Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Virgil has long been regarded as the inspiration of a great deal of vernacular Italian poetry, particularly during the Renaissance.  Readers know him as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, as well as the inspiration for Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which presents itself as a “second Aeneid” (Forte 4).  For all the work that has been done on Virgil’s influence on Italian literature, however, there has been little discussion of the connection between the Aeneid and Angelo Poliziano’s unfinished epic, Stanze cominciate per la Giostra di Giuliano de’ Medici.  Likely begun in 1475, this vernacular poem weaves mythology and allegory around contemporary figures and events – the joust of 1475 and its champion, Giuliano de’ Medici, the younger brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the de facto Lord of Florence.  Indeed, the development and actions of Poliziano’s mythologized protagonist, Iulio, are heavily based on Virgil’s Iulus (also called Ascanius), the son and successor of Aeneas and mythical founder of Alba Longa, the predecessor of Rome.  Through his direct references to the Aeneid and to Iulus more specifically, Poliziano connects the living Giuliano and the entire Medici family with Italian history, both historical and mythical, its eminent rulers (namely Augustus), and, more distantly, to Troy itself.

            The Stanze are based in a tradition of quasi-epic poetry written on the occasions of jousts,[1] which, sponsored by wealthy families such as the Medici, were seen as a symbolic coming-of-age for their participants.  Poliziano’s work, however, is much more intricately designed than many of its predecessors.  A great deal of its inspiration comes from the classical literature that was revived by contemporary Italian humanists, and which Poliziano himself had studied in depth.  The young poet and scholar – just 21 years old in 1475 – sought to display his learning with the variety of the literary references he included in his poetry.  Aside from the general scheme of the work, with its mythological setting and elevated language, “there is scarcely a verse in the Stanze that does not imitate an earlier text, either from classical or Italian literature” (Poliziano trans. Quint xii).  With this in mind, Poliziano opens the poem with a lofty invocation of his muse, Love (Amore), before turning to the subject at hand:

Or muovi prima tu mei’ versi, Amore

ch’ad alto volo impenni ogni vil core.

lascia tacere un po’ tuo maggior tromba

ch’i’ fo squillar per l’italiche ville,

e tembra tu la cetra a nuovi carmi,

mentro’io canto l’amor di Iulio e l’armi (Stanze VI.7-8, VII.5-8.).

(Now move my verses, oh Love,

you who incite every vile heart to flying heights.

Let your grand trumpet silence for a bit

so that I can make the Italian towns sing;

tune my lute to new songs,

while I sing of the love and arms of Iulio.)[2]

This follows exactly in the classical tradition demonstrated in Virgil’s two invocations in the Aeneid:

Musa, mihi causas memora… (Aeneid I.8)

(Muse, spark my memory…)

Nunc age, qui reges, Erato, quae tempora rerum …

…Maior rerum mihi nascitur ordo,

maius opus moveo. (Aeneid VII.37, 44-45).

(Now tell me, Erato, who the kings were, what the situation was…

… A greater order of things is born from me,

I will move this work most greatly.)

Though countless other epics, both vernacular and classical, include similar invocations, this is a clear reference to Virgil, albeit with some alterations.  While Virgil calls upon the muse of love poetry, Erato, to assist him, Poliziano calls upon Love himself, implying perhaps a more direct line to the personified deity.  Such differences show Poliziano’s ability to refer to multiple literary sources while simultaneously creating his own style, a skill that he greatly lauded and considered more praiseworthy than the ability to directly imitate another author (Poliziano trans. Quint xiii).[3]  This makes the final line of Poliziano’s invocation an especially strong reference to Virgil, as it is almost a direct quotation of those famous first lines of the Aeneid – “Arma virumque cano” (Of arms and a man I sing) (I.1) – though with the insertion of his protagonist’s name.  Thus, from the beginning of the epic, we are pointed to a connection between Iulio, the mythologized Giuliano, and Aeneas.

