BMCR 2022.04.39

Nessuno guarda Elissa: Due passi del primo libro dell’Eneide e il disagio degli interpreti

, Nessuno guarda Elissa: Due passi del primo libro dell'Eneide e il disagio degli interpreti. Biblioteca di Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici, 25. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2020. Pp. 260. ISBN 9788833152035 €156,00.

Drawing on two thousand years of exegetical efforts, Viola Starnone’s volume is able to shed light on two problematic passages of the Aeneid. The first meeting between Aeneas and his mother, Venus, (Aen. 1, 314-417) has deeply affected the readers of Virgil: why does the goddess deceive his son by appearing in the form of a beautiful virgo? Why does Virgil elaborate on the physical description of the young woman? Why, after she reveals her true appearance, does Venus flee, while her son expresses his pain and disappointment? These are just some of the questions that Starnone tries to answer, with reference to centuries of Virgilian exegesis. If the erotic implications of the mother-son meeting have troubled those who commented on Virgil, it’s the lack of such details that creates discomfort in the second scene discussed in this book. When Dido appears for the first time in the Aeneid (1, 494-504), Virgil fails to register any reaction by Aeneas, who was waiting for her. Given the further development of their story, the absence of any description of Aeneas’s first look at the queen is unsettling, and readers have tried to include it in the scene by different means.

The book is divided in two sections: the first and main one (pp. 21-153) discusses the reception of the meeting between Aeneas and Venus, the second one (pp. 157-210) that of Dido’s arrival. In discussing the reception of these two passages, Starnone uses a great number of sources, offering extremely interesting and productive insights, and gives her own perspective at the end of each section.

In discussing the reception of the virgo-Venus scene, Starnone identifies two opposite trends: the need to normalize the text by eliminating the most disturbing elements and the emphasis on the erotic features that cause the disturbance. The author follows the developments of these tendencies throughout the centuries in a measured and objective way, using different sources: echoes in ancient and Christian writers, commentaries in late antiquity, Renaissance and modern scholarship, translations, parody, iconography. Ovid is considered to be the first to grasp to the fullest the centrality of eros in this episode and the passages quoted convincingly suggest that in imitating Virgil he underscores the erotic. Two parallels are particularly interesting. In the myth of Callisto, Jupiter disguises himself as a virgin, just as Venus does in the first book of the Aeneid; the two deities most often identified with sexual desire dress up as their opposite, but, while Jupiter’s goal is clear, Venus’ goal baffles readers. Secondly, Narcissus’ cry (met. 3, 474-479) offers a parallel to Aeneas’ outburst after his mother’s flight: the two young men are disappointed by the discovery that what they wanted was not what they expected.

The normalizing trend starts with Seneca, who considers the episode an exemplum that exhorts men to look beyond appearances. This is the first allegorical reading of the scene, an approach that will prove fruitful in the following centuries. According to this tendency, Servius considers virgo-Venus an astral position, the one under whose influence Aeneas was born and that determines his fate. Donatus, on the other hand, apparently emphasizes the erotic elements only to eliminate them, by showing Aeneas overcoming temptation. And yet, as the author points out, Donatus necessarily omits the most disturbing element: the temptation comes from Aeneas’ own mother, Venus. The role of the mother will be reclaimed and reinterpreted by Christian authors, who consider virgo-Venus a figure for the coexistence of virginity and motherhood in reference to the Virgin Mary.

The two tendencies, the normalizing and the eroticizing, continue to influence the allegorical readings of the Middle Ages, when the need to separate the Venus legitima from the Venus impudica emerges. The second one seems to prevail particularly in Armannino da Bologna’s Fiorita: virgoVenus is depicted as a prostitute, and Aeneas bears within himself the same lust and depravity as his unholy mother. A similar view is expressed by Petrarch: in the Secretum he echoes Virgil to show that the virgo is the personification of Veritas, but in his allegorical reading of the Aeneid (sen. 4, 5) Aeneas’ meeting with Venus represents every man’s meeting with Voluptas, a destructive force from whose influence one must escape through chastity. In Landinus’ Neoplatonic interpretation, the two natures of Venus come to a reconciliation: they are both positive because they oversee active and contemplative life. Accordingly, the episode gets a new political meaning: Venus guides his son, the populorum temperator, through the vita activa, because of his role as leader, while the fact that he recognizes the divine nature of the virgin represents his ability to see the divine element in the earthly things.

The humanists introduce a new approach to the text, that of systematic comparison with the Greek models of Virgil and his imitators. Interestingly, almost all the passages quoted corroborate the erotic tendency, and the parallel with the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, first noted by Germanus (Germain Vaillant de Guélis), is particularly relevant. As Starnone notes, centuries later, Augustin de Saint-Bauve will offer a deep analysis of the relationship between the hymn and this scene, claiming that Virgil wanted to echo Venus and Anchises’ meeting, transforming it into a meeting between the goddess and her son; in the 20th century, the ambiguity of this choice leads to psychoanalytical readings of the episode. The discomfort of the commentators is well displayed in Regulus’ (Sebastiano Regoli’s) discussion of the passage: the scholar claims that Virgil, in this scene, is strictly applying what Aristotle prescribed for a good anagnorisis, but conveniently omits the only example of recognition given by Aristotle, that of the Oedipus Tyrannus. The implications of Oedipus’ recognition could be extremely problematic if applied to the meeting between Aeneas and his mother; consequently, even Aeneas’ quarrel, whose erotic tone is evident, becomes an expression of pietas and filial love.

