Panormita's Reply to His Critics: The 'Hermaphroditus' and the Literary Defense

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In her discussion of imitatio, Julia Haig Gaisser(1) describes how humanist scholars and poets justified their light, titillating compositions, based on Catullus, Martial, and The Priapea, by invoking the ancient literary defense, whose purpose was essentially to ward off potential critics or else to justify their oeuvre by making a sharp distinction between their life and their art. One locus classicus is Catullus 16.5-6: "Nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est" (The devoted poet ought to be chaste himself, his verses need not be so). Another is Martial, Epigrams 1.4.8, which, modeled as it is on Ovid, Tristia 2.354, speaks not of poets in general but of Martial himself: "Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba" (My writing is lascivious, my life pure). The classical defensio or apologia was thus revived and given new meaning by the humanists as they sought to justify their literary endeavors in light of an emerging and ultimately puritanical sense of decorum.

Prominent among these men was the canon lawyer, poet, and scholar Antonio Beccadelli of Palermo (hence his popular sobriquet "il Panormita"), who lived from 1394 to 1471. The eldest son of Enrico di Vannino Beccadelli, who had played an active role in Sicilian politics and had been appointed Praetor of Palermo in 1393, Panormita distinguished himself in many of the leading intellectual and aristocratic circles of the day. Eventually he became ambassador and tutor to Alfonso V of Aragon, later king of Naples. Panormita's best known work, the Hermaphroditus, a corpus of eighty-one witty and often obscene Latin epigrams modeled on Martial and the Priapea, earned him fame and praise by, among others, Guarino da Verona, who called Panormita the poetic scion of another renowned Sicilian, Theocritus.(2) But the Hermaphroditus brought increasingly vociferous critics as well, before whom Panormita would have to defend not only his work but also his life and morals.

The following will discuss Panormita's adaptation of the defensio, or what for our purposes might also be called the pagina lasciva vita proba argument, both in his epigrams and in his letters, against the background not only of his literary forbears but of other Renaissance neo-Latin poets. My discussion has been guided by Gaisser,(3) J.P. Sullivan,(4) and Amy Richlin(5) who each review the literary defense from Catullus to Pliny the Younger and its humanist revival. They indicate how pervasive the argument was, and how malleable a rhetorical device. The defensio was used to defend a poet's work, notably erotic or obscene verse, against carping critics who are regarded variously as ignorant or even degenerate.

The defensio could be used within a context of either insult or flattery: insults against those regarded as the poet's inferiors, who carped at his work out of ignorance; and flattery of those to whom a work was dedicated or who complimented the work, even if guardedly. They were the poet's social equals or superiors. The defensio could also be applied, within a Christian milieu, to a situation in which the speaker, a person in authority, advised the addressee to steer clear of obscene poetry in order not to endanger his immortal soul. Within this context, the distinction between pagina lasciva and vita proba, arguably, cannot be so neatly maintained.

The object of this paper is to shed further light on the use of the ancient literary defense among the early humanists as they sought to imitate the classical poets while at the same time warding off possible accusations of pagan license. The defensio, with its stress on the poet's moral probity and the strict separation of his life from his work, was eminently adaptable to the Christian ethic. Indeed, so adaptable was the defensio as an argument that even those who denied its validity, i.e., that a writer of bawdy verses could be upright in his life, still resorted to the language of the defensio. However, not only morality but also elegance and refinement were at issue. …