            The connection between the two works, however, runs deeper than their shared epic mode alone.  In that final line of the invocation, we are also introduced to its protagonist – Iulio, whose name evokes Iulus, the son of Aeneas.  Although not nearly as prominent as his father, Iulus is frequently mentioned throughout the Aeneid.  Unlike many of the other important figures, such as Dido or Turnus, he is introduced early on in the work – first mentioned in Book 1, and first appearing in Book 2  – and remains at his father’s side until the final scenes of Book 12.  The reader watches him grow from a small boy who can barely keep up with Aeneas’ fast stride to a young man experienced in hunt and battle (Feldman 303).  While many of the other characters, including Aeneas himself, remain static and change little throughout the Aeneid, Iulus has a very clear arc.  His growth throughout the poem serves as an important device used by Virgil to connect Troy and Italy, rather than keeping them as two separate, unrelated realms.  Indeed, while Aeneas brings the Trojans to Italy, it is Iulus who properly establishes them there through his foundation of Alba Longa and thus sows the seeds of empire.  It is this connection, as well as Iulus’ growth, to which Poliziano refers in Iulio’s character.

            Although Virgil does not directly narrate the sequence of events following the end of the war with the Rutulians and Laurentians that eventually led to the founding of Rome, he presents it in various prophecies throughout the Aeneid.  Indeed, in these moments that consider the future of Rome, Virgil consistently attributes the long-lasting success to Iulus, rather than Aeneas.  In the famous ekphrasis of the shield of Aeneas (VIII.630-634), for example, he writes that Vulcan engraved upon its surface “[Romae] genus omne futurae / stirpis ab Ascanio” (the entire future of Rome, with its roots from Ascanius) (VIII.628-629) – that is, not ab Aenea.  Similarly, in Jupiter’s prophecy in Book 1, the poet writes:

At puer Ascanius, cui nunc cognomen Iulo

additur,—Ilus erat, dum res stetit Ilia regno,—

triginta magnos volvendis mensibus orbis

imperio explebit, regnumque ab sede Lavini

transferet, et longam multa vi muniet Albam (Aeneid I.267-271).

(But the boy Ascanius, to whom the additional name Iulus

is added – he was Ilus, while the Ilian (Trojan) kingdom stood in reign;

he shall fulfill in empire thirty great rounds with turning months,

and shall transfer the kingdom of Lavinium from its seat,

and shall fortify Alba Longa with much strength.)

These are all Iulus’ accomplishments, not Aeneas’.  Here, Virgil establishes the young man as a connection between the two great cities, Troy and the soon-to-be-founded Rome. This is reflected in the name by which Virgil refers to him, which is derived from the Greek Ἴλιος or Latin Ilium.[4] Indeed, as Jupiter notes in his prophecy, Iulus is not the boy’s real name – instead a cognomen that specifies his connection to Troy. Nevertheless, it is this name by which he is continuously referred to throughout the epic, including in those moments that are of particular importance to the founding of Rome, as we shall see.  Thus, even when physically on the land that will become Rome, Iulus maintains a connection to his city of origin, which he left when he was only a boy.

            The use of this name is also noteworthy in light of the many considerations of the Aeneid as commentary on the Augustan imperial agenda.  The gens Julia, the family of both Augustus and Julius Caesar, claimed to be directly descended from Aeneas through Iulus (Cowan 4).  Their claims to power in Italy, therefore, can be connected to their family’s presence in Rome since its prehistory, and, even more remotely, to Troy itself and the various heroes associated with that mythical city.  Virgil notes this later in the same prophecy:

nascetur pulchra Troianus origine Caesar,

imperium oceano, famam qui terminet astris,

Iulius, a magno demissum nomen Iulo. (Aeneid I.286-288).

(A Trojan Caesar will be born of beautiful origin,

who will bound his empire at the ocean and his fame at the stars:

Iulius, a name handed down from great Iulus.)

The name itself, then, has great power, connecting its bearer to the original Iulus and his legacy as a leader both of Trojans and Italians.

            Poliziano was well aware of this significance when he altered the name of his protagonist from Giuliano to Iulio. The shorter name could be explained by a banal need to fit into the hendecasyllabic lines typical of Italian poetry and a desire to Latinize it with the consonantal j or i (as in Julius or Iulius) instead of the Italian gi (as in Giulio or Giuliano).  It is much more compelling, however, to see it as a connection to Virgil’s Iulus, and therefore prehistorical Troy and Rome, as well as the aforementioned emperors who claim to be descended from that line.  This interpretation is especially convincing when considering the connections between the narrative constructions in the Stanze and the Aeneid that make use of Iulio and Iulus as their main characters, respectively.

