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Poets and Princes: The Panegyric Poetry of Johannes Michael Nagonius by Paul Gwynne (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 196-197 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0070

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Some years ago, searching for Latin topographical poetry on Rome c. 1468-1513, I was fascinated and frustrated alike by BAV, MS Vat. lat. 1682, a luxurious vellum manuscript dedicated to Julius II. Originally covered in red velvet, it contains eight books of Nagonius's poems, not to mention a magnificent frontispiece in red, green, and lapis lazuli, and an illuminated depiction of Julius II and his nephew in a triumphal chariot all'antica (Plates 7 and 6). I found my long passage of topographical verse in the three-book epic with which the manuscript begins, but did not get very far in understanding its context. Not much has been known about Nagonius for a long time. If I had then been able to consult Paul Gwynne's Warburg Institute PhD thesis (1990), the basis of this excellent book, I would have learned that the topographical description had been included in many earlier versions of the epic, the first surviving being for Maximilian I (1494).

The aim of Gwynne's study is to understand Nagonius's work in multiple contexts: literary, historical, and political. In Part I, he attempts to reconstruct the poet's career, for which there is very little independent evidence, and some deliberate disinformation (the invention, in the later part of the sixteenth century, of a fictitious rival, 'Pingonius'). Part II (in eight chapters) treats the works in chronological order: that is, the eleven versions of the epic from 1494 to 1509 presented to a range of eminent dedicatees, and some other compositions. Part III contains edited excerpts with translations, commentary, and explanatory notes from these works (sadly for me, no topography) and a detailed Catalogue of manuscripts and printed books by Nagonius.

None of Nagonius's works was printed in his lifetime, and none seems to have circulated independently. Tailored for the specific occasions of their presentation, in both appearance and content, once accepted, his carmina were lodged in the dedicatees' libraries and some 'have remained part of the library of the court for which they were intended' (p. 14, n. 7; cf. p. 60, n. 75). This partly explains how Nagonius was able to recycle his mini-epic (it gradually grew from one to three books) and other verses to make them fit the series of different dedicatees who received them. For example, Maximilian, the hero of the 1494 version dedicated to the same, becomes the exemplary villain of that dedicated in 1497 to Vladislav II, King of Bohemia and Hungary. The manuscript presented in person to Henry VII in London in 1496 belongs to a diplomatic effort to bolster resistance to French expansion in Italy under Charles VIII but, after Charles's death and the accession of Louis XII in 1499, Nagonius expanded his narrative to celebrate Louis's expedition against Milan. Gwynne comments: 'These manuscripts were never intended to be compared' (p. 138).

It appears that from the early 1490s, Nagonius's ability to compose competent Latin verse in the manner, and sometimes the very words, of the ancient poets provided him with a career. But what sort of a career? Though he proudly signs himself poeta laureatus, he was not remembered as a poet (he is missing from L. G. Giraldi's Modern Poets (1551), for example). The reason is not that he wrote panegyric. His contemporaries understood panegyric. Indeed one of the strengths of Gwynne's book is his running 'apology' for panegyric (esp. Chapter 2), usefully presented as occasional poetry tied to the events it describes and celebrates, 'an important ceremonial genre' (p. 59). Not a poet but a pen in search of a patron? Or one in the service of high diplomacy? Raising the question, Gwynne can point to an association with Cardinal Todeschini-Piccolomini (later Pius III) but there is little evidence, and Nagonius never mentions a papal appointment.

This book for the first time presents Nagonius whole. The considerable labour of reading and meticulously analysing everything Nagonius wrote, in conjunction with the manuscripts' physical formatting, has enabled Gwynne to identify and exploit the contemporary references in the poems. These, in turn, allow many interesting excursions into contemporary history and culture. In the version for Henry VII, for...

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