Chapter Fourteen
Alfonso, Valla, & Homer: Poetry and Politics in Renaissance Naples

Camille Reynolds

In the early Renaissance, the kingdom of Naples suffered from numerous civil wars during the formative years of humanism. Alfonso the Magnanimous, the king of Aragon, Sicily, and Naples, consolidated his grip on the region in 1436, and only then did new cultural expressions of humanist thinking enter into the feudal system of medieval Naples.[1] Alfonso was a learned man and a generous benefactor of Renaissance libraries, as well as a great appreciator of the literary arts. As a patron, he was especially interested in classical poetry and always had an entourage of humanists gathered in his court, including Lorenzo Valla.[2] Valla, an already celebrated humanist, became well known for his textual critique of the Donation of Constantine, an imperial decree supporting the political authority of the papacy, which Valla published during his tenure as royal secretary. The subject of this paper, Valla’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, however, is less celebrated.[3] The limited scholarly discussion of Homer in early Renaissance Italy has generally termed Latin translations as an unsophisticated appreciation of the Greek poet, as most investigations into this period have been colored by George Chapman’s critical opinion of Latin translations and his English seventeenth-century translation.[4] Scholars have paid little attention to Valla’s translation as a notable contribution, mostly became textual sources are silent on its reception. This paper offers two important conclusions: the evidence of documents, and the literary impact of Valla’s translation, refute the argument that Latin translations were crude and unpopular.[5] And, based on the historical evidence, the king’s desire to translate Homer served a diplomatic function for his courtly politics. The translation emerged not only from literary interest, but was also used as a tool of political influence as Alfonso transformed himself from a Spanish monarch into a Renaissance Italian king.

In 1440, the king commissioned his royal secretary, Valla, to write an elegant Latin prose version of the Iliad. The commission is lost, but two documents found in the Curia Siciliae, the Aragonese archives in Spain, confirm Valla’s translation of Homer.[6] Alfonso, clearly impressed with Lorenzo’s rhetorical skill and aware of his secretary’s difficultly with the Greek language, displays his excitement at the introduction of Homer into his Neapolitan court. He entreats the Maestro Racional, Lucovico Sachano, the head of the Aragonese treasury at Messina, to bring a copy of a Greek lexicon on his arrival to Naples. A copy belonged to Sachano as well as to the monastery of the Holy Trinity in Messina.

Cum sepenumero apud omnes fere scriptores inveniamus Homerum poetam in testimonium, in auctoritatem, in ornamentum assumi, eundem tantopere in omni sapientie genere laudari, eundem antiquissimum non modo poetarum verum eciam scriptorum esse, eundem denique magnum illud et diuturnum bellum trojanum describere, cupido nobis incessit hunc tantum poetam cognoscendi et ab eo audiendi trojanum bellum, quod apud latinos etsi vulgatissimum tamen nulli pene est notum. Itaque Laurencio Vallensi uni de Secretaris nostris, viro ad hanc rem in primis y doneo negocium dedimus ut hunc auctorem et hoc opus quod Ilias dicitur nobis e grego transferret. Is decem libros transtulit, quos eum vidimus vehemencius ad amorem reverenciamque auctoris sumus incensi; quo magis interpretem ipsum ut pergeret ac maturaret jussimus. Ceterum hic ait unam sibi rem esse impedimento, non tam ad pergendum maturandumque quam ad elimandum et expoliendum opus, quod caret libro de vocabulis grecis. Audisse autem illud penes te esse.[7]

The second request is almost an exact replica of the first, urgently requesting the use of the Greek-Latin dictionary.[8] The king stated that purpose of the translation was the restoration of Homeric poetry to the West. Leonzio Pilato had already completed a Latin translation in the fourteenth century, but this edition had been poorly received. Alfonso took great pains to ensure a proper and polished translation, as well as to refine the books that Valla had already finished. In reality, Valla created a Latin, paraphrased version of the first sixteen books of Homer’s Iliad, and left the remainder of the translation to his pupil, Francesco Griffolini, to complete after his departure from Naples.

