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Decorum, Obscenity, and Literary Authority in the Letters of Poggio Bracciolini and Panormita

Nathan M Kish

Cornell College

Panormita’s Hermaphroditus (1425), a slim collection of 81 classically inspired epigrams, is rife with graphic depictions of sex, caustic abuse, and the Latin equivalent of four-letter words.  Although initially greeted with praise by other humanists, a few years after publication the work was widely castigated for its lascivious language and content and Panormita found himself under heavy attack.

Before the full outbreak of this maelstrom, Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) and Panormita (Antonio Beccadelli, 1394-1471) discussed decorum and obscenity and how the imitation of classical authors informs these topics in a brief but respectful exchange of letters.  In Poggio’s letter, in which he advises Panormita to abandon his practice of writing obscene poetry, his admonishments are rooted in the ancient conception that language and style are indicative of character (talis oratio, qualis vita; cf. Sen. Ep. 114); Panormita, however, argues that classical custom, most famously exemplified by Catullus (Poem 16), should grant a poet the freedom to use licentious language.  Nevertheless, neither author’s position can be mapped perfectly onto the ancient precedent he espouses; rather, each develops and molds classical theory to fit his own ends in a humanist game of literary authority, in which the board is the parchment and the pieces the bits of the literary tradition each author can array for his side.  While scholars have addressed the uproar that Panormita’s notorious book caused (Rutherford 2005, Rao 2007) and the sophisticated literary nature of Panormita’s defensio (Gaisser 1993, O’Connor 1997), I argue that the theoretical position that each author maintains, as well as the use of obscenity itself, were performative acts undertaken to meet the demands of specific rhetorical situations.

Taken as a whole, Poggio’s letter (Harth II.2.5) smacks of elderly condescension: Poggio assumes the role of Simo the senex by quoting that character’s words from Terence’s Andria and Panormita accordingly becomes the wayward adulescens in need of forgiveness and guidance.  It is a hallmark of Poggio’s and other early humanists’ classicism to turn to ancient authors for literary authority, but in this instance Poggio simultaneously accrues for himself paternal authority.  Nevertheless, Poggio distances himself from the position he advances by voicing it through a dramatic persona.  And so, although Poggio amplifies his point by presenting it through a Christian lens by making a Hieronymic distinction between the kind of literature that is appropriate for pagan authors and the kind suitable for Christians, the charm of his literary pastiche suggests that the whole matter is in some measure a game.

In contrast to Poggio’s letter, Panormita draws on a wide assortment of authors to make the case that poetic license and classical custom should grant a poet the freedom to use licentious language.  Turning to Apuleius’ Apologia (10-13), for example, Panormita asserts that it is specifically when a person makes an effort to conceal something potentially disreputable that he reveals his nature.  An assumption underlying this position is that what one does in private is especially indicative of character.  Doing the same thing openly and publicly, however, becomes a sort of performance or game.

This logic should be kept in mind when one considers the obscene language that characterizes humanist invective, as it far exceeds ancient practice.  The act of composing these texts was a performance in which humanists were attempting to define the boundaries of a distinctly humanist genre, one that melded in an unprecedented way the notions of decorum found in classical rhetoric and oratory with the greater license granted to epigram, satire, and iambic poetry.  Whereas ancient orators when abusing an adversary turned to rhetorical stratagems such as praeteritio to maintain an appearance of dignity, the humanists showed significantly less regard for this.  Fusing the decorum of oratory with the license of low genres is a difficult endeavor, but the challenges it presented drew the humanists to it.  They endeavored to throw a larger variety of ingredients into the pot and in the process concocted something new.

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Constructing a Classical Tradition: East and West

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