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The Aeneid, Book 13

Maffeo Vegio's Renaissance Supplement to Virgil's Aeneid

Hello and welcome to Literature and History. This bonus episode is about the thirteenth book of the Aeneid, produced in about 1428 by the Italian poet Maffeo Vegio.1 As you know if you’ve listened to Literature and History’s main series on Virgil’s Aeneid, Virgil wrote his epic in twelve books, and he died before he had time to undertake some substantial revisions to the poem that he had planned. Readers over the past two thousand years have had various reactions to the abrupt conclusion to Book 12, which occurs when Aeneas stabs Turnus in the heart. With no authorial commentary or denouement, no words of the future of the Trojans on the Italian peninsula, and no presage of a harmonious marriage between Aeneas and Lavinia, the ending of the Aeneid is indeed rather jolting.

As we learned in Literature and History’s main series, some of Virgil’s interpreters have read the Aeneid’s ending admiringly. Dante and Torquato Tasso saw Turnus’ execution as absolutely necessary for the future of civilization on the Italian peninsula.2 Two scholars of late antiquity, Servius and Tiberius Claudius Donatus, emphasized that Aeneas would have acted mercifully by sparing Turnus’ life, but that he was equally in the right by killing his nemesis.3 But even to various nationalistic Italian interpreters during Late Antiquity and the Renaissance, the Aeneid’s precipitous ending remained problematic. And by the fifteenth century, when our author for today, Maffeo Vegio, lived and worked, one problem had come to the forefront.

Böcklin, Arnold - Angelika, von einem Drachen bewacht- 1873

Ruggiero rescues Angelica in this 1873 painting from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516-32). The scene reworks the story of Perseus, Andromeda and the Kraken told in Ovid and others, showing that by Vegio's lifetime turning Greco-Roman mythology into Renaissance love stories was already well underway.

This problem, in a word, was Aeneas’ impending marriage to Lavinia. Since the High Middle Ages, courtly love sagas had made romance and marriage fixtures of narrative poetry. When Maffeo Vegio was in his mid twenties, he could have read Ludovico Ariosto’s recently published Orlando Furioso, which culminates in the righteous marriage between Ruggiero and Bradamante. From the previous century, he could have read Dante’s Paradiso, in which Dante is guided up through the celestial spheres of heaven by his earthly love, Beatrice. A few decades after Veggio died, another renaissance epic, The Faerie Queene, again brought romantic love and marriage to the forefront. The Aeneid, however, ends with Aeneas killing Turnus because Turnus stole his acquaintance’s belt.4 There is no mooring in the safe harbor of marriage, no heterosexual love, and certainly, considering the times, no sense of the hero’s embrace of any sort of Christianity. The Aeneid was a pagan epic with an abrupt ending – a wonderful pagan epic – but one that looked a bit awkward sitting on the shelf between texts like Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene, and came from a different ethical and social universe than the romantic comedies of Shakespeare and his predecessors.

When Maffeo Vegio was young, this was the climate in which the Aeneid was being read. It was a masterwork out of step with modernity. Romance in the fictional world of fifteenth-century Italy was the culmination of a young person’s life, while in Virgil’s Rome, it was a social institution, designed to consolidate property between families of various social echelons, while men continued to enjoy a variety of sexual relationships long after their wedding days. Maffeo Vegio and his generation read the passionate romance between Dido and Aeneas in Book 4 as more or less in step with their century’s tales of tumultuous courtships. And, coming to the Aeneid’s end, they waited for Aeneas to wind up in an affectionate union with Lavinia, and instead, merely read that Aeneas had stabbed his opponent through the heart. Maffeo Vegio wanted the epic to have a conclusion that was consonant with the norms of his own times. He wanted this conclusion so much that he wrote it himself. [music]

The Life of Maffeo Vegio

Like Virgil almost fifteen hundred years before him, Maffeo Vegio was from the Po Valley. Vegio was born in a city called Lodi, about seventy miles west of Virgil’s home town of Mantua. Vegio, whose erudition is evident throughout his writings, had affluent parents, and went to Milan for his education. His early professors turned him onto the work of the Franciscan priest and intellectual Bernardino of Siena, about whom Vegio later wrote a biography. Vegio later matriculated into the University of Pavia, about twenty miles to the south of Milan, where at his father’s behest he studied philosophy. Vegio switched to jurisprudence, and then later to literature, out of a lifelong devotion to ancient Latin poets, chief among them Virgil.

