Leon Battista Alberti (1404˝72) is often touted, justifiably, as the true Renaissance man: Scholar, writer, architect, sportsman, sculptor, priest, and witty companion, he could, on the spur of the moment, parse a Latin phrase, tame a horse, or jump six feet in the air from a standing positionˇor so he claimed (Renaissance men were, after all, also given to exaggeration). He was also a difficult man, seared by a cold childhood as the illegitimate son of an exiled Florentine banker, as well as by the endless irritations and indignities that fifteenth˝century Italian society could heap on a sensitive soul. However exciting his life may have been in Padua with the first humanists, in Florence with the Medici, in Rome with the popes, in Rimini with the sexy warlord Sigismondo Malatesta, or in Mantua with the Gonzaga, these experiences left Alberti jaded and cynical even as they lit the fires of his remarkable imagination. He wrote the story called Momus in Rome between 1443 and 1450, when he worked as an employee of the papal Curia, drafting documents in flawless Latin, exploring the ruins of the ancient city, and dreaming of new buildings to rival the marvels of antiquity. Momus, from the Greek word for blame or criticism, was the ancient world's personification of the contrarian spirit. Alberti claimed to have written Momus for his readers' amusement but also to teach them some home truths about government, piety, and right living. To these ends he attempted, in Latin, to capture the urbane flavor of an ancient Greek satirist, Lucian of Samosata, who had made his career in the second century of the Christian era, when Imperial Rome was at the peak of its military power and cultural achievement. Lucian's witty discussions of everything from contemporary art to the passions of the gods posed a bracing challenge to fifteenth˝century scholars; his elegant Greek captured an age of supreme sophistication, not only of cosmopolitan culture, but of a physical comfort that had come to an end with the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. In many respects, Alberti's response to Lucian was less an imitation of the Greek author's refined wit than an anticipation of the picaresque novels that would spring up in Spain and Naples a century later, with a crystal˝clear Christian morality underpinning the misadventures of their unlikely heroes.
With its world˝weary tone and its vision of human nature as anything but dignified, Momus is an unusual selection for any Renaissance reading list, but the series in which it appears, the I Tatti Renaissance Library, revels in unusual choices. And in fact Momus may reveal more about Alberti than any one of his other works, including his literary ambitions, his frustrations, and the labyrinthine courtly culture in which he made his versatile career. Best of all, this poisonously misogynistic text has been left to the ministrations of two women of formidable learning, Sarah Knight and Virginia Brown, whose competence systematically belies his withering pronouncements. It is a subtle way for the I Tatti Library to declare that the differences separating our age from Alberti'sˇwhich certainly include a decline in the universality of Latinˇare not all bad. And before crying "O tempora, o mores!" about the I Tatti Library's mission to produce new English translations of once˝standard Latin works, it is worth recalling that in Alberti's day literacy of any kind was a rarity, and translation was an honorable art.
Knight's task as translator of Alberti in this chatty Lucianic mood is fraught with challenges. His style in Momus is at once sophisticated and sassy, loaded with alliteration and high rhetorical effects, yet at the same time casual in the extreme; uneven because he probably never gave the work its final polish. Fortunately for the rhythm of Knight's translation, Anglo˝Saxon can pack all the monosyllabic punch of Latin catchphrases like Alberti's motto Quid tum? (So what? What then? What next?). Other renderings are sheer inspiration: "Rusty the architect" is named Aerugo in the original text. Literally, this means copper sulfate, the green rust on bronze, but calling Rusty "Oxidation" or "Verdigris" would miss Alberti's suggestion that the architect is as hoary as the gods themselves, who are rusting away in leprous patches of iron oxide.
