Saturday, September 30, 2017

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "Dialogues" (Vol. 1)

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: Dialogues. Vol. 1: Charon and Antonius. Edited and translated by Julia Haig Gaisser. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 53. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674054912. xxvii + 403 pp.

Pontano was a 15th-century humanist who spent most of his life in Naples. I read a volume of his poetry, Baiae, from the ITRL series some time ago (see my post from back then). This present book contains two of his dialogues, Charon and Antonius; according to the translator's introduction, he wrote three more, which will hopefully appear in a subsequent volume (p. x).

I don't quite know what to make of these dialogues, as I've never read anything like them before. They are a kind of strange combination of fiction and essay. Neither of the two really has much of a coherent topic; Pontano's characters just chat about various things and change their subject every few pages. I suppose you could even say that there's something realistic about that, and one could imagine that Pontano and his humanist friends used to have conversations of this sort, and that Antonius in particular was inspired by them.


Of the two dialogues in this book, I liked the first one, Charon, better than the second one. It is shorter and not as much of it was spent on topics that I found uninteresting. The setting is a sort of Greek underworld; besides the titular Charon we see two of the infernal judges, Minos and Aeacus, as well as the messenger-god Mercury. These characters talk to each other in various combinations, and occasionally with the souls of dead people that pass through the area as Charon is ferrying them across the Styx.

Some of the passages reminded me a little of Dante's Inferno — we see a few scenes with grotesquely brutal punishments being meted out to the dead souls (¶6–7, 16) — but most of the dialogue consists of philosophising conversations and most of the dead spirits involved are anonymous fictional people rather than real historical figures like they are in Dante (a rare exception being the appearance of two ancient cynic philosophers, Diogenes and Crates; ¶42–4).

Another difference is that the underworld here is more Greek than christian, whereas in Dante it was the other way around. (There's a curious passage in ¶7–;8 when Minos briefly refers to an appearance of Jesus in the afterworld after he got executed: “by us and by these crowds to whom he was unknown, he was instantly worshipped and adored at first sight” — and yet the underworld is still consistently shown as a pagan rather than christian place.)

The dialogue doesn't really have a plot; the closest it gets to it is the fact that the influx of new dead souls has gone down in the last few days and news of ominous earthquakes and other portents has reached the underworld, and now Minos and Aeacus are trying to figure out what's happening on Earth. In ¶45–8, Pontano uses this as an excuse to complain a little about the present state of Italy, which I imagine must have been a rather well-worn practice at that time.

Some of the other topics on which the dialogue touches at some point are: hope (¶3); silly puns (that only work in Latin; ¶4); human nature (¶9–10); poking fun at horny gods and priests (¶18) and at physicians (¶24); flowers (¶26); ominous earthquakes (¶2, 29–30), a comet (¶31, 35) and a strange solar eclipse (¶35); fate and free will (¶32–4); superstition (¶36–40); odd antics and ideas of Diogenes and Crates (¶20–3, 42–4); silly pedantic grammarians (¶49–53; one of them is actually named Pedanus!); conversations with various shades of the dead (¶56–65).


The other dialogue, Antonius, is nearly twice as long as Charon, and was pleasant enough to read in small doses but overall I didn't like it as much. One notable difference is that the setting here is more realistic: a visitor comes to Naples, hoping to see Antonio Beccadelli, the respected humanist scholar; unfortunately it turns out that Antonio has recently died and the dialogue mostly consists of his friends talking about the sort of things they used to discuss with him, and occasionally reminiscing about his ideas and opinions. Thus you could say this dialogue is a sort of tribute by Pontano to his late friend Beccadelli (whom Pontano succeeded as the head of the Neapolitan Academy). Pontano himself does not appear in the dialogue, but his son does at one point, talking about how Pontano's wife is angry at her husband over his numerous marital infidelities (¶99–101; Pontano doesn't seem to be taking his wife's complaints particularly seriously).

Many of the discussions in this dialogue are a bit more technical and philological than in Charon, and a lot of them went right over my head as a result. The translator's introduction has a few interesting remarks about this, suggesting that this sort of discussions were of interest to the humanists because they wrote in Latin themselves and “wanted not merely to read the ancient Latin authors, but to have the knowledge to understand their every nuance [. . .] They wanted, paradoxically and impossibly, to turn themselves into native speakers of a dead language.” (P. xxii.)

Topics mentioned in Antonius include: the tarantula and its bite (¶5; it conveniently provides the Apulians with “a ready excuse for their insanity”); people who flaunt their (unimpressive) knowledge of Greek (¶9–10); Cicero and Quintilian on the purpose of oratory (¶19–26); on ‘status’ and ‘constitution’, two technical terms from rhetorics (¶27–36); Etna (¶38–53); on Virgil being unfairly criticized by Macrobius (¶54–65) and others (¶65–8); the (Latin) word fama and its many meanings (¶59–60); Antonius's ideas in support of Virgil (¶69–70) and against his detractors (¶73–5); poking fun at various towns (¶78), at immorality in Rome (¶79), at grammarians (¶80, 72–91), at other countries (¶81–2), at corrupt monks (¶91), at theological debates (¶95); a parade of masks (¶104).

This dialogue ends with a minor epic poem (about 600 lines long) about the battle at the river Sucro between Pompey and Sertorius in 75 BC (p. 377). It was probably inspired by similar descriptions of battles in actual ancient epic poems. I really had a hard time seeing why anyone could have liked this sort of poetry. Modern-day blockbuster movies are often criticized for having boring pointlessly long action sequences, and the minor epic poem here in Antonius is basically the same thing in a different medium. Most of it is little else than a long sequence of descriptions of hacking, slashing, stabbing, with plenty of details just where a spear entered someone's body, where a horse got slashed along with its rider, etc. etc. There are plenty of things in ancient epic poems that one can enjoy and imitate, but descriptions of battles are not one of them and I can't see why anyone would choose to do so. No doubt I'm just missing the point spectacularly yet again, like I often do.

The poem does get a little more interesting towards the end when a big fire erupts and, with some help from a friendly wind-god, intervenes in the battle. I guess you could again compare this with certain action-movie cliches, but at least I like descriptions of disasters better than of people hacking at each other with swords.

Another thing I liked about this poem is how Pontano sneaked the names of various friends of his into the story, by naming some of the warriors after them (see translator's notes 181, 196, 197, 223, 226, 231). I thought this was a rather amusing idea, especially since most of these people would have been humanist intellectuals and thus probably not particularly warlike (except for Marullus, who spent a part of his career as a mercenary soldier).


In Antonius ¶97, one of the interlocutors tells the joke of a man, his son and a donkey, who switch between various configurations of riding the donkey (just the man, just the boy, both, neither) in response to complaints by various passers-by. I didn't realize that this joke was so old; the translator's note 164 (p. 374) says that it's “an old fable that exists in several versions, including those in Petrarch and San Bernardino”.

Pontano's son says in Antonius ¶100: “my mother duly confessed both her own sins and my father's to the priest” :))

One of the characters in Antonius (¶106) is surprised to see a carnival parade, and comments that it's “a new import from northern Italy”. See also translator's note 186 on p. 377: Carnival “is first recorded in Venice and the Veneto in the thirteenth century, but began to spread to southern Italy at the end of the fourteenth”.

Pontano likes to poke fun at the French as being stupid: “the Gauls have no brain”, says Mercury (Charon ¶16); “the French are dreadfully dull and take more care for their bodies than for their minds” (Suppazio in Antonius ¶81). Perhaps some of this anti-French sentiment is because Pontano's employer, the king of Naples, was under serious threat from the French army (p. viii).

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

BOOK: Joachim Joesten, "Rats in the Larder"

Joachim Joesten: Rats in the Larder: The Story of Nazi Influence in Denmark. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939. Online at

One of my favourite sub-genres of WW2-related books are those about how Nazi Germany infiltrated other countries and tried to weaken them from within. I recently read Joesten's book about the Nazi influence in pre-WW2 Sweden (see my post about it) and there heard about his previous book about Denmark, Rats in the Larder, so I decided I would read that book as well. (Rats in the Larder is its American title; the British edition appeared as Denmark's Day of Doom.)

