Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.16


T. P. Wiseman, Talking to Virgil. A Miscellany. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1992. Pp. 242; 8 plates. 12.95. ISBN 0-85989-375-8.


Reviewed by Daniel P. Harmon, University of Washington.

Talking to Virgil is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics by T. P. Wiseman, Professor of Classics at the University of Exeter. His love of Rome -- ancient, medieval and modern -- is evident throughout the book and gives a certain unity to the volume.

But there is another quality in Wiseman's art which creates a sense of harmony in what might otherwise be a very diverse collection indeed. In almost every essay, Wiseman is concerned with the vitality of the classics and with individuals who have in one way or another kept the classical world, or some facet of it, alive in our times. At the conclusion of his essay on G. McN. Rushforth, the first Director of the British School at Rome, Wiseman observes that "what [Rushforth] cared about was true scholarship and selfless loyalty to his friends. And he left his books to Exeter because he wanted to bring alive in us ('passing on the torch to others') that fascination with the living world of the past, and that love for the things of beauty that men have made, which had been the meaning of his own life." That Wiseman is drawn to Rushforth, one of his predecessors at Exeter, is not difficult to understand; they emerge, it seems to me, as kindred spirits in their determination to maintain the vitality of the classical tradition. It is surely no accident that the author concludes his collection of essays with "Uncivil Discourse," a stirring appeal for the preservation of the classics in the reformed British school curriculum.

Wiseman genuinely likes most of the characters about whom he writes. The essay "Talking to Virgil," from which the whole collection is named, exemplifies this sympathy. It is W. F. Jackson Knight, another predecessor on the faculty of Exeter, who "talked to Vergil." Knight, who applied anthropological lore and Jungian psychology (along with insights from other disciplines) to Vergilian studies, had a rather difficult career and not always an easy life. Wiseman introduces us to Jackson's brother Wilson Knight, the well-known Shakespearean scholar, and to their mother, an overbearing and tormented personality who always pushed her sons on and up. We also meet a Greek scholar named Theodore Haarhoff, the spiritualist who had a profound influence on Jackson. Haarhoff claimed that he was in spiritual contact with the Ionian philosopher Heraclitus. Through his medium Mrs. Margaret Lloyd of Johannesburg (described as "the most outstanding trance medium in the southern hemisphere") and her control Tutu (an entity from old Egypt), he believed that he had made contact with Benjamin Jowett, who professed that he was working with Jackson Knight as his inspirer and collaborator. Around 1948, Tutu confirmed Haarhoff's conviction that he was himself the reincarnation of Cornelius Gallus; and, these revelations continued, Jackson Knight was the reincarnation of Marcus Agrippa.

By the early 1950's, when Knight was working on his Penguin translation of the Aeneid, Haarhoff (eager, as ever, to help Knight ) sought contact with Vergil through the agency of a new medium, a certain Emmy Vermey (Mrs. Lloyd had passed away). Questions drafted by Knight about the sense of troublesome passages of the text (e.g., Aeneid VI. 893-896) were put to Vergil, who answered Mrs. Vermey in German! On March 11, 1954, the message came through Haarhoff that Vergil had expressed great interest in the Penguin translation and that he had sent "love and greeting" to Jackson Knight. The edition, published in 1956, is dedicated to Haarhoff. Curiously, Knight, while a genuine believer, also maintained a degree of independence and did not adopt all the responses which Haarhoff attributed to Vergil. Knight's spiritualism must have been the subject of amused discussion in the process of 'peer review' among his fellow academics. But Wiseman's verdict on these seances is both charitable and thought-provoking (page 209): "The ingenuous will to believe, the constant striving to make contact with the mind of Virgil, may be thought more admirable than an academic idiom that denies the reality of the author, insists that texts are inevitably ambiguous and undecidable, and has to put words like 'truth' and 'meaning' into inverted commas."

"A Roman Villa" traces the continuing life of an area in Rome on the margins of the Esquiline northeast of Santa Maria Maggiore and near the present-day Piazza Cinquecento. In 1883 workmen digging the foundations of the ex-Istituto Massimo near what is now the Largo della Villa Peretti (where the Via Giovanni Amendola and the Via del Viminale meet) found two boundary markers (cippi), one with the letters PR ( = 'private property'?), and the other indicating that the estate was the Area Hortorum Lollianorum belonging to Ti[berius] Cla[udius] Caesar Aug[ustus] Ger[manicus]. The cippi thus securely locate the grand villa of one of the wealthiest families of the early empire. These horti are generally assumed to be the grounds of Lollia Paulina, granddaughter of Marcus Lollius, consul of 21 B.C., the novus homo and supporter of Augustus who was so praised by Horace (Odes 4.9) for his animus ... prudens et ... rectus and for being abstinens pecuniae. Velleius Paterculus (97.1) characterized the same man as a fraud, pecuniae quam recte faciendi [cupidior].

Pliny the Elder, whose assessment of the Lollii and their tainted wealth agrees with that of Paterculus, once met Lollia Paulina in person at what was supposed to be a modest engagement party. Lollia, a study in vulgarity, arrived dripping with emeralds and pearls which cost (Pliny suggests that she announced it) forty million sesterces (NH 9.117)! Her fate is well known: briefly married to Caligula (who was attracted by her beauty or money -- or both), she contended with Agrippina for Claudius' affections. But what Lollia wanted, Lollia did not get: she lost not only her bid for Claudius' hand but also her life. Agrippina saw to it that Lollia's family lost the estate which (as the cippi testify) quickly passed to the imperial domain.

