Book Review: Letters to Friends
Bartolomeo Fonzio (translated by Martin Davies)
Harvard University Press, 2011
I’m hardly the first to say it, but it bears repeating anyway: the I Tatti Renaissance Library of the Harvard University Press is a magnificent publishing endeavor. The handy volumes – each in their sky-blue dust jacket, each with facing-page translations – have already expanded in number to form a tight-packed bookshelf of carefully-tended Renaissance texts the like of which has never been available in English before, and there’s no end in sight. A great era of scholarly rebirth is finally getting the great library it’s always deserved – and readers limited to English are seeing titles and authors they never even knew existed.
The I Tatti Library has one major disadvantage not felt by its century-old sister-series, the mighty Loeb Classical Library: it often lacks the sanctity of long renown. Ask a well-educated reader to name ten authors of classical Greece and Rome, and there won’t be a problem – by the time they’re done with Homer and the playwrights, they’re half-way home. But ask that same well-educated reader to name ten authors of the Renaissance, and perhaps there’s a little hemming and hawing. Machiavelli, yes, everybody gets him. Boccaccio. Petrarch. Castiglione, perhaps? Didn’t Michelangelo do some writing? An earlier generation might have added Benvenuto Cellini. But it’s safe to say that giants like Marsilio Ficino and Pietro Bembo will wait a long time before they get called. Sic transit, etc.
The problem runs deeper than popularity; the discretion of millennia is missing too. The I Tatti Library isn’t so much representing a tradition as it is building a canon, and that always means asking, Who’s in? Who’s out? The explosion of learning and writing in the fourteenth century gave rise to dozens of titans – and hundreds of pygmies. I Tatti’s guiding editorial principle is clearly the same as Loeb’s: sooner or later, include everybody.
So we welcome Bartolomeo Fonzio, prince of pygmies, to a new and broader English-language readership he at no point in any way merits. Fonzio (1447-1513) was an on-again off-again professor of poetry at the Studio of Florence, where he spent most of his time pursuing petty vendettas against his betters (the most egregiously persecuted was Angelo Poliziano, but since he gets a couple of his own volumes in I Tatti, he’s none the worse for wear). Fonzio lectured and wrote on Persius, Valerius Flaccus, Livy, and Juvenal, and he created a short gazetteer called the Annales suorum temporum that has been of some use to historians. His Epistolarum libri, the sixty letters he lovingly assembled (and liberally re-wrote), spanning from 1467 to 1513, have in this latest I Tatti volume been translated by Martin Davies and edited and annotated with strenuous bravery by Alessandro Daneloni.
There’s only so much he can do here. He tells us that the letter Fonzio wrote to his friend Battista Guarini on the death of Guarini’s wife Bettina is “clearly inspired by real emotion and sympathy for his friend’s grief” – but the letter itself is a pallid imitation of a pallid imitation of Plutarch (Daneloni says “many of the themes” “derive,” but the thing is basically cribbed from start to finish), in which he sententiously warns his friend against an excess of grief before the wife’s body is cold. Our editor writes that “Fonzio’s support for the message and program of radical moral reform of Girolamo Savonarola (in whose defense he appears to have written an openly apologetic work) did not undermine or weaken his admiration for and profound attachment to the studia humanitatis and their educational value” – without informing us how this contortion was achieved, since Savonarola hated the studia humanitatis and personally destroyed God knows how many ancient texts that had survived fifteen centuries until he came along. Daneloni assures us that Fonzio “forcefully expresses his call for radical renewal of the Church,” but it’s unclear whether this call happened before or after Fonzio earnestly wrote to the Pope’s secretary recommending to a lucrative priesthood a candidate of “outstanding character” who happened to be ten years old.
No, Fonzio was a fraud, the worst kind of humanist huckster, as lickspittle as a Chihuahua and as derivative as a dictionary. His works don’t deserve to survive in a world bereft of the Botticellis his bonfire-friendly hero incinerated. Alessandro Daneloni has created for I Tatti the definitive English-language edition of the “Letters to Friends,” and readers owe him thanks for that. But they don’t owe Fonzio anything, least of all an afternoon’s reading-time.