The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Three

The Revival of Antiquity

Neo-Latin Poetry

The chief pride of the humanists is, however, their modern Latin poetry. It lies within the limits of our task to treat of it, at least in so far as it serves to characterize the humanistic movement.

How favourable public opinion was to that form of poetry, and how nearly it supplanted all others, has been already shown. We may be very sure that the most gifted and highly developed nation then existing in the world did not renounce the language such as the Italian out of mere folly and without knowing what they were doing. It must have been a weighty reason which led them to do so.

This cause was the devotion to antiquity. Like all ardent and genuine devotion it necessarily prompted men to imitation. At other times and among other nations we find many isolated attempts of the same kind. But only in Italy were the two chief conditions present which were needful for the continuance and development of neo-Latin poetry: a general interest in the subject among the instructed classes, and a partial re-awakening of the old Italian genius among the poets themselves--the wondrous echo of a far-off strain. The best of what is produced under these conditions is not imitation, but free production. If we decline to tolerate any borrowed forms in art, if we either set no value on antiquity at all, or attribute to it some magical and unapproachable virtue, or if we will pardon no slips in poets who were forced, for instance, to guess or to discover a multitude of syllabic quantities, then we had better let this class of literature alone. Its best works were not created in order to defy criticism, but to give pleasure to the poet and to thousands of his contemporaries.

The least success of all was attained by the epic narratives drawn from the history or legends of antiquity. The essential conditions of a living epic poetry were denied, not only to the Romans who now served as models, but even to the Greeks after Homer. They could not be looked for among the Latins of the Renaissance. And yet the 'Africa' of Petrarch probably found as many and as enthusiastic readers and hearers as any epos of modern times. Purpose and origin of the poem are not without interest. The fourteenth century recognized with sound historical sense that the time of the second Punic war had been the noonday of Roman greatness; and Petrarch could not resist writing of this time. Had Silius Italicus been then discovered, Petrarch would probably have chosen another subject; but as it was, the glorification of Scipio Africanus the Elder was so much in accordance with the spirit of the fourteenth century, that another poet, Zanobi di Strada, also proposed to himself the same task, and only from respect for Petrarch withdrew the poem with which he had already made great progress. If any justification were sought for the 'Africa,' it lies in the fact that in Petrarch's time and afterwards Scipio was as much an object of public interest as if he were then alive, and that he was regarded as greater than Alexander, Pompey, and Caesar. How many modern epics treat of a subject at once so popular, so historical in its basis, and so striking to the imagination? For us, it is true, the poem is unreadable. For other themes of the same kind the reader may be referred to the histories of literature.

A richer and more fruitful vein was discovered in expanding and completing the Greco-Roman mythology. In this too, Italian poetry began early to take a part, beginning with the 'Teseid' of Boccaccio, which passes for his best poetical work. Under Martin V, Maffeo Vegio wrote in Latin a thirteenth book to the, Aeneid; besides which we meet with many less considerable attempts, especially in the style of Claudian--a 'Meleagris,' a 'Hesperis,' and so forth. Still more curious were the newly-invented myths, which peopled the fairest regions of Italy with a primeval race of gods, nymphs, genii, and even shepherds, the epic and bucolic styles here passing into one another. In the narrative or conversational eclogue after the time of Petrarch, pastoral life was treated in a purely conventional manner, as a vehicle of all possible feelings and fancies; and this point will be touched on again in the sequel.58 For the moment, we have only to do with the new myths. In them, more clearly than anywhere else, we see the double significance of the old gods to the men of the Renaissance. On the one hand, they replace abstract terms in poetry, and render allegorical figures superfluous; and, on the other, they serve as free and independent elements in art, as forms of beauty which can be turned to some account in any and every poem. The example was boldly set by Boccaccio, with his fanciful world of gods and shepherds who people the country round Florence in his 'Ninfale d'Ameto' and 'Ninfale Fiesolano.' Both these poems were written in Italian. But the masterpiece in this style was the 'Sarca' of Pietro Bembo, which tells how the river-god of that name wooed the nymph Garda; of the brilliant marriage feast in a cave of Monte Baldo; of the prophecies of Manto, daughter of Tiresias; of the birth of the child Mincius; of the founding of Mantua, and of the future glory of Virgil, son of Mincius and of Magia, nymph of Andes. This humanistic rococo is set forth by Bembo in verses of great beauty, concluding with .an address to Virgil, which any poet might envy him. Such works are often slighted as mere declamation. This is a matter of taste on which we are all free to form our own opinion.

