mirror on the wall Who is the bestest prince of all?
(Sorry, but it has to scan!)
There is a
literary genre called Speculum literature (from the
Latin for 'mirror'), also called 'Mirror literature' or
'Mirrors for Princes' and a few others. They are ethical
and practical pieces of advice on how to run a kingdom.
Well-known examples are The Prince by Niccolò
Machiavelli (1469 –1527) and The Art of War by
Sun Tzu (6th century BC), among a great many others
throughout history. It was at one time a common practice
for advisers in the court to draw up sets of guidelines
for new monarchs—how to choose ministers, how to keep
your friends, what to do with your enemies, what to do
with your queen consort's mother, etc. The point of the
"mirror" term was that these books, like the magic
mirrors of fairy tales, would reflect knowledge and
events from far and wide for the princes and rulers in
order to guide them. Depending on the book in question,
there were often chapters dedicated to war —how to avoid
it, when to wage it, and practical tips on how to win
There happens to be a good example of Speculum
literature from Naples, written by the Neapolitan
scholar Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503). From this
separate entry on the Pontano
chapel in Naples:
Pontano (1426-1503) was
the most celebrated Neapolitan humanist of the day,
a friend of the sovereign of Naples, Alfonso the
Magnanimous, and, indeed, tutor of the king's sons.
He was important as a diplomat for the Aragonese in
Naples, but his claim upon history is as a poet and
scholar. Pontano is often referred to as the last
great poet in the Latin language. He founded in
Naples what was called "The Academy" —a meeting
place for the erudite. The Academy was influential
among men of letters not only in the Kingdom of
Naples, but elsewhere in Italy. Subsequently it
became known as the Pontanian Academy, and its
influence lasted well beyond the lifetime of the
Pontano's work is
called De Principe, written around 1465 but not
published until 1490. The book consists of letters from
Pontano to Alfonso of Aragon, the young monarch who had
just taken over the kingdom of Naples. It was written in
Latin and later translated into Italian. Pontano advises
Alfonso on everything: what to read, how to behave in
public, in private and at court, how to dress, and which
fork to use for the salad. (Alfonso had written to
Pontano, "These are the tines that try men's souls!")
Above all, Pontano, being the great humanist that he
was, stressed the importance of letters and culture.
Culture is not at the service of the state; culture is
an autonomous expression of the good, true and beautiful
and should inform and shape us. That was an innovation
back then and even today, in many quarters, is still
Along that line, an interesting book has recently
appeared in Italian. It is a formidable translation from
Arabic by the Neapolitan scholar, Roberto Celestre.
The book is Consigli sugli stratagemmi di guerra
(Counsel on the Stratagems of War) (image, above) (pub.
Il Melangolo, Genoa, 2013) by 'Ali ibn Abī Bakr
al-Harawī (Mosul c. 1150 - Aleppo 1215), a roving
Islamic scholar at the time of the Crusades, but also
a confidant of powerful military and political
figures such as Saladin. It is relatively little known
in Europe although a French translation did appear about
60 years ago.
Celestre's treatment is a new and important one. Stratagems
is about half and half on the division between
ethical and military advice. The former, like many other
"Mirrors for Princes," tells the sovereign to surround
himself with honest, competent and hardworking people
and cautions him not to neglect or short-change
them. Pay them fairly, reward and praise them. If some
of this sounds familiar, it's because the modern
business world has incorporated these Mirror principles,
at least in university textbooks on business management.
The military front is a bit grittier. There is advice,
for example, on how to besiege fortresses. For starters,
poison the water supply and catapult diseased animal
carcasses over the walls. (They were thinking of
chemical and bacteriological warfare even back
then.) But even then, there is commonsense advice:
don't mistreat the enemy's farmers out in the fields.
Protect them. Win them over, because once you take that
fortress, these are the people who will provide you with
food. The book, with Celestre's preface, is an excellent
introduction to the Muslim world's view of the Crusades.
I am currently undertaking a translation into English of
Stratagems. Be patient.