BMCR 2022.12.07

Saffo, testimonianze e frammenti

, Saffo, testimonianze e frammenti: introduzione, testo critico, traduzione e commento. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xi, 1124. ISBN 9783110739367 $172.99.

This massive book, at over 1100 pages, offers a very welcome and useful tool to all scholars working on Sappho. It is the successor of a smaller volume, published in 2017 in a collaborative effort between Camillo Neri and Federico Cinti.[1] The 2017 book comprised an ample introduction, the original text of the fragments, including the dubious and spurious ones and the epigrams attributed to Sappho, and of the testimonia, with facing Italian translation, and end notes. This new editio maior expands, updates and corrects the introduction and offers a critical text, with extensive apparatuses, for the fragments, the dubia, the spuria and the testimonia. This is accompanied by an Italian translation (which, somewhat awkwardly follows the section with the Greek and Latin texts, rather than facing them), partly revised (for the testimonia, dubious fragments and the spurious epigrams) and partly entirely new (in the 2017 volume the fragments themselves had been translated by Cinti), and by a very substantial commentary (which occupies slightly more than 400 pages). The volume is rounded out by a vast bibliography and various indexes.

Apart from the 2017 edition, Neri has published extensively on Sappho (and on Greek Lyric in general) and this volume represents the summa of his engagement in the field for roughly 20 years. After the publication of many new important papyrus fragments in the last few decades, and with the parallel massive increase of the relevant critical bibliography, it was clear that the last complete critical edition of Sappho’s fragments, the excellent work of Eva-Maria Voigt (Amsterdam 1971), no longer offered an adequate starting point for readers and scholars, who will now find a wealth of updated information in Neri’s book. The new editor is thoroughly familiar with centuries of secondary literature, and impressively up to date with current scholarship. His bibliography includes not only many works published in 2021, but also numerous ones indicated as forthcoming, and actually not published until well into this current year, and a few other ones that are in fact not yet out.[2]

The introduction, dealing with biographical materials, ancient editions, possible performance contexts, language, style, metre, and reception, is characteristically packed with information and extraordinarily erudite. This occasionally is in danger of overwhelming the readers wandering in the maze of centuries of creative reception and of scholarly contributions.[3] In addition to the many other topics covered Neri also provides an impressively long lists of visual representations of Sappho across centuries, from antiquity to our days. When dealing with such an extensive reception, exhaustiveness is not possible, and, in my opinion, not even desirable. I cannot help thinking, however, that the splendid image of (almost certainly) Sappho about to leap from the Rock of Leucas placed in the focal point of the stucco decoration of the Underground ‘Neo-Pythagorean (?)’ Basilica near Porta Maggiore, in Roma (first half of the 1st century CE), arguably as a symbol of the promise of survival beyond death, deserved mention and discussion.[4] Many of the issues treated in the introduction and in the commentary are controversial (for example, the reconstruction of the Alexandrian edition), as is unavoidable when dealing with largely fragmentary texts, and different readers are bound to disagree on some of them. Neri’s lists of alternative views are thorough and up to date. The occasionally brisk dismissal of the positions of other scholars, however, is not always helpful in making their arguments clear to the readers, who are in any case well directed to the sources themselves and will be able to reach their own conclusions.

The edition itself is a tour de force, digesting as it does in its apparatuses an amazing range of evidence from a great variety of primary sources as well as the results of centuries of textual criticism. Neri includes, of course, the most recent additions to the corpus, with the fragments of the ‘New Sappho’, first published in 2004 (fr. 58), and the ‘Newest Sappho’, first published in 2014,[5] as well as a number of smaller fragments of already previously published papyri that had been omitted in Voigt’s edition, and various other texts of dubious attribution (including, in full, as fr. 306A, the long list of lyric incipits of P. Mich. inv. 3498 and 3250, where the possible Sapphic candidates are in fact less than a handful).

These additions unavoidably raise the issue of the opportunity (or lack thereof) of adopting a new order of the fragments and, consequently, a new numbering system. With some understandable hesitation (vii) Neri has decided to stick as much as possible to Voigt’s previous numbering, which in itself by and large followed that of the previous edition of Lobel and Page,[6] and was in its turn followed in Campbell’s Loeb. This means that Neri has made abundant use of further subdivisions by adding distinguishing signs (such as alphabetic letters) to Voigt’s numbers and has filled gaps created in Voigt’s sequence by deletions of items judged not any more pertinent. This has the obvious advantage of sticking to a very widespread (and largely reasonable) consensus. On the other hand, it does create some serious (if somewhat circumscribed) inconvenience. This is particularly clear in the case of the sequence of poems within Book 1. The internal order within Voigt’s edition reflected the lack of any hard evidence about the actual sequence of poems within the ancient edition of Sappho. This is one of the points on which the ‘Newest Sappho’, combined with new assessment of previous evidence, has resulted in notable progress, revealing a continuous sequence of at least nine (possibly more) poems, all belonging within an alphabetically ordered section with incipits with omicron first and then pi. In Neri’s edition these poems appear with the numbers 5, 9, 10, 16, 16A, 17, 18, 18A and 26, somewhat obliterating their belonging to a continuous series, with 10 directly preceding 26, and with, for example, 6 arguably to be placed after this whole sequence. This piece of information is repeated verbatim in the Latin apparatus of every single one of these fragments. The reader would have difficulty, however, working out at a glance what we know of the sequence (and of the dimension of the gaps between the various fragments). A possible compromise solution between practical expediency and wholesale restructuring based on the new evidence might have been that of intervening only in cases such as this one in Book 1, keeping, for the sake of readers’ convenience, the rest of the structure as close to its predecessors as possible.

