Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.11.08

Margaret Meserve, Marcello Simonetta, Pius II: Commentaries. I Tatti Renaissance Library.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2004.  Pp. xxvi, 421.  ISBN 0-674-01164-3.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Dustin A. Gish, John Cabot University and The American University of Rome (
Word count: 2652 words

These are the labors of the night, for we have borrowed the hours owed to sleep and spent the better part of them on our writing. Another man, it is true, might have used his watch better, but I felt an obligation to my mind, which took such delight in the task.

Thus writes Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (1405-64; Pope Pius II, r. 1458-64), in 1462, one of the tensest years of his papacy, regarding the completion of his treatise on Asia, part of an ambitious, yet unfinished Cosmographia. These lines serve as a fitting epigram for Aeneas Sylvius [hereafter, AS] and open the Introduction to the first of five projected volumes of Pius II: Commentaries from the I Tatti Renaissance Library, edited and translated by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta [hereafter, M & S].1

In this volume we have the first two books of AS's Commentaries: a monumental work (thirteen books in all) of literature, historiography, and autobiography, authored by one of the most intriguing characters in the humanist movement. It is the only autobiography ever written by a reigning pope, and the fitting culmination and keystone of a Renaissance career which may be called 'typical' only in the sense of being truly exemplary. AS excelled as a humanist scholar and diplomat, and was an accomplished Latin poet (crowned 'Poet Laureate' in 1442: I.11.1); held the post of secretary to two bishops, three cardinals, an anti-pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor (by his own admission, "an extraordinary distinction": I.14.1); served as ambassador and vice-chancellor to the Emperor as well as papal legate and apostolic secretary to two popes; was made bishop of Trieste, and later of his native Siena; finally, in 1456, was created cardinal and -- only two years later -- elected pope.

The present volume reflects AS's education and ascent as poet, orator, secretary, and statesman (I.1-32); the circumstances surrounding his membership in the College of cardinals and elevation as Pius II, following the death of Pope Calixtus III (I.33-37); and events of his papacy leading up to his convocation of the Congress of Mantua in 1459 to meet the gathering threat to Europe posed by the Ottoman Turks, interspersed with AS's orations and observations during his travel from Rome to Mantua (II.1-44).

Overall, in the classically-inspired pages of AS's Commentaries, "composed in elegant humanistic Latin modeled on Caesar and Cicero,"we discover the highly-polished mirror of a Renaissance man amid the splendor and tumult of his times.2 Fittingly, the first two books of AS's Commentaries (and this volume) conclude with his praise of the noble young orator who had addressed the pope on his arrival in Mantua (II.44.1).3 Speaking of the beautiful young lady, only thirteen years of age, who on that occasion composed and delivered an oration in Latin worthy of her illustrious and eloquent host, AS remarked: "her style was so elegant that all who heard her were lost in wonder and admiration." (II.44.4) No small praise from the poet laureate and pope who in his younger days had himself held the courts and potentates of Europe captive with his eloquence.

Since an extensive review of all the themes in the first two books of AS's Commentaries surely lies beyond the scope of this review, what follows below are comments on aspects of the Translation and the editors' Introduction relevant to readers with classical interests.

The translation available in this new edition is "a thorough revision" of the once definitive, indeed only complete English edition of AS's Commentarii rerum memorabilium quae temporibus suis contigerunt, rendered into elegant prose by Florence A. Gragg and originally published in Smith College Studies in History, from 1936 to 1957 [M & S, xxiii and 380]. Gragg's translation, together with extensive historical notes provided by Leona C. Gabel [hereafter, G & G], stood unrivaled for nearly half a century.4 Insofar as their scholarly labors were eased by the Herculean efforts of G & G, our present editors acknowledge the debt they owe to their illustrious predecessors in this volume's Introduction and "Note on the Text and Translation". (The book itself is dedicated to the memory of Gragg.)

