VI. LETTERS

Lodovico and Beatrice gathered about them many poets, but life was too pleasant at this court to inspire in a poet the arduous and persevering devotion that produces a masterpiece. Serafino of Aquila was short and ugly, but his lyrics, sung by himself to the lute he played, were a delight to Beatrice and her friends. When she died he slipped away from Milan, unable to bear the heavy silence of rooms that had rung with her laughter and known the lightness of her feet. Lodovico invited the Tuscan poets Camelli and Bellincione to his court in the hope that they would refine the rude diction of Lombardy. The result was a war of Tuscan vs. Lombard poets, in which venomous sonnets ousted honest poetry. Bellincione was so quarrelsome that when he died a rival wrote an inscription for his tomb, warning the passer-by to tread quietly, lest the corpse should rise and bite him. Therefore Lodovico made a Lombard, Gasparo Visconti, his court poet. In 1496 Visconti presented to Beatrice 143 sonnets, and other poems, written in letters of silver and gold on ivory vellum, illuminated with delicate miniatures, and bound in silver-gilt boards enameled with flowers. He was a real poet, but time has withered him. He loved Petrarch, and engaged in an earnest but friendly debate with Bramante, in verse, on the relative merits of Petrarch and Dante, for the great architect loved to think himself a poet as well. Such jousts of rhyme were a favorite amusement of Renaissance courts; almost everybody took part in them, and even generals became sonneteers. The best poems written under the Sforzas were those of a polished courtier, Niccolo da Correggio; he had come to Milan in Beatrice’s bridal train, and had been detained there by love for her and Lodovico; he served them as poet and diplomat, and composed his noblest verses on Beatrice’s death. Lodovico’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, herself a poetess, presided over a distinguished salon of poets, scholars, statesmen, and philosophers. All the refinements of life and culture that marked the eighteenth century in France flourished in Lodovico’s Milan.

Lodovico did not match Lorenzo’s interest in scholarship, nor his discrimination in patronage; he brought a hundred scholars to his city, but their learned intercourse produced no outstanding native savant. Francesco Filelfo, who made all Italy resound with his erudition and vituperation, was born in Tolentino, studied at Padua, became a professor there at eighteen, taught for a while at Venice, and rejoiced at the opportunity to visit Constantinople as secretary to the Venetian consulate (1419). There he studied Greek under John Chrysoloras, married John’s daughter, and served for years as a minor official at the Byzantine court. When he returned to Venice he was an expert Hellenist; he boasted, with some truth, that no other Italian had so thorough a knowledge of classic letters and tongues; he wrote poetry, and delivered orations, in Greek and Latin; and Venice paid him, as professor of those languages and their literature, the unusually high stipend of 500 sequins ($12,500) a year. A still fatter fee lured him to Florence (1429), where he became a scholastic lion. “The whole city,” he assured a friend, “turns to look at me…. My name is on every lip. Not only civic leaders, but women of the noblest birth make way for me, paying me so much respect that I am ashamed of their worship. My audience numbers every day four hundred persons, mostly men advanced in years, and of the dignity of senators.”22 All this soon ended, for Filelfo had a flair for quarreling, and alienated the very men—Niccolò de’ Niccoli, Ambrogio Traversari, and others—who had invited him to Florence. When Cosimo de’ Medici was imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio, Filelfo urged the government to put him to death; when Cosimo triumphed Filelfo fled. For six years he taught at Siena and Bologna; finally (1440) Filippo Maria Visconti drew him to Milan with the unprecedented fee of 750 florins per year. There Filelfo spent the remainder of his long and tempestuous career.

He was a man of awesome energy. He lectured four hours a day, in Greek, Latin, or Italian, expounding the classics or Dante or Petrarch; he delivered public orations for governmental ceremonies or private celebrations; he wrote a Latin epic on Francesco Sforza, ten “decades” of satires, ten “books” of odes, and twenty-four hundred lines of Greek poetry. He composed ten thousand lines De seriis et iocis (1465), which were never printed and are often unprintable. He buried two wives, married a third, and had twenty-four children in addition to the bastards that plagued his infidelities. Amid these labors he found time to carry on gigantic literary wars with poets, politicians, and humanists. Despite his handsome salary and incidental fees, he pled intermittent poverty, and asked his patrons, in classic couplets, for money, food, clothing, horses, and a cardinal’s hat. He made the mistake of including Poggio among his targets, and found that jolly scoundrel his master in scurrility.*

Even so, his learning made him the most sought-for scholar of the age. In 1453 Pope Nicholas V, receiving him in the Vatican, gave him a purse of 500 ducats ($12,500); Alfonso I at Naples crowned him poet laureate and knighted him; Duke Borso was his host at Ferrara, the Marchese Lodovico Gonzaga at Mantua, the dictator Sigismondo Malatesta at Rimini. When the death of Francesco Sforza, and the ensuing chaos, made his position insecure in Milan, he had no difficulty securing a post in the University of Rome. But the papal treasurer was remiss in his payments, and Filelfo returned to Milan. Nevertheless he longed to end his days near Lorenzo de’ Medici, to be one of the illustrious group that surrounded the grandson of the man whom he had nominated for death. Lorenzo forgave him, and offered him the chair of Greek literature in Florence. Filelfo was so poor now that the government of Milan had to lend him money for the trip. He managed to reach Florence, but died of dysentery a fortnight after his arrival, aged eighty-three (1481). His career is one of a hundred that, taken together, convey the unique aroma of the Italian Renaissance, in which scholarship could be a passion, and literature could be war.

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