Saturday, December 27, 2014

BOOK: Antonio Beccadelli, "The Hermaphrodite"

Antonio Beccadelli: The Hermaphrodite. Edited and translated by Holt Parker. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 42. Harvard University Press, 2010. 9780674047570. xlv + 299 pp.

This is a curious book. I got excited just by reading the publisher's description on the front flap of the dust jacket: “Its open celebration of vice, particularly sodomy, earned it public burnings, threats of excommunication, banishment to the closed sections of libraries, and a devoted following.” The translator's introduction (p. vii) starts by quoting a horrified German Catholic historian, who wrote in 1906: “The false heathen renaissance culminates in this repulsive ‘Emancipation of the Flesh,’ sagaciously characterized by a modern historian as the forerunner of the great Revolution, which in the follow9ing centuries shook Europe to its centre.” The translator adds: “Such is the reputation of the book in your hands: one so loathsome that it (eventually) set off the French Revolution or worse — Protestantism.”

After all this hype, it was almost inevitable that I got a little disappointed by the actual contents of the book. Beccadelli was a 15th-century Italian author from Palermo and the Hermaphrodite is an early work of his, written while he was in his twenties. It's a strangely heterogeneous collection of short poems. On the one hand, there are certainly plenty of more or less obscene epigrams and the like, from which it isn't hard to imagine why the book got the reputation described in the previous paragraph. There's not just sex, but all sorts of wallowing in filth, described in the most explicit terms. The collection more than justifies its title, as there's plenty of references to both straight and gay sex. There's lots of descriptions of brothels and invariably smelly and grotesquely ugly whores (“It smells so horrible that a bloated and putrid cadaver/ would be a beautiful lily compared to Ursa's cunt.” 2.8.7–8).

Several of the poems are short invectives against characters both imaginary and real, often insulting them by mocking their sexual proclivities. Beccadelli's favorite target is one Mattia Lupi, who was apparently a cripple, a pervert, and a lousy schoolmaster. :P By my count, there are 11 poems against Lupi: 1.10, 1.11, 1.16, 1.17, 1.26, 2.36, 2.15, 2.16, 2.19, 2.24, 2.27.

But there's also a good number of poems that aren't dirty at all, and one wonders why they would even be included in the same collection with the rest. There are some short poems addressed to various friends, and a few addressed to Cosimo de' Medici (1.1, 1.3), to whom Beccadelli dedicated the whole book, apparently in the hope of getting a position at Cosimo's court (see him sucking up to Cosimo in 2.33), though without success (see the translator's introduction, p. ix). He would later go on to write similar poems for other recipients: his “greatest triumphs would come as a panegyrist” (p. x); in 1429 or 1430, he wrote “an oration comparing his patron [duke Filippo Maria Visconti] to the sun” (p. xi), etc.

The Hermaphrodite also includes a good number of perfectly decent epitaphs, which stand out like a sore thumb amidst all the filth and obscenity. The epitaphs themselves are fairly conventional but the stories behind them often struck me as very touching. For example, there are epitaphs for three young sisters from the Benzi family, all of whom died of the plague less than a year apart (1.24, 1.25, 2.32; see the translator's notes 66, 67 on p. 219 and note 122 on p. 236). There's another epitaph for a plague victim, 1.32, with an even more touching story behind it: “when Catherine caught the plague, she was left to die by her terrified husband, Tommaso, and her brothers and their tutor, but was nursed by a certain Francesco, who was in love with her, disregarding all danger. After her death, Francesco took her body back to Siena, built a tomb and ‘inscribed the tomb with these verses’ ” (from the translator's note 88 on p. 221).

Apart from this odd tendency to mix filthy and ‘clean’ material, the thing that really bothered me about the Hermaphrodite is that most of this wallowing in filth seems to be so pointless. The poet doesn't give me the impression of being aware that this stuff is supposed to be fun. He doesn't seem to have fun writing this; it's as if he was just trying to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. And perhaps that made some sense in his day; but nowadays, since we aren't so easily shocked, you kind of wonder what's the point. This stuff isn't witty or funny or charming or joyful, nor can I imagine anyone wanking to it; so it isn't exactly obvious to me why anybody would want to write, or read, stuff like this.

I suppose it's better to try understanding this collection from the perspective of Beccadelli's own time. The impression I got from reading the translator's introduction and comments was that various more or less obscene epigrams by ancient Latin poets were known to Beccadelli and his contemporaries, but not much of that sort had yet been written by neo-Latin humanist authors before him, so the Hermaphrodite was in a way re-opening a new area of Latin literature. Many of the translator's notes show that even in this genre, a neo-Latin poet was under extremely heavy influence of the classical ones; almost every other line has some phrase borrowed from a classical source, and sometimes an entire poem is based on the same idea as some clearly identified classical poem.

By the way, speaking of the translator's notes, I liked how they complain about the wobbly Latin of the originals, pointing out things that are unclear or just plain wrong. This reminded me a little of the famous scene in the Life of Brian, where the watch captain reprimands Brian not for writing an anti-Roman graffito, but for making grammatical mistakes in it :)

Reactions to the Hermaphrodite

The book also contains a lot of interesting information about contemporary reactions to the Hermaphrodite. Its initial reception was surprisingly positive; many notable humanists seemed to be excited to see that someone tried writing epigrams again, and they praised Beccadelli for the elegance of his verse, though not so much for his choice of subject. Others condemned his work from the start and eventually a big debate ensued, with numerous attacks and counterattacks; letters, invective, satirical poems and the like were exchanged both for and againt the Hermaphrodite and its author. Many of these things are included as a very interesting appendix of this book (pp. 128–203). Eventually Beccadelli seems to have found the controversy a bit too harmful to his career, and issued a recantation (pp. 125–7), saying that the Hermaphrodite is a work of youthful impetuosity and that he now regrets having published it (see also a similar recantation in his earlier letter to Antonio da Rho, one of his principal detractors, on p. 159).

