Sunday, June 06, 2021

BOOK: David Crystal, "Spell It Out"

David Crystal: Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling. London: Profile Books, 2012, 2013. 9781846685682. vii + 328 pp.

English spelling is, of course, universally regarded as an unholy pile of hot garbage, a shapeless, nameless monstrosity, a gibbering Lovecraftian abomination of a spelling system, which, if you were to place the various spelling systems on an alignment chart, would certainly occupy the ‘chaotic evil’ slot.

This is an opinion with which I have always been happy to agree, but at the same time I also couldn't help feeling that there is a good deal of regularity in it, many patterns lurking here and there amidst the mess; and this is precisely what the present volume, Spell It Out, is about: the author argues that English spelling isn't really all that chaotic at all, describes explicitly the various patterns and regularities (it might be too bold to call them ‘rules’) that underlie it, and shows how they gradually emerged over the course of history.

Armed with this sort of knowledge, one could in principle find some sort of explanation or justification for why any given word is spelled the way it is. Crystal hopes that this approach could be the basis of a better way to teach English spelling (both to children who speak it natively and to foreign learners), which in his opinion currently relies too heavily on simple memorization of words and on the use of half-baked nineteenth-century rules which have so many exceptions that they are more misleading than useful.


For me, the most interesting aspect of this book was the history of English spelling, which fortunately accounts for maybe 3/4 of the book. For example, some important patterns that emerged early on have to do with representing the length of vowels. It is really a tragedy that, although Latin also had phonemic vowel length, it did not occur to the Romans to do something about representing vowel length in the Latin alphabet. In (Old) English, various patterns emerged: to indicate that a vowel is long (pp. 44–5), you might use two vowel letters (not necessarily the same ones; cf. meed and mead) or add a silent e (e.g. these). Those ‘silent’ e's used to be pronounced in Old English, but were lost in pronunciation somewhere in the transition to Middle English (p. 43); but they were found to be useful in spelling as an way to show that the previous vowel was long, so they now only kept them but also got into the habit of adding them to words newly entering the language at a later point (if they had a long vowel in the last syllable).

There's an interesting explanation of how you get different combinations of vowel letters that represent the same vowel sound, e.g. in piece and peace. The explanation is that the pronunciation used to be different, /e/ vs. /ε/; they represented /e/, which is the more close of the two sounds, by combining <e> with a letter representing an even more close vowel, <i>, resulting in <ie>; and they represented /ε/, which is more open, by combining <e> with a letter representing an even more open vowel, <a>, resulting in <ea> (pp. 47–8).

The typical pattern to represent that a vowel is short is to have it followed by two consonants (or, very often, two copies of the same consonant). This again seems to rely on a pronunciation change: in Old English, a short vowel was usually followed by a long consonant (as is still the case in e.g. Swedish today); in Middle English, those consonants were no longer pronounced long, but keeping them doubled in spelling was a useful hint that the preceding vowel is short. But this pattern also had a number of exceptions, e.g. it usually wasn't applied to words of one syllable (e.g. up) or when the vowel was written with two letters (e.g. sweating); pp. 56–7. And in some words the vowel later lengthened, /æ/ → /ɑ:/, but the spelling remained unchanged (e.g. grass; p. 65). The spelling also remains unchanged when one word is derived from another, even if the length of the vowel changes in the process (e.g. type and typical; p. 67).

Another interesting pattern: lexical words are at least three letters long, which explains why the preposition is spelled in but the hostelry is spelled inn (p. 263).

In the 16th century, the idea emerged that words originating in Latin should be spelled the way they are there; thus e.g. timid has one m even though the vowel before it is short (p. 73). The same idea led to the introduction of many silent consonants on etymological grounds; I knew about the silent b in debt (p. 154), but was surprised to learn that the c in arctic also started as a silent consonant of this type, but people eventually started pronouncing it. The l in falcon also started as silent, but I was saddened to learn, from the wiktionary, that most people apparently do pronounce it now.

I was also surprised to learn that nephew used to be nevew, borrowed from French; then a p was inserted for etymological reasons (Latin nepos), pv looked too odd and was changed into ph, and this eventually affected the pronunciation too (p. 164).

Some of these etymologically motivated silent consonants were based on false etymologies and misguided analogies. Probably the most famous of these is the s in island, added by analogy with the one in isle; but the words are etymologically unrelated and island had never been pronounced with an s. A similar case that I hadn't heard of before is that of author: in English it used to be autor, then sometimes got a silent c (auctor, correct), sometimes a silent h (author, wrong), and the latter won (Crystal suggests that this happened because of the analogy with authentic) and eventually even affected the pronunciation; p. 158. The p in ptarmigan was also added because of a mistaken idea that it is related to the Greek ptero- (wing); p. 161.

Another useful principle was that if several words had the same pronunciation but different etymology, they would be spelled differently; e.g. yew, ewe and you (p. 114).

The letter ȝ (yogh), which fell out of use in the late Middle Ages, had been used for various sounds: /g/, /d͡ʒ/, /j/, /γ/, /x/. In Scotland it was occasionally replaced with <z>, resulting in words where this letter represented the sound /j/. These spellings were later mostly regularized, but sometimes the pronunciation changed instead, to /z/ (e.g. Mackenzie; p. 82).

Sometimes the spelling of one word was changed by analogy with others. For example, /x/ was usually written with ȝ and later gh, but then stopped being pronounced; and people got so used to this ‘silent gh’ in words like light, night etc. that they sometimes even added it to words that had never had a /x/ to begin with, e.g. delight (p. 122) and haughty (p. 170), both of which were borrowed from French. Similarly, the words whole and whore got their initial w by analogy with the other wh-words, though they had always been pronounced with a simple /h/ (p. 124).

I knew that th in thyme was pronounced /t/, but now I learned that the same is true of the words Thomas, Anthony, Thames, Thai and a few others (p. 125).

Some odd spellings in early printed books in English apparently came about because the first English printers, having learned their craft on the Continent, mostly employed Flemish typesetters, whose command of English was shaky and influenced by Flemish spelling. This e.g. often led them to spell word-initial /g/ as <gh>, and in a few cases this even because the standard spelling (e.g. ghost; p. 140).

I was interested to learn that in Old English, /f/ and /v/ were not distinct phonemes, just allophones; and likewise /s/ and /z/ (pp. 96, 98).

In Old English, the letter y represented the sound /y/, like German ü today. But as this sound later changed into /i(:)/, the letter <y> came to be used as an alternative to <i> at the end of words (but only there; thus holy, but holier); p. 106.

There's an interesting discussion on the -ise vs. -ize spellings. If you consider the words as coming from Greek or Latin, -ize makes more sense; if from French, -ise; but often it's hard to say where a word came from. American usage prefers -ize, while British usage seems to be a good deal more mixed than I thought (pp. 102–3, 207). Crystal also mentions that using -ise means fewer exceptions, as some verbs can't be written with -ize (e.g. advise).

The verb to knife was originally to knive, with pronunciation to match, but this form is very uncommon now (p. 97).

The dot on the i was invented by medieval scribes to make the i easier to distinguish from adjacent characters that likewise consisted mostly or entirely of vertical strokes, such as u, n or m (p. 105).

Apparently, when a word had several possible spellings, some medieval scribes preferred those with more letters, since they were paid by the inch (p. 111).

The well-known unusual spelling of bury apparently emerged because the pronunciation was based on the dialect of Kent but the spelling on that of the Midlands (p. 148).


Along the way I learnt many interesting bits of information about words I have been mispronouncing. Thus e.g. canon is not pronounced with /eɪ/ but with /æ/, same as cannon, and both spellings were actually used for both senses until the 18th century (p. 75).

There's a chapter on the -ough words, explaining how they got their various pronunciations; this was interesting, but there isn't really any simple and elegant explanation that would help one remember them. I learned that lough is pronounced the same as loch (p. 173; which makes sense given that they are etymologically the same word), and I can only be thankful that I have never had to say it out loud, because I would have guessed it's pronounced the same as low :| I have also learned, though not from this book but by hearing it pronounced in an audiobook on youtube, that trough rhymes with cough, and not with throw as I would have guessed.

Apparently the o in omit is long (like e.g. the one in note) and not short (like e.g. the one in not) as I thought it was; p. 284.

I never quite understood how hyphenation works in English, but Crystal provides a useful-looking summary: the British prefer to put hyphens between morphemes, the Americans between syllables (p. 259).


Starting from the early modern period, people began noticing that English spelling is a bit chaotic, and tried to find rules for it; the problem is that many such rules have too many exceptions to be useful, and without the exceptions they are misleading and do more harm than good (p. 179). Crystal focuses on what is probably the most famous such rule, ‘I before E except after C’, and spends about six pages explaining what the actual exceptions to the ‘I before E’ part are (pp. 180–5).

Sometimes the pronunciation of a word changes under the influence of its spelling, and there are several interesting examples of this on pp. 192–3. Originally, it appears, travail was pronounced like travel (and they are etymologically the same word); the p in empty used to be silent, as was the t in often, the first i in medicine, and the h in herb; forehead was pronounced as if it were forrid; etc. I found that I'm using the spelling pronunciations of all these words, which I guess is unsurprising since one learns a foreign language more from reading it than from hearing it spoken.

There are a couple of interesting chapters on the influence of the major dictionaries on spelling, Johnson's in Britain and Webster's in America. Webster, of course, is famous for his innovations such as dropping the u in -our, but I didn't know that he also proposed several other changes, such as tung and fether (p. 199). I can only be glad that these didn't catch on.


Towards the end of the book there are a few chapters on the current and possible future developments in English spelling, especially due to the impact of the internet, and that was of course a painful and uncomfortable topic for me, since I'm one of those unfortunate people who cannot help regarding all language change as degeneration (I don't say that it wouldn't in principle be possible for a language to change in a way that makes it better, it's just that this somehow almost never seems to happen, and certainly doesn't seem to be happening now).

