In Focus: Medici Panegyrics in the Making

The blog series ‘In Focus‘ is conceived as a way to show the scope and diversity of the RELICS research group. A member of our team reflects on a current or recently finished project, and how it connects to the aims and vision of RELICS. By drawing from our own personal experience, we want to illustrate Latin cosmopolitanism from antiquity to modern times.

by Louis Verreth (Leiden University)

In the history of the Italian vernacular, the city of Florence in the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) is known to have been a hub of vernacular poets. The influential literary historian Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) recognized in Lorenzo’s Florence a new start for Italian poetry after a century of decline, which would have been caused by an all too dominant Latin humanist culture.

Over the last decades, however, specialists have stressed that vernacular literary culture in the Italian Quattrocento cannot be seen apart from Latin literary expressions. When zooming in on the fascinating corpus of Latin verse panegyrics, it easily becomes clear that this old distinction between a “humanist Latin” and a “vernacular” literary culture is very artificial, because Quattrocento poets – whether writing in Latin or the vernacular – were inspired by both Latin and vernacular sources. With the term “verse panegyrics” I indicate those texts which intellectuals have used to gain the attention of Lorenzo and attract his patronage, and which contained statements on Lorenzo’s role as politician and/or patron of the arts. Some of these poets were very successful in their undertaking, stayed in the circle of the Medici, and were maybe granted a diplomatic or other political task. Others were less fortunate and tried to find support elsewhere – often by addressing new poetry to another Italian lord.

The poems that humanists addressed to Lorenzo in order to boost their careers found inspiration in a diverse group of earlier writings on Florence and on the Medici family, both in Latin and in the Italian vernacular. Of course, they also included new themes and ideas, but it was not considered a lack of novelty to integrate older motives. Instead, it was common usage to appropriate earlier materials of other authors praising the city and its rulers. They were inspired to do so by successful predecessors as Cristoforo Landino, who by integrating panegyrical messages in his collection of Latin love elegies had attracted the attention of Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s father, and won the much wanted chair of literature at the Studio of Florence. Thus, poets praising Lorenzo and his family recurred time and again to the same “canonized” motives.

Francesco Rosselli, View of Florence with the Chain, 1480s, The National Gallery, London, Wikimedia Commons

One aim of my PhD research on Latin verse panegyrics for Lorenzo is to map these motives and to trace from which texts they originated and were adapted. In the first phase of my research, I expected to find especially appropriations of classical Latin poems in my corpus, such as claims on a renewed golden age in the style of Vergil. But it appears that alongside these ancient models, who were all extensively studied and imitated in 15th-century Florence, vernacular texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth century were also a source of inspiration, including the three “crowns” Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. By giving one example of such receptions of vernacular texts in Neo-Latin verse in the remainder of this blog, I aim to show that the famous “bilingual” character of literary culture in Lorenzo’s age is not only traceable in the language of the new texts, but also in the sources they were inspired by – and this teaches us that these Italian texts were still read in their time, next to the classical Latin (and Greek) authors. This is particularly striking if these texts – as we will see in our examples – were difficult to make compatible with more recent developments in humanism like methodological standards for writing city history (which were also relevant for poets). Humanist poets who wanted to include such sources were faced with the particular challenge to include motives linked to an older (pre-humanist, if you want) framework within their new creations.

An interesting case is the hexametric poem Florentia by Pandolfo Collenuccio, a humanist from Pesaro in the Marche. When experiencing a conflict with Pesaro’s ruler Giovanni Sforza, Collenuccio found refuge in Medici Florence, where he obtained the office of highest judge or podestà in 1490. In November of that year, he recited the poem Florentia in the Santa Maria del Fiore to praise the Signoria, the highest office of the Florentine republic, as well as Lorenzo de’ Medici. The poem starts with an innovative foundation myth of Florence, for which Collenuccio cleverly combined vernacular and Latin sources.