His early intellectual life seems to have been divided between a love for pagan classics and a reverence for the contemporary Catholic institutions around him. A renaissance humanist, Vegio promoted and produced texts on classical themes – the thirteenth book of the Aeneid, which we’ll look at in a moment, but also an epic about Hector’s murdered son, and another epic on the quest for the Golden Fleece. Later in life, perhaps because of the high ecclesiastical offices that he held, Vegio’s work increasingly concerned itself with the church, church fathers, and theological topics. He ended his career in the center of the Roman Catholic world, as canon of Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Vegio died in 1458. In his last years he might have gone to Florence and seen Brunelleschi’s dome nearing its completion, that icon of the early Italian Renaissance. He might have seen Donatello’s colossus of Saint John there, or his lithe bronze sculpture of David, and heard of three generations of Medici – Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo – who were gradually ascending to influence nearly all aspects of Florentine life. Leonardo da Vinci (1452) was born a few years before Veggio died. And in the three decades after Vegio passed away, Michelangelo was born (1475), and then Raphael (1483), and then Titian (1488). Veggio predates the main phase of the Italian Renaissance by about two generations. Saint Peter’s Basilica, while he worked as canon there, did not have Michelangelo’s magnificent neoclassical Pietà, and certainly not the extraordinary Baldacchino Bernini completed there in 1634 to stand over the tomb of Saint Peter. But nonetheless, Veggio lived and worked at a fascinating moment when Renaissance humanism was just beginning to flower. His supplement to Virgil’s Aeneid, though a seldom studied oddity from literary history, was just the sort of text that Michelangelo and Leonardo might have read – a text that suggested that a beautiful concord was possible between Renaissance Catholicism and pagan antiquity.

Vegio’s supplement is good to know about not only because it marks an early moment in Renaissance humanism. Vegio’s supplement is also good to know about because it was extremely, internationally popular – a text that the author dashed out at the age of about 21 and that he perhaps never expected to be as popular as it was. Its popularity, in part, came from the fact that Vegio’s supplement was a competently produced story that successfully tied up many of the Aeneid’s loose ends. But Vegio’s supplement also had precedents leading up to it – precedents that dated all the way back to the high Middle Ages. [music]

Romans Antiques: Classics in the High Middle Ages

When we make films and television shows from classical texts today, we take ancient stories and recast them in modern scripts, using contemporary idioms, and carefully emphasizing or ignoring aspects of tales as we see fit. Unsurprisingly, the practice of transposing ancient stories into contemporary norms was popular in twelfth-century Europe, as well. A genre of medieval French literature called romans antiques, or “ancient legends,” or “ancient romances” was popular in the court of Anjou in the northwestern part of modern day France. Written in carefully stylized old French, the romans antiques included stories like the Roman de Thèbes, or the Legend of Thebes (c. 1150), and the Roman de Troie (1165), or Legend of Troy, narratives about classical story cycles once told by Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and others. These stories took narratives of the classical world, cast them into archaic French, and superimposed a medieval ideology onto them, so that characters like Odysseus, Hector, Oedipus, and others navigated Christian moral dilemmas and participated in romantic relationships that were consonant with medieval readers. These twelfth-century adaptations of Greco-Roman story cycles were popular, making their way onto the desks of English poets like John Lydgate and Geoffrey Chaucer. And for our purposes, and the purposes of Maffeo Vegio, the most important of them was called the Roman d’Eneas, written in about 1160.

Miniature from le Roman d’Éneas, ms. 60 of the BnF, f. 148r A miniature from a Roman d'Eneas manuscript dated to about 1160.
In the 1160 French poem Roman d’Eneas, which I’ll henceforth call the Romance of Aeneas, there are widespread changes from Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido is an even more tragic character, unmistakably a victim of forces around her, and certainly softer, more fragile, and less imperious than Virgil’s Dido. Turnus is a smaller presence, a tribal warlord to be inevitably steamrolled beneath the press of more stable monarchies. The biggest change of all is the introduction of Lavinia as a full fledged and major character.5

Virgil’s Lavinia is barely present. Prominent scholars have noted that her most arresting act in the entire epic is a blush, and that she’s little more than a trophy to be fought over by the masculine power players of the epic.6 In the medieval French Romance of Aeneas, however, Lavinia and her emotional experiences are a prominent part of the story. We get a scene of Lavinia meeting Aeneas for the first time, and read about her immediate attraction to him. The medieval Lavinia worries about Aeneas while the hero fights his wars, and she receives romantic advice from her mother. As Aeneas fights his wars, Lavinia suffers the pangs of love, and once the obstacles of war are cleared from the field, the two come together in a passionate marriage. Scholar David Scott Wilson Okamura calls the 1160 Roman d’Eneas “the very moment – almost. . .the very poem – when medieval romance was coming into being, [when] epic itself was being transformed, if not distorted. The story was ending with marriage and the warrior was turning into a lover.”7 Centuries before the Italian Renaissance, then, Greek and Roman literature was being revised for a very different world.

