The Man Who Invented Syphilis: Splendours and Miseries of Neo-Latin Literature

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

What is ‘Neo-Latin’?

What we call Neo-Latin literature demands at least a provisional definition if we are to discuss it intelligently. We all know what Classical Latin is: it’s the language of a body of literature that begins more or less with Cicero’s first extant work (Pro Quinctio, 81 BC), and ends around the time of Marcus Aurelius’ death in AD 180. When we talk of ‘early’, ‘old’ or ‘archaic’ Latin, we tend to mean anything from before the death of Sulla in 78 BC; ‘late’ or ‘late antique’ Latin seems to start in the 3rd century AD, and takes in a great many Christian writers.

Cicero writing, anonymous woodcut from an edition of Cicero’s Epistulae ad Familiares (Girolamo Scoto, Venice, 1547).

Some of these, including St Cyprian (210–58) in the 3rd century, and Lactantius (c.250–325), St Jerome (331–420) and St Augustine of Hippo (354–430) in the 4th century, write a stylish, learned Latin that shows little sign of decay or degeneration; whereas Tertullian (c.155–220) looks and sounds like the beginning of the Dark Ages, even though he died some time before the Crisis of the Third Century (235–84) threw everything into disarray – everything, not just literature, and the language in which it was composed. But the really barbarous stuff is Mediaeval Latin.

Illumination of Marie de France (fl. 1160–1215), c.1200 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Arsenal) MS 3142, f.256r).

Mediaeval Latin at its finest and purest is a language for the hymns of Venantius Fortunatus (c.530–609), the theology and hymns of St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), and the prettier lyrics of the ‘Goliards’ – the wandering scholars who introduced a little light, colour and learning to an age during which nobody seems to have understood how to draw a nose that did not look like a three-leafed clover, or else two knuckles flanking a middle finger, as in the Luttrell Psalter. At its worst, mediaeval Latin is a language for bureaucrats, administrators, credulous collectors of facts and other such blights on a healthy culture. Latin became ‘Mediaeval Latin’ when it died as a spoken everyday language, around the time of Charlemagne (747–814). Mediaeval Latin can be one of three things: a sacred language, an artificial language, or a dead language. Most of the time it’s the last of these.

Illumination from the Luttrell Psalter, 14th cent. (British Library, Add. MS 42130, f.208v).

Neo-Latin amounts to an attempt at restoration. Neo-Latin and the Renaissance are inextricably entwined with one another: the Renaissance began as a movement to restore Latin to its former, proud, glorious state as a subtle, pliable, infinitely expressive medium for communication as practised by the greatest of the ancients. Dante’s Latin, like that of St Thomas Aquinas, is rather good, because the writer was a genius, and had the knack of saying what he wanted to say clearly and precisely despite limited resources, in terms of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and rhetorical devices. But Petrarch (1304–74) was the first of the Neo-Latinists: the first who sought to regain the fluency of his Roman forebears, and was in fact good at it (we draw a discreet veil over the Paduan proto-humanists, whose literary work was awful).

Portrait of Petrarch, Andrea del Castagno, c.1450 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

The finest Neo-Latinists brought the ancient language back to life in a very real way. 15th-century Florence was the heart of the Renaissance in literature as well as everything else; never trust the judgment of anyone who questions the superiority of art, letters and philology at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–94). There are other contemporary centres of culture, learning and creative invention; but none surpasses Quattrocento Florence in the thirty years between the death of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) and the French invasion under King Charles the Affable (1470–98) in 1494. You can see this in the Latin, not least of Politian (1454–94), the greatest Latinist of his era, the finest Hellenist, the most enduring poet in Latin, Italian and Greek – and the most innovative and brilliant of all the humanists of the Renaissance. It all starts with the Latin.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, c.1482 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

Miseries of Neo-Latin

Let us not suspend our judgment, or be excessively enthusiastic about Neo-Latin itself. If you spend an afternoon browsing in Alessandro Perosa’s anthology Renaissance Latin Verse (1979), which he edited along with John Sparrow of All Souls, or Eugenio Garin’s splendid Prosatori Latini del Quattrocento (“Latin Prose Writers of the Fourteen-Hundreds”, 1952) – and both anthologies are selected with great care and taste, with an eye to what is best, rather than to some spurious criterion of the merely ‘representative’ – you begin to see that even the most eloquent and inventive Neo-Latinists, for all their linguistic, grammatical, stylistic and rhetorical resources, often boast everything except inspiration.

