Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
James Gardner (trans.), Marco Girolamo Vida. Christiad. The I Tatti Renaissance Library; 39. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. xxviii, 464. ISBN 9780674034082. $29.95.
Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University

Harvard University Press deserves gratitude and praise for the welcome and long overdue initiative of providing a series of accessible texts from the corpus of Latin literature of the Italian Renaissance. The I Tatti Renaissance Library now offers some forty volumes of prose and poetry in attractive, well-bound editions of reasonable cost. (Though I confess my preference would have been small blue volumes to match the red and green Loebs). The inclusion of Marco Girolamo Vida's six book epic Christiad in the series needs no defense, given its popularity for Italian Renaissance readers and its skillful execution.1 In general, Gardner's volume on this lengthy narrative epic succeeds in providing a convenient and reliable version of Vida's verse to join the other volumes in the fine collection of neo-Latin literature that is being assembled in this series. It is amusing, however, to appreciate this fine volume in light of the poem's coda, where a solemn injunction is placed by the poet on anyone who might dare to publish or to sell the work without the knowledge and sanction of the author.

James Hankins, general editor of the series, is responsible for the Latin text printed in this volume and the collation of the Florentine manuscript believed to be the dedication copy of the epic. Modestly, this information is buried deep in the book; Hankins deserves credit on the cover for all he did and how well he did it. Though this reviewer still finds it jarring not to have an apparatus at the bottom of a Latin text, the variant readings are at least gathered with brief notes on some ten pages before the notes to the translation. The latter annotations amount mostly to a set of comparanda taken from Pease's edition of Aeneid 4, supplemented by extensive, fine work by Richard Tarrant (likewise modestly understated). The constraints of the series do not permit anything approaching a proper commentary, though one does wish the notes might have done more than remind us of where not only Virgil but also Manilius, Lucan, Silius and Corippus lurk: the epic's proem alone, with the its strongly Lucretian flavor, begs for comment and discussion. Indeed, such commentary might have been more desirable than knowing that one can parallel agedum at line-end in Venantius Fortunatus or that one can find a parallel in Arator's Historia apostolica. Alas, if one were to delete the parallel passages from the notes, very little would remain. Further, on occasion some of the alleged parallels seem questionable. Far better on the subject of commentary is the series' splendid recent volume of Jacopo Sannazaro's poetry by Michael Putnam, where the notes strike just the right tone for a brief annotation of the text. Indeed, some of Vida's poetic attacks on Judaea remind one of Lucan's attack on Egypt for the death of Pompey (as well as the Reproaches of the Roman liturgy for Good Friday); the history of anti-Semitism in Renaissance Italy and the charge of deicide against the Jews might have been another good subject for expanded commentary, along with consideration of the characterization of Pontius Pilate, who strikes me as one of the more intriguing figures in the whole epic.2

Gardner's translation strikes me as fluid, skillful, and relatively faithful; it evinces what must have been a mammoth labor that merits praise. Few questionable renderings are to be found in these pages (e.g., III, 147 "full of portents" for plena venturi). I have the strong suspicion that all bilingual editions benefit from the almost supervisory presence of the original text on facing pages. One can tolerate, I suppose, the occasional cuts Gardner makes for the sake of avoiding the "padding" that might come from "pleonasm," precisely because the Latin is ready at hand. Still, one does wish we could just be faithful for ever and always, alleged pleonastic padding notwithstanding. Gardner indicates that he sought to avoid "formulations that felt patently archaic," which is, alas, a hallmark of this sort of poetic exercise. I am not sure we can blame all of Vida's alleged sins on the exigencies of the hexameter verse, as if meter somehow compelled Vida to be a bad poet or to say things we know he would not otherwise.

The introduction is less successful than the admirable translation, mostly in the area of comparing Vida to a wide range of other artists (usually a dangerous game when discussing any poet). Gardner argues that Vida "always has the plan of the poem before his mind," which is true enough, though it seems unnecessary on this count to contrast Vida with Virgil in the Georgics because of alleged "episodic digressions" in the latter (indeed, one could argue that such passages in Vida as the angelic activity during the passion at V, 574 ff. are certainly digressions). One does well to love one's author, I concede, though praising Vida on any account above Virgil (also Ariosto and even Tasso) seems a bit much; on character development (where Virgil is praised above Vida), there seems no reason to inject comparison of Vida to Tolstoy; the precise comparison is always more useful than the impressionistic.

Occasionally the brief introduction contradicts itself; so we read that Vida's "characters can spring to life at any moment," (vii) only to read later that Vida was rather a failure in character development (xiii-xiv). Vida is accused of a "totemic simplification" of his characters that is "far more typical of Silver Latin poets like Lucan. . .than of Vergil or Homer," (xiii) a comparison that is unfair to Lucan (a consummate artist when it comes to the development of his characters and his brilliant game with the identity of his epic's hero), besides offering little insight besides the ultimately unhelpful judgment that Lucan or Statius cannot compare to Virgil, let alone Homer.