There are three apparatuses: the first section provides information on metre and prosody; the second lists the textual sources with fairly ample context and gives account of the editorial history; the massive critical apparatus reports with noticeable largesse (including, presumably for their historical interest, proposals now disproved by fresh evidence) variant readings, conjectures and supplements (along with mentions of other scholars who approved them), correcting, updating, and expanding in a substantial way Voigt’s already generous materials. In some cases, this same richness does not help readers to find their ways in such an abundant amount of information. Neri’s apparatus will be certainly more useful to advanced scholars than to the uninitiated reader, who will have some difficulties in sorting out what is important from what is not. Space prevents here a detailed examination: I focus here just on a couple of passages, to exemplify the richness of information provided as well as some potentially problematic issues. In fr. 1 (the fragment with the longest modern editorial history) in the description of Aphrodite listening to Sappho’s previous prayers the currently accepted text of l.6 reads τὰϲ ἔμαϲ αὔδαϲ ἀίοιϲα πήλοι (“listening to my voice from afar”). From Voigt’s edition (as well as from most others) the reader would not be able to understand that this interpretation of the evidence, now taken for granted, goes back only to Lobel’s 1925 edition. Neri makes this point clearly (though omitting to signal that part of it, notably the participle ἀίοιϲα, had been adopted already in the XVII century). Most of this could be elicited from the ancient textual sources (hence the understandable omission in several more selective editions), but the process through which the result was achieved tends too often to be obliterated. On the other hand, exhaustiveness is practically impossible, especially when dealing with texts with such a rich editorial history. An example is provided by fr. 2, a substantial piece of an ode, copied on a piece of broken pottery in a careless and difficult hand, that has attracted a number of textual proposals commensurate to its frustrating difficulty. Neri’s apparatus is, accordingly, very rich too. I note, however, that in the last preserved stanza, where Aphrodite is requested to reveal herself, according to Neri and most editors, “taking” something (ἔλοιϲα) and “pouring” divine nectar as wine (οἰνοχόειϲα) to the speaker, the apparatus omits the alternative textual proposal according to which Aphrodite would instead be asked to “willingly concede” to the speaker herself “to pour” divine nectar for her companions (δόϲ μ[ε] [Schubart] θ̣έλοιϲα or μ’[ἐ]θ̣έλοιϲα, Fassino in Ferrari 2011, after Turyn, followed by the infinitive οἰνοχόαιϲα[ι, Ferrari 2011 again),[7] thus potentially changing the interpretation of the whole passage from a pragmatic perspective. This might sound problematic (especially as the indirect tradition favours the reading of a participle at the end of the quotation), but in my opinion was well worth mentioning.

Neri himself has contributed not a few new proposals of his own in previous publications and adds some new ones here, often based on his own assessment of the papyri, inspected mostly via digital reproductions. In many cases this involves the possible articulation of uncertain papyrus traces. A few interesting ones are mentioned only in the commentary. This is the case in fr. 6a.3, where a line begins with ατρι[ preceded by what in the photograph looks as an added supracript Π. Neri proposes to interpret the papyrus evidence as suggesting a correction into πατρι[, an attractive solution even in such a fragmentary context.

The translation is presented in the introduction (viii) as aiming at a clear rendering of the text, though not without attempting, where possible, to echo formal poetic features of the original. By and large this seems to me to have been a successful effort, producing a result that is both useful for grasping the editor’s understanding of the text and pleasant to the ear. Complete adherence has not always been possible. At ll. 18-19 of the Brothers Poem (fr. 10 Neri), for example, the much-discussed textual sequence δαίμον’ ἐκ πόνων ἐπάρωγον ἤδη περτρόπην is translated as “indirizzare un nume a protezione dopo gli affanni”. In the commentary Neri rightly notes that if the verb is related to περιτρέπω the meaning should be “to turn away from (my italics)”, which does not emerge clearly enough from the translation, “to direct to protection” (less convincing, and more difficult to understand seems to me his alternative interpretation of a link to an unattested ὑπερτρέπω “con un senso più accentuato di ‘protezione’”).[8] In the same poem, at l. 21 τὰν κεφάλαν ἀέρρη is translated as “rialza la propria testa” (“raise his head again”), but the implication that Sappho’s brother, Larichus, is expected to return to a previous situation (“rialza/again”) rather than reaching it for the first time is not in the Greek.

