Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.39

Michael C.J. Putnam, James Hankins, Maffeo Vegio: Short Epics. The I Tatti Renaissance Library.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2004.  Pp. lviii, 184.  ISBN 0-674-01483-9.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Geoffrey Eatough, University of Wales, Lampeter
Word count: 2386 words

This is an important addition to the I Tatti series, which is marking out part of the Late Latin landscape, with the publication of definitive Latin texts from the Italian Renaissance, a major event in contemporary Latin studies. Vegio's four short epics presented here are his thirteenth book of the Aeneid, which Putnam refers to as the Supplement, the 318-line Astyanax, the Golden Fleece which in four short books is the longest work in the collection, and the four even shorter books of the Antoniad, which Putnam calls the first Christian epic and the dust jacket claims extravagantly to be a precursor of Milton's Paradise Lost. There is a concise, coherent introduction with extensive notes.

In the introduction Putnam has some interesting intertextual readings, and the section there devoted to the Antoniad is an exciting display of Putnam's skills.1 The translation facing the Latin text is sound. Translating Latin poetry can be difficult, but Putnam attempts to account for all the Latin words and at the same time to get beyond the mere transfer of meanings and to produce a text which has some literary merit. It is a translation which, with a few qualifications, I can recommend, and this is important, since many of the readers of this volume, who will have little Latin, will be in Putnam's hands. The translation has another importance. The format of the I Tatti series does not allow for a commentary, so that the translation offers additional information on the editor's interpretation of the text. The ambiguities of the Latin give scope for disagreement, though occasionally Putnam seems to me mistaken or to miss an opportunity.

There is a useful bibliography, though many of the books will not be immediately accessible to readers outside the great university centres and not all are essential for the common reader of Italian Renaissance Latin texts. Among those listed Anna Cox Brinton's Mapheus Vegius and his Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid reprinted London 2002, which was reviewed by Emma Buckley in BMCR 2003.02.02, will be the most convenient means for many English speakers to discover some of the background to Vegio.

Putnam does not give us enough information about Vegio. He tells us on vii that when Vegio was looking for patronage "he turned successfully to the papal court and to Pope Eugenius IV, to whom he may have been introduced by his friend and fellow humanist, Lorenzo Valla." These are important men; we need to know more. It was no doubt chance that the poet, who at twenty-one wrote of Trojans and Italians being reconciled to create a new race, was a few years later employed by a pope who welcomed Greeks from Constantinople, which had been the new Troy, in an attempt to reintegrate Christendom, but Brinton (14-21) tells us of a much larger number of the great and the good with whom Vegio corresponded. They give an indication of the intellectual currents of the period, people such as Cyriaco d'Ancona, Flavio Biondo, Guarino da Verona and Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, with whom one would judge Vegio shared interests.

There is a second bibliography running through the notes to the introduction, and these notes are the best place to look for books which will help place the Antoniad. Finally, there are what are called notes to the text, that is, variant readings, with those on the Astyanax and Antoniad being the work of James Hankins, and there is an index.

The Supplement

The Supplement has two related themes, the creation of a perfect hero, Aeneas, who will merit deification, and the process of reconciliation between the warring parties, which Vegio portrays in ways which ring true and are deeply moving. Vegio wanted to avoid the moral ambiguities at the end of the Aeneid, where Aeneas turns impassioned killer, ambiguities which for Putnam make the Aeneid a modern text. Instead Vegio portrays a virtuous Aeneas and a headstrong, destructive Turnus. He presents a series of scenes, from Aeneas standing over the corpse of Turnus, to the celebration of victory, the conveying of the corpse of Turnus, the self-justifications of Latinus, the sorrows of Daunus, the marriage and finally deification of Aeneas, where Turnus is consistently condemned and Aeneas praised. The first impression is that there are too many speeches, but Kallendorf has demonstrated that Vegio operates according to Virgilian norms.2 Amid the speeches is a series of tableaux. In some Italian cities it was fashionable to paint to please the patron, in others to write epic poems.3

Putnam in the section of his introduction devoted to the Supplement states that Vegio was writing in a form of Latin appealing to the classicizing instincts of his contemporaries, that Aeneas is the emblem of Renaissance virtù, and that he does not belong to the medieval tradition which allegorised and often Christianised the Aeneid. Putnam argues (xii-xviii) that at the end of the poem Vegio apotheosises Aeneas in a text which is a clever interplay of Virgilian and Ovidian passages and which keeps us looking back to the Classical past that has to be the focus of our attention also. I am not sure that one can exclude the late Christian medieval mentality so easily. A man ascending to the heavens would resonate with Vegio's readership, as indeed at the end of the Antoniad a saint ascends into heaven. In line 605 prefatory to Aeneas' apotheosis Vegio wrote: Iamque optat matura polos Aeneia virtus, which Putnam translates, 'Already Aeneas's virtue in its fulness lays claim to the celestial pole', but this could be translated, 'Aeneas's virtue now ripening desires/longs for [the] heaven'.