Alberti's comic sense, on the other hand, defies translation. Renaissance humor was often crude and cruel; these were people who laughed at dwarves, baited animals, and took maiming as a natural consequence of sporting events. The earliest adventures of Momus include his rape of Praise, the virgin daughter of Virtue, in a reverse Rapunzel actˇMomus turns into climbing ivy and mounts the tower in which she has been confined. Praise, raped by Blame (Momus), her antithesis, begets Rumor; Alberti thus attempts to describe the genesis of gossip by a funny story, but somewhere in the past five and a half centuries the funniness got left behindˇone can imagine Goya taking on the subject, for example, but not for laughs. When Juno and the goddesses castrate Momus with their bare hands or when, at the end of the story, a melee in the theater blinds Pluto and shears off Hope's shoulder, wing and all, Alberti means these events to be amusing as well as symbolic, schadenfreude made spicier than usual because it involves the immortal gods. The spice is more likely now to be shock.
Alberti's early readers understood Momus, with its population of unruly gods, goddesses, heroes, and personifications, as a roman Ó clef. In the parlance of Roman humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Best and Greatest Jupiter" (Knight's felicitous rendering of "Iuppiter optimus maximus") often meant the pope; Knight notes in her introduction that the vain, bombastic Jupiter of Momus has often been identified as Pope Eugenius IV, with whom the young Alberti worked in the 1430s. On the face of it, Eugenius seems a more plausible butt for satire than Alberti's friend Tommaso Parentucelli, elected Pope Nicholas V in 1447, when Momus was under way. Yet the grandiose plans Jupiter unveils for remaking Creation virtually beg comparison to Nicholas's plans for remaking Rome, both for their ambition and for their lack of completion. Momus declares, "Who wouldn't play the madman, when the prince himself is insane?" Would Alberti say such a thing about a friend, or do friends change when they become the head of a theocratic state and answer only to God? Already in Alberti's own day, two contemporaries, Francesco Filelfo and Bartolomeo Fazio, each claimed to have furnished the living model for Momus, reveling in their own reputation as gadflies. Sensibly enough, however, Knight argues that Momus should be read as a more generalized work of fiction. After all, the arrogance, intrigue, climbing, and corruption that Alberti describes among the gods were endemic to every court in Italy and beyond. His biting portrait of divine corruption anticipates analyses of misgovernment ranging from Machiavelli's Prince to Erasmus's Praise of Folly, More's Utopia, and, with revenge replacing bitter amusement, Verdi's Rigoletto.
But princes are not the only target of Alberti's ire. Philosophers come in for equally brutal treatment, as Momus spends time among them in a place called the Academy, collecting their wisdom about just government; Jupiter eventually visits as well. This Academy is not quite Plato's establishment of the same name, as all the ancient schools of philosophy are represented together in vivid caricature: Diogenes the Cynic hurls invective from the broken storage jar where he makes his home, Socrates reprises his famous interrogation of a cobbler about the construction of the ideal shoe, Democritus dissects small animals to find the physical source of anger, and Plato is so rapt in his visions that no one has spotted him for years. Yet however sloppy the figures they cut, Alberti suggests that these philosopher˝academics do understand the basics of wise rule; Momus collects a series of their observations and hands it to Jupiter, but the Best and Greatest is too involved with the wranglings of his fellow divinities to do more than skim the listˇuntil it is too late.
At least one later reader of Momus saw a serious philosophical point in the story's brutal, bitter humor: the heretic philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548˝1600), whose dialogue Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast actually carries out Jupiter's plan to clean up the cosmos. One by one, the king of the gods throws the traditional constellations down from the heavens and replaces them with more decorous virtues, hoping to stave off his own senescence and inevitable retirement. But once again Jupiter acts too late: In an earlier dialogue Bruno had already declared that the universe was infinite and the stars without number. The Inquisition accused Bruno of poking fun at the Catholic church and burned him at the stake, despite the fact that he maintained that his dialogue made quite a different point. The same ambiguity surrounds Battista Alberti's strange, savage tale of power and divinity. Momus is an important, if elusive, work, now made accessible as never before in this splendid edition.
Ingrid Rowland is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the American Academy in Rome.