In the medieval period, some Trojan stories survived from the Greek epic cycle, but these tales were not connected to the Homeric epic, and humanist interest in the illustrious Greek poet did not gain major significance until the fourteenth century.[9] Scholarship on Homer in the Early Renaissance is limited and understudied, as work on other classical authors has been more thoroughly examined. One of the scholars to draw attention to Latin translations argues for the Italian Renaissance’s “failure” to fully appreciate Homer. Lack of readability in Greek led to a cultural impediment for early humanists and led to translations that did not accurately reflect Homer’s metric style.[10] Pilato’s fourteenth-century edition of Homer is known in this period, but was considered poorly written.[11] Petrarch tried to learn the language under the tutelage of a Calabrian monk, but his efforts were unsuccessful. In fact, one of his epistles acutely describes his agony over his inability to read Homer as he awaited Boccaccio’s copy of Pilato’s translation.[12]

Modern scholarship is highly critical of this renewed interest in Homer: “Given the difficulty of Homer and the prevailing ignorance of Greek in the West, [Pilato’s] translation met a real need among the early . . . it is remarkable that, although the version was much despised for its general barbarity, it was a hundred years before there is evidence of a better one in circulation.”[13] Valla’s Latin translation in the 1440s is acknowledged elsewhere, but its exclusion in this passage suggests that Valla’s Latin prose edition is not considered a notable contribution to the Homeric literary tradition.[14]

Despite humanist ambivalence towards Greek, Alfonso’s letters to Sachano, which request a dictionary to ensure an accurate and refined translation, prove that the Homeric reception in Renaissance was much more nuanced than an Italian “failure” at Homeric translation. Moreover, some Latin translations did not intend to be a word-for-word reflection of the grammar. In his commentary on Latin, Elegantiae Linguae Latinae, Valla comprehensively discusses the grammar, syntax and morphology of late classical authors, arguing that the right usage of words means it is grammatically correct and, more importantly, rhetorically effective: “Elegantia stand[s] for semantic precision and refinement rather than for stylishness. Good Latin is even more important than good grammar—a distinction which Valla derives from Quintilian.”[15] Since Valla supported a rhetorical style in Latin, it is likely that he would dismiss a word-for-word Latin translation from Greek in favor of a prose edition that captured the artistic essence of the poetry. This is not a matter of “crudity” in Latin composition as it is an editorial choice made by the editor. A translation that reflects the literary styles of its translator is a stylistic decision that is acceptable when one considers the politics behind all modern translations.

It has been also proposed that Alfonso’s request for a lexicon signified Valla’s ambivalence toward this translation project, but this is historical speculation. Valla’s transfer of the project over to his student was most likely a practical strategy, considering the humanist’s difficulty in reading Greek.[16] Francesco Griffolini, tasked with completing the Homeric translation of the Iliad after Valla, and later responsible for the translation of the Odyssey, conveyed his own frustration at interpreting and reproducing the text: “Over so many centuries I think nobody has yet been found, or if such a one existed his work is not extant, who has translated this most eloquent poet with any elegance and not made him almost childish.”[17] Griffolini’s comments confirm that this fifteenth-century translation was purposely commissioned to supersede the earlier Latin editions of Homer, which were considered much less eloquent in their style and composition.

The printing history of this translation indicates some positive reception to Valla’s publication. Eight extant editions of Valla’s translation exist, dating from 1474–1512. Three originated from Hain, Germany, one from Brescia in northern Italy, one from Colonia, another in Barcelona, and one sixteenth-century reproduction from a Venetian publisher in 1502.[18] These publications are a testament to the enduring influence of Valla’s translation efforts in the early Renaissance.[19] While recent scholarship is invaluable to understanding the origins of early modern Italian interest in Greek poetry, the argument that the translations were a failure oversimplifies humanist perceived antagonism to Homer, and does not take into account the Italians’ personal efforts to refine their translations.

