Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK: Girolamo Fracastoro, "Latin Poetry"

Girolamo Fracastoro: Latin Poetry. Translated by James Gadner. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 57. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674072718. xx + 537 pp.

I wonder what is it about medicine that gets so many physicians involved in things like literature and philosophy. Some of them write poems, some write essays, etc. Or is it just an illusion and is the percentage of physicians who write a little literature on the side no greater than in other occupations? In any case, Fracastoro was an early-16th-century example of this type, a doctor who also wrote a good deal of poetry. This book contains two longer poems of his, Syphilis and Joseph, which I found fairly enjoyable to read, and a number of shorter ones, which were more of a mixed bag.

Syphilis, or the French Disease

This (in)famous venereal disease might seem like an odd choice of subject for a poem, but I guess this is what happens when you have physicians writing poetry :P Syphilis is a minor epic poem of about 1300 lines and is probably Fracastoro's best known work; and if I understand correctly, this is actually where syphilis the disease got its name. The poem gives us a curious look at medicine at a stage when it was just beginning slowly to turn into a scientific area, but still had a long way to go to shed its mystical and paranormal background.

Regardless of what we may think about the subject, in terms of form this is a very proper epic. It begins with the sort of pompous introduction that would not be out of place in Vergil (“Now I will sing of the varied accidents of nature” etc.), it's all in hexameters (although sadly the translation is in prose, like usually in the ITRL series), etc. After a few lines dedicating the poem to the famous poet and prelate Pietro Bembo, Fracastoro begins with a discussion of the origins of the disease. The usual explanation is that Spanish sailors got it in America (1.32–52), brought it to Italy as part of the Spanish involvement in the wars in Italy in the early 16th century, and thence it soon spread to France because the French were also involved in those wars. From France it spread further, which led it to being known as “the French disease” in some countries. But Fracastoro is skeptical of this idea; he says that the disease has appeared so rapidly in so many places that it can't have simply spread like an infection (1.53–60). While “its origin and dwelling place are in the very air” (1.122–3), it was then the influence of the stars and planets that somehow activated the disease and caused it to spring up in so many places at once! (1.219–55, 413–20). This was a bit disappointing — one of Fracastoro's claims to fame is understanding that diseases can be transmitted by air, but (1) syphilis isn't (just imagine if it were... on second thought, maybe don't) and (2) in the end he opts for a fake astrological explanation anyway...

After this long excursion into astrology, the poem becomes a bit more sober again as Fracastoro describes the symptoms of the disease and tries to explain how and why it develops in the patient's body. Much of this is still based on the ancient theories of the humours and the like (1.330–48), and is a bit bizarre by our modern standards, but the descriptions of the symptoms are quite realistic and suitably disgusting (1.350–64, 400–3). He concludes book I with a bit of lamentation about the current state of Italy, which was at the time being ravaged by endless wars, often with foreign countries meddling in them as well.

Book II is mostly about treatment. Some of his ideas struck me as very odd; for example, he suggests that vigorous exertion outdoors is likely to get rid of the disease: “hunt boars, hunt bears relentlessly [. . .] Often have I seen men rid themselves of their affliction with much sweat, leaving the disease in the deep woods.” (2.89, 93–4) He also gives a long list of various kinds of food that should be avoided by the patient (2.116–44). Under some conditions, he recommends bleeding (2.165–73). He gives several fairly complex-looking combinations of herbs which might cure the disease (2.175–222).

Finally, there is the treatment with mercury (2.270), which if I understand correctly has actually been used to treat syphilis well into the 20th century. He devotes most of the rest of this book with a long fictional story about how this treatment was discovered; I guess this an imitation of the countless just-so stories that were so popular in ancient Greek mythology to explain the origins of various things. In Fracastoro's tale, a young man named Ilceus gets syphilis as a punishment from the gods for killing a sacred stag; then a nymph named Callirhoe takes pity on him and reveals the mercury treatment to him in a dream. He travels to an underground cave where he encounters “sulfurous streams and rivers of quicksilver” (2.355–6), out of which various nymphs then manufacture other kinds of metals, including silver and gold; still other nymphs take care of various other geological phenomena (2.380–400). I really liked this part of the story, it's like science fiction except that it starts from a pre-modern level of science.

At the end of book II, the poet gives some more details about how to actually apply mercury to treat syphilis: mix mercury with grease, some resins and herbs, smear the stuff over your body and wrap it up until all the filth has oozed out of your sores, a process that may take ten days (2.424–53).

Book III mentions another cure for the disease, namely the guaiacum, a kind of tree that grows on Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The natives apparently attribute numerous medicinal properties to the tree, and mostly use it by boiling its wood and then drinking the resulting liquid (3.30–71). Fracastoro spends most of this book weaving yet another fanciful tale about its discovery: a European expedition sails westwards and reaches what they take to be the mythical island of Ophir (3.120), and which I guess in practice is the Caribbean. Their encounter with the natives goes remarkably well and is suspiciously short on genocide, slavery and the other things that you usually hear about such encounters (3.216–31). The local chief explains that his people (who are actually descendants of ancient Atlanteans! 3.265–77 — I guess Ignatius Donnelly wasn't the first one to come up with that idea :)) are afflicted by the disease as a punishment from the gods because a shepherd named Syphilus had insulted the Sun-god some time ago (3.288–334). The disease was named after the shepherd. Fortunately, the goddess Juno took pity on them and told them about the curative properties of the guaiacum tree (3.335–51). Since the Europeans had just recently insulted the gods too, by shooting at certain sacred birds (3.151–73), the disease will soon hit them as well, and they follow the natives' exaple by drinking the guaiacum potion (3.390–9). [By the way, is it just me, or do these stories sound like the lamest excuse ever? ‘Yeah, I got these disgusting sores around my genitals by insulting the sun / shooting at some birds, and certainly not by screwing around / raping the natives, etc., why would that crazy idea ever cross your mind?!’ :)))]


