Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.69

John Mulryan, Steven Brown (trans.), Natale Conti's Mythologiae. 2 Volumes. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 316.   Tempe:  Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS), 2006.  Pp. xlvi, 978.  ISBN 978-0-86698-361-7.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by R. Scott Smith, University of New Hampshire (
Word count: 2219 words

Table of Contents

This attractive two-volume edition is the first complete English translation of Natale Conti's Mythologiae, the most popular work on classical mythology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An immense amount of labor went into this project; Renaissance (and to a lesser extent classical) scholars will benefit greatly from this carefully produced book. The editors, John Mulryan and Stephen Brown (hereafter M/B), have provided a readable and accurate translation of the Latin text, a lengthy and useful introduction to the author and work, helpful annotations, a thorough bibliographical survey of twenty-one of the twenty-five Latin editions (the first since the nineteenth century, pp. 937-958), and useful indices of ancient authors and titles and of mythological personages. Although scholars of the Renaissance will doubtlessly find this book more immediately pertinent to their work, classical scholars with an interest in the reception of ancient myth would do well to note the appearance of this volume. Those who work on ancient mythography, however, have even greater reason to engage with Conti's compendium as he is the sole source for otherwise unattested fragments of Greek mythography (treated specifically at the end of this review).

The introduction (xi-xlvi) covers the life and work of Conti (1520-1582?) with particular attention to his magnum opus, the Mythologiae (pp. xxv-xliii). Despite the great popularity and influence of this work, Conti himself is a rather shadowy figure about whom we know little beyond the scant autobiographical references in his writings. From what we can gather, he was born in Milan, where his family had taken up after fleeing Rome, and later during the Milanese War migrated to Venice as a young boy, where he found patrons of considerable influence, both religious and political. In addition to the Mythologiae, Conti was the author of numerous other works (pp. xvii-xxv), most of which focused on antiquity; these include translations of rhetorical treatises (e.g., Aphthonius' Progymnasmata), of Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae, and of Ps.-Plutarch's De fluviis. He also wrote his own Greek and Latin elegies, a neat composition entitled Myrmicomyamachiae libri quattuor ("The Battle of Ants and Flies in Four Books"), and elegiac or hexameter poems on time (De quattuor anni temporibus and De horis liber unus), among much else. His other major work, the Universae historiae sui temporis, chronicles the years 1545-1581.

Reproduced in twenty-five Latin editions (and six editions in a French translation), the Mythologiae eclipsed all other competing myth books, such as popular ones by Boccaccio, Giraldi, and Cartari, and exerted tremendous influence on Renaissance poets and intellectuals. M/B give a short survey of its influence (xxxvi-xliii) which only touches upon its popularity. Why was Conti's myth book so successful? One reason surely is that it is both comprehensive and yet accessible to its readership. It was carefully organized (divided into ten books, each with its own overarching theme), subdivided into chapter headings, and indexed for ease of use. M/B call Conti's Mythologiae a mythography, which they define differently than what classical scholars have come to expect from the term. It is specifically (p. xxv) "a work which concentrates on the symbolic quality of the myths in that it is a compilation as well as an interpretation of myths." This is the prevailing definition of those who work on medieval and Renaissance mythography. As Jane Chance, author of an extensive two-volume study covering A.D. 433-1350, Medieval Mythography (1994, 2000), puts it (I.2) "mythology is a unified system of myth, whereas mythography is an explanation and rationalization of one or more myths, often in didactic form." M/B rightfully tie Conti's allegorizing approach to Fulgentius' Mitologiae, whose influence on subsequent mythographical texts was indeed great, though their claim that Fulgentius' work was "the first full-blown mythography that treats the myths in a systematic way and explores their physical and moral meanings" overlooks the earlier full allegorizing treatments of, among others, Cornutus, Heraclitus and Sallustius. M/B's treatment of earlier mythography is rather cursory and reliant on outdated scholarship: why, for instance, are we sent to the editions of Commelinus (1596) and van Staveren (1742) for Hyginus? And why are the Vatican Mythographers said to "resemble" Fulgentius when the first VM has precious little that can be called allegory (p. xxvii)? One also wishes that more was said of the medieval mythographers that go before Conti--there is no mention of Chance's work mentioned above--that tie the Renaissance mythographers to their ancient predecessors. This is all the more regrettable because M/B rightfully view Conti as part of a long continuum of mythographical writing from antiquity through the middle ages to the Renaissance.

