BMCR 2020.10.46

Pius II. Commentaries: volume 3, books V-VII

, Pius II. Commentaries: volume 3, books V-VII. The I Tatti Renaissance library, 83. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. vii, 533. ISBN 9780674058385 $29.95.

The third volume of the I Tatti edition of the Commentaries of pope Pius II comprises books V to VII; the timeframe is October 1460 to March 1462. Besides the texts and translation there are Notes to the Text and Notes to the Translation, and an Index.

The textual transmission presents something of a quandary for any editor. We have two authorial versions, an earlier one transmitted in a working copy that is partly autograph, partly in the hand of the pope’s secretary Agostino Patrizi (BAV Reginensis lat. 1995; A), and a later one (written by a professional scribe) revised by Giannantonio Campano and dated 1464 (Rome, Bibl. Corsiniana, 147; B). Pius II died in August of the same year. The Notes to the Text give us a concise overview over the major differences between the two versions. The changes introduced in B generally serve to tighten the text; typical may be the beginning of the sixth book, where “dum ista geruntur in Italia” (“while these things were going on in Italy”), a phrase of impeccable Caesarian pedigree, is replaced by the laconic “interea” (“meanwhile”). Meserve’s textual choices are generally sound. Occasionally this reviewer disagrees, as with 5. 29. 15 “duo oppida in pontificis manum tradidit” (“he surrendered two towns to the pope”). Both mss. have manu; while the ablative is grammatically painful to the modern philologist, the phrase in manu tradere can be defended from the canonical phrasing of the Vulgate in Daniel 7. 25 and was used by competent Latin authors such as Manetti (Vita Dantis p. 26 ed. Baldassari) and Erasmus (Letter 1333). It may be that the editor has corrected the author rather than the transmitted text here. One needs to add that this is a risk that cannot be completely avoided in any edition of a Quattrocento text, since the line between possible or probable vs. impossible or improbable textual variants cannot always be drawn with complete certainty.

The Commentaries are a text which is remarkable for the subtlety, agility, and elegance of its Latin, even if the copious stylistic revisions in B may not have been approved in every detail by the sick Pius II, away from Rome in the final period of his life. Some doubt about authorial intentions may therefore subsist, a reason why such a text presents an extraordinary challenge to the translator. The present translation is a revision of the only previous English translation, by Florence Gragg; where Gragg translated version A of the Commentaries, the reworking by Meserve brings it into line with B, the base text of the present publication. In general the translation reads well, and it is easy to get caught up in the rich plot of Pius II’s work. As with the text, there is reason for occasional disagreement. One such example is the rubric of 6. 17 “Ambassadors for the adulterous king of Cyprus vituperate Pius. His disdain for them”, which renders the Latin “Oratorum adulterini regis Cypriorum explosio et despectus a Pio”. Any reader expecting a precedent for Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn will be severly disappointed. Adulterinus means ‘spurious’, ‘forged’ (cf. OLD s.v. meaning 2). The king of Cyprus is a usurper, a “bad penny” (adulterinusis repeated in the same chapter at 17. 2 and there translated correctly). Furthermore, the explosio in the rubric is not the behaviour of the ambassadors, but that of the pope towards the ambassadors. Properly, explodere in classical Latin means ‘to boo somebody off the stage’; in Early Modern Latin the meaning is widened to ‘drive off’ or ‘reject’ generally.[1] As the text states in 17. 2 “they were […] reprimanded […] and sent […] away”. A correct translation of the rubric would go like this: “The ambassadors for the royal usurper of Cyprus are thrown out and spurned by Pius”.

The Notes to the Translation are an admirable combination of the brevity demanded by the I Tatti format and the information needed by the non-specialist reader (not least because they offer the precise dates of the events described, where Piccolomini’s text is often content with generic phrases like “some time after”, “several months later”, “to this day”).

The Index contains some realia, but mostly proper names, including the occasional Latin item (e. g. ‘Errorius’, a sobriquet of the excommunicated Gregory of Heimburg). The Index is copious with more than 1300 entries. As with any index, it is easy to wish for more; in this case, this reviewer searched in vain for the “Cardinal of Teano” mentioned in 5. 1. 1, since there is no entry under “Teano”. It is one of the more exhausting peculiarities of fifteenth century ecclesiastical writing that it refers to the dignitaries of the church by their see, while modern historiography prefers proper names. Only the specialist will know to look under “Forteguerri, Niccolò, bishop of Teano” where there is a wealth of further references; a secondary reference under the place-name would be useful in such cases.

It is perhaps a mark of the quality of Meserve’s work that every reviewer can offer his own pespective on this edition; especially the problems involved in bringing lengthy Latin Ciceronian cadences into the more concise format of English have been finely discussed by reviewers of earlier volumes (notably Gish in BMCR 2004.11.08, more generally O’Brien in RQ 61, 2008). This reviewer, who is not a specialist of Piccolomini’s writing, can add only that while the Commentaries are of course a goldmine of historical and ideological information, it is altogether easy to immerse oneself in this work and read  it for the sheer pleasure of following the fine language and the refined construction of the plot in Latin or in English, as the case may be.


[1] Plutarchi Chaeronensis Vita Dionis et Comparatio et de Bruto ac Dione Iudicium Guarino Veronensi Interprete, ed. Marianne Pade, Firenze 2013, 40sq.