BMCR 2021.08.04

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Dialogues, volume II: Actius

, Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Dialogues, volume II: Actius. The I Tatti Renaissance library , 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020. Pp. 480. ISBN 9780674237186 $29.95.

Between 2012 and 2020 the I Tatti Renaissance Library series at Harvard University Press published all five of the Neapolitan humanist Giovanni Pontano’s extant dialogues in new Latin editions and first-ever English translations. The editor and translator of the volumes, Julia Haig Gaisser, originally had planned for a two-volume set. That structure would have mirrored the early-modern printing history of these texts: The dialogues Charon and Antonius were published together during Pontano’s lifetime and under his supervision. The other three dialogues—Actius, Aegidius, and Asinus—were published together posthumously. However, after the publication of the first volume in the I Tatti series in 2012, the modern set grew to three, with volumes two and three released almost simultaneously.

Giovanni Pontano was a prolific prose writer and poet during the fifteenth century. He was also a powerful man under several Aragonese kings in Naples. He moved into the entourage of King Alfonso already in the late 1440s and began writing original works as well as holding some political positions. During the long reign of King Ferrante, Pontano rose to even greater prominence. Pontano served as a chief negotiator during several delicate diplomatic negotiations and married a Neapolitan noblewoman. The still extant Capella del Pontano in Naples stands testament to the wealth, power, and favor that he came to enjoy. Throughout his lifetime Pontano wrote treatises, dialogues, poems, letters, and many other works, almost exclusively in Latin. Despite his power and success as both a statesman and a writer Pontano’s life and works are now known only by specialists. Most of his prose works existed for centuries only in manuscript and/or early modern printed editions. Only in recent years have critical editions of the original Latin texts begun to appear, while translations of his works into English remain few. The I Tatti Renaissance Library has sought to rectify that situation somewhat, with several volumes of the series devoted to Pontano’s work, including the volumes of the Dialogues discussed here.

The five Dialogues each date from distinct periods of Pontano’s long career. The earliest dialogue, Charon, can be dated to around 1469. The dialogue purports to record a discussion near the river Hades amongst several ancient gods. It is a wild text that lacks a single focus. Instead, the characters discuss the immorality of the clergy, the pedantry of grammarians, the meaning of virtue, farting, sex, and many other topics. The text is barely held together by its fictional setting in the underworld, as interlocutors come and go, and topics rapidly and dramatically change. The second dialogue, Antonius, feigns to take place soon after the death of Antonio Panormita in 1471. Panormita had been the leader of a learned group of men who met to discuss humanist topics in Naples, a mantle that then passed to Pontano. Like the Charon, the Antonius defies any attempt to briefly summarize its wide-ranging contents. It also highlights clerical hypocrisy, but much more of the content focuses on the intricacies of Latin grammar and eloquence as well as the inclusion of several short and long Latin poems. The edition of these texts in volume one of the I Tatti series is the first critical edition to take into account the 1491 edition of these texts published under Pontano’s watchful eye. Neither work had previously appeared in English.

The second volume of the Dialogues contains the Actius. The Actius was the fourth dialogue that Pontano wrote, probably in the mid-1490s, and by far the longest. The text replaces the scattered focus of the Charon and Antonius and instead offers extended treatments of techniques to write eloquent poetry and guidelines for writing history. The long sections on poetry intermix orthographical discussions with points of grammar and many different rhetorical techniques. Pontano ordinarily introduces a topic, such as techniques to create and alter rhythm in poetry, and then provides several pages of examples—usually although not exclusively from Vergil—to illustrate the point made. The extended discussion marks an unprecedented analysis of the topic. In practice, the extremely technical nature of these pages creates an opportunity to reflect upon timeless questions about the construction of poetical and prose eloquence, regardless of language, even as the long lists of examples are at times hard to read through. Gaisser is to be commended for the quality of her translation of some very challenging Latin passages.

