The Reappearance of Sapphic Fragments in the Italian Renaissance

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Anna Griva


In this article the survival of the Sapphic fragments of the ancient times in Renaissance period is examined. More specifically the reappearance of the Sapphic verses is presented concerning the first publications (editio princeps) and the most widespread texts of ancient authors during West Renaissance. These texts were the primary sources, on which the later publications of the Sapphic work were based, while they also had a great influence on the reception of the ancient poet by the Renaissance writers.

Classical tradition in the Italian Renaissance, reception of Sappho, survival of the Sapphic poetry during the Renaissance

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How to Cite
Griva, A. (2019). The Reappearance of Sapphic Fragments in the Italian Renaissance. Asian Journal of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, 2(3), 1-10. Retrieved from
Original Research Article


Hallett, Judith P. Sappho and her social context: Sense and sensuality. Signs. 1979;4(3):447-464.

Parker, Holt. Sappho schoolmistress. Transactions of the American Philological Association. 1993;123:309-351.

Ibid: 340.

Reynolds, Margaret. The Sappho companion. London, Vintage. 2001;81.

Petrus Alcyonius in his work Medices legatus, sive de Exilio (Venice, 1522) transfers the words of Chalcocondyles about the burning of the poems of ancient lyric poets by Byzantine emperors and ecclesiastical authorities, because according to their opinion these works talked about passions and madness of lovers.

Reynolds, Margaret. 2001;18.

A parchment that survives in Berlin and dates back to the 6th century records the fragment 94 (Lobel-Page). But at the end of the 7th century Paul the Silentiary already reports that Sappho's works are definitely lost (Reynolds, Margaret). 2001;82.

John Tzetzes, On the Meters of Pindar, 20–22.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive originuum libri xx, 1.39.7.

Also in the XXV of the same work, Dionysius rescues the verse of the poem οὐ γάρ ἦν ἀτέρα πάϊς, ὦ γαμβρέ, τοιαύτα <ποτα> (Lobel-Page 113 / 130D).

Accordingly, Plutarch (Amat. 436) commented the dolorous passion of Sappho, referring to the fr. 31: ἄξιον δὲ Σαπφοῦς παρὰ ταῖς Μούσαις μνημονεῦσαι• τὸν μὲν γὰρ Ἡφαίστου παῖδα Ῥωμαῖοι Κᾶκον ἱστοροῦσι πῦρ καὶ φλόγας ἀφιέναι διὰ τοῦ στόματος ἔξω ῥεούσας• αὕτη δ᾽ ἀληθῶς μεμιγμένα πυρὶ φθέγγεται καὶ διὰ τῶν μελῶν ἀναφέρει τὴν ἀπὸ τῆς καρδίας θερμότητα ‘Μούσαις εὐφώνοις ἰωμένη τὸν ἔρωτα’ κατὰ Φιλόξενον. ἀλλ᾽ εἴ τι μὴ διὰ Λύσανδρον, ὦ Δαφναῖε, τῶν παλαιῶν ἐκλέλησαι παιδικῶν, ἀνάμνησον ἡμᾶς, ἐν οἷς ἡ καλὴ Σαπφὼ λέγει τῆς ἐρωμένης ἐπιφανείσης τήν τε φωνὴν ἴσχεσθαι καὶ φλέγεσθαι τὸ σῶμα καὶ καταλαμβάνειν ὠχρότητα καὶ πλάνον αὐτὴν καὶ ἴλιγγον.

[It is worth mentioning Sappho next to the Muses. Because Romans say that the son of Hephaestus, Cacus, left out of his mouth fire and flames. So she really talks by mixing her speech with fire and with her poems she talks about the heat of the heart, “healing love with the melodious Muses”, according to Philoxenus. But Daphnaeus, if you have not forgotten your old love, remind us of the poem, where the beautiful Sappho says that once the beloved appears, her voice is lost and the body is flaming and becomes pale and gripped of frenzy and vertigo.]

It is published by Francis Robortello in Basel. The same year it is published in Venice by Muret, in his comments on Catullus.

Estienne in the edition of Anacreon's poems (1554) had already included Sappho's fr.1, while in the second edition of the same book he added fr.31 together with the variation of Catullus (Ode 51).

This edition of Estienne is the most complete until the publication of Wolf in 1733. Furthermore in the edition of 1556 a three-page biography of Sappho is included, in which the publisher refers to the poet's reputable life until the death of her husband, to her beloved girls (puellas amatas) and το Phaon, the love for whom led her to her tragic end. The publication closes with Ovid's letter 15, from Sappho to Phaon.