Maffeo Vegio, again our author for today, lived when the process of modernizing classical narratives was already well underway – a full three hundred years after the earlier French Romance of Aeneas. Homeric gladiators like Diomedes, Achilles, and Ajax increasingly seemed like nihilistic braggarts, tacit homosexual relationships were carefully disregarded, and marriage and monotheism were carefully woven into the tales of ancient Greece and Rome. So let’s take a look at Vegio’s tremendously popular thirteenth book to the Aeneid. As far as I know, there is no translation of this work into modern English, and so I’m building my summary very carefully from a 1584 English translation in iambic heptameter, or Elizabethan fourteeners. This translation was done by the English physician and translator Thomas Twyne, who also translated a large portion of Virgil’s Aeneid, and it went into circulation when Shakespeare was about twenty. So here’s the story of Book 13 of the Aeneid, a synthesis of what Medieval and Renaissance readers wanted to be written at the Aeneid’s end. [music]

The Aeneid, Book 13

Aeneas Eulogizes Turnus and Speaks to the Trojans

Cesare Maccari. Appius Claudius Caecus in senate. Detail

Vegio's supplement is packed full of speeches - speeches that show characters trying to heal the rifts caused by the recent war. The painting is a detail from Cesare Maccari's Appius Claudius Caecus in the Senate (1881-8)

Turnus lay dead on the ground, and his ghost slowly ascended skyward. Aeneas stood over his foe’s corpse, the champion of Mars, and all around him, the native Italians looked on. It was a sobering and gloomy moment for them – a moment as when woods lose their leaves to a harsh northern wind. Seeing their champion dead, the native Italians set down their weapons, and put their shields onto the turf at their feet. Suddenly, they hated the war they had been fighting. Seeing Aeneas, they felt no rancor toward him. Quite the opposite – they regretted making war on him and wished earnestly for his pardon, and for peace.

Aeneas stood over Turnus’ corpse and addressed the collective body. Why, he asked the Italians, had they attacked him and his men? The Trojans had only sought to live there, and they were fated to live there, Aeneas said, and Turnus had tried to thwart the will and the love of the gods. Aeneas, taking a discernibly Christian turn, said that men should not spurn the love of the gods, as Turnus had, and that Turnus’ ill fate would be a mirror for all who disparaged divine providence. Aeneas’ words of censure then became a eulogy. His opponent, said Aeneas, was noble in death, and had died by the hand of a noble man. Aeneas said the native Italians should take up the remains of their lord, and his fine armor, and give his body the proper funeral rights. Except, of course, for Turnus’ belt. Turnus’ belt had up until very recently belonged to Aeneas’ friend Pallas, the son of Evander, King of Arcadia. Aeneas said he was sending this belt back to Pallas’ father. Aeneas concluded his speech by saying that he had never wanted to fight the native Italians – he had fought the entire war in self defense.

With his general address concluded, Aeneas prepared sacrifices to the gods. Heifers, hogs, and sheep were slaughtered, and wine was poured in honor of Bacchus. Men and women gave their thanks to Juno and Mars for having survived the war, and Aeneas, amidst the joy of the sudden armistice, turned his attention to his son Iulus. Iulus, said Aeneas, had been with him through everything. And Iulus knew as well as he did that their journey was over, and that they would finally have a chance to rest. Now that the war was over, Aeneas said, it was time for Iulus to head into the kingdoms of Italy as his ambassador. Having told young Iulus this, Aeneas turned to address the Trojans.

They had experienced many things together, Aeneas told his countrymen – dangers, and wars, hard winters and awful injustices. But the exodus was over. The Trojans would settle there, and comingle with the native Italians. Aeneas said he would marry Lavinia. Her father, King Latinus, would continue to rule in law. But in military matters, Aeneas would direct the Trojans. And his overall mission, he told his men, was to safeguard their lives from danger and reward them for following him through such tribulations.

