Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.14

Julia Haig Gaisser, The Fortunes of Apuleius and the Golden Ass. A Study in Transmission and Reception. Martin Classical Lectures.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2008.  Pp. xiii, 365.  ISBN 978-0-691-13136-8.  $53.00.  

Reviewed by Robert H. F. Carver, University of Durham (
Word count: 1936 words

Anyone who has admired the rich erudition of Catullus and His Renaissance Readers (1993) and Pierio Valeriano on the Ill Fortune of Learned Men (1999) will welcome the arrival of another book by Julia Haig Gaisser. If the author breaks less new ground in The Fortunes of Apuleius than in these previous studies, she nevertheless brings a fresh perspective to the evidence that has been unearthed and collated by researchers over recent decades. In the course of seven chapters and four appendices, Professor Gaisser samples instances of the reception of Apuleius from the third to the sixteenth centuries, the core of the work being her study of the Italian Renaissance. The emphasis falls, as one would expect, on Apuleius' masterpiece, the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass -- the only work of Latin prose fiction deserving the name of "novel" to survive intact from the ancient world -- but Gaisser's opening chapter ("A Celebrity and His Image") considers Apuleius in his plenitude as a second-century sophist, while an awareness of the fluctuating fortunes of his philosophical works informs the book as a whole.

The Fortunes of Apuleius had its genesis in a set of four lectures delivered at Oberlin College and the published version retains the virtues of clarity and accessibility which one associates with a viva voce performance, while her obvious enthusiasm for the subject-matter suggests an affinity with the most famous of Apuleius' commentators, Filippo Beroaldo of Bologna (the subject of her sixth chapter). Two other qualities stand out: the first is Gaisser's gift for imaginative engagement, her ability to recreate interpretive communities of the past. She is adept at entering into the lives of the long-dead scholars she discusses, imagining the conversations that they might have had amongst themselves and the thought processes behind particular acts of transmission and reception. The second is iconographic. The illustrations to The Fortunes of Apuleius (16 pages of plates and a portrait of Apuleius on the jacket taken from an early fourth-century ceiling painting at Trier) are sumptuous, and Gaisser adroitly integrates analysis of the textual and the visual. For instance, a detailed discussion (82-93) of Vat. lat. 2194 -- the manuscript produced in 1345 by Bartolomeo de' Bartoli for Bruzio Visconti-- reveals striking correspondences between Lucius and Psyche in the illuminated initials of Books II and V. Gaisser shows (89-90) how an apparently casual aside in Met. IX. 3 (de caelo missus mihi sospitator) is elevated by the illuminator into a visual representation of divine providence.

Gaisser's second chapter ("Exemplary Behavior: The Golden Ass from Late Antiquity to the Prehumanists") covers much of the same material treated in the first three chapters of Robert H. F. Carver's The Protean Ass: The "Metamorphoses" of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2007) -- which appeared while The Fortunes of Apuleius was in press -- and in the Oxford D.Phil. thesis from which that monograph emerged ("The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the English Renaissance", 1991), which Professor Gaisser consulted (at an early stage in the preparation of her own monograph) but decided not to engage with critically (it does not appear in her footnotes or bibliography).

Gaisser overlooks minor references to Apuleius in Ausonius, Sergius, and Pseudo-Acron, but adds interesting elements to the picture, drawing useful comparisons (51-2) with Philip the Philosopher's allegorical reading of Heliodorus' Aethiopica (when considering Sallustius and Endelechius' possible motives for editing Apuleius at the end of the fourth century), and providing a helpful inter-reading of Fulgentius' exegesis of "Cupid and Psyche" and the New Testament (58).

Gaisser takes care not to entangle her reader in the minutiae of scholarly debates and most of the time one is likely to be grateful. Such succinctness can come, however, at a price. The story that she tells of Apuleius' transmission and reception is often a simplified one -- and at significant points it is misleading. She dates the arrival of Apuleius at Monte Cassino to the eighth century (61), without considering the effects of the numerous depredations suffered by the library before the copying of F (the oldest surviving manuscript of the Metamorphoses) in the eleventh century -- the century during which so much of the literary wealth of the abbey appears to have been acquired (Carver 2007: 71, citing Newton). She points, correctly, to the "unmistakable echoes of the Florida" in the works of Guaiferius, an eleventh-century monk at Monte Cassino, but overlooks his echo of Met. XI. 3 (Carver 2007: 64, citing Limone). She supplies some nice touches in her treatment of the so-called spurcum additamentum, the "dirty addition" to Met. X. 21-2 (the account of the libidinous matrona of Corinth) found in the margins of φand a number of other manuscripts (including Boccaccio's autograph copy): "Another fine detail is his having the matron bathe the Ass with rosewater -- a teasing reference to the long-sought rose remedy that will change him back to a man" (65). But Gaisser fails to explore the full implications of the "Class I" to which Boccaccio's manuscript belongs. According to the orthodox model proposed by D. S. Robertson in 1924, Class I manuscripts descend from a (lost) copy of F made prior to the tearing of fol. 160 (and the copying of φ around 1200). But whether we accept this model (or Oronzo Pecere's more radical suggestion of descent not from an apograph of F but from its lost archetype), the conclusion is inevitable: there were more copies of the Metamorphoses in existence during the eleventh and twelfth centuries than those which are extant (F and φ) and there is no reason to suppose that such additional copies were confined to Monte Cassino. Gaisser's description of Apuleius "quietly slipping out of Monte Cassino at the end of the thirteenth century and making his way north and into the notice of scholars in northern Italy and Avignon" (76) also ignores the (admittedly often tenuous) claims that have been made for Apuleian influence on late-medieval literature, particularly the twelfth-century French romances (Carver 2007, 71-107)

