Monday, September 2, 2019


Simone Beta, Moi, un manuscrit: Autobiographie de l'Anthologie palatine. Translated from the Italian by Thomas Penguilly. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2019. Pp. 210. ISBN 9782251449296. €17.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

The Palatine Anthology comes to us in a single manuscript from the tenth century, now divided into two parts, one in Heidelberg (Heid. cod. gr. 23) and the other in Paris (Bibl. Nat. gr. suppl. 384). The anthology was compiled by Constantine Cephalas early in the century, and our manuscript is a second- or third-generation copy of his work. As Alan Cameron argued in his The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes (Oxford, 1993), the manuscript was further edited by Constantine of Rhodes, came to Italy after the fall of Constantinople, then belonged to Marcus Musurus for a while. He gave it to Erasmus, who gave it to Thomas More, who left it to his son-in-law John Clement, whose heirs presumably sold it. Eventually it ended up in the Palatine library in Heidelberg, but in the course of the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic wars, it became booty passed back and forth between Heidelberg, the Vatican library, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The story of this manuscript, then, is a brief history of Europe in the last thousand years.

Beta's idea is to tell this story in the manuscript's own voice. It's an adventure story whose main character, the manuscript, comes into contact with many of the famous names of the Byzantine, Renaissance, and early modern periods. Some reviews of Cameron found his book dry (notably W. J. Slater in BMCR 04.06.08): this version is anything but dry.

Our manuscript is a friendly fellow who enjoys being read over by scholars and is proud to contain thousands of poems, many of which have no other surviving sources. The manuscript refers to Celphalas as his "grandfather" (p. 9) and copies made from him as his "children"; his "fathers" are the several scribes who copied and revised him (p.15). He has read his own poems and seems to know earlier Greek literature fairly well. He does not always know the motivations of the humans who have owned or studied him; perhaps he only knows what he has overheard. For example, he does not know why John Clement's collection was dispersed, or how he ended up in the hands of Friedrich Sylburg (p. 68). But he does know how a group of manuscripts were taken by Napoleon from the Vatican, then returned to Heidelberg by Pope Pius VII (p. 114, 122).

Beta follows Cameron's reconstruction of the manuscript's history, though he acknowledges in a note that not all of Cameron's conclusions have been universally accepted (p. 173). The goal of the book, though, is not to analyze Cameron's work, but to introduce the collection of epigrams. To that end, Beta quotes a sampling of some three dozen of the epigrams. Thomas Penguilly, the translator, has returned to the Greek rather than translating Beta's Italian versions, but when Beta has quoted versions by well-known poets, Penguilly gives us the Italian in a note. Some of the translations are quite clever. For example, book XIV contains some word puzzles whose solution is a series of words each one letter shorter than the previous one. Beta quotes XIV.15 (p. 30), and gives the Greek solution. The manuscript comments, "Sympa, comme jeu, n'est-ce pas?" He then proposes a simpler puzzle of the same type in Italian. Penguilly gives us a similar one in French, with a translation and solution of Beta's own in a footnote (p. 31, 146).

The book includes discussion of the early printed versions of the anthology, and a brief chapter on vernacular translations (p. 143-150), including a critique of the fairly widespread practice of putting the erotic poems into Latin rather than the language of the rest of the translation (as in Dehèque's French version, 1863, and Paton's Loeb, 1916). Another short chapter (p. 151-155) discusses the Spoon River Anthology (Edgar Lee Masters, 1914-1916) and its relationship to our anthology: a tale that shows how "d'une livre écrit il y a fort longtemps peuvent naître d'autres livres qui racontent d'autres histoires" (p. 152-153). The following chapter (p. 157-164) sketches the development of epigrammatic poetry from Martial to the Renaissance, very briefly, suggesting that Martial had read poems similar to those collected in our manuscript, perhaps even some of the very same poems (p. 160): thus our manuscript prides himself on his own part in the development of this literary genre.

In the final chapter, the manuscript observes that he is now available in facsimile online, the main portion at the University of Heidelberg and the smaller portion at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The manuscript expresses some astonishment at "toutes ces incroyables nouveautés" (p. 168), but closes his story by reminding us that he is "quelque chose d'éternel, qui ne mourra jamais — quelque chose qui, comme tout ce qui nous vient du monde et de la culture antiques, sera toujours capable de projeter sa lumière sur notre vie de tous les jours" (p. 170).

In short, this book is lively and fun. It's great summer reading and a nice introduction both to the tradition of epigrams in Greek and to codicology, with a dash of early modern European history on the side.

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