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The founding father

Publius Optatianus Porphyrius



Of Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius we ignore both the date of  birth and that of  death. All we know is that he was praefectus in Rome in 329 and in 333 A.D. and that he appears to have been a Christian. Sent into exile by the Emperor Costantine for motives unknown to us, in order to regain  the emperor’s favour he wrote his “Panegyric to the Emperor”. Consisting in thirty one poems, twenty of which composed in a novel kind of figurative poetry, the versus intexti: poems  II - II - III - V- VI - VII - VIII - IX -X - XI -XII - XIII - XIV - XVI - XVIII - XIX - XXI - XXII - XXIII - XXIV - XXXI.

Of the remaining poems, three are constructed with the Alexandrinian technique of the paegnion, in  the pattern of a water  organ (number XX), of an altar (number XXVI) and of a syrinx (number XVII) (P. 1,2,3,4).

Poem XXV brings in the technique of the proteus permutation of words (P. 4)

 starting from  a basic text of four hexameters (see glossary, s.v. proteus ). The contrivance, echoed by the way, in modern avant-garde, will appear once more  in a long poem about astronomy and mathematics composed in the ninth century by a certain Dieuil and then in seventeenth century baroque in Niccolò  Barsotti’s “Cynosura mariana”. Caramuel  in his “Metametrica” will collect other examples under the title “Apollocentricus et circularis.” Also Raymond Queneau’s book  “Cent mille milliards de poèmes” (1961) is based on permutation.

Poem XXVIII, on the contrary, consists of two cancrine (crabwise) distichs (P. 5). Every distich is repeated exactly in reverse (see glossary s.v. cancrine). There is a precedent in Virgil’s line (“Aeneid” 1.8) Musa mihi causas memora. Quo  numine laeso which becomes laeso numine quo memora causas mihi Musa. This technique was to flourish in medieval Latin, Provençal and French poetry and then with Groto in his beautiful sonnet Fortuna e senno Amor dona, non tolge.

The principle of the versus intexti derives from the technique of the acrostic, a second meaning which runs through a surface written in a non horizontal direction. Porphyrius develops and widens the proceedings, introducing in addition to the acrostic the mesostic, the telestic and horizontal acrostics (see glossary s.v. versus intexti). This different linguistic element must be thrown into relief either by hatching (using capital letters or bold type) or by colour, to distinguish it from meaning one. Thus to an overlapping of meaning one adds a graphic effect of an overlapping relief. The first meaning, that is the underlying writing, acts as background; that is why the lines of the second meaning have been called interwoven, as though they had  been interwoven on the first meaning.

From a technical point of view, for the artifice to turn out best, it is necessary for the message of the second meaning to be perfectly isometric, that is to be composed by an identical number of letters, so as to achieve the exact contiguousness of the letters called in to express the second meaning. In comparison with the Alexandrinian paegnia consisting in a series of lines of different lengths, which joined together and appropriately centred produce the outline of an object, a dark mass standing out against the light background of the page. Porphyrius frees the figurative poem from this mimesis, whose iconicity is merely descriptive, opening it to an actual integration between verb, number and mark.

Moreover, the versus intexti provide at the same time two texts. The background one  and that of the lines woven on that background, which is a solution of verbal simultaneousness. In addition to this, and this is no small matter, the versus intexti, by way both of the hatching and of the colour lend themselves to a visual interplay of full and blanks and chromatisms that turns such a poem into both a verbal and a pictorial form, which Porphyrius himself theorizes more than once, both within the poems that make up his book and in the epistle that accompanies it. The novelty of this formal proceeding did not escape the author of the letter which the Emperor Constantine ordered to be sent to the poet in return: “…I am also pleased by the fact that the capability of your studies succeeds in creating new rules in composing the lines that cross the centre of the poem that you have undertaken to write, in such a way that the shapes of different colours please the eye. It has been your lot to achieve that the obedience to manifold rules should not hamper poetry.” The original sent to the Emperor has been lost, it was handwritten in purple dye ink on parchment on a gold and silver background, as we learn from the dedication: “Ut  oculorum sensus inter distincta oculorum pigmenta delectent ostro tota nitens, scripta argento auroque coruscis notis” (so that the eye is attracted by the various pigments of the colours and every word pleases, shining with purple dye and silver and gold in a sparkling  relief).

Many copies in colour are preserved in various codes.

From an unfinished poem by Venantius Fortunatus we learn in what way these artifices were constructed. The author divided the sheet into small squares, rather like a crossword puzzle, usually 35x35 in number, then outlined a pattern made up of stripes of the same width as one of the little squares and within these stripes he wrote the interwoven lines; then he proceeded to compose the lines that filled up the squares that had been left blank, on alphabet letter for each square. The bigger the number of the letter, the more complex was the composition.

As I have already said, the versus intexti are the result of a systematic and coherent practice of the principle of the acrostic, a pattern well-known in ancient times ever since the time of Accadic literature.  What distinguishes Porphyrius’ work is the combination of the various types of acrostic within the same poem, that is of the acrostic in the initial position of the lines that make up the first meaning (the background) of the mesostic, or mesostics in middle position, of the telestic in final position,  as well as the notaric, which is an acrostic which runs horizontally. The ability and the subtle cleverness of the verbal and chromatic play were enormous, while the meaning of the text was merely apologetic in a series of hexameters aiming only at the exaltation of the monarch. Even before  the birth and the development of the Byzantine figurative style, which removed sculptural plasticity and substituted for it the chromatic event, this type of poetry was a harbinger and forerunner of it. What matters is not the encomiastic quality of these hexameters, nor the lyric one of the word, but the visual structure and the carrying to the extreme of the artifice aiming at amazing the reader. The world is changing and one is no longer interested in the solid shape of existence as in the Hellenic classical sculpture or in the verse of Homer and Virgil, but in the representation of the sacred regality of power, the only barrier to the tempestuous events of the crisis of the Roman empire. It is a hyeratic vision of life, translated into lines interwoven like precious sumptuously  embroidered damask, like a mosaic whose tesserae are letters of the alphabet, a mosaic music of the word on which much of the mystic poetry of the early middle ages between 400 and 900 A.D. was going to be based; all of five centuries of interwoven lines, a style, a school such as we can find, by analogy, only in the Renaissance polyphonic style of the French- Flemish or, mutatis mutandis,  in the development of the Petrarchan lyric stylemes  from 1300 to 1500 and beyond.