Brenner, Carla McKinney et al. Τhe inquiring eye: Classical mythology in European Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. 1996;26.

“The survived work of Sappho in that period contains the verses which are related mainly to the expression of the erotic feelings and to the deities that control these feelings, or to the poetic genre of the wedding songs: Renaissance responds to these themes through the erotic, as well as through the revival of the wedding poems and paintings, mainly in frescoes, which were a way of welcoming the newlyweds to their new house”.

Angelo Poliziano, Commento inedito all'epistola ovidiana di Saffo a Faone, Istituto nazionale di studi sul Rinascimento - Studi e testi. Poliziano writes a comment on this letter of Ovid, which shows the effect of this text on the Renaissance poets: see Lazzeri, E. (Ed.). 1971;2.

Strabo (X, 452) refers to the poet's suicide from the rocks of Lefkata because of her love for Phaon, as recorded in a comedy by Menandros (Menandr. Fr.258 Kock). See also Palaif. 48, Ailian. P.I. XII 18, Ath. II, 69 where Phaon was a local deity, corresponding to Adonis, and also a beloved of Aphrodite, while the relationship between Phaon and Sappho was a misunderstanding of the comedians.

See Ov. Trist. II 365.

The editio princeps takes place in 1471 by Baldassarre Azzoguidi in Bologna. A lot of Venetian editions was then published in 1482, 1492, 1495, 1499 (Andreadis, Harriett. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550–1714. University of Chicago Press. 2001: 29), while in the 16th century the fame of the work is expanded though new editions (Heroides, Amores, Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris, Medicina fédiquee, Aldus Manutius and Andrea Torresanus, Venice, 1515; Heroides, Amores, Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris, Medicina faciei femineae, Melchior Sessa, Venice, 1527; Heroides, Amores, Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris, Sebastianus Gryphius, Lyon, 1554; Heroides, Ibis, Amores, Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris, Ioannes Saurius, Frankfurt, 1599).

Most, Glenn W. Reflecting Sappho. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 1995;40:15-38.

In an epigram of the Palatine Anthology attributed to Plato (IX 506), Sappho is characterized as the tenth Muse, while Aelian in his Varia Historia (Book l, 128) also states that Plato called her wise, and that there was a second Sappho courtesan, apart from the poet.

Lesbian is the protagonist in the poems 25 of 116 by Catullus. These reflect the thematic and metric influences of Sapphic poetry on him (11, 51).

Famous in that period was the poetic composition of the French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1560), according to Catullus standards.

Horace, being one of the ancient writers printed so early, exerted a special influence in the following years: Horace's editio princeps takes place in Venice around 1471-2 (Braund, Susanna. The Metemphychosis of Horace: the reception of the satires and epistles Ιn Davis, Gregson (ed.) A Companion to Horace. Malden). 2010;367-390.

See the second Ode by Horace, where he refers that even the souls of the dead people hear with admiration her songs. About the influences of Sappho on Horace see Nagy, G. Copies and Models in Horace Odes 4.1 and 4.2. Classical World 87. 1994;415-426.

Already in the 15th century. Suda is copied because of its practical use by the students of Greek (see the manuscript Laur.55.1.), but also because of its widespread use by scholars such as Francesco Filelfo or Poliziano (Wilson, N. G. From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. 2nd Edition. Bloomsbury Academic. 2017: 43, 58, 121). At the end of the 15th century, Demetrius Chalcocondyles published the same work in Florence, which exceeds 1000 pages (ibid: 111): Manutius republished the same work in Venice (a re-edition of the editio princeps) in 1514.

Suidae lexicon, s.v. "Sappho (1, 2)".

These fragments are included in: Edmonds, John Maxwell (Ed.). The fragments of Attic Comedy. Brill Archive. 1957. The story of Sappho's love and suicide is repeated by Strabo (Geogr. I, 2.9).

Obviously, a confusion has gradually emerged between the biographies of Sappho and the myth of Aphrodite's love with Phaon, which has many commons with Adonis's myth. In the myth Phaon appears as an ugly and old shipyard in Mytilene, who was transferring inhabitants on the opposite coast of Asia Minor, until Aphrodite came to his boat disguised as an old lady. Phaon transferred her to Asia Minor and did not accept a fee. In return, Aphrodite gave him an ointment, which transformed him into a beautiful young man and he fascinated many women with his beauty. This myth is one of the characteristic folk fables that have been encountered since ancient times about the quest of eternal youth and beauty, which later alchemists claimed that can be attained through ‘elixir of life’. Τhis myth has often been the subject of the vase painting, which means that it was very popular. Characteristic is the depiction of the young Phaon surrounded by the Nymphs, Eros, Peitho and Himeros, in an ancient Attic red-figured cup, about 410 BC, exhibited at the National Museum of Palermo.