In the first book of the Stanze, the reader is introduced to “bel Iulio”, who

[né le ha] ancor provate

le dolce acerbe cure che da Amore,

viveasi lieto in pace e ’n libertate (Stanze VIII.3-5).

(had not yet been made aware of

the bittersweet cares that Love gives

and lived happy in peace and liberty).

Not yet bothered by and even scornful of Love, Iulio spends his days outside of the city, where, “né certo ancor de’ suo’ futuri pianti” (not yet aware of his fate),[5] he devotes his attention to the hunt and would even “gabbarsi delli afflitti amanti” (make fun of suffering lovers) (IX.7-8).  However, having heard the young man’s frequent lectures on the uselessness of love, Cupid decides that he ought to warm Iulio’s “freddo petto” (icy heart) (X.4) by shooting him with one of his arrows. Thus Cupid seeks out the young man during one of his hunts and causes Iulio’s dogs to rage in fury and enliven the chase.

Iulio’s passion for the hunt itself is a connection to Iulus, who is seen hunting in Books IV and VII of the Aeneid, if without such contempt for romance.  In spite of this difference, the narrative of the hunts put forth in both this portion of the Stanze and in Book VII of the Aeneid are almost identical. Indeed, it is in that book that Virgil presents Iulus’ hunt as one of the three devices used by Allecto to encourage the war between the Trojans and the Italians.  Having incited Amata’s madness and come to Turnus in a dream, the fury Allecto, sent by Juno, approaches Iulus:

Allecto in Teucros Stygiis se concitat alis,

arte nova, speculata locum, quo litore pulcher

insidiis cursuque feras agitabat Iulus (Aeneid VII.476-478).

(Allecto impels herself with her infernal wings towards the Trojans,

with a new art, having come down to the place, on which beach the handsome

Iulus was stirring up beasts with ambushes and the chase.)

In the same manner, Cupid approaches Iulio during his hunt.  The scene opens with “L’ardito Iulio” (the daring Iulio) who “verso la selva con sua gente eletta prese el cammino” (had taken up his walk through the forest with his chosen company of men) (Stanze XXVI).  There,

già con grave orrore

del suo covil si destava ogni fera;

givan seguendo e bracchi il lungo odore;

ogni varco da lacci e can chiuso era,

di stormi d’abbiar cresce il romore,

di fischi e bussi tanto il bosco suona,

del rimbombar de’ corni el cel rintruona

con tale orror, del latin sangui ingorda,

sonò Megara la tartarea tromba (Stanze XXVII.2-8, XXVIII.5-6).

(already with great horror

each wild beast awoke in its den;

hounds following and hunting the faraway scent;

every opening was closed off by dogs and snares,

the forest sounds with whistles and blows,

and the heavens resound with the thundering of horns.

with such horror, enraging of Latin blood,

Megara sounds the Tartarean horn.)

Although Cupid himself is not described in these lines, his presence is referred to metaphorically as the fury Megara, Allecto’s sister.  In the Aeneid, Allecto later “canit signum cornuque recurvo / Tartaream intendit vocem” (sings the sign and strains her Tartarean voice with the curved horn) in order to call the Italians to battle (VII.513-514), just as Poliziano’s Megara incites the animals to hunt.  Poliziano’s direct reference to the “latin sangui” (Latin blood) emphasizes this connection, seeing as it is the Latins that Virgil’s Allecto incites to battle with her trumpet-call.  He thus fuses a later moment from the same book of the Aeneid into this scene, elaborating on the early portion of the hunt before the entrance of its second protagonist: the deer.

In both poems, the prized prey of Iulus’ and Iulio’ hunts is a deer, though it is described as masculine in the Aeneid and feminine in the Stanze (likely a reflection of the feminine love interest that is to come, as opposed to the masculinity of war):

Hic subitam canibus rabiem Cocytia virgo

obicit et noto naris contingit odore,

ut cervum ardentes agerent; quae prima laborum

causa fuit belloque animos accendit agrestis.

cervus erat forma praestanti et cornibus ingens… (Aeneid VII.479-483).

