Wednesday, December 24, 2014

BOOK: Francesco Filelfo, "Odes"

Francesco Filelfo: Odes. Edited and translated by Diana Robin. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 41. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674035638. xxiii + 445 pp.

Filelfo was a 15th-century poet and academic (much of his career was spent lecturing on literature in various Italian universities; see pp. x–xii of the translator's introduction). This book contains about 50 of his poems, on average almost exactly 100 lines long, with a few running to well over 200 lines.

I can't say that I found them particularly enjoyable, and in fact I probably mostly missed their point. They seem to have been written at various occasions over a span of many years, and as the translator's introduction points out, if you look at this series of poems as a whole, you could say that it forms a kind of chronicle of the poet's life, “a personal epic” (p. xiv). There is something to that, and reading the poems gives you various more or less interesting glimpses into Filelfo's life and the history of his times, but I still couldn't help feeling that this is hardly the timeless sort of poetry that one would be particularly keen to read more than 500 years after it was written.

Against the Ambrosian republic

There are some topics that recur again and again in his odes, and give a sort of consistency to the series, even though not a very exciting one. Filelfo's favorite theme is sucking up to various rulers in the hope that they will become his patrons; next, he likes to rail against the ‘Ambrosian republic’, a popular movement that briefly managed to take control of Milan after its former ruler, duke Visconti, died without any obvious heirs.

I guess that in a way, these two topics are closely related anyhow: Filelfo must have figured that he has better chances of obtaining patronage from a monarchical ruler than from a chaotic, turbulent, revolutionary republican regime. But some of his poems against the Ambrosian republic also seem to reveal a lot of ugly old-fashioned anti-democratic prejudice; he takes great pleasure in pointing out that some of the leaders of the new regime are mere tradesmen and artisans (see 1.5, note 21; and 2.2, note 14), as if it was somehow inherently preposterous to imagine that such people could lead the country just as fine as someone of aristocratic birth. He is also delighted to point out that one of the leading figures of the regime was “a man polluted by a thousand vices and forever surrounded by a crowd of effeminate catamites” (3.4.26–9).

Here's just a sample of his frequent anti-plebeian outbursts: “no tyranny is more vile than that of the feckless plebs and the angry rabble” (2.2.2–3); “Gone is the arrogance of the cowardly plebs and the reign of terror and crime: the rape, the wretched violence, the madness and the plunder” (3.4.11–13); “Is now the evil plebs deservedly expiating the great crime they committed against you, Filippo Maria Visconti?” (3.9.39–40; the crime is apparently that they didn't arrange a funeral mass for him; he returns to this in 4.1.31–3). “Look, the rabble, girt with their moneybelts, have taken over our noble magistracies — the chicken farmer, the auctioneer, the adulterer, the pimp” (1.10.93–5).

There's a long poem (2.10) praising one Gaspar da Vimercate, who apparently had an important role in ‘liberating’ Milan from the hated Ambrosian republic, and another poem (3.4) commemorating Sforza's return to Milan.

Kissing ass

His numerous poems in praise of various rulers and princes struck me as boring, pointless, and overall a very unworthy way of wasting one's poetic talent. I don't blame him for writing this stuff, since in a way his livelihood depending on finding suitable patrons; but I can't imagine why anybody would want to read such poems — not even the recipients themselves, if they had any shred of taste and elementary decency. They are all very much alike and I see no reason to suppose that the way these rulers are described (and praised) here bears any resemblance to what they were really like.

The list of recipients of these encomia reads like a who's-who of the Italy of his day. There are several poems dedicated to Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan (preface, 2.3, 3.4), his wife Bianca (4.1), and brother Alessandro (4.4); king Charles VII of France (1.1, 1.4, 3.1, 5.1); Carlo Gonzaga (1.3, 2.1, 2.5, 3.2) and his brother Ludovico, the marquis of Mantua (5.9); king Alfonso of Naples (4.9, 5.2); pope Nicholas V (5.5). (The translator has provided a very useful appendix with biographical notes about the addressees of Filelfo's poems on pp. 357–76.)

Sometimes his ass-kissing reaches downright ludicrous levels, e.g. in 2.3 when he suggests that Carlo Gonzaga (the ruler of Mantua) is descended from one Gonzaga “who had gone with Hercules as his companion on this expedition and who was a son of Mars himself” (2.3.69–72)! And in 5.2.45–62, we can safely say that Filelfo has crawled so far up king Alfonso's ass that he can see daylight again: “I revere you as my god [. . .] You are my fortress [. . .] To me, you are a divinity.”

