Madness, Flies, and Domitian’s Pen

de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XXXII & XXXIII:

“At these times, when we are unable to employ our leisure outside, reading and books come to our aid. That is, unless we wish to indulge in sleep or to waste away in idle leisure, or even to imitate the custom of the Roman emperor Domitian, who on some days, at certain hours, would withdraw from the company of the world and hunt flies with his iron pen.”


“One of the imperial domestic servants once commented upon the madness of Domitian with a witty joke. At one time, when he was asked whether anyone was in the room with Domitian, the servant responded, ‘Not even a fly,’ as though the emperor had managed to kill them all with his pen.”

in hoc igitur tempus, cum nihil nobis per otium agere foris licebit, lectio librique succurrent. Nisi prorsus somno indulgere aut inerti otio tabescere volemus aut morem imitari Domitiani principis qui singulis diebus, certis horis, secretus ab omnibus stilo ferreo muscas insectabatur.


… eius ipsius Domitiani dementiam e cubiculariis unus urbano scommate notavit. Aliquando enim interrogatus, essetne quisquam cum Domitiano intus, respondit, ‘Ne musco quidem,’ quasi ille stilo suo omnes sustulisset.

Drink Your Vergil!

Pietro Bembo, Letter to Pico della Mirandola (1530)

We cannot say the same thing about Vergil, namely, that he is fit to be emulated by everyone who takes pleasure in his poems. For those who write elegies or lyric poems, or those who are held by an enthusiasm for writing comedies or tragedies, will find very little help from the Vergilian structure, meter, or poetic program. Rather, they should imitate those whom they consider to be the chief poets in each individual genre of writing, and should give themselves wholly to the project of following them and even overcoming them. To be sure, I myself have done this. In writing my elegies, I imitated the poet who seemed to me to be the best in that genre. But for the poet who commits himself to heroic verse, then surely Vergil is to be learned, drunk in, and expressed as much as possible, as I had once personally told you was my opinion on the matter.

Pietro Bembo - Wikipedia

De Virgilio vero non idem possumus dicere, ut idoneus sit, quem, qui carminibus delectantur, imitari omnes queant. Neque enim qui aut elegos aut lyricos conficiunt versus, quique vel comoediarum vel tragoediarum scribendarum studio detinentur, horum ullos Virgiliana carminum structura, numerus, ratio ipsa multum iuvabit. Sed imitentur ii quidem eos quos habent principes singulis in scriptorum generibus singulos atque illis assequendis superandisque dedant. Quod profecto nos aliquando fecimus, ut in elegis pangendis, qui optimus eo in genere poematis nobis visus est, eum imitaremur. Heroicis autem conscribendis carminibus qui se dederit, huic certe erit Virgilius ediscendus, ebibendus et quam maxime fieri poterit exprimendus, quemadmodum coram tibi dixeram mihi videri.

No Kidding!

Bartolomeo Scala, Whether a Wise Man Should Take a Wife (11):

Yet I think that it is pleasant to raise at home an heir, a palliative and comforter to the sufferings of old age. But there can be no better or more pleasant heirs than friends, whom you select – not ones whom you are compelled to have whether you will or not. Moses and Samuel preferred others to their own children, and they did not consider as their own children the ones whom they observed to be displeasing to God.

Though one hopes for the solaces of old age, most frequently we are objects of hatred, and people rejoice that we are dead more than they take comfort in our lives. I don’t want to follow up all of the inconveniences of having children, lest I become prolix and seem to write books to you rather than mere letters, especially since there are many things left which my little discourse here is hastening on to.

Bartolomeo Scala - Wikidata

Suave tamen credo est domi nutrire heredem senectutisque malorum levamen ac solatium. Sed nulli meliores ac suaviores esse possunt heredes quam amici, quos eligas, non quos velis nolis habere cogaris. Moses quoque ac Samuel filiis suis alios praetulerunt, nec habuerunt pro liberis quos ingratos esse Deo animadverterunt. Solatia vero cum exoptantur senectutis, frequentissime odio sumus, mortuosque magis gauderent quam vivos consolarentur. Nolo persequi omnes filiorum incommoditates ne sim longior et librum potius componere quam epistolam scribere ad te videar, praesertim cum multa restent ad quae festinat oratio.

