Friday, May 03, 2019

BOOK: Francesco Petrarca, "Selected Letters"

Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters. Vol. 1. Translated by Elaine Fantham. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 76. Harvard University Press, 2017. 9780674058347. xlvi + 747 pp.

Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters. Vol. 2. Translated by Elaine Fantham. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 77. Harvard University Press, 2017. 9780674971622. viii + 807 pp.

Petrarch seems to have been quite a prolific writer of letters, and also took the trouble to preserve them and publish them in the form of several collections: Familiar Letters (350 letters), Leters of Old Age (128 letters) and several others, and a few letters are also extant that he didn't publish that way (vol. 2, pp. 573–4). The present ITRL edition of Selected Letters contains 97 letters selected from the Familiar Letters and the Letters of Old Age.

In my previous posts about collections of letters in the ITRL series (Poliziano's, Fonzio's, and Valla's), I occasionally complained about how insubstantial many of those letters seemed, concerned only with relatively mundane everyday matters. By contrast, Petrarch's letters in the present collection are on average significantly longer and more interesting. He often enters into long discussions on religious, literary or moral topics, and he constantly quotes numerous ancient authors to support his views (but doesn't hesitate to disagree with them if necessary).

In this selection, the letters are arranged by topic rather than chronologically, which is probably a good idea as I'm not that familiar with the details of Petrarch's life and thus wouldn't benefit as much from a chronological arrangement of the letters. Many of the letters are to a handful of his close friends, of which Boccaccio is the best known nowadays, but he also didn't hesitate to write to princes, emperors, popes, chancellors and the like. Even in this latter group, there isn't nearly as much hustling and asking for favours as we saw in the previously mentioned volumes of correspondence by other authors.

There are a few frequently recurring subjects: plague epidemics, which ravaged Europe during Petrarch's time and took the lives of, among others, Petrarch's beloved Laura, several of his friends, and his ne'er-do-well son; rants against the corruption at the papal court in Avignon (which he likes to call “Babylon” :]); his introspective obsession with his supposed moral or religious shortcomings, which can be annoying at times, as I already complained in my recent post about his Secret Book; but overall, his letters are varied and interesting, and I definitely liked this collection better than the previous volumes of letters in the ITRL series.

I think there is perhaps something of a discrepancy between how a naive outside observer like me sees Petrarch vs. what he really was like (or how he saw himself). Nowadays we mostly remember him for his Italian love-poetry and are thus perhaps inclined to imagine him as a youthful and romantic character. But in fact that was only a small part of his work, and probably far from the most important in his eyes. There's a very interesting bibliography of his work here in vol. 2 (appendix II), from which we can see very clearly that his output in Latin was much bigger than in Italian, and mostly on much more serious subjects, often having to do with religion, history, moral philosophy and the like. Vol. 2 also includes a chronology of his life, which I also found quite useful as I didn't know much about his life before and his frequent movements were a bit hard to follow (sometimes it seemed like nearly every letter is written from a different town).

So all in all, I really enjoyed these two volumes. There's a long and interesting introduction in vol. 1, lots of explanatory notes, a useful chronology of his life and bibliography of his work, and the letters themselves were for the most part longer and more substantial than the ones by previous authors in the ITRL series. In the remainder of this post, I'll point out a few passages that struck me as particularly intersting.


II.1 — includes an interesting account of Petrarch's ascent of Mont Ventoux (a mountain in Provence) together with his brother (§5–11). Unfortunately he seems to be mostly interested in using this story as a starting point for religious meditations, and the translator's notes (vol. 1, p. 592) express some doubts whether the climb really happened at all, or is it just an allegory.

II.2 — Petrarch describes the sights he has seen while on a visit to Rome. He seems to have been so immersed in ancient history and mythology that the town as he describes it is an odd mixture of the real and the mythical: “Petrarca pictures the locations of many historical or even legendary episodes as if they were still recognizable in fourteenth-century Rome” (translator's note 5, vol. 1, p. 596).

He often mentions the plague (II.3, II.5), which raged again and again in mid-14th-century Italy, and laments the people he has lost to it. This is perhaps a useful reminder that Renaissance Italy wasn't all colour and light, as we sometimes imagine it — or perhaps I just played too much Assassin's Creed. Petrarch's lamentations can get a bit wearisome, but at least he was aware of this himself, and he imagines his critics saying: “We were expecting an epic poem from you, but we read elegies: we hoped for narratives of distinguished men, but we observed only the one narrative of your own grief; what we thought were letters, are laments;” etc. (II.3.5). A sense that death can come at any time (IV.11.14–16) seems to loom much larger in his mind than it does for most of us nowadays (I remember him mentioning it in his Secret Book), and perhaps the endless plague epidemics had something to do with that.

His brother Gherardo was a Carthusian monk; letter II.4 includes a touching account of how his monastery was struck by the plague, leaving Gherardo as the only survivor, burying his dead brethren and eventually reforming the monastery with new monks from elsewhere (§4–8).

II.6 — an interesting account of Petrarch's efforts at collecting manuscripts, especially of Cicero's works. He also obtained a manuscript of Homer in Greek and, as he didn't know Greek himself, he commissioned a Latin translation of it (¶14).* The letter ends with the sad story of Petrarch's beloved teacher, Convenevole da Prato, who struggled with great poverty in his old age. At one point he borrowed two rare manuscripts from Petrarch ‘for research’, pawned them off, and died soon afterwards.

[*Later there are two more letters about the translator, Leonzio Pilato — III.21–22, including an account of his unfortunate death: he was struck by lightning when the ship he was travelling in got caught in a storm (III.22.17).]

In II.12, Petrarch writes about his simple life in the countryside: “I do not see the face of any woman except that of my steward's wife, and if you saw her you would think you were contemplating the Libyan or Ethiopian desert: [. . .] her face is such that, if Helen had owned it, there would have been no Trojan war; if Lucretia or Virginia, Tarquin would not have been driven from his kingdom nor Appius ended his life in jail.” (II.12.3)

There are endless complaints and whinging about everything from his own health to international politics. “The Ligurians of the seaboard [. . .] are conducting their affairs and dividing their time in such a way that, according to their long established habit, the end of foreign war is the beginning of civil war.” :)) (II.13.6)

II.17 — a longish letter to his friend Boccaccio, who had advised him to stop working so hard at his literary pursuits now that he is old. Petrarch argues that his literary work is relaxing and he'd just die sooner if he started idling. There's an interesting passage (§21–4) where he refutes certain claims that people used to live longer in ancient Roman times than in his own day. This letter was also an inspiration to the translator of this book, Prof. Fantham, who worked on it in her retirement (vol. 1, pp. xlii, xliv, 581).

There are a few letters on the subject of Petrarch's coronation as poet laureate (III.2–6). He admits that there's an aspect of vanity to it, “[b]ut this is human nature” (III.4.7).

The pope offered Petrarch a job as a secretary, on the condition that he could write in a sufficiently plain style. He didn't fancy this idea, probably also because he'd have to live at Avignon, which he hated, so he failed the test on purpose: “So when asked to compose something that would make it clear I could fly close to earth and fit myself to simple statements [. . .] I made every effort to unfurl the wings of my poor wits [. . .] what I composed was unintelligible to a majority of them” (III.10.14–15). :]

In III.12, Petrarch thanks a Byzantine diplomat who had procured a manuscript of Homer's works in Greek for him. He also describes his not very successful attempts to learn Greek; he studied with a Greek from Calabria, Petrarch teaching him Latin while learning (or trying to learn) Greek from him (§7–9).

III.14 — Petrarch encourages his correspondent to persist in his study of law, mostly on the argument that it's a waste of time to switch professions halfway through learning them (§36–7). He is, of course, aware that the situation is a bit ironic since he himself used to study law, at his father's instigation, but disliked it and gave it up (§3–4).

III.16 — Petrarch defends himself against accusations that he is jealous of Dante's fame; but I couldn't help feeling that he looks down a little on Dante because the latter concentrated his literary efforts on Italian rather than Latin. Petrarch's father and Dante had both been exiled from Florence at the same time (§7).

III.18 — some ideas on how to imitate other authors (especially ancient ones), always a topic of interest for neo-Latin writers. “I am a man pleased by resemblances, but not identity, and the resemblance itself should not be too close” (§20).

