The chief glory of this age was its poetry. As in samurai Japan everyone from peasant to emperor, so in Leo’s Rome everyone from the pontiff to his clowns wrote verse; and nearly everybody insisted on reading his latest lines to the tolerant Pope. He loved clever improvisation, and was himself an expert in that game. Poets pursued him everywhere with outstretched rhymes; usually he rewarded them somehow; on occasion he would content himself by replying with an extempore Latin epigram. A thousand books were dedicated to him. For one he gave Angelo Colocci 400 ducats ($5,000?); but to Giovanni Augurelli, who presented him with a poetical treatise—Chrysopoeia, or the art of making gold by alchemy—he sent an empty purse. He did not have time to read all the books whose dedications he accepted; one such was an edition of the fifth-century Roman poet Rutilius Namatianus, who advocated the suppression of Christianity as an enervating poison, and demanded a return to the worship of the virile pagan gods.47 To Ariosto—who may have seemed to Leo sufficiently cared for in Ferrara—he gave merely a bull forbidding the pirating of his verses. Ariosto was peeved, having hoped for a gift commensurate with the length of his epic.
Having lost Ariosto, Leo contented himself too readily with poets of duller radiance and shorter breath. His generosity often misled him into rewarding superficial talents as liberally as genius. Guido Postumo Silvestri, a noble of Pesaro, had fought vigorously, and written violently, against Alexander and Julius for seizing Pesaro and Bologna; now he addressed to Leo an elegant elegiac poem comparing the happiness of Italy under the new Pope with its turmoil and misery in the preceding reigns; the appreciative pontiff restored to him his confiscated estates, and made him a companion in the papal hunts; but Guido soon died (said some contemporaries) of eating too lavishly at Leo’s table.48 Antonio Tebaldeo, who had already made a name for himself as a poet in Naples, rushed to Rome on Leo’s election, and (says an uncertain tradition) received five hundred ducats from Leo for an appetizing epigram;49 in any case the Pope gave him the superintendence and tolls of the bridge of Sorga, so that “it may enable Tebaldeo to support himself in affluence.”50 But money, though it may finance the talent of scholars, seems rarely to feed the genius of poets. Tebaldeo wrote more epigrams, became dependent upon Bembo’s charity after Leo’s death, and took permanently to his bed, “having no other complaint,” said a friend, “than the loss of his relish for wine.” He lived a long time at ease on his back, and died at seventy-four.
Francesco Maria Molza of Modena acquired some proficiency in verse before Leo’s elevation; but hearing of the Pope’s poetic philanthropy, he left his parents, wife, and children, and migrated to Rome, where he forgot them in an infatuation for a Roman lady. He composed an eloquent pastoral poemetto entitled La ninfa Tiberina in praise of Faustina Mancini, and was severely wounded by an unknown assassin. He left Rome after Leo’s death, and at Bologna joined the retinue of Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici, who was said to maintain three hundred poets, musicians, and wits at his court. Molza’s Italian poems were the most elegant of the time, not excepting Ariosto’s. His Canzoni equaled those of Petrarch in style, and surpassed them in fire; for Molza repeatedly fell out of one amorous conflagration into another, and perpetually burned. He died of syphilis in 1544.
