Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.39

Shane Butler (ed.), Angelo Poliziano: Letters. Volume I, Books I-IV. I Tatti Renaissance Library, 21.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2005.  Pp. 362.  ISBN 0-674-02196-7.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Alison Frazier, University of Texas at Austin (
Word count: 2625 words

In the summer of 1491, Angelo Poliziano (Politian) interrupted his teaching at the University of Florence to make a journey with an aristocratic friend, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Officially, the two men were seeking professors for the university and codices for the library of Lorenzo de' Medici, Poliziano's patron of almost two decades. In practice, the trip was a scholarly undertaking of the sort that would become more familiar in succeeding centuries, for Poliziano kept a diary, a proto-Mabillonesque itinerarium, of libraries visited and manuscripts examined, not to mention hot tips from other intellectuals. Halfway to Bologna, for example, Pico told Poliziano about a curious incipit in a Latin manuscript of Aristotle's "Metaphysics." "Hoc videndum diligenter," noted Poliziano, entering the manuscript's whereabouts (Santa Croce), along with Pico's recollection of the incipit and mention of another similar incipit (at San Marco). In Bologna, he recorded emendations (to Lucan based on Strabo) and a discussion of Latin pronunciation (Priscian, with reference to Papirianus), all remnants from what must have been a dinner conversation of alarmingly erudite jousting with Filippo Beroaldo the Elder and Antonio Codro Urceo. In Padua, visiting the library of philosopher Niccolò Vernia, Poliziano noted late antique commentaries on Aristotle--he himself had translated the "Problemata" of Alexander of Aphrodisias years before. But the high point of the trip occurred soon after the scholars arrived in Venice. On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, Poliziano celebrated in his diary. At the house of Bernardo Bembo "I began to collate a very ancient codex," he wrote, falling back on Boethius to express his delight, "'O felix nimium prior aetas!' Ego Ang. Politianus homo vetustatis minime incuriosus nullum aeque me vidisse ad hanc diem codicem antiquum fateor." And so, with help from his host's twenty-one year-old son, Pietro, Poliziano collated the famous fifth-century Terence (Vat. Lat. 3226), recording into his 1475 printed Terence (now at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence) even the notabilia, the bad readings and ink-blots, even the corrections, right or wrong, of early readers. The Bembine Terence was hardly the expedition's only "antiquissimus." In July, still at Venice, Poliziano also worked with a Manilius, an Adamantius, a grammatical collection with more Papirianus, and a Priscian "De situ orbis," all "antiquissimi." But such unguarded joy as the Terence elicited seems not to have recurred.

The elation was worth holding onto, for the scholars' holiday was a golden moment. Within the year, Lorenzo would be dead (April 1492) and his courtier dangerously isolated. When Poliziano died at the age of forty-four (Sept. 1494), "he left this life," in the words of contemporary chronicler Piero Parenti, "con tanta infamia e publica vituperazione quanta omo sostener potessi." The fatherless kid from Montepulciano had nonetheless done well. At his death, Poliziano could boast some sixteen publications, original compositions that ranged from the Sallustian "Pactianae coniurationis commentarium" (1478), a pro-Medici account of the Pazzi conspiracy; through exceedingly inventive verse introductions to his university courses on Statius' "Silvae" (1482-93), and prose introductions to his courses on Aristotle's "Ethics" and "Prior Analytics." Poliziano had published vernacular poetry as well. In the "Stanze per la giostra di Giuliano de Medici" and the "Fabula de Orfeo," a dramatic epic printed alongside it (1494), he brought classical learning to bear in signal contributions to Italian literature. But the great publication, the one that still today makes a claim on classical philology, was the "Miscellaneorum centuria prima" (1489). Here, emerging from the "humus" of Poliziano's collations, lectures, conversations, and unusually wide reading, was a collection of attentive, not to say "minute" observations on questions of Greek and Latin culture. These various entries had two contradictory aspects, embodying on one hand a notion of the classical past for its own sake that was so marked as to amount to a "philosophy of philology," and on the other, a clear-sighted appreciation of how that outlook might establish the author as a star. To account for his "elegant and original," almost anecdotal format, which "put as much distance as possible between itself and the line by line commentary," Poliziano adduced Aelian's "Varia Historia," Clement of Alexandria's "Stromata," and Aulus Gellius' "Noctes Atticae," though scholars today discount the influence of all but the last, and don't much value even that. But how else could Poliziano help contemporaries with an uncontrollable range of classical expertise, including his patron, figure out how to enjoy his hardwon nuggets of learning? And how better to overshadow comparable collections by Domizio Calderini, Filippo Beroaldo the Elder, Niccolò Perotti, and Giorgio Merula?

