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Poliziano was a great scholar, a professor, critic, and translator of Greek into Latin, as well as a great poet. At age sixteen, he won the title of Homericus juvenis (Homeric youth) by translating books 2 through 5 of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) into Latin hexameters. His translations of the Enchiridion (c. 120 c.e.) of Epictetus, the Histories (c. 200 c.e.) of Herodian, the Eroticus (c. first century c.e.) of Plutarch, the Charmides (fourth century b.c.e.) of Plato, the Problemata (c. 200 c.e.) of Alexander Aprodisias, and works by Galen and Hippocrates delighted his contemporaries with their stylistic grace. His love of philology, as seen in his Miscellaneorum centuria prima (1489), which treats the origins of classic institutions and ceremonies, the significance of fables, words and their uses, and even spelling, made him one of the founders of modern textual criticism. He was also interested in jurisprudence and composed a recension of the Pandects (sixth century c.e.) of Justinian, which, though not a milestone in juristic erudition, gave impetus to further criticism of the scholarly code. Twelve volumes of his letters, written to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Marsilio Ficino, and a wide range of other friends and contemporaries, were published in Paris in about 1512. Near the end of his life, Poliziano wrote to King John II of Portugal, tendering him the thanks of the civilized world for dragging from secular darkness into the light of day new worlds and offering his services to record these great voyages.
Poliziano is important in Italian letters both as an interpreter of Italian humanism and as the most significant writer in the language between Giovanni Boccaccio and Ludovico Ariosto. Poliziano mastered the art of Italian versification and gave to the octave a new capacity for expression that would be utilized in the following centuries by Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Giambattista Marino. In Poliziano, to quote John Addington Symonds, “Faustus, the genius of the Middle Ages, had wedded Helen, the vision of the ancient world.”
Poliziano was born Angelo Ambrogini in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, the Latin name of which, Mons Politianus, was the source of the appellation by which the poet is known. His father, Benedetto Ambrogini, a capable bourgeois jurist, was murdered for championing the cause of Piero de’ Medici in Montepulciano, whereupon the ten-year-old Poliziano was sent to Florence to seek consolation in his studies. He studied Latin under Cristoforo Landino, who was remarkable for instilling in his pupil the notion that the Tuscan vernacular was in no way inferior to Latin and that, like Latin, it ought to be subject to rules of grammar and rhetoric. Poliziano studied Greek under Giovanni Argyropulos, Andronicus Callistos, Demetrius Chalcondyles, and Marsilio Ficino; and he also studied Hebrew. At sixteen, he began writing epigrams in Greek; at seventeen, he was writing essays on Greek versification; and at eighteen, he published an edition of Catullus. By 1473, Poliziano was in the service of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence and the chief patron of the arts in Italy. To provide Poliziano with an income, Lorenzo appointed him secular prior of the College of San Giovanni. Poliziano obtained the degree of Doctor of Civil Law, took clerical orders, and was appointed to the canonry of the Cathedral of Florence. In 1475, Lorenzo made him tutor to his sons Piero (who succeeded his father for a brief time) and Giovanni (later Pope Leo X), but his wife, Clarice Orsini, who was pious and conventional, preferred a religious education for her sons rather than the secular one Poliziano offered, and she lobbied for his removal as tutor.
Following the tradition set by Pulci, who wrote a tribute in octaves to Lorenzo’s tournament held in 1469, Poliziano wrote a celebration of the tournament of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano, held on January 28, 1475, in honor of the latter’s beloved, Simonetta Cattaneo, the wife of Marco Vespucci. The undertaking, however, was ill-starred. First, Simonetta died (April 26, 1476), and she had to be changed from the heroine of book 1 of the Stanze to her role as resurrected Fortune in book 2. Exactly two years later, on April 26, 1478, Giuliano was murdered at Mass by members of the Pazzi family, who hoped to murder both Medici brothers and thus wrest Florence from Medici control. This second calamity robbed the poem of its hero, and Poliziano never progressed beyond the first stanzas of the second canto. Instead, he wrote a prose memorial in Latin against the Pazzi conspiracy, titled Conjurationis pactianae commentarium (1478).
