BMCR 2022.03.12

La fortuna di Omero nel Rinascimento tra Bisanzio e l’Occidente

, , La fortuna di Omero nel Rinascimento tra Bisanzio e l'Occidente. Hellenica, 84. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2020. Pp. viii, 211. ISBN 9788836130214. €20,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a very welcome volume that examines certain trajectories of Homer in the Renaissance, which is premised on the notion that Homer’s canonization at the top of the literary pantheon was not a simple process that occurred swiftly and without complication, despite Dante’s apodictic declaration of his being poeta sovrano. First, there was the obvious problem of the diffusion of a genuine knowledge of Homeric Greek, read confidently beyond the various Latin cribs based on Leonzio Pilato’s miserable interlinear translation. Second, there was also the continuing interference of the medieval matière de Troie, which had made the Trojan saga in its non-Homeric form overly familiar and extremely popular. The eight essays of this volume move in crucial directions to deepen our understanding of the material, pedagogical, and literary processes that installed Homer back at the top of the literary heap. Though all the authors are Italian, their topics reach beyond Italy to Paris, Byzantium, Leiden, and even to the Protestant reformer Melanchthon. The aggregate effect of the chapters is more a series of judicious soundings than a single coherent statement of method, but that may be a more valuable approach since there is a genuine need in Homer’s case to see instances of reception in more granular detail rather than wallowing in literary pieties. The breadth of topics addressed in this slim volume makes it a decided success, even if a great deal remains to be said.

A case in point is Tommaso Braccini’s opening essay, which focuses on Sozomeno da Pistoia (1387-1458), more specifically the Iliad manuscript he copied around 1415, which may be “one of the first codices of the Iliad copied in its entirety by a western humanist” (4). From the standpoint of reception studies, R. Browning’s slogan about manuscripts, recentiores non deteriores, has especial poignancy, particularly as we try to reconstruct the knowledge and teaching of Greek in the West before the age of printing.[1] The manuscript is part of a “precious panoply” of Greek teaching texts Sozomeno produced and assembled, later bequeathing them along with his other books to the people of Pistoia. In our age of digitalization of manuscripts, this material, manuscript-based approach will greatly aid reception studies, but—I would add—only if we shift the traditional focus away from textual criticism to attention to the materiality of readerly practices, pedagogies, and book design.

Also on the material side comes the article on Rafael’s depiction of Homer in the Parnasus fresco (ca. 1511) in the Papal Palace in the Vatican, cowritten by Sotera Fornaro and Raffaella Viccei. This chapter unpacks the various sources behind Rafael’s distinctive portrait of the bard, one of the first in the Renaissance, though rather frustratingly there are no illustrations in the volume, so one has to Google the relevant images. There are various layers to their analysis of the fresco, including the Laocoon group, Petrarch’s Collatio laurationis and Neoplatonism’s conception of the furor poeticus, but toward the end the authors focus their interest exclusively on the figure of the young man listening to Homer who, pen in hand, seems poised to record whatever Homer is about to sing.[2] The young man’s contemporary clothing and  writing implements suggest to the authors that this is not an ancient figure but one of modernity, perhaps recalling the contemporary recorders of the Italian canterini, street singers well known at the time (34). A second thesis is that he may represent a translator, as suggested perhaps by the one Homeric text in the papal library at the time, the Latin translation of Lorenzo Valla (36). However one interprets this iconography, it certainly conveys the dynamics of reception in some manner and the problematic textualization of Homeric poetry.

