Utopia in PnD (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. Ital. 972)

By Joseph Casazza and Elizabeth A. Cain

In the manuscript of De arte saltandi & choreas ducendi by Domenico da Piacenza, known as PnD (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. Ital. 972), lines 76-78 (in the section numbered 7 in the left margin, on the recto of the leaf numbered 2), the author refers to a passage in Aristotle (our transcription, word breaks added for legibility):

façando ricordo che Aristotle in lo 2o lauda la utropelia la quale del mezo tene la uirtu...

Our transcription and interpretation of "la utropelia" in this passage differs significantly from that of Dante Bianchi ("Un trattato inedito di Domenico da Piacenza," La Bibliofilia, vol. 65, 1963, pp. 109 ff.) and from that of A. William Smith (Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music, Stuyvesant, NY, Pendragon Press, 1995, vol. 1, p. 14). Both of these scholars transcribe the same words as "la utropeia". There are two reasons to prefer our transcription, one paleographical and the other literary-historical.

The paleographical reason for our transcription, "la utropelia," is that the letter "l" is written in the manuscript above the letters "e" and "i" in this word. It is easy to miss this inserted letter above the line, especially if, based on the first impression the letters written on the line give, you jump to the conclusion that this word is something other than what it is. And that brings us to the literary-historical reason for preferring "la utropelia."

Bianchi transcribes "la utropeia" without comment and without any indication as to what he thought the word might be, although the word is clearly NOT Italian. Smith translates "la utropeia" as "Utopia," reading in it the title of a work by Aristotle. There are two major problems with this. First, Aristotle never wrote a work called Utopia (or its Greek equivalent) and such a work was never attributed to him in antiquity, nor in the Middle Ages, nor in the Renaissance. Second, the word "Utopia" was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 work by that title. This is over a half century after Domenico's treatise, usually dated c. 1455.

So, if "utropeia," or, as we read it, "utropelia" is not Italian and is not "Utopia," what is it? It is certainly Greek, and it is a word found in the second book of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, just as Domenico says. (All of the references to Aristotle in this introduction appear to be to the Nicomachean Ethics.) The Greek word can be transliterated into Roman letters as "eutrapelia." All that has happened in Domenico is that the initial diphthong "eu" has been rendered "u" and the internal alpha has become "o" in the transliteration.

"Eutrapelia" means "wit". In chapter 7 of book 2 (1108a23 ff.) of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle is speaking of the pleasure that comes from entertainment or pastimes (paidiá), and says that the mean in this case is "eutrapelia" or wit, while the extremes are buffoonery (bomolochia) and boorishness (agroikia). This reference fits neatly into Domenico's context. Immediately before the passage we are interested in, Domenico has repeated his admonition to avoid extremes. He continues our passage as follows (with our insertions for clarity in the translation in square brackets):

façando ricordo che Aristotle in lo 2o lauda la utropelia la quale del mezo tene la uirtu fuçando li estremi de lo forestiero campestre e di quello che e giugolatore ...

remembering that Aristotle, in the second [book of the Nicomachean Ethics] praises wit, which has its excellence from the mean, avoiding the extremes of the stranger from the countryside [i.e., Aristotle's boor] and of the travelling entertainer [i.e., Aristotle's buffoon]...

And why, of all of the examples of the mean that one could take from the Nicomachean Ethics, does Domenico choose "eutrapelia"? Precisely because Aristotle uses it when speaking of the enjoyment derived from entertainment or pastimes.


Last Update: December 11, 2000

Comments to: Joseph Casazza, joseph_casazza_ab75@post.harvard.edu

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