The Latin text of the Commentaries for both Gragg's translation and the present revision is based on the original, unexpurgated Vatican manuscript, penned in part by AS himself. M & S actually take their bearings from the second Vatican manuscript, copied, with ordered revisions, by a professional scribe and dated 1464. This manuscript reflects AS's last set of changes before his death -- corrections and marginal notations in his hand are clearly evident -- and so is to be preferred as the "final version" of the Commentaries.5

The revised translation offered by M & S is accurate and commendable, for it never strays far from the literal meaning of the Latin in search of English; however, it does at times strain toward the virtue of readability.6 Such straining truncates the graceful 'Ciceronian' sentences of AS, and punctuates the rhetorical rhythms of AS's expressions with shorter, simpler sentences in English. It does so presumably in order not to put pressure on contemporary readers, who may be overwhelmed by the challenging structure and cadence in AS's original text. Aiming for readability, however, is not always a virtue; in this case it becomes a compromise, one that runs the risk of doing injustice to AS's Latin.

Take, for example, this passage on the death of Alfonso of Aragon, the King of Sicily in Naples and the disputed succession to that throne of his illegitimate son, Ferrante: first, AS's Latin; followed by the translations of G & G and of M & S, respectively. Both translations are accurate and indeed quite 'readable', although the former preserves a trace of the fluidity with which the passage unfolds in Latin (I.35.5; double slashes added to mark original sentence breaks):

Etsi enim mortuo Alfonso Regni principes ac civitates omnes Ferdinandum supra se regem acceperunt et in eius verba iuraverunt, Callistus tamen pontifex maximus odium, quod in Alfonsum viventem gesserat, eo extincto in filium continuavit; Regnumque Siciliae Alfonsi obitu ad Romanam Ecclesiam devolutum declaravit eo (ut vulgatior fama fuit) animo, nepotem suum Borgiam ad Regni fastigium ut extolleret. // Sed quid humana cogitatione vanius? // Dum Callistus inimico rege mortuo nimis alto fertur animo, et iam sibi plana omnia censet, ipse quoque intra dies quadraginta morbo captus et extremo confectus senio fatis fungitur. [M & S, 174]

"For although at Alfonso's death all the princes and states of his realm acknowledged Ferrante as their sovereign and swore allegiance to him, Pope Calixtus transferred the hatred he had felt for Alfonso during his life to his son and declared that the kingdom of Sicily had reverted to the Church of Rome. It was common talk that he intended to put his nephew, [Rodrigo] Borgia, on the throne. // But what is more uncertain than the plans of men? // While Calixtus was unduly elated at the death of his royal enemy and thought that now everything was going to be easy for him, he himself fell ill and being weakened by extreme old age died within forty days" [G & G, 78-79; italics added by G & G to mark words or sentences purged from the published edition of 1584 (see note 5)].

"At Alfonso's death, all the princes and states of his realm had acknowledged Ferrante as their sovereign and sworn allegiance to him. But [Pope] Calixtus [III] had always hated Alfonso and now began to persecute his son. He decreed that the Kingdom of Sicily had reverted to the Church of Rome. It was common talk that he intended to put his nephew, [Rodrigo] Borgia [future Pope Alexander VI], on the throne. // How pointless are these human machinations! // As Calixtus gloated over the death of his enemy the king, imagining that the way now lay open for him to realize all his plans, he himself fell sick. Weakened by extreme old age, within forty days he was dead" [M & S, 175].

While this passage in Latin is perhaps Ciceronian in length and construction, it is not a slavish imitation of Cicero's style; nor does it appear to be so "unwieldy" [contra M & S, xx] as to warrant having its carefully-worded first sentence cut by M & S into four very simple sentences in English translation (or all three original sentences diced into seven).7 This alone would give little cause for concern. But what we must consider here is whether the rhetorical structure or form of this particular story told by AS is intended to guide our interpretation of its content, as well as of its relation to the work as a whole.

