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

Venezia: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 1999.

This monograph is a welcome addition to the series Memorie della Classe di Scienze Morali, Lettere ed Arti, a collection that has yielded much careful and innovative scholarship. Frank's study aspires to correct what she sees as previous misreadings of the Orationes contra poetas, composed between 1455 and 1459 (possibly by 1457 [7n3]). These two treatises by the Venetian-born Ermolao Barbaro the Elder (1410-1471), Bishop of Treviso and subsequently of Verona, have often been seen--somewhat simplistically--as invectives against the entire enterprise of poetic activity.

Appearing first is a "Presentazione" (5-10) in which we read that the motivation for this undertaking lies in certain bothersome contradictions. If indeed the Orationes constitute a blanket criticism of pagan verse, it is difficult to account for the Bishop's positive disposition toward his former teacher Guarino (then in Ferrara, defending the plays of Terence) and scholars active in his own city, such as Antonio Brognanigo, Giovan Mario Filelfo, and Antonio Beccaria--none of whom displayed animosity toward the genre--as well as the many metrical compositions in homage to Barbaro written by members of his circle.

Chapter II (11-37) provides summaries of the orazioni, beginning with a synopsis of the letter that precedes them, an epistle dedicated to Pietro Barbo, then a cardinal but later to become Pope Paul II. We find that the first discourse is actually addressed to Bartolomeo da Lendinara, a young Paduan friar who had prepared a defense of poetry in the Boccaccian mode, based on what is generally referred to as the concept of theologia poetica. According to this view, through heavenly inspiration the myths recounted by ancient authors contain hidden Christian truths that require interpretation by modern readers. Barbaro's first dissertation reviews the lives and works of Greek and Roman writers, noting that in no instance were their efforts prized by the State, and emphasizes the inferiority of versification to eloquence and philosophy. The second oration attacks from many angles Fra Bartolomeo's assertions regarding the divine character of Classical poesy, questioning the appropriateness of the Franciscan's terminology and bringing to bear what Frank terms a "trattazione di `linguistica storica' in opposizione all' argomentazione esclusivamente etimologica del frate" (33). Ending this section is a useful summation of Bartolomeo's main theses, gleaned from Barbaro's refutation of them, in which is patent a massive borrowing from the Genealogia deorum gentilium.

The third division (39-51) furnishes ah overview of what are described as "per lo piu giudizi fulminei, rapidi sommari e un esiguo numero di brevi studi" (39) on the Orationes, indicating the merits and defects of (for example) such well-known investigations as those by Giorgio Ronconi (included in the edition on which Frank bases her analysis: Ermolao Barbaro ii Vecchio, Orationes contra poetas. Epistolae [Firenze: Sansoni, 1972]), Concetta Carestia Greenfield, Humanist and Scholastic Poetics, 1250-1500 [Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1981]), and Margaret L. King, Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986]). Later in these pages our author evaluates Barbaro's treatises in the context of pedagogical theories espoused by fifteenth-century men of letters.

"La polemica sul `teatro,'" the book's Chapter IV (53-64), observes that rather than adhering to Classical precepts, Italian comedy of the primo Quattrocento fostered often crude innovations that drew the ire of many Humanists. Barbaro's hostility relates not to attention given ancient texts within learned groups, we read, but rather is directed at the vulgarity and excess inherent in the theatrical techniques and representations of his day. The following section, "Il ritorno di Platone" (65-91), describes the significant impact of the Athenian's ideology on the Orationes, ah influence mediated by the writings of Augustine. Barbaro's commentaries (we are told) intended to prove that Platonism--which held poets in low regard--was the only ancient heritage to be treasured, and to reaffirm the separation between philosophy and other disciplines, a distinction that had come to be lost. Interesting here ate Frank's remarks concerning Gemisto Pletone (Georgius Gemistus Plethon) and his devotion to Orpheus, "il poeta piu vilipeso nell'attacco sferrato dal vescovo veronese" (88).

A consideration of the issues raised by such documents as Giovanni Caldiera's comprehensive De concordantia poetarum, philosophorum et theologorum leads Frank to remind us in Chapter VI (93-133) that the studia humanitatis and the studia divinitatis occupied distinct spheres and yet were linked, as the former provided instruction essential to the latter. Observing that, in Barbaro's view, the Classical inheritance could and should serve to enhance the modern Christian's formation, she finds a parallel in Erasmus's admonition to read with prudence and discernment, and notes the Veronese cleric's evident displeasure with the practices of popular preachers such as Roberto (Caracciolo) da Lecce. Before offering suggestive comments concerning the variety of Humanism peculiar to Venice, the author offers this summation of her discoveries: "anziche espressione di avversione retriva e ostilita pudibonda nei confronti di certe istanze umanistiche, o piuttosto che documento di devote riserve nell'adesione alla nuova cultura, la protesta di Ermolao e un esempio del rigore storico-critico di marca valliana, nel suo discrimine tra dottrine antiche e dottrina cristiana, riel suo rifiuto della strumentalizzazione degli autori pagani ai fini etico-religiosi cristiani, e nella sua ferma convinzione che tra cultura e fede ci debbano essere netti confini metodologici, senza sconfinamenti dell'una nell'altra, perche in materia di fede si tratta di pura adesione alla parola rivelata" (125-26).

Le insidie dell'allegoria demonstrates the insufficiencies marking preceding interpretations of the Orationes contra poetas, yet treats their authors with respect. This is only fitting, since not all previous scholars entirely missed the mark; consider, for example, the assessment given nearly four decades ago by Emilio Bigi, according to whom Barbaro "si proponeva non tanto di combattere indiscriminatamente la poesia, quanto piuttosto di affermarne, contro ogni difesa fondata su interpretazioni allegoriche, il carattere tutto umano e terreno, e quindi di discuteme in concerto l'effettiva utilita pedagogica" ("Barbaro, Ermolao," in Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, VI [Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1964]; this passage is cited in part by Frank [41n8]). It is perhaps in the breadth and depth of the present analysis that its merits are most apparent, as our author examines the Bishop's work against the complex backdrop that contributed to its production. Characterized by clear and elegant prose and a well-argued exposition, this disquisition will benefit all those who aspire to achieve a solid foundation in the study of Humanism.
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Author:Ward, Michael T.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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