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Myths of Poetry and Praise: Orpheus in Poliziano's and Statius' Silvae

Marco Romani Mistretta

Soon after Poggio's re-discovery of the text in 1417, Statius' Silvae became a favorite subject of scholarship and imitation among Italian Renaissance intellectuals. Yet no other neo-Latin poet assimilated Statius' poetics as thoroughly and deeply as Angelo Poliziano. Besides gathering a huge amount of scholarly material for his lectures on Statius, he composed four inaugural praelectiones (held at the Studio between 1482 and 1491) in the form of long hexametric poems, under the Statian title of Silvae. This paper focuses on a crucial element of Poliziano's re-elaboration of Statius' poetics within his own version of the silva-genre: the general use of mythological spokespersons as a meta-poetic device, and the role of Orpheus in particular.
Like Statius, Poliziano defends a pluralistic concept of literary tradition, emphasizing the continuous flow of genres and writers: the dynamics of poetic change are based on rivalry and challenge (Mengelkoch 2010). This is embodied, in both poets, by a number of mythical figures: for instance, Poliziano's Nemesis, heir to Statius' Rhamnusia, is a powerful divine force, effecting the decline of Greece's literary hegemony in favor of Rome (Manto 7-32). In Mantua's speech (Manto 65-80), the prophetess acts like Statius' Sibyl (Silv. 4.3.119-120 and 5.3.172-175) in guaranteeing the poet's victory in the competition for literary authority, thus affirming the legitimacy of his praise - be it directed to the emperor (Statius) or to Vergil (Poliziano). Emulation and rivalry, for Poliziano, constitute the very essence of art, since its ultimate aim is not just to imitate nature, or previous art, but to overcome both: an attitude already manifested by Statius (cf. especially Silv. 2.7 and 5.3). 
In Poliziano's aesthetics, however, poetry is hardly an art pour l'art, as is testified by important references to the pedagogical and enlightening function of poetica, and by the emphasis on the active role of poetry as creation (see Séris 2002:368). In investigating this aspect of Poliziano's poetics, most scholars (e.g. Maïer 1966, Branca 1983, Bausi 1996) have stressed the influence of Ficino's Neo-Platonism - often neglecting, on the other hand, the Statian model. In this connection, I analyze Poliziano's intertextual treatment of the figure of Orpheus as a means of reflecting on the civilizing role of the vates. In Poliziano's Silvae, poets are shown to construct concrete and tangible artifacts, as is illustrated by the myth of Orpheus and Amphion (cf. Nutricia 283-290). This paper argues that 1) Poliziano's image of Orpheus depends largely on Statius, that 2) Orpheus can be for Poliziano, as already for Statius (Lovatt 2007:155), a symbol of poetic competition as much as one of poetic co-operation, and that 3) Poliziano distances himself from Statius in downplaying the potentially disruptive implications of the myth.
Besides being explored by Vergil (Georg. 4.457–527), the figure of Orpheus as a paradigm of the vates is remarkably developed by Statius in Silv. 2.7 (Newlands 2011:237). In the prefatory epistle to Manto, Poliziano's Orpheus enjoys the main features of a Statian vates, thus representing the persuasive and appeasing force of poetry as well as its encomiastic value (cf. also Nutricia 124-128, a passage characterized by markedly Statian language). In Manto 72-74, where Orpheus and Amphion admire Vergil's divine eloquence, Poliziano's use of an epicizing periphrasis for Amphion (qui Tyrio construxit moenia plectro) is clearly reminiscent of Statius, Silv. 3.1.16-17, where the aetiological myth is rhetorically evoked with an encomiastic function. Is Poliziano's Orpheus a wholly ‘Statian’ figure? I shall demonstrate that, whereas for Statius Orpheus symbolizes both the creative power of poetry and its ultimate failure in the face of death, in Poliziano's Silvae this ambivalence is adroitly avoided and neutralized.
By engaging in a close reading of both the Flavian model and its Neo-Latin re-working, I shall cast new light on the way in which Poliziano's construction of a poetic canon based on imitatio and challenge mobilizes Statius' encomiastic rhetoric and his strategies of mythological elaboration.

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Neo-Latin Texts in the Americas and Europe

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