Judging from the repetition of this story (repeated at II.3.4-6), it is clear that AS has in mind here a lesson which winds its way through his Commentaries: the best-laid human schemes cannot overcome our natural flaws, or undermine the work of divine providence. Calixtus and Alfonso both, we learn, suffered a species of 'poetic' justice on account of their mutual hatred (odium) and "implacable" hostility (inimicitiae) toward each other that finally "went with them [both] to the grave." (II.3.5) But the deeper significance of the passage is to be found in AS's penetrating rhetoric and reflection on the wrathful nature of Calixtus. The crucial noun in the passage above -- literally governing its structure -- is "hatred" (odium); however, it is somewhat concealed in the translation of M & S, diluted by the use of a commonplace English verb. (The rendering of G & G hints at the original function of the word within the sentence and passage, though the shift from nominative to accusative weakens it.) Moreover, the staccato rendering of the passage by M & S appears to separate thoughts which AS, no doubt, intended for us to elide.

What is perhaps being lost in translation is the sense that Calixtus is at the mercy of his own hatred. The overwhelming odium which Calixtus harbored in his soul for Alfonso did not perish with the death of his enemy, but lived on (continuavit), unabated and redirected at his enemy's son. Yet, before he could exploit Alfonso's death (and Ferrante's weakness) for his own (and his own son's) advantage, Calixtus himself perished. The rhetoric embedded in the style of the original passage, it can be argued, proves to be a kind of education in itself, for it prompts us to reflect upon the thought that Calixtus is destroyed by his own hatred -- hardly an admirable legacy for a pope (cf. II.1.1-2, with Praefatio.1-2.8 Such a reflection would be potentially obscured by any translation which unnecessarily sacrifices literalness on the altar of readability.

For an accomplished Renaissance humanist, poet, and orator like AS, good translations ought to aspire as much as possible to reflect not only the substance but also the style of his writing, in order not to obscure the fullness of the author's intentions. For the most part, the translation of M & S remains true to this aim.

As this volume's epigram reminds us, in writing his Commentaries, AS kept vigil through long hours of sleepless nights, his soul yearning to fulfill the duties of the vita contemplativa, even beyond the obligations he owed and paid to the vita activa. Modern scholars have often interpreted this duality as a 'tension' or 'contradiction', rather than as a virtue, in the multi-faceted life of AS.9 It should, however, as the editors remark in their Introduction, be viewed in appropriate Renaissance terms as "the humanist ideal of engagement" [M & S, xvii] -- an ideal derived from the ancient example of Cicero, whose life represents classical virtue par excellence -- with its inseparability of private study, philosophical writing, and public service. (Having traversed the Renaissance equivalent of the cursus honorum during his own career, AS was in fact praised as a Cicero novus after his death.10)

The Commentaries must also be viewed in relation to other exempla from classical antiquity which, in speech and in deed, AS so consciously emulates, beginning with his explicit and implicit comparisons with Vergil's tempest-tossed epic hero, pius Aeneas. (After his ascension, AS implored the world -- with a humanist's wit -- to "reject Aeneas and accept Pius": Aeneam reiicite, Pium suscipite.) This classical reference in his own name evokes an underlying theme of the work which should not be dismissed as a mere literary device, for the Commentaries are -- as the editors rightly point out -- "above all, an epic work, the heroic dramatization of a life and a career . . . [tending] inexorably toward a sacred Italian destiny and (as the author . . . so clearly hoped) a legacy of triumph and renown." [M & S, xxi-xxii] Just as "pious" Aeneas struggled to bring his pagan gods to rustic Latium and set in motion the founding of ancient Rome, so too AS was destined by divine will to wander and struggle before embracing "Pius" in order to re-found sacred Rome and the Renaissance papacy.