But the one that takes the cake is no doubt the poem dedicated to Sigismondo Malatesta (3.8). I remember well the bloodcurdling descriptions of his crimes in the memoirs of pope Pius II (see the quotation in my post from a few years ago); but here in Filelfo's poem, we find Malatesta “endowed with every merit“ (l. 11), “beloved by all the gods and men alike” (ll. 19–20); he “honors and cherishes all men who are learned in all things” (ll. 21–22); “For the exercise of virtue and a mind conscious of justice always keep this man as its companion” (ll. 99–100). Who would believe that Pius and Filelfo were talking about the same person! :)

You could put some of these poems on a kind of spectrum, ranging from pure ass-kissing on one extreme towards, on the other end, more honest epistles addressed to people that Filelfo may have genuinely held in esteem and perhaps even thought them of as friends. In this last group we find several poems addressed to count Iñigo d'Avalos (2.6, 3.3, 4.8, 4.10), the chamberlain at the court of king Alfonso of Naples; Filelfo occasionally discusses his plans for future work (4.8.1–24), tries to influence foreign policy (4.10), and sends compliments to Lucretia Alagno, Alfonso's mistress (2.6, 3.3). Similarly, there's a poem addressed to Malatesta Novello (5.10; a younger brother of the notorious Sigismondo Malatesta), who seems to come across as a fairly decent fellow (he “lives wholly with the Muses and the arts of Pallas Athena”, l. 51; doesn't care for flattery, l. 57; is dedicated to the arts of peace and eloquence, ll. 97–100).

There's a poem to Sforza Secondo (5.3), an illegitimate son of Francesco Sforza, thanking him for giving a horse to Filelfo. An interesting feature of this poem is that it's partly in Latin and partly in Greek. Filelfo also wrote two nice epithalamions (wedding-songs) for the same recipient (3.6, 3.7).

Filelfo's life-long committment to sucking up to influential patrons even went so far that he composed a poem advising his own son to do the same (5.6, in fact for two patrons at the same time).

Sometimes, his poems addressed to powerful people have some more noble goals besides just patronage. For example, Filelfo lived just at the time when the Turks conquered Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine empire for good. I imagine that this must have come as quite a shock to many people in the christian world, but especially those with an interest in classical learning, for whom the Byzantine empire might have seemed as a kind of last remaining direct link to ancient history. For Filelfo it was probably even more personal than that, as he had spent several years in Constantinople as a young man a few decades earlier; he also met his wife there, a Greek woman of high birth (p. ix). So he often tries to encourage the recipients of his poems to start some sort of crusade that would kick the Turks out of Constantinople again: he suggests this to king Charles VII of France (3.1.115–140, and later again in 5.1, which seems to have been written during the Turkish siege of Constantinople (5.1.68–70)), and later to pope Nicholas V (5.5.97–160), without much success. (According to the translator's note 20 on p. 423: “In September 1453, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Nihcolas tried unsuccessfully to launch a crusade to take back the city from the Ottoman ruler.”)

Also on the subject of using poems for foreign-policy purposes: towards the end of the book, he tries to discourage the Neapolitans from waging war against Florence (4.9.131–50, 4.10, and translator's note 68 on p. 419). To be honest, I imagine that the incessant warfare which seems to have racked Italy in those times must have been quite an obstacle to people trying to lead a normal life there. Among other things, Filelfo mentions that his plans of visiting Naples fell through due to the fighting (4.9.21–7; “Mars, now on the offensive again, impedes me”).


Some other recurring themes make for more interesting reading as they give you the feeling of getting to know Filelfo as a person: he often mentions the plague, which seems to have been rampaging almost ceaselessly through mid-15th-century Italy, and trying to get out of the afflicted areas (not always successfully) was often a matter of pressing concern to Filelfo. See e.g. 3.9, 3.10, 4.6.93–8, 4.8.29–30, but especially 4.5, which is a long poem about his journey from Milano to Cremona in an effort to escape the plague.

This is one of my favorite poems in the whole collection, since it contains a little bit of something resembling plot and action, unlike nearly all the others. It has a few touching passages, showing how in the time of plague even money doesn't necessarily help you — innkeepers and merchants turned Filelfo and his party away, fearing that they might be infected with the plague (ll. 12–16, 169–71). Eventually, one of Filelfo's servants actually turns out to be infected (ll. 72–5) and dies soon after their arrival to Cremona (ll. 108–9). Seeing this, the Cremonese kicked the whole group out of their town as a precautionary measure.

