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On the Ridiculous Titles Assumed by the Italian Academies

THE Italians are a fanciful people, who have often mixed a grain or two of pleasantry and even of folly with their wisdom. This fanciful character betrays itself in their architecture, in their poetry, in their extemporary comedy, and their Improvvisatori; but an instance not yet accounted for of this national levity, appears in those denominations of exquisite absurdity given by themselves to their Academies! I have in vain inquired for any assignable reason why the most ingenious men, and grave and illustrious personages, cardinals and princes, as well as poets, scholars, and artists, in every literary city, should voluntarily choose to burlesque themselves and their serious occupations, by affecting mysterious or ludicrous titles, as if it were carnival-time, and they had to support masquerade characters, and accepting such titles as we find in the cant style of our own vulgar clubs, the Society of “Odd Fellows,” and of “Eccentrics!” A principle so whimsical but systematic, must surely have originated in some circumstance not hitherto detected.

A literary friend, recently in an Italian city, exhausted by the sirocco, entered a house whose open door and circular seats appeared to offer to passengers a refreshing sorbetto: he discovered, however, that he had got into “the Academy of the Cameleons,” where they met to delight their brothers, and any “spirito gentil” they could nail to a recitation. An invitation to join the academicians alarmed him, for with some impatient prejudice against these little creatures, vocal with prose e rime, and usually with odes and sonnets begged for, or purloined for the occasion, he waived all further curiosity and courtesy, and has returned home without any information how these “Cameleons” looked when changing their colours in an “accademia.”

Such literary institutions, prevalent in Italy, are the spurious remains of those numerous academies which simultaneously started up in that country about the sixteenth century. They assumed the most ridiculous denominations, and a great number is registered by Quadrio and Tiraboschi. Whatever was their design, one cannot fairly reproach them, as Mencken, in his “Charlatanaria Eruditorum,” seems to have thought, for pompous quackery; neither can we attribute to their modesty their choice of senseless titles, for to have degraded their own exalted pursuits was but folly! Literary history affords no parallel to this national absurdity of the refined Italians. Who could have suspected that the most eminent scholars, and men of genius, were associates of the Oziosi, the Fantastici, the Insensati? Why should Genoa boast of her “Sleepy,” Viterbo of her “Obstinates,” Sienna of her “Insipids,” her “Blockheads,” and her “Thunderstruck;” and Naples of her “Furiosi;” while Macerata exults in her “Madmen chained?” Both Quadrio and Tiraboschi cannot deny that these fantastical titles have occasioned these Italian academies to appear very ridiculous to the oltramontani; but these valuable historians are no philosophical thinkers. They apologise for this bad taste, by describing the ardour which was kindled throughout Italy at the restoration of letters and the fine arts, so that every one, and even every man of genius, were eager to enroll their names in these academies, and prided themselves in bearing their emblems, that is, the distinctive arms each academy had chosen. But why did they mystify themselves?

