Friday, March 15, 2013


Phillip John Usher, Isabelle Fernbach (ed.), Virgilian Identities in the French Renaissance. Gallica, 27. Woodbridge; Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. xiii, 260. ISBN 9781843843177. $95.00.

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a beautifully produced, illustrated volume in Sarah Kay's ongoing series of monographs and essay collections on medieval and Renaissance French literature and the arts. (Other volumes of classical interest in the series include work on the Roman d'Alexandre and the image of Constantinople in Old French literature).1 Besides the editorial introduction, there are eleven papers in the present collection, with five more or less devoted to French Renaissance receptions of the Eclogues and Georgics, and six to the Aeneid, with overlap of coverage that is both considerable and understandable (the poems of the Appendix Vergiliana figure, too, at various junctures of the book).

The editors take as the unifying feature of their volume not only the obvious consideration of how the "three modes" (p. 1) of Virgilian composition served to influence artists of the French Renaissance, but also the manipulation of various aspects of those three modes in one and the same work of reception. Throughout the volume, comparison of the political realities of late republican/early imperial Rome and sixteenth century France serves as an additional unifying feature, together with the problem of the attainment of a unique poetic persona and identity in times fraught with either war or the danger of resurgent strife.

While the Virgilian Nachleben has been the subject of important work in recent years, the significance of Virgil to Renaissance France has remained rather understudied. The present collection is not an attempt at a comprehensive examination of that vast topic, but rather something of a taking stock of the state of seiziémiste work on the reception of Virgil in Marot, Du Bellay, Ronsard, and their contemporaries. The volume's target audience is ultimately anyone interested in the reception of splendid verse in a rich tradition (all Latin and Middle French are translated); scholars from a variety of disciplines and approaches will find much to welcome in the collection.

The editors' introduction seeks to do what may well be impossible, namely to provide a history of the reception of Virgil from antiquity to the Renaissance, not to mention a summary of the contents of the papers in the collection, all in the brief scope of some eighteen pages. While different readers will wish for more attention and focus on various aspects of Virgiliana (as well as variant choices for certain bibliographical recommendations), the editors succeed in grounding their audience in what amounts to a prolegomenon to further work on the place of Virgil in the French Renaissance.2 Especially useful is the detailed invitation at the introduction's close to further work on specific authors and works. More seasoned Virgilian students and scholars may lament certain bibliographical lacunae, but the virtue of the volume's accessibility and exposure of Virgil and his French Renaissance imitators to a wider audience helps to mitigate any concern over the juxtaposition of the Penguin Eclogues and more sophisticated treatments of Virgilian pastoral (pp. 43-45). In short, the papers of the volume display a sensitive reading of both more and less familiar Virgilian studies alongside the mastery of the French Renaissance scholarship that one would expect from the authors (nearly all are specialists in Middle French literature). The choice of Virgilian secondary literature by specialists in pre-modern French studies does in itself offer a commentary on the state of the vast Virgil bibliography and its own reception by scholars from disciplines other than Classics. There is a certain denseness to the papers in the collection that serves paradoxically to reflect something of an economy of expression (some contributions are very heavily annotated); the authors (and editors) try throughout to cover as much ground as possible within a relatively limited scope of space.

To open the collection, Bernd Renner's paper compares Virgil and Clément Marot; the latter's first published work (the 1532 Adolescence clementine) opens with his translation of the first eclogue. Renner's paper explores Marot's debt to the Latin poetic tradition (Ovid and Martial as well as his onomastic ludic model Publius Vergilius Maro), all in an attempt to see how Marot finds his own poetic voice amid a swirl of imitation and reworking of the work of past masters.

Margaret Harp studies the influence of the Eclogues on Jacques Yver's 1572 Le Printemps d'Yver, a prose collection of stories that offers poignant commentary on the Wars of Religion. Yver was once thought to have been a victim of the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre; Harp's work sees extensive parallelism between the literary response to the violence of pre-modern France and the last days of the Roman Republic. While readers may find some of the connections herein tenuous if not forced (especially given the generic differences between Yver's Heptameron-like work and Virgil's bucolic meditations on the state of Roman political life), this is a sensitively conceived and thoughtful paper that serves to highlight a Renaissance work of great interest in se, even if its Virgilian intertext is somewhat more elusive than that of other works in the volume.

Michael Randall's paper examines the Virgilian influence (from both the Eclogues and the Georgics) on Jean Lemaire de Belges' 1503 Le Temple d'honneur et de vertus, a dreamlike poetic meditation on a series of statues and other artistic representations of the virtues of eminent and glorious personages. The work is difficult to explicate because of both its pastiche structure and its enigmatic descriptions.A second paper, by Stéphanie Lecompte, revisits not only Le Temple, but also the poet's 1511 La Concorde des deux langages, a miniature epic of sorts where the hero advances from the temple of Venus to that of Minerva; it owes much to the Aeneid as well as the fourth Georgic. In some ways, these two papers are the most challenging in the collection; Virgil's engagement with Neoplatonism and other philosophical schools and problems is presented alongside medieval Christian receptions of the poet's work.

