BMCR 2006.05.04

The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton

, The Augustinian epic, Petrarch to Milton. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 1 online resource (270 pages). ISBN 9780472026807 $75.00.

In this book on Renaissance epic, both in Latin and in the vernacular, J. C. Warner (henceforth W.) sets as his goal to shed new light on the development of the epic genre from Petrarch to Milton, by tracing the influence on these poets of the Augustinian imagery of a spiritual journey to God through the conquest of earthly passions. The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, an afterword, a bibliography, and an index.

In the Introduction (“Petrarch’s Culpa and Augustine’s Counsel”), W. explains his choice of the term “Augustinian Epic.” The name points not to the theology behind these poems but to their exploitation of the well-known Augustinian spiritual ascent to God. W. starts by discussing a passage from Petrarch’s Secretum, where Augustine chastises the poet laureate for the earthly attachments, such as Laura and the poetic crown ( laurea), that prevent him from fastening his eyes on the kind of spiritual growth that leads to heaven. Petrarch promises Augustine to forsake his illicit love for Laura (a promise he does not keep, as one can see in the Canzoniere, where, as W. points out, the poet fails to reject his love for Laura and his disposition to loving basely); but ultimately the poet cannot surrender to Augustine’s demands that he cast aside his current literary endeavors, the Africa and the De Viris Illustribus. W. contends that in his epic the poet Petrarch reflects on these two commands by Augustine, and while he successfully abandons his earthly love for Laura, he nevertheless does not abandon his project of celebrating in verse the illustrious deeds of his ancestors, specifically of Scipio Africanus. In fact, the author claims that the unfinished status of the poem points to Petrarch’s compliance with Augustine’s demand, while at the same time the poet affirms the spiritual allegory of the epic as a “life journey” to salvation. This study aims at explaining the often assumed allegory behind the poem’s composition, i.e., the battle within the soul to break free of the earthly city’s chains and to enter the city of God. W. draws the parallelism first between Augustine and Petrarch and then between the two authors and the city of Carthage, by pointing to a common denominator: Dido’s culpa looms over the African city and betokens the human, therefore foresakeable, passions of the heart; just as Augustine in his journey transgresses into the sartago that Carthage has to offer in order to find his way to the truth, so does Petrarch have to conquer what Carthage represents. Petrarch’s Africa then is transformed into the poet’s own “Confessions.”

In the first chapter (“Petrarch’s Culpa and the Allegory of the Africa“), the author embarks upon a closer examination of a poem that deserves more critical attention than what has been allowed in the past. In his discussion of the episode of Masinissa’s affair with Sophonisba, W. claims that it is not the temptress Sophonisba who is portrayed as Dido, but rather the Numidian king himself who makes a dangerous Dido figure out of Sophonisba. It is Masinissa who is fashioned as a Didoesque figure, succumbing to and nourishing the “burning wound through all his marrow” ( Africa 5.70-71; 93-94). W. correctly observes that Petrarch refashions Dido as a paragon of chastity and distributes the Virgilian Dido’s traits to other characters in the poem (e.g. Lucretia in book 3). The unhappy affair that ends with Sophonisba’s suicide gives the opportunity to Scipio to instruct the erring young man, an episode reminiscent of the Augustine scene in the Secretum. Thus this epic becomes Augustinian inasmuch as it rejects the carnal passions. But the poem does not celebrate the defeat of lust and passions in those stories such as the one in book 5. In Seniles 4.5, Petrarch reads the whole Aeneid as an allegory of the victory over the lusts lurking behind almost every scene, from Aeneas’ meeting with Dido to his fight against Turnus. Therefore, in the Africa, Petrarch strives to cast the inner “Hannibal” off his neck; he is trying to fight against the transformative powers of the Virgilian Venus and finally, like Scipio, submits the Carthage of the heart to the purification of fire. The epic poem counterbalances Augustine’s reading of the Aeneid, since it does not lead its readers astray but, rather, if read allegorically, brings its readership closer to Christ and God in a spiritually uplifting journey. As W. puts it, “Petrarch announces his rejection of classical epic within a work that is modeled on classical epic, and he rejects its martial theme even as he glorifies the exploits of one of Rome’s greatest generals” (46). This is the second aim of the Africa as an Augustinian epic, to promote its divine, Christian, purpose. Even though most of W.’s conclusions are sound, I am not persuaded by his discussion of the Marcus Curtius episode in book 3. This is a Livian sacrifice, where Curtius immolates himself as a scapegoat for the salvation of the Roman people; it comes in the same book with Dido’s sacrifice for the fulfillment of Roman destiny. Does Dido then become a symbol for Christ himself? This is a question that is never addressed. I wish that W. had done more with the simile in book 9, where Hannibal is portrayed as a matrona conscious of her culpa. I think there is an obvious similarity between Hannibal’s and Petrarch’s own culpa that requires further examination.

