Book and Article Reviews: Wilson-Okamura

David Scott Wilson-OkamuraVirgil in the Renaissance.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.



“Children do wade in Virgill, and yet strong men do swim”, John Harington writes in his preface to Ariosto (1591), as Wilson-Okamura reminds us (95). This fascinating, eminently readable book is a treasure-house of countless anecdotes — gradually turned into clichés — told by European medieval and Renaissance commentators which, recycled, gradually shaped the reception of the “Prince of Poets”. What was widely known about Virgil — and not just by specialists — in the European Renaissance? Wilson-Okamura’s answers are generally more informed by historical analyses of the commentators’ texts than by literary cases in point.

This study aims at providing a general picture of the reception of Virgil’s works in the European Renaissance, with a definite slant on Renaissance England: while citing key contemporary studies such as Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s Jonson, Shakespeare and Early Modern Virgil (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998), Wilson-Okamura updates the state of publishing Virgil’s commentaries in Renaissance England (27) and studies the impact of Aelius Donatus on English reception: “What made [Aelius] Donatus so popular? Unlike Servius, he was short; this made him cheap to print and, in consequence, cheap to buy [and] easy to read in a single sitting. Finally, his is the one document of Virgil criticism that was available from an early date in English translation” (50) — in Thomas Phaer and Thomas Twyne’s The Whole XII Bookes of the Aeneidos of Virgill (London, 1573, reprinted in 1584, 1596, 1600 and 1620). Providing a European context enhances the English scene’s lack of topicality: “There was not, so far as I have found, an English Virgil distinct from an Italian or a French Virgil” (9). Wilson-Okamura has chosen 1599 as the terminus ad quem of his study for bibliographic reasons: Jodocus Badius Ascensius’ commentary remained in print until then. What matters here are the commentaries (the terminus a quo is less important since continuity is always stressed), but this choice excludes Milton (or Dryden).

Few commentaries were printed in England and the Reformation made no difference in the state of publishing (27). Two editions seem to have been rather successful, even though they were by Papists. The first one, published on the continent, was an expensive folio edition, Symbolarum Libri XVIJ Virgilij (Augsburg: J. Praetorius, 1599), with lengthy scholia by the Jesuit scholar Jacobus Pontanus (1542-1626) [alias Jakob Spanmueller in Heidelberg] — now available in facsimile (3 vols. New York, Garland, 1976) [Tudeau-Clayton 120-22]: it was used by Montaigne and Ben Jonson (their copies, including their respective notes and marginalia, are available for study) as well as Sir John Harington [Simon Cauchi ed., The Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid, Translated and Commented on by Sir John Harington, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991]. The second commentary is a set of scholia by Paulo Manuzio (1511-1574) (ed. princeps, Venice, 1558), which was published in London in 1570 (STC 24788), in a small octavo format, and reprinted seven more times. Manuzio’s commentary was short: mainly extracts from Servius and cross references to Homer. Only one commentary was by a Protestant: Publii Virgilii Maronis Poemata (STC 24790.7, London: widow of T. Orwin, 1593), by Henri Estienne (1528-98) (ed. princeps, Geneva, 1576). There were no English contributions to Virgil’s scholarship until 1639. “Not only did English printers restrict themselves to small format books with minimal annotations; they also exclusively relied on a very small stable of commentators, all of whom worked and published on the Continent” (29). Poets in England used the same editions and the same commentators as poets in France and Italy.

Neither chronological nor thematic or geographical, the book falls in three parts — Publication (1 chapter), Reputation (3 chapters) and Interpretation (2 chapters, “Virgil’s Odyssey”, “Virgil’s Iliad”). The index usefully allows cross-readings. Appendix A lists the commentaries of Virgil’s works between 1469 and 1599. Appendix B ranks them by number of printings. There is, however, no general bibliography, which has to be reconstituted, somewhat laboriously, from the notes. This volume addresses the history of Virgil’s reception through the history of the book rather than focusing on analyses on works that he inspired, and Wilson-Okamura guides the reader genially through the bibliographical landscape of Virgil and his commentators (for instance on Valeriano, 37, note 80), now and again including, by way of comparison, other poets, such as Ovid, Homer (127, note 116 with an interesting bibliography on the reception of Homer in the Renaissance), or Catullus (41, note 86).