After a tirade against astrologers: “Shun doctors, flee from astrologers; the former harm your bodies, the latter your spirits.” (III.20.132)

III.23 — a long letter with an allegorical interpretation of the Aeneid. It reminded me a little of the just-so stories that Boccaccio invented to explain ancient myths in his Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.

In IV.4, while inveighing against lust, Petrarch includes a delightful rant against incest. “Certainly we read that many men had intercourse with their sisters and slept in the arms of their unhappy mothers.” (§4) (Nowadays we usually don't read about such things but watch them on Pornhub instead, and the (step)mothers involved are usually quite happy :P) He goes on to list a few concrete examples, and then points out that even horses are more chaste than people in this regard, because in the few instances when horses have been tricked into incest, they were not happy about it: “we read in the old writers that a horse was forced by the trick of his groom to have intercourse with his* mother: when he had finally thrown off the cover and recognized his mother he instantly cast himself down as if rejecting this crime and breathed his last breath as if a criminal.” (§5) [*Given the context we can at least be reasonably sure that “his” refers to the horse and not the groom — whew :))] What kind of sick pervert gets his jollies from tricking a horse into incest? :))) Well, the translator's note 6 on p. 665 says that the motive was “to concentrate the bloodline of a champion through inbreeding”.

He then moves on from incest to adultery: nowadays “a young man who has not achieved a successful adulterous relationship [. . .] is thought by his peers to be a poor failure” etc. (§8). :))

On a more wholesome note, in IV.6 Petrarch urges two of his friends to reconcile after a quarrel; in IV.7 he advises Pandolfo Malatesta to marry, more for the sake of his country and dynasty (§8) than because Petrarch would think that marriage is a very good idea in general (see also IV.8 on that). He never got married himself, admired his Laura from afar, and had a couple of illegitimate children whose mother's name has been lost to history (vol. 2, pp. 565–6), and apparently gave up sex some time in his forties (vol. 2, note 7 on pp. 710–2). :S

In a number of letters (IV.8–12) he extols a plain and moderate lifestyle with an emphasis on virtue rather than pleasure. In the process of doing so, he has a few funny remarks on how highly valued cooks are nowadays, which he sees as a sign of excessive, decadent luxury: “among our ancestors the cook was the cheapest of all slaves, but now he is head of the household. You ask why? You will find no answer except gluttony” (IV.8.21). “The cook [. . .] was once the cheapest of slaves among our ancestors, but finally began to be valued when Asia had been conquered” (IV.11.2) I wonder what he'd say about the celebrity chefs of today :)

There is a longish rant (IV.14) that contrasts the austere military discipline of the ancient Romans with the laxity and decadence of the various companies of mercenaries that were dicking around Italy in Petrarch's own day (and getting nothing done except prolonging the endless warfare that characterized so much of Renaissance Italian history). “You would not think you were entering a camp of men but brothels of whores and booths of gamesters and cookshops.” (§14) :)) By contrast, he praises the English for their recent successes in the Hundred Years' War: “When I was a young man the men of Britain [. . .] were thought the most timorous of all barbarians; now that race is most warlike and has laid low the Gauls” (§2).

A very interesting factoid from translator's note 2 on p. 679 of vol. 1: we usually hear that Diogenes lived in a barrel, but apparently that's just an approximate translation; it was actually “a pithos, or round earthenware jar”.

IV.15 — Petrarch writes to cardinal Colonna to express condolences on the death of the latter's brother, who had been a friend of Petrarch's. He points out that at least you don't need to worry that anything bad will happen to him now (§21–2), plus you will see him again in the afterlife eventually. “Do not think your brother dead, for he lives, but we are dying each day without noticing it, and we fear the beginning of true life like death — sheer blindness!” (§39)

V.4 — Petrarch writes to one Paganino, advisor to the ruler of Milan, advising that it's better to live in stability and friendship with your neighbours than to try to expand and dominate them by force. There are also two much longer letters giving advice, in the mirror-of-princes style, to the new king of Naples (V.5) and the ruler of Padua (V.6). The latter surprised me a little by also including his opinion on a few oddly specific and local issues, e.g. on the draining of marshes (§47–8) and on whether pigs should be allowed to graze freely in the city (§44–6; the translator's commentary summarizes this last issue very delicately as “unusual traffic problems” :)); vol. 2, p. 616).

A nice bit of casual misogyny from VI.1: “All women conform to one law: they want foolish things and absurdities.” :))) The context here is that his addressee's mother had wished that he would have a long life and be wealthy, while his father had wished that he would be eloquent and renowned, and Petrarch clearly approves of the latter much more than of the former.

The following interesting passage is probably an allusion to the medieval and early modern folk traditions that transformed vague memories of the ancient poet Virgil into stories that presented him as a magician: “I myself, more hostile to divination and magic than any other living man, am sometimes called a wizard [nigromanticus] because of my affection for Vergil.” (VI.5.29)

There are a few letters occasioned by political turmoil in Rome: Petrarch initially expressed support for Cola di Rienzo, the self-styled tribune (VI.4), but later withdrew it (VI.5). Subsequently he wrote a long letter arguing that the people of Rome should get a share of political power as well, rather than the city being ruled only by noblemen, foreign prelates and the like (VI.6). In doing so, he draws on many examples from the early history of ancient Rome. “Have we lived merely to sink to this, [. . .] that [. . .] the question should be raised whether a Roman citizen may be elected to the Senate, when we can see foreign-born men ruling for so long and so many Proud Tarquins on our Capitol?” (VI.6.12)

VI.8 — Petrarch writes to the doge of Venice, urging an end to their war against Genoa. His argument is that this is almost like a civil war and that Italians should stick together; but the doge replied with “a clear explanation of the economic reasons that made a war between Venice and Genoa unavoidable” (translator's comment, p. 636 of vol. 2).

There are several letters concerning Emperor Charles IV (VI.9–12). Petrarch hoped he would bring peace to Italy, but Charles only visited Rome briefly for his coronation and then returned north of the Alps. In VI.11, Petrarch describes his meeting with the emperor when the latter visited Italy. I was impressed by how cheerful and informal a conversation they had; it included a friendly disputation on the subject of whether Petrarch's plans for a solitary life are a good idea or not (§18–21).

In VII.1, Petrarch rebukes a particularly greedy cardinal. “For whom are you building up treasure, except for the devil and his minions, who watch you attentively, count your days and most greedily await your inheritance, planning to set up most grateful trophies inscribed with your names on the threshold of Tartarus from the spoils of the poor you have plundered?” (§17) :))

There are a few letters about religious subjects, e.g. VII.3 “to a friend wavering about the Catholic faith”. I was not particularly impressed by this one; as far as I can tell, there's not a single argument there that would make any sense unless you were already a believer. Talking about how merciful god is and what sacrifices he had made for mankind is completely nonsensical from an atheist's perspective. Well, I suppose that as long as Petrarch's friend was merely wavering a little and hadn't actually lost his faith yet, the letter was perhaps persuasive to him.

VII.6 is a long letter to Pope Urban V, urging him to move the seat of the papacy from Avignon back to Rome. Some of the arguments that were apparently involved in this debate struck me as a bit ridiculous, e.g. which town has a more pleasant climate (§224) and better food (§229) :) To my shock, Petrarch also calls for a crusade, not against the Turks, but against the Greeks: “the Turks are enemies, but the Greeks are heretics, worse than enemies” (§289). Even more ignobly, his argument is basically one of convenience: “our enemies, who now occupy Jerusalem” are hard to reach, but “there is nothing between us and these Greeklings except our own sleepiness and sloth [. . .] they are powerless [. . .] I guarantee that with two Italian cities [. . .] they will quickly [. . .] either overthrow that unwarlike empire or bring it back under the yoke of the Church” (§294–6). Wow. I always thought that it was despicable and disastrous when the western christians took Constantinople in 1204, but evidently Petrarch thought that it would be great to do it again. :(

Anyway, the pope did in fact move the papacy to Rome; there's another letter from Petrarch (VII.7) thanking him for this and responding to arguments that had been put forth by Frenchmen objecting to the move. This reminded me a little of one of his invectives on the same subject (see my post from some time ago); again he pretends that Italy = ancient Rome, the pinnacle of civilization, and France = ancient Gaul, filled with hairy and stupid barbarians. “In terms of common behavior I admit the Gauls are witty fellows of elegant gesture and speech, who gladly sport, cheerfully sing, often drink and hungrily party together. But true seriousness and real morality was always to be found among the Italians” (§100–1).

