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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Greek: Epigrammata

Authorities: Estienne 1566

(What is this?)

     The epigram was a genre of Greek poetry which endured over the whole period of classical culture and after. It originated in the epitaphs and inscriptions carved on tombstones and monuments but developed into a genre of short, witty, poems often with some kind of moral message. The relationship of epigram to epitaph is demonstrated by Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in which he included epigrams after each of his Lives except that of Michelangelo who was the only living artist described in his book. Collections of epigrams existed from the first century BC and what is now called the Greek Anthology contains the bulk of surviving epigrams with about 4,500 epigrams from 300 authors. The anthology originated in the 10th Century in the collection of Constantine Cephalas but his manuscript was lost to the West until a copy was rediscovered in about 1616 in the library of the Count Palatine of Heidelberg. This is now named the Palatine text and was published in full in 1776. Another abridged version in seven books prepared by the 14th Century monk Maximus Planudes, was discovered and published in 1497 in Florence by Jean Lascaris and this version was used as a source book by many Renaissance writers.   One of these was the Epigrammata Graecae by the great 16th century academic and publisher Henry Estienne. An achievement of which he was particularly proud was a translation of one epigram in 106 different versions!

     Another well-known composer of epigrams was the Spanish writer Martial (1st century AD) who has been called the Ovid of the proletariat. He wrote some 1,400 Latin epigrams many of which have always been characterized as salacious to one degree or another but this does not detract from their subtlety, variety and wit. The first publication of the Epigrammaton of Martial in the West was in the 1470’s, translated and edited by Niccolo Perotti and Pomponio Leto and the former also wrote a commentary on Martial entitled Cornucopia published in 1489. Perotti’s son Pyrrhus published an expanded edition of the Cornucopia which included the delightful remark that ‘with commentaries of this sort, the longer they are the better’.

     There were many other lesser collections of epigrams from authors ancient and modern including the Epigrammatum Liber written by the Florentine Poet Naldus Naldius (1436-1513) and two books of epigrams written by Bernadino Dardano (1472-1535), Favor humanus in dialogo and Dialogus in spem both printed in the first decade of the 16th Century. The epigram was one of the principal inspirations for the emblem; Alciato, the father of the emblem had already published a number of translations of epigrams and he used these as the basis for some of his emblems.

See also: Emblems, Inscriptions