Saturday, September 30, 2017

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "Dialogues" (Vol. 1)

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: Dialogues. Vol. 1: Charon and Antonius. Edited and translated by Julia Haig Gaisser. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 53. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674054912. xxvii + 403 pp.

Pontano was a 15th-century humanist who spent most of his life in Naples. I read a volume of his poetry, Baiae, from the ITRL series some time ago (see my post from back then). This present book contains two of his dialogues, Charon and Antonius; according to the translator's introduction, he wrote three more, which will hopefully appear in a subsequent volume (p. x).

I don't quite know what to make of these dialogues, as I've never read anything like them before. They are a kind of strange combination of fiction and essay. Neither of the two really has much of a coherent topic; Pontano's characters just chat about various things and change their subject every few pages. I suppose you could even say that there's something realistic about that, and one could imagine that Pontano and his humanist friends used to have conversations of this sort, and that Antonius in particular was inspired by them.


Of the two dialogues in this book, I liked the first one, Charon, better than the second one. It is shorter and not as much of it was spent on topics that I found uninteresting. The setting is a sort of Greek underworld; besides the titular Charon we see two of the infernal judges, Minos and Aeacus, as well as the messenger-god Mercury. These characters talk to each other in various combinations, and occasionally with the souls of dead people that pass through the area as Charon is ferrying them across the Styx.

Some of the passages reminded me a little of Dante's Inferno — we see a few scenes with grotesquely brutal punishments being meted out to the dead souls (¶6–7, 16) — but most of the dialogue consists of philosophising conversations and most of the dead spirits involved are anonymous fictional people rather than real historical figures like they are in Dante (a rare exception being the appearance of two ancient cynic philosophers, Diogenes and Crates; ¶42–4).

Another difference is that the underworld here is more Greek than christian, whereas in Dante it was the other way around. (There's a curious passage in ¶7–;8 when Minos briefly refers to an appearance of Jesus in the afterworld after he got executed: “by us and by these crowds to whom he was unknown, he was instantly worshipped and adored at first sight” — and yet the underworld is still consistently shown as a pagan rather than christian place.)

The dialogue doesn't really have a plot; the closest it gets to it is the fact that the influx of new dead souls has gone down in the last few days and news of ominous earthquakes and other portents has reached the underworld, and now Minos and Aeacus are trying to figure out what's happening on Earth. In ¶45–8, Pontano uses this as an excuse to complain a little about the present state of Italy, which I imagine must have been a rather well-worn practice at that time.

Some of the other topics on which the dialogue touches at some point are: hope (¶3); silly puns (that only work in Latin; ¶4); human nature (¶9–10); poking fun at horny gods and priests (¶18) and at physicians (¶24); flowers (¶26); ominous earthquakes (¶2, 29–30), a comet (¶31, 35) and a strange solar eclipse (¶35); fate and free will (¶32–4); superstition (¶36–40); odd antics and ideas of Diogenes and Crates (¶20–3, 42–4); silly pedantic grammarians (¶49–53; one of them is actually named Pedanus!); conversations with various shades of the dead (¶56–65).


The other dialogue, Antonius, is nearly twice as long as Charon, and was pleasant enough to read in small doses but overall I didn't like it as much. One notable difference is that the setting here is more realistic: a visitor comes to Naples, hoping to see Antonio Beccadelli, the respected humanist scholar; unfortunately it turns out that Antonio has recently died and the dialogue mostly consists of his friends talking about the sort of things they used to discuss with him, and occasionally reminiscing about his ideas and opinions. Thus you could say this dialogue is a sort of tribute by Pontano to his late friend Beccadelli (whom Pontano succeeded as the head of the Neapolitan Academy). Pontano himself does not appear in the dialogue, but his son does at one point, talking about how Pontano's wife is angry at her husband over his numerous marital infidelities (¶99–101; Pontano doesn't seem to be taking his wife's complaints particularly seriously).

Many of the discussions in this dialogue are a bit more technical and philological than in Charon, and a lot of them went right over my head as a result. The translator's introduction has a few interesting remarks about this, suggesting that this sort of discussions were of interest to the humanists because they wrote in Latin themselves and “wanted not merely to read the ancient Latin authors, but to have the knowledge to understand their every nuance [. . .] They wanted, paradoxically and impossibly, to turn themselves into native speakers of a dead language.” (P. xxii.)

Topics mentioned in Antonius include: the tarantula and its bite (¶5; it conveniently provides the Apulians with “a ready excuse for their insanity”); people who flaunt their (unimpressive) knowledge of Greek (¶9–10); Cicero and Quintilian on the purpose of oratory (¶19–26); on ‘status’ and ‘constitution’, two technical terms from rhetorics (¶27–36); Etna (¶38–53); on Virgil being unfairly criticized by Macrobius (¶54–65) and others (¶65–8); the (Latin) word fama and its many meanings (¶59–60); Antonius's ideas in support of Virgil (¶69–70) and against his detractors (¶73–5); poking fun at various towns (¶78), at immorality in Rome (¶79), at grammarians (¶80, 72–91), at other countries (¶81–2), at corrupt monks (¶91), at theological debates (¶95); a parade of masks (¶104).

This dialogue ends with a minor epic poem (about 600 lines long) about the battle at the river Sucro between Pompey and Sertorius in 75 BC (p. 377). It was probably inspired by similar descriptions of battles in actual ancient epic poems. I really had a hard time seeing why anyone could have liked this sort of poetry. Modern-day blockbuster movies are often criticized for having boring pointlessly long action sequences, and the minor epic poem here in Antonius is basically the same thing in a different medium. Most of it is little else than a long sequence of descriptions of hacking, slashing, stabbing, with plenty of details just where a spear entered someone's body, where a horse got slashed along with its rider, etc. etc. There are plenty of things in ancient epic poems that one can enjoy and imitate, but descriptions of battles are not one of them and I can't see why anyone would choose to do so. No doubt I'm just missing the point spectacularly yet again, like I often do.

The poem does get a little more interesting towards the end when a big fire erupts and, with some help from a friendly wind-god, intervenes in the battle. I guess you could again compare this with certain action-movie cliches, but at least I like descriptions of disasters better than of people hacking at each other with swords.

Another thing I liked about this poem is how Pontano sneaked the names of various friends of his into the story, by naming some of the warriors after them (see translator's notes 181, 196, 197, 223, 226, 231). I thought this was a rather amusing idea, especially since most of these people would have been humanist intellectuals and thus probably not particularly warlike (except for Marullus, who spent a part of his career as a mercenary soldier).


In Antonius ¶97, one of the interlocutors tells the joke of a man, his son and a donkey, who switch between various configurations of riding the donkey (just the man, just the boy, both, neither) in response to complaints by various passers-by. I didn't realize that this joke was so old; the translator's note 164 (p. 374) says that it's “an old fable that exists in several versions, including those in Petrarch and San Bernardino”.

Pontano's son says in Antonius ¶100: “my mother duly confessed both her own sins and my father's to the priest” :))

One of the characters in Antonius (¶106) is surprised to see a carnival parade, and comments that it's “a new import from northern Italy”. See also translator's note 186 on p. 377: Carnival “is first recorded in Venice and the Veneto in the thirteenth century, but began to spread to southern Italy at the end of the fourteenth”.

Pontano likes to poke fun at the French as being stupid: “the Gauls have no brain”, says Mercury (Charon ¶16); “the French are dreadfully dull and take more care for their bodies than for their minds” (Suppazio in Antonius ¶81). Perhaps some of this anti-French sentiment is because Pontano's employer, the king of Naples, was under serious threat from the French army (p. viii).

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