“Larder” in the title is a reference to the fact that Denmark was a large exporter of foodstuffs, especially pork and butter. In fact, as Joesten explains early in the book, Denmark's economy depended vitally on exporting these products and importing everything else. Its main customers used to be Britain and Germany (pp. 25–6), but it was increasingly cut off from the British market, partly because Britain could not afford to import as much due to the Great Depression and partly because it gave preferential access to agricultural products from the dominions, e.g. New Zealand. Thus Denmark was now largely dependent on exporting to Germany, for which Germany could now extort various concessions, not only economic but also political (pp. 34–8).

German interest in Denmark was partly economic (access to food from Denmark could help prevent food shortages such as those that had been a big problem for Germany during the WW1; pp. 66–70), partly military: having control of Danish territory would enable Germany to threaten most of the rest of Scandinavia and control access to the Baltic Sea; and conversely, if Denmark was under control of Germany's enemies, various important industrial and farming areas in northern Germany would be exposed to attack (pp. 70–2).

Apparently, the roots of Denmark's regrettably self-defeating attitude towards Germany went some time back in history. Following Denmark's major defeat by Prussia in 1864 (in which Denmark also lost the provices of Schleswig and Holstein), an opinion became widespread that since Denmark is bound to lose in any all-out war against a Great Power, there's no point in even trying to prepare for defense in such an event; partly because of this and partly because of the balance of power between various Danish parties, Danish foreign policy had ever since the start of the 20th century been controlled by a clique of “defense nihilists” who regarded any sort of military preparedness as futile (p. 94). Even before the WW1, Denmark got into the habit of asking Germany before taking any sort of military steps, with the result that Germany encouraged Denmark to develop defenses that would be useful against a naval attack by Britain, but to neglect anything that would be useful against a German attack overland or by air (pp. 100–8). Danish neutrality during the WW1 was also heavily biased in favour of Germany (pp. 229–44).

This seems to be a kind of self-reinforcing loop: the Danish politicians thought that Denmark was defenseless and would be easily overrun by Germany; therefore they didn't bother setting up its defenses; therefore it was defenseless and would be easily overrun by Germany, etc. Joesten argues that it needn't have been like that; a German attack on Denmark would only occur in the context of a major war between Germany and other Great Powers, therefore Denmark would not be facing Germany's full strength, nor would it be standing alone in the fight; and if it made an effort to fortify its southern border with Germany and establish anti-aircraft defenses around Copenhagen, it could delay German attackers long enough to give allies time to help (pp. 87–8, 114–5). (Of course, in hindsight one can't help wondering if it would really have been like that. We know how slow and ineffective Britain and France were about helping Poland, for example.)

There are a few chapters about the mechanics of spreading Nazi influence into Denmark; these gave me almost a sense of deja vu because they are so similar to how things went in Czechoslovakia and other countries. After WW1, plebiscites were carried out in Schleswig, based on which the northern part of the region went back to Denmark; thus, a small German minority was left on the Danish side of the border (pp. 146–52). Under the influence of German propaganda, several Nazi parties emerged amongst this minority, they set up their own paramilitary units (“it is a safe guess that their effective numbers at least equal those of the Danish border troops”, p. 167), the German press could always invent something to complain about whenever Germany wanted to exert some pressure on Denmark — and the Danish politicians, scared shitless, caved in every time. Germany also financed private German-language schools in Denmark, where the pupils could be bombarded by Nazi propaganda (pp. 173–4). Another familiar mechanism was a kind of German-sponsored bank that provided favorable loans to German farmers wishing to buy land in Denmark (pp. 176–7).

In an increasingly desperate effort to avoid anything that might give the Germans an excuse to complain and pose new demands, Denmark instituted a sort of unofficial censorship of anything to do with foreign policy (pp. 212–3); refrained from protesting about the numerous German violations of Danish air space and territorial waters (pp. 52–9); refused to perform marriages of foreigners if one was Jewish and one German (pp. 209–10); returned political refugees and deserters to Germany, even though they faced certain death there (p. 210); weakened its ties to Britain and the Scandinavian countries (pp. 197–206); etc.

Joesten concludes the book with the hope that Denmark might still change its policy and stand up to Germany, but as we now know, this didn't happen. He wrote this book in 1938 (it was published in 1939), and two years later, Germany overran Denmark, later in fact than he had predicted (as he thought it would happen as soon as the war broke out). I found this book to be quite an enjoyable read, both because it's a contemporary account and because I knew next to nothing about Denmark and the WW2, so everything here was new and interesting to me.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

BOOK: Joachim Joesten, "Stalwart Sweden"

Joachim Joesten: Stalwart Sweden. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943. 215 pp. Online on

Joachim Joesten was a German-American journalist; due to his connections with the communist party, he had to run from Germany soon after Hitler came to power. He spent much of the late 1930s and early 40s in Scandinavia, working as a correspondent for various European newspapers. This book, written in 1943, is partly an account of his time in Sweden, but mostly it's a warning that Sweden's pro-Axis leanings are stronger than has been commonly supposed in the West. By the time Joesten was writing this book, it was clear that the war was going in the Allies' favour and that they would probably sooner or later try to liberate Norway and Denmark from German occupation. Most everyone assumed that once it came to this, Sweden would either stay neutral or even join the war on the Allied side, but Joesten is trying to make the case that while this is possible, it is not certain and should not be taken for granted.

“There is a Swedish myth in America [. . .] Its roots go back to the early thirties, when roving reporters and ‘social tourists’ discovered Scandinavia [. . .] searching the globe for a place where people lived peacefully and prosperously in an atmosphere of social progress and international co-operation, found Scandinavia, and, in particular, Sweden, came very close to their dreams [. . .] they eagerly rushed their findings into print.” (Pp. 2–3.) Joesten argues that while this enthusiasm had at one point been justified, Sweden has since then declined considerably from that ideal, but made considerable efforts to prevent this from becoming widely known abroad.

Joesten locates the source of the problem partly in the long-traditional pro-German feelings in Sweden, especially among its ruling classes (p. 22); partly in its equally traditional deep distrust of Russia; and partly in a sort of isolationism which led the Swedish government to abandon the system of collective security that the League of Nations had been trying to promote (p. 25; this system, it seems, was mostly based on sanctions against aggressor states, which invariably proved ineffective), deciding to put its trust into strict neutrality and bilateral treaties with the various great powers (p. 28).

There's a very interesting chapter on steps taken by Nazi Germany to promote pro-German attitudes in Sweden, mostly through influencing the media, writers, journalists etc. Influencing Swedish writers was made easier by the fact that many of them depended on the German market, where they sold more books than they did in their native Sweden (p. 52). Several Nazi parties were also set up in Sweden, but they were tiny and had little influence (pp. 32–3). Joesten points out a number of rabidly pro-German Swedes in the army, in business, in the press, etc.; among them there's also the famous explorer Sven Hedin: “He is a great scientist, to be sure, but whenever he dabbles in world politics—which he does, alas, very frequently—he reveals an almost incredible ignorance and naïveté.” (P. 42.)

One of the main reasons why Sweden was strategically of interest to both sides in the war were its large deposits of very high-quality iron ores; German rearmament in particular would have been impossible without steel imported from Sweden (p. 65).

Another chapter that I found very interesting was about Swedish attitudes towards Russia. In many parts of Europe under Axis influence, it was the hatred of communism that encouraged various collaborators to side with the Axis and fight against Russia; but in Sweden, the anti-communism was, so to speak, just the icing on top of a much larger and older anti-Russian cake. Sweden and Russia had often been at war until eventually, in the early 18th century, Russia emerged from these conflicts as a winner: “Sweden ceased to be a Great Power and Russia became one” (p. 70). Another blow came in 1809 when Russia conquered Finland, which used to belong to Sweden ever since the middle ages. The Swedes seemed to honestly think that Russia would sooner or later try to seize the rest of Scandinavia as well, to get access to ports on the Atlantic coast. German propaganda of course did its best to stoke such fears.

I noticed a good deal of this anti-Russian sentiment in Sven Hedin's 1942 book, America in the Struggle of the Continents, which I recently read; in it, Hedin spends an inordinate amount of time whining about the godless bolshevik hordes that are about to flood western Europe and bring an end to all civilization etc. etc. etc., and he endlessly airs out all the historical grievances between Russia and Sweden that he can think of, from the Viking era onwards. I thought it was just his personal obsession but judging by that Joesten writes here, it was a widespread obsession in Sweden at the time.