Aeneas is a gentle person, uniquely so among gods and men. With a background consisting of a crowd of gods cheering the winner, he is described as ante omnes mitior unus Aeneas (70-74), translated by Putnam as 'Peerless Aeneas, excelling all in gentleness'. He recognises that progress will be made only if Latinus retains the sceptre and says: sententia mentem haec habet -- perhaps 'this is the way I feel' or even 'this opinion makes sense', though Putnam translates 'this is my decision' (97-98). His men must learn to follow him not only in war but in pietas. Then he shows his feminine side, far removed from Renaissance virtù, in the simile of the mother hen, a touching image. The context of this simile is a great outpouring of burning love from Aeneas to his men:

haud parvo nimium ardenti exundabat amore
in Teucros, gravibus tandem evasisse periclis
exultans. Velut exiguis cum ex aethere gyrans ... (105-07)
The first sentence is translated by Putnam as, 'he brimmed with a blaze of warmth towards his beloved Trojans, jubilant at the formidable dangers they had passed beyond'.

This poem is saturated in emotion, as is the Antoniad. It is also full of alliteration and assonance, as shown by the passage above, much of it strategically deployed. Vegio also has a propensity to overuse certain words, sublimis being a notable example, repetitions which are irritating at first but which give the text a rhythm of its own, worth investigating.

There is one place where Putnam's translation obscures an important allusion to the opening words of the Aeneid. Aeneas gives the Rutilians back the body of their leader. Putnam translates; 'weapons and corpse I bestow'. In fact Vegio writes arma virumque / largior (39-40), 'I bestow on you arms and the man'. One might argue that he was bestowing on them all the so-called heroic values of the Aeneid, which he now rejects. When we see the cortege of Turnus, the enormous bier contains all the trophies captured from the Trojans, followed by chariots oozing with Trojan blood. The vanity of this parade, since the Trojans were the victors, is underlined by the human cost. The body of Turnus is accompanied by despair, and it goes to the city, Ardea, which his folly has destroyed. Two similes describe the agony of the people of Ardea, one an image of ants, a common image but effective here, the other a most unusual image of a tortoise trapped on its back unable to escape from the flames. The text shows that this refers to people confused and trapped, hurling themselves through the flames, desperately trying to escape, presumably in houses collapsing around them (220-31).

The Astyanax

The Astyanax is a powerful piece. As Putnam shows, it is inspired by Seneca's Trojan Women, and there is also a Virgilian influence. Putnam even conjectures that the language of Andromache's request that Astyanax humbly supplicate Ulysses echoes the language of Turnus humbly supplicating Aeneas, and Vegio reopens the question of the morality of Aeneas killing Turnus, which had two years previously been settled by the Supplement. I think the connections to the Aeneid lie elsewhere. Vegio tells us that the epic drama which unfolds is about the cruel death of Hector's son and the plaints and lamentations of his mother in her affliction, afflictae planctus lamentaque matris, not as Putnam translates it 'the wails and groans of his wretched mother' (5-6). The poem is mainly about Andromache; in a world full of icons of mother and child here we have the picture of mother and murdered child. It is essentially a two character drama consisting of Ulysses, for whom killing this child is an act of piety (68-72), sparing it sloth (49-50), who is a corrupter of political language, a man who boasts he knows how to break down women (73-78) and who speaks in the tones of the torturer, while on the other side is a mother who is tired (156), as are many people in Vegio, desperate and has no resistance.

The Golden Fleece

Vegio tells us at the outset that his Golden Fleece will be confined to what happened in Colchis, the seizure of the Golden Fleece and to the mad burning love of Medea. It is the last topic which is the main theme. All four epics in this edition are on human relationships. Putnam unravels the sources of the Golden Fleece, mainly Seneca, Ovid and Virgil, and attempts to use the poem to shed light once more on the Aeneid. I think the reader's interest should be focused elsewhere. Medea here is not the supreme universal force of Seneca but a bashful virgin who knows magic but is otherwise innocent and awkward. Since it was she who devised the tasks which Jason will certainly die in attempting, she can easily neutralise the dangers. If he insists on seizing the Golden Fleece (and her father, who likes Jason, tries to dissuade him), then she, since it is so easy for her, is bound to save him by aiding him, especially since she has fallen in love with him and sees all his virtues. She is, however, also a tool in the hands of two conflicting groups of gods, a kind of Phaedra figure.

