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the Complete Review
the complete review - dialogue


Giovanni Gioviano Pontano

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To purchase Charon

Title: Charon
Author: Giovanni Gioviano Pontano
Genre: Dialogue
Written: 1469 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 139 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: in: Dialogues (I) - US
in: Dialogues (I) - UK
in: Dialogues (I) - Canada
in: Dialogues latins I - France
in: Dialoge - Deutschland
in: Dialoghi - Italia
  • Latin title: Charon
  • Translated and edited by Julia Haig Gaisser
  • This I Tatti Renaissance Library volume is a bilingual edition, with the Latin original facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit loose in its presentation, but very solid and often funny writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Renaissance Quarterly . 66:3 (Fall/2013) Robert Black

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The complete review's Review:

       Charon is an underworld-dialogue. It begins with Minos -- the former Cretan king -- and Aeacus, the king of Aegina whom he called up to periodically serve up fodder for the Minotaur, in conversation. In the afterlife, the two were made judges of the dead in Hades, and it is here that they are speaking; soon enough, they ask the Styxian ferryman Charon to join them.
       Charon has become philosophical on the job, having had the opportunity to listen to: "discussions of the most learned men" while carrying out his duties all these years, and finding that:

I am delighted by their disputations, and when I have time, I even become a pupil and take great pleasure and profit from their words.
       Straight away, however, he also notes that he comes up against a lot of nonsense as well, as Pontano takes almost every opportunity he can to rail against sophistry. Here, as in the dialogue Antonius, it's especially the 'grammarians' he attacks: the pedants who misunderstand and misuse grammar and language.
       As translator Julia Haig Gaisser notes in her Introduction:
     Language, then, is a central, if not the central preoccupation of most of the dialogues, primarily because it is a central preoccupation of Pontano himself.
       Charon immediately serves up some the nonsense he's come across -- generally rather broad-humored wordplay which Gaisser occasionally (has to) resort to clarifying in the translation. (Given the focus on language (and wordplay), it is particularly welcome to have the original Latin facing the translation, to be able to get the full extent of Pontano's presentation of these twisted arguments.)
       So, for example, one of his passengers explains to (the immortal) Charon on the basis of his name (and further faulty logic):
Charo, inquit, es, omnis autem charo morti est obnoxia, morieris igitur; et cum diutius vixeris, brevi morieris.

[You are Charo; all flesh [caro] is subject to death; therefore you will die. And since you have lived a long time, you will die soon.]
       While not the sole subject of conversation, linguistic issues do feature prominently here; Pontano can't seem to help but return to them. Among this dialogue's most amusing and creative exchanges -- Pontano showing his chops -- comes when two grammarians (well, one grammarian and one who prefers the term 'grammatist', which the other immediately disputes ...) start debating:
Pedanus. Prisciano caput fregisti, neque enim erat, sed fuit, dicere debueras.
Theanus. Prisciano pedes fregisti; debuisti enim, non debueras.
Ped. Imo debueras, non debuisti.
Thean Imo debuisti, non debueras.
Ped. Imo hoc.
Thean Imo illud.
Ped. Imo ego.
Thean Imo tu.
Ped. Imo bene.
Thean Imo male.
Ped. Hei mihi !
Thean Hei tibi !

[Pedanus. You have broken the skull of Priscian. For you had had to say not "was" but "had".
Theanus. You have broken Priscian's feet: "you had," not "you had had".
Ped. On the contrary, "you had had," not "you had".
Thean On the contrary, "you had," not "you had had".
Ped. On the contrary, the latter.
Thean No, the former.
Ped. No, I.
Thean No, you.
Ped. No, well.
Thean No, badly.
Ped. Woe is me !
Thean Woe is you !]
       (Priscian: "was a prominent and influential grammarian", in the fifth/sixth century CE.)
       The dialogue has quite few different conversation partners weave in and out of it. Among them is Mercury -- an actual god --, who gives Pontano an opportunity to deride a clergy that he sees as having become almost entirely corrupt and as such another favorite target here (Pontano cleverly using a Roman god, even as his attack is on the Church of his times). Mercury, for example, complains about widespread superstition -- more foolish and mistaken beliefs -- and maintains: "The gods are more troubled by superstition than they are gratified by true religious awe". Charon then wonders why: "even priests and pontiffs do not oppose this wickedness" (though he pretty much answers his own question by noting that among the many men, from all walks of life, he ferries every day: "I see no one tattooed with more loathsome marks of disgrace than they are" ...). In responding, Mercury sums up a complaint Pontano repeatedly makes:
No men are less concerned about true religion, since their aim is to increase their property, pile up money and keep busy fattening up their bodies; and although they are all terrible misers, no one dines more sumptuously or dresses with greater elegance.
       Later, Mercury also explains that it is the clergy who are the reason behind the portents that are in the air -- as Aeacus already noted at the outset: "some dreadful danger is threatening mortals". To Mercury the source of the danger it is obvious:
Minos. War ? By whom ?
Mercury. The priests.
Minos. Then war will be made by those under the greatest obligation to be advocates of peace ?
Mercury. They seek peace with their words, but war with their deeds.
Minos. What is their reason for waging war ?
Mercury. Desire to increase their kingdom.
Minos. Then avarice is the cause of these evils ?
Mercury. Exactly. The degree of avarice that exists in this type of man is almost indescribable.
       Pontano eventually has Charon ferrying and conversing with a number of new shades, revealing a variety of experiences and attitudes. Unsurprisingly, it's the bishop among them who gets the harshest treatment:
Charon. Mirum qui tam sis ventricosus !
Umbra. Minime mirum, quippe cum huic soli studuerim, in eumque congesserim omnem ecclesiae censum meae. Quin etiam foeneravi.
Char. Satis igitur tibi non erat quod ex ecclesia quotannis rediret ?
Umbr. Illud ventri satis erat, at foenus serviebat peni; complures enim concubinas alebam et corrumpebam libenter auro maritas mulieres.

