Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.28

Roberto Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina II. Forme allusive e contenuti nuovi. Quaderni dei seminari romani di cultura greca, 11.   Roma:  Edizioni Quasar, 2007.  Pp. xii, 236.  ISBN 978-88-7140-352-5.  €31.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jan Kwapisz, Warsaw University (
Word count: 3058 words

The book under review is the swan song of a scholar who at the moment of his premature death in December 2006 ultimately confirmed his prominence in the field of Alexandrian poetry ("il volume gli era appena stato presentato in bozze", as E. Dettori and L. Sbardella state in the "Premessa dei curatori", ix). Though all studies collected in this volume were previously published elsewhere, it is by no means disappointing, and not only for the strictly pragmatic reason that Italian "Atti" and festschrifts are sometimes not easily accessible outside Italy. The book delivers in fact more than the title promises. "Ricerche I", published by Roberto Pretagostini (hereafter P.) in 1984,1 was simply a collection of articles loosely grouped under the label "Alexandrian poetry", most of them being devoted to Theocritus, one to Callimachus' Prologue to the Telchines, and the last one--but not the least influential--to the poet Sotades of Maroneia (who is usually considered a more marginal author). "Ricerche II" is substantially different. The constellation of twenty discussions varying in weight and form, some more essayistic, others minute analyses of particular problems, offers, as a whole, a consistent panoramic overview of Alexandrian poetry, in its breadth comparable with such books as A. Cameron's Callimachus and His Critics,2 and M. Fantuzzi and R. Hunter's Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry 3 (in some respects its closest cognate). The bibliography is brought up to date, and in some cases the articles were slightly reshaped to fit the new context.

Theocritus is again P.'s chief objet d'intérêt (six contributions concern him exclusively), but this time Callimachus ought not to feel disregarded (four contributions plus two more treating Callimachus and Theocritus jointly), and there are two significant studies on Sotades. Apollonius is less well represented, but is also present in two articles, and minor contributions are dedicated to the poets of the Anthology (one to the new Posidippus). The closing article is a scholarly portrait of Gregorio Serrao, whose follower P. proves to be not only here but throughout the whole volume. The earliest of the contributions dates from as far back as 1984, but the others come from between 1990 and 2003. It would be pointless to recapitulate every argument, since students of the subject are already familiar with them (see the publisher's table of contents). I will instead try to identify P.'s main preoccupations, and to point out some merits and limitations of his approach. I will reserve a few specific minor criticisms and comments for the final part of the review.

The subtitle of the book, borrowed from a discussion in "Ricerche I" ("Teocrito e Saffo: forme allusive e contenuti nuovi"), turns out to be particularly telling. That a scholar of Alexandrian poetry should be expert also in old epic and archaic poetic compositions is not surprising; it happens very rarely, however, that one is equally fond of entering both fields and in either of them capable of satisfying with equal skill the standards of the highly sophisticated scholarship of today. P. manifests this ability more than once, and those are the most suggestive parts of his book. This is the case with the chapter "La ripresa teocritea della poesia erotica arcaica e tardoarcaica (Idilli XXIX e XXX)" (101-11). In his effort to distinguish traditional and innovative elements in two Aeolic poems of Theocritus, P. shows himself to be a competent reader of archaic sympotic poetry, able to detect and precisely identify distinctive qualities of the traditional notion of love. This dense and meticulous study may well serve as prolegomena to a deepened examination of the evolution of the poetic conception of eros from Archaic to Hellenistic times. Yet at the same time limitations of P.'s approach are perhaps nowhere clearer than here. His analyses of the available evidence are successful in themselves, but he is sometimes overoptimistic in drawing positive conclusions on that basis. In this specific case, one may find debatable his claim that while Idyll 29 is more firmly rooted in the tradition of erotic poetry, Alexandrian and specifically Theocritean taste is predominant in Idyll 30. How can we be so sure that Archaic models for the latter poem have not been lost for us? This is not just a speculative doubt: as a matter of fact, a strong case can be made now, after the publication and discussion of the new Sappho, that Theocritus' deer simile at 30.18 has been modeled on the image that is now found in Sappho (P. Koeln inv. 21351+21376, 13-14), and it has recently been suggested that the dependence of Theocritus' poem on the new Sappho is its dominant feature.4 But that possibility remained unknown to P.

