ALBERTI’S POLITICAL THOUGHT

Momus [or De principe].

Rome, Jacopo Mazochi, 1520.

4to., 104 leaves, including a leaf of errata at end; printed in roman letter, several large white-on-black initial letters; some light spotting but a very good large copy in marbled paper boards with paper spine label.

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First edition of this political and social satire by the great Renaissance architect, theorist, scholar and man of letters, Leon Battista Alberti. There were two editions published in Rome in 1520, one (the present) by Jacopo Mazochi, the other by Étienne Guillery. Both carry papal privileges, but inasmuch as the present is an uncorrected text with a leaf of errata at the end and the other is a corrected text with no errata, this is probably the original. (Further, our edition carries no indication of month in the colophon, but the Guillery edition is dated to November, which puts it very late in the year). This edition carries a dedicatory preface addressed by the printer Mazochi to Pietro Accolti, Cardinal of Ancona.

An indispensable source for Alberti’s political thought and a ‘supremely interesting example of how the comic spirit of the early Renaissance expressed itself in literature’ (Martini, below), the Momus is a political and social satire set in the form of an allegorical/ mythological fable. Its mood is that of a light-hearted humanist jeu d’esprit; its humorous and even farcical manner was intended, as Alberti states in his preface, to make readers laugh while at the same time confronting them with serious political/social issues: in particular, with the question of what makes a good ruler.

Macchiavelli apparently derived the title of his Il Principe from Alberti, and Erasmus too seems to have read it. “It could be that Erasmus when he talks of Momus lately hurled to earth by the indignant gods was echoing Alberti: for is there anywhere, in Lucian, or another, such a fate for Momus: But we do not need prodding by Erasmus to see in Momus the most conspicuous instance of the wake of Lucian ... Momus was written in the 1440s, twice printed in 1520, had no real breakthrough at either time. Yet it is demonstrably the most sustained, the most inventive offshoot from Lucian before Gulliver’s Travels, and it is on a scale which Lucian himself never attempted; while as its subtitle, Momus, seu de Principe, shows, it is also the halfway house between the Monarchy of Dante and that other Prince, of Machiavelli” - J.H.Whitfield, “ ‘Momus’ and the nature of humanism”, in Classical Influences in European Culture, ed. R. R. Bolgar, CUP 1971.

Momus, son of Night in Hesiod’s Theogony, is the god of disorder, malevolence, ill-will and sarcasm. The most outspoken of all the gods, he is compelled to learn to hide his character through suffering certain injustices (according to the story told by Alberti in Book I) and, ironically, becomes the spirit of dissimulation, or of ‘mummery’ in effect. Alberti gives his Momus a subtlety and ‘genius in evil-doing’ (see P. Laurens, below) that far exceeds anything in his antique sources - principally Lucian. But where Lucian’s satire has a bitter edge, that of Alberti is more genial and more fanciful. The story centers on Jupiter’s dealings with Momus, amidst a royal court of other gods and goddesses, each representing some human failing, excess or attribute. Jupiter himself, preoccupied solely with his own amusements, is a weak and vacillating ruler; unable to make firm decisions, he surrounds himself with advisors who are always badly chosen. His rule and its consequences may be referred, in comparison, to the allegory of Male Governo, or Bad Government painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Book IV of the Momus centres on Alberti’s two most vividly drawn and original characters: Charon, representing wisdom and good sense, and Gelastro, a philosopher, as caricature of the absurdity of intellectual pretension.

Inscription dated 1804 inside front cover reading “Dono acceptus Romae ... Ph. Aur. Visconti liberalitate”.

Modern editions of Momus include:

Leon Battista Alberti. Momus o del Principe. Testo ... a cura di Giuseppe Martini. Bologna, Nicola Zanichelli, 1942 (with full scholarly apparatus and concordance);
Momus ou le Prince. Fable politique. Traduite ... par Claude Laurens. Préface de Pierre Laurens. Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1993.

For Alberti’s philosophical and political writings see: P.H. Michel: Un idéal humain au XVe siècle. La pensée de L.A. Alberti (1404-1472). Paris, 1930.

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