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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Jovianus Pontanus

Pontanus, Jovianusa (1426-1503), Italian humanist and poet, was born in 1426 at Cerreto in the duchy of Spoleto,  p63 where his father was murdered in one of the frequent civil brawls which then disturbed the peace of Italian towns. 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,b 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. Pontano's connexion with the Aragonese dynasty as political adviser, military secretary and chancellor was henceforth a close one; and 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 and of Cosimo de' Medici at Florence, Pontano founded an academy for the meetings of learned and distinguished men. This became the centre of fashion as well as of erudition in the southern capital, and subsisted long after its founder's death. 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 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, Lucilio, 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 terra-cotta figures, life-sized and painted, still adorns his tomb in the church of Monte Oliveto. He is there represented together with his patron Alphonso and his friend Sannazzaro in adoration before the dead Christ.c

As a diplomatist and state official Pontano played a part of some importance in the affairs of southern Italy and in the Barons' War, the wars with Rome, and the expulsion and restoration of the Aragonese dynasty. But his chief claim upon the attentions of posterity is as a scholar. His writings divide themselves into dissertations upon such topics as the "Liberality of Princes" or "Ferocity," composed in the rhetorical style of the day, and 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. 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,d 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, &c. — in which he uttered his vehemently passionate emotions with a warmth of southern colouring, an evident sincerity, and a truth of painting from reality which excuse their erotic freedom.e

Pontano's prose and poems were printed by the Aldi at Venice. For his life see Ardito, Giovanni Pontano e i suoi tempi (Naples, 1871); for his place in the history of literature, Symonds, Renaissance in Italy.f

[J. A. S.]

Thayer's Notes:

a Jovianus, with its nice pagan ring to it, was Pontano's own adaptation, in later life, of his baptismal name Giovanni; he is also seen as Johannes Jovianus Pontanus. As for his last name, its origin is unknown, but probably derives from the hamlet of Ponte within the territory of Cerreto, a striking place once known for its fortress, now demolished, but now for its attractive church (see my pages); he might just owe it on the other hand to another hamlet also very close by, Triponzo, where a very famous Roman inscription may still be seen carved on the face of a small cliff (there too, see my page).

Giovanni Pontano is not to be confused with Danish historian Johannes Pontanus (Johan Isaksen, 1571‑1639), author of a De rerum Danicarum historia.

b Often referred to by his adopted Latin name Panormita (from Palermo, Lat. Panormus).

c The article confuses two churches.

Pontano's tomb is in the Cappella Pontano, a very modest little free-standing chapel built by him in 1492 to house the remains of his first wife: see the excellent, detailed page with many photographs at Il Portale del Sud.

The terracotta portraits are in the much grander church of S. Maria in Monte Oliveto and do not adorn anyone's tomb, rather are supporting figures of a Lament over the Dead Christ by Guido Mazzoni, 1539 (incorrectly called a Pietà by Symonds both here and in Renaissance in Italy III.63), which can be seen at Il blog di Sasà o' professore.

d He also translated Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos into Latin; thirty-some years after he died, his translation was attached by Camerarius to the editio princeps of that work (1535).

e Pontano also wrote and collected funny stories, some from classical Antiquity, some from his own time including probably some of his own, publishing them in six books under the title De sermone. In 1562, long after Pontano's death, Lodovico Domenichi included some of them in a collection of his own — mixed in unfortunately with stories pilfered from several other authors, none of the sources identified. Some of Domenichi's anthology has in turn been attached to a selection of Poggio Bracciolini's famous Facetiae in a translation by Edward Storer, available online.

f Brief as it is, the elegant biographical sketch of Pontano by his later contemporary Paolo Giovio offers us a nicely complementary window into both his life and literary output. It can be found in English translation at Elfinspell.

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Page updated: 25 Apr 17