1. At XXVI.51 of his Anglica Historia, not long after a harrowing description of conditions in contemporary war-torn Italy (at XXVI.23), Polydore Vergil writes:
Iisdem temporibus perfecta literae similiter Latinae atque Graecae ex Italia bellis nefariis exclusae, exterminatae, expulsae, sese trans Alpes per omnem Germaniam, Galliam, Angliam, Scotiamque effuderunt. Sed Germani cum primis eas in suas civitates adscripserunt, quando illi ut quondam minime omnium literati erant, ita nunc maxime docti sunt. Idem Gallis, Anglis, Scotis, ut de aliis sileamus, a Deo optimo maximo munus est impertitum. Quippe solae literae sunt quae quidem certe nostra benefacta cum aeternitate adaequent, nostrique nominis commemorationem servent, idcirco rursus quam multi magni viri foeminaeque nobilissimae ubique gentium coeperunt iuvare bonarum artium ac disciplinarum studiae
[“In those days polished letters, both Latin and Greek, were excluded, uprooted, and banished from Italy by its criminal wars, and made their way over the Alps, flowing throughout all Germany, France, England, and Scotland. But the Germans in particular received them into their cities, since, just as once as they were the least lettered of all men, they had now become the most educated. Likewise this gift was imparted by God Almighty on the French, English, and Scots (to say nothing of other peoples). For letters are the only thing which eternally monumentalize our good works and preserve the memory of our names. It was for this reason that many great men and noble women began to foster the study of the goodly arts and of learning everywhere.”]
Much as Italy had been enriched by the advent of learned refugees from the fall of Constantinople, during the reign of Henry VII and in the early years of that of Henry VIII, English intellectual and artistic life was invigorated by an influx of talented Italian refugees. Besides Polydore himself, one can mention such Humanists as Giovanni Gigli [1434 - 1498], Pietro Carmeliano [d. 1527] and Cornelio Vitelli, and also the poet Johannes Opicius, whose poetry has recently been the subject of a fine modern edition. NOTE 1 One can also add such artists as Pietro Torrigiano, who designed the magnificent altar and tomb in the Henry VII Chapel of the Abbey, and Benedetto da Rovezzano, who completed the tomb’s construction.
2. These refugee Italians made themselves useful in various ways. Vitelli was evidently the first man to teach Greek at Oxford, and Carmeliano was the first occupant of the newly-created position of Latin Secretary (regius scriba) to the king. Then too, one should mention the blind Burgundian Franciscan Bernard André, who was Poet Laureate (regius poeta) from the inception of the reign of Henry VII and continued in that position under Henry VIII. In 1511 Henry VIII granted the office of Latin Secretary went to another Italian, Andrea Ammonio NOTE 2 (for some reason Carmeliano resigned or was removed from the secretaryship, but continued to help out with occasional royal correspondence), and Ammonio held it until his death in 1517. The principle duty of the Latin Secretary was to handle diplomatic correspondence, transacted in Latin, and although the position was not as prestigious as it later became, when it was filled by such distinguished figures as Roger Ascham and John Milton, NOTE 3 from its inception it placed its occupant near the center of power (quite literally — along with the title Ammonio acquired lodgings within the palace precincts) and made him party to the inner workings of government. Writing of Ammonio, a modern scholar seems rather surprised that such a sensitive position would be bestowed on a foreigner, NOTE 4 but the explanation is probably the very straightforward one that the job called for a man who could write Latin with both elegance and precision and no Englishman with the requisite skill could be found. Not until the advent of the New Learning and its enthusiasm for the writing of “clean Latin” would native men with the necessary qualifications emerge. Furthermore, no matter what their official duties were, all of these men constituted a bevy of poets centered about the court of Henry VII, who obviously valued their presence. As I have explained in connection with Bernard André, their function was not so much to provide entertainment or ornamentation for the royal court, as to serve as a corps of propagandists, producing stuff meant to make Henry appealing, justify the rule of his new dynasty, and further his political goals (in the sphere of historiography, of course, yet another Italian immigrant, Polydore Vergil was doing the same thing by writing his Anglica Historia). This team of Humanists stayed intact during the early years of the reign of Henry VIII and continued to serve the interests of its new master.
3. It is not known when Ammonio came to England. He is often thought to have arrived in the party of Gigli when he arrived in 1505 to bring Henry VII the famous papal gifts of the Sword of Justice and the Cap of Maintenance, and the latest poem we have by him possibly not composed in England is Poem 16, written to congratulate a fellow Italian (albeit one not currently living in Italy) on the publication of a book in 1503. The autobiographical Poem 5 shows that, when he was newly arrived in England, he was impecunious and struggled to obtain a foothold, but he soon gained the patronage of such important and powerful personalities as Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester. Thomas Ruthall, Bishop of Durham and Secretary to both Henry VII and Henry VIII, and, above all, William Blount, Baron Mountjoy, who appreciated his value, so that his future was assured.