Further, we find long epic poems in hexameters on biblical or ecclesiastical subjects. The authors were by no means always in search of preferment or of papal favour. With the best of them, and even with less gifted writers, like Battista Mantovano, the author of the 'Parthenice,' there was probably an honest desire to serve religion by their Latin verses--a desire with which their half-pagan conception of Catholicism harmonized well enough. Gyraldus goes through a list of these poets, among whom Vida, with his 'Christiad' and Sannazaro, with his three books, 'De partu Virginis' hold the first place. Sannazaro (b. 1458, d. 1530) is impressive by the steady and powerful flow of his verse, in which Christian and pagan elements are mingled without scruple, by the plastic vigor of his description, and by the perfection of his workmanship. He could venture to introduce Virgil's fourth Eclogue into his song of the shepherds at the manger without fearing a comparison. In treating of the unseen world, he sometimes gives proofs of a boldness worthy of Dante, as when King David in the Limbo of the Patriarchs rises up to sing and prophesy, or when the Eternal, sitting on the throne clad in a mantle shining with pictures of all the elements, addresses the heavenly host. At other times he does not hesitate to weave the whole classical mythology into his subject, yet without spoiling the harmony of the whole, since the pagan deities are only accessory figures, and play no important part in the story. To appreciate the artistic genius of that age in all its bearings, we must not refuse to notice such works as these. The merit of Sannazaro will appear the greater, when we consider that the mixture of Christian and pagan elements is apt to disturb us much more in poetry than in the visual arts. The latter can still satisfy the eye by beauty of form and color, and in general are much more independent of the significance of the subject than poetry. With them, the imagination is interested chiefly in the form, with poetry, in the matter. Honest Battista Mantovano, in his calendar of the festivals, tried another expedient. Instead of making the gods and demigods serve the purposes of sacred history, he put them, as the Fathers of the Church did, in active opposition to it. When the angel Gabriel salutes the Virgin at Nazareth, Mercury flies after him from Carmel, and listens at the door. He then announces the result of his eavesdropping to the assembled gods, and stimulates them thereby to desperate resolutions. Elsewhere, it is true, in his writings, Thetis, Ceres, Aeolus, and other pagan deities pay willing homage to the glory of the Madonna.

The fame of Sannazaro, the number of his imitators, the enthusiastic homage which was paid to him by the greatest men, all show how dear and necessary he was to his age. On the threshold of the Reformation he solved for the Church the problem, whether it were possible for a poet to be a Christian as well as a classic; and both Leo and Clement were loud in their thanks for his achievements.

And, finally, contemporary history was now treated in hexameters or distichs, sometimes in a narrative and sometimes in a panegyrical style, but most commonly to the honour of some prince or princely family. We thus meet with a Sforziad, a Borseid, a Laurentiad, a Borgiad, a Trivulziad, and the like. The object sought after was certainly not attained; for those who became famous and are now immortal owe it to anything rather than to this sort of poems, for which the world has always had an ineradicable dislike, even when they happen to be written by good poets. A wholly different effect is produced by smaller, simpler and more unpretentious scenes from the lives of distinguished men, such as the beautiful poem on Leo X's 'Hunt at Palo,' or the 'Journey of Aulius II' by Adrian of Corneto. Brilliant descriptions of hunting-parties are found in Ercole Strozzi, in the above-mentioned Adrian, and in others; and it is a pity that the modern reader should allow himself to be irritated or repelled by the adulation with which they are doubtless filled. The masterly treatment and the considerable historical value of many of these most graceful poems guarantee to them a longer existence than many popular works of our own day are likely to attain.