The argument most frequently given in support of the book, both by Beccadelli and others who supported him, is that you shouldn't accuse a poet of being immoral just because his poems are on immoral subjects. He mentions this defense several times in the Hermaphrodite itself (1.10.5, 1.20.1–2, 2.11). A related excuse is that he's just following the example of highly respected ancient authors (1.1.5–8, 1.20.3–8); this defense reappears in several letters by Beccadelli (pp. 117, 119, 143, 159), as well as by a poem written in his support by Maffeo Vegio (p. 169, ll. 17, 20). There's an interesting counterargument to this in a letter from Poggio Bracciolini (pp. 133–7), who says that Beccadelli misrepresents the ancient authors (“Calling these men to your defense is no different than prostituting a Vestal Virgin among a crowd of men — an act of the greatest indecency”, p. 135).

Occasionally Beccadelli ‘defends’ his work by sheer invective, as e.g. in a poem on pp. 163–5: “What care I if that louse Lorenzo [Valla, his rival at the court of Naples] hates me [. . .] if the drunkard Catone Sacco picks at my life [. . .] Just make sure to please only the learned and good:/ The highest praise is to displease the evil.”


“Butt fuck the one who brings you this letter, Amilus,/ and tell me if you've had a more handsome letter.” (1.34, To Amilus the Pederast.)

A short example of Beccadeli's invective, Against Lentulus (1.13): “You keep your money to yourself, Lentulus, and your books to yourself,/ you keep your boys to yourself, you keep your coats to yourself,/ your talent to yourself, your heart to yourself, your friends to yourself. / You keep everything to yourself, except for one thing./ That one thing is your asshole, Lentulus, which you do not keep to yourself,/ but share with everyone, effeminate Lentulus./”

From 2.3, Praise of Alda: “If you had a bow and quiver, Alda, you would be Diana./ If you had a torch in your hand, Alda, you would be Venus./ [. . . etc. etc.] / If you didn't have those things and did have my cock in your cunt,/ you would be more beautiful, Alda, than the gods or goddesses./”

(If the above extracts don't strike you as the height of wit, there's a good chance that you would like most of the other poems even less. Possibly because humor is one of those things that don't travel that well across the centuries.)

Poem 2.1 is interesting for its autobiographical elements; the poet admits that he likes money more than poetic fame, which is why he's going to keep studying law and trying to make a career out of that (ll. 17–20, 23–24). This seems to agree with what we learn of Beccadelli and his career in the translator's introduction (he cites an earlier biographer in n. 118 on p. xliii: “Money and possessions clearly meant a lot to him, and the steady accumulation of offices gave him much more than he could have hoped for from a simple pension or sinecure. Also he was a person of strictly limited creative ability: he possessed sparkling alent for the vivid sketch of character and incident in verse and prose, but lacked the breadth of vision and power of composition to carry through a major work. His achievement was one of style and form; he had no original ideas to put forward.”)

Poem 2.29 has the author sending a rare manuscript of Plautus to a pawnbroker; see the interesting n. 112 (p. 235) on the not uncommon practice of pawning manuscripts, which occasionally resulted in some work being lost altogether. As another illustration of the value of ancient manuscripts, there's an interesting anecdote in the translator's introduction on p. xx: at one point, he sold “a farm to buy a copy of Livy for 120 florins”; see also n. 90 on pp. xxxix.

The translator's introduction includes a very interesting mention of the fashion for ‘personal epics’ in the mid-15th century (n. 105, p. xl). Numerous poets wrote these minor epics in praise of various contemporary rulers, such as Francesco Sforza, Lodovico Gonzaga, Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici, Sigismondo Malatesta, even a Turkish sultan, several popes and numerous minor princelings. Some of these poems are now lost, some are extant only in manuscript form.

Somewhat surprisingly, Beccadelli's detractors didn't seem to have any idea that if they want to criticize him, they should refrain from stooping to his level. In an anonymous anti-Beccadelli poem included in the appendix, we find passages such as: “He butt-bucks boys so well that no piles/ grow in their assholes: so well does he ram the job home” (p. 151, ll. 13–14). (Though according to the translator's n. 39 (p. 250), there's even a chance that Beccadelli wrote the poem by himself to make his enemies look bad.)

Another, slightly more sensible, detractor writes: “Is there any dignity in assholes, or decency or seemliness?/ What dignity have pussy and balls?” (Porcellio Pandoni's poem against Beccadelli, p. 181, ll. 25–6.) It didn't seem to occur to him that the mere discussion of these things makes his own poem just as unseemly and undignified :)) And in any case, I think this line of attack misses the point. A poet doesn't *have* to be decent or dignified; it would have been better to say that he should have some wit and charm, qualities which I think are somewhat lacking in the Hermaphrodite. In any case, the translator adds (n. 93, p. 256): “a case of pot and kettle, since Porcellio himself wrote pederastic verse and was denounced for it”. :)))

And this, I think, was for me the most interesting aspect of this book — not the Hermaphrodite itself, but this whole story surrounding it and its reception: arguments and insults flying back and forth, *both* sides being equally bad and equally dirty. It reminded me of similarly heated debates which nowadays occur with such deplorable regularity on the social media. I'm always glad to see that there's nothing really new under the sun.

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