A letter of Francisco Filelfo to Theodore of Gaza about Plutarch

Last night I started reading through a PDF of Legrand’s edition and translation of the letters of Francisco Filelfo.[1]  Filelfo was a 15th century Italian involved in the rediscovery of ancient Greek literature, who made trips to Constantinople and translated texts into Latin.

The version of the PDF available from Gallica is much better than the Google Books version, in that it has been OCR’d and the index of names painfully turned into bookmarks by some praiseworthy soul.

A lot of the letters are rather dull.  The following one caught my eye, and I’ve made an English translation from the French, therefore.  It is always interesting to see just how the classics were rediscovered and transmitted in this crucial period.

 Francisco Filelfo, to Theodore of Gaza, greeting.

My son Xenophon, the bearer of this letter, will make known to you various communications from myself.  He will tell you most specially that I desire very much the Lacedaemonian Apopthegmes.  It was, as you know, the wise Plutarch who endowed the Greeks with this book, and your Filelfo has translated it for the benefit of the Latins.  But I found the original was faulty in certain places, because of the ignorance of the scribe, so I am obliged to have recourse to your assistance in order to obtain another copy of the same text, if perhaps you have a copy, and it is correctly written.  Farewell.

This letter was written at Milan on 26 February 1454.  It is followed by a letter to none other than Mehmet II, the Turkish Sultan who had just conquered Constantinople, on behalf of Manfredina, the mother of his wife and widow of his teacher, John Chrysoloras.  The letter opens with compliments and then continues:

The errors of the Greeks have delivered Constantinople to you for the punishment of the guilty.   But as sometimes happens, the divine providence has allowed the righteous to suffer along with the wicked.  Thus Manfredina Chrysoloras, my mother-in-law, a chaste, sainted woman of illustrious birth, who has never given any offence either to God or to your glorious person, has been reduced to slavery with her two excellent daughters.  And by who?  By those eternal slaves, the Jews, those avaricious, pusillanimous, vilest and most wicked of men!

So I come to you, O great emir, to you whom God has sent to be the benefactor of the unfortunate, I come to seek your help.  I seek to reclaim my mother-in-law and her daughters, and I am ready to pay for their ransom, not what is demanded by the avidity of savage Jews, but what is equitable and within the measure of my means.  Your secretary Kyritzis can explain to you verbally the details of this business.

The author also sent a complimentary poem to the Sultan, and achieved his aim; his relatives were released and settled in Candia in Crete.  We need not condemn Filelfo for using flattery to obtain their release.  Let us instead hope that we are never in such a plight.

The letters of the humanists deserve to be better known.  But how wonderful it is that we can access such  material!  Ten years ago I read the letters of Poggio to Niccolo Niccoli, and these were filled with footnotes to works like Legrand.  This was utterly frustrating, because such books were inaccessible.  But today, a few minutes searching produces a neat, handy PDF.

We live in an age of miracles, where scholarship is concerned.  Who can predict what the same scope of years will bring?

  1. [1]E. Legrand, Cent-dix lettres grecques de Francois Filelfe, Paris, 1892.

Leave a Reply