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So What?’

In response to:

Character Witnesses from the December 1, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

A footnote to Ingrid Rowland’s lively article about Renaissance medals [NYR, December 1, 1994]. The riddle of Alberti’s enigmatic Latin motto Quid tum? (“So what?”) was solved by Guglielmo Gorni in the 1972 issue of Rinascimento. Where previous scholars had desperately sought a model in Latin prose, Gorni recognized it as a poetic citation from Vergil’s Eclogues 10.38: quid tum si fuscus Amyntas? (“What if Amyntas is swarthy?”). Viewed in this context, the motto makes light of Alberti’s illegitimacy.

David Marsh
Associate Professor of Italian
Rutgers
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Ingrid D Rowland replies:

My thanks to that excellent Alberti scholar David Marsh for calling my attention to Gorni’s observation and thereby to all the issues it raises. In responding, I would like in addition to offer belated thanks to Andrew Butterfield for a conversation on Alberti and medal imagery; I had meant to acknowledge him in my text. The motto “quid tum” appears on the reverse of a portrait medal of Leon Battista Alberti cast by Matteo de’ Pasti, probably in the 1430s, when both were in Rimini at work for Sigismondo Malatesta. This short Latin phrase, whose literal meaning is “What then?”, may nonetheless take on an ample range of meanings. Douglas Lewis, in The Currency of Fame, understands Alberti’s meaning as “What next?” and I quoted it in this sense for my review. There were, however, a number of other options in ancient Latin alone. Cicero uses “quid tum” as a comment designed to advance conversation: “What are you driving at?” (Tusculan Disputations, II.11.26). In a frenzied monologue, Vergil’s Dido, jilted by her lover Aeneas, wails “quid tum?” to reject one possible course of action: “Then what?” (Aeneid IV.543). As Prof. Marsh informs us, Guglielmo Gorni (“Storia del Certame Coronario,” Rinascimento, 1972, pp. 139-149, n.2) has suggested that for Alberti’s portrait medal, the phrase has been excerpted from another Vergilian passage in which it really means “So what?” Gorni suggests, and Marsh concurs, that Matteo de’ Fasti’s portrait medal of Alberti as an elegantly composed humanist marks the triumph of a noble soul against every disadvantage of birth, health, and circumstance, nearly all of them the direct result of Alberti’s illegitimate birth. Looking back on the obstacles he has faced, the great man exults, “So what?” much as Vergil’s Amyntas boasts of beauty despite a dark complexion.

Gorni and Marsh make this interpretation knowing how deeply Alberti’s illegitimacy seared his life; aside from facing the predictable problems of inheritance, he required a special dispensation to work in the Roman Curia, the step which may have marked the most important move of his career. This Vergilian line is the one in which “quid tum?” has more color than anywhere else; Gorni’s observation is therefore one to be taken seriously.

If the medallist Matteo de’ Pasti looks from the outside upon a complex, brilliant man, Gorni and Marsh, as literary scholars, are at least as familiar with the tormented neurotic who emerges so disturbingly from the sere self-portrait on Alberti’s own plaquette. In portraying himself, Alberti dispenses with both the Latin motto and the air of complacency to be found on de’ Pasti’s medal, identifying himself only by his gaunt face and his personal hieroglyph, a winged eye that radiates thunderbolts. The hieroglyphic image is a deliberate homage to ancient Egypt; Alberti claimed that Egyptian writing “could be understood easily by expert men all over the world, to whom alone noble matters should be communicated” (De Re Aedificatoria VIII.4, translated by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor). So, too, faces may communicate without words. Nonetheless, to a latter-day community for whom the Rosetta Stone has forever changed the means whereby noble matters Egyptian are communicated, the significance of Alberti’s personal emblem, and hence the whole tone of his self-portrait, remain stubbornly hermetic. Whose hieroglyphic eye sheds these thunderbolts? What are the thoughts of this uncomfortably angular man with toga and shorn hair?

Edgar Wind has argued that the winged eye should signify the Last Judgment, for Alberti, in his dialogue Anuli (now available in English as “Rings” in Dinner Pieces, translated by David Marsh, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Vol. 45, Binghamton, 1987), specifies that the hieroglyph of a winged eye symbolizes God. To this end Wind likened the motto “quid tum” to a line from the apocalyptic poem Dies Irae: quid sum ego tunc dicturus?—“What shall I say then?”—so that “What next?” took on a dread millenarian hue. Wind’s linguistic parallel is a stretch, for which reason literary scholars have rejected it, whereas many art historians have found its sentiments appropriate to the context. Douglas Lewis, in his catalog entry to The Currency of Fame, suggests instead that the godlike eye belongs to the artist as nascent Renaissance man, the arms of humanism taken up against a sea of troubles. (Alberti’s Anuli also says, indeed, that the hieroglyph of the winged eye enjoins us “to be as vigilant and circumspect as we can, seeking everything which leads to the glory of virtue.”)

In general, Renaissance symbols were intended to convey multiple meanings, and thus the solution to Alberti’s motto and his hieroglyph surely lies in the Albertian terrain that David Marsh evokes so bitingly in his own work, somewhere, that is, in between fear of God and humanistic triumph. Likewise, I imagine that the idiom of Alberti’s imagery on his plaquette, the hermetic symbol combined with the facial portrait, derives from his own idiosyncratic evocation of Egypt and Etruria, as those two “lost” civilizations were recovered for the fifteenth century.

Pressed to give a more exact meaning to the motto on the reverse of Matteo de’ Pasti’s medal I would suggest that “quid tum” retains the range of significance it has in Latin, that it is indeed a crowing “So what?” which nonetheless never explicitly rules out the challenge of “What next?” The winged eye of Alberti’s personal hieroglyph spews thunderbolts, a detail that separates it subtly but definitely from the more generic symbol discussed in Anuli; because thunderbolts are the prerogative of Jove, I would assume that this winged eye belongs to God. Accordingly, I would take the hieroglyph to represent, inter alia, Alberti’s divinely sanctioned vindication; in effect, his legitimacy before God, despite every accident of circumstance, as a sentient human being. And to translate this two-word account of driven genius? That’s the easy part: “Rosebud.”

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