Book Review: Angelinetum and Other Poems
by Giovanni Marrasio
translated by Mary P. Chatfield
The I Tatti Library of Harvard University Press, 2016
Mary Chatfield, former Head of the Classics Department at Boston’s Commonwealth School, presents for the I Tatti Library of Harvard University Press an important new volume: the poems and letters of 15th century Italian humanist Giovanni Marrasio, gently but firmly supplanting the critical edition issued by Gianvito Resta in 1976. It’s a quietly impressive achievement; all future studies of Marrasio will need to touch on this one.
The poet was born somewhere between 1400 and 1405 in Noto, in southern Sicily, and in the course of a fast, active life (he died in 1452) he studied at Siena and then Florence before trying Ferrara under the rule of Leonello d’Este in the 1430s and 1440s. Marrasio had studied medicine, but his hope was always to attract a powerful patron for his art. He wrote poems (including startlingly good homages to the traditional Roman elegy), elaborate masques, and entreating tributes to the great and powerful – as well as scolding letters to old friends, basically asking them for tips about prospective paymasters:
I would like to know from you what it is that has effaced me from your soul. For, although I send letters to you very often, you seem to do nothing about them; I don’t know why that is so. You might explain your good fortune to me; so help me God I would delight in it as if it were mine. You eat up all my life with your silence, you ruin and destroy me. Introduce me to everything from the beginning – what life you are leading, under what sky you are living, in whose household and for what prince you are writing – don’t shut me out of your plans and desires.
This volume includes both his long love-paean “Angelinetum,” his collected poems (later dubbed Carmina Varia), and his epistolary poems, in which he both indulges in the self-pity such poems stylize to a high art:
If I am not to be resurrected, having glimpsed your divinity,
Nothing beneath the earth could be more cruel to me.
I have seen the lower kingdoms and the gods of Tartarus
And what they do: the whole troop was near me.
I make nothing of what is to be feared under the earth;
Such things are more tolerable than the whips I’m used to …
And also the occasional burst of good-natured humor, as in the verses he sent to Tommaso Parentucelli, Pope Nicholas V, rejoicing that he’d recovered (temporarily, as it happened) from a persistent fever:
Laugh, Holy Father; poems worth a laugh are a delight;
A while ago God laughed reading these words,
And he banished my imminent death and spared my life;
My fever was cast out and my former health restored.
In her fascinating introductory essay, Chatfield interprets what little biographical information we have about Marrasio and uses it to paint a picture of a likable loser, a striving poet constantly trying to attract the favor of the wealthy and powerful and constantly failing. The poet himself seems to point ruefully to his lowly backwater Sicilian origin as some kind of social stain, even though townsmen and classmates of his went on to achieve positions that eluded him. The essay is in its own way a major attraction of the volume, subtle and energetic, although perhaps not all readers will be convinced. Reading through the Carmina Varia, it’s possible to discern a slightly different Marrasio, not an underdog striver but something of a flat-footed imposer, an overreacher, perhaps a man who excelled in making bad impressions at just the moment when good impressions counted the most.
The curious magic of the verses translated here is that either construction enhances the pity of the poet; in either case, readers are left with no path to a happy life for Giovanni Marrasio, he of the failed opportunities, the wife and child dead of plague, the eventual return to Noto, the wheedling, fruitless letters to men who ended up hiring other poets. It’s touching story either way, tragedy or fate, and it makes the appearance of this volume all the more welcome. Here is Marrasio seen as clearly as we’re likely ever to see him.