In general, these poems are good in proportion to the sparing use of the sentimental and the general. Some of the smaller epic poems, even of recognized masters, unintentionally produce, by the ill-timed introduction of mythological elements, an impression that is indescribably ludicrous. Such, for instance, is the lament of Ercole Strozzi on Cesare Borgia. We there listen to the complaint of Roma, who had set all her hopes on the Spanish Popes, Calixtus III and Alexander VI, and who saw her promised deliverer in Cesare. His history is related down to the catastrophe of 1503. The poet then asks the Muse what were the counsels of the gods at that moment, and Erato tells how, upon Olympus, Pallas took the part of the Spaniards, Venus of the Italians, how both then embrace the knees of Jupiter, how thereupon he kisses them, soothes them, and explains to them that he can do nothing against the fate woven by the Parc, but that the divine promises will be fulfilled by the child of the House of Este-Borgia.60 After relating the fabulous origin of both families, he declares that he can confer immortality on Cesare as little as he could once, in spite of all entreaties, on Memnon or Achilles; and concludes with the consoling assurance that Cesare, before his own death, will destroy many people in war. Mars then hastens to Naples to stir up war and confusion, while Pallas goes to Nepi, and there appears to the dying Cesare under the form of Alexander VI. After giving him the good advice to submit to his fate and be satisfied with the glory of his name, the papal goddess vanishes 'like a bird.'

Yet we should needlessly deprive ourselves of an enjoyment which is sometimes very great, if we threw aside everything in which classical mythology plays a more or less appropriate part. Here, as in painting and sculpture, art has often ennobled what is in itself purely conventional. The beginnings of parody are also to be found by lovers of that class of literature, e.g. in the Macaroneid-- to which the comic Feast of the Gods, by Giovanni Bellini, forms an early parallel.

Many, too, of the narrative poems in hexameters are merely exercises, or adaptations of histories in prose, which latter the reader will prefer, where he can find them. At last, everything-- every quarrel and every ceremony--came to be put into verse, and this even by the German humanists of the Reformation. and yet it would be unfair to attribute this to mere want of occupation, or to an excessive facility in stringing verses together. In Italy, at all events, it was rather due to an abundant sense of style, as is further proved by the mass of contemporary reports, histories, and even pamphlets, in the 'terza rima.' Just as Niccolo da Uzzano published his scheme for a new constitution, Machiavelli his view of the history of his own time, a third, the life of Savonarola, and a fourth the siege of Piombino by Alfonso the Great, in this difficult meter, in order to produce a stronger effect, so did many others feel the need of hexameters, in order to win their special public. What was then tolerated and demanded, in this shape, is best shown by the didactic poetry of the time. Its popularity in the fifteenth century is something astounding. The most distinguished humanists were ready to celebrate in Latin hexameters the most commonplace, ridiculous, or disgusting themes, such as the making of gold, the game of chess, the management of silkworms, astrology, and venereal diseases (morbus gallicus), to say nothing of many long Italian poems of the same kind. Nowadays this class of poem is condemned unread, and how far, as a matter of fact, they are really worth the reading, we are unable to say. One thing is certain: epochs far above our own in the sense of beauty--the Renaissance and the Greco-Roman world--could not dispense with this form of poetry. It may be urged in reply, that it is not the lack of a sense of beauty, but the greater serious>

Transfer interrupted!

ific treatment which renders the poetical form inappropriate, on which point it is unnecessary to enter.

One of these didactic works has been occasionally republished--the 'Zodiac of Life,' by Marcellus Palingenius (Pier Angelo Manzolli), a secret adherent of Protestantism at Ferrara, written about 1528. With the loftiest .speculations on God, virtue, and immortality, the writer connects the discussion of many questions of practical life, and is, on this account, an authority of some weight in the history of morals. On the whole, however, his hi fruit of contrast, nor the 'burla,' for their subject; their aim is merely to give simple and elegant expression to wise sayings and pretty stories or fables. But if anything proves the great antiquity of the collection, it is precisely this absence of satire. For with the fourteenth century comes Dante, who, in the utterance of scorn, leaves all other poets in the world far behind, and who, if only on account of his great picture of the deceivers, must be called the chief master of colossal comedy. With Petrarch begin the collections of witty sayings after the pattern of Plutarch (Apophthegmata, etc.).

is no verbal imitation, in precisely the tone and style of the verses on Lesbia's sparrow. There are short poems of this sort, the date of which even a critic would be unable to fix, in the absence of positive evidence that they are works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

