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Le insidie Dell'allegoria: Ermolao Barbaro il Vecchio e la lezione degli antichi.

Maria Esposito Frank, Le insidie Dell'allegoria: Ermolao Barbaro il Vecchio e la lezione degli antichi

(Memorie della Classe di Scienze Morali, Lettere ed Arti, 88.) Venice: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 1999. viii + 133 pp. IL 28,000. ISBN: 88-86166-80-X.

Among the fields of study of classical antiquity explored in Renaissance Italy, none, perhaps, was the object of greater controversy than poetry. The Orationes contra poetas (ca. 1457) by Ermolao Barbaro the Elder (1410-1471), bishop of Verona and a member of one of the most illustrious families of Venice, contributed considerably to this controversy. The Orationes came into being as a confutation of a series of theses by a Paduan friar, Bartolomeo da Lendinara, who had argued that the myths incorporated in classical poetry were endowed with hidden verities about God and the universe, and that the ancient poets who formulated them were veritable theologians, who partook of divine inspiration. Barbaro replies that the ancient poets were devoid of any theological or divine qualities, because they had no knowledge of the true God, being engulfed, as it were, in a false religion. Indeed, the ancient poets were for the most part depraved individuals, who produced a poetry that, although eloquent and, at times, eve n erudite and philosophical, was nevertheless always marred with lewdness, obscenities, and falsehoods.

Frank notes that most of the critics who have treated Barbaro's Orationes have seen it as a denigration of pagan poetry that needed to be repudiated fully, lest it weakened the moral fiber of contemporary youth. She adds that her objective in this monograph is a reappraisal of Barbaro's work. in considering the Orationes she will move away from the restricted "orbita pedagogica umanistica" (10) pursued by other critics and concentrate instead on the historical, religious, and cultural forces that molded Barbaro's Orationes. Frank contends that Barbaro's work did not aim at a total rejection of classical poetry. Rather it sought to repudiate only two of its features: the dramatic genre and the mythology. But even in the case of these two subjects, the ire of the bishop, according to Frank, was not directed to classical theater and myths per se or to Bartolomeo specifically, but to the deleterious use that his contemporaries were making of these facets of ancient poetry. In fact, Barbaro was reacting to the cru de theatrical spectacles that prevailed in Italy at the time, theatrical spectacles which he believed had resulted from the misappropriation of the newly-rediscovered histrionic and mimetic practices of antiquity. As to the classical myths, Frank contends that Barbaro resented his contemporaries' practice of uncovering scriptural verities in the pagan imagery of the ancient world. Barbaro was convinced, Prank adds, that the use of the pseudo-theatricality of antiquity and the allegorization of the ancient myths was so widespread that it impacted on the very mannerism and sermons of the clergy. Frank concludes that in the final analysis, Barbaro's assessment of ancient poetry is very much akin to that of the leading humanists of the Quattrocento, being convinced, like them, that Christian beliefs and the precepts of ancient poetry are irreconcilable. However, such an irreconcilability does not imply full-scale rejection of ancient poetry, for together with much that is false and ridiculous, this poetry possess es much that is worthwhile and useful. Consequently, if read literally and selectively, ancient poetry can contribute to the enrichment of the modern Christian's character.

To prove her thesis, Frank undertakes detailed reconstructions of interesting aspects of Quattrocento cultural life, such as the licentiousness and coarseness of the secular theatre, the recovery of Platonism with its cult for paganism, and the preaching practices of the like of Roberto da Lecce. However, these cultural accounts do not necessarily validate Frank's thesis that Barbaro's criticism was directed at contemporary modes of thinking and behaving rather than at classical poetry in general and Bartolomeo's interpretation of this poetry in particular. The practices and ideologies she lists as being resented by Barbaro were not, on the whole, as widespread as she indicates nor did they address issues that would have been of particular concern to a humanist of the mold of Barbaro. However, Barbaro would have been irked, as were all the humanists who treated ancient institutions (Petrarch, Biondo, Du Choul), by the idolatrous intent of classical poetry and by the medieval-like interpretation of the ancien t myths conveyed by Bartolomeo. Be that as it may, Frank provides an analysis of Ermolao's Orationes that is on balance novel, provocative, and erudite. She considers matters (the Orationes' strong humanistic intent, for example), which have hitherto not been fully explored. Her work, therefore, merits the attention of all the scholars who wish to study the reception of ancient poetry in the cultural life of Renaissance Italy.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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