Saturday, September 15, 2007

BOOK: Angelo Poliziano, "Letters"

Angelo Poliziano: Letters. Vol. 1: Books I–IV. Edited and translated by Shane Butler. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 21. Harvard University Press, 2006. 0674021967. xiii + 362 pp.


Poliziano was a 15th-century humanist; I've already read one other book of his from the ITRL series, namely Silvae, which contains his didactic poems about literature. This present book, on the other hand, is a small selection of his correspondence, containing not just letters written by Poliziano but also letters written to him by various correspondents, mostly other Italian humanists of that period.

Perhaps unusually for a book of letters, this one was was initially edited and published by Poliziano himself; according to the translator's introduction here (p. ix), the whole thing consists of twelve books, of which the present volume contains the first four, so I guess there will eventually be two more volumes of Poliziano's correspondence.

Lucio Phosphorus, bishop of Segni, writes to Alessandro Cortesi (3.10.1, p. 163): “I have read Poliziano's letters very attentively and with the greatest pleasure, both of these being nearly inevitable”. How I wish that I could say the same :( But, as on a number of previous occasions, I must sadly say that this was one of the most boring I Tatti Renaissance Library books I've read so far (perhaps even the most boring one altogether).

I was disappointed to see how little of substance these intellectuals had to say to one another. Most of the text of these letters consists of mutual compliments — they just can't help praising each other, with an intensity that looks extremely weird by present-day standards. Their abject grovelling would make even the Usenet Oracle blush. The contents of most of them can be summarized as “You are so wonderful, can I be your friend?” or (if the writer is already the addressee's friend) “My friend X also thinks that you are so wonderful, can he be your friend too?” or “X and me both think that your patron / influential acquaintance / etc. is really wonderful, can you recommend us to him as well?” Perhaps one of the greatest services that LinkedIn and Facebook will do to humankind is to rid them of the need to write, and read, letters like these :)

The other major concern of these letter-writers (especially Poliziano's own, I suspect) was showing off their erudition in front of their humanist peers — they are constantly trying to be clever and polished, employing all sorts of rhetorical technicalities, reams of classical allusions, etc. According to the translator's introduction (pp. x–xi), the originals of some of these letters are also preserved, and comparing them to the text as it was printed by Poliziano shows that Poliziano sometimes changed the letters a little bit to improve them stylistically — not only his own but even those of other people!

If we ignore the politenesses and the mutual praise, most of the letter here don't really have a whole lot to say. One relatively commonly recurring topic has to do with books — this was fairly early in the age of print, many books weren't readily available, and the letters often involve requests for help in finding some obscure work, or having a manuscript copied, etc.

Another frequent subject has to do with a book, the Miscellanea, which Poliziano published around that time (1489), and many of the letters contain his friends' comments (mostly praise) regarding the book. For example, Jacopo Antiquari writes (3.18.1, p. 195): “I ran into a large number of young men [. . .] who [. . .] vied keenly with one another to read a book they had in their hands, its pieces distributed among them. When I ask, ‘What new work, pray tell, has come out?’ they reply, ‘Poliziano's Miscellanea.’ ” I am especially intrigued by “its pieces distributed among them” — poor book! but it shows how itching they were to read it.

Lorenzo's death

The longest, and perhaps the most interesting, letter in this volume is 4.2, in which Poliziano describes the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the de facto ruler of Florence and Poliziano's patron and friend of many years. The letter describes Lorenzo's final days on his deathbed, followed by his death and funeral. It was fairly touching to read. Perhaps Poliziano embellished the truth somewhat to make it more touching and edifying, but if not, then I must say that Lorenzo was really a model dying person. I was also impressed by his insistence on avoiding a state funeral and having only a small one, such as would be suitable for a private individual (4.2.5, 4.2.17); he was a de facto rather than a de jure ruler of Florence.

In 4.2.3 (p. 229), Poliziano writes about Lorenzo's illness: “Lorenzo de' Medici had suffered for roughly two months from those pains which, since they settle into the cartilage deep in the body, are called, on that basis, hypochondrian.” This is interesting because I wasn't familiar with the etymology of this word until now, but, in the light of the present-day meaning of the word ‘hypochondria’, this passage is quite hilarious. Poor Lorenzo, seems that nobody told him that he was just imagining it, and he just went and died :-))

On the rather silly last efforts to save Lorenzo's life (4.2.6, p. 235): “Next, your Lazzaro, a very creative physician, as indeed became apparent, arrived from Ticino. Although he had been summoned too late, in order to avoid leaving anything untested, he tried a very expensive kind of remedy by grinding pearls and precious stones of all sorts.”