There's an interesting sequence of ‘letters to the ancients’, addressed to various ancient authors. He wrote two letters to Cicero (VIII.2–3), who lived in politically very turbulent times and often had to change his opinions about certain people or shift his loyalties a bit; Petrarch reproaches him for this, perhaps a bit unfairly so, given Cicero's circumstances (vol. 2, p. 677). In another letter (VIII.4) he upbraids the philosopher Seneca for serving, and even flattering, emperor Nero, that insane tyrant. He doesn't, however, say anything about the thing that always bothered *me* the most about Seneca: namely that he preached stoicism while being filthy rich himself and wallowing in luxury, the damned hypocrite. Petrarch also writes to Varro (VIII.5) and Livy (VIII.7), expressing regret that so much of their work has been lost. There is also a long letter to Homer (VIII.8), dealing partly with the question of whether later poets had failed to properly acknowledge the influence of Homer's work on theirs, and partly with the recent efforts to study Homer's work in Italy and translate it into Latin. In Petrarch's time, it seems, the devotees of Homer in Italy could pretty much be counted on the fingers of two hands (though not of one).

I liked the following passage, which combines two of Petrarch's favourite subjects: complaining about the loss of ancient literature and complaining about other nations. “The products of Homer's wakeful nights have largely perished”, he says, even among the Greeks “who, to avoid yielding to us in any matter, outdo our neglect in literature too: they have lost a great many books of Homer, like losing the light of one of their eyes” (VIII.9.12).

The collection ends with two autobiographical letters. One is a long letter to a friend (IX.1) and consists partly of reminiscences about Petrarch's life, partly of lamentations about how much worse nearly everything is now than it was in Petrarch's youth. He is aware that this is a stereotypical complaint of old people, but argues that in his case things really are objectively worse: plague epidemics, marauding bands of unemployed mercenaries, earthquakes, etc. As an example, he says that the markets of Venice are now overflowing with slaves from remote Scythia: “while once a vast quantity of corn each year was imported to this city by ship, the ships now come loaded with slaves, whom their wretched parents are selling, being overwhelmed by starvation” (§127). According to translator's note 57, this refers to “regions northeast of the Black and Caspian seas [. . .] Slave trade with these regoins greatly intensified with the Mongol invasions since the thirteenth century” (vol. 2, p. 705–6).

In §151 of the same letter, he mentions that in trying to visit the emperor, he had to “seek him out in the remotest barbarian region”; according to the translator's note, this turns out to have been in Prague :))

The second letter (IX.2) is addressed “to posterity” and is a kind of short autobiography. It includes an interesting description of the process that led to him being crowned poet laureate by king Robert of Naples; it included a sort of examination lasting three days: “I came to Robert, that supreme philosopher and king [. . .] so that he would pass judgment in person of how I seemed to him. [. . .] In short, after countless verbal exchanges on various topics and after I had shown him my Africa, which so delighted him that he asked as a great tribute that I should dedicate it to him [. . .], he appointed a fixed day for the hearing I had come to seek [. . .] When he had explored my ignorance over three days he judged me worthy of the laurel on the third” (§28–9).

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

BOOK: Biondo Flavio, "Italy Illuminated" (Vol. 2)

Biondo Flavio: Italy Illuminated. Vol. 2: Books V–VIII. Edited and translated by Jeffrey A. White. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 75. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674054950. vi + 627 pp.

The publishing arc of the I Tatti Renaissance Library is long, but it bends towards finishing the things they start. Volume 2 of their edition of Biondo's Italy Illuminated appeared in 2016, eleven years after the first volume. I mostly remember that first volume because it occasioned some of the most grotesquely hostile comments that I ever received on this blog. In my post about vol. 1, I admitted that I found the book very boring and didn't quite see what sort of person could possibly want to read it (or write it, for that matter), and some people reacted as if the book was obviously immensely valuable and that, if this wasn't clear to me, it must obviously be because I'm completely stupid. Nobody, of course — as is usual in such situations — deigned to provide any sort of explanation as to why or how we're supposed to see that book as anything but a pointless accumulation of dry, boring facts. Oh well.

After that unpleasant experience, I approached vol. 2 with greatly reduced expectations on the one hand, and with a certain fear on the other hand, in case it turns out to be boring again and I'll receive even more hostile comments for saying so. I can now say, with some relief, that this volume wasn't as boring as I had feared. I suspect this is due to a combination of reasons; partly it's because of the aforementioned reduced expectations, partly it's because I'm more inured to boring ITRL volumes now, having read so many of them since then; partly it's because some parts of this volume deal with regions a little closer to home, and thus a little more interesting to me; and partly I suspect it's due to the manner of reading: I read this volume quickly and could thus easily get past many boring details while still noticing the odd interesting factoid here and there. And I think there were more odd and pleasantly bizarre factoids here than in volume 1, so overall I enjoyed this volume a good deal better than the first one.

The overall structure of this volume is, unsurprisingly, the same as in vol. 1. Biondo describes the geography of Italy from region to region (Lombardy, Veneto, March of Treviso, Friuli, Istria, Abruzzo, Campania, Apulia); for each region, he usually starts with an overview of its history, then goes through the major rivers and lists the towns along each of them. For the more important towns, he also writes a little about their history and about famous people from that town, both ancient and his own contemporaries. In fact these sections about history were the most interesting parts of the volume, in my opinion; see e.g. 7.38–42 on Milano, 8.5–28 on Venice, 9.32–6 on Padua and 12.2–18 on the Kingdom of Naples.

There's also an interesting appendix at the end of the book, in the form of a letter from Biondo to Pope Pius II. Biondo explains that he lent the unfinished manuscript of his book to a certain bishop, who secretly had a copy made and was about to publish the whole thing in a mutilated and incomplete form, so Biondo had to rush his own version to publication to forestall this (pp. 363–5). As a result, the book is not entirely finished, e.g. the region of Puglia is covered very briefly.

Incidentally, it turns out that there is another recent English translation of Italy Illuminated, by Catherine J. Castner, the first volume of which came out in 2005 (the same as the first volume of the ITRL edition), with the second volume in 2011. According to this very interesting review of Castner's vol. 1, it seems that the ITRL translation is a bit more readable while Castner's is a little more literal, and her notes are more thorough and extensive.


Biondo mentions a few reports, from Pliny, of unusually long-lived people: 120 years (7.7), 125 years (7.8) and even 130 years (7.10). According to the translator's notes, this is from Pliny's Natural History, 7.163.

“Almost all of the region of Monferrato is subject to the noblest marquises of Italy, descendants of the Paleologi emperors of Constantinople, who have held the region for the last 150 years.” (7.14) I found this very intriguing and wondered how a descendant of the Byzantine emperor ends up ruling a small region of Italy, but judging by the wikipedia, the explanation is fairly prosaic: one of the marquises died without heirs, but his sister had been married to one of the Byzantine emperors, so her descendants from that marriage inherited the marquisate.

A nice contribution to the catalogue of curious relics: “In the time of Charlemagne, Christ's miraculous blood was displayed at Mantua” (7.18).

In 7.47 he mentions “Alpine ridges, the very ones that Hannibal split open with vinegar as he descended into Italy”. His authority is Livy 21.37.2, but I wonder how this is supposed to have worked. Sure, limestone corrodes easily, but vinegar?... And where would he get so much vinegar?

Biondo says (8.15) that “the first bells seen in Greece” were sent as a present by the Venetians in 870; I remember encountering this factoid before (e.g. in Pius' autobiography), and I still don't know if I should believe it.

He has some interesting remarks on the Lombards, a Germanic people who settled in present-day Lombardy and “laid down new laws [. . .], customs, and rituals, and changed the words for peoples and institutions”; in the laws of the Lombards “there are entries and discussions on the many things whose name was changed. The Lombards in fact quite deliberately transformed the usages of public administration, and of private life too, reaching such a height of madness that they abandoned the very letters of the Roman alphabet.” (9.3) I wonder what the truth behind these things is. Perhaps they simply tried to create a combination of Latin laws and terminology with their own native Germanic ones? Frankly, considering that they conquered the area and settled into it, Biondo should be thankful that they assimilated at all, instead of complaining that they changed a few words here and there in the process. I always thought that these Germanic tribes (Franks, Ostrogoths, Lombards etc.) were rather pathetic for settling in Roman territory and then assimilating into Roman culture, instead of forcing the existing population to assimilate into theirs. That's not how conquest is supposed to work, you numpties :] But then I suppose the same thing might have happened to us if the territory we settled in had been more thoroughly Romanized to begin with.

