Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.49

Marianne Pade (ed.), On Renaissance Commentaries. Noctes Neolatinae. Neo-Latin Texts and Studies, Band 4.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2005.  Pp. 139.  ISBN 3-487-12955-8.  €34,80.  

Reviewed by M. Skoie, University of Bergen (
Word count: 2522 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The last few years have seen an increasing interest in the commentary as a genre.1 Commentaries are nowadays seen as important works not only in relation to the history of scholarship but also for reception studies, the history of reading, the history of the book and -- not least -- the general discussion of classics as a discipline. In the essay collection under review the scope is limited to the Renaissance, but this does not indicate that this is only of interest to scholars of that period. Rather, it makes yet another case for the importance of the genre in the study of classics.

The six essays in this collection derive from a special session on the Renaissance commentary held at the Twelfth International Congress for Neo-Latin Studies at the University of Bonn in 2003 which was chaired by the editor of this volume, Marianne Pade. All the essays deal with commentaries written or re-written in the fifteenth century. The main classical authors concerned are Sallust (the focus of commentaries in two essays), Martial, Dioscorides and Apuleius, but the essays also touch upon Virgil, Pliny the elder and several other Greek and Latin classics. The contributors make up a top team of scholars within Renaissance scholarship and several draw upon their own contributions to the Catalogus Translationum et Commentariorum (CTC).

The main question at stake according to Pade's preface is whether there is such thing as a Renaissance commentary. That is, is it possible to identify a particular Renaissance (as opposed to Medieval) commentary? Whether the volume succeeds in reaching a coherent definition is -- perhaps not surprisingly -- questionable. Rather, the essays seem to display an impressive variety and pluralism within Renaissance reading and pedagogy stressing both continuity and break with Medieval predecessors. As such it is an important caveat to people overly eager to use terms like "a Renaissance reading".

The first essay by Robert W. Ulery jr. focuses on the edition of a Sallust commentary on the Bellum Catilinae published in Venice in 1500. This is a good starting point for a discussion of a Medieval versus Renaissance commentary, since this commentary, although attributed to the fifteenth-century teacher Omnibonus Leonicensus (Ognibene Bonisoli da Lonigo), is clearly Medieval. The commentary is found in continuous form in a manuscript dated s. XII-XIII; nevertheless, the attribution to Ognibene has never been questioned. Without pre-emptive definitions of Medieval and Renaissance commentary, Ulery succeeds in bringing out some important differences between the two forms through a detailed examination of several passages and a useful comparison with the commentary on Sallust by Badius Ascensius (Paris 1504). The pseudo-Ognibene is dominated by paraphrase, rarely cites other ancient authorities, and matters of style are hardly discussed. At one point Ulery therefore concludes "Nothing here could seem to breathe the new air of Renaissance learning" (p.15). Yet, if this is so obviously not a Renaissance commentary, a pertinent question seems to be: why was there not a recognition that this was not a Renaissance teacher's commentary? Ulery's explanation is that the intended readers were students at the lower end of the curriculum who needed no great sophistication and that the pedagogical system at this level had not changed over the centuries. Accordingly Ulery concludes that we here witness an example of the continuity between Renaissance and Medieval pedagogy.

Since the pseudo-Ognibene in many editions was printed with that of Lorenzo Valla (Venice 1491), it might seem odd that Ulery did not choose that specific commentary for comparison. However, the next article, by Patricia Osmond on Valla's commentary on the Bellum Catilinae offers some answers. The authorship is a much disputed one and, more importantly, even this work might in many ways be questionable as a paradigm of a Renaissance commentary. Rather than solving the question of authenticity, Osmond uses the question of authenticity as a criterion for identifying a Renaissance commentary. This approach leads her to look at the contemporary reception of the work. Was this commentary regarded as worthy of Lorenzo Valla, the most distinguished philologist of the fifteenth century? And further, which elements were pointed out in favour of or against his authorship? This looks like a very fruitful approach, but the results seem somehow disappointing. The first reception in Italy shows an absence of controversy, which, if not proving authenticity, does seem to indicate that people were inclined to accept it as the genuine work of Valla. In northern Europe, however, the humanists took a more critical approach. The Flemish humanist, Badius Ascensius, who wrote the competing commentary on the Bellum Catilinae (Paris 1504) used for comparison by Ulery, is the first to question Valla's authorship. His main argument seems to be the discrepancies between these comments on Sallust and Valla's preface to the Elegantiae. These discrepancies concern lexical and grammatical explanations in the commentary which do not measure up with the standard of Valla's other works. Likewise, the doubts raised by Glareanus (Heinrich Lorti) in a dedicatory letter accompanying his edition of Sallust's Opera (Basel 1538) seem to focus on the general standard rather than pointing out any particular areas which would not be worthy of a Renaissance commentary. Although the material shows how expectations changed with time, it does not seem as informative as one could wish for in relation to the overall question of the Renaissance commentary. Whether the commentary was eligible as a Renaissance commentary or not depended ultimately upon the understanding and uses of Valla's work. A particular characteristic Renaissance norm seems harder to grasp from this.