One of the major contributions of this book is to provide access in English to a number of texts that are not easily found, such as an extract (207) from Badius’s introduction to his commentary on the death of Turnus, which is translated into English with reference to the 1544 edition. While the critical editing and translating of these sources contributes to making these readings of Virgil more readily available, they could have been given alongside the original text. The same applies to quotations from Ronsard, Montaigne and other European authors, which are given in English.

Part I, “Publication” (15-44), may be read as a companion to Ann Moss, Ovid in Renaissance France: A Survey of the Latin Editions of Ovid and Commentaries Printed in France before 1600 (London, Warburg Institute, 1982). It provides a panoramic survey of Virgil and the major European commentaries. “Vergil or Virgil?” (15) Using the leitmotiv of the controversy on how Virgil’s name should be spelt, Part I explores the conditions of classical scholarship and academic publishing. It addresses the “lag, often long, between the publication of advanced research and its acceptance by the educated public. […] The Renaissance approach to Virgil was usually the same as the medieval approach, and that was usually the same as the ancient. There were new sources […], but few breakthroughs” (41). Poliziano/Polizianus (Angelo Ambrogini, 1454-1494) published a book which exerted widespread influence (for the editing of classical texts) but could not change the spelling of Virgil’s name, whereas Giovanni Pierio Valeriano (1477-1558) although “less original than Poliziano,” was more pirated (41); his patron, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (1478-1534), who went on to become Pope Clement VII, was a cousin of Pope Leo X, who wrote a preface praising Valeriano, thereby ensuring him celebrity, one consequence of which was that printers in Lyons and Paris reprinted pirated editions of his Corrections and Variants — and this until 1586, which accounts for the subsequent misspelling of Virgil’s name!

The crux of the matter is whether Renaissance Latin is a modern language for Renaissance scholars to adapt and communicate with, or a language which stopped evolving in the Classical period (as Poliziano contends). Around 1520, François Dubois, a native of Amiens who taught literature at the Collège de Tournay (Paris), explained that Virgil was spelled with an i because “usage has now triumphed over novelty” (42-43).  What is novel here is that the “new” interpretation by Poliziano reinstalls classical spelling! The debate over this contested spelling — nowadays no more than a fossil of classical Latin — was then a paradoxical testimony of how lively the Latin tongue was in the Renaissance.

In Part I, Wilson-Okamura also sets out to establish “which commentaries on Virgil were printed most often and which […] were printed over the longest period” in order to trace their influence and assess the extent of innovation in classical scholarship. Comparing the markets for Ovid and Virgil is telling: “Ovid may have been the most popular poet of the Renaissance, but Virgil was consistently the first poet of the Renaissance. He seems also to have been taught more often and illustrated with more frequency” (23). Early printers gave the priority to Virgil’s works: Ovid was available in manuscript until 1472, whereas Virgil’s Opera were printed in Rome as early as 1469. Then, from 1500 or so onwards, French and Italian printers published more editions of Ovid than Virgil, with Terence and Horace coming next. From 1469 to 1599, 750 print runs of Virgil and Virgilian commentaries (including reprints) may be traced. “The[ir] numbers are overwhelming and they testify to the importance of Virgilian poetry in Renaissance culture” (24). The ranking of commentaries on Virgil that were circulating in print, provided in Appendix B, makes it possible to track the availability of a source and thereby approximate its influence.

This provides the context for a useful discussion on the influence in the Renaissance of the Italian commentator Cristoforo Landino (1424-1504), as opposed to that of Jodocus Badius Ascensius (35), and requalifies the impact he may have had on his contemporaries. Landino wrote an allegorization of the Aeneid (Books I-VI) and a line-by-line commentary of the complete Aeneid, the Eclogues and Georgics. His work was “completely original” (37) and twentieth-century scholars have investigated his possible impact on Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (35, note 72). Yet Wilson-Okamura considers his influence to have been “short-lived” (there were no new copies of his commentary after 1539) and certainly inferior to the more “pedestrian” (37) commentary of Badius Ascensius (which remained in print until 1599).