Funeral, ‘Della Torre’ monument (1516–21), Andrea Briosco (“il Riccio”) (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Of course, you have to look to the 17th century for a really cold, mannered, artificial Neo-Latin, in societies where the technique was a little too smooth to be perfect, and it was possible to be fluent without having anything to say. Yet this sort of trite, content-free auto-pilot Neo-Latin literature is present earlier on in the tradition. Take for example the entire oeuvre of Erasmus (1466–1536), the most inexplicably celebrated writer of his century, if not the millennium (in this latter category the competition is as stiff as the sort of people who profess to enjoy Erasmus). But Neo-Latin goes wrong in other ways as well. Literary masochists will find deep delight in the work of the humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), an alleged third cousin of Leonardo da Vinci’s whose prose and verse alike will strike them as deliciously excruciating, in quantity no less than quality.

Portrait of Poggio Bracciolini, Jean-Jacques Boissard (attrib.), engraving from Icones quinquaginta virorum illustrium (Frankfurt, 1597).

Some of the most absorbing Neo-Latin writers are, as Latinists, imperfect. Nobody who has a decent grasp of the language can fail to thrill at the letters of the manuscript hunter Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), who is discovering the riches of the Latin language and trying excitedly to use them even as he tells his correspondents about what he has found; yet his contemporary Lorenzo Valla (1407–57) attacked him for his lack of precision and accuracy as far as technical elements were concerned. Poggio was an exuberant spendthrift with Latin, in a way that irritates more careful philologists. Valla was, in his way, a great man, and everyone who loves Latin ought to own a copy of his Elegantiae Linguae Latinae, the first analytical style guide to the language: this is more than just a reference material for correct vocabulary and grammar, it is a work of art in its own right. But there are few who read Valla strictly for pleasure, except the sorts of people who read Francesco Filelfo for pleasure.  

Portrait of Lorenzo Valla, Jean-Jacques Boissard (attrib.), engraving from Icones quinquaginta virorum illustrium (Frankfurt, 1597).

For the moment let us ignore Neo-Latin literature that has no literary value. Historians are welcome to them, as long as they have the bare competence to read them, which not all of them have these days. When you have spent enough time in universities you come to see that so much of the worst academic writing comes, not from the sorts who force themselves to read Francesco Filelfo’s odes, but from those who cannot read a simple Latin text and refuse to admit the fact. Or from those who can barely struggle through some Neo-Latin document, and are ashamed of their inability to judge it, in simple terms, from a confident position. Neo-Latin writing is not necessarily interesting or attractive in and of itself; to propagate such a falsehood is to abandon the very purpose of criticism, literary or otherwise, which is the free exercise of judgment.

Of course, if we want to call ourselves critics, or judges, we should aim to be humane rather than suspicious or cynical. There are few exercises more cowardly than sneering at the dead for no reason. Criticism ought to aim for justice, no less than truth. With that in mind we turn our attention to one of the most important of Neo-Latin writers, the physician Girolamo Fracastoro, who was born in 1476 or 1478, and died in 1553.

Girolamo Fracastoro, engraving by Francesco Redenti, c.1870.

The Man Who Invented Syphilis

Fracastoro is most famous today for quite literally writing the book on syphilis. It is not merely a book either: it is a small-scale epic poem, or epyllion, in the Alexandrian manner. Latinists will instantly think of a combination between Lucretius’ scientific didactic verse in hexameters and the longer poems of Catullus. Stylistically the Syphilis can seem like Ovid, in the diction, imagery and general style, not least in metrical terms. But the poem’s resonances with its ancient models of course do not matter unless the poem itself is a success.

Girolamo Fracastoro, Titian, c.1528 (National Gallery, London).

Before we look at this, we should remember that Fracastoro was not simply or merely a poet. He is known to historians of medicine as one of the shrewdest and most perceptive early theorists of contagion: indeed, his 1546 treatise on contagion and contagious diseases was only superseded in the 19th century, and still rewards close reading today, not least in the excellent, strangely neglected, edition by the Birmingham-born classicist Emily Wilmer Cave Wright (1930). Fracastoro lived through an outbreak of plague in his home town of Verona in 1510, and studied the Italy-wide pandemic of lenticular fever that erupted in 1528.

