The Philosophical Allegory of the Isis Figure in Beroaldo’s Commentary on Apuleius’ Golden Ass


  • Sonja Weiss



egiptian deities, Latin literature, allegory


The article aims to identify the philosophical digressions in Philippo Beroaldo’s encyclopaedic commentary, and to understand them in view of the author’s general approach to Apuleius’ Golden Ass. As Beroaldo deliberately abstains from writing a philosophical commentary, it is no surprise

that he gives merely a historical (and yet personally coloured) survey of the tale of Cupid and Psyche and its tradition of various moralistic, religious, and philosophical interpretations. For him, Apuleius’ text is principally a moral allegory. On the other hand, the subject of Book 11 (the so-called Book of Isis), centred around Lucius’ spiritual as well as physical transformation, leads him to topics which he necessarily approaches as an erudite of his era, heavily influenced by the Christian Neoplatonism. His commentary on some passages of truly mystical character evinces an ambiguity attested at the very beginning, where Beroaldo, apart from the generally accepted moralistic interpretation, briefly mentions another way of reading the text: reading it as veiled Pythagorean and Platonic doctrines of the regeneration and transmigration of the soul. Indeed, Beroaldo’s interest in Pythagorean philosophy and its classical proponents is also evident in some of his other works, and the Commentary lacks no hints of these secret doctrines, which spring up quite unexpectedly sometimes. Even more surprising is Beroaldo’s reserve, once he broaches this subject, protected by what he terms fides silentii. He cherishes this expression to the point which makes us wonder whether his commentary merely reflects the encyclopaedic rigour of a teacher, eager to present a text from all points of view, or displays the emulous thought of a kindred spirit (a point made in some modern studies), restrained from saying more. Indeed, Beroaldo’s interpretation of the goddess Isis figure as an ancient manifestation of the one God corroborates the latter assumption. Also remarkable is the fact that every mystical interpretation is quickly checked by a more accessible moralistic explanation, as if Beroaldo preferred to read the secret message, which was not to be – and was not – divulged by Apuleius, through ethical spectacles, and thus followed as closely as possible the example of ‘his Lucius’.


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