Thomas Head

title.none: Pizarro, Writing Ravenna (Head)

identifier.other: baj9928.9701.007 97.01.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas Head, Washington University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Pizarro, Joaquin Martinez. Writing Ravenna: The Liber Pontificalis of Andreas Agnellus. Recentiores: Later Latin Texts and Contexts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. x, 213.. $39.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10606-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.01.07

Pizarro, Joaquin Martinez. Writing Ravenna: The Liber Pontificalis of Andreas Agnellus. Recentiores: Later Latin Texts and Contexts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. x, 213.. $39.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10606-6.

Reviewed by:

Thomas Head
Washington University

The Liber Pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis was composed by a priest of Ravenna named Andreas Agnellus between 830 and 846. It belongs to the small, but significant, group of gesta episcoporum composed within the political and cultural sphere of the Carolingian empire. Like other such works, it consists of a series of biographies of the bishops of Ravenna from the first, Apollinaris, through Agnellus' contemporaries. It differs from most examples of the genre, however, in that it is the work of a single author and it is unique in Agnellus' claim to have presented its constituent chapters as lectiones in public readings held over the course of its composition. Agnellus' work has become infamous among modern scholars for its elliptical narrative and recondite Latin prose.

Joaquin Pizarro opens his serious study of the literary character of Agnellus' work by deploring the harsh judgment of the work often rendered by modern critics. Pizarro proceeds to convince us that the Liber Pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis is a work worthy of attention as a complete literary enterprise, rather than constituting a vein of unrelated anecdotal nuggets to be mined piecemeal as historical evidence. In this judgment, Pizarro stands in line with a number of scholars -- among them Rosamund McKitterick, Janet Nelson, Thomas Noble, Joseph Claude Poulin, Julia Smith, and Michel Sot -- who have demonstrated that Carolingian works of hagiography and historiography must be taken seriously on their own terms as complete works of art in order to shed light on the political life, intellectual discourse and religious practice of the Carolingian period. Pizarro differs from the scholars I have mentioned, however, in that he writes as a scholar of literature rather than of history.

One of the problems facing all students of the Liber Pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis has been the state of the text. Agnellus' work has survived only in a small number of incomplete, and generally late, witnesses. It is currently available only in Oswald Holder-Egger's 1878 edition in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, which Pizarro and others have deemed problematic. Fortunately a new critical edition and complete translation of the work by Deborah Deliyannis is forthcoming from Oxford Medieval Texts. Pizarro, however, was dependent upon the Holder-Egger edition, although he was in correspondence with Deliyannis during the early stages of her project and has been able to incorporate some of her findings in his notes.

Pizarro has divided his book into three chapters, bracketed by a brief introduction and conclusion. The first chapter considers the political context within which Agnellus wrote, the second chapter focuses on the interplay of oral and literate culture in the work and its sources, while the final chapter, by far the longest, presents four significant episodes from Agnellus' work in English translation, followed by analyses of their narrative structure.

Not surprisingly for a work composed in the ninth century, the political context of the work turns out to be a series of conflicts. The elite of Ravenna struggled, in the end unsuccessfully, against Rome to maintain the autocephalous status of its see; they chafed under the control exercised by Constantinople under the exarchate, even as they aped the fashions of the capital; in Agnellus' time they looked to Aachen and the newly dominant Franks with suspicion, mingled with fear and not a little snobbery. Even more important were the conflicts within Ravenna itself. Agnellus' longer episcopal biographies reveal a series of rifts opening and then being healed among the clergy of the city. Issues such as the celibacy of the clergy, the preservation and reuse of ancient buildings, and episcopal control of revenues all caused disagreement. Agnellus himself was not immune, for he quarrelled at some length with Bishop George over control of the monasterium of St. Bartholomew. Pizarro here presents a rich and lively picture of the hurly-burly of early medieval politics. While he adds little new to the historical record, he skillfully combines a wide range of secondary literature with canny readings of Agnellus' text.

