Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 12.

Carlo Caruso and Andrew Laird (edd.), Italy and the Classical Tradition. Language, Thought and Poetry 1300-1600. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. x + 269, inc. 4 black-and-white illustrations . ISBN 978-0- 7156-3737-1. US$119.95/ UK£50.00.

Frances Muecke
University of Sydney, Australia

Edited by an Italianist and a classicist with strong interests in the Latin literature of the Renaissance, this diverse collection is presented as a stimulus to new approaches to study of the classical tradition, particularly as it was received and transmitted in Italy. This reviewer, a classicist who now works on humanist scholarship, naturally finds some of the essays more in her sphere of expertise than others. She agrees with the editors’ proposition that ‘[t]he classical tradition in Italy is not only of interest to Italianists and historians of the Renaissance’ (p. 16), but fears that classicists who are prepared to go further than concede the relevance of the classical tradition in Italy to what they do are as rare as Italianists who specialise in the Latin writings of post-classical epochs. In fact, only one of the contributors to the collection is a classicist, but he, Nigel Wilson, is one to whom we must be grateful for many fascinating studies of the intricacies and accidents of the transmission of classical texts.

In the opening chapter of Part I, ‘Latin, Greek and Italian’ (pp. 29-40), Giulio Lepschy enjoyably raises a somewhat disjointed series of historical questions. These work as brief glimpses of wider and more fundamental issues. He is interested in assumptions made in the past about the three languages and their relations: Greek and Latin (i.e. that Latin was Greek), Latin and Italian (Dante’s Latin as a ‘secondary artificial language’), and Greek and Italian (the model of the Greek dialects legitimating Italian with its varieties). He concludes with a case study of sixteenth- century grammarians and rhetoricians coming to grips with specific Latin and Greek constructions.

Philip Burton’s chapter, '"Itali dicunt ozie"' (pp. 41-61), scrupulously examines ways of conceptualising and describing in Latin non-standard or lower registers of the language, with the aim of understanding the terminology used by the ancients themselves, terminology which often refers to levels of style.[[1]] His examples are mostly taken from the period between Cicero[[2]] and Quintilian. This chapter tells us something about Latin in the light of modern linguistics but one looks in vain for a connection with the time frame of the book (but see p. 6).[[3]]

Nigel Wilson’s brief but highly informative contribution, '"Utriusque linguae peritus"' (pp. 62-72), sticks firmly to its practical questions: when and from where did tutors and texts come? Why not from the south of Italy? Was it enough to travel to Byzantium? How did students get on without dictionaries, and, until the end of the fifteenth century, printed texts? Some aspects of the learning of Greek are nicely illustrated in Figs. 3.1-3.

In Part II, ‘Hellenism and the Latin Humanists’, Martin McLaughlin’s study of Alberti’s classical reading based on his Latin and vernacular writings of the 1430s (pp. 73-100) shows what was distinctive about the interests of this original figure whose individuality is well brought out by comparisons with Petrarch, Boccaccio, Poliziano and Machiavelli. The precocity of Alberti’s knowledge of ‘new’ authors (such as Lucretius and Silius Italicus) is even more impressive when Silvia Rizzo’s argument about the late diffusion of works discovered by Poggio is taken into account.[[4]] McLaughlin is right to signal that there is uncertainty about Alberti’s knowledge of Greek (p. 77), but the latter’s misunderstanding of Pliny HN 35.69 could come at least partly from corruption of the text he was using (some MSS read ‘daemonem’).

Letizia Panizza (pp. 101-17) explores the fortuna of Plutarch’s story of Camma from its use in tracts on marriage in Latin and Italian to its conversion to tragic novella in Castiglione and narrative in Christian medieval guise in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Camma of Galatia, who performs her own revenge when her husband is killed by the man who desires her, is by no means as well known as her Latin counterpart, Lucretia. It would have been interesting to have been told if her story was picked up outside Italy, if, indeed, it is an example that vindicates the editors’ emphasis in their introduction on the importance of Italy as a mediator of the classical tradition (p. 15).[[5]]

Jill Kraye (pp. 118-42) takes us to a different world again, that of the sixteenth-century scholars, both Italian and French, who, as philologists, taught, edited and commented upon Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, after printed editions in Greek had appeared (the Aldine Aristotle was 1495-98). Her main argument is that developments in the application of philological method to Aristotle’s text, which resulted in a number of rivals for the title of ‘first philological commentary on the NE’, cannot be explained by looking alone at the institutional setting of Florence in which Pier Vettori produced his commentary (1584). That had been preceded not only by his Greek edition with philological annotations of 1547, but by Denis Lambin’s translation with notes on the text (1558), and Marc-Antoine Muret’s Variae lectiones (1559) and lectures on NE (1562-65).