Co-editor Isabelle Fernbach offers a contribution on Du Bellay's 1558 Divers jeux rustiques, a miscellany that opens with a translation of the pseudo-Virgilian Moretum. Du Bellay died only some few months after the appearance of this work; the author considers how he explored issues of literary identity and manipulation of genre in a quest for independence and originality of thought. This paper has certain affinities with Renner's on authorial identity. Here, students of the Appendix will find interesting material for consideration of the question of what constituted a Virgilian text for readers in later antiquity and the medieval period and the problem of defining the salient characteristics of Virgilian verse.

Valerie Worth-Stylianou considers French Renaissance translations of the Aeneid, both complete and partial, and the actual production of versions of the Aeneid, with attention to typeface, illustration, and commentary, all with a view to seeing how early modern renderers of the epic responded to Virgil's vision of heroic love and war. The author considers, too, how the increasing appearance of bilingual editions of the Aeneid reflected a nascent relationship between appropriation of the Virgilian epic and the development of concepts of nation and state in Renaissance France.

Philip Ford offers a challenging paper that compares the Virgilian reception with the Homeric. In some ways this chapter provides the clearest overview in the volume of the general reception of Virgil in pre-modern France (there is far more material on Virgil than on Homer). Ford examines how Virgil's own reception of Homer proved that successful imitation was possible, and how this ancient poetic victory served as a model for French Renaissance readers and artists.

Co-editor Usher's individual contribution is devoted to the anonymous Limoges enamels of the 1530s that illustrate Books 1-9 of the Aeneid. Here, artistic representations of scenes from the epic (including the tradition of book illustration) are examined in light of the manipulation of the text they sometimes evince, where Christian and other traditions seem at least as important to the artist as the actual Virgilian text.

Corinne Noirot-Maguire considers the challenging La mort de Palinure of Joachim Du Bellay. This paper offers a rich reading of the reception of sacrifice imagery in the French Renaissance, with material from both Du Bellay and Ronsard that provides the canvas on which the author explores the place of Aeneas' helmsman in Virgil's epic and the implications of his death and the manner of his loss.

Todd Reiser examines Du Bellay's translation of the fourth book of the Aeneid (as well as his version of Heroides 7). The concept of nation and the ethnographic tradition is at the forefront of this study of the rendering of Virgilian (and Ovidian) verse in Middle French; as with several other papers in the volume, there is close interplay with major themes and problems of Virgilian interpretation and scholarship that are considered elsewhere in the collection. While the papers can be studied individually with profit, the collection displays a high degree of integration and helpful cross-referencing.

Katherine Maynard's paper on Virgil and Ronsard's unfinished epic Franciade is one of the finest in the collection, especially for its close examination of perhaps the least widely celebrated of the poet's works. The author considers the relationship between civil war and imperial vision, the relative conditions of political life for Virgil and Ronsard, and the problems faced by the would-be composer of historical epics. While the Franciade may not be redeemed for a new generation of readers, its debt to Virgil is both pervasive and poignant, and this paper repays rereading for its subtle and nuanced presentation of old debates between more or less optimistic and pessimistic readers of the Aeneid.

A brief index (principally of the proper names of authors and works) closes the volume; an index locorum would have been a most helpful aid to the reader.

2012 was a not inconsiderable year in Virgilian studies.3 Lovers of the poet of the three modes will want to ensure that they do not neglect this important contribution to the study of the intertext between Virgil and the art and literature of one of France's most justly celebrated centuries. The volume and series editors are to be congratulated for an achievement that will, we may hope, encourage Virgilians to investigate more closely the literary and artistic treasures of the le moyen français.


1.   Mark Cruse, Illuminating the "Roman d'Alexandre": Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 263: The Manuscript as Monument, 2011, and Rima Devereaux, Constantinople and the West in Medieval French Literature: Renewal and Utopia, 2012.
2.   The editors rightly lament that a paper on the Virgilian interplay with Montaigne did not come to fruition; Maurice Scève might have offered another good Renaissance figure for consideration.
3.   In their introduction the editors note the spate of recent works in the Virgilian bibliography, both recent and forthcoming, that connect to their volume, and offer some context for the appearance of their work especially in the wake of Putnam and Ziolkowski's Virgilian Tradition and the Thomas and Ziolkowski Virgil Encyclopedia project.

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