BMCR 1997.02.28

1997.2.28, La Penna, Da Lucrezio a Persio

, , a cura di Mario Citroni, Emanuele Narducci, Alessandro Perutelli. Milano: Sansoni Editori, 1995. pp.389+vii.

Da Lucrezio a Persio is a collection of some of Antonio La Penna’s most recent writing. La Penna, born in 1925 and now in his final year as a university teacher, has taught at the University of Florence for forty years. To mark the penultimate year of his career three of his distinguished former students assembled this collection. The volume was presented to him in a ceremony last year. Jasper Griffin and Marcello Gigante gave the addresses. Da Lucrezio a Persio contains two essays on Lucretius, one very long survey article on Tibullus, two on Horace (one solely on Horace and reprinted from Stephen Harrison’s bimillenial Homage to Horace, and one with Horace linked to Petronius), four on Ovid, one on Suetonius, one on Seneca, and, finally, a long and valuable overview of Persius. There is an addendum to the volume, listing La Penna’s many publications between 1943 and 1994. Da Lucrezio a Persio provides ample testimony to his wide-ranging, pugnacious intellectual vigor.

Antonio La Penna is best known in the English-speaking world as a critic of Roman poetry, above all of Horace (who is well represented in this volume). For the record, there are three book-length critical studies of his on Horace. But there are also two books on Propertius (1951 and 1977), editions of Ovid’s Ibis (1959) and of its scholia, plus an edition of Babrius’ fables (1986). There is also, amongst his other works (I have not mentioned them all), a study of Sallust (1968), a much reprinted Aspetti del pensiero storico latino (1978), and La cultura letteraria a Roma (1986). These are in addition to his well over one hundred and fifty articles on Greek and Roman culture, and the European literary tradition and its relation to the classics (one could add to this his many contributions to the history of classical philology and classical studies generally). La Penna’s most recent volume is the intriguing Dialogo di Orazio e Voltaire e altri dialoghi teatrali orazioni (1995) whose title offers an accurate description of its contents. Portions of this book were performed last year in Florence and in other Italian centres.

One of the most arresting, if not necessarily intended aspects of this volume, is the sharp contrast which it provides with the material of the school associated with La Penna’s justly famous pupil, Gian Biagio Conte, the University of Pisa, and Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici. Conte’s ground-breaking work, ably translated and handsomely published, has been very influential amongst young English-speaking classicists. This is understandable, for this Pisan school, with its sharp focus on intertextual relations, on a literary world which is enlivened by the very texts which it analyzes, replicates challengingly the habits all of us have absorbed from New Criticism and more recently from the textualisms of deconstruction and related forms of analysis.

There is, between La Penna (who also taught for many years at the élite Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa) and Conte, a very marked divide. La Penna is, in the English sense at any rate, an historicist. (He was, I believe, a member of the Communist Party until the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and has remained close to Marxism since then. It is tempting to see the impulse for his 1986 edition of Babrius as deriving from such political leanings. Some support for this may be drawn from his 1961 article in Società, ‘La morale della favola esopica come morale delle classi subalterne nell’antichità’.) La Penna’s historicism is applied above all to literary and especially to poetic texts. This, he argues in his opening essay, ‘Noi e l’antico’, is the most responsible action a Latinist can take. Literature, above all poetry and the texts of the ancient historians, represents the best and the most intellectually representative of what the ancient world has to offer us. La Penna, however, does not look for simple links between life and literature (except perhaps in his attempt to find some of the characteristics of Sejanus within Lycus in Seneca’s Hercules Furens in ‘Seiano in una tragedia di Seneca?’). His analysis of texts, as it is exhibited within this collection, looks constantly for the sociological determinants of literary expression. So, in his analyses of Horace or Persius or Petronius, he makes much of the social, economic, and moral crises, as he terms them, of the first centuries before and after our era. Radical economic and social change, La Penna believes, will have long-lasting expression within literary texts. La Penna endeavours vigorously, in many of his essays, to ferret out the manifestations of these changes. This ‘method’ receives perhaps its most powerful expression in his essays ‘L’intellettuale emarginato da Orazio a Petronio’ and, modified by literary critical concerns, in ‘Persio e le vie nuove della satira latina’. As these comments should indicate, the polarization between the ideologically driven La Penna and the formalist Conte is marked, perhaps regrettably so. We learn from both.

