Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 3: Both Latin and Tuscan: Milton and the Italian Academies

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 3: Both Latin and Tuscan: Milton and the Italian Academies

Article excerpt

-if Vertue feeble were

Heaven it selfe would stoope to her

Coelum non animum muto, dum trans mare curro

Thus reads a bilingual entry in the autograph book of a certain Camillo Cardoini.1 The date is 10 June 1639 and the signature is that of John Milton, who on the verge of completing his Grand Tour, stopped off at Geneva. The inscription marries the vernacular to Latin as the closing lines of Comus are followed by an adaptation of a verse from Horace.2 Although the statement proclaims some sort of intransigence (perhaps, as Campbell and Corns suggest, Milton's "unwavering Protestantism"),3 it also attests to an unchanging and perhaps unchangeable animus. It was an animus that had by that date been molded in a number of ways: by the pedagogical methodology of St Paul's School, by Milton's experiences at Cambridge where by a strange paradox the confines of a university curriculum engendered the birth of a Latin voice, a vibrant linguistic means of communication and performance. In his averred immutability inscribed above, Milton may well be expressing a positive,5 itself reflective perhaps of the "balanced biculturalism" that "often goes hand in hand with a balanced bilinguality."6 Biculturalism is nowhere more evident than in the Milton of the Italian journey, in an Englishman's proactive integration into and reception by the academic communities of Florence, Rome and Naples:

But much !atelier in the privat Academics of Italy, whither I was favor'd to resort, perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, compos'd at under twenty or thereabout (for the manner is, that every one must give some proof of his wit and reading there), met with acceptance above what was lookt for, and other things which I had shifted in scarsity of books and conveniences to patch up amongst them, were receiv'd with written Encomiums, which the Italian is not forward to bestow on men of this side the Alps ...

Reason of Church Government)1

The passage strikes a contrast between the conventional and the unconventional: between the customary "manner" of displaying "wit and reading" before an Italian academy and the unexpectedly favorable "acceptance" which his performance(s) received. It was a reception attested and reflected by a series of "written Encomiums" that, Milton implies, Italians would not normally bestow upon northerners ("men of this side the Alps"). Underlying the whole is an Englishman's sense of pride in being treated as a native Italian might have been, and in being acclaimed by Renaissance literati in encomiastic verse and prose.9 These would later be prefixed to the Poemata "half of the 1645 volume: Poems of Mr John Milton Both English and Latin, introduced there as instances not of praise but of excessive praise non tarn de se quam supra se esse dicta). Excessive perhaps, but this is continental praise proffered, Milton is careful to tell us, by praeclaro ingenio viri, praise in which he takes pride, and of which he clearly wishes an English readership to be aware.11

Milton does not identify the language(s) in which these "trifles" and "patch [ed] up" works were composed, nor does he tell us whether they constituted verse or prose.12 Independent evidence, however, goes some way to solving this riddle. That it was his Latin poetry that he performed before the Florentine Accademia degli Svogliati13 is attested by its minutes of 6/16 September 1638. These provide an interesting footnote to Milton's comments, and they do so in two ways: first, they single out "in particular" ("particolarmente") "il Giovanne Miltone Inglese," and second, they make a qualitative judgment about his performance: his reading of "a very erudite Latin poem of hexameter verses" ("una poesia Latina di versi esametri multo erudita").14 Close scrutiny of the academy's minute book serves to indicate that this threefold highlighting of uniqueness, nationality and erudition in an individual performance is in fact quite unparalleled. …

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