But perhaps the more compelling comparison is drawn with another ancient Roman, equally renown. The Commentarii of AS rival not only the foundational epic of Aeneas, or the style and self-portraiture of Cicero, but also the self-assurance and intent of Julius Caesar. As with the great Roman conqueror, AS writes in a mode well suited to his own rhetorical ends, imitating the entire corpus Caesarium which was composed in the form of third-person commentarii. According to the editors, humanist commentarii in general "owed a great debt, as their titles imply," to the writings of Caesar; and yet this ancient genre was conceived with an eye to its function: namely, to elucidate "the larger forces of history" which directed "the career of some great man," and which "he in turn had done much to shape", and to demonstrate "the superior character, abilities and virtù of the man . . . [who] thanks to these traits . . . had mastered the challenges thrown up by contemporary events" [M & S, xviii].

The noble pursuit of fama et gloria -- in antiquity or in the Renaissance -- ought not be confused with the narrow intentions of 'propaganda', a word all too often used by modern scholars and editors to describe (or categorize) the autobiographical works of a Cicero or Caesar. To do so in their case -- or in the case of AS -- is to accept and perpetuate the exhausted meaning of rhetoric and historiography in our own times.11 Such an interpretation may be lurking behind the editors' matter-of-fact claim that AS, writing as pope, was "a secretary to himself," and succeeded in "raising oratorical skill to the level of brute force or fabulous wealth." Eloquence, they argue, thus "becomes not only a means of acquiring power, but also a justification for holding it." [M & S, xix] It is hard to read these lines which so confidently stress the "literary aggrandizement" of AS as being uninfluenced by this century's numerous editions of Caesar's commentarii -- almost all with introductory essays that are quick to impose modern terminology on ancient phenomena. Historicizing interpretations of this sort tend to be more revealing of ourselves, and of our current hermeneutical prejudices, than of the intention of the best authors from classical antiquity and the Renaissance.

Fortunately, the Introduction of M & S only hints at such a reading. Otherwise, in its concise and lucid historical contextualization of AS's career, the humanist movement, history-writing as a form of rhetoric, and style as an expression of political philosophy, their essay admirably prepares us to read the Commentaries with informed minds and eager eyes.

With the completion of the remaining four volumes of Pius II: Commentaries and hence the restoration in English of AS's unabridged text, M & S will have made an invaluable contribution to the revival and serious study of this quintessential Renaissance man and author.12


