Monday, June 23, 2014


Angelo Giavatto, Federico Santangelo (ed.), La retorica e la scienza dell'antico: lo stile dei classicisti italiani nel ventesimo secolo / Between rhetoric and classical scholarship: the style of Italian classicists in the Twentieth Century. Rezeption der Antike, Bd 2. Heidelberg: Verlag Antike, 2013. Pp. 175. ISBN 9783938032664. €35.90 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, British School at Rome; University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site

This unusual book addresses the style of five twentieth-century Italian scholars, Pasquali, De Sanctis, Momigliano, Colli, and Lana. The introduction by the editors, in English, sets out the question which underpinned the 2010 conference in Bologna from which the volume is derived: 'What judgment can we express today about the style of the Italian classicists who lived in the twentieth century and influenced generations of scholars in their home country and – in some cases – abroad, and how does it help us in framing a map of interpretations of antiquity throughout the period?'

As the editors state, this is not ground well covered; and the approach clearly risks both confusing stylistic analysis with biography and being immensely introverted. A negative view of stylistic elaboration may however be more an English reaction; with the exception of Syme, most Anglo-American ancient historians of the same period have eschewed stylistic effect in favour of clarity, and rhetoric in favour of argument. In Italy, however, the intellectual culture continues to give some weight to style; it still matters how one states something relatively well known. What this volume shows is that this emphasis is not the affectation of an undeveloped critical standpoint, but relates strongly to a series of intellectual choices, as well as personal ones.

Tiziano Dorandi discusses Pasquali's prosa – prosa, his simple technical style, in which he followed his German heroes such as Wilamowitz. Pasquali was at home in three languages (Italian, German, and Latin), and intellectually at least as comfortable in Germany as Italy, as shown by his affectionate portraits of Göttingen. Perhaps the most interesting topic of this essay is his disagreement with the poet Montale over the use of the word 'fesso,' which Pasquali thought had obtained through fascism a sort of false currency, when it was in fact a rather low word (it is related to 'fessa', vulgar slang for female genitalia, and became used as something along the lines of 'idiot'). Montale disagrees – he thinks the distinction between what Pasquali called prosa – prosa and prosa – arte is not yet settled – it was not yet clear what was acceptable usage. This essay sheds an interesting sidelight on the language battles around the time of Fascism, what Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi has called the 'aestheticisation of political language.'

Federico Santangelo's comprehensive account of De Sanctis' literary style genuinely does offer answers to the questions raised. He notes that De Sanctis' style was remarkably consistent across his historical oeuvre, despite blindness having intervened in the 1930s. His characteristic use of connective particles at the beginning of sentences carries the reader forward – Santangelo's most perceptive remark is that the historian was inducting the reader into his school by making him/her feel as if they were part of the argument. The style of the diary and De Sanctis' novel Andromaca are naturally somewhat different. Again, politics is lurking here; the essay explores the awkward relationships between De Sanctis' interest in personal liberty and his belief in the beneficial effects of colonization, his interest in the emancipation of the female character in his novel, and his dismissive presentation of the negro slaves.

Rosa Mucignat uses personal testimony to try to recapture the sense of the Momigliano seminar, which she argues influenced both his style and also his commitment to dialogue and discussion, not simply as a matter of collegiality, but as a way of testing ground and reinforcing methodologies. Mucignat sees some of the inspiration for this practice of course in the famous Warburg style, but also contrasts Momigliano's rejection of authoritarian lecturing and his adoption of a kind of Humboldtian approach which had failed to take off in the Italy which Momigliano left in 1938. Mucignat's interesting comparisons of English, Italian, and German higher education give valuable context to her analysis of a historian who remains fascinating, though she notes that his seminars were irrecoverable moments, and argues that this may have led to a diminution of interest in his work, which seems unduly pessimistic.

Angelo Giovatto recovers the complex duality of Giorgio Colli's philosophical writings in which he contrasted mysticism and the political. His attempt to mirror the clarity of the political and the difficulty of interpreting the mystical by using two different styles himself was an interesting experiment, and was influenced partly by Nietzsche. It would have been interesting to learn a little more about Colli's intellectual connections, especially given the more or less contemporary work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

Finally, Antonio Pistellato's essay on Italo Lana draws attention to a figure who through his anthology of Latin and his work with the publisher UTET (the Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, one of Italy's oldest publishing houses) from the 1960s on worked to make the classics accessible to a greater number of Italians. His style, which like many of those previously mentioned began with a heavy eighteenth century influence, developed into one of shorter, or highly broken, sentences. Lana was an Italian who followed the same path as many British scholars of his time. They realized that the survival of the classics depended on making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible, while not abandoning their commitment to serious scholarship. One characteristic of Lana's anthology was its inclusion of much modern Latin, in reference to the continuing significance of Latin as a language long after antiquity, a history that the new wave of studies on neo-Latin is also recovering.

The volume includes substantial English abstracts of the five essays.

While the essays display a slightly uneasy balance between biography and literary analysis, this is a valuable volume for three reasons. First, it does bring to life some important moments in the development of the Italian scholarly world, and while only Santangelo and Mucignat really address (and even then tangentially) the nature of Italian higher education and how that has shaped the changes described here, the volume perhaps begins a critical engagement with what is good and what has been more stultifying about Italian universities – a self-critical reflection with which we all need to engage in our own countries, in order to avoid giving up what is best in what we have done or defending what has been less successful in the name of tradition.

Second, it does help explain the language of Italian scholarship, which to an outsider can sometimes seem irredeemably rhetorical.

Finally, these papers create a basis for a more open appraisal of the relationship between classical scholarship and politics, which has been given considerable impetus by Italy's current commemoration of the bimillennium of Augustus' death. Beyond the facile game of comparing Mussolini and Augustus lie much more complex issues, accommodations, and rejections. Style remains, but it also reveals.

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