Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.54

Gary R. Grund, Humanist Comedies. The I Tatti Renaissance Library.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2005.  Pp. xxx, 460.  ISBN 0-674-01744-7.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Diane Louise Johnson, Western Washington University (
Word count: 1270 words

The mission statement of I Tatti Renaissance Library is heartening. According to the inside flap of the dust-jacket of this most recent addition to the series, I Tatti texts are designed to make available "to a broad readership the major . . . works of the Italian Renaissance written in Latin." This ambitious project will certainly benefit all students of European culture. The Latin literature of this period is immense; it is also, at least for North American scholars, in many cases difficult of access. The I Tatti Renaissance Library promises to provide in each of its issues "a reliable Latin text" along with "an accurate, readable English translation," accompanied by introductory material, bibliography and index: in other words, the ideal point of entrance for the scholar -- and the general reader -- exploring unknown literary territory.

Gary R. Grund prepared for this series five short Latin dramas written by Italian authors of the late-fourteenth and fifteenth century, all of them motivated and influenced in a variety of ways by ancient Roman comedy. Not one of these Latin texts is readily available electronically, nor are English translations and commentaries on them easy to track down -- indeed, the anglophone readership has been surprisingly neglected. That we have all these texts and their English renderings gathered together in one stoutly bound and very reasonably priced volume is a fact to be celebrated. Along with his translation, Professor Grund's introduction, notes and bibliography will get the general reader interested in the field and the undergraduate started upon research in this literature.

The plays selected for this anthology represent the earliest flowering of the Renaissance comic theater. They include

1. Paulus of Pietro Paolo Vergerio. Born at Capodistria near Trieste in 1370, Vergerio studied law, medicine, Greek, and the liberal arts at Padua, Bologna, Rome, and Florence. Although appointed to a position in the papal curia in 1406, he died at Buda in 1444 in the service of Emperor Sigismondo. In addition to the Paulus, Vergerio left a large collection of letters, essay on political and educational subjects, and a study of Latin metrics.1

2. Philodoxus of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Renowned as one of the most prolific figures of the Italian Renaissance, Alberti's studies in architecture and painting continue to be appreciated. His Latin comedy, written when he was still a very young man and later revised, casts light upon his personality and thought during a formative period of his life.2

3. Philogenia et Epiphebus of Ugolino Pisani (1405-1445). Pisani, "uno dei piu bizzarri spiriti del suo tempo,"3 was a student of law and the arts who traveled widely through Central and Eastern Europe and appears finally, like Vergerio, at the court of Sigismondo. In addition to the comedy presented in this edition, Pisani wrote a culinary farce, the Confabulatio coquinaria.4

4. Chrysis of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464). Of a poor but noble family, a student of the arts and law at Siena and Florence, Piccolomini held a variety of ecclesiastical positions before joining the court of Frederick III as secretary and, a few years later, poet laureate. Here he wrote the Chrysis, in 1444. Piccolomini's works are extensive, and include a fictional narrative, Historia de duobus amantibus, as well as the autobiography he wrote as Pope Pius II.5

5. Epirota of Tommaso Mezzo. Born at Venice probably about 1450, Mezzo (or Medio) published this comedy in 1483.Readers coming fresh from the Latin comedy of antiquity would do well to brace themselves before assaying to read these plays. For despite the drive among their humanist authors to prove themselves the successors of the Republican comedians, "the comedies of Plautus and Terence," as Fantham has stated, "had no legitimate heirs."6 Each of the Renaissance playwrights has in his own way compromised the classicist's expectations of what a comedy should be. Vergerio's tricky servant turns out to be his stupid master's greatest enemy, driving Paulus to financial and spiritual destruction: rather than shoring up the feckless youth, Herotes exploits him, a Mephistopheles rather than a Pseudolus. Pisani seems to have modeled his plot on one of those sexually exploitive tales found in collections such as the Decameron. His Epiphebus is a Don Giovanni who gets away with it, a Count Almaviva at whose successful exploitation of others we are supposed to laugh. These plays are so alien, so different from the rhythm of the ancient comedy, that we catch our breath and turn back to Bacchides, Eunuchus, Captivi, Rudens. We have grown used to being gratified by father and child or brother and brother reunited in purpose, the household tempered, the lost child found, welcomed and legitimized. The characters of Chrysis are rather less unsavory, rather more familiar: a cook pronounces a little lyric about the dinner he is preparing, a lena celebrates her profession, a iuvenis sings of crazy sex. If there is not a satisfying future mapped out for any of Piccolomini's characters, at least we see young men and women setting aside their misunderstandings and enjoying themselves for one more evening. In the Philodoxeos fabula we are dealing with an author who clearly knows his Roman comedy. Alberti understands the ancient comic rhythm, and he has given us a plot on the ancient model. Yet something has driven him to enamel the structure with allegory, to set each character to generating significance on a number of levels. To appreciate his work, we're going to have to factor in the literary culture in which it is embedded. Finally, in Epirota we've found a play we can fully interpret in the classical tradition. Indeed, Plautus lurks very close beneath the surface in Mezzo's script: the main story-line bulges with vaudeville skits; there are lost relatives, desperate lovers, and chance encounters galore.

To introduce these plays to the classicist will require much discussion of the influences which have made them so unclassical. To present them to the scholar of Renaissance theater will require much analysis of the Roman tradition. While Grund has provided a general introduction which will satisfy neither specialist, it is not to the specialist that this series is directed. For the general reader, without academically generated prejudices, the plays need only a bit of commentary. This Grund has taken care to provide. Help with historical and literary references is given in the notes to the translation at the back of the text. The introduction maps out the cultural background to these comedies, and mentions some of the influences that shaped them. Grund also discusses dramatic venues in the fifteenth century. Although it is likely that none of these plays was written for performance, this section of his introduction will prepare the reader who wants to read the Neo-Latin drama of the next century. Grund's introduction also treats of Latin comic prosody. (Vergerio and Piccolomini both attempted to write in verse.) This section of his introduction Grund has necessarily made general and brief, since to analyze the Renaissance comic senarius fully would require treatment beyond the scope of the edition.

As far as the anglophone general reader and the tiro in theater studies is concerned, Humanist Comedies is a welcome addition to a field in which there are not many general works ready at hand. For the reader whose interests already lie in Neo-Latin literature, however, the text will perhaps be found to be less adequate. There are a number of places where Grund's translation seems a little insecure. However, we must state again that this edition is meant for the general English-speaking audience, which will doubtless appreciate Grund's usually clear renderings and enlightening comments on the more obscure passages in these plays.


1.   On the biography and writings of Vergerio see Michael Katchmer, Pier Paolo Vergerio and the Paulus, Peter Lang: l998.
2.   A very useful and readable introduction to the life and cultural contributions of Alberti will be found in Anthony Grafton's Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance, Harvard University Press: 2000.
3.   Antonio Stäuble (La Comedia Umanistica del Quattrocento, Florence:1968, p. 39), quoting Sabbadini.
4.   The interested reader will find an enlightening picture of Pisani in Jon Pearson Perry's "A Fifteenth-Century Dialogue on Literary Taste: Angelo Decembrio's Account of Playwright Ugolino Pisani at the Court of Leonello d'Este," Renaissance Quarterly 39.4:1986, 613-643.
5.   See Stäuble ibid. pp. 69-78.
6.   Elaine Fantham, "Adaptation and Survival: A Genre Study of Roman Comedy in Relation to its Greek Sources," in Paul G. Ruggiers (ed.) Versions of Medieval Comedy, University of Oklahoma Press: 1977, p. 48.

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