On the other hand, we can find scarcely an ode in the Sapphic or Alcaic meter, which does not clearly betray its modern origin. This is shown mostly by a rhetorical verbosity, rare in antiquity before the time of Statius, and by a singular want of the lyrical concentration which is indispensable to this style of poetry. Single passages in an ode, sometimes two or three strophes together, may look like an ancient fragment; but a longer extract will seldom keep this character throughout. And where it does so, as, for instance, in the fine Ode to Venus, by Andrea Navagero, it is easy to detect a simple paraphrase of ancient masterpieces. Some of the ode-writers take the saints for their subject, and invoke them in verses tastefully modelled after the pattern of analogous odes of Horace and Catullus. This is the manner of Navagero, in the Ode to the Archangel Gabriel, and particularly of Sannazaro, who goes still further in his appropriation of pagan sentiment. He celebrates above all his patron saint, whose chapel was attached to his lovely villa on the shores of Posilippo, 'there where the waves of the sea drink up the stream from the rocks, and surge against the walls of the little sanctuary.' His delight is in the annual feast of St. Nazzaro, and the branches and garlands with which t_e chapel is hung on this day seem to him like sacrificial gifts. Full of sorrow, and far off in exile, at St. Nazaire, on the banks of the Loire, with the banished Federigo of Aragon, he brings wreaths of box and oak leaves to his patron saint on the same anniversary, thinking of former years, when all the youth of Posilippo used to come forth to greet him on flower-hung boats, and praying that he may return home.

Perhaps the most deceptive likeness to the classical style is borne by a class of poems in elegiacs or hexameters, whose subject ranges from elegy, strictly so called, to epigram. As the humanists dealt most freely of all with the text of the Roman elegiac poets, so they felt themselves most at home in imitating them. The elegy of Navagero addressed to the Night, like other poems of the same age and kind, is full of points which remind us of his model; but it has the finest antique ring about it. Indeed Navagero always begins by choosing a truly poetical subject, which he then treats, not with servile imitation, but with masterly freedom, in the style of the Anthology, of Ovid, of Catullus, or of the Virgilian eclogues. He makes a sparing use of mythology, only, for instance, to introduce a sketch of country life, in a prayer to Ceres and other rural divinities. An address to his country, on his return from an embassy to Spain, though left unfinished, might have been worthy of a place beside the 'Bella Italia, amate sponde' of Vincenzo Monti, if the rest had been equal to this beginning:

'Salve cura Deum, mundi felicior ora, Formosae Veneris dulces salvete recessus; Ut vos post tantos animi mentisque labores Aspicio lustroque libens, ut munere vestro Sollicitas toto depello e pectore curas! '

The elegiac or hexametric form was that in which all higher sentiment found expression, both the noblest patriotic enthusiasm and the most elaborate eulogies on the ruling houses, as well as the tender melancholy of a Tibullus. Francesco Maria Molza, who rivals Statius and Martial in his flattery of Clement VII and the Farnesi, gives us in his elegy to his 'comrades,' written from a sick-bed, thoughts on death as beautiful and genuinely antique as can be found in any of the poets of antiquity, and this without borrowing anything worth speaking of from them. The spirit and range of Roman elegy were best understood and reproduced by Sannazaro, and no other writer of his time offers us so varied a choice of good poems in this style as he. We shall have occasion now and then to speak of some of these elegies in reference to the matter they treat of.

The Latin epigram finally became in those days an affair of serious importance, since a few clever lines, engraved on a monument or quoted with laughter in society, could lay the foundation of a scholar's celebrity. This tendency showed itself early in Italy. When it was known that Guido da Polenta wished to erect a monument at Dante's grave, epitaphs poured in from all directions, 'written by such as wished to show themselves, or to honour the dead poet, or to win the favour of Polenta.' On the tomb of the Archbishop Giovanni Visconti (d. 1354), in the Cathedral at Milan, we read at the foot of thirty-six hexameters: 'Master Gabrius de Zamoreis of Parma, Doctor of Laws, wrote these verses.' In course of time, chiefly under the influence of Martial, and partly of Catullus, an ex- tensive literature of this sort was formed. It was held the greatest of all triumphs, if an epigram was mistaken for a genuine copy from some old marble, or if it was so good that all Italy learned it by heart, as happened in the case of some of Bembo's. When the Venetian government paid Sannazaro 600 ducats for a eulogy in three distichs, no one thought it an act of generous prodigality. The epigram was prized for what it was, in truth, to all the educated classes of that age--the concentrated essence of fame. Nor, on the other hand, was any man then so powerful as to be above the reach of a satirical epigram, and even the most powerful needed, for every inscription which they set before the public eye, the aid of careful and learned scholars, lest some blunder or other should qualify it for a place in the collections of ludicrous epitaphs. Epigraphy and literary epigrams began to link up; the former was based on a most diligent study of the ancient monuments.

