Latin Classics The Evolution and Transmission of Texts of Specific Works [by M. Buonocore]


It is well-established knowledge that the ancients had already intuited the substantial difference between the figurative tradition and the written one, as well as the greater communicative efficacy of the latter over the former. Nevertheless, according to Lucian, for example, one ought not disregard the capacity of visualization in a historian as well, who would have had to act in such a way as to become ὁ τῆς ἱστωρίας Φειδίας (the Phidias of history) that the listener might have what was being narrated to him as though it were “in eyesight” (Lucian, Quomodo historia conscribenda sit, 51). For Plutarch, the best historian was the one who could make his narration similar to “a painting that speaks” (pictura loquens), by means of a vivid depiction of emotions and characters (Plutarchus, De gloria Atheniensium, 347a). And how can we forget Quintilian’s warning about the expressive potentiality of the image with respect to gestures (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, Institutio oratoria 11, 3, 67): Nec mirum si ista (scil. signa), quae tamen in aliquo posita sunt motu, tantum in animis valent, cum pictura, tacens opus et habitus semper eiusdem, sic in intimos penetret adfectus ut ipsam dicendi nonnumquam superare videatur (“Nor is it surprising that these things, which do after all involve some movement, should have such power over the mind, when a picture, a silent work of art in an unvarying attitude, can penetrate our innermost feelings to such an extent it seems sometimes to be more powerful than speech itself”). And in the whole fascinating history of book illustration we will find these sententia pronounced in their diverse and dynamic formal evolutions, thanks to the evocative power of anecdotal stories as an inexhaustible source for the generation of images.

The aim of the project is to offer a sampling of the main 'illustrated' Vatican manuscripts that contain classical Latin texts, so as to allow a constructive and rich dialogue with other witnesses of European culture in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Humanism. Moreover, the iconographic study of these manuscripts also reveals that the images were not always part of a pre-established illustrative endeavor designed to accompany entire narratives, but rather were related mostly to the reading and occasional interpretation of the text by a specific reader, or by a particular scholar, to be understood in like manner, or in a particular respect, with commentary and references to passages considered noteworthy. All this marks the patterns of philology in an unmistakable way, and thus in like manner, when supported by the careful record of the gloss of the text or by comparisons with its indirect tradition, it can be an indispensable tool in achieving a correct exegesis of the figurative transmission, while in order to teach it, the elaborate proficiency of the history of ancient art plays its own role.

In a rich and diverse way, numerous classical Latin texts across centuries indicate the typical representations in which particular attention was paid to the miniature. The 81 illuminated manuscripts preserved in the Vatican Apostolic Library allow us to identify essentially three illustrative typologies:

1) a decorative program limited to the incipit page that does not illustrate the text, nor figuratively reveal its contents in advance, but rather indicates its relevance, often in an extremely elegant way (e.g. Chig. H. VII. 229, Vat. lat. 3255, Vat. lat. 3302).

2) an illustrative program which had the purpose of summarizing a specific locus, in the way of an illustrated maniculae, in which it is easy to grasp the evolving tempora of a well-defined artistic tradition, where undoubtedly the formal and iconographic tradition was already acknowledged but re-elaborated in an autonomous way (e.g. mss. Arch. Cap. S. Pietro. C. 132, Ferr. 562, Vat. lat. 1596, Vat. lat. 2780).

3) miniatures placed at the beginning of each work or within the text, when it was divided into books, in close connection not only with the text, but also (and I would say not secondarily, given the nature of the content) with the commentary and the gloss, as a cogent response to the needs and request of a specific patron, in a precise iconographic fashion, as a defined editorial program (e.g. mss. Ott. lat. 2057, Vat. lat. 2193, Vat. lat. 3225, Vat. lat. 7319).