Vergilius Maro, Publius, 70-19 a.C.
«Quam brevis immensum cepit membrana Maronem! | Ipsius vultus prima tabella gerit». (Martialis, Epigrammata, p. 483). [«How short a parchment has comprised the mighty Maro! | The features of the man himself the first leaf bear» (Martial, Epigrams, II, p. 505)].
The two verses that Martial dedicates to the poet of Mantua at the end of the first century AD do not only bear witness to their unparalleled fortune, but—perhaps even more importantly—indicate that parchment was a writing medium already in use at that time and even so for works that were not exactly secondary (the poet, a few epigrams later, expresses himself similarly also for Cicero and for Livy). Furthermore, the reference to the “author’s portrait” evocatively recalls what can be observed in Vat. lat. 3867, the famous Roman Virgil, which, together with the Vatican Virgil, Vat. lat. 3225 (both in the Vatican Library), is the oldest example of a manuscript containing the three works of the Roman poet (Bucolicae, Georgicae, Aeneis). The representation of the poet—at the beginning of the manuscript, on f. 3v, and reproduced on ff. 9r and 14r—presents him seated on a desk with a roll in hand, next to a portable lectern and a well-closed book capsa, within a tabella or frame that fits into the text. The first Virgilian manuscript is dated to the fourth century, and the second one to the fifth or sixth century. Both manuscripts were probably made in the workshops of Rome, and illustrate the works of Virgil by adopting different types of layout for the miniatures: without a frame, within boxes alternating with pieces of text, as a full page. Historiography has associated this variety of production to that crucial process that was represented by the shift in writing surfaces, the passage from the papyrus roll to the parchment codex—a paradigm shift that can only be compared to what would occur in the middle of the fifteenth century with the onset of printing in movable type and somewhat with the current use of the electronic tablet for reading (Weitzmann, Ancient Book Illumination, passim; Id., Late Antique and Early, passim; Id., L’illustrazione nel rotolo, passim; Brugnoli, La parola dipinta, pp. 27-37; Giuliano, L’illustrazione libraria, pp. 39-50; lastly, Ammirati, The Use of Wooden, pp. 9-15, all with bibliography).
The narrative cycles that accompany the Vatican Virgil and that of the Roman Virgil did not however create a figurative tradition (Cadei, Medioevo. Tradizione manoscritta illustrata, p. 443); that is, a set that is diversely standardized according to iconographic sequences, to be transferred to the manuscript production each time (except for two cases, the ms. ex. Vind. 58, Lat. 6, Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III and ms. lat. 7936, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France); it has been noted that: “Illustrated manuscripts of Virgil are rare” (original text: Courcelle, Les illustrations, pp. 395-396; see also for the matter of vulgarizations and of epitomes, passim and Rabel, Virgilio, p. 668; Villa, Commentare per immagini, p. 55). Other librarian contexts, however, show some parallel to the situation of the two Vatican manuscripts, as in the so-called Vivien Bible or First Bible of Charles the Bald, ms. lat. 1, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, or in other forms of media, such as the six ivory panels on the flabellum of the Saint-Philibert di Tournus from the middle of the ninth century, with images taken from the Eclogues according to models dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries (Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello; Rabel, Virgilio, p. 668). In any case, the imagination of the illuminators has often been stimulated by textual passages with a strong emotional impact, such as the vision of Troy in flames or the death of Dido, or scenes with a predominance of fighting between soldiers, such as the duel between Aeneas and Turno (Courcelle, Les illustrations, p. 397). In many cases, the images of the city, the clothing of the characters, and the weapons they brandish correspond chronologically to the era in which the manuscript was made, in accordance with the principle of Panofsky's disjunction (the modernizing of ancient forms, see Panofsky, Il significato, passim; Maddalo, Da glossa a commento, p. 78).
Vat. lat. 3225, f. 41r - Reg. lat. 1988, f. 98v: Dido's death
Pal. lat. 1632, f. 240v - Reg. lat. 1988, f. 220r: Aeneas kills Turno
Virgil, however, was received with great success in the medieval millennium (see Comparetti, Virgilio nel Medio Evo, passim): the age wished to read the fourth eclogue as the prefiguration of the advent of the Messiah and therefore the establishment of a new golden age. It likewise interpreted the descent to the underworld of the pious hero in Book VI of the Aeneid in an eschatological sense. It emphasized political issues so as to relate them to questions about the legitimization of imperial power, especially in the Carolingian period (Leonardi, Medioevo. Tradizione letteraria, pp. 422-427; Rabel, Virgilio, p. 668). Nevertheless, the translation into images was successively structured in different ways and with different results (Courcelle, Les illustrations, passim; Maddalo, Da glossa a commento, pp. 78-79). For example, the case of ms. Vat. lat. 2761, a manuscript produced in Northern Italy in the fourteenth century, in which the narration by means of images comes to life in the margins and in the blank spaces within the first 20 sheets, according to narrative and iconographic schemes derived from chivalric cycles that were much in vogue at the time (Rabel, Virgilio, p. 668).
