Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.41

Sebastiano Timpanaro, Giuseppe Ramires, Carteggio su Servio (1993-2000). Testi e studi di cultura classica, 58.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2013.  Pp. 284.  ISBN 9788846737168.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by James Zetzel, Columbia University (

Sebastiano Timpanaro was an outstanding scholar of (among other things) Latin philology, and was also, as Fabio Stok says in his preface to this volume, a great writer of letters. Since his death in 2000 at the age of 77, his admirers and executors have overseen the publication of various selections of his correspondence, of which the present volume is the fourth, and the first on a classical subject.1 The subject is a specialized one: Giuseppe Ramires, a young scholar with a recent doctorate from the University of Catania, first wrote to Timpanaro in 1993 and sent him a copy of his dissertation, an edition of Servius’ commentary on Aeneid 9, and much of their ensuing correspondence involves details of the text and editing of Servius, leading up to the publication of Ramires’ editions of Servius on Aeneid 9 in 1996 and (after Timpanaro’s death) on Aeneid 7 in 2003.2 The present volume, which contains a lengthy introduction by Ramires about Timpanaro’s work on Servius followed by 53 letters by the two scholars, combines two scholarly genres that flourished in the nineteenth century, “life and letters” and adversaria, but it is of more limited scholarly interest than either one. Indeed, one wonders why, other than as an act of homage to an admired scholar, it has been published at all.

It is no reflection, I believe, on Ramires’ scholarly merits (which are readily visible in his published editions of Servius) to say that the main interest of a volume like this lies in Timpanaro’s contribution to it; and yet in fact Timpanaro’s contribution is not large: of the 53 letters in this volume, only 21 are by Timpanaro; of 191 pages, only 66 are by him. Only two of Timpanaro’s letters are of more than four pages, while nine of Ramires’ are. The Servian parts of the correspondence consist largely of Ramires’ lists of questions about particular passages in Books 9 and 7, with Timpanaro’s much briefer answers: in only a few places are there genuine discussions of problems in interpretation, and while those can be quite interesting, Ramires has published the most important ones separately, either in his editions or in articles. The slight value of the correspondence for students of Servius, moreover, is diminished by Ramires’ poor presentation. The editorial annotation is maddening. In the early portions of the correspondence, page references to Servius are given to Ramires’ dissertation—not a volume readily accessible to anyone not within reach of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. When accessible editions are cited in the text, the identification is repeated in a footnote: thus (p.188) the reference to a textual problem in Servius’ note on Aen. 7.682 is given as “3-5 Ram. [footnote: Servius 2003, p. 95] = 182, 1-4 Thilo [footnote: Servius 1878-1881, p.182].” And instead of providing a straightforward introduction to the manuscripts or a set of sigla to make the very detailed textual discussions comprehensible, Ramires gives an identifying footnote at the first mention of each manuscript but no cross-references when the sigla recur. Given such painstaking and pointless repetition, it is worth pointing out remarkable sloppiness: Ramires constantly cites Thilo in the notes as having been published 1878-81, when (as the bibliography knows) the publication dates of the three volumes are 1881, 1884, and 1887. He even cites his own dissertation as both “Servius 1989-91” and “Ramires 1989-91”, including only the former in the bibliography.

Indeed, the editing of the correspondence displays a strange mixture of reverent accuracy and considerable inattention. The documentation of the correspondence itself is inadequate: in letter 1, Ramires is apparently giving the text of his draft (always a less reliable source than the final text), which has an illegible word; letter 46 is missing a post-script cited in letter 47 (and noted by Ramires). The form of the letters (handwritten or typed) is not given, as is customary in such editions. Ramires claims (41) to provide a diplomatic transcript, but emphasis is displayed three different ways (italics; underlined italics; Sperrdruck), and Ramires gives no hint of how it was done in the original. At the same time, however, he is unwilling to put into the text (as other editors of modern correspondence often do, using typographical means to indicate editorial comment) updated or fuller references to editions or texts—which would have eliminated many of the useless and distracting notes referred to above. More important is that where real annotation is needed, it is not supplied. To be useful to students of Timpanaro (or of Italian academic life and politics in the 1990s) in future generations—or even to non-Italians now—the book needs annotation of many telegraphic and oblique references: apart from the long lists of textual questions lacking any context, there are several elliptical discussions, at times with unexplained abbreviations, of academic politics and institutions or political parties and elections. Ramires recognizes no possible audience other than Timpanaro’s friends and admirers and apparently has no desire to elucidate anything beyond the immediate concerns of the correspondents and the text of Servius. It is proverbial that “every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client”; the same applies to editors.

If one sets aside the Servian material that is either available elsewhere or not very intelligible as presented, what is left? Not a “Carteggio su Servio”, to be sure, but a kind of epistolary novel with various para-Servian strands. Most appealing is the deepening relationship between the young Ramires and the aging Timpanaro (70 when the correspondence began): from being strictly concerned with precise Servian problems, the topics addressed expand to include family and health, vacations and weather, politics and academic politics as the informality grows from “Lei” to “tu” and from “Ramires” to “Giuseppe”, culminating in Ramires’ finally visiting Timpanaro in Florence in 1999.