This epic poem is just a little shorter than the previous one and is apparently based on a story from the Bible. Joseph is the youngest of twelve brothers, and as far as I can tell they don't seem to have any sisters, which suggests that their father must be some sort of freak of nature, a biblical Chuck Norris, so manly that he has two Y chromosomes instead of one X and one Y :P Anyway, Joseph has an odd dream about how he will eventually become some sort of king; he unwisely tells about this to his brothers, who are unsurprisingly a bit worried that he might one day really rise above them. At first they plot to kill him, but then one or two of them have second thoughts and in the end they ‘just’ sell him into slavery to some passing merchants. You might say that this was a bit of an overreaction, but I as a rabid egalitarian frankly found much to approve of in their impulse.

The merchants travel to Egypt where, hoping to curry favour with an official named Potiphar, they give Joseph to him as a present. As far as slavery goes, Joseph has it fairly easy, and soon becomes the head servant in Potiphar's household. But some demonic forces intervene (to my surprise, they are presented not as agents of the usual Judeo-Christian devil but of the classical Greco-Roman Pluto — but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, as a similar thing was used in the tragedy of Ferdinand Preserved, which I read a couple years ago) and cause Potiphar's wife to fall in love with Joseph. He is under some sort of divine protection and thus impervious to her charms; she, suitably enraged and disappointed, resorts to that time-honoured plot device, the false rape accusation. Potiphar has Joseph thrown into a prison where he impresses some cell-mates with his ability to interpret dreams; before long, the Pharaoh has him brought out of jail to interpret a puzzling dream of his own. This is the famous dream of the seven fat cows and seven lean ones, which Joseph interprets as seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh promptly appoints Joseph as his second-in-command, and has him build granaries and purchase large amounts of grain to get ready for the seven lean years.

I was somewhat disappointed to see that when the famine came, the Pharaoh's granaries weren't doling out the grain on a rationing system, but were selling it “at a fair price” (2.468); fair it may have been, but after a few years, people ran out of money anyway and resorted to mortgaging their fields, “[p]romising to give the king the fifth part of their profit from any field” (2.475–6). So the Pharaoh could not only bask in the glory of saving his people from famine, but also made out like a bandit in the process — and let's not forget that the money which enabled him to buy up stockpiles of grain had come from people in the first place, through taxation. All in all this struck me as completely obscene and despicable.

Anyway, the famine seems to extend well beyond Egypt, all the way to Joseph's homeland. His brothers travel to Egypt to buy some grain from the illustrious Egyptian prefect who sells grain to everyone, having no idea that this is actually their brother Joseph. He recognizes them, but doesn't tell them who he is; he sells them grain, secretly returning them the money with which they paid for it, and bids them come back to Egypt once more. The poem is unfinished, so we don't see how the story would continue, but Joseph seems to be preparing a banquet for his brothers. Presumably he would finally reveal himself there.

I rather enjoyed this poem; the story has the makings of a fine revenge fantasy, and who doesn't like a good rags-to-riches tale, but one thing that bothered me was the excessive influence of supernatural forces — demons influencing Potiphar's wife, god's protection guarding Joseph, etc. I suppose this makes sense for a biblical story, but from a storytelling point of view these are surely just crutches which it would be better to dispense with.


The rest of the book consists of about 50 miscellaneous shorter poems. This was definitely my least favourite part of the book. There are various poetic epistles to notable persons, and a few occasional pieces on the deaths of various people, most of which didn't strike me as particularly memorable (Nos. 2–11).

One thing that I liked better were the various short pastoral poems (Nos. 13–20), heavily influenced by ancient Greek mythology and imagery; you can easily imagine Fracastoro staying at his villa somewhere in the countryside and writing these little sketches about a slightly more idealized version of his surroundings. There is also an interesting slightly longer poem of this sort (No. 12), an epistle to Pope Julius III, which combines pastoral imagery with the fact that the pope is the “great shepherd of the divine flock” (p. 247).

Along similar lines, there's a nice eclogue in praise of bishop Giberti of Verona (No. 51). Fracastoro didn't actually finish the poem, so they simply printed it from his manuscript, consisting of about four drafts of the poem and several further variations on shorter parts of it. This creates an unusual impression, with the same things being said again and again but each time in a slightly different way. It was an nice opportunity to get a glimpse into how a poem is made.

There's also what you might call a didactic poem, on the care of hunting dogs (No. 1): the various breeds and what they are good for; how to breed and train them; and it goes into a lot of detail on the various (impressively complicated) concoctions used to treat their various diseases and injuries.