In fact to the medieval Christian poet the solution of substituting the description of the supernatural event by the inexpressible mystery of the geometrized and chromatized word appeared  ideal:  a decisive gesture in the soteriologic sense: the sacred  content of the word that becomes the Word of God, the divine logos, orderer and maker is made available to contemplation; the inexpressible, which is the divine, becomes expressible in the geometric and chromatic visualization of the word.



A review of Porphyrius’ tables



table II (P. 6). The line Sancte, tui vatis, Caesar, miserere serenus repeated six times in acrostic, mesostic, telestic and notaric, frames the table dividing it into four small squares; at the centre of each of them, as many small mesostics  form the following line: aurea sic mundo disponas saecula toto. This arrangement will be imitated by medieval mystic authors on several occasions.

table III (P. 7) The lines fingere Musa queat tali si carmine vultus (“May you Muse shape the form of such poem”),  Augusti et metri et versus lege manente (“under the iron law of metre and verse, oh Augustus”), picta elementorum vario per musica textu ( music painted by a varied verbal texture), vincere Apelleas audebit pagina ceras, (“a page which will dare to excel Apelles’tables”), make up the stylized image of the emperor.  The extreme stylization of the face of the monarch is probably due, according to some scholars, including Polara, to the author being somewhat not up to his task, while according to others, including myself, Porphyrius’ aim was precisely to achieve  absolute  abstraction.  Just as is the case, for modern artists, for the various studies on the tree by Piet Mondrian, where the painter starts from an utterly realistic representation of the subject to get little by little to  total abstraction.  At the centre we find the mesostic grandia quaerentur, si vatis laeta Camena (“one may dare great things if the muse is well-disposed to the poet”), and the notaric orsa, juvet versu consignans aurea saecla  (“it favours the enterprise to seal with one’s lines the golden age”): these lines constitute an actual manifesto of the versus intexti.

table V (P. 8)  The versus intexti make up the acronym AVG XX CAES X. The AUG acronym  is formed by the line Cum sic scripta placent, audent sibi devia Musae. The acronym XX by the line per varios signare modos devotaque mentis. The acronym CAES by the line Gaudia quae pingens loquitur mea. Phoebe, Camena. The acronym X by the line summe parens, da voce pia tricennia fari. These lines in translation sound respectively: “When the muse likes things written in this way, they may dare to deviate”; “ to trace in more fashions with devoted feeling”; “To Phoebus the merry things my muse says painting”;  “Oh sublime father, grant to me with a pious voice to illustrate the periods of thirty years”-

table VI  (P. 9) The table is composed by versus intexti in a pattern hinting at a crab. Two lines, specularly repeated form the pattern: Dissona Musarum vinciri stamine gaudens  and grandia conabor Phoebeo carmina plectro ( “happy to tie discordant things with the ties of the muses, I shall attempt sublime songs with Phoebus’s plectrum”)

table VII (P. 10) The versus intexti  make up an octagon with at its centre a square set at the cross point of an X. The lines, of a panegyric character, are the following five: Ausonium columen lux alma et gloria Romae, virtutum specimen, mitis clementia mundi, justitiaeque parens, spes felix, otia rerum, aeterium munus per saecula missum, rectorique dei per te praesentia pollet.

table VIII (P. 11) The versus intexti make up an X which cuts the page into four triangles in which one reads the word JESUS; the cross-point of the X is crossed by the P of “pax”. The X is made up of the two lines Alme, salutari nunc haec tibi pagina signo, Scripta micat, resonans nominibus domini. The letters which compose the name of Jesus and the central P form the lines  Nate deo, solus salvator, sanctae bonorum, tu deus es justi, gratia tu fidei e sit victor comes Aug et natis eius.

table IX (P. 12) The versus intexti of this table form the pattern of a palm tree of which the trunk is a mesostic and the branches are mesostics set diagonically. This pattern has been several times imitated by the mystical poets of the Middle Ages. The versus intexti are Castalides, versu docili concludite palmam, Constantine fave; te nunc in carmina Phoebum, mens vocat, ausa novas metris indicere leges, limite sub parili crescentis undique ramos, reddat ut intextus Musarum carmine versus.

table X (P. 13) A central X divides the table into four sections, in each of which one can see two inserted triangles pointing at the centre. The lines are Constantine maxime imperator et invicte, aeternae pacis providentissimus custos, pater imperas, avus imperes, Pius et felix, aurei saeculi restaurator, omnia magnus.

table XI (P. 14)  A very simple structure composed by an acrostic, a mesostic and a telestic which follows the irregular setting of the lines. The lines: fortissimus imperator, clementissimus rector, Constantinus invictus.

table XII (P. 15) Made up of an acrostic and a telestic with two lozenges at their centre. The lines: Certa salus rerum, proles invicta Tonantis, Orbi tu renovas felicis tempora saecli, Aurea justitiae terris insignia donas.