The erotic elements become even more crucial in the translations and parodies of these verses. Translators tend to focus on the body of the virgo, describing her hair, skin, and even introducing details that are absent in the original text, such as the description of her breast. In reading line 404 (pedes vestis defluxit ad imos), they understand that Venus becomes naked as she reveals her true appearance (an interpretation backed by the parallel with Aesch. Ag. 239), in disagreement with earlier commentators who believed the goddess here covered her bare knees. The author notices that the same evolution is displayed in the iconographic representations of the scene: virgo-Venus is fully dressed in her first portrayals, but from the 16th century she is partially or totally naked. This element is brought to an extreme in the parodic readings of the scene, which focus on Venus’ disguise and her ambiguity, often portraying her as a prostitute. Lastly, Starnone discusses the modern interpretations of the episode: philologists face the uneasiness of the scene by either giving it a tragic reading (a mother wants to help her son, but, being a goddess and a human, they belong to different worlds and cannot come into contact) or a comic one (focused on Aeneas’ colloquialism and childish outburst and on the irony of Venus dressed up as her opposite). Heinze explains the episode as a case of narrative inconsistency, caused by Virgil’s change of mind on the role of Venus in the Aeneid. After discussing centuries of Virgilian exegesis, Starnone points out that the main cause of discomfort is the clear violation of the epic code and adds an interesting observation about the setting of the scene. The meeting takes place in media silva, with all the earthly implications of such a place: it is not a coincidence that this ambiguous and uneasy meeting occurs here, as the silva-scenario plays a major role in the Aeneid. This offers the author the link to discuss the second episode, as Aeneas and Dido’s last meeting too takes place in a silva, that of Hades.

Starnone points out that the absence of Aeneas’ reaction to the first appearance of Dido troubled readers. The queen’s entrance is described by Virgil with great emphasis, focusing on her beauty and noble bearing, but the hero doesn’t seem to look at her. In the same way, the two Greek models of the scene, the appearance of Nausicaa (Hom. Od. 6, 102-109) and that of Medea (Ap. Rh. 3, 876-886) fail to give any information about Odysseus’ and Jason’s reactions. This is consistent with the epic code: Aeneas is a hero, leader of his people (as is Dido), and he will never express his feelings throughout the whole love story of the fourth book. Yet, the adherence to the epic code here causes unease, and readers have felt the need to include Aeneas’ gaze on Dido. This is particularly evident in the echoes by Statius (Ach. 1, 293-303) and Valerius Flaccus (5, 343-349), who recall the episode in scenes that describe love at first sight. Commentators use the fact that Aeneas was staring at the pictura inanis to explain his missing gaze on Dido: from Donatus to Heinze, they claim that Virgil uses abrupt disruptions (repentinus eventus rerum, such as Dido’s arrival, that interrupts the ekphrasis of the temple) to organize the plot. On this reading, Aeneas shifts his focus from the pictura to the queen without the poet pointing it out; the link between the glances is the last image described on the pictura, that of Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons.

But this approach, Starnone astutely notes, is still incomplete: even if we imagine Aeneas staring at Dido, he still doesn’t show any feelings, any reactions. The author explains how, to find a sign of Aeneas’ feelings, commentators focused on Aen. 1, 502 (Latonae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus). This line, criticized by early readers such as Probus, is later detached from the simile Dido-Artemis and the verb (pertempto) assumes an erotic meaning; at the end of this process, Leto’s joy represents Aeneas’ excitement at the sight of the queen. An interesting interpretation is that of Juan Luis de La Cerda, who notices the parallel between the simile Dido-Artemis in this episode and the Aeneas-Apollo one in the fourth book (141-150): the poet describes the queen but is silent about Aeneas in the first scene, while the opposite happens in the second scene, and La Cerda believes that pulcherrima and pulcherrimus express the point of view of the “silent” character.

Having shown in detail the various means used to include Aeneas’ subjectivity in the scene, Starnone gives a new, convincing, interpretation of this episode. She compares Aeneas and Dido’s first meeting with their last one (Aen.6, 450-476) and notices that the absence of Aeneas’ gaze here contrasts with the persistence of his desire to see her in Hades, even after she refuses to speak to him. Only when the love story has (tragically) ended does Virgil allow his hero to break the epic code and to show his feelings.

This book offers a rich and complex analysis of numerous and varied sources.  Sometimes the reader finds himself wanting to learn a little more about the single works mentioned, not all well-known, but the abundance of authors’ quotations (some of which lack modern critical editions, e.g. Armannino da Bologna) fully justifies the need to give a summary of the most significant interpretations of the subject. The author’s final thesis—that the readers’ uneasiness is caused by the fact that Aeneas is caught between epic code and its violation—is persuasive, and the book shows how careful reading not only of the original text, but also of its echoes and exegesis, can improve our understanding of Classical authors.