Zevio is “a town that abounds in great quantities of succulent cabbage” (9.9). Biondo goes on to discuss Pliny's preferences on the subject of cabbages.

A glorious anecdote about the Cimbrians, a Germanic or Celtic tribe that was defeated by Gaius Marius: “The wives of the Cimbrians, who were captured in the fierce fighting and denied release, smothered or crushed their babies to death and killed themselves by hacking at one another or strangling themselves with ropes made from their own hair.” (9.10)

I liked this effort by the translator: “Palaemon, who when he was asked the difference between a drop and a drip, said that ‘a “drop” [gutta] is motionless, but a “drip” [stilla] falls.’ ” It still doesn't quite work, though; in English, it's hard not to associate the noun “drop“ with motion, since the verb “drop” obviously describes a kind of motion. FWIW, the wiktionary translates both gutta and stilla as “drop”.

Biondo quotes an epigram of Catullus poking fun at another poet; it concludes with: “into the fire with you, Annals of Volusius, full of smoke and dullness, fecal folios” (9.35). I love the phrase “fecal folios”, and it's a nice translation that preserves the alliteration of the original (“cacata charta”).

“Aquileia lies to the left of the river Natisone, now known as the Isonzo.” (10.9) This struck me as odd, as surely those are two different rivers. Now I see in the wikipedia and on google maps that the Natisone flows into the Torre, which then flows into the Isonzo about 15 km later, and Aquileia lies just around 6 km from this latter confluence. Perhaps in Biondo's time they had a different idea of which of these rivers is the main one and which is the tributary? But what's even more odd is that he says “to the left”, when according to the map Aquileia is obviously to the right of these rivers (they flow south, and Aquileia is to the west of them). Now I wonder how many other dubious geographical statements there are in Biondo's book in areas that I'm less familiar with.

I was interested to learn that the town we now know as Koper used to be called Justinopolis (10.12). “The son of Justinian I and his successor as emperor, Justinus, built it on the island then called Capraria, which was earlier known as Pullaria.” (11.3) He mentions Justinus as the builder of the town again in 11.10. FWIW, the wikipedia says that Justinus was Justinian's nephew, not son, and that the town was named after a later Byzantine emperor, Justinian II.

The English translation in this volume mostly uses Italian names of towns and rivers, so I was surprised to see Izola spelled (11.3) as in Slovenian, instead of Isola as in Italian.

In 11.1, Biondo mentions “the Gulf of Fanaticus, or Quarnaro as it is now called”. I didn't know about the name Fanaticus before and was curious about its etymology, but it seems to have been simply a mistake in the manuscripts of Pliny that were available to Biondo (translator's note 2, p. 500); the correct spelling is Flanaticus. It seems to have been named after the town of Flanone and its inhabitants [link].

Biondo mentions that Roger II obtained, from Antipope Anacletus, “the absurd title to the ‘Kingdom of the Two Sicilies’ ”. The idea obviously is that one Sicily is the island and the second one consists of the mainland territories of the kingdom, but I guess Biondo didn't like to see the name stretched out like that. Interestingly, the way the wikipedia describes these things makes it seem as if the title didn't come into use until much later: “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies resulted from the re-unification of the Kingdom of Sicily with the Kingdom of Naples (called the Kingdom of Peninsular Sicily), by King Alfonso V of Aragon in 1442.” They call Roger's state simply the Kingdom of Sicily (even though it also included Naples and southern Italy).

Near Cantalupo there is “a petroleum spring that gushes all year long. The oil is collected and exported more industriously by the Germans and Hungarians than by the Italians.” The translator's note 89 (p. 507) says that petroleum was believed to have medicinal properties.

I hadn't heard of the Atellan farces before; they seem to have been a low genre of theatre that was very popular in ancient Rome. Biondo describes them in the most delightfully exasperated terms: “Boys and girls and old men in a lather of debauchery would declaim in troupes and at the tables of the shameless a play composed in meter and set to music and melody, in filthy language and words expressing every sort of disgraceful behavior in word and deed, with bodily movements and gestures of every sort, even laid out on their backs, and would gesticulate in such a way that nothing was left to the imagination save an explicit act of sexual intercourse.” (13.21) Woo hoo! As usually when moralists complain about something, they probably make it sound much more fun than it really was.

About a certain spring of mineral water: “Pliny says it was at Liternum and that its water made men tipsy like wine.” (13.23) This totally sounds like a lame excuse invented by stereotypical drunken husbands. ‘Of course I'm not drunk, honey! It's the mineral water, I swear!!’ :)) Anyway, Biondo goes on to report that he tried it and it didn't make him tipsy.

An implausible tale from Livy, quoted by Biondo in 14.2: “The praetor Lucius Postumius [. . .] carried out a strict investigation into a conspiracy of shepherds who had endangered the highways and public grazing spaces by their banditry. He found about seven thousand men guilty”. I have a hard time imagining that highwaymen would form conspiracies involving seven thousand people, as opposed to operating as much smaller standalone gangs... I wonder what really happened there, and I can't help suspecting that the praetor must have been abusing his powers a bit.

An even more bizarre story from Augustine, quoted by Biondo in 14.6: on the Island of Diomedes there are birds that are friendly towards people of Greek descent, but “if they see non-Greeks, they fly at their heads with such forceful blows that they say the birds actually cause them physical harm.”

A grisly hunting anecdote from Biondo's appendix, 3.12–15: a wild boar was harassing the monks of a certain monastery, and they hired a hunter to shoot it with his arbalest. But as he was about to do so, a wolf turned up and “suddenly seized the scrotum of the beast with a great bite and held on tight. [. . .] the boar twisted back on itself in a frenzied but vain attempt to bite back [. . .] The wolf for its part bore down on the boar's scrotum”. This went on for half an hour, until the boar “collapsed lifeless when the membrane holding his innards together gave way.” The hunter who had been engaged to kill the boar then killed the wolf instead. The translator's note 29 (p. 530) suggests that this gruesome story “seems a kind of Curial allegory difficult to decipher”.

I was interested to hear that the Latin name of Milano, Mediolanum, “is in fact one of the commonest and oldest Celtic place-names: thirty-six are recorded, mostly within modern France” (translator's note 169, p. 476).

I liked the description of Queen Joanna I of Naples as an “intriguer and much married” (translator's note 45, p. 505). According to the wikipedia, she was married four times.

The Slavs, a German people

There's an interesting discussion of Jerome, the famous 4th-century saint and translator of the Bible into Latin, and in particular of whether his birth place, Stridon, is in Dalmatia or in Istria. Biondo considers Istria to be a part of Italy but Dalmatia not, so he's keen to claim Jerome as an Italian (11.7–8).

In Biondo's time, the invention of the Glagolitic alphabet was attributed by some people to Jerome, even though it had in reality been invented by Greek missionaries more than four centuries after Jerome's time. Many people, Biondo says, claim “that St. Jerome was a Dalmatian, because he invented for them characters that differed from Latin and Greek, and composed works in them. These later came to be called ‘Slavonic’ characters after the Slavs, once a German people but now known as Bohemians.” :)))))) Hitler, eat your heart out :))

I remember reading somewhere that, at a time when the Catholic church was very keen not to allow anyone to use anything other than Latin for liturgical purposes, the Croatians managed to get an exception and were allowed to keep using the Old Church Slavonic language and the Glagolitic alphabet. The claim that the alphabet had been invented by so prestigious a person as Jerome perhaps helped them with the lobbying. Anyway, what was new to me is that apparently Biondo was also involved in this: “Not only did Jerome devise and give to the Dalmatians these Slavonic characters, but he translated the Holy Office used by Catholic Christians out of Greek into this new tongue as well. The glorious Pope Eugenius IV confirmed this Office for them through my doing.” (11.8)

Argonauts of the Western Balkan Region

Biondo mentions the legend that the Argonauts, on their voyage back to Greece, sailed up the Danube and eventually carried their ship overland part of the way: “Pliny [. . .] added that the ship Argo sailed down by river into the Adriatic not far from Trieste, but there was no agreement about which river it was. The more careful authors affirm that the Argo was carried on shoulders across the Alps, but then first came up the Ister, then the Sava, then the Nauportus, a river that rises between Emona and the Alps and takes its name from this event.” (11.2)

Here he is quoting from Pliny's Natural History, book 3, chap. 22. This last link goes to the Perseus website, where the notes explain Emona as the ancient town on the site of present-day Ljubljana, and Nauportus as one on the site of present-day Vrhnika and also as the name of the Ljubljanica river that flows through both of these towns. These are also the only definitions of Nauportus in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (by William Smith, 1854) on the same Perseus website.

