Stanzas on the Tournament

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Stanzas on the Tournament

by Angelo Poliziano

THE LITERARY WORK

A narrative poem set in Florence during the 1470s; composed from 1475 to 1478; first published in Italian (as Stanze per la giostra) in 1494, in English in 1979.

SYNOPSIS

Through Cupid’s stratagems, a Florentine youth who scorns women falls in love with a beautiful nymph and resolves to try his fighting skills against other men in hopes of winning her favor.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

Angelo Poliziano was born Angelo Ambrogini in the Tuscan community of Montepulciano in 1454; later, he took his pen name from the Latinization of his birthplace (Mons Politianus). The eldest child of Benedetto Ambrogini, a supporter of the Medici family, Poliziano went to Florence after his father was murdered in a local vendetta in 1464. Poliziano soon distinguished himself in the study of Latin and Greek. In 1470 he began translating Homer’s Iliad into Latin, dedicating part of the translation to Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence since the previous year. His scholarly prowess attracted Lorenzo’s attention. By 1473 Poliziano was established in the Medici household as Lorenzo’s protégé and companion; two years later, he had also become Lorenzo’s secretary and the tutor of his son Piero. Poliziano continued to pursue his own literary career as well, composing scholarly essays in Latin (he would later become one of the foremost classical scholars of the Italian Renaissance). Poliziano also wrote light verse and occasional poems (penned in response to a public event or historical occasion), mostly in the Tuscan vernacular. Arguably the most famous of his occasional works was his Stanze per la giostra (Stanzas on the Tournament), the full title of which is Stanze cominciate per la giostra del Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici (Stanzas Begun for the Tournament of the Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici). This narrative poem in the Italian stanza form ottava rima celebrates the Florentine tournament of 1475 and the triumphs of its victor Giuliano de’ Medici—Lorenzo’s younger brother—and Giuliano’s devotion to the beautiful Simonetta Cattaneo, in whose honor he fought. Translated into English only in the twentieth century, Poliziano’s Stanze is at once an impressive tribute to one of Renaissance Italy’s most powerful families and a celebration of the transcendent power of love.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

Florence and the Medici

From the eleventh century onward, several Italian cities, including Florence, grew increasingly important and independent, achieving the status of self-governing communes. Initially, the landed aristocracy held most of the authority within the commune; however, during the thirteenth century, Florence experienced a significant shift in power as the guilds, professional corporations based on trade interests, became a more dominant force in society. As the century progressed, the Florentine popolo—a term for the guildsmen and merchants, as opposed to the leading aristocrats—grew more numerous, more confident, and better organized. The popolo went on to seize power in the commune after 1266.

The government of the popolo relied on an executive board of magistrates, or priors, who were elected every two months to prevent anyone from holding power too long. All magistrates had to come from the guilds, which now controlled the city’s administration. The aristocrats, who had formerly dominated Florentine political life, were barred from holding office. No more than 5 percent of the population was eligible to vote and less than one per cent could hold public office. By the late thirteenth century the number of guilds was fixed: there were six major guilds (importers of cloth, bankers, silk merchants, wool manufacturers, doctors and apothecaries, and lawyers and notaries) and fifteen minor guilds. Theoretically, all the guilds shared power; however, the major guilds came to assume the primary political role in the government. By the next century, the Florentine government had become an oligarchy of merchant fandlies, whose wealth was derived from banking, trade, and textile manufacturing.

In 1434 the Medici—a powerful family of bankers—emerged from the guild movement and assumed control over Florence throughout most of the fifteenth century. No coup or revolution was necessary; the Medici used their enormous wealth and network of influential friends and associates to retain power in the city. Many Medici allies were themselves members of prominent Florentine families. Others were middle-and lower-class clients who were willing to fight for the Medici if necessary (which later proved to be the case during the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478). The Medici also encouraged political participation: under their administration, the voting franchise rose from five to twenty percent of the population.

Besides wealth and politics, the Medici also took a keen interest in arts and literature. Cosimo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler from 1434 to 1464, imported precious manuscripts from Alexandria and Greece, hired some 45 copyists, and made translations of these treasures available to teachers and students. In 1439 he also encouraged the humanist movement by founding a Platonic Academy in Florence, to which he lured Eastern scholars and churchmen. Florentine intellectuals embraced this “new learning,” which included the study of Greek literature and philosophy, and the more liberal, secular spirit the movement embodied. Cosimo’s son Piero (r. 1464–69) and grandson Lorenzo (r. 1469–92) followed his example, helping to develop Florence as one of the intellectual and cultural capitals of Europe.

