Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.03

Andrea Cucchiarelli (trans.), La veglia di Venere. Pervigilium Veneris. BUR Classici Greci e Latini.   Milano:  Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2003.  Pp. 167.  ISBN 88-17-10635-6.  €10.00.  

Reviewed by Tiziana Privitera, Università di Roma Tor Vergata (
Word count: 1525 words

The fascination that the Pervigilium Veneris has exerted on the reading public and in scholarship, attested by the many editions published during the XX century, shows no signs of abating. This is confirmed by a new edition by Andrea Cucchiarelli, recently published in Italy in the 'Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli' (BUR) series, a few years after the last Italian edition.1 There are two reasons for expressing satisfaction with this new production: on the one hand, we cannot but welcome the very fact that a series of much scholarly value but nevertheless aimed at a wider readership than the specialist scholar, such as the BUR Classici Greci e Latini, has decided to include among its offerings an anonymous work, surely not very well known to the wide reading public, that dates back to a less-than-popular period such as Late Antiquity (even if the exact chronology of it is very controversial, see below); and, on the other, it is a pleasure to acknowledge the seriousness and the completeness of Cucchiarelli's work, which on the whole stands well above the average level of the series.

The book opens with an interesting introduction, La dea, il poeta, la città muta (pp. 7-17), in which the author focuses on some of the main themes of the Pervigilium: the nature of the poem, its intended readership, the cultural atmosphere in which "quella specie di tranello emotivo, che è il Pervigilium" (p.17) was produced, and its stylistic tensions, which culminate in the sudden and unexpected final intrusion of what Cucchiarelli calls "l'irruzione disvelante dell'io" (p.15).

In the Premessa al testo (pp. 19-49), Cucchiarelli discusses the principal problems of the poem: the speculations about its authorship, strictly associated with those about its dating (oscillating between II and V century CE); its linguistic and stylistic features, which are also possible clues for dating; meter and literary models; and the structure of the poem. Cucchiarelli also treats the issue of the supposed festival of Venus which could have given rise to the composition of the Pervigilium. The philosophical background of the Pervigilium is seen in the context of that synergy of elements which characterize the phenomenon of religious syncretism typical of Late Antiquity. The introductory section ends with a discussion of the manuscript tradition and of the reception of the poem.

As for the dating, Cucchiarelli, after having surveyed and discussed the various hypotheses surrounding the issue, cautiously concurs with the IV century hypothesis. However, he does not go so far as to suggest names of possible authors, as some of his predecessors had: "it is possible that in an indeterminable moment during the imperial age a specific expressive (literary) intention, or rather a precise cultural context, decided in favor of some 'non-classical' linguistic choices (we should not imagine poetic language as a mechanical datum, that may be dated in a positivist way). But, on the whole, it is more probable that such a poetic intuition situates itself around the IV century rather than in the II century (...)" (p.27).

The Italian translation faces the Latin text, which substantially follows Shackleton Bailey's edition (1982, in its turn modeled on that by Schilling 19612). Cucchiarelli diverges from Shackleton Bailey in nine instances, listed in the comparative table on p. 73. As for the Italian translation, Cucchiarelli often succeeds in reproducing in his prose the rhythmic progression of the original text, tending towards expressive effects typical of contemporary poetry. His style of translation, which gives special emphasis to a strong image on which the entire verse is based, shows that his sensitivity as a translator is indebted to the technique of the so-called imaginist movement. I will give a single example: line 18 gutta praceps orbe parvo sustinet casus suos, is translated "precipite la stilla si trattiene dal cadere, piccolo cerchio": the final expression, powerfully emphasized by its position and by the preceding pause, interprets in a synthetic way the image of the drop detained in its very orbit. Of course, such an interpretive strategy, for all its legitimacy, is often rather detached from the syntax of the Latin and may sound not very clear to a Latinless reader unable to compare it with the original text.

