Sunday, July 01, 2018

BOOK: "The Battle of Lepanto"

The Battle of Lepanto. Edited and translated by Elizabeth R. Wright, Sarah Spence and Andrew Lemons. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 61. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674725423. xxxi + 527 pp.

The Battle of Lepanto was a great naval battle in 1571 just off the west coast of Greece; amazingly, the christian countries finally managed to form an alliance to fight the Turks, and in this battle the joint navies of Venice, the Papal State, and Spain managed to inflict a major defeat on the Turks. Over the next few years, this triumphant success inspired many poems, especially in Italy and Spain (sometimes connected to various public events celebrating or commemorating the battle; p. x). Some of these poems were written in the vernacular languages, but some were in Latin, and the present volume contains 22 poems about the battle that were originally written in Latin. They are mostly by various more or less little known (or, to me, completely unknown) Italian poets, except for one that was from Spain. (By the standards of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, which hardly ever ventures beyond the boundaries of Italy, this is in fact an amazing amount of diversity :] Plus, the Spanish representative, Juan Latinus, gets bonus diversity points for being black and a former slave who eventually became a professor of Latin.) Most were originally published in various anthologies soon after the battle, but one or two were extant only in manuscript until now (p. x).

Most of these poems are relatively short, up to a few tens of lines (the shortest one, #9, is just 10 lines long), and I didn't particularly enjoy those. There is much praising of the various leaders involved in the battle, occasional brief descriptions of the battle itself (as usual, I'm completely hopeless at trying to imagine, based on the description, what the battle was like, etc.). I suppose you had to be there to really appreciate the sense of joy and relief that these people no doubt felt at hearing news of the victory. Perhaps it would help me if the poems weren't translated into prose, but of course they are, like nearly always in the ITRL. Still, I don't deny that the prose here does feel somewhat poetic and I don't wish to suggest that there's anything wrong with the translation. I just didn't find most of the short poems here particularly touching or interesting, that's all.

Of the shorter poems, I liked #10, in which Ali Pasha (the commander of the Turkish fleet, who got killed at Lepanto) shows up in hell (the Greco-Roman one rather than the christian one), “Father Pluto himself convenes a council” (ll. 76–7) of the damned souls there, who then listen to Ali's account of the battle and are inspired to sow discord among the victors as a form of revenge (ll.—138–48). Councils in hell are always a fun concept, I wonder if I should start making a list somewhere; there's Milton's Paradise Lost of course, and Vida's Christiad, Keats' Hyperion, and now this poem here; and no doubt many others.

But there are also a few longer poems, minor epics you might say, going from a couple hundred to a couple thousand lines, and I found those quite a bit more enjoyable than the shorter ones. For the most part, I found their narratives easier to follow, their descriptions of the battle can afford to go into a little more detail and occasionally even begin to exercise a little bit of the storytelling imagination, which results in a much more pleasant read.

As usual with neo-Latin poetry, the authors of these poems were very careful to imitate the work of classical poets, especially Virgil (mostly his Aeneid but sometimes also his other poems); and as usual, the editors' notes point out all these paralells, which I'm sure is going to be very useful for some readers, though not for me. The poets also like to draw parallels between Lepanto and the famous ancient Battle of Actium (12.20–23, 22.985), which was fought a little farther north.

For my part, I couldn't help feeling that this imitative approach was starting to reach some sort of limits in the work of these poets. At some point, you cease being a poet and start being a LARPer. You are no longer a 16th-century poet writing about something relevant to your own period; instead, you're just pretending that you are Virgil, that you live in the 1st century BC, and write about the same things and in the same way as the real Virgil would have done in the 1st century BC. If you showed up in a toga in 16th-century Rome, people would probably say that you're being ridiculous, but here you are doing the equivalent of that thing in poetry.

At some point, the discrepancy between the ancient and the modern world becomes too great and the resulting poetry ends up simply bizarre. I had a similar feeling years ago when reading Camoens's Lusiad, which mixes Vasco da Gama's voyage to India with the usual full panoply of ancient Greco-Roman deities. I guess that by the 17th century at the latest, this approach became untenable and there was no alternative but to abandon neo-Latin poetry and switch fully to the living languages.

