Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.31

Marco Fernandelli, Catullo e la rinascita dell' epos: dal carme 64 all' Eneide. Spudasmata, Bd 142.   Hildesheim; Zürich; New York:  Georg Olms Verlag, 2012.  Pp. lx, 614.  ISBN 9783487147703.  €88.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jason S. Nethercut, Knox College (

The ambitions of this new monograph by Marco Fernandelli match its size. Here the author not only offers a comprehensive analysis of the narrative dynamics of Catullus 64, but does so with the larger aim of showing how fundamentally influential Catullus’s epyllion was for Vergil’s development of his own narrative voice. Fernandelli should be commended for the wealth of good close readings and individual observations that are scattered throughout these 600 pages, even if he does not fulfill his larger goal with complete success.

Following a lengthy introduction (XV-LX), Fernandelli divides his analysis of Catullus 64 into a tripartite framework borrowed specifically from Neoptolemus of Parium (LIX, n.127): 1. Poem (1-144), 2. Poetry (145-338) and 3. Poet (339-473). The first section addresses narrative art and technique; the second outlines how Catullus’s combination of several diverse models interacts with (and enacts) the complex narrative structure of the poem; and the third focuses on the mode of narration itself, insisting on the distinction between the poet and the persona loquens of the poem. These three sections lay the groundwork for the fourth and final section of the book (475- 512), in which the author brings to bear all that we have learned about Catullus’s narrative art upon the Aeneid. An appendix translating Wilamowitz’s essay on Catullus 64 into Italian (513-519)1 is followed by an extensive bibliography (521-567) and a helpful series of indices (569-614).

In the Introduction, Fernandelli outlines the scholarly context into which his own interpretation of Catullus 64 situates itself. Separating out two main—and opposing—strands in the scholarship on the poem, Fernandelli labels these “unitarian” and “skeptical” interpretations. The unitarian approach to the poem is represented by the analyses of Wilamowitz and Perotta, while the skeptical interpretation is the result of the New Criticism and serves as the dominant trend in more recent discussions of the poem.2 Bramble is revolutionary in this regard, but Gaisser, Schmale and O’Hara are also adduced amongst these “skeptics”.3 For Fernandelli, the most fundamental insight of this skeptical approach is the notion that the poet creates problems (e.g. the nautical primacy of Argo) that are played out in the realm of narratology and, as a result, that the narrator is not a reliable witness for the reader’s interpretation of the poem. Rather than take sides in this debate, Fernandelli focuses on Catullus’s poetic technique and the influence of this technique on Vergil, arguing, in the end, that in Catullus’s epyllion Vergil recognized the appropriate means for developing a new epic vision that was simultaneously Roman and modern. Here Fernandelli credits the scholars who have argued that Vergil’s technique is sympathetic and empathetic (Heinze, Otis),4 but he argues that it remains to be shown how Catullus 64 influenced the subjective style as we find it in the Aeneid. Fernandelli aims to do so in this book by reconsidering the many functions of the Catullan narrator.

In the first section (Poem), Fernandelli argues that in terms of narrative technique Catullus situates himself as the heir to the Hellenistic tradition of epyllion. The major narrative aspects that Catullus took over from this tradition— and which he develops in his own idiosyncratic ways—are atypical focalization of well known content, the fusion of many different genres into a single poem and, most important, the development of the psychology of his characters. In the course of his discussion, Fernandelli makes an important contribution to our understanding of the intertextual background of 64, arguing convincingly that Theocritus serves as a primary model for Catullus. Tracking the similarities that connect Idylls 1, 2, 18 and 24 with Idyll 15, Fernandelli suggests that these form a complex of motifs that fundamentally informs the composition of 64. In the end, Catullus finds in these poems of Theocritus the basis for his own “totalizing” epyllion, in which he accommodates many different artistic media, juxtaposes different temporal contexts and maintains different stylistic registers.

The central concern of the second major section (Poetry) is the bilateral relationship between structure and doctrina. Accordingly, Fernandelli offers an extended analysis of how the different models that Catullus employs (doctrina) inform the complex narrative structure of 64 (structure). This section thus amounts to a series of close readings, highlighting the different intertextual models found throughout the poem. In addition to the primary model of Apollonius’s Argonautica, Fernandelli underlines the influence of Callimachus’s Hymn to Delos on the narrative dynamics of 64: both use external prolepsis with reference to the narrator’s historical time in order to draw a connection between myth’s past and poet’s present. Turning next to Ariadne in the central ekphrasis, Fernandelli cogently argues that this “lament of an abandoned girl” has parallels in Apollonius’s Medea, Theocritus’s Simaetha, Callimachus’s Phyllis from the Aitia (fr. 556 Pfeiffer), and Palestra in Plautus’s Rudens, all of which derive from Euripides’s Medea. But Fernandelli also finds a source for Euripides in Persephone’s narrative of her own rape in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Fernandelli handles well the presence of tragedy (specifically Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis) in the Song of the Fates, alongside the more prominent model of the Iliad and outlines the influence of Hesiod (the iron race of men), Aratus (the departure of Dike) and, perhaps surprisingly, Callimachus (Iambs 3 and 12) on 64’s pessimistic coda. In fact, Fernandelli’s pages on the importance of Callimachus’s Iambs for Catullus 64 deserve special attention for their originality.

