Friday, August 23, 2019


Fabrizio Bordone, Paolino Nolano. Per la morte di un fanciullo: introduzione, testo critico, traduzione e comment. Poeti Cristiani, 8. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2017. Pp. 478. ISBN 9788846747242. €40,00.

Reviewed by Dennis Trout, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site

The series (Poeti Cristiani, edited by Roberto Palla) in which this volume appears has already offered important editions (text, translation, and commentary) of several late Latin poems that have existed on the margins. We might think, for example, of Roberto Palla and Marinella Corsano's editions of both the so-called poema ultimum and the pseudo-Cyprianic carmen ad senatorem.1 Furthermore, in recent years a number of Paulinus of Nola's individual poems have received similarly focused attention.2 Fabrizio Bordone's study of Paulinus's carmen 31, therefore, naturally takes its place not only as another detailed commentary on a particularly intriguing late Latin poem but also as a further step forward in the general reassessment of late antique poetics. Now often mentioned in the company of such premier contemporary poets as Ausonius, Prudentius, and Claudian, Paulinus of Nola—a Gallo-Roman senator who spent the second half of his life in Campania as priest, bishop, and impresario of the cult of the confessor Felix—bequeathed to posterity a poetic corpus whose thematic range and generic variety invite continuing engagement along a number of literary and historical fronts. Bordone's study does just that for the poem of 316 elegiac couplets that Paulinus addressed to the couple Pneumatius and Fidelis upon the death of their eight-year-old son, Celsus.

To be sure, Paulinus's carmen 31 has hardly gone unnoticed. The occasion of its composition has ensured it a place in many surveys of ancient consolatory literature, while almost every study of the Christian transformation of the consolatio, the rhetorical category with which carmen 31 is most often associated, has had to reckon with it. In addition, several of Paulinus's most sensitive modern readers, Giuseppe Guttilla and Salvatore Costanza, for example, turned to it often, devoting significant time and energy to its explication. All of this (and much more) is known to Bordone, who laid the groundwork for this volume under the guidance of Fabio Gasti at the Università degli Studi di Pavia and whose introduction and commentary methodically extricate Paulinus's carmen 31, de obitu pueri, from the crisscrossing lines of literary, religious, and cultural history that entangle it.

Per la morte di un fanciullo consists of an introduction (100 pages), text and facing translation (50 pages), and line by line commentary (300 pages). The heart of the introduction is Bordone's treatment of the literary and theological questions that have animated many modern readers of carmen 31. Here opinions have ranged widely, contesting the success of the poem both on grounds of its literary and thematic (dis)unity and in respect to its actual ability to have consoled its addressees. Understandably, given the dominance of the poem's interwoven theological and ethical emphases, one prevalent tendency has been to view the poem as essentially a treatise on Christology, bodily resurrection, and ascetic lifeways that is but loosely framed by personalized consolatory messages addressed to Pneumatius and Fidelis. Bordone convincingly argues against some of the more deprecatory assessments of carmen 31 by stressing Paulinus's adroit manipulation of previous consolatory topoi, his calculated allusions to earlier poetic epitaphs and verse consolationes (reaching back through Statius to the Augustan poets), and his sensitivity to the guidelines of rhetorical handbooks and the strategies of previous prose consolations. For Bordone, however, the caratteri originali of carmen 31 and its rinnovamento del genere letterario especially arise from Paulinus's subjection of this diverse heritage al processo di cristianizzazione (45-6). For example, the consolatory topos that stressed the tension between the consolator's personal grief and the prospective joy arising from the opportunitas mortis, which transformed death into a liberating event releasing the soul from life's travails, could be reformatted (as it was by other Christian writers) in both Pauline and Neoplatonic terms (47-49). Bordone does recognize (55) that carmen 31's explicitly consolatory themes are packed into the first 54 verses and its brief concluding sections. In the hundreds of intervening lines Paulinus devoted himself to dogmatic exposition, foregrounding the Christian promise of eternal life and parading arguments for the ultimate resurrection of the flesh. These topics, pursued by Paulinus through the catechetical exegesis of Christology and eschatology (interspersed, to be sure, with solacia) occupy carmen 31 in proportions, as Bordone emphasizes, that clearly distinguish Paulinus's poem from the vast bulk of Christian consolationes (56-65). The poet amplifies this novelty, which Bordone observes finds its only real comparison in Ambrose's de excessu fratris, both by developing a wide range of commonplace topoi, some drawn from nature and most familiar from other works, and by adducing scriptural proofs, often in ways that suggest the influence of Ambrosian exegesis (65). Yet these lengthy expositions, Bordone stresses (65-69), are linked to the poem's consolatory aims in two ways: they assure Pneumatius and Fidelis of Celsus's heavenly life and they serve as the basis for advising the couple to honor the ascetic precepts that will ensure their own salvation and their future reunion with Celsus. It is the poem's ascetic protreptic that most obviously bridges its dogmatic and consolatory agenda and that, in the end, validates Paulinus's moving invocation of the young Celsus as intercessor at the poem's conclusion. Bordone's discussion of these themes is richly documented and highlights Paulinus's development of previous consolatory and didactic strategies, building a case for the overall integrity as well as exceptionality of the poem.