Arguably, Lorenzo—later to be known as “the Magnificent”—was the most famous of the Medici. Although he was not yet 20 when his father, Piero, died in 1469, the young Lorenzo had been groomed since childhood for his new position as virtual ruler of Florence. For the most part Lorenzo adhered to the political practices of his grandfather and father: he preserved the traditional communal legislative councils but prevented opponents of the Medici from gaining office. Likewise, he was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and numbered many philosophers, poets, and painters among his acquaintances. Poliziano himself was one of Lorenzo’s protégés and friends, rescued from poverty and given a place in the Medici household after Lorenzo recognized the younger man’s scholarly gifts. In the Stance, Poliziano even pays grateful tribute to his patron:

And you, well-born Laurel (Lorenzo), under whose shelter happy Florence rests in peace, fearing neither winds nor threats of heaven, nor irate Jove in his angriest countenance: receive my humble voice, trembling and fearful, under the shade of your sacred trunk; o cause, o goal of all my desires, which draw life only from the fragrance of your leaves.

(Poliziano, Stanze, 1.4)

The Tournament of 1475

As Lorenzo became more established in his position as virtual ruler of Florence, his handsome younger brother Giuliano succeeded him as “prince of youth,” a role that Lorenzo had filled when their father was still alive. In February 1469 Lorenzo had held a grand tournament, in which he competed on horses that had been presented to him as tokens of friendship from the King of Naples and the dukes of Milan and Ferrara. Resplendent in velvet and silk, wearing rubies and diamonds in his cap, Lorenzo rode to victory in the jousts; his triumph inspired La Giostra (The Tournament), a poem by Luigi Pulci. In due course, Giuliano held a tournament, which took place on January 28, 1475 and was deemed as magnificent as his brother’s had been six years earlier. Lorenzo’s longtime mistress Lucrezia Donati was the Queen of the Tournament, but Simonetta Cattaneo—recently married at the age of 16 to Marco Vespucci—was the tournament’s “Queen of Beauty.” At that time, the Genoa-born Simonetta was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence, and her gentle disposition further endeared her to the Florentine people. The exact nature of her relationship with Giuliano de’ Medici has not been determined; some have identified her as Giuliano’s mistress, while others have suggested that any relationship between the two was entirely platonic.

In any case, Giuliano apparently wore Simonetta’s favor (a love token), along with a suit of silver armor rumored to have cost some 8,000 florins, when he took to the field for the jousts. Fighting in Simonetta’s honor, Giuliano unseated all of his opponents and received the prize of the tournament. His looks and skill, as well as his Medici heritage, made his victory a popular result.

Poets and painters alike commemorated this tournament, which was accounted a great success. Three of Sandro Botticelli’s major paintings—The Birth of Venus, Mars and Venus, and Return of Spring —derived some inspiration from the tournament; significantly, Lorenzo commissioned all three of those paintings. And just as Pulci had immortalized Lorenzo’s triumph in the Giostra of 1469, so did Poliziano seek to perform a similar task for the Giostra of 1475. Indeed, Stanze per la giostra presents a mythologized version of the romance between Giuliano and Simonetta, clearly intended to culminate in Giuliano’s victory in the tournament.

Ironically, history ensured that Poliziano’s poem would never be completed. In 1476, a year after the tournament, Simonetta fell ill and died, to the great grief of the city. Lorenzo thus recorded the tragedy in his Commento: “In our city, there died a lady who generally moved all the Florentine people to pity; it is no great marvel, for she was truly adorned with as much beauty and gentle kindness as any lady before her” (Medici in Poliziano, p. x). In Book II of his Stanze, Poliziano

