Thursday, December 8, 2011


Maria Luisa Delvigo, Servio e la poesia della scienza. Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici, 23. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2011. Pp. 131. ISBN 9788862273732. €34.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono (

Version at BMCR home site

The series of monographs that accompanies the noted journal Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici had an auspicious beginning with Alessandro Barchiesi's groundbreaking wok, La traccia del modello: Effetti omerici nella narrazione virgiliana,1 followed soon by Marzia Bonfanti's Punto di vista e modi della narrazione nell'Eneide.2 These seminal works in the study of Virgilian narratology were joined in 1987 by Maria Delvigo's first contribution to the series, an important volume on the grammarian Probus.3 The next near quarter century of Materiali monographs have seen fine volumes on Sallust, Horace, Ovid, Pliny the Elder (bis),4 and the occasional Greek topic; most titles are devoted to topics in Latin literature. Now, over two decades after an impressive triad of inaugural Virgilian titles, the series has released another essential work for anyone interested in the Mantuan, or, for that matter, a wide range of topics in philosophy, ancient science, literary criticism, late antique reception, or simply that splendid enigma best known to many classicists for the occasional snippet of an out of context note in a modern commentary: Marcius Servius Honoratus.5

The first chapter of the present work is an introduction to late antique exegesis, especially of the Aeneid. Those interested in Varro, Cicero, Macrobius, as well as Augustine's De civitate Dei will find much material that is lucidly presented in economical prose. The unifying theme is a study of the adjective physicus and its occurences in extant Latin: Delvigo's book provides much of value for those interested in Virgil's philosphical and (not necessarily opposed) scientific views, his relationship to his venerable poetic predecessor Lucretius, and the fancy for allegorical interpretations of his epic.

The physicus, Delvigo notes, was defined by Cicero as an investigator and "hunter" of nature (speculator venatorque naturae).6 The relationship of Servius to these ancient scientists, forecast by the introductory section of the book, is now expanded in a brief chapter that is prolegemenon to the key third movement of Delvigo's careful exposition of richly complex topics: La poesia della scienza. Here, Virgil's debt to Lucretius, and the significance of the Epicurean to the tradition of late antique Virgilian commentary, is explored in detail, with particular attention to the nature of plague, the theory of eclipses, and the causes of earthquakes from the Servian commentary on Georgics 2 and 3.

The fourth chapter is devoted to the song of Silenus, Eclogue 6. Besides the Lucretian and Epicurean material here, there is also consideration of Heyne and Wagner's notes of diverse opinion on this difficult poem, a refreshing look at critics whose names are appearing with alarming infrequency in modern Virgiliana.7 This section is in essence a test laboratory for the ideas explored in the first three chapters, where one of Virgil's most "scientific" poems is closely studied according to the concerns already introduced.

The fifth chapter continues the methodology of its immediate predecessor by examining the mysterious passage of Georgics 2.219-227 on the alleged divine nature of the bees,8 while the sixth does the same for 2.477- 482 on the possible causes for celestial phenomena. These chapters provide an important synthesis of the work of recent commentators and critics on Georgics 2, especially Richard Thomas and Monica Gale.

The ghost of Lucretius haunts much of Delvigo's discussions, as it does the Virgilian texts under exegesis. Many of the threads of Epicurean analysis come together in the last chapter, on the anima, blood, and death. Modern commentators (Horsfall a happy exception, and the welcome, burgeoning school of Philodemian Virgilians) tend not to think much of the philosophical ramifications of such passages as A. 2.532 vitam cum sanguine fudit in contrast to A. 9.349 purpuream vomit ille animam. The Servian tradition did, and Delvigo offers a wonderful study of the concept of the anima in Virgil that is remarkable as much for its far-ranging comprehension of a vast problem as for its succint presentation. Here we find valuable work that can enrich an appreciation of recent studies of Virgilian death.9 Delvigo does not ignore the difficulties of Aeneid 6, but she does highlight less appreciated passages for understanding Virgil's concept of the soul. Delvigo engages here in a dialogue with work already completed and in progress by Horsfall and Jan Bremmer, whose forthcoming A. 6 will crown the conversation.

There is an index of cited passages (of great value), as well as an index of key concepts and Latin vocabulary items of particular importance to the presentation of scientific and philosopical ideas. The production values are high, especially considering the book's low cost. There is a brief preface and a short guide to other works available in the series and to internet resources from the publisher.

Delvigo's brief work will be desirable for all who are interested in Virgil, the Virgilian Nachleben in the waning days of the western empire, Lucretius and Epicureanism, as well as ancient science. This is a difficult book in terms of its subtle levels of engagement with a wide range of preceding scholarship; all will find something of value here, though the greater the familiarity with the scholarly traditions, the more treasure one will unearth: this is one of those books where what is not cited is almost as important as what is. Overall, this is a book of rich reward and welcome pleasure for all who seek a gifted Virgilian's careful unraveling of knotty problems. If Delvigo leaves us with more questions than answers, it is a testament to the power not only of her poetic source material, but also of the strangely haunting commentary it engendered, a tradition of exegesis that has been splendidly elucidated by this elegant and unassuming study of nature, the soul, and the ultimate fate of both.


1.   Pisa: Giardini, 1984.
2.   Pisa: Giardini, 1985.
3.   Testo virgiliano e tradizione indiretta: le varianti probiane. Pisa: Giardini, 1987.
4.   Sandra Marchetti's two volumes of 1991 (Plinio il Vecchio e la tradizione del moralismo romano) and 2011 (La scienza della natura per un intelletuale romano: Studi du Plinio il Vecchio) are among the best available on their subject.
5.   The Cambridge Literary Collection, which has produced useful reprints of important works of enduring value ranging from Grote's Greek history to the first edition of Housman's Manilius, is reprinting the entire Thilo-Hagen Servius set.
6.   De Natura Deorum 1.83.
7.   Throughout, Delvigo displays a masterful command of a wide range of bibliographies: Virgilian, Lucretian and Epicurean, scientific. The collected list of cited works alone justifies adding the modestly priced book to one's personal library; refreshingly, Delvigo does not hesitate to cite older scholarship of great value that has been neglected of late in Virgilian criticism.
8.   Judiciously, on this section Delvigo follows in substantial agreement the commentaries of Erren (2003) and before him Thomas (1988).
9.   See especially Massimo Rivoltella's Le forme del morire, Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 2005.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.