Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.48

Christoph Pieper, Elegos redolere Vergiliosque sapere: Cristoforo Landinos "Xandra" zwischen Liebe und Gesellschaft. Noctes Neolatinae Bd. 8.   Hildesheim:  Olms, 2008.  Pp. xx, 356.  ISBN 9783487135946.  €88.00.  

Reviewed by Jeroen De Keyser, Hogeschool Gent / KU Leuven (;
Word count: 2383 words

This study is a slightly revised version of Pieper's PhD dissertation as it was presented at Bonn University in 2007. The author discusses Cristoforo Landino's (1424-1498) 'Xandra', the first neolatin elegy collection, as a milestone in the development of Quattrocento Latin poetry. Landino effectively combined the tradition of the Augustan love elegy with panegyrics of his hometown Florence and its ruling family, the Medici, and by means of this fashioning of Florence and his own self-fashioning, Landino "negotiated" his own career as a poet and as a professor at the Studio Fiorentino, the university of Florence.

The book's title has been taken from Giovanni Marrasio's 'Angelinetum', a quote that is symptomatic for a question that was very alive in the Florence of the 1450's: how elegiac poetry was to be squared with the ruling generic norm and literary values. The pivotal point in Pieper's study is Landino's nomination as a professor at the Studio Fiorentino and the role his 'Xandra', a collection of lyric poetry in three books, played in Landino's self-representation or fashioning (it will be clear by now that Greenblatt's New Historicism and its theoretic presentation are quite present in this book).

In his Vorbemerkungen, Pieper sets out a clear-cut plan for his research: he wants to combine textual analysis with an intertextual approach, analyzing the 'Xandra' as an aspect of both Florentine fashioning and Landino's self-fashioning. It's not in his intentions to produce a detailed analysis of every single poem, but he wants to study the 'Xandra' (in its second redaction, from 1458) as a whole. He rightly points out that Landino the poet, unlike Landino the (Neo-Platonic) philosopher and Landino the (Virgil) scholar, has been practically ignored in modern scholarship and gives a short overview of the few existing studies (by Cardini, De Nichilo, Charlet, Murgatroyd, Tonelli).

The first chapter (Renaissancelyrik zwischen Literarizität und Historizität, pp. 1-20) outlines the theoretic foundation Pieper is basing his work on. An overview of the development of intertextuality (Kristevá, Barthes, Schoeck all pass by) leads to crediting Greenblatt's New Historicism for ending intertextuality's exegetical aporia and offering a more fruitful approach. This may all seem too obvious to some, but as Pieper rightly points out, Landino's love elegies still suffer from being read as mere autobiographical writings, without distinguishing between the author and his literary persona, whereas the scholarship on the Roman elegy (Ovid's role in the 'Amores' as poeta v. amator, e.g.) might have shown the way.

The second chapter (Die Ausgangslage -- Landino im Florenz der 1450er Jahren, pp. 21-62) gives a synthesis of Landino's early life, and describes the crisis at the Studio in the middle of the century. After the return to power of Cosimo de' Medici, many first rate humanists had indeed left the city, and after Bruni (1444) and Marsuppini (1453) died, the vacant chair in poetry and rhetoric needed to be filled. Several factions pushed their candidates: Rinuccini and his followers advocated the return of Francesco Filelfo, who had had to leave the city because of his fierce criticism of Cosimo, while others supported the Byzantine Johannes Argyropoulos. Enter Landino. His Greek was poor, and even as a philosopher his record was meager, but he had the support of Poggio Bracciolini and the Medici. In his poetry he had fashioned himself as the most loyal pupil and natural heir of Marsuppini, and with his dedication of the 'Xandra' collection to the bibliophile Piero de' Medici, a member of the ruling family, he secured the appointment.

The third chapter (Die 'Xandra' und ihre Vorlaüfer -- Liebe und Dichtung, pp. 63) inquires into the question of elegy as a genre and its implications for Landino's poetics: Landino was indeed, together with Tito Vespasiano Strozzi, one of the the first poets to publish a collection of several books of miscellaneous poetry, and the only one who consistently politicized his lyric efforts.1 Landino joined in with the 'apostolic succession' (E. Fantham) of Augustan poets singing their servitium amoris in elegiac distichs. He wove the ancient tradition into contemporary culture, rewriting and thereby modernizing the antique genre. In his course on Horace's "Ars poetica" at the Studio in 1464, Landino adhered to Horace's views on the elegiac genre, but in his own poetry, he departed from the original content of elegy, under the influence of Antonio Beccadelli's obscene 'Hermaphroditus' and Giovanni Marrasio's 'Angelinetum'. The former showed Landino the way, by dealing with the most ordinary subjects in an ingenious literary way and by dedicating his collection to Cosimo de' Medici; the latter was more of a genre conscious and theory oriented poet, and he explored and supplied possible new themes for elegiac poetry. Marrasio, however, did not always actualize such themes in his own writings. Another model for Landino was Enea Silvio Piccolomini's 'Cinthia'. Piccolomini, in fact, had already attempted a synthesis of Beccadelli's epigrammatic and Marrasio's 'pre-elegiac' collection. From Piccolomini Landino also derives the stronger Virgilian influence, although Piccolomini's major source of inspiration was Propertius.

