Sunday, February 06, 2005

BOOK: Cyriac of Ancona, "Later Travels"

Cyriac of Ancona: Later Travels. Edited and translated by Edward W. Bodnar with Clive Foss. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 10. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674007581. xxxv + 459 pp.

Cyriac was a merchant and diplomat from Ancona who did a lot of travelling in Greece and the Aegean islands in the middle of the 15th century. He was interested in the material remains of classical history, particularly the ancient Greek and Roman inscriptions, many of which he recorded in the letters and diaries which he wrote during his journeys. He also drew some sketches of sculptures, columns and similar things.

Frankly, I am not a very avid reader of travel literature; I often find it boring; so I didn't expect too much from this book. On the other hand, I hoped that through this book I would see some glimpses of life in that part of the Mediterranean during the 15th century, which certainly sounds like a topic that one might be interested to learn more about; particularly since it would be written by a contemporary observer who could have seen things at first hand. In this I was disappointed; Cyriac is really quite the “proto-archaeologist”, much more interested in ancient inscriptions than in the everyday life of his own period. Perhaps he thought everyday life in 15th-century Greece too commonplace and not exotic enough to write home about. Besides, many of these letters of his are to colleagues who have probably also done a lot of travelling in that area, so it wouldn't make much sense for him to write about things that they could have seen by themselves anyway.

When I started reading this book, the first few pages felt extremely, abominably dull. It really felt like suffering and I was terribly disappointed. But soon it started feeling better and I noticed huge amounts of exciting, interesting, curious little things, indeed so many that in the end I feel the book has been an interesting, in many ways even a delightful, read, much more so than many other volumes in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series. I definitely don't regret having read it.

One interesting thing, for example, is Cyriac's bizarre fascination with ancient mythology, particularly nymphs, but also Sirens and muses. For example, in 4.3-4, he describes a voyage and refers to boats and ships as if they were a bunch of cavorting nymphs. "Cyriac was obsessed by the sea-nymphs, of whom he regarded Cymodocea [...] as his special patron." (4.n5.) Visions of nymphs, Sirens and muses abound in his writings, usually connected with meteorological phenomena, often singing songs, e.g. in D4.21-22, 28.3, 30.2-3 (“my spouse, Calliope, sang with holy voice this song to the gods and divinities of the sea”, and Cyriac's hymn to the nymphs duly follows), 32.3 (nymphs, muses, and King Aeolus to boot), 32.5 (“the Nereids rose to felicitate me with great joy”; naturally, being the dirty bastard that I am, my first thought upon seeing the word “felicitate” was a certain other word, which agrees with it in the first and last three letters), 33.2-4, 35.9, 37.4 (on hearing that his friend had gone to the Chian baths, Cyriac hopes that he is now “improving your excellent good health with the assistance of Doto, Clotho, Panopea, and Cymodocea, the most beautiful of all the Nereid nymphs” — honi soit qui mal y pense! :-)), 39.4, 39.9 (where three women of the town of Galata are represented as nymphs), 42.3.

In fact, although I see no reason to suppose that his genuine religious beliefs were anything else than Christian, it is at the same time clear that he has absolutely no problems with invoking the ancient pagan deities and referring to them in a positive light, which I certainly find commendable. Thus he includes, upon embarking on a voyage, a prayer to Mercury in his diary (D3.27), asking for (among other things) “a favouring sea and a chorus of nymphs and nereids”. In 46.3 he utters a brief prayer to Diana. Being a merchant, he probably felt particularly attached to Mercury, who is the god of commerce. In 23.9, he refers to himself as “lover of Hermes” and to the god as “my protecting deity, Mercury”. In 32.10, he is writing on “the 2nd of March, the sacred, favoring, windy and holy day of Mercury, our most propitious patron, 1446”. (March 2, 1446 in the Julian calendar was a Wednesday, Mercurii dies in Latin, mercoledì in Italian, mercredi in French, etc.) Similarly, in 39.7, the 15th of August, 1446 is “ the chaste light-bearer Diana's favorable, clear day”, i.e. a Monday (Moon-day, Lune dies, and Diana was a moon-goddess). In fact the whole of paragraph 39.7 is a very nice example of a peaceful and happy coexistence of ancient pagan and christian religious references. (Incidentally, Cyriac is of course not alone in his enthusiasm for ancient mythology; his friend Domenico Grimani, in a short letter to Cyriac, invokes the ancient deities twice to strengthen his expressions: “by Hercules” in 44.2, and “by Pollux” in 44.3.)

There are some other curious reports related to the ancient religion. On Crete, orthodox priests living near a spring formerly sacred to the goddess Diana, told him that “even in our own day” they sometimes saw Diana and her nymphs bathing naked “in the translucent waters” (D4.14). In his diary, D5.45-46 he briefly describes some local customs from the peninsula of Tainaron in the south of Greece, and mentions that the people “say that their dead, no matter what their religion was, have gone of ``to Hades'', that is, to the lower world”.

