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Julius Pomponius Laetus aka Giulio Pomponio-Leto (1428 – June 9, 1498) was an Italian humanist. Pomponio-Leto (the humanistic pseudonym by which he was known) was born in Diano, in Lucania, the illegitimate son of one Giovanni Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno. He moved to Rome to study with the humanist Lorenzo Valla, then taught there himself. Pomponio yearned to reconstruct classical Rome and, around 1464, even set up in his own house the Roman Academy, which developed a fanatical and quasi-religious cult of pagan antiquity. Filippo Buonaccorsi and Niccolo Lelio Cosmico, among other humanists, attended the institute. Pomponio was admired by his contemporaries for his great erudition and in 1466 obtained a position at the University of Rome. The next year, he left for Venice with the intention of journeying further east to learn Greek and Arabic.
He stopped in Venice, teaching the two sons of Andrea Contarini and Luca Michiel, two noblemen. However, a double catastrophe struck in 1468. First, Pomponio was brought under investigation by Venice's Council of Ten on suspicion of having seduced his students, whom he was said to have praised with excessive ardour in some Latin poems (now lost). Pomponio's accusers in the Council of Ten, according to Vladimiro Zabughin, referred ‘to a ‘dishonourable book’ which had been annotated in his hand, and to certain indiscretions which he had let escape his lips’.
Meanwhile, in Rome, the pope alleged that Pomponio's academy, most improbably, was organising a pagan and republican coup d’état. Pomponio and Buonaccorsi figured among the principal suspects. The pope asked the Republic of Venice to extradite Pomponio to Rome for trial. This was, paradoxically, to save his life, since according to Gioacchino Paparelli, ‘In its hearing, the Council of Ten decided that … Pomponio should be returned to the [Venetian] Republic, if he were not sentenced to capital punishment, … there to be punished for the crime of sodomy … which in Venice carried the death sentence. … This judgement was not executed and Pomponio's extradition proved his salvation’. He was incarcerated in the Castel Sant'Angelo until spring 1469, but was then acquitted and freed. Pomponio wisely decided not to set foot in Venice again and, for greater security, soon married.
While in prison, Pomponio had defended himself with a famous Latin peroration (published by Isidoro Carini), in which he said that he had indeed sung the praises of his students with love, but with the paternal and ‘Socratic’ love of a teacher. Zabughin comments perspicaciously: ‘From the evidence in the court register of the Council of Ten, this was not an effective defence but rather a digression.’
Once freed, Pomponio reopened his academy (which would survive his death) and returned to his position at the University of Rome, teaching, among others, Girolamo Balbi. Pomponio's importance in cultural history lies mostly in his role as a teacher; his publications are largely composed of lectures and commentaries on classical works, and lack the philological rigour of the other great humanists of the Renaissance. On his death he was buried in the church of San Salvatore in Lauro in Rome. The existence in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice of two Latin epigrams with sodomitical themes written by Pomponio (in Latin manuscript 4689) suggests that other writings of this sort may be rediscovered.
Angelo Colocci was the heir of Pomponio Leto’s house and Pomponio’s successor as leader of the Roman Academy, which seems to have been less a regularized institution with rules and a program than a state of mind compounded of conviviality, Roman patriotism, love of poetry, and (in the tradition of Pomponio) enthusiasm for the tangible remains of antiquity: statuary, ruins, coins, inscriptions, that were still found almost daily in Renaissance Rome.
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