BMCR 2012.05.51

Tra mirabilia e miracoli: paesaggio e natura nella poesia latina tardoantica. Il Filarete, 273

, Tra mirabilia e miracoli: paesaggio e natura nella poesia latina tardoantica. Il Filarete, 273. Milano: LED – Edizioni Universitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto, 2011. 271. ISBN 9788879164924. €30.50 (pb).


Table of contents

The latest findings in geography, ecology, philosophy and archaeology have recently promoted a new philological interest in ancient literary landscape; various works have appeared and Mandile’s study fills a broad gap in the research into Latin Late Antiquity. The author has put together a wide range of texts about the conception of nature and landscape in late Latin poetry, including both lay and Christian compositions of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.; he gives a detailed and scholarly reading of these texts.

The meaning of the term “landscape” has often been declared fluid, because it refers to different objects according to the scientific area the speaker is dealing with; therefore Mandile tries to avoid the difficulty with an opening declaration of intent: «ricorreremo alla categoria di paesaggio nel senso più ampio possibile, paghi di raccogliere sotto questa fluida etichetta ogni genere di accenno, più o meno sviluppato, più o meno coerente, più o meno esplicito, a luoghi, ambienti e porzioni di territorio» (p. 10). In view of the continuous attempts to exclude the Greek and the Roman world from the so-called sociétés paysagères,1 this statement does not seem superfluous: it can amply accommodate some typical features of late compositions (reliance on rhetoric and on classical literature, re-use of poetic iuncturae and verses, passion for encyclopaedism and for catalogues) and it allows the author to examine a large number of texts. In fact the late Latin compositions show a wide range of nuances in the concept of landscape, which includes many kinds of descriptions of nature, such as views, itineraries, catalogues and geographical digressions.2

The introduction presents the innovations of the literary landscape of Late Antiquity through the analysis of Tiberian. carm. 1 and of Repos. 33-51; the main changes are the painting style, care for details and for visual data, disposition of the elements as a catalogue, pursuit of amoenitas at any cost, and, ultimately, the tendency to make the scenery the only source of poetic inspiration.

In the first section “La poesia ‘non cristiana’” a convincing introduction underlines the increasingly important role of the mirabile as a subject of the ekphraseis. The chapters of this section are devoted to the descriptions of water, forests, mountains, ports and cities in the works of Ausonius, Claudian and Rutilius Namatianus. Mandile opens each chapter with a brief summary of the value and the treatment of these topoi in classical poetry,3 and proceeds with an inspection of the texts in minute detail.

The first chapter provides a comprehensive list of the novelties that we find in Late Antique representations of landscape: syncretic conception of nature, inclusive of all the meanings that nature assumed in the previous literary tradition; superficial belief in its providence; view of the world as a museum requiring a cataloguing system; re-use of famous poetic elements and lines; outline of the scenery complying with rhetoric rules but dotted with real and realistic details; and, above all, a new poetic of Wonder which makes a wonder of virtually anything as long as the poet’s descriptive powers excite the reader’s admiration and amazement. In the following chapters a close analysis of the texts demonstrates that nature and the landscape have become no more than an opportunity to versify. Mandile masters a very ample bibliography and uses it skilfully in order to confirm the reliability of the categories listed in the first chapter.

Some comments on this section. The reader is presented with a study of Claudian’s c.m. 28 ( Nilus) that is almost a commentary on the carmen, all the more valuable as the poem has not been published with a commentary; but, perhaps, the final lines of the composition needed deeper analysis in that they catch, through the eyes of the sleepy shepherd, the surreal but realistic expanse of fields submerged by the floods of the Nile.

In the chapter dealing with woods it is noted that Claudian develops the ekphrasis on Venus’ palace ( c.m. 25,49-96) with a “tecnica affine allo zoom cinematografico”, which moves from wide spaces to the goddess’ throne (p. 57). The poet employs this technique in other carmina too, whereas in c.m. 25 the eyes move from the little locus amoenus where Venus is taking a nap to the near city (presumably Milan) and, then, to the lakes and rivers of northern Italy, listed as catalogue, from which fly the birds drawing her chariot (vv. 105ss.).4

In studying the ports Mandile draws the miniatures of 2 and 5 close to the landscape pictures of Gild. 520-4, to Rutilius’ ports of De Red. 1,237-248 ( Centum Cellae)5 and of De Red. 1,531-540 ( Portus Pisanus): the succession of pictures displays a gradual movement from the purely rhetorical sketches (in fact the ports outlined in 2 and 5 could refer to any Mediterranean port) to descriptions that are more and more dotted with real elements; the common denominator of all the depictions and filter of all the representations is the poet’s astonished point of view.6

