Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.12.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.12.12

Peter E. Knox, Angelo Poliziano. Greek and Latin Poetry. I Tatti Renaissance library, 86.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2019.  Pp. 448.  ISBN 9780674984578.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Frances Muecke, University of Sydney (

Like A. E. Housman in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love, Poliziano was both a poet and a scholar, but, unlike Housman, he is a scholar's—and philologist's—poet. His Latin and Greek poems dazzle by their erudition as well as delight by their writing. The sheer mastery of vocabulary is breath-taking. Then comes the generic variety: Silvae, Elegies, and Epigrams (in a number of metres), with the collection of Latin epigrams including Odes, Epodes, and Hymns. The poems in the present volume are mostly occasional, for patrons, teachers, lovers, friends, and enemies, for fun and to show off. There are more small slips in this volume than its author would have wished, but these do not detract from its great service in presenting its selection of Poliziano's Greek and Latin poetry in an accessible version, informed by the latest scholarship.

Knox's ordering of the components in his volume initially follows that of the Aldine edition (1498), compiled after Poliziano's death with variety more than chronological order in mind. First the Elegy for Albiera degli Albizzi (1473), then the Latin epigrams, and finally the Greek epigrams. To these are now added the longish epistolary elegy To Bartolomeo Fonzio (1473) transmitted with the works of Janus Pannonius (1434-72) but first attributed to Poliziano by Count Samuel Teleki, an eighteenth-century scholar and book collector. After this comes A Silva on Scabies (1480?), found in manuscript by Paul Oskar Kristeller in 1952. Under the rubric Additional Poems and Dubia are poems either omitted from the Aldine edition or that have come to light in other ways since Isidoro Del Lungo's edition (1867). Therefore, we now have in the I Tatti series (full disclosure: I have contributed to a volume published in 2016) all Poliziano's Latin poems except for his longer translations from Greek, which can be found in Del Lungo.1 There was already Charles Fantuzzi's edition of the Silvae (2004), the Introduction of which could well be read in conjunction with Knox's.

As is usual in this series, the texts and translations are accompanied by a brief workman-like Introduction, in this case setting the poems in the context of Poliziano's life and works, Notes to the Text, Notes to the Translation, and a General Index. As well there are Concordances to the Book of Epigrams with Del Lungo's edition (1867), needed because he departed from the order of the Aldine edition, and an Index of First Lines in Latin and Greek. The texts come from various sources: modern editions have been drawn on where these are available (Elegy for Albiera degli Albizzi, The Book of Greek Epigrams, To Bartolomeo Fonzio, A Silva on Scabies). The Latin epigrams are based on the Aldine edition (1498) with orthography and punctuation modernized. Apart from a few typos, the Latin texts are reliable,2 although anyone really interested in the text is advised to use Francesco Bausi's Due Poemetti Latini (Rome, 2003) for Elegy for Albiera degli Albizzi and To Bartolomeo Fonzio.3 Some convincing corrections are suggested by the editor and by Nigel Wilson (e.g., p. 260 line 89 futurae).

The Greek epigrams are a different matter, however. Apart from too many wrong or missing breathings and wrong accents (I noticed VII 6, X 2, XVII 5, XX 4, XXI 1, XXIV 5, XXVI 10, XXVII 2, XXVIII 2, XXX 1, 3, 5, XXXb 5, XLIX 5, LI 5, LV 6, LVI 4), there are misspellings (XXV 3, XXVIII 3, 9, XXX 3, 7, XXXb 10, XXXI 2) and the wrong font in XXIX 1. In the Notes on the Text (p. 318) Knox tells the reader that he has based his text on F. Pontani's (Liber Epigrammatum Graecorum (2002)), but, in fact, there are places where the Aldine reading is kept without comment. This is particularly noticeable in XXVI (9, 15, 17), but see also IV 1 and XXVI 12 (here it is not the Aldine text–which Pontani adopts–but Del Lungo's), XI 17, 24, XXVIII 12. In Ep. VIII line 6, Knox adopts Pontani's suggested correction (ad loc.) but not in the parallel case in line 12.4

As far as the translations are concerned, we are in good hands, and my comments would be quibbles.5 At one point, however, I do not think Knox has quite got the meaning. Latin Epigram CXXV is an interesting Preface to The Brothers Menaechmus, composed for a student performance of the play in May 1488 before Lorenzo de' Medici. In this (additional) speech for Prologus, which shows Poliziano as a lover not only of archaic Latin but also of medical technical terms,6 in lines 3-6, I believe Prologus tells the audience that their role is to be spectators, whereas his is to perform the play. Otherwise, they should put on his costume and take to their feet while he goes and sits down in the audience. Knox translates lines 4-5 ("Alioqui, capite isti hunc ornatum scaenicum,/Atque exporgite lumbos") as "Okay now, why don't you take in this set design and give your gams a stretch". Here I would take ornatus as costume or garb, its meaning in Plautus and Terence. For comoedo in line 37 (not "comic poet" but "comic actor") see Quint. 1.11.1-3.