The last question unanswered is whether Alfonso’s commission had any political significance. As a Spanish king, Alfonso tried to reinvent himself among an Italian populace once he seized power in Naples. Alan Ryder comments that “in all he did, Alfonso scrupulously respected Neapolitan institutions, seeking neither to impose offices or practices from elsewhere nor to flood the administration with Spaniards and Sicilians.”[20]

Valla’s service to Alfonso began when the king first surrounded himself with an imported humanist circle in the 1430s. He attracted to his court Lorenzo Valla, Antonio Beccadelli, and Bartolomeo Facio, along with other major figures. Leonardo Bruni, famous for developing the relationship of humanism to modern political theory, visited Alfonso’s court in 1440 with a copy of Aristotle’s Politics in hand.[21] Valla served the Neapolitan ruler for over ten years (1435–47), and as a royal secretary and court historian the humanist enjoyed some of the most successful and productive years of his career. Not surprisingly, Valla’s brash nature, his arrogance, lack of diplomatic skills, and his polemic writings led to numerous difficulties between him and the other humanists-in-residence. The scholars competed for the rights to draft the king’s imperial biographies, and Facio detested Valla to such a degree that he penned four invectives against his rival.[22]

A number of Valla’s work reflected Alfonso’s own literary interests and political aspirations, including his most famous critique on the Donation of Constantine, in 1440. Valla’s textual criticism helped to justify Alfonso’s diplomatic opposition to Pope Eugene IV, who had previously interfered in Neapolitan affairs by favoring a rival faction which contended for the kingdom of Naples during Alfonso’s conquest of the region. This controversial work directly supported Alfonso’s political campaign against the papacy. This is the political landscape that existed when the king requested Valla to produce a copy of the Iliad. Alfonso had already appropriated humanist writings to critically engage with political affairs; it is reasonable to ascertain that he would also use Valla’s literary genius to help aid his cultural transformation as a Renaissance monarch.

Alfonso’s efforts to have Valla’s translation be widely received met with some success. First and foremost, his patronage proved successful in motivating other patrons to desire Latin translations. According to J.R. Calonja’s study of the papal libraries, Pope Nicholas V, who requested a translation of Thucydides from Valla, offered ten thousand golden coins for a translation of Homer.[23] Griffolini translated more of the Iliad and the Odyssey on the orders of Pope Pius II, for its incorporation into his personal library.[24] Interestingly, these aforementioned popes both had harmonious relations with the Aragonese court: Alfonso had strong relations with Pope Nicolas V, and Alfonso’s heir, Ferrante, had diplomatic success with Pope Pius II in repelling French invasion.[25] The same leaders that shared a political relationship also enjoyed the cultural exchange of humanist writings. This is notable, considering Alfonso’s contentious relationship with several papal figures — as demonstrated by the king’s support of the treatise against the Donation of Constantine. It is unclear whether this is evidence of political diplomacy or cultural rivalry, nevertheless, Alfonso’s patronage of Homeric translation made a positive impression on other political and cultural figures in Italy, solidifying his status as a Renaissance king. Furthermore, Alfonso’s court attracted more cultural attention. Milanese humanist Pietro Candido Decembrio offered to translate the remaining books of the Iliad for Alfonso when he visited Naples in 1451, although this work was never completed.[26]

This cultural campaign also had influence on the emergence of humanism in Spain, as Pere Miguel Carbonell, a royal Spanish archivist at Aragon, enthusiastically praised Alonso for his artistic patronage: “For these we are all in the debt of King Alfonso who has, as it were, awakened us from sleep and shown us the way to appreciate, understand, and grasp such goodly treasure as are these sciences, especially the arts of oratory and poetry.”[27] These sources confirm that Alfonso’s benefaction attracted much needed cultural dominance to the Neapolitan kingdom, and by extension, its leader. Alfonso increased his prominence with the help of politically controversial and subversive figures like Lorenzo Valla. Moreover, his renewed interested in a relatively undervalued author helped to set a literary precedent and to promote Naples as a cultural rival for humanist innovation.

