Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.36

Gary R. Grund, Humanist Tragedies. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 45.   Cambridge, MA/London:  Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. xliii, 339.  ISBN 9780674057258.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (


Following up on his Humanist Comedies of 2005, Gary Grund here gives us five tragedies by Italian poets of the trecento and quattrocento, with translations and notes. The plays show off the variety of subjects—mythological, historical, and current—treated by these tragedians. They are relatively short but have enough high rhetoric and lurid action to satisfy fans of Seneca.1 Grund's introduction and notes are helpful and his translations are clear, privileging literal accuracy over style.

Fittingly, the first play in the volume is Ecerinis, by Albertino Mussato (1314), "the first tragic drama to emerge in the immediate aftermath of Lovato dei Lovati's discovery of Seneca's plays at Pomposa" (p. xx). The title character is Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), well known as a tyrant. Mussato begins with a scene in which Adeleita, his mother, tells Ecerinus and his brother Albricus that their father was not her husband, but the Devil himself. Ecerinus receives this startling news with delight and proceeds to wage war against Verona, Vicenza, and as many other cities as he can—Capiamus urbes undique et late loca (l. 290), he suggests to his brother. Ultimately the cities of Northern Italy rise up against him, and Ecerinus dies in battle. His brother is captured and executed along with his family; the fifth act of the play consists of a messenger's description of their gruesome deaths. As Grund points out, the title Ecerinis (that is, "The Ecerinid"), rather than Ecerinus, marks this as a heroic work, though it is not Ezzelino but the Paduan resisters who are the heroes (p. xxiii).

Next is Antonio Loschi's Achilles, from the end of the Trecento. The play is set at the end of the Trojan War. Achilles—at this point still very much alive—has asked for Polyxena in marriage and Hecuba wants to refuse. Paris, however, convinces her to feign assent; he then invites Achilles to a meeting and kills him there. The play features two choruses, one Greek and one Trojan, and a long soliloquy by Achilles on the power of Cupid (lines 274-308), matched by a song from the Greek chorus on the same subject. The play ends with the Greeks mourning Achilles.

Grund calls Gregorio Correr's Procne "the best Latin tragedy of the quattrocento" (p. xxvii), not without reason. The story is, of course, that of Tereus, Procne, and Philomena, familiar from Ovid (Met. 6.424-674). Correr's Procne is much like Medea as she uses her children to harm her husband, but, unlike Medea, she is avenging not a slight to herself but a crime against her sister. Correr, just eighteen when he wrote the play (in 1427), includes a prose argument and preface on the meters he uses. The play is nicely constructed; first, the ghost of Diomedes the Thracian (not the hero from the Iliad but an ancestor of Tereus) claims that new crimes in the Thracian royal family far outstrip his own misdeeds. The chorus introduces Tereus, who enters from the harbor and greets his wife with the news Pelago perempta est (hi mei reditus!) soror (l. 175; Grund translates, "Your sister was lost at sea—such is my homecoming!"). He tells Procne the entire story of the supposed shipwreck and how he buried Philomena—a vivid and convincing lie to which Procne responds in a page of hysterical grief. But in fact Philomena's faithful companion Pistus has escaped and tells Procne what really happened: Correr introduces this character rather than having Philomena weave or embroider a message as in Ovid. Pistus includes Ovid's memorable image of Philomena's tongue wriggling like a snake on the ground:

Cruenta lingua palpitat moriens, velut
longae colubrae cauda, quae, celeri rota
traiecta, partem quaerit ereptam sibi. (435-7)

Compare Ovid's lines:

Radix micat ultima linguae,
ipsa iacet terraeque tremens inmurmurat atrae;
utque salire solet mutilatae cauda colubrae,
palpitat et moriens dominae vestigia quaerit. (Met. 6.557-560)2