He sometimes refers to the Christian god as Jove, e.g. 39.18, 53.2. And in D3.59, the 23rd of April is “Jupiter's favorite, joyful day”, probably because, in 1445, this was a Sunday, i.e. the Lord's day. On the other hand, in 12.3, July 16, 1444 is “Jove's lucky day” because it is a Thursday (Iovis dies, giovedì).

In 12.6, he describes that unusual animal, the zoraphan, i.e. the giraffe. See also 12.n11. Incidentally, this passage, like several others, particularly those involving visions of and encounters with mythological creatures, is narrated as if occurring in a dream. I realize that this is only a literary device, but I find it somewhat silly — in the middle of an otherwise sober and matter-of-fact letter to some recipient who is typically some sober, matter-of-fact merchant, Cyriac jumps, as if this was the most natural thing in the world, into a dream-vision of nymphs or whatever other mythical beings happened to strike his fancy at that moment. I guess I really should read Joscelyn Godwin's Pagan Dream of the Renaissance.

In D2.41, he describes an ancient sculpture of “a fierce struggle between a nude man and a lion”, in which the man is winning. Not that I object to a bit of poetic licence, but surely this is ridiculous. It reminds me of that line from an old text-based adventure game: “With what? Your bare hands? Against his bear hands?”

He records many inscriptions from tombs. It is interesting how often they threaten with fines if somebody should try to bury another body in the tomb in addition to the one for whom it was originally built. “I do not wish any other body to be buried in it. Anyone who dares to do so will pay the city of Thasos a penalty or fine of 5000 gold pieces.” (D2.49.) Apparently this parasitism of graves and urns must have been a widespread phenomenon if the relatives of the deceased felt that such threats were necessary.

He visits the monasteries of Mount Athos, and buys from a monk a volume of manuscripts, containing mostly letters of various ancient persons. There are a few very curious items, in particular “138 letters of Phalaris, the tyrant of Agrigentum, to the Megarians, to Pythagoras, and others” (D2.65). Who would have thought that the letters of Mr. Brazen Bull have been preserved? I sure wonder what he wrote about.

Many of the ancient inscriptions he records are rather formulaic and boring. Typically they are along the lines of: "In memory/honour of So-and-So [or: such-and-such an event], paid for by So-and-so [or: by the city council, etc.]". Many are little more than lists of names. But then I don't mean to suggest that, when an inscription in stone is created nowadays, the writing is any more inspired than this. I guess that stone inscriptions are the sort of thing that attracts mainly dull, glum people, with a slight inclination towards pomposity, and the resulting writing reflects this fact. Nevertheless it is all the more fascinating, almost touching in a way, to see how Cyriac is genuinely curious and excited by all these inscriptions, recording carefully and devoutly even the dullest, minutest, least interesting ones. At the same time some few of the graveyard inscriptions are genuinely touching. See in particular 21.2, from the grave of an 18-year-old girl, survived by her parents, brother, and husband; and D3.68, from the grave of a wife mourned by her loving husband (“Marcus; what use is insatiable grief? Endure; even kings who met with gloomy grief have the pain of such suffering”). Some of the inscriptions end, quite touchingly, by the word “farewell” (χαιρε, or, in plural, χαιρετε): “Philomenos, farewell. Sophia Philoumena, farewell.” (D5.21.) I almost can't help regretting that nowadays the grave inscriptions are usually so short, giving just the name and dates and perhaps an “R.I.P.”, but nothing whatsoever about who the person was and how he or she lived. Looking at the inscriptions in our local graveyard, it seems that before WW2, many inscriptions record at least the occupation of the deceased person, and perhaps a short sentence about his or her life. There are no genuinely long inscriptions comparable to the ancient ones mentioned by Cyriac, perhaps because this habit died long ago and none of the inscriptions in our local graveyard are really old (e.g. older than 100 years). I find it fascinating that there must have existed, in the ancient times, practically an entire semi-literary genre of grave inscriptions. Perhaps I should buy one of the various collections of epitaphs and other graveyard inscriptions, of which there seems to be a considerable selection on amazon. It's a pity that nowadays most people would probably consider the interest in such things as something unhealthy and morbid. I am rather fond of graveyards; they are nice, calm, quiet places; although I don't believe in any form of afterlife I rather like the idea of being “laid to rest” there one day. After all, why should one avoid graveyards? Dead people, as long as they are properly buried, won't harm you (unlike many living ones, one might add). When I went to secondary school, it was located approx. 100 meters away from a graveyard. One of the sides of the building consisted practically of nothing but huge windows, through which you had a magnificent view of (among other things) the graveyard as you ascended the main staircase to get to the third floor, on which most of our classrooms were located. On the first of November everyone brings candles to the graves of their relatives, and in the next few evenings, the sight of the graveyard from those third-floor windows, with the thousands of little twinkling lights emitted by the candle-flames, was really a wondrously beautiful thing.

