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the Complete Review
the complete review - dialogue


Giovanni Gioviano Pontano

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To purchase Asinus

Title: Asinus
Author: Giovanni Gioviano Pontano
Genre: Dialogue
Written: (1488-92) (Eng. 2020)
Length: 59 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: in Dialogues (III) - US
in Dialogues (III) - UK
in Dialogues (III) - Canada
in: Dialogues latins I - France
in: Dialoge - Deutschland
in: Dialoghi - Italia
  • Latin title: Asinus
  • First published posthumously in 1507
  • Translated, edited, and with an Introduction 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 : good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Though not the last dialogue Pontano wrote, Asinus is the final one in the three-volume I Tatti Renaissance Library collection of dialogues, paired in the final volume with Aegidius. (Translator and editor Julia Haig Gaisser suggests it was: "probably written between 1488 and 1492", but explains its placement in keeping with the long-standing tradition from its first publication, in 1507, along with Actius and Aegidius, when it was also the last-in-the-volume.) It's an appropriate placement as, if not quite the odd man out, Asinus does differ from the other dialogues: Gaisser suggests: "it is a drama, or rather a kind of fantastic autobiographical comedy", and indeed it could, much more easily than the other dialogues, pass for (or be presented as) a stage-work, with an actual plot of sorts unfolding.
       Asinus begins with the celebrations at an inn, as word comes that: "peace has been made in Rome" - the longtime conflict between the kingdom of Naples and the Pope finally being settled. Word is that: "some poet or another was responsible for it" -- as indeed Pontano was the man who negotiated the peace, in the summer of 1486. It's quite the accomplishment, as one of his friends observes:

I was thinking that Pontano had fared very well indeed, because, by winning the peace, to his own great glory and the greater tranquility of the peoples, he had not only restored but also stabilized the king's affairs, which had been almost entirely in a state of ruin.
       The innkeeper is also thrilled, looking forward to improved business -- not least with the arrival of fresh venereum mercimonium ('venereal merchandise'), as he expects his: "fellow drinkers and gluttons" to soon be able to go to town again: "I must clap my hands for my money boxes", he delights, imagining them soon to be filled.
       Pontano is willing to dole out quite a bit of praise to himself for his accomplishment, but keeps himself off-stage for these first few scenes. And when he then does become more of the focus, it is not so much what he has accomplished that takes center stage, but rather the personal toll and consequences, as his friends fear that he is suffering a mental collapse, back into "a second childhood". The evidence on which they base their worry is that Pontano has bought an ass, and lavishes all his attention on it, even riding: "the little ass in public with a golden bridle and golden reins, singing all kinds of erotic verses". This hardly seems like appropriate behavior for a statesman in his sixties.
       As one of his friends sums up:
Wisdom, be gone ! Farewell, old age ! Do you look for any other stronger or surer sign of senility ?
       Despite the mounting evidence, his friends want to see for themselves, and they go and spy on Pontano and what he's up to with his ass, a fairly amusing set-up.
       Alas, Pontano is soon disillusioned by his ass, which acts ... like an ass. He concludes:
I have learned late, yet I am glad to have warned others with this example. Ah, asses, at last, farewell; from now on, asses, farewell, along with Arcadia itself.
       Still, Pontano does not show himself to be the venerable old master, simply a wise old man, even after this realization, as he banters with his steward about having his way with the steward's wife. The steward is not exactly on board with Pontano's inappropriate suggestions, but then he doesn't think Pontano stands much of a chance with her anyway:
To be sure, you can even fall on your knees and beg; not even with three measures of chickpeas, not if you offer as many beans as the gardens of Gaeta produce, will you get a single solitary winking glance of an eye from her, you toothless old man, with your marrow dried up, exhausted by decrepitude [senio], and with white stubble on your chin.
       Pontano's willingness to let himself be described in such ways is, of course, a great part of the fun of Asinus.
       Pontano's friends finally reveal themselves, and he is pleased to see them (and assures them: "I'm absolutely finished with asinine business"), and the concerns about him descending into a second childhood now look to have been overblown; he seems to have come back completely to his senses -- if a bit lustfully preöccupied. All's well that, more or less, ends well. The friends note that they have observed: "that for you no free time has ever been without activity of the mind", and if some of that has strayed rather far and fancifully afield, Pontano now seems to be back to his old self -- and ready to share thoughts and debates with his fellow thinkers.
       It's a genial little semi-play, quite funny -- including in being surprisingly ribald -- and even reasonably dramatic. Gaisser mentions in her Introduction that: "generations of scholars have seen the work as an allegory in which Pontano uses the ass to inveigh against some ungrateful and powerful person", but doesn't seem particularly convinced (noting: "the target of such an attack is unclear"). It's certainly a somewhat odd spin on celebrating one of Pontano's great accomplishments -- the peace he negotiated --, but the self-deprecating portrayal sems to have been his style and it works quite well even without closer knowledge of the history and players he might be having his fun with. (As is, he certainly suggests that the secondary effects of peace -- as in the innkeeper's expecting business to boom, and prostitution to again flourish -- will easily drown out the political accomplishment: the everyday and domestic here quickly comes to the fore over anything geopolitical; so also in Pontano's exchanges with the steward.)
       It's a bit of a shame that Pontano didn't go all in on dramatizing events, as it were -- i.e. fully commit to the play-form; Asinus can practically be read and seen as such, but there's still that slight sense of Pontano sticking to form and trying to make it seem a 'mere' dialogue. (Obviously, Pontano thought highly of the dialogue-form, which certainly partly explains him clinging to it; certainly also, at the time of its writing -- the late fifteenth century --, theater, in the form Asinus (almost) takes on, hardly existed.) More story-like, with actual narrative arc, than his other dialogues, it's easily the most approachable and satisfying of them and a fitting finale. For readers new to Pontano, it's also not a bad place to start.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 December 2020

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Asinus: 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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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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