When the going gets tough, Aeneas is your hero. Andrea Marcolongo’s “Starting From Scratch,” Translated from Italian by Will Schutt

By Ilaria Dagnini Brey

“The Aeneid is not an epic for times of peace. Its verses are not suited for smooth sailing” (16) declares Andrea Marcolongo right at the start of her book. Nor is the Aeneid, she continues further, “for those who have never gone to bed at night knowing that yesterday’s world will cease to exist tomorrow” (82). In early March 2020, Marcolongo went back to reading Virgil’s narration of a Trojan hero, Aeneas, who fled his vanquished city, crossed the seas, overcame dangers, obstacles and the wrath of a hostile goddess to fulfill his destiny of reaching Italy, where his son would found the city of Rome. “While the world around me was trying to sustain a lifestyle it could no longer sustain, and hope was still too flimsy to make plans or predictions about the future,” Marcolongo writes, “I began to perceive the meaning of the Aeneid that had long escaped my grasp” (24).

The Aeneid did for Marcolongo what a classic does; it rose to the occasion, stirring inspiration, offering comfort, providing answers. She makes her case for the everlasting generosity of a classic, and it is a powerful one. Yet, there’s a hint of surprise in the author’s words, and that is due to the complex reputation that has accompanied Virgil’s epic poem through the centuries. The Aeneid belongs in the canon of Western literature with Homer’s works but has not enjoyed the unconditional popularity of the Iliad and the Odyssey. “You are my master and author” is how Dante, in the Divina Commedia, addresses Virgil, who will be his guide through the Inferno and Purgatory. Through the centuries, however, the epic has never quite shaken off the bad rep of being a propaganda tool for the emperor Augustus’ growing power. The Aeneid never rid itself of the quiet but persistent suspicion of being somewhat boring: “not a poem for peaceful times,” as Marcolongo euphemistically states; and perhaps not the ideal read for sixteen- or seventeen-year olds.  And here it gets personal, and passionate, for Marcolongo, who is Italian and, like generations of Italians up until recently, read the Italian translation of the Aeneid, all 12 books of it, in school.

Italians read the Aeneid at the age when the first, powerful encounters with literature happen. At a time when we first meet the full force of the written word with unfiltered capacity to be surprised, provoked, and blown away, we were asked to spend a whole year in the company of a man who does his duty, and does it well and persistently. Aeneas is on a mission for which, at a young age, it is hard to sympathize. His epithet is “pious Aeneas,” and he will do what his Fate, his destiny, has in store for him: he will reach Italy and conquer Latium and won’t let anything or anyone stand in his way, not even the love of beautiful Dido, queen of Carthage. After their first lovemaking in a cave during a storm, after a whole year of passionate love, how could he leave her? He of all people, the son of Venus, the goddess of love. When Marcolongo claims that most Italians forgot all about the Aeneid the moment they finally read its last line, she might be mistaken; the grievous fate of infelix Dido, who took her own life by throwing herself on a sword, is etched in our collective memory.

Nor did the Aeneid go away. It smoldered, and bid its time. Through her personal reacquaintance with the work at a time of great distress, Andrea Marcolongo has brought it, as it were, back into the conversation and outside the confines of academia. Revisited at a distance of years, through the lens of the experiences that life inevitably brings, Aeneas appears as a reluctant hero; or as Marcolongo writes, a “post-war hero.” His time has not yet come in the Iliad, where he is only a marginal character. He flees Troy holding his little son by the hand and carrying his old father on his shoulders while the victorious Greeks burn and ravage the city. He’ll reach Italy, a first-generation immigrant and a refugee, fighting hard, head down, so that his son will thrive and found Rome, the Eternal City.