Most of the recent and ongoing changes, unsurprisingly, are some form of simplifications, e.g. the removal of full-stops in many abbreviations (p. 214) and the loss of certain irregularities due to the spread of misspellings (e.g. rubarb, whose meteoric rise in the early 21st century Crystal chronicles on p. 221). Interestingly, there are also factors that make the spelling more unpredictable, e.g. the tendency to keep foreign loanwords in their original spelling, which didn't use to be the case (Crystal points out that German Nudel was borrowed as noodle in the 18th century, but the more recent borrowing of Strudel remained strudel; p. 237).


Finally there's a “teaching appendix”, in which Crystal presents some more concrete ideas on how the teaching of English speling could be improved based on the awareness of the sort of patterns (and their historical development) that he described earlier in the book. This can probably be quite relevant for those interested in the teaching of spelling, but it wasn't very interesting for me.

I can agree easily enough that some of the old approaches that he criticizes are really bad, e.g. having to memorize more or less random lists of difficult-to-spell words without anybody trying to explain the patterns behind them; though I'm pretty sure that we didn't learn English spelling in quite so inconvenient a way when I was in school. But he also strongly objects to teaching easily confused words together, e.g. with sentences like “The principal had principles” (p. 282) — it isn't obvious to me why that would be a bad idea, but he just bluntly asserts that it is one, without trying to explain why.

But I was happy to agree with his recommendations to teach the actual patterns behind English spelling (like the ones described in this book) instead of misguided 19th-century rules (of the ‘I before E except after C’ type), and to encourage people to read more so as to absorb more spelling information that way (pp. 287–9).


I enjoyed this book a great deal. It is short, very readable, and I learned something interesting on almost every page. I think it can be recommended to everyone with an interest in English spelling.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

BOOK: Leon Battista Alberti, "Momus"

Leon Battista Alberti: Momus. Translated by Sarah Knight. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 8. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674007549. xxv + 407 pp.

I vaguely remembered hearing of Leon Battista Alberti as having been an architect, but it turns out that he also wrote quite a few books on a variety of subjects. The present work, Momus, is a novel (or, at any rate, a longish story in prose), but a very strange one. In a preface, Alberti explains that his aim is partly to philosophise, partly to entertain (¶5), and that he follows the example of ancient writers by using gods as personifications of different “mental qualities” (¶6).

I liked almost nothing about this novel. We are told it is satirical and darkly comical; but I found pretty much nothing in it funny (not that I expected to find it funny; I already know that comical works from the past generally don't strike me as funny — either my sense of humor is broken or, more likely, humor is just too culturally specific).

I also couldn't help thinking that for a story to be satire, there should be something more to it than merely showing a bunch of characters acting like fools and scumbags all the time. But then they are hardly characters at all; they aren't persons — they are “mental qualities”, as the author himself tells us. The eponymous protagonist, Momus, is the god of strife and criticism, a trickster, intriguer, shape-shifter, and all-round asshole. Jupiter, king of the gods, is a vaccilating, weak, and incompetent ruler, and all too often behaves in a capricious and tyrannous fashion. Most of the other gods behave like your typical spineless, scheming courtiers. The human species is represented by a broad assortment of fools and knaves, from philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes to various random fictional actors and rogues. There's almost no character in the book that you could call really decent, and none at all that would be decent *and* effective. Well, I guess that makes it a perfect reflection of the rough-and-tumble society of Renaissance Italy that the author actually lived in, so we shouldn't blame him for it.

But the thing that bothered me the most is the complete and deliberate absence of any coherent plot; it's just one damn random thing after another, with new and unrelated events and characters constantly showing up unexpectedly out of nowhere. The author isn't *really* trying to tell us a story, he's just touching himself under the table while writing. There are some subjects that clearly interested him so he keeps returning to them, e.g. architecture and especially its decline. Juno tries building a golden arch but it soon collapses ignominiously (2.100–1); and when Jupiter considers dismantling the world to build a new one, he is warned that the new one wouldn't be any better than the old one because the architects nowadays aren't as good as they used to be (3.69).

Another topic that Alberti is interested in is rulership; we mostly see this through the negative example of Jupiter, who does not seem to particularly like being a ruler, and certainly isn't good at it (2.104). But if the book gives us a vivid enough example of a bad ruler, it doesn't have much in the way of suggestions on how to devise better modes of government. Towards the end of the book we see some explicit advice on how to be a good prince (4.101–2), but it proves to be such bland moderationism that I doubt we're meant to take it seriously. In any case, Machiavelli this is not, though in Alberti's defense his book did predate The Prince by more than 50 years.

Another interesting recurring subject is that of disbelief in the gods, a view espoused by several characters here and there in the book, mostly as a philosophical position. I guess you could say that the gods appear as such unappealing characters in this book that this in itself constitutes an inducement towards disbelief. But, in Alberti's defense, perhaps he would say that this is just as intended since he really doesn't believe in the Olympian gods anyway, besides which his gods aren't really gods but mere personifications of mental qualities.

One thing that I did like about this book, however, is the style of the translation, which is a good deal more lively, and a good deal less stiffly formal, than we usually find in the ITRL seties. One concrete example: Jupiter is often referred to as “best and greatest” (a standard Latin phrase: Jupiter optimus maximus), but at one point, where Juno is ranting at him and uses this phrase sarcastically, it is translated very appropriately as “High and Mighty Jupiter” :)) (2.30)

Book I

We are introduced to Momus behaving in his typical way: when Jupiter calls upon the other gods to improve his creation by adding various useful things to it, Momus ‘contributes’ by releasing verminous insects into the world (1.6), while criticizing the gifts provided by other gods (1.7). The goddess Mischief (Fraus in Latin, the same word that is also the source of the English ‘fraud’) ensures that numerous complaints against Momus reach Jupiter, while pretending to be on his side (1.10).

Momus thinks Jupiter is doing a poor job as the king of the gods; he changes his mind too much, he has delegated too much power to Fate, he has not insured himself well enough against the efforts of humankind, etc. (1.19–22). Hearing of this, Jupiter banishes Momus to earth; in the process, Momus loses some aspect of his divinity (“the sacred flame that identifies all gods”, 1.26). To revenge himself on the gods, he poses as a philosopher, preaching atheism and fomenting discord amongst philosophical schools (1.27–31).

Jupiter sends the goddess Virtue to earth to intervene and calm the situation (1.36). Throngs of people come to do homage to Virtue and her children (Triumph, Trophy, Praise, and Posterity); 1.41, 48. Momus pretends to be contrite and submissive during his meeting with Virtue (1.47), but soon reverts to his old self and starts riling the humans up against gods again (1.49–50). Changing to human shape, he teaches girls the arts of cosmetics (1.58–62), seemingly for no other reason than that he likes deceit and (dis)simulation in all of their forms. He also has a plan to annoy the gods indirectly by inciting humans to pester them with prayers (1.65–6).

Next, Momus falls in love with Praise, the daughter of Virtue, turns himself into a vine of ivy so he can climb the wall to reach her (1.68–70). He successfully molests her, but a funny scene happens soon afterwards: he is still in the form of ivy when some human ruffians start climbing him (1.71–2). Praise soon gives birth to a baby named Rumor (Fama), who looks rather like a Lovecraftian monster: “thick with eyes, ears and darting tongues” (1.74). It begins flying around the world and spreading gossip, much to Momus's satisfaction (1.79).

The goddess Fortune, who regards Virtue as a hated rival, arranges for Hercules to be carried off by Rumor to heaven, where he will become a god (1.84); the gods welcome him as an ally against Rumor (1.92). Momus takes on the shape of Hercules and tries to incite other humans to try reaching heaven too, to cause more trouble there (1.88–90). Other humans are planning an attack on Virtue and her offspring, who all disappear in panic when Rumor alerts them to the danger (1.94–96).

Book II

Since Momus's invention of prayer, more and more prayers from the mortals are reaching the gods, who initially enjoy the attention and decide to recall Momus from his exile (2.2–3). They send the goddesses Pallas and Minerva to fetch him (surprisingly, to Alberti these are two different deities rather than two names of the same deity). Momus is delighted by this and plans to continue his policy of deceit and dissimulation against the gods who had slighted him (2.12–14). He acts suitably humble when brought before Jupiter, but he is also glad to see that the masses of prayers and votive offerings that are coming from the mortals are an increasingly serious nuisance to the gods on Olympus (2.18–19).

Momus gives an account of his experiences on earth, trying to paint the mortals in a bad light, and suggests that Rumor be sent to report on their doings (2.23–5). Juno appears and harangues Jupiter for forgiving Momus, whom she dislikes (2.26–30); Jupiter allows her to take, from the mortals' offerings, those items that are made of gold — all others are being discarded as a worthless nuisance (2.32–5).

Momus also describes the various occupations he had tried while amongst the mortals; he didn't much like being a soldier (2.39–41) or a king (2.42–6), but he has great praise for the life of a beggar (2.47–58): many social conventions do not apply to you, nobody cares how you behave or how you dress, you have nothing to lose, the job requires no skill, etc. But much of this speech in praise of beggardom is surely deeply sarcastic, e.g. when he says that it makes no difference whether one sleeps on the ground or on a bed (2.53). Owing to his entertaining stories, Momus becomes Jupiter's favourite, and some of the other deities try making up with him (2.65–9).

However, Momus resents being thought of as merely a buffoon who tells entertaining stories at banquets (2.70–1). Asked to tell the story about how mortals attacked him and tore his beard, he decides to focus on the more serious parts of the story: he had long debates with philosophers who denied the existence of gods (2.75–90), and they attacked him when he tried to provide counter-arguments (2.91–2). After Momus is done with his story, Hercules, who is also present, makes some remarks defending the philosophers, saying that they are not all like that (2.93–9).

