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Antonio Beccadelli's Hermaphrodite (1425-6) is pretty much the most scandalous book of the Italian Renaissance. Bernardino da Siena held book burnings, and so did a lot of other people; several popes threatened to excommunicate people found reading it.

It's a collection of Latin epigrammatic poetry, based on the idea that the ancient authors, such as Catullus, Martial, Pliny, etc. often wrote bawdy or scurrilous poetry, even those among them who were famous for having virtuous personal lives, and that therefore writing extremely well-done filthy verse is a way of righteously following the ancient examples. Beccadelli was a young man when he wrote it, not thirty yet, but it became his most famous and controversial book for two reasons:

1) it's really, really filthy. Latin, as a language, has several registers of obscenity that English doesn't. Beccadelli, who had access to all of the rich and varied vocabulary of Catullus, Juvenal, and Lucan, coined his own obscene neologisms because the older ones weren't precise and nasty enough. There is something to offend everybody in here. Everybody. I don't care who you are. That said, he's generally pleasant and rollicking, equally kind and unkind to both sexes and devoted to everyone having a good time-- it's just, this is a level of graphic that is really amazingly condensed. His poems are epigrams, and therefore manage to pack what in English would be entire paragraphs of technically descriptive language into single words and short sentences. I don't think I can write a sentence in English with the sheer connotative bawdiness of one of his. I am not sure it is linguistically possible. The only author I have seen with a similar degree of obscenity is Martial; Beccadelli has comprehensively outdone Catullus in this particular direction.

2) it's really, really good. He has a couple of issues based on the fact that Italian Latin at this point had no codified rules for how to use the reflexive, but Virgil would be happy about his word order, and his meter and assonances are just ludicrously brilliant. He's actually as good as he thinks he is, and he thinks he's immortal. He mostly only uses one form, the epigram, but I defy you to find better ones on a sheerly technical level. They are certainly and obviously head and shoulders above the standard of Latin epigrammatical composition at the time.

The combination of these two traits made his contemporaries, and in fact most readers since, completely unable to cope. He was too good to be banned, too filthy to be admired, too over-the-top to be imitated, too brilliant not to be an inspiration. In a late edition of the Hermaphrodite, Beccadelli included between the book's halves a letter from Poggio Bracciolini (a renowned manuscript-finder and academic), which can be summarized very neatly as follows: OH GOD IT'S GENIUS WON'T YOU PLEASE STOP IT. Beccadelli's response to Poggio, at the end of the book, was that everyone was confusing his life with his art (probably true) and that his poems should not be taken to reflect anything other than a deep love of the same authors everyone around him also loved; that if Plato could write about sex, so could he, and that people should stop treating him like a moral degenerate because after all Homer never invaded Troy. This helped nothing. His later career would include a long and distinguished stint as poet laureate to the Emperor Sigismund, an academic slapfight with Lorenzo Valla that included copious lawsuits and accusations on both sides of poisoning and sodomy, and the founding of the Academia Neapolitana, which is still there today. His most famous book would always be his first, the book which in my edition a prefatory quote from a reputable historian claims helped cause the French Revolution, or, worse, the Reformation. This is probably overestimation, but you see how critics are still failing to deal.

Unsurprisingly, most editions of the Hermaphrodite have been relentlessly expurgated. The new edition from Harvard's I Tatti series of Italian Renaissance literature definitely isn't, and includes not only a biographical essay and copious notes but a series of relevant letters, poems, epigraphs, and legal papers by Beccadelli and others surrounding the controversy. It gives a good portrait of why the book was important, how people reacted to it at the time, and what its legacy was, although I would have liked a deeper look at the book's history between the fifteenth century and this one.

But I cannot recommend it if you don't read Latin. I'm sorry. It's a literal translation and it will do you no good whatsoever in realizing how good a poet Beccadelli was. It gets (some of) the obscenity and none of the elegance. It gets the matter but not the means. A fine English poet was required to get this work across and that did not happen here. If you are using the translation as a crib to read the actual text, it is totally usable for that, and this is a book you should go out and read immediately because it is interesting and worthy. If not, let us hope an English poet decides to do it in the not-too-distant future-- one could totally use this edition as a scholarly apparatus for it.

I may attempt it myself someday, if I ever have the hubris to think I could live up to it, and if I can get over the fact that he consistently and with malice aforethought makes me blush at his sheer filthiness, which, seriously, not many things can do that to me.

Some quotations, for those of you who are interested and read Latin. )


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