Folly, once become national, is a vigorous plant, which sheds abundant seed. The consequence of having adopted ridiculous titles for these academies, suggested to them many other characteristic fopperies. At Florence every brother of the “Umidi” assumed the name of something aquatic, or any quality pertaining to humidity. One was called “the Frozen,” another “the Damp;” one was “the Pike,” another “the Swan;” and Grazzini, the celebrated novelist, is known better by the cognomen of La Lasca, “the Roach,” by which he whimsically designates himself among the “Humids.” I find among the Insensati, one man of learning taking the name of STORDITO Insensato, another TENEBROSO Insensato. The famous Florentine academy of La Crusca, amidst their grave labours to sift and purify their language, threw themselves headlong into this vortex of folly. Their title, the academy of “Bran,” was a conceit to indicate their art of sifting; but it required an Italian prodigality of conceit to have induced these grave scholars to exhibit themselves in the burlesque scenery of a pantomimical academy, for their furniture consists of a mill and a bakehouse; a pulpit for the orator is a hopper, while the learned director sits on a mill-stone; the other seats have the forms of a miller’s dossers, or great panniers, and the backs consist of the long shovels used in ovens. The table is a baker’s kneading-trough, and the academician who reads has half his body thrust out of a great bolting sack, with I know not what else for their inkstands and portfolios. But the most celebrated of these academies is that “degli Arcadia” at Rome, who are still carrying on their pretensions much higher. Whoever aspires to be aggregated to these Arcadian shepherds receives a pastoral name and a title, but not the deeds, of a farm, picked out of a map of the ancient Arcadia or its environs; for Arcadia itself soon became too small a possession for these partitioners of moonshine. Their laws, modelled by the twelve tables of the ancient Romans; their language in the venerable majesty of their renowned ancestors; and this erudite democracy dating by the Grecian Olympiads, which Crescembini, their first custode, or guardian, most painfully adjusted to the vulgar æra, were designed that the sacred erudition of antiquity might for ever be present among these shepherds.1 Goldoni, in his Memoirs, has given an amusing account of these honours. He says “he was presented with two diplomas; the one was my charter of aggregation to the Arcadi of Rome, under the name of Polisseno, the other gave me the investiture of the Phlegean fields. I was on this saluted by the whole assembly in chorus, under the name of Polisseno Phlegeio, and embraced by them as a fellow shepherd and brother. The Arcadians are very rich, as you may perceive, my dear reader we possess estates in Greece; we water them with our labours for the sake of reaping laurels, and the Turks sow them with grain, and plant them with vines, and laugh at both our titles and our songs.” When Fontenelle became an Arcadian, they baptized him Il Pastor Pigrasto, that is, “amiable Fountain!” allusive to his name and his delightful style; and magnificently presented him with the entire Isle of Delos! The late Joseph Walker, an enthusiast for Italian literature, dedicated his “Memoir on Italian Tragedy” to the Countess Spencer; not inscribing it with his Christian but his heathen name, and the title of his Arcadian estate, Eubante Tirinzio! Plain Joseph Walker, in his masquerade dress, with his Arcadian signet of Pan’s reeds dangling in his title-page, was performing a character to which however well adapted, not being understood, he got stared at for his affectation! We have lately heard of some licentious revellings of these Arcadians, in receiving a man of genius from our own country, who, himself composing Italian Rime, had “conceit” enough to become a shepherd!2 Yet let us inquire before we criticise.

Even this ridiculous society of the Arcadians became a memorable literary institution; and Tiraboschi has shown how it successfully arrested the bad taste which was then prevailing throughout Italy, recalling its Muses to purer sources; while the lives of many of its shepherds have furnished an interesting volume of literary history under the title of “The Illustrious Arcadians.” Crescembini, and its founders, had formed the most elevated conceptions of the society at its origin; but poetical vaticinators are prophets only while we read their verses—we must not look for that dry matter of fact—the event predicted!

“Il vostro seme eterno
  Occuperà la terra, ed i confini
  D’Arcadia oltrapassando,
  Di non più visti gloriosi germi
  L’aureo feconderà lito del Gange
  E de’ Cimmeri l’infeconde arene.”

Mr. Mathias has recently with warmth defended the original Arcadia; and the assumed character of its members, which has been condemned as betraying their affectation, he attributes to their modesty. “Before the critics of the Arcadia (the pastori, as they modestly styled themselves), with Crescembini for their conductor, and with the Adorato Albano for their patron (Clement XI.), all that was depraved in language, and in sentiment, fled and disappeared.”

The strange taste for giving fantastical denominations to literary institutions grew into a custom, though, probably, no one knew how. The founders were always persons of rank or learning, yet still accident or caprice created the mystifying title, and invented those appropriate emblems, which still added to the folly. The Arcadian society derived its title from a spontaneous conceit. This assembly first held its meetings, on summer evenings, in a meadow on the banks of the Tiber; for the fine climate of Italy promotes such assemblies in the open air. In the recital of an eclogue, an enthusiast, amidst all he was hearing and all he was seeing, exclaimed, “I seem at this moment to be in the Arcadia of ancient Greece, listening to the pure and simple strains of its shepherds.” Enthusiasm is contagious amidst susceptible Italians, and this name, by inspiration and by acclamation, was conferred on the society! Even more recently at Florence the accademia called the Colombaria, or the “Pigeonhouse,” proves with what levity the Italians name a literary society. The founder was the Cavallero Pazzi, a gentleman, who, like Morose, abhorring noise, chose for his study a garret in his palazzo; it was, indeed, one of the old turrets which had not yet fallen in: there he fixed his library, and there he assembled the most ingenious Florentines to discuss obscure points, and to reveal their own contributions in this secret retreat of silence and philosophy. To get to this cabinet it was necessary to climb a very steep and very narrow staircase, which occasioned some facetious wit to observe, that these literati were so many pigeons who flew every evening to their dove-cote. The Cavallero Pazzi, to indulge this humour, invited them to a dinner entirely composed of their little brothers, in all the varieties of cookery; the members, after a hearty laugh, assumed the title of the Colombaria, invented a device consisting of the top of a turret, with several pigeons living about it, bearing an epigraph from Dante, Quanto veder si pùo, by which they expressed their design not to apply themselves to any single object. Such facts sufficiently prove that some of the absurd or facetious denominations of these literary societies originated in accidental circumstances, or in mere pleasantry; but this will not account for the origin of those mystifying titles we have noticed; for when grave men call themselves dolts or lunatics, unless they are really so, they must have some reason for laughing at themselves.

