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  • The Mutability of Poetics:Poliziano, Statius, and the Silvae
  • Dustin Mengelkoch

By 1480 Angelo Poliziano had been hard at work for at least five years composing a commentary on Statius's Silvae. It was a response to what he deemed an atrocious and deplorable effort at emending and commenting on the Silvae put out by his former mentor, Domizio Calderini, in 1475.2 Unfortunately, Poliziano never published his commentary—that took the extraordinary effort of Lucia Cesarini Martinelli nearly five hundred years later—and it was a substantial loss to Renaissance scholars that he was not able to do so.3 Within its confines, that is all 750 plus pages in the modern edition, it is a comprehensive unpacking of Statius's work that would not be rivaled until that of Kasper van Barth's three volume edition of Statius in 1664-65, which notably had the advantage of adducing Calderni's, Bernartius's, Morellus's, [End Page 84] Gevartius's, Cruceus's, and Gronovius's commentaries on the Silvae to produce five hundred plus pages of animadversiones on the Silvae.4 Excepting Calderini and Bernartius, each of these commentators were true viri Papiniani, absorbing and following the poetics displayed by Statius in the Silvae; Poliziano, especially.

It is remarkable to note, in fact, just how thoroughly Poliziano absorbed the poetics of this Silver Age Latin poet, an observation that has yet to be made seriously. The recondite and erudite nature of his Silvae appealed to Poliziano like no other, except perhaps the Alexandrians he paralleled in so many ways. Yet, it was Statius's genre-bending hybridity that presented an opportunity for enriching Poliziano's own multa et remota lectio (much recondite reading). Thus in Statius's Silvae, Poliziano found a model not only for his own Silvae but also his sense of poetics and poetic history.

Commencing, "magni nomen celebrare Maronis" ("to celebrate the name of the great Maro") in the first of his Silvae, Manto, Angelo Poliziano relates two remarkably similar tales, one of Orpheus and Achilles in the preface, and another of the goddess Nemesis in the introduction to the poem proper.5 Ostensibly anecdotes about a type of poetic translatio imperii et studii, the two display on a more fundamental level Poliziano's conception of evolution in the poetic process: Achilles's mimetic display harkens to the transfer of eloquence and classical inheritance expressed in Nemesis's glance from Greece to Rome via [End Page 85] Homer and Vergil, and now, presumably, to Florence.6 Since Poliziano now embodies these characteristics, he has become the vehicle through which adaptation of poetic alterity (i.e. historical, emulatic, and inherited contexts) and interpretation will occur. What I would like to put forward, then, is that Poliziano's use of the silva genre in a certain sense is precisely the arena in which he will express how the imitative literary traditions (primarily poetic) of Greece and Rome are now alive within his own work; and, in specific, that his perspective is extensively attuned by one author, namely, Statius. Throughout all four Silvae, Poliziano is openly concerned with imitation, inheritance and rivalry; his intense (and long-lived) scrutiny of Statius's Silvae in the Commento, Miscellanea, Oratio Super Fabio Quintiliano et Statii Sylvis and Libri epistularum, suggests that he develops these concepts in terms of how he sees Statius dealing with his own poetic belatedness, novelty and mutability in comparison with Vergil (Manto), Hesiod (Rusticus) and Homer (Ambra).7

Though the recent reliance on grammarians, such as Diomedes, Hermogenes, Priscian, Demetrius, and Quintilian, to explain Poliziano's sense of poetics is certainly valid, it should not eschew the importance of his engagement with the poets of Greece and Rome—especially, Homer, Callimachus, Vergil, and Statius—who occupy his formative years during the 1470s.8 It is Statius, in particular, who appears for Poliziano to serve as a way of introducing classical poetry from a perspective [End Page 86] which accounts for literary tradition in terms of its historicity and rivalry.9 Indeed, there is a somewhat nostalgic chronology to be seen by leading with the Oratio super Fabio Qunitliano et Statii Sylvis as his entrée to the Studio...


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