IV. LITERATURE: THE AGE OF POLITIAN

Encouraged by his aid and example, Florentine men of leters now wrote more and more of their works in Italian. Slowly they formed that literary Tuscan which became the model and standard of the whole peninsula—“the sweetest, richest, and most cultured, not only of all the languages of Italy,” said the patriotic Varchi, “but of all the tongues that are known today.”12

But while reviving Italian literature, Lorenzo carried on zealously his grandfather’s enterprise of gathering for the use of scholars in Florence all the classics of Greece and Rome. He sent Politian and John Lascaris to various cities in Italy and abroad to buy manuscripts; from one monastery at Mt. Athos Lascaris brought two hundred, of which eighty were as yet unknown to Western Europe. According to Politian, Lorenzo wished that he might be allowed to spend his entire fortune, even to pledge his furniture, in the purchase of books. He paid scribes to make copies for him of manuscripts that could not be purchased, and in return he allowed other collectors, like King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and Duke Federigo of Urbino, to send their copyists to transcribe manuscripts in the Medicean Library. After Lorenzo’s death this collection was united with that which Cosimo had placed in the convent of San Marco; together, in 1495, they included 1039 volumes, of which 460 were Greek. Michelangelo later designed a lordly home for these books, and posterity gave it Lorenzo’s name—Bibliotheca Laurentiana, the Laurentian Library. When Bernardo Cennini set up a printing press in Florence (1471) Lorenzo did not, like his friend Politian or Federigo of Urbino, turn up his nose at the new art; he seems to have recognized at once the revolutionary possibilities of movable type; and he engaged scholars to collate diverse texts in order that the classics might be printed with the greatest accuracy possible at that time. So encouraged, Bartolommeo di Libri printed the editio princeps of Homer (1488) under the careful scholarship of Demetrius Chalcondyles; John Lascaris issued the editiones principes of Euripides (1494), the Greek Anthology (1494), and Lucian (1496); and Cristoforo Landino edited Horace (1482), Virgil, Pliny the Elder, and Dante, whose language and allusions already required elucidation. We catch the spirit of the time when we learn that Florence rewarded Cristoforo, for these labors of scholarship, with the gift of a splendid home.

Lured by the reputation of the Medici and other Florentines for generous patronage, scholars flocked to Florence and made it the capital of literary learning. Vespasiano da Bisticci, after serving as bookseller and librarian at Florence, Urbino, and Rome, composed an eloquent but judicious series of Lives of Illustrious Men, commemorating the writers and patrons of the age. To develop and transmit the intellectual legacy of the race Lorenzo restored and enlarged the old University of Pisa, and the Platonic Academy at Florence. The latter was no formal college but an association of men interested in Plato, meeting at irregular intervals in Lorenzo’s city palace or in Ficino’s villa at Careggi, dining together, reading aloud part or all of a Platonic dialogue, and discussing its philosophy. November 7, the supposed anniversary of Plato’s birth and death, was celebrated by the Academy with almost religious solemnity; a bust believed to be of Plato was crowned with flowers, and a lamp was burned before it as before the image of a deity. Cristoforo Landino used these meetings as the basis for the imaginary conversations that he wrote as Disputationes Camaldulenses (1468). He told how he and his brother, visiting the monastery of the Camaldulese monks, met the young Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, Leon Battista Alberti, and six other Florentine gentlemen; how they reclined on the grass near a flowing fountain, compared the worried hurry of the city with the healing quiet of the countryside, and debated the active versus the contemplative career, and how Alberti praised a life of rural meditation, while Lorenzo urged that the mature mind finds its fullest functioning and satisfaction in the service of the state and the commerce of the world.13