In 1479, Poliziano was dismissed from the Medici household; after six months of wandering in northern Italy, he was finally readmitted to Lorenzo’s favor, but Poliziano was never to regain his position as sole tutor to the Medici children. At the Court of Mantua in 1480, in only two days according to his own boast, he wrote his Orfeo, the first secular play in Italian. There is, however, a great deal of uncertainty as to the date of the play’s composition, and other sources date the work as early as 1471. In 1480, Poliziano was made professor of Greek and Latin literature at the University of Florence, and he continued to hold that position until his death.
Poliziano was not involved in public affairs, and his private life seems to have been uneventful. He did not marry; judging from his Greek epigrams on the youth Chrysocomus, it is possible that the homosexual sentiments he placed in the mouth of Orfeo were really his own. In one of Poliziano’s canzoni a ballo, he pokes light fun at a priest who has a pig stolen from him and then hears the confession of the thief but cannot press charges. Poliziano’s comparison of his own situation to that of the priest, “Woe, by what a grief I’m hit;/ I can never speak of it!/ I too suffer like the priest,” may be a reference to his homosexuality.
Poliziano’s letters reveal how much he enjoyed the rustic pleasures of his villa at Fiesole in the neighborhood of his friends Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola at Querceto and Marsilio Ficino at Montevecchio. Away from Florence but still close enough to enjoy its panorama, the solitude which he could savor at Fiesole was “beyond all price.” He expatiates on this pleasure in the Rusticus: “Give unto me the life of a tranquil scholar, amongst the pleasures of the open fields; for serious thought in hours of study, give me my books; I ask but for moderate wealth, well-earned without weary toil, but I desire no Bishop’s mitre nor triple tiara to rest as a burden upon my brow.”
Poliziano’s devotion to Lorenzo was steadfast, and he was at his patron’s bedside when Lorenzo died on April 8, 1492; in a Latin monody written after Lorenzo’s death, Poliziano cried, “Oh that my head were waters and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night!” He survived his friend and patron by only two years; influenced by the spiritual revival of Girolamo Savonarola, Poliziano was buried as a penitent in the cowl of a Dominican friar.
Although the subject matter of Poliziano’s poetry has not traveled well into modern times, he has never lost his place in literary history; both his name and his rather unattractive face, with its prominent aquiline nose, are familiar to those who have studied the Italian Renaissance. He was considered the foremost scholar of his day; Erasmus called him a “miracle of nature,” and Pietro Bembo, who succeeded him as arbiter of Italian letters, called him the “master of the Ausonian lyre.” The enthusiasm with which he applied himself to his teaching of Homer and Vergil drew students from all over Europe, who took his humanistic learning back to their homelands. Among his non-Italian students were the German Johann Reuchlin, the Englishmen William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, and the Portuguese Arias Barbosa. Linacre, a physician under whom Erasmus studied, introduced the first secular study of Greek at Oxford, and Arias Barbosa introduced the study of Greek at Salamanca. Luigi Pulci, an older poet whose Giostra (c. 1470) had set a precedent for the Stanze of Poliziano, was in turn aided by Poliziano in the composition of Pulci’s parody of the French epic, the Morgante maggiore (1483), which work is concluded with a good word for Pulci’s “Angel” from Montepulciano. Outside Italy, Poliziano’s Italian verse directly influenced the poetry of Juan Boscán in Spain half a century later.
It seems likely that passages in Poliziano’s Stanze inspired as many as three of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings: The Birth of Venus (1484), Primavera (1478), and Venus and Mars (1477). According to Giorgio Vasari and Condivi, Poliziano advised the young Michelangelo on classical subjects. It has also been suggested that Poliziano’s version of the myth of Polyphemus and Galatea in the Stanze provided the model for Raphael’s frescoes in the Villa Farnesina in Rome.
The best of Poliziano’s Latin odes on the death of Lorenzo were set to music by Heinrich Isaac, who had succeeded Antonio Squarcialupi as organist at the Medici Court in 1475. George Chapman used a passage from the Ambra in the dedication of his translation of the Odyssey in 1615, and he reworked the ode on the death of Albiera degli Albizzi into his “Epicede or Funerall Song” on the death of Henry, Prince of Wales (1612).
Poliziano’s idyllic Orfeo is the earliest secular play in Italian literature and marks the beginning of that characteristic Renaissance genre of the dramatic mythological pastoral that would culminate in Torquato Tasso’s Aminta (1581; English translation, 1591). Because the playlet was also accompanied by music, now unfortunately lost, it is seen as a forerunner of modern opera, and because of the author’s attempts to individualize the psychology of his characters, it is deemed important in the evolution of the tragicomedy as well....
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