Let us remain with this historicist strand and see how it operates within La Penna’s work. ‘L’intellettuale emarginato’ begins with Horatian characters such as Damasippus and Stertinius ( Satires 2.3) or Ofellus ( Satires 2.2). La Penna emphasizes how the troubles of the first century BCE tended to throw up such individuals—ruined bankrupts and would-be intellectuals. Although these are unsympathetic characters, La Penna, by ‘historicizing’ them, deepens our response to their intellectual dilemmas. He stresses how, in Horace’s portrait, such men drew emotional sustenance from a philosophy of resignation, a philosophy which offered some intellectual dignity to a life of inevitably straightened circumstances. Theirs was a proud and intransigent philosophy, whatever we think of them as individuals, and one that highlighted the autarkeia of the poor, and their proud dominion over their own passions and own life (Davus in Satires 2.7 is also drawn in here). Horace, however, as we see him in the Satires and in Epistles 1, despite his aspirations, exhibits no such autarkeia. His beliefs exhibit considerable tension, even a form of mild hypocrisy, between his client status, his admiration for the philosophical opportunism of metriotes, and his attraction to the independent, intransigent autarkeia of a figures such as Damasippus. (Horace’s indecision reflects the innate tensions of life in the Augustan era.) La Penna goes on to draw a rough but intriguing parallel between Horace’s proud and independent intellectuals (Stertinius and Damasippus) and such down-at-heel (and equally unsympathetic) intellectuals as Eumolpus in Petronius’Satyricon. They are all intellectuals and all are marginalized. They all have their reduced circumstances thrust upon them by a society undergoing dramatic change. They differ in so far as the Horace’s philosophers reject the protection of the powerful, while Petronius’ constantly, if unsuccessfully, seek it. (Horace in his philosophical opportunism reflects this same Petronian marginalization.) La Penna argues, reasonably, that such intellectuals, whose ostracism was caused by rapid social and economic change, played an important role as sops to the conscience of the powerful. On the one hand their presence challenged the conscience of the rich. On the other hand they offered them comfort, because their roles had become recognized and assimilated and thus impotent.

‘Persio e le vie nuove della satira latina’ offers a long introduction to the difficult poetry of Petronius’ contemporary, Persius (for La Penna this poet is a ‘cesellatore oscuro’). While his introduction displays the same interest in contemporary intellectual and social history as does ‘L’intellettuale emarginato’, it also demonstrates a remarkably sensitive feel for the nuance and structure of poetic texts. After a brief examination of Persius’ ‘conversion’ to Stoicism under the influence of Cornutus, his evident enthusiasm for the moral stance of this ‘Socrates’, and for a poetry, satire, that is in keeping with these ideals (a poetry looking back to that of Horace and Lucilius), La Penna turns to Persius’ ‘revolt’ against both contemporary social and literary enthusiasms. Contemporary poetry, archaizing and refusing to combat the vices rampart in the present, is condemned as insipid and as merely encouraging the vices which motivate this Stoic poet to write. Depravity and drunkenness are signs of the debased times in which the poet lives. So too are lack of manliness and poetic insipidity. These all become intertwined in Persius’ moralistic universe and express the debased reality against which he rails. Persius’ moralizing depiction of contemporary immorality, however, does not lead him, as it did some Stoics, to an opposition to imperial tyranny, or to a collaboration with imperial regents in an attempt to make them more moral agents (as did Seneca), but rather to a renunciation of political engagement (evident in the lack of political references in his poetry), and to an apparent preference for a liberty based on withdrawal and an almost Epicurean calm.

