A poem composed by Venantius Fortunatus to a Vitalis, a bishop of Ravenna, traditionally identified as Maximian of Ravenna, but also as bishop Vitalis of Milan, bishop Vitalis of Altino, or even an eponymous, otherwise undocumented bishop of Pula.
Ad Vitalem episcopum Ravennensem
Antistisa domini, meritis in saecula vivens,
gaudia qui Christi de grege pastor habes:
Cum te Vitalem voluit vocitare vetustas,
noverat aeternum te meruisse diem.
Dignus apostolica praefulgens mente sacerdos,
qui sacer Andreae tam pia templa locas.
Quam bene pro meritis Domini consedit in aula,
per quem digna Deo est aedificata domus!
Sumpsisti a Domino culmen cui culmina condis:
qui tibi digna dedit reddis honore vicem.
Emicat aula potens, solido perfecta metallo,
quo sine nocte manet continuata dies.
Invitat locus ipse Deum sub luce perenni,
gressibus ut placidis intret amando lares.
Qui loca das populis, Dominum quo semper adorent,
ut capiant veniam tub facis esse viam.
Gratia mens animus bonitas dilectio plebis
et gradus et pietas te dedit esse patrem.
Prosperitas se vestra probat, quae gaudia supplens
intulit egregios ad tua vota viros.
Dux nitet hinc armis, perfectusc legibus illinc:
venerunt per quos crescere festa solent.
Ne tibi desit honor, populum Deus auxit opimum,
qui vidit sensum hoc voluisse tuum.
Misterium fidei conplevit vota petenti:
felix cui Dominus quae cupis ipsa vehit!
Plurima divino celebres sollempnia dono
atque Dei florens templa locando colas.
a) sic B: pro antistes. b) sic B: pro te. c) sic B: pro praefectus.
Michael Roberts, Poems: Venantius Fortunatus, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46 (Cambridge, MA 2017), p. 13.
The main question surrounding this poem, still not definitively answered to this day, is who this "Vitalis, the bishop of Ravenna" could refer to.
Namely, there are no bishops of Ravenna named Vitalis in the 6th-century, the age of Venantius Fortunatus who wrote this poem during his stay in Ravenna (he left the city in 565).
Therefore, no less than four theses on the identification of this Vitalis have been proposed:
- he was, in fact, none other than Maximian, and the name Vitalis was used as a sort of a panegyrical nickname for the bishop of a city whose principal saint protector was St. Vitalis; this thesis is somewhat corroborated by the fact that Maximian renovated the church of St. Andrew in Ravenna and bestowed to it the relics of St. Andrew the apostle (see the source here); he did not, however, construct it a fundamentis ad dedicationem (see the second poem to the same Bishop Vitalis here).
- he was the eponymous bishop of Milan (552/3-556/7); the name and chronological elements fit, but there are no records connecting this Vitalis to Ravenna, to Venentius Fortunatus, or to the building of the church of St. Andrew;
- he was the eponymous bishop of Altino mentioned by Paul the Deacon in his History of the Lombards (book 2, chap. 4); as a pro-Frankish schismatic bishop (that is, a supporter of the so-called Three Chapters), Vitalis had to flee from Altino to Lienz (the civitas Agonthiensis, that is, Aguntum); since Venantius Fortunatus also fleed to the Franks, an entire story-arc is constructed according to which this Vitalis was a native of Ravenna (undocumented in historical sources) and the first patron of the young Venantius; moreover, from Mainz, Vitalis welcomed Venantius when he had fled from the Byzantines, introducing the young poet to the ecclesiastical and worldly elite of the Merovingian Franks; this remains the dominant interpretation, but it too is steeped in conjectures;
- finally, there is also a thesis according to which the bishop Vitalis of Ravenna would be a bishop of Pula loyal to Ravenna and the imperial court during the age of the Schism of the Three Chapters; thus, the adjective Ravennatis would refer to one's political standing; this bishop of Pula, otherwise undocumented in historical sources, would be the builder of the 6th-century church of St. Andrew in Betiga, excavated and analyzed by Branko Marušić, one of the leading proponents of this thesis along with Giuseppe Cuscito; while popular in regional historiography, the thesis is highly conjectural.
Taking all together, theses 1 and 3 seem more probable than 2 and 4, especially the thesis 1 if one takes into account that Venantius states that "vetustas chose to call" him "Vitalis" - thus, Vitalis could very well be a panegyrical nickname the author bestowed upon his patron for laudatory effect.
The images of the manuscript are taken from the official web pages of Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
The editor has subsequently marked the manuscript with red arrows simply to denote the parts that are hereby edited.
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