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The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello.

The year 1461 began in anything but auspicious fashion for the Marcello clan of Venice. On New Year's Day, Valerio Marcello, the eight-year-old son of Jacopo Antonio Marcello, died in the family palace along the Grand Canal. The unexpected loss of a gifted child plunged his father into a grief that, notwithstanding the contrary persuasion of humanist acquaintances, proved inconsolable. Raging in the storm of his loss, Marcello stubbornly rejected all calls to consummate his anguish. In fact, he carefully orchestrated a chorus of consolation and then appended to it his refusal to be swayed as a last attempt to impress Rene of Anjou, the romantic pretender to the throne of Naples and Sicily. Like the manuscript, which contains such exceptional glances at Marcello's emotional life, the quest to join Rene's quixotic court never reached its projected realization.

This volume supplies rich evidence of Margaret King's many talents, dogged research and laudable sensibilities. The three appendices alone - on family and monuments, chronology and texts - are a gold mine of information. Their data support, in turn, six engaging chapters spun out from the tragic event of 1 January 1461. King's undertaking begins with a luxury codex now preserved in the University Library of Glasgow. Through meticulous detective work, she enlightens us about the nature and dating of the works in the codex, the use by other authors of Pietro Perleone's Laudatio as a sort of data sheet for information on the Marcello dan, and the identity of Giorgio Bevilacqua as the ghost-writer of the Excusatio attributed in the manuscript to Jacopo Antonio Marcello himself. All of that patient investigation leads King to conclude that the entire volume was a "contrivance" organized by Marcello. Rather than the spontaneous expressions of sympathy and consolation that they first appear, the works in the codex are really solicited literary expressions by a patron who then forcefully rejected their message.

From that soil grows a narrative fruitful in its various branches of development. King first plumbs the texts for information on the child Valerio. At the age of eight, he already served as a paradigm for the value of an education in the humanities; that he stood as an exemplar was not surprising given the humanist commitments of the authors writing his commemoration. They stressed that Valerio proved precocious in significant ways: he had an uncanny memory, he desired to emulate Venetian heroes like Vettore Pisani after seeing their statues, and he defended the honor of his family before a gang of commoners who waylaid him in a local campo. He seemed well endowed with those instincts vital to a patriotic patrician of the Venetian regime, and his humanist education had already awakened his talents toward civic involvement.

If the image of Valerio that emerges from the texts conforms closely to the patterns of humanist ideals, his father's self-image proves intriguingly complex. By exploring all the evidence, King discovers a vast gulf between the image that he fostered and the reality of his duties for the Venetian government. Jacopo Antonio consciously supplied data to his humanist panegyrists so that they would depict him as a heroic general in warfare; indeed, the facts gleaned by King from archival documents show that he functioned capably as a provveditore with the armies that Venice hired. However, he never led those armies and actually harbored rather reactionary political ambitions. A bourgeois social climber, Marcello sought to reach the heights of feudal nobility in the retinue of Rene of Anjou. To gain access to the court, he commissioned the making of luxury codices designed to impress Rene. The collection of texts for the death of his son represented the last in a series of codices.

That manuscript further supplies a privileged glimpse of the intimate relationship that developed between father and son. King carefully considers a variety of motives that might explain the father's obdurate grief, but in the end she concludes that only a special relationship of affection could explain his behavior. A final chapter places this literature of consolation within the larger tradition that stretches back to antiquity. King sees the humanist consolers as most helpful and most original not in their arguments for consolation but rather in their detailed narrative of otherwise unknown information about the members of the Marcello family.

King herself offers a fair criterion for any fine book: it "does not settle questions so much as raise them" (23). This, then, is surely a fine book, for it leaves the reader with a rich sense of complexity. There is, in the first place, the complicated endeavor of each luxury codex which has survived from the Renaissance. There is, secondly, the intricacy of the human person, which is surely enriched by characters like Rene of Anjou, Jacopo Antonio Marcello, and Francesco Sforza, with the latter emerging as a very clever condottiere prince. There is also the complex task faced by a historian when analyzing the artful myths produced by humanists, who at times obscure or revise the factual record. There is, finally, the hauntingly unfinished nature of Jacopo Antonio Marcello's aspirations and his grief, to which the incomplete manuscript for Rene of Anjou still witnesses.

JOHN McMANAMON, SJ Loyola University, Chicago
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Author:McManamon, John
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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