Building on Giuseppe Billanovich's identification of the author of the (anonymous) Flores moralium auctoritatum (1329), Gaisser promotes Guglielmo da Pastrengo (d. 1362) as "the first person in the Renaissance we can identify as a reader of the Golden Ass" (71-2). A better candidate, however, is surely the Paduan poet laureate, Albertino Mussato (d. 1329), whose poem describing a trip to Venice in 1319 appears to imitate the description of Pamphile's metamorphosis at Met. III. 21 (Carver 2007: 121-2). While she mentions Petrarch's references to Apuleius in several of his works, she overlooks an intriguing instance of Apuleian allusion in Petrarch's hilarious account of the lascivious cardinal in the penultimate letter of the Liber sine nomine (Carver 2007: 126-7) -- an episode which reveals Petrarch to be capable of a Milesian dimension which is generally seen by critics as the preserve of his younger colleague, Boccaccio, whose use of Apuleius in the Decameron in the mid-fourteenth century is so well known. Gaisser speculates in interesting ways about Boccaccio's reasons for revising the original version (preserved in autograph) of the Genealogia deorum (heresy in the account of the multiplicity of souls) and suggests the writing of his Dante lectures as a prompt for the revision (116-18), but in discussing Boccaccio's treatment of Psyche (Book V) she ignores the intermediate influence of the medieval commentary tradition associated with Martianus Capella's De nuptiis, in particular, the works ascribed to Bernardus Silvestris (Carver 2007: 102-3). There are, however, some instances which have not previously featured in anglo-phone discussions of Apuleius' reception -- most notably, the fourteenth-century allegory of Lucius which appears in a manuscript (Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale ms. II. VI. 2) of the Third Vatican Mythographer (124-8, citing Garin).

Gaisser's analysis of the production of individual manuscripts is excellent, the reconstruction of the "sequence of events" in Antonio di Mario's creation of Laur. 54.12 (1425) from three source texts being particularly interesting (132-5). There are some examples of literary manifestations of Apuleianism beyond Boccaccio -- e.g. Boiardo's "dialectical or emulative imitation" (180) of Apuleius' "Tale of the Slippers" (Met. IX. 16-21) in the Orlando innamorato (II. 26. 20-52) at the end of the fifteenth century -- but Gaisser's concern is very much with the reception of Apuleius (particularly within Italian Renaissance humanist circles) rather than with the influence of The Golden Ass on European literature. She provides a fine account of Apuleius' position within the Este-Gonzaga courts at Ferrara and Mantua, including valuable discussions of ecphrases of a tarot pack and a frieze (both lost) depicting Psyche (180-4; 188-92).

In general, Gaisser is very good at making connections between seemingly discrete data, but her relatively limited geographical and chronological range and her decision to concentrate on the authors and texts that really engage her attention can lead readers astray. Her conjecture that "The Golden Ass probably crossed the Alps in a printed book" (244) and her statement that "The first concrete evidence for Apuleius' novel outside Italy is found in the age of print" (243) are contradicted by the fact that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated a copy (now lost) of De asino aureo to the University of Oxford in 1439 and was corresponding with Pier Candido Decembrio to obtain copies of the De magia and Florida in 1441, a full thirty years before Hartmann Schedel recorded his acquisition of a copy of Bussi's edition (Carver 2007: 157-8).

The heart of the book (in several senses of the word) is the account of the massive commentary on the Asinus aureus produced by Filippo Beroaldo in 1500. Beroaldo could fittingly be described as an artist in his own right, not merely a critic or scholar. Gaisser shows how his strategies of self-promotion mimic those of Apuleius himself, and she brings both authors to life with the same skills that she deployed so effectively in her earlier work on Catullus. The final chapter ("Speaking in Tongues") covers now familiar material, but contains a useful discussion of the interrelationship between Sieder's German translation of Apuleius (written in 1500, revised with a Lutheran bias and printed in 1538) and Wyle's version of the pseudo-Lucianic Onos (248).

There are, inevitably, minor criticisms that one could make. In her discussion of Beroaldo's attitude towards allegoresis, Gaisser misrepresents "the medieval fourfold system of allegory employed by interpreters of scripture", confusing "tropological" (i.e. moral) with "typological" levels of meaning: "on the historical level Jerusalem is the city of Judaea, on the allegorical or tropological level the church, on the moral level the soul . . ." (231). The index is not comprehensive, so that interesting allusions in the footnotes to (for example) the Conquestio uxoris Cavicholi (an analogue to Apuleius' account of the ménage à trois at Met. IX. 27), or Niccolò Maria d'Este, or the Tabula Cebetis will be missed by an academic browser. The bibliography is copious, bringing in a broad range of Italian and German scholarship (including Franziska Küenzlen's Verwandlungen eines Esels: Apuleius' "Metamorphoses" im frühen 16. Jahrhundert [Heidelberg 2005]); but there are some surprising omissions, among them Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel (1996) which, however provocative -- indeed, problematic-- in its central thesis ("Novel and romance are one"), nevertheless provides some stimulating accounts of Apuleian reception.

There is, however, a great deal here to admire and to enjoy. Professor Gaisser provides a lucid introduction to a complex but fascinating subject, synthesizing and complementing existing scholarship in the field, and containing it all in a matrix of cloth, paper, and print that (in the best Renaissance tradition) is a pleasure to hold as well as to read.

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