However persuasive Andrea Marcolongo’s fundamental argument for writing her book, tackling a work of literature that was written in Latin over two thousand years ago and making it relevant to a contemporary readership is no mean feat. The effort can turn occasionally even a self-confident classicist into an insecure one, cornering her or him into the need to defend the preservation of a dead language and, more pragmatically, the economic viability of making a career and earning a living out of studying and teaching the classics. “Classics, really, in this day and age? Wouldn’t you rather get a real job?” Marcolongo humorously writes, referring to what she describes as “the typical laundry list of apocalyptic questions that rain down on anyone who opts to study the humanities” (39).

The author gladly picks up the challenge of championing an ancient masterpiece and the defense of centuries of scholarship that through patient study and constant re-interpretation have kept this poem alive and meaningful just as an old musical instrument, crafted out of Tyrolean wood in sixteenth-century Northern Italy that can still produce a gorgeous sound in a contemporary American symphony hall. The story of the masterpiece of a writer who was the son of a farmer and moved from “the periphery of a peripheral city” (36) – his native village of Andes, near Mantua in Northern Italy – to study rhetoric in “chaotic, noisy, dirty, putrid” Rome makes for fascinating reading. The humanist and intellectual Maecenas, a friend of Virgil’s, arranged for the young poet an interview with Octavian, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar. Virgil read his epic poem Georgics in its entirety and “Octavian was smitten.” In 29 BC, Octavian, who by then had become the emperor Augustus, commissioned Virgil “to sing of the past, present, and future glory of Rome” (46).

There is a lot to say about the Aeneid – about its style, its fortune, the almost countless interpretations that the epic has inspired since its first, posthumous publication, in 19 BC. How the different cultural ideas of every new era bore on the interpretation of the epic poem is as captivating to read as its hero’s adventures. The balance within this abundance of scholarship proves at times elusive, however, and occasionally the material is not organically woven into the narration. It comes as little surprise that the Aeneid, an epic poem celebrating the mythical foundation of Rome, was appropriated by Fascism for its own propaganda purposes; this extremely interesting chapter in the cultural history of the masterpiece is linked somewhat tenuously though, as an appendix to the narration of the wars waged by Aeneas against the Italic people.  

An excellent translation by Will Schutt brilliantly serves Andrea Marcolongo’s passionate endorsement of a work of literature written two millennia ago. The author indulges perhaps in too many personal asides and comparing the Aeneid to MAGA may be debatable. On the other hand, framing queen Dido’s sad story within a feminist perspective may, and most likely will, stir debates in a classroom unthinkable only a generation ago. Indeed Aeneas’ “lessons” can resonate with an audience that is not necessarily composed only of students or Italians. Andrea Marcolongo has survived the pandemic to tell the story.

In times of distress, Marcolongo re-discovered an ancient epic that was written at a time of turmoil. As he began his masterwork, Virgil had lived through the collapse of the Republic, the murder of Julius Caesar, the horrors of the civil wars. He became gradually disillusioned with Augustus and the peace and prosperity that the first Roman emperor had promised. The Aeneid, unfinished at the time of Virgil’s death, was published posthumously against his wish that it be destroyed. Undercurrents of fear and anxiety run deep within the text of the Aeneid, while on the surface, Virgil’s stylistically masterful composure, and the terse, concise elegance of his verses befit a hero who is steadfast, patient and enduring; who battles with foes and with his own emotions, but keeps his eyes on the prize, though there will be no prize for him. As she read it during the pandemic Andrea Marcolongo found the Aeneid “a brutally honest poem.” Four months of war in Ukraine make it almost recommended reading.

Marcolongo, Andrea. Starting from Scratch. The Life-Changing Lessons of Aeneas. Translated by Will Schutt. Europa Editions, 2022.

Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s book The Venus Fixers. The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’ Art was published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 2009. Her own Italian translation of the book appeared in Italy in 2010 with the title Salvate Venere. She translated Sappho’s poetry from the ancient Greek into Italian. Among her translations from English into Italian are Candia McWilliam’s novels Debatable Land and A Case of Knives, Elizabeth von Arnim’s Love, and, most recently, Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil (Elliot Editori, Roma). Born, raised and educated in Padova, Italy, she has lived in New York since 1990.

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