BMCR 2017.12.12

Word of Mouth. Fama and its Personifications in Art and Literature from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages

, Word of Mouth. Fama and its Personifications in Art and Literature from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xv, 440. ISBN 9780198724292. £85.00​.


In this engaging and highly readable monograph Guastella explores at length two aspects of the unruly bundle of meanings and images contained in and springing from the Latin word fama : firstly fama -as-rumour, the unattributable, uncontrollable, and unverifiable proliferation of a mainly oral messaging system; and secondly fama -as-renown, the emergence through frequent and repeated talk of the glorious reputation of men whose fame aspires to fixity and endurance through the medium of writing. In chronological terms Guastella’s discussion of rumour concentrates on classical antiquity, and in particular Rome, while the discussion of fame (in the sense of the modern English word) focuses on the development in the Italian Trecento and Quattrocento, within a tradition continuous from antiquity, of the visual imagery of personifications of Fama, centred on illustrations of Petrarch.

Guastella starts from a famous engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, Fame and Virtue, which shows a winged Fama, blowing one trumpet and holding another, rising above a tomb on which is inscribed, in Greek, ‘virtue is pure’. The image is read as a synthesis of the themes of the book. This is an image of the glorious renown that survives the grave, borne aloft on the wings of fame and trumpeted to the ends of the earth. At the same time the flightiness of the winged word, and the windy air that issues from a trumpet-blast, are characteristic of the rapid and disorderly dissemination of rumour. Furthermore, the eyes and ears that are dotted on the wings of Goltzius’ Fama come ultimately from the monstrous body of Virgil’s personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

Yet Guastella insists on the need to keep rumour and renown separate, and criticizes what is a central argument of my own book Rumour and Renown. Representations of Fama in Western Literature (Cambridge 2012),1 that the several meanings of the Latin fama, chief among which ‘rumour’ and ‘renown’, always tend to bleed into one another, from the time of Homer and Hesiod. For Guastella, as for myself, Virgil’s personification of Fama and Ovid’s House of Fama in Met. 12 are central texts in the western tradition; Guastella confines his readings of both to the imagery and mechanisms of oral rumour, whereas I read both as demonic or parodic versions of the production of fame effected by epic’s memorialization of its renowned heroes. Guastella also rejects, or is silent on, the meta-literary dimensions of fama in western literature, at the centre both of my book and of Séverine Clément-Tarantino’s remarkable, but unpublished, Lille dissertation Fama ou la renommée du genre. Recherches sur la representation de la tradition dans l’Énéide (2006).

At other times, however, Guastella does draw attention to the mechanisms of information transmission shared by fama -as-rumour and fama -as-renown, and in the last two chapters, concluding the treatment of personifications of fama, he emphasizes the ‘Contaminations’ (ch. 9) in Renaissance iconography and pageant of the traditions of illustrating Virgilian and Petrarchan Fama, followed by a reading of ‘Chaucer, House of Fame ’ (ch. 10) as a text that summarizes and synthesizes the whole of the previous tradition, and which in doing so anatomizes the intricate and dynamic interrelationships between fame and rumour. Guastella, like myself in my own use of Chaucer’s House of Fame as a summative text in chapter 15 of Rumour and Renown, ‘Chaucer’s House of Fame and Alexander Pope’s Temple of Fame’, is indebted to Piero Boitani’s splendid Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame (Cambridge: Brewer 1984). Where Guastella allows for, and indeed draws attention to, the ‘contamination’ of these different aspects of fama in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, I presented what I saw as evidence for the inevitable slippages between rumour and renown from the beginning of the tradition, part of a series of dichotomies, or ‘duplicities’, that I see as structural within the workings of fama. But readers can make up their own minds.

Where Guastella and I treat the same texts and images, his emphases and approaches are often very different, and his selection includes many things not covered by myself. The field is indeed as broad, multifarious and unpredictable as Fama herself, an observation that is further evidenced by another recent volume, the collection edited by Stratis Kyriakidis, Libera Fama: An Endless Journey (Pierides 6). 2 The first six chapters of Guastella are devoted to fama -as-rumour. Ch. 1, ‘Flying Information,’ considers the ancient articulation of space as the scene for the flights of divine messengers and of the ‘winged’ (or ‘feathered’, the more appropriate translation of πτερόεις) word. The words spread by rumour have the mysterious power of rapid flight of which pre-modern man himself was incapable, a power that could be used in a directed way only in the non-verbal telegraph of the relay of beacon-fires (as in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon). The brief chapter 2, ‘Lat. Fama.’ does some lexicographical groundwork on Latin fama and the cognate Greek φήμη, before ch. 4, ‘True and False,’ looks at representations of the spread and circulation of rumour in ancient Latin texts (prefaced with the well-known manipulation of φήμη in speeches by Aeschines and Demosthenes, with reference to Hesiod’s tentative divinization of Φήμη [ Op. 764] and to the Altar of Φήμη). On the Latin side particularly interesting is the discussion of the rhetorical use of infamia and pudicitia in [Quintilian] Decl. mai. 17-18, texts only recently brought on to the radar of students of fama.