Advice to a Scholar: Remember Everything!

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, LII:

“It is also very true that those who have sharper intellects have weaker powers of memory, and those who seize upon things quickly are less apt to retain them. Therefore, Cato’s plan seems particularly relevant to preserving and shoring up one’s memory. He used to say he would think over in the evening everything which he had done, seen, or read during the day, as though he were demanding an account ledger of his daily business; yet he did not want only an account of his business, but even of his leisure time! Thus we too, if we can, will take care to remember everything; if we fail in this, we should at least cling to those things which we have selected as especially important to ourselves.

sed et id quoque perplurimum verum est, acutiores ingenio minus valere memoria, et qui celeriter capiunt, retinent minus. Ad salvandam igitur confirmandamque memoriam, maxime affinis est illa Catonis ratio, qua uti se dicebat, ut quicquid egerat viderat legerat, vesperi commemoraret, tamquam diurni a se negotii rationem exigens, non modo qui negotii, sed et otii quoque volebat reddendam esse rationem. Ita igitur nos omnia quidem, si possumus, reminisci curabimus; si minus, ea saltem quae praecipua nobis delegimus, complectemur.

Groaning Under the Load of Scholarship

Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon:

“The renaissance, the spring-tide of modern life, with its genial freshness, is far behind us. The creative period is past, the accumulative is set in. Genius can now do nothing, the day is to dull industry. The prophet is departed, and in his place we have the priest of the book. Casaubon knows so much of ancient lore, that not only his faculties, but his spirits are oppressed by the knowledge. He can neither create nor enjoy; he groans under his load. The scholar of 1500 gambols in the free air of classical poetry, as in an atmosphere of joy. The scholar of 1600 has a century of compilation behind him, and ‘drags at each remove a lengthening chain.’ If anyone thinks that to write and read books is a life of idleness, let him look at Casaubon’s diary. Pope, during his engagement on Homer, used to be haunted by it in his dreams, and ‘wished to be hanged a hundred times.’ Vergil, having undertaken the Aeneid, said of himself that ‘he thought he must have been out of his senses when he did so.’ But of the blood and sweat, the groans and sighs, which enter into the composition of a folio volume of learned research, no more faithful record has ever been written than Casaubon’s ‘Ephemerides.’ Throughout its entire progress, the ‘ Animadversiones’ on Athenaeus was an ungrateful and irksome task, ‘catenati in ergastulo labores [the chained-up labors in the little workshop].‘ He can hardly open Athenaeus without disgust, and he prays God, day by day, that he may get away from such trifles to better reading.”

Image result for medieval scholar

Latin Scholarship and MURDER

Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship 1300-1850 (Chp. II):

“Poggio never strove after a Ciceronian style or even a grammatically correct Latin; he treated Latin as if it were a living language, and because of that we see him in the last years of his life at feud with the leading spirit of the next generation, Lorenzo Valla.

One day in 1451 Poggio found in a copy of the collection of his letters to Niccoli, of which he was very proud, some critical and ironical comments upon his Latinity, scrawled in the margin by a pupil of Valla’s; he got so angry with Valla, whom he suspected of being the author, that he tried to have him murdered, a dramatic refutation, had he succeeded, of Schopenhauer’s saying that ‘the history of . . . learning and art’ (in contrast to the universal history of the world) ‘is always going on . . . guiltless and without bloodshed.’ But Poggio finally confined himself to a form of retaliation more appropriate in a scholar, a literary invective. Valla, no less pugnacious, replied, and a war of pamphlets, five from each side, ensued, the arguments of which were of a general importance far beyond the trivial cause.”

Image result for poggio vs vallaImage result for poggio vs valla

Impermanence of Youth Etc. Etc.