Correr retains Ovid's relatively uncommon word colubra and all the verbs (palpitat, moriens, quaerit), and keeps the idea of the snake/tongue searching for its missing part. But the passage is even more chilling in the play because we can see Procne's reaction. Procne, in fact, sings a monody (unique in this volume and not common in Neo-Latin drama) as she summons her sister out of the cave where Tereus has stashed her. Procne vows revenge as her nurse tries to dissuade her. A messenger describes how Procne kills Itys, but the confrontation between Procne and Tereus after she has served him the child's flesh takes place on stage. As the play ends, Tereus threatens Procne, "The Furies will pursue you!" and she replies "Itys alone will pursue his father" (ll. 1059-1060). Procne's furious, insane rage is almost beyond belief, but would make a wonderful role for an actress.

The fourth play in the volume is Hiempsal, written by Leonardo Dati in 1442. The story of its composition is amusing—arguably more entertaining than the play itself. In 1441, Dati had submitted a poem in Tuscan to a competition, on the theme of friendship, organized by Leon Battista Alberti. Although "Dati was recognized by most observers as the winner" (p. xxxii), the prize was not awarded at all, but was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin instead. Alberti, disappointed, complained that the judges were jealous of Dati, so announced "envy" as the following year's theme. Since the judges' official remarks said that Dati's poem had not treated friendship deeply enough, for the second competition Dati determined to make envy so pervasive in his play that no one could possibly say he hadn't treated it. Although Invidia is not a character in the play, Ambitio, Modestia, Discordia, and Perfidia all appear on stage, and Dati prefixes a Moral: Ambitio genuit Invidiam. Invidia genuit Discordiam. Discordia genuit Perfidiam, qui cum Inopia, Furtum, Rapina consequuntur. (Grund's translation: "Ambition begot Envy. Envy begot Discord. Discord begot Treachery, from which follow Poverty, Thievery, and Plunder," p. 191) But in the end the second competition never did happen, perhaps because Dati's play was already being circulated (p. xxxiii).

The plot of Hiempsal is the conflict between Jugurtha and his cousins Hiempsal and Adherbal over the throne of Numidia after the death of Micipsa. Micipsa had left the throne to his nephew (and adopted son) Jugurtha rather than to his own sons, with predictable results: Jugurtha, recognizing Hiempsal's envy as a threat, has him assassinated. Much of the play is taken up with comments by Numidian nobles (and a chorus) about how Envy is ruining the kingdom.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Hiempsal, though, is its versification. Dati frequently (at least half a dozen times) breaks a word at the end of a trimeter, as:

Homines vel oderunt vel optant quid neque-
unt; male qui et oderit, studet semper male. (l. 211-212)3

With this break, the second syllable of nequeunt is scanned as long (at line end), though it is actually short. In general Dati's trimeters seem quite loose, with more resolution than Seneca's. The chorus uses ordinary Senecan meters (stichic glyconics, asclepiads, sapphic stanzas, anapests).

Finally, Marcellino Verardi's Ferdinand Preserved treats an attempt on the life of Ferdinand II of Spain in late 1492; the play was presumably written early in 1493. The main character is Ruffus, whose real name was Juan de Cañamares, described in some contemporary sources as a madman (p. xxxv). In the play, he is the foster son of the Fury Tisiphone, and about half the play is taken up with the three Furies' complaints against Ferdinand. The Furies work for Pluto, who seems to be equated here with the Devil. St. James, patron of Spain, also appears: the synthesis of classical paganism and Renaissance Christianity is curious. Carlo Verardi, the playwright's uncle, proposed the subject to his nephew and supplies a long preface, in which he refers to the play as a tragicomoedia (sect. 5, p. 248), like the Amphitruo of Plautus, because although its characters are noble and the situation is serious (like tragedy), the ending is happy (like comedy). The play is in dactylic hexameters, an unusual but not unexampled meter for neo-Latin drama.

