Sandro La Barbera takes an in-depth look at Vergil's Culex

August 24, 2015
Sandro La Barbera
Photo by Gerardo Gaetani.
Sandro La Barbera with the Culex manuscripts
Photo by Gerardo Gaetani.
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The American Academy in Rome constitutes a kind of bridge between the US and Italy. Most often it leads eastwards across the Atlantic, with American Fellows, Residents, and visitors coming to stay on the Janiculum, but sometimes traffic runs the opposite direction. This is true, for example, in the instance of the Italian Affiliate Fellows/Scuola Normale Superiore exchange program, through which Italian artists and scholars spend a year or half a year among their American counterparts at the Academy campus. For Sandro La Barbera, SNS Fellow in 2011, the semester at the Academy led to a job as Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. After his exchange period was over, he packed his books and bags and flew west, to a new homeland. It is not too common for Italian scholars to be hired by American universities, and La Barbera says that his stay at the AAR was crucial both in opening his eyes to the possibility of migrating, and in helping him through the hiring process. On leave from Georgetown and back at the Academy library to continue his research on the Culex, a Latin poem about a gnat and a shepherd that is part of the Appendix Vergiliana, he talked to us about the beauty of the minutiae of Ancient manuscripts, the differences between the American and Italian academic systems, and what it’s return to the library, this time without being a Fellow.

Where are you originally from?

I was born in Palermo, Sicily, and attended school there. After high school, I moved to Pisa as I was admitted to the SNS, and lived and studied there for eight years, from 2003 to 2011 – BA through PhD. In 2011-2012, I was at the AAR, and I left for DC that summer.

What led you to become a scholar?

I honestly have no idea at this point in my life. I have always been curious, and I have always looked for solid answers to satisfy that curiosity. I was fortunate to have great teachers throughout my career as a student, and I consciously strove to know as much as they did – or even more. Early on in my education, I began to wonder how the information I was being fed every day had been gathered, and I also started questioning the reliability of that information.

When I was accepted to SNS I was able to take this curiosity to the next level, since the curriculum is designed to train researchers, and demands that you continuously develop original research in order to retain your fellowship there. Another important aspect of that place is the presence of and daily collaboration with highly talented students, something that makes you realize that there are people out there who are better researchers than you, and who are studying very interesting things. This breeds both humility and motivation, two key aspects of a researcher’s personality. If you reach that awareness at one point in your life, there is no way you won’t always be acting as a “scholar”, regardless of the path you end up choosing. 

When and how was your interest in Latin philology and Classics stoked?

In Palermo, I attended Vittorio Emanuele II – to which I am attached like Gryffindors are to their Tower (of course, I’m a Gryffindor!) – which is a Liceo Classico. The program teaches you both Ancient Greek and Latin, and also dedicates much time to the analysis of literary texts, first in Italian, and later also in Greek and Latin. Most graduates from this type of school go on to study medicine, law, or similar things. But in my case, Classical literature was just too fascinating.

I was born in a city that saw both Greek and Roman domination (and Phoenician, and Arabic, and Norman, and…), and being surrounded by the remains, tangible or just cultural, of that past made me want to understand it. My inclination toward the arts led me to literature, and then to philology, which is the study of ancient texts conducted on (mostly medieval) manuscripts, with the goal of restoring the language, style, and contents of those texts in a way that is based on data but also infuses the results with a wider appreciation of the aesthetics, ideology, and cultural trends of the past.

In Pisa, I also met some of the most important Latinists on earth, which made me turn my focus from the study of Classical Greek to that of Roman literature. The good thing, though, is that in order to be a good Latinist you have to know Greek first, then learn some more Greek, and finally Latin – eventually, you get to swim back and forth from one shore to the other.  

You are currently studying the Culex. What, more specifically, is your research about? How come you settled on the Culex as opposed to any of the other poems in the Appendix Vergiliana?

The Appendix Vergiliana is a collection of poems which readers of Latin at different points in time have believed are the work of Vergil, though they are not. The Culex is probably one of the oldest poems and, unlike the other ones, it was ascribed to Vergil so early that poets like Lucan and Statius (first century AD) believed that it was the first poem Vergil (70-19 BC) had ever written, even before his major works (Bucolics, Georgics, Aeneid). This characteristic has made the Culex important for the study of ancient forgeries, particularly in regard to the alteration of a major author’s canon immediately after his death. However, after it was first understood that it wasn’t Vergilian material, the idea prevailed among scholars that the Culex was just bad poetry, which meant that it didn’t receive the same level of attention that scholars normally devote to poets like, say, Ovid or proper Vergil. This attitude has produced a gap in the Culex studies that my research aims to fill, by providing a new, more reliable critical edition of the poem – that is, one that is based on both the medieval manuscripts transmitting it and our knowledge of first century poetic Latin relying on a variety of sources – along with the first extensive commentary in English touching on matters of style, grammar, and literary history.

