The Duke’s Little Cheeses

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The New York Sun

It can’t be easy to write about the horniness of old age. Yeats did it well. “You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attendance upon my old age,” he exclaimed, concluding with the defiant line, “What else have I to spur me into song?”Yeats, of course, was fired up by injections of “monkey glands,” turning him into a wobbly but strenuous satyr (actually, as his biographer Roy Foster has shown, nothing more than a simple vasectomy was involved). Among novelists both Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Philip Roth have chronicled geriatric passion with its mixture of “lust and rage,” as well as its bittersweet comedy. But these are exceptions. In fact, we have to go back 500 years to find an author who does full justice to the pleasures of the flesh even as the flesh declines.

The Italian humanist scholar and statesman Giovanni Gioviano Pontano (1429-1503) cultivated his lusts with unabated energy well into old age. Even better, he composed elegant and sensuous lyrics about his romps. In his professional life Pontano was a sober and serious figure, acting with great distinction as an official of the Kingdom of Naples and composing historical and philosophical works in Latin, of which he was a rare master. In his early 40s he founded the Accademia Pontaniana, which became one of the leading humanist institutions of the century. But the stately scholar had another, distinctly unpompous side. While crafting Ciceronian treatises on such virtues as prudence or on the vagaries of fortune, he also embarked on a series of intimate poems which occupied him for the next 30 years.Though written in Latin and swarming with learned allusions, the poems are fresh, down-to-earth, and unblushingly sensuous.

This isn’t the contradiction it might seem. Pontano was following an ancient tradition in the manner of Horace or Catullus; his poems were familiar compositions, intended for friends and lovers, not public pronouncements. And in fact, the collection of 71 poems, entitled “Two Books of Hendecasyllables or Baiae,” was only first published in 1505, two years after his death. The title has two-fold significance: The poems were written in hendecasyllables, that is, lines of 11 syllables – following his beloved model Catullus – and all are set around the Bay of Naples, and specifically, at Baiae, that cavorting-ground of the rich and famous of antiquity and the Renaissance.

Pontano’s “Baiae” have now appeared in an elegant and lucid English translation by Rodney G. Dennis in the I Tatti Renaissance Library (Harvard University Press, 260 pages, $29.95); like all the volumes in this superb new series, the book has been beautifully produced. Patterned on the venerable Loeb Library of Greek and Latin classics – but more attractive than the Loeb – the I Tatti volumes with their royal blue covers, spacious layout of both Latin text and facing translation, and discreet but detailed annotation, are a bibliophile’s delight. Pontano, a discriminating bookman, would have been pleased.

Pontano’s name may be obscure, except to specialists, but his manner exerted a hidden influence on later poets, English as well as Continental. When the young John Milton, learned in all matters Italian, invited his readers to “sport with Amaryllis in the shade,” he displayed the true Pontanian spirit. Keats, longing for “a beaker full of the warm South,” was another who embodied that impulse.

Throughout the collection Pontano addresses his own verses as cunning and mischievous accomplices in his amorous exploits. “Here, here, you thronging verses,” he exclaims in the first poem; if Mr. Dennis can’t quite catch the exuberance of the Latin – “Huc huc, hendecasyllabi, frequentes” – he comes pretty close. And in the last poem he hails his verses again as “the best companions” of his old age. Those fatal 11 syllables “entice me into love affairs,” he admits; they tempt him to “the debauches of Baiae” with its “libidinous fountains,” even though “lust is bad for the elderly.” But they console him too. Drawing on another ancient tradition that goes back to Ovid and beyond, Pontano personifies his verses; they are extensions of himself and in some mysterious and moving way, they are his most intimate friends. And in fact, though there is much in these poems that is raunchy – and quite unquotable here – the lyrics are really as much about friendship as about sex.

When his friend Franciscus Aelius returns from Rome, Pontano arranges a welcoming binge, for “when a friend comes home it’s sweet to get good and soused.” But the verses themselves seem to be shivering with pleasure as much as the poet himself; they spill over themselves in a stammering rush of affection more obvious in the Latin – “Me tot pocula totque totque totque” – than in translation: “I want cup upon cup upon cup!” In the end, of course, the verses are themselves the medium of exchange between friends; they are word-gifts lovingly wrapped in wit and allusion.

Other offerings seem decidedly second-rate. In one poem Pontano mocks a gift: “I don’t want the Duke’s little cheeses,” he declares, “The Duke’s little cheeses don’t interest me.” And he elaborates:

Farewell, be gone with you, Duke’s little cheeses!
I like Albinus’s generous gifts.
He gave me Sicilian thistles, Albinus,
He gave me pickled olives.
Albinus, he gave me honey and sugar,
Albinus, even bundles of roses,
And he promised to send me Cyprian scents.

The wackiness of this cheese-mad poem brings it close to us; we believe the voice behind it. At other moments Pontano convinces more poignantly; he knows what touch, and being touched, means to the old. As he says, “Now sex for the elderly comes from touch / from tender titillations.” But the older he gets the more susceptible he becomes. He composes adoring poems on his mistress’s bangs, her eyes, her agile tongue and on her laughter, not to mention other more hidden charms; he begs another girlfriend to cover her breasts because their “effulgence” arouses him so. But Pontano is also the great poet of the kiss, which he evokes with loving gusto.

In his last poem Pontano asks future readers to “pray for some quiet for my ashes” and gives this valediction:

Let bitterness be absent from your loving.
Let everything be sweetness. Thus in loving
You’ll while away the night-times and the day-times
With Pleasure at your side as your companion.

Death is hardly mentioned in Pontano’s poems and yet is everywhere present. It shadows the fullness of the moment but gives it meaning. For Pontano, a true Epicurean, the tomb is the gateway to Elysium.


The New York Sun

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