Part III contains four chapters on ‘The Classical Tradition in Poetry’. Claudia Villa looks at various instances of the ‘renovation’ of classical myth and literature in Dante’s Commedia (pp. 143-60). She presents this in the frame of an argument about Dante’s idea of the ‘comic’, which, to my mind, contains flaws. Donatus’ commentary on Terence is cited selectively and misleadingly (p. 145); Terence’s notion of the ‘comic’ evoked (p. 144) -- but what was that?; Jason is a ‘comic character’ (on the basis of Servius, p. 145) and Dante presents him as a ‘peasant’ (p. 158), when in fact he is ploughing with the fire-breathing bulls.

Jonathan Usher discusses Petrarch’s Privilegium laureationis (pp. 161- 92), focussing mainly on the brief dispositio, the ‘technical nucleus’ (p. 163), teasing out the implications for Petrarch’s ‘cultural programme’ (p. 161) and ‘status building’ (p. 164) of the privileges awarded by the crowning and certified in medieval legal language by the diploma. An interesting but speculative case is made for the suggestion that the dress (habitu quolibet poetico) granted has something to do with the robe given by Robert of Naples at the preceding examination (pp. 170f.) and that this in turn functioned as vestis triumphalis for the crowning.

One feels one is in good hands with Stefano Carrai. He interestingly and unpretentiously surveys the greater or lesser extent to which collections of Renaissance Italian lyrics after Petrarch’s Canzoniere followed structural and organisation patterns suggested by Petrarch’s two-part division, by the ‘books’ of classical Latin poets, or by experimental combinations of these two models (pp. 193-203).

The high point of neo-Latin poems on Rome is the mid-sixteenth century. From the 1550s, besides Janus Vitalis’s Elogia and Du Bellay’s Poemata (esp. Romae Descriptio), there are the less well- known Centones ex Virgilio of Lelio Capilupi of Mantua. Tucker’s chapter (pp. 204-38) sets these three works in ‘the cultural and political ethos of the Rome(s) of the mid-1550s’ (p. 205) and analyses their rhetorical strategies (especially ekphrasis and prosopopoeia), concluding with a complex interpretation -- something of a tour de force -- of Centones IX and X as ‘a textual mirror help up to the historical process of change and eternal recurrence itself’ (p. 226).

To this collection of disparate and (mostly) specialist, papers, of varying quality, the editors valiantly attempt to give unity of purpose by their Introduction and Subject Bibliography. In that, however, the book promises more than it delivers.[[6]]


[[1]] Claudia Villa in Chapter 7 could have learned something from p. 59 n. 19.

[[2]] For the issue raised on p. 45, see P. Watson, ‘Puella and Virgo’, Glotta 61 (1983) 119-43.

[[3]] Cf. pp. 78f. on Alberti’s rhetorical terms and stylistic ideals.

[[4]] S. Rizzo, ‘Per una tipologia delle tradizioni manoscritte di classici latini in età umanistica’, in Formative Stages of Classical Traditions: Latin Texts from Antiquity to the Renaissance, ed. O. Pecere and M. D. Reeve (Spoleto 1995) 371- 407.

[[5]] A quick Google search throws up a poem by Oscar Wilde and a play by Tennyson.

[[6]] Errata: p. 59 n. 19 the inverted comma should follow cottidiano; p. 84 the centaur Chiron and Homer’s Phoenix have been confused; p. 105 translate Barbaro 63.21-2 as ‘let the husband give the orders: it is most right that the wife should comply with his will’; p. 103 Barbaro 67.24-6 for ‘miscreant’ read ‘misceant’; p. 153 for ‘oppia’ read ‘oppida’; p. 156 for Horace Ep. 2 read Ep. 2.1; p. 172f. translate ‘though we have learned that outstanding poets were crowned’?