Kathryn Ann Taglia

title.none: King, Death of the Child Valerio Marcello

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.011 95.05.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kathryn Ann Taglia, University of Northern British Columbia

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: King, Margaret L. The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xviii + 484; 20 halftones. ISBN: ISBN 0-226-43620-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.11

King, Margaret L. The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. xviii + 484; 20 halftones. ISBN: ISBN 0-226-43620-9.

Reviewed by:

Kathryn Ann Taglia
University of Northern British Columbia

On January 1st 1461 eight-year-old Valerio Marcello, the scion of a noble Venetian family, died. While the death of a child was not an uncommon occurrence in Renaissance Italy or even in the Marcello family (Valerio's sister, Taddea, died only a four months later in April 1461), the effects of Valerio's death were quite unusual. Valerio's father, Jacopo Antonio Marcello, was inconsolable over the death of this son. To comfort this sorrowing father a series of consoling literary works were sent to him by various humanist authors, but instead of accepting these consolations, Marcello decided to use them to fashion a literary monument to his dead son and his living grief. By the end of 1463, more than two years after Valerio's death, Marcello had selected fifteen works for his book — fourteen consolatory texts and his response to his consolers. This project was planned not only as a monument to a father's grief and a son's death, but also as a gift to Rene d'Anjou, whose literary friendship was valued greatly by Marcello even when his native Venice and Rene were at loggerheads. This book was never given to Rene as Marcello died and the project remained unfinished.

those excluded), Margaret L. King has fashioned her own book about Jacopo Antonio and Valerio Marcello. The title of this book, The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello, is misleading, for this is more than a book about the child Valerio and his death. While the story of Valerio's death is the starting point of King's investigations, King sees this book as a four-part investigation studying the history of childhood, the trajectory of Jacopo Antonio Marcello's career, the role of patronage in Renaissance culture, and Renaissance attitudes towards death. King has collected a wealth of information in order to pursuit these four goals. This abundance of information at times overwhelms or supplants King's arguments. The discussions about childhood and attitudes toward death tend more toward the descriptive than the analytical, yielding few new insights in these areas. More interesting and more strongly argued are the sections dealing with the intersections between Marcello's career, his literary patronage activities, and his attempts to refashion himself. Here King has provided us with a fascinating study of man who attempted through word and image to push the "psychological limits imposed by classical, by Christian, and contemporary moral thought" (195).

In her first chapter, King skillfully combines the various sections of the consolation literature that deal with Valerio's life and death to provide us with a unified narrative and touching portrait of this promising child, who was his father's favorite. This chapter provides little criticial analysis of these texts or the story of Valerio's life which the authors wish to promulgate. Instead the chapter simply sets up the story of Valerio's short life as Marcello and his various consolers wished it framed, emphasising Valerio's outstanding potential and the special relationship between the father and son.

In the next chapter King begins to show us how this portrait gradually becomes a conscious creation of both the humanist authors and their patron, Jacopo Antonio Marcello. Here King exhaustively traces the histories of the various humanist authors who sent consolatory works to Marcello, discussing not just the authors whose works were included in the final project, but also the excluded authors. Originally humanist authors sent their consolatory letters to Marcello out of sympathy and also as bids for attention to one who had been a literary patron and could be one in the future. But Marcello's grief did not lessen and he did not find consolation from the measured sentences offered to him. Sometime within the second year after Valerio's death, he instead conceived the idea of creating a literary monument to his son and to his grief. Instead of passively accepting consolations, Marcello began actively to solicit them, perhaps even circulating a "fact sheet" to guide would-be consolers. Some of the spontaneous earlier consolatory works also were reworked or translated from Greek to Latin or circulated as exempla to others. But this project was to be more than a collection of consolations, eulogies, and funeral orations — it was also to be a monument to the father's grief for his dead son. Marcello had his response, his Excusatio, produced by Giorgio Bevilacqua, his secretary, under his close supervision. In this text Marcello called upon Rene d'Anjou to serve as a judge between him and his would-be consolers, who for all their learning failed to understand the grief that tormented Marcello's soul. Thus Marcello transformed his collection of consolation literature into a dialogue revealing cultural tensions between the male individual who wished to grieve freely and the Renaissance social norm which demanded from its male members at the very least a stoic public acceptance of death.

