Following In Their Ink Stains

Angelo Poliziano, Letter to Paolo Cortesi:

I beg you, don’t bind yourself to that superstition which would allow nothing of your own to delight you, and force you never to turn your eyes away from Cicero. But when you have read Cicero and other good authors much and often, and have worn out their pages, learned them, cooked them down, and filled your heart with the knowledge of many things, and now you will prepare to compose something, it is now that I would have you swim without a life preserver (as they say). You should occasionally be your own adviser, and set aside that fretful and anxious solicitude of writing only Cicero – make a trial of your own strength! For those who only contemplate with astonishment those ridiculous things which you all call lineaments are neither able to imitate them well enough (believe me), and at the same time, they slow the action of one’s own intelligence, and as it were stand in the runner’s way and make (to use the expression from Plautus) a delay. But as one cannot run well if they strive only to place their foot in other people’s tracks, so no one can write well if they do not dare to depart from what has been written before. Finally, you should consider that it is the mark of an unlucky intellect to bring nothing forth of its own, but always to imitate others.

Angelo Poliziano

quaeso, ne superstitione ista te alliges, ut nihil delectet quod tuum plane sit, et ut oculos a Cicerone deicias. Sed cum Ciceronem, cum bonos alios multum diuque legeris, contriveris, edidiceris, concoxeris et rerum multarum cognitione pectus impleveris, ac iam componere aliquid ipse parabis, tum demum velim (quod dicitur) sine cortice nates, atque ipse tibi sis aliquando in consilio, sollicitudinemque illam morosam nimis et anxiam deponas effingendi tantummodo Ciceronem tuasque denique vires universas pericliteris. Nam qui tantum ridicula ista quae vocatis liniamenta contemplantur attoniti, nec illa ipsa (mihi crede) satis repraesentant, et impetum quodammodo retardant ingenii sui, currentique velut obstant, et(ut utar Plautino verbo) remoram faciunt. Sed ut bene currere non potest qui pedem ponere studet in alienis tantum vestigiis, ita nec bene scribere qui tamquam de praescripto non audet egredi. Postremo scias infelicis esse ingenii nihil a se promere, semper imitari.

We Deserve More Praise For Our Latin

Gianfrancesco Pico, Letter to Pietro Bembo:

To be sure, both Greek and Latin were effectively innate to the ancients, but we must seek these languages from their books, and thus we should receive a greater accession of legitimate praise for learning them. For they, even if they were unwilling, spoke Greek in Greece and Latin in Italy; but we Italians who speak Latin (not to mention Greek) have earned and acquired that skill through our industry. Thus it will happen that, should our age happen to get a fair judge of these matters, those who now speak even in a fairly middling way will be justly preferred to those outstanding champions of old, since the men of today, having had commerce with the Goths, Vandals, and the Huns, yet retain that ancient mode of speech worn down by so many centuries, or at any rate they attempt to retain it through continual imitation, in which pursuit there is perchance a marvelous – nay, even excessive mental subtlety.

Detail from one of the graffiti images

Lingua certe veteribus illis cum Graeca tum Latina quasi nativa adfuit, quam ab eorum libris petere nos oportet, quibus maior ea de re legitimae laudis accesio. Illi enim vel nolentes et in Hellade Graece et in Italia Latine loquebantur; nobis Italis qui Latine loquamur, nedum Graece, id nostra est partum et elaboratum industria. Inde fiet aequum rerum aestimatorem si sortiatur nostra aetas, posse eos qui nunc mediocriter loquuntur praecipuis illis et antesignanis iure praeferri, qui scilicet inter Gothos, Vandalos, Hunnosque versati priscam illam et tot saeculis abolitam dicendi rationem aut teneant aut tenere conentur imitatione continua, qua etiam in re mira subtilitas et forte nimia.

