BMCR 2011.01.34

Jacopo Sannazaro: Latin Poetry. I Tatti Renaissance Library 38

, Jacopo Sannazaro: Latin Poetry. I Tatti Renaissance Library 38. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. xxv, 562. ISBN 9780674034068. $29.95.


Michael Putnam has given us a splendid version of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Latin poetry with text and facing-page translation in the I Tatti series of Renaissance works in Neo-Latin. The volume includes all of Sannazaro’s Latin poetry with a prose translation faithful to the original in good, readable English: De partu Virginis libri III, De morte Christi lamentatio, Eclogae piscatoriae, Fragmentum (fragment of an eclogue), Salices, Elegiarum libri III, Epigrammatum libri III. The impressive scholarly apparatus accompanying the translation includes an introduction on the life and works of the poet; a brief note on the editions that are the basis for the texts; copious reading notes; two appendices (one on the sources for Sannazaro’s depiction of Christ’s triumph, the other on his use of Vergil’s Messianic Eclogue); a bibliography (divided into subsections that include editions, translations, and secondary criticism); and a very detailed index (thirty-five pages long, two columns per page).

Ralph Nash earlier published versions of some of these same poems, though not all of them, and not always with the Latin text. In his Arcadia and Piscatorial Eclogues (1966) he gives the Latin for the latter poems in a facing-page prose translation ( Arcadia is in Italian), but in The Major Latin Poems of Jacopo Sannazaro (1996) he does not provide the Latin text. He does not give the complete collection of epigrams, nor does he offer substantive commentary on any of the poems. Nash’s lifelong engagement with Sannazaro enabled him to produce fine versions that introduced an earlier generation of readers to the poet’s most important works in Latin and the vernacular. But Nash’s work on Sannazaro’s Latin verse has now been surpassed by Putnam’s I Tatti volume, which is the only complete version of the Latin poems with accompanying translation. Moreover, Putnam’s introduction and commentary are superb guides to the craft underlying Sannazaro’s elaborate allusive poetry.

The introduction briefly describes the career of Sannazaro (1458-1530), who lived in Naples under the protection of the Aragonese royal family. From 1501 to 1505 he followed Federico of Aragon into exile in France but was quick to return to Naples when the king died in Tours. A member of Pontano’s academy in Naples from the beginning of his career, Sannazaro became the leader of this center of humanistic activity in Naples in 1525. Recognized as one of the most accomplished Neo-Latin poets of Renaissance Italy, in his own lifetime Sannazaro was already noted for his carefully crafted poetry, whether at the level of the individual verse, the single poem, or the collection of poems. His comment at the end of the prologue to Arcadia provides insight into his practice as a writer: “Che certo egli è meglio il poco terreno ben coltivare, che’l molto lasciare per mal governo miseramente imboschire.” (For surely it is a better thing to till a small field well, than to let the large piece wretchedly grow wild through ill government. [Trans. Nash, 1966, p. 30]). In that spirit he crafted poems superb in their Latinity, marked by allusive poetics that subtly point to his favorite sources, including Vergil, Ovid, Lucretius, Statius, and Lucan, as well as Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Martial. The influence of Theocritus, printed by Aldus Manutius in 1495, works its way into the Latin too, as does the Bible . In fact, Sannazaro is recognized as not only a great Neo-Latinist but also as an eloquent adherent to Christian humanism. The poems on the birth and death of Christ owe as much to Vergilian poetry as to any other source and show his skill at blending the world of Christian Europe with that of the pre-Christian Mediterranean.

Putnam is judicious in his intelligent and extensive commentary on the poetry (pp. 379-522). His identification of each poem’s most important sources can sometimes open up to general comments about the way Sannazaro reads a given classical poet or the way in which a specific poet writes. He identifies the meter of each composition, reminding us that Sannazaro enjoyed experimenting with verse. Where necessary, Putnam provides a bit of historical background and cultural information on a given poem. He glosses the less common geographical, mythological, and historical proper nouns. But nowhere does he heavy-handedly force an interpretation on the reader.

