Poggio makes it to the small screen
The phone rings and it’s the BBC. They want to know more about Poggio Bracciolini. Our humanist friend is not having a bad year: he has already gained some celebrity for being the man who unleashed Lucretius on an unsuspecting Christian world. Now, the travelling scholar who also ‘discovered’ Quintilian and other authors, the humanist who was at the vanguard of reviving the Ciceronian dialogue form, the scribe who designed the new ‘littera antiqua’, the script of humanism which is the progenitor of the typeface you are reading — this man of many parts is to appear on BBC4.
The title of the programme in which he is to feature is revealing: ‘The World’s Oldest Joke’. He is to enter the limelight not because of any of his achievements just mentioned but because he had a fine line in blue humour, as recorded in his Facetiae, the set of jokes and other tales that originated (he reveals at the end of the work) in the bugiale — the lie-factory that was the waiting-room in the Vatican where papal secretaries like Poggio would loiter in anticipation of an audience with the Holy Father. And Poggio’s humour proved infectious, some of his facetiae reappearing in vernaculars across sixteenth-century Europe. Indeed, as I have argued recently, this collection of tales that was a work of his old age became the best-known element of his oeuvre because of the intervention of an invention with which he could have only had brief familiarity: the arrival of print could help circulate one’s works much more quickly than the scribal activities in which Poggio himself had been immersed, but it could also re-shape and contort one’s reputation. Poggio was known in his lifetime for his dialogues with their moral message and was sometimes accorded the sobriquet of ‘philosophus’; but, though those works travelled across Europe in manuscript, they were not the ones that were first to reach the printing-press: it was the Facetiae that most often was printed in the first decades of the first information technology revolution. And so, Poggio the philosopher became a dirty old man.
There is, then, an enjoyable irony that where print went, the second information technology revolution follows. Poggio is about to receive, through the television screen, a much wider audience than he can usually hope to command nowadays: a name that would usually only be heard in the sedate surroundings of Senior Common Rooms will be projected into lounges across the country, not because of his scholarly achievements but because of his ability to make people laugh.
Some might conclude that this is nothing more than is to be expected of a medium that popularizes and so has to entertain more than it educates. But I find myself not sharing those thoughts — after all, humanists like Poggio consider that you could educate through entertainment, that you could play seriously. What strikes me, instead, is that the scholarly Poggio, the scribe, the moraliser, is as partial a picture as one that concentrates solely on his joke-telling. Should we not be intergrating them together to get closer to Poggio the man?
I put that as question because the answer is by no means clear-cut: I, who am so precious about separating the different elements of my life, am the last person to suggest that you need to know the whole person, even if that were possible. Most of us live out lives knowing others in part, not wholly — others and perhaps ourselves as well. That may be our tragedy, or maybe it is our survival mechanism. Poggio himself may have been frustrated that his Facetiae should feature so large in the world’s memory of him — or, rather, Poggio aged forty may have been crestfallen to hear a prophecy that a work Poggio aged seventy would compile might become remembered as his main achievement. Perhaps he too would like to have kept his different lives separate one from another. But, equally, this was a man who berated others for not so much living as ‘doing life’, someone whose earthy experiences influence his scholarship.
The lady from the BBC was enthusiastic about Poggio and finished our conversation by saying how he deserved a biography or historical novel about his life. (It is not a challenge to which I think I could rise: ‘Poggio, when you have quite finished with your mistress, write me a letter’, ‘Yes, my lord of Winchester’). Perhaps I should have asked her ‘which life?’ And, perhaps, indeed, that would be the greatest challenge — to do justice to the many facets and the changing character of this man, without imagining he was all of them all the time. Let us hope, that, if such a work did come into being, it could let us both see his skill in writing and hear his laughter.