The city of epigrams and inscriptions was, above all others, Rome. In this state without hereditary honours, each man had to look after his own immortality, and at the same time found the epigram an effective weapon against competitors. Pius II enumerates with satisfaction the distichs which his chief poet Campanus wrote on any event of his government which could be turned to poetical account. Under the following popes satirical epigrams came into fashion, and reached, in the opposition to Alexander VI and his family, the highest pitch of defiant invective. Sannazaro, it is true, wrote his verses in a place of comparative safety, but others in the immediate neighbourhood of the court ventured on the most reckless attacks. On one occasion when eight threatening distichs were found fastened to the doors of the library, Alexander strengthened his guard by 800 men; we can imagine what he would have done to the poet if he had caught him. Under Leo X, Latin epigrams were like daily bread. For complimenting or for reviling the Pope, for punishing enemies and victims, named or unnamed, for real or imaginary subjects of wit, malice, grief, or contemplation, no form was held more suitable. On the famous group of the Virgin with Saint Anne and the Child, which Andrea Sansovino carved for Sant' Agostino, no fewer than 120 persons wrote Latin verses, not so much, it is true, from devotion, as from regard for the patron who ordered the work. This man, Johann Goritz of Luxemburg, papal referendary of petitions, not only held a religious service on the feast of Saint Anne, but gave a great literary dinner in his garden on the slopes of the Capitol. It was then worth while to pass in, review, in a long poem 'De poetis urbanis,' the whole crowd of singers who sought their fortune at the court of Leo. This was done by Franciscus Arsillus--a man who needed the patronage neither of pope nor prince, and who dared to speak his mind, even against his colleagues. The epigram survived the pontificate of Paul III only in a few rare echoes, while epigraphy continued to flourish till the seventeenth century, when it perished finally of bombast.

In Venice, also, this form of poetry had a history of its own, which we are able to trace with the help of the 'Venezia' of Francesco Sansovino. A standing task for the epigram-writers was offered by the mottoes (Brievi) on the pictures of the Doges in the great hall of the ducal palace--two or four hexameters, setting forth the most noteworthy facts in the government of each. In addition to this, the tombs of the Doges in the fourteenth century bore short inscriptions in prose, recording merely facts, and beside them turgid hexameters or leonine verses. In the fifteenth century more care was taken with the style; in the sixteenth century it is seen at its best; and then coon after came pointless antithesis, prosopopceia, false pathos, praise of abstract qualities-- in a word, affectation and bombast. A good many traces of satire can be detected, and veiled criticism of the living is implied in open praise of the dead. At a much later period we find a few instances of deliberate recurrence to the old, simple style.

Architectural works and decorative works in general were constructed with a view to receiving inscriptions, often in frequent repetition; while the Northern Gothic seldom, and with difficulty, offered a suitable place for them, and in sepulchral monuments, for example, left free only the most exposed parts -- namely the edges.

By what has been said hitherto we have, perhaps, failed to convince the reader of the characteristic value of this Latin poetry of the Italians. Our task was rather to indicate its position and necessity in the history of civilization. In its own day, a caricature of it appeared--the so-called macaronic poetry. The masterpiece of this style, the 'opus macaronicorum,' was written by Merlinus Coccaius (Teofilo Folengo of Mantua). Vi/e shall now and then have occasion to refer to the matter of this poem. As to the form--hexameter and other verses, made up of Latin words and Italian words with Latin endings --its comic effect lies chiefly in the fact that these combinations sound like so many slips of the tongue, or like the effusions of an over-hasty Latin 'improvisatore.' The German imitations do not give the smallest notion of this effect.