Jupiter complains about his role as the ruler of the gods, especially because he has to mediate in their endless quarrels (2.103–4) and listen to prayers from ungrateful mortals (2.107–9); and the aforementioned votive offerings are piling up everywhere (2.105–6) and causing discord among the gods. Momus is delighted by all this and gives various half-serious suggestions on how Jupiter could punish the mortals (2.111–12; e.g. by sending them more women, who are sure to cause plenty of trouble :]). As for the offerings, they will be moved out of the way at Momus's suggestion (2.114–15). Mischief is so impressed by Momus's powers of deceit that she tries to regain his favour (2.116–19).

Book III

Jupiter decides he wants to build another world to replace the current one; opinions among the other gods vary, but Momus is of course delighted to have caused so much trouble (3.1–5). Jupiter is unsure how to go about his task; some of the gods suggest that he consult human philosophers (3.7–9). He talks to a few of them in disguise, and although they are all behaving more or less ridiculously, Jupiter is impressed and thinks highly of their intelligence (3.12–17).

Next he dispatches Mercury to go talk to philosophers and also to bring Virtue back to Olympus (3.18–19); Mercury meets Socrates and Diogenes, who behave as they usually do, and he returns to heaven without accomplishing anything (3.22–6). Next Jupiter sends Apollo on a similar mission (3.29–30), and meanwhile summons a big assembly of the gods, to be timed with Apollo's return (3.31). To Jupiter's embarrassment, Apollo is late, and there is much commotion among the gods about how to proceed with the project (3.34–9).

Momus, appointed by Jupiter to preside over the meeting, blames the tumult on the presence of female deities, which outrages them enough that they castrate him (3.40–1). By the time Apollo returns, the meeting is over; he describes his encounters with the philosophers, including Diogenes who was dissecting a crab and was puzzled at the absence of any visible brain (1.44–60).

Hunger, Fever and other such deities begin tormenting mankind since they figure that the world is going to be destroyed soon anyway; humans respond by building more temples and the like, hoping to regain the gods' favour (1.65–6). This finally persuades the gods — including Jupiter, who has been getting cold feet about the project anyway — not to proceed with the plan of destroying and remaking the world (1.67–70). To avoid appearing weak and indecisive, Jupiter tries to shift the blame for the original plan onto Momus, and condemns him to being chained to a rock (1.71–4).

Book IV

Humans have built a large amphitheatre and are about to hold games in honour of the gods; but the gods can't watch the event from heaven because Momus has persuaded certain nymphs to veil the sky with a cloud (4.4–7). Therefore they descend to earth; to watch the show discretely, they take the place and shape of statues of the gods that stand in the theatre, moving the original statues out of the way (4.10). The god Stupor moves his statue to a cave, where it later gives a good fright to a gang of robbers who has dragged their prisoner, an actor-philosopher named Oenops, there (4.12–15). Impressed by this, Oenops mends his previously atheistic ways and becomes a fervent worshipper of the gods (4.18–24).

Meanwhile, Charon arrives from the underworld, wishing to see the world before it gets destroyed; he is accompanied by a dead philosopher named Gelastus, and on the way they have a discussion about his pursuits as a philosopher: Charon points out that they mostly just say trivial things in complicated-sounding ways (4.26–39). Charon tells an alegorical tale of an artificer who created homunculi of different kinds, and encouraged them to climb to his house on a mountain, but only by the steep and straight road (4.43–45). Charon also doesn't quite see the point of theatrical performances (4.48–49). Gelastus gets into a fight with Oenops; the actors respond by throwing stones at Gelastus and Charon, who beat a hasty retreat (4.51–3).

They board Charon's boat again, and, after an uncomfortably close encounter with a group of pirates (4.61–71), they reach the spot where Momus is chained (4.72). Meanwhile great upheaval is taking place at the theatre: strong winds caused parts of it to collapse, injuring some of the gods; Jupiter decides they must put the statues back and leave immediately, though this does not happen without further complications (4.73–8).

Momus observes that he had been in Jupiter's favour for as long as he had behaved as a flatterer, but then got into trouble when he tried to start providing honest advice (4.81–4). By way of commiseration, Gelastus relates the story of his own and Charon's hardships (4.85–6). They observe that Jupiter is not a wise ruler. As they continue their journey, Charon tells an anecdote about a king and his herald; the later provided various more or less philosophical arguments as to why he is just as important as the king (4.92–8).

Jupiter, meanwhile, having returned to heaven, is disappointed with the failure of all his plans, and finally picks up the notebooks with advice on government that Momus had given him a while ago. The advice there seems to be mostly about moderation and seeking the middle course in everything (4.99–102).


Now I have not only finished reading all the volumes so far published in the ITRL series, but also written blog posts about them all; and I can't help noticing that the last few volumes were published last September, and no new ones have been even announced since then, let alone published. I don't think they've ever had such a long pause before, and I wonder if something went wrong. Were they afflicted by the epidemic? Did they run out of money? But Harvard University Press's other similar series, such as the Murty Classical Library of India, seem to be proceeding at their usual pace.

Could there be something more sinister at play? I remember that last July, James Hankins, the general editor of the ITRL ever since its inception, published an essay in Quillette where he stood up boldly to the woke cultists that have come to colonize Renaissance studies, as they have done to so many other academic fields before; and so I can't help but wonder now — could it be that he is getting cancelled over it, with the ITRL series suffering as a sort of collateral damage? I hope not; but nowadays you never know.

Or could it be some bean-counter's business decision without any influence from the culture wars? A year or two ago they thought it necessary to meddle with the I Tatti logo (old, new); the bee is now an unrecognizable shadow of its former self, and Bernard Berenson's initials are completely gone. You can see right away that some overconfident imbecile with no appreciation of tradition saw an opportunity to make his mark by meddling and ruining something, and so proceeded at once to do just that. Once an organization starts meddling with its own logo for no good reason, you can usually be sure that the people now in charge there are those whose only skill is in polishing turds, and that they will turn the organization itself into a turd before long as well.

In any case, it would be unfortunate if the ITRL series ended so abruptly, with a number of multi-volume works being only partly done. Let's hope we'll see the announcement of some new volumes soon.

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Saturday, May 08, 2021

BOOK: Kallendorf (ed.), "Humanist Educational Treatises"

Humanist Educational Treatises. Edited and translated by Craig W. Kallendorf. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 5. Harvard University Press, 2002. 067400759X. xvi + 358 pp.

This book contains four treatises by various fifteenth-century authors, along with an interesting introduction by the translator. He points out that medieval higher education was meant to be practical: you studied to become a lawyer or a physician or a theologian. The Renaissance humanists came up with the new idea that an education focused on learning the classical languages and studying the classical literature would turn the students into better people (p. vii), and since they would mostly be coming from the ruling class this could quite possibly lead to a better-run state and a better society.

I'm a bit skeptical as to how well this actually worked — for example, we've all heard the tales of how Ancient Greek was more useful than Sanskrit on the civil service examinations in British India, and the Indians nowadays don't seem to be particularly happy with how the British bureaucrats educated along those lines governed India back then —, but at least as an ideal it struck me as admirable. Some traces of this ideal were left in at least some parts of some countries' educational systems into the twentieth century, though by now they have no doubt all been thoroughly wiped out, first in the name of modernism and capitalist efficiency and later in the name of diversity and wokeist decolonization.

It is, of course, entirely possible that my view of humanist education is biased, being that of an outsider looking in and wondering what he is missing. I didn't have a classical education myself, which is probably just as well since my experience shows me that I'm no good at languages; if I could never get to the point where I could intuitively choose between dem and den correctly in German, what hope would I have with the infinitely more abstruse grammar of ancient Greek? Much of my reading, including of the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, is motivated by a vague notion of making up for this deficiency, though at some level I'm of course perfectly aware that the matter is hopeless, and no matter how much I read in these areas I'll never really get them, and will forever remain in a state of puzzled confusion and blank ignorance.

The four treatises presented here vary a bit in their scope — some include even such topics as physical training, some limit themselves to education of the mind or even a bit more narrowly to literature in particular — but they also have much in common, their recommendations sometimes overlap, and they all share a feature that struck me as peculiar for people propounding a new system of education: namely, they are absolutely peppered with allusions and references to the work of classical authors (all of which, as usual, have been duly hunted down by the translator and made explicit in the notes at the end of the book), as if the only way you could justify introducing a new idea is by pretending that you're just restoring something that the ancients had already said a long time before. It is charming in a way, but you also can't help seeing how it could become a problem if carried too far, and I guess it's no surprise that within a few centuries this sort of argumentation fell out of style.

Pier Paolo Vergerio: The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-born Youth

This treatise is addressed to young Ubertino da Carrara, son of Francesco, the ruler of Padua. Vergerio takes care to suck up to the princeling by suggesting that the advice given here is probably unnecessary since Ubertino is already following it anyway (¶4, 74); but the author's flattery and Ubertino's education were both in vain, for the latter died aged only 18.

Vergerio starts by observing that parents should provide their children with three things: give them an honourable name, settle in a renowned city, and instruct them in the liberal arts (¶1). I guess he would not be impressed by the modern mania for outlandish names, the more ridiculous and exotic the better. He emphasizes the concept of a “liberal temper”, motivated chiefly by “eagerness for praise” and “love of glory” (¶6), though he is happy to sweep all sorts of other more or less desirable characteristics under this heading as well. He later contrasts this with the “illiberal” intellect, which is motivated by “profit and pleasure” (¶23).

Thus, for him — annoyingly, but unsurprisingly — education is not chiefly about learning certain information, but about forming certain moral habits and dispositions: he objects to lying (¶13), lust (¶16), and drinking (¶18); he praises modesty and good behaviour (¶14–15), religion (¶19) and respect for the elders (¶20). Boring.

Apart from handwavy references to honour and glory, he never actually provides any clear arguments why liberal arts should be desirable at all; he seems to take this fact for granted and keenly urges that people should spend as much of their time studying as possible, especially while young (¶26). For someone like me, who am yet to find any piece of knowledge that would not strike me as being, in a deep and fundamental sense, quite worthless and useless, it is difficult to appreciate Vergerio's keen praise of learning.

