John Mulryan has spent decades translating books that are centuries old, never knowing in the tedium of such meticulous work whether anyone would care to publish the culmination of his labor.
Ultimately, his painstaking efforts were rewarded, first with the 1,024-page English translation of Natale Conti’s “Mythologiae” in 2006, the most important mythography published during the Renaissance; and again last year with the publication of the 485-page translation of Vincenzo Cartari’s “Images of the Gods of the Ancients,” the first mythography written in Italian.
But while the accomplishments certainly serve as a source of pride, the greatest satisfaction Mulryan derives is hearing from others how important his works are to them.
“People have stopped me in parking lots to tell me, ‘Thank god you did this. I don’t know how I would have ever gotten my dissertation done,’” said Mulryan, who retired in 2011 after 45 years as an English professor at St. Bonaventure University. “One of the book’s consultants, who recommended that it be published, was an art historian from Cleveland, and he wanted this book published very soon because he needed it for two of his graduate students.”
More than 25 years ago, Mulryan paid $100 for a 1608 edition of Cartari’s “Images of the Gods of the Ancients,” a copper-plate book worth 30 times as much today. But the real price Mulryan paid was the untold hours spent translating Cartari’s work.
During gaps in his 30-plus years of research on the Conti book with co-author Steve Brown, longtime classics professor at St. Bonaventure, Mulryan would switch his brain from Latin translation to Italian and work on the Cartari project.
“Images of the Gods” was the first mythography – “a work that gives you the summary of a myth and then tells you what it means,” Mulryan explained – to be written in Italian.
“By writing this in Italian, he made the mythological tradition available to women for the very first time because women were not educated in Latin,” said Mulryan, who’s also a renowned expert on English poet John Milton. “Fifty-one percent of the population couldn’t read about mythology before this.”
Unlike the treatises of the other Italian mythographers such as Boccaccio, Conti and Giraldi, Cartari’s work was profusely illustrated with captioned images of the pagan gods, and composed in the Italian vernacular. The systematic integration of text and image constituted, at the time, an original approach to the classical myths.
“Cartari’s main contribution is that he’s the first pictorial, imagistic mythographer,” Mulryan said. “His iconographical, symbolic interpretation of the images of the pagan gods as they were represented in antiquity and discussed by Renaissance antiquarians proved to be an enormously popular approach to pagan myth.”
Mulryan’s translation, published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS), includes 23 images scanned directly from his 405-year-old copper-plate book. (He also owns a woodcut edition of Cartari’s “Images,” but the copper-plate version provided higher quality images.)
“There are a lot of copyright fees involved in illustrations, so I hit on the idea of lending them my book so there would be no copyright fees,” he said. “Don’t forget, the book is more than 400 years old. Who was going to object? The book was mine, so they just needed my permission to reproduce them.”
Mulryan’s book is the first complete English translation of Cartari’s Italian text, and the only annotated translation of the “Images” in any language.
Cartari knew that his work would be valuable even as he was producing it, Mulryan said.
“Just look at what the original title page says: ‘An extremely useful work for historians, poets, painters, sculptors, and professors of polite literature,’” Mulryan said.
“His text was used by Renaissance artists, like his description of Mercury with winged feet. The artists would use this as an instruction book. … Other mythographers going back to the Middle Ages have pictures without captions, so you’re sort of on your own to figure out how it relates to the text. But Cartari works very hard in his captions to reinforce the connections.”
For a scholar who devoted years of his life “working on two massive texts at one time, never knowing if either would be published,” Mulryan now has the security of knowing that his next project – a translation of the works of Italian mythographer Lilio Gregorio Giraldi – already has a publisher.
“ACMRS already gave me a contract for a Giraldi book to do with Steve (Brown) and another professor from the University of Illinois, and it’s open ended, so when it’s done, it’s done,” he said.
Even if his next book never gets done, Mulryan can be comforted by the scholarly imprint he’s made.
“The legacy is the important thing about these translations,” he said. “First of all, very few academics today know either Italian or Latin, and so they can’t talk about myth intelligently without these texts. And even if they do know the languages, they’d have to go to a rare book room somewhere, and get a copy and a dictionary and hack their way through it.”
Just like he did, over more than three decades. The grind of the work, however, was often mitigated by the joy of discovery.
“Sometimes during the work, you find something out for the very first time that no one else knew before,” he said. “That’s the fun of it — and the torture.”
Dr. Wolfgang Natter, dean of St. Bonaventure’s School of Arts & Sciences, was effusive in his praise of Mulryan’s work.
“Over the course of his professional life, Dr. Mulryan has earned an outstanding reputation among his peers as a meticulous and inventive scholar. Scholarly work of the kind this volume displays is both important and requires a unique combination of erudition, persistence and devotion,” Natter said.
“The publication of this book adds another reason for the scholarly community, beginning here at St. Bonaventure, to celebrate Dr. Mulryan’s many accomplishments.”
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