Homer in the French Renaissance*

Article excerpt


It is difficult for us to imagine a world without Homer. The story of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus have fared rather better in the popular imagination than Aeneas's parallel adventures, and many aspects of the Homeric style--epithets such as "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea, " (1) extended similes (of which the comparison of the generations of man to falling leaves is just one of the most beautiful (2)), and its formulaic nature--have appealed to the sensibilities of many readers over the years. Yet it was not always so. For centuries, Homer's poetry was lost to Western Europe, even though the name Homer was a byword for the inspired poet, and it was not until Petrarch, the father of Renaissance humanism, turned his attention to Homer that the stage was set for a return. Since his youth, Petrarch had wanted to be able to read the Homeric epics, but it was not until the end of 1353 or early 1354 that he obtained a Greek manuscript of Homer, thanks to the Byzantine ambassador in Italy, Nikolaos Sygeros. As he did not know any Greek, the text of Homer remained silent for him--"Your Homer is dumb as far as I am concerned, or rather I am deaf as far as he is concerned" (3)--until he met Leontius Pilatus in the winter of 1358-59. Pilatus came from Calabria, though he passed himself off as a Greek. Petrarch persuaded him to translate the first five books of the Iliad, and a few months later, at the request of Boccaccio, Pilatus went to Florence, where he spent two years (1360-62) completing his translation of the two epics. (4) The two manuscripts prepared for Petrarch are now in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms lat. 7880(1) and 7880(2), beautifully illuminated and bearing some of Petrarch's own annotations. (5)

However, it would not be until the end of the fifteenth century that French humanists turned their minds to Homer, stimulated by the works of Florentine humanists such as Angelo Poliziano and by contacts with the Byzantine scholar Janus Lascaris (1445-1534). (6) In the early days, would-be Hellenists in France, like those elsewhere, relied on Italian texts, at a time when only a few presses were beginning to come to terms with the complexities of printing Greek. The editio princeps of Homer, which appeared in Florence in 1488, would have offered little assistance to those who were struggling to understand the Greek text, at a time when there were few teachers or dictionaries. While it contains, in addition to all the texts attributed to Homer at the time--the Homeric Hymns and the Battle of the Frogs and Mice as well as the Iliad and the Odyssey--the lives of Homer thought to be by Herodotus and Plutarch, and an essay by Dio Chrysostom, there is barely a word of explanation in Latin other than an epistle by the editor Bernardo Nerlio to Piero de' Medici. (7) Those early readers who could understand something of the Greek were put off precisely by many of the things which we now prize in the Homeric style: the use of epithets, formulaic expressions, and repetition. At the same time, there was an admiration, based to a large extent on classical doxa, of Homer's knowledge--the Iliad and the Odyssey were considered to be the source of all the arts and sciences as well as the philosophical schools--of the moral wisdom contained in the two epics, and, for some readers, of the hidden allegorical meanings which the poems were thought to contain. (8) Appreciating Homer was a complex process.


There can be no doubt of Italy's preeminence in the early publishing history of Homer. Of the eighteen editions, translations, and ancient commentaries that I have identified, twelve are from Italy, and only two from France, three from Germany, and one from Switzerland. (9)

The first Homeric work to be printed in France, the 1510 edition of Niccolo della Valle's Latin verse translation of the Iliad, illustrates the importance of the Italian connection in the early days of Homeric scholarship in France. …