Classical Reception in the Jesuit Theater: The Flavia of Stefonio

Salvador Bartera

University of Virginia & University of Tennessee

The Jesuit Theater has been studied as a general cultural phenomenon, yet little attention has been devoted to its texts, which mostly lie forgotten in libraries. The plays were written by the professors of Latin of the Jesuit colleges and performed by their students. One of the most talented of these writers was B. Stefonio (1560-1620), author of, among other works, three Latin tragedies: Crispus, Flavia and Sancta Symphorosa. The Flavia is a historical tragedy set in the year 95 AD, whose main characters are Domitian, Flavius Clemens, Apollonius of Tyana and John the Evangelist. It was performed for the jubilee of 1600. The play (some 5000 lines in length) has never been critically edited or translated. Its Latin is difficult and alludes continuously to both classical and Christian authors. No manuscripts being extant, the most reliable witness is the editio princeps (Rome, 1621).

This paper will examine some of the problems involved in editing such a work. Correct interpretation of the Flavia needs not so much (or not only) theological knowledge as the expert eye of a classical philologist. Stefonio's tragedies owe much to Seneca, in language, plot and meter. In addition to Seneca, there are numerous allusions to Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan and Pliny the Elder. The copious references, if not immediately identified, can make the text obscure. Such allusions vary considerably in length, and/or can be combined from two different sources. In a scene of black magic, for example, the phrase sulco signa sulphureo goes back to Lucan 5.562. In Lucan, however, the sulcos are not 'sulfurous'. This feature, as it seems, Stefonio inferred from Pliny, N.H. 35.177 (...fulgura quoque sulpuris odorem habent, ac lux ... sulpurea est). Stefonio's Latin is generally classical, yet at times he uses non-classical words and/or constructions. Examples of unusual forms are delībrat (not from the verb delĭbrare, but a syncopated form of delīberat, which is attested only in medieval lexica) or emulcet (=oblectat), which is not classical, but a varia lectio of the transmitted emulcat attested in a codex of Gregorius M. (see TLL 5.2.4: 539.30).

In sum, I shall show how this Neo-latin text is closely connected with its classical models, the knowledge of which is an indispensable tool to the understanding of the subtleties which Stefonio -consciously or not- employs. 

Select Bibliography

Alet, V. 1857. 'Une tragédie latine à Rome', Etudes de Théologie 2: 355-41.

Fumaroli, M. 1990. Eroi ed oratori. Retorica e drammaturgia secentesche. Bologna.

Questa , C. 1999. 'Il modello senecano nel teatro gesuitico', Musica e Storia 7: 141-81.

Torino, A. 2003. 'La tradizione testuale del Crispus di Bernardino Stefonio', Rend. Mor.

Acc. Lincei s.9, v.14: 579-608.

Villoslada, R.G. 1954. Storia del Collegio Romano, Roma.


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