Saturday, February 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Casey Dué (ed.), Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad. Hellenic Studies; 35. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, 2009. Pp. xvi, 168. ISBN 9780674032026. $69.95.
Reviewed by Maria Broggiato, Università di Roma La Sapienza

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

This volume is a collection of studies dealing with one of the most famous Greek manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the Venetus A, a prized possession of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice (Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 [= 822]). This Byzantine luxury codex dates back to the tenth century AD and contains the oldest complete text of the Iliad, with a unique set of marginal notes that preserve, among other things, the work on the poem of the most prominent Alexandrian scholars of the Hellenistic age. The manuscript occupies an important place in the history of modern Homeric studies; in the fifteenth century it was part of the personal library of cardinal Basileios Bessarion, who donated his books to the city of Venice. Bessarion's gift was to constitute the core of the Marciana Library, where our manuscript lay effectively forgotten until the end of the eighteenth century, when a French scholar, Jean Baptiste Gaspard d'Ansse de Villoison, rediscovered it and published its contents (1788). Villoison's edition created new interest in Homer and in the history of the text of the epics, and led to the publication in 1795 of F. A. Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum, a work that marks the beginning of modern Homeric scholarship.

Dué's book is issued by the Center for Hellenic Studies, and it is closely linked to the Center's Homer Multitext Project (Center for Hellenic Studies); the Project is in the process of publishing on its website the digital photographs of Venetus A, together with those of two other manuscripts of the Iliad in the Marciana (Marc. Gr. Z 453 = 821, better known as Venetus B, and Marc. Gr. Z 458 = 841, U4 in Allen's edition).1 The importance of digitisation projects of this kind can hardly be overstated, as they make widely available material that only few scholars could previously use; all those interested will be able to browse and download the photographs, published on the site under a Creative Commons non-commercial license.

Our volume is an elegantly presented and accessible introduction to the new digital images of Venetus A. It is clearly aimed at a wider readership, as all contributions share a non-technical approach to their respective topics; at times, this is achieved at the cost of some overlap in the contents between the different chapters. English translations of Greek passages are always provided and no previous knowledge of the Homeric epics and their history is taken for granted. The book is also therefore a useful tool for students as well as for classicists who do not have a specialized knowledge in the complex field of ancient Homeric scholarship and its transmission. The importance and uniqueness of the texts Venetus A contains should not make us forget that this manuscript is an artifact that deserves study in its own right; accordingly, the contributions in the present volume consider not only Homer's text and its notes (or scholia), but also the manuscript's material characteristics, including its illustrations.

The book opens with a foreword by Marino Zorzi, former director of the Biblioteca Marciana, and a short preface by Susy Marcon, the curator of the manuscripts division. The first three chapters, by Christopher Blackwell, Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott, give some preliminary information on the manuscript and the texts it contains, with sections dealing with its history, an outline of its contents, an overview of history of the text of the Iliad and of its transmission from the papyrus rolls used in the ancient world up to the digital images now published on the Center's website. The new possibilities offered by the digital medium are rightly underlined-- for example, the digital images allow the reader to zoom in to the scholia, which would be extremely difficult to read in a traditional reproduction.

In the fourth chapter, Myriam Hecquet provides a thorough description of the material characteristics of the book, with details on the ruling of the pages, the composition and foliation of the codex, and the writing of the Iliad text and of the main set of scholia. As the manuscript bears no subscription, we do not know the name of the scribe who realized it, when and where he worked, and who his sponsor was; Hecquet's analysis is meant to lay the foundations for further work that might help us answer these questions.

The next contribution, by Graeme Bird, deals with one of the most interesting features of the codex, the presence, on almost every page, of critical signs; they appear at the left-hand margin of the Iliad text and convey significant information on the work of Alexandrian scholars (in particular Aristarchus) on the text and interpretation of Homer. The author sets forth a convenient list of these signs, with a description of their meaning and pictures from the manuscript; he then proceeds to illustrate their use, discussing four selected pages that together present examples of all the listed signs. The judicious use of pictures and the approachable style of the discussion make this contribution an ideal introduction to this most esoteric subject in classical studies.2

Apart from twenty-four enlarged initials that marked the beginning of each book of the Iliad, the manuscript originally was not illustrated. In her section Ioli Kalavrezou considers the illustrations added at a later date in the margins of the introductory texts to the Iliad; they picture the events that happened before the war around Troy, from the quarrel about the golden apple to the outbreak of the war. The folios with these illustrations are not at present in the correct order (they were re-bound out of order when the manuscript was later restored); K. convincingly reconstructs their original sequence and identifies their subjects, assigning them to the twelfth century. The renewed interest in the epics among Byzantine scholars of this period would explain why the owner of the manuscript decided to enhance an already precious codex with new illustrations.