Incidentally, Wilde also mentions χαιρε in a very nice stanza in his Humanitad:

The quenched-out torch, the lonely cypress-gloom,
     The little dust stored in the narrow urn,
The gentle ΧΑΙΡΕ of the Attic tomb,—
     Were not these better far than to return
To my old fitful restless malady,
Or spend my days within the voiceless cave of misery?

According to the editor's notes on p. 267 of Wilde's collected poems (Oxford UP, 2000), the word can also mean “Welcome”, not just “Farewell”, which makes it even more appropriate for a tomb inscription.

The inscription from the island of Delos, in D3.24, is a nice example of referring to years by the names of people in various official positions.

Cyriac is not only an obsessed collector of ancient inscriptions, but even composed a couple of his own; see 39.6 and 52.2.

One of the nice things about living in the 15th century and being interested in antiquities is that many ancient sites were better preserved then than they are now (see also Gibbon's Decline and Fall, ch. 71). For example, he saw the Parthenon before that lamentable explosion of gunpowder during one of the wars between Turkey and Venice in the 17th century (3.5 and plates I and II, which show Cyriac's sketches of the Parthenon).

Apparently there is, on the island of Chios, a village called Homerica, and the inhabitants show a certain spot as the location of Homer's tomb. Cyriac makes a small excavation, finding nothing, but nevertheless does not doubt the truth of their claims and is duly rapt with pleasure (43.3-4).

Various people have various opinions about the course of human history. Some (e.g. many 18th and 19th century thinkers, and many lovers of technological progress even in our own day) believe things are generally getting better; others (e.g. Hesiod and other believers in a lost “golden age”), that it is getting worse all the time; yet others suggest that things are going down, to be eventually followed by an up (e.g. the Christian millennium); and yet others suggest that history goes in circles (e.g. Oswald Spengler). Well, Cyriac has a nice lament about the decay not only of famous ancient cities, art, and architecture, but also of the “pristine human virtue and renowned integrity of spirit” (D5.55), showing him to be in the camp of those who believe that everything has been going downhill ever since that fabled golden age of old. Well, I for one have an equally hard time believing in progress and in a downfall from a supposed golden age; being a bit of a cynic, I think that we humankind are a hopelessly miserable lot, selfish, dirty, grubby, corrupt beyond help, a veritable scum, a skin-disease of the Earth as Nietzsche said, and I seriously doubt that humankind will ever manage to rise above these defects of ours; and if it does, I think it will have to be so different from the people of today that it will scarcely still be appropriate to call its members humans. — I liked his conclusion a lot, though: “and where they [i.e. virtue and integrity of spirit] had once flourished most, there they had more and more departed”. From my experiences with the grubbier sides of Greek tourist industry, I have a lot of sympathy with this view of the Greeks as thieving, cheating rascals. (And apparently many people enjoy talking about the decay of Greece; “By some, who delight in the contrast, the modern language of Athens is represented as the most corrupt and barbarous of the seventy dialects of the vulgar Greek: this picture is too darkly colored”, Gibbon, ch. 62; and see also Byron's Childe Harold, Canto II, st. 84).

In D4.19, he quotes a paragraph of the ancient Greek epistolary novel Chion of Heraclea, including this gem, written by Chion about a certain man named Archepolis from Lemnos: “I believe that he is also a virtuous merchant because, before he took to commerce, he devoted himself to the study of philosophy.” To a shameless anticapitalist like myself, with a burning hatred of commerce and all those who practice it, the very notion of a “virtuous merchant” is a superbly hilarious oxymoron. How could a man be virtuous and yet sell things at a higher price than he bought them for? How could he be virtuous and yet lie to his customers about the quality of his goods, or how could he not lie and yet avoid going bankrupt? How could a virtuous man take up commerce? The only possible explanation of his story can be that he realized that philosophy is only OK if you are either independently wealthy (like Plato) or willing to live in abject poverty (like Diogenes); otherwise it won't get you far, so Archepolis wisely gave it up and devoted himself to commerce instead. Ah, but I forget that Cyriac was a merchant himself, so it would be unreasonable of him to expect that commerce and virtue do not go together. Heh, perhaps I shouldn't have listened so much to my grandmother's tales of how when, decades ago, she worked as a shop assistant, she would cheerfully tell the customers that certain eggs had been laid that very morning when they had in fact been sitting on the shelf for two weeks.

