Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry May 2014

Speculum Literature, or
Mirror, 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 it.

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 founder.
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 striking.

long 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.

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