In the days when the earth was young, Zeus shot Phaethon out of the sky; he had lost control of the Sun’s chariot, was running amok, and threatened to burn up creation. The boy fell in flames into the Po River. His sisters, the Heliades, gathered on its banks and mourned so incessantly that they turned into poplar trees and wept amber.
Eons later, in Roman times, the river—which flows eastward through Italy from Turin to Venice—became the border between Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. And in those days, poets called it not Po but “Eridanus,” a name shared by the constellation known today as “The River.”
Time passed, and, in the Renaissance, the humanist Giovanni Pontano took the Eridanus and all these rich mythological associations as the inspiration for an unprecedented collection of Latin poetry. For anyone who has suffered heartbreak or loss after adolescence and dared find love again, it is something you can really relate to. Eridanus is love poetry for grown-ups.
Giovanni Pontano (1429-1503) ranks among the greatest of the Italian humanists. He lived mostly in Naples, and in his early 60s he found himself widowed after 30 years of happy marriage. He had loved his wife, Arianna, dearly, but life goes on, and, like Dido, he eventually felt the veteris vestigia flammae ( Aeneid 4.23). He took up with a new companion, a young courtesan of Ferrara he calls by the pseudonym Stella. The poems collected in Eridanus are alternately addressed to both women, Stella and the dead Arianna, and they give voice to all the confusing emotions you might expect.
The bulk of the poems, to Stella, are pure love poetry. Many are rhapsodic, and some can be pretty steamy stuff (see 1.9 or 1.17). They give us a glimpse of happiness as an adult understands that word, and on the whole, they offer an effective rebuke to the bleak view of old age advocated by Maximianus, the Late Antique poet whose own romantic elegies I recently discovered in a new translation by A. M. Juster.1
Nevertheless, Pontanto’s collection is shot through with touching images or turns of phrase that reflect on the embarrassment and self-consciousness of his situation, an old man madly in love with a much younger woman. Here is 1.22.5-6, titled De se ac de Stella (On Stella and himself, i.e. making love), along with the French translation of Casanova-Robin from the volume under review and the English translation of Luke Roman, whose superb 2014 edition was evidently not reviewed in BMCR.2 Here, Stella is depicted in girlish innocence:
Risit, et argutos dextra compressit ocellos,
delicias nosset ne qua puella suas.
Elle rit et de sa main droite, cache ses yeux babillards,
De peur qu’une amante puisse connaître les siennes jouissances.
she laughed, and hid her lively eyes,
lest any girl should know her own delights.
The two lines capture the clumsiness, the uncharacteristic effusion of passionate feelings, the realization by them both that others will think they look ridiculous. Even better are 1.38.11-4:
Cur non e terra, sed de spumantibus undis,
nata sed irato sit Cytherea mari?
Fluctuat an semper miseri quia pectus amantis,
aestuat et variis mens agitata modis?
Pourquoi n’est-elle pas née de la terre mais des ondes écumantes
Et de la mer en furie, la Cythéréenne?
Parce que le cœur du malheureux amant fluctue sans cesse,
Il bouillone, l’esprit agité de mille façons?
Why was the Cytherean goddess born from foaming waves while the sea raged, and not from land?
Because the heart of the poor lover ever sways, his mind at sea, storm tossed in diverse ways?
Given the candor with which Pontano admits to these feelings, what really sets the collection apart are his verses to his deceased wife—and especially the guilt and ambivalence his new feelings of romance engender. Take for example 2.1, the crown jewel of the collection. In it he addresses Arianna (Ariadne) in death, asking her permission to find a new love until the two of them meet again:
dum nos fata vocent, dum te, mihi cara, revisam,
Elysiusque iterum vincula nectat Hymen.
Nec mora longa quidem. Quanquam brevis, ipsa molesta est:
iam venio; cupidos, o mea, pande sinus,
et thalamos, formosa, para, dulcisque hymenaeos;
iam propero; solitos sterne, Ariadna, toros.