I always thought of neutrality as a simple idea, but it turns out to get a bit more complicated when you look at it up close. What exactly must a country do or avoid doing in order to remain neutral? In 1938, the Nazis came up with the perverse if ingenious concept of ‘integral neutrality’: “a small country could not be deemed neutral unless it also refrained from criticizing the Great Powers—especially Germany. [. . .] Germany would not feel bound to respect the proclaimed neutrality of any country whose government did not impose upon its press and public opinion a complete ideological neutrality” (pp. 78–9).

The Swedish government was, quite reasonably, scared shitless of what the Germans might do, so it started exerting more and more pressure on the Swedish press to refrain from criticizing Germany. This gradually developed into a curious situation where Sweden had freedom of the press in all matters except international politics, in which area it was controlled by the government almost as tightly as it would be in a totalitarian regime (pp. 183–90). After the German occupation of Norway, the Swedish government prevented any pro-Norwegian agitation in Sweden (p. 173), and allowed German troops to travel on Swedish railways (p. 178); this arrangement was ostensibly meant for soldiers travelling on leave, but in practice gave Germany a free hand in moving soldiers between Norway and Denmark.

Joesten also writes a little about his personal experiences, which I thought was a great idea as it made for fairly exciting reading and livens up the book considerably. He had been reporting truthfully for the international press on the extent of Swedish appeasement of Germany, much to the annoyance of the Swedish government, which was trying to prevent this appeasement from becoming more widely known. This eventually led them to expel him from the country in 1939, and being stateless, the only country where he could settle was Denmark. He lived there until April 1940 when it was suddenly occupied by the Germans; knowing that the Gestapo would probably be coming for him very soon, he fled, managing to reach Sweden on one of the last boats to cross the Sound. He evaded the Swedish authorities for a few days, hoping to make his way to the as-yet-unoccupied part of Norway, but the Swedes eventually arrested him and interned him. He describes the internment camp as a “peculiar compromise between the innate decency and humanism of Sweden and the invading Nazi zeitgeist” (p. 158). One of the most problematic aspects of it was that the inmates were forced to perform manual labour, even though they had not even been charged with any crimes, let alone found guilty of them. After a few months, he managed to arrange a visa to Costa Rica and was allowed by the Swedes to depart. He eventually settled in the USA and worked there as a journalist.

By the time he was writing this book, it was becoming clear that the Allies would win the war, and Sweden was therefore starting to reduce its various concessions to Germany (pp. 191–5). Joesten concludes with some thoughts on what Sweden might do when the Allies attack the German positions in Norway, as they would sooner or later have to do. He thinks it is unlikely that Sweden could remain neutral in such an event, and points out that Allied statesmen tended to assume that if it would not remain neutral, it would enter the war on their side. Joesten agrees that this is the likeliest outcome, but suggests that it's also a very real possibility that Sweden might join the Axis instead, or perhaps try to seize Norway for itself so as to prevent any spread of Soviet influence into Scandinavia (pp. 202–3), or even that Sweden, torn between these various options, might descend into civil war (p. 204).

Some of these undesirable scenarios struck me as somewhat implausible, and in hindsight we know that none of them happened. The German-occupied parts of Scandinavia were only liberated in the spring of 1945, i.e. not as early as Joesten had hoped; Sweden remained neutral but helped the Allies in various small ways.

This book was an interesting read, partly because I knew so little about Sweden during WW2 and partly because it's a contemporary account, and I always like to see how some historical event was viewed while it was actually happening.


  • Joesten's previous book, Denmark's Day of Doom (1939; the U.S. edition was titled Rats in the Larder), about the Nazi influence in Denmark. He mentions it here on p. 121; it “gave warning of the Nazis' aggressive designs on that country and bared the carelessness, if not the complicity, of the Stauning-Munch regime. [. . .] The Danish Government naturally was furious about my disclosures—which subsequent events have proved to be so tragically true to the last detail.”

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

BOOK: Lorenzo Valla, "Dialectical Disputations"

Lorenzo Valla: Dialectical Disputations. Vol. 1: Book I. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 49. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674055766. l + 397 pp.

Lorenzo Valla: Dialectical Disputations. Vol. 2: Books II–III. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 50. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674061408. v + 591 pp.

Valla was a 15th-century author, whom I first encountered a few years ago when I read his delightful debunking of the Donation of Constantine (see my post from back then). The present work, Dialectical Disputations, is a very different beast, a technical work in philosophy, and I found myself more or less completely out of my depth when reading it — perhaps even more so than with the earlier books about philosophy in the ITRL series (e.g. Ficino's neo-platonic commentaries). I'm not even sure that I really understand what dialectic is; it seems to be basically the art of arguing, related to logic on one side and on rhetoric on the other, and the borders between these things seem to be somewhat fuzzier than I would like them to be.

Valla's treatise is divided into three books, proceeding from smaller units towards more complex ones: the first book is about terms, the second about propositions and the third about entire arguments. I thought this was a good idea, and it could be the basis for a fine introductory book on this subject — but unfortunately this wasn't really that book. It wasn't written for people like me, who know next to nothing about this subject; Valla more or less assumes that the reader is already familiar with established ideas about dialectic, e.g. from Aristotle and various medieval logicians, and he mostly presents his own ideas by way of criticizing and arguing against those established ones. This no doubt made a lot of sense for him and his original readership, but it does mean that the book is largely unsuitable for someone like me. The translators, to their credit, have tried to help by providing extensive notes and commentaries, but frankly that wasn't enough. If I really wanted to get anything out of a book like this, it seems that I'd first have to spend a lot of time reading what e.g. Aristotle has written about these things, but from what I've seen here both of his and of Valla's ideas on the subject, I'm not really inclined to want to read more about them.

For example, these people seem to be expending a great deal of energy on complications arising from the fact that they're doing all their arguing in natural language (Greek or Latin, in their case) — perhaps with a few constraints (“regimented language”, as the translators call it in their very interesting and extensive introduction, p. xii), but still basically natural human language, which inevitably comes with all sorts of messiness and ambiguity. And so Valla in his first book spends a huge amount of time talking about the meaning of words like “every” and “any”, or “some” or “none” — or of some of their odd-looking synonyms with which Latin appears to have been unusually rich, and which the translators somewhat desperately had to translate into English by employing monstrosities like “not-none” and “not-any” (see e.g. vol. 2, n. 16 on p. 480). Negation is another big minefield, as when you're using negation somewhere in a sentence it's very easy to introduce some ambiguity as to which part exactly you're trying to negate.

I couldn't help feeling that the vast majority of these complications could be avoided simply by using symbolic notation like we do nowadays. Nowadays you can write things like “∀x: P(x)” and if you want to negate something, you put a ¬ there and it's quite clear what exactly is being negated — or you can add parentheses if necessary. Probably half if not two-thirds of what Valla is talking about would be rendered completely superfluous if notation like this were available to him. I don't mean this as a criticism of him or of other early logicians, of course — clearly this sort of notation isn't as obvious as it may appear to a naive observer like me, otherwise it would have been invented earlier and they would have saved themselves a lot of trouble.

There's an interesting comment on this in the translator's introduction (vol. 1, p. xix): “Valla misses, or wants to miss, a key point about philosophical speech: that no natural language will do the job for the philosopher. [. . .] philosophers need a language of their own, [. . .] philosophy cannot always conform to classical usage. When logic or metaphysics speaks about language itself, philosophy pushes hard against the limits of speech.”

Perhaps another reason why he wouldn't be too keen to employ symbolic notation (even if it was available) is that he seems to be clearly interested in arguing as a practical activity, not just as a game of shuffling symbols around a sheet of paper. He constantly gives examples of arguments in the context of law, oratory, philosophy etc., which inevitably have to occur in a more-or-less natural language.