There are lots of interesting things in this epic. The Greek heroes are in fact medieval knights on a quest to enhance their glory, a mindless activity (1.94-99). They are received by the barbarians in language that anticipates descriptions of the American discoveries (1.24-35). There is an ethnographical flavour to the text; the father Aeetes is an oriental monarch, dignified, hospitable, not wanting Jason to harm himself. Jason and Aeetes exchange tokens of power (1.109-11 and 155-57), and Aeetes would have been happy for Jason to settle there; indeed people find alliance with Jason desirable (1.83-85).

The tone of the text is varied, as can be illustrated by one light-hearted episode (4.35-60). Mars is angry when Jason steps into the field of Mars. His anger, expressed in lots of t alliteration, is soothed by Venus. His furor is matched by her pudor, the shame of being exposed naked in the net of Vulcan, the consequence of their amor. She asks whether his behaviour is the proper reward for their love-making, and then makes a nice pun: Hanc igitur Vulcania retia solvunt / mercedem? (4.46-47). The untranslatable is translated by Putnam, 'Is this indeed the reward that Vulcan's nets let loose?' The net of Vulcan did not release them but bind them, the proper release from this net will be the release of the payment, that is the settling of the account. Venus then asks in lines full of sexual imagery:

Soleo tuos ego sola furores
obvia et armorum rapidos compescere motus
et requiem bellis animoque imponere pacem? (4.47-49)
This is translated by Putnam as, 'Am I the only one who confronts your rages and restrains your rushing movement to arms, imposing calm on conflict and peace on fury?' But his madnesses are the madnesses of war and the madnesses of love, the rapid motions of his arms can refer to his weaponry of love. Venus has a public and a personal mission to pacify both the sexual and martial ardour of Mars. She beds him. The peaceful calm which will ensue looks forward to Botticelli's and Piero del Cosimo's memorable portrayals.

The Antoniad

In the Antoniad Vegio has an opening which recalls the Golden Fleece but is much more detailed. He tells us of all the episodes in St. Anthony's life which he will not treat; he will confine himself to Anthony's visit to St. Paul the Hermit. Given the material, this could have been the most sensational of Vegio's small epics, of which we get a small taste with Satan's visitation in the desert. Putnam's discussion of this poem is masterly. He proposes a historical context, that of an appreciative pope who was an Augustinian hermit, then relates the poem to the climactic moment of St. Augustine's Confessions, St. Antony's own conversion recounted in the Vita Antoni and then to Petrarch's account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux. St. Antony had not known of the existence of St. Paul, and Putnam sees Vegio as trying to fill a gap in an existing myth by imagining what would have happened. This act of imagination applies also to the three other short epics, even the Astyanax where we have substantial information from Seneca but not the same intensity in the confrontation between Andromache and Ulysses. Vegio is a good narrator with a strong sense of the 'realities' of relationships. Putnam's edition, which should find a wide readership, offers us the bearings needed to understand and appreciate his poems.


1.   Putnam's "The Loom of Language", Transactions of the American Philological Association 131 (2001) 329-39, is the essential preliminary to reading his edition of Vegio, a nice piece of writing where he tells of how he came alive in the Harvard of the Fifties when he experienced the beginning of the revolution in the way that Latin poetry was read. He tells us that "the Virgil we were groping toward in the sixties would, I firmly believe, be thoroughly at home in our postmodern world, a world that shuns anything totalizing or authoritarian, assured only of the uncertainty of final meanings, of the open-endedness of interpretation, incomplete closures and conclusions more fragile than firm." He there uses Vegio to contrast Virgil's open-endedness, using intertextual readings to penetrate what might be called the politics of the text.
2.   In Praise of Aeneas: Virgil and Epideictic Rhetoric in the Early Italian Renaissance (New Hampshire, 1989), chapter V.
3.   Kirstin Lippincott, "The neo-Latin historical epics of the north Italian courts: an examination of 'courtly culture' in the fifteenth century," Renaissance Studies 3.4 (1989) 415-28.

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