The Spread Of Humanism

Humanism was an intellectual movement that spread through Europe from the fourteenth to the late sixteenth century, reaching its zenith during the High Renaissance (c. 1480–1520) The movement drew its inspiration from the classical worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. Italian humanists were in the vanguard, delving into the works of the Greek and Roman writers and philosophers, and attempting to model Italian thought and literary style on the ancients. Fundamentally, the humanists were interested in humankind, and all the facets that made up human existence. The movement embraced various realms of cultural pursuit, from literature, to rhetoric, his-tory, politics, philosophy, and science. A general characteristic was freedom from rigid forms and systems; consequently, Plato replaced Aristotle as the most favored classical philosopher. Aristotle had written discursive works—systematic treatises on, for example, physics, metaphysics, and ethics. In contrast, Plato had couched his ideas in the forms of imaginary dialogues and myths. Many Italian humanists favored this latter approach, presenting their own ideas in Platonic form; for example, Marsilio Ficino’s De Amore (Of Love) is written as an imagined dialogue at a fictional banquet attended by several noted Florentine intellectuals. In 1528 Baldassare Castiglione presented his ideas on the proper behavior of the perfect courtier in the form of a dialogue (see The Book of the Courtier also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times).

managed to work around the sad fact of his heroine’s death by transforming her into the goddess of Fortune, who was still destined to be the guiding force of the hero’s life. In 1478, however, an even greater tragedy struck Florence when Giuliano was assassinated in the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici. While the plot was ultimately foiled and Lorenzo retained control of Florence, the murder of the much-loved Giuliano plunged the city into mourning; thereafter, Poliziano abandoned his Stanze.

The Pazzi conspiracy

In 1478 Lorenzo de’ Medici faced what historians consider the most serious challenge to his leadership of Florence. The so-called Pazzi conspiracy had its roots in several conflicts, including a burgeoning animosity between Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus IV, who was elected in 1471. Lorenzo had first incurred the pope’s resentment in 1474 by preventing the Medici bank from advancing the pope funds to purchase Romagnol towns from their traditional overlords, a move that would have increased the temporal power of the popes within the Papal States. On discovering that Florence was trying to purchase the town of Imola—located between Bologna and Ravenna—Sixtus obtained sufficient sums from the Pazzi, a rival Florentine banking family, and bought Imola himself, making the town subject to papal authority. The Pazzi thus gained the lucrative privilege of handling the papal revenues, formerly managed by the Medici—an act calculated to en-rage Lorenzo, who undertook measures to ruin the Pazzi firm. In an act of nepotism, Sixtus ap-pointed his nephew Girolamo Riario to be governor of Imola.

Matters between the pope and Florence’s de facto leader deteriorated further after Lorenzo arranged a triple alliance between Florence, Venice, and Milan to preserve peace in northern Italy and counter the threat posed by the augmented Papal States. Sixtus promptly teamed up with the Kingdom of Naples, exacerbating the friction between the northern and southern powers of Italy. Still seething over Lorenzo’s new foreign policy, Sixtus appointed Francesco Salviati, an enemy of the Medici, to the archbishopric of Pisa, then a Florentine province, without consulting the Florentine government. Lorenzo ordered Pisa to exclude Salviati from its Church offices and managed to hinder the new appointee from assuming his post for three years.

The escalating tensions between Lorenzo and Sixtus came to a head in 1478. Several of Lorenzo’s enemies, including Riario, Salviati, and Francesco Pazzi (nephew of Jacopo Pazzi, head of the Pazzi family), hatched a conspiracy to over-throw the Medici family by murdering Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano. Sixtus too was drawn into this plot and while he did not sanction the assassination of the Medici brothers, he did not discourage the conspirators from pursuing their ends.

Recruiting additional followers, the conspirators planned to kill the brothers during the celebration of High Mass in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore on Sunday, April 26, 1478. At the moment of the Elevation of the Host, the assassins sprang upon their victims. Although Giuliano suffered a great blow to the head and dropped to the ground, his killers continued to hack at his body long after he had fallen. Lorenzo was wounded in the shoulder, but managed to fight off his enemies by using his sword and his cloak to defend himself. Lorenzo’s friends surrounded him, helping him to break through the ring of his attackers and flee to the safety of the sacristy; one friend, Francesco Nori, was felled by a sword that had been thrust in Lorenzo’s defense. Poliziano, who was among those in the sacristy with Lorenzo, described the scene thus:

Having fled to the same place, I together with some other persons then got the bronze doors shut and so we held off Bandini [one of the assassins]. While we guarded the doors, some within feared for Lorenzo because of his wound and were anxious to do something about it. Antonio Rodolfo … sucked out the wound [in case there might be poison]. Lorenzo himself gave no thought to his own safety but kept asking how Giuliano was; he also made angry threats and lamented that his life had been endangered by people who had hardly any reason to attack him.

