Neo-Latin Epic: until 15th century (C. Peters)

For the humanist revival and appropriation of Latin Epic and its structural elements and narrative patterns, the second half of the 15th century was pivotal. Although Petrarch’s Africa that was left unfinished, when its author died in 1374, it is generally thought to be the first Neo-Latin epic.

The production of large-scale Latin epics is taken up again no sooner than in the 1440s in Italy when the genre gained appeal both with poets and recipients. Both for key figures in contemporary politics in important centres of the early Renaissance and for lords and leaders of rather modest importance in the cultural hinterland, many epics were produced, soon outnumbering both the classical and medieval epic tradition. The majority of these texts treated events from contemporary history.

This approach, which most of the ancients avoided by means of recusatio, betrays a chief feature of the early neo-Latin epics: Experimenting with and expanding the genre’s tradition led to a broad range of epic designs (in content and form) that were executed with varying results in skill and poetic quality. That early neo-Latin epic poets were so prone to innovating the genre mainly has two reasons: On the one hand, humanist philology gave them access to an ever more stable and comprehensive corpus of Greek and Latin classics that Petrarch had not yet  had, and on the other hand, there was still a relative openness in literary expression, due to the lack of normative poetic treatises which began to appear in the 16th century with the rise of vernacular epic, and Reformation and Counter-Reformation had not yet defined limits to what could be treated in poetry (this was especially important for dealing with the supernatural so essential for the epic narrative).

Certain structural elements and narrative patterns – e.g. the divine machinery or ekphrasis of new forms of architecture or military technology – gave poets the opportunity to re-calibrate their relationship with the ancients by more than just imitation, emulation or typology, but to forge epic continuities between the Heroic Age or ancient history and their own day. The early neo-Latin epic therefore goes beyond reception and imitation by means of a conscious and self-confident continuation of the epic tradition. The article will examine this phenomenon with a selection of important epics from c. 1440-1500.