The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 54. Roscoe

The biographical form of composition was adopted by William Roscoe in his chief historical works, which included an English version of one of the best, because one of the sincerest, autobiographies of all times, The Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Artist: written by himself. Roscoe was drawn to the study of the Italian renascence by a congeniality of taste and feeling which he had cultivated, on his own account, from his youth up, and to which he had remained true through all the vicissitudes of an active career of business and politics. He thus became a mainspring of the intellectual movement which led many English lovers of letters and art in his and the following generation to turn once more to Italy as the chief fountain of their inspiration. From his youth onwards, he had cherished the idea of making Lorenzo de’ Medici the subject of his first work; nor would it have been possible to find any second figure of the Italian renascence so typical of both its political and its literary side. The book which, at his own cost, he printed (1796) in sumptuous fashion was itself short, but furnished forth with appendixes of excerpts, sparkling in Latin, and with a series of notes seductive to a learned eye. The unqualified success of Roscoe’s Lorenzo was not, altogether, repeated in his Life of Leo X; which covered ground, in part, too dangerous to be trodden without censure. But, though the Italian translation of the later work was placed on the Index, while the original proved by no means palatable to the adherents of the German reformation, it is a delightful book and breathes the atmosphere of that Rome from which Benvenuto preferred to withdraw on the death of the Medicean pope. In his later year, Roscoe published an interesting volume of further illustrations of his Life of Lorenzo, in defence of his hero, besides producing an edition of Pope. He had in him the making of a historian of civilisation, as well as of a merchant-prince; but life is an unkind task-master, and it is to his honour that, by the efforts of his own literary genius, he succeeded in doing much for the humanities which he loved.