Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.58

JoAnn DellaNeva (ed.), Ciceronian Controversies. English Translation by Brian Duvick. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 26.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2007.  Pp. 295.  ISBN 978-0-674-02520-2.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine, Cornell University (
Word count: 2351 words


[The reviewer apologies for the tardiness of the review.]

In Italy and a little beyond from the late 15th until the early 17th centuries, numerous men of learning fought a vicious war of words. The point of dispute was whether a writer of Latin prose should imitate the style of many different classical authors ('Eclecticism'), or whether he should imitate the writings of Cicero alone, a position known as 'Ciceronianism'. This was anything but a polite disagreement: as time went on in the 16th century, passions on either side of the question flared up and hardened to such a point that opponents traded bracing and brutalizing invective that would quail a Housman or any of his imitasters. The Italian Ciceronian Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1588), for instance, repeatedly attacked the Dutch electicist Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536) as ignorant and incompetent, while Erasmus himself ultimately denounced his Ciceronian opponents in Satanic terms, declaring that the devil would rather have everyone a Ciceronian than a Christian.1

Why on earth all this spirited and vituperative odium philologicum? Looking back from today, the controversy about Ciceronianism seems so strange that its origins are hard to guess, especially as the phenomenon is probably most familiar to many Classicists from Erasmus' Ciceronianus itself, the satirical dialogue that did much to inflame things. This excellent and thought provoking new book, however, not only shows the genesis and development of the controversy before Erasmus, Scaliger, and others aggravated it. It also offers a fascinating study in how a simple misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) and straw-man argumentation can give rise to increasingly rigid orthodoxies and parody that, as we know from these later sources, can quickly spill over into nationalist and sectarian passions. The titles alone of some responses indicate the character that the debate took on after Erasmus' attack: already by 1535, for instance, we hear of one treatise by Gaudenzio Merula entitled Bellum civile inter Ciceronianos et Erasmiacos and another by Pietro Cortesi labeled Defensio pro Italia ad Erasmum Roterdamum, the latter betraying the increasingly overt nationalist terms in which the controversy was extending.

But much of that is still in the future. This book, by contrast, offers us a chance to see what some of the Ciceronians themselves had to say in defense of their views, which are not, as it turns out, nearly as illogical, vituperative, or inherently contemptible as Erasmus makes them sound. It also makes clear that what was really at stake in the controversy, or should have been at stake, was a debate about whether those attempting to write in a language that was not their own should favor imitatio or aemulatio of ancient writers, or whether they should allow their innate abilities to govern their literary and oratorical style.

The volume contains three sets of correspondence exchanged between or among the Italian humanists Poliziano and Paolo Cortesi (two letters), Gianfrancesco Pico and Pietro Bembo (three letters), and Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio, Celio Calcagnini, and Lilio Gregorio Giraldi (four letters); added to this are some later writings by Antonio Possevino that comment on the correspondence and make a minor correction to the historical record, and which effectively had the final word on the compromise solution to the controversy. Read side by side the effect is impressive; the sets of correspondence each represent not merely two sides of the Ciceronianism question, but more generally the point and value of imitatio, aemulatio, and eloquent style itself. I remark on the contents of these writings below, but first I should point out the many merits of this edition.

As is standard with the I Tatti series, the Latin text and English translation appear side by side, Loeb-style, on opposite pages. Although I did not systematically collate the Latin texts printed here with other editions, I did spot-check about two dozen difficult passages, and these confirm that the editing here is excellent; within the Latin text itself, the only mistake I noted is Marcus Ciceronis for Marci Ciceronis (p. 24 -- the original no doubt read simply M.). Unless I have missed it, only a few critical signs are left unexplained (e.g. square brackets on p. 8: whose emendation?). For everything else a short, careful list of critical divergences among editions of these works is found at the back of the book.

The translation is uniformly excellent. It is fluent, accurate, consistent, reliable, and frequently charming. (To my taste, the English contractions occasionally used are too informal for the Latin, but these are relatively rare.) In the third of the translation that I collated continuously with the Latin, I noted about thirty-five minor instances where the English surprised me; on reflection, however, the translation seems to have captured the sense just fine in virtually all of them, and quite often better than a more literal rendering would have. Only a few choices still puzzle me,2 and the only mistake I noticed is that Pico's quotation from Terence's Eunuchus 23-24 (sc. exclamat) furem non poetam fabulam dedisse '(he cried that) a thief, rather than a poet, staged the play' is mistranslated 'a thief or a poet told this tale' (p. 27). Everything else is most impressive.