There follows a thorough commentary, which takes up almost a half of the entire volume (pp. 87-151) -- a novelty for the editorial policy of the BUR series, which is often characterized by very limited annotation. The commentary is rich and in-depth and surveys in an exhaustive way the state of the scholarship, explaining the most important interpretive issues with full bibliographical information. In the notes, Cucchiarelli also explains his textual choices, as in the controversial case of line 58, which the MSS transmit out of its place or in an altered context. The incipit of line 74, at the end of the so-called historic strophe, is considered corrupt, and so obelized, by the vast majority of editors. Cucchiarelli, on the contrary, prefers to emend the transmitted Romuli matrem, accepting Cameron's (1984) conjecture Romuli parem (the reasons for this are explained in the note).

The volume is also equipped with a Breve Antologia della critica (pp. 51-60), covering over three centuries of scholarship, from Voltaire to contemporary criticism. The comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography (pp. 61-72) will be an extremely useful tool for the reader wishing to pursue the issues raised by the poem.

The book ends with an appendix containing text and translation (without commentary) of some of the most famous Late Ancient poems devoted to the theme of the rose; many of them are anonymous and come from the so-called Anthologia latina, a collection of poems from the imperial age, that was put together probably at Carthage in the context of the cultural renaissance of Vandalic Africa in the V century CE. This appendix highlights the vitality of the rose topos and of the symbolism associated with it, which spreads from the ancient world into European literature of all ages, and it offers the reader a welcome opportunity for reading and appreciating, this time in an Italian translation, a series of poems scarcely studied or known.

Cucchiarelli has interesting things to say about the issue of the literary genre of the Pervigilium. On p. 35 he makes a good point in saying that the Pervigilium, even if it is not a proper epithalamium since it lacks a wedding occasion, can still be associated, through its themes and motifs, with some of the most famous classical epithalamia: "the pertinence of Catullan poems such as c. 61 and 62 is evident: this is confirmed by the use of the refrain, the lively description, the dialogic dramatization, and the various popular and folklore elements...". This hypothesis, appropriately supported, develops ideas advanced by earlier scholars who have highlighted the presence in the Pervigilium of lexical items typical of wedding songs. In a study of some years ago I suggested that a productive way of reading the Pervigilium from an epithalamic point of view should also focus on structural elements. The poem (which is quite late in my view) is typical of so-called scholastic production, maybe even a school exercise, that exploits epithalamic materials in order to develop in an original way themes such as the eulogy of Venus and the eulogy of the spring. The display of doctrina in the Pervigilium emerges from the analysis of some of its images, which appear to be constructed out of both the re-use of prestigious auctores and the corresponding gloss: the auctor and the gloss on the auctor constitute for the author of the Pervigilium a single corpus. This technique gives rise to a complex mixture that is typical of Late Latin poetry.2 The intrinsically epithalamic nature of the poem seems to be confirmed by an interesting coincidence. The famous refrain exhorting the reader to the joys of love, cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet, that articulates the whole poem and divides it into panels seems to be in the background of another famous exhortation to love, the one that Zerlina addresses on the day of her wedding to the other "giovinette", in the Da Ponte-Mozart version of Don Giovanni: "Giovinette che fate all'amore, / non lasciate che passi l'età: / Se nel seno vi bulica il core, / Il rimedio vedetelo qua. / Ah, ah, ah; ah, ah, ah! / Che piacer, che piacer che sarà!" And the remedy suggested by Zerlina (even if in her case it is of short duration) is in fact marriage.

This edition by Cucchiarelli is an exhaustive work, which gives a full picture of the scholarship on the Pervigilium. Both in the introduction and in the commentary, the author gives scholars of Late ancient Latin literature an extremely valuable contribution to the interpretation of this fascinating little poem. The facing translation, the rich commentary, and the very affordable price, make this book an effective didactic tool in Italian universities, and, perhaps, also outside of Italy. Moreover, the elegant and impressionistic translation by Cucchiarelli will be not only useful to students in their analysis and interpretation of the text, but will surely succeed in attracting the interest of the cultivated readers of this little jewel from Late Antiquity.


1.   Cfr. Pervigilium Veneris, ed. by C. Formicola, Loffredo ed., Napoli 1998, whose textual choices and corresponding translations, however, are not always philologically convincing.
2.   Note di lettura al Pervigilium Veneris, Euphrosyne 20 (1992) 335-48.

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