(Poliziano in Watkins, p. 176)

Reinforcements loyal to the Medici eventually came to Lorenzo’s aid and escorted him to the safety of his home, shielding him from the sight of Giuliano’s body. On departing the church himself, however, Poliziano was distraught to see his patron’s brother “lying in wretched state, covered with wounds, and hideous with blood. I was so weakened by the sight that I could hardly walk or control myself in my overwhelming grief, but some friends helped me to get home” (Poliziano in Watkins, p. 177). The contrast between the mutilated body and the dashing hero of Poliziano’s Stanze could not have been more painful, and it is believed that the poet abandoned work on the poem thereafter.

Meanwhile, the conspirators were not meeting with the success they had anticipated. Riding through the streets, Jacopo Pazzi tried to rouse the people with cries of “Liberta!” (Liberty) only to be greeted with shouts of “Vivano le palle!” (Long live the balls—the emblem of the Medici family). Salviati, invading the Palazzo Vecchio with a hundred armed followers, received an equally hostile reception; the priors—loyal to the Medici—promptly put the archbishop and his cohorts under arrest. Once the news of the at-tack upon Lorenzo and Giuliano became known, the Florentine populace rose up in rage against the conspirators. A bloodthirsty mob dragged Francesco Pazzi, who had wounded his own leg while stabbing Giuliano, from his sickbed and hanged him before one of the windows in the Palazzo Vecchio. Archbishop Salviati met the same fate, and in his death agonies, he was seen to sink his teeth into Francesco’s body, which was hanging beside him. His followers fared no better; the priors tossed several from the palazzo windows to the pavement below, some meeting their deaths in the fall, some being finished off by the crowd. Jacopo Pazzi, fleeing to the hills for safety, was eventually captured, dragged back to the city, tortured and hanged. Over the next few months, many more conspirators and suspected conspirators were apprehended and sentenced to death or imprisonment for their involvement in the plot.

Expressing outrage over Archbishop Salviati’s fate, Pope Sixtus excommunicated Lorenzo and suspended all religious services throughout the Florentine dominions. At his suggestion, papal ally King Ferrante I of Naples sent an envoy to Florence demanding that Lorenzo either be delivered to the pope or banished. The Florentine government refused even to consider these conditions, and war subsequently broke out between Florence and the papacy in 1479. After Florence suffered several humiliating defeats in battle, Lorenzo carried out a bold political venture, sailing to Naples to conduct personal negotiations with Ferrante. During his stay, which lasted several months, Lorenzo attempted to persuade his host of the potential threat that the papacy posed not only to Florence but to Naples as well. Ferrante came to admire Lorenzo’s courage and de-termination; ultimately, he signed a peace treaty with him, and Lorenzo returned to Florence in triumph in 1480.

Florence and the papacy were also eventually reconciled after a Turkish force invaded and captured the southern harbor-town of Otranto. Declaring that all Italians needed to band together to resist the infidels, Sixtus IV invited a body of Florentine commissioners to Rome, where he cleansed them—and by implication, all of Florence—of their sins and persuaded them to equip fifteen galleys against the Turks. There-after, Lorenzo’s authority and position were never seriously threatened again. The death of Giuliano, however, remained a lifelong sorrow for Lorenzo and the Florentines who had revered the young man.

Eulogy For Giuliano

As one of the friends who had accompanied Lorenzo to the cathedral that fateful Sunday, Poliziano was in the position to offer an eyewitness account of the tragedy. While his resulting Commentary on the Pazzi Conspiracy may succeed better as pro-Medici propaganda than objective history, he nonetheless offers a moving tribute to the murdered Giuiiano at the conclusion:

[Giuliano] was tail and sturdy, with a large chest. His arms were rounded and muscular, his joints strong and big, his stomach flat, his thighs powerful, his calves rather full. He had bright lively eyes, with excellent vision, and his face was rather dark, with thick, rich black hair worn long and combed straight back from the forehead. He was skilled at riding and at throwing, jumping and wrestling, and prodigiously fond of hunting. Of great courage and steadfastness, he fostered piety and good morals. He was accomplished in painting and music and every sort of refinement. He had some talent for poetry, and wrote some Tuscan verses which were wonderfully serious and edifying. And he always enjoyed reading amatory verse. He was both eloquent and prudent, but not at all showy: he loved wit and was himself quite witty. He hated liars and men who hold grudges. Moderate in his grooming, he was nonetheless amazingly elegant and attractive. He was very mild, very kind, very respectful of his brother, and of great strength and virtue. These virtues and others made him beloved by the people and his own family during his lifetime, and they rendered more painful and bitter to us all the memory of his loss.