The abundant supplementary notes are very helpful, although I found that they are better ignored on an initial, continuous read-through and then consulted later. These notes generally point out the history of a metaphor in classical antiquity and in prior Renaissance authors, the source of an unattributed quotation, or they draw attention to an otherwise unadvertised allusion. (Since the notes also usually point out when a quotation is inexact, it would be helpful to have noted, as meter shows, that Pico's citation [p. 114] of Virgil Georgics 2.108 is garbled.) A bibliography and general index follow the notes.

Prefaced to all this, moreover, and of great assistance in contextualizing everything is an expert and informative 33-page introduction by DellaNeva and Duvick (apparently a joint effort -- on p. 219 they say that everything in the volume is a collaboration). Those of us approaching the controversy from a Classical rather than a Renaissance background will be especially grateful for all of this. The essay helpfully sets a dizzying array of figures and their writings in historical context and indicates their relative importance. The introduction is marked by a learned and assured command of details, and, more than just summarizing the salient points of each set of texts, it also reveals (as do the notes) many points of innuendo, allusion, and the like that go unsaid in the texts themselves, such as the important distinction for the aspiring Renaissance stylist between being known as a philosopher or a rhetorician. We are also informed of the timeliness of the controversy, which follows soon after the rediscovery in complete form of Cicero's and Quintilian's treatises on imitation. The authors also stress that the Ciceronian movement, which properly began in Venice, became important for humanists in Rome. These writers were tasked with drafting ecclestiastical documents in Latin, and for them a correct and eloquent style was of paramount concern: that is, since these Roman writers saw themselves (or promoted themselves) as the true heirs and continuators of Roman antiquity, Ciceronianism vs. eclecticism was not merely an academic but a practical matter.

All in all, then, this book is an impressive achievement and an outstanding value. And beyond the concerns it explores for those interested in Latinitas, the questions the book raises as a whole about pedagogy and composition are much more relevant to the modern academic than a cursory glance would suggest.

For one, the Ciceronian controversy in fact pulls in two different directions that none of the writers who participate in it separate out as nicely as they could. Since influence from scholastic Latin and from Italian and other vernaculars had long been changing the shape of the language, on one hand there is a sincere and generally laudable desire among authors of the Renaissance to avoid the use of post-classical words (e.g. manutenere) or usages of words (e.g. causari 'to cause'; both of these examples are adduced by Calcagnini, pp. 150/151). In this respect, then, the Ciceronianist debate resembles that of the Hellenistic authors of antiquity, who prized Attic as the prestige dialect over others and sought to cultivate it exclusively: Ciceronians in this sense were, that is, essentially striving to write Latin of a Classical style that was self-consistent and that resisted freakish or anachronistic combinations, a Latin that, if left unchecked, would drift toward the jumbled artificiality of Homeric Greek or the Alexandrian Greeks' weird syncretisms of language. Those who teach Latin prose composition and who frown on student compositions that would be at home in Apuleius' Metamorphoses will recognize this as a familiar goal.

This challenge to use Latin words properly could be solved, some Renaissance thinkers reasoned, by limiting their own vocabulary to Cicero's own, and no more, and so they began doing in practice (cf. p. xix). Now, for many reasons it should strike everyone as a slightly ludicrous to limit one's spoken and written vocabulary to words attested only in the extant writings of a single man, and a pagan at that, who had lived a millennium and a half previous. Unsurprisingly, then, this is the aspect of Ciceronianism that Erasmus so effectively skewers in his Ciceronianus when he points out that the meticulous Ciceronian cannot say Iesus Christus, verbum Dei, Trinitas, and so on. And it is certainly the aspect of Ciceronianism that tends to get emphasized today, usually from Erasmus' perspective.

On the other hand, as we see clearly in this volume, most Ciceronians were striving not for vocabulary but for eloquence. They sought to master the art of Latin rhetoric: its metaphors, rhythms, figures of speech, clauses, and other such ornaments. Although it may seem an easy position to parody, the Ciceronians' argument here makes a good deal of counter-intuitive sense: as the Ciceronians in this volume put it, if we can agree that imitation is necessary for cultivating eloquence, and if we agree (as the ancients do) that Cicero is undoubtedly the best and most eloquent of all Latin writers, then we should imitate Cicero. Not to do so would be deliberately ignoring the best possible model. Since these neo-Latin writers were painfully aware that they were cultivating -- indeed reviving, like Hebrew in the late 19th century -- a language that was not in common use by anyone any longer, their various defenses of this argument are well worth reading. And in a more general sense, their suggestion that literary imitatio is a laudable stage of training is hard to discredit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the various arguments that the eclecticists offer against it in this book are mostly of the straw-man type. All of the Ciceronians in this book, including Bembo, whom Erasmus would later parody as the devout Ciceronian 'Nosoponus', agree that one can still take plenty of other good things from other authors, and none of them states that one should imitate Cicero slavishly. For the most part, it is only their opponents who keep trying to make them say that.