table XIII (P. 16) The table consists in a mesostic and a telestic which follow the irregular setting of the lines. The lines go: Pius Augustus, Constantinus.

table XIV (P. 17) consists in a mesostic which is the monogram of Christ and in  a central X which bears the following lines: Summi Dei auxilio nutuque perpetuo tutus and Orbem totum pacavit trucidatis tyrannis. The monogram mesostic reads: Constantinus pius aeternus imperator  and in the eyes of the P  reparator orbis.

table XVI (P. 18) The table consists in an acrostic and three mesostics. There is no telestic. The lines are  the first in Latin and in Greek the others: Domino nostro Constantino perpetuo Augusto , Neimén soi  besilèu Cristòs  kài sois tekéssi, Timion eusebiés kratéin arethès te brabèion, Eunomiés àrchein te kài ausònioisin anasseìn.

table XVIII (P. 19) The table is made up of a square divided into four small squares with their diagonals. The line that  forms the perimeter of the big square  is: Alme, tuas laurus aetas sustollet in astra. The central notaric consists in the line Aucta deo vistus musas magis ornata perta.The central mesostic consists in the line Aurea lux vatum silvae mihi praemia serva. The two central diagonals are made up of the lines Aurea victorem pietas sonat ubere lingua  and Aonios latices pietas juvat armaque diva.

table XIX (P. 20) This table bears the monogram of Jesus composed by versus intexti in Greek and Latin. The two lines in Greek are : Tèn naùn dei còsmon, se de àrmenon eini nòmizin  and thurois teinòmenon ses arethès anémois. Of the six Latin lines that follow, the first five are constructed with a series of variations, like this: Navita nunc tutus contemnat, summe, procellas, Nigras nunc tutus contemnat, summe, procellas,

 Tutus contemnat summis cumulata tropaeis, Pulsa mente mala contemnat, summe, procellas, Spe quoque Roma bona contemnat, summe, procellas. While the sixth line reads Roma felix floret semper votis tuis. The versus intexti trace the outline of a trireme ship with her oars and rudder, whose mast consists in Jesus’monogram. This table bears three simultaneous texts: on the background of the basic text the versus intexti build up Jesus’ monogram and a series of words , while at the same time they reveal the image of the ship.

table XXI (P. 21) Its structure is simpler, as the versus intexti outline a series of diamond shaped tiles. The versus intexti read: Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius haec lusi, Omne genus metri tibi pangens optume Basse, while the small inscribed diamonds bear the line Hic versus vario colore dispar.

table XXII (P. 22) The lines pave the table by a series of diagonals that criss cross forming many small diamond patterns. Here are the versus intexti: Mixta per amfractus diducunt carmina Musae, seu cancellatos spatia in contraria flexus, Seriem paramus ordinare acrius, amor poesis spissa gaudet exigi, Possit coire docta rerum limite, Opus tuetur non necata parcitas, Speciosa sancta cultu, bene picta Musa metris, breviter fluas ut isto, opus est per arta coetu, Audeo plenas, edere formas, picta notabo, iura Comenis; which is an illustration by lines of the pattern.

table XXIII  (P. 23) The versus intexti  of this table make up an M and are in Greek. They concern a certain Mark: Màrke, tèn àlokon tèn ùmnida Neilos elaùnei.

table XXIV (P. 24) The table is entirely taken up by the monogram of Jesus made up by the versus intexti; the two diagonals bear the line: Omnipotens genitor tuque o divisio mixta, and the central mesostic reads: filius atque pater et sanctus spiritus unum, faveas votis.

table XXXI (P. 25) It is made up only by the background text and by an acrostic which repeats the beginning of the first hexameter: Constantina deo.



                                     Medieval mystical poetry



The mystical poetry of the early Middle Ages had recourse to the technique of the versus intexti in order to reach the momentum of hypercommunication also in accordance with the theory of Augustinus who, in his “De musica” assumes the classical metres to be the rules imposed by God to the soul. On the other hand, in the whole of the Hebrew esoteric doctrines which form the Qabbalah,  one often resorts to methods and techniques founded on the mystical sense assigned to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and their number value, like the “notaricon”, which consists in extracting a mystical sense from the word by using each of the letters which make it up as the initial of another word, which harks back to the horizontal acrostic, called, in fact, notaric, or like the gematriah which consists in establishing an equivalence of meaning between words formed by letters whose number values give equal sums; which will reappear in the baroque gematric poem but will already be put into practice in poem XXVIII of “De laudibus sanctae crucis” by Rabanus Maurus, or finally like the temurah, that is the anagram, a proceeeding intended to obtain the transformation of one word into another.


                                        Venantius Fortunatus


Venantius Fortunatus, while outlining the versus intexti pattern of one of his poems declares that lines must obey a fixed number relationships and that, in his case, every hexameter must be composed by 33 letters, as many as Christ’s years.

This author (535/40 – about 600) is placed between Porphyrius, who was a contemporary of Constantine (280-337) and the poets of the Carolingian renaissance at the time of Charlemagne (768-814). He was a Christian poet and his hymns “Pange lingua” and “Vexilla regis” are famous. He died at Poitiers, the town of which he was a bishop. His figure poems are three, one of which he left unfinished having composed only the versus intexti and the first six of the first meaning and this gives us the opportunity of understanding the technique of composition in statu nascendi. (P. 26). The second “De signaculo Sanctae Crucis” has the cross as its theme, with the pattern of the intexti analogous to Porphyrius’ poem VI (P. 27) just, as a matter of fact, poem III, which is the one of the 33 letters as corresponding to the years of Christ, a curious poem because it includes two lines placed triangle-wise above the poem, to represent the string which should have been holding the poem, if it had been written on a large sheet to hang on the wall as a votive table (P. 28).

