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Turks as Trojans: Intertext and Allusion in Ubertino Posculo’s Constantinopolis

Bryan Whitchurch

Fordham University

Ubertino Posculo’s decision to study Greek in Constantinople in 1452 thrust him into the heart of a cataclysmic event which ushered in a new world order: the capture of the city by the Turks in 1453. Enslaved to a Turk, ransomed, then captured by pirates and nearly sold into slavery a second time before his ultimate escape, Posculo began composing the Constantinopolis shortly after returning to Italy in 1455. This epic poem recounting the fall of Constantinople consistently portrays the Turks as Trojans (Teucri), but in doing so participates in a thriving controversy of Posculo’s time about what name to use when referring to the Ottomans. On one side of the controversy were a small minority of humanists who characterized the Turks as Trojans, thereby implicitly assigning them a place in a classical tradition that rendered them noble and worthy of inclusion with the rest of West. In opposition were the vast majority of humanists who called for crusade to retake Constantinople. Essential to the resulting crusade literature was an insistence that the Turks were not Trojan, but rather of Scythian descent by rendering their name as Turci (Hankins). A rhetoric of alterity thus developed facilitating the demonization of Turks. Between Posculo’s consistent characterization of Turks as Teucri and occasional description of Constantinople’s capture as revenge for what the Greeks had done to Troy many centuries earlier, one would assume that Posculo sympathized with the Ottoman invaders. An ubiquitous disdain for Greeks appears to corroborate such an assessment, but Posculo likewise consistently disparages the Turks by highlighting their intemperance, their  violence, and barbarity. Posculo even concludes the epic with a hope, albeit feeble, that the city will be retaken in a crusade.  Speaking in general terms about humanistic literature of the period, both Hankins and Philippides suggest that Trojan epithets in the Constantinopolis are mere monikers put in place for their classical feel. Meserve instead argues that the valence of Teucri is limited to the opening lines.  I contend that the Trojan epithets are too pervasive to be brushed aside this easily, especially when evaluated alongside the use of intertext and allusion. Throughout the Constantinopolis, Trojan Turks take on the role of the invading Greeks from Posculo’s epic models while the Greeks subsume the role of defending Trojans doomed to destruction. Where flood waters fed by melting snow in the Iliad characterize the fierceness of a Greek warrior pursuing Trojans who are in retreat, in the Constantinopolis Trojans are the pursuers: tenor and vehicle have exchanged places as Greeks flee from Teucri who pursue them; it is a calculated inversion of a tradition revered by Posculo and his audience. Mehmed II (the Magnus Teucer), in his last speech before the final assault on the walls, appropriates figurative language from texts composed in antiquity to console a mourning Cicero or a pious Christian under the care of Ambrose only to pervert the metaphor by using it to incite his men to battle-lust and rapine. As such, Mehmed plunders the texts of antiquity just as he will soon plunder the city. I argue that instead of evoking sympathy for the invaders, Posculo’s characterization of the Turks as Trojans aims to enflame his Venetian readership who claimed Trojan lineage through Antenor as noted by Hankins. Yet even here the Deus o velit in Posculo’s parenthetical plea for crusade at the end of the Constantinopolis  resides squarely in the realm of the subjunctive, at a distance from knowing with certainty God’s will and consequently the reality of the painful failure that the epic strives to depict. Herein the poem betrays an unresolved tension, notwithstanding the confidence Posculo conveys in his judgements upon coward and hero from the proem of Book 1 onward. One is furthermore reminded that however much we might like to value humanists for their relativism, they endeavored into the new world of Ottoman hegemony with robust chauvinism and prejudice. 

Session/Panel Title

Neo-Latin in the Old and New World: Current Scholarship

Session/Paper Number

53.1

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