Chapter 2 (“Renaissance Allegories of the Aeneid : The Doctrine of the Two Venuses and the Epic of the Two Cities”) returns to the discussion of allegorical readings of Virgil’s Venus in the Renaissance, as both the earthly Aphrodite and the heavenly abstract form of intellectual Love (a dichotomy found already in Plato’s Symposium). The reconciliation of the two roles played by Venus, as a lewd schemer who causes Aeneas’ and Dido’s escapade and as an affectionate mother who works for her child’s welfare, is exploited in the Christian discourse of diametrically opposed women (Eve vs. Mary, sinful woman vs. chaste Church). Aeneas is called to found Rome by replaying (or rewriting) Troy’s fall caused by Helen’s abduction, as he is transformed into a second Paris fighting for Lavinia, after an unsuccessful, rather doomed, effort to becoming a second Paris in Carthage. W. offers a detailed discussion of Virgilian commentators that anticipate these allegorical readings of the poem in the Renaissance (such as Fulgentius and Bernardus Silvestris) culminating with an examination of Cristoforo Landino’s commentary on the Aeneid in the Disputationes Camaldulenses (1473) to showcase the bridge between Petrarch and Tasso. Landino provides an allegorical scheme for reading Virgil’s poem, whereby Carthage is a seemingly ideal city; Dido constitutes an example of the active, social life, as she falls into shameful love and is degraded by it. Throughout the poem, Aeneas journeys toward a life of contemplation, which is gained only through the defeat of carnal passions and the purgation of wars.1

In the third chapter (“Petrarch’s Culpa in Gerusalemme Liberata“), W. begins his discussion with Tasso’s understanding of the allegorical aspects of the Aeneid, as a poem of both action and contemplation. The conquest of Jerusalem is only a step in the formation of a Christian man, whose ultimate goal should be the search for the highest Good, the Christiana felicit√†. Out of the Earthly Jerusalem, the Christian man should make a simulacrum of the City of God. Tasso’s goal is to complete and “repair” the Africa, not in Latin but in the vernacular. For instance, Tasso rewrites the episode of Masinissa and Sophonisba in the episode of Olindo and Sofronia in the Gerusalemme Liberata. Sofronia offers herself to Aladin as a substitute for the missing icon of the Virgin Mary; W. argues that Sofronia’s alluring beauty functions as a substitute for the missing idol. The man in love with her, Olindo, cannot turn his eyes away from Sofronia’s physical beauty. Sofronia, however, advises Olindo to stop creating earthly idols and to look upwards instead, to reflect on his colpe, and to suffer in His name. Sofronia and Olindo are released and get married but are subsequently exiled by Aladin. As W. puts it, a married couple does represent the liberation from culpa, but not the end of the spiritual journey, since marriage involves entanglement in the pleasures of the flesh (W. also examines the stories of Tancredi and Clorinda, as well a Rinaldo and Armida). In the final section of this chapter, W. briefly considers the healing power of poetry, whereby Tasso’s epic becomes the “vehicle of the “highest glory” that heals and gives immortal life” (107).

The next chapter (“The Epic Imitation of Christ. Marco Girolamo Vida’s Christiad“) marks a shift in W.’s approach. The rest of the epic poems under consideration, because of their biblical theme, do not function allegorically but rather rhetorically, the author claims. According to Vida’s contemporary commentator, Bartolomeo Botta, Vida’s piissimum opus may serve as a Latin handbook for the schoolboy, who should not be wasting time reading other poets. W. studies the Virgilian allusions in the Christiad to showcase the reversal of Virgilian imagery and its recasting in a new, Christian, form. The author uses Pilate as an example of a failing Aeneas, someone who can but ultimately does not espouse the Truth. In the Christiad, we encounter a new type of Romanity, i.e. the creation of Christianity. Vida is not rejecting classical literature but rather investing in it (by re-vesting and purifying it). W. is correct in saying that “the Aeneid supplies the means for the Christiad’s readers to mark their progress from Virgilian falsehoods to Christian truth” (134). I would like to add that one can detect in the wife of Pilate’s words another manifestation of Dido, which the author does not recognize, when she says credo equidem hunc non te fallit genus esse Deorum (5.296), a direct allusion to Aeneid 4.12.

