Bridging Religious Divides

In this piece written exclusively for QUBCatholic, Estelle Haan, Emerita Professor of English and Neo-Latin Studies at Queen’s University, reflects on Milton’s contribution to bridging religious divides during his time in seicento Italy.
January 22, 2021

The year is 1988; the place: Rome; the context: the Third International Milton Symposium. I had just arrived in the eternal city. I was full of excitement as I prepared to trace John Milton’s footsteps through two cities: Rome and Florence. I was also looking forward, though not without some trepidation, to delivering my first conference paper abroad. I remember so vividly that first evening. I was accompanied by my sister, Elga, and we wandered at leisure through the city, just to catch our bearings. We turned a corner, and there, all so suddenly, was the Colosseum silhouetted against a glorious sunset. I stopped in my stride and gasped in awe. Here at last was the physical embodiment of my Latin studies. I was in a foreign city but, strangely, I felt that I had come home. The next day we explored the beauties of the Vatican: St Peter’s Basilica, its awe-inspiring art and architecture, and the seat of the faith that is so dear to me. From Rome, we proceeded to Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance. Again, I marvelled at its beauty as I walked alongside the Arno. I was completely mesmerized by the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, especially the Botticelli Room with its effervescent cobalt blue. I delivered my paper (on Milton’s Latin poetry and Italy) in the Villa I Tatti, and actually enjoyed the process. Tuscan beauty had quickly dispelled any nerves. There were over 100 papers, of which 32 were to be published. I was told, in the lobby of a Florentine hotel, that my piece had been selected for inclusion. It was a memorable moment, not least because that hotel, the Hotel Astoria, was most likely the site of the Academia degli Svogliati in which Milton had recited his own Latin verse.

The year is 1638; the place: Rome; the context: John Milton’s Italian journey. Although the then sighted poet does not record his reactions to Rome’s art and architecture, he must surely have been taken aback by the city’s breathtaking beauty. Still, Milton has another, perhaps more elevated, purpose. As a highly motivated thirty-year old, he is seeking to further his education, to make international contacts, to perform his Latin poetry in Italian academies, to make something of a name for himself. Looking back upon that journey many years later he adopts the typical stance of an English Protestant abroad: careful to defend the Protestant faith while on Italian soil, trying not to initiate discussion about religion, but if asked, not reticent in proclaiming his Protestant identity, even asserting with rhetorical hyperbole that he visited Rome despite rumours that English Jesuits were plotting against him!  Milton is here drawing upon a well established trope: ‘the escape from Rome’ tradition. Early modern travel writers had issued warnings to Protestant Englishmen travelling abroad: Italy, they claimed, was a second Circe, likely to allure and to entice, with the result that the traveller would return home as an ‘Englishman Italianated’. This pejorative phrase, however, works in another, more positive, sense for Milton at least.  He maintains silence about several facts, not least that he dined at the Jesuit-run English College on 30 October 1638 and formed many important friendships with Catholic literati.

Something of the reality of Milton’s Italian experiences can be garnered by examining the Latin works which he composed in the course of his sojourn in 1638-1639. Crucially, for Milton, it was Latin, a timeless, universal language, that served to bridge religious divides. Milton’s Latin self-fashioning, while upon Italian soil is as one who was hospitably embraced by Rome’s musical, academic, and literary communities.

In three Latin epigrams we learn of his utter enthralment by the singing of the city’s foremost soprano, Leonora Baroni. Here an English Protestant assumes a Catholic voice, and does so before a Catholic audience. Milton invokes the doctrine of the Guardian Angel only to present the divinely inspired Leonora as surpassing individual custodianship: her voice resonates the presence of God himself in a quasi-Pentecostal epiphany. It is the Holy Spirit that insinuates its motion through her very being. His viewpoint is reinforced by recourse to Renaissance humanist hermeticism. Milton is also reacting to a current literary vogue as Roman academicians were planning a volume of poetry in Leonora’s honour.