Here's a fine example of the sort of word salad which comes from insisting on doing everything in natural language (and which ends up covering probably half the book): “ ‘Someone’ also differs from ‘anyone’ and ‘anybody,’ which are — in a sense — half way between ‘some’ and ‘any,’ as I shall explain later when dealing with negation. And it differs from ‘not-none’ which, in a sense, is half way between ‘some’ and ‘a certain,’ so now I shall discuss the distinctions betweeen them.” (2.5.16)

The first book also contains several sections that seemed to me to be digressions into areas that have nothing at all to do with logic or dialectic, and I have no idea why he included them. He has long chapters “on spirit and on god and angels” (1.8), “on the soul” (1.9), “on virtues” (1.10); there's plenty of discussion about things like species and genera, a division which seemed to me somewhat arbitrary (sure, you can come up with several levels of increasingly large and abstract groupings of things, but why would you arbitrarily declare some of these to be species and some to be genera? but then what do I know, no doubt I'm missing the point spectacularly anyway) — see e.g. 1.7.10–12 for some fine examples of this kind of pointless taxonomizing (“bodiless substance, meaning ‘spirit,’ is divided into creating and created; created into angelic and nonangelic; angelic (if you like) into celestial and infernal” etc. etc.); and Valla has a great deal to say about Aristotle's categories (or “predicaments”, as he prefers to call them), another set of very abstract concepts whose usefulness seemed less than obvious to me. Valla is trying to simplify Aristotle's system a bit, which struck me as a good idea, but the result still looked like a not particularly illuminating bunch of abstractions.

The second book is about propositions, which in this context mostly means simple sentences of the form “every / none / some x is (not) a y”. With a bit of stretching, this sort of sentences can express many things: membership in a group (“Socrates is a man”), being a subgroup of (“every man is an animal”), or even an action (“Socrates is running”). I wondered whether it was a good idea to make these very different sorts of claims so much alike in form. Anyway, Valla then introduces or discusses a great deal of terminology related to these propositions, most of which probably shouldn't be blamed on him as I guess it was established long before his time. Thus we learn that a proposition contains a subject (x) and a predicate (y), that it has quality (affirmative or negative) and quantity (universal or particular), that there are about four ways in which two propositions (with the same subject and predicate) can be (somewhat) opposed to each other: contradictory, contrary, subcontrary and subalternate; that sometimes one proposition can be “converted” into a different one with the same meaning (e.g. “no x is a y” ⇔ “no y is an x”). (The translator has provided very nice appendices with an overview of this stuff; Vol. 2, pp. 449–65.) This is all well and good (and true), but again I couldn't help feeling how much clearer and simpler this would all be with symbolic notation, and how much of the terminology could be avoided along the way, as being unnecessary.

The third book treats arguments in a similar way as the second book treated propositions. Valla is particularly interested in syllogisms, which are short arguments in which two propositions (premises) lead to a third one (conclusion), e.g. “every man is an animal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is an animal”. As we saw earlier, each proposition can take several forms, depending on whether it uses “every” or “some”, whether it uses negation, etc.; and thus there are quite a lot of possible forms for the syllogism as a whole. Some of these combinations will make a valid argument, most won't. All of this seemed to me to be perfectly obvious when you see the syllogism written out as a series of three sentences (or, even better, when you write it in symbolic notation), but for these early logicians this wasn't enough — they were obsessed with classifying and naming these various types of syllogisms, like a tribe of entomologists run amok. Valla describes the classification of syllogisms into “figures” and “moods”, and mentions in passing the ingenious system of mnemonic names (like “Barbara”, “Celarent” and so on) which had been devised for the various forms of syllogisms. The vowels tell you the forms of the three propositions in the syllogism, but I didn't quite understand what the consonants were for.

This was in a way interesting, but I couldn't help being reminded of Rutherford's (in)famous phrase: “just stamp collecting”. Sure, it's nice to classify the nineteen or however many valid types of syllogism (Valla dislikes some of them, saying that they can be reduced to some of the others; 3.9); but does it really lead us to understand anything any better than we did before? Would someone who has studied this stuff really use it during a real argument? — as in, “oooh, this politician has just used a syllogism of such-and-such a form, which is not one of the nineteen valid ones — bad politician, bad!” (*whacks him with a rolled-up newspaper*). I don't think so. In practice you evaluate an argument by thinking about it in its own terms, not by trying to pattern-match it to one of the nineteen types that you've learned by heart during a course in dialectic.

Some of the other chapters in this last book were more interesting, especially where Valla presents various types of arguments which are often used in a fallacious manner: sorites (3.12), dilemma (3.13), induction (3.16).

What to say at the end? Although I missed the point of much of this book, there was also a lot of interesting stuff in it. As I already said, the translators' introduction and notes are extensive and interesting (though they would need to be still more extensive if they wanted to make the book accessible to someone like me — but that was of course not their purpose, and there's no good reason why it should have been). I also enjoyed Valla's style (whenever he gets away from strict logical technicalities), for the same reasons as in the Donation of Constantine — he adopts a mock-exasperated tone when arguing against Aristotle or Boethius or whoever else happens to be his current target; he ends up writing like an impassioned orator or a defense lawyer. Those passages liven up the text considerably and were a delight to read. (“Boethius abuses many people, as well as his own language”, 1.20.2; “you babbling Cyclops, you fool! You family of Peripatetics who cherish nonsense! You nation of lunatics! Have you ever heard anyone arguing like this?”, 3.9.3.) I'd definitely be interested in reading more of Valla's work, if he wrote anything less technical.


I so don't want to know what happened here: “This is just the monstrosity that Aristotle describes: in the unborn fetuses of certain mice are found other fetal mice.” (1.8.16)

Translator's note 104 in vol. 1, p. 348: “letters from Perotti, who seems to have believed that Valla succeeded in squaring the circle, which is entirely compatible with his grasp of mathematics” :))

I don't know if this delightfully mean comment refers to Perotti or Valla, but the following couple of quotes show that Valla certainly had a poor grasp of physics (not that we should hold this against him, I guess the 15th century was pretty early for physics after all):

“Yet there is no weight in air. Bags are no heavier when inflated than when they have collapsed, nor are ships or boxes heavier than the material from which they are constructed.“ (1.11.17)

“I am also doubtful that there is any lightness in air or fire. For if a sense judges lightness or heaviness, then how will this sense judge a quality of those elements if it does not sense it? I do not sense the whole sky and all the air being held up by me.” (1.14.3)

Valla cites an interesting passage from Quintilian in 2.8.16: “in Livy I find there was some teacher who directed his followers to make their statements obscure [. . .] and thus giving rise to that singular compliment, ‘not even I understood’ ”.

“Arellius, a painted in ancient times and otherwise a good and famous artist, being always passionately involved with some woman, nearly always painted goddesses; but such were the likenesses that he made of his lady friends that you could not tell whether he was making harlots out of goddesses or goddesses out of harlots.” :))

A fine passage from Valla's introduction to Book III: “When two of us dispute with one another, we are not really enemies, as those people are when they fight; both of us soldier under the same commander — the Truth.” He goes on to condemn those who argue just for the sake of winning, regardless of whether truth is on their side or not. Alas, many people still do that nowadays.

In 3.15.31–2, he cautions against using arguments by analogy in situations when the cases are not actually analougous. That's well and good, but the example he uses to illustrate this is: “If familiarity with a male slave is shameful for the mistress of the house, familiarity with a maidservant is disgraceful for the master”. In Valla's view, this is a fallacious argument and is easily refuted by pointing out that the cases are in fact dissimilar: “A master's having sex with a maidservant is not like a mistress with a slave”. I'm not really surprised that this sort of double standard existed, but I am a little surprised that he was so blunt about it :))

A fine example of Roman decadence: note 143 in vol. 2, p. 500 mentions “Lucius Cornificius who prosecuted Brutus for Caesar's assassination and used to ride an elephant to dinner on special occasions”.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

BOOK: Wade Davis, "The Serpent and the Rainbow"

Wade Davis: The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Warner Books, 1987. (First ed.: New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985.) 0446343870. xii + 371 pp.


This is a very interesting and unusual book about the phenomenon of zombification in Haiti. Apparently there have been over the years several well-documented cases of people who have at one time been pronounced dead, were buried shortly afterwards, and were found much later walking about very much alive, telling improbable stories of having been raised from the grave as zombies and forced to work as slaves of some evil voodoo priest.