We see a similar curious mixture of the ancient and the modern here in the poems about the battle of Lepanto. The Greco-Roman deities make their appearance routinely and without hesitation, and ancient paganism mixes with christianity in the most casual and blasé fashion. There are many references to “the Thunderer”, which sounds like an epithet more appropriate for Zeus or Jupiter than for the christian god, but most of the time they clearly refer to the latter (7.21, 7.55, 11.3–4, 17.148, 20.43); some poets even refer to him as the “ruler of Olympus” (17.124, 22.56; the second of these follows it up with “the true Apollo — Jesus” and “the Catholic Muses”). At one point, the Thunderer sends Venus as a messenger to the pope himself, and the pontiff does not seem to be in the least bit fazed by his pagan visitor :)) (20.65–84)

Similarly, the Turks are referred to at least half the time by terms which seem to have more to do with ancient geography than with 16th-century Turkey: Thracians (6.26, 21.295, 21.411), Scythians (15.33, 17.3, 19.27, 20.69, 20.156, 20.268, 20.454), Parthians (17.156, 19.121, 21.688, 22.46, 22.513, etc.), Getae or “Geets”, as they are oddly translated here (16.195, 19.238, 20.242, 21.413, etc.; this seems to be the same people that Ovid was complaining about in his poems from exile on the coast of the Black Sea in present-day Romania), Cappadocians (21.495, 21.852), Cilicians (21.459, 21.495), Ismarians (11.15, 16.222, 20.168, 21.12), Numidians (21.507, 21.520), Phlegreans (11.1; but this might be a misprint; I can't find anything about Phlegreans anywhere, while the notes on p. 418 mention “Phlegians” or Phlegyae, who were originally a people living in Thessaly).

These names seem to be used haphazardly and indiscriminately, sometimes several different ones on the same page (p. 205), clearly just for variety's sake. The last and longest of these poems often talks about “Turks and Parthians” (22.142, 193, 451, 638–9, 719, 740, 867, 1005, 1125, 1273), but I don't really have the impression that he has any clear idea what the difference between these two groups is supposed to be. On one occasion he even calls them “Persians” (22.1800), and once he refers to Parthian archers and their “accustomed volleys of arrows” (22.1092), just as if nothing had changed since the Greco-Persian wars. He even explicitly connects them to ancient Persians by saying that John of Austria was “destined at birth to fight the Parthians [. . .]; once they destroyed Crassus and the Roman standards, ruling supreme on land and at sea” (22.1433–5). The odd thing about all this Parthian stuff is that Persia wasn't even part of the Turkish empire (see also the notes, p. 417)...

I was particularly suprised by the frequent references to Turks as “Thracians”; most of ancient Thrace lies in areas that can't have been under Turkish rule for terribly long by the time of the Battle of Lepanto.

When referring to specific individuals on the Turkish side, actual Turkish names do seem to be used most of the time, although often mangled nearly (and sometimes fully) beyond recognition. For some reason, the Italian poets seem to be the worst at this; by contrast, in Juan Latinus' long poem (#22), the Turkish names are much less mangled. See e.g. the mini catalogue of Turks supposedly killed by John of Austria during the battle, 20.270–92, and the note on pp. 472–3. Among these is a “Perus”, identified by the notes as Piri Reis. But it probably isn't the one who made the (in)famous map because, according to the wikipedia, he “was executed in 1553”, about 18 years before the battle of Lepanto.

We have a little of the ancient geographical terms on the Western side as well, e.g. there are a few mentions of Illyrians (22.866, 22.1252, 22.1334) and Liburnians (22.913, 22.959, 22.1083), which I guess were mostly from the coastal parts of present-day Croatia (see also the translator's notes on pp. 414–5). And there is one mention of “Allobroges” (21.108), which is apparently meant to refer to the Duchy of Savoy (p. 477); even some people from “the citadel of ancient Monaco” (21.108) participated in the battle.

