Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Alessandro Capone, Pietro Giannini, Gli appunti di metrica classica di Giovanni Pascoli tratti dalle lezioni di Girolamo Vitelli. Carteggi di filologi, 17. Firenze: Edizioni Gonnelli, 2015. Pp. 135. ISBN 9788874680436. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

Version at BMCR home site


Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) was a prolific poet both in Italian and in Latin. As a teacher in a classical liceo, he was responsible for introducing his students to Latin metrics; he wrote an anthology of Latin verse, Lyra Romana, which treats metrics in its introduction, and also a short treatise, Regole di metrica neoclassica, dealing with Italian meter. As a poet he is a metrical virtuoso. In his Latin verse, in particular, he not only imitates all the forms used by Catullus and Horace, but pays attention to subtle differences in their metrical styles. Thus it is of some interest to find out how Pascoli himself learned the rudiments of classical meter, a topic of which the present book gives us a small glimpse. But in the end the book says more about the reception of German metrical theory in Italy than it does about Pascoli. It is therefore a contribution to the history of metrical scholarship, and an observation about the social network of classical scholars in the late 19th century. From the title, I was expecting a technical work on meter (which is here), perhaps discussing how Vitelli's presentation influenced Pascoli's practice (spoiler alert: it didn't); instead, I found a readable narrative about the study and teaching of metrics: an unexpected pleasure.

This book is the first publication of Pascoli's Appunti di metrica classica. The text in question is Pascoli's hand-written annotated copy of lecture notes taken by students of Girolamo Vitelli at Florence, probably during the 1879-1880 academic year (p. 32-33). At this time Pascoli was a student in Bologna, but he was interested in the advanced metrical theory coming from Germany and being presented at the Istituto di Studi Superiori, and received these notes through friends there.

The book includes an introduction, "Da Girolamo Vitelli a Giovanni Pascoli: storia degli appunti di metrica classica" (p. 19-42), explaining not only how Pascoli came to read, copy, and annotate these notes, but how Vitelli came to be teaching metrics in Florence. The introduction also reprints a letter by Pascoli, in Latin, written as an exercise or fiction to a hypothetical friend heading to Germany to study metrics. The lecture notes themselves follow, 23 print pages transcribing 28 manuscript pages (p. 43-68). There is a fairly detailed commentary (p. 71-98), followed by a note on Vitelli's sources and Pascoli's own later metrical work (p. 99-111). A full bibliography includes all the nineteenth-century metrical treatises mentioned in the text. Capone is responsible for the introduction and the text, and Giannini for the commentary and source notes.

Girolamo Vitelli (1849-1935) had studied Greek poetry in Leipzig with Friedrich Ritschl and Georg Curtius. He came to Florence in the 1870s, and Capone gives descriptions of the courses he gave there in Greek and Latin. He brought with him the German metrical theory first systematized by Gottfried Hermann, and developed by Ritschl, Rossbach, Westphal, and Christ (p. 16-17). In this theory, meters are divided into feet, and feet are classified as "equal" (genus par or γένος ἵσον, having the same number of morae in arsis and thesis, as a dactylic foot does) or "unequal" (γένος ἄνισον), with one part longer than the other, like an iambic foot, one mora plus two, or a cretic, two plus three). Vitelli defines the arsis as the part of the rhythm when the dancer's foot is raised, and the thesis as the part when the dancer's foot is put down, the strong part of the metrical foot and part which takes ictus; he notes that the terms are also used in the opposite sense (p. 51). Giannini observes that here Vitelli is following the second edition of Rossbach and Westphal's handbook, as in their first edition the German scholars took arsis and thesis to refer to raising and lowering the voice, so that the arsis is the louder, more prominent part of the metrical foot and has the ictus (p. 77).

Given a list of feet, two to four syllables long, one may combine them to make compound feet, as the di-iamb (or as we would now say the iambic metron) is two iambic feet, and the choriamb is a trochaic foot followed by an iambic foot. The simple or compound feet are then put together to make verses, which can be further combined into strophes. Some verses are so long that they require the singer or reader to pause in the middle; this pause divides the verse into cola (p. 56-57).