A fourth poem perhaps spurious but very beautiful, in the shape of a cross, where the central part is composed with the cube technique, that is with the word “crux” radiating from the centre (P. 29) is not made up of versus intexti.

Venantius is also the author of elegant entirely or almost entirely autogrammatic lines like these from poem 10,3: ornamentorum ornatus ornatius ornans  or florum flos florens, florea flore fluens.




The maximum flourishing of the versus intexti took place during the Carolingian renaissance through a series of authors such as Bonifatius, Alcuin, Josephus Scottus, Angilbertus, Theodulph, Gosbertus,  Rabanus Maurus, Milon of Saint-Amand, Eugenius Vulgarius, Abbon of Fleury, Paulus Diaconus and also two authors from Northern Spain, Sarracinus and Vigilanus.

Bonifatius,  in the world Wynfrith, born about 672-75, in Wessex, died in Friesland in 754, was educated in England where he took holy orders, then he moved to the continent in order to convert to christianity the German populations who were still heathen. He favoured the advent to the throne of Pipin, whom he crowned at Soissons king of the Franks. He wrote treatises of metrics and of grammar, a collection of enigmas in verse and various poems. Only one of them is a figurative poem alternating hexameters and elegiac distiches. There being no isometric lines, he had recourse to an approximate technique, by placing the words nearer or farther apart so as to form a diamond pattern made up of the lines on the right uynfrith priscorum Duddo congesserat artem and on the left viribus ille iugis iuvabit in arte magistrum, at the centre the name Jesus Xristus doubled so as to form a cross (P. 30).




Ansbertus of Rouen, who died in 695, bishop of Rouen, is the author of a figurative poem made up of non isometric versus intexti where the mesostic and the horizontal central line form a crux immissa. The poem consists of 23 rhythmic lines: the acrostic and the telestic together form the sentence audoaemus cognomento Dado – Ansebertus orator definit. The mesostic reads crucem XPI in suo nomen levo and the horizontal central line gentes colentes isto ligno saluantur. The poem is dedicated to Aldovin of Rouen (P. 31).


                                                 Paulus Diaconus


Paulus Diaconus (Paulus Varnefridus, Cividale about 720 – Montecassino 799) was a Lombard historian and grammarian. Master of grammar for five years at the Palatine School of Charlemagne, in 787 he retired to the Abbey of Montecassino. The author of grammar treatises and longer poems, he owes his fame to his “Historia Langobardorum”. By him we have a figurative poem composed for Adelperga, daughter of the Lombard king, in the pattern of a cross with coloured capital letters with the words rex at the top, sol at the bottom,  pax on the left,  rex on the right and at the centre (P. 32). In the upper left square he explains that isti sex versus sequentes ita sunt ordinate, ut per novem litteras in medio positas dicta decem inveniri possint, id est rex, vive, lux, ivva et iterum lux, ave, verax, via, ausiliare, vale”. In the upper left square the explanation goes on “scansionem tamen et verba versuum utrumque venientium perfecte continnet, ut parem numerum litterarum non impediunt.” The author goes on to say in the lower squares “a senis litteris incipiunt in quibus legitur rex, pax, in totidem litteris terminantur ubi legitur rex, sol, quae omnia in vestra coruscant celsitudine, domine piissime, ita ut omnes caelesti inluminatione conformetis et presentem pacem omnibus christianis assidue constabilitis subsidiisque indeficientibus adiuvare dignati estis. ideo nomina omnium virtutum propria sunt vobis” We have examined this poem in detail because it is unusual in the practice of the versus intexti  because the explanation of the poem itself is part of  the text. 




Alcuin, Ealhwine in Saxon, (735-804) , born in the county of York, was a pupil of one of the disciples of the Venerable Bede. During a journey to Italy, in 780, he met Charlemagne, who asked him to settle in France in order to found there a centre of study, the famous Schola Palatina. In 790 he became the abbot of the monastery of Saint Martin in Tours. For teaching purposes Alcuin prepared some manuals of grammar, rhetoric, music, mathematics and astronomy and moreover undertook the exegesis of the biblical text and composed longer poems and epigrams. Alcuin imparted a decisive impulse to the reawakening of studies and contributed, perhaps more than any other scholar of the Middle Ages, to save the classical heritage.

His two versus intexti evidence a good technical mastery. The first “Versus de sancta cruce ad Carolum” has at its centre the pattern of a cross, made up of the lines surge, lavanda tuae sunt saecula fonte fidei (vertical line) and rector in orbe tuis sanavit saecla sigillis  (horizontal line) within a diamond constructed with the lines salve sancta rubens fregisti vincula mundi and signa valete novis reserata salutibus orbi.

In the second (P. 34), “Versus ad Carolum regem”,  the pattern is made of versus intexti arranged as a grille which divides the first text into sixteen rectangles. The three vertical versus intexti read respectively: 1) Ducite nunc regi pronis nova munera Musis; 2) Publius Albinus Carlo haec inclyta lusit; 3) Dicite laeta bono mecum modo carmina regi. The horizontal lines go: 1) Flavius Anicius Carlus laetare tropaeis; 2) Flavius Anicius Carlus per saecula salve!  3)Flavius Anicius Carlus tibi carmina dixi, where by Flavius Anicius Carlus he means Charlemagne (Anicius,  unconquered, from the Greek aniketos).


                                             Josephus Scottus


He was a disciple of Alcuin, with whom he came into the kingdom of the Franks where he died in 804. He wrote a summary of Jerome’s commentary to Isaiah and four figurative poems that bear witness to his precision in the excution and his refined search for complex patterns, that recall Porphyrius’ style.