Latinus and Daunus Mourn Turnus

The native Italians, though they were glad the war was over, nonetheless bitterly lamented the death of their champion Turnus as they bore his body away from the battlefield. Old King Latinus, who had nearly been Turnus’ father-in-law, gave a tearful speech. The subject of his speech was Turnus’ abrupt turn toward warmongering. If you remember, in the Aeneid, Latinus never really wants to go to war. Turnus is compelled to go to war by an agent of Juno, but in Vegio’s ending, Latinus does not know this, and the old king sees his young countryman’s violent actions as the result of a sudden and pernicious pursuit of glory. So, Latinus asked the dead body of Turnus why Turnus had made war on the Trojans. Why had Turnus led so many good people to die in a futile war – a war that had turned fields and rivers red with blood? Finding no answers to his questions, Latinus said that Turnus had at least had some honor in being killed by the very man he’d sought to oppose.

With the somewhat unflattering eulogy delivered, it was time for Turnus’ funeral procession. Young Italians hefted up Turnus’ coffin, and carried his remains to the city. There, the sight of the leader’s corpse caused woe and consternation. Turnus’ father Daunus looked on stoically as the younger man’s funeral pyre was lit. And to the astonishment of all present, a bird suddenly appeared in the midst of the growing blaze.

Turnus’ father Daunus then offered his own eulogy – the third eulogy for Turnus in Vegio’s addendum to the Aeneid. Why, asked Daunus, echoing Latinus’ earlier words – why had Turnus started the war? Had he thought that his death would bring any honor to their kingdom? Poor Turnus was still now, his father said. His skin looked pale, and his lips were so silent. Death took everyone, said Daunus – even good people who didn’t deserve it, like Turnus. Predestination had made a victim of Turnus, and evil things had befallen him, like an eagle swooping down to kill a fawn. [music]

Preparations for Aeneas and Lavinia's Wedding Begin

The next morning, as sun fell over the Italian countryside, preparations began for the wedding between Aeneas and Lavinia. Orators in gowns had converged on the city, and the general opinion was that the marriage would help cement the previous day’s armistice. The morning had brought with it an atmosphere of hope and levity, and as complex as King Latinus’ feelings were about the events of the past few weeks, he had no doubt that he was acquiring a noble and heroic son-in-law. A man called Drances – an important Italian noble who figured briefly into Virgil’s Aeneid – was to officiate the wedding. Here’s a quote from the Twyne translation, and I’m modernizing some of the fifteenth-century English. A speech from the Italian noble who’s going to officiate Aeneas’ marriage:

Most worthy prince, the glory great and hope of ancient Troy,
Whose peer for virtuous deeds and arms the world does not enjoy,
Poor conquered men for pardon we pray, and sue for grace.
And all celestial Goddesses, and Gods, and this your face
To witness deep we call, that king Latinus against his will
All Latium land in tumults mad upstirred, with practice ill,
And league broke of unwilling did behold, nor honor due
To Trojans did deny to yield misled with fancy new
But since the Gods so would, that you his daughter dear should wed,
You son-in-law he called, and well did with your dulcet head.
The war, said old Drances, had been a mistake – they’d been spurred on by evil gods. And Turnus had proved an invidious ringleader to the war. Good riddance, said Drances, to Turnus, who might know a wedding in the underworld, if that. Italy, said the wedding official Drances, owed everything to Aeneas.

Aeneas offered a speech in return. He said the war was no fault of King Latinus, and certainly not the wedding officiator Drances. Turnus was gone, and it was time for peace. King Latinus would continue to reign as he had been, and the Trojans would build a city – a city named after Aeneas’ bride. The city would be one of peace and prosperity. And so, Aeneas continued, the following day they would convene for his wedding. As for the present, they needed to burn their dead. At Aeneas’ words the native Italians were overwhelmed by his optimism and forgiveness, and the day proceeded with animal sacrifices and cremations of the many who had been killed in battle. Nothing like the pervasive reek of hundreds of burning corpses to intensify the romance of an impending marriage. [music]

The Meeting of Lavinia and Aeneas, and the Wedding Banquet

Dido and Aeneas LACMA M.81.199

Rutilio Manetti's Dido and Aeneas (c. 1630). There are many paintings of Dido and Aeneas. There are almost none of Virgil's Lavinia, who never says a word in the Aeneid.

The day before the wedding passed slowly, with the Trojans and Italians banding together to remove the dead from the war-scarred fields around the citadel of Latium. And the next morning, continuing the remarkably sudden rapport between the Trojans and Italians, a commingled parade of heroes strode through the city. Citizens jostled to get a better look at the parade, and King Latinus saw the assembly and addressed them.

Latinus said that he regretted the war. A fury, he now realized, had prompted it, but Aeneas had been noble, and was welcome in their land. Aeneas would have a walled town for himself, and Latinus would be proud to have the Trojan veteran as a son-in-law. In turn, Aeneas said that he knew Latinus had not had any role in starting the wars, and that he would honor Latinus as a father-in-law just as he had honored his own father Anchises.

