The Italian poet Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), or Politian, wrote works in both Latin and Italian. Although he considered himself a humanist, he advocated free artistic creation, unencumbered by reliance on the great classical writers of antiquity.
Angelo Poliziano was born Angelo Ambrogini on July 14, 1454, at Montepulciano, Tuscany, the son of a lawyer. When he was 10, his father was murdered, and the boy was sent to live with relatives in Florence, at the Studium of which he was educated by humanists. Poliziano's dedication to Lorenzo de' Medici of a partial translation of the Iliad marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the Medici ruler, and for some time he headed Lorenzo's chancellery and was tutor to his two sons. When he lost the latter position in 1479, Poliziano abruptly left the Medici villa at Cafaggiolo in May, and after a short stay at the Medici villa in Fiesole he moved to Mantua and the patronage of Cardinal Gonzaga. The following year, however, having made his peace with Lorenzo, he returned to Florence and at the Studium obtained the chair of Greek and Latin eloquence. In 1477 Poliziano became prior of S. Paolo, and in 1486 he was named canon of the Cathedral, S. Maria del Fiore. He carried out several political missions for Lorenzo and, with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, scouted north Italian cities for books and manuscripts for the Medici Library in 1491. The later years of Poliziano's life were spent between Fiesole, where Lorenzo had given him a villa, and Florence, where he died on Sept. 28/29, 1494.
Poliziano was a prolific writer of epigrams, both in Greek and Latin, and his partial translation of the Iliad (books 2-5) gained him the patronage of the Medici. His Latin odes and elegies revealed a true lyrical talent. His most important Latin writings, however, include the Praelectiones (or Silvae), which are introductions to classical authors treated in his courses at the Studium. The most important of them, Nutricia (1491), is an attempt at a history of poetry from the days of Orpheus to Poliziano's own time. In 1489 Poliziano published the Centuria prima miscellaneorum, consisting of textual criticism and new interpretations of doubtful passages in the classics.
Of greater interest and importance for the history of Italian literature are Poliziano's writings in the vernacular. His Stanze per la giostra were begun in 1475 in honor of Lorenzo's brother Giuliano. Written in ottava rima, the Stanze demonstrate Poliziano's eclectic approach to poetry, combining reminiscences of classical as well as vernacular poetry with a refined sense of style. Poliziano chose the Orpheus myth as the theme for his only drama in the vernacular and the first in Italian literature, La favola di Orfeo. According to its author, the play was written in 2 days in June 1480 for a celebration at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Though the play's technique is still close to the sacra rappresentazione, the myth had lost its medieval Christian connotations and is transposed into the world of the pastoral.
Poliziano's poetry preferentially employed such popular poetic forms as the one-stanza rispetto and the ballata and avoided the more complex features of sonnet, sestina, and canzone. The subject of his poetry was the uncomplicated love of this world, and he often directly varied Petrarchan themes in an imitazione al contrario. Poliziano's activities as a translator of Greek and Roman literature were remarkable (Callimachus, Epictetus, Galen, Hippocrates, and Moschus), and his editorial attempts—such as the Pandects—remain respectable examples of early textual criticism.
Major studies of Poliziano are in Italian. A good discussion is in E. F. Jacob, ed., Italian Renaissance Studies (1960), and another is in Cecilia M. Ady, Lorenzo dei Medici and Renaissance Italy (1962). Other useful works recommended for general historical background are Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (3d rev. ed., trans. 1950); Paul Oskar Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (1956); and André Chastel, The Age of Humanism: Europe, 1480-1530 (trans. 1963).