(Poliziano in Watkins, p. 181)

The Poem in Focus

Plot summary

The poem opens, in the style of many epics, with invocations to the guiding spirit of the work: in this case, the god of love and Lorenzo de’ Medici himself (here referred to as “Laurel,” his poetic name in his literary circle). Afterwards, the narrator tells of Laurel’s younger brother Julio (modeled on Giuliano de’ Medici), a youth who excels in martial and intellectual activities but who scorns women and scoffs at lovers. Offended by Julio’s mockery, Cupid decides to punish him by making him fall in love.

One morning, while Julio is out hunting, Cupid sets a white doe in his path. The young man gives chase and soon becomes separated from his companions; nonetheless, Julio pursues his quarry all the way into a forest clearing. There, the doe vanishes and Julio encounters a beautiful nymph; at this point Cupid fires an arrow into Julio’s breast and he falls instantly in love. The nymph reveals to Julio that her name is Simonetta, that she is married, and that she lives in Florence. She then bids the youth farewell and departs.

Julio returns home safely, to the relief of his anxious retinue, but he is now a changed man, consumed by thoughts of his beloved Simonetta. Meanwhile, a triumphant Cupid flies back to his mother Venus’s garden and palace, which Poliziano describes in lavish detail. Finding Venus upon a couch with her lover Mars, Cupid gleefully reports his wounding of the formerly scornful Julio.

Venus expresses approval of Cupid’s activities. Mother and son then discuss the romantic fates of Laurel and Julio. Laurel—who has proven faithful to his mistress Lucrezia—is to be rewarded for his fidelity in love; Cupid will en-sure that the haughty Lucrezia returns Laurel’s devotion. Julio, however, will have to prove him-self in arms to attain Simonetta’s favor. Venus sends out her winged cherubs to wound the young men of Florence, inspiring them with thoughts of love and martial prowess. At Venus’s bidding, Pasithea—one of the Graces—obtains a dream from the god of sleep. The dream is in-tended for Julio. While in the grip of his dream, Julio sees Simonetta, clad in armor, overpowering Cupid and binding him to an olive tree. Cupid, now appearing weak and vulnerable, exhorts Julio to save him and tells the young man that only “a triumphal palm” (Stanze, 2.31) will win him Simonetta. A vision of Glory, accompanied by Poetry and History, then descends, stripping Simonetta of her armor and bearing Julio himself off to the battlefield. Emerging victorious from his conflict, Julio discovers to his dismay that a dark cloud has enveloped Simonetta. She soon emerges in a radiant new form as Fortune, destined to “govern his life, and make them both eternal through fame” (Stanze, 2.34).

Dawn arrives and Julio awakens from his dream, “burning with love and a desire for glory” (Stanze, 2.39). Now eager to try his strength against the nobles of Florence, Julio prays to Minerva, Glory, and Cupid for victory in arms and love. The poem then ends before the great tournament takes place.

The triumph of love

Poliziano’s conception of love as a redemptive force is derived from several influences. His translator David E. Quint ob-serves that the writings of Dante, Petrarca (Petrarch), and Giovanni Boccaccio may have provided the most immediate source of inspiration because they embodied a familiar tenet of early Italian literature—that love transforms and ennobles the lover. One tale from Boccaccio’s De-cameron, in fact, describes the fate of a youth much like Poliziano’s Julio, who undergoes a similar change when he falls in love:

Because of the love which he bore Efigenia, not only did he change his harsh and rustic voice into a citizenly and mannerly one, but he became master of dance and song, and he became expert and bold in riding and martial skills, those of the sea as well as those of the land … he had not completed one quarter of a year before he became better graced and better mannered, with more individual virtues, than any other youth on the island of Cyprus.

