Illustrissimi ac doctissimi Principis Jo. Francisci Pici Mirandulae Dni et concordiae Com. De Venere et Cupidine expellendis carmen. Item Eiusdem: Laurentius & Geminianus Hymni. L. Greg. Gyr. Distichon. Et Venerem, & caeci stimulos avertere amoris si qui amat Pici carmina docta legat

Autore: PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA, Giovanni Francesco (1469-1533)

Tipografo: Giacomo Mazzocchi

Dati tipografici: Roma, December 1513


THE LAOCOON, APOLLO, AND VENUS FELIX OF THE VATICAN BELVEDERE

4to (206x142 mm). [12] leaves. Collation: A-C4. Modern flexible vellum. Some light marginal staining, but a good copy.

First edition of one of the earliest description of the sculpture court created at the Vatican Belvedere by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) with the artistic supervision of Donato Bramante (1444-1514). The booklet collects the poem De Venere et Cupidine expellendis, Pico's explanatory letter to Lilio Gregorio Giraldi (1479-1552) dated 31 August 1512 that accompanies the poem, and two final hymns (Hymnus in Martyrem Laurentium and Hymnus in D. Geminianum). The poem without the letter was printed in the same year at Strasbourg.

“La matrice antica del luogo, giardino delle Esperidi, luogo ideale per l'ozio filosofico, centro della nuova politica di Giulio II colpisce Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; è lì che egli ambienta il De Venere et Cupidine cogliendo la natura pagana del luogo: Laocoonte e le anticaglie solo identificate per veloci evocazioni, sono quasi come idoli chiamati ad animare il regno di Venere e della vana venustas” (S. Settis, Laocoonte: fama e stile, Roma, 1999, p. 174).