1.   This volume is the twelfth in the I Tatti Renaissance Library (ITRL) series. Under the supervision of general editor James Hankins, the mission of this series is to make available the master works of history, literature, and philosophy from the Italian Renaissance written in Latin, with "an accurate, readable English translation" on facing pages.
2.   On the Commentaries of AS as a 'mirror' of the Renaissance, see Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878): IV.3, 5. See also, the short essay by Iris Origo, on "Pope Pius II", in The Italian Renaissance, edited by J. H. Plumb (1961): 241-2, 244. Origo refers to this work of AS -- a man "completely in harmony" with his times -- as "one of the most readable autobiographies ever written," as well as an "historical record" of all the major events of his day, "seen with a sharp eye and a ripe judgment, and enlivened by brilliant sketches of men and places, and by perceptive reflections on human nature." The editors, in their Introduction, concur. [M & S, xx]
3.   AS's choice to hold a Congress in Mantua was made partly in honor of Vergil (II.2.3). Ippolita Sforza, the young orator who spoke, became one of the most famous woman humanists of the Renaissance. Her oration was later printed -- together with AS's formal reply -- in the three-volume edition of Pius II's collected writings, edited by Mansi (Lucca, 1755-59). Burckhardt's comment on this passage is worth noting (III.7): " . . . Ippolita saluted Pope Pius II with a graceful address at the Congress of Mantua. Pius himself through all his life did much by his oratory to prepare the way for his final elevation to the Papal chair. Great as he was both as a scholar and diplomat, he would probably never have become Pope without the fame and the charm of his eloquence."
4.   A complete translation was reportedly made also by Flora Grierson, around the same time as that made by Gragg, but was never published; for details, see R. J. Mitchell, The Laurels and the Tiara (Harvill Press, 1962): 294. Of the several abridged versions of this translation, the most notable is from 1959, titled Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope and published to commemorate the 500th anniversary of AS's ascension to the papal throne.
5.   A 'purged' edition of the Commentaries was first published in 1584, with the authorship ascribed in fact to its copyist, not AS; this edition was heavily edited by a cardinal (and distant relative of AS) who silently pruned any words, phrases, and even passages which he "deemed impious or otherwise unflattering to the majesty of the Holy See" [M & S, 379].
6.   This impression was confirmed by two Latin scholars asked to review portions of the translation: Dr. Robert E. Proctor of Connecticut College, and the Rev. Reginald Foster of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, one of a handful of Latinists in the Vatican Secretariat of State -- remarkable heir since 1969 to the apostolic post once held by AS himself.
7.   Another example is the awkward translation at II.1.5 which needlessly multiplies by dividing from six to thirteen the number of sentences in AS's passionate censure (as pope) of the theological "errors" of Muhammad. AS devoted much of his eloquence (I.26-I.28.2) and indeed his entire pontificate (II.1.2 and 2.5) to the organization of a pan-European crusade against the Ottoman Turks. In 1464 he died on the shores of Ancona, and the last crusade of Christendom passed away with him.
8.   Consider the reference by AS to the "forty days" of suffering which attended the sickness, last confession, and death of Alfonso (I.35.4), as opposed to Calixtus who 'survived' his enemy by "forty days" -- with his insatiable odium mocking the death of Alfonso -- but himself "fell sick" unto death, his illicit scheming frustrated by his own mortality (I.35.5 and II.3.6). It is reported by AS that Alfonso had "paid his debt to nature" and "died in sanctity", whereas nothing at all is said about the condition of Calixtus' soul at his death. Another key use of odium marks the transition from Book I to II: Sultan Muhammad II, imperator of the Turks, who, inflamed by his 1453 conquest of Constantinople, desired to acquire imperium over all Europe.
9.   See Cary J. Nederman, "Humanism and Empire: Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Cicero and the Imperial Idea" in The Historical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1993a): 499-515; see also, "National Sovereignty and Ciceronian Political Thought: Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini and the Ideal of Universal Empire in Fifteenth-Century Europe" in History of European Ideas Vol. 16 (1993b): 537-544; but cf. John G. Rowe, "The Tragedy of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini" in Church History, Vol. 30 (Sept 1961): 290-303.
10.   In his "De Commentariis Pii II" of 1495, Giannantonio Campano echoes the praise of Cicero in Leonardo Bruni's Cicero novus (Vita Ciceronis) of 1415, a work of humanist biography modeled on Plutarch. Campano was the humanist poet and historian assigned the task of making corrections to the Commentarii based on AS's revisions [M & S, 379].
11.   For an early, yet unsuccessful attempt to dispel the prejudice of modern historians when judging the intention of ancient commentarii, see Norman J. DeWitt, "The Non-Political Nature of Caesar's Commentaries" in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 73 (1942): 341-352, esp. 342 and 349.
12.   This handsome volume has only a few minor errors, with one exception. The reference in the "Notes to the Translation" (p. 408) for Note 100 of Book II ("See 2.29.1.") belongs rather at the end of Note 99; thus, the numeration of all the remaining notes should be reduced by one (i.e., "101" should be "100", "102" should be "101", and so on). Also, the following typos were noticed: pp. xix (read "other than the", not "other the"); 25 ("who sat up", not "who made sat up"); 121 ("was a good", not "was good"); 133 ("of the Diet", not "of Diet"); 179 ("The conclave", not "On the conclave"); 191 ("Pietro's plan", not "Pavia's plan"); 227 (secondary discourse in section two continues to the end of the section); 235 ("to the", not "the to"); 241 (in line 5, strike second "one"; also, in line 21, "error", not "guilt"); 289 (last line, add opening quotation mark); 295 ("on the point", not "on point"); 307 ("Pope had been", not "Pope been"); 391 (in note 32, "1438", not "1437"); 403 (in note 36, "2.14.3.", not "2.14.13."); and finally, 407 (in note 93, "Baldassare" should not be italicized).

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