Briefer sections of the Introduction catalog notable features of prosody and metrics, outline the poem's structure with reference to rhetorical categories, consider the implication of Paulinus's choice of elegiac meter (more for its protreptic than funerary associations, Bordone argues), and treat the little that can be known about the poem's date of composition (broadly between 393 and 408) and the identity of its addressees. An overview of the poem's language and style isolates lexical debts and innovations; surveys Paulinus's recourse to poetic registers and phrases that evoke Vergil, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, and Martial; and spotlights Paulinus's intent to express Biblical material in classical verse, particularly the Psalms and Paul (often through paraphrase). In other words, Bordone's introductory contextualizing of the poem offers guidance to readers who may approach carmen 31 from a wide range of perspectives and with different sets of questions. These hundred pages also set out themes and issues that will be elaborated and illustrated in the commentary.

Wilhelm von Hartel produced his CSEL edition of carmen 31 on the basis of three manuscripts (B, O, and T).3 Franz Dolveck added a fourth (J) for his recent CCSL edition.4 Bordone employs the same four manuscripts as well as a short extract (lines 311-322) of carmen 31 that is preserved in an early fifteenth-century poetic anthology, which Dolveck also utilized (CCSL 21,129). Bordone provides full descriptions of the manuscripts and their features (88-103) and his simplified stemma codicum (103) agrees with that produced by Dolveck (CCSL 21, 131 and 225), grouping B, J, and O (with B and J sharing features not found in O) in a branch separate from that in which T descends. Bordone also reconstructs the history of the publication of carmen 31 from the editio princeps of Iodocus Badius published at Paris in 1516 through Franz Dolveck's CCSL edition of 2015, which revolutionized the presentation of Paulinus's poetic corpus by foregoing the clumsy traditional numbering system and organizing the poems into the two distinct groups (the natalicia and carmina varia) that reflect the actual transmission history of Paulinus's poems.

The only feature one might hope for that is not included is a list of variants between this edition of carmen 31 and those of Hartel and Dolveck. A quick check reveals that Bordone's choices run quite close to those of Dolveck, the differences amounting to fewer than a dozen. Most choices have but slight implications for meaning. At line 57, for example, the description of the incarnate Christ preferred by both Hartel (initially but later withdrawn; see Kamptner at CSEL 30, 594) and Dolveck (both following T: hominum) is cuncta gerens hominum ("bearing all the attributes of men," in the translation of P. G. Walsh).4 Bordone, however, prefers the reading of BJO (hominem): cuncta gerens hominem, which he translates as "sostendo in tutto la condizione di uomo." The expression has long been debated: Dolveck points for support to Phil. 2.6-11 (presumably because we can read there in similitudinem hominum factus), while Bordone (218) offers a list of similar constructions with the accusative hominem. The theological point is at best a fine one. Nevertheless, it will pay to consult Bordone's clear commentary on such decisions.

We are fortunate to have this study of a fascinating and complex consolatio, a poem that challenges our assumptions about genre and form at the same time that it puts on display so many of the literary dynamics and religious impulses that have renewed the appeal of late Latin poetry. A patient reading of Bordone's commentary, therefore, offers an invigorating walk through a late ancient cultural landscape shaped by the legacy of past poetry and enriched by contemporary currents of thought, especially as those were absorbed and recast by a poet whose own life so vividly embodied some of the age's most telltale signs.


1.   Ps. Paolino Nolano, Poema ultimum [carm. 32], Poeti Cristiani, 5 (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2003); Ps. Cypriano, Ad un senatore convertitosi dalla religione cristiana alla schiavitù degli idoli, Poeti Cristiani, 7. (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2006).
2.   E.g., Margit Kamptner, Paulinus von Nola: Carmen 18. Text, Einleitung und Kommentar (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005); Beate Surmann, Licht-Blick: Paulinus Nolanus, carm. 23: Edition, Übersetzung, Kommentar (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2005); Sciajno, Lorenzo Sciajno, Paolino di Nola: Il carme 15 (Natalicium IV). Introduzione, traduzione e commento (Pisa and Rome: Fabrizio Serra, 2008).
3.   G. de Hartel, Sancti Pontii Meropi Paulini Nolani Carmina, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 30, 2d ed. with supplements by Margit Kamptner (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999).
4.   Framz Dolveck, Paulini Nolani Carmina, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 21 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015). See the review by Aaron Pelttari at BMCR 2016.09.03.
5.   P. G. Walsh, The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, Ancient Christian Writers 40 (New York: Newman Press, 1975).

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