Part II, which deals with Virgil’s “reputation”, introduces a thematic thread: to study influence is to focus on the clichés about Virgil under titles such as “Patronage”, “erudition”, “versatility”, “refinement” and “style”. The ancient tradition of Virgil’s erudition stresses his syncretism, approached through the Renaissance concept of variety which, in his case, refers to both his versatility and his erudition, since “[i]n the Renaissance, translators took it for granted that Virgil’s text was a repository for scientific information” (81). In a poetry classified by content, printed editions of the Georgics were sometimes bound up with other classical treatises on farming (De Re Rustica) and most popular spin-offs poems were on insects. However variety also points at the generic diversity of his works as illustrated by a study of “Ille ego qui quondam”: while Edmund Spenser partly modelled his first original poem, The Shepherd’s Calender (1579), on Virgil’s Bucolics, his epic The Faerie Queene (1590) opens with an imitation of Virgil’s Aeneid:


Lo I the man, whose muse whylome did maske,

As time her taught, in lowly shepherds weeds,

Am now enforst a farre unfitter taske,

For trumpets sterne to change mine Oaten reeds:

And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds (FQ I. proem1)


Tellingly, this beginning offers a close paraphrase of Virgil’s opening lines, not “Arma virumque cano”, but the first line of the Aeneid as printed both in Renaissance editions of the Latin text and in translations, “Ille ego qui quondam…” Authorship of these lines is uncertain. They do not appear in any of the oldest manuscripts except as insertions. Yet Donatus and Servius consider that they are authentic. Valeriano questions this and says he is unable to trace these lines otherwise than as postscripti, but believes they are useful since they identify the author and connect the new epic poem with its predecessors (Eclogues and Georgics), thus turning separate works into one. Ergo Spenser’s choice as a faithful reader of the Virgilian Canon. The sequence of Virgil’s career, as defined in the Renaissance, is Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid, which accounts for the fact that “Ille ego” is given in several openings (not only Spenser’s). This is further proved by Virgil’s epitaph – “Mantua gave birth to me; the Calabrians snatched me away; now, it holds me fast, the city where Parthenope is buried. I sang of pastures, fields, and princes” (quoted in Donatus) (87) — and leads to the locus classicus that Virgil excelled in each of the three styles (90). However Wilson-Okamura qualifies what is called “the myth of Virgil’s wheel” as an inaccurate anachronism; in his view, what defines Virgil’s achievement is not the sequence of genres but the spectrum of styles, which he proposes to explore further by discussing Spenser and Virgil “in [his] next book” (93).

In the Renaissance, style is a revelation of character and there is an interesting cliché about Virgil the reviser showing his refinement: the tradition begins in Antiquity (101), conveying the image of the poet as a perfectionist, fashioning his verse the way a she-bear licks her new-born cub into shape (101-02). Another cliché referred to Virgil’s chastity: in editing parlance, the corruption of a text is called a violation, and restoring it was called “chastening” or even “castration”. At Naples, his adopted home, Virgil was known as Parthenias, “the virgin”, because of his “sexual purity” which, it was assumed, carried over into his poetry, illustrations of this being the scenes of Dido and Aeneas having sex in a cave (Aen. IV.160-72) and the lovemaking of Venus and Vulcan (Aen. VIII.387-406), which was famously commented in Montaigne’s  Essais, “Sur des vers de Virgile” (3.5): chastity is both moral and stylistic.

It was however rumoured that Virgil was fond of adolescent boys and the author of Priapea, or Songs of Priapus, even if Poliziano and others believed them to be by Ovid – they seemed so out of character for Virgil!. The book provides an engaging discussion of Virgil’s homosexuality, drawing on commentaries of the night raid of Nissus and Euryalus, in Aeneid IX (109-13) and of his gay eclogue, “Corydon ardebat Alexim” (113-15), which inspired imitations such as Richard Barnfield’s “Affectionate Shepherd” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd”. The overall Renaissance consensus, however, was to reject these rumours as forgery or elevate them to evidence of platonic love.

“[T]he nature of Virgil’s borrowings, and therefore of Virgil’s originality was already a subject of debate in antiquity” (125). Many commentators hold that Virgil refined Homer’s lack of decorum, his “naïve félicité” (to quote Ronsard), and corrected his prolixitas through chastity and frugality. I enjoyed the Shakespearean echo: “In this version of literary history, Homer is the Shakespeare of the ancient world, warbling his woodnotes wild, and Virgil is its Ben Jonson” (140) or the ineluctable quote from Sonnet 129… Yet, although a poet like Ronsard evolved from enthusiasm for Greek poetry and admiration of Homer to an endorsement of Virgil, the closing decades of the Renaissance moved away from rhetoric and, consequently, Virgilian eloquence to reestablish the preeminence of Homer.

