Pontano: The Tomb of Massila, the Slave-girl (From Latin)

When I think back to the AP Latin curriculum I subjected myself to in high school, I shake my head at what a truncated, gutted impression of Latin literature it gave, as if nothing worth reading were written in Latin after 300 AD. The modern commonplace equation of Latin literature with Ancient Roman literature, and of the Latin language with Ancient Roman Latinity, to the exclusion of the overwhelming majority of things written in Latin throughout history, arbitrarily conceals from non-specialists and students what pleasure is to be had from the great poets of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, many of whom wrote mostly or entirely in Latin. It is also a monument to the staggering stupidity of the assumption of, among others, George Santayana (and belied by Leah Goldberg, Samuel Beckett, William Auld and, well, the overwhelming majority of urbanized, literate, stratified societies throughout pre-modern history) that a literary artist is at their best when writing in some form of the language they speak or grew up speaking. 
So, here we have a poem by the great Latin poet Giovanni Pontano comes to us from Renaissance Italy, whose Latin literature is rarely serviced by literary translators. It is also one of the most memorable I have ever read. It functions as an allusive anti-text for Catullus' celebrated elegy for his brother ("Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus", for my translation of which click here.) 
Pontano's choice of a slave-girl as the focal point of the piece is not merely an allusive nod to antiquity. Pontano could easily be - and I think actually is - referring to a child he himself fathered with one of his own slave-women. Slavery was practiced in Pontano's romping ground of Naples during the Renaissance (as was the case in most of the Mediterranean region,) and owners could be - and frequently were - quite cruel and brutal. Pontano himself not only owned slaves, but also wrote a work in the service of the status quo titled De Obedientia in which among other things, he comments on how to keep slaves on the straight and narrow. 
However, Pontano was also acutely aware of the fact that slaves were often miserable and their humanity treated cheaply. Indeed, this very poem succeeds by making the seemingly insignificant baby slave girl immortally significant. A dead female child of the underclass, the epitome of devalued humanity, is given a dignity in verse that has endured long enough for you, whoever you are, to read it in my 21st century English translation. Pontano gives her the only honor he feels he can, adorning her death with this verse, giving an indirect acknowledgement of how wretched, how painful and how casually neglected a slave's life is - so much so that death is not necessarily overmuch cause for sorrow. There is no grief in these lines. Even the mother accepts her (likely stillborn) child's death in an almost matter of fact fashion. How cheapened life must be, when death scarce seems much of a loss. On a final note: for me, at least, Pontano gives the impression of recriminating himself indirectly by highlighting the joylessness of (his) slaves' lives. 

The Tomb of Massila, the Slave Girl
By Jovianus Pontanus (A.K.A Giovanni Pontano)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

  The urn itself speaks

I, urn of cremation, speak. The ash is a baby. A slave-girl
 lies in me, born in her home, her father's twin child. 
After she died, her mother entrusted her to me, and told me
 "I bore her myself for you, your daughter to be." 
Her in the dark I nourished. Night was her nurse. At the breasts of
 night she sucked. The breastmilk was sleep itself.
She does not speak. Yet bearing witness in sleep everlasting
 she teaches us how birth is worse than death. 
Not one whirled care now wracks her, she's not on the lips of her mother.
 No wool is put in her fingers to pull apart.
She leads an eternal dead of night, without light, without living
 feeling. Life's obsequies can't oppress her now. 
And while I speak myself, this little baby keeps sleeping
 untroubled. Slumber bathes her in constant rain. 
Massila was the name her master gave her. The Muses
 adorned this place through duteous love of her lord.
Here rests Massila. Sleep is the milk she sucks from the breasts of 
 night. But dark and the coffin are her cradles. 

Original:

Tumulus Massilae Vernulae
Jovianus Pontanus

  Urna ipsa loquitur

Urna loquor: cinis est infans, infantula mecum est,
 Vernula nata domi, nata gemella patri.
Hanc mater mihi commendat post funera et inquit:
 "Ipsa tibi hanc peperi, nata futura tua est."
Hanc alui in tenebris; nutrix nox; ubera suxit
 Noctis, et infanti lac fuit ipse sopor.
Nec fatur; verum somno testata perenni,
 Quam nasci satius vos docet esse mori.
Hanc nullae torquent curae, non matris in ore est,
 Non lana in digitis comminuenda datur;
Continuas ducit noctes; lux nulla, nec ulli
 Sunt vitae sensus, munera nulla premunt.
Dumque haec ipsa loquor, secura infantula dormit;
 Illam perpetuo somnus ab imbre rigat.
Nomen erat quod fecit herus Massila; Camoenae
 Ornarunt domini pro pietate locum.
Hic dormit Massila; sopor lac, ubera praebet
 Nox ipsa, at cunas et tenebrae et loculi.

1 comment:

  1. What I really like about this are these repeated lines. Grief is inferred subtly, yet it is as if the savoring of grief becomes one's own comfort.

    Her in the dark I nourished. Night was her nurse. At the breasts of
     night she sucked. The breastmilk was sleep itself.

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