But it is from the fifteenth century that illustrated copies of Virgil begin to be produced with greater continuity, while they follow different modes of expression (Mariani Canova, Rinascimento. Tradizione manoscritta illustrata, pp. 483-490). The beginning of the three poetic works becomes an essential narrative passage, which was at times arranged within a considerable variety of settings, even within the same manuscript: for example, in ms. Urb. lat. 642, made probably in Northern Italy around the middle of the fifteenth century, a refined full-page design introduces the reader to the themes of the Eclogues, while the incipit to the Aeneid is instead accompanied by a miniature within a frame set between the argumentum and the first hexameters of Book I, with the image of the Flight of Aeneas from Troy.
Urb. lat. 642, ff. 1v and 51r
More often, however, the narration finds a place within the initials, both in a synthetic way, in order to highlight only the incipit of the three works of Virgil, and more extensively, within the profile of a real cycle, especially for the Aeneid (Courcelle, Les illustrations, passim). The first type of organization for the relation between text and image can be observed in ms. Urb. lat. 350, where the pastoral scene with Tityrus and Meliboeus opens the Bucolics, followed by the plowing of the fields associated with the Georgics and, finally, Troy in flames to introduce the themes of the Aeneid. This manuscript is a special case, however, because within the scheme just described the monumental antiporta of the Virgilian poem is also included, with the Flight of Aeneas, added after the manuscript had already became a part of the collection of Federico da Montefeltro.
This scheme recurs in ms. Reg. lat. 1988, a presumably Roman manuscript from the middle of the fifteenth century, in which the cycle of the Aeneid is developed to such an extent as to adorn each of the incipit letters of each book. The iconographic series reappears in ms. Pal. lat. 1632 with minimal variation due to the different scope of production and perhaps also inspired by the will of the patron, as well as in the commentary of Servius to Virgil, ms. Reg. lat. 1705, a work that reveals a broad distribution spurred by the reflections of Petrarch on the Virgilian text – here it is suffice to mention briefly the manuscript S.P. 10.27 (formerly A 79 inf.) of the Venerable Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan, the famous Virgil commissioned by Aretino, with a frontispiece illustrated by Simone Martini: Servius exhibits the pastor, the winemaker, the soldier (the three works of the Mantuan), a crowned poet intent on writing (Rabel, Virgilio, p. 669).
Until now there has been talk of manuscripts «of apparatus», produced for patrons of a certain social level. These are manuscripts of a medium-large dimension, often enriched with gold leaf and illustrative panels, but it is worth mentioning that there was also another type of Virgilian codex, a «study» model, that circulated among the humanists in the fifteenth century (Maddalo, Da glossa a commento, pp. 81-83). Vat. lat. 3255 constitutes an example of this kind of manuscript, and it contains the Georgics and the Appendix Vergiliana. It is a small volume and would be associated with the intellectual circle of Pomponius Laetus (1428-1497), who also glossed the manuscript with a complete paratext. The material features of this volume is certainly refined, but its illustration is wholly limited to the incipit page alone: in an frontispiece “all’antica”, in fact, the initial is featured as devoid of any figurative connection with the text that it introduces, as opposed to the base of the structure where, with a refined monochrome to simulate a sculpted frieze, the illuminator sets the scene of the Plowing of the fields.
Vat. lat. 3255, f. 1r
Vat. lat. 3255, ff. 1r and 2v, Pomponius Laetus' glosses
This is similar to ms. Vat. lat. 1579, made in the middle of the fifteenth century for Niccolò bishop of Modrus̆, in which the narration takes place entirely within the lower margin of the three pages of the incipit.
Vat. lat. 1579, f. 56r, Dido meets Aeneas
The history of Virgil over the period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is therefore a "multifaceted fortune" (original text: Leonardi, Medioevo. Tradizione letteraria, p. 421) which gives rise to a diverse tradition, even or perhaps especially from the point of view of the relationship between text and image, a tradition that the manuscript selected for the Latin Classics: the evolution and transmission of texts of specific works well illustrate in all their elements.