04 February 2009

Pavane for a Dead Princess: Part Two

The story of Kleope Malatesta and Theodoros II Palaiologos has already been told here, a version of it with what the research had shown up to that point. It used a borrowed portrait to represent Kleope. The child here is Theodoros, painted when he was about six years old, in a formal family portrait. It is the only picture that has survived of him, but he tells us below that there was another, of him and Kleope together, at Mistra. It has been ravaged, as was so much else there, by time.

died on April 18,1433, the Saturday after Easter, following a long illness. They had been married just over twelve years. She was buried in the church of Agia Sophia just up the hill from the palace at Mistra.

There is a poem in the Bessarion manuscripts in the Marciana in Venice long thought to be a poem by him on the tomb of Kleope. This only shows that no one has ever paid any attention to the poem at all, and that the fact that it is in Bessarion's handwriting was considered by scholars who should know better an adequate reason to consider him the author. But it is impossible to read the poem and not think that it comes from her grieving husband.

It is a striking poem, if only because the Byzantines almost never wrote romantic personal poems, and this one is to a woman in heaven who is guiding the writer on earth, a woman whose body the writer knows. The poem is written on the Italian model--Dante's Beatrice, Petrarch's Laura are easy associations, and there is that famous poem by Petrarch supposedly written to be put into Laura's tomb, as this one surely was put into Kleope's.

Kleope's father was a well-known poet, Malatesta dei Sonetti, and his father had been a friend of Petrarch. Everyone in her family wrote poetry: it was what humanists did. Beyond that, this poem suggests that this Byzantine prince, known for his qualities as the quintessential geek, had been reading and writing poetry with his Italian wife. It suggests that the marriage reported to have been miserable had in reality developed into a union of intellect and body.

Theodoros had been reading Theocritus--she knew Greek as well, and the ending of the first section of his poem with its reflection that the one thing left for consolation in his heartbreak is song alludes to the opening of Theocritus' poem on Polyphemus, which is framed by a teasing remark to a physician that some diseases are beyond the healing power of medicine and for them the only remedy is the effort of composing poetry. (And one of the eulogies for Kleope had mentioned the failure of medicine, and her doctor had himself written a lament.)

Theodoros was a mathematician, and this poem makes quiet reference to that with its structure based on the number five, thinking of the five senses, identifying five ways he and Kleope could be together. Possibly he set out to write one example for each sense, but then after Touch, Hearing, and Sight, found himself unable to match the final ways and senses.

He gives us one other valuable piece of information: he tells us that her tomb is marked by a dual portrait. There are other such portraits of husband and wife on Mistra tombs, and the image used to stand for Kleope is half of such a portrait--but it was found in a church other than the one where Kleope was buried.

Before this poem was buried with her, the monk Bessarion, who was the same age and a fellow-scholar, and who thought she was lovely, must have asked to be allowed to make a copy for himself.

Here is Theodoros' poem for Kleope:

Although we were before, my dearest, brought together
being one flesh, the word of God says
that it is better now to be with the spirit,
as you, in pure intelligence, look down from Heaven
on my life, my words, and all my thought,
as it is right that you should
while I am torn apart, ah, painfully,
calling out for you with scalding tears,
one thing is left for me, one good thing, song.

In this way, picturing you in this image,
I have added myself to the image,
wanting to join myself with you in a third way.
so as to quench the terrible fire of longing
and to empty out the agony from my soul.

But, you who have died and live, as you deserve, with God,
when in the same tomb necessity brings
my bones together with yours in a fourth way
showing me what lies outside the five senses
join with me in a fifth and greater way
to share in the delights of Heaven and the sight of God.
My courage lies with you, who possess and indeed
give me, my fellow-poet, this song.

A scholarly discussion of this poem, written with Pierre A. MacKay, will be appearing later this year.

The Greek poem and the other primary sources for the Theodoros and Cleofe story can be found here.

 The narrative is continued in

Pavane for a Dead Princess, III

Pavane for a Dead Princess, IV 
Pavane for a Dead Princess, V

Pavane for a Dead Princess, VI

Glory Days

Theodoros II Palaiologos 
Malatesta "dei Sonetti" Malatesti

1 comment:

  1. Hello Diana,

    Once again, you have breathed life into a little know corner of history. Thank you and please continue your good work.



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