Janus Vitalis’ “Qui Roman in media quaeris novus advena Roma” and eleven translations into five languages.

At the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a Frenchman was able to read a poem on the ruins of Rome signed by Joachim du Bellay; a Pole knew the same poem as the work of Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński; a Spaniard, as the work of Francisco Quevedo; while the true author, whom the others adapted without scruple, was a little-known Latin humanist, Ianus [Janus] Vitalis of Palermo.

P. 10 in “Starting from my Europe”, by Czeslaw Milosz
(in The Witness of Poetry, Harvard, 1983, Norton Lectures,  pp 1-21.)

Qui Roman in media quaeris novus advena Roma is the rare case of the completely-translatable poem, probably because it is an epigram which relies on paraphrasable meaning, and I find J.M. Cohen’s prose version of theclosing line as effective as anyone’s: “Oh Rome, in your greatness and her beauty, what was firm has fled, and only the transitory remains and lasts.” The translators allowed do themselves some degree of freedom: for example, they address the poem variously to “the stranger”, “the pilgrim”, “the traveler”, and “the newcomer”.

To me the import of this poem is not as clear as it seems. It’s a meditation on the transience of glory, but Rome in just its imperial phase lasted for well over five centuries, and Rome cast such a shadow on later centuries that states were claiming to be Rome as late as 1917.* Those of us who are unfriendly to Empire can take little comfort from this poem.

* While the Holy Roman Empire no longer existed in 1917, having been disestablished by Napoleon, Russia claimed that Moscow was the Third Rome, after Constantinople. The empire of Napoleon I lasted only about 15 years and did not call itself Roman, to my knowledge, while the empire of Napoleon III was just a joke, as Marx explained. When the lookalike cousins Nicholas II, George IV, and Wilhelm II all claimed to be emperors simultaneously, you knew that the emperor business was over and done with.

De Roma
Janus Vitalis Panormitanus (d. 1560)
(Giani or Giovanni Vitali of Palermo)

Qui Romam in media quaeris novus advena Roma,
Et Romae in Roma nil reperis media,
Aspice murorum moles, praeruptaque saxa,
Obrutaque horrenti vasta theatra situ:
Haec sunt Roma. Viden velut ipsa cadavera, tantae
Urbis adhuc spirent imperiosa minas.
Vicit ut haec mundum, nixa est se vincere; vicit,
A se non victum ne quid in orbe foret.
Nunc victa in Roma Roma illa invicta sepulta est,
Atque eadem victrix victaque Roma fuit.
Albula Romani restat nunc nominis index,
Quinetiam rapidis fertur in aequor aquis.
Disce hinc, quid possit fortuna; immota labascunt,
Et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent.


Janus Secundus, another Dutch neo-Latin poet
Baldassarre Castiglione on the ruins of Rome
More poems about permanence and transience
Waiting for the Barbarians

Author: John Emerson

An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur.

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