Nec tamen ignoro quae sint suspiria amantum,
exspectata tamen gaudia longa manent….
en attendant que les destins m’appellent et que je te retrouve, ma chérie,
et que l’Hymen Élyséen noue une nouvelle fois nos liens.
L’attente ne sera pas longue. Certes, même brève, elle est douloureuse:
Déjà, j’arrive. Découvre pour moi, ma vie, tes seins pleins de désir,
Et prépare, ma toute belle, notre lit pour un doux hyménée;
Déjà, je me hâte. Étends, Ariadna, notre couche familière.
Si je n’ignore pas ce que peuvent être les soupirs des amants,
Je sais aussi les longues voluptés attendues…
…until the fates
shall summon us; until, my love, I come
to you again, and Hymen of Elysium binds
our ties again. The wait is short, it’s true,
but though it’s short, it’s difficult. I’m coming now:
open your yearning arms, my love, prepare,
my beautiful girl, the bedroom and sweet marriage rites.
I hurry now: arrange, O Ariadna,
The bed to which we are accustomed. Nevertheless
I know what kind of thing are lovers’ sights,
For pleasures long delayed are long enjoyed…
This ambivalence (let me suggest) surely explains that Pontano chose the mournful title he did for his collection because Eridanus evokes both women simultaneously: Stella as a star, and Eridanus as near an echo—or as haunting a ghost—of Ariadne as you can get.
In the present volume, Hélène Casanova-Robin, Professor of Latin at the Sorbonne, clads these poems in full scholarly apparatus. It begins with a 100-page introduction to Pontano the man and Stella the woman, the date and contents of Eridanus, the mythological and naturalist background of the poetry and of Padua, to the genre of consolation, and much else. These materials are excellent and a sure guide for making sense of the basic background.
After the introduction comes a bilingual text of the poems, with the Latin on one page and the accurate French translation on the other. Then follow the 200 pages of Casanova-Robin’s huge commentary. These pages analyze compositional structures and style, identify historical and mythological figures and places, quote or note parallels in Latin and vernacular writing, and cite bibliography in full, even though the same citations are repeated in the separate bibliography that follows. There is a great deal of learning in these pages.
To my taste, the notes are a bit excessive and uneven, both in the amount of attention they lavish on each poem and in what they choose to quote rather than cite. For example, Pontano’s first poem, which is 66 lines long, receives 17 pages of comments, and his second poem (32 lines) gets nearly 16 pages, and many of the remarks are interesting and germane. But poem 2.4 (20 lines) merits just five sentences, and poems 2.19 (42 lines) and 2.7 (8 lines) receive only two sentences each. Some of the swelling in the longer sections is due to the quotation of material that used to be simply cited. For example, a page of notes on poem 2.1 is occupied by a French translation of Plato’s Alcibiades (132e-133c). This unevenness suggests the ideas that most interested Casanova-Robin might have been better presented in a monograph than a commentary, since it is, indeed, in the introduction that Casanova-Robin’s erudition really shines.
Classicists will be glad that the commentary is especially attentive to the classical background (Ovid, Virgil, Martial, etc), an approach that is typically regarded as a cardinal virtue of Neo-Latin commentary.3 That said, I am not certain most of these materials really inform our interpretation of Pontano’s poems on their own merit; on the evidence of the poems in Eridanus, Pontano was a peer rather than an imitator of the best classical poets. Hence, while scholars will surely find Casanova-Robin’s new edition indispensable, those who simply want to read the poems alongside basic notes may find Roman’s 2014 edition a more comfortable choice.
2. Luke Roman (ed., tr.). 2014. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: On married love; Eridanus. I Tatti Renaissance Library.
3. “The basic principle of nearly the whole Neo-Latin literature is the imitation and emulation of ancient predecessors. It is of vital importance, therefore, always to keep in mind the classical authors and their influence.” So write Jozef Ijsewijn and Dirk Sacré in Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, vol. 2: Literary, Linguistic, Philological and Editorial Questions (Leuven: Leuven University Press 1998), 2.