Politian on Polishing Tully’s Turds

Politian, Letter to Paolo Cortesi

I am sending back the letters collected by your diligence, in reading which (if I may speak freely) I am ashamed to have wasted some good hours. For, excepting just a few of them, they are hardly worth being said to have been read by a learned person or collected by you. I won’t explain which I approve and which I find fault with. I do not wish for anyone to be satisfied with himself or displeased with himself in these because of me. Yet, there is something in the style in which I must dissent from you. For, you are not (as far as I can tell) accustomed to approve of anyone unless they copy out Cicero’s path. But to me, the face of the bull or the lion seems far nobler than that of the ape, which is yet closer to that of the human. Nor, as Seneca has suggested, are those who are thought to have held the chief place of eloquence similar to each other. Quintilian mocks those who think that they are the brothers of Cicero because they close every period with these words: esse videatur. Horace inveighs against imitators who do nothing but imitate. In my opinion, those who only compose from imitation seem similar to parrots or magpies, which repeat things which they do not understand. The things which those authors write lack strength and vitality; they lack action, emotion, talent; their writings lie down, sleep, and snore. Nothing in them is true, solid, or effective. Someone tells me, You don’t express Cicero. So what? I’m not Cicero. Nevertheless, as I think, I express myself.

El Humanista Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) - Literatura

Remitto epistolas diligentia tua collectas, in quibus legendis, ut libere dicam, pudet bonas horas male collocasse. Nam praeter omnino paucas, minime dignae sunt quae vel a docto aliquo lectae vel a te collectae dicantur. Quas probem, quas rursus improbem, non explico. Nolo sibi quisquam vel placeat in his, auctore me, vel displiceat. Est in quo tamen a te dissentiam de stylo nonnihil. Non enim probare soles, ut accepi, nisi qui lineamenta Ciceronis effingat. Mihi vero longe honestior tauri facies aut item leonis quam simiae videtur, quae tamen homini similior est. Nec ii, qui principatum tenuisse creduntur eloquentiae, similes inter se, quod Seneca prodidit. Ridentur a Quintiliano qui se germanos Ciceronis putabant esse, quod his verbis periodum clauderent: esse videatur. Inclamat Horatius imitatores, ac nihil aliud quam imitatores. Mihi certe quicumque tantum componunt ex imitatione, similes esse vel psittaco vel picae videntur, proferentibus quae nec intelligunt. Carent enim quae scribunt isti viribus et vita; carent actu, carent affectu, carent indole, iacent, dormiunt, stertunt. Nihil ibi verum, nihil solidum, nihil efficax. Non exprimis, inquit aliquis, Ciceronem. Quid tum? non enim sum Cicero; me tamen, ut opinor, exprimo.

Forget Literary Fame

Petrarch, de sua ipsius multorumque ignorantia (III):

So things go: my studies, labors, and late nights have come to this point, that I who as a young man was accustomed to be called learned by some people, shall be found by deeper judgment to be an idiot as an old man. Perhaps I should grieve about it – but I must bear it. Perhaps I shouldn’t grieve about it, but I nevertheless must bear it, as one must bear everything which happens in human life: loss, poverty, labor, sorrow, tedium, death, exile, disgrace. Which, if it be false, is to be condemned: for it will find people to contradict it, and will fail as it goes. If however the disgrace is true, it should not be refused, as are other punishments invented for human faults. Indeed, I for my part will laugh if the true ornament of knowledge is taken away from me with words. But if the glory is false, I will not only bear the loss, but rejoice in it, being freed from my baggage and the laborious preservation of undeserved fame. It is better with the robber, when he puts off his unjust spoils, than when he enjoys his theft unpunished. One who deprives others of unjust possession can be more unjust, even if the repossession itself is just. As I said, for what bears on me, I approve not only the just sentence but also the unjust one, nor do I refuse any judge or thief.

Fame is a laborious and difficult thing, especially in literature. Everyone is vigilant and armed against it. Even those who are unable to hope for it themselves strive to take it away from others who possess it. One must ever have a pen in one’s hands. One must ever stand with an intent mind and erect ears. Whoever liberates me from this cares and this office with any proposition will earn my gratitude as my champion. Gratefully do I set aside the title of man of letters, whether it be true or false (certainly it was laborious and full of anxiety), because I remember the words of Seneca: this praise is garnered from a great expense of time and the horrible vexation of others’ ears: ‘O, man of letters!’ I should instead be content with this slightly more rustic title: ‘O, good man!’