Poem III harks back to Porphyrius’ poem XXII: the text is divided into diamond patterns with at  their centre, crosswise the inscription lege Carle feliciter. The versus intexti arranged diagonally to form two overlapping diamonds,  read: Ille pater priscus elidit edendo nepotes; mortis imago fuit mulier per poma suasrix; Iessus item nobis ieiunans norma salutis; Mors fugit vitae veniens ex virgine radix  (P. 35).  Poem IV  follows a similar layout, always in diagonal with these lines: Dic, o Carle, precor, quae stat preciosior auro; Dum rutulat species et caelo sublimior alto; Ssi tu lectas vocas pravis quae dantur ut aurum; Seu vestes pecudes et nec minus omne decorum and at the four sides the wedges  Sapientia et veritas. Spes fides et caritas (P. 36).

Poem V, whose title is “De nominibus Iesu ad Carolum regem”, is divided into four equal rectangles by four double lines of versus intexti laid in the pattern of a cross, a very rigid structure. The upper line reads: Vita, salus, virtus, verbum, Sapientia, sponsus;  the acrostic gives Virga columba, leo, serpens, firmissima petra; the telestic Sol vita salvator summus, mons, stella, lucerna; the lower horizontal acrostic gives Auxiliare, decus, flos, campi, summaque dextra. The inner sides of the rectangles are composed as follows: for the upper rectangle on the left by the lines Rex regum, dominus cunctorum rite creator; for the lower left hand one En puer et senior, fons vitae, vita perennis; for the upper one on the right Virgo potens, vere vatis lux alma per orbem. For the lower rectangle on the right Alfa vocaris et omega, pax, lumen, pastor et agnus. (P. 37)

Poem VI,  entitled “ De sancta cruce”, is the most peculiar one because it represents the façade of a Romanesque church with three doors shaped like crosses, perhaps the only instance of versus intexti in an architectural pattern. The left side of the building consists in the line Crux mihi certa salus Christi sacrata cruore. The right hand side: Crux decus aeternum toto venerabile saeclo. The central cross: Cruci semper to form the horizontal bar. The vertical body of the church is made up by the word Sancta read from the bottom upwards and  by the sentence salvet inscriptio corda. The small cross on the left of the horizontal bar is vita salus  and in the vertical  crux credentis. The cross which forms the right-hand door is made up by the horizontal bar Mors poena and in the vertical Crux negantis. (P. 38)






 Under the name of Berowin we possess a small series of versus intexti which we attribute instead to Angilbert (about 745 – 814), a poet at the court of Charlemagne, who composed celebratory poems like the epic fragment “Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa”, owing to which he was nicknamed “Homerus”.  He was sent by the emperor on several diplomatic missions as in 792-4 to Pope Hadrian I and in 796 to Pope Leo III. He is known to have had an extraconiugal affair with Berta, the Emperor’s daughter.

The technique of his verus intexti is peculiar and consists in composing texts cut by acrostics, mesostic and telestics, disposing the words without respecting isometrics. He is often compelled by the phonic sophistication he favours to write rather obscure texts, but it is actually in the euphony of his lines that the peculiar character of his poems consists, a euphony obtained through  obsessively recurrent alliterations, perfect autogrammes in some cases, as in poems XI and XXII Vitalis vita et victor victoria Iesu; Iustus tu iudex iusta et iudicia servi; Rex regum regnans regnorum rector amator; Inventor iuvenis iuvenum iuvenilia loeti. (P. 39, 40)



                                             Theodulph of Orléans


Saragossa, 760-821/22) He was abbot and bishop of Orléans about 782. Charlemagne entrusted to him several important missions as the Emperor’s ambassador. After the emperor’s death he was accused of having taken part in a plot by king Bernard and he was removed from office and imprisoned but was soon released by the intercession of bishop Augustus Dunus. He composed only one versus intexti poem with a pattern of crossed diamonds.  By his own admission, he invites the reader to forgive its faults, stating that he had composed the poem by request of the emperor. Iussu compulsus erili. The upper line reads Omnipotens domine et pacis donator in aevum;  in the acrostic Omnia cui resonant sine fine creata canorem; in the telestic Mirus in arce cluens clarescens lumine sudo; in the bottom line Muniaque ut sumas prostratis vultibus opto. The central cross is composed by the horizontal line Nutibus eximiis tribuis caeleste tribunal  and by the vertical line Porrige dextram Teudulfo solacia praestans; while the diamond is composed by the lines Promere qui studeo nunc carmen mitibus odis  which take up the left hand side. Praecipuasque deo solitus cantare Camenas  which takes up the right hand one. (P. 41)


                                                Gosbert of Orléans


He died in 834. He is the author of only one verus intexti poem in honour of Count Wilhelm von Blois, as one reads in the line Te virtute, crucis soter, Guillelme, coronet  which repeated four times, frames the table. Also the central cross is formed by the same lines. The central mesostic centred on the four squares bear the dedication  Praecelso Guillelmo infimus Gozbert. The pattern is reminiscent of Porphyrius’s poem II. (P. 42)



Hrabanus Maurus


And so we come to the “Liber de Laudibus Sanctae Crucis” by Magenrius Hrabanus Maurus which represents the sum of all the preceding experiences.

Hrabanus, born in Mainz about 784, was a monk in the abbey of Fulda, where he remained until 842. A disciple of Alcuin, he was head librarian of the very rich library of the convent, of which he became the abbot.  Compelled to leave the monastery because he had been an upholder of Ludwig the Pious,  he managed to become reconciled to Ludwig the German, who bestowed on him the office of archbishop of Mainz, where he died in 856.