What are some of the exciting moments of discovery that you have had with this project? What are some of the challenges?

In critical editions and literary commentaries, the initial approach is microscopic: you go phrase by phrase, word by word, letter by letter. So discoveries may look very minimal to an external observer, but changing even one letter or word in what is going to be the final text will change our perception of the entire text and is the result of long, draining thinking about language, as well as extensive reading of literary and grammatical materials.

Much of my excitement over the Culex comes from the ample room it gives for conjecturing – using previous knowledge and research to restore what I think is the best Latin form of the text even though it is not found in the manuscripts. This entails a lot of work that in some cases can be wearing. For example, the other day I had to go through all the occurrences of et, Latin for “and”, in order to be sure that an et in my text would be admissible in certain contexts of Latin verse. By the end of the day, I wasn’t even halfway through and all I saw on the horizon was an endless series of “ands”...

This may sound very futile – and usually, it’s more exciting – but it’s precisely in this search for exactitude that we can reveal a much larger intellectual commitment to the historical study of Antiquity. Within the humanities, each little piece of research marks one step forward to perfecting our knowledge of mankind, and preserving it for posterity. In this sense, I think that the constant exertion of intellect and imagination that lies behind the restitution and comprehension of a classical text is not only extremely rewarding for the individual editor, but also useful to the whole intellectual community.

You were an Italian Fellow at the American Academy in 2011-2012, working on the Culex already then. Can you describe a memory from your half-year there that stands out to you in particular?

The first thing that comes to mind is a composite memory that does not correspond to a specific event but to a persistent feeling that I always associate with my stay at the AAR, which was one of focus and peace, along with the enjoyment of great company and, especially in some cases, true friendship. If I have to single out one particular event, I think the Christmas play might be that, because everyone got involved in different ways and that’s also when it became manifest to me that I was taking part in the activities of a true community – even though I am usually not too keen on these kinds of things, it felt great.

After this year, you got a job as Assistant Professor at Georgetown. What was your motivation for moving to the US? How much did your stay at the AAR play into this decision?

It took me a while to embrace the decision to move, but there are several reasons that led me to it. One important consideration was the lack of jobs in Italian universities, and the related lack of interest in and protection of the independent intellectual development of young scholars – both cause and consequence of the bogging down of the Italian academe. Very few of my contemporaries have jobs that can legitimately be called that and that give them the ability to pursue their interests independently. Most of them work abroad.

I wanted to go the US since I felt it was the only country where a real opportunity would be given to me as someone young, coming from a different background, and bearing no particular academic flag, on the sole basis of interest for my research and professional attitude. I also love teaching, and the American system gives a lot of importance to this.

As for the part that the American Academy played in my getting there, I think it was very important. I was given the possibility to do a mock interview with some of the Fellows and Residents, and that made it clear to me what the actual interview was going to be like, and what I still needed to work on. I also gave a mock job talk, and the feedback was very useful. More generally, my daily practice of English and exposure to American culture, especially through people that shared with me an interest for academia and the arts, gave me a clear idea of what I should expect, and because of all this, I undertook my plan with more confidence and a real desire to go.

A one-year leave of absence from Georgetown, and brought you back to the Academy. What was it like to spend your days in the library again, but without being a Fellow this time?

As a Fellow, for most of my stay I would wake up early and go to the library, where I would work all day long until teatime or dinner. This did not changed at all, except that, since I don’t live at the AAR anymore, it didn’t take only eight seconds to walk from my room into the library. Moreover, both Directors of the AAR and the Library have been very welcoming and made my access to the the Academy’s facilities as easy and pleasant as it was during my fellowship. The one thing that I thought would be different was the nostalgia for the great time spent with my friends here, but I actually found new ones among current Fellows and so even that part of my experience as a Fellow has been restored. As one friend has told me, “you’re always going to be part of the community.” As scary as that may sound in other contexts, I have to say that that feeling is true and very rewarding when it comes to the AAR.