Fun with Baroque Latin, part 2
[Originally published April 5, 2018, in In Medias Res]
Secrets of a Lost Art, part 2: Chronograms
Fun with Baroque Latin, part 2
(For part 1, click here.)
A year and a half ago newspapers worldwide trumpeted the headline “Trump triumphant.” Little did they know that, had they only put that pun into Latin — which is more elegant anyway — it would have been a perfect chronogram. And to judge from his shirts, which have “45” monogrammed on the cuff, President Trump would’ve liked it, too.
It’s obvious how this works. You already know Roman numerals are letters of the alphabet. In the Baroque period, Latin poets began memorializing events by composing phrases whose embedded Roman numerals added up to the year the event happened.
The poets make them obvious by setting those numeral letters in small caps. Your job is to add them up. Extracting MMVVVI from TrVMpVs TrIVMphans gets you to 2016, the year he stunned the world with his elevation to the presidency.
Since chronograms are as good for satire as they are for honor, by the way, we may soon find reason to adapt that one. Word has it the President will hold a military parade this November. Since we certainly don’t see one of those every day in the US, and since future generations may not believe it, we can memorialize the occasion with just a couple adjustments. First, make his name Trumpius (better suited to the epigrammatic style of parody anyway), and then make the verb future: trVMpIVs trIVMphabIt. Boom: kleos aphthiton, eternal glory.
Chronograms became a fad in the Baroque period of Latin literature. As with anagrams, Poets Laureate in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, Austria, and Czechia) learned to compose them as part of their training. Everybody who was anybody got one, especially big shots and heroes of all kinds. They are brilliant little memorials to important events, as well as expressions of poetic ingenuity.
Today you’ll find chronograms all over northern and central Europe, especially Germany, though they’re rare in France and England (and don’t even bother looking in Italy). You see them on bangles, bridges, books, and buildings — if you know what to look for. Too many people don’t. Ask ten people to look at the medallion at left and see how many can guess why a few letters are oversized.
In fact, not knowing about them can be a problem, because if you don’t know what to look for, you’ll read right past them. Not long ago I came across this one in the margin of a book by Joannes Burmeister (1576–1638). No one else had seen it, and it helped me correct the facts of his biography. It’s printed alongside a poem dedicated to his mom and dad, and it says they both died in uno octiduo, within a week of each other. In fact, the way he puts it gives the disconcerting sense his mother — named Elisa, which is another name for Dido— may have killed herself. As he explains,
tu prior his terris, pater, ad vada sancta migrasti;
illa virum voluit non remorata sequi.
Dad, you were first to move out of these lands, into heavenly waters;
She would brook no delay, chasing her husband below.
When was that? The chronogram, enlarged here, adds up to 1608. Yes, the expression is a little strained (fido has to be an adjective with anno, governing in Christum). But that’s because the rule is, in essence, you need to use the embedded roman numerals — and only those letters — to signal the date.
It’s totally inelegant to just ignore some letters (though there are examples of that), and it’s regarded as exquisite to use as few letters as possible — within certain limits. In theory you could take that concision to an extreme form, as in these examples I made up, but the more usual and impressive thing in Baroque Latin is to make the chronogram into a verse or two. Take a look at these examples, which commemorate famous authors and leaders of the Reformation, starting with Erasmus: —
Even better than this are a pair of hexameters devised by Elizabeth Jane Weston. Memorize them and you’ll never forget who invented moveable type, or when: —
In 1520, the pope declared Martin Luther a heretic and excommunicated him. Luther shrugged and burned the bull. This chronogram celebrates that act of defiance: —
This next example isn’t a verse but it does use a nice pun to skewer John Calvin for his role in getting Michael Servetus burned at the stake in 1553: —
In this case the chronogram refers to the year it was composed (Calvin had died in 1564). You’ll find it, and many more shockingly nasty chronograms, in this book, a Jesuit production. (If they turn you off, you can take comfort in this 1634 anagram poem, which urges Jesuits (Jesuitae) to “go away!” (ite vias!)).
Thousands upon thousands of them have been collected. Reading through them is a basic education in the figures of the northern Renaissance. It’s also a nice reminder that science and the humanities used to get along better. You’ll recognize these next names: —
Abraham Ortelius was the greatest cartographer of the Renaissance. Incidentally, he’s also the subject of an utterly brilliant Baroque poem. It’s found beneath the portrait of him in his masterpiece, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and it sums up his life’s work in two sparkling lines. Read it aloud a few times to hear its magic. It’s an absolute masterpiece of its own (The Galleus it refers to is Philip Galle, the portrait artist):
Back to chronograms! —
Examples could go on and on, but you get the idea. Some get insanely elaborate, growing longer and longer and piling on the special effects, and always shot through with puns. You’ll find them simultaneously as echoes or even as anagrams. For example: —
If you liked this post, leave a chronogram or two of your own in the comments and I’ll keep the series going. Next up are echoes. After that come palindromes, figure poems, and more. Students love this stuff, especially Latinizing their name, and they’ll love you for showing it to them.