He wrote “De institutione clericorum” inspired by  Augustinus’  “De doctrina christiana”, the dialogue “De computo”, from Bede, a grammar on the lines of Priscianus’ and 22 books  “De rerum naturis” following the “Etymologies” by Isidore of Sevilla.

The “Liber” consists in 28 poems, plus a dedication and a foreword, for a total of 30 tables of versus intexti. It is constructed according to the criterium of the exact number, that is of the number the total of which is the result of the aggregation of its dividends. Number 28 is, such as it is, the result of 2 x 14,  4 x 7, 7 x 4, 14 x 2, 1 x 28, which is 2+4+7+14 +1=28. The foreword, in its turn is constructed on number 6 , that is 3 x 2, 2 x 3, 1 x 6, that is 3+2+1 = 6. The total space of the book is represented by the partial space of the foreword that is, to some purpose, a square, a perfect geometric figure, symbolic of the entire reality. (P.s from 43 to 73).

The novelty of  Hrabanus Maurus’ poems consists in the combination of the technique of Alexandrinian paegnia with the versus intexti, that is to say that Hrabanus plunges the paegnion into the grille of the versus intexti, thereby joining two difficulties, one linguistic, the versus intexti, the other prosodic, the paegnion, achieving a novel result. Hrabanus tackles the human figure, the Emperor, standing, with his shield, Christ on the cross, cherubim and seraphim, the beasts of the Apocalypse and himself kneeling at the foot of the cross as well as elegant flowers which stand for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Hrabanus also tackles the palindrome: in the last poem of the Liber he traces the sign of the cross in the middle of the poem with the following palindrome: Oro te ramus aram ara sumar et oro and reaches the utmost limit of creating texts which, read backwards, produce a second meaning, like the line  Si dote tibi metra sono his te Jesus inodis  ( if by my ability I sound poems to you, in them you listen to yourself, Jesus) which, read backwards, gives Si do nisus ei et si honos artem ibit et odis (if  I sound leaning on him and if honour will touch him, you will hear also art).

The liber is dedicated to the emperor Ludwig the Pious. In the verbal space of the dedication a certain number of letters, the capital letters, are not only part of the non intexti lines, that is of the basic text, but make up the picture of the monarch, standing with his shield, a paegnion immersed in the basic text. In spite of the great difficulty of the task, Hrabanus succeeds in giving us 6 instances: the one we have already mentioned of the dedication; the first table that represents Christ on the Cross; the fourth of seraphim and cherubim; the XV with the four Evangelists and the mystic lamb; the XVI with the garlands of flowers and the XXVIII, the last, where Hrabanus represents himself at the foot of the cross with the already quoted palindrome to form the cross itself: oro te ramus aram ara sumar et oro.

In the foreword  Hrabanus explains the graphic liberties he has taken and he declares that his technique derives from Porphyrius, which is only too evident in poems III, XII, XIV, XIX,  XX,  XXII, XXV, if we compare them with Porphyrius’ poems  V, VIII, XIX of versus intexti forming names or monograms.

But even in this field Hrabanus is an innovator;  in poems  X,  XVIII and XXI the letters of the versus intexti are no longer set one near the other in such a way as to form a straight line, but are separated by means of other letters so as to effect a technique “by dots” , by which the single letters coloured in minium , those of the versus intexti, appear scattered on the dark body of the page.

Also in the Praefatio the coloured letters “dot” the text forming the sentence Magentius Hrabanus Maurus hoc opus facit.

In every table Hrabanus adds an explanation of the picture: sometimes it is a simple prose transcription to which are added clues to identify the lines inserted in the patterns, but sometimes it states also the reasons for which that picture has been inserted in the text,  having recourse to biblical quotations and theorizing on the possibility of seeing prefigurations of the cross in some particular biblical passages. And this, the fact of having felt the need to explain in prose one’s own poetic work, according to a method which will be in favour  up to Dante’s “Convivium”, is an important development.

Besides the “Liber de laudibus sanctae crucis”, Hrabanus composed the preface to the commentary of the  Book of Judith,  dedicated to the heroine of that name, where in the guise of a figurative poem the versus intexti bear the words Dextra dei summi Christe and at the center Judith’s picture .. (P.  74). Another versus intexti poem preceded the comment to Matthew’s gospel (P. 75). In the Vatican Apostolic Library there is a code (cod.var.bibl.Chig. A.V. 129 I and II fl l r) where we can read a poem by Hrabanus,  which consists in versus intexti forming a square in which four other squares complete with half and diagonal lines are inscribed.  It is a poem by versus intexti in which the first basic text is missing and therefore can be considered a real calligram, nay,  maybe the earliest, together with the one, slightly later, by Eugenius Vulgarius “Pyramida ad Leonem Imperatorem”. (P. 76)  In the definition of the calligram I follow Giovanni Pozzi’s theory in  “La parola dipinta”, according to which the form of the calligram , a word coined by Apollinaire,  (“Calligrammes”),  is conceived as development and innovation of the versus intexti, when these are no longer set on the first text, but the latter has disappeared and they stand on the void of the page.

In another code,  extant in the “Bayerische Staatbibliotek” of Munich, there appears the pattern of a polychrome cube shaped like a cross reminiscent of the cube attributed to Venantius. Note that the cubic or square poems are those in which the text is not written in lines, but set in regular rays starting from the centre.



