Saturday, September 26, 2015

BOOK: Bartolomeo Fonzio, "Letters to Friends"

Bartolomeo Fonzio: Letters to Friends. Edited by Alessandro Daneloni. Translated by Martin Davies. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 47. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674058361. xviii + 233 pp.

Fonzio was a humanist author from Florence, and in the last part of his career a priest, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. This book contains a small selection of his letters to various people; apparently he mostly selected and edited the letters by himself, though he never quite got around to publishing them.

This is not the first time we've had a volume of letters in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — see my post from a few years ago about vol. 21, the letters of Angelo Poliziano. My impressions about Fonzio's book of letters are pretty similar to what I wrote back then about Poliziano's: they give us a few interesting glimpses into his life, especially as they are arranged chronologically, but most of them don't really have anything terribly substantial to say. Typical subjects include general expressions of affection to friends, and looking for patronage, either for himself or for his students or relatives. One thing that surprised me is how little detail these letters tend to go into, even when arranging things like jobs where I would imagine that more detail would be important. What if the recipient needs to ask for clasification or for more information? I imagine that waiting for messengers to carry the letters back and forth could take weeks.

Nevertheless, here are some of the letters that I found interesting:

1.16 — Fonzio has just returned from a trip to Rome, and is describing various sights to his friend Battista Guarini. This was pretty interesting, and some of the ancient ruins he describes have since been ruined for good (see n. 34 on p. 203). However, I was disappointed to read that much of his description is actually based on a book called De varietate fortunae, written some 25 years earlier by Poggio Bracciolini (see n. 27 on p. 202 and n. 37 on p. 203).

1.17 — a fine letter to the same friend, trying to console him about the death of his wife. I was glad to hear that Fonzio has no patience for the useless sort of advice that you find in the works of Stoic philosophers: “I do not ask that you should be the Sage of Stoic theory, which requires us to feel no anguish at all at the passing of deat friends. I do not share the view that we should never be moved by any human emotion.” (1.17.2) However, I'm not sure if Fonzio's advice is terribly helpful either: he points out that death is inevitable, the soul goes on to a more pleasant afterlife, and in any case Battista should just focus on his scholarly work to forget his grief more easily.

A nice pun from 1.21.2: “there's no medicine available for our sick body politic while the Medic's away” (referring to Lorenzo de' Medici's temporary absence from Florence).

Letter 1.22 is also very punny. Fonzio was sending some manuscripts to a French nobleman named Beauclair, first The Golden Ass and now a cookbook: “I have decided to take account not just of your stable but of your kitchen too” (1.22.2), etc.

1.24 — a delightful, no-holds-barred invective against Angelo Poliziano (he and Fonzio were rivals as professors in Florence at some point). “Your impudence will not further abuse my modesty, nor will that reckless insolence of yours any longer launch itself against my patience.” (1.24.1) “Was it some acquaintance with the liberal arts that gave you this puffed-up idea of yourself? — though if you had even a modest mastery of any of them you would not be so devoid of all traces of humanity.” (1.24.2) “The erudite and upright generally consign their thoughts to writing and do not conduct debates on the truth by means of disgraceful insults but with useful writings.” (1.24.4) Pot, meet kettle :))

He apparently spent some time in Rome, working for the church, but eventually left in disgust at the level of corruption he saw there. He gives an interesting and frank description of this in two letters from 1484, to Lorrenzo de' Medici (2.4) and to Bernardo Rucellai (2.5). See esp. 2.4.2&ndash3, 2.4.6–7, 2.5.5–6. “By God in heaven and our lord and master Jesus Christ, what powers of oratory would be equal to describing the vices of this [papal] court?” (2.4.2) “I could see that here no account was taken of either right living or true knowledge. [. . .] men here who dress in sheep's clothing and behave like ravening wolves [. . .] Their greed and wantonness can never be satisfied.” (2.5.5)

2.7 — an interesting letter about the discovery, in the April 1485, of a remarkably well-preserved corpse of a young girl from the Roman era. I was really looking forward to this letter as it's even mentioned in the publisher's description on the front flap of the dust jacket; however, I was a little disappointed as it goes into less detail than I had hoped for. On the plus side, Fonzio actually made a drawing of the corpse and its sacrophagus, which is included in this volume on p. xviii.

Anyway, the amazing thing is how well-preserved it was: “rather pale and as if she had been buried that very day [. . .] small ears, a short forehead, dark eyebrows, the eyes beneath shapely and bright. The nose was still intact, and so soft that if it was pressed by a finger it would flex and yield. The lips were a pale red, the teeth snow-white and small, the tongue from the roof of the mouth all scarlet. The cheeks, chin, neck, and throat — you'd think they belonged to a living person.” I find this hard to believe, TBH; I wonder what really happened. The only hint of a possible explanation appears early in the letter: the corpse was “lying on its face, covered by a layer of fragrant bark two inches thick; all of the inside of the casket was likewise smeared with the same fragrant mixture like some sort of plaster”. Fonzio says that her name and the period in which she lived are unknown as no inscriptions were discovered on the tomb. “Two days after it was found, by order of the Conservators it [= the corpse] was taken to the Capitol amidst vast throngs of people”, but unfortunately Fonzio doesn't say anything about the subsequent fate of the body.