At this moment, Aeneas appeared bright and beautiful to the native Italians – every bit a prince as he had been in his Trojan homeland, and the peasants and courtiers of Latium admired the him as though for the first time. At this point, Aeneas got his first look at his bride Lavinia. Her eyes were as luminous as crystals, and oddly, upon seeing her, Aeneas thought of Turnus, who had once been betrothed to this same woman. Once the initial sense of wonder passed, Aeneas summoned his friend Achates to bring forth wedding presents – presents that had come from Andromache – from the decade past, when Troy had still stood. The presentation of gifts was followed by a feast. Sumptuous furnishings filled Latinus’ banqueting hall, and guests sat on purple cushions and washed themselves with water from crystal ewers. Wine, meat, and various delicacies regaled the banqueters, and Latinus talked with Aeneas’ son Iulus. He found Iulus precocious in his intelligence and in all other ways prepossessing, and congratulated Aeneas on having such a fine son.

As night fell, conversation turned to the Trojan War, and then to the more recent massacres that had unfolded when the Trojans had landed on the Italian peninsula. These were volatile subjects, however, and so the banqueters began discussing the ancient Italians – those who had preceded Latinus and Evander and Mezentius. They talked of Saturnus, who had been one of the first to settle in Italy. And the wedding guests discussed Dardanus, that ancient ancestor of some of the Trojans. From conversation, the evening’s entertainment changed to dancing, and there was no more talk of long gone progenitors, nor recent wars. [music]

Aeneas' Vision of Lavinia and a Visit from Aeneas' Mother

The wedding feast went on for nine days, and eventually Aeneas set forth to plough fields for his new city. As he dug furrows and trenches, however, he and his men saw something strange. Aeneas’ bride Lavinia was suddenly seen with glowing light around her head – light that stretched upward into the clouds. Aeneas had seen a fair share of portents, and worried that this light betokened some new dark turn in his fate. He prayed to Jupiter to confirm that his people’s struggles were indeed over. And the specter of Aeneas’ mother suddenly appeared. She told him he had nothing to fear – that Lavinia’s sudden luminosity was a good omen. And she offered him this promise:

My son, leave this care of mind, and take for better bliss
These signs of God for future joy to you, and not to miss.
Now you have had rest, this is the end of mischiefs all,
And wished peace at length by tract of time to you does fall.
Nor should you fear the flame that from your spouse’s head
To skies does rise aloft, pluck up your heart full far from dread.
For she your name with famous issue born shall send to skies,
And Trojan captains bring forth to light that must arise.
And valiant nephews unto you shall bring from issue great
That all the world so wide with virtues praises shall repeat,
And with their mighty power full force shall wholly it subdue,
And draw the spoils thereof in triumph brave: whom glory true
Right great, when they the ocean have passed, shall convey
To heaven on high: whose virtues inspire great acts to assay,
And to achieve, through virtue them as gods shall lift to the skies. (581-95)
You’ve got to love that gnarled sixteenth-century syntax. Anyway, Aeneas’ mother had more advice for him. She told him that the fire around Lavinia was a symbol of the blessing of the gods on him, that he should name his city after his wife, and install the statues of the Trojan gods there. The mixture of the Trojans and Italians would create a great people, said the spirit of Aeneas’ mother, and she promised that he would go to heaven. And with these words of inspiration, the ghost of Aeneas’ mother vanished.

The Death and Deification of Aeneas

Peter Candid - Aeneas

Peter Candid's Aeneas is Taken by Venus to Olympus (c. 1600).

Months passed, and the Italians slowly grew accustomed to their new Italian neighbors. The ascent of Aeneas, Vegio writes, brought a time of love and lawfulness to the ancient lands that would one day be the city of Rome and its environs.

Up on Mount Olympus, Venus saw that the fate her son had been promised had come to pass. She told Jupiter she was grateful that Jupiter had kept his promise. Three went by, and Venus told Jupiter that indeed the Trojans were enjoying well-deserved peace and prosperity. But it was time, Aeneas’ mother said, for him to ascend to heaven. Jupiter nodded. He said she had been unflagging in her support of the Trojan hero. Aeneas would not only join the gods in their realm – he would become one of them, which would be a suitable honor for his sufferings and great deeds. The gods all voiced their support of Jupiter’s proposition – even Juno, who had been such a bane to Aeneas’ existence for so long.