At Poliziano's death, the publications were safe. Not so his library. Dispersed in a hostile climate, much was lost. Gradually scholars have located and deciphered (for Poliziano's handwriting can be difficult) the precious imprints into which he made his collations, and his personal manuscripts, including "prolusiones" for courses on Suetonius, Vergil (sic Politianus), Ovid, Juvenal, Persius, Quintilian, and even the Pandects. A second, unfinished Miscellaneorum Centuriae, more intensively philological than the first, was recovered and edited only in the mid-twentieth century. Among the casualties "irremediabilmente perduto" was a formal letter collection. This epistolary would have been, of course, no more innocent than any other public letter collection of the period. Its particular task, at least to judge from the density of philological discussion and the emotional temperature of the 12 books of letters printed in the posthumous Aldine Opera of 1498, was to defend a history of victorious reception for the first, printed "Miscellaneorum centuriae." As a result, Poliziano's letter-book makes for fascinating reading. The "Miscellanies," after all, were intended to cement his status and by extension--of course, as always--the cultural standing of his patron. Now, with Lorenzo dead, what mattered was less the patron's pious memory than Poliziano's future. It would be safeguarded in letters that publicized the author's intellectual generosity, that clarified the battle lines of admiring friends vs. envious enemies, and that scored further philological points--for "grammar" in the broadest sense of the word was for Poliziano simultaneously a high scholarly practice, a practical courtier's offering, and a battle for superiority among his peers.

Classicist Shane Butler's edition and English translation of the twelve books of Latin letters by Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) is thus a stellar event: "their first modern edition and the first translation of the entire corpus into any modern language" (xii). The full set of 251 letters will eventually fill three volumes. The volume under review here presents 77 epistles--43 from Poliziano, 29 to him, and 3 exchanged among friends that lead Poliziano to initiate or resume a correspondence. I Tatti Renaissance Library series format dictates that Butler's volume should open with a brief, non-technical introduction (vii-xiii), and close with a "Note on the Text" (291-302) followed by two sets of endnotes, relatively generous ones in this case, addressing first the Latin text and then the translation. The ITRL series has an emulative relationship with the Loeb format: it must be said that the reader courts despair trying to consult two sets of endnotes printed with uninformative running headings (I wrote in my own), and with book divisions indicated only by a weakly differentiated font (I used a highliter). A handful of post-it notes is indispensable. Note also that ITRL volumes place the all-important "Note on the Text"--where sources for the edition are identified--following the text. The absence of such basic information in the introductory material can be unnerving for those accustomed to Loeb editions.

But these annoyances of formatting do not touch the substance of Butler's edition, which is admirable on two counts. First, it exists. As F. Bausi has recently argued, that is not a small achievement; J. Hunt has been working on the manuscript remnants for decades, turning out in the process wonderfully helpful articles, but not an edition. Second, and related, Butler's edition exists because he has made a pragmatic decision to base it on that 1498 Aldine princeps. One extracurricular letter is included, the preface from a rare 1492 pamphlet edition of IV.2, on the death of Lorenzo de' Medici. I wonder therefore at the exclusion of Manuzio's informative dedicatory letter to Marin Sanudo, the Venetian patrician who was apparently a pragmatic, third choice of dedicatee, after Piero de' Medici and Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola. If any extracurricular letter deserves a place in vol. I of Poliziano's epistles, it is this one, although admittedly its inclusion 1) would have ever so slightly tipped Butler's edition towards the documentary end of the spectrum, and 2) would have suggested adding as well the letter exchanged between Aldus and Crinitus about a possible dedication to Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola.

