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The End of an Era: Seventeenth-Century Aeneid Commentaries

M.H.K. (Maarten) Jansen

This paper shows how in the course of the seventeenth century the character and role of the Virgilian commentary changed radically. It begins by offering a discussion of the prime characteristics of the Aeneid commentaries of Juan Luis de La Cerda (1612 and 1617), Thomas Farnaby (1634) and Charles de la Rue (1675). In my discussion, I will approach these works from the viewpoint of the management of knowledge (Blair 2010, Moss 1996, Grafton & Jardine 1986) and with the help of Foucault’s concept of knowledge archives (Foucault 1969). I will centre my discussion around the speech of Jupiter in Aen. 1.257-296, a passage which has traditionally attracted a lot of attention from Virgilian scholars, both for its importance in the narrative of the epic as for its ideological overtones. With this approach, my paper builds on the work of previous studies in Renaissance Virgilian commentaries, especially those of Kallendorf (1989, 1999, 2007a, 2007b).

Foucault characterizes the commentary as a discourse that is based on the central narratives of society. Because of this, the authority of the text that is commented upon ensures the credibility of the commentator and enhances the chances of survival for his work (Sluiter 1998). These two features are the foundation for Renaissance commentaries on classical texts. One of the fundamental aims of these works was the systematic organization of knowledge. This not only pertained to information directly related to the narrative of the literary work commented upon (such as remarks on grammar, style and composition), but also included topics from disciplines that we do not necessarily associate with the literary commentary, such as cultural history, geography and astronomy. Through this practice, these commentaries attest to the preoccupation of the scholars of this period to prevent the recurrence of the great loss of knowledge that had in their view marked the end of the classical era (Blair 2010). In many ways the monumental Virgilian commentary of the Spanish humanist Juan Luis de la Cerda (1558-1643) marked the culmination of this movement (Knauer 1964). Although this work is one of the most extensive and influential commentaries on Virgil, it has been relatively little studied. La Cerda’s Aeneid commentary alone consists of two volumes in folio of about 1600 folia in total. In fact, it is as much a commentary as an encyclopedic work, striking through its clear structuring of the host of information it presents.

            Although La Cerda’s Aeneid commentary is nowadays sometimes heralded as one of the first ‘modern commentaries’ (Laird 2002), it is apparent that a scholar like La Cerda took a view to the text, to the Classics and to the Classical world that was still profoundly grounded in the belief that the Classics mattered, not only to men of learning, but to all those aspiring to a public career. This is a distinctive difference with modern scholars and commentators In fact, La Cerda’s very effort to compile and organize massive amounts of knowledge with a classical text as point of departure attests and forms a tribute to the importance of the Classics for his world. In this respect, he is very much a Renaissance scholar.

           Only a few decades further into the seventeenth century things changed rapidly in Virgilian studies. In fact, the other two most important Aeneid commentaries of the century, by the English schoolmaster Thomas Farnaby (1575-1647) and the French Jesuit Charles (1643-1725) de la Rue, show a completely different picture. Not only is the commentary of both authors much more concise compared to the baroque text of La Cerda, they were also both unmistakably written for an educational context. However, the very different character of these works cannot only be explained from this change in focus. In fact, they demonstrate the radical changes that took place in the course of the seventeenth century with respect to the position of classical studies and the role of classics in society.

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Virgil Commentaries La Cerda to Horsfall

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