The Unpublished Legends of Virgil
Library of Alexandria
The reader is probably aware that during the Middle Ages, Virgil, who had always retained great fame as a poet, and who was kindly regarded as almost a Christian from a conjectured pious prophecy in his works, underwent the process of being made romantic and converted into a magician. How it all came to pass is admirably set forth by Professor Domenico Comparetti in his truly great work on “Virgil in the Middle Ages.” During the twelfth century, and for some time after, many learned pilgrims or tourists from different parts of Europe, while in Italy, hearing from the people these tales, which had a great charm in an age when the marvellous formed the basis of nearly all literature, gave them to the world in different forms. And as the fame of Virgil as a poet was almost the first fact learned by those who studied Latin, legends relating to him spread far and wide. The Mantuan bard had been well-nigh deified by the Romans. “Silius Italicus used to celebrate his birthday every year, visiting his tomb as if it were a temple, and as a temple the Neapolitan Statius used to regard it.” And this reverence was preserved by the Christians, who even added to it a peculiar lore. “These tales,” says Comparetti, “originated in Naples, and thence spread into European literature, in the first instance, however, outside Italy. Their origin in Italy was entirely the work of the lower classes, and had nothing to do with poetry or literature; it was a popular superstition founded on local records connected with Virgil’s long residence in Naples, and the celebrity of his tomb in that city.” This latter is a shrewd observation, for as the tomb is close by the mysterious grotto of Posilippo, which was always supposed to have been made by magic, it was natural that Virgil, who was famed for wisdom, should have been supposed to have wrought the miracle, and it may well be that this was really the very first, or the beginning of all the legends in question. These were “connected with certain localities, statues and monuments in the neighbourhood of Naples itself, to which Virgil was supposed to have given a magic power.” . . . Foreigners who visited Naples thus learned these legends, and they passed “even into Latin works of a learned nature.” So it resulted that from the twelfth century onward the fame of Virgil as a magician spread all over Europe. Among those who thus made of him a wonder-worker were Conrad von Querfurt, Gervase of Tilbury, Alexander Neckham, and John of Salisbury. That these marvellous tales were localized in Naples, and there first applied to Virgil, may be freely admitted, but that they really originated or were first invented there will be claimed by no one familiar with older or Oriental legends. This has not escaped Senator Comparetti, who observes that wonders attributed long before to Apollonius of Tyana and others “are practically identical with those attributed in Naples to Virgil.” The idea of setting up the image of a fly to drive away flies, as Virgil did in one legend, is Babylonian, for in Lenormand’s Chaldæan Magic we are told that demons are driven away by their own images, and Baalzebub, as chief of flies, was probably the first honoured in this respect. That is to say, that little by little and year by year the tales which had been told of other men in earlier times—magicians, sorcerers, and wizards wild—were remade and attributed to Virgil. The very first specimen of an ancient Italian novella, given by Roscoe, is a Virgilian legend, though the translator makes no mention of it. So in the “Pentamerone” of Giambattista Basile of Naples we find thatmost of the tales come from the East, and had been of old attributed to Buddha, or some other great man.