Discussion following the second ‘Re-reading the Vita Nova’ seminar focussed on Dante’s writing and re-writing of lyric texts in Vita Nova V-XII (Barbi’s numbering). After brief discussion of Dante’s striking use of biblical texts in certain of his love lyrics, the conversation moved on to those poems absent from the libello.yet mentioned within it.
The ‘missing’ serventese mentioned in Vita Nova VI proved particularly interesting, with its promise of a list of Florence’s sixty most beautiful ladies, Dante’s beloved Beatrice placed ninth amongst them.
Possible reasons for the serventese’s absence from the libello were considered. Firstly, it was suggested that this early in his career, Dante may well have been thinking about the type of poet he wanted to be and the kind of genre in which he wished to write. Accordingly, the poem may not have been transmitted for this reason, or it may simply have been lost due to the general vagaries of manuscript circulation and survival. The very varied presentation of the text in extant manuscripts of the Vita Nova bears witness to such complications, like Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ms. Chigiano L VIII 305, c. 7r.
Nevertheless, it was noted that the Dante of Vita Nova VI is no raw beginner, despite its
being written early in his poetic career. Instead, the composition displays an integrity of its own, and Dante uses such words as meravigliosamente and sofferse to harness immediacy and give the serventese life. This connects to the discussion at the first Re-reading the Vita Nova seminar regarding the Vita Nova’s approach to particularity, and our engagement with the spaces and names Dante discusses. Thus, it is possible that the serventese was only ever imagined, a device to enable Dante to associate Beatrice with the number nine, due to its numerological significance. The other fifty-nine names are absent from Vita Nova VI, although there are hints at Rime LII that at least thirty of them exist. Yet Vita Nova VI mentions these other ladies only so Dante can place Beatrice ninth amongst them. Hers is the only name that matters here, so it is of little relevance whether Dante really did write the serventese. Instead Vita Nova VI shows Dante moving towards a place where Beatrice’s is the only name of importance, a place of beatitude.
Even so, it was recognised that there will be parts of the Vita Nova that trouble us along the way, when Dante mentions other women’s names or their existence, and even composes lyrics for these so-called ‘screen ladies’. The names of these ladies intrigue us, since we do not know them as Dante’s peers would have done. The lyrics themselves, even where only mentioned in the Vita Nova,both enable Dante to experiment with genre and stage a journey of spiritual and literary progression. Their re-writing and compilation for the Vita Nova show Dante constructing both his authorial persona and his readership.
At the second event in the ‘Re-reading Dante’s Vita nova‘ series, researchers from all over the UK came together with interested students and members of the public to hear new ideas about Dante’s formative early work, the Vita nova, presented by researchers from UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS). Dr Catherine Keen and Dr Alex Lee welcomed us on the day, and we were also joined by researchers from the University of Notre Dame via video uplink.
Katie Sparrow (a graduate student at Notre Dame) reports:
The second meeting of the ‘Re-reading Dante’s Vita nova’ project followed a display of special editions of the Vita nova with presentations from both UCL staff and students. Giulia Gaimari, a current PhD student, opened the presentations with an overview of chapters V-XII of the Barbi edition of the Vita nova, and the rime within these chapters. Within the overview, Gaimari drew attention to the different screen women used by Dante in his “concealing mission” of disguising his love for Beatrice, as well as to the physical and emotional effects of Beatrice’s greeting on the poet.
Dr Catherine Keen’s presentation on the selection/inclusion and omission of Dante’s lyrics within these chapters also raised several thought-provoking issues that resurfaced in the following discussion, namely chapter VI’s mention of the absent serventese listing sixty of Florence’s most beautiful ladies. The presentation exposed the relationship between the chapters and lyrics and the “treasure hunt” for texts, on which Dante sends his reader. Dante also provides lyrics that do not directly address la gentilissima Beatrice, and in doing so, draws attention to the problem of insincerity and of courtly love language, to the tension between authentic inward presentation and inauthentic outward presentation. As Prof. Keen asked the seminar: how does one verify the authentic correlation of an external presentation of love and its internal truth? Dante finds a resolution to this tension in his first and only ballata of the libello, where he dispels his ambiguous lyrics using the words of Love.
Dante’s use of the Book of Lamentations in the Vita nova was discussed by Dr Jennifer Rushworth, lecturer of modern French and comparative literature. Opening with an explanation of the Christian appropriation of the Jewish Book of Lamentations, the presentation delineated its three citations in the Vita nova and the questions raised by them. By tracing the appropriation of the Jewish text by the Christian tradition during Holy Week, and later by Dante in the Vita nova, Rushworth was able to draw attention to uncomfortable parallels created by Dante. The first equated the destroyed city of Jerusalem to a later Jerusalem that witnessed the crucifixion, and then to Dante’s Florence. More troubling than this, as we were reminded, was the parallel drawn between the widow of the deceased in the Jewish text, the crucifixion in the Christian appropriation, and Beatrice’s death as well as the departure of the screen-lady in Dante’s libello. Once more, the question of Dante’s sincerity was raised as the presentation probed the exaggerated mourning for this screen-lady’s leaving, equalled to the death of Beatrice.