Chapter 5 (“Vergil the Evangelist. The Christiad of Alexander Ross”) turns its attention to a now long-forgotten thirteen-book Virgilian cento, Ross’s Vergilii evangelisantis Christias, a bestseller of its time (1638). This epic poem serves as mediator between Vida and Milton. By using as a model Proba’s fourth century CE Christian Virgilian cento, W. shows how Ross transforms the Aeneid into the epic world of Christ’s conquest of Rome and the transformation of the old city into a new one that prefigures the heavenly destination. The response to Ross’s adaptation of the Aeneid to fit the Christian and biblical content lies in the reader’s perception and re-reading of the Virgilian descriptions of physical beauty (in Mary’s case): Dido and Venus have been transformed into the Virgin, who gives birth to the Savior. W., however, does not persuade when he interprets Ross’s exhortation to fight against the Infidels (Turks) as allegorical. I think it is a specific command, framed by the anxieties of Ross’s contemporary world. Although W.’s discussion of the Virgilian allusions is informative, what is lacking from his analysis is how Ross’s poem functions as an Augustinian epic.

In Chapter 6 (Augustinian Epic in Paradise Lost), W. engages with Fish’s idea of Milton’s epic as a poem that “teaches by intangling,” by testing the power of reason and the strength of one’s faith.2 W. correctly notes that the image of Christian pilgrimage in the poem is pervasive, both juxtaposed and opposed to the backward progress of Adam and Eve. I would like to concentrate on two interesting points of W.’s discussion of Paradise Lost. First, W. persuasively compares and contrasts Eve’s Satan-sent dream in book 5 to Scipio’s dream in the Africa, where the general sees the future of Rome but also its impending downfall. By contrast to Scipio, who has to restore peace for the Roman world and then reach out beyond the confines of mortality (toward heaven’s eternal joy), Eve, though still sinless and peaceful, is instructed to reach out beyond God’s laws and then through disobedience to God to seek the life of God Himself. Although from Scipio’s elevated, ascending perspective, the hero is privy to both moral and metaphysical instructive messages, Eve’s actions will be soon subject to her own downfall and descent.3 Second, W. compares Milton’s idea of a Christian epic to the dilemma that Petrarch faces concerning his epic enterprise (as explained in the Introduction). W. argues that Milton eschews the negative via, which Petrarch (and subsequent authors) opts for by portraying feminine beauty “as a spur to the contemplation of heavenly beauty” (181); Milton rather praises the “pious relationship of man and woman in holy wedlock,” such as the one between Adam and Eve, and thus exploits the ramifications created by this wedlock figuratively concerning the relationship between Milton and his audience.

In sum, the book’s strength lies in the close reading of several largely neglected poems, such as Petrarch, Vida, and Ross, and in its interesting insights on how different poets exploit the Virgilian tradition in an allegorical re-weaving of the Aeneid. I believe this book will be useful to students and scholars in Classics and Comparative Literature.4


1. I am not persuaded by W.’s treatment of Vegio’s Supplementum as a Christian allegory. I concur with Putnam that although Aeneas is portrayed as the noblest of the Romans, Vegio is “inexorably classicizing” in his apotheosis of Aeneas and chooses not to have the hero change from paganism to Christianity (see. M. Putnam, Maffeo Vegio Short Epics, Cambridge MA 2004, xviii).

2. S. Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Cambridge MA 1997.

3. I disagree that the description of Eve in 9.781 she pluckd, she eat alludes to Caesar’s famous veni vidi vici.

4. I found the following typos: p. 7 gest for gesta; p. 44 matro for matrona; pp.105-6 Iapige for Iapyx; p.149 coelo constare sereno / Cuncta vident should be translated as “they see everything to be calm in the sky”; p. 199 n. 26 corridendus for corrigendus; p. 212 n.14 froden for afroden; p. 213 n. 17 pholosophiam for philosophiam.