There's a nice hymn to Bacchus (No. 44) and a short epigram that uses the image of nymphs washing the infant Bacchus as a metaphor for the practice of mixing wine with water (No. 43). I had heard before that this was the usual practice in Ancient Greece, but it was interesting to see that this was still the case during the Renaissance as well (p. 488).


Sometimes I feel that I'm repeating myself like a broken record in my posts about the poetry volumes in the ITRL: parts of it were pleasant enough to read, but there was nothing to write home about — nothing really touching or exhilarating. The fact that it's all translated into prose doesn't really help either. I know that I am not incapable of being touched by poetry, as it has happened on a number of occasions when reading e.g. the 19th-century English poets; why then does it almost never happen here? I guess that's simply not what these neo-Latin renaissance poets were aiming for, so in a sense I'm simply the wrong audience for their work.

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BOOK: Paolo Giovio, "Notable Men and Women of Our Time"

Paolo Giovio: Notable Men and Women of Our Time. Edited and translated by Kenneth Gouwens. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 56. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674055056. xxi + 760 pp.

This dialogue features Giovio and two other interlocutors, inspired by real people: a military officer named d'Avalos and a lawyer/politician from Naples named Muscettola. Over the course of three days, they talk about notable military commanders, writers and poets, and famous women of the day. A very large number of people are presented in each of these three categories, and relatively little is said about each of them, an approach that I didn't find terribly interesting; but along the way, our protagonists take numerous detours into other more or less related topics, so that the book as a whole still makes for a relatively varied and fairly interesting read. I was also utterly stunned by the enormous effort of the editor/translator, who has managed to identify nearly all of the hundreds of people mentioned by Giovio (most of whom are far from notable by our present-day standards), and added little biographical endnotes about each of them.

Another very impressive thing about the dialogue is the identity of the speakers. Giovio has recently been working as a high papal official in Rome, which was then sacked by the Spanish army; he managed to get out and take refuge on the island of Ischia. And d'Avalos is a high-ranking officer in the Spanish army! And yet there is not the slightest trace of hostility between them, the conversation is utterly civil and friendly throughout the entire book.

Dialogue 1: Military commanders

This dialogue deals mostly with military and political topics. Renaissance Italy is notorious for its chronical warfare, and at the time this dialogue was written the situation was particularly bad, foreign rulers had begun to get involved in the action, a Spanish army had just recently sacked Rome, etc. The characters in the dialogue claim that this has been accompanied by an all-round decline of virtue, courage, etc. (they even hold up the Turks as an example of a society with more virtuous people and princes; 1.18–19), and start by asking why this is happening (1.21).

Apparently some people had suggested that this must be due to some sort of astrological influence of the stars and planets, but Muscettola, reasonably enough, rejects this silly idea (1.30). Instead he argues that the problems began when Italian states started inviting foreigners to interfere in their quarrels, and that the warfare hadn't been as cruel and brutal while it was just Italians fighting other Italians (1.33–4).

Giovio adds that the situation in Italy had been deteriorating ever since the late Roman empire, although it had improved briefly one or two generations before his time, i.e. in the 15th century (1.45–51). Muscettola praises the progress in that period: invention of cannons, printing, and the discovery of the New World (1.51–4). D'Avalos complains about the difficulty of maintaining discipline amongst the unruly mercenary soldiers of his day (1.61–6). Giovio suggests that present-day warfare is more brutal and dangerous than before thanks to technological progress (1.70–3).

Muscettola argues that the Italian soldiers are still brave and skilled, even if they fight under foreign rulers (1.76–8). D'Avalos agrees regarding the rank and file, but adds that there is now a lack of good commanders; he enters into a lengthy comparison of the present commanders with those of the previous generations (1.79–86, 100–6, 110–13). Giovio defends the ability of two contemporary leaders, Pope Clement and Doge Andrea Gritti of Venice (1.90–3).

D'Avalos briefly recounts the “thirteen pitched battles” since the coming of the French army into Italy (1.114–27), and describes a few contemporary commanders that he regards as praiseworthy (1.132–50), as well as a few slightly less illustrious ones (1.152–6, 163–7), and, having exhausted the cavalry and the infantry, he then moves on to naval commanders (1.173–6).

D'Avalos says that thanks to the current technological and political conditions, it's often a good idea to employ delaying tactics and avoid pitched battles (1.177–80). He mentions the various virtues that a good commander should have, and argues that none currently has all of them in a high degree (1.183–7). The discussion so far was about Italian commanders, and now d'Avalos moves on to foreign ones (1.188–97, 200–2). He declares all contemporary commanders inferior to his recently deceased cousin and comrade-in-arms, the marquis of Pescara, upon whom he heaps the highest praise (1.203–16).

Dialogue 2: Literature

Partly, this dialogue consists of brief presentations of various Italian authors of Giovio's time and of the recent past. Some of these are more or less well known and on several occasions Giovio and his interlocutors mention some of the works that I've already read in the previous I Tatti Renaissance Library volumes; but many of the poets and writers they mention are quite obscure (the translator's introduction, p. xv, describes them as “third-rate talents of whose works few scraps have survived” — ouch!). The translator's notes are wonderfully extensive and wherever Giovio mentions some writer and his works, the notes mention where those works have been published. For the better-known poets, this may be earlier ITRL volumes or other modern editions; but for the “third-rate talents”, the translator has invariably managed to dig up obscure 15th- and 16th-century editions, published by long-forgotten Renaissance printers. Compiling these notes must have taken an enormous amount of work.