As for the poems themselves, La Penna argues firmly for an inner logic behind each of Persius’ six satires (Persius for him is no obscure ethical impressionist; there is a supporting paraphrase for the logic of each of the poems). Although Persius’ satires, like those in Horace’s Satires 2, are built upon dialogue, La Penna links their discursive, almost episodic development to the mime. Persius’ combative dialogues are a type of ‘mimo diatribico’. Despite this mimic element in Persius’ verse, however, and despite its richness of detail and its realism, Persius betrays an exaggerated interest in the baroque and in the macabre that is typical of his age. This offsets, he believes, the realism I have just mentioned (a tension nicely caught in the following lines: stertis adhuc laxumque caput conpage soluta/oscitat hesternum dissutis undique malis, 3.58-9). The occasionally baroque realism of the longer passages is matched, La Penna demonstrates, at the linguistic level by Persius’ memorable iuncturae, his combining of words in vivid, telling, but utterly unpredictable ways. This, in a sense, is at the heart of how we enjoy Persius. (Language, that is, offsets a message which, like that of Horace, is frequently predictable and, like so much Stoicism in verse, frequently banal.) La Penna rightly (and at length) highlights such phrases as vaporata … aure (how one should listen to Persius, 1.126), vitrea bilis (3.8), matching Horace splendida bilis ( Sat. 2.3.141), pannosa faex (4.32 ), to indicate the crust on bad wine, or the marvellous fabula … maesto ponatur hianda tragoedo (5.3), a none too flattering description of how tragedy is performed.

I have highlighted these two essays to demonstrate some of the directions which the literary of analysis produced by La Penna (and perhaps by Florentine Latinists generally) can take. There is a larger issue still involved in this. Historicist analysis, whether as New Historicism or as the older form which we associate with, say, Snell or Hermann Fraenkel or Dodds, is making something of a come-back, particularly in Greek studies (Padel or Sourvinou-Inwood or Steiner all place literature in a social construct). Although such approaches are not common in Latin literary studies, perhaps this will change, particularly under the influence of feminist analysis (such as that, for example, of Amy Richlin). If, at any rate, historicism’s hour is approaching again, then La Penna must occupy a honourable place amongst its most able proponents. What makes his historicism so potent, in my opinion, is that it is allied with the literary critic’s sharp sense of language.

But I should not just stress the historicist affiliations of La Penna’s critical work. That would be to obscure the evident philology and the learning displayed in so much of this collection. Shorter pieces, such as ‘Le atre faci delle Erinni (Nota a Ovidio, Her. 11,103[105]’, ‘Callimaco e i paradossi dell’ imperatore Tiberio (Svetonio, Tib. 70,6; 62,6), or ‘Gli animali come strumenti di guerra (Lucrezio V 1297-1349)’ look at the sorts of smaller textual or contextual issues which have always fascinated classicists. An essay such as ‘L’autorappresentazione e la rappresentazione del poeta come scrittore da Nevio a Ovidio’ examines the prevalence of a literary motif (the presentation of the poet as writer) with minimal concern for social ramifications. La Penna is equally good at taking small passages and showing how they embody large interpretative issues (‘La parola translucida di Ovidio (Sull’ episodio di Ermaphrodito, Met. IV 285-388)’) as he is at focussing on larger issues (‘Relativismo e sperimentalismo di Ovidio’). He is also very good at what one might term the critical overview: one of the best essays in the volume is of this order—concerning Tibullus, it provides a model literary introduction to this poet (‘L’elegia di Tibullo come meditazione lirica’) while still making an original point concerning his ‘lyricism’.

La Penna’s achievements as a Latinist are less well known in the English-speaking world than they deserve to be: this may perhaps be the result of his political convictions; it may also be the result of a more than usually rooted life. Da Lucrezio a Persio, while offering a useful compilation for La Penna’s continental admirers, will probably do little to change this situation. Much of this volume could profitably be translated in English. It would help advanced students considerably. It would also provide the more experienced with a vivid historicist reading of Latin poetry.