Grund's introduction covers the development of tragedy in Latin in Italy during the period, with particular attention to the influences of Aristotle and of Seneca, and gives basic background on the five plays in the volume and their authors. Given the focus on Renaissance drama, it is appropriate that Grund is not so much concerned with what Aristotle's Poetics actually says as with its interpretations, from the classical Romans through William of Moerbeke's Latin translation of 1278 to the 1498 translation by Giorgio Valla, printed by Aldus Manutius in 1508 (p. xii-xiii). Thus he refers to tragedy as "the story of a man ... who, through some flaw (hamartia) in him, falls from his high station" (p. ix), citing Aristotle 1453a but taking ἁμαρτία as a character flaw, not a mistake or error; he also mentions "Aristotle's preference for the unhappy ending" (p. xii), though in fact Aristotle sometimes seems to prefer tragedies with happy endings.4 In fact, the influence of the Poetics in this period is rather indirect, through Horace, Donatus, and Diomedes. Grund does a nice job of tracing the developing theory of tragedy (p. x-xiii), though references to the actual texts of the grammarians would have been convenient.

Seneca is the primary model for tragedy in Latin in the Renaissance, and as Grund observes "a real turning point" (p. xiv) in the development of tragedy from the Middle Ages comes with the re-discovery of Seneca's plays in the fourteenth century. "In fact, the history of Latin humanist tragedy during the trecento and quattrocento is largely the story of the imitation and adaptation of Seneca" (p. xiv). Grund summarizes the major editions of and commentaries on the Senecan corpus and notes that the Stoic morality that pervades the plays was congenial to Renaissance tragedians and their audiences (p. xviii-xix).

The translations are in prose, with some rather nice touches—for example, pondere excelso rote tremuere (Achilles 25-26) rendered as "the wheels juddering under their heavy load." It's hard to capture the style of these plays, at once rhetorically ornamented and curiously wooden (less so in Ferdinand Preserved), and Grund sensibly sticks to straightforward English. The notes are highly useful, identifying all the historical figures and mythical allusions, and occasionally noting a classical source for a story. Classicists won't need some of the notes to Achilles about the Trojan war, but will be grateful to have the complicated history of early 13th-century Verona laid out in the notes to Ecerinis. There is a brief bibliography including earlier editions and translations of the five plays and a handful of studies. The one thing missing, to my mind at least, is discussion of the metrical practice of these authors, which is not quite the same as Seneca's, but perhaps that is beyond the scope of the series.

All of these plays have appeared in modern editions and all but Ferdinand Preserved have been translated into English before. In this new edition, however, they are more conveniently available, and the juxtaposition illuminates all of them. The introductory essay provides a good orientation to neo-Latin drama and the notes and translation make the plays accessible even to those who are not proficient readers of Latin. In sum, this book will appeal to readers of European drama, and of Renaissance literature whether in Latin or in the vernaculars.


1.   Ecerinis, 629 lines. Achilles, 940 lines. Procne, 1060 lines. Hiempsal, 739 lines. Ferdinand Preserved, 503 lines, plus a 58-line Invective against the would-be assassin.
2.   Grund's translation: "Her bloody tongue wriggled as it died, just like the tail of a long snake which looks for its severed part after a swift wheel has run over it." Ovid's lines (trans. S. Lombardo, 2010): "The root writhed in her throat; the tongue itself | Lay quivering on the dark earth,murmuring low; | And, as the tail of a snake twitches when severed, | So too her tongue, and with its last dying spasm | It sought its mistress' feet."
3.   Grund: "Men either hate or wish for what they cannot have; wrong hatreds always accompany wrong desires." Hiempsal is speaking to one of the noblemen about proper kingship.
4.   In particular at 1454a4, talking about φίλοι acting against each other in knowledge or in ignorance, Aristotle says the best (κράτιστον) is when disaster is averted by a last-minute recognition, as in Iphigenia in Tauris and other examples. But this is not really consistent with what he says shortly before, 1453a14, that a good plot must have one change of fortune, not to good from bad but the reverse; even here, though, he allows that the next best is the structure of the Odyssey, where the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys punished (1453a30).

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