Wednesday, March 23, 2011


David Scott Wilson-Okamura, Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 299. ISBN 9780521198127. $95.00.

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (

Version at BMCR home site

There has long been a need for a comprehensive examination of Virgil's place in the various European Renaissances (plural deliberate). Wilson-Okamura's volume attempts to address that need. There is much in this book that will be a delight to those who are interested in the reception of Virgil in these periods of intense literary and artistic creativity. Unfortunately, there are problems that render the work unsatisfactory as a Renaissance version of Comparetti.1

The title of the work reveals a problem that needs highlighting: "Renaissance Virgil" might have been a better label, since "Virgil in the Renaissance" contributes to the still widespread notion that the Renaissance was a monolithic reality for Western Europe. It is often problematic when "Renaissance" is used as a label without a descriptive adjective; Wilson-Okamura does not hesitate to speak of "Renaissance culture," and it is usually unclear to which Renaissance culture he refers. Indeed, Wilson-Okamura acknowledges that in his work, "national differences are going to seem less evident than international trends." (p. 9). The book's cutoff date is 1599, chosen because the "best…library catalogues and printed bibliographies" (p. 10) do not extend beyond that year. As the author acknowledges, this makes consideration of Milton rather difficult; there is also apology for not giving much attention to Dryden, who is not, in fact, an English Renaissance figure. 1599 is an arbitrary date, and one that the author himself (reasonably) does not observe rigidly as a terminus.

In general, the book is concerned with vernacular Renaissance literature; there is some consideration of Latin Renaissance epic, but not much (Fracastoro, for example, needs attention, given the ample Virgilian Nachleben in his poetic consideration of the discovery of the New World; so too Sannazaro). Astonishingly, there is but one reference to the Portuguese Lusiads (227), where we are told there is no Camilla-like figure in the epic.

As it stands, the book's structure makes it difficult to use; there are six chapters, organized according to less than transparent principles. Part I, "Publication," consists of Chapter I, "Virgil with an i." Part II, "Reputation," contains chapters on "Patronage and the Eclogues," "Variety and the Georgics," and "Morals and Minimalism." Part III, "Interpretation," has chapters on Virgil's "Odyssey" and "Iliad." There is an introduction and an epilogue, and two appendices that provide invaluable lists of Virgilian commentaries, though not, regrettably, a comprehensive list of works inspired by the poet. There is surprisingly little in this volume about the Virgilian Appendix.

In general, the book's idiosyncratic principles of organization make it exceedingly difficult to use for readers searching for a comprehensive overview of the author's treatment of a particular figure (or national literature)

Wilson-Okamura notes that, in the first part of his book, he is most interested in determining "which commentaries on Virgil were printed most often, and which commentaries were printed over the longest period." This is an important goal, though I think perhaps not what most users of this book might expect or desire to pursue.

The last section of the book sets out "to give a survey of the whole Aeneid, as it was understood by European readers from about 1300 to 1600." The ambitious goal is deflated by the next statement: "To accomplish this goal many even of the poem's most luminous episodes will have to be passed over in silence." (p. 145). The book's introduction already warns that Dido, for example, is not given much consideration; the reader is referred to the author's previously published work on Carthage's queen (p. 6). "For studying individual episodes, the commentaries are the easiest place to start," (p. 146), Wilson-Okamura admonishes: true enough, though probably unhelpful to many readers of the book who will not have access to rare pre-modern commentaries. The major flaw in Wilson-Okamura's methodology is this attempted universality; he acknowledges that "we know what Landino thought" because of Craig Kallendorf's work; the difficult question he chooses to pursue is, "But what did Europe think?" (p. 146).2 The question needs to be defined more precisely, and selective treatment of episodes from the Aeneid will not suffice to provide an answer.

This flaw in methodology is illustrated by how Wilson-Okamura first proceeds to address his sweeping question. He says we must begin by deciding which episodes from Books 1-6 of the epic must be considered, and which must be omitted (the questionable presumption being we cannot deal with the Renaissance responses to the entire poem). He begins by noting that Montaigne was most enamored of Book 5, only to note that we cannot follow Montaigne because he "was more independent than most readers, then or since." This is gratuitous assertion and a rather haphazard way of pursuing a difficult topic. Wilson-Okamura settles for addressing episodes that "poets and scholars liked to translate" (p. 146), again, an unscientific methodology. This leads to consideration of Troy's fall, Dido, and the underworld, which, the author notes, were also "Shakespeare's favorites." Suspicion is always raised when the reader is warned that particular scenes will be omitted from consideration, especially when the criterion for inclusion seems to be what was enthusiastically translated in one country or what a playwright from another country whom the book barely studies might have liked. All this, after all, is foundation to tell us what "Europe" thought of Virgil. Thus the book has a dizzying quality to it; we skip from tradition to tradition, country to country and author to author.

The introduction to Wilson-Okamura's section on Virgil's "Odyssey" is a good example of how the book proceeds; impressions often carry the day, and, because of the abandonment of chronological or systematic national consideration of Virgil's reception in the literature across a vast compass of space and time, we are left rather at the author's mercy.

