The most recent incarnation of Superman, the ubiquitous Man of Steel (which I confess I have not seen and, in all likelihood, will not see, because of a lifelong aversion to the ‘superhero’ genre – aside from the Saturday-morning cartoon Hercules) put me in mind of this motto – ‘nec spe nec metu’ – which is used in different contexts in the Renaissance. Specifically, Superman’s father, Jor-El, tells him that the ‘S’ on his chest; which generations of gullible Americans have interpreted as product placement for ‘Superman’ swag; is actually a symbol for ‘hope.’ One assumes that the clever author of the screenplay had to look no farther than the Latin ‘spes’ to make such a connection.
The phrase ‘nec spe nec metu’ probably has its origins in Stoicism, meaning ‘neither hope nor fear’ or, more pedantically ‘without hope, without fear’ (perhaps from ancient medicine and Silesio; perhaps adapted from general Roman orations) – implying a kind of resigned equilibrium and forbearance. In a more courtly context, it might have been adopted and adapted in the form of a maxim to remind knights and crusaders that absolute fearlessness does not require hope (only the fearful resort to ‘hope’).
In the sixteenth century in Italy, the famous collector and art patron Isabella d’Este, of Mantua, adopted the phrase ‘nec spe nec metu’ as one of her various ‘imprese’, personal signs, sometimes combining word and image, used as assertions of identity and character – intimately connected to emblem art. Her secretary for a time, Mario Equicola, wrote a little booklet with this title. The phrase itself is slightly more obscure than her adoption of the ‘XXVII’ symbol, Latin numerals for ’27’ which, when pronounced in Italian, reads ‘ventisette’ and thus has an oblique onomatopoeic morphological relationship to the phrase ‘vinti siete’ which means, roughly, ‘you have won’ – although ‘you’ is in the plural form and therefore could infer not victory, but rather ‘I am vanquished’ – but I digress. The ‘nec spe nec metu’ appears among the ornaments of her private spaces in Mantua.
One wonders how such concepts might have resonated with the painter Caravaggio, whose flamboyant civil, personal and professional disobedience in his Roman years seem far removed from the lofty ideals of Stoicism or knighthood. But evidently he and his band of Roman ‘bravi’ (essentially gang members) adopted this phrase as their call-to-arms. It intrigues me because the most logical place for Caravaggio to have picked up this motto was in Mantua, perhaps during those ‘lost’ years between the time he left Milan and appeared in Rome.
In the lawlessness of Rome around 1600, perhaps he saw grim personal fortitude as the only means by which the true artist could survive. Here’s a detail of his Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta, in which he scrawled his signature in the blood of the saint – a dramatic footnote to a fascinating life –
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” – Dante