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His mother escaped with the boy to Perugia, and it was here that Pontano received his first instruction in languages and literature. Failing to recover his patrimony, he abandoned Umbria, and at the age of twenty-two established himself at Naples, which continued to be his chief place of residence during a long and prosperous career. He here began a close friendship with the distinguished scholar, Antonio Beccadelli, through whose influence he gained admission to the royal chancery of Alphonso the Magnanimous. Alphonso discerned the singular gifts of the young scholar, and made him tutor to his sons, notably Alfonso, who would reign for a single year but whose energies in the decade 1485-95 brought the Renaissance to Naples in many fields, from poetry to villas, from portrait sculpture to fortifications. Pontano's connection with the Aragonese dynasty as political adviser, military secretary and chancellor was henceforth a close one; he passed from tutor to cultural advisor to Alfonso. The most doubtful passage in his diplomatic career is when he welcomed Charles VIII of France upon the entry of that king into Naples in 1495, thus showing that he was too ready to abandon the princes upon whose generosity his fortunes had been raised.
Pontano illustrates in a marked manner the position of power to which men of letters and learning had arrived in Italy. He entered Naples as a penniless scholar. He was almost immediately made the companion and trusted friend of its sovereign, loaded with honours, lodged in a fine house, enrolled among the nobles of the realm, enriched, and placed at the very height of social importance. Following the example of Pomponio Leto in Rome and of Cosimo de' Medici at Florence, Pontano led and lend his name to the Accademia Pontaniana, for the meetings of learned and distinguished men. This became the centre of fashion as well as of erudition in the southern capital, and subsists today.
In 1461 he married his first wife, Adriana Sassone, who bore him one son and three daughters before her death in 1491. Nothing distinguished Pontano more than the strength of his domestic feeling. He was passionately attached to his wife and children; and, while his friend Beccadelli signed the licentious verses of Hermaphroditus, his own Muse celebrated in liberal but loyal strains the pleasures of conjugal affection, the charm of infancy and the sorrows of a husband and a father in the loss of those he loved. Not long after the death of his first wife Pontano took in second marriage a beautiful girl of Ferrara, who is only known to us under the name of Stella.
Although he was at least sixty-five years of age at this period, his poetic faculty displayed itself with more than usual warmth and lustre in the glowing series of elegies, styled Eridanus, which he poured forth to commemorate the rapture of this union. Stella's one child, Luciio, survived his birth but fifty days; nor did his mother long remain to comfort the scholar's old age. Pontano had already lost his only son by the first marriage; therefore his declining years were solitary. He died in 1503 at Naples, where a remarkable group of terracotta figures, life-sized and painted, still adorns his tomb in the church of Monte Oliveto. He is there represented together with his patron Alfonso and his friend Jacopo Sannazaro in adoration before the dead Christ.
As a diplomat and state official Pontano played a part of some importance in the affairs of southern Italy and in the Barons' War, the wars with the Papacy, and the expulsion and restoration of the Aragonese dynasty. But his chief claim is as a scholar. His writings divide themselves into dissertations upon such topics as the "Liberality of Princes", "Ferocity" or "Magnificence", in which he argued that architecture and great monuments were the mark of a great ruler, composed in the rhetorical style of the day, and his poems.
He was distinguished for energy of Latin style, for vigorous intellectual powers, and for the faculty, rare among his contemporaries, of expressing the facts of modern life, the actualities of personal emotion, in language sufficiently classical yet always characteristic of the man. His prose treatises are more useful to students of manners than the similar lucubrations of Poggio Bracciolini. Yet it was principally as a Latin poet that he exhibited his full strength. An ambitious didactic composition in hexameters, entitled Urania, embodying the astronomical science of the age, and adorning this high theme with brilliant mythological episodes, won the admiration of Italy. It still remains a monument of fertile invention, exuberant facility and energetic handling of material. Not less excellent is the didactic poem on orange trees, De hortis Hesperidum. His most original compositions in verse, however, are elegiac and hendecasyllabic pieces on personal topics — the De conjugali amore, Eridanus, Tumuli, Naeniae, Baiae, in which he uttered his vehemently passionate emotions with a warmth of colouring, an evident sincerity, and a truth of painting from reality which excuse their erotic freedom.
Pontano's prose and poems were printed by Aldus Manutius at Venice. Pontano's Latin translation of Claudius Ptolemy's astrological work, the Tetrabiblos (or Quadripartitum) was first printed in 1535 as part of Joachim Camerarius first portfolio edition that also included the Greek text.
- George L. Hersey, Alfonso II and the Artistic Renewal of Naples, 1485-1495 (Yale University Press) 1969.
- Ptolemy, Claudius. (1971) Tetrabiblos; edited and translated into English by F.E. Robbins, Imprint London, W. Heinemann ltd., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb edition).
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