Wilson-Okamura asserts that "Camilla leads only a shadowy existence in the Middle Ages" (p. 227), which readers of the Roman d'Eneas might dispute. Wilson-Okamura does well to raise the question of how Camilla went from being a virgin warrior to a model for motherhood and marriage; the question is left largely unanswered (and, in his section on Camilla, some consideration of Boccaccio's account of Camilla in his De mulieribus claris, or of Christine de Pizan's remarks on the Volscian huntress, might have been a good starting point).3

The book has an odd tendency to cite passages from English translations, usually with insertion of key terms in Latin; this may be the publisher's fault. From the usefulness of translating all Latin and Greek we have moved to skipping the original: a baleful trend. It is jarring to see Ronsard not in French, and Tasso not in Italian.4 The practice of translating selected words and phrases, while perhaps of some utility, only highlights how we are not accessing the original. At the very least, the anglophone reader is forced to trust the translations the author cites. When Wilson-Okamura tells us that Tasso wrote that "in Virgil there is always something left out, 'like sand without lime'," only to go on to say that "that phrase is how Caligula described the loose, concatenated prose style of Seneca," (pp. 137-8) without any citation of the classical source, we have the worst outcome of systematic preference of translations to original texts. Everything becomes subject to life in a vacuum, where we learn that "claritas was (and still is) considered to be Homer's specialty." (p. 138). By whom, then or now? Erich Auerbach's Mimesis is subsequently cited, but the problem remains: gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. Often the reader is forced to do a fair amount of detective work to tease out the foundation of such statements. Also, there is the fact that while the reader is not expected to know any language besides English, the novice to Renaissance literatures will not be familiar with some of the figures who are introduced with little in the way of explanation or context.

The book's "epilogue," the author tells us, is about "style." In its brief compass of less than four pages, it presents the idea that a Vegio could produce a thirteenth book of the Aeneid not because the Virgilian story needed completion, but for the sake of "style": "What redeems the sequel is its style." (p. 249). It strikes me as more likely that the work of Vegio – which is not so much unique to any Renaissance as an imitation of what the anonymous Norman cleric of the Roman had already done in twelfth-century France, or von Veldeke in his Eneasroman – was a response to discomfort with the end of Virgil's epic. The content of the close of Aeneid 12 prompted the continuations. Wilson-Okamura correctly observes that there is not as much "interpretation" in Renaissance Virgil commentaries as we might like; this is in part because creative endeavors as disparate as the Old French Roman, Vida's Christiad, and, not least, Vegio's Aeneid 13, are all in themselves commentaries on Virgil.

The book ends with a restatement of a perennial question: "why don't the Renaissance poets who imitate Virgil sound more like him?" (A good point of departure would be that only the Renaissance Latin poets can truly aspire to sound like Virgil, and many of them (Sannazaro comes to mind) draw close. Wilson-Okamura's question is deferred to a future book.

The author's use of contractions ("it's", "what's") is infelicitous. The index is well arranged and of great use. A bibliography would have been helpful and is a strange omission.

It is interesting that the book's jacket contains a version of the book's table of contents that lists the names of the "major authors" considered in each chapter, arranged alphabetically. The lists are illuminating; they illustrate well the wide range of learning the author exhibits, but also the lamentably haphazard treatment of material. "The goal of this book is to chart the big picture," Wilson-Okamura asserts from the start (p. 1), but the picture is not in clear relief when we reach the last pages on style. This volume might have been more successful if it had limited its field of inquiry to the early modern Virgilian commentary tradition, or the history of pre-modern editions and translations of Virgil. One gets the odd sense that the book is militating against comprehensive coverage of the reception of Virgilian in Europe's varied Renaissances, yet this is exactly what the book's title and introduction lead us to expect (and what the Virgilian community has long needed). Virgil in the Renaissance will be profitably consulted and enjoyed for its rich, panoramic (the author's word) presentation of texts that repay closer study, even if by its close we are left still searching for a Comparetti for the Renaissances.5


1.   Comparetti, Domenico, Virgilio nel medio evo, Livorno: F. Vigo, 1872; there was a second edition (Firenze: Sansone, 1896), and a third edition (ed. Pasquali), Firenze: Nuova Italia, 1939-1941. Most useful for anglophones is Jan Ziolkowski's exemplary edition with introduction (Vergil in the Middle Ages, Princeton, 1997).
2.   Kallendorf, Craig, Virgil and the Myth of Venice: Books and Readers in the Italian Renaissance, Oxford, 1999, and The Other Virgil: "Pessimistic" Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture, Oxford, 2007.
3.   Wilson-Okamura does address the problem of the Roman in his section on Dido and Lavinia, though as elsewhere the problem is how we move from Point A to Point B; so there is nothing offered from the Roman to help us with Camilla, whereas it might have been better to use the great vernacular epic of medieval France as a starting point for consideration of Camilla's depiction in later poems.
4.   Besides the problem of translations, there is the question of editions. So Ronsard is cited from Silver's Chicago edition (p. 140), not the superior PlĂ©iade edition of Simonin et al. (Gallimard, 1994).
5.   Of Comparetii, Wilson-Okamura writes, "There ought to have been a sequel, Virgil in the Renaissance." (p. 2).

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