Similarly, it seems odd to accuse Titian and Raphael of "what seem to us stereotypical conceptions of pious emotions" (even if the author is an art critic!). Vida is questionably praised for "a far greater experiential immediacy than the paintings of his contemporaries." Only James Henry could manage the sort of wide-ranging comparison between poetry and the visual arts that Gardner attempts. It is patently false to assert that a "Christian cleric by calling could not entertain...this restless awareness of the lacrimae rerum, in short, this tragic sense of life," and superfluous speculation to wonder if Vida himself could. We are told that Vida can "achieve a purity and smoothness in his diction that generally match the level of Vergil in his steadiest and most workmanlike mode," (xxiii) before we read two lines that are considered "rare," lines "in which Vida achieves that perfect marriage of sound and meaning that constitutes poetry at its most delightful and most effective." But one of the allegedly praiseworthy verses, tum picea disclusa volat glans ferrea fumo, describes a cannon blast to which Nicodemus' address to the Sanhedrin is compared. There is not so much perfect poetry here as an attempt at humorous mockery of the simile tradition. Here, certainly, Lucan lurks more than Virgil.

The neo-Latin antecedents of Vida were not, strictly speaking, "biblical." (xii). I am not sure we can lift lines (even ones weighty as Virgil's) "bodily" (xvii) to describe centonization. Hazel Stewart Alberson's views on Dante vs. Vida that Gardner cites (xvii-xviii) do not explain what is meant by the "more nearly true perspective" (sic) of Vida (as opposed to Dante) on Virgil. Dante read Virgil carefully and what he did with Virgil in his poetry was deliberate; there is a touch of the "medieval simplistic, Renaissance sophisticated" school of thought in this all too brief mention of Dante, who deserves far closer study for his relationship to Vida.

Gardner asserts that Vida "rarely if ever avows the existence of classical culture." This is misguided; the poem's very existence is a tribute to the enduring power of classical culture, and, as with the aforementioned Lucretian flavor of the proem, the classics are everywhere in the Christiad. If Vida really is translating the Vulgate into Virgil (xvi), he has certainly managed to expand his text dramatically (cf. the section at V, 300 ff. where Satan summons demonic personifications to attack Pilate, or the accounts of angelic rebellion and the harrowing of hell).3 Apocryphal sources do figure in Vida's narrative (e.g. III, 140 ff., of Mary's parents Anna and Joachim, who are not named in Scripture).4 The whole narrative of Joseph and John before Pilate is entirely the invention of Vida, and deserves explication for its originality, especially given the solid foundation in Christian lore that Joseph had died long before Christ's passion. Lastly, I am not sure we can think Petrarch "knew Latin better than Italian" or that he "valued his Latin poetry above his efforts in the vernacular," (which raises the problematic question of what one means by "value" in a poetic context), as study of the intellectual status of Latin and Italian poetry in fourteenth century Italy makes clear.5

Gardner closes his introduction with a good survey of "Christiad" imitations, translations, and the like through the nineteenth century. The bibliography is a useful and reasonably thorough compilation. The index is well composed and ample, though the citation of, e.g., books of Virgil by book number only, however understandable, is somewhat frustrating.

Gardner raises the excellent question of why the neo-Latin poets were not very successful in their efforts. His speculation is that Vida was trying very hard to be Virgil and not so hard at being a good poet; it strikes me as likelier that in many of the epics of Renaissance Latin poetry we are seeing a fair degree of learned satire and indeed sometimes outright comedy. I cannot believe Vida (author of the De bombyce) did not enjoy at least a smile if not a laugh over comparing the souls in hell to wild Alpine tribes scattering when they saw Roman spears draw near, or at comparing Christ's train of followers to the tributaries of the Po. Gardner would seem to disagree, given that he asserts in passing that "Vida's Christ and Vida himself evidence no conspicuous sense of humor in the Christiad." Yet from the opening lines of his poem, where a Lucretian spiritus alme is invoked to preside over an epic in honor of the "twice-born king," a very healthy sense of irony, learned satire, and occasional humor seems to explain much of what is going on in the hexameters of the Christiad. Vida may have won the bishopric of Alba as a prize for his six books of poetry, but the miter and pectoral cross were won as much by a sense of humor as by reverent depiction of Christ's passion and triumph in Virgilian dress. Vida is a poet of greater interest than simply as an imitator of Virgil who met his mimetic task with talent and sustained achievement. Gardner's new volume will hopefully expose many more readers to a work that deserves to be better known and more closely studied.


1.   Would-be Anglophone students of Vida's epic before Gardner had Drake and Forbes' 1978 revision of Georgina Coyne's 1939 Cornell dissertation, though without her introduction and notes.
2.   The influence of the liturgy of the Roman Rite on (the cleric) Vida's verse deserves study and discussion, especially given the active attention the liturgy was receiving during Vida's own lifetime at the Council of Trent and the reexamination of the many sequences and other medieval poems from the various local liturgies of western Europe. Cf. the note to VI, 730-731, where the cited Ascension text would have been familiar to Vida as the first words of the festal Office.
3.   The tradition that Christ descended into hell and rescued the souls of the just who had died since the fall (beginning with Adam) is based on rather thin scriptural foundations, but was established solidly in patristic sources, both Greek and Latin (Melito of Sardis, Ambrose). Vida describes the descent in language reminiscent not only of Virgil but also of this early Christian tradition. But despite his devotion to Virgil, Vida resisted the temptation to make the harrowing of hell a major episode in his epic.
4.   Sixtus IV, who died around the time Vida was born, added Anne's feast to the general calendar of the Roman Rite; Christian devotion to Anne was Eastern in origin and began to flourish in the west only after the Crusades. The Protoevangelium of James (mid-second century) recounts the story of Anne and her husband Joachim. Devotion to Joseph was only becoming universal in the west during the fifteenth century. Vida's poem reflects the additions to the sanctoral cycle of the Roman calendar in his time.
5.   Useful here is Celenza, C. 2005, "Petrarch, Latin, and Italian Renaissance Latinity". Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 35.3:509-536.

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