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Classics Reissued: On Exile

By (June 9, 2013) One Comment

Francesco Filelfo: On Exilefillefo

Jeroen De Keyser (editor), W. Scott Blanchard (translator)

I Tatti Renaissance Library

Harvard University Press, 2013


Editor Jeroen De Keyser and translator W. Scott Blanchard, in their Introduction to the latest I Tatti Renaissance Library addition, make an arguable but refreshingly bold claim: “No text better illuminates the relationship of the Italian humanists to the literary and philosophical heritage of the classical world than Francesco Filelfo’s Commentationes de exilo.”

The claim is arguable because Filelfo’s Commentationes faces some mighty fierce competition, on those specific grounds, including works far better known to the general reader than that of a now-obscure 15th century Greek scholar. But the shining worth of Harvard’s I Tatti Library side-steps the question of superlatives with one yet more astonishing fact: this is the first complete version of the Commentationes that’s ever been printed – not just in an English translation, but in any translation, or even in its original: the ur-text for this edition is a handwritten 15th century codex. While we might deny Filelfo the pinnacle of Italian Renaissance humanist letters, the fact that his signature work hasn’t received a complete scholarly edition until the Year of Our Lord 2013 speaks volumes about the need for I Tatti.

The need for Filelfo – beyond the simply historical, which is need enough in one sense – is a harder case to make, and Keyser and Blanchard do an avid job trying. Keyser’s notes are unobtrusively sweeping, and Blanchard’s translation, his creation of “On Exile” from the Commentationes, is a thing of understated wonder, smoothing out the over-elaborate late medieval stuffiness of Filelfo’s Latin just enough to let its many rhetorical attractions shine through. Even if Filelfo had had previous editions – ever – it’s hard to imagine this one not being the best.

The state of neglect into which his reputation has fallen would have irritated Filelfo, but then, almost everything irritated him. Born in 1398, he trained in the literary arts under Gasparino Barzizza in Padua, spent six years in Constantinople (where he perfected his rare knowledge of ancient Greek), and, as Keyser puts it, “never spent much of his extremely productive career far from the elites who underwrote the cultural program of the Italian Renaissance.”

He moved to Venice in 1427, then to Bologna, then to Florence, alienating people left, right, and center as he went, “by flaunting his capacities as a Hellenist and engaging in the nasty one-upmanship that was an all-too-familiar feature of early Italian humanism.” In Florence he fell afoul of Cosimo de’ Medici (at one point he had his face slashed by Medici henchmen) and sided with the factions that drove the godfather of Renaissance power-politics into exile in 1433. When the Florentines somewhat predictably found themselves pining for the man who could make the trains run on time and recalled Cosimo in 1434, Filelfo and his fellow factionaries – including Palla Strozzi, Rinaldo degli Albizzi, and Ridolfo Peruzzi – were forced to flee the city in their turn. Filelfo sheltered in the Milanese territory of the Sforza dukes and only returned to Florence in 1481, the last year of his life, to join the court, ironically enough, of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Given his preternaturally fast spin-cycle on the Wheel of Fate, it’s no surprise that the scholar from the sticks was preoccupied with the nature of nobility, on whether it was inherent – and inherited – or something that could be earned (not to say bought). It’s a central question debated by the speakers in the “On Exile” dialogue, quasi-fictional representations of Strozzi, Albizzi, Peruzzi, and Filelfo himself, although as Keyser points out, Filelfo’s ideas on the subject were, shall we say, flexible: “Filelfo, apparently, adhered to the older conception of nobility, but then again he did so as an individual who derived his salary and hire from aristocratic patrons whom he had no trouble telling what they wished to hear. “

The Commentationes has, like other prose works by Filelfo, a miscellaneous character,” Keyser tells us, “and he can be faulted for allowing somewhat sophomoric humor and scurrilous slander to jostle alongside more profound philosophical inquiries into the nature of human happiness.” But only a scholar could think so – in fact, the sophomoric humor and scurrilous slander (conveyed in such a lively fashion by Blanchard throughout) are the main props most 21st century general readers will need to sustain them through the blizzard of classical allusions to which all Renaissance humanists were addicted. And joining that sophomoric humor and scurrilous slander is a sensitivity to human drama that’s fairly remarkable coming from an author who was apparently the most irritating person of his entire era.

Keyser observes: “Modern readers may be surprised to discover how closely the humanistic tradition adheres to teachings that we associate with psychotherapy, in particular the efficacy of talk or discussion in providing a remedy for psychological pain.” He’s certainly right: all through the Commentationes we can see Filelfo working through the burning personal confusions of exile. But the book is all the more fascinating for ranging freely beyond such a sore spot, giving us many digressions and quite a bit of the lively humor later perfected by such Filelfo heirs as Aretino and Erasmus.

And underneath the political obsessions and internecine scholarly squabbling, there’s the bedrock humanist faith in the saving power of literature itself. Epically irascible as he was, Filelfo puts his battered faith in that:

Leonardo: Your entire discourse pleases me, Palla, and in particular the part where you expounded for us doctrines from the outstanding philosophical schools I have certainly always thought you were a great and wise man. But, to tell you the truth, I did not suppose that you had mastered in such detail, and with such learning, what the most penetrating philosophers discovered with their great leisure and enormous efforts.

Palla: Do not be surprised, Leonardo. Have you forgotten what Philolaus is reported to have said: some discourses are better than we are?

Filelfo’s torturous, incredibly learned thrashing-out of the nature of a homeland – and the nature of men worthy to have one – has perennial relevance, regardless of what a carping factotum the author himself may have been. A Renaissance figure known in his own day to all scholars and now known only to scholars, Filelfo and his greatest work at last get a printed book, stocked in bookstores for a season. Readers should be grateful to I Tatti for the sharp, unassuming brilliance of this edition – even though the author himself would probably only have complained. Maybe the powder-blue dust jacket would have set him off  – who can tell?