Fittingly, given where the previous chapter leaves off, there follows Valentina Prosperi’s chapter on eight translations of the Iliad into Italian in the Cinquecento, only two of which were complete. The translations are all in either blank verse or ottava rima, and it seems telling that none was ever republished. Two theses are put forward that are striking: 1) that the production of vernacular translations remained so relatively scarce is proof that Homer’s readership remained somewhat restricted to the learned men who had recourse to the text in Latin translations, particularly that of Andreas Divus—specifically engineered to correspond page by page with the Aldine editions of Homer; presumably a vernacular Homer was of little utility to this learned audience; 2) that these vernacular translations occur only after the publication of Divus’ translation suggests their authors may well have worked from the Latin (48), though not enough is known to determine to what extent, or for that matter whether the translators had any real knowledge of Greek at all. The author sets as her main task to explore in the form of “preliminary notes” what details are known of each translator’s work, and the chapter remains useful to that purpose given the obscurity of these men. The overall thesis, however, remains clear: the failure of any such translation of Homer to take hold with a vernacular public shows  the continuing power and influence of the medieval Trojan material, which Lodovico Dolce cleverly exploited by weaving non-Homeric material with episodes from Homer in his hybrid L’Achille e L’Enea, which unlike these translations was successful in print (1570, 1571, 1572). There is, however, a certain irony that, while the Italians struggle for a vernacular Homer, there is a rich explosion of Italian Virgils, as the author points out repeatedly.

There follows Federico di Santo’s chapter on the “refoundation” of the epic genre in the Italian Renaissance, which focuses in particular on Giovan Giorgio Trissino, whose Italia liberata da’ Goti introduced blank verse to original epic. Homer remains the major influence on Trissino’s theory of blank verse, and di Santo adds to this discussion a detailed study of the style and diction of Italia liberata, which reveals a profound imitation of Homer at the level of formular diction. His most piquant suggestion is that Trissino’s ability to recreate a formular style so thoroughly is a direct challenge to those who insist that Homeric formularity per se proves that the Iliad and Odyssey originated in a purely oral context, since clearly a writer like Trissino was able to reproduce a similar “traditional” effect (90-91). Di Santo’s contribution underscores Trissino’s Homeric imitation of narrative structures as well, and there is a surprising connection to Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and the revised Gerusalemma conquistata, which took over narrative patterns from Homer specifically via Trissino. This theme is immediately picked up by Mauro Sarnelli in the following chapter, which concentrates on Homeric imitation in Tasso’s Gerusalemme conquistata, a chapter so embedded in the tradition of philological akribeia that an ever-rising tide of footnotes forces the main text to seek refuge at the top of the page. Sarnelli’s interest lies in the Homeric continuities evident in the revision of the liberata into the later form of the work, focusing on the figure of Erminia/Nicea and revisiting relevant passages of both Homer and Eustathius. It will reward the Tasso scholar’s interest perhaps more than the Homerist’s.

The remaining three chapters take us away from Italy into Northern Europe, beginning with Valeria Flavia Lovato’s study of the French 1530 Iliad translation of Jehan Samxon, which is more an amalgam of Iliadic material (translated from Valla’s Latin) with things from Guido delle Colonne. This study is subtle not only in addressing the “paradox” of Samxon’s approach, which relies on the reputation of Homer as the greatest of poets while thoroughly criticizing his depiction of the war, but also in showing a parallel phenomenon in the work of John Tzetzes. The notion that Homer’s account was both incomplete and too biased against the Trojans was held by both authors, Lovato shows, which led them to supplement Iliadic material with things more favorable to Priam’s people. The resemblance between the two men’s work, Lovato concludes, is not one of influence (the Greekless Samxon could not have consulted Tzetzes), but rather “the result of evolutionary convergences, determined in part by a series of constants that seem to align the Byzantine twelfth century with the French sixteenth century” (158).

Federica Ciccolella’s chapter on the Protestant reformer Philipp Melanchthon is evenly divided between a look at Melanchthon’s view of allegorical interpretation and the place of Homer in his educational curriculum. The question of allegoresis is a natural bridge between Melanchthon’s biblical and literary exegesis, and Ciccolella discusses the subtler (or perhaps ambiguous) use of allegory in which the Reformers engaged. Melanchthon for his part seems to prefer an allegory of moral exempla for Homer, e.g. reading Thersites as the type of the agitator and wicked counselor, rather than the naturalistic or Neoplatonic varieties.  This tracks with his tendency in the Praefatio in Homerum (1538) to see in Homer a treasury of sententious moral maxims, one that refuses, however, to Christianize the poems and insists on the essential alterity of the Homeric world to Christian revelation. The final chapter by Luigi Silvano continues the focus on Northern European professors with an edition of an unedited work by Bonaventura Vulcanius (1536-1614), the Flemish humanist who taught at Leiden for thirty years and whose students included prominent figures like Daniel Heinsius and Hugo Grotius.  The modest three-page text, presented in Latin with a facing Italian translation (186-191), is an unsurprising prolusio to the study of Homer, the cliched nature of which gives us a glimpse of what the humanistic party-line looked like in 1581 if one were a student in Leiden.