At times, the heavy use of ancient names and imagery lends a pleasantly epic tone to the proceedings, not entirely unlike the grand conflicts we are nowadays accustomed to finding in fantasy literature. The Turkish sultan is nearly always referred to as “the Tyrant” (8.27, 12.24, 15.178, 17.88, 18.186, 20.37, 21.248, 21.931, 22.175, etc.; “the Tyrant of Libya”, 2.11; “the Tyrant of Asia”, 3.61; “Thracian Tyrant”, 8.10, 20.63; “Ismarian Tyrant”, 21.12; and, surprisingly enough, “the Turkish Tyrant”, 22.1786), and often as the “treaty-breaker” and the like (14.30, 20.22, 20.69–71, 21.55, 21.396), because he cancelled a peace treaty with the Venetians that his predecessor had concluded some time ago.

Meanwhile his enemies are referred to as the “Hesperians”, the people of Hesperia (6.6, 11.2, 16.119, 17.109, 19.51, 21.213, 21.927), sometimes translated simply as “the West” (19.253, 21.171). This, as the wikipedia says, was a term actually used by the ancient Greeks to refer to Italy and/or the western Mediterranean). So you have “the West” fighting a treacherous Tyrant from the east and his cruel captains and hordes — it's almost like the Lord of the Rings :))

I was also impressed by these practices because they are used so consistently even though these poems were written by a number of different poets independently of each other. I guess that to some extent these things were simply in the air, so to speak — part of the zeitgeist; and partly the authors may have been reading each other's work after all.

At times, the poets are even inspired by the success at Lepanto to start dreaming about retaking Constantinople or even Jerusalem (13.92–3, 13.112, 18.186–93, 20.259, 21.907–8, 22.1390, 22.1757–8), but alas, as we know, nothing came of any such plans, and probably those areas are lost to the west for good.

All in all, this book ended up being more enjoyable than it looked like it would be at first. It would be interesting to see a similar anthology of poems written in the living languages; I wonder if those would be more vivid, since the authors didn't have to worry about imitating the work of ancient poets.


Occasionally the poets refer to Mars as “Mavors” in Latin (17.82, 18.98), though it is always translated as “Mars”. I never heard of that name before; it seems that Mavors was originally a separate ancient Latin deity that was later identified with Mars.

There are a couple of (no doubt highly dubious) claims to ancient Roman heritage: Marco Antonio Colonna is described as the “great glory of the line of Aeneas and trusted hope of the Colonna family” (21.94), and elsewhere we encounter “four brothers famous for their lineage and outstanding beauty, descendants of the Cornelii” (21.326).

The aforementioned Colonna “tore out the eyes of the brave young Paralyppus, whose mother bore him after mingling once with Faunus” (20.342–3). Well, you know what they say — sometimes you screw a goat, sometimes a goat(like deity) screws you :P (P.S. “Mingling”? Is that what they call it now? :])

A fine bit of gore from 22.1370–1: “On the decks they trampled the guts, limbs, dislodged eyeballs of soldiers, and oars dripping with blood.” Fighting continues even among soldiers who fall into the sea, and some of them “with severed hands try to reach the prows and (if possible) grasp the galleys with tooth and jaw” (22.1140). There's also “Barbarigo the Venetian, his eye pierced by an arrow” (22.1191).

There are several mentions of culverins (22.1025, 1358, 1538, 1663), which “sank countless ships with sulfurous fire” (22.1098). I didn't know of this weapon before and at first I thought it might be something similar to Greek fire, but as the wikipedia shows, it was simply a kind of cannon.

An interesting incendiary weapon: “Volleys of flaming tow launched with Vulcan's art scatter sparks at the Turks to ignire their ships” (22.1102).

A lovely bit of hate speech from 22.391–3: “Lazy, servile flock, shameful slaves of Selim, devoid of law and morals, leading the life of wild animals, it is right to exterminate them with the sword.” :)))

One poet refers to “the Antarctic land” among the king of Spain's possessions (20.99), but unfortunately this simply refers to the southern parts of South America (pp. 408, 470).

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