(Here suddenly the Cocytian maiden threw fury to the dogs

and touched a noted scent to their noses

so that they, ardent, would chase a stag; which was the first cause

of the works and lit the rustic spirits to war.

The deer was of outstanding beauty and had giant antlers…)

Ivi consiglio a sua fera vendetta

prese Amor, che ben loco e tempo aspetta;

e con sua man di leve aier compuose

l’imagin d’una cervia altera e bella:

con alta fronte, con corna ramose,

candida tutta, leggiadretta e snella (Stanze XXXIII.7-XXXIV.4).

(There Love takes counsel to take his wild revenge,

having waited for the right time and place;

and with his hands out of light are he composed

the image of a proud and beautiful doe:

with a tall face, outward-branching antlers,

all white, light, and thin.)

Poliziano’s passage clearly imitates Virgil’s: the deer are both described as being impressive and beautiful in appearance, particularly with their large antlers.  Furthermore, it is clear that Iulio’s dogs’  heightened awareness of the “lungo odore” (Stanze XXVII.4) was chosen as a parallel to “noto naris contingit odore” (Aeneid VII.480).  The major difference between these passages is that Cupid creates the deer that Iulio will chase, while Allecto simply brings this particular creature to the attention of Iulus’ dogs.  Poliziano’s Iulio, moreover, fails to catch the deer, as it disappears and is replaced with a nymph, Simonetta, who is to become the object of his love as incited by Cupid.[6]  Iulus, meanwhile, does successfully wound the animal, which angers the Italians and causes them to raise arms against the newly arrived Trojans.  Regardless of the minute differences, this is a key point in both works that serves to change the direction of the narratives.  If Iulus had not seen and shot the stag during his hunt, the war would not have broken out.  Similarly, if Iulio had not seen the deer on his hunt, he would not have been shot by Cupid and become enamored with Simonetta, a painful infatuation which serves as the impetus for his development from disdainful youth to a successful adult.  By drawing these connections from Iulio to Iulus, the reader is reminded of Iulio’s – and therefore the entire Medici family’s – connection to Rome and to its forebears, the Trojan stirps Aneae.  Furthermore, it points to the importance of the joust for the mythologized Iulio, not to mention the actual Giuliano and the Florentines as a whole.  The joust commemorated the coming-of-age and entrance into public life for a young nobleman such as himself.  By raising this moment to the level of myth and equating its importance to Iulus’ hunt, Poliziano exalts the Medici as if they were ancient heroes, rather than private citizens, and depicts them as greater than even the greatest nobleman.

As mentioned before, many scholars have noted Iulus’ development as a character throughout the Aeneid, growing from a “parvus” to an experienced young man.[7]  In a similar vein, Poliziano’s Stanze have been interpreted as a representation of Iulio/Giuliano’s development from youth to adult.  Francesco Bausi has even gone so far as to divide the poem into three sections, each representing a phase of life: childhood, in which he is not yet “illuminated by conscience and reason” (“illuminata dalla conscienza e dalla ragione”) (Poliziano ed. Bausi 167) and from which he is brought out when struck by Cupid’s arrow; military glory and political life, fulfilling the expectations of civic life in the Republic of Florence;[8] and, finally, contemplative life, which he will accomplish after the death of his beloved Simonetta.[9]  He “burns through” these phases because “the time that was granted to him by Fortune is short, much shorter than that of a ‘normal’ life.”  Though I do not disagree with this interpretation, it operates under the assumption that the poem was completely rewritten after Giuliano’s death in 1478, and that Poliziano attempted to represent his short life span through the poetry.  However, as Bausi himself explains in his introduction, although it is clear that the Stanze were revisited after the deaths of both of its main characters – Simonetta in 1476 and Giuliano in 1478 – we cannot be sure when the poem was first written.  Given the work’s affiliation with the joust for which it was commissioned, Poliziano must have conceived it around 1475, at which point there was no indication that either of its protagonists would die early.  Therefore, I propose that the representation of Iulio’s development in the Stanze is based more on the example given with Iulus in the Aeneid than on the actual Giuliano’s need to reach a symbolic “old age” before turning 25.