Another topic that is often discussed in this dialogue (and which I found more interesting than the catalogues of authors) is that of language: is it better to write in Latin or in the vernacular language, i.e. in Italian? They spilled a lot of ink over this topic in Renaissance Italy, and it appears that by Giovio's time, Italian was pretty clearly winning. A couple years ago I read another ITRL volume from approximately the same period, Lilio Giraldi's Modern Poets (see my post from back then), and he was quite grotesquely contemptuous towards literature in Italian. Giovio and his interlocutors take a much more reasonable approach; they are a bit sad that Latin is declining, but they recognize that literature in Italian can be valuable as well.

Early on, d'Avalos observes that lately more and more authors write in Italian, even some of those who formerly wrote in Latin (2.9); Muscettola and Giovio suggest that this is because it's easier to write in the vernacular, you can express yourself more fully in your native language and you don't need such long years of study to do it (2.42–3); you can still borrow and translate successful passages and turns of phrase from Latin authors as well (2.10–11); you reach a wider audience and easier praise by writing in Italian (2.47, 2.76); skilled Latin orators are no longer encouraged and rewarded like they were in the past (2.77–8).

Some poets, on the other hand, went to the opposite extreme and neglected Latin in favour not of the vernacular but of Greek, or, in some cases, even Hebrew! Muscettola and Giovio don't think highly of such efforts, as they seem to be more about trying to show off than producing really good poetry (2.34–5).

Regarding the vernacular, they acknowledge that through the effort of various authors it will gradually be refined into a language no less respectable than Latin itself; and after all, the ancient Roman authors wrote in the vernacular language too, it's just that to them the vernacular language was Latin (2.39). Muscettola, who previously said that using Greek instead of Latin is pointless ostentation, recognizes that some day using Latin instead of Italian will be regarded in the same way too (2.40).

Muscettola mentions Bembo and Sannazaro (2.7–8) as examples of particularly good neo-Latin authors. Giovio goes into a longish catalogue of poets, most of whom were completely unknown to me (2.12–27, 32–3). Asked why so many poets seem to fail to develop after a promising beginning of their career, he suggests it's because they get corrupted by being praised too much and too soon (2.28–9); plus, your natural talent defines a plateu of ability beyond which you can't rise even with effort (2.30–1).

Here and there Giovio quotes short passages from the poems he discusses, and I was pleasantly surprised by how nicely they are translated here. ITRL translations of poetry often strike me as dull and most of the time they are in prose, but here they are in verse and really pleasant verse too.

After the neo-Latin poets have been exhausted, Muscettola provides a similar catalogue of those writing in Italian (2.56–66), and Giovio continues in a similar way with Italian prose writers (2.67–74, 79–82). He also talks a little about his own life and work, especially his Histories of his own time (2.86–96). They mention that lately the study of Latin is making better progress abroad than inside Italy (2.100), and towards the end of the dialogue Giovio mentions a few noted foreign authors, especially French ones (2.118–21). They also have some discussion about the usual problems of how to become a good neo-Latin author: whom to imitate, how closely to imitate, how much to borrow, etc. (2.106–14). A few years ago, there was an entire volume on that topic, Ciceronian Controversies (see my post from back then), and I still think that all this mostly just proves that trying to write good literature in a foreign language (especially a dead one) is largely futile.

Dialogue 3: Famous women

It seems that this sort of thing was practically a minor genre during the Renaissance; the very first volume in the ITRL series was a book by Boccaccio on exactly the same topic. Anyway, this dialogue starts with some eminently reasonable ideas. In an interesting contrast to what he was saying about military captains in the first dialogue, d'Avalos now says that women of the present generation are no less eminent than those of the past, and that any claims to the contrary are just misguided complaints of cranky old men (3.9–10); Giovio adds that they are in fact even better now because more attention than formerly is being paid to women's education and not just to their fertility (3.12). Giovio and Muscettolla take ancient Greeks and Romans to task for describing (and treating) women as inferior to men (3.20–6). Muscettolla points out that it is unjust to deny women an education and access to public life, and that if they were not denied these things, “it would be clear [. . .] that they had not lacked the natural abilities for attaining the honor of glorious virtue, but only the opportunity for doing so” (3.27).

After such a promising start, I was a bit disappointed by how the dialogue continued. D'Avalos agrees with Muscettolla in principle, but says that in practice this unjust treatment of women cannot be fixed as it would disrupt everything: “These things aren't possible without there being a destructive confusion in all affairs” (3.35). After that, the catalogues of famous women begin in earnest and mostly follow the criteria summarized by d'Avalos thus: “fame of lineage, distinction of beauty, and refinement of intellect and character” (3.37), to which he then adds a fourth requirement: chastity. As a result of this, most of the women mentioned here are various upper-class ladies who are invariably described as beautiful and presumably reasonably well brought up, as you might expect in that class, but who for the most part aren't described as having done anything particularly memorable. I thought they would manage to dig up some women who had written some literature or painted something or taken up some sort of career, but there's almost none of that, just an endless procession of idle aristocrats.