Two major minor poets honored Leo’s reign. The career of Marcantonio Flaminio shows the period in pleasant lights—the unfailing kindness of the Pope to men of letters, the unenvious friendship of Flaminio, Navagero, Fracastoro, and Castiglione, though all four were poets, and the clean lives led by these men in an age when sexual license was widely condoned. Flaminio was born at Serravalle in the Veneto, son of Gianantonio Flaminio, himself a poet. Violating a thousand precedents, the father trained and encouraged the boy to poetry, and sent him at sixteen to present to Leo a poem written by the youth urging a crusade against the Turks. Leo had no taste for crusades, but he liked the verses, and provided for the boy’s further education in Rome. Castiglione took him in hand, and brought him to Urbino (1515); later the father sent his son to study philosophy at Bologna; finally the poet settled down at Viterbo under the patronage of the English Cardinal Reginald Pole. He had the distinction of declining two high appointments—as cosecretary, with Sadoleto, to Leo, and as secretary to the Council of Trent. Despite suspicion of sympathizing with the Protestant Reformation, he was handsomely supported by several cardinals. Through all his peregrinations he longed for the peaceful life and clean air of his father’s villa near Imola. His poems—nearly all in Latin, and nearly all in the brief form of odes, eclogues, elegies, hymns, and Horatian epistles to friends—return again and again to his love of old rural haunts:
lam vos revisam, iam iuvabit arbores
manu paterna consitas
videre, iam libebit in cubiculo
molles inire somnudos51—
“Now I shall see you again; now it will delight me to behold the trees planted by my father’s hand; and I shall rejoice to woo a little quiet sleep in my little room.” He complained of being a prisoner in the tumult of Rome, and envied a friend whom he pictured as hiding in a village retreat, reading “Socratic books,” and “giving no thought to the shallow honors conferred by the vulgar crowd.”52 He dreamt of strolling in green valleys with the Georgics of Virgil and the idyls of Theocritus as his companions. His most touching lines were written to his dying father:
Vixisti, genitor, bene ac beate,
nec pauper, neque dives, eruditus
satis, et satis eloquens, valente
semper corpore, mente sana, amicis
iucundus, pietate singulari.
Nunc lustris bene sexdecism peractis
ad divum proficisceris beatas
oras; i, genitor, tuumque natum
olympi cito siste tecum in arce.53
“You have lived, father, well and happily, neither poor nor rich, learned enough, eloquent enough, always of strong body and healthy mind; genial, and of unrivaled piety. Now, having completed eighty years, you move on to the blessed shores of the gods. Go, father, and soon take your son with you to the high seat of heaven.”
Marco Girolamo Vida proved a more pliable poet for Leo’s purposes. Born in Cremona, well schooled in Latin, he became so skilled in that language that he could write it gracefully even in didactic poems De arte poetica, or on the growth of silkworms, or on the game of chess. Leo was so pleased with this Sacchiae ludus that he sent for Vida, loaded him with emoluments, and begged him to crown the literature of the age with a Latin epic on the life of Christ. So Vida began his Christiad, which happy Leo died too soon to see. Clement VII continued Leo’s patronage of Vida, giving him a bishopric to feed on, but Clement too died before the publication of the epic (1535). Though a monk when he began it, and a bishop when he finished it, Vida could not refrain from those classical mythological allusions that were in the very air of Leo’s time, but may appear incongruous to those who are forgetting the mythology of Greece and Rome and are making Christianity a literary mythology in its turn. Vida speaks of God the Father asSuperum Pater nimbipotens— “the cloud-compelling Father of the gods”—and as Regnator Olympi— “Ruler of Olympus”; he regularly describes Jesus as heros; he brings in gorgons, harpies, centaurs, and hydras to demand the death of Christ. So noble a theme deserved its own congenial poetic form rather than an adaptation of the Aeneid. The finest lines in Vida are addressed not to Christ in the Christiad but to Virgil in the De arte poetica:
O decus Italiae! lux o clarissima vatum!
te colimus, tibi serta damus, tibi thura, tibi aras;
et tibi rite sacrum semper dicemus honorem
carminibus memores. Salve, sanctissime vates!
Laudibus augeri tua gloria nil potis ultra,
et nostrae nil vocis eget; nos aspice praesens,
pectoribusque tuos castis infunde calores
adveniens, pater, atque animis tete insere nostris.54
Which may be hastily rendered:
O glory of Italy! O brightest light
Among the bards! We worship thee with wreaths,
And give thee frankincense and shrines. To thee
Of right we chant forever sacred paeans,
Recalling you with hymns. Hail, holiest bard!
Thy glory gains no increase from our praise,
Nor needs our voice. Come, look upon thy sons,
Pour thy warm spirit into our chaste hearts;
Come, father, place thine own self in our souls.