Seneca in one of his Letters on Ethics refers that Sappho was a courtesan (Letters to Lucilius, 88, 37).

See Steph. Meleagr. ΙV. I6.

For Sappho's depictions of vases, statues and coins see Reynolds, Margaret. 2001;69.

Hallett, Judith P. 1979;448.

Reynolds, Margaret. 2001;83-84.

See the 17th-century Giulia Solinga (Il Codice di Giulia Solinga, BMCVe, ms Cicogna 270, cf. 1r-12v, Il processo in Parnaso in difesa di Sara Copio Sullam), which records a fantastic trial in the Parnassus to defend the poet Sara Copio Sullam against her enemies. Among the judges is Sappho. It seems that the ancient poet became through her art a kind of goddess, taking a seat next to the Muses and Apollo. Such a picture reminds us of the judges of Hades, Minos, Radamanthes and Aiacus: as they have the eternal role of the judgemnet of the souls, so the poets-judges define what will be called poetry over the centuries.

Schlesier, Renate. Sappho In: van Möllendorff, Peter et al. (Eds) Brill's New Pauly Supplements II – Volume 7: Figures of Antiquity and Their Reception in Art, Literature, and Music; 2015.

Reynolds, Margaret. 2001;82-83.

On these lists see Kolsky, Stephen. The Ghosts of Boccaccio: Writings on Famous Women in Renaissance Italy. Turnhout, Brepols; 2005. Franklin, Margaret. Boccaccio’s Heroines: Power and Virtue in Renaissance Society. Routledge. 2017; 122-130.

Penrose, Walter. Sappho's shifting fortunes from antiquity to the early Renaissance. Journal of Lesbian Studies. 2014;18(4): 415-436.

See also Ath. 635 and Plut. de Mus. ΙΙ36d.

Epigr. 15: Miller, Clarence H. (Ed.). The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, The Latin Poems, Volume 3, Part 2. Yale UP; 1984.

Wilson NG. 2017;98.

Ibid: 41.

Ibid: 44.

In the first book (9, 20), Aristotle refers to the aforementioned fragment, though which it is supposed that Sappho answers to Alcaeus, when he writes that he cannot speak to her (Alc. 55). She tells him that he feels so because he does not have any good and beautiful to say (ἔσλων ἴμερον ἤ κάλων). In the second book (23, 11-12), Aristotle reports that the Mytileneans honor Sappho, although she is a woman, and that Sappho said that τὸ ἀποθνῄσκειν κακόν (it’s bad to die).

Wilson NG. 2017;1-2.

Ibid: 134-136.

Ibid: 74.

Ιbid: 111. The comments of Eustathius on the Iliad also exist in the manuscript of Biblioteca Laurentiana 59.2-3.

Ibid: 154.

Refini, Eugenio. Longinus and poetic imagination in Late Renaissance Literary Theory In: van Eck, Caroline et al. (Eds). Translations of the Sublime: The Early Modern Reception and Dissemination of Longinus’ Peri Hupsous in Rhetoric, the Visual Arts, Architecture and the Theatre. Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill. 2012;33-54.

Plut. Mor. 243 b, 622 c, 406 a.

Wilson NG. 2017;45.

See the autograph of Planudes ( 481), which was a part of the collection of Bessarion. However, Lascaris seems to follow another manuscript and not the earlier Palatine Anthology (Wilson NG). 2017;113.

Wilson NG. 2017;126.

Ibid: 130.

Etymologicum Genuinum, which was composed by an anonymous lexicographer in Constantinople around the middle of the 9th century based on the texts of previous lexicographers and commentators, survived only in two manuscripts of the 10th century: Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1818 (= A) and Codex Laurentianus Sancti Marci 304 (= B; AD 994), which were discovered in the 19th century and to a large extent remain unpublished.

See Dickey, Eleanor. Ancient Greek Scholarship: A Guide to Finding, Reading, and Understanding Scholia, Commentaries, Lexicas, and Grammatical Treatises: From Their Beginnings to the Byzantine Period. Oxford University Press. 2007;28-31.