Antonio Beccadelli's The Hermaphrodite
is the type of book that corrupts you. At the same time, it reminds you that there is something quite delicious about being corrupted. There is that vivacious tingle as one feels one's inhibitions slipping away. The mind fills with fantasies you never knew were lurking there. It is dangerous and exciting. But don't take my word for it. Following the publication of this collection of startlingly sexually explicit Latin poems in 1425-26, there was an outcry from moralists. Effigies of Beccadelli were burned in Bologna and Milan. Pope Eugenius IV threatened to excommunicate anyone found reading The Hermaphrodite
. The work is honey to a decadent sensibility. In the 19th century, one of Beccadelli's biggest fans was Leonard Smithers, up-market pornographer and publisher of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. These poems are vivid and raunchy. If there is a tendency to associate the Italian Renaissance only with high culture, then Beccadelli reminds you that Renaissance thinkers were all too familiar with the gutter...An ambitious scholar, Beccadelli intended his poetry to make a mark. The Hermaphrodite
is the type of topsy-turvy virtuoso piece Renaissance humanists loved. This volume of poems juxtaposes clever and elegant Latin with filthy subject matter. It is a shiny, gilded dung-heap...Holt Parker's translation deserves much praise for the way that it combines clarity, accuracy and artistry. Producing this translation was not easy. Beccadelli's Latin is not always terribly clear. Sometimes it is difficult to work out precisely what is being done to whom or who is sticking what into where. Beccadelli's contemporaries could rely on their shared fantasies to guide them through the syntax. They knew how these scenes played out. We, on the other hand, have only the rules of grammar to help us and sometimes they fall short. Parker steers his way deftly through every ambiguity. His choices in interpretation are sensible and well argued...The final poem is one of the saddest. In about 1435, facing increasing condemnation for his work and abandoned by some of his most important defenders, Beccadelli wrote a poetic recantation of The Hermaphrodite
. In a poem dedicated to Cosimo de' Medici, Beccadelli writes that he is "now ashamed that I taught various filthy acts and impious ways of Venus" and castigates the ambition that made him think that he could establish an immortal name with such a work. There is something quite pitiful in seeing such a lively, irreverent spirit crushed by conventional morality. This poem is the real obscenity.
--Alastair Blanshard (Australian Literary Review
About the Author
Holt Parker is Professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.