In the second section of the volume a general introduction to Christian poetry provides some guidelines for the interpretation of landscape. At first Mandile considers the Christian position concerning the relationship between “ mirabilia and miracula ” and focuses on the choice of vocabulary, on the Augustinian theory of miracula, on the interpretatio naturae, and on the problem of faith. He then recognizes the birth of a new literary landscape, which is the outcome of the convergence between the Jewish and Classical traditions; basic sceneries characterize the first one, while the second one is skilful in creating descriptions of places that are rich in detail. Following these preliminary remarks the author identifies three routes as the most representative of a journey into the Christian landscape: Paradise, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the Miracles of Lake Tiberias. In this respect the survey of the relevant biblical references and their patristic exegesis is very useful in order to understand how Christians could re-use elements of the classical tradition and fulfil the three aims Charlet pointed out: defend the faith, praise God, rejoice in His gifts. It is remarkable that Christian poets should feature alongside non-Christian poets in same volume, given their entirely different understanding of the world, even if they all had classical educations and shared the same historical and cultural traditions. A point of convergence between pagans and Christians could be found in the description of the habitat of the Phoenix, which is a locus amoenus, but has many features that make it a sort of paradise: the author stresses this overlap, but does not look into the question in depth (p. 155).

As the landscape is the outcome of a human creation (‘artialisation’) which changes nature both by physical handling (e.g., the action of architecture or agriculture) and by artistic manipulation (for instance, through the window of literature and painting), it is reasonable to expect that writers in the Late Empire enjoyed a similarly physical relationship with nature, perceiving the landscape as the combination of natural and human elements. This view of the world is demonstrably true for the Silvae of Statius, whose artificial landscapes influenced Ausonius’and Claudian’s depictions of nature. Mandile’s analysis is limited to poetry and his aim is not to recognize the real objects listed in the descriptions, but—even if verisimilitude in representation is not the main goal of these poets— the essay might have also capitalized on the acquisitions of archaeology and history: non-Christian texts show various allusions to the contemporary landscape and society. These texts also stress the importance of human contribution in the shaping of territories (for instance, in c.m. 26 Claudian pays attention to the plumbing and even to some architectural structures which seem to imitate the opus naturae). The Christians’ case is quite different: they focus their attention on the Bible and not on the physical world; but, much as the non-Christian poets, they are affected by the artistic treatment of nature.7

Despite differences and despite the large corpus of texts, Mandile skilfully masters a considerable number of authors, poems, themes and interpretations. He offers a clear and systematic view of poems and themes concerning nature and landscape in the fourth and fifth centuries and makes this variety converge into unity. Scholars cannot do without this volume, which will soon become a standard addition to bibliographies of both landscape and Late Antiquity.


1. E. Malaspina addresses this crucial point in ‘Quando il paesaggio non era ancora stato inventato. Descriptiones locorum e teorie del paesaggio da Roma a oggi’, in G. Tesio and G.Pennaroli, Lo sguardo offeso. Il paesaggio in Italia: storia geografia arte letteratura. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi, 24-25 settembre 2008, Vercelli, Demonte, Montà, Torino 2011, 45-85.

2. These descriptive schemes have been recently studied, with specific reference to the works of Statius and Silius, by F.Morzadec, Les Images du Monde. Structure, écriture et esthetique du paysage de Stace et dans les œuvres Silius Italicus, Brussels 2009.

3. The author had already worked on the landscape in Latin poetry from the first century B.C. to the first A.D. in ‘Lo spazio del paesaggio. Concezioni e rappresentazioni della natura nella poesia latina (I sec. a.C – I sec. d.C.)’, Acme 63, 2010 (3), 5-31.

4. On carmen majus 9 one should now see F. Garambois-Vasquez’s essay, ‘Claudien et le mythe de Vénus: entre ornement poétique et propagande politique’, in Claudien: Mythe, histoire et science. Journée d’étude du jeudi 6 novembre 2008, Université Jean Monnet de Saint-Étienne, Saint-Étienne 2011 pp. 45-61; while for c.m. 25 we look forward to the publication of E. Cazzuffi, ‘Vedute, cataloghi, descrizioni geografiche e itinerari nei Carmina minora di Claudiano’, dagli atti del convegno ‘ Regionis forma pulcherrima. Percezioni, lessico, categorie del paesaggio nella letteratura latina’. Università degli Studi di Padova, Palazzo Bo, 15- 16 marzo 2011 (publication details not yet available).

5. The port-description of Centum Cellae is moulded by rhetorical and poetic reminiscences that can also be found in prose; see, e.g., the case of Plin. epist. 6,31,15ss. (on Pliny’s landascape see the forthcoming R. Schievenin ‘Spazio e paesaggio nell’epistolografia latina’, in Regionis forma pulcherrima (see previous note).

6. As a bibliographic update we note the recent release of the edition by S. Pozzato and A.Rodighiero of Claudio Rutilio Namaziano. Il Ritorno, with introduction by A. Fo, Torino 2011.

7. See M. Jakob, Paesaggio e letteratura, Città di Castello (PG) 2005, 82.