This catalogue of famous women is organized along geographical principles, moving from region to region, from town to town. Giovio deals with Milano (3.45–53), Venice (3.54–64), various minor cities of northern Italy (3.68–74), Genoa (3.75–85), Florence (3.87–96), Siena (3.97–8); then Naples (3.100–39), Rome (3.141–79), concluding with a long section in praise of Vittoria Colonna (3.179–209), at whose estate on the island of Ischia Giovio lived for a while after escaping from the Sack of Rome.

One good thing about this dialogue is that when dealing with a certain city, they don't just talk about women from there, but also a little about the city itself, its customs, the character of its people, etc. It's a nice reminder of the times when culture varied much more even over relatively short distances. We get a few curious factoids along the way; for example, apparently in Venice the dowries were so cripplingly high among the upper classes that a father who was so unlucky as to have several daughters might very well just marry off one of them, and pack the rest into a convent. As a result, the nunneries, being full of young women that didn't really want to be there and had no real sense of religious calling, seem to have become veritable hotbeds of fornication (3.58–9).

But that's nothing compared to Genoa where, if Giovio is to be believed, the whole city is practically a big den of decadence and depravity like something straight out of a 1920s pulp story. “Throughout the city during wintertime, in accordance with longstanding practice, nightly vigils suitable for nurturing love affairs are thronged to an almost unbelievable extent.” (3.77) “[T]hrough every season of the year Genoese women engage continually in love affairs and the pleasures of the wellborn. [. . .] even the very slave girls, bought from Scythians and Numidians, devote their holidays to lovemaking. They occupy themselves in licentious games and in unrestrained dances [. . .] But there is no greater opportunity for lascivious behavior or for making impudent advances to women than when matrons in small boats cruise along the shores and sail into the open sea to catch fish.” (3.79) I can't help feeling that the truth probably was considerably less exciting, but it makes for an enjoyable read anyway.


All in all, this was a pleasant enough book to read, but best taken in moderate doses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the dialogue about the poets to be the most interesting; the one about women was a bit of a disappointment as I was hoping to hear more about women writers or artists instead of just idle aristocrats; and as for the dialogue about military commanders, it wasn't as boring as I feared it would be in view of my lack of interest in military matters.

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BOOK: Francesco Filelfo, "On Exile"

Francesco Filelfo: On Exile. Edited by Jeroen de Keyser, translated by W. Scott Blanchard. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 55. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674066366. xxvi + 485 pp.

This book reminded me a little of Pontano's dialogues, which I read a few months ago (see my post from back then). Filelfo's book is likewise presented in the form of dialogues, and although exile is nominally their main topic, the speakers tend to talk about a number of different things and jump from one subject to another often (though not as often as they did in Pontano's dialogues).

Like dialogues usually do, these have a bit of a back story, which is apparently closely tied up with the turbulent political life of 15th-century Florence. Cosimo de' Medici had gradually risen from being ‘merely’ a rich banker to become one of the most influential people in Florence; eventually, his opponents — who seem to have been mostly traditional aristocrats that resented the influence of this new upstart — managed to get him expelled from the city, but soon afterwards he got back and then it was his opponents' turn to be exiled. Filelfo's sympathies clearly lie with the anti-Medici faction, and several of its notable members appear as characters in this work; the dialogues are presented as conversations amongst them at a point in time when they have already been sentenced to exile but haven't actually departed from Florence yet.


Book I mostly consists of efforts by Palla Strozzi, one of the soon-to-be exiles, to comfort his son Onofrio, who complains bitterly about having to go into exile (1.17–18). I'm not really sure if there's anything one can usefully say to comfort a person in such a terrible situation, and Palla's efforts certainly didn't strike me as particularly useful. He mostly follows the ideas of ancient Stoic and Cynic philosophers and even goes so far as to quote a number of letters and anecdotes about Diogenes, after whose nickname Cyon (“the Dog”; 1.104–5) the whole school of cynicsm got its name.

I've ranted against stoicism a number of times before, so there's not much point in repeating myself yet again here. Its main underlying idea seems to be that you shouldn't get too attached to anything and then you won't have any reason to feel sad or upset. This is trivially obvious and also completely useless, because it's simply too much at variance with human nature (and sometimes at variance with elementary physiology; see one Theodorus claiming to be unfazed at the prospect of being crucified, 1.79). One might well ask whether a life without such attachments would be worth living at all, even if it were possible to achieve it; but for most people it isn't possible anyway.

Similarly, I doubt that Palla's anecdotes about Diogenes are particularly helpful here. Sure, exile and nearly every other misfortune probably won't perturb you much if you're willing to live like Diogenes did — as a beggar utterly devoid of nearly every possession (as illustrated by the famous anecdote where he decided to forego having a cup once he realized he could just use his hands as a temporary cup while drinking water out of a stream; 1.91). But people generally don't want to live like that, and for very good reason too. At the same time, Palla's praise of Diogenes' attitude strikes me as hypocritical because I strongly suspect that neither he nor the other exiles in this book came anywhere close to any real poverty, even in exile.

Many of Palla's other arguments here also struck me as dubious and unconvincing. When his son complains that they are being exiled unjustly (1.220), Palla suggests that this simply means their persecutors are unjust, and a ‘wise man’ (that largely fictional creature that hasn't yet been seen outside of the pages of Stoic philosophy) naturally won't care what unjust and unwise people think about him (1.83–4).

