Saturday, October 28, 2017

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.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home