The beginning of the book gains most from the fact that P. has as profound a knowledge of earlier Greek literature as of Hellenistic; three opening studies, taken together as a whole, make a convincing case for the thesis that a substantial element of Callimachus' reorientation toward the inherited poetics was his manifest inclination toward Hesiod, seen in comparison with his silent reserve toward Homer. The thorough discussion of the debt of Callimachus' dream scene to the Hesiodic Dichterweihe (13-25) is not to be overlooked, but the greatest achievement of P. in this part of his book is a wonderfully wide-ranging and at the same time dense essay in which he evaluates the attitudes of Callimachus, Theocritus, and Apollonius toward Homer and his epigones through the lens of the Aristotelian Poetics (1-12). This is not only an appropriate opening for this volume, but may also serve as a commendable brief introduction to the study of Alexandrian poetry.

The preoccupations of P. are not limited to the problems of intertextuality, and cover other areas that are frequently visited by modern scholarship. The unceasingly attractive debate on orality vs. literacy, that in the field of Alexandrian poetry was revived in 1995 by Cameron's "Callimachus and His Critics", is referred to in the chapter "Tracce di poesia orale nei carmi di Teocrito" (61-76). In contrast with the promising title, the content is disappointing. Although P. shares interests with the most provocative scholars of today, his approach proves in fact often conservative, and while the results of this mésalliance are often positive, I sometimes get the impression that when P. chooses an apparently more secure path, it leads him astray. The discussion of the oral element in Theocritus is, as always, impressive in the thoroughness with which the author examines every composition embedded in the text of the Idylls that could have an oral performance as a model. But as far as the final result is concerned, the discussion suffers from controversial assumptions. First, the distinction between the "cultura ufficiale, raffinata e scritta" of Callimachus and other Alexandrian poets and "cultura popolare, tradizionale ed orale, quella del resto della popolazione", made by P. at the beginning (61), is oversimplified and unlikely to depict correctly the reality of the time of the first Ptolemies. As a matter of fact, in a marginal note in another article (78 n. 7) P. rightly reflects upon the fact that "non si può escludere la possibilità di una prima esecuzione orale. . . almeno degli idilli che presentano una struttura drammatica, i mimi urbani e agresti". One might perhaps add to this at least quasi-hymnic compositions such as Idylls 22 and 26. Therefore perhaps the best thing a scholar looking for traces of oral poetry can do with the Idylls is to concentrate her or his efforts on the Idylls themselves. And would not that be actually the most reasonable choice? Among the attestations of oral performances in the Idylls P. discusses the pastoral agon in Idyll 8, "un carme sicuramente non autentico" (65). But since the poem is merely an imitation of the Theocritean fiction, how can it be used as an eye-witness of the everyday reality of early Hellenistic times? And is in fact the situation much different with the authentic poems of Theocritus? In order to find out to what extent the Idylls--especially the bucolic poems-- reflect anything other than the world of Theocritus' poetic imagination, it would first seem necessary to pose questions not much different from those already known from the refined debate on the historicity of Homeric society. E.g. P. says of the song of Adonis embedded in the text of Idyll 15 that "è un canto di sicura composizione orale, in quanto è improvvisato; lo dimostra inequivocabilmente il fatto che una sua ampia sezione è dedicata alla descrizione della scena che sta di fronte agli occhi della donna-cantore e di tutti i visitatori-uditori" (74). But is such evidence of much value? P. is too easily seduced by the realism of the fictional image; why should we believe that Theocritus represents the actual poetic practice of improvisation rather than assume that--in his own act of written composition--he spins an intricate web of illusion and reality, in which a fictional, though verisimilar ecphrasis is artfully embedded in an equally fictional, though verisimilar oral composition?

Another aspect of Alexandrian literature of chief importance to P. is the patronage at the Ptolemaic court. In the discussion of the ending of Idyll 14 as an irregular encomiastic poem he aptly observes that unlike typical encomia Theocritus' poem is a gratuitous act; this is underscored by the poet in the words of Thyonichus at l. 64 αἰτεῖν δὲ δεῖ οὐκ ἐπὶ παντί (87). But is "you'll give even unasked, won't you" not intended to be ironic? The motif of the birth of Apollo in Callimachus' Hymn to Delos and of Ptolemy II in Idyll 17, the mutual relationship of both poems, and their relationship to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo are discussed in another chapter (113-24) in the same meticulous manner in which the Aeolic Idylls and the dream scene in the Aetia were treated. Additionally the discussion provides a conclusive argument for the priority of Theocritus' poem to Callimachus' by establishing the relative rather than absolute chronology of the poems (124). But the most valuable studies in this category are two chapters on Sotades (135-47), a poet who has the reputation of a one-hit wonder (fr. 1 Powell). P. devoted to this famously infamous expert in obscenity more attention than anyone else in recent years, and it is a great loss that the edition of the Sotadean fragments that he was preparing will never see the light of day.5