Conti's Mythologiae is remarkable for its combination of intense attention to classical sources (even those that are suspicious; see below) and allegorizing interpretations of those myths. Conti is not content with a bald summary of any individual myth or figure before interpreting it; he labors over and scrutinizes the multiple sources and variants from antiquity. The discussion of Cerberus (3.5 = pp. 170-173), for example, employs Hesiod, Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, Sophocles, Cicero, Isaacius (= Tzetzes), Apollodorus, Pausanias, Hecataeus (apud Pausanias), Strabo, Lucretius, and Plutarch before moving into allegorical interpretations. A sample of these interpretations, which include both ethical and physical allegory: 1) Cerberus scares deathly souls because "Nature struggles against the death she cannot calmly accept;" 2) the many heads refer "the secret energy buried in the earth that eats up the bodies interred there;" 3) the name Cerberus means "tomb," for kreas means "flesh" and boro "I devour" (an etymology found at Isidore 11.3.33 and twice in Servius ad Aen. 6.395 and 8.297, the latter two not identified by M/B); 4) Hercules stole Cerberus "because excellence breaks the power of the tomb, loosens the grip of death, and fends off the ruin of time, all though the immortal power of its name;" 5) Cerberus represents "greed and the desire for wealth."

For Conti, like many of his time, ancient myth was nothing more than encrypted philosophy, a (ch. 1.1 = p. 1) "secret mythological disguise for disseminating these truths." The ancients hid truths beneath the guise of stories to prevent (p. 2) "ordinary men from gaining access to such remarkable subjects," who, Conti tells us, needed the fear of religion to keep them virtuous. He chooses to treat only those myths that contain some wisdom and does not (p. 3) "bother with interpretations about men changed into trees or bodies devoid of sense or of reason, unless they have demonstrable worth." The importance of Christianity in mythography of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is well known and needs no elaboration here. Conti's work is similarly concerned with uncovering the Christian elements hidden beneath the veneer of ancient stories. The tenth and final book is an executive summary, as it were, of all the rationalizing and allegorical interpretations found in the first nine books. Jupiter, we learn, was the first (p. 888) "to prove that everything was governed by Divine Providence;" the underworld judges were invented (p. 897) "to emphasize that God keeps an eye on everything we do." These allegorical interpretations--not all originate with Conti himself--were nonetheless influential because they were found in Conti's work. Chapman, Bacon, and Spencer, to mention only a few (English) writers (p. xli), owe many of their allegories to Conti.

Translating the Mythologiae, at almost one thousand pages, was a monumental undertaking that required great effort. Despite the relative ease of the Latin, there is much learning in Conti's achievement that can lead one astray, and constant vigilance to the text and Conti's sources (when able to be identified) is necessary. I spot-checked about twenty pages of the translation, randomly choosing 1.2 (On Jupiter) and 3.5 (On Cerberus) and checking the text in a few other places where the translation itself raised questions. The translation, I am happy to report, is quite reliable; only on rare occasions do M/B slip.1 In terms of style, they successfully achieve their aim to produce (p. xlvi) "a translation that is eminently readable, but also one which maintains the dignity and verbal facility of the original." For many ancient citations the translators wisely use the readily available translations of the Loeb Classical Library. Typographical errors are rare. One of the more vexing problems--especially for classicists interested in Conti's use of ancient sources--is that it is often impossible to separate references provided by the editors from those given by Conti himself because both kinds are simply put in parentheses with nothing to distinguish one group from another.

Classical scholars will, of course, be most interested in Conti's use of Greek and Latin sources. There are over 3000 explicit references to specific texts; many more Conti uses but does not cite. While the majority of the explicit citations are verifiably accurate, a fair number are either inaccurate or, if we are less charitable, falsified. In book 2, for example, though most are accurate, M/B identify eleven erroneous references to ancient texts. Although Conti's work was viewed at the time as an authority on classical myth, Joseph Justus Scaliger called him a homo futilissimus (p. xv), and Conti has been continually attacked since the nineteenth century for not living up to the standards of modern scholarship. M/B rightly note that it is unfair to demand of someone in the sixteenth century to conform to our scholarly standards. And anyone who has read Alan Cameron's book Mythography in the Roman World would immediately recognize an affinity between Conti's method of source citation and that found in ancient mythographical works: references are sometimes accurate, mostly derivative, and occasionally falsified to gain an air of authority.

But Conti's reliability, or lack thereof, is of great concern to classical scholars because he is the only authority for (among others) a fragment of Babrius (fr. 141 Luzzatto/La Penna), five fragments of Callimachus (collected at fr. 818 Pfeiffer), one of Hesiod (fr. 122 Merkelbach-West), and one of Acusilaus (see Fowler, Early Greek Mythography 2000: 28 [not noted by M/B]). Classical scholars are right to reject these fragments as spurious. As Fowler states (2000: xxxiii), "there is not the slightest reason to trust him. It is simply incredible that so many unique details should be preserved by him alone at such a date (1567)."

Let us briefly consider the set of five fragments of Callimachus for which Conti is the sole authority. All of these come, according to Conti, from a work which we will call for now On Islands. A look at the attributions will show that Conti is inconsistent in his citations. Here is an overview:

2.1, p. 73 (Pithecusae), attributed to Callimachus' On Islands.