Part III, “Interpretation”, offers “a survey of the whole Aeneid as it was understood by European readers from about 1300 to 1600” (145). To sketch the big picture is “to limn large-scale features of the interpretive landscape; to draw connections between seemingly discrete authors; and to locate specialized research in its historical, pan-European context […], to place [it] in perspective” (145). Starting from, precisely, Homer and “the division between the Odyssean and Iliadic halves” (147) of the Aeneid, the wanderings of the first six books and war of the last six, that readers have noted “from ancient times to the present” (146), Wilson-Okamura discusses what he describes as the three most popular episodes, “which were also Shakespeare’s favourites” (149): the fall of Troy (Book II), Dido (Book IV) and the descent to the underworld (Book VI). His survey of the various meanings that were assigned to the underworld (153), enlightened by the commentators’ glosses, whether literal or allegorical (163-66), offers fresh approaches to our readings of sixteenth-century authors. Renaissance poets imitate their Roman models in both rhetoric and intent: for instance, the underworld has several functions and what the poet imitates are the functions, not the place. The discussion of the garden of Adonis in Spenser as derived from Virgil (180-81, 186) is compelling: imitation is restricted not to words but to intentions.

Chapter 6 deals with “Virgil’s Iliad” and the death of Turnus, whose death at the end of Book XII, that abruptly ends the Aeneid, inspired a wealth of commentaries that offered competing interpretations — less so, however, than the underworld.

While a number of episodes (the underworld, the death of Turnus, the story of Dido) were well-known, readers seem to have privileged a diffuse knowledge of Virgil that reflected classroom techniques (203). Reading was not always for collecting examples; students were also disciplined to recognize allusions – Virgil’s borrowings (the case of the commentators as readers clearly illustrates this practice throughout the book). The commonplace book was used to store up quotations or to follow an author’s scopus (his train of thought): reading topically (breaking down the text into categories, loci communes) made it possible to compare certain treatments within different authors’ works, but also within a given author’s works. Topical reading could be used to find out how a work coheres (206). Wilson-Okamura clearly propounds to read commentaries as another place where connections other than linear could be made, thanks to their miscellaneous format. For instance, the Renaissance read Aeneas as a “doctrinable” example of virtue (212): this “ideal man theory” viewed the Aeneid as one long panegeric (209, also 218-19) — which did not exclude criticism of Aeneas. He dismisses however the idea that there might have been a tradition of “pessimistic” readings of Virgil in the Renaissance by detractors of Aeneas, put forward by what he calls “the so-called Harvard-school” (210).

Grammar-school teaching techniques, commonplace books and anthologies encouraged a fragmentary approach and browsing. This was viewed as the first of a two-stage process, to be followed by a more critical approach by more mature readers, such as university students (214-15). Reading in toto — looking for the intention of the whole (scopus) – was the approach defended by Melanchthon in his 1530 edition, who wrote in his preface that “one must weigh the work as a whole” (213). Overall, Wilson-Okamura points to a continuity in reading practices: “[t]he style of commentary (and so far as I can tell, the style of reading) did not change markedly in the Renaissance. […] what did change was not the style of reading but what people read” (216): classical texts that were lost in the Middle Ages and recovered, Homer and “texts that had always been in plain sight, but were seldom scrutinized” (217), such as the second half of the Aeneid. Medieval readers of Virgil had tended to be six-book readers (of the Odyssean, first half); with “a reviving interest in the Iliadic portion of the Aeneid” (221), Renaissance readers became twelve-book readers.

The chapters on Camilla/Dido and Lavinia (227-47) provide a perfect example of how the Supplement written by Vegio (1428), a thirteenth book as a sequel of the Aeneid, sets up Lavinia (the warrior) as a plausible substitute for Dido (the wife). One third of Virgil’s editions were published with this sequel between 1469 and 1599. Wilson-Okamura analyses this work of fiction to unveil the techniques of composition but also to show how the reception of a literary text may shape our reception of the classical author as surely as a commentator’s text.

Far from seeking to provide questions, the epilogue leaves the reader with questions, acting as a cliffhanger. This book is enlightening in many respects: the first part, with its inquiry into the continuity in the medieval and early modern tradition of commentaries on Virgil, and the last part, addressing the treatment of Vegio’s literary sequel acting as a commentary for subsequent readers of the first twelve books, are truly inspiring and very well-documented. The middle section I found very interesting in the sense that it analyses how critics of the Renaissance approached literary texts and clearly shows how the status of the author-as-reader shapes his creative writing — albeit on a theoretical level, rather than through the study of the style of Virgilian imitators.

How to cite

David Scott Wilson-Okamura.  Virgil in the Renaissance.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010..  Reviewed by Agnès Lafont. 2011.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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