Naples was almost a century behind in the formation of the humanist movement, as the region was embittered with multiple civil wars during the fourteenth century. Alfonso’s reign added political stability to the city, as well as an opportunity for other cities to witness the “rebirth” of Naples. With the introduction of a new kingdom, Alfonso had a chance to place Naples on equal footing among other Italian states. He imported and welcomed humanists from various parts of Italy to support his cultural campaign and reformation. His support of Greek poetry, with a previous Florentine translation by Pilato — poorly translated and even more poorly received — provided a perfect opportunity.[28] Greek poetry, among other important sources, helped Alfonso undergo the political metamorphosis of a Spanish ruler transforming into an Italian prince, and actively endowed his newfound persona with humanist allure and political significance that outshined his former self, a tradition continued by his heirs: “[Alfonso] was one in a long line of Aragonese kings that had acquired first-hand knowledge of all his lands, had learned the shape of Italian politics—the key to Mediterranean diplomacy—and had opened new perspectives to Aragonese ambition.”[29]

 

 

Keywords: Aesop, Alfonso V of Aragon, Aristotle, Antonio Beccadelli, Giovanni Boccaccio, Leonardo Bruni, J.R. Calonja, Miguel Carbonell, George Chapman, Pietro Candido Decembrio, Eugene IV, Barolomeo Facio, Ferdinand I (Ferrante), Florentine (dialect), French, epic genre, Germany, Hain-Germany, Greek, Francesco Griffolini, Italian, Italy, Brescia, Milan, Naples, Sicily, Latin, Neapolitan, Nicolas V, commentary, epistle, patron, patronage, Petrarch, Pius II, Quintilian, Alan Ryder, Ludovico Sachano, Sicilian, Aragon-Spain, Barcelona-Spain, Spanish, Thucydides, Lorenzo Valla

 

 

Bibliography

Atlas, Alan W. Music at the Aragonese Court of Naples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bentley, Jerry H. Politics and Culture in Renaissance Naples. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Calonja, Juan Ruiz. “Alfonso el Magnánimo y la traducción de la Ilíada por Lorenzo Valla.” Boletin de la R. Acad. De Barcelona 23 (1950): 109–15.

Dover, Paul. “Royal Diplomacy in Renaissance Italy: Ferrante D’aragona (1458–1494) and his Ambassadors.” Mediterranean Studies 14 (2005): 57–94.

Garlick, K. J. “The Later Renaissance in Naples.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 122, no. 5216 (1974): 516­–31.

Martinez, Igancio Uribe. “Las nubes homéricas como representación de lo divino en el Renacimiento.” Ágora. Estudos Clássicos em Debate 13 (2011): 83­–95.

Musi, Aurelio. “The Kingdom of Naples in the Spanish Imperial System.” In Spain in Italy: Politics, Society, and Religion, 1500–1700, edited by Thomas J. Dandelet and John A. Marino. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Nauta, Lodi. “Lorenzo Valla and the Rise of the Humanist Dialectic.” In The Cambridge Companion of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by James Hankin, 193–210. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Petrarch. Epistulae Familiares. Translated by Aldo Bernardo. New York: Italica Press, 2014.

Prosperi, Valentina. Iliads without Homer: The Renaissance Aftermath of the Trojan Legend in Italian Poetry (ca. 1400–1600). Master’s Thesis, Università di Sassari, 2012.

Ryder, Alan. Alfonso the Magnanimous: King of Aragon, Naples and Sicily, 1396­–1458. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Sowerby, Robin. “Early Humanist Failure with Homer.” Pts. 1 and 2. International Journal of the Classical Tradition 4, no. 1 (1997): 37–63; no. 2 (1997): 165–94.