2.1, p. 80 (Oenone/Aegina), attributed to Callimachus's On Islands.

2.3, p. 112 (Samos), attributed to Callimachus's On Islands, on City States, and their Names "and it is repeated by the scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes" [this latter statement is true].

7.5, p. 614 (Diomedea), attributed to Agatharcides (falsely, it seems) in On Europe and Callimachus in On Islands, Cities, and their Names [but it is found at Tz. Schol. in Lyc. 592; other authorities are frequently cited instead of this set of scholia].

8.24, p. 794 (Cadmus story) "the story is told in Musaeus' Titanography and Callimachus's work On Inhabited Islands".

8.24, p. 794 (foundation of Boeotia) "our sources are Nicander's book On Europe, Callimachus's On Inhabited Islands and Cities and their Names, and Ovid's Metamorphoses, book 3."

One quickly notices how thorny this issue is. Leaving aside the differences in the name, we see that three times Callimachus' work is paired with another work (not unlike what we see in ancient mythographical texts). Twice (2.3, 7.5) another text can be verified as accurate. In two places a work On Europe is paired with Callimachus' On Islands but attributed to two different authors. A further point (not noted by M/B) is that only the reference at 2.3 (Samos) is found in the original 1567 edition (in a shorter form as well);2 the other four accounts (counting the two Thebes references together) are additions to the second edition of 1581. Something is clearly amiss here. But whether this source is a deliberate fabrication to add authority, a mistake on Conti's part (perhaps owed to his working from memory), or reliance on another erroneous work cannot (yet) be determined.

One of the great benefits of M/B's work is that they have gone to great lengths to identify the accuracy of Conti's classical sources, and for this Classical and Renaissance scholars will be thankful. But the identification of these errors is only the first step. M/B do not make an attempt--and no one can blame them as the book is big and complicated enough already--to root out Conti's more immediate sources or account for Conti's mistakes. One will have to wait for Fowler's champion (2000: xxxiii n. 10), someone "chalcenteric dig them all out and expose their sources." Conti's work is worth--and needs--further study, and one can only hope that M/B's work prompts others to do spadework into the archaeology of Conti's text, messy though that work will be.

All in all this is a very fine book. All libraries and Renaissance scholars should own a copy. Classical scholars who work on myth and mythography may wish to invest in a personal copy. It is not overly expensive and it makes for interesting reading -- and long enough to consume many sleepless nights.


1.   Some of the more egregious infelicities: p. 16 " is improper for anyone to come up with a way to teach the crowd about the parent of the universe" does not accurately render nefas esse dicebat [Plato] ubi huiusce universitatis parentem inveneris in vulgus proferre. P. 66 "This Jupiter also was Saturn's son (for the doings of almost all of the other gods can be traced back to Saturn)..." entirely misses the point of Saturni filius fuit, ad quem omnia prope aliorum facinora referuntur; the antecedent of quem is Jupiter (son of Saturn) and aliorum refers to the other Jupiters. The language is virtually repeated a few paragraphs later (translated there correctly). On p. 67 a Curetibus ob metum Saturno surreptus does not exactly mean "whom the Curetes abducted because they were afraid of what Saturn might do," but "...secretly stole away from Saturn." On p. 80 "Sithinides" is not a name of a nymph but a general kind of nymph worshipped in Megara (only at Pausanias 1.40, which must be Conti's ultimate source, not identified by M/B); read "one of the Sithnidian Nymphs." One hopes that it was the simple omission of a comma and not a misunderstanding of the Latin that presents us with an unusual lineage (p. 67): "Aeacus...was supposed to be the son of Aegina, who was in turn the daughter of Asopus and Jupiter" (this slip is repeated in the index). P. 123 for "Vulcan...was Jupiter's son" read "Vulcan was Juno's son." On p. 171 "Later commentators called him Cerberus and described him as having many heads" does not capture the rationalizing nuance of tot illi belluae [sic] capita iniunxerunt or the sea-origins (beluae) of Cerberus in this account. On p. 172 the Latin quod significat serpentem is simply a translation of Echidna ("snake"). The translators' rendering "and the Echidna a very cold one, really a serpent" is all but nonsensical.
2.   The 1567 edition only mentions that Samos was the original name which was later called Parthenia because Juno was raised there as a young woman (virgo); the 1581 edition tells us that "Samos was once called Melanetheus, then Anthemusa, then Samos and finally Parthenia, because Juno..." These four names for the island are only found at the end (ad 2.872) of a series of notes in the scholia vetera to Apollonius Rhodius 2.865-72; at the beginning of this series (under a note on the river Imbrasos ad 2.864) a fragment of Callimachus is cited without attribution to a specific work. Surely this is the ultimate source for the error.

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