Davis describes his travels in Haiti in an effort to find out what exactly is behind these events. His main area of expertise is ethnobotany, i.e. the study of how people use plants, particularly medically active ones; so his hypothesis is that victims of zombification are actually poisoned so as to appear dead, and are then exhumed again by the poisoner shortly after their burial. This notion was indirectly recognized even by the authorities: “Article 249 of the Haitian penal code [. . .] referred specifically to the zombi poison, prohibiting the use of any substance that induced a lethargic coma indistinguishable from death [. . .] should a victim of such poisons be buried, the act would be considered murder no matter what the final result” (p. 60). Davis even meets two former zombies (pp. 62–3, 86).

Chapters 5 and 11 are a fascinating brief overview of the history of Haiti. I must say that this unfortunate country seems to have really had as sad, bloody and brutal a history as any I've read about so far, and if Gibbon had written his famous statement (about history being “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”) about Haiti, one could hardly accuse him of cynicism.

The French, who colonized Haiti, set up their plantations of sugar cane and other cash crops, and they soon instituted an extremely harsh system of slavery to work these plantations (see also pp. 232–3). During the years of the French revolution, the slaves revolted and after a decade of suitably brutal fighting (“Fifteen hundred dogs were imported from Jamaica and taught to devour black prisoners in obscene public events housed in hastily built amphitheaters in Port-au-Prince”, p. 67) managed to actually win independence from the French. But then the leaders of the revolt, beliving that the country needs to keep exporting crops to retain its strength and prosperity, promptly made efforts to re-establish the very same plantation system that had caused the revolt in the first place! (P. 70.) This led to further insurrections and eventually to a situation where the thoroughly impoverished country hardly exported anything and most of the land was in the hands of small peasants who practiced subsistence farming, and over whom the central government had only a tenuous hold (p. 71): “The urban elite, though proudly Haitian, turned to Europe for cultural and spiritual inspiration [. . .] In the hinterland, however, the ex-slaves created an utterly different society based not on European models, but on their own ancestral traditions” (pp. 74–5), including, of course, the voodoo religion (p. 76).

After some time and effort, Davis gains the trust of a voodoo practitioner named Marcel Pierre and gets him to make a sample of the zombie poison (pp. 101–114). Davis then tries to determine which of the substances contained in the ingredients (p. 122) might bring about the sort of coma that gets the victim mistaken for dead. Some of the fish used in the preparation of the poison turn out to contain tetrodoxin, an extremely powerful neurotoxin that is chiefly known from various species of pufferfish and causes the death of numerous people who eat these fish as a delicacy (e.g. as fugu, in Japan); pp. 134–40. The symptoms of tetrodoxin poisoning are similar to those associated with zombies, including the deep paralysis (pp. 140–2). Davis mentions cases from Japan of people being mistaken for dead due to fugu poisoning (p. 143).

Is it all in their heads?

This is the point after which I started finding Davis's efforts to explain the zombie phenomenon a bit unsatisfactory. As he rightly points out, tetrodotoxin can only explain how to get your victim to be mistaken for dead, but it doesn't explain why this victim should behave like a zombie after you exhume him/her — after all, Japanese survivors of fugu poisoning don't act like zombies (pp. 151–2).

“Pharmacologically it induces a certain condition, but that condition is mere raw material to be worked by particular cultural or psychological forces and expectations.” (P. 151.) That is, Davis's idea is that the Haitians are victims of their own belief in zombies: the victim, upon recognizing his/her symptoms, firmly and genuinely believes that he/she is turning into a zombie, and acts accordingly; see also p. 163.

By way of illustration of how societal beliefs and expectations may affect the cases of people mistaken for dead and/or buried alive, Davis mentions the 19th-century Victorian fear of premature burial (ch. 8): “At the root of the hysterical fear of premature burial was the fact that physicians recognized, and patients suffered, a number of peculiar conditions characterized by immobility and insensibility, and known variously as trance, catalepsy, cataplexy, and suspended animation.” (P. 157.) “Needless to say, these conditions are no longer recognized by the medial profession. [. . .] But for the Victorians these ailments did exist, and they were discussed seriously by the leading medical authorities precisely because people were succumbing to them.” (P. 159.) He also mentions similar examples from the culture of Australian aborigines (p. 160), and cases of WW1 soldiers who died of shock although they hadn't been wounded by anything (p. 161).

What is there in Hatian society and culture that enables this deep-seated belief in zombies and causes the victims of tetrodotoxin poisoning to play along with this whole zombification thing after they awake from coma? This is what Davis tries to find out in the last 1/3 or so of the book, which I found a bit less interesting than the rest of it, and the thread of Davis's investigations was a bit more difficult to follow. We get treated to numerous descriptions of voodoo rituals, and a long exposition of the voodoo religion's underlying mythology (including the Serpent and the Rainbow, a pair of deities; p. 213) and the various kinds of soul-like spiritual components that they believe each person to consist of (p. 218). A zombie is obtained by depriving a person of one of these components, the ti bon ange (‘small good angel’), which normally provides him/her with individuality and personality (p. 225). As for the ti bon ange itself, it can actually be captured and stored in a jar or bottle, and one such jar was shown to Davis (pp. 189, 200, 225); it is regarded by the believers as a kind of complementary zombie.

See pp. 226–7 for a handy summary of the zombification process: “For the vodounist the creation of a zombi is essentially a magical process. However, the bokor [i.e. the evil voodoo practitioner] in creating a zombi cadavre may cause the prerequisite unnatural death not by capturing the ti bon ange of the living but by the means of a slow-acting poison that is applied directly to the intended victim. [. . .] the victim receives the correct dose of the poison, wakes up in the coffin, and is taken from the grave by the bokor. The victim, affected by the drug, traumatized by the set and setting of the total experience, is bound and led before a cross to be baptized with a new name. After the baptism, or sometimes the next day, he or she is made to eat a paste containing a strong dose of a potent psychoactive drug, the zombi's cucumber, which brings on a state of disorientation and amnesia. During the course of that intoxication, the zombi is taken away into the night.” For more on the paste administered after the exhumation, see pp. 196–9.

One thing that I think is missing from this explanation is what happens to the victim afterwards. The zombies mentioned in this book were made to work practically as slaves, on somebody's plantation. Were they being given the drug all the time? If not, why didn't they escape? Was it because they were guarded well enough, or has all the traumatisation they had gone through, together with their honest belief in zombies (and their belief that they themselves are zombies now), deprived them of the will to resist?

The secret societies of Haiti

Anyway, instead of focusing on these questions, Davis's investigation veers into a different direction, namely the social infrastructure that makes the zombie phenomenon possible. Apparently there exist in Haiti a number of ‘secret societies’, which form a kind of social structure parallel and complementary to that of the state, and they actually exercise more influence on the day-to-day life of the people in the countryside than the state does (pp. 287–9, 314–6).

Similar secret societies exist in West Africa (p. 237), and the idea was brought to Haiti by the African slaves. Another source that contributed to the origin of the secret societies were the bands of maroons, i.e. runaway slaves who had fled into the hinterlands of the country and formed stable communities, successfully wresting the interior of the country from French control and conducting numerous raids on the plantations (pp. 233–6).

“In the minds of the urban elite, zombification might well be criminal, but [. . .] in the vodoun society it was actually the opposite, a social sanction imposed by recognized corporate groups whose responsibility included the policing of that society.” (P. 260.) “[T]he secret societies represented a legitimate political and judicial force in the vodoun society” (p. 264).

Davis eventually manages to establish contact with a secret society called Bizango or Shanpwel, and is even allowed to attend one of their gatherings (p. 286). There are examples of ways in which the society might help its members on pp. 273 and 292, and how its judicial apparatus works on p. 310. See p. 312 for an explicit list of transgressions that are particularly looked down upon. But some of the society's activities don't seem quite so commendable; in particular, it seems to have a ridiculous insistence that the night belongs to it alone, and is willing to enforce a kind of curfew, harassing or persecuting non-members who are found outside at night (pp. 273, 292).

At the end of the book, Davis even goes so far as to consider becoming initiated into the secret society (p. 327). He also says he had been offered the opportunity to witness a zombie in the process of being taken from the grave, but declined: “If the affair turned out to be fraudulent, I would have wasted the money. If [. . .] it turned out to be legitimate, I would have no way of being certain that the money had not been responsible for the victim's fate.” (P. 328.)