Among those who attended the discussions of the Platonic Academy were Politian, Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo, and Marsilio Ficino. Marsilio had been so faithful to Cosimo’s commission as to devote almost all his life to translating Plato into Latin and to studying, teaching, and writing about Platonism. In youth he was so handsome that the maidens of Florence eyed him possessively, but he cared less for them than for his books. For a time he lost his religious faith; Platonism seemed superior; he addressed his students as “beloved in Plato” rather than “beloved in Christ”;14 he burned candles before a bust of Plato, and adored him as a saint.15 Christianity appeared to him, in this mood, as but one of the many religions that hid elements of truth behind their allegorical dogmas and symbolic rites. St. Augustine’s writings, and gratitude for recovery from a critical illness, won him back to the Christian faith. At forty he became a priest, but he remained an enthusiastic Platonist. Socrates and Plato, he argued, had expounded a monotheism as noble as that of the Prophets; they, too, in their minor way, had received a divine revelation; so, indeed, had all men in whom reason ruled. Following his lead, Lorenzo and most of the humanists sought not to replace Christianity with another faith, but to reinterpret it in terms that a philosopher could accept. For a generation or two (1447–1534) the Church smiled tolerantly on the enterprise. Savonarola denounced it as humbug.

Next to Lorenzo himself, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was the most fascinating personality in the Platonic Academy. Born in the town (near Modena) made famous by his name, he studied at Bologna and Paris, and was received with honor at almost every court in Europe; finally Lorenzo persuaded him to make Florence his home. His eager mind took up one study after another—poetry, philosophy, architecture, music—and achieved in each some outstanding excellence. Politian described him as a paragon in whom Nature had united all her gifts: “tall and finely molded, with something of divinity shining in his face”; a man of penetrating glance, indefatigable study, miraculous memory, and ecumenical erudition, eloquent in several languages, a favorite with women and philosophers, and as lovable in character as he was handsome in person and eminent in all qualities of intellect. His mind was open to every philosophy and every faith; he could not find it in him to reject any system, any man; and though in his final years he spurned astrology, he welcomed mysticism and magic as readily as he accepted Plato and Christ. He had a good word to say for the Scholastic philosophers, whom most other humanists repudiated as having barbarously expressed absurdities. He found much to admire in Arabic and Jewish thought, and numbered several Jews among his teachers and honored friends.16 He studied the Hebrew Cabala, innocently accepted its alleged antiquity, and announced that he had found in it full proofs for the divinity of Christ. As one of his feudal titles was Count of Concordia, he assumed the high duty of reconciling all the great religions of the West—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and these with Plato, and Plato with Aristotle. Though flattered by all, he retained to the end of his brief life a charming modesty that was impaired only by his ingenuous trust in the accuracy of his learning and the power of human reason.

Going to Rome at the age of twenty-four (1486), he startled priests and pundits by publishing a list of nine hundred propositions, covering logic, metaphysics, theology, ethics, mathematics, physics, magic, and the Cabala, and including the generous heresy that even the greatest mortal sin, being finite, could not merit eternal punishment. Pico proclaimed his readiness to defend any or all of these propositions in public debate against any person, and offered to pay the traveling expenses of any challenger from whatever land he might come. As a preface to this proposed tournament of philosophy he prepared a famous oration, later entitled De hominis dignitate (On the Dignity of Man), which expressed with youthful ardor the high opinion that the humanists—contradicting most medieval views—held of the human species. “It is a commonplace of the schools,” wrote Pico, “that man is a little world, in which we may discern a body mingled of earthly elements, and a heavenly spirit, and the vegetable soul of plants, and the senses of the lower animals, and reason, and the mind of angels, and the likeness of God.”17 And then Pico put into the mouth of God Himself, as words spoken to Adam, a divine testimony to the limitless potentialities of man: “I created thee as being neither heavenly nor earthly… that thou mightest be free to shape and to overcome thyself. Thou mayest sink into a beast, or be born anew to the divine likeness.” To which Pico added, in the high spirit of the young Renaissance:

This is the culminating gift of God, this is the supreme and marvelous felicity of man… that he can be that which he wills to be. Animals, from the moment of their birth, carry with them, from their mothers’ bodies, all that they are destined to have or be; the highest spirits [angels] are from the beginning… what they will be forever. But God the Father endowed man, from birth, with the seeds of every possibility and every life.18

