BMCR 2010.01.56

Italy and the Classical Tradition: Language, Thought and Poetry 1300-1600

, , Italy and the Classical Tradition: Language, Thought and Poetry 1300-1600. London: Duckworth, 2009. x, 269. ISBN 9780715637371. £50.00.

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of ten essays is a valuable contribution to the tradition and reception of classical literature in the Latin and vernacular literary production of Renaissance Italy. In their introduction the editors place the collection well in its scholarly context; with references to the essays and some additional details they deal with the interrelation between Italian and the classical languages (essays 1-3), the impact of Greek literature on the Italian culture of the Renaissance (essays 4-6), issues raised by the influence of classical authors on Italian poetry, and attempts made for the renewal of classical sources, and the generation of new literary genres (essays 7-10). The collection is supplemented by a subject bibliography, usefully arranged in seven sections, and with three indices.

Some specific aspects of the classical tradition and reception are explored more deeply and thoroughly in this volume than in previous studies; Most of the essays are valuable additions to Medieval and Renaissance, as well as Classical, scholarship, well-argued on sound literary and historical evidence, addressing questions with precision, and pointing to directions for future research.

The first section of the collection opens with Lepschy’s general, and rather weak, observations on the interrelations between the two classical languages and Italian (first, among all three languages, and then pairing Greek and Latin, Latin and Italian, and Greek and Italian). In the second part of his essay, using a number of treatises on rhetoric, the author addresses in a detailed manner, the notion of ‘grammaticality’ of people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, focusing on infinitival structures, where the three languages under discussion come together. The issue of Hellenismus is only approached superficially.

The question deriving from a phrase from Isidore’s Etymologies is the starting point for Burton’s analysis of the term Itali. Burton concludes that it refers to any Latin/Romance language speakers. This leads to the question of how to define standard and non-standard Latin, if and whether there ever was a concept and vocabulary that would justify these terms. Cicero’s terminology gives us an idea of what modern linguists mean by ‘standard language’. In a well-structured and very convincing manner, Burton also provides and analyzes a very thorough and detailed list of Latin terms describing non-standard and low-register speech.

Mastering Latin and learning Greek in the Italian Renaissance is the subject of Wilson’s essay. He explores the difficulties that Italian scholars needed to copewith and how they accommodated these needs; special reference is made to the appointment of M. Chrysoloras as a teacher of Greek in Florence in the late fourteenth century. Wilson discusses how Italian scholars—due to the lack of learning aids and texts—experimented in learning and teaching Greek by translating grammar manuals or producing their own dictionaries, and by hunting for manuscripts in remote monastery libraries or in the Greek-speaking world. The essay is accompanied by three illustrations of mss.: Urbinas gr. 121,1 Marston 94, and Ashburnham 1439. While Wilson deals with a subject familiar to him and his authority in it is well beyond doubt, his attempt to cover such a vast area is only somewhat successful.

McLaughlin’s article focuses on Alberti’s personal canon of classical texts in the 1430s. The author begins by looking at Alberti’s differentiation from his fourteenth-century predecessors. Despite using Petrarch and Cicero as the models for his De commodis litterarum atque incommodis, Alberti makes allusions to a number of Greek and Latin authors, some already in the traditional classical canon and others recently discovered. McLaughlin establishes the structure of Alberti’s canon by the detailed examination of his writings De familia, Theogenius, De pictura,2 and Vita. McLaughlin also looks at the influence Cicero’s rhetorical works had on Alberti’s views on the relationship between Latin and vernacular, and how Alberti tried to encourage intellectuals of his time to use vernacular Italian.

Panizza’s essay scrupulously follows the fortune of Camma, the woman-model in Plutarch’s works Amatorius and Mulierum virtutes. The Latin translation of the latter work in the fifteenth century guaranteed an easier reception of Camma, while Amatorius, though never translated, had its impact on it, judging from allusions to it made by Barbaro in his De re uxoria, and by Vives in his De institutione feminae christianae. Panizza also methodically explores its reception in the vernacular literature, as in Castiglione’s Libro del cortegiano and Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. Surprising is Camma’s absence from Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus.

The reception of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics in Italy and France is the main point of Kraye’s exhaustive essay. Her argument is that the fifteenth-century commentaries of Tignosi and Acciaiuoli cannot be described as philological, while the sixteenth-century commentaries of Pier Vettori and Marc-Antoine de Muret are purely philological. The difference was caused by Angelo Poliziano, whose lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics (1490-91) heavily influenced Vettori, who established his Greek edition of the Ethics (1547) following Poliziano’s philological and critical method. Vettori’s edition in turn influenced other sixteenth-century scholars like D. Lambin but especially M.-A. Muret, whose lectures and notes on the Ethics, written in the mid-1560s, were published in 1602. Muret, then, was the first scholar to treat the Ethics philologically, although the publication of his work was anticipated by that of Vettori’s commentary, printed in 1584.

Dante’s contribution to the renovation of the classical poetry took the form of the re-interpretation of tradition. Villa examines how Dante reformulated literary archetypes into new creations, especially of well-known ancient tales, such as Inferno 5, with allusions to the story of Dido and Aeneas, Inferno 25, modelled on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Pharsalia, Inferno 33 with allusions to the classical themes of betrayal and tortures, and Purgatorio 1. The plethora of information provided by the author and the complexity of the arguments discussed may, at times, be hard to follow.