                                     Carmen ad Sanctum Gallum


The poem “Ad Sanctum Gallem” of the Sangall code 187 (IX century)  is analogous to poem X by Porphyrius, from which it differs only in the sense that the central diagonals of the versus intexti are the hexameters Galle tuos famulos magna pietate reserve  e Qui retines regnum da nos captare polorum  and they divide the text into four triangles in each of which there stands a double wedge formed by Adonics: top and bottom Mente serena; Avvipe mitis carmina vatis on the left and on the right O bone rector  and Hunque iuvato munere noto. (P. 77)



                                                 Milo of St Amand


Milo of St Amand was born after 809 and died in 871. He was a monk and later a priest in the monastery of St Amand and he wrote the life of that saint, the second version of which, sent to Charles the Bald, was accompanied by two figurative poems described as Paginae duae in specie crucis editae ad gloriosum regem Carolum. The first poem is, simplified, analogous to Porphyrius’ II. The versus intexti writings that frame the text, read clockwise, are : Accipe Karle precor carmen pietate benigna, Aurea saecla novans tam sacra ornare corona. Accipe Karle precor laudem currente Camena; Aeterno commissa levas moderamine sceptra. The text is divided by a mesostic and by a notaric, respectively with the lines: Arma tenens et signa parans bonitate serena  and amplius auge operis laudem pescente Thalia. (P. 78)

The second poem’s pattern is analogous to Porphyrius’ table XXIV, with its square cross. The upper and the bottom line read:  Salve rector ovans aeterno munere. The lateral ones:  Salve carus amor aeterna laude coruscans. The mesostic of the cross goes: Et dextram miserans Miloni porrige Carle and the notaric reads: Excipe clementer famulum, pietatis amice.  The two diagonals go: Sumito rex laudes et metrica  vota Milonis. (P. 79)



Eugenius Vulgarius


A defense of Pope Formosus by Eugenius Vulgarius, born in the Campania,  who died after 950 and was a monk, probably at Montecassino, angered Pope Sergius III so much that he imprisoned him in Rome. Eugenius reacted by composing some versus intexti in praise both of the Pope and of the Emperor, thereby obtaining his liberation and his return to Campania. Oppressed by poverty he begged the pope, Leon and the bishop of Naples, Atanasius for help.

Eugenius,  man of Campania as he was, felt the influence of Byzantine culture, knew Latin well and was familiar also with some authors not very popular at the time and knew how to use also many metres, even the rarest, which made him, in a sense, a precursor of the Renaissance.

In the first poem the letters of the acrostic, mesostic and telestic must be read in succession and form the sentence Aeternum salve praesul stans ordine Petri. (P. 80) The second poem is the famous “Pyramida ad Leonem imperatorem” consisting of six versus intexti with few obligatory letters at the corners:  Leo then coming down Ave Caesar Leo. This poem is one of the earliest examples of calligram, as we have already said talking about Hrabanus Maurus. (P. 81)

The third poem imitates the pattern of Milo’s second poem, but as the lines are in an even number of letters, it has some faults. All the versus intexti, both inner and outer repeat the following phrase: Rector terrarum rerum mentis moderator. (P. 82) Eugenius Vulgarius’ last poem is a paegnion shaped like a syrinx reminiscent of Porphyrius’ poem XXVII. The versus intexti read  Salve Sergio  (acrostic), Papa (at the centre) summe rerum  (telestic). (P. 83)



                                                         Abbon of Fleury


Abbon of  Fleury was born at Gau, near Orléans, about 940/945 and died in 1004. He was an enfant prodige so that he was nominated at a very early age teacher of grammar, dialectics and arithmetics first in England and later in the convent of Fleury. He often found himself  in contrast with bishops and kings because he was a strong upholder on monastic privileges, so much so that on one occasion the bishop of Orléans organized an ambush against him while he was on his way to the festival of St Martin at Tours. He died a violent death, as he was killed by the Gascons to whom he had been sent in order to bring the Monastery of La Réole back to obedience.

Abbon composed three versus intexti poems. The first, non isometric, dedicated to Dunstant, Archbishop of Canterbury,  is made up of the line “ Summe sacer, te summa salus tueatur amicis” which is repeated seven times, at the start, at bottom, in the acrostic, in the mesostic, in the telestic and in the centre, creating the pattern of a rectangle with a central cross. (P. 84)

The second poem, also non isometric, is composed by acrostic, mesostic and telestic which repeat the line Oro serene sacer memoris, memor otius esto.  The first, the central one ant the last line bear the wish O praesul  Dunstane probus sine fine valet. (P. 85)

The third poem “Carmen achrosticum ad Ottonem Imperatorem” is built with a pattern similar to that of Porphyrius’ second one and the line Otto valens, Caesar, nostro tu cede coturno is repeated six times forming the frame and the central cross (crux quadrata). At the centre of the four squares,  as in Porphyrius’ second poem, the words Otto – Caesar – Abbo – Abba  stand out in the vertical.(P. 86)



Versus Augienses


The “Carmen figuratum sanctae cruce”  of the so-called “Versus Augiensaes” (Reichenauer codes, St. Gallen) represents the acme of elegance and of complexity  which the technique of versus intexti can achieve (P. 87). Unfortunately the loss of the first two lines and of all the right-hand side and the fading out of some letters, make it impossible to effect a complete reconstruction.  However the pattern is clear as an example of  Greek Cross surrounded by four squares. At the centre the space of four letters enclosed in the square in which the words Iesus Christus” are enclosed,  contains an “imago Christi”.



Versus intexti in Spain


In Northern Spain, in the monastery of Saint Martin in Albelda near Logrono five figurative poems, now preserved in the Codex Vigilanus at the Escorial, Madrid, were composed.  Their authors were the monks Vigilanus, Sarracinus and Garcia. In the same code an illuminated table portrays the kings  Chindasvint, Rcesvint, Egica, Sanchoi, Ramiro and Queen Urraca, under the authors Vigilanus, Sarracinus and Garcia.