  1. The monarchial government of Naples retained its connection to imperial Spain in a manner that did not resemble the political landscape of any other Italian polity. See Aurelio Musi, “The Kingdom of Naples in the Spanish Imperial System,” in Spain in Italy: Politics, Society, and Religion 1500–1700, ed. Thomas James Dandelet and John A. Marino (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 75.
  2. Alfonso of Aragon also made strides in civic architecture, with the construction of a triumphal arch at the entrance of the Castel Nuovo, ichnographically and structurally similar to triumphal arches of Roman emperors. See K. J. Garlick, “The Later Renaissance in Naples,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 122, no. 5216 (1974): 517.
  3. According to Valentina Prosperi, the longing to know the voice of the father of poetry and the predecessor of Vergil, fostered a reemergence of Homer in early modern Italy. See, Valetina Prosperi, Iliads without Homer - The Renaissance aftermath of the Trojan legend in Italian poetry (ca. 1400–1600) (Master’s Thesis, Università di Sassari, 2012), 67.
  4. In her two articles, Robin Sowerby has offered the most critical and comprehensive opinion on Homeric reception in the early Renaissance, with other scholars, including Valentina Prosperi, using her work as a source for secondary discussion on Homer in early modern Italy.
  5. Robin Sowerby, “The Homeric Versio LatinoIllinois Classical Studies 21 (1996): 165. See also Robin Sowerby, “Early Humanist Failure with Homer (I),” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 4, no. 1 (1997): 61–64.
  6. ACA, reg. 2893, fol. 63 & ACA, reg. 2893, fol. 65. See also, Juan Ruiz Calonja, “Alfonso el Magnánimo y la traducción de la Ilíada por Lorenzo Valla” Boletin de la R. Acad. De Barcelona 23 (1950): 114.
  7. “When in almost all authors we often find the poet Homer being taken as a witness, cited as an authority and [his poetry] held to be of exemplary beauty, the same figure being praised so greatly for every kind of wisdom and being not only the most ancient of poets but even of writers as well, and finally the same author that describes that great and long-lasting Trojan war, a desire came over us to become acquainted with this great poet and to hear his account of the Trojan war, which despite being an event generally known about is nevertheless virtually unknown in any detail among the Latins. And so we gave Laurentius Valla, one of our secretaries and a man supremely fitted to this task, the job of translating for us this author and that work which is called the Iliad from the Greek. This man has translated ten books and when we saw them we were more ardently inflamed to love and revere the author; and on that account we have ordered him to continue and bring his translation to completion soon. For the rest he says that there is only one matter that is impeding him, not so much in the speed of completion as in the polishing up and refining of the work, namely that he lacks a book of Greek vocabulary. But he has heard that there is one with you (ACA, reg. 2893, fol. 63). For translation, see Sowerby “Early Humanist Failure,” 62.
  8. In the second letter Alfonso states that the book would be much better guarded with the Maestro Racional than if it were delivered by some other mode of transportation: “Eo quidem magis quod tucius illum tu ipse portabis quam alteri crederes et hic custodies fidelius quam forsitan ab altero custodiri putares” (ACA reg. 2893, fol. 65). See also Calonja, “Alfonso el Magnánimo,” 115.
  9. Igancio Uribe Martinez, “Las nubes homéricas como representación de lo divino en el Renacimiento,” Ágora. Estudos Clássicos em Debate 13 (2011): 89. See also Sowerby, “Early Humanist Failure,” 61.
  10. Sowerby, “Early Humanist Failure,” 39.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Petrarch, Epistulae Familiares 24.12.
  13. Sowerby, “The Homeric Verso Latino,” 165.
  14. Sowerby, “Early Humanist Failure,” 61–64.
  15. Lodi Nauta, “Lorenzo Valla and the Rise of Humanist Dialectic” in The Cambridge Companion of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. James Hankins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 196.
  16. Ibid., 61.
  17. Ibid., 63.
  18. Calonja, “Alfonso el Magnánimo,” 112.
  19. Calonja admits that the print run for Valla’s translation was not as popular as his translation of Aesop’s fables, but it was certainly not a publication failure and noteworthy enough for Sowerby to have contextualized its influence. See Ibid., 112.
  20. Alan Ryder, Alfonso the Magnanimous: King of Aragon, Naples and Sicily, 1396–1458 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 254.
  21. Jerry Bentley, Politics and Culture in Renaissance Naples (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 329.
  22. Ryder, “Alfonso the Magnanimous,” 256.
  23. Calonja, “Alfonso el Magnánimo,” 112.
  24. Bentley, Politics and Culture in Renaissance Naples, 327.
  25. Paul Dover, “Royal Diplomacy in Renaissance Italy: Ferrante D’aragona (1458–1494) and his Ambassadors” Mediterranean Studies 14 (2005): 63.
  26. Ryder, “Alfonso the Magnanimous,” 329.
  27. Ibid., 306.
  28. Ibid., 313.
  29. Ibid., 254.

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