No one cared to accept Pico’s multifarious challenge, but Pope Innocent VIII condemned three of the propositions as heretical. Since these formed so tiny a proportion of the whole, Pico might have expected mercy, and indeed, Innocent did not press the matter. But Pico issued a cautious retraction, and departed for Paris, where the University offered him protection. In 1493 Alexander VI, with his wonted geniality, notified Pico that all was forgiven. Back in Florence Pico became a devout follower of Savonarola, abandoned his pursuit of omniscience, burned his five volumes of love poetry, gave his fortune to provide marriage dowries for poor girls, and himself adopted a semimonastic life. He thought of joining the Dominican order, but died before he could make up his mind—still a youth of thirty-one. His influence survived his brief career, and inspired Reuchlin to continue, in Germany, those Hebrew studies which had been among the passions of Pico’s life.

Politian, who admired Pico generously, and corrected his poetry with the most gracious apologies, was a man of less meteoric lure, but of deeper penetration and more substantial accomplishment. Angelus Bassus, as he originally called himself—Angelo Ambrogini, as some called him—took his more famous name from Monte Poliziano, in the Florentine hinterland. Coming to Florence he studied Latin under Cristoforo Landino, Greek under Andronicus of Salonica, Platonism under Ficino, and the Aristotelian philosophy under Argyropoulos. At sixteen he began to translate Homer into a Latin so idiomatic and vigorous that it seemed the product of at least the Silver Age of Roman poetry. Having finished the first two books, he sent them to Lorenzo. That prince of patrons, alert to every excellence, encouraged him to continue, took him into his home as tutor of his son Piero, and provided for all his needs. So freed from want, Politian edited ancient texts—among them the Pandects of Justinian—with a learning and judgment that won universal praise. When Landino published an edition of Horace, Politian prefaced it with an ode comparable in Latinity, phrasing, and complex versification with the poems of Horace himself. His lectures on classic literature were attended by the Medici, Pico della Mirandola, and foreign students—Reuchlin, Grocyn, Linacre, and others—who had heard, beyond the Alps, the echo of his fame as scholar, poet, and orator in three tongues. It was not unusual for him to prelude a lecture with an extensive Latin poem composed for the occasion; one such piece, in sonorous hexameters, was nothing less than a history of poetry from Homer to Boccaccio. This and other poems, published by Politian under the title of Sylvae, revealed a Latin style so facile and fluent, so vivid in imagery, that the humanists acclaimed him as their master despite his youth, and rejoiced that the noble language which they aspired to restore had been taught to live again.

While making himself almost a Latin classic, Politian issued with fertile ease a succession of Italian poems that stand unrivaled between Petrarch and Ariosto. When Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano won a joust in 1475, Politian described La giostra in ottava rima of melodious elegance; and in La bella Simonetta he celebrated the aristocratic beauty of Giuliano’s beloved with such eloquence and finesse that Italian love poetry took on thereafter a new delicacy of diction and feeling. Giuliano tells how, going out to hunt, he came upon Simonetta and other lasses dancing in a field.

The beauteous nymph who feeds my soul with fire

I found in gentle, pure, and prudent mood,

In graceful attitude,

Loving and courteous, holy, wise, benign.

So sweet, so tender was her face divine,

So gladsome, that in those celestial eyes

Shone perfect paradise,

Yea, all the good that we poor mortals crave….

Down from her royal head and lustrous brow

The golden curls fell joyously unpent,

While through the choir she went

With feet well lessoned to the rhythmic sound.

Her eyes, though scarcely raised above the ground,

Sent me by stealth a ray divinely fair;

But still her jealous hair

Broke the bright beam, and veiled her from my gaze.