An inscription in a theater in Miletus, quoted in 30.7, lists the Greek vowels, thus: “Α Ε Η Ι Ο Υ Ω”. The editor's note on p. 221 says that these vowels represent the seven Archangels. Although I find this kind of mysticism which ascribes profound meanings to letters and numbers to be very silly, I must admit that it is silly in a charming kind of way.

In the Latin text, he uses the Greek letter ω in some names like Joannes where (I guess) ω would be used if the whole thing had been written in Greek. Examples of this occur in 1.1 and 19.1. He also uses ζ instead of z when referring to Byzantium, e.g. in 1.2, 1.4, 1.6.

In Cyriac's time, the Italian city-states had considerable influence in Greece and the Aegean islands, and many of these territories were under the control of Italian rulers. They mostly achieved this by taking advantage of the weakness of the Byzantine empire in the preceding few centuries; see e.g. the History of Venice by J. J. Norwich. Many passages in Cyriac's writings reflect this situation, e.g. D2.22, D2.33, D3.39, D5.16-18, 23.1, 25.2, D4.15, 29.5, 39.13, and the editor's note on Francesco Gattilusio on pp. 372-3.

Apparently the Cretans were famous as archers in the ancient times; 23.3-10.

Letter 39 is a long praise of the city of Galata, a Genoese colony near Constantinople. It is exceedingly boring and I am completely unable to understand how anybody can have found this sort of writing interesting; perhaps the vanity of some worthy merchant of Galata may have been pleased by this dull recitation of the virtues, advantages, glory and other praiseworthy aspects of the city, but any other reader must be yawning with boredom soon after the first few paragraphs. And yet the editor's notes (p. 432) say that this genre, laus urbis (praise of a city) was popular during the late middle ages and the Renaissance. What on earth did they see in writings like this? Perhaps they enjoyed the technicalities of the genre, e.g. the artful use of Latin prose, the allusions to classical mythology, rhetoric figures, etc., all of which are of course things that I don't notice, because I don't understand any Latin; but even so, I doubt that the genre would have been popular merely because of technicalities. But I know that I shouldn't laugh at those medieval and renaissance fans of the genre for their admiration of what seems to me but the absurd pomposity of these city-praises; after all, I have no idea how the future centuries will look at the genres that we read and enjoy nowadays. Perhaps the future generations will regard us as naive simpletons, just like these praises seem to me something that only naive simpletons could enjoy. But anyway, something else touched me about this praise of Galata: it was written in 1446, and according to the editor's note 3 on p. 432, the Turks were practically at the doorstep of the city at that time, and conquered it a mere five years later. Cyriac's praise came practically at the very end of the city's two or three centuries of existence as a Genovese colony. Surely the Turkish conquest must have seemed to the citizens of Galata a little bit as if the world was coming to an end. In a way it probably was the end of one particular kind of Galata (although I am sure that life eventually went on and it probably became a perfectly normal Turkish town in due course; it's just a district of Istanbul now). Here in Cyriac's praise, we see a prosperous city, inhabited by a happy populace, everything apparently going well — and yet a mere five years later, that particular culture and way of life are gone, and we find a different people, different customs, practically a new city, set up in place of the old! I often had such feelings while reading this book: that it was a time of waning; while Cyriac was busy travelling around (the letters and diaries in this book are from the 1440s), the sun was setting down on the Byzantine empire and the Italian colonies in the Levant; just a few years later, the Byzantine empire was no more, and within a few decades neither were most of the Italian colonies. Thinking of the collapse of the Byzantine empire always makes me somewhat sad; "Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade/ Of that which once was great, must past away" (Wordsworth On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic). (For more about the historical context of Cyriac's travels, see the editor's notes on pp. 374-5.)

Many of Cyriac's letters are addressed to a friend of his, a merchant from Chios named Andreolo Giustiniani. Cyriac often sends in his letters greetings to Andreolo's family, particularly his wife Carenza. I'm not sure what this name originally meant; Babelfish translates it as deficiency, and I know that gardeners here use a word which sounds the same, and was probably also borrowed from Italian or some such language, to refer to the period of time that must pass after spraying some tree with pesticide or some similar chemical, before it is safe to pluck its fruit and eat it. Either way, I couldn't help finding the name a bit funny every time I saw it, and thinking that it doesn't seem to be an altogether very flattering and appropriate word to be used for a name.

Cyriac expends considerable creativity on the salutations at the end of his letters: “Farewell and fare well. Farewell and again fare well. May you be lastingly happy.” (37.8.) “Again and again, farewell” (35.10, 41.3). “Farewell and again, farewell.” (45.5).

All in all, as the above examples show, I found this book to be full of delights, not at all boring as I feared at first. Of the I Tatti Renaissance Library books that I've read so far, few have been as interesting as Cyriac's Travels.


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