Still, I couldn't help finding the following passage charming: “What way of life, then, can be more delightful, or indeed more beneficial, than to read and write all the time: for moderns to understand things ancient; for present generations to converse with their posterity; and thus to make every time our own, both past and future? [. . .] What a happy family books make! Absolutely honest and well-behaved! A family that does not fuss or shout,” etc. (¶37). There is something to this; and it might even be good advice for a man of limited means; but a prince could surely afford to spend his time drinking, partying and whoring rather than studying, and he'd have more fun in the process. I hope and suspect that that's just what most princes actually did, despite the admonitions of schoolmasters like Vergerio :)

He discusses the various liberal arts in a bit more detail next, recommending history, moral philosophy, and eloquence (¶40) in particular, while drawing and painting are better left to professionals (¶41); he also recommends music, arithmetic, law and medicine (¶42–6), but in moderate amounts. To his credit, he is aware that different people will have a stronger propensity for different fields of learning, and that that's OK (¶47). He recommends that study should be regular and methodical, emphasizes the importance of memory, but also recommends disputation as a useful learning tool (¶50–4).

Towards the end of the treatise, Vergerio also discusses physical and military exercise, which he also considers important; he cites examples from ancient history to justify why even a ruler or commander should also be a physically powerful warrior (§55). I guess that in the violent and turbulent society of Renaissance Italy, these were indeed fairly relevant skills for a ruler to have, though they would be mostly obsolete now. He even praises the ‘educational’ methods of ancient Sparta, whose insane cruelty towards boys supposedly ensured that they “in the end performed those military exploits that fill the memory of all antiquity” (¶60). I thought this was rather ironic, as I have read, not long ago, an excellent series of blog posts which pointed out that Spartan military reputation was largely a matter of marketing themselves well and picking wisely on weaker enemies, and that the way they trained their boys is best compared to the methods used by modern terrorist groups to indoctrinate their child soldiers...

He recommends learning how to swim — good advice, though he mostly justifies it by saying it will make you “bolder in naval battles and crossing rivers” (¶68) :) He concludes with a section on “leisure and relaxation”, but even here he mostly recommends things closely related to the foregoing ones (§69–72): singing, music-making and reading on the intellectual side, and hunting on the physical side. He objects to games of chance, however (§71).

Leonardo Bruni: The Study of Literature

This is a shorter treatise than the previous one, and, as the title suggests, it is focused on a narrower topic. It is addressed to a lady named Battista Malatesta; naturally her surname made me wonder how she is related to the infamous Sigismondo Malatesta, and if I counted things right in the wikipedia, her husband was Sigismondo's third cousin once removed.

Bruni very commendably encourages her interest in literary studies, and begins by giving a few examples of famous learned women from classical history (¶1). He recommends the study of grammar as a starting point (¶4), followed by focusing on the “best and most approved authors” (¶6); in particular, Augustine and Jerome if she's interested in religious literature (¶7), or Cicero and Virgil among secular authors (¶8; “she will be careful [. . .] to use no word she has not first met in one of these authors” — the terrible bane of those writing in a dead language :)). An interesting recommendation that we don't hear often nowadays is to read aloud occasionally, to better appreciate the rhythmical qualities of good writing (¶9) — but then, I doubt if today's authors bother writing in a way that would benefit from reading aloud. If poets can't even be bothered to make rhymes, how could anyone expect them to care about subtler sound-effects like these?

Some of his advice is Latin-specific, e.g. when he advises her to “memorize the quantity of every syllable” (¶10). But I suppose there's something along these lines in many languages, since many of them have an imperfect spelling system that doesn't record all the information you might want about the pronunciation.

I liked this bit of advice: “Disciplines there are, which it is not fitting to ignore completely, yet it is by no means glorious to completely master.” (¶13) We saw something similar in the previous treatise. Bruni mentions mathematics, astrology and rhetoric as an example of these. When it comes to rhetoric, for example, since a woman won't be involved in politics or practice law, many aspects of rhetoric will be of no use to her (¶14). You might say that this advice is out of date now, but then politicians and lawyers probably don't study rhetoric now anyway.

He particularly recommends the study of theology and moral philosophy (¶16–17), but also the work of historians and orators (¶18–19); and then he has a long and very fine passage in recommendation, and defense, of studying poetry (¶20–5). He points out that poetry provides useful advice and moral instruction (¶21); that poets write from a kind of divine inspiration that is often combined with prophetic insight (¶22); and that the “sounds and rhythms” of poetry can uplift and inspire the reader's or listener's soul (¶24). It is true that poets sometimes show characters who behave immorally, but then so does the bible (¶26–7).

In conclusion, he recommends that one should adopt a wide-ranging and well-rounded programme of reading: “Literary skill without knowledge is useless and sterile” (¶29), and you need both skill and knowledge to be eloquent.


There's another very remarkable thing about this treatise, or rather about the translation, which is by James Hankins. At one point, Bruni cites a few lines of Virgil (¶22), and they are translated here into a wonderfully Drydenesque English:

Thence man- and cattle-kind, thence soar th'aerial
beasts, and thence from 'neath the flashing waves doth Ocean's shudd'ring prodigies come forth. (Aeneid, book 6.)

And so on — the only thing that gave away the fact that it isn't from Dryden's translation of the Aeneid is the lack of rhymes. [Well, that and the fact that “doth” is used with a plural subject — an embarrassing oversight, which already appeared in the first publication of this translation in 1987).] I later looked up the corresponding passage in Dryden's version, and another difference seems to be that Dryden's translation is freer while Hankins's is closer:

Hence men and beasts the breath of life obtain,
And birds of air, and monsters of the main.

Anyway, I think Hankins deserves nothing short of a medal for this; nearly all the poetry in the ITRL series has been translated into prose, or into verse utterly bereft of all poetical qualities; but here, for once in the entire history of the series, we get real poetry, we get verse of the kind that Dryden himself wouldn't be embarrassed to have written — how very unfortunate that this example has not been imitated by other translators of poetry in this series.

(Another intriguing thing in the lines quoted above is “th'aerial”; since the translator felt the need to drop the e in the, he must have thought of aerial as having four syllables rather than three. I was sorry to learn, in the wiktionary, that the four-syllable pronunciation is apparently regarded as obsolete now. This is particularly unfortunate as it was closer to the original Latin pronunciation.)

I was also intrigued by the appearance of “plebian” on p. 121; at first I thought it must be a misprint, but it seems to be a legitimate although rare variant spelling: wiktionary, Google n-grams.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini: The Education of Boys

This is the longest treatise in this volume; the author would later become better known as pope Pius II, but at the time of writing this work he was just the bishop of Trieste (¶1). It is addressed to ten-year-old Ladislaus, king of Hungary, and was written at the request of his instructor (¶5).

Aeneas begins with some general remarks on the importance of learning, especially to monarchs, and cites various examples from ancient history (¶4); later he points out that learning is the one thing that you cannot lose due to ill fortune, unlike material possessions (¶25). Learning will also be useful to a king as a sort of check to the statements of the flatterers that surround him (¶27). To his credit, Aeneas says that teachers should “guide you by their advice, not by blows” (¶10).

Before proceeding to learning in the usual sense of the word, the treatise spends some time discussing the training of the body; he argues this is important because “a king must frequently engage in battle” (¶13) — I wonder to what extent that was still true in the 15th century, especially if by “king” you mean a real king of a real country and not one of the petty brigand chiefs that passed for princes in the dinky little statelets of renaissance Italy...

He recommends moderation in work and play (¶14), in food (¶15–18) and drink (¶19–20), in clothing (¶23) and speech (¶35), etc., neither too much nor too little of anything. This struck me as quite sensible if not particularly exciting. Another sensible piece of advice was to surround oneself with virtuous people rather than vicious ones (¶32). Interestingly, on the subject of wine, he would not have a boy avoid it altogether, but drink it in small amounts “so that through moderation he may become temperate and continent” (¶20). Earlier he grumbles about the gluttonous appetite of Austrians, Hungarians and Bohemians, i.e. Ladislaus's subjects (¶16); I wonder if there's some kernel of truth behind this, something about the contrast between the lighter Mediterranean diet that Aeneas presumably knew from Italy and the heavier Central European diet in the areas under Ladislaus's rule.

Next Aeneas briefly discusses the various branches of learning. Philosophy, he says, is important to a ruler, but to understand it you also need some literary study first (¶27), by which he means something broader than one might think nowadays: to him, “literature” includes the study of grammar and composition (¶41).

Unsurprisingly for a bishop, he also stresses the importance of religion, and enjoins Ladislaus to respect priests and refrain from criticizing them (¶29–31), since if they are doing anything wrong they will be judged by god anyway — how very convenient :))

He recommends the young king to learn the languages of his subjects — Hungarian, Bohemian, German (well, this latter seems to have been his native language) — as well as Latin (¶33). This strikes me as good advice, not only because it improves communication between the monarch and his subjects but also because, were it taken seriously, it would discourage the formation of multi-ethnic states. At some point the kings would start saying ‘no, I don't want to conquer another country, because I can't be bothered to learn another language’, and that would be a glorious thing :]

He stresses the importance of speaking well, both in terms of delivery and of content (¶36–8). He then goes into a good deal of detail about various points regarding the Latin language, which struck me as somewhat odd given that the treatise is written in Latin; I would imagine that Ladislaus either already knows those things or he won't understand the treatise anyway. Aeneas points out that some Latin words are loanwords (¶42), discusses various kinds of word-formation (¶43, 48), metaphorical use of words (¶44–6), cautions against coining new words (¶47; unless you are a sufficiently important author that you can get away with it!) and against “barbarisms” (¶49) and “solecisms” (¶50), by which he seems to mean more or less anything of which you can't find an example in the extant works of the best classical authors. I can sympathize with this; to write in a foreign language is a great nuissance as you keep wondering whether some usage is idomatic or not; and it must be even worse if the language in question is a dead one, and if you don't have Google to check whether some word or phrase is in use the way you intend to use it or not.