She, born and nursed in heaven for angels’ praise,

No sooner saw this wrong than back she drew—

With hand of purest hue—

Her truant curls with kind and gentle mien;

Then from her eyes a soul so fiery keen,

So sweet a soul of love, she cast on mine

That scarce can I divine

How then I ‘scaped from burning utterly.19

For his own mistress, Ippolita Leoncina, Politian composed love songs of exquisite grace and tenderness; and, overflowing with rhymes, he fashioned similar lyrics to be used by his friends as charms to exorcise modesty. He learned the ballads of the peasantry, and reshaped them into finished literary form; so rephrased they passed back into popularity, and have left echoes in Tuscany to this day. In La brunettina mia he described a village beauty bathing her face and bosom at a fountain, and crowning her hair with flowers; “her breasts were as May roses, her lips were as strawberries”; it is a hackneyed theme that never palls. Trying to recapture that union of drama, poetry, music, and song which had been accomplished in the Dionysian Theater of the Greeks, Politian composed—in two days, he vows—a little lyric drama of 434 lines, which was sung for Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga at Mantua (1472). It was called La favola di Orfeo—The Fable of Orpheus— and told how Orpheus’ wife Eurydice died of a snake bite as she fled from an amorous shepherd; how the disconsolate Orpheus made his way down to Hades, and so charmed Pluto with his lyre that the lord of the underworld restored Eurydice to him on condition that he should not look upon her until quite emerged from Hades. He had led her but a few steps when, in the ecstasy of his love, he turned to look upon her; whereupon she was snatched back to Hades, and he was barred from following her. In an insane reaction Orpheus became a misogynist, and recommended that men should ignore women and satisfy themselves with boys after the example of sated Zeus with Ganymede. Woodland maenads, furious at his contempt of women, beat him to death, flayed him, tore him limb from limb, and rejoiced tunefully in their revenge. The music that accompanied the lines is lost; but we may safely rank the Orfeo among the harbingers of Italian opera.

Politian fell short of greatness as a poet because he avoided the pitfalls of passion and never plumbed the depths of life or love; he is always charming and never profound. His love for Lorenzo was the strongest feeling that he knew. He was at his patron’s side when Giuliano was killed in the cathedral; he saved Lorenzo by slamming and bolting the doors of the sacristy in the face of the conspirators. When Lorenzo returned from his perilous journey to Naples Politian welcomed him with verses almost scandalously affectionate. When Lorenzo passed away Politian mourned him inconsolably, and then gradually faded out. He died two years later, like Pico, in the fateful year 1494, when the French discovered Italy.

Lorenzo would not have been the full man that he was had he not enjoyed some humor with his philosophy, some doubt with his faith, some license with his loves. As his son would welcome jesters and smile at risqué comedies at the papal court, so the banker prince of Florence invited to his friendship and his table Luigi Pulci, and relished the rough satire of the Morgante maggiore. That famous poem, so admired by Byron, was read aloud, canto by canto, to Lorenzo and his household guests. Luigi was a man of robust and uninhibited wit, who convulsed a palace and a nation by applying the language, idioms, and views of the bourgeoisie to the romances of chivalry. The legends of Charlemagne’s adventures in France, Spain, and Palestine had entered Italy in the twelfth century or before, and had been spread through the peninsula by minstrels and improvisatori to the delight of every class. But there has always been, in the common male of the species, a bluff and lusty self-ridiculing realism, accompanying and checking the romantic spirit given to literature and art by woman and youth. Pulci combined all these qualities, and put together—from popular legends, from the manuscripts in the Laurentian Library, and from the conversation at Lorenzo’s table—an epic that laughs at the giants, demons, and battles of chivalric tales, and recounts, in sometimes serious, sometimes mocking verse, the adventures of the Christian knight Orlando and the Saracen giant who gives the poem half its name.*

Attacked by Orlando, Morgante saves himself by announcing his sudden conversion to Christianity. Orlando teaches him theology; explains to him that his two brothers, just slain, are now in hell as infidels; promises him heaven if he becomes a good Christian; but warns him that in heaven he will be required to look without pity upon his burning relatives. “The doctors of our Church,” says the Christian knight, “are agreed that if those who are glorified in heaven were to feel pity for their miserable kindred, who lie in such horrible confusion in hell, their beatitude would come to nothing.” Morgante is not disturbed. “You shall see,” he assures Orlando, “if I grieve for my brethren, and whether or no I submit to the will of God and behave myself like an angel… I will cut off the hands of my brothers, and take the hands to these holy monks, that they may be sure that their enemies are dead.”

