The Renaissance Fascination with Error: Mannerism and Early Modern Poetry

Article excerpt

  "If this be error, and upon me prov'd, / I never writ, nor no man ever
  Shakespeare--Sonnet 116, lines 13-14

In his dedicatory epistle to Don Michel de Silva placed at the beginning of Il libro del cortegiano, Baldassarre Castiglione (1478-1529) talks about the accusations leveled against Boccaccio's artificial style: "If I had imitated the style of writing for which he is censured ... I certainly could not have escaped the same accusations.... In fact, I would have deserved them all the more in that he committed his error in the belief that he was doing right, whereas I would have done so knowing I was wrong." (1) Two pages later, to those who claim that his book is a waste of time "because it is pointless to teach what cannot be learned," Castiglione ironically responds: "My answer to them is that I shall be quite, content to have erred in the company of Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero." (2)

Thus, for the Renaissance writer error can be identified as a regrettable mistake, an unforgivable faux pas; or, on the contrary, something he or she should be proud of, because it signals another order of truth, one that the common reader might not have grasped if it had been couched in the straightforward language of truth. This duplicitous level of meaning powerfully exemplifies the conflicting status of an important cognitive category that, in early modern times, triggers an ambiguous attitude, both of rejection and appropriation, condemnation and condonation, and prosecution and propitiation.

Later on, at the end of book 2, when asked by the Duchess of Urbino to "fashion a Court lady perfect in everything"--just as the Count and Federico had fashioned the perfect courtier--the magnifico Giuliano replies: "If it pleases you that I should undertake this task, let it at least be on the same conditions as these gentlemen obtained, namely, that anyone may contradict me when he wishes to, and I shall regard this not as contradiction but as help; and perhaps through the correction of my errors, we shall discover the perfection we are seeking." (3) Straying, then, is paradoxically necessary to the process of improvement. In the meliorative environment provided by the amorevole compagnia, a lively bunch of friends, errors should not be condemned; on the contrary, they should be encouraged, as they will trigger healthy reactions and put the brigata on the path to truth. Giuliano himself, the greatest member of the Medici family, admits to committing errors and finds it quite natural to beg for correction--although this might be the ultimate twist of self-conscious sprezzatura on his part.

Errors belong to all times; but they probably were never more often tracked down and talked about, denounced and warm-heartedly enjoyed, or prosecuted and glorified, than in the highly cultured social circles of the Renaissance. (4) Erasmus (1469?-1536) proclaimed that the number of errors and follies is infinite, and he made his business to expose as many as he could. (5) Following Lorenzo Valla (1406-57) he was, outside of Italy, the father of what we now call textual criticism. In his famous letter to Maarten van Dorp, the distinguished representative of Louvain theologians, Erasmus used his trenchant irony to criticize Jerome's Latin Vulgate and to advocate the return to Greek sources:

  I suppose the Church Fathers worded their decision to approve the
  Vulgate (and only the Vulgate) like this: "We will allow no changes,
  even if the most accurate Greek texts have a different reading ...
  which may accord better with the meaning of the gospels.... We set the
  seal of our approval on any error or corruption, any addition or
  omission which may subsequently arise by any means whatsoever, through
  ignorance or presumption of scribes, their incompetence, drunkenness
  or negligence. We grant permission to no one to change the text once
  it is accepted." An absurd pronouncement, you say. …