This is as I expected, and in fact Vrhnika nowadays even goes so far as to include the Argo an unnamed “Greek ship” on their modern-day coat of arms. But now comes the surprising thing. Here in Biondo's text, Nauportus is the name of the river Quieto or Mirna in Istria, and Emona is the name of Cittanova or Novigrad, where that river flows into the Adriatic (11.3): “The city of Emona, now known as Cittanova, is a further five miles from Umago. At Cittanova is the mouth of the river Nauportus, now called the Quieto, which rises in the Alps and down which, Pliny tells us, the ship Argo was launched.” (11.3) FWIW, the wikipedia confirms that there was an Emona on the site of present-day Novigrad, but doesn't mention Nauportus as an ancient name for the Mirna river (it mentions the names Aquilis and Ningus, however).

So I wonder if Biondo's identification of Nauportus with Mirna/Quieto is simply a misunderstanding because he thought that Pliny's Emona refers to the one at the site of present-day Novigrad instead of the one at the site of present-day Ljubljana.

[Let me also add in passing that I can't find Emona in the index here in the ITRL edition of Biondo, so I'm wondering what else is missing in it ><]

Intriguingly, the wikipedia says that the Emona in Istria was actually founded by inhabitants of the one in Slovenia after the latter had been destroyed by the Huns in 452; but this statement, as so many others in the wikipedia, is marked “[citation needed]”.

Translator's note 4 on p. 500 here in the ITRL edition of Biondo points out two passages in Martial's epigrams (book 4, epigram 25, and book 8, epigram 28), which show that in Martial's opinion the Argonauts passed by the Timavus, which is a very short stream that flows into the Adriatic about 20 km northwest of Trieste.

Incidentally, until now I have always been half afraid that this whole crazy idea of the Argonauts carrying their ship overland was invented by some early modern intellectual from the area of present-day Slovenia in a desperate attempt to connect his home region to ancient mythology — much like e.g. Englishmen used to claim that England was populated by Brutus and other refugees from the fall of Troy — but at least they made those claims in the middle ages, which makes them less embarrassing than they would be if made in the early modern period. Anyway, so it was a big relief to me to see that there is support in the ancient sources for the Argonauts sailing up the Danube and overland into the Adriatic.

I now had a look at Peter Green's translation the Argonautika, an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, who lived in the 3rd century BC. Apollonius writes about these things in book IV (pp. 158–9), but quite vaguely. The idea there seems to be that the Danube somehow “divides” itself into two streams, one flowing into the Black Sea and one into the Adriatic, so that the Argonauts sailed up one and down the other. (This is presumably a garbled memory of the confluence of the Sava and Danube, combined with the mistaken belief that the Sava flows out of the Danube rather than into it.) There is no talk of dismantling the ship and carrying it overland. A little later on they repeat the same feat by sailing up the Eridanus (Po) and down the Rhône (p. 167)!

This just goes to show that for all Apollonius knew or cared, they might just as well have been sailing on the moon. I guess that these areas were at the very outermost limits of the Greek geographical knowledge of his day, so his geography here seems to be largely speculative and phantastical; he probably just wanted to tell a good story, and if there were any other similarly early sources of the Argonaut legend they were likely just as inaccurate in terms of geography. It must have been later authors like Pliny and Martial, who were somewhat better informed, that tried to fill in the details.

Pliny's idea of reaching the sea near Trieste seems reasonable; looking at Google Maps, if you start carrying your ship at Vrhnika, the closest point on the Adriatic shore will be about 55 km away, a little northwest of Trieste. By contrast it would be about 90 km in a straight line to Novigrad, or 70 km to the source of the Mirna river, so Biondo's plan seems less convenient. Another idea that comes to mind is that you could leave the Sava river at Sisak and go up the Kupa/Kolpa; I'm not sure how far it's navigable, but its source is barely 30 km away from the sea (at Rijeka) as the crow flies.

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

BOOK: Biondo Flavio, "Rome in Triumph" (Vol. 1)

Biondo Flavio: Rome in Triumph. Vol. 1: Books I–II. English translation by Frances Muecke; Latin text edited by Maria Agata Pincelli. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 74. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674055049. xxvii + 412 pp.

Biondo Flavio was a 15th-century historian/antiquarian. I remember reading a book of his in the I Tatti Renaissance Library years ago, Italy Illuminated — see my post from back then; I found that book quite boring and got some surprisingly hostile comments on my post for saying so. Thus I approached the present work, Rome Triumphant, with some trepidation, but ended up being pleasantly surprised: this book is *much* more interesting than Italy Illuminated was. It is a sort of overview of various aspects of ancient Roman civilization and society; Biondo himself in his introduction (p. 13) divides the subject into five parts: religion, administration of the state, military discipline, customs of daily life, and the triumph. The whole work consists of ten books, of which the present volume contains the first two, dealing with the ancient Roman religion, its beliefs and various practices and customs related to it. Thus I guess there will eventually be four more volumes, though I haven't found any explicit mentions of that, and as far as I know none have so far been published or even announced.

I couldn't help being impressed by the massive amount of work that must obviously have gone into this book, both Biondo's and that of his modern editors and translators. Biondo's approach relies heavily on quoting passages from the work of ancient Roman authors, or occasionally summarizing or paraphrasing them. Sometimes he adds his own comments or explanations, or draws parallels to customs of his own time, but mostly he lets the Romans speak for themselves, so that probably more than half of the text here consists of quotations of ancient authors. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course — finding all these passages scattered through the work of so many authors and arranging them thematically as he has done here is immensely valuable in itself. The translators tracked down the precise sources of his quotations and pointed out where his text differs from that of modern editions (due to his relying on faulty manuscripts), which much also have taken an enormous effort.

One type of comment that I didn't care much about, but which Biondo makes several times in this volume, is to denigrate the ancient Roman religious beliefs. Obviously, as a christian he thought that he was right and they had been wrong, but it still struck me as distasteful and ungracious — if you keep denigrating an enemy more than a thousand years after you defeated him, I think we can safely describe you as a sore winner. Besides, it shouldn't be a historian's business to pass judgment on the people he writes about, but I guess that this view wasn't yet widespread in Biondo's time.

From the point of view of a casual reader like me, the main charm of this volume was in the numerous odd (and sometimes downright bizarre) beliefs, practices and anecdotes that you can encounter in it. You could open the book at random, read two or three pages, and be almost sure to find something interesting. I also liked the fact that Biondo pays a lot of attention to minor deities and customs related to them, not just to the famous major ones like Jupiter.

At the beginning of book I, Biondo writes a little about beliefs of earlier civilizations, such as the Egyptians and the Greeks. The Egyptians believed that the god Apis was incarnated in a bull; when he died, their priests would go and find a new one. “This is the only time women are allowed to see him. As they go out to meet him they lift up their clothes and show him their genitals” (1.13) I remember there were a couple of quests involving this bull in Assassin's Creed: Origins, which I played a few months ago, but I don't remember the part about the genitals :))

Emperor Hadrian writes about the curious state of religious ferment in Egypt: “Those who worship Serapis are Christians and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are devotees of Serapis. There is no leader of a Jewish synagogue there, no Samaritan, [who is not] an astrologer, a soothsayer, a masseur.” (1.22)

Losing one's virginity seems to have been serious business in Rome: “She is not allowed to enter her husband's bedroom before nuts are scattered in the hall and the other parts of the house adjacent to the bedroom, and the crowd treads them under foot so that the cries of the virgin being taken cannot be heard for the din.” (1.31) He goes on to list no fewer than six deities that help in these matters.

