Reception has recently moved from the margins to the center of scholarship in classical studies, but I would argue that there is still plenty of room for methodological development. The main problem I see is that the object of study is almost invariably a disembodied text—words that are seen to stimulate the writing of other words, which are analyzed in detail without paying attention to the books that carry the words. This practice of looking through rather than at books as physical objects, I believe, means that reception as it is generally practiced gives us at best an incomplete, if not misleading, picture of the influence of the classics. The model I am proposing here integrates physical form as a carrier of meaning into textual interpretation to produce a richer, fuller way of doing reception studies.
To show how this might work, I would like to focus on one key classical text, Virgil’s Aeneid, and one key moment in its reception, the Renaissance. Anyone who has looked at a large number of early printed books has noticed that they often contain marks: passages are underlined and key words, often referred to as ‘indexing notes,’ are written in the margins. What is less well understood is that these marks are the physical remains of an earlier reading practice that differs radically from our modern (and largely academic) readings. The passages underlined by early modern readers are generally memorable for either their moral content or their stylistic felicity; the ‘indexing notes’ contain the key words under which the underlined passages were to be filed for later retrieval. The passages were transferred to commonplace books which were usually kept in handwritten form by their compilers but were themselves sometimes published, as the volumes edited by Orazio Toscanella and Michel Coyssard in the sixteenth century show. These commonplace books are obviously connected to the classical text from which their material was drawn, but they also represent what was valued by the culture of their later readers. In other words, Renaissance readers regularly shattered Virgil’s poetry into moral and stylistic fragments which they then put back together in their own image, based on the values that they considered important. Modern reading practices do not give us a Virgil who teaches Stoic virtues and who serves as a stylistic model for a language we no longer compose in, but that is precisely the point. This other Virgil, so different from the one constructed with modern reading practices, is only comprehensible if we return to the books in which Renaissance readers encountered and responded to Virgil’s text.
Taking seriously the material form in which classical texts have been passed down will have other ramifications as well for how we do reception studies. Many early printed editions, for example, include commentaries, which provide the foundation on which the reception of any classical author should be built. Landino’s late fifteenth-century commentary on Virgil, for example, leads us to an ethical interpretation of the Aeneid that was standard in its day but died between then and now; La Cerda’s early seventeenth-century reading of the end of the poem, in contrast, adopts an Aristotelian perspective that opens an interesting dialogue with modern scholars like Michael Putnam. Other paratextual materials like prefaces and dedications link classical texts to the society around them, allowing us to speak with new confidence about whether Virgil was appropriated by the rich and powerful, the poor and marginalized, or both. In the end, the physical form in which a Greek or Latin text appears provides crucial evidence—otherwise unobtainable—about how that text was understood at the initial point of reception in a later culture, the point at which a passive handing down of the classical past becomes an active appropriation into a later present.