Friday, November 08, 2013


A Contest over the Length of a Syllable

Paulus Jovius (1483-1552), An Italian Portrait Gallery, being Brief Biographies of Scholars, tr. Florence Alden Gragg (Boston: Chapman & Grimes, 1935), pp. 45-46 (on Francesco Filelfo):
He lived to the advanced age of nearly ninety and died at Bologna, having so dissipated his property that the furniture of his bedroom and kitchen had to be sold to pay his funeral expenses and his son Mario, himself a distinguished scholar, inherited from his father ability rather than any considerable estate. The family, however, retained possession of the trophy for a triumph of learning which Filelfo won in a famous jest, when with insistent arrogance he had, according to their compact, shaved off the beard of the Greekling Timotheus, whom he had worsted in an argument about the length of a syllable, an incident which Mirteo has wittily recorded in the following verses:
Was it not enough for you, Filelfo, that you had won fame and glory in the Latin tongue, but must you also, after roaming through the Greek cities too, carry off a fresh triumph from Timotheus, as became the husband of a Greek bride? For he made a wager with you about a certain word, agreeing, if he lost, to let his beard be shaved; and, if he won, he was to get the money you had staked. You won and, declaring that you could not buy a beard for the amount of the wager, you whipped out a razor and said you preferred to have his. Now indeed, Filelfo, you may be called the pride not of the Italian but of the Greek palaestra.
The Latin, from Jovius' Elogia Doctorum Virorum (Antwerp: Bellerus, 1557), p. 40:
Vixit ad exactam aetatem nonagenario proximus, periitque Bononiae adeo dissipatis rei domesticae copiis, vt ad efferendum funus & cubiculi et coquinae instrumenta venierint, & Marius filius egregie doctus, paternae potius virtutis, quam multae substantiae haeres relinqueretur. Sed in familia eruditae victoriae trophaeum permansit, nobili exceptum risu, quum Timotheo Graeculo, de vi syllabae contendenti, victoque, barbam ex pactione inexorabili superbia derasisset, vti lepide Myrteus his carminibus expressit.

Nunquid sat tibi non fuit Philelphe,
Linguae gloria nobilis Latinae?
Ni Graecas quoque peruagatus vrbes,
Dignus coniuge, nuptiisque Graecis
Ferres Timothei nouum triumphum?
Cui, dum vna semper ille dictione
Tecum pignore certat, atque barbam
Abradi sibi ferre pollicetur,
Victus; aut positam pecuniam abs te
Victor auferat. Abnegasti eadem
Barbam posse pecunia obtinere
Victor: atque nouacula expedita
Barbam illius habere maluisti:
Iam nunc non Italae Philelphe, sed sis
Graecae gloria nobilis palaestrae.

Update: see A Contest over the Length of a Syllable Revisited.

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