As part of the rites of Father Liber, “male genitals were set up with honor on little carts [. . .] During the days of that month all used absolutely disgraceful language, until that phallus had been conveyed through the forum and come to rest in its proper place. A most honorable married woman had to place a crown publicly on this dishonorable member.” (1.34)

He mentions a number of instances of human sacrifice from the early days of Roman religion. “Festus writes: ‘The Italians had the custom of promising a “consecrated spring”. Induced by great dangers they vowed they would sacrifice all the living creatures born to them the next spring. But, since it seemed cruel to kill undeserving boys and girls, after they had raised them to adult age they would veil them and so drive them across their frontiers.’ ” (1.46)

On the hecatomb, a large-scale animal sacrifice: “A hundred altars made of turf are built in one place and at them a hundred swine and a hundred sheep are slaughtered. Now, if it is an imperial sacrifice, a hundred lions, a hundred eagles and a hundred each of other animals of this kind are slain.” (1.46) FWIW, the wikipedia says that “in practice, as few as 12 [cattle] could make a hecatomb”.

In the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, there was a permanent feast in honour of that god, “the result being that there was a household of mimes and parasites there rather than celebration of the god's rites” (1.51). Biondo mentions this again later in 2.12.

Mark Antony “rode naked through the city in a chariot to celebrate the Lupercalia in honor of Lycaean Pan escorted by married women and maidens who were completely naked. The chariot was drawn by girls who were equally naked.” (1.54) Wow! Some people sure know how to party :)) But see also the translators' note 347 on p. 356, which says that this was originally an anecdote about Elagabalus that later got unfairly attached to Mark Antony.

By contrast, some devotional practices were touchingly wholesome: “there were certain women who every day would go up close to the statues of Juno and Minerva (she had her shrine there) and pretend to arrange their hair, moving their fingers in the fashion of hairdressers, since there were others who then held up a mirror in front of the goddesses' eyes for them to look into” (1.57).

Biondo writes a good deal about various silly forms of divination employed by the Romans, e.g. from the flight of birds, and notes with satisfaction that many of them appear to have been skeptical of it: “When Nonnius said they could have the highest hope because seven eagles had been captured in Pompey's camp, he [Cicero] said, ‘Your advice would be good, if we were going to have to fight against magpies.’ And that consul was no fool who, when the chicken-keepers told him that the chickens were not giving good omens and refusing to eat, ordered them to be thrown into running water so that they might drink.” (1.60)

On a similar note, he quotes approvingly Cicero's opinion that “the gods' favor can be won by duty toward man and toward the gods and righteous prayers, not by impure superstition nor by victims slaughtered in order to accomplish a crime” (1.66).

“Pliny affirms that there was a Vestal prayer, which enabled her to fetch water in a sieve” (1.68). Maybe if you freeze it first? :)

Things you don't see in Gérôme: “They drank blood from the wounds of dying gladiators to keep epilepsy at bay. Nevertheless Pliny writes that this aroused horror when it was seen or done in the arena.” (1.69)

When besieging an enemy city, “Roman priests first of all ‘called forth’ the gods under whose protection this city or town was and promised this or those gods the same or a grander place at Rome or elsewhere. This is why the name of Rome's guardian god was unknown, so that he could not be ‘called forth’ by some enemy.” (1.69)

“Here was a temple of Male Fortune. To its priest parents brought young girls as soon as they began to be ready for a husband. He looked at them carefully from all sides, completely naked as they were, and pointed out their visible physical defects. When the girls thus advised had made an offering of incense to Fortune, they believed that they had ensured that that defect would forever be concealed from their eventual husband.” (1.72)

“Pliny adds that a kind of linen was invented which was incombustible” (2.27), and was used when cremating a corpse to prevent its ashes from being mixed with those of others. Biondo goes on to say that “it grows in deserts and in parts of India scorched by the sun”, but the translators' note 177 on p. 376 describes it as “a kind of asbestos cloth”.

Macrobius on the cremation of bodies: “ ‘if it ever happened that a number were to be burned at the same time, the officials who looked after funerals used to add one female for every ten male bodies.’ In this way they burned more quickly and easily.” (2.28) I wonder how this is supposed to have helped. I remember reading something similar years ago: the Nazis, late in the war, resorted to burning the bodies of Holocaust victims in large open-air pits, and they tried to use as little fuel as possible in the process as their war economy was on its last legs by then anyway; apparently they found that it helped if they combined fatter and thinner corpses suitably [link].

“Beans are employed when making offerings to the dead because the Pythagoreans said the souls of the dead were in them. Varro said that the flamen's wife did not eat beans because letters of ill omen are found on their flowers.” (2.41) It's very hard to resist seeing fart jokes in these descriptions :]

Biondo cites a longish and very interesting description of the ceremony of deification of a Roman emperor (2.42). Much of it is just like a fancier version of a regular funeral; eventually the emperor's corpse was placed into a hut packed with “dry firewood and heaps of spices” and set alight. “From the last and smallest story, as if from a gable, the eagle is set free at the same time as the fire is lit beneath, so that it makes for the upper air. The Romans believe that the eagle conveys the emperor's soul from earth to heaven, and that it will remain there forever with the other gods.”

There are also sections about games and shows involving gladiators, wild animals, horse racing, theatrical performances etc., all of which was at least peripherally connected to religion in ancient Roman times. “Caesar was the first to exhibit a giraffe at the circus games. It has a neck like that of a horse, feet and legs like those of an ox, a head like a camel's, and white spots setting off its tawny color.” (2.55) Biondo goes on to mention various other exotic animals used in circuses, including “100 Numidian bears” (2.55), which surprised me as I didn't know that there used to be bears in North Africa. Now I see that there's also a wikipedia page about them. One of the Gordian emperors sent massive numbers of animals to the amphitheatre, including “10 nanny goats with gilded horns, which he himself had had gilded” (2.61).

A nice pun from 2.61: “Commodus Antoninus, who has more aptly been called ‘unpleasant (incommodus) to all’ ”.

There are several sad and touching anecdotes about people who had to fight wild animals in the arena, as reported by Cassiodorus, a 6th-century author. “In the theatre or amphitheater there was displayed a man who was most unhappy in his greed, who was offering his life blood for sale. As was stipulated with those who had bought his debts he was armed with a single flexible pole. [. . .] relying on the support of the flexible pole, he leaped over a beast, which, as though overcome by a sense of shame, made no further attempt to attack its defeater. He hugged the walls of the theater and begged the people who were sad and sorry for his plight to have him taken out of the arena.” (2.62)

I found this book very enjoyable, it was a welcome change after my disappointment with Italy Illuminated, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes, if/when they get published. As for the subject matter itself, it left me of two minds. On the one hand, when reading about the sheer bizareness and vigour of the ancient Romans' beliefs and practices, and comparing them with the drab blandness of modern-day religion, I couldn't help being reminded again and again of Swinburne's line: “What ailed us, O gods, to desert you?” But on the other hand, I cannot help being glad that we no longer throw people into arenas to face lions and bears nearly empty-handed, or to fight other gladiators to the death. I wonder if there's some way to combine the intensity of feeling such as the ancient Roman religion was able to provide, with the safety and humaneness to which we are accustomed today; but I fear these are opposite sides of the same coin, and you can't have both of them at the same time.

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Sunday, April 07, 2019

BOOK: Giovanni Marrasio, "Angelinetum and Other Poems"

Giovanni Marrasio: Angelinetum and Other Poems. Translated by Mary P. Chatfield. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 73. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674545021. xx + 291 pp.

Of the poets whose work I've read in the I Tatti Renaissance Library so far, most aren't exactly household names nowadays, but even so, Marrasio seems to be one of the more obscure among them. He doesn't seem to have a wikipedia page at all, not even in the Italian wikipedia. I've never heard of him before picking up this book; fortunately there's an interesting biographical introduction about him by the translator. Marrasio lived in the first half of the 15th century; he was originally from Sicily, but spent a good deal of time in the north of Italy, especially in Siena and Ferrara. He also studied medicine in Padua and later worked as a physician in Palermo.

His Angelinetum is a short collection of poems mostly inspired by his love for Angela Piccolomini, a woman from a prominent Sienese family. (The best-known member of this family, of course, is Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would later become pope Pius II; Marrasio praises him in one of his poems (CV XII), and in the appendix of this book there's also a poem by Enea Silvio that includes a favourable mention of Marrasio (p. 205).)

In his poems, he praises Angelina in the most extravagant terms, constantly describing her as “divine” and the like (A II–IV). She doesn't seem to have given him too much encouragement, perhaps because his ancestry was not illustrious enough or because, being from Sicily, he was something of an outsider in Siena; or perhaps that's just Marrasio's insecurity speaking (A VII). There's also the inevitable poem reminding her that she won't be young and beautiful for very long (A VI). The rest of the Angelinetum includes two poems addressed to Leonardo Bruni and one to Tommaso Piccolomini, Marrasio's friend (who was presumably related to Angelina, but we don't learn exactly how).