Several other contemporary authors mention this event; the translator's note 18 on p. 209 recommends a suitably obscure 19th-century German paper: Christian Hülsen, “Die Auffindung der Römischen Leiche vom Jahre 1485”, Mittheilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung 4(1883):433–49. (To be honest, it isn't that obscure — the journal appears to have been scanned by Google at some point and you can find it on Or if you feel like you have too much money, Messrs. de Gruyter will be happy to sell you access to another scan of this article for a mere 30 euros! :)))) In any case, my German is a bit too rusty to read Hülsen's article, and he quotes the text of the original descriptions of the corpse in Latin, which I don't understand at all, so I had to look for some other source. A bit of googling led me to Rodolfo Lanziani, Pagan and Christian Rome (1892), pp. 295–301 — see this excellent web page; Lanziani includes Fonzio's drawing as well as generous extracts from three other contemporary descriptions. This event is also mentioned in Symonds's Renaissance in Italy (Vol. 1, The Age of the Despots, ch. 1).

2.10 — the senate of the Republic of Ragusa offered Fonzio the job of a professor there; he was pleasantly surprised by this as he hadn't actually been asking for anything of that sort. In this letter, he politely refuses their offer. I found this episode interesting as an example of the strong ties between Dubrovnik and Italy during that period.

There are several letters to various Hungarians, including some to king Matthias Corvinus himself. The king was trying to establish a new library and Fonzio prepared for him “a book listing all authors, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, in every field of learning, which I have compiled with considerable labor and care, so that you can see how the library should be arranged” (2.13.1; from a later passage in the same letter it appears that Fonzio also helped organize the copying of some books in Florence). I wonder if Fonzio's list is extant and published somewhere; unfortunately I didn't notice anything about this in the translator's notes.

2.19 — a perfectly decent letter but one that becomes funny when read by an incurable pervert like myself. A friend is asking Fonzio for help with finding a suitable servant, and Fonzio's reply makes him sound like a high-class pimp: “I have looked and do still look with all energy and persistence for a youth such as you seek, one fitted for reading, writing, serving, and carrying out all your orders. But there's a remarkable shortage of such young men here [. . .] I'll press on, however, with the gramar schools, I'll investigate the households of citizens, I'll write to all the nearby towns.”

The letters in this collection cover a span of more than 45 years. Of course, a lot happens in such a long period, which led to a few touching moments: in letter 1.20, we see Fonzio writing (in 1480) to the head of the monastery which his younger brother Mauro had just entered; and then in letter 3.1, written in 1506, a much older Fonzio mentions with some regret the recent death of Mauro and several other friends and relatives. For the reader these two letters are separated by a couple of days, by a few dozen pages — and yet behind this there was twenty-six years, long enough for poor Mauro to live out the bulk of his life, and to die.

There are several letters on theological subjects ahd church politics, mostly written late in his life, after he had become a priest (see e.g. 3.4, 3.5, 3.9). In 3.5.7, he refers to Dante approvingly as “that fine poet and great theologian”.

3.8 — a nice overview of various ancient Roman units for distance, area, weight, etc. I don't doubt that all this stuff is already written up in a Wikipedia article somewhere, but I'd never read it there so I found this letter quite interesting. The Romans appear to have delighted in unnecessarily inventing lots of specialized terminology for this: “A triens is a third of an as or four ounces, a quincunx five ounces, a semissis half an as or six ounces, a septunx seven ounces.” (3.8.9)

3.12 — an interesting letter on how to become an eloquent orator. Fonzio presents all this as a quotation of advice given to him by his old teacher, Bernardo Nuti; I liked his sober ideas about avoiding excessive reliance on the rhetorical theory and imitation of classical authors. This was like a breath of fresh air compared to the unreasonably extremist positions about which I read some years ago in the ITRL volume on Ciceronian Controversies. “The system, though it was devised by noting down the sayings and writings of the eloquent, does not in itself make men elouent [. . .] Whether they had earlier learned such rules or had never come across them, they never thought of them when they were speaking.” (3.12.7) “[I]t is better, safer and more laudable for a talented writer to trust in himself and not tread in another's footsteps.” (3.12.16) His recommended approach sounds a bit romantic: “There's no briefer or easier way than a burning love of virtue and a noble thirst for glory [. . .] keep this always at the forefront of your mind, attentively rereading for yourself all the authors that may guide you to eloquence, finding out and arranging in your own mind all that they write” (3.12.8).

A couple of the letters in this collection are basically fakes — written by Fonzio but not actually sent to their recipients: 1.18 (which is basically a short autobiography of Fonzio's early career, dated 1472 but apparently written some 20 years later, according to note 42 on p. 204), 1.19 (a discussion of the immortality of the soul, suitably full of theological wharrgarble, based on a theological book which Fonzio had written earlier in his career; see the translator's note 49 on p. 205).

There are a few glimpses into the mechanics of how letters were actually sent back then — as there was no postal service in the modern sense, it was up to the sender to find a messenger that would actually carry the letter. “Your letter reached me at Rome, but I decided not to write back since I had no messenger I could rely on” (1.16.1). “Though the importance of the matter calls for greater leisure and more prolonged examination, I shall use your same messenger to set out the whole question as best I can” (1.19.2). “Since leaving your country [Hungary], I have so far written you nothing because on the journey I had no one I could send to Buda” (2.13.1).

I was impressed by the editor's notes at the end of this book — Fonzio and the recipients of his letters lived around 500 years ago, and yet it has been possible to find quite a lot of detail about nearly all of them. The translator says on p. 193 that the notes are a condensed form of the notes in Daneloni's Italian edition of Fonzio's letters. Unfortunately, it appears that Daneloni died in 2014 (see this obituary) before he could finish the second volume of his edition (the first volume having been published in 2008). :(

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