(Boccaccio in Quint, p. xv)

In the Stanze, Julio begins as a daring athletic youth, who excels at hunting, riding, and even composing poetry. However, he is also described as an “arrogant boy … always unkempt and hardened in aspect,” who scorns women, lovers, and all the softer passions (Stanze, 1.10). Once struck by love, he undergoes a transformation that alters the pattern of his entire existence; his boyish self-sufficiency gives way to a willing subjection to and dependency upon his beloved. To win Simonetta’s regard, he must leave the pastoral woodlands of his childhood and prove his worth among the young noblemen of Florence. The Stanze thus sets the stage for a tournament that will represent a triumph not only for the maturation of Julio but, as Cupid points out to Venus, for love itself:

This, noble Mother, is my victory; this has been my toil and my sweat; for which our glory, our reputation, our ancient honor will rise above the heavens, for which your memory, Mother, and that of your son, Love, will never be erased; for which verses and lyrics will forever sing of our arrows, flames, bows, and quivers.

(Stanze, 2.12)

Love as an ennobling, transcendent force was not solely a literary conceit. Indeed, the Stanze may also owe something to the writings of Poliziano’s friend Marsilio Ficino, a philosopher who made a lifelong career out of translating the works of Plato and Plato’s later followers—the Neoplatonists—into Italian. Ficino’s best-known work may have been his De amore (c. 1459; Of Love), a commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love. Although De Amore was not printed until 1484, manuscript copies (in Italian and Latin) circulated privately among Ficino’s acquaintances after its composition. Lorenzo de’ Medici, who employed Ficino as a translator for the Medici family, requested an Italian translation of De amore for two of his friends. It is probable that Poliziano, also employed by the Medici house-hold, encountered De Amore in manuscript.

The basic argument of Ficino’s treatise presupposes (1) that all existence emanates from God to the physical world in a descending hierarchy, (2) that all living beings desire to return to their source (God), (3) that this desire is called love, and (4) that the quality of the source that arouses this desire is called beauty. The human soul is capable of earthly love, based upon the desire to procreate (descending), and of heavenly love, in which the soul aspires to higher levels of being in hopes of closer union with God (ascending): “Human love is therefore a good thing because in both its phases, descending and ascending, it is part of a natural cosmic process in which all creatures share” (Jayne in Ficino, p. 7).

Ficino’s work enjoyed considerable popularity among his contemporaries. Lorenzo de’ Medici used De amore in his commentary upon his own love poems, and the renowned scholar Mario Equicola accorded Ficino a place of honor when he compiled a history of treatises on love in 1495. De amore also inspired other efforts in a similar vein, most notably Leone Ebreo’s Dialogues of Love (c. 1512) and Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of The Courtier (1528; also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). It is unclear to what extent Poliziano agreed with Ficino’s philosophy of love; it has been suggested that he seems less concerned than Ficino with the relations between man and God. How-ever, in the Stanze, Poliziano does portray Julio ascending to a higher level of being as he abandons his rustic sports and the forest beasts for the world of human love and human endeavor. It is possible to see his progress as an ascent up the ladder of being: from the lowest level of matter (the woods) to higher levels of nature (the hunt), to active human life (interest in Simonetta), and finally to the supernatural realm (the Garden of Venus, inhabited by the goddess herself).

Sources and literary context

As the full title indicates—Stanze Cominciate per la Giostra del Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici (Stanzas Begun for the Tournament of the Magnificent Giuliano de’ Medici)—a specific historical event inspired Poliziano’s poem: namely, the Florentine tournament of 1475, won by Giuliano de’ Medici. Poliziano drew his cast of characters from real life too, although he Latinized the names of Lorenzo and Giuliano to Laurel and Julio, respectively, and presented his tale as myth.

Transferring contemporary events and personages to a classical setting was a common practice among Renaissance court poets. Indeed, Poliziano’s use of Greek and Roman mythology in his work was entirely consistent with his humanism. He also consciously echoed familiar classical and Italian texts, such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Claudian’s Epithalamium, and Petrarch’s Canzoniere (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Poliziano’s immediate audience would not have disapproved of these liberal borrowings from antiquity. Rather, many would have said that literary allusions enriched their understanding of the work. Quint explains how familiar a strategy it was:

From his reading the Renaissance schoolboy compiled a personal florilegium, or notebook anthology, of catchy phrases, aphorisms, metaphors, and rhetorical figures from which he was to form his own speech and writing. … The true doctus, the learned man, exploiting a deep and wide erudition, could find the apposite classical allusion or model for any occasion. For Poliziano, literary imitation did not limit, but rather expanded the range of individual expression.