Unlike many contemporary physicians, Fracastoro was radically sceptical about received authority, and trusted objectively verifiable evidence over texts as far as he could. But he was not the sort of sceptic favoured by passive-aggressive anti-Christian fanatics (or university academics, as we usually refer to them); indeed he was the official physician to the Council of Trent (1545–63). Yet his particular form of scepticism differs from that favoured by modern scientists: whilst Fracastoro rejected the ancient physician Galen’s insistence on following astronomy and astronomers, he nonetheless believed epidemics to be due to the influence of a conjunction of the planets. This was not superstitious or irrational; it merely reflects aspects of contemporary science, and reminds us that we are not all the sober logicians that we think we are.

Sacrifice to Asclepius, ‘Della Torre’ monument (1516–21), Andrea Briosco (“il Riccio”) (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Fracastoro’s treatise on contagion is of real literary interest to the Classicist. Sometimes the content is dry, but Fracastoro organises his material clearly and intelligibly, in a way that demonstrates just how thoroughly he has mastered his subject. His main stylistic influence is Seneca, and specifically the Seneca of the Quaestiones Naturales (AD 65), which is the most elegantly readable scientific text in any language this side of Galileo. Also, Fracastoro’s choice of imagery and vocabulary reflects not just deep learning, but a lively relationship to what he has read. In this treatise he appropriates the Latin term fomes, which in Classical and Christian Latin merely refers to tinder or kindling-wood, and uses it to describe the sparks of infection: a fomes, in his usage, functions as a sponge for absorbing and retaining contagious effluvia. It takes imagination to recycle an ordinary Latin term in this way, and grant it new evocative power. This is the skill of a poet, not a scientist.

Of course, there are drawbacks to Fracastoro’s relentlessly lucid, observation-based approach to everything he writes. You see this particularly in the 1,346 hexameter lines of his poem Syphilis.

The plague at Ashdod, Angelo Caroselli, 1631 (National Gallery, London).


There is no room here for a detailed summary of Syphilis; suffice it to say that this poem combines all the best and the worst elements in Neo-Latin literature.

The opening lines perhaps seem a little long-winded:

Qui casus rerum varii, quae semina morbum
insuetum nec longa ulli per saecula visum
attulerint, nostra qui tempestate per omnem
Europam partimque Asiae Libyaeque per urbes
saeviit, in Latium vero per tristia bella
Gallorum irrupit, nomenque a gente recepit;
nec non et quae cura, et opus quid comperit usus,
magnaque in angustis hominum sollertia rebus,
et monstrata deum auxilia, et data munera caeli,
hinc canere et longe secretas quaerere causas
aera per liquidum et vasti per sydera Olympi
incipiam, dulci quando novitatis amore
correptum placidi naturae suavibus horti
floribus invitant et amantes mira Camena.

Now I shall sing of the causes, and all the various accidents in nature, that have brought about an unheard-of affliction, which was unknown for ages, but has raged in our time throughout Europe, parts of Asia, and the cities of Libya, and invaded Italy during those bitter wars with the French, from whose nation the disease takes its name: also [I shall sing] of remedies [for the disease], and sources of relief which have been revealed by experience, or by men’s quick thinking in perilous circumstances; [I shall] also [sing of] cures that have been revealed by the gods, and provided as a gift from Heaven; out of joyful love for what is curious, I shall find [the affliction’s] mysterious causes through the serene upper air and the sky’s distant Heaven, now that the Muses who love wonders tempt me, in my fascination with nature’s garden that blooms with lovely flowers.

Whatever charm these fourteen lines might have held for the reader begin to wear off with a further nine lines of address to Cardinal Bembo (1470–1547), eight to personified Urania, and another thirteen invoking the goddess, and another eight of an extended Homeric simile that is reasonably well executed, but not strictly necessary in these circumstances. Some poets need more inspiration; with Fracastoro you often wish he had a little less.