Butler's "Note on the Text" reviews the well-known problems posed by the manuscript and early printed sources. First, in a vernacular letter of 23 May 1494, Poliziano declared to his former pupil and new patron, Piero de' Medici, that a manuscript of the letters was ready for publication and would be dedicated to Piero. But that manuscript is no longer extant. Indeed, as Butler points out (294), no autograph has been found for any of the Poliziano letters in the 1498 Aldine princeps. (In contrast, some forty autograph letters in the vernacular are extant.) Second, after Poliziano's death, the author's manuscript was reworked in ways that cannot always be controlled--or even, one fears, identified--to produce the 1498 princeps. The culprits may have been chiefly a former student, the Florentine Pietro Ricci (Crinitus), and an ambitious editor, Alessandro Sarzio or Sarti (Sartor) of Bologna. But we also do not know the position of Venetian editor, Aldo Manuzio himself, who in introducing the princeps numbered Sartor among the author's friends. For that matter, we do not know Poliziano's final desires--late life conversions to the Savonarolan fold could be hard on a classicist's "Nachlass."

The implications of the epistles' reworking, at any rate, were recognized early, and devastatingly set out by the late M. Martelli. As a result, Butler's edition, since it reproduces the compromised Aldine princeps, cannot avoid being controversial. Other solutions were possible. Building on Martelli's suggestions, Butler could have juggled the collection in a speculative recreation of Poliziano's original. Or he could have recast it more fundamentally, to create a chronologically-arranged and supplemented collection of documents, as proposed by A. Campana. Either of those solutions would have driven him, however, to still more controversial decisions, and worse, would have compounded confusion in an already foggy situation. So the conservative aspect of Butler's edition is to be applauded.

Moreover, Butler is fully aware of the problems presented by the 1498 princeps (291-292). He addresses them by demonstrating control, first, of the three key manuscripts (MRV) which report variants on 55 letters from Books I-IV, and, second, of printed editions that also offer variants, especially of correspondents' letters (293-296). He even adds a new, fourth manuscript (P, dated by a reader's note to "before 1511") that reports six letters to Poliziano. The most interesting variants from P affect letters of the physician Niccolò Leoniceno (II.5 and II.7) not appearing in MRV--Leoniceno, in his "understated condescension," seems to have been Poliziano's most challenging correspondent. Thus Butler is able to revise and annotate the 1498 Latin text in such a way that, even if the edition as a whole cannot restore Poliziano's intentions, at least our sense of individual letters can be improved. Note however Butler's statement that his ITRL apparatus "reports only a fraction of [the] variants" that he has documented, "usually only when they would affect the text's English translation" (293). In other words, like most Loebs, the ITRL does not offer a full critical edition, but a valuable interim resource and one especially suitable for the classroom. Scholars, however, must carry on consulting those far-flung manuscripts. (The lateness of this review, for which I apologize, was caused in part by my hope of access to the manuscripts. I did not finally achieve it, but a microfilm review of V does suggest, first, Butler's basic reliability and, second, a wealth of manuscript study still to be carried out and assimilated into our understanding of the princeps.)

Butler's philological labors--even if not all reported in the edition--have led him to a further significant conclusion. The overall tenor of the manuscript variants in MRV and elsewhere suggests that the princeps accurately reports revisions made by Poliziano himself (292-293). If Butler is right, then these revisions--presumably deriving from the May 1494 manuscript--must have survived whatever other reworking the letter-collection suffered, just as Poliziano's distinctive orthography survived (298-300). The value of this hypothesis lies in its clear challenge to Martelli's scepticism and in its implications for philological commentary on the letters. Butler's hypothesis obviously needs to be tested and the limits of its applicability clarified. Since we know a great deal about Poliziano's Latin and method of working, a test that would analyze a selection of these "maniacally minute" revisions (293) against other evidence of the master's late style is not impossible. The letters have been somewhat neglected in recent Poliziano studies--Butler's edition will prompt renewed attention.