And so Venus descended down through the glittering skies of Italy, down to a place where a river joined the ocean and reeds grew thickly along the shoreline. There, she washed the body of her beloved son, until the mortal parts of him were cleansed with the clear river water, and the hero, having survived so many impossible situations, was finally free of the trappings of mortality. The closing lines of Vegio’s version of the Aeneid are “And [Venus] did amid the stares Aeneas place, whom [the Julian] line / Their private God do call, adorning him with rites divine” (666-7). And that's the end. [music]

Ovid and Vegio vs. Virgil

The story of Aeneas’ deification, which I think Vegio tells rather poignantly in his addendum to the Aeneid, was not something Vegio made up. In the Roman imagination, it wouldn’t do to have the progenitor of the Julian clan buried under some rock in the coastal city of Lavinium, or even nearby Rome. Aeneas had been getting deified in fiction for a long time before Vegio published his expansion of the story in around 1428 – for at least fourteen hundred and twenty years. Because in the middle of the fourteenth book Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we get the same story.

In Ovid’s version of Aeneas’ final days, Venus goes to heaven, and asks them to approve her son’s ascension into heaven. Unlike in Vegio, Ovid’s Venus actually proposes Aeneas’ deification herself, rather than Jupiter, but the result is the same. The gods agree – including Juno – that Aeneas has lived quite an impressive life, Venus picturesquely descends to a brackish marsh where a river is emptying into the sea. Thereafter, to quote Ovid’s characteristically wonderful version, in the Norton Charles Martin translation,

[Venus] bade the river god to take Aeneas
under the surface of his silent stream
and cleanse him of all mortal deficits;
he did as she commanded, bathing him,
and having purged him of his mortal dross,
restored his best, immortal part to him.
His mother purified Aeneas’ body,
anointing it with heavenly perfumes,
and touched his lips with sweet ambrosia
and nectar both, so he became a god,
known to the Roman folk. . .
who honor him with altars and with shrines. (14.860-70, 72)8
Ovid then goes on to tell of Aeneas’ descendants – Ascanius, Silvius, Latinus the younger, and on and on, those early kings whom Roman historians and mythographers identified as reigning between Aeneas in the 1100s BCE and then Romulus and Remus in the mid-700s. In both cases – Vegio’s and Ovid’s, I mean, the end of Aeneas’ great narrative is delivered with a sense of closure and a clear connection to posterity. A great hero has come and gone, and his departure has left peace, prosperity, and the promise of a great nation to come.

Fra Filippo Lippi 007

Filippo Lippi's Coronation of the Virgin, finished when Vegio was about 40, is a project in much the same spirit as Vegio's addendum to the Aeneid. Vegio puts a Renaissance romance and harmonious ending into Virgil's epic poem just as Lippi puts himself (dressed as a monk, lower left) and his patron (kneeling, lower right) in the midst one of Christianity's most sacred scenes.

Comparing Vegio’s ending, and Ovid’s ending – which was perhaps the standard ending to the story of Aeneas in ancient Mediterranean – comparing these two with Virgil’s ending, we see a striking contrast. Virgil’s Turnus is stabbed through the heart, and the credits roll, and for all we know the war between the Trojans and Italians is going to continue indefinitely, an unnecessary murder over a shiny belt merely being its latest unsightly installment. In Vegio, however, Turnus receives eulogies, the dead are burned, apologies are spoken, and earnest hopes for peace are voiced on both sides, all before a banquet to kick off a new era of amity between Trojans and Italians. Vegio’s ending, while more workmanlike than virtuoso, nonetheless gives us the closure that Virgil’s lacks. But by reading Vegio’s ending, and considering the fact that Ovid had written a similar one just two decades after Virgil’s death, we can further appreciate the nature of Virgil’s ending. Virgil could have written the ending that Ovid and Vegio did – Turnus is honored, Aeneas is married, Aeneas enjoys several graceful years of retirement, and when the time comes he is unanimously deified by a once fractious pantheon of gods. But Virgil refuses to give a gentle denouement, ending his story right in the fray of an awful war, as he believed that there simply could be no happy ending after such violence.