Esme de Boulonois, Gravure of Pandolfo Collenuccio in an Amsterdam print of 1682, Wikimedia Commons

Collenuccio praises the Florentines for being descendants of the ancient Romans, and more specifically, of the veteran soldiers who had fought together with Sulla in the Social War. This element of the story goes back to Leonardo Bruni’s Historiae florentini populi of the beginning of the 15th century, and was generally accepted in Collenuccio’s time as the true origin of Florence. But Collenuccio adds to his poetic storyline that several of the Olympian gods were present when Florence was founded: Pan, Mars, Venus and Mercurius. Florence is personified within the poem as a nymph, the daughter of Mars and a water-nymph named Ianthis (or “lily” – referring to the flower on the city’s emblem). When reading the names of Mars and Venus, you could think that it was only the parallel with Rome – and Vergil’s Aeneid – which furnished Collenuccio with a motive to include in his poem on Florence. Mars and Venus would then become the patron gods of the Florentines, like Rome had been protected by Mars and the gens Iulia (starting with Aeneas and his son Iulus) by Venus. But the idea of the gods being present at the moment of Florence’s foundation leads also to another text, one in the vernacular, the Commedia delle ninfe fiorentine by Giovanni Boccaccio.

In short, Boccaccio’s story goes as follows. The main character of the story is Achaemenides (Achimenede), son of Cadmus (Cadmo) of Thebes. After travels with both Odysseus and Aeneas, Achaemenides moves to Tuscany where he settles a new town, whose name will be decided on by the gods. A  contest is organised between six candidates, and Mars eventually wins. Mars’ victory did not occur without reason, as he was the principle god revered by the early Florentines and thought to be (in Boccaccio’s story) the inhabitant of an oak with supernatural powers situated on Florentine soil. Despite the outcome of the contest, Mars prefers to let his beloved Venus name the city after one of her symbols, the flower (cf. the city name Fiorenza/Florentia). The god of war installs the city walls and a temple. In this early stage of Florence’s history, the city would already have been one of the greatest of Italy, and would only let Rome and Capua precede in splendor.

When studying Collenuccio’s text and comparing it with this older story about Achaemenides, we observe indeed how Boccaccio already granted Mars and Venus an eminent place in the legendary past of Florence, before this became a motive in Collenuccio. But it is equally important to observe that Collenuccio dismisses other elements of Boccaccio’s story: for example, the idea that the origins of the Florentines lie in the ancient Thebans did not appeal to Collenuccio. For Boccaccio, the link with Thebes was a way to integrate Florence in the narratives of Greco-Roman mythology and place at the city’s origin a travelling and city-founding hero like Cadmus and Aeneas. Collenuccio, on the other hand, is more interested in the ideological message behind the Roman ancestry of the Florentines, introduced by Bruni: the Roman origin of the Medici and their contemporaries was still palpable in the (modest) empire they had realized in Tuscany and in the republican government they had adopted from their Roman ancestors.

The interplay between vernacular and Latin sources in Collenuccio’s Florentia contributed to the poem’s success. The recitation in the Duomo was welcomed with enthusiastic applause by the participants, as we know from a letter by Collenuccio’s friend Angelo Poliziano. And Lorenzo de’ Medici? He was probably the one who urged Francesco Bonnacorsi to print the poem, thus disseminating the proud message about Florence’s noble origins throughout the Italian peninsula.

Further reading

A part of Collenuccio’s Florentia can be read in English translation in: Baldassarri, Stefano Ugo & Saiber, Arielle. Images of Quattrocento Florence. Selected Writings in Literature, History, and Art. New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 309-315.

Thurn, Nikolaus. Neulatein und Volkssprachen. Beispiele für die Rezeption neusprachlicher Literatur durch die lateinische Dichtung Europas im 15. – 16. Jahrhundert. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2012.

Leuker, Tobias. Bausteine eines Mythos. Die Medici in Dichtung und Kunst des 15. Jahrhunderts. Köln-Weimar-Wien: Böhlau, 2007.

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