Occasionally, Palla tries to bring in some ideas that seem inspired more by christian religion than by ancient philosophy, which doesn't really help at all. It's better to be condemned unjustly than justly, he suggests, because at least this means that you didn't actually commit the crime for which you are being condemned (1.221–2). Another religious idea is that all life is a kind of exile anyway, since your true home is with god in heaven, so what does it matter if you live in Florence or somewhere else? (1.183–95; Palla goes on to argue that one shouldn't be too attached to one's homeland, 1.199–212 — easier said than done.) These things maybe make sense if you really believe that god is somewhere out there keeping score and planning to reward you in the afterlife (1.88); but from my perspective as a non-believer, it's completely useless.

But I don't want to seem to harsh on Palla; some of the things he says are useful and interesting, e.g. when he gives examples of notable people who seemed to take their exile pretty well (such as Hannibal, 1.69–72).

Besides, it's not just Palla that I'm annoyed by; Onofrio for his part often paints too bleak a picture of exile and imagines everything in the worst possible terms. He fears that he will be regarded as infamous, that people will imagine he must surely have committed some great crime or he wouldn't have been exiled (1.60); but the impression I got from reading about the history of Renaissance Italy is that it was fairly commonplace for one segment of the political class to get expelled by the other, and then vice versa a few years later and so on. So I imagine that people at the time would understand that just because Onofrio got exiled, that doesn't mean that he was guilty of anything more heinous than having the bad luck of ending up on the losing end of a political struggle for power.

This book also contains a few digressions into other topics that are at best only distantly related to exile. For example, near the start, Palla spends a good deal of time talking about the importance of cultivating wisdom and philosophy (1.23–34) and then trying to define reason, emotion and various related concepts (1.35–54), which struck me as one of those typically philosophical things where I have the feeling that they pulled a lot of verbiage out of where the sun doesn't shine, and that I'm no wiser after having read it than before. A more interesting digression occurs near the end of the book, where Poggio Bracciolini (who appears in this volume as a kind of Epicurean, though of a considerably more base and physical sort than the original Epicurus) provides a nice counterbalance to some of the previous ideas with a long praise of drink and good food (1.142–78).


Book II is ostensibly about infamy, but much of it is spent on other things that are only vaguely connected to it. There's a long report (2.26–64) of a speech that one of the soon-to-be exiled noblemen, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, made to pope Eugenius, in which he spends a lot of time arguing that the accusations against himself and his colleagues should not be believed, because they are after all noblemen and therefore honourable and trustworthy and have no reason to harm their city, whereas their accusers (the Medici party) aren't any of those things (especially not noblemen :P). (See e.g. 2.39, 2.41–2, 2.48, 2.62.) Much is made of the fact that Cosimo de' Medici is a banker* and therefore obviously deceitful, greedy, corrupt etc., and his surname sounds like the word for a physician, which was not a very respectable profession in Renaissance Italy and which Filelfo therefore likes to use as the basis of anti-Medici puns (2.65). It's somewhat sad to think that there was a time when some people thought that things of this sort were a reasonable way to argue...

[* I was interested to find in the Wikipedia that Palla Strozzi (one of the central characters of these dialogues, whom we already saw in Book I above) was himself a banker as well :))]

The conversation then finally briefly turns to infamy — Onofrio complains that infamy is an evil (2.68–70), much like he did about exile in the previous book — but is soon derailed again: instead of talking about whether good reputation is really a good and infamy an evil (instead of both being something indifferent), they start to discuss the concept of good in philosophy, a long discussion which was mostly too technical for me (2.95–106, 2.112–54). For good measure, they finish this by taking a detour on the topic of reason, intellect, intelligence and various fine distinctions betwenen these things (2.155–61).

In any case, as far as I'm concerned, they don't end up having any useful advice for poor Onofrio; his father suggests that one has to simply behave virtuously and good reputation will come sooner or later (2.163) and waves away any difficulties in the usual Stoic manner: “those who are just and good cannot suffer infamy, especially in the eyes of good and wise men [. . .] all ill-repute directed at men who are upstanding and have integrity, since it is supported by no roots, must quickly fade and die” (2.172–3). This strikes me as a bit too optimistic; if you are in a position where a lot of people have an unfairly negative opinion about you, this will impact your life adversely in ways that you can't simply wave away with a bit of empty philosophizing. (Of course, in the specific situation that we see in this dialogue, we may well wonder whether sending these people to exile and making them infamous was actually unfair or not; Filelfo is hardly an unbiased observer here.)


Book III treats poverty in much the same way as the previous book treated infamy. There is a good deal of philosophical discussion that was rather too technical for my taste. For example, they start by arguing whether poverty is a bad thing at all, and before deciding that they seem to think it's useful to discuss a very general-purpose division of things into good, bad and indifferent (3.19–32). A certain type of philosopher seems to have loved this sort of pointless taxonomizing, and we see a good deal of that here. For example, good things can be divided into internal and external (3.21); they waste time discussing how to divide a “class” into several “species” (3.26–7), etc. None of this strikes me as the sort of thing that would actually shed light on anything, least of all on poverty.

