Tuesday, 28 February 2023

The Lives and Afterlives of Blessed Baptist Spagnoli of Mantua, known as Mantuan (1) : a Renaissance Entertainment

Part One: The Lives of Mantuan

A Carmelite Conversation conducted by Philip Harvey on Zoom on Wednesday the 1st of March 2023


Isabella d'Este, a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci made circa 1499-1500

The most famous writer born in the region of Mantua in northern Italy is the Roman poet Virgil. Two of his works are the Georgics, and pre-eminently the Aeneid. Virgil was born about seventy years before the birth of Christ, a date to keep in mind when reading another of his most famous poems, the set of pastoral dialogues called the Eclogues. This was a form of poetry he more or less invented himself based on the Greek Theocritus. Their influence on Western poetry ever since has been sizable. Of especial interest is Eclogue IV. 

Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus…

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all : but if it’s

Forests I sing, may the forests be worthy of a consul.

   Ours is the crowning era foretold in prophecy :

Born of Time, a great new cycle of centuries

Begins. Justice returns to earth, the Golden Age

Returns, and its first-born comes down from heaven above.

Look kindly, chaste Lucina, upon this infant’s birth,

For with him shall hearts of iron cease, and hearts of gold

Inherit the whole earth – yes, Apollo reigns now.

And it’s while you are consul – you, Pollio – that this glorious

Age shall dawn, the march of its great months begin.

You at our head, mankind shall be freed from its age-long fear.

All stains of our past wickedness being cleansed away.

This child shall enter into the life of the gods, behold them

Walking with antique heroes, and himself be seen of them,

And rule a world made peaceful by his father’s virtuous acts.

(Virgil Day-Lewis 18) 

This translation of the opening of Eclogue IV by Cecil Day-Lewis, father of the actor, shows why interpretations vary: the poem never names “the first-born”, the Wunderkind who has come in present time to inaugurate the new Golden Age. We may read the poem as a simple celebration of peace breaking out, or as a political expression of eternal recurrence with Virgil acclaiming the power clique of the day. However, early Christians read Eclogue IV as a prophecy of the Messiah, as though the poet were another Isaiah. This reading, right or wrong, took such hold in late Antiquity that it has become inseparable in later reception of Virgil in general. As another translator puts it, “The Church, as it gained strength in Rome, was quick to claim Virgil as one of nature’s Christians before the time of Christ. When the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century established Christianity as the state religion, he identified the Child of Virgil’s prophecy with Christ; and much later Dante made it clear that he regards Virgil as the next best thing to a Christian.”  (Virgil Rieu 142) It is this big picture setting that illuminates the adulatory Renaissance knowledge of Virgil 1500 years later and its creative imitations of his poetry, not least his Eclogues.  

 Other poets hailing from the region of Mantua are the 13th-century Provençal troubadour Sordello, later the subject of a long poem by Robert Browning. And the 15th-century Carmelite humanist Baptist Spagnoli, the subject of today’s historical Entertainment. He was born in Mantua on the 17th of April 1447. As his name announces, his ancestors were Spanish, his father being a nobleman serving at the Mantuan court of the formidable Gonzaga family. Johannes Baptista Spagnolo and other variants are common, variations on his name accelerating after he becomes a household name associated with his hometown: Baptista Mantovano, Baptista Spagnuoli Mantuanus, and Battista the Mantuan. Such was his fame through the next two centuries that this became The Mantuan, or simply Mantuan, as we might refer to Prince or Madonna. Or the way we refer to Andrew Barton Paterson simply as Banjo. Mantuan is what I will call him throughout this paper.

 Mantuan was writing from an early age. His youthful discovery of poetry manifested itself in the composition of eclogues, the form developed fifteen centuries earlier by Mantua’s most famous poet. The ten eclogues that have come down to us were written at different times in his life and they express those changing times in his life in ways that could be construed as a biography. That is how I am going to read them.

