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Pomponius Laetus

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Humanist, b. in Calabria in 1425; d. at Rome in 1497. He was a bastard of the House of the Sanseverino of Naples, Princes of Salerno, but owing to his great admiration for antiquity and the Roman Republic he would not recognize them as connections. When very young he went to Rome and became a pupil of Valla. His brilliant capacities won him admiration and success. He wished to live the life of the ancients. His vineyard on the Quirinal was cultivated in accordance with the precepts of Varro and of Columella, and he was himself regarded as a second Cato. On holidays he went fishing or caught birds in his lime-twigs; sometimes he would simply spend the day in the open air, refreshing himself at a spring or by the banks of the Tiber. One of the most important and first known complete manuscripts of Plautus, that of Cardinal Orsini (now Vaticanus 3870), had been brought to Rome in the year 1428 or 1429. It was suggested that the plays it contained should be performed in the palaces of the prelates. Laetus became stage director of the performances. Finally, he and a few kindred souls, Platina, the future librarian of the Vatican, Sabellicus, afterwards prefect of the Library of San Marco of Venice, founded a semi-pagan academy. Its members assumed Latin names and celebrated every year the festival of the Palilia — anniversary of the foundation of Rome. They also met to commemorate a deceased member. A prelate celebrated Mass. Laetus delivered the eulogy. Latin recitations followed and a banquet closed every meeting. At other times, the members gave Latin farces much like the Atellanae. But Paul II, a pope who did not favour the Humanists, occupied the Chair of Peter. Laetus was looked upon as a scorner of Christianity and conspirator. Venice delivered him into the hands of the pope. Confined in the Castle of Sant' Angelo in 1468, he with Platina and others was tortured. However, he defended himself and reminded them that he had maintained the immortality of the soul, a belief often discussed by the Humanists. On the accession of Sixtus IV (1471) Laetus was released and the academy allowed to continue its meetings. He lectured in the Roman University. He was often seen at daybreak, descending, with lantern in hand, from his home on the Esquiline, on his way to his lectures where many eager hearers awaited him. He was a very conscientious professor, especially learned in Roman antiquities but exclusively a Latinist. He had declined to study Greek for fear of spoiling his Latin style. He went so far as to read the most classical authors only and disdained the Bible and the Fathers. Until the last year of his life he had desired to be buried in an ancient sarcophagus on the Appian Way, but he died a Christian death. Alexander VI wished his obsequies at the church of Aracoeli to be magnificent. More than forty bishops attended. He was buried at San Salvatore in Lauro.

In the last period of his life, Pomponius Laetus wrote short antiquarian treatises ("De magistratibus, sacerdotiis et legibus Romanorum"; "De romanae urbis antiquitate"; "Compendium historiae romanae ab interitu Gordiani usque ad Justinum III"). He produced an edition and commentary on the whole of Virgil, under the name of Julius Sabinus or Pomponius Sabinus (Rome, 1487-1490). He owned one of the most precious manuscripts of the poet, the "Mediceus." Besides this, he edited the first edition of Quintus Curtius (about 1470), of Varro's "De lingua latina" (Rome, 1471), of Nonius Marcellus (Rome, about 1470). A little later he published the letters of the younger Pliny (Rome, 1490). We also owe to him the preservation of a part of the work of Festus. His manuscripts, which were first in the library of Fulvio Orsino, and later at the Vatican, show the extent of his learning, his conscientious collation of authors, his art in reviving classical antiquity in the very land of the pagan past. He had collected in his home on the Esquiline sculptures, and inscriptions. He stands as one of the best representatives of Italian Humanism, uniting great nobility of character and a sincere and artless enthusiasm to a purity of morals rare in such surroundings.

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