Given the uselessly simplistic idea of dividing everything into good, bad and indifferent, one of the speakers (Leonardo Bruni, who was otherwise also a real person, like many of the speakers in this book) proposes that virtue is good, vice is bad, and everything else is indifferent (3.31). This is convenient since it allows you to conclude that wealth and poverty are neither good nor bad in themselves, which can be illustrated by the fact that someone can be rich and yet evil (like that bankster Cosimo de' Medici, the chief villain of this book), or virtuous and yet poor (like the aristocrats fallen on hard times who are the characters of this book, and whose side Filelfo is obviously a supporter of).

Filelfo tries to bolster his case by citing yet more examples from the lives of Diogenes, Crates and the like, which are just as unconvincing and just as useless to a normal person than they were in earlier parts of this volume. If you forget for a moment that Diogenes is a Famous Ancient Greek Philosopher™ and think about him without that aura for a moment, you have to admit that he is basically a homeless beggar who wanders the streets raving and ranting to himself. Nobody should be expected to live like that. If Filelfo can seriously suggest that this is a tolerable way to live, it can only mean that he is completely unfamiliar with anything like real poverty as well as completely devoid of imagination.

Another cheap and entirely unconvincing rhetorical trick is tinkering with definitions, which Filelfo attempts in 3.94: “wealth is not that with which the outer man is adorned by by which the inner man is equipped and embellished”, etc. etc. It's depressing to think that anybody could be expected to fall for this sort of ‘argument’.

From my perspective, the only sane person in this discussion is Poggio, who keeps trying to point out blindingly obvious things like that it's better to be comfortable than homeless and starving, but everyone else gangs up on him and Filelfo takes delight in presenting him as a foolish, shallow, gluttonous, grotesque caricature of a low type of Epicurean (3.126, 3.144). “But who commends Poggio, Rinaldo? Artisans, bakers, philistines, every shameless person.” (3.144. Here's that annoying aristocratic prejudice against tradesmen again.) He must have really had something against Poggio, but to me this is the one sympathetic character in this dialogue. Here's Poggio providing some sensible perspective in 3.85: “That obscure and joyless teaching for living and dining which, I see, originated with Antisthenes, was augmented by Diogenes, and reinforced by Crates, is proper to beasts, and savage ones at that, not to refined human beings.” And that's exactly it — any sort of civilization requires a certain material basis. Living in the sort of poverty advocated by Diogenes & Co. is completely antithetical to that. I suspect that this was as blindingly obvious to most Diogenes's contemporaries as it is to most of us today, and that he was already regarded as a deplorably misguided freak back then as well.

Towards the end of the book, the conversation veers off into another highly technical philosophical discussion (which has little to do with poverty itself), this time about voluntary and involuntary actions (3.107–23, 134–8, 145–62). I don't pretend to have understood very much of that, and I certainly didn't find it particularly illuminating, but I was interested to learn a new word here, namely “appetency”, which I don't think I've ever heard before. One of the speakers, Palla, makes a short conclusion which tries to connect this discussion back to poverty: “choice is not simply will of opinion but something that consists of opinion and appetency together when, after consultation, both agree on a single goal. It remains not only that we need not fear poverty but that we should choose it as the least encumbering of companions for the journey to happiness.” (3.162) But, once again, that's easier said than done.

Still, this book isn't all bad. There are a few paragraphs of fine invective against Cosimo de' Medici, again with the inevitable puns about physicians (3.63) etc.; “Cosimo is a banker, a hireling and a filthy usurer, the single greediest man in all of recorded history. No other vice is more loathsome, more worthy of punishment, none more at odds with an invicible and lofty soul than this.” (3.62.) “Poggio. You speak as though Cosimo spends nothing to equip churches and to provide dowries for young girls. — Leonardo. He provides prostitution for young girls, Poggio! — as if you were the only one who doesn't know that Cosimo makes a practice of furnishing money to certain poor and humble parents on condition that he be the first to pluck the flowers of their virgin dauthers!” (3.65) :)))


What to say at the end? I don't think this book is very useful as a consolation to people about to be exiled; and besides, I don't particularly sympathize with the exiles of this book anyway; but much of it was nevertheless pleasant to read, and I had a quite good time ranting against it while writing this post.

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BOOK: Michael Marullus, "Poems"

Michael Marullus: Poems. Translated by Charles Fantazzi. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 54. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674055063. xx + 476 pp.

Marullus was a 15th-century author with an interesting life story. His parents were Greeks from Constantinople and he was born very shortly after that city was taken by the Turks. He spent most of his life in Italy, much of it working as a mercenary soldier, and wrote his poetry in Latin; but he seems to have never stopped feeling as somewhat of an exile, and the sad fate of Greece is a frequent topic of his poems. I found it easy to sympathize with him about that, as I always thought that the fall of Constantinople was one of the greatest tragedies in history.


Most of his poems, however, struck me as pleasant enough in themselves but not terribly memorable. There are four books of epigrams — lots and lots of short poems varying in length and on a variety of topics. He has many poems about a woman named Neaera, which I initially found a bit annoying as it seemed to be yet another of those typical situations where a poet sighs about a woman from a distance without anything much ever actually happening; but admittedly, he does go so far as to propose marriage to her at one point (p. 77), and he briefly mentions her funeral near the end of his collection of epigrams (p. 187), a touching reminder that this collection of poems must have been written over a long period of many years. There are also several poems in praise of Alessandra Scala, daughter of the noted humanist Bartolomeo Scala, one of whose books I read some time ago (see my post from back then). Alessandra seems to have been not only beautiful but also a talented author in her own right; Marullus praises her as a tenth Muse (p. 115) and he eventually married her.

