1.02 Terence in Mind

Certainly Terence was on the minds of the earliest printers in Italy, if only because the classroom use of the sometimes bawdy Terence had been a subject of debate among early humanists in the century preceding. His language had long been held to be the best model for spoken Latin. (4) But the favorite subjects of Terence -- including foolish old men, philandering youths, prostitution, transvestitism, and other forms of trickery -- posed problems for straight laced readers in every age. Most of the humanist opinions that survive are positive, but the context in which we find them suggests that some strongly negative arguments were being made at the same time. In thinking about these Renaissance evaluations of Terence, it is important to distinguish between the relatively radical literary theories of the major humanist thinkers of the first period, writers like Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) in his On Avarice and Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) in Concerning the Study of Literature, on the one hand, and the opinions of humanist pedagogues, from Gasparino Barzizza (ca. 1360-1431) and Guarino Guarini (1374-1460) forward, on the other. Two distinct lines of thought developed about pagan authors; and the two groups of writers rarely took real account of each other. While the more philosophical writers proposed essentially aesthetic criteria for studying classical authors, the teachers stuck to pragmatic, classroom needs and frequently cited traditional medieval notions of the teaching value of authors under discussion. For the pedagogues, poetry was an aesthetic experience, to be sure, but it was also a branch of moral philosophy. Comedy could be studied to learn grammar and style, but even more importantly, it exemplified the virtues and vices in order to demonstrate how best to imitate one and avoid the other. (5)

We know these issues were debated early in the humanist movement with specific reference to Terence. Several extended defenses of Terence survive from the period 1430-1460 that implicitly cite the opinions of earlier generations. (6) For example, Guiniforte Barzizza (1406-1463), teaching at Novara in the fourteen thirties, may be assumed to have been repeating the opinions of his famous father Gasparino (ca. 1360-1431) when he rendered a complex and nuanced opinion of the value of studying Terence. Guinoforte asserted first that it would be philological negligence to ignore the grammatical and stylistic lessons to be found there. But he added that these lessons cannot be separated from the moral ones:

For those who study [Terence's comedies] carefully to imitate his divine elegance in speaking will also subtly discover the many natures of man, the seriousness of old age with its thrift and severity, the wantonness of youth with its prodigality and unchasteness, the lies of servants, the cunning and deceits of pimps, the arts of prostitutes, and numberless other kinds of behavior. Knowing about these things, they will be able to follow an upright manner of life and will regularly overcome the obstacles they face. (7)

Similarly, Antonio Beccaria (ca. 1405-1474) defended poetry in general and Terence in particular in similar terms before an audience assembled by Ermolao Barbaro (1410-1471), bishop of Verona. Beccaria was a student of Vittorino da Feltre (1397-1446) and it is clear that he had he had acquired both his esteem for Terence and also the highly unoriginal themes of his defense in Vittorino's school at Mantua. (8) The life of Terence by Pietro Crinito (1465-ca. 1504), first published in 1505, treated the controversy as essentially settled. Crinito dismissed the detractors of Terence in a single sentence:

The great Terence seems to have confirmed this, for this passage in the Adelphi is payback to calumniators who most incite to hate, where the Prologue character says, "The very thing they esteem a hateful curse, he takes as high praise." (9)

Such a dismissal begged all substantive questions, of course, but the passage offers a typically humanist witticism by turning an ancient author's own words about his contemporaries upon his modern detractors. To see how the humanists had come to this rather complacent view of Terence, we must retrace our steps and examine the medieval tradition of using the Roman comedian.


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  • (4) Bloemendal 2003, 32-41.
  • (5) Lawton 1972, 15-34; Ronconi 1979, 479-481; Tavoni 1984, 3-72, 105-116; Jensen 1996, 63-67; Tateo 1999, 292-297; Battista Guarino in Kallendorf 2002, 286-289; Bloemendal 2003, 64-68. The tension between linguists and teachers was implicit in formal Latin study from the Roman Republic onward; see Bloomer 1997, 50-62. For a case study of mature pedagogical humanism, Veneziani 1988, 182-183.
  • (6) Villa 1984, 263-271. The suitability of other "obscene" authors was similarly debated; see Sanford 1948, 98-101 for the case of Juvenal.
  • (7) Barzizza 1723, vol. 2, 17-19: qui in id intenti sunt, ut divinam suam in dicendo elegantiam imitentur, diversasque hominum naturas, senum gravitatem, parsimoniam, austeritatem, juvenum lascivium, prodigalitatem, incontinentiam, servorum figmenta, ac dolos, lenonum astutias, meretricum artes, innumerabilesque alias morum varietates subtiliter investigent: quibus agnitis, & rectum vitae modum habituri, & omnia suo instituto adversantia constanter superaturi sint.
  • (8) Ronconi 1979, 400-402; Greenfield 1981, 195-213.
  • (9) Crinito 1505: Terentius maximus videtur confirmasse quo magis calumniatores suos in odium traheret, sic enim refert in Adelphis fabula, sub persona prologi, "Quod illum maledictum vehemens existimant, eam laudem ducit maximam..."
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