Fernandelli begins his third section (Poet) by observing that already in Pindar, Callimachus, Theocritus and Apollonius, poetic construction goes masked as ex tempore speech. But in 64 what we have is more of a “commentary”. By underlining the non-mimetic character of its construction, this commentary draws attention to the act of the narrator. Thus, the person talking, more than what is being said, is revealed to be the object of mimesis. Fernandelli follows the incisive observation made above all by O’Hara, but first presented by Schmale, that the points of view of the author and the narrator in Catullus 64 are different.5 The naïveté of the Catullan narrator takes on an ideological function, which brings forward a plane of significance that is more profound and contrasts with this very naïveté. But Fernandelli takes this observation only as a starting point to argue that this narrator, who actively problematizes his own content through the ethical perspective that accompanies the exposition of his material, serves as a model for Vergil. Fernandelli concludes this section with the claim that the “skeptical” interpretation of 64 is unsatisfying, adopting Kermode’s insights about apocalypse found in The Sense of an Ending. The final verses of Catullus 64 (397-408) represent the moral apocalypse of the society in which the speaker and his listeners live; hence, they represent a definite ending for the narrative. At the same time, since the stylized beginning of the poem is recapitulated by the coda, the reader is encouraged to recognize that the narrator has been composing an etiological narrative, which, in order to be completed, must necessarily draw the present into the perimeter of its content. Fernandelli also argues that the disruptive temporal dynamics of the poem render the Song of the Fates only one fragment in a mosaic. We should not lend undue importance, therefore, to this single vignette. At the same time, however, Fernandelli recognizes that critics like Klingner, Jenkyns and O’Hara are right, inasmuch as nothing remains fixed in 64, movement and change appearing endemic to it.6 But such an acknowledgement severely undercuts the argument that he has already advanced. If permanence always proves elusive in 64, the causal stability upon which etiology relies can never be realized. Welcome as Fernandelli’s emphasis on the fragmentation of this poem is, it is difficult to dispel completely the gloom that pervades the end of Catullus 64 in the way he does; the “skeptical” interpretation of 64 will persist, I think, in spite of Fernandelli’s arguments against it.

In the final section (From Poem 64 to the Aeneid), Fernandelli argues that the ekphrasis of Juno’s temple in Aeneid 1 displays the clearest influence of the Catullan narrator. Aeneas exhibits the same characteristics as the narrator of the ekphrasis in Catullus 64, simultaneously reading and narrating.

In evaluating the overall success of this monograph, I have two major criticisms. First, the vast majority of Fernandelli’s argument is spent recovering the aspects of Catullus 64 that he sees as influential for the rebirth of large-scale epic in the Aeneid. Much of this discussion is repetitive. But more concerning is the fact that the reader leaves this book wanting a more thorough discussion of the ramifications of Fernandelli’s analysis of 64 for Vergil. It might have been better to focus on Catullus 64 in this book, then to study Vergil more fully in a subsequent monograph. My second major criticism concerns Fernandelli’s apparent rejection of the place of Lucretius in the development traced in this book. Current scholarship has long emphasized how Lucretius cultivates the narrative technique of sympathy to win over his readers. One thinks above all of the sacrifices of Iphianassa and the calf, but also the entirety of DRN 3 has been analyzed in this way.7 But Fernandelli adduces Lucretius’s Iphianassa (LVII-LVIII) precisely to argue how different this narrator's sympathy is from that displayed in Catullus 64. After thus summarily (and unconvincingly) differentiating the narrators in Lucretius and Catullus 64, Fernandelli remains almost completely silent about Lucretius in the rest of his argument. Should the reader then assume that Fernandelli does not allow for the influence of the Lucretian narrator on Vergil’s narrative technique? Surely the didactic voice of Lucretius informed Vergil throughout his career in much the same way as Fernandelli argues that the Catullan narrator does. Moreover, the poetic laboratories in which Fernandelli sees Vergil perfecting his craft under the guidance of Catullus 64 are Eclogue 6 and the Georgics, both of which are more overtly indebted to Lucretius than to Catullus. Obviously, Fernandelli’s main concern is the influence of Catullus 64 on Vergil, but his silence regarding Lucretius rings loudly throughout his argument, vitiating it in the process.

This book is remarkably free of infelicities, though there are still a handful of typos (e.g. “delnarratore”, 33 and, quoting Thomas (1983) 112-113, “Virgil, in spite of his deep admiration for CATULL’S epyllion”, 476 n.4).8 The criticisms made above aside, Marco Fernandelli is to be commended for embracing such a daunting challenge, in the course of which the intertextuality in Catullus 64 has now been shown to be even more complex and subtle.


1.   Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von (1924) Hellenistische Dichtung in der Zeit des Kallimachos II, 298- 304.
2.   Wilamowitz (see note 1) and Perotta, G. (1931) “Il carme 64 di Catullo e i suoi pretesi originali ellenistici” in Athenaeum 20: 177-222, 370-409.
3.   Bramble, J. C. (1970) “Structure and Ambiguity in Catullus LXIV” in PCPhS 16: 22-41; Gaisser, J. H. (1995) “Threads in the Labyrinth: Competing Views and Voices in Catullus 64” in AJPh 116: 579-616; Schmale, M. (2004) Bilderreigen und Erzähllabyrinth. Catulls Carmen 64, Munich-Leipzig; O’Hara, J. J. (2007) Inconsistency in Roman Epic. Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan, Cambridge.
4.   Heinze, R. (1903) Virgils epische Technik, Leipzig; Otis, B. (1964) Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry, Oxford (though Fernandelli incorrectly cites this work in his bibliography as Virgil and Civilized Poetry).
5.   See note 3.
6.   Klingner, F. (1956) Catulls Peleus-Epos, Munich; Jenkyns, R. (1982) “Catullus and the Idea of a Masterpiece” in id. Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus, and Juvenal, Cambridge, Mass., 85-150; O’Hara (see note 3).
7.   For the “sympathetic” narrator in Lucretius, see Segal, C. (1990) Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in De Rerum Natura, Princeton.
8.   Thomas, R. F. (1983) “Callimachus, the Victoria Berenices, and Roman Poetry” in CQ 33: 92- 113.

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