In fact it is Bembo's letter (#4) that stands out in the collection as by far the most interesting. (The other standout pieces in the collection are the pieces by Cortesi [2] and Calcagnini [8]; less interesting are numbers 6, 7, 9, and 10, all of them fairly slight stuff, with the last bits of mostly purely academic interest). The importance of Bembo's letter emerges when one reads the whole collection twice over, first in order and then in reverse order. Bembo's letter is tinged with Socratic irony; it argues clearly, it displays a mastery of Socratic argumentation, and, as Bembo maintains only to be ignored by later writers, it was not meant as a prescription for others. Bembo explains that he was merely offering a fairly lighthearted justification for his own plan of literary imitation. (With some wit, he states that, having searched his soul, he found no innate Platonic ideal for style within it.) And so he decided to imitate Cicero, a practice that, he says, has actually worked: intense study of Cicero's style has made him a better author than had his earlier attempts to imitate the style of many different authors eclectically. At great length he explains...well, 'eloquently' is the only correct word here -- that as a practical matter, Ciceronianism actually works. (Bembo's arguments certainly get the better of Pico's attempted rebuttal [#5] of them, which read mostly like caricature.)

As for the timeliness of the controversy for today's academy, to which I alluded earlier: Bembo's remarks defending his decision to cultivate strict imitation of Cicero's style are worth quoting here (p. 72/3-74/5):

I brooded over these writings with that much more effort because a great many were already producing in that language many works that were so depraved and perverse -- correct and proper compositional method having nearly disappeared -- that it seemed that very soon, unless someone offered it support, it would collapse and lie for a long time without honor, without splendor, without any devotion and respect.

As a matter of style, nobody practices literary imitation anymore. It shows in our scholarship. Even if we don't imitate the Latin diction, then, it's worth closing with a question of a serious pedagogical nature: Would those of us who write papers professionally, and who undertake to teach others to do so, do well to choose stylistic models of composition and argumentation of our own?

Anyone interested in these general or specific questions will enjoy working through this volume, as would anyone -- student or instructor -- doing a Latin prose composition course, studying epistolography, or who is interested in ancient rhetoric or the reception of the rhetorical works of Cicero and Quintilian. The fundamental secondary work on the Ciceronianist movement remains R. Sabbadini's not-very-accessible Storia del Ciceronianismo (Turin, 1885), but the subject is surely due for an updated treatment. When it is written, its author will find this new volume an indispensible companion. For these reasons and more, this book compels attention and deserves a wide readership.


1.   Nec dubium est quin haec organa moveat Satanas, qui mallet omnes esse Ciceronianos quam Christianos (Erasmus Ep. 3127 to Melanchthon, 6 June 1536). This reference and others in this essay are found in Betty I. Knott's excellent introduction to her translation of Erasmus' Ciceronianus (Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 28, 6 [1986]), p. 334 (for a critical text of the Ciceronianus, see ASD 1-2 599-710), which is warmly recommended as a valuable overview of the later stages of the Ciceronian controversy, and especially on its nationalist character. Scaliger's two invectives Oratio pro Marco Tullio contra Desiderium Erasmum Roterodamum (1531) and Adversus Desiderii Erasmi Roterdami Dialogum Ciceronianum Oratio Secunda (1537) are both available in Jules-César Scaliger, Orationes Duae contra Erasmum, ed. and trans. Michel Magnien (Geneva, 1999). Some context for Scaliger's two orations is provided by I. Scott's Controversies over the Imitation of Cicero (New York, 1910).
2.   In order, these include: ad quodpiam muneris obeundum 'to achieve any reward;' perhaps better 'to performing any task' (pp. 2/3). On pp. 30/31 the surprising subjunctive loquamur is translated as though indicative. On pp. 151/152 the renderings "spit upon" and "spit on" for conspurcant 'defile' seem to go a little far. On pp. 272n6/273 two subjunctives and a future tense verb are all translated as present indicative, which changes the nuance slightly but doesn't affect the meaning greatly. Two remaining quibbles are both minor ambiguities of interpretation (and I may be wrong about them myself): on p. 44, line 4 una is presumably the adverb 'together' rather than an adjective with ratione, and in the phrase misericordiae vela intendit (p. 165) I would have thought misericordiae dative not genitive (cf. e.g. Pliny Ep. 6.33.10, dedimus vela indignationi). A period is also missing at the end of the salutation in the translation of letter 6 (p. 127).

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