The volume’s editors are to be praised for putting together this seminal collection of essays, which weave a rich tapestry of themes and situations that bring the Renaissance Homer into better focus. My one quibble is that, while they are quick to realize the links between Northern Europe and Renaissance Italy and the latter’s leading role in refurbishing Homer’s reputation, they seem oddly neglectful of Spain, whose powerful presence in Italy and absorption of Italian culture in the Cinquecento certainly warrants more attention, particularly with regard to Gonzalo Pérez’ Ulyxea, a complete translation of the Odyssey in Castilian blank verse modeled on the Italian practice, and twice published in Italy. One could understand setting a figure like George Chapman aside, since his debts are more to Spondanus and Helius Eobanus than to the Italians, but Pérez had direct contact with the likes of Aretino, Bernardo Tasso, and Bembo in his duties at court. Moreover, Spain’s powerful presence in the Low Countries creates other connections: Vulcanius’ early career unfolded in Spain (1559-1571), where he was secretary to Francisco de Mendoza y Bobadilla,[3] whom Erasmus considered one of his best Spanish disciples. As Luis Arturo Guichard has written, Pérez’ translation of the Odyssey was thoroughly commented upon and critiqued by Cardenal Mendoza along with the humanist Juan Páez de Castro, proof of an extraordinary labor limae as the translation evolved through various editions.[4] Páez de Castro was instrumental in Vulcanius’ introduction to Cardenal Mendoza. I say these things not so much as a criticism of the authors, but rather as an observation that, going forward, we would all benefit more from a better integration of Hispanic Studies with the Italian Renaissance.

Authors and Titles

Valentina Prosperi, Federica Ciccolella, “Premessa”
Tommaso Braccini, “Homerus in grecho: l’Iliade di Sozomeno da Pistoia”
Sotera Fornaro, Raffaella Viccei, “Immaginare Omero nel Rinascimento”
Valentina Prosperi, “Le traduzioni italiane dell’Iliade nel Cinquecento: alcune note preliminari”
Federico di Santo, “Verso sciolto, formularità, struttura narrative: Omero e la rifondazione del genere epico nel Rinascimento italiano.”
Mauro Sarnelli, “Alcune osservazioni sull’imitatio Homeri (e la sua ricezione) nella Gerusalemme conquistata e sul personaggio di Erminia/Nicea”
Valeria Flavia Lovato, “Rileggere Omero a Parigi e Bizanzio: l’apparente paradosso delle Iliades di Jehan Samxon de della Piccola Grande Iliade di Giovanni Tzetze”
Federica Ciccolella, “Omero e la Riforma protestante: l’esempio di Melantone”
Luigi Silvano, “Contro i detrattori di Omero: una prolusione inedita di Bonaventura Vulcianus”


[1] R. Browning, “RECENTIORES NON DETERIORES,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 7 (1960): 11-21.

[2] See also the article by Adam Foley in a nearly contemporaneous article that the authors saw in preview on, “Raphael’s Parnassus and Renaissance Afterlives of Homer,” Renaissance Quarterly 73 (2020):1-32, see p. 20. Those interested in this topic should certainly see Foley’s article, which is richly sourced.

[3] See Ignacio J. García Pinilla, “Vulcanius in Spain: Some Poems,” Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Albasitensis 17 (2020): 259-272.

[4] Luis Arturo Guichard, “Un autógrafo de la traducción de Homero de Gonzalo Pérez (Ulyxea XIV-XXIV) anotado por Juan Páez de Castro y el Cardenal Mendoza y Bovadilla,” International Journal of the Classical Tratition 15.4 (2008): 525-557.