Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, 5/4 a.C.-65 d.C.
... theatrum erat area semicircularis...
“Et nota quod tragedie et comedie solebant in theatro hoc modo recitari: theatrum erat area semicircularis, in cuius medio erat parva domuncula, que scena dicebatur; in qua erat pulpitum super quod poeta carmina pronunciabat; extra vero erant mimi, qui carminum pronunciationem gestu corporis effigiabant per adaptionem ad quemlibet ex cuius persona poeta loquebatur.” ("Tragedies and comedies used to be represented in the theater in the following way. The theater was a semi-circular space, and in the middle there was a small little house, called a scena, in which there was a pulpit where the poet recited his poems; on the outside then there were mimes, who conveyed by gestures what the poets pronounced in word, by adapting themselves to the speech of each character.”, translated from Pittaluga, Voce e gesto, p. 69; Franceschini, Il commento di Nicola Trevet, p. XIII). These words have been made into images Urb. lat. 355 the oldest of the mss. of the Tragoediae of Seneca selected for Latin Classics: the evolution and transmission of texts of specific works. Datable to the first half of the fourteenth century, the codex displays an extraordinary full-page miniature (f. 1v), which illustrates the theatrum with iconic precision, just as Nicolaus Trevet describes in his commentary on the Senecan text.
All within a geometrically delimited space, there are the actors who stand onstage, the poet who recites his verses, the audience who “pays”, all on the scena according to their own role, in a movement that is directed by postures, disguises, costumes and especially by the hands, that move and gesture constantly, so as to add “sound” to the illuminated page. The chorus appears below: a real chain of mimes bound together at the hands and elbows, as if they were involved in a popular French dance (and France is where the manuscript originates).
Urb. lat. 355, f. 1v, poeta and publicus expectans
Urb. lat. 355, f. 1v, chorus and publicus expectans
A kind of best seller in the later Middle Ages, between the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and especially in Northern Italy, the Seneca of the Tragoediae was an essential component of the libraries among the juridical and notarial élite, who had the means of purchasing or having valuable copies made, according to the quantity of images and the amount of gold desired (Pal. lat. 1671, Pal. lat. 1677, Urb. lat. 356, Vat. lat. 1645, Vat. lat. 1647).
The text is often arranged in a column that leaves room for ample marginal space, in an elegant mise-en-page that allows for rich apparatuses of glosses and annotations. The illustrations then lead the reader to the narrations and accompany him throughout. Furnished with a powerful imaginative impression, the text is incorporated by the figures and by the elements of colors and of gold, mainly within historiated initials (Pal. lat. 1671, Pal. lat. 1677, Urb. lat. 356, Vat. lat. 1645, Vat. lat. 1647), but sometimes also in the animation overflowing at the margins (Reg. lat. 1500) or in the defined space of a miniature table (Vat. lat. 7319).
Vat. lat. 1647, f. 22r - Vat. lat. 1645, f. 1r
Reg. lat. 1500, f. 14r - Vat. lat. 7319, f. 24r
Thus, before the eyes of the ancient reader−and today in front of ours−the return of Hercules from the Underworld and the curse of Juno (Hercules furens, Pal. lat. 1677, f. 1r) take shape; the grisly table of Tieste (Thyestes, Urb. lat. 356, f. 19r); the war between Eteocles and Polynices while Antigone supports Oedipus (Thebais, Urb. lat. 356, f. 34r); the death of Hippolytus dragged on his chariot (Phaedra, Vat. lat. 1645, f. 39r); the self-blindness of Oedipus and the suicide of Jocasta (Oedipus, Urb. lat. 356, f. 59v); Pyrrhus killing Polixena, Hecuba as captive, Ulysses and the death of Astyanax (Phoenissae, Vat. lat. 7319, f. 88v); the events of Medea, of Jason and their sons (Medea, Vat. lat. 1645, f. 82r); Agamemnon's death at the hands of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (Agamemnon, Pal. lat. 1677, f. 142v); Nero who condemns Octavia to death (Octavia, Vat. lat. 1647, f. 141v); the death of Hercules (Hercules Oeteus, Vat. lat. 1645, f. 119r). It is a fixed illustrative cycle−the image is placed in such a way as to present the tragedy−but the narrative choices made from time to time by the illuminators change, according to the iconographic model and to the demands of the client, transmitted by an ordinator, in a process that leads to a various types of images.
Pal. lat. 1677, f. 1r, the return of Hercules from the Underworld and the curse of Juno - Urb. lat. 356, f. 19r, the grisly table of Tieste
Urb. lat. 356, f. 34r, the war between Eteocles and Polynices while Antigone supports Oedipus - Vat. lat. 1645, f. 39r, the death of Hippolytus dragged on his chariot
Urb. lat. 356, f. 59v, the self-blindness of Oedipus and the suicide of Jocasta - Vat. lat. 7319, f. 88v, Pyrrhus killing Polixena, Hecuba as captive, Ulysses and the death of Astyanax
Vat. lat. 1645, f. 82r, the events of Medea, of Jason and their sons - Pal. lat. 1677, f. 142v, Agamemnon's death at the hands of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus
Vat. lat. 1647, f. 141v, Nero who condemns Octavia to death - Vat. lat. 1645, f. 119r, the death of Hercules
With a Christian lens, the ethical aspects of the Tragoediae become particularly emphasized, in relation to the idea of punishment of the powerful and of their fate tragically enveloped in the upheavals of Fortuna. The first explanation of the Senecan text is therefore entrusted to such figurative cycles, which comment, emphasize, and underline that which words tell in one way, in another, using the language of the figure.