The two redactions of the 'Xandra', as Pieper proves, are to be considered two independent literary works with different goals and emphases. While in the first redaction Florence was almost absent and Love was the undeniable leading figure (as in Piccolomini and the early Propertius), in the second, more complex redaction, the aemulatio Vergilii surfaces together with the intention of diverting the work from erotic poetry to patriotic elegy. This happens by means of a skilful interweaving of the antique, medieval (Petrarch) and humanistic traditions.

The fourth chapter (Modelliering des Dichter-Ichs, pp. 118-192) raises the question of the role of the poet in humanist culture. An important aspect of humanist poetry is, indeed, the author's concern with his work's function, its legitimization of the profession and its positioning of the poetry in the canon of the genre. Pieper discusses the vision on poetic inspiration (the fervor concept in Boccaccio's 'Genealogia deorum gentilium' and the furor poeticus in Marrasio's 'Angelinetum') and the explicit, neo-platonic 'poetology' of Ficino and Poliziano. Landino's own program, with his first courses at the studio, was much indebted to Ficino's thinking in his letter 'De divino furore': in his 'Prolusione dantesca', Landino sticks closely to Ficino's letter, and echoes the vision that the furor poeticus brings man closer to God. With his choice of Cicero as the subject of his first course on philosophy, on the other hand, Landino mainly sought to distance himself from Argyropoulos (who had been teaching Aristotle and didn't have a high regard for Cicero), with whom Landino not only contrasted on an intellectual, but also on a political level, being himself a convinced supporter of the Medici. This chapter also explores the captatio benevolentiae in the dedication of the 'Xandra', the influence of Petrarch, and the concept of inspiration, taking as case studies the poems I, 24 and 25.

The fifth and final chapter (Die 'Xandra' als Teil des florentinischen Machtsdiskurses, pp. 193-309) focuses on a hot topic in fifteenth century Italy: the question of which city was the most important cultural centre and, therefore, the true heir to the legacy of ancient Rome. The actual city of Rome, one would think -- but things weren't that simple. The idea that Quattrocento Florence, not Rome itself, was to be considered the real successor of ancient Rome wasn't that absurd, Leonardo Bruni had argued: in the end, 'Rome' would never have come into being without Etruria, i.e. Tuscany, and so, in a way, the handover to Florence was like a homecoming. Bruni's provocative position of course met with a harsh reaction in Rome: Valla and Biondo rejected it fiercely; after the return of the Curia to the Eternal City in 1443, the Rome of pope Nicolas V became a magnet for intellectuals. Florence was definitely over the hill by then, in terms of cultural leadership, no matter how strongly Landino would argue the opposite in his poems, extolling the city and its rulers, the Medici. This twist even inspired him to abandon, in the transition from the second to the third book of the 'Xandra', elegiac Propertius for Virgil: the poet who once worshipped his own, egoistic love for a girl now worships his patria, in a language which significantly echoes the Aeneid. Landino now presents Piero de' Medici as the Augustus of the new cultural center of the world. Pieper illustrates this by analyzing poems II, 29 and 30, which he sees as the poetic program or manifesto for Book III. Landino mirrors Bruni's reliance on the concept of the translatio studii, with the relevant difference that Bruni, in the tradition of civic humanism, had defended republican libertas, while Landino argues, with his parallel between Augustus and Piero, that a Medici principate is the best way for Florence to revive ancient Roman culture and especially literature. In the third book, the farewell to the love elegy is completed, and panegyrics take the lead. The central topic is the peace that the Florentine regime is bringing, and the tone is that of epic. The recusatio of the 'Propertius Florentinus' from love elegy in II, 23 is modeled explicitly after Propertius (III, 9), who had made the same switch from mere love poetry to a more epic, political inspiration. An analysis of the 'war cycle' poems III, 4-6 and of the epitaphs (for Marsuppini, Dante and Petrarch) in the same book brings Pieper to the conclusion that Landino fashioned himself as a novus vates in the tradition of the great poets of the past (Horace, Virgil and Propertius, Dante and Petrarch). By means of their intertextually incorporated works, Landino himself became a part of an uninterrupted chain of poets and a worthy bearer of the literary tradition of elegy.