So far the articles have been concerned with commentaries proper; now follow two articles where the texts discussed are generically problematic. The first article is Marianne Pade's article on Niccolò Perotti's Cornu Copiae (probably dating from 1479). The question is whether this is a commentary on Martial or an Encyclopedia. Furthermore, if this is a commentary, what kind of commentary are we dealing with? The format is certainly that of a commentary (it follows Martial's text and uses the lemma-structure) but Martial does at times seem to disappear completely behind the vast amount of lexicographical material which accounts for the treatment of the work as an encyclopedia. Of course, the commentary as a genre has often played the part of a general introduction to classical literature, history, culture and language, but in the case of the Cornu Copiae, Perotti expounded the poet so thoroughly that hardly a single word went untouched, and the work seemed a commentary not on the Latin poet but on the Latin language itself. This is a fact mentioned in the proem and preface written allegedly by Perotti's nephew Pyrrhus, but more probably by the author himself. So what is the Cornu Copiae then? Pade argues that rather than a commentary gone astray, this work is the extreme result of humanist ideas about the purpose of reading classical texts. The particular purpose she argues for the Cornu Copiae is the active mastery over of the linguistic and doctrinal universe of the Latin classics--and a wish to surpass Lorenzo Valla's books on the Latin language.

While Pade ends up confirming the commentary-status of the Cornu Copiae, Johann Ramminger reaches the opposite conclusion in his article on Ermolao Barbaro's Supplement to Dioscorides' Materia Medica (left unfinished at Barbaro's death in 1493 and printed posthumously in 1517). This work is often treated as a commentary (e.g. in the CTC 4, pp. 46-48), but Ramminger calls for a more nuanced appreciation. Structurally the work follows Dioscorides' text, but, as opposed to the Cornu Copiae, it does not follow the lemma-system. The text of the Greek physician only serves as a starting point for a general overview of all available information on botanical, medical and other sources. Although Barbaro does use the term 'commentatio', he regularly called his work a 'corollarium', a term from medieval logic 'denoting a supplementary conclusion derived from a syllogism, or a summary' (p. 68), and, more generally, a supplement ('additamentum'). And, as Ramminger shows, what Barbaro does is to give an overview of Greek and Roman pharmacological knowledge. Only incidentally does he refer to Dioscorides. Although Barbaro is more enthusiastically interested in realia than in Dioscorides, Ramminger still designates the work not as a treatise on medicine, but as a characteristic product of Renaissance philology. Only rarely is the ancient knowledge crosschecked against contemporary usage (and when it is, the contemporary usage is usually found deficient!). Furthermore, Barbaro intersperses his discourse with discussions of textual or interpretational problems in the sources. These should, according to Ramminger, be related to Barbaro's insistence on the validity of philological methods.

With the final two articles, we move from the texts and their authors to the classrooms and the readers. Julia Haig Gaisser is interested in the way Philippo Beroaldo brought Apuleius to life for his students and readers "with an almost necromantic ability"(p. 88) and the way he promoted his own professorial persona. As we do not have any transcription of Beroaldo's lectures, she takes his commentary on Apuleius' Golden Ass (Bologna 1500) as her starting point. Like Perotti's Cornu Copiae, Beroaldo's lecture course and commentary on Apuleius came to be viewed as a comprehensive instruction in Roman antiquity. This commentary, like Beroaldo's lectures generally, was immensely popular. Gaisser explains this popularity as due to three factors: Beroaldo's enormous erudition, his own persona and showmanship, and his own deep engagement with Apuleius and ability to bring him to life in a way which students and readers could identify with. Gaisser makes us see many pedagogical tricks that might still be valid in the classroom, not least pointing out how important personal engagement and enthusiasm is. In a detailed analysis of select passages she shows how lively digressions work at the same time as pedagogical tools, expressions of Beroaldo's persona and actualisation of Apuleius. Even an ecphrasis on the house of a contemporary friend can be seen as contributing something important in these three respects. Finally she convincingly shows how the commentator himself emulates Apuleius in his own commentary. The aspect of the Renaissance commentary which is most prominent in Gaisser's analysis then is not so much the linguistic mastery or historical knowledge as seen in Perotti and Barbaro, but perhaps the most prominent Renaissance characteristic, namely the bringing to life of the classical authors.

