Saturday, September 22, 2007

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "Baiae"

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: Baiae. Translated by Rodney G. Dennis. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 22. Harvard University Press, 2006. 0674021975. xiii + 362 pp.

This is a book of approx. 70 short poems, written by Giovanni Pontano in the 15th century. Most of them are just one or two dozen lines long, and the lines are ‘hendecasyllabics’, at least in the original — i.e. they have eleven syllables, but in the translation most of them are shorter. Well, at least the translation is in verse rather than in prose (as has been the case in some of the other ITRL poetry volumes). On the other hand, it doesn't try to preserve the metrical characteristics of the original verses.

Baiae was a seaside town (on the Bay of Naples), of which Pontano was apparently quite an avid visitor. Thus, most of the poems here deal with drinking or with sex, or possibly with both. Some of them are addressed to Pontano's friends, inviting them to come to Baiae and join him; some are written to the various ‘courtesans’ that he had been seeing over the years (none of which apparently got in the way of his perfectly regular marriage of several decades; see the translator's introduction, p. xi, and the poems 1.12, 1.13). The mentions of sexuality are fairly explicit in several passages, much more so (according to the translator) than what one typically finds in the classical poets that were Pontano's models (mostly Catullus).

In fact there's a very interesting passage in the introduction (pp. xv) that argues that Catullus was (and still is) widely misunderstood as a “poet not of passion, but of sexuality. The essential event took place about one hundred years after his death when Martial wrote ‘donabo tibi passerem Catulli’ (‘I shall give you Catullus's sparrow’) and changed, for all time, the charming little bird into the membrum virile. Subsequent generations accepted Martial's reading of Catullus's sparrow poems.” (See also p. xvi, and the note to 1.29.11 on p. 213.)

The translator's notes make a very detailed comparison between Pontano's poems and those of Catullus, identifying every passage where Pontano seems to have been influenced by something from Catullus. For someone interested in a very detailed study of these influences, this is undoubtedly great, but for a casual reader like me, most of these notes weren't really terribly interesting.

As for the poems themselves, many of them aren't bad or unpleasant to read, but there's nothing here to write home about either. Several of the poems struck me as fairly conventional — praising Baiae, extolling the pleasure of the easy life of the people vacationing there, the drinking and the sex — this is all very well and good, but there's nothing particularly clever in most of these poems, nor, I guess, anything terribly original either. They are pleasant enough to read, but I also quickly forgot them and there's nothing much here that I will remember e.g. a few months hence.

Some of the more touching passages were those in which Pontano acknowledges that now that he is old he will have to leave sex to others, while he himself will focus on wine as his main remaining consolation (1.6, 2.1). But sometimes he is also more optimistic; although he often makes reference to his age (2.14, 2.35), he isn't quite ready to give up sex yet.

When he praises the physical aspects of the women that he sings about, he often mentions the sweetness of breath in a more prominent way than I would have naively expected (see e.g. 2.30.12, 2.33.7, 2.34.15). Maybe it's just a poetic convention; or maybe, in an age before modern medicine and dentistry, it was more likely that there would be difficulties in that department.

I learned something new from the title of poem 1.23 (p. 69), “Lucilla's Dazzling Breasts”. In the Latin text on the opposite page, there is the word “papillis”. This reminded me of the fact that Edmund Spenser tends to refer to breasts as ‘paps’, and I wondered if this might have been descended from this Latin word. Now I looked it up in the dictionary, and it indeed says that the word ‘pap’ is related to (although not descended from) the Latin ‘papilla’. Incidentally, the dictionary says that it means ‘nipple’ rather than ‘breast’.

There's an interesting stylistic peculiarity in many of these poems: Pontano is very fond of repetition. Not (at least not usually) direct repetition of whole lines, but a phrase is repeated, with slight variations, perhaps with one of the words replaced by a synonym, in several lines, not necessarily with any particular regularity (the lines need not be directly one after another, the repeated phrase is not necessarily always at the beginning or the end of the line, etc.). I didn't get the impression that this device particularly improves the poems, but Pontano clearly enjoys using it throughout this collection.

One thing that annoyed me about this book is the small amount of material — I think it's the thinnest ITRL book I've read so far, and most of the pages are half empty anyway (each poem begins on a new page, and many poems take up much less than one whole page). Judging from the translator's notes (p. xi), Pontano wrote plenty of other poems as well, so they really could have translated some more and published a somewhat thicker book. The ITRL series has a constant price per book, usually around $30, so the thinner the books, the less value we are getting for our money :)

What to say at the end? This book was not a disappointment, but it isn't one of my favourite ITRL poetry books so far either — that title remains with the volume of Pietro Bembo's lyrical poetry.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home