Filelfo responds with an excellent bit of invective against Cremona (ll. 114–135; “Tell me, what disgraceful vice do you lack?”, l. 125), and he later went on to write an entire poem against them (4.7): “Here only the vulgar arts thrive openly. Here shameful profiteering pollutes the entire city. Great honor is granted to pimps, whores, and the shrewd scholars of the gaming table, to tax collectors, gluttons, and poisoners.” (4.7.3–7). Poor whores, they really don't deserve to be compared to tax collectors :P


Another frequent subject is money. He often complains about his lack of it, while at the same time proudly asserting that he doesn't even care to try making more money, preferring to focus on scholarly pursuits instead. This I found easy to sympathize with, and it shows that the figure of the dedicated but impecunious scholar/artist is hardly a new one.

See especially 4.6, where he discusses this attitude at length in a poem dedicated to Leon Battista Alberti, who, unlike Filelfo, was rich. There's another rant against gold in 4.8.51–64, in a poem to Iñigo d'Avalos; in 4.9.43–4 in a poem to king Alfonso of Naples; and 5.6.7–16 in a poem to Filelfo's son.

This pride, however, never prevents him from asking for money from his patrons :P See e.g. 4.1.117 (from the poem to Bianca Sforza), and the whole of poem 4.2 (asking for money from Cicco Simonetta; offering fame as payment: “I will not be ungrateful. For you will live on for many centuries in my work, nor will you ever know death”, ll. 37–8).

On a semi-related subject, his poem to pope Nicholas includes a fine meditation on the vanity of earthly things (5.5.49–84).


Some of the poems are on basically letters to friends; many of these were fairly enjoyable, and they are generally also a bit shorter than the encomia to princes. For example, there's 1.2, a letter to a friend about how the poet, during those politically turbulent times, tries to find solace in his literary studies; he writes on a similar theme in 1.10, but is more pessimistic. 2.7 is a poem of consolation for a friend whose father had died, and 2.8 for a poet who fell on hard times. Another letter to a friend, 2.9, contains this interesting passage: “I don't think we should completely trust a man who praises to excess” (ll. 13–14) — he doesn't seem to have thought of this when writing his encomia, however :P 5.7 is a nice poem to a friend who was praising Filelfo to excess, urging moderation (unlike other poems in this series, this one is entirely in Greek, not in Latin); 5.8, addressed to a different friend, is perhaps an example of what such moderate praise should look like.

1.9 is a nice dialogue between the poet and various ancient deities on the subject of whether he should marry for the third time or not.

I mentioned his invectives against Cremona earlier, but these aren't the only invectives in this book. There's one against a glutton (1.8), and an excellent one against a certain Lydus (4.3), who “recently raped his own sister and his sister's daughter who had newly become a bride” (ll. 10–11; by this point I was half expecting that the bridegroom would be next :P). There's a fine passage of toilet humor in 4.3.72–90: “The entire bed where you sleep smells like a country chamber pot, making the whole house a privy where you can relieve your swollen belly like a bear when it's full”, ll. 80–4), etc. etc. :) This was much more fun than Petrarca's invectives which I read some years ago, perhaps because Filelfo's invectives are much shorter and more concentrated.


Perhaps I'd be able to appreciate these poems better if I could understand them in the original Latin, or if the translation tried to preserve their meter instead of being in prose. Judging by the translator's introduction (p. xx) and the appendix on meter (pp. 377–80), Filelfo's poetry revived lots of different metrical forms that had been used in ancient Latin poetry but not in the neo-Latin poetry of the Renaissance before Filelfo's time (his predecessors mostly used hexameters and elegiac distychs). In fact Filelfo himself says that he's playing with meters: “I'm writing poems in various meters — trying out the poems to the beat of a sweet-sounding lyre” (4.8.3–4).

This sounds interesting, and makes me even more disappointed to see that all the translations are in prose, so that there is no trace left of the original meter. I imagine that the poets didn't invent different kinds of meter just because they'd be bored or because they wanted a technical challenge — I would hope that their idea was that the meter also conveys something to the reader, changes the mood of the poem and so on, and it's a pity that the translator chose to just ignore all that and write prose instead.


Anyway, this was a fairly pleasant book of poems in a way, but it also took me a bit of an effort to read it, and I suspect that I won't remember much of this poetry for very long.

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