BMCR 2020.11.41

Printing Virgil: the transformation of the classics in the Renaissance

, Printing Virgil: the transformation of the classics in the Renaissance. Medieval and Renaissance authors and texts, volume 23. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. viii, 193. ISBN 9789004421349 €120,00.


The last decade has witnessed a surge of interest in the reception of Virgil,[1] and Kallendorf’s new volume represents another instalment of his impressive life-long research in this area. Following on from his 2015 book The Protean Virgil, an investigation of the relevance of the material form of texts like Virgil’s to the cultures that received them, this time Kallendorf directs his attention to the role of print in the reception of classical authors, taking once again the Nachleben of the Augustan poet in the Renaissance as a case study.

The Introduction (Chapter 1) sets out the data and the methodological foundations of the inquiry. As Kallendorf says, today’s databases of Virgilian printed editions allow for more trustworthy surveys in comparison to a decade ago, even though minor modifications are to be expected owing to the ongoing digitization of further copies.In order to shed light on the role of print in the early modern reception of Virgil, the author has supplemented his previous inspections of Virgilian editions, testified to above all by his monumental A Bibliography of the Early Printed Editions of Virgil, 1469-1850 (New Castle, Delaware 2012), with an extended database and resorted to the “transformation methodology” recently developed by the Collaborative Centre 644, “Transformations of Antiquity” at the Humboldt-Universitӓt zu Berlin. This theoretical framework emphasises the reciprocal influence between the reference sphere and the reception sphere, in the case of this project, Virgil and the Renaissance respectively. Agents such as print modify the reception sphere with a series of operations like selection or adaptation of elements belonging to the reference sphere, while at the same time interpreting the latter. This two-way relation is referred to as allelopoiesis in the transformation methodology. A reader unaccustomed to this paradigm might at first question its heuristic value, but the examples of fourteen different transformations types that Kallendorf takes from the reception of Virgil demonstrate how profitable and enlightening it can be in practice.

The survey of the first printed Virgilian commentaries in Chapter 2 illustrates how the two spheres interact. The choice of a historically grounded criterion for the selection of the data vouches for the soundness of Kallendorf’s approach; he copes with the conundrum of pinning down the very concept of “commentary”, by appealing to the definition of the humanist Juan Luis Vives (1493-1540): “an examination and explanation of the author’s meaning”, which accomodates a vast assortment of paratextual material, ranging from paraphrases to variant readings. Kallendorf’s analysis readjusts our assessment of the diffusion of one hundred commentaries printed by 1600, sorted by number of editions, and reveals a correspondence between their editorial success and the type of information they conveyed. The best sellers focused on grammar and epideictic rhetoric, the skills taught at school to the future members of the ruling classes of countries where Latin still served as the lingua franca for culture, politics, and religious institutions. Rather than a philological reconstruction of what Virgil most likely meant, the primary interest of these commentaries resided in the practical application of the poet’s words; their function was to point out how he made an exemplary use of the Latin language and embedded ethical lessons in his works. The commentaries that fell short of the mark commercially were either less ambitious or simply failed to meet the expectations of most readers, which we can infer from the most successful ones.

Chapter 3 looks at sixteenth century printed translations of Virgil in Europe, above all Italy and France, nd shows how their physical attributes (e.g. font and images) can provide clues about their authors and readers. Early Italian printed translations usually contained dedicatory material that reflects their connection to academies and courts. From the typically medieval lack of perspective and historical accuracy of the woodcuts that accompanied many of them Kallendorf persuasively reckons that these translations were geared towards customers who did not catch up with the latest intellectual trends of the Renaissance. Similarly, the presence of vernacular love poems in the margins, as well as the use of the same mise en page of the most famous editions of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and the learned language they often exhibit, lead the author to identify their ideal audiences in the wealthy classes that read chivalric poetry and spoke Italian in their business activities. The result was a form of hybridization (pp. 11, 112, 165) that reconfigured old and new cultural elements in a new entity. Unlike Italian translations, most of the French ones included the Latin original and by mid-century appeared in the italic font used for Latin editions. Two remarkable points emerge from Kallendorf’s combination of the data related to this area with what was already known about the people involved in these projects: 1) the connection between the themes of the Virgilian corpus and the social position of some of its French translators: the only translations of Virgil produced by women in the Renaissance, Marie de Gournay’s and Hélisienne De Crenne’s, bring to the fore gender issues through numerous devices such as word choice; 2) the city of publication can be taken as a further proof of the exiles that translators such as Louis Des Masures (1515-1574) had to endure because of their political and religious opinions.