In his study Pieper has collected an impressive number of both primary and secondary sources, and he demonstrates a thorough command of his research field. This first real comprehensive study of Landino's poetry, Pieper's book is a must read for everybody interested in neolatin literature and/or in the reception of Augustan elegy and classical Latin poetry in general. My remarks, therefore, do not concern the substance or persuasiveness of his discourse, but only the framing of it.

At first sight, Pieper's indebtedness to New Historicism may seem exaggerated, but it never prevents him from arriving at plausible conclusions -- that is, unless one feels that Pieper's use of the theory was so effective in "imposing a pattern on reality (...) that the victim can no longer conceive it in different terms" (to quote a citation Pieper himself reports, p. 58) that the present reviewer has allowed himself to succumb to it.

The introductory chapter may seem typical of a PhD dissertation, laying out theoretical foundations and summarizing the state of the art, but precisely because of the combination of different approaches later on in the book, and the wide range of possible readers (not all of them familiar with all the periods, sources and methodologies covered), it turns out to be a sound decision to have marked and investigated the field so explicitly. Pieper indeed is in full control of traditional Quellenforschung techniques as well as of modern literary theory. He is also very well read in both classical and Quattrocento Latin literature. His reading of Landino's poetry is extremely skilful. A keen philologist, he incidentally corrects Perosa's classic edition in several places (for example p. 175, n. 191; and 299, n. 306).

A less felicitous consequence, in my opinion, of the decision to publish a hardly altered PhD dissertation is the inclination to lengthy summaries of predecessors' publications, if only to dismiss them as worthless (for example the treatment of Rombach on p. 184ff.), or the exaggerated number of pages (pp. 198-228) dedicated to the question of whether Rome or Florence was the real heir to ancient Rome, which could have been dealt with more concisely, the more so as Pieper himself points out (p. 198, n. 16) that the whole controversy wasn't really as black-and-white as he may present it. In the same category goes the tendency to present drawn out adaptations of secondary literature: the story of the Studio controversy in chapter 2 comes now and then quite close to a paraphrase of Arthur Field's seminal book on 'The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence' (1988), alternating with long primary source quotations and their translation.2

All this will be fine to convince a PhD jury of the seriousness of one's bibliographical homework, but quite a lot of it might as well have been weeded out of the book version of this thesis. As a matter of fact, Pieper did not need all that borrowed stuffing to produce an excellent book, and he is indeed at his best, and most original, when he is his own man, analyzing in a most convincing way Landino's poems, and fitting his discussion with both the historical and literary background needed for a thorough understanding of them. Besides, by a fortunate coincidence, almost simultaneously with this monograph, the 'Xandra' was reissued with an English translation in Harvard's I Tatti series. Hopefully both publications will benefit from each other's presence to find a bigger audience.

Pieper's command of Latin sources as well as of the vast secondary literature on Quattrocento Italy in Italian, English, German and French is rare enough to be mentioned, as is his capacity for quoting all of them flawlessly (I hardly noted any spelling mistakes and only a few typos beyond plustôt instead of plutôt on p. 4) and translating the Latin and (antique) Italian citations properly into German. It is to be hoped Pieper's work will get the attention it deserves, although the author could have furthered his case by translating at least the final recapitulation in another major language. I also regret the most unpleasant way of referring internally countless times with "Vgl. dazu Kap. meiner Arbeit" and the like, forcing the reader to get back continuously to the Inhaltsverzeichnis: page numbers might have done a better job. The absence of an index (nominum) doesn't help either: I'm sure many scholars without a particular interest in Landino's self-fashioning will find lots of interesting material in this book, but they would have found it more easily (and in greater number, I'm afraid) if only Pieper had decided to open up his treasury by adding an index.


1.   Tito Vespasiano Strozzi's 'Eroticon libri' is dealt with in half a page (p. 90), "given the lack of a reliable critical edition of his text and because it's not always clear who may have influenced whom". The first point is unfortunately true for more than one text discussed at length in Quattrocento scholarship -- and the second point is worth discussing more. Strozzi's collection was written probably between Landino's two redactions of the 'Xandra', and went itself through several redactions of which the precise stages are unclear, in the absence of a critical edition and full study of the textual tradition. After making this point, though, Pieper nevertheless quotes quite a few of Strozzi's verses as a pendant to Landino's writings (e.g. pp. 154, 186, 187, 188, 272) without pronouncing himself on the possible interdependence.
2.   A blind spot, though, seems Pieper's lack of knowledge of the literature on Francesco Filelfo: while quoting repeatedly from Filelfo's epistolarium, he seems to ignore the 1986 collection of articles ('Francesco Filelfo nel quinto Centenario della morte') or any other secondary literature on the man, and especially Silvia Fiaschi's 2005 edition of the first five books of Filelfo's 'Satyrae', a major source on the Florentine period Pieper is discussing here.

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