In the last article in the volume Craig Kallendorf looks at marginalia to early printed editions. Much of his material consists of Renaissance commentaries to Virgil, but like Gaisser, Kallendorf focuses on reception, and more specifically on the material evidence for it. Although rarely treated in Renaissance scholarship, marginalia did not disappear with the invention of printing. In fact it seems that 60-70% of all incunables were annotated.2 This is unique material when studying the reception of commentaries and reading practices in general. Kallendorf's hypothesis is that much of this material has been unduly ignored in our quest for insight into the early modern self. Yet, he argues, even the records of basic classroom activities can provide a reliable source to the world of individual Renaissance readers. Something in the text triggers a personal reaction in the reader and prompts a comment which reveals something of both the reader's life and the way he or she makes sense of experience through reading. Kallendorf distinguishes between two main kinds of marginalia: the evidence from students struggling to learn basic grammar and vocabulary, and annotations focussing on the moral content of the text. Furthermore we have annotations regarding acquisition. The personality of the reader comes most to the fore when disagreeing with the text, as the annotations of the resisting reader often show a passionate contest between reader and writer. While not adding much to our knowledge of the nature of the Renaissance commentary, this article opens up an important window into some of the ways in which the commentaries that make up the subject of this volume were actually read.

Apart from Kallendorf, all the authors use extensive quotations from their source texts. Osmond even prints the prologue to Valla's commentary as an appendix. As none of the texts are easily available, this is a wise choice. Furthermore, the volume lets the Renaissance commentaries speak for themselves and even gives us an opportunity to be resisting readers of the articles if we so wish (this reviewer did not feel that urge very often, though). All authors except Ulery offer translations or extensive paraphrase of the Latin. This is particularly welcome when dealing with Barbaro's supplement to Dioscorides (this reviewer is perhaps not the only reader unfamiliar with the technical terminology concerning cardamom), but also makes the volume in general more user-friendly. The reviewer would also like to draw attention to Ramminger's extremely useful appendix on the terminology used in the late Quattrocento to define the different genres of humanist philology (commentarius, commentatio, commentum, commentarii). The volume also contains a list of manuscripts and an index of persons and works.

To summarise, this volume approaches the Renaissance commentary from a range of perspectives. Through historical and contrastive analyses of commentaries and of their reception, the authors succeed in showing the richness of this kind of literature and the possibilities it offers to students of this period as well as classical scholars in general. Not least, the reader gets an opportunity to read some fascinating stories. This reviewer was particularly taken by the narrative of how Beroaldo gave rich former students a chance to bid on the dedications for his works (something to think about in our current funding climate?). Surely the general reluctance to come up with restrictive definitions is a healthy feature of the volume, yet, the reader does from time to time sense that the authors themselves seem to have a pretty clear notion in mind (c.f. Ulery's remark quoted above). Thus there is a certain tension, and one does occasionally get the impression of a slightly circular argument.

Towards the end of his article Kallendorf points out the potential importance of looking at Renaissance marginalia for scholars interested in some of the latest methodologies such as new historicism and the study of material culture. The same could be said about the study of commentaries as a whole. Likewise applicable to commentators in general is his very final remark (p. 128) that in a reader-response perspective our critical and interpretive skills as classicists and literary scholars are improved significantly if we take the time and trouble to recover as much as we can of the ideas and values of the annotator. Through highlighting interpretative and pedagogical moves in Renaissance commentaries and their reception, this volume represents an important step on that way.


Robert Ulery, 'Sallust's Bellum Catilinae in the Edition of Venice 1500: the Medieval Commentary and the Renaissance Reader'

Patricia J. Osmond, 'The Valla Commentary on Sallust's Bellum Catilinae: Questions of Authenticity and Reception'

Marianne Pade, 'Niccolò Perotti's Cornu Copiae: Commentary on Martial and Encyclopedia'

Johann Ramminger, 'A Commentary? Ermolao Barbaro's Supplement to Dioscorides'

Julia Haig Gaisser, 'Filippo Beroaldo on Apuleius: Bringing Antiquity to Life'

Craig Kallendorf, 'Marginalia And The Rise Of Early Modern Subjectivity'.


1.   See Glenn Most (ed.), Commentaries. Kommentare. Aporemata Kritische Studien zur Philologiegeschichte Band 4 (Göttingen 1999) (BMCR 2000.05.19) and Roy K. Gibson and Christina Shuttleworth Kraus (eds.), The Classical Commentary. History, Practices, Theory. Mnemosyne Supplement 232 (Leiden: Brill, 2002) (BMCR 2005.11.09).
2.   The estimate is made by William H. Sherman and quoted in Kallendorf's article p. 112.

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