Friday, July 9, 2010

Civitas Veri

In Paris, in 1609, the printers Ambroise and Jérôme Drouart published a volume entitled Civitas Veri sive Morum (‘The City of Truth; or, Ethics’) on behalf of the recently-deceased Alphonse (or Alfonso) Del Bene (or Delbene: ca. 1538-1608), who had been bishop of Albi. The book comprised an allegorical, philosophical poem in Latin written by Alphonse’s uncle Barthélémy (or Bartolomeo) Del Bene (1515-1595), with a commentary and notes by the humanist scholar Théodore Marcile (1548-1617). Marcile’s introduction bears the date 1585, and it is likely that Del Bene’s verse was written earlier still, at some time in the 1560s, or early 1570s.

The text is illustrated by a few dozen curious engravings: it is not known whether versions of these images adorned Del Bene’s or Marcile’s manuscripts, or whether they were added later by the Drouarts. The decorated title-page was designed by a Dutch-born engraver named Thomas de Leu, so it is quite possible the remainder of the engravings were his work too; although Mario Praz, in mentioning Civitas Veri in his ‘Studies in Seventeenth-Century Literature,’ likens them to the emblems in Jan David’s Veridicus Christianus, which were apparently executed by Théodore Galle.

Del Bene’s poem is an allegorical recasting of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. It describes a month-long spiritual journey undertaken by his patroness, Marguerite, Duchess of Savoy, who travels through the City of Truth, from its five portals (one for each of the senses: see, for example, the portals of smell and taste, in the details above) through its various palaces, gardens, etc., to the five temples at its heart, culminating in visits to the Temple of Intelligence (where she meets and converses with Aristotle himself) and the Temple of Wisdom.

Del Bene’s City of Truth is presented as both a microcosm, and as an idealised locale, after the fashion of Thomas More’s Utopia and Kaspar Stiblin’s De Eudæmonensium Republica; and anticipating aspects of later works such as Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis,, Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Sole, (‘City of the Sun’) and Bacon’s New Atlantis. The image above shows a detail of an elevated view of the City of Truth in its totality, which I spliced together from a pair of engravings on facing pages of the book.

I learned of the existence of Del Bene’s opus by way of an eye-catching engraving reproduced in John Manning’s book The Emblem: this was the depiction of ‘The Palace of Intemperance’—part of which is shown in the detail immediately above, wherein ‘Intemperance sits in a myrtle grove […] where she is regaled by Cupid and Bacchus. She spurns Right Reason under her naked foot. Before her are prepared three tables: one consecrated to Gluttony, the next to cures for her inevitable hangover, the last is furnished with incitements to Lust… An open grave lies at the foot of the plate.’ This was opposed to the altogether more seemly ‘Palace of Temperance’ as detailed in the first of two the images above.

The poem’s protagonist, Marguerite de France (or Marguerite de Valois), Duchesse de Berry, afterwards Duchesse de Savoie, 1523-74, was the youngest daughter of king François I., and sister to King Henri II. She was intellectually accomplished; conversant in Latin, Greek and Italian; and a defender at court of the Pleiade poets, in particular of Pierre de Ronsard. Praised as a new Minerva, she was seen as a successor to her aunt & namesake, Marguerite de Navarre (or Marguerite d’Angoulême), renowned author of the Heptameron.

Del Bene had entered Marguerite’s service as her secretary in 1554. Five years later, when, at the unusually late age of 36, she was married to Emmanuel-Philibert, Duc de Savoie, he moved with her to the ducal court at Turin. After Marguerite’s death, De Bene returned to the court of Henri III. of France, and was thereafter ‘charged several times with confidential missions for Emmanuel-Philibert and Catherine de Médicis’ (Henri’s mother). Besides his Civitas Veri, he wrote other Latin and Italian poetry, well-esteemed in his day.

The images above are details of scans from a reprint edition of Civitas Veri published in 2003 by Librissimo / Phénix Éditions, apparently exclusively distributed by

Source : Giornale Nuovo,