Giovanni Marrasio, Angelinetum (6):

“Why do you rave, trusting too much in the boldness of youth? With a headlong dive, curved old age comes upon us. Look: the earth is not always clothed in green grass, nor is it always sun-scorched and firm; the land does not always bring forth golden and snowy colors alike along with the purple roses; the lilies often shine redolent with their gentle scent; often the sweet fruits weigh down their branches; the vine often gives us those sweet foods, the grapes. But take any tree you want – it doesn’t always have its fruits. Thus will beautiful, charming youth deceive you, though it’s now compliant with your desires.”

Botticelli, Primavera

Ad divam Angelinam.

Quid furis, audaci nimium confisa iuventa?

Praecipiti penna curva senecta venit

Aspice: non semper vestita est terra virenti

Gramine, nec semper solibus usta riget,

Nec semper rutilos producit terra colores

Et niveos pariter purpureasque rosas,

Lilia saepe nitent placido redolentia odore,

Saepe gravant ramos dulcia poma suos,

Dulces saepe cibos dat nobis pampinus uvas;

Non semper fructus quaelibet arbos habet.

Sic te decipiet formosa et blanda iuventus,

Quae nunc est votis obsequiosa tuis.

Reading Like a Scholar (i.e. Like a Boss)

Celio Calcagnini, Letter to Tommaso Calcagnini:

“For my part, whatever I read, whatever I think, I store it in the storehouses of my mind as if I were about to bring it forth for the use of human activity. And since I think that it is too difficult to excerpt everything separately, I put many things into a commentary, or write it separately on a little sheet. But in the margin, I make compendious notes, separate from the text, of everything which seems worth of some notice. If any of these things really stand out as particularly capital or excellent, I place them in the peak (or one might say the crown) of the margin. From this practice springs some utility, allowing me to reconsider several volumes within the space of an hour and a half. I once tried to wrangle Pliny’s Natural History into an epitome, since I always burned with wondrous desire for that author. But undoubtedly I acted the fool, because I ended up copying out almost everything in Pliny.”


Ego profecto quicquid lego, quicquid meditor, ita omne in arcanis animi recondo, quasi mox ad usum humanarum actionum expositurus. Et quoniam arduum nimis reor omnia seorsum excerpere, multa sane in commentarium refero, aut seorsum in pagella exscribo. Sed in margine compendiose omnia, quae digna sunt aliqua animadversione, sepono: quod siqua praestant, quasi coryphaea et optimatia in summa marginis coronide. Hinc ea mihi utilitas nascitur, ut vel sesquihora multa possim volumina recognoscere. Tentavi aliquando Plinii Naturalem Historiam in epitomen revocare, quando eius autoris mira semper cupidine exarsi: sed rem sine controversia ridiculam feci, qui omnem ferme Plinium exscripserim.

I Have Never Read Anything Worse

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. II

“Aldus was far more than a printer and bookseller; he rejoiced in rescuing the writings of the ancients from the hands of selfish bibliomaniacs, many of his texts were edited by himself, and he was honoured as a scholar by the foremost scholars of the age. One of the most generous of men, his generosity was appreciated by Erasmus, and by his own countrymen. The editor of the Prefaces to the Ediiiones Principes justly describes ‘the dedications of Aldus as worth all the rest; there is a high and a noble feeling, a self-respect, and simplicity of language about him which is delightful; he certainly had aspiring hopes of doing the world good’. He is probably the only publisher who, in the preface of a work published by himself, ever used such language as the following : — nihil unquam memini me legere deterius, lectuque minus dignum [I don’t recall ever reading anything worse or less worth reading in all my life.]. Such are the terms in which he refers to the Life of Apollonius by Philostratus; but he hastens to add that, as an antidote to the poison, he publishes in the same volume the refutation by Eusebius, translated by the friend to whom he dedicates the work. In the twenty-one years between 1494 and 1515, Aldus produced no less than twenty-seven editiones principes of Greek authors and of Greek works of reference. By the date of his death in 1515, all the principal Greek Classics had been printed. Before 1525 the study of Greek had begun to decline in Italy, but meanwhile an interest in that language had happily been transmitted to the lands beyond the Alps.”

