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Theorizing Closeness in Classical Reception Studies: Renaissance Supplements and Continuations

Leah Whittington

In 1428 the humanist poet Maffeo Vegio, then a young law student at Pavia, wrote a thirteenth book to Vergil’s Aeneid – a continuation of the existing text designed to tidy up and resolve the loose ends of Vergil’s notoriously inconclusive epic.  Indeed, Vegio’s Aeneid supplement was not the first of its kind: eight years earlier, Pier Candido Decembrio undertook to write a supplement to the Aeneid, though his truncated effort never achieved the international celebrity of Vegio’s version.  Together these two humanists inaugurated what became a widespread genre of Renaissance classicism – the continuation of a text believed (or imagined or constructed) to be incomplete.  The supplement spoke to the Renaissance imagination precisely because it staged an encounter between antiquity and modernity and situated the past in dynamic relation to the present. Renaissance writers of supplementa were faced with the same choices as contemporary sculptors, architects, and antiquarians: what was the appropriate way to treat an ancient artifact?  When and how is the past to be left intact and when can it and should it be transformed?     

The desire to overcome the absence, fragmentation, and loss of antiquity has been a key preoccupation of Classical Reception Studies since its inception, but discussion has intensified as scholars have become more conscious of a bifurcation between a strong historicism that insists on the foreignness and unfamiliarity of the ancient world and an aesthetic presentism trained to perceive trans-historical touching-points and similarities (Martindale 2013).  Both approaches presume a desire for closeness as the default affect for classicists. It is assumed that philology always longs to grow closer to its objects of study and that this affect, as Constanze Güthenke observes, “plays a positive and necessary role in understanding, and that it brings us somehow closer to our object of study, revealing a commonality, however fugitive, expressed in the term Humanism” (Güthenke 2013, Porter 2008).  In response, Güthenke proposes not to jettison closeness altogether but to understand its history “by taking seriously the range of pre-modern experiences of and attitudes towards the past, that covered a complex spectrum of closeness, distance and notions of temporality” (Güthenke  2013).

This paper takes the Renaissance supplement as an example of pre-modern experience of the classical past, one which – contrary to expectations of a period known for the birth of “historical consciousness” – emphasizes continuity and commonality over rupture, absence, and longing.  The Renaissance poet, fed on Seneca, Quintilian, and Petrarch, understood literary composition as a form of transformative imitation, following the bees in Seneca’s eighty-fourth epistle, who turn nectar gathered from many flowers into honey (Pigman 1980).  In this literary climate of creative transformation, what did it mean to refuse such digestive metaphors for the creative process and embrace the supplement, which conserves the original while adding or appending new form?  Scholars informed by deconstruction often explain supplements (following Derrida) as revealing a lack in the original that needs to be redressed, or as an evacuation of narrative control, a desire to let one’s poetic voice be absorbed and subsumed into other antecedent and authoritative poetic voices (Derrida 1976, Goldberg 1981, Tudeau-Clayton 1998). But supplementation is not always a pathos-laden process of recuperation.  I argue that Renaissance continuations (from Giovanni Pontano’s De hortis Hesperidum, a supplement to Vergil’s Georgics, to Thomas May’s continuation of Lucan’s Pharsalia) often demonstrate the affective exuberance of fan-fiction – not nostalgia in the face of absence and loss, but a sense of enthusiastic ownership and free-wheeling manipulation of the past which helps to contextualize and theorize reception’s navigation of closeness and distance.

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Beyond the Case Study: Theorizing Classical Reception

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