Nationalism and National Identity

Angela Lei Parkinson

Spanning almost three millennia, beginning with one of the earliest print editions of Homer published at the turn of the sixteenth century in Italy and ending with the fashioning of a proud Scottish national identity in the late eighteenth century, this last grouping of essays deals with how renditions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have been used to create, bolster, and promote identities centered around distinct locales, cultures, and languages all over Europe. The authors in this section identify the ways in which editions and translations of Homeric texts were used to transform these disparate national and civic identities, from the southern Neapolitan court to the northern Celtic shores, as well as to examine the complex way in which the Homeric texts and historical realities such as the geopolitical advantages of a certain polity, civic and national identity, and nationalistic pride mutually influence one another.

While an earlier chapter in this volume’s first section discusses an example of the editio princeps of Homer published in Florence in 1489, a better-known Greek edition would be printed by the famed Aldine Press of Venice beginning in 1504. Felix Szabo’s chapter, “Homer, Venice, and Byzantium: Aldus Manutius’ First Edition of the Iliad,” examines one precious volume from the Venetian printing press and attempts to answer why the pioneering print owner did not consult the tenth-century Byzantine manuscript known as Venetus A. This manuscript was presumably easily accessible to Aldus due the fact that it happened to reside in Venice in the same period. Szabo answers this question by pointing out Aldus’ many advantages since the city had almost a monopoly on the ability to read Greek in Western Europe at the onset of the sixteenth century. In addition to the advantages provided by Venice’s close ties to Byzantium, the literary and cultural climate at the time of publication is examined. Szabo concludes that the humanist did not consult the Byzantine source because it was unnecessary. The intellectual climate of Venice was such that Aldus must have consulted sources that are now lost to us. And so, the city itself was a kind of civic resource that contributed to the making of one of the most significant moments in the transmission of Homer into the modern world.

The second chapter in this section, Camille Reynolds’ “Alfonso, Valla, & Homer: Poetry and Politics in Renaissance Naples,” presents a much more utilitarian example of the interaction between civic identity and Homeric renditions. While the 1502 copy of Lorenzo Valla’s Latin translation of the Iliad predates the Aldine printing by two years, it represents a reverse of the Venetian example, in which the city’s resources clearly informed the production of the Homeric text. Commissioned by the Spanish king, Alfonso the Magnanimous, in the mid-fifteenth century, Valla’s translation is instead used by the monarch to fashion both himself and the Neapolitan community into a bastion of humanistic learning. As such, this sixteenth-century manuscript functioned as a tool through which Aragonese ambition promoted the rebirth of Naples to the rest of the Mediterranean world, much in the same way that Petrarch hoped to witness the remaking of Florence.

Contemporaneous to the appearance of these two aforementioned examples of Homer in Greek and Latin in the sixteenth century, editions of Homer rendered into vernacular languages began to appear all over Europe, where local populations could now read the Homeric epics without any humanist training. Brendan Small’s chapter, “The Language Question: Cultural Politics of the Medici Dynasty,” contemplates such an example by examining the influences of the Tuscan dialect upon a translation of the Iliad as well as how the publication project as a whole fits into the larger picture of the Medici family’s steering of Florence by means of cultural policy in Girolamo Bacelli’s 1582 publication L’Odissea D’Homero Tradotto in Volgare Fiorentino.

The next chapter is Ji Gao’s “Translating Homer in the French Renaissance: The 1584 French Verse Translation of the Iliad,” which finds a close connection between the project of strengthening nationalist pride and this particular translation of Homer into the vernacular. In this case, the rendering of the Iliad bolstered French national identity and the political reputation of two sixteenth-century French monarchs, Francis I and Henry III. This edition, a composite effort by Hugues Salel and Amadis Jamyn, is particularly notable for its use of the myth of Trojan origin that was popular in France at the time. Gao argues that, by playing up the mythical genealogy of the Franks as descendants of Trojans, Salel was able to create a counterweight to the influence that Italian culture wielded in the sixteenth century even beyond the immediate boundaries of continental Europe—indeed, the efficacy with which Petrarch’s own project accomplished the goal of the revitalization of Florence just two centuries after his rediscovery of Cicero’s letters might have surprised even the Florentine poet himself.

Finally, the last chapter in this section presents a volume that, despite being a temporal outlier among the previous four sixteenth-century productions, nevertheless marches in lockstep with the current theme of nationalism. The volume in question here is the 1773 translation of the Iliad, an explicitly political project undertaken by Scottish poet James Macpherson. A subscriber to the brand of primitivism popular in the eighteenth-century intellectual circles to which he belonged, and known for his invention of the persona of the ancient Celtic bard Ossian, Macpherson puts his purportedly verbatim translation of Homer to the service of strengthening Scottish pride at a time when English cultural hegemony exacted a particularly heavy toll. Noor Shawaf shows that, despite the license that the Scottish poet allowed himself, in fact, Macpherson emphasized that he was producing a literal translation of Homer’s words and was able to do so precisely because the classical Gaelic culture had a genius on par with that of the Greeks.

And so, the editions of Homeric texts examined in this section, wonderfully varied in five different languages—Greek, Latin, Italian, French and (Scottish) English—all influenced and were influenced by the wide range of cultures under which those editors and translators lived. This cultural movement was undoubtedly both aided by and contributed to the “rediscovery” of Homer in the sixteenth century in addition to being a continuation of the clarion call sounded by Petrarch in the fourteenth century for his beloved Florence to grow strong again by reviving its proud classical heritage.



Keywords: Alfonso V of Aragon, Girolamo Baccelli, Byzantium, Cicero, France, King Francis I, French, Gaelic, epic genre, Greek, Italian, Italy, Florence, Naples, Venice, Amadis Jamyn, Latin, James Macpherson, Aldus Manutius, Medici, Neapolitan, Petrarch, Hugues Salel, Aragon-Spain, Spanish, Tuscan (dialect), Lorenzo Valla, Venetus A, vernacular