I enjoyed this book a lot. Apart from the contents themselves, there is also its style: unlike in a typical popular-science book, this one is written as Davis' first-person narrative of his research, his travels to Haiti, the people he spoke to and the events he observed. I think it works very well and makes this book even more enjoyable to read. Of course, in a way the author is lucky that he is an anthropologist, and a fairly adventurous one too — in most other fields, e.g. if he were a historian or a physicist, this sort of first-person-narrative approach would make for very boring reading :) Anyway, this first-person narrative approach also has its drawbacks, e.g. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of the big picture in the story, to understand why he is doing whatever it is that he is doing at this particular time.

But my main complaint about the book is that, as an investigation of zombification, it feels somehow incomplete. Davis has identified the drugs involved in the process, and the secret societies that form the social background to it. But I missed a clear answer to the question of what causes a person, once zombified, to keep acting like a zombie — can it really be just due to the Haitians' vivid and honest belief in the reality of the whole zombification business? This explanation strikes me as unsatisfactory. It is clear that, at the end of the book, Davis' main interest is in the secret societies, but I wish that instead of dabbling in them he had directed his efforts towards a better understanding of the zombie's fate beyond the first few hours after his/her exhumation.


  • Davis' later book, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). He also wrote several other potentially interesting books, unrelated to zombies.

  • On pp. 252–8, Davis mentions Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American anthropologist who did some pioneering research on Haitian secret societies in the early 20th century. She wrote about them in her book Tell My Horse (1937). It turns out that she was also a writer (see her Wikipedia page), and some of her novels might be interesting to read, e.g. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). A generous selection of her works is available in two volumes in the Library of America.

  • In the 19th century, Haiti was one of the few independent countries that were not ruled by whites. As a result “American and European foreign correspondents had indulged their readers' perverse infatuation with what was known as the Black Republic, serving it up garnished with every conceivable figment of their imaginations. [. . .] cast the entire nation as a caricature, an impoverished land of throbbing drums ruled by pretentions buffoons and populated by swamp doctors, licentious women, and children bred for the cauldron.” (P. 254.) Some of the titles mentioned include:

    • Spenser St. John: Hayti: or The Black Republic (1880).
    • John Houston Craige: Black Bagdad (1933) and Cannibal Cousins (1934).
    • William Seabrook: The Magic Island (1929). Mentioned on p. 353.

    Davis comments: “It was no coincidence that many of [these books] appeared during the years of the American occupation (1915–1934), and that every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to manage to land a publishing contract.” (Pp. 254–5.)

Important zombie-related links

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

BOOK: Lilio Giraldi, "Modern Poets"

Lilio Gregorio Giraldi: Modern Poets. Edited and translated by John N. Grant. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 48. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674055759. xxxv + 363 pp.

Giraldi lived in the late 15th and early 16th century and here gives an overview of what to him were ‘modern poets’ — people who were active in his own day and one or at most two generations earlier. The book is written as dialogues between Giraldi and several other poets and scholars; in the first dialogue, Giraldi gives an overview of contemporary Italian poets, and in the second dialogue, the other interlocutors present the poets of several other countries — Greece, Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Germany (which is conceived very broadly; the section on German poets includes several Dutchmen, a Swiss, and a few others who happened to be active in Germany). In fact about half of the second dialogue again deals with yet more Italian poets, so that about 3/4 of the entire work is about Italian poets. I guess this is reasonable enough, as it's what Giraldi must have been the most familiar with.

The characters in his dialogue were based on real people, but I suppose that the conversation itself is Giraldi's invention. Admittedly, he doesn't make much use of the possibilities offered by the dialogue as a form — it's more like a sequence of long monologues than a conversation; each character holds forth a mini-lecture while the others listen without saying anything much. On the few occasions when the flow of conversation begins to veer off topic, Giraldi brings it sharply back onto the main subject of modern poets, which unfortunately prevents the whole thing from feeling like a pleasant and natural chat. Still, these occasional small bits of conversation do liven up the text a little bit, so having it structured as a dialogue wasn't an entirely bad idea.

This book was a much better read than I thought it would be; I was afraid that I would find it boring, but it was in fact a pleasant and easy read, although one that is best taken in moderate doses. Giraldi's approach seems to me very different than what one would expect in a modern-day book about the literature of a particular period. Nowadays you'd expect a book like that to include a moderately-sized set of major poets and discuss their work in some detail; on the other hand, Giraldi includes a very large number of poets in his book (I didn't try to count them but there appears to be more than 300 of them), but says very little about each of them, typically just a short paragraph. Sometimes he mentions titles of individual works of the poets, but more often he just gives a vague description of what genre they worked in and what were the overall qualities (or defects) of their work. He pretty much never discusses any individual work in detail. In fact I had the impression that he says more about the biographical facts of the poets' lives than about their work.

This idea of covering a large number of poets, and often organizing them simply by the region or town where they were active, was nice — a normal modern-day treatment that focuses on a few major poets would give you the impression that literature consists of a handful of isolated mountains of towering genius; but the impression you get from Giraldi is instead one of literature as a connected, varied landscape of rolling hills, with a slightly higher mountain here or there, and not a few marshes and bogs as well. I rather liked this picture, and I suspect it's closer to reality: poets don't work in isolation, they have contacts with each other, read and influence one another's work (and geographical proximity is a nontrivial factor in such things, probably even more so in Giraldi's day than now), and so on.

I couldn't help being impressed by the immense amount of work and reading that must have gone into Geraldi's book; he had to actually read the work of most of the poets he talks about (on a few rare occasions when he couldn't get ahold of some poet's writings, he says so and then refrains from commenting on that poet's work).

Another thing that made this book interesting for me was that almost all the poets he talks about were hitherto unknown to me. They may have seemed notable in Giraldi's time, but now 500 years later hardly any of them are familiar to the general public. If I had to think about Italian Renaissance poets, my first idea would be Dante and Petrarch, although I know that Dante is considered medieval and in any case both of these are much too early to fall within the scope of Giraldi's book. Next I would think of the epic poets — Ariosto, Tasso, and perhaps Pulci and Boiardo; of these, Tasso is too late for this book (which does however mention his less well-known father Bernardo Tasso; 2.142 and p. 337), and while he does briefly mention the others (Ariosto in 1.158; Pulci and Boiardo in 2.139), the problem is that he is mostly interested in neo-Latin poets rather than in those who wrote in Italian or other living languages. Anyway, that's more or less where my knowledge would end, so nearly all the Italian poets he mentions were new to me. Well, actually, I did recognize a few of them as I had read their work in earlier volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library: Gregorio Correr and his tragedy Procne (1.157), Vida and his Christiad (1.110–2), Beccadelli (“Panormita”) and his Hermaphrodite (1.56–8), Sannazaro (Giraldi mentions his Piscatory Eclogues and Virgin Birth, 1.33–4), Pietro Bembo (1.41–2; though most of what I read of him so far was prose rather than poetry), Pontano (1.37–8), Maffeo Vegio (1.54–5). There are also some whose work I haven't read yet but noticed their books in the ITRL series, e.g. Fracastoro and his epic poem Syphilis (1.175).

For other countries, it's even worse; I could hardly name any poets that worked in the period covered by Giraldo, so pretty much everything he mentions was new to me. I was curious what he'd say about English poetry, but even there it was clear that most of their famous early poets fall outside this period: the Elizabethans were a bit too late, and Chaucer was quite a bit too early. Skelton and Wyatt would be good candidates. Well, as it turns out, he talks about William Lily (2.53–4; I had never heard of him before), Thomas More (2.56; his Utopia is a rare example of a few words being said about an individual work, 2.58); he briefly lists, though not as poets, “Colet, Grocyn, Lupset, Richard Pace, the bishop of Rochester, and others” (2.57). Once again the thing is that he's interested in neo-Latin rather than vernacular literature. He ends the English section of the book by mentioning (2.59) that “[t]here were also some poets writing in their own native English language”, namely Chaucer (“from earlier times”) and Wyatt.

Among the French poets, the only one whose name sounded vaguely familiar to me was Jean du Bellay (2.64), but as it turns out, I got him confused with his younger cousin Joaquim du Bellay, some of whose poems I read years ago in Edmund Spenser's translation; but Joaquim is too recent to be included in Giraldi's work.

