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  • The Thinking Eye: Some Remarks on Visuality and Metapoetics in Claudian’s Carmina Minora 17
  • Paolo Felice Sacchi

This short paper will seek to read a minor poem by one of the major late Latin poets by handling it, as it were, in vitro.1 Instead of systematically considering Claudian’s Carmina Minora 17 in relation to the rest of Claudian’s carmina and similar late antique specimens, we will mostly move over its surface and try to interrogate its structure while looking at its verses as miniature reflections of aesthetic phenomena which characterize Claudian’s writing as a whole.2 [End Page 275]

Examining Claudian’s aesthetics on the basis of Carmina Minora 17 might seem a rather obvious approach: where else if not concerning an ecphrastic poem would one discuss the formal strategies of a poet traditionally interpreted as a clear example of the late antique fondness for synesthesia, visual narration, and digressive structures?3 Indeed, Carmina Minora 17 may be read first and foremost as a sort of expanded ecphrastic epigram in twenty-four couplets describing a sculptural group seen in Catina (i.e., Catania).4 The sculpture portrays two local heroes: brothers who saved their parents during an eruption of the Aetna volcano. Maria Lisa Ricci has meticulously outlined the literary Fortleben of these two fearless sons, whose brave enterprise had already offered some anecdotical material to, to name just a few, Strabo (6.2.3), Valerius Maximus (5.4.4), Martial (7.24.5), Silius Italicus (14.196ff.), Ausonius (Ord. urb. nob. 16–17), and, especially, the anonymous author of the Aetna (603ff., most probably Claudian’s main source of inspiration).5

Thus the subject of this carmen seems to be profoundly conventional, and the same might be argued of its structure. The poem starts with an exordial apostrophe to the reader-viewer (aspice), immediately followed by the presentation and description of the statue (1–26):

Aspice sudantes uenerando pondere fratres,  diuino meritos semper honore coli,iusta quibus rapidae cessit reuerentia flammae  et mirata uagas reppulit Aetna faces.conplexi manibus fultos ceruice parentes     5  attollunt uultus adcelerantque gradus. [End Page 276] grandaeui gemina sublimes prole feruntur  et cara natos inplicuere mora.nonne uides ut saeua senex incendia monstret,  ut trepido genetrix inuocet ore deos?     10erexit formido comam, perque omne metallum  fusus in attonito palluit aere iuuenum membris animosus cernitur horror  aeque oneri metuens inpauidusque sui.reiectae uento chlamydes. dextram exerit ille   15  contentus laeua sustinuisse patrem;ast illi duplices in nodum colligit ulnas  cautior in sexu debiliore labor.hoc quoque praeteriens oculis ne forte relinquas  artificis tacitae quod meruere manus:     20nam consanguineos eadem cum forma figuret,  hic propior matri fit tamen, ille patri.dissimiles annos sollertia temperat artis:  alter in alterius redditur ore parens,et noua germanis paribus discrimina praebens     25  diuisit uultus cum pietate faber.

See these two brothers toiling beneath a burden piety bade them bear. They deserve to be worshipped with divine honors: at the sight of them, the respectful flames ceased their ravages and Aetna in admiration restrained her flooding lava. Embracing their parents, they lift them up on their shoulders and, with eyes raised to heaven, hasten their steps. The aged parents, thus carried aloft by their two sons, impede their flight, but dear to the children is that very delay. See, the old man points to the cruel flames; the aged mother’s trembling lips call upon the gods for help. Fear has set their hair on end, the bronze is terror-stricken, and a pale shiver runs over all the metal. In the limbs of the sons is seen bold terror, and, if fear, then fear for their burdens, none for themselves. The wind has blown back their cloaks. One raises his right hand; his left is enough to sustain his sire. But the other embraced his burden with both arms; working more carefully for it is one of the weaker sex that he bears. This, too, as thou passest by, leave not unnoted, for well the craftsman’s [End Page 277] dumb hands deserve such regard; both he has moulded with a likeness such as brothers bear, yet the one resembles rather...


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