Bringing the presentations to a close was Prof John Took, who enthusiastically discussed the postponement of bliss in Dante. This final presentation addressed these chapters in relation to, not only the rest of the Vita nova, but Dante’s œuvres as a whole. The emancipation from the “infernal” and unresolved is explored and portrayed in these chapters of the Vita nova, but also in Dante’s journey through the Commedia, and even as part of his search for identity in the De vulgari eloquentia. As Prof. Took reminded us, it was only through a fresh and deeper understanding of Love that Dante was able to emancipate himself from the insincerity and uncertainty that was the common theme in the seminar’s presentations.
The second seminar of the collaborative research project ‘Re-Reading Dante’s Vita nova’, held at University College of London on the 10th November, was accompanied by a book display showing a wide range of print editions of Dante’s works, from the editio princeps of the Vita nova, dating back to 1576, to translations of his texts into English and French.
The books on display were kindly made available by the UCL Dante Collection, an real treasure trove for anyone interested in Dante and the history of Dante Studies. With almost 3000 volumes, the Dante Collection took its origin from the bequest made in 1876 by the eminent Dante scholar Henry Clark Barlow and, from that moment onwards, it continued to blossom thanks to other donations or acquisitions.
The editio princeps of the Vita nova was one of the most remarkable items of the exhibition. Printed in 1576 in the stamperia of Bartolomeo Sermartelli, the text had to wrestle with censorship, as we can see in changes to the representation of Beatrice and the references to Scripture. These revisions were imposed by the new cultural atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation, the movement within the Roman Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation sparked by Luther 500 years ago.
Visitors to the exhibition were also able admire the second printed edition of the Vita nova, published in Florence in 1723 and included in a single volume bringing together Dante’s Convivio, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Vita di Dante [Life of Dante] and letters of both authors. Its editor, Anton Maria Biscioni, somewhat surprisingly (given the inclusion of Boccaccio’s Vita) drew on a Venetian manuscript independent of the tradition of texts descended from Boccaccio’s own copy.
Biscioni’s 1723 edition was, in turn, the text on which the volume of the Vita nova printed in Venice in 1741 was based. With these differing family trees of printed texts, visitors were able to see the ways in which print editions, like manuscript copies, can diverge due to cultural pressures, available resources, editorial decisions, and new research, leaving multiple versions of the ‘same’ text in circulation at any given time. This is still true today as two major ‘versions’ of Dante’s little book continue to circulate, Michele Barbi’s edition, and Giuglielmo Gorni’s, which divide up the Vita nova into different sections, among other distinctions.
Another valuable volume was the 1491 edition of Dante’s Commedia, complete with Cristoforo Landino’s commentary to the text. Particularly notable for being the first fully illustrated print edition, it contains one hundred woodcut images and decorated initials at the start of each canto.
The display also included several translations of Dante’s works, including the 1835 edition of The Canzoniere of Dante Alighieri, which collects Dante’s lyric poems from the Vita nova and Convivio, translated by Charles Lyell, and the first complete translation into English of the Vitanova, realised by Joseph Garrow and printed in Florence in 1846. One more English translation of the Vita nova was on view, this one dating back to 1874 and produced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, along with his sisters Christina and Maria, nurtured a keen passion for the Dantesque universe throughout his entire life. Rossetti’s version enjoyed great popularity, becoming one of the most well-known and acclaimed English translation of the Vita nova in the nineteenth century. As for versions in other languages, the book display included the 1848 edition of Dante Alighieri, ou La poésie amoureuse, which, besides representing the first French translation of the Vita nova, contains a commentary on medieval literary aesthetics, especially in relation to the theme of love.
The exhibition not only gave visitors a chance to see some of the treasures of UCL’s Dante collections, but also demonstrated the pan-European appeal and influence of Dante’s writing.
All images courtesy of UCL Library Special Collections.
Further information about UCL Library Special Collections material relating to Dante can be found at:
We’re delighted to announce that, as well as the presentations and discussion, there will be a small book display to accompany the day, featuring Special Collections material including the editio princeps of 1576, and some other wonderful 16th, 18th and 19th century material. This will be on display in the Special Collections Reading Room in the South Junction, adjacent to the main event in the Institute for Advanced Studies.
The Seminar is being hosted by UCL’s Institute for Advanced Studies, in the ‘Common Ground’ seminar space, Wilkins Building South Wing, UCL. The chapters proposed for close discussion this time are Vita nova ch. 5-12 (Barbi’s numbering), and the speakers will include (in alphabetical order) Giulia Gaimari, Catherine Keen, Jennifer Rushworth, and John Took.
Plans for the day are being finalised, so watch this space for a full formal programme. Meanwhile, please save the date, and spread the word.