Listed among the German poets is one Matthias Illyricus (2.76), whose conspicuously non-German surname got me curious and sure enough, he was actually a Croatian protestant who lived much of his life in Germany (see p. 293 and also his wikipedia page). There's also one “Andrzei Kryczki from Poland” (2.84); I was surprised to see that the original Latin text refers to his home country as Sarmatia.

Occasionally I wished that the translator's notes were more extensive. I found myself wondering, when reading Giraldi's brief mention of this or that poet, things like: What is known of this particular poet today? How has his reputation held up, how does Giraldi's judgment of his work compare with that of modern-day literary historians? What are some of his principal works (Giraldi often neglects to mention this)? Have any of them been lost? Of those that are stil extant, where and when have they been published? But, of course, if all this had been included in the notes, the translator would effectively end up re-writing Giraldi's book, only at three times the length and with the benefit of modern knowledge; and that's hardly reasonable to expect from a volume like this one. And in fact much of this information is actually included, just not in the notes but as a separate “Biographical Glossary”, which runs to almost a hundred pages (i.e. there's more or less the same amount of text here as in Giraldi's two dialogues put together) and lists all the poets mentioned in Giraldi's work, in alphabetical order, with about one paragraph of information about each of them.

Giraldi on vernacular poetry

Giraldi values poetry in Latin much more highly than that in vernacular languages, and the way he turns up his nose at vernacular poetry is downright grotesque at times. In 1.160, he says: “all the good poets know Latin [. . .] By contrast, barbers and tradesmen [. . .] have turned their hand to poetry and are unworthy of being grouped with Latin poets”.

And in 2.139, after mentioning a few vernacular poets: “I would be going too far if I should wish to include all such poets here. For in that case I would have to include barbers, cobblers, and other tradesmen, many drawn from the very dregs of society. Because of the great numbers of such writers, some men, learned in other respects, have fallen into the heresy of not only wishing to give vernacular literature the same standing as Latin letters but even of wishing to elevate it over Latin literature, and they have even said this in their writings.” The translator adds (n. 69 on p. 248) that Giraldi's views were “by 1551 very much a rearguard position”. But if we ignore Giraldi's snobbishness for a moment, his quote is actually encouraging — a world in which even barbers and cobblers write poetry sounds like a splendid one indeed!

He has an interesting discussion on the origins of vernacular poetry in 2.140: “Some have traced it back to the Sicilians when their island became a kingdom. Most take it back to the people of Tuscany, the region that gave its name to the Tuscan language. Some others ascribe the beginnings to the people of Provence, the part of France that is now given that name.” He is exactly right on all three counts, but I'm surprised that he's so vague about this; either he *really* didn't care about vernacular poetry, or this stuff was in fact relatively little known in his time, being something like 200 or 300 years in the past by then.

“I think that I've spoken at sufficient length about the vernacular poets since even children chant out their songs everywhere in city squares and streets.” (2.151) Wow! Poetry that lives among the people! He says that as if it was a bad thing! Could it be that he was simply jealous because unlike neo-Latin, the vernacular poetry could actually be popular? As in, among the *people* and not just a bunch of pimply nerds in their basements (whatever the 16th-century equivalent of that was :P).


See pp. xxx–xxxi of the translator's introduction for extensive and very pedantic complaints about Giraldi's Latin :)

One Pietro (a.k.a. Pierio) Valeriano “is engaged in a multivolume work on the sacred literature of Egypt” (1.151). According to the wikipedia, he did eventually finish it.

Giraldi is often quite critical of the poets in his volume. Here he is complaining about a poet, Pietro Alcionio, who followed Cicero too closely: “if his prose gave off an odor, it would smell of an oil flask from Arpinum more than anything else” (1.152; Arpinum being Cicero's birth-place). Another author, Bernardino Donato, is even worse: “I have read some of his prose works, which smell of the oil lamp, but he certainly doesn't have the scent of the man from Arpinum” (1.176; the translator's note 72 on p. 241 explains that the oil lamp metaphor is meant to suggest that “the prose is learned, the result of long labor”).

The aforementioned Alcionio “often boasts to all and sundry that he is working on a tragedy on the death of Christ, in which, as he is wont to say, he uses every meter that ever existed.” :))) (1.152)

I was surprised by this observation: “it's easier to compose Greek poetry than Latin” (2.20).

“Etienne Dolet, a Frenchman, wrote many large volumes that I had never any intention of opening.” :))) (2.109) This was funny, but on reading his wikipedia page, his story is actually a sad one: “he was eventually arrested and burned with his books on orders of the theological faculty of the Sorbonne”.

2.156 mentions a poet with an unfortunate surname: Guillaume Bigot. I don't know if it's actually related to the English word bigot, although apparently this word does in fact come from French, according to (“derogatory name applied by the French to the Normans”).

Occasionally I felt that Giraldi's obsession with Latin as opposed to vernacular poetry extended to the point where nearly everyone who wrote in Latin was mentioned in his book, even if only to say that he unfortunately didn't produce any poetry. For example: “There is also Gabriele Falloppio, who turned his interests to medicine.” (2.170) Well, at least I learned whom the Fallopian tubes were named for.

Ariosto had a brother named Gabriele, who was apparently also a poet (2.179).

According to the translator's biographical glossary (p. 269), Elisio Calenzio (mentioned by Giraldi on 2.97) wrote (in 1448) a poem titled “Croacus or De bello ranarum, modeled on the Batrachomyomachia, ascribed to Homer”. I've always been greatly intrigued by the idea of a parody epic like this, so I'm glad to see that another one has been written. I recently saw an interesting-looking modern retelling of the Batrachomyomachia in a bookshop; it was written by one George (not R. R.) Martin and was mistakenly (or cunningly?) shelved among the various Game of Thrones books :))

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

BOOK: Bartolomeo Fonzio, "Letters to Friends"

Bartolomeo Fonzio: Letters to Friends. Edited by Alessandro Daneloni. Translated by Martin Davies. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 47. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674058361. xviii + 233 pp.

Fonzio was a humanist author from Florence, and in the last part of his career a priest, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. This book contains a small selection of his letters to various people; apparently he mostly selected and edited the letters by himself, though he never quite got around to publishing them.

This is not the first time we've had a volume of letters in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — see my post from a few years ago about vol. 21, the letters of Angelo Poliziano. My impressions about Fonzio's book of letters are pretty similar to what I wrote back then about Poliziano's: they give us a few interesting glimpses into his life, especially as they are arranged chronologically, but most of them don't really have anything terribly substantial to say. Typical subjects include general expressions of affection to friends, and looking for patronage, either for himself or for his students or relatives. One thing that surprised me is how little detail these letters tend to go into, even when arranging things like jobs where I would imagine that more detail would be important. What if the recipient needs to ask for clasification or for more information? I imagine that waiting for messengers to carry the letters back and forth could take weeks.

Nevertheless, here are some of the letters that I found interesting:

1.16 — Fonzio has just returned from a trip to Rome, and is describing various sights to his friend Battista Guarini. This was pretty interesting, and some of the ancient ruins he describes have since been ruined for good (see n. 34 on p. 203). However, I was disappointed to read that much of his description is actually based on a book called De varietate fortunae, written some 25 years earlier by Poggio Bracciolini (see n. 27 on p. 202 and n. 37 on p. 203).

1.17 — a fine letter to the same friend, trying to console him about the death of his wife. I was glad to hear that Fonzio has no patience for the useless sort of advice that you find in the works of Stoic philosophers: “I do not ask that you should be the Sage of Stoic theory, which requires us to feel no anguish at all at the passing of deat friends. I do not share the view that we should never be moved by any human emotion.” (1.17.2) However, I'm not sure if Fonzio's advice is terribly helpful either: he points out that death is inevitable, the soul goes on to a more pleasant afterlife, and in any case Battista should just focus on his scholarly work to forget his grief more easily.

A nice pun from 1.21.2: “there's no medicine available for our sick body politic while the Medic's away” (referring to Lorenzo de' Medici's temporary absence from Florence).

Letter 1.22 is also very punny. Fonzio was sending some manuscripts to a French nobleman named Beauclair, first The Golden Ass and now a cookbook: “I have decided to take account not just of your stable but of your kitchen too” (1.22.2), etc.