He has some sensible advice against using the words in their etymological meaning instead of the meaning they actually came to have (¶52), against going too far in the use of archaic words (¶55): “We must employ speech like money, using the common currency” (¶57). At the same time, this doesn't mean you should let yourself be guided completely by vulgar usage; if lots of people are wrong, that doesn't make them right, and what you should imitate is “the consensus of good men” (¶58). This strikes me as good and moderate advice, and felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the dogma that modern linguists keep ramming down our throats, according to which if some error becomes widespread enough, it is no longer an error, and according to which there is no such thing as degeneration in language, merely harmless and random change.

There's also a fine rant against the sort of ridiculous fake etymologies that people were so keen on pulling out of their asses, both in the ancient times and in the Renaissance (¶54). Here's one I really liked: some claimed “that Vienna was so called from bienna [two years], because for two years it withstood a siege by Julius Caesar; yet in Caesar's lifetime it had not yet been founded, and at first it was not called Vienna, but Flaviana [castra]” (¶54).

Aeneas also makes some recommendations about which authors to focus one's study on, from various genres (¶69–73), and has a nice defense of reading ancient poets, which apparently some theologians of his own day argued against (¶63–6; he does advise against having boys read some of the spicier Roman love-poets and satirists, however, ¶70). When it comes to history, he unsurprisingly regards it mostly as something that should be a source of moral instruction; therefore: “One should not put Suetonius in a boy's hands. [. . .] I would absolutely forbid the histories of the Bohemians or the Hungarians and similar accounts to be put into a boy's hands. For they are written by ignorant people, and contain much silliness, many lies, no maxims, and no elegance of style” (¶73).

Towards the end he goes into a fair amount of detail about Latin spelling (¶77–88), which wasn't of much use to me as someone unfamiliar with that language. For example, he tries to present some general principles on the spelling of common prefixes such as ad-, ex- and the like, though he seems to also keep noticing words whose customary spelling doesn't follow those principles. There's also a section on the doubling of consonants (¶79) and one on aspiration (i.e. the letter h; ¶86).

Regarding other disciplines such as rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music (¶89–95), he says they should be studied in moderation, as it would be a waste of time for a future king to try mastering any of them thoroughly. He concludes by a particularly strong recommendation in favour of studying moral philosophy (¶97–98). Clearly he seems to regard this as something that is likely to make you a better person, and it was interesting to see how different philosophy must have been in former times. Nowadays nobody would be so insane as to imagine that present-day moral philosophers could provide any guidance on that, because we know that they can invent half a dozen different and incompatible ethical systems before breakfast and then spend the rest of the day arguing for and against each of them. There is nothing so outrageous or so preposterous that you could not find some philosopher capable of writing an argument in favour of it. No, nowadays we know that philosophers are precisely the last people to whom it would make sense to look for moral guidance. But I wish it weren't like this, and it's nice to see that in Aeneas's time it actually wasn't like this.

Battista Guarino: A Program of Teaching and Learning

I rather liked this treatise, which is a bit shorter and a good deal more to the point than some of the others in this book, perhaps because Guarino was a practicing teacher himself and because he relays the advice of his father, who had even more experience in this line of work (¶2). That being said, Guarino does start with some advice that struck me as dubious. He advises his pupil “to acquire spontaneously a real desire to learn” (¶3), which might be good advice if it weren't utterly impracticable. How the heck is one supposed to ‘acquire’ that? It's easy to agree that learning is desirable; it's easy to desire to desire to learn; but how to get from there to actually desiring to learn is far from obvious — especially if, as is all too often the case, most of what one is going to be learning is neither interesting nor useful.

Guarino also advises the pupil to “show parental reverence” to his teacher (¶4), which is not something I can have any sympathy for. How could you not hate and despise someone who wastes your time with boring lectures on pointless topics, pesters you with homework, asks annoying questions, distracts you from more interesting things that you'd rather be doing, and so on? Fortunately nowadays, by all accounts, teachers are not respected, least of all by their pupils, and that's as it should be. The only way that study could be made halfway tolerable would be to regard it as a sort of hobby for bored dilettantes, who might from time to time be moved, on a whim, to read or learn something new for the sake of satisfying a transient bout of curiosity. That, at any rate, is what motivates my reading. You might argue that not much learning would actually get done under this system; but as, in my experience, learning makes one neither wise nor happy, that would be no great loss.

But let's return to Guarino's treatise. Very commendably, he is opposed to beating students, though he thinks it's occasionally useful to threaten them with a beating; but mostly he suggests motivating them by appealing to their shame and their desire for honour (¶5).

Then he proceeds to the actual program, which begins with learning Latin: pronunciation (¶7–8), grammar (¶9–13), quantity (i.e. the length of vowels) and prosody (¶14–15); he mentions the heavy influence of Greek on Latin, and thus the usefulness of eventually learning Greek as well (¶16–17), especially for its vocabulary (¶20). “Let students, then, acquire the Greek language, but not in the confused and disorderly way that the Greeks usually teach it.” (¶18) :)) I guess the Greeks in question were used to teaching ancient Greek in Greece to students whose native language was the Greek of their own time, and now had a hard time adapting their methods to students whose native language was Italian.

Next Guarino discusses the various classical authors that a student should read, partly for the sake of their language and partly for the sake of their content. He starts, of course, with Cicero and Virgil (¶21, 25, 28), but continues with a fairly broad list of historians, poets, comic playwrights, etc.

He even has some advice on how to study; for example, the student should imagine that he will have to teach this subject some day, which will motivate him to think about it more thoroughly (¶29); he also recommends writing notes, summaries etc. of the things one has read (¶30–1), which struck me as good advice; my blog here is trying to do something not entirely unlike this for my own reading. Another interesting idea is to read aloud, partly on the theory that you will pay more attention to the text that way, and partly because “[i]t even helps our digestion somewhat, or so authorities on the secrets of nature and medicine claim” (¶33). :)) I suspect that reading aloud could help you with the pronunciation of the text, but would actually distract you from focusing on its meaning (especially if it's in a foreign language, as it would always be for Guarino's students reading in Latin or Greek), and so would generally do more harm than good. In any case, he does advise the student to focus on the content of the text first, and on the language only second (¶34). He also recommends fixed and regular hours of study, and ideally one would think of it as an enjoyable enough activity to spend one's leisure time at it as well (¶36–7); but that's easier said than done, and I for one have never been able to get to such a state of mind.

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BOOK: Boccaccio, "Famous Women"

Giovanni Boccaccio: Famous Women. Edited and translated by Virginia Brown. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 1. Harvard University Press, 2001. 0674003470. xxv + 530 pp.

This work consists of about 100 short biographies (on average two or three pages long) of (more or less) famous women. Most of them are from ancient history and classical mythology; as he explains in the preface (p. 13), he deliberately avoided writing about christian women since you can easily find hagiographies of saints elsewhere if you want them, and since they mostly led religious lives and hence weren't likely to do things that would bring them fame the way pagan women could have done.

The biographies in this book are arranged roughly in chronological order; I vaguely remember reading somewhere about efforts like that of Eusebius who tried to place events and characters from Greek mythology, biblical stories, and actual ancient history into a common chronological framework, assigning dates to them etc. Perhaps Boccaccio followed something of that sort when arranging his biographies.

Probably more than half the women in this book are mythological, from Olympian goddesses to legendary Roman matrons from the earlier books of Livy. Only a handful of biographies at the end of the book are about medieval women or Boccaccio's contemporaries; the last of these is the queen of Sicily, which he no doubt added because he was about to move to her capital, Naples, at the invitation of one of her courtiers (p. xii).

As he himself explains in his preface (p. 11), what he means by ‘famous’ is simply that they must be well-known, not necessarily for something good; but even a biography of someone wicked can be instructive, by showing you how not to act. That said, a few of the women in this biography are far from famous even in this shallower sense, being known for nothing beyond one passing anecdote in the work of some ancient encyclopedist (e.g. §53, 86, 91, etc.).

At times his tone is a little too annoyingly didactic, as he is clearly a little too keen to point out moral lessons that his female readership should draw from this or that passage in his biographies. Also, for a book in praise of famous women it has surprisingly many casual misogynistic remarks, though the translator's preface tells us that Boccaccio's attitudes are actually quite progressive relative to his time (p. xix). I liked this passing barb in the biography of Penelope: “Her virtue is the more renowned and praiseworthy in that it is only rarely found” :)) (40.14).


The first two biographies are something of an exception by being based on biblical rather than Greco-Roman history. We learn that Eve, while in Paradise, “was cloaked in a radiance unknown to us” (1.5); but after being exiled from it, “[t]he gleaming light which clothed them disappeared” (1.7).

An implausible story from the chapter on Semiramis, queen of the Assyrians: after her husband died, leaving behind a son that was still a child, Semiramis herself dressed up as a boy and ruled instead of the son so that the empire would be in competent hands :)) (2.4–6)


Boccaccio then continues with biographies of several Greco-Roman goddesses. Since, as a christian, he doesn't believe in pagan mythology, he argues that those were really mortal women who got famous for their achievements and inventions and whom the foolish pagans later worshipped as goddesses. For instance, Minerva discovered woolworking and the art of making olive oil (6.3–4); Isis taught Egyptians, those “unskilled, lazy people”, about agriculture! (8.4).

We also see a few silly efforts to explain myths in a quasi-rational way, e.g. Europa was kidnapped in a “ship with a white bull as its standard” (9.2), hence the myth that she was kidnapped by (Zeus in the shape of) a bull — I remember seeing a lot along those lines in Boccaccio's book about ancient mythology, the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, of which we've had two volumes in the ITRL so far (see my posts about them)

A pleasantly salacious custom from Cyprus: “They were long accustomed to send young girls to the beaches to lie with foreigners. In this way the girls seem to have rendered to Venus the first fruits of their future chastity and to have earned dowries for their marriages.” (7.10)


After goddesses, he moves on to mortal women from ancient mythology, and mostly deals with them by recounting the myths in which they appear, since there's little else that can be said about them. This includes a number of famous and touching ones, like those of Niobe (§15), Arachne (§18), and Pyramus and Thisbe (§13).