4. For Ammonio had arrived at precisely the right time. Thanks to no small degree to the efforts of the very men who offered him patronage, England was beginning to hum with excitement over the advent of Humanism and the New Learning. At Mountjoy’s invitation, Erasmus had paid his first extended visit (beginning in 1498), and exerted his influence on such figures as Bishop Foxe, John Colet, Thomas More, and Thomas Linacre. Eventually, Ammonio (obviously gifted with a pleasing personality) befriended all of these individuals. Above all, he became a close friend of Erasmus, and will always be chiefly remembered for his frequent correspondence with the great continental Humanist: we possess thirty-two letters from Erasmus to him, fourteen from him to Erasmus, and five from Erasmus mourning his death.
5. But here we are concerned with Ammonio in a less familiar role, as a poet. J. B. Trapp, author of the O. D. N. B., biography dismissed his volume of published poetry as a collection of “twenty brief and conventional Latin complimentary poems,” which only serves to raise doubts whether Trapp had read the book in question. Some of the items it contains are far from brief and display genuine ambition (most notably, Poem 2 is 238 lines long, and Poem 10 occupies 164). For that matter, a slim volume of Neo-Latin poetry was destined to become conventional enough, but one wonders exactly how commonplace such a collection coming from an English source was in 1511. More likely it would have struck contemporaries as quite ground-breaking. The work would also have had interest as one of the first publications to emanate from the cadre of foreign Humanists Henry VII had managed to accumulate and who continued to grace the court of his young son. And, while most of these poems do, to one degree or another, employ the courtly flattery that is standard fare in Neo-Latin poetry of the age, Ammonio’s poetic output has a claim on our interest both for its intrinsic merit and because he was a well-situated observer of the events of the last years of the reign of Henry VII and the first years of the rule of his son, and presents plenty of information valuable for historians. Then too, some of Ammonio’s poems are palpably written to advance royal political goals (poem 10, for example, is written in support of Henry’s project of obtaining the canonization of Henry VI, and poem 3 is intended to cast his youthful successor in the best light possible).
6. Ammonio’s poetry volume, entitled simply Carmina, has found a modern editor in Clemente Pizzi. NOTE 5 According to Pizzi (p. vi):
Sono due exemplari della edizione curata dall’authore e pubblicata a Londra nel 1511, e, con molita probabilità, dal tipografo inglese Iodocus Badius.
Let us consider the three assertions made in this sentence. 1.) Yes, only two copies of the volume are known to survive, one owned by the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the other by the Bodleian Library, Oxford. 2.) Yes, it is likely enough that the volume was printed in 1511. It was dedicated to Mountjoy, and before having it printed Ammonio sent him a manuscript. But, as Ammonio told Erasmus in his epistle 218, written 27 April] Mountjoy did not like the dedicatory epistle because he found its flattery too fulsome, so in a letter to Mountjoy of 17 May (epistle 220) Antonio sent him the text of the letter that was subsequently published. It is likely enough that the volume was sent to the printer a few weeks or at least months after these letters were written. There is only one detail in the book that might suggest a later dating: Poem 16 invites students to enroll at St. Paul’s School, which did not open its doors until 1512. But its founder, John Colet, has been working on the project for several years, and Ammonio may have written this earlier than 1512, looking forward to its forthcoming debut. The book does not seem to contain any other internal evidence that could be deemed suggestive of a date after 1511. 3.) No, it is impossible that it was published by “at London by the English printer Josse Bade,” for Bade was a Belgian who ran a printing shop at Paris. Paris is where Ammonio’s volume was printed, perhaps by Bade, and Erasmus may very well have arranged its publication. NOTE 6
7. Pizzi’s critical edition is serviceable enough, and in general the text he printed can stand (the few details that escaped his vigilance are corrected here). But it requires replacement, for three reasons. First, Pizzi printed the twenty poems of the 1511 volume followed by two more taken from other sources, but since 1958 a small number of additional Ammonio poems, all of them gratulatory epigrams written for other men’s books, have been discovered and published, and they need to be added. These are Poems 23 - 26: their sources, both original and modern, are identified in individual introductory commentary notes. Second, Pizzi supplied no translation, so that Ammonio’s poetry remains unavailable to many Latinless readers, a situation that needs to be changed. Third, other than brief summary paragraphs for the individual poems (given on pp. 57 - 67), he provided no commentary, and yet they cry out for detailed annotation.