Nonetheless, A. Campana's proposal--to create a chronologically-ordered, documentary version of Poliziano's letters, Latin, Greek, and vernacular--deserves to be undertaken, too. This alternative edition would integrate letters from the facsimile reproductions in volumes II and III of I. Maier's 1971 amplification of Poliziano's Basel 1553 Opera Omnia with recent discoveries. In the absence of a Campana-style edition to complement Butler's Aldine one, and in anticipation of the Progetto Poliziano critical edition directed by F. Bausi, V. Fera, and S. Rizzo, perhaps Butler can be persuaded to undertake a fourth ITRL volume that will gather up the vernacular, Latin, and Greek letters that Poliziano himself had excluded. In the meantime, Butler has provided Poliziano scholars with a most important tool for the badly-needed critical biography. And he has offered teachers of Latin prose, philology, and epistolography, not to mention of classical reception and Renaissance history, some wonderful new texts for the classroom.

Studies referenced, alluded to, quoted from, or paraphrased in this review:

F. Bausi, "Edizioni critiche e edizioni provvisorie. Il Petrarca del Centenario" Ecdotica 3 (2006).

V. Branca, Poliziano e l'umanesimo della parola (Turin 1983), chs. 9 and 12.

V. Branca and M. Pastore-Stocchi, eds., intro. and comm., Angelo Poliziano. Miscellaneorum centuria secunda. 4 vols. (Florence 1972).

A. Campana, "Per il carteggio del Poliziano" La Rinascità 6 (1943): 437-472.

L. A. Ciapponi, ed., intro., comm. Filippo Beroaldo the Elder. Annotationes Centum (Binghamton 1995).

C. Fantazzi, intro. and tr., Angelo Poliziano. Silvae (Cambridge 2004).

V. Fera and M. Martelli, eds., Agnolo Poliziano. Poeta scrittore filologo (Florence: Le Lettere, 1998), articles by P. Viti and S. Rizzo.

P. Godman, From Poliziano to Machiavelli (Princeton 1998), Ch. 3.

A. Grafton, Joseph Scaliger. A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (Oxford 1983), ch. 1.

J. Hunt, "Two Teachers at the Volterran Grammar School and a Manuscript of Politian's Latin Letters" Rinascimento ser. 2, 31 (1991): 39-90.

I. Maier, ed., Angelo Poliziano. Opera omnia 3 vols. (Turin 1970).

M. Martelli, Angelo Poliziano: Storia e metastoria (Lecce 1995), esp. 205-65.

R. Oliver, "Politian's Translation of the Enchiridion" TAPA 89 (1958): 185-217.

A. Perosa, ed., intro., and comm. Angelo Poliziano. Della Congiura dei Pazzi (Padua 1958).

G. Pesenti, "Diario Odeporico-bibliografico inedito del Poliziano" Memorie del Reale Istituto Lombardo, Cl. sc. mor. e stor., s. 3, 23-24 (1914-17): 229-42.

L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed. corrected (Oxford 1991).

R. Ribuoli, La collazione polizianea del codice Bembino di Terenzio (Rome 1981).

S. Rizzo, Il lessico filologico degli umanisti (Rome 1973; anast. repr. 1984).

L. Ruberto. "Studi sul Poliziano filologo" Rivista di filologia e d' istruzione classica 12 (1884): 212-260.

A. Scaglione, "The Humanist as Scholar and Politian's Conception of the Grammaticus" Studies in the Renaissance 8 (1961): 49-70.

A. Wesseling, ed., annot., trans., Angelo Poliziano. Lamia (Leiden 1986).

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