One thing that bothered me about Boccaccio's retellings of myths is his insistence on passing cheap moral judgement all the time, as if he were a schoolmaster insisting that each page of his book must be instructive. For instance, there's the grisly tale of king Danaus, who had fifty daughters while his brother had fifty sons. An oracle foretold that Danaus would be killed by one of his nephews. Later, when Danaus's brother wanted his sons to get married to Danaus's daughters, Danaus secretly told these daughters that each should kill her husband on the wedding night, and all but one actually did so. Boccaccio condemns Danaus at great length for instigating these 49 murders: “This vile man thought that the few cold years of his old age should take precedence over the flowering youth of his nephews.” (14.10). But this is insane! What does Boccaccio expect Danaus to do? Simply wait to get murdered and do nothing to defend himself? Just because he is older than his would-be murderer? How exactly would that work, as a general principle? May every younger person murder any older person with impunity, or is there some sort of formula? I can already imagine utilitarianists, economists and other such monsters drooling at the thought of what wonders this would do for the pension system, and touching themselves under the table while mumbling something about ‘quality-adjusted life years’...

I was impressed by the tale of Medea's many crimes. She eloped from home with Jason, and murdered her little brother on the way to slow down her pursuers; she bore Jason two sons, but then murdered them when he took an interest in another woman; despite all this, old king Aegeas (father of Theseus) was willing to marry her, and she promptly tried to murder Theseus but failed; and after all this, she was somehow reconciled to Jason afterwards (15.6, 9). What else can you say but that that woman must have had a magical pussy? If you saw this stuff in a soap opera you'd dismiss it for being too melodramatic and implausible, but clearly the ancient Greeks had no such scruples :)

A Sybil named Erythraea, who lived “some time before the Trojan war” (21.3), foretold not only the outcome of that war, but described the future history of the Roman Empire and the emergence of christianity! You can't help but admire the zeal of whatever early church author came up with that particular tall tale :)

There's an interesting story about how the Latin alphabet was invented by one Carmenta, a daughter of the king of Arcadia who later moved to Italy (27.6). Boccaccio cannot help entering into a long log-rolling session in praise not only of the Latin alphabet but of various other blessings and accomplishments of Roman civilization (27.16). You can't help feeling that the purpose of such passages was to let the author and his Italian contemporaries feel better about themselves at a time when Italy was politically divided and weak, and often enough had foreigners interfering in her affairs.

Supposedly Mantua was named after Manto, a daughter of the famous seer Teiresias, who is well-known from Sophocles' Theban plays. Manto later settled in northern Italy and her son founded a city there and named it after her (30.6).


There's quite a few biographies of women involved in the Trojan War and its aftermath, characters from the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, etc. The chapter on Helen (§37) is particularly interesting for its background on the Trojan War; and I was surprised that in his account of the fall of Troy, Boccaccio doesn't mention the Trojan horse at all. In his version (37.15), Helen actually betrayed the Trojans: after the Greeks feigned a retreat, the Trojans had a big celebration and when they were all drunk, Helen opened the city gates and let the Greeks in; her reward was that Menelaus took her back as his wife. Not very commendable; but then few characters from the Trojan war come across as commendable.

In the chapter on Circe, Boccaccio of course can't resist moralizing and pointing out that her changing men into pigs is a metaphor for enticing them into “wantonness” or “robbery and piracy” or even: “others she induced with her tricks to cast all honor aside and take up commerce and trading” (38.5) :))) I have to say that I love this olympian contempt for commerce and trading, and I wish there were more of this attitude in the world nowadays. There is indeed no honour in these activities; you cannot afford to have any principles, you have to lie to people and ingratiate yourself with them, and at any point they are free to refuse to deal with you. A warrior coming on a campaign of conquest does not labour under these constraints, and so can afford to have honour where the trader can't.

Boccaccio's story of Dido of Carthage is quite different than what I remember (vaguely) from the Aeneid. In his version she doesn't meet Aeneas at all; a neighbouring king threatens to attack her city if she doesn't marry him, and her people press her to do it; she promises she would go to her husband on a certain date — and she does, to her late husband, by comitting suicide on his grave (42.13–15). A very touching story, more so than Virgil's version, but Boccaccio immediately ruins it by two pages of extremely heavy-handed moralizing where he uses Dido's example to rant against widows who remarry. But I'm surprised that Dido's suicide would have solved the political problem she was facing; the neighbouring king could still attack Carthage in anger, even if she was dead. (I also wonder where Boccaccio got his version of the story from. The translator's note (p. 490) says that his version is different from Virgil's, but doesn't say where it's from; does that mean that Boccaccio boldly made the whole thing up himself, out of whole cloth?)

There's a chapter on the queen of Sheba, but Boccaccio says that she was originally named Nicaula, of Ethiopia (43.1, 3); according to the wikipedia, this originally comes from Josephus. I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that the queen of Sheba's name was Bilqis or something like that; this apparently comes from Muslim sources.


Gradually Boccaccio moves on to women from early Roman history, where it's hard to say where exactly myth ends and actual history begins. There's a chapter on Rhea Ilia, the mother of Romulus and Remus; she was forced to become a vestal virgin against her will (well, evidently the virginity part didn't quite work out :]), and Boccaccio includes a fine rant against the practice of pressuring young women to become nuns, which apparently some parents did so they wouldn't have to provide dowries for them; as a result of this, he says, most nuns don't actually want to be there, have illicit sex etc. (45.5–8).

There's a chapter on Sappho, but it doesn't say anything about her lesbianism, only that she was unhappily in love with a young man (47.4).

At one point, the translation refers to Porsenna as “king of Chiusi” (52.2), rather than Clusium — such a conspicuously Italian form of the name in such a conspicuously ancient context struct me as very anachronistic.

There's a chapter about Veturia, the mother of Coriolanus. Now, a cultured person would say that he knows this story from Shakespeare, or perhaps from Livy, but I have to admit that I only knew it from Ralph Fiennes' film (which is based on Shakespeare's play but places it in a vaguely modern-day setting). Apparently Rome was in a very dire position after Coriolanus had joined their enemies, the Volscians, but his mother successfully persuaded him to send his armies away from Rome. In gratitude for her deed, the Roman senate improved the social status of women in various ways, such as by allowing them to wear jewellry and to inherit property; Boccaccio rants against this in an overwrought manner that you rarely encounter nowadays outside of the incel movement: “Thanks to feminine ornaments, masculine wealth has been depleted while women parade about in royal finery; [. . .] All this has brought many disadvantages to men and many advantages to women. [. . .] This is a woman's world, and men have become womanish.” (60.12, 14) So I guess that men have been complaining about those emasculating gold-diggers since time pretermemorial :)))


By now we've come to women about whose historicity there seems no reason to doubt, e.g. Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great (§61); Tertia, the wife of Scipio Africanus, who in his old age was apparently cheating on her with a slave-girl (74.2); and Sempronia, Scipio's granddaughter and the sister of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (76.1 — it seems that the Roman elite was smaller than I thought, and everyone was related to everyone else :)).

But even in this period some of the biographies seem to be pure myth, e.g. the bizarre tale of a woman named Flora who grew rich as a prostitute and left her wealth to the people of Rome; they set up annual games in her honour and invented the claim that she was a goddess... (64.8–12)

Much as in his Genalogy of the Pagan Gods, Boccaccio is at his best when he stops merely compiling factoids or preaching his cheap moral lessons and instead allows himself to be seduced into a storytelling mode. There's a touching scene when Theoxena, a Thessalian princess, prefers to commit suicide with her husband and children rather than fall into the hands of their enemies (71.10–12). Nowadays people seem to have a very low opinion of suicide, and are likely to disparage those who commit it as having taken the easy way out; but I disagree, and prefer the ancient view that held suicide in such circumstances to be honourable and praiseworthy, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Boccaccio praised Theoxena here as well; I thought that his commitments to christianity would lead him to object to suicide.

While praising a woman for her constancy, Boccaccio tempers this with the observation that “women are instinctively obstinate and unbending in their opinions about everything” anyway :)) (76.6).


It is only when we get to the period of the late Roman republic that the mythological entries really come to an end. We get biographies of Caesar's daughter Julia (§81); of Portia, the daughter of Cato the Younger (§82); and, continuing into the early empire, of Agrippina, the mother of Caligula (§90), and of another Agrippina who was the mother of Nero (§92); and of various less well-known women of the same period.

There's a long biography of Cleopatra, and I guess that we shouldn't be surprised that Boccaccio disapproves, noisily and at length, of her grasping for power as well as of her efforts to seduce various important Romans (“She became, so to speak, the whore of the Eastern kings: greedy for gold and jewels”, etc.; 88.9). He gives a second version of her death, in addition to the better-known one where she commits suicide; in this other version, Antony began to distrust her and eventually killed her, fearing that she could poison him (88.30).

There's a bizarre story of a woman named Paulina who lived in the time of Tiberius. She was zealously devoted to Anubis and at one point actually agreed to sleep with this god; but of course it was only a man wearing a costume. When his imposture came to light, he was exiled by Tiberius, and the priests who had aided him were executed (91.12).

I was interested to learn that Nero had a friend named Otho (95.5); I was wondering if his name has any relation to Otto, which we know from various medieval German emperors, but according to the wikipedia Otto is in fact a German name, so I guess it isn't related to the Roman Otho.

A 4th-century woman named Proba “put into verse the history of the Old and New Testaments” (97.5), but what is more, she did it entirely by reassembling fragments of verse taken from the works of Virgil! According to the translator's note (p. 500), this work is still extant.

There is a biography of Symiamira, the mother of Elagabalus, who was called Varius “because he looked as if he had been conceived in the course of his mother's incessant copulations with ‘various’ men” (99.2) :)) Elagabalus seems to have appreciated her help in gaining him the throne, and even went so far as to appoint her to the senate. Boccaccio, of course, fulminates in shock at the idea of a woman senator (99.9), but that's just silly — by then, the senate had been powerless for centuries, mostly doing nothing except rubberstamping the emperors' decisions; no further shame, no further dishonour could be visited upon the senate by appointing a woman, or for that matter a horse, to it, because the senate had already deprived itself of all honour centuries before when it allowed the emperors to seize power.


The book ends with a tiny handful of medieval biographies: pope Joan (§101), whom he describes as an Englishwoman, but she seems to have been from Germany, though she lived in England for a number of years (I was disappointed to learn, in the wikipedia, that Joan's very existence seems to be a fiction originating no earlier than the 13th century); Irene, an 8th-century Byzantine empress (§102); one or two other near-contemporaries of Boccaccio; and finally Joanna, the “queen of Jerusalem and Sicily” (§106), the former in title only, of course (alas!). Boccaccio was invited to move to Naples by an old friend who had risen to a prominent position at Joanna's court, and so probably included this biography at the end to make a more favourable impression upon arriving there (pp. xii, xiv–xv). But I was a bit disappointed that he didn't include some more women from his own time; surely with some effort he could have dug up a few that had e.g. painted something or written some books?

In any case, regardless of the minor downsides I've mentioned here and there, I found Boccaccio's biographies to be pleasant enough to read in moderate doses, especially since they are short and thus don't have the time to get boring. In this way they are similar to his Genealogies of the Pagan Gods, which I guess is not surprising as both of these books are basically about extracting infomation from classical sources and rearranging it in a more systematic and easily digestible format.

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Saturday, February 27, 2021

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "Dialogues" (Vols. 2 and 3)

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: Dialogues. Vol. 2: Actius. Edited and translated by Julia Haig Gaisser. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 91. Harvard University Press, 2020. 9780674237186. xi + 463 pp.

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: Dialogues. Vol. 3: Aegidius and Asinus. Translated by Julia Haig Gaisser. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 92. Harvard University Press, 2020. 9780674248465. xi + 264 pp.

Eight years after the first ITRL volume of Pontano's dialogues, the remaining two volumes have finally been published — better late than never :)


The second volume contains just one dialogue, Actius, which is thus much longer than the two dialogues we saw in the first volume. Apart from that you might say it has much in common with Antonius. The characters are Pontano's humanist friends, who together with him constituted a kind of “academy”, though perhaps this term suggests a more formal institution than this really was (the translator of the present volume consistently calls it a “sodality”, which seems to be little more than a fancy Latin term for ‘a group of friends’).

There is pretty much no plot, and frankly very little dialogue; it is more like a series of monologues. The friends take turns delivering long and learned speeches which they must surely have prepared in advance, and the result in many ways resembles less a normal conversation between people than a formal session of some learned society, with papers being read and lectures being given. The topics do not change quite so frequently and wildly as they do in Antonius. The dialogue is named after Actius Sincerus, the academic pseudonym of the poet Jacopo Sannazaro (we had a volume of his poetry in the ITRL a few years ago; see my post about it), who does the largest share of the talking in this dialogue.

I wonder how Pontano's friends felt about appearing as characters in his dialogue, characters which (I presume) deliver Pontano's opinions that may or may not have agreed with what that particular friend really thought. Well, judging by the introduction that one of these friends wrote for the first printed edition of Pontano's dialogues (which he prepared for publication after Pontano's death), they seemed to like it (vol. 2, p. 341–9).

Well, without further ado, let's have a look at the various topics discussed in this dialogue:

§1–4: a short comical scene as an introduction, involving two peasants that appear before a notary to transfer the title of a house from one to the other. Much of the humour here seems to be is supposed to be derived from word-play, ridiculous personal names and the like; but I didn't find it very funny. One of the peasants is so uneducated that when he hears, in the text of the contract, something about buying the house “for himself, his children, [. . .] with the entire posterity”, he thinks this refers to the back part of the house and keeps insisting that he wants to buy the anterity as well. At the end of the scene, Pontano's humanist friends show up as witnesses to the transaction, at which point the dialogue turns into a learned discussion between them and all pretence to a plot is hastily abandoned.

§5–10: Actius remembers his late friend, Ferrante Gennaro (a Neapolitan diplomat), who appeared to him in a dream and told him that the soul after death yearns to be reunited with the body.

§13–18: various Latin usages that some pedants object to, but that actually have plenty of support in the work of important Roman authors.

§19–21: dreams and where they come from; they are a mechanism whereby an external mind (mens) provides an individual person's mind (animus) with information, prophecies etc. (a view “of dubious orthodoxy”, n. 61 on p. 404).

§22–56: a long section about the various sound effects in (Latin) poetry, especially rhythm but also effects arising from a juxtaposition of sounds, either pleasing repetition of the same sounds or syllables (this includes a discussion of alliteration, a term apparently coined by Pontano himself; see n. 233 on p. 419), or rough clusters of harsh consonants if that's the effect that the poet wants to go for.

Pontano gives countless examples, especially from Virgil, in which we can supposedly observe these things; but sadly, I was able to profit very little from this section, and overall found it much more boring than I had hoped. Knowing no Latin, I could notice some of the repetitions of sounds, though I'm not sure if they really have such a big effect on how the line sounds as Pontano claims; but maybe my sense of these things just isn't finely-tuned enough.

But when he talks about rhythm, he loses me completely. I guess that the problem is that in Latin poetry the metre was based on the length of syllables, but besides this words also had stress, so the poet had, as it were, two (somewhat) independent things to play with, and could use this to achieve a certain rhythm. But since I don't know any Latin, I had no idea which vowels are long, couldn't feel the metre of the verse, and could make only the most tentative guesses as to which vowels are stressed.

If there really is any rhythm in the examples Pontano gives, I was unfortunately not in the position to notice it or appreciate it; and the English translations of his examples convey (with a very few exceptions) only the meaning of the originals, not the sound effects that may be present in them.

It also didn't help that Pontano often speaks of rhthym in very impressionistic terms, as something that can be ‘weak’ or ‘strengthened’ and the like, and clearly has many quite determined opinions along the lines of ‘a word of x syllables, in the y-th foot of the line, does/doesn't sound good’. Such statements, without any explanation of why they are supposed to be true, are of little use to someone like me, but would probably be interesting to someone that knows Latin. But I would love to read something about this topic with examples in Slovenian or English, where I'd have some chance of seeing what's going on.

§57–60: miscellaneous Latin etymologies. They don't all sound quite as wacky as some of the others that we've encountered in the ITRL series over the years, but I'm still not quite sure how much to trust them. For instance, there's the idea that a root am ‘round’ is the basis of such diverse words as hamus ‘hook’, annus ‘year’ “because it returns in a circle”, amnis ‘stream’ “because the courses of rivers are usually full of turns”, anulus ‘ring’ and anus ‘anus’ from their shape, anus ‘old woman’ because “an old person's posture bends forward [. . .] and becomes curved” (§59).

§61–8: a comparison of history and poetry. Nowadays historians probably think of themselves as doing some sort of social science, but in ancient times, as well as in Pontano's day, one gets the impression that history was thought of as more of a branch of literature; the historian and the poet both “undertake the narration of matters far removed from the business at hand” (p. 207), the difference is only in whether they are real or fictional. There is also a difference in style: “history is purer in style, poetry more extravagant” (p. 199); he continues with a funny analogy: the difference between the style of history and that of poetry is like the difference between a sober matron and a heavily made-up girl :))). Pontano gives a number of examples from Livy and Sallust of historical writing with a literary, even poetic, quality (§64, 67).

Incidentally, there's a funny instance of anachronism in translation on p. 229: one of the participants in the dialogue admonishes another by saying “I am certainly not going to allow you range any farther, Altilio, and waltz around [exultare] outside the prescribed limits”. And of course you can't help thinking ‘wait a minute, this dialogue was written in the 15th century, and the waltz was invented circa 1800...’ The OED's earliest citation of this word in English is from 1781, and Byron wrote a satirical poem about this new, shocking, lewd form of entertainment in 1812, when it was introduced into England. Thus seeing it here in a 15th-century context is definitely a bit jarring.

§69–72: again a section about etymology, this time mostly about words that emerged as contractions of earlier forms: e.g. vinum ‘wine’ is supposedly a contraction of vitinum, derived from vitis ‘vine’ (p. 239). He is particularly interested in words containing x, which he says is often from an earlier ss (p. 231); this surprised me as I had the impression that the change usually goes in the opposite direction, e.g. we see that Latin x developed into Italian ss, and likewise for other ‘hard to pronounce’ combinations of a stop and another consonant (ct and pt turned into tt).

§73–88: the discussion of historical writing is resumed. The historian should of course be truthful and unbiased, and his style should be neither too long-winded nor so terse as to be obscure. Poliziano recommends an interesting technique that he calls “speed” (celeritas), which he describes as “a short and precise summing up or enumerating and combining of several things and words at the same time” (§76); he gives a few examples of this and they do seem to move the narrative forward at a very lively pace.

He gives some oddly specific advice on what things a historian should write about, and in what order (§79–84) — oddly specific in that it seems to assume that you're Sallust or Livy and are writing about ancient Roman politics and warfare :) When reporting on speeches made by generals before battle, you should include “not only the things reported to have been said by commanders but also what they might have said” (§82) — a bit too speculative for my taste, but unsurprising if you remember that they saw history as almost a branch of literature.

But what I found even more disappointing is that Pontano specifically enjoins the historian to “assume the role of a judge, to praise, condemn, admire, disparage, pity” (§85) — but surely that is precisely the last thing I want a historian to do. Passing judgment is cheap and easy and I can do it myself if I want to; what I expect from the historian is the part that I can't do myself, namely to figure out what really happened.