I liked this passage from A IV, ll. 1–10, where he uses mythological references to illustrate the intensity of his love for her: “If someone armed with shield and gleaming spear be your pleasure,/ [. . .] seek out warlike Mars; [. . .] If abundance of wealth should stir your soul,/ You should seek out Midas [. . .] But if anyone should seem worthy to be loved for his love,/ No one can be more smitten than Marrasio.” He ends this poem by saying: “Please pay me the love I rightly ask of you in return,/ And don't hand me payment with that grudging look.” (Ll. 27–8.) This idea that she should love him because he loves her so intensely strikes me as a bit naive; I don't think that's quite how this works. And trying to make her feel guilty would probably be counter-productive if anything: “Angelina, who has never taken pity on my sorrows,/ Look at me: I am dying” (A VII, ll. 1–2). But then he probably knew all that and was just following a well-established convention like so many other poets.

The rest of this book consists of Marrasio's miscellaneous poems (Carmina Varia = CV), arranged in roughly chronological order. Many are addressed to his various friends and acquaintances and mostly didn't strike me as terribly memorable. Some were written in an effort to obtain patronage, though without success; see e.g. the poem for Niccolo d'Este, the marquis of Ferrara (whose execution of his wife Parisina would later inspire one of Byron's beautiful narrative poems). Marrasio had organized a masque at his court, and wrote a few poems about the history of masques and of the theatre in general (CV XVII, XVIII, and a prose commentary on the former, printed here in the appendix on p. 221). I was interested to learn that (at least according to what the ancient Greeks had written about the origins of their theatre) the use of masks in the theatre was an innovation by Aeschylus; before that, actors would smear their faces with lees (sediments that form during fermentation of wine).

Several of Marrasio's poems are addressed to pope Nicholas V. One of these (CV XXIV) praises his programme of translating Greek works into Latin, and even goes so far as to say that Homer “does not wish to wander farther among his own Maeonian cities; he wants to dwell in Latin homes” (ll 55–6), the Iliad “[p]refers to emigrate through your agency into the Latin tongue/ Rather than dwell anymore in Greek houses” (ll. 61–2). What a bizarre idea; what sort of author would prefer to see his work circulate in translation rather than in the original?...

There's also a longish poem (CV XXVIII) praising Nicholas's success in “the dissolution of the schismatic Council of Basel” (translator's note, p. 256) and celebrating 1450 as a jubilee year. Among the countless pilgrims who came to Rome on that occasion, there was also an envoy/abbot from India, apparently from the fabled kingdom of Prester John, who told many fascinating things about his exotic homeland — or so Marrasio tells us in the charming middle part of the poem (ll. 43–94), but sadly the whole episode seems to be completely fictional. In another poem to the same pope (CV XXIX), Marrasio calls for a crusade against the Turks, who were a looming threat to christendom at that time (this was shortly before the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Later in life, Marrasio suffered from various health problems, fell from a mule, got malaria, etc., and he complains about these things at very considerable length in several poems here (CV XXX–XXXII). There is a touching episode where his bride died from the plague and was followed a day later by her brother: “While he lived, he inhaled his sister's contagious breath/ And made himself her companion in death as in life.” (CV XXXII, ll. 11–12.)

There is also a very interesting poem about the death of a knight named Garcia, the brother of Alfonso di Cuevasruvias, the archbishop of Monreale; he fell with his horse while hunting, injured his head badly and died soon afterwards (CV XXXVI). The archbishop was a friend and something of a patron of Marrasio's, who also wrote several epitaphs for the unfortunate knight (CV XXXVIII–XL). The interesting part is the detailed and suitably gory description of the trepanation by which they tried to treat Garcia's injury: “They cut back the skin along with the flesh and lay bare/ Hidden fissures with their nails, so as to cut them off./ After the saw has made its round cuts on all sides,/ A burr hole was made by extracting bits of bone;/ From the vent poured out a hot wave of seething blood” (CV XXXVI, ll. 29–33) etc. Brrrr. This is what happens when you let doctors write poetry :P

There are also a few poems by other authors, addressed to Marrasio. For example, there's a short poem by his fellow Sicilian poet, the infamous Antonio Panormita, who praises Angelina in just the terms you would expect from him: “Her mouth breathes nectar, her head ambrosia, her breast amomum,/ And, what I don't say, her cunt is fragrant with balsam.” (CV A, ll. 3–4). Marrasio himself doesn't usually write in the dirty style that Panormita was so fond of, except in one poem addressed to Panormita (CV XXI). In the appendix there's also a prose letter from Marrasio to Panormita, in which the former complains: “I am living in Padua, the filthiest of towns and the shit of city-states” :))) (P. 213.)

There's also an interesting prose letter (CV D) from Leonardo Bruni that includes a discussion of the four forms of “divine madness” (or “mania”, from Plato's Phaedrus) — prophecy, mystery, poetry, and love (¶4). He has a fine defense of poetry on this basis: “not every literary production is a poem”, but only if it is “brought forth by a kind of divine inspiration. And so, by as much as prophecy surpasses guesswork in dignity, so much should a poem, because it comes into being by [divine] madness, be ranked before the contrivances of sober men” (¶6). “[I]t might be said no less truly than elegantly that the soul of the lover lives in another's body” (¶10). “[N]o poet can be good unless seized by such madness, nor can anyone who makes predictions foresee the future unless by madness of this sort, nor can god be worshipped perfectly and excellently unless by that same alienation of mind” (¶11).

Like often in the ITRL series, this book was nothing to write home about, but you can still get plenty of interesting things out of it with a small bit of effort. Since that's about as much as I dare to expect from these books at this point, I can't say that I was in any way dissatisfied. If you look at the book as a whole, you could think of it as a sort of chronicle of Marrasio's life — a “lifetime of disappointment” (translator's introduction, p. xix), which can hardly fail to provoke sympathy. It was nice to get to know a poet that was previously quite unknown to me, and I can't help wondering how many other such poets lurk about in the mists of literary history, waiting for someone to bring them to my attention.

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BOOK: Francesco Petrarca, "My Secret Book"

Francesco Petrarca: My Secret Book. Edited and translated by Nicholas Mann. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 72. Harvard University Press, 2016. 9780674003460. xvii + 283 pp.

I guess this is the fourteenth-century equivalent of psychotherapy. The book is framed as a three-day conversation between Petrarch and St. Augustine, with a female personification of Truth watching them but otherwise not really getting involved. As the title suggests, Petrarch didn't really write it for publication (pp. vii–viii), and perhaps this is why he doesn't provide as much context as I would have liked. Between that and my overall lack of life experience and ineptness at matters psychological, I can't say that I had any real idea of what exactly it is that ails Petrarch. Some sort of depression perhaps, with a touch of midlife crisis? It is clear that he is unhappy, but less clear (to me, that is) why.


In book I, Augustine lays into Petrarch pretty sternly right from the start, and Petrarch struck me as something of a masochist, the type that enjoys being told how bad he is. Augustine seems to buy heavily into the sort of nonsense that one usually associates with Stoic philosophy: one cannot “become or be unhappy against one's will” (1.2.4) because “virtue alone makes the mind happy” (1.3.1). “[S]omeone who does not wish to be unhappy neither is nor can become so” (1.4.3), etc. I find this attitude very annoying: if you didn't manage to effect some change in your behaviour or your life, some people are very quick to conclude that this can only be because at some level you didn't really want to change. They utterly reject the obvious and much more reasonable explanation that it is perfectly possible to want to do something and yet fail at it — they reject this, no doubt, for the simple reason that by doing so they can then say that your failure is all your own fault and they don't need to feel sorry for you, and can in fact feel smugly superior to you now that you turned out to be such a failure.

Anyway, it isn't clear to me that Augustine is really giving Petrarch any sort of actionable advice at this point, except for vague admonitions to “meditate” (1.1.1) upon the fact that he is mortal and will eventually, perhaps sooner rather than later (1.9, 1.13.1–3), have to face god's judgement (1.11.9). I'm not sure what exactly Petrarch is supposed to have done that would incur god's displeasure anyway. Is being unhappy and depressed a sin now? (Perhaps? I honestly have no idea.) Augustine tries to strengthen Petrarch's fear of death by a bizarre and vivid description of the physical aspects of dying (1.11.1–6).


