- Antonio Beccadelli: The Hermaphrodite
“These little books—even as husbands with their wives—cannot please without a dick,” Martial programmatically declares toward the beginning of his oeuvre (1.35.4–5). In an attempt to top the Roman poet, the humanist Antonio Beccadelli (1394–1471), also known as Panormita (“the man from Palermo”), endowed his Hermaphroditus, a two-book collection of mainly obscene epigrams, with not one but two sexual organs: cunnus et est nostro, simul est et mentula, libro (1.3.3). Hailed by some, condemned, even burned by others, the Hermaphrodite [End Page 142] caused a great stir when it appeared in 1425–1426, and it would take over three hundred years until its first printed edition of 1790. Not only is this collection a fascinating testimony to the Nachleben of ancient erotica in the Renaissance, but it also played a key role in the development of modern sexual studies: its first commentator, Friedrich Karl Forberg, gathered numerous passages on sexual matters from Greco-Roman literature and published them as an appendix to his 1824 edition, thus incidentally creating the first handbook to ancient sexuality.
Holt Parker’s volume, which presents an English version of Panormita’s collection, associated letters, and poems together with an introduction and notes, is a welcome addition to the I Tatti Renaissance Library. His prose translation is, for the most part, commendable for its close adherence to the text, comparing favorably with the sometimes awkward rhymes and rhythms in Eugene O’Connor’s rendering (Lanham 2001). To give one example, from an invective against an ugly boy (1.19.7–10): si risum elicias, rictum inspicies sibi qualem/prodit in aestivo tempore cunnus equae;/si buccam olfacias, culum olfecisse putabis,/verum etiam culus mundior ore suo est is rendered by Parker as “Provoke a laugh and you’ll see a gape/like a mare’s cunt produces in summertime./ If you smell his mouth, you’ll think you’ve smelled his ass,/but even his ass is cleaner than his mouth” (O’Connor, 41: “Entice a smile, you’ll see instead a mouth/gape wide as a mare’s cunt in summer. The mouth’s/inside, should you smell it, you’ll think/an asshole—an ass, indeed, has far less stink”).
As appealing and accurate as Parker’s version generally is, his translation does contain a surprising number of mistakes (for a list of errata, see Gärtner’s review in BMCR 2011.03.03). One, not pointed out by Gärtner, appears in his rendering of an epigram from Aulus Gellius (19.11) quoted by Beccadelli in a letter to Poggio. The poem describes how a lover’s soul crosses over to his beloved in a kiss: . . . anima aegra et sautia/cucurrit ad labia mihi/rictumque oris pervium/et labra pueri mollia/rimata itineri transitus/ut transiliret nititur (v. 5–10). Parker (p. 117) translates: “. . . my soul, sick and wounded/ran to my lips/and the passage of my mouth/and to the soft parted lips of the boy/in its journey it crossed/and tried to jump across.” Strangely, Parker seems to have derived rimata (“searching”) from rima (“cleft, crack”) and referred it to the boy’s lips (“softly parted”), while understanding transitus (a plural accusative) as a participle dependent on the feminine (!) anima (note, too, that rictum and labra go with rimata, not the preposition ad).
It is also a bit surprising to see Parker’s low opinion of Panormita’s verse. In his introduction, he observes: “despite Valla’s praise of him . . . as the best poet of his age, he was not especially good” and “the main problem with Beccadelli is that he lacks wit” (xxvi). To be sure, the collection as a whole may not be on a par with the works of a Catullus or Martial, but many poems are funnier than Parker gives them credit for. Beccadelli’s description of how he was kept from composing an encomium on a...