§89–94: an interesting comparison of the different goals of poetry and rhetoric. The orator, Pontano says, may be satisfied even if he does merely a solid job; but a poet seeks to win admiration, and will be a failure if he produces a work of merely average quality. Historians borrow some elements of a poetic style to make their writing more elegant (§93). “[O]f all learned men it was the poets who appeared first” (§94), and the earliest ancient philosophers and lawgivers followed their example by writing in verse.


This dialogue is named after Egidio (or Giles) of Viterbo, a learned monk who however does not appear in it directly and is only mentioned briefly near the beginning and end (§6–11, 66–7).

§1–5: the dialogue opens with two visitors, Suardino and Peto, who come to Naples to meet Pontano and attend some meetings of his circle. Later a number of Pontano's friends will also appear in the conversation, though the details of their arrival are left unspecified.

After some preliminary chitchat, the conversation turns to a recently deceased preacher, friar Mariano, and his successor, Egidio (§6). Pontano recounts a short sermon by Egidio (§7–11). This sermon confirmed my impression that I just don't like sermons as a genre. It proceeded mostly by blind assertion, free association, and vigorous gesticulation, never gave any real arguments for its claims, and obviously relied on the assumption that the audience already agrees with everything in it. This makes sense, of course — sermons are meant to be heard by a congregation in a church, after all. It just means that there's not much point in a non-believer like me reading them.

§12–16: on the immortality of the soul; Pontano claims that the belief in it was the original and more or less universal state of affairs, while the idea that the soul might be mortal is a comparatively recent innovation by a few foolish philosophical schools.

§17–18: on the recent death of Gabriele Altilio, who then appeared in a vision to a certain monk, enjoining Pontano and his friends to use their learning for good religious purposes rather than for “trifles and silly stories”. Later we also hear Altilio's last words (§37).

§19–23: Pontano talks about the origin of oracles: “heavenly powers know what things they will set in motion in the future” (§21).

§26–29: a discussion on where a didactic poet should begin his instruction. For example, Virgil, in a section about beekeeping, starts by teaching how to choose a site for your bee-hive; but in a section about farming, he starts not by teaching how to choose a location of your field, but jumps straight to ploughing. Pontano's discussion of this apparent inconsistency struck me as rather pointless — as if there was any need to justify a poet's random choices in matters like this. He observes, reasonably enough, that where the poet begins depends on what he assumes the audience to know already (e.g. how to choose the location of your field; §28).

§30–34: an interesting comparison of the pagan ideas about Elysium and christian ideas about heaven. Except for the presence of god in the latter (§34), Pontano describes them in such a way that they appear quite similar. In both systems there was the idea that the soul is a sort of prisoner in the body (§30), is released after death, and goes to a better place if the person took good care of it in life.

§35–6: they briefly remember their friend Actius (Jacopo Sannazaro), who has followed his employer, King Federico, into exile in France. Pontano includes a poem composed by Actius on his departure.

§38–43: Pontano's friend Cariteo announces that he now follows Hermes Trismegistus rather than Plato (§38) — in other words, his fondness for mystical neoplatonic arglebargle has intensified :)) Somewhat more seriously: his reason seems to be that Hermes is even better compatible with christianity. Discussing how god was able to create the universe from nothing, Cariteo's explanation is that it wasn't really from nothing, since everything was already encompassed in the “Word of God”... (§41).

§44–45: an interesting if somewhat hair-splitting terminological discussion about two closely related words, carentia (lack) and privatio (privation), both of which were previously used in §40. Poliziano says that some philosophers inappropriately use the latter one instead of the former, and that privatio is suitable only when something has been actively deprived of something, rather than when it already lacked that something to begin with. It was interesting to see that English has borrowed so many Latin words that much of this discussion almost makes sense in English as well :) Incidentally, it seems that the word private is also from the same root (p. 77).

§46–57: a discussion on the validity of astrology. Pontano tries to strike a middle course between total credulity (like that of Marsilio Ficino) and total skepticism (like that of Pico della Mirandola). He suggests that the stars do have some influence, especially over the material world, the elements and humours in the human body — but at the same time people still have free will and it would be foolish to expect that astrology can predict the future exactly.

§58–65: more terminological discussions. Pontano complains that people inappropriately use dispositio (“arrangement” or disposition) to refer to a person's natural inclinations or aptitudes, but in his view that word is only appropriate for something that has been deliberately arranged in some order, not for a natural aptitude (§59); he suggests the word habilitas (“ability”) instead (§60). I think his complaints, both here and earlier, make a lot of sense, but I wonder how successful he was with them. Unfortunately, when enough people misuse language in a certain way, their misuse becomes the new standard. It seems that even a dead language wasn't entirely immune to this problem.


This dialogue is quite unlike the previous ones, and felt like a breath of fresh air. There is very little of the pedantic monologues on obscure philological subjects here, and a lot more actual dialogue. If the previous ‘dialogues’ read more like thinly-veiled academic treatises, this one felt more like actual fiction, so that I'm almost wondering if I should put a spoiler warning here before I summarize its contents. And if the previous dialogues are somewhat strait-laced, this one is just plain bizarre, as if the author had kissed all sense and sanity goodbye and embarked for one last voyage aboard the good ship Fancy.

§1–10: news comes to Naples that the war between the king of Naples and the pope is over, to which it seems that Pontano's work as a diplomat had also contributed very substantially (§4). But Pontano does not appear directly in this part of the dialogue; we see things from the perspective of unnamed random people, a traveller and an innkeeper, the latter of which is of course very happy because the peace will be good for his business (§2, 5–6). A group of Irish pilgrims also appears in the inn (§7, 10), though they don't participate in the dialogue. This all feels fairly whimsical, as does the whole dialogue — random unexpected things keep happening out of nowhere, for no obvious reason and without developing into anything obviously significant for the story as a whole. I'm sure there are people who like that sort of fiction, but I'm not really one of them.

Incidentally, it seems that, despite his efforts as a diplomat, Pontano couldn't resist one last barb at the pope's expense, and, pointing out that the pope himself has a son and a daughter, suggests mischievously that this is “a miraculous proof of the Christian religion”: “Indeed, if little grandchildren are born from God, doesn't it perhaps follow that Christ himself also came forth from a woman's womb?” (§10) I expected that the pope in question would be Rodrigo Borgia, but it turns out to be his immediate predecessor Innocent VIII (n. 26 on p. 206).

§11–18: the dialogue now finally switches to its main subject. Asinus, of course, is the Latin word for an ass or donkey, and it turns out that Pontano has evidently gone mad in his dotage, he now has a pet ass, decks it out in all sorts of finery and rides it around the town (§11). Three of his friends, whom we already encountered in earlier dialogues, hear about this and decide to visit Pontano at his villa, about one hour's walk uphill from Naples, to see if they can bring him to his senses. He had still been sane during his recent time as a diplomat in Rome, at any rate (§16–17).

§19–20: a short scene between Pontano and his steward Faselius (a ‘speaking name’, as often with minor characters in Pontano's dialogues: it's from phaselus, ‘bean’; n. 42 on p. 208). They discuss the grafting of plants and disagree on how much importance the phase of the moon has on it — another example of a whimsical, unexpected change of topic.

§22–26: things are getting increasingly ridiculous. In this scene, Pontano and his stableboy are brushing and petting the ass and listening, with rapt delight, to the animal's braying and farting... and more: “after great thunderclaps, great showers of rain; could it have been done mor egracefully and more to the rhythm? O Arabian wares, perfumes of Saba!” (§22). But the ass proves to have a bad temper, it kicks the boy (§24) and eventually Pontano as well (§26). This is what finally brings him to his senses and makes him realize how foolish he has been.

§27–29: the steward announces he is going to get married, and he and Pontano quite happily come to an arrangement whereby, in exchange for money and various gifts, Pontano will be a... third party to their marriage. The bride is apparently young enough that her pubic hair doesn't grow yet (§29), which sounds like it would raise a few eyebrows in some quarters nowadays (and other things in other quarters perhaps :]). But I don't judge, and I think we can all be glad that at any rate the frisky old devil hasn't tried to screw the donkey :)

§30–32: Pontano's friends, having observed the last several scenes from hiding, now emerge and make no allusion to his recent madness, being apparently content just to see that he is cured of it. Indeed Pontano himself acts as if nothing had happened (“I have recently contemplated affairs of the heavens in this solitude”, §32), and the dialogue thus ends on a happy if somewhat sudden note.

Well, this was certainly a wild ride. I'm not sure what to make of the whole thing. The translator's introduction suggests (vol. 3, p. x) that this dialogue might be “an allegory in which Pontano uses the ass to inveigh against some ungrateful and powerful person”, but it's not clear who that might be. And even if this were true, there's still so many other things in the dialogue that make no sense at all (e.g. the sudden shifts of topic, lurching whimsically into all sorts of random directions) and that show Pontano in a bad light (his insane infatuation with the ass, not to mention his indecent arrangement with the steward and his wife). The dialogue was written late in Pontano's life, and perhaps by then he had simply decided that he had, to put it in a vigorous modern idiom, run out of fucks to give.

In any case, the zaniness of this last dialogue helps conclude the whole series on a pleasant note, after the middle three dialogues which could sometimes be a little on the boring side. But from a certain perspective, all these dialogues are interesting to read, because they are quite unlike anything we usually encounter today. Nobody mixes fiction with academic elements in their writings nowadays, or writes philological treatises in the form of dialogues. I'm not saying that they should, of course — clearly this is the sort of thing that is only viable when an academic discipline is in its infancy. So Pontano's dialogues are an example of something that we probably won't see any more of today, and reading them is a little like visiting a museum to see a fossil skeleton of some extinct animal that you won't see in nature any more; something new and different, even if not super exciting.


These two volumes also mark a little milestone for me: for the first time since the ITRL series was started almost 20 years ago, I have caught up with it, and read all the volumes that have been published so far. Woo hoo :) Now I plan to go back and re-read three early volumes that don't have their posts on this blog yet, because I had initially read them before starting the blog. So, stay tuned.

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