In the eighteenth canto Pulci introduces another giant, Margute, a jolly thief and mild murderer, who ascribes to himself every vice but that of betraying a friend. To Morgante’s question whether he believes in Christ or prefers Mohammed, Margute answers:

I don’t believe in black more than in blue,

But in fat capons, boiled or maybe roasted;

And I believe sometimes in butter, too,

In beer and must, where bobs a pippin toasted;…

But mostly to old wine my faith I pin,

And hold him saved who firmly trusts therein….

Faith, like the itch, is catching;…

Faith is as man gets it—this, that, or another.

See then what sort of creed I’m bound to follow:

For you must know a Greek nun was my mother,

My sire, at Brusa mid the Turks, a mullah.21

Margute dies of laughter after rollicking through two cantos; Pulci wastes no tear over him, but pulls from his magic fancy a demon of the first order, Astarotte, who rebelled with Lucifer. Summoned from hell by the sorcerer Malagigi to bring Rinaldo swiftly from Egypt to Roncesvalles, he accomplishes the matter deftly, and wins such affection from Rinaldo that the Christian knight proposes to beg God to free Astarotte from hell. But the courteous devil is an excellent theologian, and points out that rebellion against infinite Justice was an infinite crime, requiring eternal punishment. Malagigi wonders why a God who foresaw everything, including Lucifer’s disobedience and everlasting damnation, proceeded to create him; Astarotte confesses that this is a mystery which even a wise devil cannot resolve.22

He was in truth a wise devil, for Pulci, writing in 1483, puts into his mouth an astonishing anticipation of Columbus. Referring to the old warning, at the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), ne plus ultra—“go no further”—Astarotte says to Rinaldo:

Know that this theory is false; his bark

The daring mariner shall urge far o’er

The western wave, a smooth and level plain

Albeit the earth is fashioned like a wheel.

Man was in ancient days of grosser mold,

And Hercules might blush to learn how far

Beyond the limits he had vainly set

The dullest sea-boat soon shall wing her way,

Men shall descry another hemisphere.

Since to one common center all things tend,

So earth, by curious mystery divine

Well balanced, hangs amid the starry spheres.

At our antipodes are cities, states,

And thronged empires, ne’er divined of yore.

But see, the Sun speeds on his western path

To glad the nations with expected light.23

It was part of Pulci’s method to introduce each canto, however full of buffoonery, with a pious invocation of God and the saints; the more profane the matter, the more solemn the prologue. The poem ends with a declaration of faith in the goodness of all religions—a proposition sure to offend every true believer. Now and then Pulci allows himself a timid heresy, as when he quotes Scripture to argue that Christ’s foreknowledge did not equal that of God the Father, or when he allows himself to hope that all souls, even Lucifer, will in the end be saved. But like a good Florentine, and the other members of Lorenzo’s circle, he remained externally faithful to a Church inextricably bound up with Italian life. Ecclesiastics were not deceived by his obeisance; when he died (1484) his body was refused burial in consecrated ground.

If Lorenzo’s group could produce so varied a literature in one generation, we may reasonably suppose—and shall find—a like awakening in other cities—Milan, Ferrara, Naples, Rome. In the century between Cosimo’s birth and Lorenzo’s death Italy had accomplished and transcended the first stage in her Renaissance. She had rediscovered ancient Greece and Rome, had established the essentials of classical scholarship, and had made Latin again a language of masculine splendor and pithy force. But more: in the generation between Cosimo’s death and Lorenzo’s, Italy rediscovered her own language and soul, applied the new standards of diction and form to the vernacular, and composed poetry classical in spirit, but indigenous and “modern” in tongue and thought, rooted in the affairs and problems of its own day, or in the scenes and persons of the countryside. And again: Italy in one generation, through Pulci, had lifted the humorous romance into literature, had prepared the way for Boiardo and Ariosto, had even anticipated Cervantes’ smiles at chivalric fustian and pretense. The age of the scholars receded, imitation gave way to creation; Italian literature, which had languished after Petrarch’s choice of Latin for his epic, was reborn. Soon the revival of antiquity would be almost forgotten in the exuberance of an Italian culture leading the world in letters, and flooding it with art.

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