 Una puellares inter pulcherrima turmas virgo erat…

Among a company of young women there, one girl was most beautiful: blond, taller than the others, some twenty years old, able with her radiant face to vie with and overcome the nymphs of the day. The fringe of her veil, glittering with gold flecks, was pulled back toward her temples and fell on a breast enclosed by the bronze clasp of her robe; a clasp of polished iron squeezed together her waist; and a pleated border of fresh white linen hung down at her feet. When the lad saw her, he perished. Beholding her, he drank in love’s flames and swallowed down its unseen fires into his heart, fires that can be neither extinguished by water nor lessened by shade or herbs and magical murmurings. Forgetting his herd and the losses to his household, he was wholly consumed by the fires of love and spent his bitter nights in sorrow.(Piepho1 17)

 Eclogues are pastoral dialogues, conversations between shepherds about a chosen subject. This was Virgil’s classical example and during the Renaissance the eclogue enjoyed a huge vogue across Italy, and later in places like England. Mantuan is one of the preeminent practitioners of the eclogue at this time, as well as its populariser. Here in his Eclogue II, ‘De amoris insania’ (‘On Love’s Madness’), two shepherds named Faustus and Fortunatus reflect in turn on the passions of young love. Their opinions swing between understanding how such passions are aroused, the risks of dishonour and foolishness that can result, the root causes of passion that can destroy a person if gone unchecked, the difficult outcomes of envy that develop once pleasure alone must be satisfied.  Although we know little about Mantuan’s early personal life, that the three opening eclogues focus on this theme of honour and madness in love tells the reader something about Mantuan’s own preoccupations at the time. In Eclogue III (‘The Unhappy Outcome of Mad Love’), the shepherds Faustus and Fortunatus agree that “Love is common to all of us, an interest shared by all young men … Often grief and other feelings unhinge our judgment. Troubled words oft issue from a troubled mind.” (Piepho1 23). But Fortunatus is out of sympathy with the young man Amyntas and his insane love, which portends self-harm and even suicide.

 A shock occurs at Eclogue IV ‘De natura mulierum’, in which Mantuan indulges in invective against women, a poem that is misogynistic and temperamentally alien to the other eclogues. This relentlessly negative attack on the character of women does not bear recitation here but must be acknowledged and placed in its context. What happened? Critics skirt around this eclogue, yet to me the poem speaks of possibly some unresolved conflict in his life that needed unburdening. Is Eclogue IV simply a rant, an exercise in unpleasantry? Or is it a clue to his decision to enter the Carmelite Order in Ferrara in the year 1463? Evidence in his later life tells us that Mantuan enjoyed the company of women, worked well with women, and was respectful of their power and role in society. Yet Eclogue VII is a poem about a young man who enters a religious order, who has chosen a world of male relationships. The poem opens by speaking of his calling to be a shepherd in the literal pastoral care sense of the Gospel, the clergy who tend their flock: “When Christ was born in a stable, heavenly spirits sang to the shepherds in their sheepfolds of the birth of God the Son … God called Himself too a shepherd, and he called sheep those men of mild disposition and tranquil mind.” (Piepho1 63). Yet unusual details, regarded by many as drawn from Mantuan’s own personal life, are listed:  

 Durus et immitis pater …

His stern, harsh father and domineering stepmother burdened Pollux sorely in his youth when that fresh time of life is wont to prompt sweet thoughts. And since his patience, weak from this longstanding burden, failed him and by no stratagem could he gentle their hatred, he resolved to attempt his escape. But one thing, though he wished to go, long held him: he loved too impetuously, for love is the universal error of youthful years. Love is a strong force, but cruelty a stronger. He went, and departing … with a mournful look he lamented in words such as these: “Ah, my girl, will you allow tears to flow from your eyes when you see that you have been left behind by your lover, so dear to you?  Will you sigh at all at my leaving? By chance will you ever cruelly forget me? Will your heart be able to grow so cold – that heart that has so often filled my eyes with tears?”(Piepho1 63-65)

 There is conjecture about whether Mantuan was born illegitimate, but whatever the case, these lines describe a youth at pains to separate himself from difficult parents and an unhappy love affair, his desire being met in a remarkable vision of Mount Carmel, first home of the original hermits known as Carmelites who lived there in Palestine amidst the ongoing crusades sometime in the 12th-13th centuries. Remarkable, first as a paradisal vision of Carmel, a heavenly home that meets the needs of the person in search of complete meaning. Remarkable second, because the vision itself is delivered by a nymph, in keeping with the pastoral poetic tradition of Virgil, “a virgin crowned with a girls’ coronet” who could be construed as Blessed Virgin Mary or a messenger of the goddess Aphrodite. Such is the multicultural world of Humanist Mantua, where Christianity and Classicism speak virtually with one voice. 

