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Antonio La Penna, Io e l’antico. Conversazione con Arnaldo Marcone

Federico Santangelo
p. 246-247
Référence(s) :

Antonio La Penna, Io e l’antico. Conversazione con Arnaldo Marcone, Pise et Florence, Della Porta Editori, 2019, 212 p., 15  / ISBN 9788896209370.

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1Readers of this remarkable little book would be well advised to start from its iconographical appendix. There is a widespread, antagonistic and comforting narrative that dominates much of the discourse on Classics as a subject, especially in English-speaking countries: that it is the domain of privilege and entitlement, the perquisite of sheltered and propertied minorities, the quintessential ivory tower. It takes a cursory glance at the photograph of the square of Bisaccia, the small town in Irpinia where Antonio La Penna grew up, to irreversibly problematise that picture. He was born in 1925; his mother was illiterate, his father a small farmer who enjoyed reading Tolstoy and Hugo in the evenings, whenever he was not too tired to do any reading. What enabled a boy from one of the most deprived communities in Southern Italy to become one of the most authoritative Latinists of the last century was access to free State education: first at the Liceo Colletta in Avellino, then at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he passed the entry examination at the prodigious early age of sixteen. By 1956 he held a University post in Florence, after a few years of high school teaching on which he always looked back fondly; he taught there and in Florence for nearly forty years; he is still at work in his mid-nineties, attending to the final instalments of a collaborative commentary project on Sallust’s Historiae.

2In the first part of this book he has a wide-ranging conversation with Arnaldo Marcone (p. 13-80), followed by three substantial appendices that make up the bulk of the volume (p. 81-190). Marcone, a distinguished Roman historian, was a student of La Penna at the Scuola Normale, but not one of his immediate pupils. That gives the conversation a more lateral and less predictable outlook than one might expect to be the case in a book of this kind (a previous item of the series in which this volume appeared is Emilio Gabba’s important Conversazione sulla storia with Umberto Laffi). La Penna tends to give brief, often self-effacing answers – and every single word matters. We do not get a linear intellectual autobiography; that may be found in the first appendix, the text that La Penna penned when he received the Premio Feltrinelli of the Accademia dei Lincei in 1987 (p. 83-92): a terse and characteristically insightful piece, from which emerges the image of a modest man, who agrees to provide an account of the trajectory of his interests, but has little appetite for assorting the scale of his achievements and his centrality in much of the Roman studies in the second half of the twentieth century (cf. p. 85: ‘la lunga attività di insegnamento… ha assorbito gran parte delle sue non molte energie’). In his conversation with Marcone, La Penna’s modesty emerges even more strikingly: he even makes the point that a professor is almost constitutionally a man without biography (p. 76). Yet his interviewer ably identifies and brings out some focal points of interest, on which La Penna’s biography sheds light: the profound debt to his Irpinian origins, both towards his family and towards a wider cultural milieu, in which literary criticism has never been decoupled from political engagement (one could draw a line from Francesco De Sanctis to Carlo Muscetta); a long-standing commitment to Marxism, both as a yearning for social justice and as a tool of historical analysis and interpretation; and the firm alliance (dating back to his school years and further developed through the teaching and example of Giorgio Pasquali) between linguistic and philological training and the exploration of literary problems – of what La Penna so aptly terms, here and elsewhere, ‘il gusto’. The subtitle of the interview is ‘Conversazione sulla filologia e sulla scuola’, and honestly encompasses much of La Penna’s core interests. The vast body of his writings on the problems of the Italian school system and of the prospects of the teaching of Classics languages and culture stands as a testimony to his wider civic commitment: the appendices, two pieces from 1999 and 1993 respectively (‘La crisi della scuola media in Italia. Alcune proposte di riforma’, p. 93-149 and ‘Noi e l’antico’, p. 151-190), are not just significant to a professional community: right at their core lies a certain idea of Italy (see esp. p. 118-119 on ‘la crisi morale del paese’), and an historical and political agenda that stands the test of time.

3An assessment of La Penna’s intellectual trajectory will be central to any attempt to understand the quality and range of Italian post-war classical scholarship, and indeed of its international impact (not least if one thinks of the trajectories of some of his pupils). This book is an important step towards that undertaking, which will surely have to be a collaborative one. Its most immediate and more profound reward, though, is to convey, in his own words, the image of a kind, unassuming, and straightforwardly great master of our studies. A man to whom scholarship, teaching, and civic engagement have been deeply integrated modes of the same intellectual commitment.

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Federico Santangelo, « Antonio La Penna, Io e l’antico. Conversazione con Arnaldo Marcone »Anabases, 31 | 2020, 246-247.

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Federico Santangelo, « Antonio La Penna, Io e l’antico. Conversazione con Arnaldo Marcone »Anabases [En ligne], 31 | 2020, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2020, consulté le 19 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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