Other interesting letters

Another of the more interesting letters was 3.17 (pp. 189–93), written to “Cassandra Fedele of Venice, most learned girl”. Poliziano is quite effusive in praising her skill and talents, and encouraging her to keep going in her studies of the humanities. His writing seems to be quite free from the sexism and misogyny with which women's efforts to educate themselves and have all too often been greeted throughout practically all the periods of history.

Another interesting letter is 4.8 (pp. 271–5), in which Poliziano writes to his friend Francesco della Casa, describing “the self-propelled device which recently was constructed by a certain Florentine named Lorenzo, in which the movements of the stars, in accord with the logic of the skies, are revealed” (4.8.1, p. 271). The translator's note on p. 352 says that the inventor's full name was Lorenzo della Volpaia — see e.g. this web site for more about him.

There's also a letter (4.10) that Poliziano wrote to one Ivan Gučetić of Dubrovnik (pp. 279–81), who apparently dedicated some of his poems to Poliziano. He warmly praises Gučetić's work, although he is also “stunned to heard that a man from Illyria, employed ‘in buying and selling merchandise’ (as Plautus says), has made, while still in the flower of his youth, such great strides in poetic art” (4.10.2, p. 279). The translator's note (p. 353) says of the poet: “Celebrated in his day for works in Latin, Greek, and Croatian (of which, however, only a single Latin poem survives) and still famous for the villa and garden (with arboretum) he built outside Dubrovnik.”


At the end of a letter to Jacopo Antiquari, Poliziano adds (3.19.6, p. 205): “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who resembles no one more completely than he does himself, has instructed me to append a hello to you in his own name as well.” Seems like someone overdosed on his tautology pills that morning :)

I was interested to learn, from the translator's note 3 to 3.10 (pp. 342–3), the source of the anecdote of the cobbler and Apelles the painter, which is famously referred to in one of Prešeren's sonnets: it's from Pliny's Natural History, 35.36.85 (Latin, English).

In one of the many passages about friendship, Poliziano writes (to Ludovico Odasio; 3.4.1, p. 147): “But genuine love does not need proof [. . .] nor does it engage in public boasting, since friends, according to Epicurus, are for one another a sufficiently large theater.” This ought to win some kind of ‘hypocrisy of the year’ award. No public boasting, huh? And then he goes and publishes this letter, along with several dozen others, in a book for all the world to see. No public boasting my ass.

A fine calumny against physicians, from Poliziano's letter to Niccolò Leoniceno (2.6.1, p. 93): “it pained me to consider the current condition of the human race, which for such a long time has allowed this depressing ignorance to victimize it and has gone on buying, at a price, the expectation to live from those very persons who are the source of detain death. Who, indeed, cannot see that more danger comes from a doctor than from disease, since treatment is for one disease instead of another, and these remedies are used instead of those?” This reminds me somewhat of Petrarca's invective against a physician — apparently doctors really weren't popular in the Renaissance.

Apparently Poliziano's erudition made him the target of importunate requests from all sides: “For if anyone wants a motto fit to be read on the hilt of a sword or the signet of a ring, if anyone wants a line of verse for a bed or a bedroom, if anyone wants something distinctive (not for silver, mind you, but for pottery pure and simple!), then straightway he dashes over to Poliziano. And already you can see that every wall has been smeared by me (as if by a snail) with diverse themes and inscriptions.” (He goes on for a whole long paragraph. This is from his letter to Girolamo Donà, 2.13.2, p. 127.)


Despite these sort-of-interesting things that I mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the book as a whole was really boring to read and I'm very much not looking forward to the remaining two volumes of Poliziano's letters. I would recommend this book only to people who enjoy witnessing academic mutual masturbation and those who are in a position to enjoy Poliziano's much-vaunted skillz in the composition of Latin letters (which I'm not, since I can only read the English translation, and there doesn't seem to be anything terribly impressive about the style there).

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