Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.19

Diana Robin (ed.), Francesco Filelfo: Odes. The I Tatti Renaissance Library 41.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2009.  Pp. xxiii, 445.  ISBN 9780674035638.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Daniel T. Barber, University of Virginia (


The volume under review is a new Latin text and English translation of the Odes of Francesco Filelfo, the first complete edition of these poems to appear since the fifteenth century. Diana Robin, a distinguished scholar of Filelfo, edits the Latin and provides a facing translation, accompanied by an introduction, supplementary notes, a brief bibliography, and an index. It is an impressive achievement, commendable in scope and ambition and solid in execution, if occasionally lacking in accuracy and completeness. Anyone with an interest in the reception of Augustan poetry or in Quattrocento Renaissance literature will thank Robin for making more accessible this remarkable and multifarious monument to humanist erudition, which offers at the same time a window into a tumultuous but fertile moment in the history of literature.

In the Introduction, Robin draws a vivid portrait of Francesco Filelfo the man, following him from his obscure birth in 1398 in Tolentino to his education in Padua, his journey to Constantinople in 1420 and his subsequent life as an itinerant scholar, professor and court poet in Florence, Siena, Bologna, Milan, Rome, Naples and finally Florence again, where he died in 1481 at the age of eighty-three. His was an active life, full of intrigue and danger; this energetic, even indefatigable man survived plagues, wars and an assassination attempt and outlived three wives who bore him thirteen children, leaving behind forty-eight books of letters in Greek and Latin and tens of thousands of verses of poetry. In these five books of Odes, we have, Robin contends, "his most challenging work" (xiii). She offers brief comments on patronage and the structure and themes of the collection; she then gives short synopses of the contents of each book and concludes with some remarks on the role of the Odes in the "Poetics of Fifteenth-Century Italy".

All of this is cogent and to the point. The collection's debt to Augustan poetry, however, and specifically to Horace's Carmina (hereafter Carm.), merits closer and more careful examination than the introduction provides. On this subject the editors send a mixed message: the dust jacket advertises "the first complete cycle of Horatian odes since classical antiquity", a claim that Robin seems to substantiate when she states that "Filelfo's Odes thus represent the first work of Latin poetry in the Renaissance to feature all the lyric meters of Horace's Carmina" (xxi). On the other hand, she does not grant Horace primacy when discussing Filelfo's classical models, setting the Carmina alongside Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Amores as "poetic traditions" that Filelfo attempts to "synthesize" (xiv). If anything, in the editor's mind Virgil's influence predominates: a glance at the index reveals twenty-six references to Virgil, sixteen to Horace and ten to Ovid. Can a "complete cycle of Horatian odes" really owe more to Virgil than to Horace?

In a word, no. The aforementioned statements mislead in both directions. On the one hand, a determined Horatian might adduce another sixty or so parallels between Filelfo and Horace without pretending to be exhaustive. In some cases Filelfo borrows more or less directly a snippet of Horace's phrasing--one finds, for instance, regibus ... atavis (1.1.39 cf. Carm. 1.1.1), fidibus canoris (1.1.97 cf. Carm. 1.12.11), Atlantis ... nepotem (2.1.151-52 cf. Carm. 1.10.1), meditetur ictus (2.3.106 cf. Carm.3.22.7), sub nocte susurros (5.4.17 cf. Carm. 1.9.19) and rabies Noti (5.4.97 cf. Carm. 1.3.14). More often, however, Filelfo modifies a Horatian commonplace--the profanum vulgus of Carm. 3.1.1 becomes vulgi ... procacis (1.1.13), auritas ... quercus of Carm. 1.12.11-12 become auritas ... cupressos (1.1.133), splendide mendax of Carm. 3.11.35 becomes sponte mendaces (1.6.1), animae dimidium meae of Carm. 1.3.8 becomes vitae ... dimidium meae (3.9.9-10) etc. Only a pedant would insist that the editor document every parallel between these two authors, but an accurate and even-handed account of Filelfo's debt to Horace seems a reasonable expectation in a new edition of a work promoted as "Horatian".

On the other hand, Filelfo's tendency to rephrase rather than copy his famous predecessor points to other eccentricities from the perspective of Horatian lyric. First of all, a glance at the Appendix (377-80) reveals that Filelfo is not especially concerned to imitate Horace's metrical practices exactly. Most crucially, the Alcaic stanza, the commonest meter of Horace's Carmina, is never attempted, unless one counts a few short passages of Alcaic hendecasyllables (4.1.1-54) and decasyllables (3.8.57-64). A poem may be composed in a variety of meters: 3.8 switches meter thirteen times. One poem (5.7) is written entirely in Greek, while another (5.3) ends every iambic dimeter with a Greek phrase. Non-lyric meters, especially dactylic hexameter and elegiac couplets, are quite common. Twenty-four of fifty-one poems run over a hundred lines. In all of these ways, Filelfo's odes are strikingly un-Horatian.

Robin does not discuss these differences, highlighting instead a less tangible distinction: "Filelfo's Odes differ from his classical models in that his large-scale lyric work constitutes a personal epic" (xiv). The statement is apt, at least so far as Filelfo is concerned: these poems indeed document the poet's uncertain journey through the tumultuous period of plague and civil war that followed the death of Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1447. This autobiographical narrative, however, does not present itself immediately or directly. Instead the collection opens with two massive encomia, the first (praef.) addressed to Francesco Sforza, Visconti's eventual successor as Duke of Milan, and the second (1.1) to Charles VII of France, whose patronage Filelfo hopes to obtain. In 1.2 and 1.9, the poet pauses briefly from praise and blame to reflect on his personal circumstances, but in 1.10 he draws the threads of panegyric and autobiography together. This poem opens with a gesture toward the lyric recusationes of Carm. 1.6 and 2.12; here, however, the poet launches without hesitation into a miniature hexameter epic depicting the wars that followed the death of Visconti. After seventy lines, he abruptly changes directions, laments his lack of a patron and doubts the possibility of successful panegyric in the face of violence and ochlocracy. It is a remarkable and revealing poem, which throws into doubt the very stability of the poet's vocation rebus in arduis.