‘An initial summary’ of the distinctive elements of the communicative phenomenon of fama -rumour at the end of chapter 3 prepares us for an expert and discriminating survey of modern anthropological and sociological theories on rumour and gossip in ch. 4, ‘Producers and Performers of Rumour’. Taking issue with another major recent study of rumour, Francis Larran’s Le Bruit qui vole. Histoire de la renommée en Grèce ancienne (Toulouse 2011), Guastella maintains, rightly in my view, that we should not overplay the cultural ‘otherness’ of antiquity when it comes to the representation of rumour: accounts in Roman oratory and historiography are largely consistent with the results of modern theorizing, and the behavior of ancient rumours is recognizable even in the propagation of rumour in the multimedial culture in which we live today.

Chapter 5, ‘Authority,’ explores the relationship, largely oppositional, between fama -rumour and auctor, auctoritas. Rumour has no verifiable source or auctor; its message moves through an indeterminate series of auctores, and has no single destination, producing ‘a tangle of communicative functions’ in which the Jakobsonian functions of communication, addresser, message and addressee, collapse into one. The apparently autonomous working of rumour, independent of identifiable human agents, is a predisposing factor in the personification of the creature, whose history in antiquity is the subject of ch. 6, ‘Giving Rumour a Body’. Guastella offers sharp analysis of mostly well-known examples: Homer’s Ossa, Hesiod’s Pheme, the Athenian Altar of Pheme, the Roman Aius Locutius, before coming to Virgil’s Fama and Ovid’s House of Fama, both of which are read exclusively and, in my view, too narrowly, as images of rumour circulation.

Chapter 7, ‘Beyond Death,’ starts the journey that will take us from rumour to a focus on fama -as-renown, and from antiquity to the Italian Trecento. By that date the figure of Fama is used chiefly to portray worldly glory. Guastella shifts our attention to definitions of gloria, and to the familiar story of the critique of worldly glory that runs from Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis through Augustine and Boethius, to the medieval Christian figure of Vana Gloria, all leading up to discussion of key passages in the ‘tre corone’ of the Trecento, Oderisi da Gubbio’s disquisition on vainglory in Dante’s Purgatorio 11, the ecphrasis of ‘Gloria del popol mondano’ in Boccaccio’s Amorosa Visione, and Petrarch’s obsessive and conflicted fixation with fame, with the laurel and the triumph, and with vainglory, across a range of prose and verse works. Petrarch’s dealings in fame find schematic and concentrated expression in his Trionfi, a text whose popularity in Renaissance literature and art is perhaps difficult for the modern reader to understand, and in which Fame triumphs over Death (who triumphs over Chastity who triumphs over Love); Time then triumphs over Fame, and finally Eternity triumphs over Time. The sequence as a whole is a precipitation of centuries of ancient and Christian reflection on fame and its place within the larger contexts of human ambition and of the relation of this world to the next.

Petrarch does not give a vivid picture of Fame in his Triumph of Fama, and in the copiously illustrated ch. 8, ‘Giving Glory a Body’, one of the most valuable parts of the book, Guastella traces the complex and only partly reconstructible processes by which there emerged stable (but with variations) images of the Triumph of Fame, images widely disseminated in painting, manuscript illumination, Italian marriage chests and birth trays. Boccaccio’s ecphrasis played a role; there are also fascinating interferences between the secular images of Fame and the Christian imagery of the Maiestas and of the Last Judgment, through the trumpets shared by Fame with the last trump that will raise the dead.

The last two chapters, to which I advert above, conclude with visual and textual material in which representations of rumour and renown are ‘contaminated’. Taken as a whole the book falls into two parts, the first, which incorporates a lot of theory, on rumour, and the second, almost without theory, on renown. The two parts are united by narratives that build towards personifications, the ecphrastic personifications of Fama -as-rumour in Virgil and Ovid, and the personifications of Fama -as-renown or glory in the visual arts of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Overall this is a valuable contribution to the expanding field of fama -studies, a work of high intelligence and exemplary scholarship.


1. BMCR 2013.02.13.

2. BMCR 2017.09.18.