The first three hundred lines of Syphilis are absolutely dire. Worse even than Lucretius at his dullest. You wonder whether you can ever trust another self-styled connoisseur of Latin ever again, because these three hundred-odd lines read as though they could have been put together by a computer that was programmed to imitate an accountant. This is all waffle, filler and prefatory material. But then, around line 307, Fracastoro begins to describe the condition of syphilis itself.

The earliest known medical illustration involving syphilis: anonymous woodcut from Bartholomaüs Streber’s A malafranczos [sic] morbo Gallorum praeservatio ac cura (Vienna, 1498).

Here the poem comes roaring to life. Instead of dealing with arid, airy generalities, Fracastoro has visible, palpable physical material to communicate, and he does this with all the skill of a Dryden or Pope: the images are deftly and sharply delineated, in a logical rather than an impressionistic order.

In the second book of Syphilis, Fracastoro’s versified dietary advice is not a success. He seems to have terrible poetic judgment. Except that when he informs the reader about blood, or exhorts him to take exercise, the advice is expressed in such vivid, forceful terms that it has the effect of real poetry. The inspiration is very real; but it comes and goes erratically. Fracastoro’s attempt to create an allegorical myth of the lovers Ilceus and Callirhoe at first seems spectacularly ill-judged, and strikes the reader as the sort of learned fable that is more fun to read about than to read at first hand. It seems like rote learning, paint-by-numbers Neo-Latin at its pedantic worst. As literature this is inert because Fracastoro self-evidently does not believe in the myth he is trying to create: but then at the end of Book Two the Muses return to the poet – and you have to pick up the poem and go through it to believe it – he saves Book Two with a description of remedies for syphilis, and an exhortation to sobriety.

Illustration to the poem Syphilis, Jan Sadeler (after Christoph Schwarz), c.1590.

If all this sounds like a great deal of effort for questionable reward, then you have to reach the third book of Syphilis. Not only does this justify Fracastoro’s reputation as one of the literary geniuses of the 16th century, it ranks with Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis as one of the most entrancing fever dreams in Renaissance literature. The book centres on the Guaiacum tree, which was discovered in the Americas, and supplies a remedy for this horrible disease.

Oceano in magno, ardenti sub sydere Cancri,
sol ubi se nobis media jam nocte recondit,
hac ignota tenus, tractu jacet insula longo:
Hispanam gens inventrix cognomine dixit:
auri terra ferax: sed longe ditior una
arbore, voce vocant patrii sermonis Hyacum.
ipsa teres, ingensque ingentem vertice ab alto
diffundit semper viridem, semperque comantem
arbuteis sylvam foliis: nux parva, sed acris,
dependet ramis, et plurima frondibus haeret.
materia indomita est, duro et pene aemula ferro
robora, quae resinam sudant incensa tenacem.
dissectae color haud simplex. In cortice lauri
exteriore viret levor: pars altera pallet
Buxea: at interior nigro suffusca colore est,
juglandemque, ebenumque inter. Quod si inde ruberet,
jam poterat variis aequare coloribus irim.

In the vast Ocean, under the star of the blazing Crab, where the sun hides himself from us in the middle of the night, there lies a long island, unknown till now: the nation that discovered it gave it their name, Hispana [sic].[1] Hispana abounds in gold, but is far richer by virtue of a tree which they call Guaiacum in the native language. This tall, slender tree spreads great branches from its lofty summit; the evergreen, abundant foliage resembles strawberry leaves; the nut is small, but bitter, and hangs from the branches in clusters under the leaves. The wood is very hard, and in strength almost rivals iron; when burnt, it exudes a sticky resin. When the tree is cut open, its appearance is far from plain: the outer bark gleams smoothly like a laurel’s, whilst the inner bark is sallow as a boxwood tree’s; whereas deeper within, the wood is murky in colour, with a darkness between that of walnut and ebony. If redness were added, the wood would rival the rainbow in its variety of colours.

All I can do is exhort you to read this four-hundred-line fantasia, be astonished by its invention and power, and wonder why nobody ever told you about this before. Probably because you have to survive those interminable three hundred-odd lines of Book One before you see any hint of Fracastoro’s greatness. In fact, you have to survive almost a thousand lines of often deeply unimpressive verse to reach this tour-de-force demonstration that Fracastoro was a real poet, of European stature, for a few hundred lines anyway (there are fifty or so dull lines frigid pedantry here too, even where the poet’s blood was hottest). But after this, Fracastoro lost the favour of the Muses forever, and the rest of his verse is, at best, correct.

