On Presence of Italic Languages in the Debates on Better Latin to imitate in Renaissance Rome: the Case of Osci et Volsci Dialogus by Mariangelo Accursio (1513)

Svetlana Hautala, Timo Sironen

As is known, some Italian humanists considered Cicero too young an author when they were looking for a perfect Latin to imitate, so they turned for inspiration to the antiquity of the very Antiquity. In 1513, Mariangelo Accursio (c. 1489-1546), a humanist from Abruzzo, a passionate antiquarian and a commentator on ancient texts, composes the satire Osci et Volsci Dialogus in which the choice of going very much back to the origins in hunt  of the lexica for spoken and written Latin, is brought to the extreme. The sense is hardly recognizable in this “spectral” language, as it was called by Carlo Dionisotti, amid overloads of archaisms, true or presumed. For instance:

VOL. Pullariam datatim cesso te conlabellare orculo socienne oculissime?

OSC. Tu dum extrarius satin cum laetitudine?

The two speak, sing and read a letter in this fictional Oscan and Volscian idiom, until the Roman Eloquentia in person enters the scene to flog them as lazy schoolboys and to constrain them from now on to speak only the “right” Latin. How was the audience of this play – because the Dialogus was intended to be staged in a wooden theater, constructed by the Pope Leo X to celebrate the admission of his relatives Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici to the Roman patriciate – to understand this language? More or less in the same manner – Accursio seems to suggest to us – as the real life students of the Roman Studio were to understand the lectures of Giovan Battista Pio (c. 1468 – 1543), who used such Latin in class, thus becoming the main target of Accursio’s satire. There are only some words in Oscan (none in Volscian) language in the Dialogus, taken by Accursio (and first, by Pio) from glossae, cited by Varro and Paulus-Festus, but also some words and verses in archaic Latin of Plautus and Ennius are adapted. Both facts are very interesting; furthermore, Oscan and Volscian were not called “dead languages” at that time. Proper linguistic decipherment of these Sabellian languages started several centuries later, but Etruscan (and Umbrian) inscriptions were collected, studied and published in Central Italy already in the early 16th century. Annio da Viterbo studied Etruscan diligently and soon he was competent enough even to make forgeries. Tabulae Iguvinae were discovered in 1444 and the first edition was printed already in 1520. At the same time in Germany and in England there was a great interest for “new ancient languages” taught at universities, such as Hebrew (Reuchlin in Cologne), and even “created” languages such as the Utopian language with an interesting alphabet, presented by Thomas More in form of a specimen (and translation into Latin) in his Utopia, printed in 1516. These “phenomena” might not be just accidental, particularly if we take into consideration the parody of scholastic Latin (with its influence of the German language) in the two fictive collections of Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum (1515&1517) and the well-known young representative of macaronic Latin Teofilo Folengo and his first opus, the narrative poem Baldus (printed in 1517). In a word, this lexicographical experiment by Accursio without doubt deserves consideration (also because of its extensive subsequent fortuna in Germany) and detailed and precise philological analysis. While we are preparing a critical edition of the Osci et Volsci Dialogus, for this meeting, we would like to offer a comment on the status of Italic languages in Renaissance Rome in the beginning of the 16th century.


Svetlana Hautala graduated in Cultural Anthropology and Classical Languages from University of Oulu (Finland) in 2003. In 2008, she defended her PhD thesis on selling remedies in the marketplaces in Antiquity: Pharmakopwlai. Communication of biological knowledge in the ancient world at University of Siena (Italy), where she became a fellow and a post-doc researcher at the Center for Anthropology of the Ancient World.

Timo Sironen studied at University of Helsinki (at the Institute of Classical Philology), MA thesis Oscan Loanwords in Greek in 1982. He was epigraphist at the excavations of the Latin colony Fregellae (328-125 BCE) in South East Latium in 1982-2001, project of University of Perugia. Ph.D. thesis Interdisciplinarity and Contextuality in Studying Fragmentarily Documented Languages. New Approaches into Sabellian Linguistic Materials in 2001. Post-doc reseacher of the Finnish Academy in 2003-2005 in Rome. Numerous articles on Oscan and (Mid-Republican) Latin Epigraphy since 1983 and on Neo-Latin since the 2000’s. He is now Senior Lecturer in Ancient Languages and Culture at University of Oulu.