Hic ad opem vigilo indefessa ferendam …

Therefore put an end to your delay. Flee the alluring palace of an imminent death. Seek a secure, secluded seacoast where, facing Idalian waves, in my honour Mount Carmel raises high in the air its head wreathed in green trees. To the patriarchs of old this place first provided caves and houses of trees within a grove thick with ilex. From this peak reverence for God comes, led off into your mountains, just as streams issue from an unceasing fount or many descendants from a single sire. Within the woods of this peak where the silver fir rises high, where the bark of the rich pitch-pine and terebinth oozes with resin, after you have successfully led a life of innocence, your youth will soon be renewed with the change of years. To a better place forever green shall I raise you. You will be the gods’ immortal companion. You will be allowed to move through Heaven … and be permitted to learn of the heavens both above and below. (Piepho1 67)

 In 1483 Mantuan was first elected vicar-general of his congregation of reformed Carmelites. He anticipates, in some ways, the major reforms that took place in the next century under Teresa of Avila and others. Like significant leaders through the history of the Order, he strove to return to the basics of a simple life and a simple rule. As an inheritor of the Mantuan reform within the Order, which gave Mantuan Carmelites autonomy and a certain self-direction, he carried an independence of spirit. For example, in his first term of office Mantuan was active in the debate over the controversy of the correct colour of the habit: Mantua wore grey, the rest of the Order still wore black. A papal bull promulgated in that year (1483) reaffirmed the black habit, very much against the views of Mantuan and his friends, who insisted the original colour of the habit had been white, light brown, or grey. Mantuan appealed the case before Pope Sixtus IV (Piepho1 xxix) which led to the adoption of an undyed grey habit for all members of the Order. We feel a sense of bemusement about this argument, until we reflect that people today likewise can fight tooth and nail over the correct colour of their organisation, school, or football team. Like those imbroglios, the real point is about some larger issue. The 1483 dispute was over a return to the austere origins of the Order and its Rule and a rejection of the decadence into which some parts of the Order had fallen, symbolised in their black habit. As Mantuan remarked later in life, “we were wearing white, that true and ancient colour: the others continued just as they sought to be – utterly blackened.”  (Piepho1 xxx)

 We tend to forget, reading history, that people are not the sum of their controversies. In 1489, for example, Mantuan visited Loreto, the flying house that landed near the Adriatic coastline, the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto.  The purpose that he and his companions had was to take responsibility for this significant place of worship on behalf of the Carmelites, but also the Church in general. During the plague of 1482, when he lived in Bologna, he “vowed to go on pilgrimage to Loreto if the plague should quickly cease, which it did. [Mantuan] himself was present for the installation of the new community at the shrine.” (Sewell 3) He also wrote a history of this famous shrine.

 His regular re-election to governance of the congregation, and appointment to political summits to sort out state conflicts, even wars, tells us he was a capable, trusted and popular administrator. During all of this time he wrote and published other poetry, as well as discourses, much of which remains unavailable to us to this day because it’s all in Latin. Proper translation of his spiritual discourses is overdue. Mantuan composed poems about the saints, which would have been used as fresh versions of their lives for daily worship. He also composed a long Marian poem entitled Parthenice Mariana. In 1493 he was appointed Director of Studies at the Carmelite Monastery in Mantua, all of which was happening when the Gonzaga court was at the height of its authority in Italy. Sometimes reading his life we are given the powerful impression he was the right person in the right place at the right time.

 Eclogue VI is an unusual use of the form to discuss the relative merits of city and country life. He takes the unusual non-Virgilian step of prizing the country over the city. It is unclear if the poem is not devised to prompt opinions from listeners, though it must give something of Mantuan’s perspective on city life:

 To note the Cities Follies, lest thine eye

Deceiv'd (perhaps) with shews, should'st these men hold

More wise, more happy that in burnish'd gold,

Rich Purple, or fine Skarlet glitt'ring shine,

I many men have seen with these mine eine

In brave apparrel with Majestick pace

Walking about the publick Market place,

Whom secret hunger and domestick want

Have sorely pinch'd, as if concomitant.

Doubtlesse in this the greatest follies lie:

For feyned wealth is reall poverty:

And what doth sloth of life, or sluggishnesse

But madnesse in reality expresse?

And ther' another kind of fools, a sort

Immedicable, yet of great report,

Lawyers, Court brawlers, pleaders of a cause,

Skill'd to gain money, Tyrants of the Laws.

