Virgil in Virgil: Representations of the Poet in the Bodleian Georgics MS Rawl. G. 98

Alden Smith

This paper will consider the representation of Virgil portrayed in the historiated initials in an Italian-school manuscript of the Georgics housed in the Bodleian Library (MS Rawl. G. 98: fol. 05r, 19r; 34r; 49v). That manuscript, which Conington regards as of minor importance to the textual tradition (Conington/Nettleship [1979] cxv), contains superb historiated initials of Virgil wrought by the Master of the Vitae Imperatorum (fl. 1430), who ranks among the finest of manuscript illustrators (cf. Pächt [1948] 17).  While one can find a variety of representations of Virgil, “prophet, wise man, magician, guide, humiliated lover, and courtly cleric” (D. Joyner in Putnam/Ziolkowski [2008] 427), the Virgil that appears in the initial capital of each of these books of poetry is a particular manifestation of the poet’s persona, specifically that of the sage poet, not unlike some representations of David in the Psalms and Book of Hours (cf. Pächt/Alexander [1966] 397a, pl. xxxii).  This paper will argue that the Bodleian Georgics' representations of Virgil reflect the development of the poet from book to book, moving him ever closer to mature poet and wisdom figure, a connection, Zilkowski has shown, had begun well over two centuries before the date of this manuscript (Putnam/Zilkowski, 825).  This manuscript is, therefore, at once an heir to that tradition while also uniquely showing progression in the details of the poet's representation.  

Each of these historiated initials shows a kind of literary progress, from the two unbearded portraits (one reading in the pasture, the second contemplating his pen) to the two bearded sages (one the beginning of serious composition, and the final Virgil being a portrait of the literary craftsman at work). While Simone Martini’s famous illustration from Petrarch’s Virgil, preserved in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana, may continue to hold sway as the most famous postclassical manuscript portrait of Virgil, among artists of historiated initials the Master of the Vitae Imperatorum’s sequence of portraits deserves special attention in advancing the rhetoric of the page.  Though Virgil may lack the biblical authority of David in the pasture or the religious gravitas of St. Augustine in his study, these portraits of him blend aspects of each of their traditions to show a Virgil who, in the Georgics, has progressed from innocent shepherd to sage-like mastercraftsman.

Session/Panel Title:

Rhetoric of the Page in Latin Manuscripts of the Middle Ages