Indeed, Virgil’s Iulus is posed as a mighty example to which Giuliano ought to, and presumably will, emulate in the future.  This is especially noteworthy when we consider that, in 1475, Giuliano did not have many accomplishments about which to boast, especially compared to his elder brother.  At 24 years of age, Giuliano was neither married nor a member of the clergy, the two likely paths for a man of his status.[10]  While Warmen Welliver has already made the argument that the Stanze were meant to incite Giuliano to greatness (“The Subject and Purpose of Poliziano’s Stanze”), he presents it most pessimistically – an interpretation with which I do not agree, particularly in light of Iulio’s connections to Iulus.  If Iulio is to be read a pseudo-Iulus, there is clearly a bright future ahead of him, with accomplishments as praiseworthy as the foundation of Alba Longa and, by extension, the Roman Empire.  This connection functions similarly to Augustus and Julius Caesar’s claims of family relation to Iulus and therefore to Aeneas and Venus: it legitimizes their power in Rome and mythologizes them, making them appear superior to the average mortal.  Such a relationship would not only glorify Giuliano, but also his entire family, connecting them to classical and prehistoric Rome, as well as the mythological Troy from which Iulus and his father hail.  This is especially important when one considers that, although the Medici had been ascendant in Florence since the 1420s, their power was never stable due to the fact that it was only unofficial.  Fashioning themselves as both historical and mythological figures could serve to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their contemporaries and political opponents, many of whom had been educated in the same humanist tradition from which Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and Poliziano came.[11]

            The meaning of the Stanze is incredibly complicated, as it was conceived of not as a standalone piece, but in conjunction with many other works of art and literature affiliated with the joust of 1475.  Left incomplete by its author, the poem is made only more incomplete by the lack of context.  Regardless, its relationship to the Aeneid is important to its significance, and ought to be considered.  Understanding Iulio’s fashioning after Iulus lends greater nuance to the meaning of the poem, while working within the established bounds of the classicizing imagery and symbolism used by the Medici during this period.  The idealization of Giuliano as a pseudo-Iulus points to his importance during this period as understood by contemporaries as well as his future position as intended by his family.  Unfortunately, however, none of this came to pass, due to his early death.  It is also possible that a great many other Medicean commissions – particularly those related to Giuliano – share connections with Iulus and Aeneas, a connection made clear in Poliziano’s poetry.  However, that is work that remains for another time: until then, we can continue to consider the direct literary connections between these two works, as well as between the Stanze and other classical and contemporary Italian works, in order to gain a more complete understanding of Poliziano’s unfinished epic.

[1] A similar, if less famous, poem was written by Luigi Pulci on the occasion of the joust of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s older brother, in 1469.  See Davie, Mark. “Luigi Pulci’s Stanze per La Giostra: Verse and Prose Accounts of a Florentine Joust of 1469.” Italian Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 1989.

[2] All translations in this essay are mine.

[3] As Quint notes, Poliziano discusses this extensively in a letter to a fellow humanist and neo-Latin writer, Paolo Cortese: “Some one says to me, ‘You don’t express yourself as if you were Cicero.’  What of that?  I am not Cicero.  I express myself.”  It is worth noting that this letter was written in Latin, like many of Poliziano’s other poetry, but unlike the Stanze.

[4] This is discussed at length in Cowan, Robert. “Scanning ‘Iulus’: Prosody, Position and Politics in the ‘Aeneid.’” Vergilius, vol. 44, 2009, pp. 3–12.

[5] These “futuri pianti” may well be read as the fictionalized Iulio’s fate, entrapped in the very snares of love that he despises, but is also a clear reference to the living Giuliano’s tragic death, a victim of the Pazzi Conspiracy at only 24 years of age.