The remaining four books proceed in a similar fashion: vast encomia addressed to various powerful men are interspersed with invective, advice, consolation, and bits of autobiography. Some of these reflect directly on the poet's tenuous circumstances and unfolding tribulations, others--as 1.10 makes clear--illustrate indirectly his desperate and sometimes unscrupulous search for money and patronage in the face of plague and war. Filelfo bemoans the disorder of the Ambrosian republic (2.2), celebrates its defeat at the hands of Francesco Sforza in 1450 (2.3), attempts to flee Milan under the threat of plague (3.3, 3.9, 3.10, 4.1, 4.2), and finally does journey to Cremona, from which he is expelled (4.5). The fifth book anticipates the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Peace of Lodi in 1454. There is a clear thematic and temporal progression over the course of the collection, although assigning a date to each poem is complicated by the fact that Filelfo did not complete his work on the Odes until 1455 or 1456 and surely revised some of his earlier efforts in light of later events.

The general reader whom this series hopes to attract is not likely to be very captivated by the mostly tedious panegyric, which tends to lack nuance and moderation. Filelfo's most appealing work is in other modes of expression. His invective (e.g. 1.8, 4.3, 4.7) is frequently rich with erudite anger. His dialogues (e.g. 1.9, 3.3, 5.10) show real classical sophistication. 4.5, his imitation of Horace's Serm. 1.5, is entertaining and inspired. The plaint voiced by Carlo Gonzaga's abandoned lover Lyda in 5.4 is genuinely touching. Moreover, the poems that address the author's difficult circumstances (e.g. 1.10, 3.4, 3.9, 3.10, 4.1) vividly illustrate the challenges of art and learning in the face of violence and death. These, in a way, serve as a metaphor for the whole collection: every reader will marvel at the metrical virtuosity of these poems, and at the author's brave attempt to overcome very real dangers through his classical learning and sheer poetic energy.

The text and translation are admirably edited; the editors and the press are to be commended for a neat and thorough job, which must have been especially challenging in uncharted territory. Potential issues are mostly minor or subjective. Robin is in general a shrewd philologist, judging by the variants and emendations documented in the "Notes on the Text" (385-87). Yet twice she prefers a dubiously metrical variant (unius at praef. 49 and μάλα at 5.7), and once introduces an unmetrical emendation (nostrae at 1.1.118). In each case, I would have preferred the variant listed in the apparatus, but because not one of these words is translated or discussed in the notes, it is difficult to assess the editor's reasoning. I would have found the apparatus more convenient in the form of footnotes rather than endnotes, but at the very least there should be cross-references; as it is, note 3 on Book IV in the apparatus cites the passage referred to by poem and line number, but this practice is mysteriously not repeated. In addition, populi at 2.2.3 and 2.2.59 must be popli if it is to fit the meter.

The translation is prosaic but not strenuously literal, which results in a pleasant and readable text but occasionally produces strange effects. Thus, for example, decus is rendered "beauty" at 1.1.3 and "honor" at 1.1.41. Nescit at 2.1.203 becomes "does not believe". Vim at 3.3.102 is charitably translated "passionate lovemaking". In a few cases, I found the translation genuinely confusing: why does auram at 2.7.23 not mean "favor" (OLD 3, cf. 2.8.24, 2.10.103, Carm. 3.2.20)? How does ni Gaspar bene desinat mereri (2.10.196) come to mean "so that Gaspar will not cease to be rewarded" rather than "unless Gaspar should cease to deserve well (mereor OLD 6a)? In general, however, the translation is consistent and reliable.

A wealth of information is appended to the text and translation, but the most crucial appendices are the Biographical Notes (357-76) and the Notes to the Translation (389-427). One cannot expect a full Nisbet and Hubbard style commentary in an edition such as this; in general, the notes are appropriately informative but brief. It is frustrating nonetheless to find full citations of classical authors in some notes (e.g. 394 n. 40, 398 n. 13) but no citations in others (e.g. 390 n. 2, 402 n. 44). Usually this is a minor point of scholarly convenience, but sometimes the lack of citation seems negligent: when Robin states that Pegasus "was the first to discover" the Hippocrene, is this merely a rewording of Ovid Met. 5.260-64, where Pegasus is said to have created the spring? Or does she have another source in mind?

In conclusion, this is a useful edition, solidly executed, with relatively few blemishes. The text may be questioned in a few places and the accuracy of the translation could occasionally stand improvement; likewise, the introduction and the notes are sometimes less full than I would have liked. Nonetheless, by shedding new light on this fascinating yet hitherto almost unavailable work, Robin has done a tremendous service for all students of the reception of classical lyric.


Throughout the word condottiere is inconsistently italicized; likewise the English possessive of ancient names sometimes has an extra s, as e.g. "Aeneas's" (403), sometimes not, as e.g. " Croesus' " (137).

xiii: "no less than eighteen" should be "no fewer than eighteen"
364: "Sforza?" should be "Sforza."
n. 12: in the second sentence "third crusade" should be "Third Crusade"
423 n. 28: "Cyllenios" should be Κυλλήνιος
424 n. 38: "first Punic war" should be "First Punic War"
429: "Bentley" should come after "Benadduci"
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