Book Review: The Battle of Lepanto
Edited and translated by Elizabeth R. Wright, Sarah Spence, and Andrew Lemons
The I Tatti Renaissance Library
Harvard University Press, 2014
Much to the chagrin of modern-day sociohistorians for whom the height of historical relevance can be found in the fluctuations in the molasses trade, it’s an inescapably awkward fact that sometimes great matters hinge on battles. And in October of 1571 large chunks of the world were rocked by one such battle: the battle of Lepanto, fought between the navies of the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lost badly, and their aspirations of Western expansion were checked. The shape of the 16th and 17th century history was radically altered by the striving and fighting and dying of that one afternoon.
Its renown reverberated, naturally, and that renown echoes in the latest volume from Harvard University Press’ I Tatti Renaissance Library, edited by Elizabeth R. Wright, Sarah Spence, and Andrew Lemons. The volume is called The Battle of Lepanto, and it deviates from the customary I Tatti template in that it’s not a translation of one work but rather an anthology of twenty-two short pieces by poets writing about some aspect or other of the Battle of Lepanto. “As news spread of a galley battle whose scale and intensity stunned even the most seasoned war veterans,” our authors write in their Introduction, “poets responded with a speed we associate today with journalists and bloggers.”
The comparison is apt in both good and bad ways; on the one hand, readers get the utterly fascinating experience of reading 16th century bloggers, and on the other hand, well, we’re not talking about Miltonic verse here – The Battle of Lepanto is the most carefully-curated collection of wretched doggerel since the last volume of Best American Poetry.
It’s tough to know whether or not I Tatti’s adherence to the Loeb Classical Library tradition of translating ancient verse into prose is a strength in this case. Given all the aforementioned doggerel, it might be a wise policy, although some of the examples on hand here seem not only cautious but deliberately uninspired. Take the example of Nicolo Paladino (“the poem featured here is the only notice we have of him,” we’re somewhat forlornly told), whose fragment “To those who died in the Holy War” reads in part:
Vivida vestra dedit virtus haec saecula in armis
Venturis omni veneranda nepotibus aevo.
Vos immortals mortali lege creatos
Dis miscent superis laurique et carmina vatum.
… which is, if not inspired, at least bouncy and perhaps not best rendered in this rather pallid paragraph:
This age will be praised by future generations forever, thanks to your remarkable strength in battle. The songs and laurels of poets will mingle you, made immortal by mortal law, with the highest gods.
Another poetaster in this collection (also otherwise virtually unknown to history) is Giovanni Canevari, whose “On Mustafa” commemorates the victims of Lala Mustafa, who butchered Venetians during the fall of Cyprus. Like a good many pieces in this volume, the virtuous dead are hymned for their bravery in ways that cannot help but strike 21st century readers as queasily familiar:
You, glorious souls, who once were allotted earthly bodies but now inhabit the kingdom of heaven: the work you did for your fatherland and your religion kept your country safe and flourishing. One world and an endless span of time will scarcely be enough for your fame. For the price of the one brief and turbulent lifetime, you have earned the reward of eternal life. Let the enemy envy the fame of your virtues; let him envy your blessed home in the ethereal light.
It’s a thoroughly encouraging thing, the appearance a composite volume like this in a series like I Tatti, an innovative collection built around at theme rather than an author. It brings the past into a kind of immediate, living focus that’s actually quite thrilling. It makes Lepanto news again.