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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Cento

The Cento was a rather uncommon type of classical poem which, nevertheless, does, I think, typify the symbolic literary species. It appeared to be one thing but beneath its surface it concealed another; in several cases, the centos were Christian apologies masked behind classical texts and in the best constructed examples more could be learned from familiarity with the underlying text than just from the superficial message

A cento was a poem constructed entirely from the lines of another poem, usually from Homer or from Virgil. The word cento comes from the Greek kentron, point or spur, a meaning which is transferred to needle and thence to needlework and then to patchwork which thus describes the finished result of the poem. It may seem a childish thing to attempt and indeed it was recognized that a cento was, at the least, a recreational activity, a game, although writing poetry in classical times and the Renaissance was regarded as an acceptable even desirable activity for a gentleman of leisure. Andreas Alciato, for instance, the jurist and father of the emblem genre, acknowledges that he wrote his Book of Emblems during his leisure hours thereby indicating that he did not put much store by his work although, contrary to his expectations, his little book went through 180 editions in the next two centuries. You just never know what is going to be a best seller! In fact, the amount of neoLatin poetry written in the Renaissance was so vast that in the standard work on the subject, The Companion to Neo Latin Studies (Leuven, 1998), the authors, Ijesewijn and Sacre, state that the 1,100 pages of the study is hardly enough to contain even an outline of the subject.

But I digress. Of the centos that survive, sixteen are based on the Aeneid and were written between 200 and 500 CE, there are Greek centos using Pindar and Anacreon, Ovid's work in malos poetas based on Macer, the Homeric cento of Eudocia and the 11th century, Christus Patiens, derived from lines of Euripedes and at one time believed to have been composed by Gregory of Nazanzius. There were centos, now lost, mentionned by Quintilian and Tertullian. The Homeric cento of Eudocia, wife of the Emperor Theodosius, is perhaps the best known. It was originally written by Bishop Patricius a generation earlier and Eudocia, in about 425 CE corrected and expanded this work to a total of 2,500 lines. It uses the words of Homer to tell the Christian story.

The best know Virgilian cento is that by Ausonius, Cento Nuptialis, written in the late 4th century which contains a helpful preface setting out the rules governing the composition of centos, in particular, that each extract from the original poem should only be one line long indicating that it is no easy thing to compose a seamless cento. Ausonius also compares his composition to the Greek game of stomakion in which pieces of bone could be rearranged to form shapes. He relates the circumstances of the composition of his cento which resulted from a challenge from the Emperor himself to see who could write the better piece. This, of course, put the competitive Ausonius in a very delicate position. He tells how he did indeed win the challenge but only just!

Centos were first published in the Renaissance by Aldus in 1505 in an edition containing Eudocia's work and now, according to Renouard, 'infinitely rare and precious'. It was reissued in 1541 and 1544. A new edition was published by Henry Estienne in 1578 which includes the Virgilian cento of Proba and additional material including a Greek paraphrase of the Gospel of St. John by the Egyptian Nonnus and, in some copies, proverbial phrases extracted from Homer. Apart from these, Octave Delepierre in his 1875 book on the cento, details nearly 60 poems or fragments, from the Renaissance or after, which he characterizes as centos.

For the Renaissance, then, the popularity of the cento demonstrates, even if only in caricature, that tension felt by writers of the time between their desire, on the one hand, to emulate the great authors of Greece and Rome, to return in Petrarch's words to the 'pure radiance of the past' and, on the other, to produce something original of their own, a tension revealed by the antiCiceronian debate between Scaliger and others on the one side and Erasmus with his supporters on the other. To some extent, a compromise was reached in the rhetorical imperative of mimesis in which a single phrase could be rewritten in a multitude of ways. Erasmus in his De Copia gives the example of 200 ways to express a single idea; Henry Estienne in his 1570 edition of the Anthologiae Graecae translates a single epigram in 106 different ways and in his Parodiae Morales of 1575 shows how a single line can be progressively modified so that the parody becomes increasingly bizarre. The rhetorical educational tradition which required memorizing, dissecting and reconstructing the classical texts can be viewed as achieving its highest moments in the cento format.


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