The first (P. 88) of very complex structure is framed by the following versus intexti: top  Gloriosa Christi caro insons cruci adfixa; the acrostic  Gaudium magnum adfert bonis suabe lignum; the telestic Alma crux, secula omnia salva ac muni turma; bottom Manenti laus cruci adfixa omnia in secula. At the centre a double mesostic above and below descending by steps, forms the vertical part of the cross with the phrase  Crux veneranda ferens salbatoris membra  and Vigilanem Gracilam, o crux, protege sancta. At the centre a double notaric forming the horizontal plank of the cross bears the words Arbor vitae largire precibus Sancionis  and Amomum crucis flos sacre adfla Ranimirum. At the centre of the four squares formed by the cross, the words O lectores –   Memoriosi – Sarracini – Mementote.

The second poem (P. 89)  is palm-tree shaped and is similar to Porphyrius’s poem IX. The central mesostic  reads  Arbor pardis tensa ramis hincque sive et hinc;  the upmost branch  Salbator, Sancioni da victoriae palmam; lower, the next branch bears Sancta Maria, Urracam ancillam respice tuam;   going still lower  Agie, fabe Angelo Micael, Ramiro tuo; the fourth and last branch reads Vatum fruantur praecatu familie palmas.

The third poem (P. 90)  consists in a central cross and one diagonal only which crosses the text. The acrostic says:  O rex celi, Sancionis munia sepe fac fortia;  the telestic reads Sancta Maria, Urracam tuere ancillam tuam; the mesostic, that is the vertical plank of the cross, reads: O alme Rex poli, Garseani regi da celum frui.  The notaric, that is the horizontal plank, says:  Miles, o Christe,  tuus  Ranimirus sic honorem; the diagonal: Angelus bonus tuus Ranimirus vigeat, Deus.  

The fourth poem (P. 91) with central cross, is crossed by two diagonals and bears the acrostic O rex genite, Criste, ingeniti patris lumen;  the upper notaric O alfa et omega, altissimi dei patris sapientia; the telestic Aulam tua sepe almi Martini luce inlustra; the lower notaric Nate patris summi hic nos velociter adfla, the left-hand diagonal O initium et finis, o Theos, civo nos tuo civa;  the right-hand diagonal Nate patris, ac salba hic monacorum acmina; the central cross in the vertical Dei alme spiritus, o Theos, adesto nobis hic; the horizontal arm Nate patris summi, o Theos, nos raptim adfla.

Finally a versus intexti poem (P. 92) is preserved in the Archivio General de la corona de Aragòn, Barcelona, cod. 46. It consists in the line Metra suit certa si visa rectius artem which is repeated six times forming the frame and the diagonals. The two arms of the central cross bear Ut citius repsit ne ventis persuit ictu. The composition is not isometric. Its pecuriarity consists in the fact that both lines are palindromic.



Versus intexti after the tenth century


The creation of versus intexti does not stop with the X century. We find some examples of acrostic in Abelard and in François Villon, but in forms tending to the calligram.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century a monk, Jacobus Magdalius, born at Gouda, in Holland and active in Cologne until the early decades of the sixteenth century, published in the “Erarium Aureum Poetarum” (Cologne, 1501) a very elegant poem outlining the scene of the Three Kings bringing their offers  and the standing figure of the patron saint, Columba. (P. 93)

Caramuel de Lobkowitz in the two volumes of his “Metametrica” (1663-68) will provide us with many instances of versus intexti combined with other devices. In table XXI we find a square poem with non isometric versus intexti to be read in the horizontal and in the vertical sense.  (P. 94)

In table XIX we find a non isometric versus intexti epigram (P. 95). In paragraph 407 “Fama et echo de Leopoldo Austriaco” there is a triple descending and ascending acrostic combined with echoic lines.  (P. 96)

In table XXXI bis we find a square poem with non isometric versus intexti in honour of a doctor whose name is a palindrome: Iure Merui. (P. 97)

Another author, contemporary with Caramuel, P. F. Passerini, composed a square poem combined with non isometric versus intexti (“Schedarium Liberale”, 1659).  (P. 98)

Antonio Maria Spelta, born in Vercelli but living in Pavia, composed  some versus intexti made up of phrases in “Istoria de’ fatti notabili , aggiornata” (1597-1603). (P. 99)

Back to the Iberian area, we have to mention some compositions which, though not actually strictly belonging to the category of the versus intexti, draw their inspiration from them, as for example the sonnet dedicated to Maria Sofia Isabel “Anagramma Poetico” in “A Phenix de Portugal prodigiosa…”. 1678) (P. 100);  and the “Conclusio XXVII”, Carmen Sotadeum lusitanum, which we find inserted in a   degree dissertation of civil law by Emmanuel A. Gama Lobo, printed in Lisbon in 1726. (P. 101) Or even the sonnet “Peragramma” dedicated to Maria Thereza Walburga de Austria (Frei Francisco da Cunha, Oraçam academica e panegyrica, Lisboa , 1743) a name which in anagram gives the phrase tu brava iraz: adoremie jagalharda venus. (P. 102)  And again, the very elegant acrostic sonnet Imploram os devotos de N.S. do socorro de layam by an anonymous poet. The versus intexti draw an M, the initial of Mary’s name, within the composition. (P. 103)

Some very rare examples we can find in contemporary avant-garde, as in “Jobboj” (“Job’s struggle”), Prague 1967 by Josep Hirsal and Bohumila Groegerova and I am referring to the two works dedicated to Morgenstern and to Faulkner. (P. 104, 105)




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