BMCR 2021.01.27

Aristoteles Latinus. Physiognomonica

, Aristoteles Latinus. (ALPE XIX) Physiognomonica. Translatio Bartholomaei de Messana. Corpus philosophorum Medii Aevi. Turnhout: Brepols, 2019. Pp. cx, 74. ISBN 9782503585673 €90,00.

A new achievement marks a further step in the development of the project of the Aristoteles Latinus, begun in 1928. Lisa Devrise has edited the critical edition of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Physiogniomica as the nineteenth volume in the series, enlarging the textual corpus of philosophical sources available to scholars of the history of medieval thought and culture.

This Pseudo-Aristotelian treatise was part of the philosophical library of the Latin-speaking world from the second half of the thirteenth century, thanks to the Greek-Latin translation which Bartholomew of Messina carried out between the end of the 1250s and the early 1260s. The Latin version of the Physiognomica was part of a sort of program of translation of scientific writings ascribed to Aristotle, including Problemata (a series of texts by Aristotle, Hippocrates and Theophrastus), De principiis(in fact, Theophrastus’s Metaphysics), De mirabilibus auditionibus, De signis, De inundatione Nili, De mundo, and De coloribus. Beginning in the 1930s, Ezio Franceschini stressed the importance of Bartholomew’s translations, whose major witness is the manuscript Padua, Biblioteca Antoniana, Scaff. XVII, 370 (Ap), which contains all the texts listed above, with the exception of the De coloribus, which, however, was originally included in this codex.[1]

In her introduction to the critical edition of the Physiognomica, Devrise deals with the scholarly tradition regarding this text and its translator. In doing so she offers a precious contribution to the understanding of the value of the inclusion of such writings within the philosophical library of Latin Europe. More specifically, the presence of several pseudo-Aristotelian texts as parts of the Aristoteles Latinus makes evident the kind of auctoritas that Aristotle represented within the milieu of universities and institutions of high educations and culture. The “maestro di color che sanno” (“the Teacher of those who know”, Inf. IV, 131), whom Dante places as the highest of the wise men in Limbo, is the figure under whom philosophical and scientific knowledge tends to flow. This is a characteristic of the process of transmission of the Aristotelian literature that Latin Europe inherits from a long translatio studiorum, which begins between the sixth and the seventh century with the Greek-Syriac translations and continues through different cultural, religious and linguistic contexts with the Greek-Arabic, Greek-Latin and Arabic-Latin translations.

Bartholomew of Messina’s translations, including that of the Physiognomica, have to be placed within this perspective of the history of culture, according to which Aristotle is the philosopher par excellence, whose literary production covers all fields of knowledge. Thus, as Devrise’s study highlights, the spread of the Latin version of this Pseudo-Aristotelian treatise contributes to reinforce the centrality of the Aristotelian corpus in the curriculum of philosophical studies of the faculties of the Arts in Europe and in the studia generalia of the religious orders. Therefore, the philological work of the editor of this volume of the Aristoteles Latinus is concerned not just with the establishment of the critical text. Devrise provides a large and well-structured evaluation of the manuscript traditions and of the knowledge that such an enquiry offers about the story of the circulation of the text, of Bartholomew of Messina’s method of rendering the Greek text into Latin, and of the literary and doctrinal features of the translation of the Physiognomica. The scholar analyses the 128 manuscripts which carry the text, combining codicological and philological examinations with history of culture. This allows her to define a clear distinction of two distinct textual traditions: one belonging to the university milieu and the other one external to the network of the studia.

Devrise grounds this distinction on the identification of a large number of manuscripts showing evidences of the pecia system. These witnesses of the Physiognomica are perfectly consistent with the presence of the Pseudo-Aristotelian treatise in both the 1275 and 1304 taxation lists of the Parisian stationarii, according to which Bartholomew’s translation was available among the exemplaria which were copied for students and masters (p. xxx-xliv). Analysing the manuscripts linked with the pecia system, Devrise is able to identify the existence of three different exemplaria, each one marking one of the stages of the history of the treatise’s circulation within the university of Paris. Indeed, within the ‘Parisian tradition’[2] of Physiognomica (P), Devrise offers clear evidence that two distinct stages of the process of textual transmission can be identified, corresponding on to the 1275 taxation list (P1) and the 1304 taxation list (P2). A third group of manuscripts testifies to a further stage (P3), in which a new exemplar of the text was produced and used by the stationarii. Devrise also suggests the possibility of a fourth additional exemplar, which seems to have been the model of six later manuscripts, but she is very careful to stress that this hypothesis rests upon a series of clues that do not permit complete certainty.

