its beginnings lay with Zoroaster, king of the Magi or with the Gymnosophists of the Chaldeans and the Persians, philosophy has always been separated into the following divisions: metaphysical, moral, and natural. The enormous diligence with which Bertucio has pursued his studies is difficult to capture in words. He has spent as much time cultivating these studies as others have dedicated to the celebration of high holy days, to the pleasures of the body and to physical rest. Certainly the joy and recognition that he has now attained through his labors and his all. night bouts of study need no further testimony from me as I stand before you, most learned gentlemen, since you in your wisdom have already judged that he is to receive honors in philosophy, although it is all together certain that he will proceed each day to higher things.
I would have spoken at greater length, had I not known with certainty that Giovanni Reggio, whom you heard a little while ago, had commemorated Bertuccios accomplishments in a longer, more elegant speech. But since this is the case, most noted gentlemen, lest I should turn your happiness into boredom with a longer speech, I shall draw to the end of my speech putting aside the rest of my oration.
I turn now to that duty that I know above all is mine: to express thanks first to you, the magistrates of this magnificent city, and next to you, most excellent fathers and distinguished men, because you are deserving of my gratitude for honoring my kinsman in this beautiful ceremony with your most agreeable and honorable presence in this place. For there is no one who is possessed of so doltish and ungrateful a mind that he would deliberately wish not to sing your praises for an honor so freshly conferred. I must, however, tell you that there is neither a seasoned and prudent orator who can fully describe all your virtues (for that cannot be done), nor is there one who can even fleetingly pay lip service to them.
And so in conclusion, happy are you, Cassandra, since you were fortunate enough to be born in these times, and you, blessed era of mine, and you, famous city of Padua, graced in your bounty of learned men. May everyone now cease — yes, I say cease — to marvel at antiquities. God al mighty has granted that the studies of all nations should flourish in this one place and be commended and consecrated for all eternity. Though age will consume and bring an end to all things, may these divine studies of yours grow and flourish every day more and more, and may they be preserved from all the wounds of oblivion.
And so I return to this one theme on which I had begun to speak, namely, that I wish to give uncommon thanks to you because you are here today in great numbers to honor my kinsman Bertucio and me who came to praise him, and because by your most distinguished presence you have brought glory to us both. On this account, may I pledge, as I would do on behalf of a brother, that as long as my kinsman and I are alive, neither one of us shall ever flag in our service to you or in our gratitude for your magnanimity, as is fitting in remembrance of your great gift. On the 18th day before the first of the month, in the Christian year of 1487.
Source: “The Public Lectures,” from Letters and Orations, by Cassandra Fedele, edited and translated by Diana Robin. (c) 2000 The University of Chicago. Published by The University of Chicago Press. All Rights Reserved.