- Lyric Poetry, Etna, and: Humanist Comedies
Perhaps because modern scholarship on Italian humanism has been so heavily dominated by intellectual historians, we are apt to forget that the literary interests of many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanists included genres that we would today consider "imaginative," or even recreative. Now that Ronald Witt, a major scholar of humanism, has in an important study (In the Footsteps of the Ancients ) redirected our attention to the central role that poetry and poetics played in early humanism, it is appropriate that the I Tatti Renaissance Library has issued editions of the Silvae of Angelo Poliziano (ed. and trans. Fantazzi) and, now, the poetry of Pietro Bembo. Both were later humanists for whom poetry stood at the heart of the humanist enterprise. Similarly, the appearance in this series of an edition and translation of five comedies composed by the humanists Vergerio, Alberti, Pisani, Piccolomini (Pius II), and Mezzo helps to demonstrate that imitation of classical authors reached into nearly every genre of the ancient world, not just forms — such as the dialogue, letter, and oration — that became the privileged forms of humanist expression.
Mary Chatfield's translation of Bembo's Carminum libellus relies on the 1990 text established by the Italian scholar Rosanna Sodano. Through these poems we encounter the work of a precocious young man whose personality indulged feelings that were decidedly un-Platonic; the persona that most readers are familiar with from the closing of Castiglione's Il Cortegiano is nowhere here present, except perhaps in some of the more serious poems addressed to specific persons, whether [End Page 836] as epitaphs or celebratory verses. The most interesting poems in this collection are those that blend Virgilian pastoral with Renaissance eroticism, and those that invent mythopoetic origins for Bembo's local world; they display a mature classicism less mannered than the erudite constructions of Poliziano (for whose pectora docta Bembo wrote an epitaph included in this collection), more at ease in the idioms of classical epigram and elegy. Ever the student of Virgilian poetics, Bembo strove in these youthful works to imitate his favorite classical poet in both his mythopoetic narrative poems ("Benacus" and "Sarca") and his erotic "Faunus" poems, since he most likely considered Virgil to have been the author of the Priapean corpus of poems familiar to him from the Aldine edition of 1517.
Chatfield's translations are for the most part accurate renderings, but they are occasionally too literal, and in some cases have missed the wit of certain passages. For example, in one of the erotic "Faunus" poems ("Faunus Speaks to the River Nympeus"), the word spina is clearly meant to be taken as a bawdy anatomical euphemism. Chatfield's rendering of ll. 21–22, "At mihi tum mediae saliunt tentigine venae, / Surgit et in cornu spina recurva suum" — "And then from its center my member leaps up, outstretched, / And my spine, curved back, rises toward my horn" — misses the meaning of spina as a "stalk," and only gets half-right a more common classical euphemism in the expression media vena. I would render the lines as follows: "And then that vessel amidst my loins leaps up in an erection, / And my prick, bent back toward its crown, rises up." This renders more accurately Bembo's lines, while a greater emphasis on this physical process makes more accessible the clever terminology of the subsequent lines (where the aging Faunus acknowledges that he has perhaps made too great an issue of such a small matter as his inability to allure the young lovers who cavort around him — a cognitive analogue to his body's physiological response of making great things [magna] out of small [parva]). One senses here too much restraint in translating the sexual material...