BMCR 2011.09.16

The Neo-Latin Epigram: a Learned and Witty Genre. Supplementa humanistica Lovaniensia 25

, , , The Neo-Latin Epigram: a Learned and Witty Genre. Supplementa humanistica Lovaniensia 25. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009. vi, 350. ISBN 9789058677457. € 59.50.

Table of Contents

Pardon the pun, so common in epigrammatic poetry: this is a great book about small poems. In fact, it is a work that goes beyond its primary goal of gathering and publishing the fifteen papers presented at the conference The Neo-Latin Epigram. Towards the Definition of a Genre, held at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (KNIR), in April 2006. It achieves an additional objective: to become an essential reference work for the study not only of Neo- Latin epigrammatic poetry but also of the epigram in general.

Thus, some articles are broad in nature and present the most central issues of this theme, especially the first two, by the editor Karl Enenkel and by Stephan Busch. Others are more analytical, like those by Coppini, Beer, and Pieper, and others more technical or specific, like those by Lauxtermann and Leuker. The book shows different options of approach and analysis of Neo-Latin epigrams, with different ways of exploring the genre, but it also has a very large coherence between the chapters, which can be seen in the repeated bibliography and the cross-references throughout.

Indeed, it is notable how much information is repeated from paper to paper. But although the repetition might seem redundant at times, it turns out to reinforce useful information about the historical and poetic universe discussed in the book. Many authors take up issues such as the origin and evolution of epigrammatic poetry, or the main stylistic features of the epigram, but variety is assured because they each emphasize the particular aspects most relevant to their articles. Thus, throughout the book, by repetition, some important notions are strengthened for the readers.

On the other hand, the overall cohesion of the work does not restrict the freedom of each author, either in style and approach, or in presentation. For instance, some authors put the original text in the article, followed by translation in the footnote, others put the translation in the text and footnote the original, and some do not provide translation at all. Including translations for all the Latin and Greek would have increased the value of the book to a wider audience, especially in countries where knowledge of Greek, Latin or German is less common, as in Brazil, for example.

All but one of the fifteen chapters are in English, the only exception being the article by Tobias Leuker, in Italian. Finally, there are small typographical errors throughout the book, apparently coming from the papers, but nothing that compromises the immense quality of the book.

Let us move to a short commentary of each chapter (the epigrammatic brevitas will be required here).

The first article, by Karl Enenkel, presents the most general issues of the book, outlining the constituent characteristics of this literary genre so in vogue in the Renaissance. The author bases his discussion on a critique of the book Epigramm, by Peter Hess,1 discrediting claims of Hess’s book one by one on the evidence provided by the Neo-Latin epigram. Although controversial, the tactic of using and refuting a “problematic” book seems to work well, insofar as Enenkel thus emphasizes the relevance of each article and the main features of the Renaissance epigram.

The second article, by Stephan Busch, is complementary to the first. If Enenkel examines the formal characteristics of the epigram, Busch focuses on the relationship between the texts of the past and the Neo-Latin works, something essential when dealing with Renaissance poetry. To achieve his goals, he begins by treating the history of epigram and showing how its origin influenced its textual features. After that, wondering how much and how the poets of the modern era knew the texts of the past, he deals with ancient collections of epigrams, especially the so-called Epigrammata Bobiensia and Anthologia Salmasiana, and explores how they influenced the formation of the Neo-Latin epigrammatic genre.

This nexus becomes clear in the third article, by Marc Lauxtermann, which is much more specific. This paper investigates the influence of the Greek Anthology in the style of Neo-Latin epigrams. But much of the chapter is dedicated to tracking the composition of the Anthology. It is a predominantly philological work, comparing manuscripts and versions. From there, Lauxterman launches an innovative proposition about the materiality of the Anthology. The specificity of the article is slightly enlarged in the interesting addendum from the discussions held in the panel presentation, which is undoubtedly an enrichment for the article.

In an interesting and original article, Jan Bloemendal explores one of the few theoretical treatises of the time on epigrammatic poetry, Vossius’s Poeticae Institutiones, published in 1647, in order to define the poetic genre and identify its essential features.

The article by Donatella Coppini is a good example of literary criticism of Renaissance epigrams. On the basis of elements such as licentiousness, obscenity, imitation and allusion, she analyzes a series of epigrams from Panormita’s Hermaphroditus, showing how Panormita has used them to produce “a double level of perusal” and “to provoke an additional appreciation, deep and aristocratic, in the reader who is able to recognize them” (p. 85). Her article is potentially interesting to a wide audience, but her decision not to translate Panormita’s Latin restricts its reach. Nonetheless, the chapter is of general interest as it not only theorizes about the epigram, but demonstrates a continuing practice of literary analysis.