The second chapter considers the relationship of "Oral and Written," in particular Agnellus' unique account of how he presented his composition to audiences of clerics. That relationship is explored both in terms of how Agnellus used source material and how he composed and presented his narrative. A portrait of a facile and well-read mind emerges. Particularly fascinating is the way in which Agnellus' opened episcopal tombs, collected antique inscriptions, and drew upon the iconography of Ravenna's rich art work in exploring his city's past. Pizarro's treatment of this subject, however, is less satisfactory than his first chapter. He ignores much of the abundant literature on the problems of literacy and orality in the ninth century, preferring to use works analyzing other periods (such as Brian Stock's The Implication of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries [1983]) or works which synthesize modern evidence into a general model (such as Brian Street's Literacy in Theory and Practice [1984]). Names of scholars such as Roger Wright, Anita Guerreau-Jalabert, Marc van Uytfanghe, Michael Richter, and Armando Petrucci, who have much to say about the early middle ages, are absent from his notes. This is particularly problematic in Pizarro's analysis of Agnellus' oral presentation of his text. Pizarro largely ignores evidence for other forms of oral presentation (liturgical readings, capitularies, etc.) in the ninth century and completely avoids the question of whether Agnellus' language and syntax is suited to such delivery. Indeed, throughout this book there is surprisingly little consideration of Agnellus' latinity. Furthermore Pizarro does, not surprisingly, chronicle how often Agnellus drew on topoi and thus failed to describe actual practice. Nonetheless he does not even raise or consider the possibility that Agnellus' description of his oral delivery of the text to an audience is itself a literary fiction, not unlike the convention of dialogue employed by Gregory the Great and others, in texts certainly known to Agnellus, or the convention of oral delivery to an audience used by Bernard of Clairvaux in his Sermons on the Song of Songs, to cite an admittedly later example.

The third chapter presents translations and analyses of four episodes: Bishop John's role in deterring Attila's attack on Ravenna; the murder of the Lombard king Alboin at the behest of his wife Rosimund; a feud between the inhabitants of two districts of Ravenna which results in a mass slaughter; and the events leading to the execution by the east Roman emperor of Johannicius, a scribe of Ravenna and ancestor of Agnellus. The translations are smooth renditions of a very difficult original. The analyses carefully expose Agnellus' use of written sources and narrative models. Pizarro convincingly shows this author to be an innovator, willing to depart from accepted norms in order to form or emphasize certain important themes. This is the heart of the book, but it is difficult to summarize even in the space available here, for the strength of these generally quite excellent readings is, as the old saw has it, in the details.

Pizarro has presented a portrait of Andreas Agnellus and a reading of his works which is at its best insightful, interesting, and challenging. He is particularly good at setting this somewhat quirky cleric in context and in exposing the innovative narrative strategies which he employed in this often perplexing work. Scholars of ninth- century Italy must henceforth consider Pizarro's critique when referring to Agnellus and the evidence which he provides.

Nonetheless, I have found this book less than the sum of its often quite good parts. Despite the author's statement that his composition "has taken a long time" (vi), the book has a curiously unfinished, or at least hurried, feel to it. One indication is the moderate number of annoying, if relatively minor, errors which have remained in the notes and bibliography. The use of accents, particularly in French, is inconsistent and sometimes simply omitted (see, for example, note 103). (I make this remark fully realizing the irony of the fact that I myself must omit accents in this review, given the constraints of electronic publication.) The decision whether to cite authors' first names in full or only by initials seems to have been made by tossing coins; the consequences can be significant. Thus, for example, J. B. (for John Bryan) Ward-Perkins becomes Bryan Ward-Perkins, and his work, an important source for Pizarro's study, becomes difficult for the general reader to reference. Far more important, however, is Pizarro's general failure to summarize and organize his argument. A large part of the work is descriptive or devoted to the translation of extensive passages, yet a sequential sense of Agnellus' overall narrative never emerges. There are a number of puzzling gaps in the book, most of which are failures by the author to explain his argument and conclusions fully. Chapter 2, for example, lacks a conclusion and ends flatly with the summary of yet another exemplary incident from the text. There is no introduction providing a rationale for the presentation or choice of the passages presented therein for analysis. Rather the chapter opens with the subheading "Attila at the gates of Ravenna" introducing the translation of Agnellus' text. Moreover, there is no transition from one analysis to the next in that chapter, so that the whole is a jumble of translations and commentary simply separated by subheadings. As in chapter 2, there is no conclusion summarizing Agnellus' narrative strategies on the basis of the foregoing analyses. The formal "Conclusion" to the book occupies a mere four pages and does little to bring together the sometimes loose threads of the preceding chapters. These omissions detract from the overall coherence and impact of what is nonetheless an ambitious and interesting reading of a ninth-century author.