Even bracketing history for the moment – bracketing the question of Virgil’s exact feelings for Augustus – Vegio’s addendum to the Aeneid is frequently asinine. King Latinus’ wife Amata has killed herself, his honorable future son-in-law has been done in, and yet, excepting a brief mention in Turnus’ father’s long monologue, Queen Amata seems to have vanished from the story. Instead, a patchwork of conciliatory speeches by Aeneas and his Italian counterparts, over a time period of some 48 hours, seem to entirely smooth over the violence of war, as though the conflict had been a good-natured bar fight and not a nightmare of impalements, dismemberments, and outright executions. Like many interpreters, Vegio doesn’t quite know what to do with Turnus – the Italian elder Drances emphasizes that Turnus was spurred to violence by a fury (354), which is true, but a moment later (394-5) Drances says indeed Turnus himself commenced the violence. For a moment, Aeneas thinks of his dead foe when he meets Lavinia, who had once been engaged to him, but Vegio ends his addition to the Aeneid having made so many floridly paradoxical statements about the Italian hero that we have little idea of how he will be remembered.

There are pacing decisions that Vegio makes that tire one’s suspension of disbelief, perhaps most notably his compression most of the story’s denouement into a period of about three days. Animosities can turn into friendships, certainly, and enemies to friends, but as Aeneas and the Trojans march proudly into King Latinus’ city, perhaps 72 hours after the war’s end – as Italian nobles and commoners look fondly upon the eastern immigrants who have killed so many of their friends and relatives, we wonder exactly what Vegio was thinking. Perhaps Vegio and his generation wanted a happy ending out of the Aeneid so badly, and maybe they imagined ancient pagans as so emotionally mercurial that Vegio’s slapdash wrap up seemed a better ending than the thunderous dissonance of the real Aeneid’s ending. Virgil, however, like us, knew that when heroes fall, and queens die – when fiancés are torn apart from one another and martial intruders stomp into peaceful cities, and when children lose parents and parents lose children, what follows is a requiem, and not a rhapsody. And I think that while we can appreciate Vegio’s attempt to bring hope and harmony to the Aeneid’s ending, Vegio also makes us appreciate how, and why Virgil ends Rome’s most famous story nearly in midsentence. [music]

The 1450s: The Decade that Changed Everything

In 1459, Pope Pius II called an ecumenical council in Mantua, Virgil’s hometown, and also near where Maffeo Vegio grew up. The aim of the council was to rescue the city of Constantinople from the Ottoman Empire. Six years before, in 1453, the invincible walls of Constantinople had been breached by a 26-foot-long gun that could fire 800-pound cannonballs. And over the next few years, history had moved rather quickly. Within the walls of the city which became known as Istanbul, in 1455, Sultan Mehmed II built the Grand Bazaar, which remains the heart of Istanbul today. Venice, which had long enjoyed good trade relationships with the Ottomans, cozied up to the city’s new leadership. Over the next three decades the city’s population exploded, and by 1480 Istanbul was home to a hybrid population of Muslims, Byzantine Greeks, Jews, Europeans, and Armenians.

But in 1459, Catholic leadership still felt the loss of Constantinople keenly, and so Pope Pius II, summoning dignitaries from all over the Catholic world, called a conference to discuss strategies for retaking the city. Pius, however, discovered that his interests were anachronistic. To quote historian Lisa Jardine, “From the political point of view the occasion was an extravagant failure. The moral and religious imperative which Pius II tried to use to rally the nations of Europe against the infidel proved weaker than the local political interests of the several power blocs assembled.”9 By the fifteenth century, papal offices were being bought and sold by powerful families like the Medicis and Gonzagas. These families, and the popes and cardinals that they produced, had no interest in a holy war with the Ottoman east. There were theological differences between the central Mediterranean and the Sea of Marmara, certainly. But the heart of the matter was that in Italy, in 1459, people were making a lot of money through eastern trade, and a rapidly diminishing number of people cared that Istanbul was no longer Constantinople. Venetians, and Florentines, and Jews, and Turks discovered that peaceful coexistence was the optimal way to line one’s pockets, and so Pius’ call for an eastern crusade was met with skeptical eye rolling. While capitalism has its well-documented faults, at several remarkable junctures of history it has pulverized longstanding cultural animosities and replaced them with collaborative searches for profit. Lisa Jardine writes that during the life of Maffeo Vegio, “it was the Venetians [and other Italians] as well as the Turks who benefited from mutual tolerance, growing rich and powerful as a result.”10

Quentin Massys- Erasmus of Rotterdam

Quentin Metsys' Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1517), the locomotive of the Northern Renaissance, here appears like a merchant figuring his profits in a ledger.

