Friday, February 9, 2018


Gabriele Sarti, Un libro ravennate di spiritualità monastica dell'inizio del secolo VIII nell'Archivio Storico Diocesano di Ravenna-Cervia: studio codicologico, trascrizione, traduzione, commento linguistico. Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2017. Pp. 220. ISBN 9788880639671. €28.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Roberto Alciati, Università di Roma «La Sapienza»; Università di Firenze (

Version at BMCR home site

The principal aim of this monograph is to provide a transcription, an Italian translation, and palaeographical and codicological analyses of the manuscript Ravenna, Chapter Archive (Archivio Capitolare), Ms. 4. The document contains the final part of a homily and a prayer, both anonymous, and selections of sayings of the Desert Fathers taken from the Latin version of the Apophthegmata Patrum made by the deacon Pelagius and the subdeacon John, each of whom subsequently became bishop of Rome (556-561 and 561-574, respectively). The homily and the prayer are edited here for the first time. This central part of the volume is followed by a commentary, where the author tries to explain how and why he put together such different items. The central section is embellished by 8 colour plates (16 sides), which partially reproduce the codex. The complete online digital reproduction is available at Archivio Storico Diocesano Manoscritto 4.

To understand the value of the book, it is necessary to look briefly at its structure, which, at first glance, appears rather complex. After a short preface by Giuseppe Rabotti, the director of the Archive (9-12), comes the proper introduction to the volume, written by Raffaele Savigni (13-35), followed by five chapters and a short conclusion. Three highly useful indexes (of mentioned manuscripts and papyruses, Latin words analysed in the commentary, and names) and a short English abstract of each part conclude the book (215-216).

The Introduction by Raffaele Savigni (13-35) as a whole is full and very good. Savigni discusses the major issues and provides a summary of previous scholarship on Latin monasticism and Ravenna, where the ascetic way of life seems to be very prosperous, even before the affirmation of Benedictine coenobitism. Because of a lack of information about monasticism in this region between the 7th and 8th century, this specific manuscript – which Savigni considers a product of a monastery in Ravenna – constitutes a valuable source for information about local religious life. The presence in Ravenna of some Greek-speaking religious figures and the related esteem of the Eastern monastic way of life are considered two peculiar characteristics of this place and, consequently, a possible reason for the existence of this manuscript.

In the first chapter, Sarti begins with a historical overview of the literary genre of the Apophthegmata Patrum, where, to some extent, he expands on the information given by Savigni in the introduction. The style is clear, and even non-specialists will appreciate how complicated the transmission of this collection of sayings is, both in the Greek versions and in the Latin translations. Here, Sarti points to a possible general criterion to create order in this variety: this complex developmental history, which resulted in variant versions and a certain textual fluidity, shows how the study of the links created between the scattered material of earlier periods is the key to discern among such different selective processes (57).

This general statement is followed by the codicological and palaeographical study of the manuscript, which represents the bulk of the volume (63-115). At the end of a detailed stylistic and grammatical analysis of the Latin, Sarti posits that the manuscript was written at the very beginning of the 8th century, in the region of Ravenna (81), and for the internal use of a small monastic community (114). Unfortunately, we do not know how many sayings of the Desert Fathers were originally written in the manuscript because the end of the document does not survive. However, Sarti considers it quite certain that Ms. 4 was not intended to transmit the whole Latin translation of the Apophthegmata Patrum. On the contrary, it is clearly a selection, which has been masterfully inserted between the homily and the prayer (115).

The transcription and translation are very good and will be especially useful for non-specialist readers. The discussion becomes more technical in chapter 5, which contains a long and detailed orthographic and linguistic analysis of the text (137-166). According to Sarti, the writer has a patchy knowledge of Latin rules and orthography, which validate the dating of the document to the beginning of the 8th century (166).

Alongside the many helpful insights of this study, it is worth noting a couple of issues for further discussion. I wonder whether Sarti's focus on historiography could have been slightly expanded, perhaps specifically to explain how he understood the reconstruction of the manuscript tradition of the Apophthegmata Patrum. In particular, if there is an aspect of Sarti's analysis that some readers might find troublesome, it would be the parallel he posits with the transmission of the words of Jesus. He is surely right in mentioning Rudolf Bultmann and Wihlelm Bousset, who both have argued that the authors of the gospels based some of their tales on older oral traditions or simply created them (45). However, a more comparative review of the rich and recent scholarship of the words of Jesus would have been extremely useful. Sarti's work displays a strong commitment to translation and selection processes, which is exactly what scholars do to reconstruct the transmission of the words of Jesus. This suggests a fascinating and promising topic for future research. In addition, to bring home to the reader how such a text works, Sarti should have dedicated more pages of his volume to placing the manuscript in its cultural and historical contexts. While he attempts to do this, the results are only partially convincing, due to his uncritical use of the word 'spirituality'. Its conceptualisation involves complex issues well beyond the scope of the current examination; however, the empirical analysis of the manuscript could have benefitted from a broader investigation of the enterprise on which the anonymous author embarked. The need of this is clearly proved by the final chapter (significantly titled 'almost a conclusion'), which ends abruptly after only half a page. Sarti is probably right in saying that the study of late Latin grammar is still in its infancy, but a fuller understanding of this kind of document also requires a socio-historical analysis.

This book is a very welcome contribution to early medieval monastic scholarship, and the text has been carefully proofread. It is worth noting that the book is written for experts. A clear sign of this is the use of expressions such as 'Gregory's law' (64). Caspar René Gregory is the scholar who first noted that consistent practice of arranging folios in the earliest codices so that, when the book was opened, the two pages facing each other matched – grain opposite grain, flesh opposite flesh. In fact, on the parchment sheet the grain (or hair) and flesh sides can usually be discerned. This information is surely important, but a book that is addressed to specialists of monastic spirituality (among others) should contain information for readers not so well versed with codicological language.

In conclusion, Sarti's useful contribution collects the results of specifically Italian scholarship, often devoted to a particular text or manuscript, into a coherent thesis on ascetic and/or monastic spirituality in the transition period between late antiquity and the early middle ages.

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