There are several epitaphs, many of them to his various uncles, grandfathers, etc., all of whom invariably died fighting the Turks. Although perhaps these epitaphs individually are nothing special, I couldn't help feeling impressed by their cumulative effect; you can really get a sense of how this whole business of losing Greece to the Turks must have been hanging over his life like some sort of grim, dark cloud.

Some of his poems are about “philological” subjects, mostly criticizing a contemporary of his, Poliziano, for getting some word or another wrong in his edition of some classical text. But judging by the translators' notes at the end of the book, Marullus's complaints are invariably wrong (“Another philological squabble between Poliziano and Marullus, with Poliziano the victor, as always”, p. 417; “Wrong again!”, p. 418).

A nice case of poetic self-confidence: “You give me jewels and gold, I give you only poems: but if they are good poems, mine is the greater gift.” (To Antonio, Prince of Salerno, p. 11.) He later has another poem praising the same prince (p. 30): “Asked once what he would leave to himself after giving so much to anyone at all, Antonio replied, ‘Whatever I gave to others: for all else I do not consider to be mine.’ ”

A fine epitaph: “If you learn about his ancestry, you will despise him, but you will marvel at his deeds: the first is the result of chance, the other of native ability.” (Epitaph of Francesco Sforza, p. 15.)

A nice bit of sycophancy: “Good Lorenzo, that you alone love and reward poets is no surprise: you alone do things worthy of poetry.” (To Lorenzo de' Medici, p. 17.) Still, I can't help feeling somehow nostalgic for the days when rich and powerful people would spend their money on supporting poets, which doesn't strike me as a very widespread custom today.

Renaissance popes never disappoint: “He had scarcely heard that Italy was united by a good treaty when Sixtus exclaimed, ‘That's the end of me,’ and died.” (On Sixtus IV, p. 21.) “Filth, gluttony, avarice and sluggish sloth lie in this tomb, Innocent VIII, where you are buried.” (Epitaph of Innocent VIII, p. 177.)

Here and there his epitaphs manage to be really touching. Here's from one for a girl named Albina: “Spread leaves upon the earth, do not spare the spring flowers: she too, who is ash, was once a flower of spring.” (P. 25.)

He has a few mentions of the ancient Spartans, whose example I guess he found inspiring both as a soldier and as someone who perhaps still hoped that Turks could somehow be kicked out of Greece again. Of course, from a modern-day point of view, Spartans and their grim commitment to warfare are nothing short of hilarious. Marullus's poem “On the fortitude of a Spartan woman” (p. 57) is a fine example: “A Spartan mother, seeing her son return unharmed, after having abandoned his shield on the battlefield, advancing toward him thrust a sword into his side, uttering these reproaches over his dead body: ‘Away from here, die, offspring unworthy of me; away, you have betrayed your country and your race!” ” With family like this, who needs enemies :)))

Hymns to Nature

These hymns are somewhat longer poems dedicated to various (natural phenomena disguised as) deities from classical mythology. One thing I found interesting about them is how completely pagan they seem; they really struck me as something that could have been written by some ancient poet who has never even heard of christianity, as there aren't any traces of it in these hymns.

Apart from that, I can't say that I had any clear idea of what to do with these hymns. Were they supposed to evoke feelings of awe, sublimity, perhaps piety (or whatever the ancient pagan equivalent of that was)? I was mostly just bored. Marullus seems to have a great interest in certain ancient philosophers (especially Lucretius) about which I know next to nothing, and occasionally it was clear that he's using technical terminology (“world machine”, p. 283; see also p. xii) that went completely over my head.

The one hymn I really liked was a hymn to Bacchus (p. 213); the translator's introduction describes it as being “written in rushing galliambics” (p. xiii) and I couldn't help feeling that some of this rush, this bacchantic excess, is even present in the prose translation (which is all I can read, unfortunately, as I don't understand any Latin).

The Education of a Prince

This is probably the longest poem in the book, almost 700 lines long, but unfinished, perhaps because the prince for whom it was intended ended up dying very young (p. x). I was mostly amused by Marullus's peculiar obsession with breastfeeding, to which he dedicates nearly a hundred lines of the poem :)) And he's fairly hardcore about weaning the child: “And you will offer them breasts that are smeared with mud or black pitch or impregnated secretly with the taste of aloes so that the child will become disaccustomed of its own accord to the desire for the sweet nectar, disgusted by the repeated deceitful stratagem of the substituted bitter drink.” (ll. 87–90).

The book ends with two letters from Marullus, one of which contains a fine example of Stoic advice to a recipient who has recently lost his brother: “what greater and more manifest madness is there than when you weep so unremittingly over the death of one who you know was destined to die” etc. etc. (p. 399). I'm always baffled by the Stoics. Did they, like, know any human beings at all? I mean, their advice is so obviously true and so completely useless that I can't imagine how they thought it would accomplish anything. What he is saying is true, but to imagine that someone will be consoled by it is just incomprehensible.

What to say at the end? There were a few interesting things in this book, but nothing to write home about, and overall it's not exactly one of my favourite ITRL volumes so far.

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