The professor teaches, ‘Della Torre’ monument (1516–21), Andrea Briosco (“il Riccio”) (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

What do we learn from this experience as Latinists? What can Fracastoro teach us? Patience? Endurance? The feebleness of human judgment? The fickle nature of divine gifts, that can be snatched without warning because they are not ours to keep? Perhaps the Latin of Fracastoro, prose and verse, shows us that we can indeed equal the ancients, even in their own language, and on their own terms: but the second we start trying merely to copy them as apes or parrots do, then the insulted Muses will desert us, and once they leave they will never come back. They are not Christians: they never forgive.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here, and on the pleasures of Poussin here.

Further Reading

Anyone seeking to dive head-first into the best of Neo-Latin literature has an unparalleled resource in the I Tatti Renaissance Library, which has made scores of Neo-Latin texts available in very good editions with convenient (if sometimes inelegant) facing-page English translations; the range of authors runs from Politian to Valla to – yes – Filelfo. The series is published by Harvard University Press, which also makes various Mediaeval Latin, Byzantine Greek and Old English texts available in the splendid Dumbarton Oaks Mediaeval Library.

The classic modern collection of Neo-Latin poetry remains Renaissance Latin Verse: An Anthology, edited (as noted above) by Alessandro Perosa and John Sparrow (Duckworth, London, 1979); the latest paperback edition (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2011) is not cheap, but well worth the expense for those who do not want English translations to interfere with their enjoyment of the Latin text.

Eugenio Garin’s Prosatori latini del quattrocento (Ricciardi Editore, Naples/Milan, 1952) is still the best single anthology of Neo-Latin prose (despite the fact that the facing-page Italian translations can be surprisingly slapdash); though Fracastoro is nowhere to be seen. Also, the original hardback edition is difficult to track down, and the 1976 reprint (split into five paperback volumes; Classici Ricciardi series, Einaudi, Turin) will rarely be found in good condition.

The I Tatti Renaissance Library’s Fracastoro volume (translated by James Gardner; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013) has an outstanding bibliography, and ought to be the starting point for your investigations into, not only Syphilis, but Fracastoro’s entire oeuvre. Yet good work in English on Fracastoro remains otherwise rare, except of course for Emily Wilmer Cave Wright’s edition with translation of De Contagione et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione, Liber III (G. B. Putnam, New York, 1930). Geoffrey Eatough’s translation of Syphilis (Francis Cairns, Liverpool, 1984) is also very useful, of course. But if you want to delve more deeply into Fracastoro and his works, and the best current scholarship available, you will need French and Italian at minimum. And Latin, of course: the 1731 biography of Fracastoro by Friedrich Otto Mencke has never been surpassed – and was written in Latin.

As noted in the captions, some of the pictures accompanying the text above were taken from the ‘Della Torre’ monument (1516–21) by Andrea Briosco (1470–1532), who was known as “il Riccio”. Girolamo della Torre and his son Marcantonio were professors of medicine who taught Fracastoro; when Marcantonio died, Fracastoro composed an impressively learned (if frigid) elegy of consolation, and is also likely to have had a hand in designing the elaborately classicising decorative program for the Della Torre tomb. The classic scholarly essay on this remains Fritz Saxl’s magisterial “Pagan Sacrifice in the Italian Renaissance” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes II.4 [1939] 346–67). But a great deal of work remains to be done on the monument, their subject matter, and Fracastoro’s precise involvement in the work. You should start from the handsome (though heavy) catalogue published by the Frick Collection (New York) in 2008 to accompany their exhibition Andrea Riccio: Renaissance Master of Bronze and see where that leads you.

The bronze plaques reproduced above will be found in the Louvre in Paris, not on the Della Torre tomb in Verona; they were stolen by Napoleon.

The professor in the Underworld, ‘Della Torre’ monument (1516–21), Andrea Briosco (“il Riccio”) (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).


1 Hispaniola, which is now divided between the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti, was referred to as Insula Hispana, or “Spanish Island”, by Christopher Columbus; the current name, Hispaniola, became commonplace over the course of the 16th century.