Friday, 4 October 2013

The Pope's Erotic Novel

One of the most popular books of the 15th century was the Historia de duobus amantibus or the Story of two lovers, written by Enea Silvio Piccolomini from Siena in 1444. It was first published in Cologne in 1468 and then in Rome in 1476, whereupon it followed a meteoric increase in publication. One reason for its popularity could be that it is one of the first notable erotic novels, only preceded by Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon and Boccaccio's Decameron, and the first epistolary erotic novel. Another reason could be that Piccolomini went on to become Pope Pius II in 1458.

Piccolomini in his older, more frumpy times

The novel follows the adulterous love of Lucretia, a married woman in Piccolomini's native Siena, and Euryalus, companion of Sigismund, the visiting Duke of Austria. Their relationship progresses from the search for reciprocal affection following a chance meeting, through love letters and secret meetings to a tragic finale. This plot has often been likened to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the popularity of the novel might have made it available to Shakespeare 153 years later.

Euryalus and Lucretia meeting on the title page of
an edition from 1500 (click the image to zoom)

Interestingly, the novel is in many ways highly transitional. It occured at a time of budding Renaissance, including a topic and imagery which, save for Boccaccio, had been taboo in Medieval times. Whereas modern readers might find that the relative absence of sex and the poetically introspective and psychological approach to love remind them more of romance than of erotica, contemporary ones would relish in the novel's deviance from the religious rigidity of a waning era.

Euryalus delivers a love letter. 
The illustration breaks with standards of Medieval illumination. 
These were kept alive in Venice, but the Florentine printers 
developed this style because they were printing for
a larger, less wealthy public. (click the image to zoom)

No one exemplifies this change more distinctly than the author himself, albeit in unexpected ways. As a young Poet Laureate of Gaspar Schlick, the Chancellor of the Holy Roman Emperor (Sigismund of Austria...), Piccolomini seems to have embraced the ideals of the Renaissance. In the novel, one of Euryalus' last resort for gaining access to Lucretia, her husband's cousin Pandalus, points out that "Why, she is so changed by love, you would not think her the same person. Alas for piety, alas for grief! No one, until this happened, in all the city was chaster than she, no one more modest. It is indeed amazing that nature has given to love so much power over men’s thoughts." (i). Nature, as Fransesco de Sanctis points out, and in particular human nature, is now what is right (ii). Lucretia and Euryalus are clearly meant to be together, while the laws of society, which were the prevailing good in Medieval texts and the authority behind Lucretia's faltering marriage, is now what is wrong. While Dante viewed nature as evil and Medieval literature tended to view love as something granted by external, supernatural powers, Piccolomini places love in human nature. This Renaissance humanism which focuses on man and nature rather than religion and religious concepts saturates the novel and rules of society and honour which causes the tragic end to their relationship confirms this attitude.

The lovers, in a fond embrace, are being warned by a servant that
Lucretia's husband is at the door. The print is probably 

re-used from some other work. (click  the image to zoom)

However, Piccolomini soon became Pope, resulting in a remarkable volte-face. As Pope Pius II, he famously stated "Aeneam rejicite, Pium suscipite!" ("Reject Aeneas, accept Pius!"). He distanced himself from the favourable descriptions of nature, and particularly that of Lucretia, as well as the success of his younger self, albeit unsuccessfully. In this sense, upon ascending to the top of the Holy See, Aeneas returned to pre-Renaissance sentiments, luckily for us, to no avail.

The erstwhile poet had already made his mark, providing posterity with lyrical and heartfelt descriptions of love and the experience of it. The English translation, introduced by the below paragraphs, makes for a delightful read and a story which remains as engaging and vivid today as it did almost six hundred years ago.

THE city of Siena, your native town and mine, did great honour to the Emperor Sigismund on his arrival, as is now well known; and a palace was made ready for him by the church of Saint Martha, on the road that leads to the narrow gate of sandstone. As Sigismund came hither, after the ceremonies, he met four married ladies, for birth and beauty, age and ornament, almost equal. All thought them goddesses rather than mortal women, and had they been only three, they might have seemed those whom Paris, we are told, saw in a dream. Now Sigismund, though advanced in years, was quick to passion; he took great pleasure in the company of women, and loved feminine caresses. Indeed he liked nothing better than the presence of great ladies. So when he saw these, he leaped from his horse, and they received him with outstretched hands. Then, turning to his companions, he said: ‘Have you ever seen women like these: For my part, I cannot say whether their faces are human or angelic. Surely they are from heaven.’ 
They cast down their eyes, and their modesty made them lovelier. For, as the blushes spread over their cheeks, their faces took the colour of Indian ivory stained with scarlet, or white lilies mixed with crimson roses. And chief among them all, shone the beauty of Lucretia. A young girl, barely twenty years of age, she came of the house of the Camilli, and was wife to Menelaus, a wealthy man, but quite unworthy that such a treasure should look after his home; deserving rather that his wife should deceive him or, as we say, give him horns. 
This lady was taller than the others. Her hair was long, the colour of beaten gold, and she wore it not hanging down her back, as maidens do, but bound up with gold and precious stones. Her lofty forehead, of good proportions, was without a wrinkle, and her arched eyebrows were dark and slender, with a due space between. Such was the splendour of her eyes that, like the sun, they dazzled all who looked on them; with such eyes she could kill whom she chose and, when she would, restore the dead to life. Her nose was straight in contour, evenly dividing her rosy cheeks, while nothing could be sweeter, nothing more pleasant to see than those cheeks which, when she laughed, broke in a little dimple on either side. And all who saw those dimples longed to kiss them. A small and well-shaped mouth, coral lips made to be bitten, straight little teeth, that shone like crystal, and between them, running to and fro, a tremulous tongue that uttered not speech, but sweetest harmonies. And how can I describe the beauty of her mind, the whiteness of her breast?

The remaider of the novel can be found by clicking here.

What do you think?

What is your opinion of the about-face of Pius the poet pope? He could have distanced himself from his earlier work either because of the requirements of office, because of old age and changed values but also for a number of other reasons. What do you think these might be and can you sympathise with his choices?

Also, an erotic novel more or less without sex: is that a contradiction in terms? Is it an erotic novel at all or would you classify it as something else? If so, what and why?

Finally, the personal aspect. Love, romance and sexuality are highly personal themes. Could this be the reason for the novel's popularity back then? What is your personal reaction to the novel? Who deserves your personal sympathy, Aeneas or Pius?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Further reading: A quick but good introduction, a thorough analysis, a look at illustrations and a young literate's reactions

Sources: (i), (ii), Pic1, Pic2, Pic3, Pic4

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