Aldus Manutius - Wikipedia

Leonardo Bruni: Consummate Badass

Giovanni Marrasio, Angelinetum (Preface):

This book, Leonardo, I wished to inscribe with your name so that the title page itself could shine forth more all the more brightly. If the honor of Greek and Latin eloquence and whatever praise there is in the world is to be given to anyone, if the immortal fame of our ancestors is owed to anyone, then the highest glory remains for you. You fashion our earliest ancestors with excessive gravity, and you even overcome the ancients in your probity. Not only would the Latins say that they are in debt to you, but even the Greeks would cultivate you and yours. Latin speech converted to Greek holds no less of the Greek than Latin does, thanks to you. Aristotle, made Latin, speaks with a charming and ornate voice – he was a barbarian before! The Punic Wars, dead for so many years, live; Cicero lives; Plato does not die. Why should I recount the fact that you translated countless Greek books and composed the same number of your own? Through you came the light of Italy, through you the Muses came to Italy, through you the ancient words please us. Would that you would indulge, my dear Leonardo, my madness, whether it was madness or pain. Would that you would make a judgment about my poem, whether incense should cover it, or whether my little words are worthy of being read. If they were praised by a benign judgment, then any poet at all could rebuke me as much as he wanted. Don’t be afraid to respond to your tablets, whether in prose or poem. If you write back to me, I will think that the nine sacred spirits of the Muses came straight from the Aeonian fount. Indulge my furor, man of Arrezzo, whether it’s furor or pain. When new poets dared to contrive their songs in ancient times, the consulted the Apollinian fires. But now, I need not consult the Sibylline oracles, and even Phoebus can be despised in these verses: you will be my Sibyl, you will be my Apollinian sisters, you will be the Apollo and the Calliope to my pen.

Epic World History: Leonardo Bruni
“Yeah, that’s fuckin’ right!”

Hunc, Leonarde, tuo volui obsignare libellum Nomine, quo titulus luceat ipse magis. Si quoi dandus honos Grai pariterque Latini Eloquii et quicquid laudis in orbe fuit Si quoi debetur fama immortalis avorum, Arretine, tibi gloria prima manet. Effingis priscos nimia gravitate parentes Et superas veteres tu probitate viros. Non solum dicant tibi se debere Latini, Verum etiam Argolici teque tuosque colant. Non minus in Graium conversus sermo Latinus Quam Graium per te lingua Latina tenet. Eloquitur lepida ac ornata voce Latinus Factus Aristoteles: barbarus ante fuit. Punica bella diu tot in annis mortua vivunt, Rex Cicero vivit non moriturque Plato. Quid recitem libros te traduxisse Pelasgos Innumeros, totidem et composuisse novos? Italiae lumen, per te venere Camenae Ad Latium, per te dicta vetusta placent. Indulgere velis nostro, Arretine, furori, Sive sit ille furor, sive sit ille dolor. Iudicium facias nostro de carmine, sive Thura tegat, vel sint verbula digna legi. Quae si iudicio fuerint laudata benigno, Mordeat o quantum quisque poeta velit. Nec pigeat nostris te respondere tabellis, Sive velis prosa, carmine sive velis. Si mihi rescribes, Musas venisse putabo Aonio ex fonte et numina sacra novem. Indulgere velis nostro, Arretine, furori, Sive sit ille furor, sive sit ille dolor. Quando novi vates ausi sunt tempore prisco Carmina, Phoebeos consuluere focos; Nunc quaerenda meis non sunt oracla Sibyllae Versibus et Phoebus despiciendus erit: Tu Cumaea mihi, tu Phoebeaeque sorores, Phoebus eris calamis Calliopeque meis. Prefatio in Angelinetum explicit.