Oration to the Very Reverend
Lord Ermolao Barbaro, Bishop of Verona
1453 — Verona, Republic of Venice
I do not doubt that there will be a good many men who will marvel at me and who will continue to accuse me of effrontery because I have seized the opportunity to write to you, although I am a woman who has neither natural talent nor skill in oratory, since they know many of the most erudite men both of our own and former times were terrified and overcome with shyness when they were about to deliver a eulogy. Among them, we have read about Demosthenes, who, for all his great eloquence, almost died from shyness when he was about to present an oration at the court of King Philip. It was the same for the philosopher Theophrastus and Cicero, the prince of eloquence, so the ancient histories testify. And so I must agree with those men: I have indeed taken on a most daunting burden and one deeply alien to me. Still, when I hear of your mercy, kindness, and gentleness, my fear fades and I recover. I summon new powers for my trembling mind when I think of the orator Marcus Geminus who, when he approached Caesar and was about to deliver his speech, said, “Whoever dares to speak in your presence, Caesar, is unaware of your greatness, and whoever does not dare, of your kindness.” Therefore, moved by your kindness, compassion, and singular piety, it pleases me—and I am overcome with joy — with the prophetess Miriam and our whole republic to greet you with this festive and joyous hymn of celebration from the bottom of my heart.
For who is so hard-hearted, so lacking in gentility and piety, that he is not moved by such joy and does not give thanks to divine providence that compassion, having banished the clouds with its rays, lighted the way and led this people, who had lost their shepherd and wandered away in darkness, back to the right road? For this is the day the Lord has appointed. Let us celebrate and rejoice in this day. For, since God is compassionate, you are the holy high priest he has given us: elected not by fortune or misfortune but by divine auspices; and not undeservedly, since praise and honor are the just deserts of virtue. As to how much toil and sweat you put into your work to achieve this, I have considered it better to say nothing, since there is no power of speech, no capacity for eloquence so great that it could describe the many refinements of nature, humanity, and virtue you have attained, with nature as your guide and diligence as your companion.
For who does not know how much effort and delight you have put in mastering, from earliest childhood on, as it were, to this day, the art of oratory under Guarino, the prince of eloquence, so that it could be rightly said of you what antiquity used to say of Cicero, Demosthenes, and innumerable others? For I remember reading that Demosthenes put so much work in the practice of speaking that he consumed far more lamp oil than he did wine. The discipline of rhetoric gripped him with such a fervor, he testified, that he appeared to be reduced to skin and bones from his excessive efforts. You have taken care to imitate such men throughout your whole career because you know that a man who fills himself up on vice cannot acquire this ability, and you are also aware that the person who attains, as they say, the name of a “good man” applies himself to the great challenge and intensity of eloquence. And my witness, lest I should appear to be spinning lies in the manner of a flatterer, is Guarino himself, in whose house you lived in such a way that he did not hesitate during that period to call you his favorite.
However, not content with the art of rhetoric alone but moved by the spirit of God, you have gathered all the other virtues together that could adorn and be useful to you, whatever post you might occupy. You studied the precepts and teachings of the philosophers, and as the companion of this pursuit you undertook the study of both civil and canon law, and you willingly perfected much in both systems, which together provide the foundations of the catholic faith. Finally, you sought the contemplation of the divine and knowledge of God the omnipotent, preferring to all else these and everything that sacred theology teaches us to know. For through study we come to know, love, enjoy, and possess God. As to how much time you have spent on this, witnesses who live with you can say of you what we read about Archimedes: he was often so absorbed in the study of mathematics that for the most part he did not see the food on his plate.
You knew, however, that this learning is necessary not only for men in private life but also for princes themselves and especially for those on whom the people’s safety apparently depends. Jerome argues that a priest’s duty is to answer questions about the law; Paul urges a bishop to pursue, among other virtues, knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; and Daniel says that just and knowledgeable men, the learned, that is, shine like stars in the firmament. Therefore, because you are graced with so great and distinguished a garland of virtues and knowledge, when you fled to the arms of the Roman Church she adorned you with many honors, like the just judge who gives to each his just deserts. As to the generosity, humaneness, compassion, justice, and gravity that have characterized your life, I have decided to be silent rather than speak inelegantly or even waste your time on a subject that is very familiar. For your judgments are so illustrious and well known that they lack no eloquent eulogists, much less my own approbation or praises. But let the consequences and the outcome of things speak for themselves.
I exult therefore and I raise my hands to heaven for joy. I shed tears for piety when I look at you as our high priest, since I have no doubt that with your work, diligence, protection, and support this city of ours will be sanctified and blessed. For every evil custom will be eradicated, vices will be destroyed, virtues will be exalted, and religion, pure and incorruptible, will be preserved. As it says in Jeremiah, “Behold, I set you above all nations and kingdoms to root out and destroy, to build and to plant.” Now this city, its boys and unmarried girls will sing, “I sat down under the shade of that man whom I desired, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. His left hand will be under my head, his right hand will embrace me.” Therefore, make me immortal, most reverend father and high priest, with the splendor of your glory, and lift me up not as a lord but as a father, and cherish and embrace me. For thus you will acquire glory, praise, and the rewards of everlasting life.
We, however, will cherish your gifts and honor your attainments and your memory with as much love as Pompilius Numa and Romulus were shown by the Roman people, who grieved for the father they had lost with these words: “O Romulus, Romulus, tell what a great defender of your city the gods bore in you! You brought us forth between shores of light. O father, O founder of our country, O blood sprung from the gods!”
But what am I doing, an inept woman, who has not yet stopped troubling you with my feminine loquaciousness? I will put an end to this nonsense of mine if I can first ask you, most compassionate lord, not to be surprised or angry with me because I have been so bold as to dare, as I have said, to undertake so great a charge (and one greater than my abilities) — to write to you, I mean, and then not to have been able in any sense to compose an oration equal to the greatness of your achievements. Allow me then to put the blame on your kindness, which has given me the audacity not to hesitate in presenting and commending myself and the whole Nogarola family to you, begging you to judge us worthy of your favor and to love us with the same esteem and goodwill with which you have always cherished your most faithful friends. And I, who have always thought that something divine accompanies the friendship of such companions, promise that we will follow you most joyously and happily with as much concern, diligence, and enthusiasm as will please you.
Source: “The Black Swan: Two Orations for Ermolao Barbarao,” from Complete Writings: Letterbook, Dialogue on Adam and Eve, Orations by Isotta Nogarola, edited and translated by Margaret L. King and Diana Robin. (c) 2004 The University of Chicago. Published by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.