As they read these texts, well-trained classicists will immediately start composing their own mental commentary as they recognise topoi, rhetorical ploys, linguistic iuncturae, allusions, and borrowings and are struck by coined words. It must have been hell for Knox not to be able to go there more than he does. His annotations are mainly confined to historical references, identification of historical personages, metrical questions, and explanations of mythological allusion. Some mythological points escape, e.g. Ares and Hephaestus (Greek Epigrams LIV) and how Daphne became the tree (Latin Epigrams CXVIII, CXXIV). Classical sources are noticed occasionally, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are, however, go-to commentaries to confirm and supplement one's surmises: those by Bausi and Pontani already mentioned and for A Silva on Scabies that of A. Perosa (Rome, 1954).7

I could not help wishing that Knox had been allowed to let himself go a little more in the (perfectly adequate) notes and added a little more colour from the rich historical context. The poems are peopled by a 'who's who' of extraordinary figures more or less embroiled in the dramatic events and political and intellectual ferment of their particular place in time. Take Francesco Salviati (1443-78)), for example, "an archbishop who was ready to found his career on murder."8 A relative and protegé of Pope Sixtus IV, he had close links to the Pazzi family tooand was a key figure in the 'Pazzi Conspiracy' against the Mediciin 1478. In 1473 (Latin Epigram XVI, To Francesco Salviati), Poliziano wrote him a begging poem asking that he put his case to the pope as a good but poor poet, devoted to him. But in the later distich Additional Poems XX (On Salviati), a joke is made of Salviati's end: the gallows grieves at losing his victim to the noose at the high window (see also XXI and XXII). On the afternoon of the failed plot, Salviati (aged 36) was hanged from a window of the Palazzo Vecchio. Elsewhere, in his prose account of the conspiracy, Poliziano records that, as he died, Salviati bit the chest of a fellow-conspirator dangling with him.

While I was working on this review, I began to make a selection for five one-hour sessions at the Sydney Latin Summer School next year. It is hard. There has to be something from the (Horatian) description of the 19-year old Poliziano's daily activities in To Bartolomeo Fonzio 131-254. Then the narrative of Albiera degli Albizzi's death, with its remarkable Ovidian mythologization of the repulsive goddess Fever, recruited by Nemesis, to infect her victim with fire and chills (89-164). Can I fit the Plautine prologue together with Additional Poems XXVII At the start of his studies on the life of Ovid? Latin Epigram CIX (an epode that expands Horace's Epode 4) is a great example of the vicious Poliziano, which does not go quite as far as another Horatian epode On an old woman (CXXXVI). My favourite Greek epigram, LVII On mosquitoes, can be mentioned quickly in passing—it was written to correct the grammar of Bartolomeo Scala, the hidden subject of Latin Epigram CIX (miller's son, parvenu, politico-cultural figure, and eventually Chancellor of Florence). This leaves one day for the rest of the Latin epigrams. How can we leave out Lorenzo de' Medici, especially the cheeky Latin Epigram I in which the poor poet asks for some of Lorenzo's own clothes? But then what about A Silva on Scabies, with its bravura lines on itching, scratching, blood, pus, and scabs (53-117) and mock-epic elaboration on the tiny beast that bores into the skin, "monstrosities summoned from the Stygian abyss" with a king called Lichobrotus (Bloodlicker), son of Helcomedusa (Ulcerqueen) and Cybista (Diver) (118-225)?


1.   Iliad Bks II-V, Callimachus Hymn 5, and De Ludis saecularibus.
2.   P. 138 line 48 read perplexabilem; p. 152 CXXII 1 read manavit; p. 246 line 113 read Phoebum; p. 326 Perosa read Dactylotroctus.
3.   In the note on p. 325 to To Bartolomeo Fonzio 25 amoto is not Ald. but what Teleki calls "Vulg." He already signalled a problem. Knox reads admoto and translates "imported", but it could just mean "applied" from the medical sense. Bausi translates amoto by "forestiero."
4.   At XXXb 14 it appears the translation follows a discarded version of the text.
5.   For example, "two pledges" for pignora bina at p. 241 line 28, referring to Piero's sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano? p. 256 line 11 Phlegethonteae…ripae genitive? p. 260 line 72 Sardonio…risu rather "Sardinian grin"? p. 262 line 106 totos…penates rather "the whole house"? p. 268 lines 214-15 omnem…manum rather "every hand"?
6.   See line 43 Superciliosum incurvicervicum pecus of hypocritical friars, cf. Pac. Trag. 352 Warmington quoted in Quint. 1.5.67; line 14 devorare…catapotia, cf. Celsus med. 4.8.
7.   I have not seen Ange Politien, De l'ulcération (Silve) , ed. and trans. Danielle Sonnier (Paris, 2011).
8.   Lauro Martines, April Blood. Florence and the Plot Against the Medici (Oxford, 2003), p. 1.

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