8. As far as I am aware, this edition contains all surviving Ammonio poetry. Particular mention must be made, however, of his lost Panegyricus ad Henricum VIII. The poet had accompanied his king on his 1513 French campaign, and wrote a lengthy poem describing the English victory at the “Battle of the Spurs” and the capture of Thérouanne and Tournai, and also the simultaneous English victory at Flodden. Our knowledge of this work is limited the extensive remarks of Erasmus, who had read it, in his Epistle 283. In the course of this letter, Erasmus quotes six disjunct lines. It happens that a similar poem by Bernard André is extant, De inclita invitissimi regis nostri Henrici octavi in Gallos et Scotos victoria, preserved by Hatfield House, MS. Cecil Papers 277/1, which goes over the same narrative events and in connection with which André signs himself with his official title, regius poeta. Since we are dealing with two poems written at the same time on the same subjects by poets holding royal appointments (in connection with this work André signed himself with his official title, regius scriba), one cannot help wondering if their two authors were engaged in some concerted propaganda exercise (if any reader imagines the use of the word “propaganda” represents too harsh an appraisal, that reaction will not survive a reading of Tanya Reimer’s brilliant 2008 monograph “This Realm of England is an Empire: The Tudors’ Justification of Imperial Rule Through Legend by Propaganda and Pageantry.” The frequent use of Neo-Latin literature to speed this effort is only a small fraction of the use of literature, pageantry, iconography and — at least commencing with the start of the Church of England — the pulpit, greatly enhanced by reliance on the printing press, for essentially propagandistic purposes. It was aimed at a limited segment of the population but one whose support was crucial for the success of the Tudor dynasty. Mary was the one Tudor sovereign who seems to have been unaware of its value and her failure to publicize her side of the story has probably damaged her reputation down to this very day.)
9. But Ammonio appears to have been considerably more prolific. In his Scriptorum illustrium maioris Britanniae (Basel, 1557) John Bale has a notice about him that reads:
Edidit Ammonius plura tam prosa quam carmine, praesertim: Epistolas ad Erasmum Lib. I: Quibus victimis hoc expiabo.
Scrotici conflictus historiam, lib. I
Bucolica vel Aeglogas, lib I. Tu ne ades, o dulcis Lyca iucundi?
De rebus nihili, lib I
Varii generis epigrammata, lib. I
Poemata quoque diversa, lib. I
9. I should like to thank Dr. David Starkey for suggesting that Ammonio’s poetry would be a suitable addition to The Philological Museum, and also for supplying valuable information for some of the commentary notes, and also to Prof. David. R. Carlson for drawing André’s 1513 war poem to my attention.
NOTE 1 David R. Carlson, “The Italian Johannes Opicius on Henry VII of England's 1492 invasion of France: historical witness and antique convention,” Renaissance Studies 20:4 (2006) pp. 520 - 46.
NOTE 2 His real name was Andrea della Rena (dell’ Arena). At first he Latinized it as Andreas Arena (“Andy Sand”), but later Hellenized the surname as Ammonius. By a linguistic back-formation into Italian, modern scholarship usually identifies him as Ammonio. For biographical information, see J. B. Trapp’s O. D. N. B. article with references cited. The only book-length study is Clemente Pizzi, Un amico di Erasmo: l’umanista Andrea Ammonio (Florence, 1956).
NOTE 3 Very regrettably, it would appear that no historian has ever studied the position of Latin Secretary. The nearest approximation is the list its occupants provided by F. M. G. Evans, Principal Secretary of State (Manchester, 1923), 388. See also J. Otwen-Ruthven, The King’s Secretary and the Signet Office in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge, 1939), 190f.
NOTE 4 Michael Wyatt, The Italian Encounter with Tudor England (Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 51, Cambridge, 2005) p. 61.
NOTE 5 Clemente Pizzi, Andreae Ammonii Carmina Omnia (Florence, 1958).
NOTE 6 For the publication issue, see further J. - Cl. Margolin’s introduction to his edition of Erasmus’ De ratione studiis in, Opera Omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami (Amsterdam, 1971) I.2 pp. 89 - 94 and J. Machiels, “Robert en Pieter de Keysere als drukker,” Archief- en Bibliotheekwsen in België 46 (1975) pp. 3 - 8.
It deserves to be pointed out that the English printing industry as it existed during the early Tudor period was not yet equipped to handle Humanistic Latin texts: see the remarks of David R. Carlson, “Three Tudor Epigrams,” Humanistica Lovaniensia 45 (1996) 196 - 198. The printing of Latin required a font with special abbreviations, diacritical marks, &c, and it would seem that no such font yet existed on English (or, for that matter, Scottish) soil. As late as 1584, when he went into business as Printer to the University of Oxford, Joseph Barnes was obliged to purchase such a specialized type font from France, and evidently it was costly, since Convocation provided him with £100 — a very considerable sum in those days — to launch his enterprise and presumably the acquisition of this font was among Barnes’ principal expenditures. It would therefore seem that during the early Tudor period no English printer was convinced that a similarly large capital investment made financial sense.
NOTE 6 Quoted by Pizzi (1956) p. 40. Pizzo also provides a handlist of Ammonio’s extant non-literary writings at pp. 52f.