This ‘Parisian tradition’ shows a lively interest in the Physiognomica within university studies, giving rise to a rich manuscript production. The composition of three, perhaps four exemplaria, between the last quarter of the thirteenth and the middle of the fourteenth centuries, suggests a frequent use of the models by the stationarii and the need to replace those that were gradually wearing out with new ones to continue to meet the demands of students and masters.

Devrise notes that the textual tradition of the Latin version of Physiognomica seems to be quite consistent with that of the other Aristotelian texts, so that, besides the ‘Parisian tradition’, there was also an independent manuscript tradition, the ‘Italian one’ (p. xliv-xlvii). Within this second tradition, the quoted Paduan manuscript stands alone and, as Devrise brings to light, it witnesses a large number of correct readings with respect to P (p. xlv-xlvi). Such a peculiar distribution of the manuscript tradition – with 127 manuscripts belonging to the ‘Parisian tradition’ and only Ap as independent – suggests that interest in the Physiognomica was mostly within the university, where the text was also the subject of commentaries.

This critical review of the manuscript tradition allows Devrise to establish the stemma codicum of Physiognomica (p. lxi-lxii) but also to move to the evaluation of the literary features of the Latin translation. Both P and Ap show a considerable number of double readings of Latin words or expressions. Devrise distinguishes two different genres of double readings: (1) the cases in which a translated Latin word is followed by an addition of one or two words which have no correspondence in the Greek text (p. xlviii-lii), (2) the cases in which the Latin translation of a Greek word, in the same position in the manuscript, is different in P and Ap (p. lii). Devrise offers a survey of these double readings and compares them with the situation of the other Latin translations by Bartholomew of Messina. The scholar is therefore in a position to stress that the double readings are perfectly consistent with the translator’s method, suggesting the need to revise the accepted scholarly opinion according to which Bartholomew did not worry about the comprehensibility of his translations, being a strict follower of the word-by-word method of translation (p. lxi). This observation is amply supported by Devrise’s detailed comparison of the Latin translation with the Greek text of the Physiognomica. Certainly, the whole translation is based upon the verbum de verbo method, and this literary fidelity to both the vocabulary and syntax of the original offers the opportunity to reconstruct the kind of Greek text that Bartholomew used for his work. This state of things brings out the translator’s effort to find the most appropriate terminology for the translation of the lexicon of the Physiognomica, which is evident in the numerous cases of deconstruction of a Greek word to offer a Latin rendering as precise and faithful to the meaning as possible (p. lxxxv-xc). Exactly this care for the meaning of the terms, even in the rigid process of a literal translation, is combined with the system of double readings and characterizes a labour of translation that tries to combine fidelity to the Greek original with intelligibility of its contents in the Latin rendition.

Devrise’s critical edition makes use of 14 manuscripts, selected on the basis of a careful and exemplary study, which offers, beside Ap, the plural tradition of P in its three stages. The edition is supported not only by the usual Greek-Latin and Latin-Greek indices, but also by a double apparatus. Alongside the textual variants, indeed, Devrise presents an apparatus in which she compares the Latin text to the Greek model. In it, the scholar highlights the places where the two traditions diverge, offering the reader a valuable tool to bring out the specificities of Bartholomew’s translation method: the intentional non-translation of a word; the paraphrasing of an articular infinitive; the deviations in word order to elucidate the text; the occasional non-translation of the Greek δε (p. xcvii-xcix). The result is a precious critical edition, which continues the enterprise of the Aristoteles Latinus and achieves the double result of making available to scholars a Pseudo-Aristotelian text that was among the most widespread in the Late Medieval universities, and of extending knowledge about Bartholomew of Messina’s contribution to the process of philosophical acculturation of Latin Europe.


[1] Ezio Franceschini, “Le traduzioni latine aristoteliche e pseudoaristoteliche del codice Antoniano XVII, 370”, in Aevum9.1 (1935): 3-26. See also Ezio Franceschini, “Sulle versioni latine medievali del ΠΕΡΙ ΧΡΩΜΑΤΩΝ,” in Id., Scritti di filologia latina medievale, 2 vols. (Padua: Editrice Antenore, 1976), II: 654-673.

[2] The expression ‘Parisian tradition’ here does not have a geographical value but rather qualifies the university milieu generally speaking.