Talking about the Belvedere Garden, E.H. Gombrich writes: “May not this grove of pagan divinities confirm the influence of Colonna's Hypnerotomachia? There is at least one contemporary description -so far overlooked by archaeologists- which suggests such an interpretation. True, its author was not an unbiased and detached observer, nor was he an ordinary visitor. It was Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, the unhappy nephew of the famous Count of Concordia, like his uncle a Neo-Platonic mystic and an ardent follower of Savonarola […] In 1512 the vicissitudes of a turbulent political career had brought Giovanni Francesco to Rome. Having been deprived of his dominion of Mirandola by his brothers, the keys of the fortress had been handed to him by Julius II after its dramatic siege and conquest in the preceding year, but he had lost it again to Gianiacobo Trivulzi. During the anxious negotiations of these days he must have spent many hours in the Papal residence, appealing, soliciting and waiting. In these tense moments -so we may infer- the statues of the Gods in the Belvedere Garden seemed to assume an uncanny life. They looked to him like idols, placed on altars -but he at any rate would not sacrifice to them. The group of Venus and Cupid, above all, which the Pope had but recently brought into the garden -it was the Venus Felix- became to him a symbol and embodiment of all that moral corruption he abhorred in Rome. And so he composed a kind of Psychomachia, De Venere et Cupidine expellendis, which recalls the motif of Mantegna's Minerva, driving Venus and her train of vices into the swamps. It is the letter to his friend Lilius Gyraldus, printed with the Rome edition of is poem and dated August 1512, which shows the Belvedere Garden in this unexpected light: ‘Lilius, do you know Venus and Cupid, the Gods of those vain ancients? Julius II, Pontifex Maximus has procured them from Roman ruins, where they were recently discovered and has placed them in that most fragrant citrus grove, paved with flintstone, in whose midst stands also the colossal image of the Blue Tiber. Everywhere, however, antique statues are placed, each on its little altar. On the one side there is the Trojan Laocoon, sculptured as he is described by Vergil, on the other you see the figure of Apollo with his quiver as he is pictured by Homer. And in one of the corners you also see the image of Cleopatra, bitten by the snake, from whose breasts, as it were, the water flows in the manner of the ancient aqueducts and falls into an antique marble sarcophagus on which the deeds of the Emperor Trajan are related. As I often turned to this grove, not in order to meditate on philosophy, as I had often done in the past in the shade of the plane trees by the murmuring waters of the Ilissus rushing between coloured pebbles, even less, though, in order to sacrifice cattle, as the followers of futile rites used to do, but rather for serious business, concerned with issues of peace and war, with my return to power over my dominions or my continued exile, it seemed to me not useless to escape the torpor of inactivity, when, what I desired most was not offered immediately … to begin or work out anything worthy of man and above the beasts'. For the Roman hills, Pico continues, and particularly the Vatican appeared to be swarming with brutes, some of a species unknown to the great zoologists of the past and ferocious beyond measure. Finding himself among all these brutes in the grove of Venus and Cupid (venereo cupidineoque nemori) he composed the poem on the expulsion of these Gods -not from the grove, for that was beyond his power, but from the minds of the beasts. For the brutes had once been men and could be restored to human stature just as Lucius was in Apuleius' Golden Ass, when he ate the roses. No wonder, indeed, there were so many of them, for there were myriads of Circes and Sirens about. The poem itself which accompanies the letter is deservedly forgotten. It is little more than a pastiche of the conventional themes of Platonic love and of the remedia amoris known from Lucretius and Ovid, culminating in a devout exhortation to Christian chastity. It is only the letter to Gyraldus -dropped in the Strasbourg edition of the same poem- which gives it its topical twist. For it implies that Venus in the Vatican was experienced by Pico as a sinister presence. Maybe we should dismiss this interpretation as the mere expression of Savonarolean prejudice. But is it not also possible that the philosopher's eyes, sharpened as they were by critical hostility, saw deeper? Can we exclude the possibility that Bramante was really trying to construct a kind of pagan grove behind the tremendous structure of the Belvedere, encouraged as he might have been by the equivocal religiosity of the Hypnerotomachia with its talk of ‘Sancta Venere'? Maybe the question is not capable of a cut-and-dried answer. We no longer use the term ‘Renaissance Paganism' with a good conscience for we have become aware of the immense complexity and delicacy of the whole issue. Everybody in twentieth-century London would understand if a modern Pico were to write a poem on the Expulsion of Eros from Piccadilly. But does this make Londoners into pagans? The scenes of joy when Eros returned to his place at the end of the war would suggest one answer, a questionnaire another. Eros has become a symbol -a focal point for feelings which otherwise would have remained less articulate. Perhaps the answer to our problem lies in a similar direction. There exist a number of documents to indicate that in Bramante's environment the figure of Venus had indeed become such a symbol, a crystallizing point not indeed for a belief but for a playful suspension of disbelief. They show that the interest which members of this circle could take in a statue of Venus was not purely archaeological. In this sense the implications of Pico's description are confirmed by the famous letter written by Bembo to Cardinal Bibbiena under the eyes of Raphael, Bramante's successor. Raphael had planned to place a statuette of Venus in Bibbiena's bathroom but the niche proved unsuitable and so he encouraged Bembo to ask for it on loan. Bembo writes that he wants to place this Venus in his study ‘between Jove and Mercury, her father and her brother': ‘che me la vagheggerò ogni giorno più saporitamente, che Voi far non potrete per le continue occupatione vostre … Deh, Monsig. mio caro, non mi negate questa gratia … Aspetto buona risposta da V.S. et ho già apparecchiato et adornato quella parte, e canto del mio camerino, dove ho a riporre la Venerina …' [Lettere di M. Pietro Bembo, Rome, 1548, I, p. 90 ff., dated 25th April, 1516]. But the strongest justification of Pico's plea to expel Venus from the Vatican may be found in a Moresca that was danced before Leo X in 1521. Here, in the topsy-turvy world of the Carnival, the old theme of the Psychomachia was reversed. First eight hermits attacked and disarmed Cupid as Pico would have urged them to do but then Venus appeared to vanquish and unfrock them. When Pope Hadrian VI entered the Vatican two years afterwards he caused consternation among the lovers of antiquity by passing the Laocoon in the Belvedere Garden with the words “sunt idola antiquorum”. Soon Raphael's pupil Giulio Romano was turning away from Rome to seek refuge at the court of Federigo Gonzaga of Mantua, the same who had spent his formative years as the favoured hostage of Julius II. It was here that the idea survived of constructing a sanctuary to Venus” (Hypnerotomachiana, the Belvedere Garden as a Grove of Venus, in: “Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes”, XIV, 1951, pp. 122-125).

Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola was the son of Galeotto I Pico and the nephew of the great philosopher Giovanni Pico, whose works he prepared for posthumous publication. Little is known of his first years of life, but is possible to assume that he has received at least a part of his education at the court of Ferrara. In March 1491, he married Giovanna Carafa from Naples. He succeeded his father as ruler of the disputed principality of Mirandola in 1499, and was drawn into bitter feuds within his family. In the next years, Giovanni Francesco managed to start a correspondence with many scholars of intellectual and political importance. But, it was certainly his uncle Giovanni, of only six years older, to mainly influence him. But he was also influenced by Francesco Savonarola, and wrote in many fields, including philosophy, theology, and poetry, becoming very popular and appreciated. In 1515 he took part in the Fifth Lateran Council and played a major role in condemning Pietro Pomponazzi's De immortalitate animae. He wrote a detailed biography of his uncle and another of Savonarola. The death of Giovanni Francesco took place in a dramatic and violent way in the night of 15th October 1533: he and his son Albert were killed in the library by his nephew Galeotto II, who had just seized the Castle of Mirandola. His wife and the children of his other sons were shut up in dreadful dungeons (cf. C.B. Schmitt, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469-1533) and his critique of Aristotle, The Hague, 1967, passim).

Edit 16, CNCE47407; F. Ascarelli, Annali tipografici di Giacomo Mazzocchi, Florence, 1961, no. 69; H.H. Brummer, The Statue Court in the Vatican Belvedere, Stockholm, 1970, pp. 271-273.


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