Sic res eunt: huc et studia, et labores nostri, nostreque vigilie pervenere, ut qui iuvenis doctus a quibusdam dici soleo, profundiore iudicio senex ydiota reperiar. Dolendum forsitan, sed ferendum; forsitan nec dolendum, ferendum sane, ut reliqua omnia que hominibus accidunt: damnum, pauperies, labor, dolor, tedium, mors, exilium, infamia. Que si falsa est, spernenda est; nam et contradictores inveniet, et eundo deficiet; si vera autem, recusanda non est, ut nec alia culpis hominum inventa supplitia. Equidem, si scientie verum decus michi verbis eripitur, ridebo. At si falsum, non feram modo, sed gaudebo, non meis sarcinis excussus et indebite fame laboriosa custodia liberatus. Melius cum predone agitur, dum iniustis spoliis exuitur, quam dum impune furto utitur. Iniusti possessoris exclusor iniustius esse potest, at exclusio utique iusta est. Quod ad me attinet, ut dixi, non iustam modo sententiam, sed iniustam probo, nec iudicem quemlibet nec raptorem renuo. Operosa ac difficilis res est fama, et precipue literarum. Omnes in eam vigiles atque armati sunt; etiam qui sperare illam nequeunt habentibus nituntur eripere; habendus calamus semper in manibus; intento animo erectisque auribus semper in acie standum est. Quisquis quocunque proposito me his curis atque hoc fasce liberaverit, assertori meo gratiam habeo, et seu falsum seu verum, certe laboriosum ac solicitum literati nomen, quietis atque otii avidus, libens pono, memorans illud Annei: magno impendio temporum, magna alienarum aurium molestia laudatio hec constat. O hominem literatum! simus hoc titulo rusticiore contenti: o virum bonum!

F**k Aristotle

Petrarch, de sua multorumque ignorantia:

I think that Aristotle was a great and learned man, but also that he was just a human, and for that reason I think that there are some things – nay, many things, which he was unable to know. I would say a little more if it be allowed by those who are better friends to sects than to the truth. I believe, and by Hercules I don’t doubt it, that he went totally off the rails not only in small matters (in which a mistake is a small and hardly dangerous thing), but even in the greatest things which bear upon the key point of our health. And though he may have discussed many things concerning felicity in the beginning and in the end of his Ethics, I will dare to say – and my detractors may shout as they like – that he was so deeply ignorant of true happiness that any pious old lady, or fisherman, or faithful pastor, or farmer would be happier, and perhaps even more subtle, in their knowledge of it.

Ego vero magnum quendam virum ac multiscium Aristotilem, sed fuisse hominem, et idcirco aliqua, imo et multa nescire potuisse arbitror; plus dicam, si per istos liceat non tam veri amicos quam sectarum: credo hercle, nec dubito, illum non in rebus tantum parvis, quarum parvus et minime periculosus est error, sed in maximis et spectantibus ad salutis summam aberrasse tota, ut aiunt, via. Et licet multa Ethicorum in principio et in fine de felicitate tractaverit, audebo dicere — clament ut libuerit censores mei — veram illum felicitatem sic penitus ignorasse, ut in eius cognitione, non dico subtilior, sed felicior fuerit vel quelibet anus pia, vel piscator pastorve fidelis, vel agricola.

Living Too Long

Petrarch, On His Own Ignorance and the Ignorance of Others (III):

And alas, my friend! What suffering does an extended life not bring upon us? Whose prosperity was ever so firm that it did not occasionally change and, so to speak, grow old throughout their life? People grow old, their fortunes grow old, their reputations grow old – in short, all human things grow old. I never believed it, but in the end even our souls grow old, and the Cordovan poet’s line comes true: ‘A longer life destroys great souls.’ This is not because death follows the old age of the soul – its departure and loosening from the body, which we see and which is commonly called death, is certainly just the death of the body, not the soul.

Behold, my soul has bristled and grown old! Now I experience as an old man what, as an inexperienced youth I spoke of singing my pastorals: ‘What does long life bring to a person?’ With what soul would I have born this a few years earlier! With what efforts would I have resisted it? Believe me, it would have been a difficult war between my ignorance and the ignorance of my enemies. But to enter the contest now is as much more disgraceful as it is safer. I raise my hand, and my ignorance yields to theirs.

