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Poetry and Place in Poliziano's Nutricia

Luke Roman

           Angelo Poliziano’s four Silvae, presented as preliminary essays (prolusiones) on classical poetry for his students, are master classes in the medium of classicizing Latin verse: he elucidates classical poetry by renewing and rewriting it. In his silva entitled Nutricia (1491), Poliziano surveys poetry from classical antiquity to contemporary Italy. I will argue that Poliziano’s primary matrix for recreating the poetry of antiquity is the classical poetics of place, and that this emphasis coincides with a contemporary interest in reviving classical spaces and architectural forms. Poliziano’s erudition, poetic emulation of antiquity, and defense of multiple-source allusivity have been extensively studied (Grafton, Godman, Branca, Maïer, Mengelkoch, Séris, Leuker, Bettinzoli, Bausi, Greene, McLaughlin). Scholars have also recognized the “renewed preoccupation with the aesthetic qualities of country life” in the later quattrocento (Caruso, 13; Ackerman), and the renewal of the pastoral genre (Grant). There is no study, however, focusing on Poliziano’s transformative emulation of the classical poetics of place and its relation to the reinvention of antiquity in architectural and landscape gardening projects of fifteenth-century Florence.

          In the Nutricia, Poliziano weaves a rich topological tapestry: this includes primarily 1) the metapoetic loci of classical poetry (groves, mountains, rivers, grottos, valleys, Hesiodic landscapes of inspiration); and 2) the geographical associations of poets (origin, residence, or exile). Yet this bare summary does justice neither to the sheer excess of Poliziano’s literary topomania, nor to the rich nuance of his topographical allusions. For example, discussing Roman satire, Poliziano describes how Horace, the “Venusian bee,” gathered (lyric) honey, but, when provoked, attacked with his stinger, wandering among the “brambles” (vepribus) of Suessa Aurunca, the satirist Lucilius’ town of origin; Persius and Juvenal, “the poet of Aquinum,” later picked these brambles for themselves (640-44). Poliziano draws on Horace’s (C.4.2.27-32) and Juvenal’s (1.19-20, 3.319) poetry to fashion their own and Lucilius’ toponymic identifiers, while replacing Juvenal’s satiric “field” (campo, 1.19) with a bramble patch. Moreover, by transforming Horace’s satiric sword/stilus (Serm. 2.1.39-42) into a bee’s stinger (cf. Anth. Pal. 7.405, 408 on Hipponax with Bausi ad loc.), Poliziano ingeniously harmonizes his self-representational imagery across different genres. The “bramble patch of satire” exemplifies the intertextual density of Poliziano’s Silvae: literary places are resonant with the memories of prior literary places. 

            In the poem’s closing section on post-classical poets, Poliziano offers striking commentary on Dante’s role as poet-hero and his spatial transcendence of the pagan poetic tradition: unlike Virgil, who merely described his hero’s katabasis, Dante, in Poliziano’s coinage the “winged one” (Aligerum = Alighieri, 720), undertakes an aerial voyage (volantem, 722) in the first person, both down to the underworld (per Styga) and to the stars above (721). Finally, Poliziano’s brilliantly tendentious literary history culminates in Florence with his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici. Poliziano praises Lorenzo’s poetry, but turns toward the future in the form of his son, Piero de’ Medici, who, in the final lines, climbs a symbolic hill modeled on the classical Helicon (782-90). The paratextual marker at the end—a subscription to the 1491 edition locating the poem’s composition at the Medici villa in Fiesole—permits a newly concrete rereading of the preceding passage: Fiesole is a new Helicon, the site of inspiration for a rising generation of poets. Poliziano’s intertextual attention to classical places is thus closely associated with the contemporary construction of classicizing villas. The Medici villas at Fiesole and Poggio a Caiano, mentioned several times throughout the Silvae (Rusticus 557-60, Ambra praef. and 590-596), were at the forefront of a new conception of the villa as the site of literary and philosophical activity that was being developed in dialogue with classical ideals of country dwelling (Ackerman, Bardazzi and Castellani). Poliziano’s references to the Medici villas in his Silvae are not merely topical, but, in a deeper sense, topological, and afford a concrete link between the humanist poetics of place and the reinvention of classical spatiality that was being carried out in literary and architectural media.

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