There are other significant issues in P.'s sphere of interest that I will pass over in order to keep this review to a reasonable length, such as the quasi-philological activity of the Alexandrian poets ("L'autore ellenistico fra poesia e filologia. Problemi di esegesi, di metrica e di attendibilità del racconto", 125-34). What remains to be said in order to do full justice to P.'s merits is that the essence of his book and of his scholarship is found in the shorter, minute discussions of more specific issues in Alexandrian poetry. The chapter "La rivalità tra Comata e Lacone: una paideia disconosciuta" (77-81) may serve as an example; P. suggests here sexual undertones in Theocritus' representation of the pastoral conflict between two protagonists of Idyll 5--such a particular observation helps to appraise more fully the poem as a whole. Some non-Italian reader may perhaps feel at first a bit perplexed by how P. builds his discourse in such (and other) cases. The thesis is very rarely expounded explicitly at the beginning of a discussion, and P. leads his reader to it through a chain of arguments till the final paragraph, or even the closing sentence. But the reader's patience is usually repaid by P.'s brilliant conclusions, such as the observation on the relative chronology of Callimachus' Hymn to Delos and Theocritus' Idyll 17 that I have mentioned above, or the conclusion of the discussion of the Sotadean fragments (147), where P. makes (too cautiously) a sound suggestion that the reason for which the anonymous Cynic verses were falsely ascribed to Sotades could be, apart from their meter, the fact that their anti-monarchic orientation (apparent from fr. 9.1 Powell), an element of the Cynic doctrine, fits well the undertones of Sotades' invective against Ptolemy (fr. 1 Powell). The most charming conclusion is, nonetheless, that of the discussion of Possidippus' Ep. 55 Austin-Bastianini, in which P. elucidates the phrase πρὸς ἑῴαν κερκίδα σαπφῴους ἐξ ὀάρων ὀάρους (l. 1-2) by means of the passage from Giacomo Leopardi's poem: "né teco le compagne ai dì festivi / ragionavan d'amore" (197). Yet P.'s tendency not to reveal too quickly where he is heading has at times negative consequences for the clarity of his discourse, as at the beginning of the just mentioned discussion of the Posidippean epigram, where alongside of the Greek text of the poem he prints Austin-Bastianini's translation (191) which he is about to criticize on the pages that follow (192, 194-5). Obviously, the translation should not obscure the Greek text but--as elsewhere in the volume--provide a hint for the reader on how the author understands it.

These reflections upon the form of P.'s discourse lead me to consider his final preoccupation: that with Italian classical scholarship. That is most clearly evident from the closing chapter (203-10), a remembrance of Gregorio Serrao, P.'s mentor and himself a disciple of Gennaro Perrotta. Through this piece, P. with an amazing self-consciousness defines his own position in the chain of generations that form the history of Hellenistic scholarship on Italian soil. But apart from that chapter, P. privileges Italian scholarship throughout the whole volume, reserving a prominent place for Serrao and Bruno Gentili. Although he makes lavish use of the rich non-Italian literature, in many particular cases he more willingly cites Italian authors, as when in a note on the crucial term λεπτότης (29 n. 11) he picks out from the vast literature only Serrao's and his own studies. P.'s book may therefore prove useful for readers outside Italy as a bibliographical guide to Italian scholarship on Alexandrian poetry.

