Pius II. Humanist and pope. Humanist in the Renaissance did not carry the atheistic connotations that it does today.
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Humanist Comedies

The picture above is Aeneas Silvius Picolmini, also known to history as Pope Pius II. Whether he was actually pious I don’t know. You can find a much larger version of this picture here.

This volume from the I Tatti Renaissance Library of Harvard University Press consists of five Latin comedies from the Quattrocento (15th century) by Italian humanists. Humanism has become a dirty word among religious people, and secular humanism is especially dirty, but humanism refers, in literary studies at least, to the recovery of Classical Greek and Latin texts, and the revival of interest in Greek and Latin literature. Part of this engagement was a renewed appreciation of Roman drama, including the plays of Plautus and Terence.

The Romans picked up their idea of comedy from the Greeks, but it was not the comedy of Aristophanes, which is termed “Old Comedy,” but the comedy of Menander, “New Comedy.” There was a “Middle Comedy,” but there seem to be few, if any remains. Whereas Aristophanes was inventive and bawdy, Menander’s comedy seems to have used pretty much standard plots involving boy lusts for girl, slave helps boy get girl, boy frees slave.

This was adopted by Plautus and Terence. If you’ve seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then you’ve seen an example of Plautine comedy. Erich Segal, who is best known as the author of Love Story, wrote book called Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus, which is linked to over on the right.

The introduction to the present volume does an excellent job of describing the stock characters of Roman comedy.

Young man—adulescens
cunning slave—servus callidus

Young heroine—virgo (this does not necessarily mean virgin)

Professional caricatures
soldier—miles (sometimes referred to as the braggart soldier, or miles gloriosus. This character appears in A Funny Thing.)
cook—cocus (vii-viii).

Roman comedy was in verse, the common meter in Greek and Latin, as in English, was the iambus, or iambic meter. Greek and Latin were quantitative languages, and their prosody was based on the length (quantity) of the vowels. Latin had certain rules for determining quantity, but the basic idea is that the iamb was a short syllable followed by a long. You’ll see this represented as something like this:
|uu_u_|u_u_|u_u_|. This is an iambic trimeter. In Greek scansion the foot or metrum would have two iambs. In English prosody, the trimeter is three iambs. This shows up in ballads, where you have alternating lines in a 4/3 pattern. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is in ballad meter.

English verse might be scanned as something like this:

Of mán’s| fírst dis| o bé| di énce&hellip

The accent falls correctly on the second syllable of the first foot, incorrectly, or disobediently on first in the second. (The second foot, in the Miltonic example above, is a trochee, or a trochaic foot.) Two of the comedies in the present volume are in Latin verse. Those by Pier Paolo Vergerio and Enea Silvio Picclolmini (Pius II). The remainder are in Latin prose.

Pier Paolo Vergerio—Paulus. This seems to be unfinished. Issues are left unresolved, and plot strands never fully play out. It involves a student (Paulus) who is low on funds. His servant (Herotes) attempts to get credit for the master. In the process Herotes manages to lay with Ursula, a courtesan, twice, and Paulus gets the girl once. It’s rather lively, and would probably be funny if it were staged. As with many products of the Italian Renaissance, such as The Decameron, it’s not for the straitlaced.

Leon Battista Alberti—The Play of Philodoxus. Alberti was the first to give a mathematical treatment of perspective. He was also a model for what we have come to consider the “Renaissance man,” the omnicompetent, or nearly so, master of many trades.

Philodoxus is not quite an allegory, but it has a moral intent. The characters’ names show the allegorical intent:

Philodoxus→Lover of Glory
Phroneus→Wise and prudent man (see phronesis)
Argos→Foresight (see Ovid’s story)
Thraso→Audacity and pride
Autadia→insolence and arrogance
Dynastes→tyranny and power (cf. dynamo, dynamite, etc.)
Aphthonus→wealth and abundance
Alithia→truth (73-75)

The story revolves around Philodoxus’ pursuit of Doxia. It is complete, and shows no signs of being unfinished, as was the case with the previous play, but it is not as bawdy, or as entertaining.

Ugolino Pisani—Philogenia and Epiphebus. This is based in part on the Casina of Plautus. It also owes a debt to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 2, story 7. (Here for Italian, and here for English.)

Epiphebus is in love, or what passes for love with Philogenia. She is a young girl of about 16, which in Renaissance times is quite marriageable, and he finally persuades her to run away with him. Her parents raise a fuss over the abduction, so he hides her with his various friends, who also have their way with her. He finally resolves to marry her off to another man, so that they can still be lovers. So the other man, Gobius, takes Philogenia in the belief that she is still a virgin, while she is in fact, to put it delicately, damaged goods.

Enea Silvio Piccolomini (Pius II)—Chrysis. This doesn’t have much of a plot. It is basically scenes of lowlife in Basel. Piccolomini was a humanist, and a diplomat, but I doubt if today we would think that he has a vocation to the priesthood. The play is amusing in a bawdy, ribald way, but it is not pious, and neither was Pius.

Tommaso Mezzo—The Epirote. This another jolly, bawdy comedy of life among the bawds. Pamphilia, an old woman, years for Clitipho. He is in love with Antiphilia. The Epirote of the title is Antiphilia’s uncle. Antiphilia suspects Clitipho of loving a courtesan (Erotium). The Epirote (man from Epirus) finds Antiphilia, gives her a dowry, and she gets married. Pamphilia, in order to get at Clitipho, marries the uncle.

The play follows the Twin Menaechmi of Plautus in having two characters with the same name, but where Plautus, and Shakespeare after him in The Comedy of Errors, generates the comedy from identical twins being confused with each other, Mezzo makes no issue of the appearance of the two Clitiphos, and the second Clitipho does not appear until the end of the play.

Next up is John Ringo’s Eye of the Storm. This will be followed by Descartes, Meditations.