The second half of the Actius presents the first in depth discussion of historical methodology to appear in Europe. The dialogue interlocutors claim that history differs from poetry in that it tells the truth. Nevertheless, both history and poetry must be eloquent, and the dialogue contains an extended discussion to show that history is “poetry in prose.” Next, an historian must use a level scale to praise and blame past people and things. Histories should be brief and concise, even as they must cover their subject matter. Histories pertain to “rebus” and “verbis,” which Gaisser translates as “events and words.” It is critical that histories follow a logical order, usually chronological, although an historian must also provide background information to help readers. Pontano offers guidance for how to connect these background passages into the broader narrative. Then, the dialogue turns to oratory. Pontano argues that the inclusion of actual and plausible speeches can help readers both to enjoy a history more and to understand contrasting viewpoints. Throughout the dialogue Pontano supplies extensive quotations from both Livy and Sallust, whom the author contends are the best models for historical content and style.

The textual tradition of the Actius presented several complications that Gaisser needed to work through to create the Latin edition. One manuscript survives that is in Pontano’s hand, but the text is not complete. A second manuscript with at times significant variants survives in the hand of Pontano’s assistant, Pietro Summonte, with edits also in Pontano’s hand. A third version then was edited and printed by Summonte after Pontano’s death. The Latin edition in this I Tatti volume relies on the complete manuscript copy by Summonte, which is then supplemented and tweaked with the incomplete manuscript and the printed edition. Gaisser includes appendices that contain the lengthiest passages found in the incomplete manuscript but not in the other witnesses. She also publishes a full essay on the previous scholarship related to constructing a critical edition of this dialogue. Finally, she points readers to a separate critical edition of the Actiuspublished by Francesco Tateo, which appeared too late to be used in the creation of this volume.[1]

The third and final volume of the Dialogues contains two shorter texts, the Aegidius and the Asinus. The Aegidius is a later dialogue with more philosophical and theological content than the others. Much of the dialogue focuses on themes important to Aegidius of Viterbo, a philosopher and theologian who had participated in Pontano’s Academy in Naples around the turn of the sixteenth century. Like the other dialogues, the Aegidius lacks a strong overarching structure. Instead, as interlocutors change so do the topics discussed, ranging from the nature of God and goodness, free will, the immortality of the soul, a comparison of ancient versus Christian religious beliefs, astrology, and the relationships between philosophy, translation, and eloquence. The final dialogue, the Asinus, is by far the shortest of the group. It was written in the years after a peace treaty between Naples and the pope in 1486. The Asinus tells a much more focused tale than the other four dialogues. In it, several of Pontano’s friends celebrate the recent peace treaty, but then become concerned that Pontano seems to have lost his mind. Specifically, Pontano has begun lavishing affection on his donkey and parading it around. Ultimately, the donkey mistreats both Pontano and his assistant, with the entire short story supposedly a metaphor for Pontano’s ill-treatment by an unnamed person. Along the way, the dialogue includes descriptions of celebratory drinking games, pilgrims, and a bizarre exchange where Pontano trades his donkey for sex with his assistant’s new wife. The volume concludes with brief notes on the interlocutors, editions of the dedicatory prefaces, and a cumulative index. For this final volume of the I Tatti series Gaisser relies upon the recent critical editions by Francesco Tateo with only a few minor tweaks to the Latin.

Volume Two of the I Tatti edition of Pontano’s five dialogues epitomizes the three volumes as a whole. The Latin text and editions are of the highest quality. The translation of the Actius, and the other dialogues, is eloquent and accurate. This accomplishment is particularly noteworthy because of the challenges present in these dialogues. Each text meanders between highly technical philosophical, philological, grammatical, and orthographical subjects; jumps between poetry and prose; and is flavored throughout by puns and jokes, none of which is easy to translate into another language. It is truly masterful work. Yet, despite the quality of the scholarship and translation in this edition, as a dialogue the Actius is challenging to read. The pages of word lists and examples as well as very long discussions of sometimes esoteric and technical matters may limit the non-specialist audience for the Actius as well as for the other dialogues. Nevertheless, the Latin editions of these dialogues add another important source for new historical and literary studies. Indeed, scholars will find here five texts rich with historical and literary insights, especially for studies focused on Renaissance poetry and history writing. In addition, for students, it is easy to see excerpts of the Actius accompanying other texts in courses focused on a number of literary and historical topics during the Italian Renaissance.


[1] Francesco Tateo, Giovanni Pontano, Actius de numeris poeticis, de lege historiae (Rome: Roma nel Rinascimento, 2018).