To attempt to develop this curious but obscure singularity in literary history, we must go farther back among the first beginnings of these institutions. How were they looked on by the governments in which they first appeared? These academies might, perhaps, form a chapter in the history of secret societies, one not yet written, but of which many curious materials lie scattered in history. It is certain that such literary societies, in their first origins, have always excited the jealousy of governments, but more particularly in ecclesiastical Rome, and the rival principalities of Italy. If two great nations, like those of England and France, had their suspicions and fears roused by a select assembly of philosophical men, and either put them down by force, or closely watched them, this will not seem extraordinary in little despotic states. We have accounts of some philosophical associations at home, which were joined by Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Rawleigh, but which soon got the odium of atheism attached to them; and the establishment of the French Academy occasioned some umbrage, for a year elapsed before the parliament of Paris would register their patent, which was at length accorded by the political Richelieu observing to the president, that “he should like the members according as the members liked him.” Thus we have ascertained one principle, that governments in those times looked on a new society with a political glance; nor is it improbable that some of them combined an ostensible with a latent motive.

There is no want of evidence to prove, that the modern Romans, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, were too feelingly alive to their obscured glory, and that they too frequently made invidious comparisons of their ancient republic with the pontifical government; to revive Rome, with everything Roman, inspired such enthusiasts as Rienzi, and charmed the visions of Petrarch. At a period when ancient literature, as if by a miracle, was raising itself from its grave, the learned were agitated by a correspondent energy: not only was an estate sold to purchase a manuscript, but the relic of genius was touched with a religious emotion. The classical purity of Cicero was contrasted with the barbarous idiom of the Missal; the glories of ancient Rome with the miserable subjugation of its modern pontiffs; and the metaphysical reveries of Plato, and what they termed the “Enthusiasmus Alexandrinus”—the dreams of the Platonists—seemed to the fanciful Italians more elevated than the humble and pure ethics of the Gospels. The vain and amorous Eloisa could even censure the gross manners, as it seemed to her, of the apostles, for picking the ears of corn in their walks, and at their meals eating with unwashed hands. Touched by this mania of antiquity, the learned affected to change their vulgar Christian name, by assuming the more classical ones of a Junius Brutus, a Pomponius, or a Julius, or any other rusty name unwashed by baptism. This frenzy for the ancient republic not only menaced the pontificate; but their Platonic, or their pagan ardours, seemed to be striking at the foundation of Christianity itself. Such were Marcillus Ficinus, and that learned society who assembled under the Medici. Pomponius Lætus, who lived at the close of the fifteenth century not only celebrated by an annual festival the foundation of Rome, and raised altars to Romulus, but openly expressed his contempt for the Christian religion, which this visionary declared was only fit for barbarians; but this extravagance and irreligion, observes Niceron, were common with many of the learned of those times, and this very Pomponius was at length formally accused of the crime of changing the baptismal names of the young persons whom he taught, for pagan ones! “This was the taste of the times,” says the author we have just quoted; but it was imagined that there was a mystery concealed in these changes of names.