They sel their Patronage for golden pay,

To trifle Causes out with long delay,

To make them long depend with a dilemme,

A vanity is, a Vintage is to them


They that are rulers of the people, they

That govern others, making them obey,

The more command, the more of pow'r they have,

The more insultingly they rage, they rave.

O where are pious Rulers now, O where

Do pieties and justice Friends appear,

Whom (once) our Fathers sitting by the fire

Were wont to name, remember and admire.

All things go now to wrack: the Temple's spoil'd

Demolish'd, ruin'd, robb'd, defac'd, defil'd,

And of the wrongs complains: the poor lament,

Sigh, groan: The widows weep with discontent.

But what's the cause which doth these mischiefs cause?

Because base Lust doth rule in stead of Lawes.

(Harvey 57-61)

 Mantua was one of the decisive cities of Renaissance times, standing “between the frontiers of Milan and Venice, and it was in the interests of both to see an autonomous Mantuan territory, guaranteeing, even if it taxed, their riverine trade, its rulers available for hire to either side as military commanders.” (Hale 200) The court of the Gonzaga family, established generations before, enjoyed immense prestige. When the Gonzagas were not engaged in military contests of varying success, they were employing statecraft to resolve conflicts by diplomacy, or were promoting civic achievement at home, which meant cultural pursuits of all kinds, including writing, writers enjoying the court’s special protection.

 Central to our Entertainment today is a woman from the ducal family of Ferrara, by name Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), a classically trained patrician who cultivated Humanist interests in Mantua, extending patronage in all directions. Isabella’s portrait by Leonardo da Vinci was made at the turn of the sixteenth century. It is enough to say that Mantuan was one of her inner circle, in order to understand the respect in which he was held in that society. Such was his social standing in the city, he delivered the funeral oration for Isabella’s mother, Eleonora of Aragon.  He participated in an informal academy founded by Isabella, the Accademia de Santo Pietro, overseen by such authors as Baldassare Castiglione, who produced ‘Il Cortegiano’ (‘The Courtier’), one of the most celebrated works on court life, manners, diplomacy, and the new social philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. He counted amongst his friends the artist Andrea Mantegna and both the Pico della Mirandolas, Giovanni and Gianfrancesco. We gain deeper appreciation of Mantuan’s confidence in rewriting his Eclogues by reading of his patron’s own cultural outlook. As Werner Gundersheimer writes:

 “[Isabella d’Este] saw nothing inconsistent about combining a devout Christianity with her classical and even pagan interests. She supported convents and monasteries, and took a keen interest in recruiting singers for the ducal chapel. Some of these, however, may have doubled in service as performers of the secular songs (frottola) composed at Mantua by Cara and Tromboncino. Any more than it stood in the way of her festive life at Mantua, her piety did not interfere with her anti-papal policy, designed to prevent threats to the autonomy of Mantua and Ferrara.”  (Hale 127)   

 This last point is worth keeping in mind when reading his poems attacking Rome. While they are appeals to reform in the church, their most immediate concerns are personal to do with Italian politics and rivalries, rather than the big picture of European affairs. Mantuan’s skills as a negotiator and peacemaker were bolstered by being at the court. He was invited to broker the peace between Francis I and the Duke of Milan, but age and ill-health stopped him from travelling. In 1513 he became Prior General of the Carmelite Order, but again it may have been age and ill-health that prohibited his attendance at the Fifth Lateran Council of reform in Rome. Historians to this day are divided over this question. Brocard Sewell draws strength from somewhere when he says, “[Mantuan] attended the Council of the Lateran, where it is said that his vast learning and wonderful; knowledge of theology commanded the attention of the whole assembly, that no question was decided without taking his opinion, and that the pontiff himself seemed to pay special regard to all that he had to say.” (Sewell 4) This glowing report must be put beside the view held by others that there is no actual proof of Mantuan ever attending the Lateran Council. More work has to be done on his role in the Council, as between these two positions falls the shadow. It is worth noting certain outcomes of the Council in this context. A requirement that a local bishop give permission before the printing of a new book. A call to all philosophy teachers to complement any lesson that contradicts the Christian faith with "convincing arguments" from the Christian point of view. Requirement for documented competence in preaching. (Lateran)

 As it turned out, due to age and illness Mantuan died in 1516 in his namesake city. The Lateran Council continued a while longer on its list of reforms, closing just seven months before Martin Luther posted his advertisement for a lecture of 95 theses on a church door in Germany.

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