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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