[Charon. My, what a big belly you have !
Shade. It's not surprising, since it was all I was concerned about, and I stuffed into it all the wealth of my church. Why, I even practiced usury.
Charon. Wasn't the annual income from the church enough for you ?
Shade. It was enough for my belly, but the interest was at the service of my penis. I kept several concubines, and I liked seducing married women with gold.]
       Among the other dialogue-partners encountered along the way is Diogenes the Cynic -- now splashing around in the Styx, where he now subsists on raw fish rather than meat, and has become fishy in nature; Charon chats with him while Diogenes swims alongside. Charon, however, is unimpressed by the cynic's attitude: "let him be off with his misery", he quickly decides -- though it's a mutually agreeable arrangement: "let me alone, Charon, I beg you", Diogenes asks. Soon later, Charon is similarly dismissive of the bishop he encounters -- though others' stories are of greater interest to him.
       Charon entered the scene in this dialogue maintaining:
For my part, I consider the human condition unhappy if only from this -- that they all live on hope. For what is more futile than hope ?
       The dialogue itself then, and the encounters Charon and the other have, don't quite counter that position -- as, whether recounting experiences while still among the living or simply reflecting their state of mind now (and all this action does, after all, take place in the underworld), humans can't quite seem to rid themselves of their (often admittedly very misguided) sense of hope.
       The shifts -- in speakers, in subject matter, in argument(s) -- make for a somewhat unwieldy or unfocused dialogue (or rather series of overlapping dialogues). Pontano's secondary focus -- on language and its misunderstandings -- offers a very different kind of futility, as well as contributing to the feel of an odd mix here. The playfulness has some appeal, but there's a show-off feel to some of this (and Pontano does wield a fairly deft Latin pen -- though, as noted, he arguably loses a bit of his argument in his contortions to remind the reader of that ...). So, for example, even with the final parade of Shades, he has to go in for a few riffs:
Charon. Tu me, facetissime homo, tuis istis dictis vel in risum rapis.
Umbra. Ego, amice, rapis nunquam sum usus, magis me delectavit coepa et porrum.
Char. Videlicet suae cuique sunt voluptates.
Umbr. Nullam ego e sue voluptatem cepi unquam: egone bestiolam tam immundam in delitiis haberem ? parce oro, Charon, delicatior ego fui quam reris

[Charon. You ravish [rapis] me right into laughter with your words, facetious fellow.
Shade. I have never enjoyed rape, friend; onion and leek please better.
Charon. Of course. Each has its own [suae] pleasures.
Shade. I have never taken any pleasure from a sow [sue]. Should I have such filthy creature as a pet ? Spare me, please, Charon. I am more fastidious than you think.]
       Charon is more loose conversation than, for example, neatly structured drama, but Pontano does serve up a lively and colorful cast of characters, and does offer some strong opinions and points along the way. If not a wholly cohesive world-view, he makes some of his positions clear -- notably against the corrupt and degenerate clergy of his time --, all the while showing off a very sharp pen. Some of Pontano's linguistic arguments are arguably too facile -- some examples of what these interlocutors maintain and spout are downright silly -- but it is all rather witty. Pontano thankfully doesn't have his speakers go in for grandiloquent eloquence -- his language isn't showy --, but it's also more than plain; Charon comes across as the work of a writer very much in command of his expression, both approachable and sure. Pontano displays his facility with the Latin language -- but not at the reader's expense; the examples of poor and foolish (ab)use of language are so obviously silly that everyone can laugh along with him. All in all, it makes for a quite consistently entertaining and certainly varied work.
       The I Tatti edition presentation -- with the original Latin facing the translation -- is more useful here than with many other works, as Pontano really does engage in a lot of wordplay, and while Gaisser's translation conveys much of it well, it's nice to be able to compare the original -- and even without much Latin readers can still a decent sense of what Pontano is playing at here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 November 2020

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Charon: Reviews: Other books by Giovanni Gioviano Pontano under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Giovanni Gioviano Pontano lived in Naples 1429 to 1503.

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