Finally, here are the minor remarks I alluded to earlier. 27: In the beginning of Call. fr. 1.17 Pfeiffer the usually accepted ἔλλετε is printed, but P. says in n. 2: "sarei più propenso ad accogliere nel testo la lezione ἔλλατε". His arguments would appear far more convincing if he printed ἔλλατε in the main text. 28-9: Sotades fr. 2 Powell could prove an interesting addition to the list of passages that attest "il tuonare attribuito metaforicamente, con un'evidente valenza sarcastica, a soggetti diversi da Zeus". 41-60: It is surprising that Idyll 11 is not even mentioned in the chapter "Incursioni bucoliche nella poesia non bucolica di Teocrito". From the fact that the poem is missing from the list of the non-bucolic Idylls on p. 44 one can infer that it is classified by P. as bucolic, but I am not convinced that this is wholly correct. On the contrary, several passages said in this chapter to have a bucolic flavor do not seem to me to do so. E.g. Idyll 15.73 ὠθεῦνθ' ὥσπερ ὕες can even now be heard in the streets of Warsaw, in definitely non-bucolic contexts. 71: Immediately after the song for Amaryllis in Idyll 3 is (rightly) classified as "una sorta di paraklausithyron" there is a discussion of the song of Polyphemus from Idyll 11. It would be useful to note that this is also a sort of paraklausithyron. On the contrary, the song that Dioscorides speaks of in the last part of the epigram discussed by P. on p. 167-8 (A. P. 5.52.5-6) is not a paraklausithyron, not even "un paraklausithyron anomalo", as P. puts it; it is an epithalamium (indeed anomalous). 128-9: P. declares disagreement with Solmsen, who rejects Hes. Th. 478-80 as interpolated, and "alla luce delle recente acquisizioni degli studi oralistici sull'epica arcaica" claims 478-80 and 481-4 to be "due varianti rapsodiche ... recepite entrambe dal testo esiodeo". In fact P.'s diagnosis does not conflict with Solmsen's proposal; only it is safer to assume, with Solmsen, that the conflation of two rhapsodic variants was post-Hesiodic, so as to save the genuine Hesiodic text from inconsistency. 136-7: P. here invokes his own ingenious and widely accepted suggestion, formulated in "Ricerche I", that Sotades fr. 16 Powell is an incipit of the invective which ended with fr. 1. But another reading of fr. 16, apparently contradictory to that of P., was in the interim proposed by H. White and accepted by G. Giangrande and Y. Durbec.6 It is a pity that P. did not take the opportunity to defend his proposal from that joint assault.

P.'s Italian is elegant and very readable, the Greek is usually translated (though my impression is that more of it is translated at the beginning than at the end of the volume), and--as in the case of various "Companions"--the book is attractively heterogeneous; hence it should appear accessible to many readers. It has occurred to me that P.'s solid, honest scholarship can be used e.g. in teaching Greek literature as a convenient source of specific illustrations for K. Gutzwiller's recent Guide to Hellenistic Literature.7

The editors who took care of P.'s orphaned child are to be warmly thanked. Misprints in the Greek are very rare, although it is abundantly quoted;8 there are however some sloppy references.9 The articles that were conceived as independent entities are well adjusted to each other, but a few unnecessary repetitions still remain.10 There are two indices in comparison with the four of "Ricerche I". Of them the "Indice analitico" seems to me not much more useful than the table of contents, which it largely repeats (and there is no justification for the fact that passages referred to are not given in full: e.g. "Muse in Esiodo e Callimaco: 13 ss."). The "Indice dei luoghi discussi" is more useful, yet either it has numerous omissions or its compositional principle remains elusive to me; e.g. from the chain of eight references on p. 138 only one is indexed (that to Pind. P. 2), the rest are not. That the volume is rather modestly bound in soft covers is understandable as a demand of the series of which it forms a part (and of which P. himself was one of editors). But it would be nice to see some day this valuable book reedited jointly with the discussions contained in "Richerche I", in an elegant hardcover volume, and perhaps with a more catchy title.11


1.   R. Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina. Teocrito, Callimaco, Sotade, Roma 1984.
2.   A. Cameron, Callimachus and His Critics, Princeton 1995.
3.   M. Fantuzzi, R. Hunter, Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry, Cambridge 2004. Ed. pr.: Muse e modelli: la poesia ellenistica da Alessandro Magno ad Augusto, Roma-Bari 2002.
4.   See J. Méndez Dosuna, Mnemosyne 61 (2008), 192-7.
5.   I plan to undertake this work.
6.   H. White, Orpheus 21 (2000), 187-8, G. Giangrande, Habis 35 (2004), 105-8, Y. Durbec, REG 118 (2005), 602-3.
7.   K. Gutzwiller, A Guide to Hellenistic Literature, Oxford 2007.
8.   I have noticed πνοά that should read πνόᾳ in the main text on p. 109 (it is correct in n. 31 on the same page); 195 n. 26: read ἀ]θ.ύ.ρ.ομες in place of ἀ[θ.ύρομες.
9.   E.g. on p. 138 Pind. P. 2.95 should be 94-5, and Aesch. Ag. 1264 should be 1624.
10.   N. 24 on p. 174 is in large part identical with n. 36 on p. 159, and n. 5 on p. 182 with n. 17 on p. 172.
11.   I owe thanks to Chris Callanan for improving my English.

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