The visual formatting and the lettering of the notes surrounding the Iliad text in the manuscript again comes to the forefront in Gregory Nagy's analysis of passages from the scholia, with the intent of reconstructing the ancient system of reading Homer out loud.3 Here 'ancient' refers to pre-Byzantine conventions in the reading of texts, used approximately between the fourth century BC and the fourth AD. In this context, the discussion of the Alexandrians' observations, found in the scholia, on accentuation and quantity in Homeric diction is particularly thought-provoking; on a closer analysis, this apparently dull and unexciting material contains traces of ancient reading practices that can help us to reconstruct an even older practice, the actual performance of Homeric poetry in an earlier period.

In my opinion the main feature of interest of the book lies in its double focus both on Homer's text and on its physical support, the manuscript itself, with an emphasis on the mutually beneficial relationship between literary scholarship on one side and paleography and codicology on the other. The editor and the contributors succeed in dealing with their difficult material in an engaging and comprehensible style. Needless to say, not all Homeric scholars will share the Homer Multitext Project's presuppositions on the history of our text of the epics, especially in its early stages; however, the book and the website will be a very important tool for all those interested in Homer's text and its history.

The volume has a striking set of beautiful color images of the manuscript (both full pages and details); they do not merely give an idea of its appearance, but are essential to the discussion in most contributions. Also noteworthy is the use of a stylized modern uncial Greek font to reproduce some of the manuscript's lettering. The book is handsomely produced and very reasonably priced; it is also virtually free of misprints.4 It will be of great interest to most classicists and will hopefully spur new research into our manuscript and the ancient tradition of scholarship it preserves.


Foreword, by Marino Zorzi
Introduction: Homeri Ilias, in pergameno, pulchra, by Susy Marcon
1. Homer and History in the Venetus A, by Christopher W. Blackwell and Casey Dué
2. Epea Pteroenta: How We Came to Have Our Iliad, by Casey Dué
3. Text and Technologies: the Iliad and the Venetus A, by Mary Ebbott
4. An Initial Codicological and Palaeographical Investigation of the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, by Myriam Hecquet
5. Critical Signs--Drawing Attention to "Special" Lines of Homer's Iliad in the Manuscript Venetus A, by Graeme Bird
6. The Twelfth-Century Byzantine Illustrations in the Venetus A, by Ioli Kalavrezou
7. Traces of an Ancient System of Reading Homeric Verse in the Venetus A, by Gregory Nagy


1.   The Project's directors are Casey Dué, the book's editor, and Mary Ebbott, one of the contributors. Another contributor, Christopher Blackwell, is one of the information architects. The CHS began making plans for the reproduction in 2000, under the directorship of Gregory Nagy; the manuscript was photographed in the spring of 2007.
2.   For more detailed information on these signs and their meaning I would have mentioned A. Gudeman's still invaluable article in Pauly-Wissowa (s.v. Kritische Zeichen, RE XI, 2, Stuttgart 1922, cols. 1916-27).
3.   The author here builds on his previous work on the topic (see for example G. Nagy, 'Reading Greek Poetry Aloud: Evidence from the Bacchylides Papyri', QUCC n.s. 64 (2000), 7-28).
4.   Some minor quibbles: the reference to Villoison's 1788 edition seems to have dropped out of the bibliography at the end of the volume; for the readers' benefit, it would have been useful to include in the book the academic affiliations of the contributors.

1 comment:

  1. The gorgeous digital pages images of Venetus A are a great service to scholarship and will clearly support new research in the decades to come. Readers might also want to have a look at the Iliad in WordHoard (, where you can see the text of Erbse's edition of the Homer scholia, with each scholion attached to its place, just as it was in Venetus A -- in both cases a helpful form of 'just in time' knowledge


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