In 1341 Petrarch was awarded the Privilegium laureationis, which was followed by the Collatio laureationis. Usher identifies the differences between the two documents, while underlining their striking similarities in content. The author very informatively emphasizes the examination of the privileges included in the dispositio of the Privilegium (Petrarch’s characterization as poet and historian, his privilege of being crowned as a laureate poet, poetic uniform, and Roman citizenship), and draws some very enlightening conclusions from the analysis of the arenga on the significance of the Privilegium for Petrarch.

Following the success of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, i.e., a collection of poems arranged around a particular theme, there was an outburst of similar collections in fifteenth-century Italy; the two major collections were those of Giusto de’ Conti ( Bella mano) and Matteo Matia Boiardo ( Amorum libri). Carrai accounts briefly for the differences in structure of the two collections, and after discussing two more canzonieri by Baldinotti, he concludes that the fifteenth century canzonieri were attempts to reconcile the Petrarchan and classical models. This attempt continued in the following century with Bernardo Tasso’s Amori (1531-37), his later Rime, and the canzonieri of Luigi Alamanni, as well as some Neapolitan poets like Minturno, Paterno, and Carafa.

Hugo Tucker provides a very comprehensive and clearly-structured survey of the sixteenth century political and cultural history of Rome intertwined with and mirrored in the literary production of three scholars of the time, namely Janus Vitalis and his work Sacrosanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Elogia, Lelio Capilupi and his Centones ex Virgilio, and Joachim Du Bellay and his Poemata. Vitalis’ collection of textual portraits was an attempt to connect the imperial past of ancient Rome to the contemporary events under the papacy of Julius III. Contrary to Vitalis’ living portraits, Du Bellay, employing the latter’s poetic techniques and borrowing also from Virgil, elevates France as the successor to Rome’s hegemony. Finally, Capilupi changed the contents of his centones according to the cultural and political changes of his time, to give them new political meanings. Helpful for following this combination of history and literature is the Appendix (Chronology of historical events and relevant writings, divided into three parts: 1527-52, 1553-57, and 1558-60) provided by the author.

Overall, this collection of essays brings together some of the established scholars in this field of studies, to contribute significantly to the investigation and interpretation of the classical tradition and its reception in the Renaissance. It illuminates new paths to the approach to the literary production of Renaissance Italy has already become a useful and valuable reference book, and will provide ground and inspiration for future research.


Preface and Acknowledgments (pp. vii-viii)

List of Contributors (pp. ix-x)

Carlo Caruso & Andrew Laird, Introduction: The Italian Classical Tradition, Language and Literary History (pp. 1-25)

Part I. Latin, Greek and Italian

Giulio Lepschy, The Classical Languages and Italian: Some Questions of Grammar and Rhetoric (pp. 29-40)

Philip Burton, ‘Itali dicunt ozie’: Describing Non-Standard and Low-Register Speech in Latin (pp. 41-61)

Nigel Wilson, ‘Utriusque linguae peritus’: How Did One Learn Greek and Acquire the Texts? (pp. 62-70)

Part II. Hellenism and the Latin Humanists

Martin McLaughlin, Alberti and the Classical Canon (pp. 73-100)

Letizia Panizza, Plutarch’s Camma: A Greek Literary Heroine’s Adventures in Renaissance Italy (pp. 101-117)

Jill Kraye, Italy, France and the Classical Tradition: The Origins of the Philological Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (pp. 118-140)

Part III. The Classical Tradition in Poetry

Claudia Villa, ‘Unicuique suum’: Observations on Dante as a Reader of Classical Authors (pp. 143-160)

Jonathan Usher, Petrarch’s Diploma of Crowning: The Privilegium laureationis (pp. 161-192)

Stefano Carrai, Putting Italian Renaissance Lyric in Order: Petrarch’s Canzoniere and the Latin Liber carminum (pp. 193-203)

George Hugo Tucker, A Roman Dialogue with Virgil and Homer: Capilupi, the Cento and Rome (pp. 204-238)

Subject Bibliography: Further Reading on Italy and the Classical Tradition (pp. 239-245)

Index of Manuscripts and Printed Copies (p. 247)

Index of Principal Passages Cited (pp. 248-252)

General Index (pp. 253-269)


1. See a quasi diplomatic edition of Lucian’s De calumnia (the text shown in Wilson’s illustration from ms., provided by the reviewer in his Fifteenth-century Latin translations of Lucian’s essay on Slander, Pisa-Roma, 2006, pp. 265-295, and details on this manuscript, pp. 31-50.

2. Something that McLaughlin fails to mention in relation to (p.88) “Alberti could have used Latin translations, and he had probably read Guarino’s Latin version of Lucian’s ekphrasis of the Calumny of Apelles,” is that Alberti had produced his own Latin version of this excerpt from Lucian’s De calumnia, based on Guarino’s version. Cf. Alberti, De pictura and his Trattato della pittura, III.53, and Guarino’s Ex Luciano Ne facile credenda calumnia 5, ed. by the reviewer, o.c., pp. 118-119, and p. 18 with bibliography.