The article by David Rijser, another editor of the book, provides an interesting and innovative addition to the book, since it explores the context of epigrams more than the text itself. In fact, after considering their origins as inscriptions, with social, political and propagandistic functions, and examining some inscriptions of the Quattrocento and early Cinquecento in Rome, he concentrates on the epitaphs dedicated to Raphael. His statements elucidate the essential characteristics of the epigram, and reveal its value and intense circulation in the Renaissance.

The article by Susanna de Beer, the third editor of the book, makes productive use of its source, the work of Campano. Citing the fact that there is little theory conceived during the Renaissance about the epigram (as Bloemendal had already mentioned in his chapter), she extracts valuable information from Campano’s letters, establishing a beginning of theory of the epigram from his statements. In a second step, after proposing a technical difference between wit and pointe, she goes on to examine Campano’s epigrams pointing out the features that he mentions in his other writings. It is one of the principal articles of the book, occupying a central position and organizing various subjects previously treated, with exciting and challenging interpretations of the poems. She ends her paper by discussing the distinction between epigram and elegy, which is the theme of the next chapter, showing a careful attempt on the part of the editors to arrange the articles.

The article by Christoph Pieper falls into two sections. The first is more conceptual, the second presents fine analyses. His interpretations are bold, very well presented and supported, even if subject to criticism. Pieper deals with an extra difficulty: the fact that there are two versions of the work examined by him, Landino’s Xandra. In the brief space of a paper, it is difficult to establish the necessary links either between the theoretical discussion and the analysis of epigrams or between the characteristics of the first and second versions of Xandra. An attentive reader, however, will be able to draw a lot of valuable information about Neo-Latin epigram and its relation with elegy.

The article by Han Lamers does something very important in the criticism of Marullo’s poetry, since it not only indicates Marullo’s imitations, but interprets them and places them in context, in order to develop the concept of “contrast imitation”, an expression used passim by Lamers, meaning that “in imitating Catullus, Marullo characteristically adopts the structure of a Catullus poem and then contrasts the content of his poem with that of its model” (p. 207). In doing so, Marullo unites imitation and criticism in order to castigate Catullus’ obscenity.

The article by Maarten Jansen complements the one by Lamers and incorporates several elements mentioned in Enenkel’s opening article, like the notion of “self-presentation”, in order to examine Marullo’s epigrams once again, this time emphasizing a comparative analysis with the Anthologia Palatina.

The article by Tobias Leuker investigates Aurelio Orsi’s epigrammatic poetry, or more precisely, the reception of his poems and especially the opinion of Giambattista Marino on them. Leuker is particularly interested in elucidating the images that Marino uses to praise Orsi, a prolific author of tituli. He ends his chapter with an analysis of some rather conventional epigrams by Orsi.

Juliette Groenland, in an interesting and informative article, comments on Joannes Murmellius, an important Dutch humanist and Latin school teacher whose epigrams are poor and more programmatic and didactic than literary. This is why her analysis of the poems is sometimes based more on historical than on literary sources. But Groenland’s lack of literary or textual criticism is largely compensated for by the theoretical and historical information she provides. In fact, Groenland focuses Murmellius’ influence over the educational system and over the promotion of ancient literature, including his stimulus to Neo-Latin poetic composition. In addition, her paper presents bibliographic items that are different from the other chapters, providing references about Renaissance education.

The article by Johannes Jansen extends the range of the book as it deals with two authors from the first half of the seventeenth century, John Owen and Julien Waudré. Jansen presents interesting literary analyses of Waudré’s epigrams, and his comparison between Waudré and his model (Owen) is extremely well done. The selected epigrams are very attractive, giving us a desire to know Waudré’s work.

The article by Moniek van Oosterhout evolves in an instructive and rhythmical progression with short sections that focus on a particular subject to develop the argument. The article also picks up and refers to information from the beginning of the book. The chapter is divided into two types of discussion: a) of the Latin translation of the Planudean Anthology made by Grotius, b) of the original Neo-Latin work of Grotius. In this second part, the analysis of the poems is short and superficial, i.e. more a sample than an analysis. Faithful to the reading of Grotius, Oosterhout values the Latin translation of the Anthology more than Grotius’ original poems, for her discussion of the Greek Anthology is more thorough and incorporates the same value judgment that Grotius himself had made about his texts.

The last article, by Ingrid Rowland, clashes slightly with of the rest of the book, because it barely discusses Neo-Latin epigram at all. Rowland dedicates herself to contextualizing the life and thought of Angelo Colocci, with plenty of valid, curious and interesting data, sometimes anecdotal, but without focusing directly on the epigrammatic text. She presents only a single epigram of Colocci, in a discussion occupying only a page and half. The value of the article, therefore, consists in its presentation of this important humanist in his historical context.


1. Hess, Peter, Epigramm. Stuttgart, Metzler, 1989.