These lands probably continued for some centuries as villas or parks. Wiseman recounts how the area (by this time occupied by vine yards) was eventually acquired by Cardinal Felice Peretti and converted around 1576 by the architect Domenico Fontana once again to a magnificent villa with formal gardens watered by the new Aqua Felice. Cardinal Peretti became Pope Sixtus V. His Esquiline Villa, which must have had nearly the same boundaries as the horti Lolliani, was transferred to his nephew Cardinal Montalto and was sold by 1696 to Cardinal Negroni. It eventually bore the name Villa [Peretti] Montalto-Negroni, a designation which persisted even when the Marchese Francesco Massimo acquired the property in 1789.

There is an interesting turn to the story in 1835 when Prince Massimo's reduced circumstances caused him to let out most of the villa, except for the ground floor. The faded luster of Rome's glorious past, its ruins set among cypresses and pines, the romantic atmosphere which had been made famous by Goethe, Winckelmann, Keats, Shelly, Irving and Madame de Staël, and the city's reputation as a center for the study of art (enhanced first by Canova and then by Thorvaldsen) attracted a colony of young artists, many from America and Britain. Among them was the American sculptor Thomas Crawford (1814-1857), who made his residence and studio in the Villa Montalto-Negroni. Thomas is famous for his later sculptures on the U.S. Capitol pediment, his engraved bronze doors of the Senate wing, and his colossal bronze 'Armed Freedom' atop the Capitol dome. He died much too young but his wife Louisa Ward Crawford and their family had a long involvement with the Villa Montalto-Negroni in Rome which lasted until its final days. Papal Rome fell and lost its temporal power in 1870. The lofty walls of the Villa Montalto-Negroni came down along with the old regime by 1873.

Wiseman, curiously, tells us almost nothing about Pope Sixtus V, the founder of the Villa. But information about the colorful prelate will add to the story. Born Felice Peretti da Montalto (1585), he was a farm laborer's son of humble means in the countryside near Ancona. An outstanding student, Felice took a vow of poverty and became a Franciscan. It was his preaching, especially the severity of his Lenten sermons in Rome, that brought Peretti attention, then influence and finally the Cardinal's hat. This same trait of severity, which wore thin over a period of time, alienated him from others and drove him into the seclusion of his Esquiline estate. There he quickly became an unknown except to a small but very influential circle of confidants who were biding their time. Their power, invoked at the right moment, brought his elevation to the papacy on the death of Gregory XIII. Iron-willed and almost ruthlessly energetic, ready to tax and and willing to spend (the vinegar wit of the talking statues Marforio and Pasquino found in Sixtus a perfect subject for a dialogo poco rispettoso), Sixtus was a patron who fostered the arts and who worked to create that magnificently baroque Rome which would later attract writers, artists and sculptors like the Crawfords. Mary Crawford Fraser, the last of the artistic American family who had had such long association with the Villa that Sextus created, was a novelist; and her descriptions frequently bring alive the memory of its glorious past.

Sed fortuna fuit. Wiseman, with a delicious twist of irony at the end of a story filled with ironies, closes the chapter by taking us through an arch that leads down a narrow street called the Via di Villa Montalto. The fact that the street is named after the old Villa might call to mind the figure of Sixtus V strolling in deep meditation through his resplendent park or even the image of the bejewelled Lollia Paullina gamboling over the lawn of her villa, which had occupied the same ground; but the Via di Villa Montalto is in truth an alley onto which open the back doors of the hotels and other grand establishments that face the Via Principe Amedeo and the Via Amendola. One of these doors in the little alleyway, Wiseman tells us, has a name: "American Workout Studio, Beverly Hills California." Lollia, we can be sure, would love it. It is hard to say what Felice Peretti would think. The door stands near the spot where the boundary stones were found.

"With Boni in the Forum" gives us a sketch of Rome in the years after 1870, when the papal city was transformed into the capital of a unified Italy. The subject of the essay is, from one point of view, Welbore St Clair Baddeley, a world traveler, amateur archaeologist and writer who came to know Rodolfo Lanciani and Giacomo Boni very well. Baddeley is now, perhaps, a forgotten figure but his letters and diaries provide a wealth of information about the two most important Italian archaeologists and their rivalries.

In the more speculative (but convincing) "Julius Caesar and the Mappa Mundi," Wiseman traces the origin of Richard of Haldingham's 1290 map of the known world, a treasure of the Hereford Cathedral, through a traditional series which goes back to the time of Caesar himself and, in particular, to a map intended for display (so W. concludes) in the portico around the voting saepta of the Campus Martius. "Mortal Trash" makes an excellent case that the source of this expression in Gerard Manley Hopkins' "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection" derives from the Jesuit poet's reading of the set book, Plato's Symposium (cf. FLUARI/AS QNHTH=S) in Balliol College, Oxford, where, like Wiseman, Hopkins had been a student. "The Centaur's Hoof" studies reverberations from the ancient world in the novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. "The Giants' Revenge" ponders the continuity of a living legend from the Phlegrean fields. And "Killing Caligula" is an eloquent reflection, almost a meditation, on the choices which lead step-by-step to the loss of liberty.

The book is a joy to read. Three of the essays in the collection initially appeared in Exeter's classical journal Pegasus. Two others are reprinted in this book from History Today. "The Centaur's Hoof" was first published in Classical and Modern Literature in 1981. "With Boni in the Forum" is an English version of an article which first appeared in Italian (Rivista dell'Instituto Nazionale di Archaeologia e Storia dell'Arte, 1985). "Talking to Virgil" is developed from a lecture delivered to the Virgil Society. Like the piece "A Roman Villa," and most of "Uncivil Discourse," it is published in this book for the first time.