MAKING AND RETHINKING THE RENAISSANCE: Between Greek and Latin in 15th-16th Century Europe

Edited by Giancarlo Abbamonte and Stephen Harrison

De Gruyter (2019) 261pp £91 (ISBN 9783110657838)

This handsome book emerged from a conference held in Oxford in 2016, and it is a great source of sadness that the organiser of the conference, Dr Paola Tomè, did not live to see this fine tribute to her work in published form. The book contains fourteen essays looking from different angles at that fascinating process whereby Greek culture migrated west in the fifteenth century, as well as the flourishing of some wonderful Latin in tandem with this. Common wisdom has it that all this was down to a handful of humanist scholars who broke the grip of scholasticism with their rediscovery of the Greek and Latin classics, but there is more to it than that, as this book makes clear. Above all, the excitement of the encounter with the classics is well conveyed here, as Greek culture was used to bomb the edifice of the scholastic machine. (Re)discovering Greek must have made them feel as if they were emerging from Plato’s cave.

Learning Greek is itself (of course) not easy, and new grammars and teaching materials had to be produced to feed the appetite while (in the meantime) Greek texts appeared in Latin translations. After the fall of Constantinope in 1453 the West was flooded with teachers of Greek, leading to a situation where teaching the Classics became ‘poorly paid and worse regarded’. This is clearly seen in Federica Ciccolella’s article on the work of Byzantine scholars in Italy (‘Through the eyes of the Greeks’). Bilingual grammars and dictionaries were needed, and scholars such as Chrysoloras filled something of the gap with manuals derived from the Byzantine didactic tradition. These manuals are fascinating not least because they show the (literally) Byzantine complexity of the old reading of Greek grammar, with five genders, five declensions (dividing them into parisyllabic and imparisyllabic groups), thirteen conjugations and so on—all deriving from the great Erotemata of Moschopoulos (1265-1315). 

This style of pedagogy is not recommended nowadays and it is hardly surprising that many people opted to read Greek literature in translation, and their demand soon found a ready supply: ‘Just think: in the middle of the Cinquecento virtually all the works of Greek literature from Homer to the earliest Byzantine authors were available in Latin and often in convenient printed books.’ This is marvellous, but translations need to be accurate, based on good scholarship and faithful to the original; and there was also scope for writers to produce an ‘improved’ or modernised version of an earlier translation, embellishing as they went. 

Giancarlo Abbamonte (‘Issues in Translation’) looks at Iacopo d’Angelo’s translation of Plutarch’s Moralia and goes some way to rehabilitate the reputation of this maligned scholar, who was working off a poor manuscript without any such thing as a bilingual lexicon. Iacopo got things wrong, but Abbamonte shows that his inferences were valid even if the conclusions were not: where he came upon an unfamiliar Greek word he had to try and work out for himself what it must have meant. Fabio Stok takes this theme further and looks at Perotti’s version of Plutarch’s On the Fortune of the Romans, drawn both from the Greek text and from d’Angelo’s earlier Latin version, while Martin McLaughlin examines what happened to Lucian’s Encomium of the Fly when it was translated ‘straight’ by Guarino and then released in a sexed up version (Musca) by Alberti. This calls to mind the modern ‘free’ versions of Greek drama written by people who know no Greek but who can read a Penguin, or (for that matter) the phenomenon of singers ‘covering’ other people’s songs.

Linguistic scholars were sorely needed in the period, and Han Lamers looks at Janus Lascaris’ Florentine Oration which argued for the (not uncommon) idea that the Latin language is really derived directly from (Aeolic) Greek, while Manuel Calacas’ Grammar (1391-6) is studied by Fevronia Nousia. Calacas was a real grammar nerd who, however, saw the need to make things easier for the less nerdy, and he bridged the gap between the complex Erotemata of Moschopoulos and the much more user-friendly work of Manual Chrysolaras.

Aristotle had been accepted as one of the scholastic auctoritates, but Plato was seen as heretical for his views on such matters as women, transmigration of souls and homosexual love. Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472), to his credit, sought to rehabilitate the great thinker as conforming to Christian orthodoxy, as examined here by Michael Malone-Lee. Drama was also making its mark on the cultural scene, and it is significant that one of the key plays throughout the period was [Aeschylus] Prometheus Bound with its hero rebelling against authority. Giovanna Di Martino looks at Martirano’s 1556 version of the play, seeing how this shows the way in which humanists revitalised ancient authors ‘in light of the spirit of their times’ (141) to produce what Di Martino calls an ‘appropriation’ of the original.

Nor was this process confined to Italy. Tragedy made a huge impact in France—but was it drawn from Greek originals or Roman ones? Tristan Alonge looks at sixteenth century French tragedies in depth and shows how the genre was both rediscovered and also to some extent reinvented in the lead-up to the great age of classical French drama. Heliodorus’ Aethiopica had abundant appeal in sixteenth-century France and Wes Williams’ paper (headed with a pertinent quotation from Rabelais) examines how this tall tale travelled well.

Technology was vital in all this, and Caterina Carpinato takes us into the heady world just after the printing revolution when printers were producing versions of (e.g.) Homer for the Greek-speaking market. The importance of the great Aldus Manutius cannot be overstated, and Stefano Martinelli Tempesta looks at one manuscript which the publisher used in preparing his great edition of Aristotle (1494-1498). The renaissance owed a huge amount to the printing technology being developed as well as to the outstanding scholarship of these early publishers, who managed to free up Aristotle the naturalist after centuries of his being seen simply as a scholastic avant la lettre.

Much of this book is concerned with the spread of Greek, but Latin of course played its own massive role in the Renaissance. Giacomo Comiati looks at the reception of Horace’s Odes in Marcantonio Flaminio’s Carmina, and this book ends with a study of Orazio Romano’s epic poem Porcaria, ‘the first epic poem in the fifteenth century to deal with the topic of conspiracy’ (p.233) which dealt with the eponymous Stefano Porcari’s plot against Pope Nicholas V in 1453 and is well worth reading. Writing epic poetry in Latin is to write under the shadow of the Romans themselves, and Marta Celati brings out the way this work is both original and also a pastiche of earlier epic. 

Each essay has its own bibliography and there is a helpful index and an abundance of excellent illustrations. Some essays are more accessible than others—you will find the essay on Caleca’s Grammar hard going if you know no Greek—but most contributors translate Greek (and sometimes Latin) into English. The quality of writing and proof-reading is high, and the editors are surely correct in hoping that this volume will open up ‘new perspectives for unexpected further research’. 

John Godwin

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