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Book Review: Dialogues of Pontano

Dialogues, Vol. I (Charon and Antonius)

by Giovanni Gioviano Pontano

translated by Julia Haig Gaisser

I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2012

A flat-out stroke of luck landed 18-year-old Giovanni Pontano – a fatherless wastrel scholar from the hinterlands of Perugia – a spot on the staff of King Alfonso of Naples while he was campaigning and carousing in Tuscany in 1447. Pontano made sure not to leave anything else in his career to luck. The two became friends after a fashion, and more importantly, King Alfonso knew a useful man when he saw one. When he returned to his kingdom of Sicily in 1448, he took Pontano with him as an advisor, as an extra brain, as a source of good advice, and eventually as a tutor for his son, also named Alfonso. Thus Giovanni Pontano entered the Neapolitan kingdom of Aragon, where he would spend the rest of his life in the service of two masters: the state, and bonae litterae, the burgeoning world of Renaissance humanism.

For the former, he did all the things expected of sharp young intellectual: he composed and fair-copied dispatches, he reviewed the work of others, and he continued to clash wills and personalities with young Alfonso – profitably for both of them. Pontano became moderately wealthy in service to the House of Aragon, and when Alfonso married fiery Ippolita Sforza in 1465, Pontano served them both (no mean feat in an age when new wives disposed of their husband’s most influential advisors as a matter of simple housecleaning). Eventually, he became first minister of the state, and it’s in this capacity that he achieved his footnote in broader history: when the French army of Charles VIII conquered Naples in 1495, its leaders fled into exile – leaving Pontano the unsavory duty of handing over the fortress keys to the French when they arrived, his last act as minister (and a sign to many historical commentators of Machiavellian calculation).

But Pontano also served the Republic of Letters, and as Julia Haig Gaisser points out in her Introduction to the new I Tatti edition of the man’s works, “Pontano’s literary and intellectual accomplishments would be impressive even if we did not know of his heavy public responsibilities.” For when the young Pontano had entered Sicily with the king, he’d fallen into the company of the kingdom’s foremost writer and thinker, Antonio Beccadelli (nicknamed Panormita, as Pontano’s own nickname would be the Latinized Gioviano), and was thereby introduced to the thriving world of Neapolitan humanism. He wrote poems, he studied long-dead authors with the ardor of a religious convert, and he filled his elusive leisure time with intellectual work – translating, annotating, and keeping up a fierce and semi-public correspondence. Panormita’s circle of humanists was wonderfully contentious (the object of much of their friendly ire being none other than our old friend Lorenzo Valla and his patented firebrand controversies) but also wonderfully civilized, and after a little while, they developed a habit of meeting regularly to discuss reading and writing. These meetings took place first in the royal library and then, famously, outside – in a pretty arcade near Panormita’s house.

Humanists, as Gaisser aptly points out, “wanted not merely to read the ancient Latin authors, but to have the knowledge to understand their every nuance and to bring that understanding into the expression of ideas in their own fifteenth century world.” (In a line that won her my heart forever, she adds, “They wanted, paradoxically and impossibly, to turn themselves into native speakers of a dead language” – I’ve never seen the odd, ungainly, bookish longing of humanism put better than that).

It was in many ways a dream of learned discourse. The men were friends, and they gathered regularly over good food and good wine, and these were working gatherings, where participants were expected to bring prepared material – their latest stuff – for recitation and discussion. All was taken seriously, but there was a good deal of laughter. It was everything humanism should be but so seldom is.

Most likely it was for the gatherings of Antonio’s Portico that Pontano wrote his dialogues, the first two of which – the Charon and the Antonius – are presented in this I Tatti volume in facing pages of Latin (the first scholarly and thoroughly cleaned-up Latin edition of this stuff since Carmelo Previtera’s edition of 1943, and here subtly but unmistakably improved even on Previtera) and English (Pontano’s first translation into English). The Charon, written in 1469, features the mythical ferryman of the dead encountering, among other disreputable persons, Parisian sophists of the very latest type, prone to maddening etymological word-games:

“Listen, Charon, and learn.” “Good advice, friend,” says I, “for no one has ever learned enough.” “Learn this, then,” he says. “It’s a new one. What you’re sailing on, I say, is the Styx, but sticks are wood; therefore you are sailing on wood, not water.” This one had scarcely finished when also a fourth, annoyed at the previous disputant, said, “Hear me, too. You employ three hands, ferryman. For since an oar blade is called a palma (“hand”) and you row with three palms [palmis], you’re definitely using three hands.”

“Perhaps such stuff might seem bearable in boys when they are sharpening their wits,” the exasperated guide cries, “But who would put up with old men raving so outlandishly, especially ones discoursing on nature and god?”

The Antonius is named after Panormita in honor of his recent death (as Gaisser puts it, “The dialogue is set at the moment when the sodality is no longer Panormita’s but not yet Pontano’s”), and although that death hovers in the background of the whole thing (rather touchingly, the speakers can’t help referring to it), it’s far from somber: the members of the salon engage in lively banter as always, sometimes indulging in one of Panormita’s favorite gimmicks, hailing passersby and drawing them into impromptu discussions designed to spur debate (in later decades, when Pontano’s version of the salon had achieved widespread fame, passersby hoped to be picked for such accostings – but even in 1471, it must have been a good deal of fun). At one point a young man is questioned as to why he seems so happy. He responds that his bishop had been suffering from a big belly full of painful gas and had been convinced he was going to die:

… he spent nearly the whole night in groaning and lamentations while he prayed to the heaven dwellers for the remission of his sins and the tranquillity of life in heaven. At hand was a servant, not superstitious by nature. Tiring of the moans and prayers of the bishop, he said, “What is this madness of yours, father, to think that the saints will give you a piece of heaven, when they begrudge you even the slightest fart?” Taken with this witticism, the bishop burst out laughing and let loose his gut; and when it had been loosed into a thunderous crash from laughter, he was at one freed from his ailment.

The social satire – of the gourmandizing bishop, among many other victims – is relentless but comparatively genteel, and the best possible tribute to Pontano is that his dialogues still make entertaining reading (his poetry does as well; the lullabies he wrote for his adored little boy Lucio are among the most charming things in all of Italian literature). A large part of this entertainment is Gaisser’s doing – this is as shrewd and effervescent a rendering as poor forgotten Pontano is ever likely to get. It’s another triumph for I Tatti, a benchmark of Pontano studies, and a required starting-point for all future textual scholars of his work. But it mainly makes readers think about the vanities of intellectuals and the joys of good raillery. It would be a shame if it found its way only into the hands of scholars and students, even though Pontano himself would probably have preferred it that way.