The relationship between Ramires and Timpanaro has other aspects. At the outset, Ramires has a recent doctorate and is teaching in a liceo in Messina; the narrative that develops reveals a bright and frustrated young man seeking academic success and hoping for the aid of an eminent scholar. He seeks Timpanaro’s advice not only about the text of Servius, but about where and how to publish his edition and what to do with articles derived from his work on Servius; he asks for Timpanaro’s support in both publication and in the competition for university positions. One finds here more, perhaps, than one wanted to know (or fully understands) about the politics of the academy and of academic publishing in Italy, including (what may be customary in Italy but is not so, I think, in the United States) Timpanaro’s proposing to review Ramires’ edition after he had seen it in draft and commented on it, sending his review to Ramires for comment, working hard to place the favorable review in a suitable periodical, and tailoring his views to fit the result he wants to achieve. A large part of the correspondence concerns either the publication of this review or the attempt to mitigate the effects of the less favorable review given to Ramires by H. D. Jocelyn.3

Another part of the relationship is somewhat different. Ramires starts, it seems to me, by being completely deferential to Timpanaro’s views, but gradually becomes less so. Timpanaro believed strongly in the value of indirect tradition; often useful indeed, but in Timpanaro’s later work it turns into a rejection of direct tradition and thus of stemmatics. In the case of Servius, this specifically meant a rejection of the so-called “Harvard Servius” and in particular of the important research on the manuscripts done by the late Charles Murgia. Murgia was, I would agree, at times too rigid in his reliance on stemmatics in choosing among variants, but his explanation of the manuscript tradition is fundamental, and both Ramires and Timpanaro constantly and rightly rely on his work. One sees a curious dialectic: the hostility to Murgia appears in the rather one-sided account of the differences between him and Timpanaro given by Ramires in the introduction, and continues in the correspondence itself. But Ramires seems gradually to realize that his own initial stemma (with the discovery of a sub-group α to which he accords excessive importance) is itself too rigid, and “contamination” is mentioned more frequently, while Timpanaro is clearly torn between his dislike of using any stemma and his even greater dislike of Murgia. That leads him to support Ramires’ stemma against Murgia’s more emphatically than Ramires himself does and simultaneously to want to deny (210), absurdly, that Servius Auctus exists at all.4

Ramires, although he never clearly explains Murgia’s contributions or his own reliance on them, shows, particularly in the latter part of the correspondence, a much more nuanced judgment than Timpanaro. Timpanaro was a superb Latinist, but he never, as far as I know, edited a text or collated a set of manuscripts, just as he never could endure the strains of an academic career. Ramires copes with the difficulties of his working life, just as he faced the hard and grueling work of editing. For all that, I have great respect for him, even though I continue to disagree with his reconstruction of the stemma of manuscripts and with the format of his editions.

But there are some disquieting aspects of this correspondence, notably the light it casts on Timpanaro’s temperament. Stok (10) speaks of the “dark and pessimistic” outlook of Timpanaro’s last years, but it is not merely a state of mind. It is generally known, and is apparent in his more political writings, that he became ever more anti-American and anti-Zionist; but there is more to it than that. In one unpleasant passage, referring to Jocelyn’s friendship with C. O. Brink, he writes of Brink (154) “era un ebreo (il suo vero cognome era Levi or Levy)” and later in the same paragraph says “Certo, la psicologia degli ebrei, per ragioni ben comprensibili, è spesso complicata.” Brink had converted to Lutheranism (and later to Anglicanism) and changed his name in 1931, before Nazi rule. At his death in 1994 he had been an Anglican communicant for decades, nor was his “real” name Levy; and “ebrei” do not have a uniform psychology. For Timpanaro, it seems, once a Jew always a Jew; and they are all alike.5

Were my own private correspondence published, I am sure that I would be found to have said some silly, trivial, and ignorant things, and probably some things that would offend readers: most of us say the wrong thing at times inadvertently or in unguarded moments. After reading this, I fervently hope my letters and emails stay firmly buried. I wish that I had not read these letters, and there is no book that I more regret having reviewed. My admiration of Timpanaro’s learning remains high; my opinion of his judgment has dropped considerably. ​


1.   The other three are: Sebastiano Timpanaro--Francesco Orlando, Carteggio su Freud (1971-1977) (Pisa, 2001); Cesare Cases—Sebastiano Timpanaro, Un lapsus di Marx, Carteggio 1956-1990 (Pisa, 2005); and Carlo Ginzburg—Sebastiano Timpanaro, Lettere intorno a Freud (1971-1995), in E. Ghidetti and A. Pagnini, eds., Sebastiano Timpanaro e la cultura del secondo Novecento (Rome, 2005) 317-45. I have only seen the first of these. I have written at greater length about Timpanaro (and his work on Vergil in particular) in BMCR 2002.02.09.
2.   My review of Ramires’ two editions (Book 9 [Bologna, 2003]; Book 7 [Bologna 2003]) appeared in Vergilius 54 (2008) 202-212.
3.   Jocelyn’s review, which seems to me extremely balanced, appeared in Latomus 57 (1998) 434-437.
4.   Both my review and Jocelyn’s discuss the stemmatic issues, which there is no room to explain here.
5.   On Brink, see H. D. Jocelyn’s entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, behind a login wall.

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