In book II, Augustine goes through the various cardinal sins and points out which ones Petrarch is or isn't guilty of. I've always been of the opinion that this whole idea of sins, especially cardinal ones, is nothing else than a big scam; they are defined broadly enough that every normal person can easily be found guilty of some of them. Petrarch makes a half-hearted attempt at defense here or there, but sooner or later invariably caves in under Augustine's pressure. First they discuss pride (2.2–4), where I didn't really have the impression that Petrarch is guilty of anything particularly heinous; no sane person would say that there's anything wrong with Petrarch for having a moderate and reasonable amount of pride in his literary talents, his learning, and even his looks (2.3.1), but then of course one wouldn't expect someone like Augustine to be sane about these things, and in his eyes Petrarch is super guilty.

Next Augustine briefly mentions envy and agrees that Petrarch is not guilty of that (2.5.1), then moves on to greed and ambition (2.5.2–2.10). Again Petrarch doesn't seem to have been guilty of anything worse than trying to make reasonable provisions so he wouldn't end up destitute in his old age, but in Augustine's eyes he could have been satisfied with less (2.7.3–5) and thus can already be labeled as greedy. On the subject of ambition, Augustine accuses him of “hanging around the corridors of power, flattering, deceiving, promising, lying, pretending and dissimulating” (2.9.3) etc.; I don't know enough about Petrarch's life to comment on that but he seems to be content to plead guilty (“Farewell to high honors then, if these are the skills that acquire them”, 2.9.4). Next they discuss lust (2.11–12) and both readily agree that Petrarch is guilty of it; and again my impression was that Petrarch wasn't actually guilty of anything other than normal human desires, and it just shows what a monstrous thing christian morality is for trying to portray such desires as somehow wrong.

But perhaps worst of all, Petrarch is then found guilty of accidia (2.13), which seems to be another term for the sin often translated as sloth, but the way Petrarch and Augustine discuss it here it seems more like a kind of mental affliction. The translator's introduction describes it as “perhaps as near as we can come to the medieval perception of depression” (p. ix). A couple of illustrative passages from the dialogue: “ ‘Tell me now: what do you think is the greatest of your troubles?’ — ‘Everything I see around me, everything I hear, everything I touch.’ ” (2.13.9) “ ‘Everything about your life upsets you.’ — ‘And everything about other people's lives too.’ ” (2.13.10)

Augustine points out that some other people have it even worse — at least Petrarch isn't starving etc. (2.14), surely so manifestly useless a consolation that I don't see how anyone can seriously imagine that it will calm anyone's feelings of anguish. Petrarch goes on to list various other minor complaints, e.g. the crowded and smelly city he lives in (2.15.6). They discuss the idea of turning to books such as those of Cicero and Seneca (2.15.9) for advice and consolation; Petrarch has already read them, but they don't seem to have any lasting effect after he puts the book down. Augustine suggests that he should make notes of useful things he reads so he would remember them better (2.16.3) — which sounds like good advice and is more or less the same reason why I write these blog posts.


Book III starts with Augustine's observation that two “chains” still prevent Petrarch from contemplating death etc. as he should (3.1): “[l]ove and desire for fame” (3.2.1). This book is almost as long as the previous two combined, and it could easily be divided into two parts, one about love and one about fame.

Petrarch, to his credit, at first reacts with horror at the idea that he should give up those two things (and indeed I despair at humankind when I consider that a religion that makes such idiotic demands of people was ever able to win any converts), but in the end he of course caves in anyway. Augustine points out that she will eventually grow old and die (3.3), which struck me as a rather ridiculous argument since everyone already knows that and yet people keep on falling in love, as they have been doing for tens of thousands of years. Petrarch argues that his beloved is so chaste and virtuous that his love for her actually had a positive effect on him: “She restrained my youthful mind from shameful action [. . .] and focused my gaze on higher things.” (3.4.7) But Augustine says that this merely detracted Petrarch from loving god properly: instead of loving her as something created by god, he loved god as someone that created her (3.5.2). Later he adds that nothing “induces neglect or contempt of Glod so much as the love of worldly things” (3.6.5), including the sort of love that Petrarch felt for Laura.

They also debate on whether Petrarch loved her mind or her body; Petrarch says the former, as demonstrated by the fact that he still loves now that she is older, but he has to admit that he would not have fallen in love with her in the first place if he had not found her pretty back then (3.5.3–4). He also admits that his religious sentiments declined once he had fallen in love with her (3.5.7–11), but I wonder if that wouldn't have happened anyway as he transitioned from childhood into young-adulthood.

Augustine describes Petrarch's symptoms in a way that makes love seem like a sickness (“you are pale and wasted, your youthful bloom is prematurely faded” etc.; 3.7.2), and even suggest a bizarre punning connection between Petrarch's love and his ambitions as a poet: “You loved the laurels or rulers and poets so passionately because they were called by her name” (3.7.5), and this was why he sought to be crowned a poet laureate, even though “the custom fell into disuse centuries ago” (3.7.7).

[If we take a moment to remember that this dialogue is fictional, and that in reality Petrarch wrote both sides of it, we cannot help imagining him as some sort of masochist who enjoys getting hit, and throbs with excitement as he arches his back in anticipation of the next blow.]

[Incidentally, later Petrarch gives another, even more ridiculous reason for his “devotion to the laurel tree”: he is afraid of thunder, and the laurel is “reputed not to be struck by lightning”; 3.11.9.]

Augustine suggests that Petrarch should try to get over his love by travelling away from places associated with her or with memories of her (3.8–9), but cautions him against “carrying one's pain around one when changing places” (3.8.8); he should “set off without any hope of return” (3.9.3), otherwise he would risk a relapse (3.9.6, 3.9.9). More specifically, Augustine suggests he should return to Italy (3.10.1–2), so I guess this work was written during a time when Petrarch lived in France.

Augustine also points out that Petrarch is growing old (3.11–12); his hair is gray although he tries to console himself by remembering various famous ancient Romans whose hair turned gray at a relatively early age (3.11.6–7). He should, Augustine says, be ashamed to be so obsessed with love at his age (3.12.4–6), and should grow serious and give it up (3.12.7, 3.12.10, 3.13.4–6) and focus on religion instead (3.13.9–10).


Finally, book III turns to the subject of Petrarch's ambition for fame. Augustine points out how fickle fame is: “the breath of crowds” (3.14.5). It seems that Petrarch was working on two big literary projects which he hoped would bring him fame: a series of Roman biographies (On Famous Men) and an epic poem about Scipio the African (the Africa); 3.14.9–10. Both of them, as it turns out, would remain unfinished. Petrarch even says that at one point he was seriously ill and, thinking he would die soon, almost burned the manuscript of the Africa so that it would not be published in its imperfect and unfinished state (3.14.12).

Augustine says that these ambitions are distracting Petrarch from eternal and immortal things, and he shouldn't be wasting his time on literary fame since he doesn't know how long he has left to live (3.15.5–7). The translator's introduction says that the dialogue is supposed to be taking place in 1342 (p. xiv), meaning that Petrarch would have been 38 years old at the time and would live for another 32 years. I was surprised that Petrarch, at that age, thought so seriously about death as something that could come at any time, but I guess it's easy to underestimate how insecure life was before modern medicine and other technological advantages that we enjoy today.

Augustine also points out that any fame that Petrarch might achieve would be limited both geographically (3.16.2–5) and temporally (3.16.8—10), and would be followed by a “second death” when people forget him. Fame, Augustine says, is “like a mere shadow of virtue” (3.17.1), and it's better to focus on virtue directly (which might then also bring you fame, but that's not the point). And fame gained by other than virtuous means is not worth being called fame at all (3.17.4). Augustine reiterates that Petrarch should abandon his work (3.17.5) and meditate upon death (3.17.6–15). Petrarch promises to follow his advice (3.18), and I can only hope that he reneged on that promise, otherwise it would have been a really tragic waste of nearly half of his life.


What to say at the end? I can sympathise with the mental anguish that Petrarch was obviously going through, and I hope that writing this book made him feel better, but the solutions he espouses in this book are so heavily predicated on his being religious that they are completely useless to a non-religious reader like me. The advice about contemplating one's mortality, which he emphasizes so much in this dialogue, is only useful if you believe that there is an afterlife that you can look forward to; otherwise you're merely throwing away the only life you have.

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