To be sure, I never read (perhaps conjecturing what remained to me) that story of Laberius without a certain compassion. When he had conducted his entire life in honest military service, he was led onto the stage by Julius Caesar’s prayers and flattery (which come forth armed from the mouths of princes), and he was degraded from a knight to an actor. He did not bear it in silence, but among his many other complaints, he lamented in these words: ‘I having lived sixty years without a fault, left my home a knight and will return an actor; indeed, I have lived longer than I should have by this one day.’

Image result for petrarch

Et heu! amice, quid non mali affert vita longior? Cui unquam tam firma prosperitas fuit, ut non quandoque variaverit et quasi vivendo senuerit? Senescunt homines, senescunt fortune, senescunt fame hominum, senescunt denique humana omnia; quodque aliquando non credidi, ad extremum animi senescunt, quamvis immortales, verumque fit illud Cordubensis: «Longius evum destruit ingentes animos». Non quod animi senium mors sequatur, sed discessus a corpore resolutioque illa, quam cernimus et que vulgo mors dicitur, et est mors corporis profecto, non animi. Senuit ecce refrixitque animus meus. Nunc experior senex quod iuvenis inexpertus et pastorium canens dixi: «Quid vivere longum fert homini?». Quo enim ante hos non multos annos hec tulissem animo? quibus nisibus obstitissem? Crede michi, bellum grave inter ignorantiam et ignorantiam fuisset. Nunc senem invadere eo turpius quo tutius; tollo manum, et mea illorum cedit ignorantie. Certe ego, quasi presagiens quid michi restaret, nunquam sine compassione quadam Laberii historiam legi; qui, cum vitam omnem honesta militia exegisset, sexagenarius ad extremum, Iulii Cesaris blanditiis ac precibus, que de ore principum armate prodeunt, productus in scenam, de romano equite factus est mimus. Quam iniuriam ipse quidem non tacitus tulit, imo multis interque alia his questus est verbis: «Ergo, bis tricenis annis actis sine nota, eques romanus lare egressus meo, domum revertar mimusque: nimirum hoc die uno plus vixi, michi quam vivendum fuit!».

Forget About Cicero and Pliny

Angelo Poliziano, Letter to Piero de’ Medici:

Perhaps someone will come about who will deny that these letters are Ciceronian. To him I would say (and not without authority) that in epistolary style, one should be utterly silent about Cicero. Someone else on the other hand will find fault with the fact that I emulate Cicero, but I will respond to this that nothing would be more in my hopes than that I could follow the shadow of Cicero. Someone else may wish that I had more of the flavor of Pliny, because both his maturity and learning are praised. But I, on the other hand, would say that I despise all of Pliny’s generation. But even if I may seem to some to have the flavor of Pliny, I will defend myself thus: Sidonius Apollinaris, not by any means a terrible author, gave Pliny the prize for his letters. If I seem to anyone to recall Symmachus, I will not be ashamed, since his brevity and roundness and celebrated. If I seem, on the other hand, to be entirely separate from Symmachus, I will say that his style is too dry for me.


Occurret aliquis forsan qui Ciceronianas esse neget: huic ego dicam (nec sine auctore tamen) in epistolari stilo silendum prorsus esse de Cicerone. Rursus alius hoc ipsum culpabit, quod aemuler Ciceronem: sed respondebo nihil mihi esse magis in votis quam ut vel umbram Ciceronis assequar. Optaret alius ut oratorem Plinium saperem, quod huius et maturitas et disciplina laudatur: ego contra totum illud aspernari me dicam Plinii saeculum. Sed etsi Plinium cuique redolebo, tuebor ita me, quod Sidonius Apollinaris, non omnino pessimus auctor, palmam Plinio tribuit in epistolis. Symmachum si cui referre videbor, non pudebit, ut cuius et brevitas celebretur et rotunditas. Abesse rursus a Symmacho si cui credar, negabo mihi siccitatem placere.