Such a large corpus of fragmentary texts and diverse indirect sources would pose unavoidable challenges to any translator, and slips are probably unavoidable, but I found Neri’s achievement very solid throughout. Without pretending to have done more than sample-testing, I draw attention to one possible slip, which could be very easily corrected in a revised edition. At fr. 211 7, in an excerpt from Servius’ commentary on Verg. Aen. 3.279, digressing on the fatal rock sacred to Apollo on the island of Leucas from which according to some later sources Sappho would have leaped putting an end to her life, we read unde nunc auctorare se quotannis solent qui de eo monte iaciantur in pelagus. Neri translates “di qui, ora, sono soliti prendere il nome coloro che si gettano in mare dal promontorio”, “from here, now, usually take their name those who throw themselves in the sea from the cape.” The technical expression se auctorare here, though, means not “to take one’s name” but “to hire oneself out <add: “every year”, quotannis>”, as would be the case of gladiators or other individuals risking their life for a wage.

Though over 400 pages, the commentary is, nevertheless, understandably, more selective than the apparatus. With a text as rich as that of Sappho it would be impossible to cover every possible approach. Neri devotes much space to issues of language and style and often provides full lists of occurrences of verbal forms, collocations, and peculiarities, and offers a wealth of new remarks on the possible scenarios of more fragmentary pieces. His Sappho, on the whole, reflects a safely traditional approach. In Neri’s view, for example, Sappho 1 represents “un momento collettivo nella vita del gruppo in cui il canto ‘autobiografico’ doveva forse servire da educativo exemplum per le ragazze restie” (“a collective moment in the life of the group, where the ‘autobiographical’ song must have perhaps served as an educative exemplum for the reluctant girls”: 532, the first page of the commentary). This reflects the predominant scholarly consensus on the interpretation of this poem, and of Sappho’s poetry more generally, and has evident points of strength. It would be salutary, however, to point to the reader how some of the key elements of this reading (notably “collective”, “group”, “education”) are rooted more within the scholarly interpretative framework than in the text of the poem itself. Readers, on the other hand, will find little, if anything, for example, on the hypothesis of a Sappho more self-consciously playing with literary and cultural traditions, and with her own persona, reshaping in her song, along with much else, the performance of a magic spell. Nor will they be presented with the possibility that Aphrodite ποικιλόθρονοϲ may evoke not only her “trono intarsiato” (“variously inlaid throne”) but also the charms (θελκτήρια; cf. θρόνα= φάρμακα in later sources) preserved in her cunningly wrought girdle (Il. 14.214-7), a reading that would have probably appealed to Callimachus, who described the ‘witch’ Medea as πολύθρονοϲ (Hecale, fr. 3 Hollis).

Even reduced to shards, Sappho’s poetry is too cunningly wrought for her interpretation to be explored to everybody’s satisfaction. Even with these unavoidable limitations, Neri’s learned book offers a treasure trove that seriously enriches and advances the efforts toward a fuller comprehension of her legacy. No serious (advanced) reader should approach Sappho without taking into account, with gratitude, this impressive work.



[1] Saffo. Poesie, frammenti e testimonianze, Santarcangelo 2017.

[2] This commendable thoroughness unavoidably causes a few glitches, that will be easily corrected in a revised edition. So, for example, the article listed as “Yatromanolakis 2021”, “in corso di stampa”, belongs not to D. Yatromanolakis but to Giulia Donelli (who is nowhere mentioned in the book): cf. G. Donelli, “Herodotus, the Old Sappho and the Newest Sappho”, Lexis, 39 (n.s.), 13-34; from Neri’s report (in the introduction to fragment 1) the reader not yet familiar with D’Alessio (2021: published in fact only in 2022: “Physical Lay-Out, Material Damage and the Reconstruction of Fragmentary Texts”, in M. Alexandrou, C. Carey, G.B. D’Alessio (eds.), Song Regained: Working with Greek Poetic Fragments, Berlin/Boston 2022, 175-196) might get the inaccurate impression that its argument is contradicted, rather than supported by Kreij-Colomo-Lui 2020.

[3] Here too, marginal mistakes are all but unavoidable, and easy to correct in case of revision. The Pindemonte quoted at 82, n.492 as the author of Il salto di Leucade (1792, which, by the way, is not unfinished, as stated), is not the famous Ippolito, but his less known elder brother Giovanni.

[4] Cf., G.B. D’Alessio, “The Afterlife of Sappho’s Afterlife”, CCJ (2022), 49-82, and S. Romani, Saffo, la ragazza di Lesbo, Turin 2022, 81 f., 150-153.

[5] On the fraudulent provenance of the ‘Newest Sappho’, cf. Neri’s preface, at p. v. More generally, on the thorny ethical and legal issues involved in the publication of previously undocumented papyri (and other inscribed artifacts) exported from their country of origin after the date upon which the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property entered into force (1973), including the ‘New Sappho’, acquired in 2002, see B. Nongbri in

[6] E. Lobel, D.L. Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, Oxford 1955, 19632, 19683.

[7] The reference is to F. Ferrari, “Da Kato Simi a Mitilene. Ancora sull’ode dell’ostrakon fiorentino (Sapph. Fr. 2 Voigt)”, PdP 66 (2011), 442-463.

[8] I find West’s correction into ἐπ’ἄρηον (“to turn our daimon/destiny away from troubles toward the better”) attractive.