The tensions between Marcello's desire to express himself freely and societal expectations over what constituted normal behavior had a long and complex history King argues in her next two chapters. Long before Valerio's death, Marcello had been at war with Venetian culture, struggling to define himself against the role he was expected to play as male member of the patrician class. These two chapters are particularly strong as King carefully delineates the history of Marcello's career in service to Venice and how he chose to have that career portrayed. While Marcello was a loyal public official, serving the government of Venice in various capacities for almost 30 years, especially as a provveditore (a Venetian governmental supervisor of a military force), he deliberately refashioned himself as a warrior, a bold condottiere, not as a self-effacing public servant. Venetian patrician culture demanded that the individual be effaced and subsumed into the polity—reserve and understatement were the hallmark ideals. Marcello, King argues, tried to create an image of himself that was radically different from this cultural norm. His country home, Monselice, was an "illicit symbol of power and status" (66), while the humanist works on his life that he commissioned attributed to Marcello military deeds of great valor, often exaggerating his role in various campaigns in the Lombard wars. He also commissioned illuminations for various literary projects which presented images of himself as a warrior and as a patron of the arts equal almost to Rene d'Anjou, the Duke of Anjou, Count of Provence, and would-be king of Naples.

Yet Marcello deliberately did not include within this portrait the story of his service for Venice between 1446 and 1454, the peak of his military career. Indeed, after 1454 this would-be condottiere retreated almost totally from Venetian public service until 1462, the year after Valerio's death. These two events — Marcello's refusal to include his military career from 1446 onward and his retreat from public life after the peace of Lodi in 1454 — are not unrelated, King argues. What joins them together is the friendship and admiration that Marcello had for Rene d'Anjou and Francesco Sforza, the condottiere who became duke of Milan. In those early years of Marcello's service (1439-1442), Marcello often served as provveditore to Sforza's forces as they fought for Venice against Milan. It was Sforza who brought Marcello to the attention of Rene d'Anjou, asking that the Venetian senate appoint Marcello as an ambassador to Rene in 1442 (103). But the fortunes of war found Marcello and Venice on one side and Sforza and Rene on the other by the late 1440's. Marcello's response to this unhappy situation, King argues, was twofold. He gradually retreated from public service and threw his energies into private efforts — such as literary patronage and the raising of his son, Valerio. Marcello not only changed careers, moving from public service to private patronage, but he had his life rewritten, stressing (or more exactly exaggerating) his early exploits and remaining silent on those troublesome later years. His retreat from public life was not a retirement, but a deliberate choice to build a new life within the humanist literary culture and through "the rediscovered medium of words" (118).

Valerio, that special son, was born in 1452 just when Marcello was deciding to retire from public service and was refocusing his energies on learning and the arts. In chapters five and six King again returns to examine the bond between Valerio and his father which resulted in the father's inconsolable grief and refusal to accept the reality of his son's death. Valerio, crudely put, was born at the right moment in his father's life, at a time when Marcello had the time, the energy, and the interest to expend on a son. Within the narrative that Marcello ordered created after his son's death, father and son formed an exclusive pairing within the large and extended Marcello household. The exclusivity of this pairing is seen in the complete effacement of Luca, Marcello's wife and Valerio's mother, from the narrative. Marcello assumed all aspects of Luca's maternal role — even figuratively becoming "pregnant" with visions of Valerio before the child's birth. Valerio, even as an infant, instantly recognized that his affection belonged wholly to his father. He rejected his nurse's breast from the moment he saw his father. Father and son in this narrative become as one — the wonder is not that Marcello mourned, but that his consolers would think that his grief could cease.

In this story of father-son bonding, Valerio was the perfect child, intelligent, beautiful, respectful, kind, brave. The litany of virtues is endless and it is no wonder that God should call such an angel back to heaven. As he was a perfect exemplar of the puer senex, so he also was the perfect practitioner of ars moriendi. He faced his death with a cheerful steadiness, peaceful in his conscience. When his father stood by his bed, weeping almost hysterically (and showing no more restraint than a woman), Valerio urged his father to control himself. At the moment of death the roles were reversed, and it was son who instructed the father now in that most difficult task of how to accept death calmly. But Valerio's father was not as apt a pupil as his son had been and he refused to accept the lesson his son and his consolers tried to teach him. Marcello again defied the expected community standards—but this time instead of choosing the hyper-masculine role of the warrior, he became the hysterical griever. King argues, "It was a violation of social order so radical as to amount to an inversion of sexual roles: an abomination" (137). But Marcello in "his" Excusatio refuses to heed his consolers' attempts to reintegrate him back into cultural order, proclaiming his right to defy the gender expectations and push the social and psychological boundaries to their limits.

Although the body of this book accounts for only 200 pages, King has managed to condense into these pages a great mass of information about many subjects, ranging from the histories of various humanist authors to the complete architectural evolution of Monselice, Marcello's country home. There are an additional 129 pages of appendices which trace the genealogy of the Marcello family, describe important monuments mentioned, list the texts written for or to Jacopo Antonio Marcello, and give a detailed chronology. Such a wealth of historical facts, images, names, and stories at times drown King's arguments and would make this a difficult book for an undergraduate or a non-specialist. Nonetheless, anyone with an interest in Renaissance humanist culture and its production of meaning will find this an interesting study.