Chapter 4 examines the editorial history of the Opuscula, a body of short poems, including those of the Appendix Virgiliana, that were attributed to Virgil and printed together with his works. The survey examines a timespan that goes beyond the Renaissance and is based on two samples, the Junius Spencer Morgan Virgil Collection in the Princeton University Library and a private archive, both furnished with descriptions that indicate whether the books contained poems of the Opuscula. The attribution to Virgil turns out to have been widespread up to the middle of the seventeenth century, when readers gradually stopped trying to fit them into an epideictic framework. By that time, though, some of these compositions had already been suspected of being spurious. The Priapea are a case in point, since their obscenity hampered any attempt to harmonise them with the then prevailing interpretations of Virgil’s poetry as an exemplary praise of virtue and condemnation of vice. Censorship, the focus of Chapter 5, was often the solution: by comparing two copies of the same editions Kallendorf verifies that the pages containing the Priapea were put at the end of the book and often excised or inked out. The same fate befell commentaries by Protestants in Catholic areas. But their traces remain, as proven by a number of clues like the presence of the catchword at the bottom of the last page or the absence of a colophon at the end of the book. Sometimes printers resorted to self-censorship in order to maximise sales in both Protestant and Catholic countries, for example by omitting the name of the editor or the publishing place. The intensity of these elusive moves is surprisingly high for an author like Virgil, who does not seem to pose a serious moral threat for the value system of the time, given that 25% of the copies in the sample surveyed by Kallendorf have been somehow affected by censorship. While there is no way to assess if figures like this one are exact without retracing the author’s steps, the meticulousness that Kallendorf displays throughout this book suggests the dependability of the analysis. The inclusion of photographs of censored copies bears out such an inference, as it backs up the arguments with documentary evidence.

A section usually placed at the end of each chapter expands upon the application of the transformation methodology to the material examined. Kallendorf convincigly discusses the match of various types of allelopoiesis and the changes that the text underwent. For instance, the processes of focalization/obfuscation illuminate the predilection of commentators and translators for a part of the Virgilian corpus, as exemplified by Pieter Nanninck’s commentary to the Eclogues and the popularity of Italian translations of books 1-4 and 6 of the Aeneid. The role of these two practices tellingly exemplifies the mutual influence of the reference and the reception spheres, as can be seen in the formation of the Virgilian canon. Emphasising some elements at the expense of others brought about a hermeneutic circle, in that the attribution of poems of the Opuscula to Virgil fostered a partially biased image of his poetry, which in turn was considered a benchmark for what was thought to be Virgilian.

A Conclusion (Chapter 6) wraps up the main results and adds some thoughts on the road ahead. Three comprehensive indexes (names, early printed editions, transformation terms), an Appendix of the non-canonical Virgilian poems printed in Venetian editions, and a series of tables with details on the copies scrutinised enrich the volume; the author’s commendable mastery of previous bibliography forms the basis for a large number of helpful and exhaustive notes.[2] Overall this is a fresh and very significant addition to the state of both reception studies and book history. The early printed editions of many ancient authors deserve a similar treatment and clamour for further research. Kallendorf, with this book, has set another example of how to go about this task successfully.


[1] E.g. David Wilson-Okamura’s Virgil in the Renaissance (Cambridge 2010), Andrew Wallace’s Virgil’s Schoolboys (Oxford 2010), Luke Houghton’s Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue in the Renaissance (Cambridge 2019).

[2] Chapters 4 and 5 appeared elsewhere and are adjusted to their new context (e.g. pp. 119-20), although some repetitions must have escaped the editorial process (e.g., the same item is introduced at pp. 2, 116, 136).