(Quint, p. xiii)

Significantly, Poliziano did not adopt the long, classical epic form characteristic of Cicero, a Roman author whose style and diction many writers chose to emulate. Rather, Poliziano cultivated a brief, allusive poetic style, possibly similar to that used by Callimachus and Catullus to com-pose mini-epics, or epyllions.

As previously noted, Poliziano’s models for the lyrical and erotic aspects of the Stanze prob-ably included works by Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, along with Ficino’s De Amore. In the end, the multiplicity of literary sources helped Poliziano create a poem that managed to fuse the beauty and splendor of classical literature with the vigor and spontaneity of Italian vernacular poetry.

Reception and impact

While Poliziano’s poem was not officially published until 1494, it may have circulated privately among his intimates in Stanzas on the Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court circle. Lorenzo himself wouuld most likely have been pleased by the poet’s tribute to his younger brother.

The Stanis Verse

Writing in the vernacular Tuscan, Poliziano’s stanze uses ottava rima—an eight-line verse form with the rhyme scheme abababcc, conventionally used in narrative poetry. Polizfano’s light, skillful application of this form inspired later Italian writers, including Lodovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso (see Orlando Furioso and, Jenrusalem Delivered , also in WLAIT 7: italian Literature and Its Times). Arguably, the most famous English practitioner was Lord Byron, who used ottava rima for his comic satire, Don Juan (1816-24). An example of Poliziano’s handling of the octave, with a translation, follows:

Le gloriose pompe e’ fieri ludi
della cittá che ‘l freno allenta e stringe
a’ magnanimi Toschi, e i regni crudi
di quella dea che ‘l terzo ciel dipinge,
e i premi degni alii onorati studi
la mente audace a celebrar mi spinge,
si che i gran nomi e i fatti egregi e soli
fortuna o morte o tempo non invoti.

My daring mind urges me to celebrate mi glorious pageants and the proud games of the city that bridles and gives rein to the magnanimous Tuscans, the cruel realms of the goddess who adorns the third h&aven, and the rewards merited by honorable pursuits; in order that fortune, death, or time may not spoil great names and unique and eminent deeds.

(Stanze, 1.1)

The Stanze is often cited as the literary source for many of Sandro Botticelli’s famous paintings. Indeed, Poliziano’s lavishly detailed description of the birth of Venus (Stanze, 1.99-101) appears to have furnished the inspiration for Botticelli’s painting of the same name:

With lovely and happy gestures, a young woman with nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth. … You could swear that the goddess had emerged from the waves, pressing her hair with her right hand, covering with the other her sweet mound of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted with her sacred and divine step, it had clothed itself in flowers and grass; then with happy, more than mortal features, she was received in the bosom of the three nymphs and cloaked in a starry garment.

(Stanze, 1.99–101)

While Poliziano’s poetry was admired in his lifetime, later generations of critics—such as those of post-Unification Italy in the late nineteenth century—tended to dismiss his and other poetic works of the Italian Renaissance. These critics acknowledged the classical influences and stylistic beauty of the poetry but paid little attention to its content. In his late-twentieth-century English translation, Quint strove for an effect that was both lyrical and literal, that conveyed not only the rich classical inheritance of the humanist poet but also his attempt to depict love as the means by which human potential is realized. Quint’s effort was well received. One review called his translation “excellent, conveying the tone and content of the poetry in prose paragraphs which reflect the octave of the original … an outstanding contribution” (Italica). Another review spoke of the far-reaching effect the translation, released 500 years after the original, promised to have: “[Quint’s] book cannot fail to cast new light on the Italian Renaissance in general, and on Poliziano in particular” (Forum Italicum). Finally, Choice magazine applauded Quint’s translation as “rich, vibrant, and rhythmic, while at the same time accurate and natural. It captures the fragile and fugitive beauty of the original Italian verses, emulating the complex models of Latin and Greek literature” (Choice in Mooney, p. 1012).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

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Stanzas on the Tournament

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