The metrical theory expounded here conflates metrics in the strict sense with the concrete rhythm of performance; in this, it follows ancient theorists like Aristoxenus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Thus Vitelli shows all the signs for super-long syllables (triseme, tetraseme, pentaseme) and for pauses of various lengths (p. 49-50), which are musical symbols but not really metrical ones. Moreover, these scholars assume that "dactyls" arising from resolution in iambic meter must be sung faster than ordinary dactyls; they are called "cyclic dactyls." Similarly, "spondees" coming from long ancipitia are faster than ordinary spondees and, as the length of the thesis is not an integer multiple of the length of the arsis, these are called "irrational spondees" (p. 52). While these terms are ancient, and probably do correspond to real performance practice for at least some kinds of verse, they are confusing, as they lead us to try to fit Greek music into modern time signatures. Moreover, Dionysius of Halicarnassus suggests that Odyssey 11.598, a verse with no contractions, is a verse of cyclic dactyls, because it moves quickly (Dion. Hal., De Comp. verb. 20.16, cited p. 52); Vitelli compares Aen. 8.596 as well. But these epic lines are true dactyls, not resolved iambics; in this case, "cyclic dactyl" means no more than "fast-moving dactyl," and there seems to be no principled way to identify which instances of long-short-short within a verse are "cyclic" as opposed to "ordinary" dactyls beyond the performer's feeling for the music.

At the time Vitelli was lecturing, comparative Indo-European metrics was barely getting started, so it was possible to suggest that the epic hexameter was the original form of Greek meter, and the only one that existed up to the time of Archilochus (p. 60). Comparison with Sanskrit meter would eventually show that the original Greek meter must have been more like what we now refer to as aeolic verse, a category Vitelli does not even include in his analysis.1 Rather, he analyzes aeolic forms as anapestic or dactylic.

Perhaps Vitelli's metrical theory seems old-fashioned now, after Wilamowitz, Parry, Maas, Snell, Dale, West, and so on, but it was the state of the art at the end of the 19th century. This is the framework in which Gildersleeve analyzed Pindar and Jebb analyzed Sophocles: it is therefore of significant historical interest.

Pascoli's notes seem to be a faithful copy of the notes he received from his friends in Florence (p. 41). He left a wide left margin as he copied, and put a few notes of his own there (plates 5, 6, p. 119-120), and he occasionally inserted comments like "sic!" or a question mark. Capone also notes a few mistakes, especially in the Greek terms. Pascoli got some accents wrong and often missed rough breathings; we cannot tell whether these were wrong in the source text, not corrected by Pascoli, or Pascoli's own mistakes.

The edition is nicely done. Abbreviations are expanded, within parentheses; quotations and references to ancient authors are identified in footnotes; Pascoli's marginalia are also transcribed in footnotes. The commentary gives precise references to the German handbooks that Vitelli presumably referred to, to earlier scholars like Hermann, and to Vitelli's published work. It thus puts the Vitelli/Pascoli notes into the context of late-19th-century metrical study and teaching. The final chapter of the book, "La Metrica di Girolamo Vitelli e Giovanni Pascoli" (p. 99-111), presents a clear, brief synthesis of Vitelli's theory, noting where he made original contributions beyond the work of the German scholars. It then discusses Pascoli's own use of this material. Not long after transcribing these notes, Pascoli finished his tesi di laurea on Alcaeus, mostly about the Greek poet's place in Lesbian politics, but also about his place in Lesbian poetics (p. 108); Giannini finds only scant traces of Vitelli's notes in this text (p. 109).

Later, Pascoli wrote three other texts about metrics: a letter to Giuseppe Chiarini about metrics, a set of "rules" for Italian meter, and the introduction to his Latin anthology for students. Of these, according to Giannini (p. 109), it is only the letter that shows any significant influence from Vitelli's notes. Instead, Pascoli seems to have used Francesco Zambaldi's slightly later handbook as a primary reference. Thus even though Pascoli read and studied Vitelli's presentation of metrical theory, it was not, in the end, a major influence on his work (p. 111).

Thus this book does not tell us how Pascoli developed his strong sense of Latin style, nor how his views on Italian versification evolved. Rather, it illuminates the connections among metrical theorists and shows us how one influential school of metrical thought was dispersed through Europe.


1.   These are the forms, like the glyconic or the Sapphic hendecasyllable, that allow some variation at the start of the verse, but have a fixed cadence; they don't permit resolution or contraction (at least, not before the fifth century), so each line has the same number of syllables. Early Sanskrit forms, in the Rig Veda and even in epic verse, have the same property.

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