Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.12
Norbert Witten (ed.), Angelo Camillo Decembrio. De politia litteraria. Kritisch herausgegeben sowie mit einer Einleitung, mit Quellennachweisen und einem Registerteil versehen. BzA 169. München-Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2002. Pp. 594. ISBN 3-598-77718-3. EUR 94.00.
Reviewed by N.G. Wilson, Lincoln College, Oxford
Word count: 1277 words
One of the central texts of Italian fifteenth-century humanism is Decembrio's De politia litteraria, which gives us an idea of what the educated elite was thinking about a range of literary topics. Though it has not received as much attention as it deserves its importance was recently emphasised by A.T. Grafton in Commerce with the Classics (Michigan U.P. 1997) pp. 19-49. The main reason for its neglect is that hitherto there has been no modern edition and the two that were printed in the sixteenth century are not reliable. The gap has now been filled by Dr Witten, who is to be congratulated on the completion of a big and demanding task. His book falls into three parts, an introduction (pp. 7-130), the edition proper (pp. 131-543) and the indexes (pp. 545-92: participants in the dialogues, authors etc., other personal names, geographical names, the abbreviations used to refer to classical authors, and bibliography of primary and secondary literature). Owing to the length of the Latin text a great deal has to be packed onto every page; the type-face used is not easy on the eye.
The work was composed in two stages. A first version, corresponding to Books 1,2 and 5, in which Vergilian topics were the main theme and the text was cast in dialogue form, was intended for dedication to Leonello d'Este. He died in 1450. The enlarged version, in which Book 6 is also in dialogue form but the others not, was composed principally during a period of residence in Spain. It is dedicated to Pius II; a reference to the declaration of a crusade dates it to 1463. The text depends on MS Vaticanus lat. 1794 (V) and printed editions of 1540 (A) and 1562 (B), which apparently derive from a lost MS. The Vatican MS is probably not the copy presented to Pius II, but it is autograph. The editor does not tell us that on folios 134 verso and 135 verso there are cursive notes by the author expressed in the first person (observed by the late A.C. de la Mare, to whose papers Dr M. Kauffmann of the Bodleian Library kindly granted me access). One is surprised to learn from p.11 n.4 that the editor has worked exclusively from a microfilm. Since the MS is in a thoroughly accessible library, it was a sin of omission not to verify uncertain readings in situ. V was not the source of the Augsburg edition of 1540, the editor of which says that he depended on a very corrupt copy which came from the Vatican and may therefore have been the now lost dedication copy for Pius II. The second printed edition appeared in Basel in 1562 and was probably based on the first edition. Both those printings are rather different from V in that polemical references to a certain Publius Leucus, a coded way of naming the author's brother Pier Candido, are removed, and there are some other divergences. Witten gives a full apparatus, which occupies typically about ten lines of print, while there are thirty or more of text. He uses one convention which I find disconcerting: the bracket [ indicates that the following word or phrase is added by the witness in question, while ] indicates an omission. This is not explained and I for one would have preferred "add." (or a plus sign) and "om." in accordance with normal usage. Another less than perfect entry that I noticed occurs at p. 458 line 35. Here we have 35 ut:[prae (inter versus insertum) V. This should have been indicated as follows: 35 ut] prae add. V s.l. I observe in addition that this adjustment in the autograph deserved to be adopted as the correct text.
Pp. 27-31 explain the structure of the work as a whole, pp. 31-40 the historical setting of the dialogue. Leonello d'Este and Guarino are the leading figures, and the others are mainly known personalities of the time. Pp. 41-53 deal with the genre and intention of the work. The author names Gellius and Quintilian as his inspiration. The former is more obviously important than the latter. I am a trifle surprised that acknowledgement is not made to Macrobius' Saturnalia (mentioned but not emphasised by Witten at p. 43). Politia is not intended by Decembrio as the Greek word, which could be used to signify the republic of letters, but is derived by him from polire; so his concern is with literary elegance, and principally with Latin authors of antiquity; medieval authors and writers in the vernacular receive no more than occasional attention. Books 3, 4 and 7 are largely composed of word-lists of various types and amount to a primitive form of reference work. The result is an interesting contrast to Valla's Elegantiae of 1449.
The remainder of the introduction is rather different in character, since each section is designed to summarise Decembrio's views on a given issue. I did feel at times that an alternative policy might have been adopted, namely to separate all this material and present it in more detailed form in a short monograph. For instance it would have been interesting to have more discussion than we get on pp. 65ff. of the author's knowledge of Greek. Decembrio was clearly anxious to shine -- at VII.80.1 (p. 481.12-15) he boasts of having inserted missing Greek words where gaps had been left in copies of Quintilian and other authors - and he no doubt counted on the inability of most of his contemporaries to see that his linguistic attainments were relatively limited. Book I ch. 8 with its list of recommended Greek authors is disappointing; one notes among the epistolographers named the mysterious figure of Climachus, not identified by the editor but presumably a bad mistake for the author of the treatise of early Byzantine spirituality known as the Climax by the monk John; one is equally surprised to find that the list of orators is composed of Demosthenes, Lysias and Plato (Plato is of course included among the philosophers in the preceding section). It has to be said that the editor's handling of Greek matters occasionally falls short of perfection. At I.3.13 (p. 154.34) the allusion to the exclusion of poets from Plato's Republic is missed. At I.11.14 (p. 183.8) a reference should have been given to Dio Chrysostom, De regno II. At II.20.4 (p. 215.13, cf. discussion on p.134) the mysterious Greek word "emposan" can probably be explained. Though the editor suggests treating it as a mistake for "emposein", which derives some plausibility from the occurrence of the Latin "pedibus" in the context, I feel that a more likely solution is "empesein", because that can mean "fall upon, attack", and I note that the editor admits to having had difficulty in reading V; autopsy by an expert is called for.
The final section of the introduction is perhaps a trifle too favourable to Decembrio as a Latinist. On pp. 127-8 Witten rejects Baxandall's severe judgement (JWCI 26 (1963) pp. 303-326), but I feel bound to observe that in a number of passages I had real difficulty in understanding exactly what the Latin means, and, having had occasion to read recently texts by Bruni, Pius II and Battista Guarino, I found it a relief to return to them after a spell with Decembrio. That does not of course entail the conclusion that Witten is guilty of exaggerating the importance of the text itself. It is a mine of information about the literary world of the mid-fifteenth century, with fascinating if somewhat rose-tinted vignettes of a group of humanists at a princely court, and one is grateful to have it made accessible.