1.24 — a delightful, no-holds-barred invective against Angelo Poliziano (he and Fonzio were rivals as professors in Florence at some point). “Your impudence will not further abuse my modesty, nor will that reckless insolence of yours any longer launch itself against my patience.” (1.24.1) “Was it some acquaintance with the liberal arts that gave you this puffed-up idea of yourself? — though if you had even a modest mastery of any of them you would not be so devoid of all traces of humanity.” (1.24.2) “The erudite and upright generally consign their thoughts to writing and do not conduct debates on the truth by means of disgraceful insults but with useful writings.” (1.24.4) Pot, meet kettle :))

He apparently spent some time in Rome, working for the church, but eventually left in disgust at the level of corruption he saw there. He gives an interesting and frank description of this in two letters from 1484, to Lorrenzo de' Medici (2.4) and to Bernardo Rucellai (2.5). See esp. 2.4.2&ndash3, 2.4.6–7, 2.5.5–6. “By God in heaven and our lord and master Jesus Christ, what powers of oratory would be equal to describing the vices of this [papal] court?” (2.4.2) “I could see that here no account was taken of either right living or true knowledge. [. . .] men here who dress in sheep's clothing and behave like ravening wolves [. . .] Their greed and wantonness can never be satisfied.” (2.5.5)

2.7 — an interesting letter about the discovery, in the April 1485, of a remarkably well-preserved corpse of a young girl from the Roman era. I was really looking forward to this letter as it's even mentioned in the publisher's description on the front flap of the dust jacket; however, I was a little disappointed as it goes into less detail than I had hoped for. On the plus side, Fonzio actually made a drawing of the corpse and its sacrophagus, which is included in this volume on p. xviii.

Anyway, the amazing thing is how well-preserved it was: “rather pale and as if she had been buried that very day [. . .] small ears, a short forehead, dark eyebrows, the eyes beneath shapely and bright. The nose was still intact, and so soft that if it was pressed by a finger it would flex and yield. The lips were a pale red, the teeth snow-white and small, the tongue from the roof of the mouth all scarlet. The cheeks, chin, neck, and throat — you'd think they belonged to a living person.” I find this hard to believe, TBH; I wonder what really happened. The only hint of a possible explanation appears early in the letter: the corpse was “lying on its face, covered by a layer of fragrant bark two inches thick; all of the inside of the casket was likewise smeared with the same fragrant mixture like some sort of plaster”. Fonzio says that her name and the period in which she lived are unknown as no inscriptions were discovered on the tomb. “Two days after it was found, by order of the Conservators it [= the corpse] was taken to the Capitol amidst vast throngs of people”, but unfortunately Fonzio doesn't say anything about the subsequent fate of the body.

Several other contemporary authors mention this event; the translator's note 18 on p. 209 recommends a suitably obscure 19th-century German paper: Christian Hülsen, “Die Auffindung der Römischen Leiche vom Jahre 1485”, Mittheilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung 4(1883):433–49. (To be honest, it isn't that obscure — the journal appears to have been scanned by Google at some point and you can find it on Or if you feel like you have too much money, Messrs. de Gruyter will be happy to sell you access to another scan of this article for a mere 30 euros! :)))) In any case, my German is a bit too rusty to read Hülsen's article, and he quotes the text of the original descriptions of the corpse in Latin, which I don't understand at all, so I had to look for some other source. A bit of googling led me to Rodolfo Lanziani, Pagan and Christian Rome (1892), pp. 295–301 — see this excellent web page; Lanziani includes Fonzio's drawing as well as generous extracts from three other contemporary descriptions. This event is also mentioned in Symonds's Renaissance in Italy (Vol. 1, The Age of the Despots, ch. 1).

2.10 — the senate of the Republic of Ragusa offered Fonzio the job of a professor there; he was pleasantly surprised by this as he hadn't actually been asking for anything of that sort. In this letter, he politely refuses their offer. I found this episode interesting as an example of the strong ties between Dubrovnik and Italy during that period.

There are several letters to various Hungarians, including some to king Matthias Corvinus himself. The king was trying to establish a new library and Fonzio prepared for him “a book listing all authors, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, in every field of learning, which I have compiled with considerable labor and care, so that you can see how the library should be arranged” (2.13.1; from a later passage in the same letter it appears that Fonzio also helped organize the copying of some books in Florence). I wonder if Fonzio's list is extant and published somewhere; unfortunately I didn't notice anything about this in the translator's notes.

2.19 — a perfectly decent letter but one that becomes funny when read by an incurable pervert like myself. A friend is asking Fonzio for help with finding a suitable servant, and Fonzio's reply makes him sound like a high-class pimp: “I have looked and do still look with all energy and persistence for a youth such as you seek, one fitted for reading, writing, serving, and carrying out all your orders. But there's a remarkable shortage of such young men here [. . .] I'll press on, however, with the gramar schools, I'll investigate the households of citizens, I'll write to all the nearby towns.”

The letters in this collection cover a span of more than 45 years. Of course, a lot happens in such a long period, which led to a few touching moments: in letter 1.20, we see Fonzio writing (in 1480) to the head of the monastery which his younger brother Mauro had just entered; and then in letter 3.1, written in 1506, a much older Fonzio mentions with some regret the recent death of Mauro and several other friends and relatives. For the reader these two letters are separated by a couple of days, by a few dozen pages — and yet behind this there was twenty-six years, long enough for poor Mauro to live out the bulk of his life, and to die.

There are several letters on theological subjects ahd church politics, mostly written late in his life, after he had become a priest (see e.g. 3.4, 3.5, 3.9). In 3.5.7, he refers to Dante approvingly as “that fine poet and great theologian”.

3.8 — a nice overview of various ancient Roman units for distance, area, weight, etc. I don't doubt that all this stuff is already written up in a Wikipedia article somewhere, but I'd never read it there so I found this letter quite interesting. The Romans appear to have delighted in unnecessarily inventing lots of specialized terminology for this: “A triens is a third of an as or four ounces, a quincunx five ounces, a semissis half an as or six ounces, a septunx seven ounces.” (3.8.9)

3.12 — an interesting letter on how to become an eloquent orator. Fonzio presents all this as a quotation of advice given to him by his old teacher, Bernardo Nuti; I liked his sober ideas about avoiding excessive reliance on the rhetorical theory and imitation of classical authors. This was like a breath of fresh air compared to the unreasonably extremist positions about which I read some years ago in the ITRL volume on Ciceronian Controversies. “The system, though it was devised by noting down the sayings and writings of the eloquent, does not in itself make men elouent [. . .] Whether they had earlier learned such rules or had never come across them, they never thought of them when they were speaking.” (3.12.7) “[I]t is better, safer and more laudable for a talented writer to trust in himself and not tread in another's footsteps.” (3.12.16) His recommended approach sounds a bit romantic: “There's no briefer or easier way than a burning love of virtue and a noble thirst for glory [. . .] keep this always at the forefront of your mind, attentively rereading for yourself all the authors that may guide you to eloquence, finding out and arranging in your own mind all that they write” (3.12.8).

A couple of the letters in this collection are basically fakes — written by Fonzio but not actually sent to their recipients: 1.18 (which is basically a short autobiography of Fonzio's early career, dated 1472 but apparently written some 20 years later, according to note 42 on p. 204), 1.19 (a discussion of the immortality of the soul, suitably full of theological wharrgarble, based on a theological book which Fonzio had written earlier in his career; see the translator's note 49 on p. 205).

There are a few glimpses into the mechanics of how letters were actually sent back then — as there was no postal service in the modern sense, it was up to the sender to find a messenger that would actually carry the letter. “Your letter reached me at Rome, but I decided not to write back since I had no messenger I could rely on” (1.16.1). “Though the importance of the matter calls for greater leisure and more prolonged examination, I shall use your same messenger to set out the whole question as best I can” (1.19.2). “Since leaving your country [Hungary], I have so far written you nothing because on the journey I had no one I could send to Buda” (2.13.1).

I was impressed by the editor's notes at the end of this book — Fonzio and the recipients of his letters lived around 500 years ago, and yet it has been possible to find quite a lot of detail about nearly all of them. The translator says on p. 193 that the notes are a condensed form of the notes in Daneloni's Italian edition of Fonzio's letters. Unfortunately, it appears that Daneloni died in 2014 (see this obituary) before he could finish the second volume of his edition (the first volume having been published in 2008). :(

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