VIRGIL’S FOURTH ECLOGUE IN THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE

L.B.T. Houghton

Cambridge University Press (2019) h/b 376pp £90 (ISBN 9781108499927)

Anyone who has even a small acquaintance with Virgil knows something about the Fourth Eclogue, the poem which established his reputation as a prophet. It is easy to see how easily the birth of Christ seemed to fit the identity of the Virgil’s mysterious baby boy whose birth would usher in a return of the Golden Age, but this reviewer was not aware how wide, deep and pervasive the influence of this poem has been. It takes a microscopic, forensic book like this, digging into just one period in one place, the Italian Renaissance, to open one’s eyes to it.

In the introductory section, H. shows that the poem became famous almost as soon as it was written, largely because of its deliberate mysteriousness. It is not his purpose to try to elucidate what, or whom, Virgil was really talking about, but rather to illustrate how the poem embedded itself into literary culture into the mediaeval period, flowered in the Renaissance, and continued its seeding influence well into the 17th century. In this process he has to, and does, take great care to include only examples which clearly refer to the Fourth Eclogue either by quotation or obvious allusion or, sometimes,  by processes which can be traced through two or three stages, and exclude those where the ancestry is not sufficiently clear. Even so, the number of examples he finds, just from Renaissance Italy, is extraordinary, and they make up the bulk of the book. 

There are two main trends. One is the theme of the returning Golden Age: redeunt Saturnia regna. Every time a new prince appears, in Medici Florence, in Venice, Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, Urbino or Bologna, or a new pope in Rome, there is somebody in the court to write a fulsome poem or produce a pageant celebrating the new Golden Age, and Virgil’s poem, being so well known to every educated person, was a convenient source—being so imprecise, it was handy to apply to any situation or person. Since popes and princes at the time often had short lives, there can be few periods when so many Golden Ages were reborn; as H. says, we should spare a thought for those encomiasts whose Golden Age never happened, e.g because the person concerned never in the end made it to the papacy or throne. 

The other main trend is the Christological one: not only was Christ soon to be born, but there is a Virgin who returns and a serpens which is to be destroyed. H. discusses how the identification of the mystery puer with Christ was raised by Lactantius and taken up by Augustine and others (though criticised by Jerome), and became so well established that Dante (Purgatorio 22) makes Statius quote the very passage from the Fourth Eclogue which led to his conversion to Christianity. After him, through Petrarch and other poets, a tradition of Virgilian  ‘messianic epic’ and ‘nativity epic’ became established, and H. reviews a number of these, such as Sannazaro’s De partu Virginis (1526) and Vida’s Christiad (1535); there was also a pastoral ‘mystic nativity’ tradition, e.g. Boccacio’s Bucolicum carmen or Patrizi’s Ecloga de Christi nativitate. Eclogue 4 also refers to the Cumean Sibyl, who prophesied the ‘final age’ which is now coming, and she entered the liturgy (teste David cum Sibylla in the Dies Irae). H.’s last chapter illustrates how often she appears in Renaissance church painting, often with a number of her sister sibyls and in company with Old Testament prophets, not only in the best-known example, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but in several other places, including the stunning marble floor in Siena Cathedral. The presence of the sibyl(s) in these contexts, uniting the Roman with the biblical tradition, is due entirely to the Fourth Eclogue.

This is a thorough, scholarly, careful and well-annotated book—a little dense to read sometimes and repetitive because of its subject matter, which H. acknowledges with touches of Chestertonian humour (on a long chapter he comments ‘I fear that readers who attempt to work through it from one end to the other may end up departing on a more permanent basis than the goddess Astraea’). But full of fascinating detail, and well worth having on one’s reference shelf.

Colin McDonald

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