In fact, Milton seems to have assumed a surprisingly comfortable place in the academic world of seicento Rome, whose academies could boast of Cardinals and foremost Catholic humanists among their membership. For Milton  it was Latin that enabled him to find that sense of place. He receives a Latin encomium by one of the city’s young academicians, Giovanni Salzilli, and reciprocates with a Latin poem addressed to the now sick poet.  The result is much more than a get-well-wish. Milton draws upon Salzilli’s own Italian verse, integrating it with the poetry of Salzilli’s favourite classical writer, Horace. Salzilli’s verse, Milton proclaims, has the power to enthral its Italian audience—why, it could even calm the inundating Tiber! Turning to the two academies in which Salzilli (and most likely Milton himself) participated (the Fantastici and the Umoristi) Milton draws upon a recent Fantastici publication (to which Salzilli had contributed 15 Italian poems) and also encapsulates aspects of the Umoristi’s emblem and motto.

Then we see Milton in the very hub of Catholicism, the Vatican itself, and his language is fulsome, even excited. In a Latin letter to the Vatican Librarian, Lucas Holstenius, he conveys his awe at the splendours of the Vatican Library as Holstenius takes him on a guided tour. Milton marvels at manuscripts on display, and others, those annotated by Holstenius himself. He compares these yet to be printed works to souls in Virgil’s underworld awaiting rebirth into the upper world. And as he leaves, his host presents him with the gift of one of his own editions. We hear of Milton’s attendance at a comedic opera put on, he tells us, magnificentia vere Romana (‘with truly Roman magnificence’) in order to inaugurate the recently completed theatre contiguous to the Palazzo Barberini. Upon his arrival, he is warmly greeted by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who waits for him at the door, singles him out from the great crowd, warmly shakes his hand and leads him inside. It is a handshake that is momentous. The next day Milton is granted a private audience with the Cardinal (thanks to Holstenius’ endeavours). We do not know what was discussed, but that it was certainly amicable is suggested by the glowing terms with which Milton describes the Cardinal in the Latin letter.

In Florence too Milton made his mark. The minutes of the Accademia degli Svogliati record some four performances of his Latin verse, most notably, his recitation of ‘a very erudite poem in Latin hexameters’.  In response, Florentine academicians composed Latin and Italian tributes in his honour. And here Milton writes a brilliant Latin letter to the Florentine academician, Benedetto Buonmatttei, in which he enters into a full-scale debate on the virtues of the Tuscan tongue.

In Naples he formed a friendship with the esteemed poet Giovanni Battista Manso, founder of the Accademia degli Oziosi, and biographer of Tasso, and of St Patricia, the city’s patron saint. There is a sense of good-humoured religious alterity between host and poet. Manso, echoing the words of Gregory the Great, writes a Latin epigram, which translates as: ‘If your religion were as your mind, beauty, charm, appearance, character, you would be not an Angle, but by Hercules a very Angel.’ Milton, in response, composes a 100-line Latin poem, in which he describes his reaction to a cenotaph erected by Manso, in his own private chapel, in memory of the poet Giambattista Marino. Milton has been visiting Catholic churches. He articulates his own epic plans, and at the end of the poem he envisages his own cenotaph, daringly imagining his celestial apotheosis as a blushing angel, no less, now smiling down upon his younger self and, no doubt, upon his Neapolitan host. Such is the reconciliatory power of a shared Latinitas.

Coelum non animum muto, dum trans mare curro (‘I change the climate, not my mind, while I race across the sea’) wrote the homeward-bound Milton in the autograph book of Camillo Cardoini at Geneva on 10 June 1639. The inscription, preceded by the closing lines of A Mask, adapts a verse by Horace. The phrase is eternally inscribed in a Calvinist hub. But that this was an animus that could, and did, acclimatize to religious and cultural difference is suggested by Milton’s Latin writings composed in the course of his Italian journey. Continental travel and the physical encounter with the symbols, personages, and institutions of the other seem to have engendered in the Milton of the Italian journey a tolerance, or, more accurately, the manipulation of a seeming tolerance to serve poetic and cultural ends.

Estelle Haan, Emerita Professor of English and Neo-Latin Studies, QUB

Bridging Religious Divides
Estelle Haan

Estelle is an Emerita Professor of English and Neo-Latin Studies at Queen's University Belfast. She is widely published and her latest work, John Milton’s Roman Sojourns, 1638-1639: Neo-Latin Self-Fashioning (2020) is published by American Philosophical Society Press.

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