You are here


 From the Renaissance to the present day scholars have debated the origins of the Epistula Sapphus, an elegiac epistle now included in the Ovidian corpus as Heroides 15. Modern scholarly consensus has argued for its authenticity (pace Richard Tarrant), but the debate that predates and informs such consensus stretches from the moment of the poem's discovery in the early fifteenth century.1 The poem itself demands this line of questioning (the Sapphic narrator asks, nisi legisses auctoris nomina Sapphus // hoc breue nescires unde mouetur opus?), and the self-reflexive nature of the narrator's status as poet further entrenches the question of authorship in debates concerning Ovid's work and Ovid himself. Where in his poetic corpus could such a poem reside, both in physical organization and in intertextual references? How does the manuscript tradition either inform or cloud our attempts to discover genuine authorship? If Ovid is not the author, then who? Beyond these questions lie a number of concerns regarding the literary impact of the Epistula Sapphus. In what way does its author incorporate Sappho's voice, her poetry, and her biography into the text? From what traditions does the author draw the settings, themes, and background into the text?

Just such concerns were raised by the fifteenth-century scholars whose commentaries constitute the first engagements with the newly rediscovered text. Humanists were keen to enter the fray, and from 1450 to 1600 we have at least fifteen commentaries in print and manuscript that testify to the vigorous interest in the Epistula Sapphus and establish the methodological approaches and literary concerns of the commentators. 2

In this paper, I examine one such commentator, Tommaso Schifaldo (1430-ca. 149, whose unedited commentary on the Epistula Sapphus is extant in Palermo, Biblioteca Comunale, MS 2.Qq.D.70, fols. 101-156v. Schifaldo was an important Dominican teacher at Marsala in the third quarter of the fifteenth century who authored commentaries on Persius, Horace, and a “De viris illustribus ordinis Praedicatorum.” His commentary on Persius’s Satires has been the subject of scholarly enquiry and a modern edition, while his role as a humanist scholar and teacher has been discussed more generally. His commentary on the Epistula Sapphus, however, remains a footnote in larger discussions of Renaissance commentaries.3

In his introduction, Schifaldo places Sappho within the larger framework of Greek lyric authors and claims EP is a direct translation by Ovid of a Sapphic original. The opening lines of the commentary proper detail some of the rhetorical techniques that the Sapphic narrator uses to restore her wayward lover, and the commentary continues in a similar vein for some 40 folios, placing particular stress on such stylistic qualities as concinnitas, suauitas, lepos, and dicendi vis. A detailed examination of the commentary thus links Schifaldo's work to the broader discussion of Ovidian authorship, of authorial persona, and of adaption undertaken by humanistic scholars.


1 For a detailed overview of the debate concerning the Epistula Sapphus's authorship, see: Thorsen, Thea Selliass. Scribentis Imagines in Ovidian Authorship and Scholarship. A Study of the Epistula Sapphus (Heroides 15). Diss. University of Bergen, 2006, pages 74-120.

2 For a detailed list of the extant manuscripts and editions that pertain to the Epistula Sapphus, cf. Coulson, F.T., Roy, Bruno: Incipitarium Ovidianum: a Finding Guide for Texts Related to the Study of Ovid in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Brepols Publishers n.v., Turnhout, Beglium, 2000, 160.

3 Cf. Dörrie, Heinrich (ed.). P. Ovidius Naso. Der Brief der Sappho an Phaon. München, 1975, pg. 2, footnote 4: “Hier eine– gewiss nicht vollständige – Liste der frühesten Kommentatoren: Thomas Schifaldus 1476; Petrus Crinitus 1481; Georgius Merula...”

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy