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Humanist horti: the poetics of innovation in Giovanni Pontano’s De hortis Hesperidum

Luke Roman

De hortis Hesperidum (completed ca. 1500) is a didactic poem on the cultivation of orange trees by the Neapolitan humanist Giovanni Pontano (1429-1503). I wish to argue that Pontano’s novel didactic subject is accompanied by an interest in innovation that is at once poetic and horticultural. De hortis Hesperidum has been the subject of a small number of specialized studies (Tateo, de Nichilo, Roellenbleck, Ludwig, Nuovo, Caruso), but none of these fully examines the themes of innovation and discovery that pervade the work’s subject matter, mythology, language, and poetics.

            Virgil, in the Georgics, left gardens and gardening as a topic for future writers (4.147-8), a hint taken up by Columella in De re rustica 10 (Pref. 3; cf. Pagán, 31-6). Pontano at once continues and disrupts this dynamic of continuation by expanding the scope of didactic garden poetry to include orange trees, which did not exist in classical Italy. This innovation in poetic subject matter is accompanied by audacious supplements to the mythic tradition. Pontano recasts the death of Adonis on the pattern of Ovid’s Daphne to provide an origins-story for orange tree cultivation in Italy (1.68-101), and by a clever mythological neologism, makes oranges the “golden fruit” (poma . . . aurea, 1.568) of the Hesperides. Finally, Pontano has the wandering Hercules transport this divinely created tree to Italian shores (1.102-110; cf. Caruso, 1-20).

            Pontano supplements not only classical mythology but also the Latin language to accommodate his new subject matter: e.g., the toponym Niasaeus from the river Nias in Africa to refer to the fruit of the Hesperides (1.597; cf. Arnaldi et. al., 781), and the novel distinction between citrius (“orange”) and citrus (“citron,” 2.180-188; cf. Caruso, 119). Pontano’s themes of newness (novitas), discovery, and importation are linked with the broader Renaissance interest in geographical exploration. In one passage, Pontano refers to the expedition to India undertaken by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and his importation of the type of oranges called portogalli (1.343-63). Da Gama and his crew, sailing to “unknown places . . . and new shores,” were struck by “the newness of things” (rerum novitate, 1.354). Unlike the medieval hortus conclusus, Pontano’s garden resembles contemporary Renaissance gardens in the wide prospect it affords (Thacker, 95-6). The humanist poet encourages his readers to gaze out from his literary garden’s locus amoenus over vast temporal and geographical expanses.

            This concern with innovation and discovery is thus at once geographical, linguistic, and poetic. The metapoetic strand in Pontano’s garden poem draws on a long tradition of such themes by classical Latin poets: references to labor, memory, perpetuity, beauty, and cultus are framed simultaneously in horticultural and poetic terms. Motifs of weaving and grafting are particularly suggestive in the light of Pontano’s poetics of innovation. In one passage, Pontano compares topiary with the creation of “tapestries” woven out of branches and leaves (1.522-5; cf. Segre, 88). In another, Pontano, describing the dead Adonis’ transformation into an orange tree (1.533-80), extensively alludes to the song and weaving of the Parcae in Catullus (64.303-383). Pontano thus self-consciously weaves together elements from classical literature to create a new and original text. The replacement of the doomed warrior-hero Achilles with the doomed love-hero Adonis as subject of the song of the Parcae is itself a notable instance of his innovative interweaving of themes and sources.

A similar dynamic is at work in the passage on grafting (2.309-406). Grafting was already imbued with metapoetic significance in classical poetry, and reference to grafting could serve as “a recurrent means for Roman writers of the ‘natural’ to index their own novelty” (Lowe, 477). Thus it is striking that Pontano’s discussion is dense with references to classical intertexts (e.g., Virgil Georgics 2.69-82; Columella Rust. 5.11, De arboribus 9.1-2, 6.5; Palladius Opus agriculturae 14, Liber de insitione). Pontano grafts his splendid new poem on orange trees onto the trunk of classical myth and poetics.

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Ovidian Poetics, Ovidian Receptions

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