Scott's Reviews > Poets in a Landscape

Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet
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May 21, 08

bookshelves: contexts, 1950s, antiquity
Read in January, 2001

In the summer of 1956, Highet and his wife toured Italy, visiting the relics of several classical Latin poets. This book reports what he found. Highet was a serious scholar, but in Poets in a Landscape he wears his learning lightly and sprinkles his account with plenty of interesting tidbits: Catullus popularized the word basium, the ancestor of the French, Italian & Spanish words for 'kiss'; Vergil was born in a ditch; Propertius hailed from Assisi, like St. Francis; Vergil is buried next to the Italian poet Leopardi, in Naples (maybe); Tibullus came from just north of Rome -- he liked to stay home and surround himself with bad women; Juvenal was exiled to Aswan, Egypt, but he eventually made it back to Rome. Finally, the word grotesque comes from the word grotto, a 'picturesque man-made cave'; but the notion that a grotto should be decorated with fantastic sculptures of humans and animals comes from the discovery of Nero's Golden Palace, in Rome. The emperor had a great palace built for himself and had it lavishly decorated with bizarre statuary and mosaics, fitting his debauched and bizarre taste. When he was assassinated, his palace fell into disrepair, was forgotten, and then was buried under centuries of vegetation and garbage. During the Renaissance, workmen dug through the now 1,500 years of growth and decay (several meters of dirt & detritus) to discover what seemed to them to be a buried palace filled with ghastly images. Because it was underground, they figured their find was some sort of grotto. Since that time, anything looking bizarre or overdone has been described as grotesque, 'fitting the underground palace of a crazed Roman emperor'.
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