The OF Blog: April 2022

Friday, April 15, 2022

Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad


Regardless of one’s individual beliefs regarding one of the central tenets of Christianity, the execution via crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ, is certainly a story worthy of an epic.  There were for the much of late antiquity and the medieval period, recastings of the Passion in the form of hymns, tractates, and plays.  Yet it was not until the Italian Renaissance of the 14th-16th centuries that greater efforts were made to synthesize Christianity’s greatest story ever told with Greco-Roman dactylic hexameter epic poetry.  The exemplar of this new effort to recombine elements of Christology with themes, motifs, and narrative structures of the early Roman Empire poetry was Marco Girolamo Vida’s Christiad, first published in full in 1536 in Latin.

The Christiad borrows much from Vergil, not just the structure of poetic devices used in his Aeneid but also from the more bucolic Eclogues.  Comprised of six books, the structure of Christiad depends much less on chronological linearity as it does on the introduction of the eternal theme of struggle between the forces of God and those of Satan.  In reading Vida’s descriptions of the legions of hell, I could not help but to be struck by how influential his depictions of the demonic hordes were on Milton’s Paradise Lost, published nearly a century and a half later.  In particular, the invasion of these demons into the bodies of the leaders of the Sanhedrin is chilling in how well he uses the vitriol of Hell’s host to create a vivid contrast between the nobility of Heaven and the baseness of raging, defiled human (amplified by demonic possession) desire for dominion of vice.

This duality easily could have become too didactic to make for an enjoyable read, but Vida adroitly mixes in epic metaphors that, similar to those of Vergil or Homer in their epics, serve to create brief, beautiful asides that do not distract from narrative momentum as much as underscoring what is truly at stake.  However, there are times that the metaphors clang rather than ring out.  One such occasion was a metaphoric comparison of a mob’s clamor to that of a cannonball bursting through.  While to some degree an apt metaphor, this anachronistic description of an event set in the first century did briefly jar me out of the flow of the narrative.

The characters aren’t as well-defined as one might expect from modern literature.  While Vida mostly avoided the repetitious adjectives that Homer in particular would use to establish his warriors, his secondary characters, with the notable exception of Pontus Pilate (who here appears as much more sympathetic to Christ’s plight than he did in the Gospel accounts), are not very memorable.  Although in part necessary due to his fate as a tragic hero, Vida’s Jesus is described more through the speech of others than by any dialogue.  While this is nothing more than a minor annoyance (because the lines themselves are a pleasure to sound out in Latin), it does justify a brief note.

The narrative flows forwards and backwards in time, from Heaven to Hell to Jerusalem and back, in smooth, cascading rhythms.  Vida does an outstanding job capturing the vibe of Vergil’s works, to the point where his Latin is nearly devoid of linguistic innovations that occurred in Ecclesiastical and Medieval Latin.  His hexameters are very polished, with only rare blips like the one I noted above with the metaphor ringing false.  Reading it “aloud” in scansions makes Vida’s accomplishment all the more praiseworthy.

However, there is a latent “but” in this praise.  Vida takes traditional Greco-Latin poetic themes as far as they can go.  And yet, and this is most notable in the final Book VI, the metaphors and similes just pale in comparison to the story Vida wants to tell.  The aftermath of Book V’s crucifixion scene halters, sputters, and just collapses into an overly-extended epilogue that while it does relate the eventual triumph of Christ, it just feels anticlimactic. This reduced narrative power lessened the impact of the whole Christiad for me, moving it from being a near-equal to Milton to something slightly lesser in nature.  That being said, Christiad certainly is one of the finer neo-Latin works of the Italian Renaissance and a work that I would recommend to those who have some background in Latin to read.  For those who aren’t Latinophones, Harvard Univeristy Press’s I Tatti Renaissance Library edition of Christiad does have modern English translation that does capture much of the power of the Latin original.  It certainly is a work that is important even today, even though its influence has waned with the decline of Latin readers.

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