[6] Just as Iulio is based on Giuliano de’ Medici, the nymph Simonetta is based on Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, a famous Florentine beauty.  In the joust of 1475, Giuliano fought for Simonetta’s hand, and she presented him with armor upon his triumph.  The reality of this romance is contested, particularly in light of the symbolic nature of the joust: and the fact that Simonetta was happily married to Marco Vespucci, a Genovese merchant.  However, there did seem to be a platonic courtship between her and the young Medici that was acknowledged by the Florentines, especially considering the public nature of the joust and its memorial in this poem.  Simonetta is also attributed as the model for many of Botticelli’s paintings, including The Birth of Venus and Primavera, the latter of which may be based on a later episode from Poliziano’s Stanze.  However, Simonetta died young, only a year after the joust, on 26 April 1476, most likely of tuberculosis – exactly two years before the untimely death of her wooer, Giuliano.  Their early deaths are often cited as an explanation for Poliziano’s failure to complete the poem.

[7] See Feldman, “The Character of Ascanius” and Keith R Bradley, “Learning Virtue: Aeneas, Ascanius, Augustus.”

[8] Civic duty was an important part of life for Florentine men, a large number of whom were eligible for office.  If elected (by random lot), men were required to accept, and could be fined if they refused.  Furthermore, a position in government was seen as a great honor to one’s family, which was proudly displayed.  See Trexler, Richard C. Public Life in Renaissance Florence. Cornell University Press, 1991.

[9] “Il tempo che gli è stato concesso dalla Fortuna è breve, molto più breve di quello di una vita ‘normale’” (Bausi, 167).

[10] It can be argued that Giuliano’s success was marred by his brother’s ambition, which greatly overshadowed him and even blocked him from his own triumphs.  Indeed, “Giuliano nurtured ambitions of greatness, which were humiliated by his brother.”  He did consider taking holy orders in 1472 but was discouraged by Pope Sixtus IV’s refusal to promise him a Cardinal’s hat.  (Medici, 399)

[11] Interestingly, Poliziano also wrote a Latin narrative of the Pazzi Conspiracy, Coniurationis commentarium, which is heavily based on Sallust’s De coniuratione Catalinae and Bellum Iugurthinum.  It has also been proposed that the Stanze serves as a poetic companion to Poliziano’s more serious Latin prose, which is an interesting consideration in light of the connection between the Stanze and the Aeneid, and therefore to Augustus.

Works Cited

  • Barchiesi, Alessandro. “Jupiter the Antiquarian: The Name of Iulus (Virgil, Aeneid 1.267–8).” Latin Literature and Its Transmission, edited by Richard Hunter and S. P. Oakley, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 1–9.
  • Bradley, Keith R. “Learning Virtue: Aeneas, Ascanius, Augustus.” Latomus, no. 2, 2017, pp. 324–45. Cowan, Robert. “Scanning ‘Iulus’: Prosody, Position and Politics in the ‘Aeneid.’” Vergilius, vol. 44, 2009, pp. 3–12.
  • de’ Medici, Lorenzo. Lettere. Giunti – Barbèra, 1977.
  • Donato, Eugenio. “Death and History in Poliziano’s Stanze.” MLN, vol. 80, no. 1, Jan. 1965, p. 27.
  • Feeney, Denis C. “Virgil’s Aeneid.” The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition, Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Feldman, Louis H. “The Character of Ascanius in Virgil’s Aeneid.” The Classical Journal, vol. 48, no. 8, May 1953, pp. 303–13.
  • Forte, Bettie. “Vergil’s ‘Aeneid’ in Literature and Art of the Italian Renaissance.” Vergilius, vol. 28, 1982, pp. 4–14.
  • Kaeuper, Richard W. Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, 1999.
    Miller, John F. “Arruns, Ascanius, and the Virgilian Apollo.” Colby Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, Sept. 1994, pp. 171–78.
  • Poliziano, Angelo. Stanze per La Giostra. Edited by Francesco Bausi, Università degli Studi di Messina, Centro internazionale di studi umanistici, 2016.
    —. The Stanze of Angelo Poliziano. Translated by David Quint, University of Massachusetts Press,
  • Riccucci, Marina. “Le ‘Stanze’: Il Racconto Di Una Caccia.” Lettere Italiane, vol. 47, no. 4, 1995, pp. 517–48.
  • Rogerson, Anne. Virgil’s Ascanius: Imagining the Future in the Aeneid. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Virgil. “P. Vergilius Maro.” Vergil, The Latin Library,
  • Welliver, Warman. “The Subject and Purpose of Poliziano’s Stanze.” Italica, vol. 48, no. 1, 1971, p. 34.

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