This would have been an electrifying period of history to experience on the ground. Vegio, as canon of Saint Peter’s Basilica, saw eastern trade exploding all around him. Ginger, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg were so valuable as trade goods that they could be used in place of gold and silver. Catholic institutions became cluttered with the fineries of eastern trade. Nominally religious paintings and altarpieces, like Filippo Lippi’s 1436 Coronation of the Virgin mixed depictions of rich patrons together with Mary and Jesus and the apostles, and clad the central characters of Christianity in fifteenth-century Italian fashion. Quentin Metsys’ 1515 portrait of Erasmus, that great champion of the northern Renaissance, shows the famous scholar dressed to the nines in the garb of a rich merchant, inviting us to remember that Renaissance humanism was born from commerce and cash. The time of infidels and heretics was ending, and Eurasia began a general scramble for wealth that has been going on ever since.

A flood of liquid assets propelled the circulation of many goods during this period of history, not the least of which was books. The ubiquity of Latin amidst the European clergy, a remarkable story in and unto itself, had allowed ancient manuscripts to be intelligible to readers through the full lifecycle of the Catholic Church. By the lifetime of Vegio, shipbuilders were using texts by Euclid and other ancient mathematicians to design their vessels. And although there were practical reasons for disseminating classical learning throughout fifteenth-century Europe, readers also sought out Latin manuscripts for pleasure. In Vegio’s age, Virgil and his younger contemporary Ovid were ubiquitous. The story of the explosive popularity of these two writers throughout the Renaissance is something I’ll talk about more extensively in programs on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but for now it will suffice to say that in reading, interpreting, and reworking the poetry of the Augustan Age, Vegio and his successors celebrated antiquity with a passion and fervor that gradually, and often inadvertently undermined Catholicism’s hegemony over European thought. Just as trade eroded the church’s financial primacy, texts from the Greco-Roman world arrived in cargo holds and were recovered from the obscurer reaches of monastery archives, introducing readers to a tantalizing heterodox past. The revival of classical learning had been slowly taking place for centuries, but the 1450s were the critical decade that made this revival catch fire in earnest.

Vegio was in his mid-40s when Constantinople, the last ancient vestige of the Roman world, gave way to the Ottomans. The Byzantine Empire had nearly always been the most powerful entity in Europe from the moment of its foundation in the 320s all the way up to Vegio’s lifetime. Its libraries, and its continued warehousing of Greek texts, made it the continent’s intellectual center for much of its lifetime as well. And yet linguistic and theological differences between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, vestiges of ancient disparities between the two halves of the Roman Empire, kept Greek and Latin texts partitioned off from one another, in spite of a growing Italian interest during Vegio’s lifetime in Ancient Greece. The fall of Constantinople changed all of this. A third party had become the gatekeeper to the Black Sea and what lay beyond it, and the Ottomans and others found that religious tolerance was splendid for profit margins. And thus, curiously, when Rome finally fell in 1453, suddenly, something like Rome was born again – a religiously diverse, intercontinental world in which no single institution held sway over ideas. In the last years of Vegio’s life, just as had been the case during Virgil’s life, comingled cases of Greek and Latin manuscripts were being unloaded on Italian docks, and scholars all across Europe began learning the Greek alphabet, as Virgil had when he was a young student in Milan, 1,500 years before. Vegio’s thirteenth book of the Aeneid is just a small part of this great story. [music]

Moving On to Propertius

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little bonus episode on Maffeo Vegio, Virgil, and fifteenth-century Italy. I didn’t quite know where to squeeze it into the main sequence, so I thought I’d put it on my site. There’s a transcription of it on the site, too, with the usual footnotes and relevant maps and graphics. If you’re listening to the main sequence of shows, now is the time to pick up with Propertius and learn about the later phases of Augustan literature. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.


1.^ The date and text of Twyne for this bonus episode are taken from http://virgil.org/supplementa/vegio-twyne.htm.

2.^ See Dante. Paradiso. 6.35. And Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem.

3.^ See Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 197-8.

4.^ Obviously, their brief acquaintanceship had a potent effect on Virgil’s Aeneas, and we should be open to its romantic dimensions, considering the time and author. But the text itself has few explanations for its suddenness or profundity.

5.^ My summary here, including some subsequent notes, is indebted to Wilson Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 234-7.

6.^ See Aen 12.64-71, and Watkins, Specter of Dido. Yale University Press, 1995, p. 27. Also Robinson, Lillian. Monstrous Regiment: The Lady Knight in Sixteenth-Century Epic. Garland, 1985, p.58.

7.^ See Wilson-Okamura (2010), p. 236.

8.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated and with notes by Charles Martin and with an Introduction by Bernard Knox. W.W. Norton and Company, 2004, p. 506.

9.^ Jardine, Lisa. Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. New York: Norton, 1998, p. 65.

10.^ Ibid, p. 46.