At this period these literary societies first appear : one at Rome had the title of “Academy,” and for its chief this very Pomponius; for he is distinguished as “Romanæ Princeps Academia,” by his friend Politian, in the “Miscellanea” of that elegant scholar. This was under the pontificate of Paul II. The regular meetings of “the Academy” soon excited the jealousy and suspicions of Paul, and gave rise to one of the most horrid persecutions and scenes of torture, even to death, in which these academicians were involved. This closed with a decree of Paul’s, that for the future no one should pronounce, either seriously or in jest, the very name of academy, under the penalty of heresy! The story is told by Platina, one of the sufferers, in his Life of Paul II.; and although this history may be said to bear the bruises of the wounded and dislocated body of the unhappy historian, the facts are unquestionable, and connected with our subject. Platina, Pornponius, and many of their friends, were suddenly dragged to prison; on the first and second day torture was applied, and many expired under the hands of their executioners. “You would have imagined says Platina,” that the castle of St. Angelo was turned into the bull of Phalaris, so loud the hollow vault resounded with the cries of those miserable young men, who were an honour to their age for genius and learning. The torturers, not satisfied, though weary, having racked twenty men in those two days, of whom some died, at length sent for me to take my turn. The instruments of torture were ready; I was stripped, and the executioners put themselves to their work. Vianesius sat like another Minos on a seat of tapestry-work, gay as at a wedding; and while I hung on the rack in torment, he played with a jewel which Sanga had, asking him who was the mistress which had given him this love-token? Turning to me, he asked ‘why Pomponio in a letter should call me Holy Father? Did the conspirators agree to make you Pope?’ ‘Pomponio,’ I replied, ‘can best tell why he gave me this title, for I know not.’ At length, having pleased, but not satisfied himself with my tortures, he ordered me to be let down, that I might undergo tortures much greater in the evening. I was carried, half dead, into my chamber; but not long after, the inquisitor having dined, and being fresh in drink, I was fetched again, and the archbishop of Spalatro was there. They inquired of my conversations with Malatesta. I said, it only concerned ancient and modern learning, the military, arts, and the characters of illustrious men, the ordinary subjects of conversation. I was bitterly threatened by Vianesius, unless I confessed the truth on the following day, and was carried back to my chamber, where I was seized with such extreme pain, that I had rather have died than endured the agony of my battered and dislocated limbs. But now those who were accused of heresy were charged with plotting treason. Pomponius being examined why he changed the names of his friends, he answered boldly, that this was no concern of his judges or the pope; it was perhaps out of respect for antiquity, to stimulate to a virtuous emulation. After we had now lain ten months in prison, Paul comes himself to the castle, where he charged us, among other things, that we had disputed concerning the immortality of the soul, and that we held the opinion of Plato; by disputing you call the being of a God in question. This, I said, might be objected to all divines and philosophers, who, to make the truth appear, frequently question the existence of souls and of God, and of all separate intelligences. St. Austin says, the opinion of Plato is like the faith of Christians. I followed none of the numerous heretical factions. Paul then accused us of being too great admirers of pagan antiquities; yet none were more fond of them than himself, for he collected all the statues and sarcophagi of the ancients to place in his palace, and even affected to imitate, on more than one occasion, the pomp and charm of their public ceremonies. While they were arguing, mention happened to he made of ‘the Academy,’ when the Cardinal of San Marco cried out that we were not ‘Academics,’ but a scandal to the name; and Paul now declared that he would not have that term evermore mentioned under pain of heresy. He left us in a passion, and kept us two months longer in prison to complete the year, as it seems he had sworn.”

Such is the interesting narrative of Platina, from which we may surely infer, that if these learned men assembled for the communication of their studies—inquiries suggested by the monuments of antiquity, the two learned languages, ancient authors, and speculative points of philosophy—these objects were associated with others, which terrified the jealousy of modern Rome.

Sometime after, at Naples, appeared the two brothers, John Baptiste and John Vincent Porta, those twin-spirits, the Castor and Pollux of the natural philosophy of that age, and whose scenical museum delighted and awed, by its optical illusions, its treasure of curiosities, and its natural magic, all learned natives and foreigners. Their name is still famous, and their treatises De humana physiognomia and Magia Naturalis, are still opened by the curious, who discover these children of philosophy, wandering in the arcana of nature, to them a world of perpetual beginnings! These learned brothers united with the Marquis of Manso, the friend of Tasso, in establishing an academy under the whimsical name degli Oziosi (the Lazy), which so ill described their intentions. This academy did not sufficiently embrace the views of the learned brothers, and then they formed another under their own roof, which they appropriately named di Secreti; the ostensible motive was, that no one should be admitted into this interior society who had not signalised himself by some experiment or discovery. It is clear, that, whatever they intended by the project, the election of the members was to pass through the most rigid scrutiny—and what was the consequence? The court of Rome again started up with all its fears, and secretly obtaining information of some discussions which had passed in this academy degli Secreti, prohibited the Portas from holding such assemblies, or applying themselves to those illicit sciences, whose amusements are criminal, and turn us aside from the study of the Holy Scriptures.3 It seems that one of the Portas had delivered himself in the style of an ancient oracle; but what was more alarming in this prophetical spirit, several of his predictions had been actually verified! The infallible court was in no want of a new school of prophecy. Baptista Porta went to Rome to justify himself; and, content to wear his head, placed his tongue in the custody of his holiness, and no doubt preferred being a member of the Accademia degli Oziosi, to that of gli Secreti. To confirm this notion that these academies excited the jealousy of those despotic states of Italy, I find that several of them at Florence, as well as at Sienna, were considered as dangerous meetings, and in 1568, the Medici suddenly suppressed those of the “Insipids,” the “Shy,” the “Disheartened,” and others, but more particularly the “Stunned,” gli Intronati, which excited local laments. We have also an account of an academy which called itself the Lanternists, from the circumstance that their first meetings were held at night; the academicians, not carrying torches, but only Lanterns. This academy, indeed, was at Toulouse, but evidently formed on the model of its neighbours. In fine, it cannot be denied, that these literary societies or academies were frequently objects of alarm to the little governments of Italy, and were often interrupted by political persecution.

From all these facts I am inclined to draw an inference. It is remarkable that the first Italian academies were only distinguished by the simple name of their founders; one was called the Academy of Pomponius Lætus, another of Panormita, &c. It was after the melancholy fate of the Roman academy of Lætus, which could not, however, extinguish that growing desire of creating literary societies in the Italian cities, from which the members derived both honour and pleasure, that suddenly we discover these academics bearing the most fantastical titles. I have not found any writer who has attempted to solve this extraordinary appearance in literary history, and the difficulty seems great, because, however frivolous or fantastical the titles they assumed, their members were illustrious for rank and genius. Tiraboschi, aware of this difficulty, can only express his astonishment at the absurdity, and his vexation at the ridicule to which the Italians have been exposed by the coarse jokes of Menkenius in his Charlatanaria Eruditorum.4 I conjecture, that the invention of these ridiculous titles, for literary societies, was an attempt to throw a sportive veil over meetings which had alarmed the papal and the other petty courts of Italy; and to quiet their fears, and turn aside their political wrath, they implied the innocence of their pursuits by the jocularity with which the members treated themselves, and were willing that others should treat them. This otherwise inexplicable national levity of so refined a people has not occurred in any other country, because the necessity did not exist anywhere but in Italy. In France, in Spain, and in England, the title of the ancient ACADEMUS was never profaned by an adjunct, which systematically degraded and ridiculed its venerable character, and its illustrious members.

Long after this article was finished, I had an opportunity of consulting an eminent Italian, whose name is already celebrated in our country, Il Sigr. UGO FOSCOLO; his decision ought necessarily to outweigh mine; but although it is incumbent on me to put the reader in possession of the opinion of a native of his high acquirements, it is not as easy for me, on this obscure and curious subject, to relinquish my own conjecture.

Il Sigr. FOSCOLO is of opinion, that the origin of the fantastical titles assumed by the Italian Academies entirely arose from a desire of getting rid of the air of pedantry, and to insinuate that their meetings and their works were to he considered merely as sportive relaxations, and an idle business.

This opinion may satisfy an Italian, and this he may deem a sufficient apology for such absurdity; but when scarlet robes and cowled heads, laureated bards and Monsignores, and Cavalleros, baptize themselves in a public assembly “Blockheads” or “Madmen,” we ultramontanes out of mere compliment to such great and learned men, would suppose that they had their good reasons; and that in this there must have been “something more than meets the ear.” After all, I would almost flatter myself that our two opinions are not so wide of each other as they at first seem to be.

1 Crescembini, at the close of “La bellezza della Volgar Poesia,” Roma, 1700.

2 History of the Middle Ages, ii. 584. See, also, Mr. Rose’s Letters from the North of Italy, vol. i. 204. Mr. Hallam has observed, that “Such an institution as the society degli Arcadi could at no time have endured public ridicule in England for a fortnight,”

3 Niceron, vol. xliii. Art. Porta.

4 See Tiraboschi, vol. vii. cap. iv. Accademie, and Quadrio’s Della Storia e della Ragione d’ogni Poesia. In the immense receptacle of these seven quarto volumes, printed with a small type, the curious may consult the voluminous Index, art. Accademia.

Editor’s Notes

 § In later editions of the Curiosities, one more footnote has been appended to this article, regarding Ugo Foscolo:

Ugo Foscolo was born in Padua, where he achieved an early success as an author. He entered the Italian army in 1805, but soon quitted it, and became Professor of Literature in the university of Pavia; but his lectures alarmed Napoleon by their boldness of speech, and he suppressed the professorship. He came to England in 1815, and was exceedingly well received; he wrote much in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, besides publishing several books. He died in 1827, and is buried at Chiswick.