As Putnam points out, the primary model for Sannazaro’s poetic career is the Vergilian progression from eclogue to didactic to epic. And in the fullness of the volume’s notes, Putnam shows the many ways in which the Neapolitan poet cites and rings changes on his main classical source. The most striking alteration may be found in his piscatorial eclogues, which stand out for the translocation of the shepherds from the Arcadian meadows of Vergilian pastoral to the beaches and islands of the Mediterranean around the Bay of Naples. Posillipo, Procida, Ischia, Capri and such places are the new points of reference. The shepherds, now morphed into fishermen, discuss the conventional topics of pastoral eclogue—love, song, loss—while tending to their fishing nets, lines, hooks, and boats. Ariosto recognizes precisely this innovative feature of Sannazaro’s adaptation of Vergilian bucolic poetry when he salutes him among his literary friends at the end of Orlando Furioso : “he is the man I so much desire to see, Jacopo Sannazaro, who makes the Muses leave the mountains and dwell on the sands” (46.17.6-8). Sannazaro himself claims primacy in this new kind of pastoral in an elegy: “quandoquidem salsas descendi ego primus ad undas” (el. 3.2.57). Putnam does note in passing (p. xxv) that Sannazaro may have found a model for this sort of transposition in Theocritus, Idyll 21.

The Mediterranean seascape is everywhere in Sannazaro’s verse, not only in the innovative eclogues. For example, when the Archangel Gabriel approaches the frightened Virgin Mary in the short epic De partu Virginis, she is compared to a girl on the seashore: “just as when a barefoot maiden, the fresh pride of her happy mother, is engrossed with the harvesting of pearl-oysters on tiny Micon or, should it chance, on craggy Seriphos. Noticing a full-sailed ship gain the shore nearby, she grows fearful and dares not now raise her dress or hurry herself on a course of safety to her comrades, but trembling she grows speechless, and stands fast with her gaze mesmerized. The vessel, laden with the goods of Arabia and the rich gifts of the Canopus, portends no war for humankind, but with innocent equipage shimmers on the ambient sea” (II: 125-34). As can happen in Vergilian epic, the simile takes on a life of its own. First, Mary is compared to a girl hunting oysters, and then the reader is invited to imagine her fear at seeing a large ship sail nearby. Her fear subsides when she realizes it is a ship of trade, not war. Sannazaro’s Neapolitan readers lived in a vibrant Mediterranean port where ships sailed in and out all day long; at a time when war with the Turks was brewing it must have become a regular occurrence to scrutinize the purpose of a ship whose provenance was from lands under Moslem control. A simile, then, with added point and urgency that conjures up a globalized Mediterranean world in which the threat of war was real. The Christian world that Sannazaro so skillfully superimposed on that of the ancient Mediterranean would be forced to change radically in the coming decades in response to the presence of non-Christian culture to the east and south.

Some of the poems suggest that Sannazaro was moving in a stimulating world of intellectual controversy at or near the center of academic and courtly life. For example, in two epigrams he takes on no less an opponent than Angelo Poliziano, punning on one of the Latin forms of his name, Pulicianus, to liken him to a flea for a mistaken interpretation of Catullus ( Epigrams (I.61.1-2), poems that Putnam appropriately labels “virulent” (p. xx). But the humanist scholar could praise others for their readings of Catullus, as he commends his maestro, Giovanni Pontano, for an emendation of the Latin poet’s text ( Epigrams (I.13). There is a wide range of short occasional poems, including epigrams to his Aragonese patrons; to popes (for and against); on Cesare Borgia; on humanist peers like Bartolomeo Platina; and on Venice, another maritime city he loved.

Putnam’s Sannazaro is a very fine book, equally handsome and excellent, that should open the eyes of many readers in generations to come. One typo (the exception that makes the case?): DPV for DMV at page 370. The translator-commentator, a superb humanist scholar in his own right, has tilled this field well indeed.