After the four thought-provoking papers were presented, the audience engaged in a lively discussion on Vita nova XIII-XVIII.
Laura Seemann (a graduate student at Oxford) reports:
Initially the discussion focused on the divisions of the text. After a brief examination of the break between XVII and XVIII in particular, the question was raised what the exact role of these chapter divisions might be and how these breaks relate to one another. It was noted, that XVII, for instance, appears to be preparing the way for the next chapter: there is a ‘rubrication’ of events which will follow in XVIII. In the light of these connections the chapters might perhaps even be considered one long chapter with a break (or proem/rubric + chapter) instead of two distinct chapters marked by numbered division, which carries greater weight.
Indeed, it was argued that the VN suffers from overdivision by both its readers and the text itself, which imposes limits and interruptions. While the text seems to reveal a desire to control the way it is read, these interruptive divisions distract and reveal how this control does not fully work. The almost obsessive repetitions of cominciare and fine throughout the VN show how Dante’s strategy was both successful and unsuccessful as divisions accumulate and break down the cohesiveness the text previously created. These divisions reflect an anxiety of interpretation and Dante’s need to make clear how the text must be read and interpreted. Is this authority the reflection of a new desired authorship?
The conversation then briefly focused on rhyme schemes in the VN before moving to the next greater point of discussion: the question of the interlocutor and the audience. It was noted that there appears to be a shift after XVII, where Dante ends his discourse with the the singular donna and directs himself at the donne. However, what seems to be a stake is something far greater than only a shift from a single interlocutor to a group.
By turning from the donna to the donne, Dante quits a traditional lyric mode as if to announce the beginning of a new ‘era’: the time of the plural women-as-interlocutors. In XIX he will address these women with the famous opening of his canzone ‘donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’ [ladies who have understanding of love] and he emphasises these plural women who are, in fact, neither subject nor object to this love.
And what exactly might this ‘intelletto’ that Dante is talking about be? One speaker suggested that it might be more than knowledge and perhaps include ethical aspects or perhaps even philosophical dimensions with regards to Purgatorio XXV. This change of interlocutor might also reflect the shifting concept of space in the VN. One speaker argued that after a more introspective Cavalcantian perception of space (camera delle lacrime), there is a turning away from his claustrophobic (or perhaps claustrophilic) enclosure to a more social space which generates a new kind of poetry. This new lyric is based on this very authority as he controls the reader constructing both his readership and his authorial persona.
Laura Seemann is a masters students focussing on medieval Italian and French at the University of Oxford.
University of Oxford, 2 February 2018
The roving Vita nova readings came to the Taylor Institution Library in Oxford in February, where Professor Elena Lombardi welcomed participants from all of the Universities involved in the project and interested members of the public.
Rebecca Bowen, (a DPhil student at Oxford), reports:
Focusing on Chapter XIII, Professor Elena Lombardi questioned whether the etymology proposed in that chapter through the biblical quotation ‘nomina sunt consequentia rerum’ can be seen to express a wider strain of ‘linguistic thought’ in the Vita Nova. Moving from Dante’s statement that ‘li nomi seguitino le nominate cose’, Lombardi showed that Dante actually employs a kind of ‘reverse’ etymology in Chapter XIII, focusing on vox rather than verbum (‘lo nome d’Amore è sì dolce a udire’) and so providing a definition that moves from orality to ontology, not the other way around. This has repercussions on other instances of naming, particularly that of Beatrice in chapter II, whose nome contains and ordains the role she will play. However, Beatrice’s is also an open name, as it becomes exchanged with Amore himself in Chapter XXIV, further questioning the hierarchy of Dante’s nomina-res etymology. Although a clear rechristening, Lombardi wondered whether the Beatrice/Amore name-swap can be read as more than a consequence of the religious and christological build-up of the preceding chapters, whether it could even present a new, lyrical chapter in which sound, sign, and thing collide in the sonic dolcezza of poetic experience, a reflection of the lyrical nature of the text itself, perhaps?
Professor Francesca Southerden deepened our focus on Chapter XIII, unfolding the metaphor of wandering contained in Dante’s description of his conflicting, amorous thoughts. With a similar focus on language and love, Southerden exposed the spatial metaphor in Chapter XIII as an image of the undecidability of desire, tying Dante’s ‘amorosa erranza’ back to the images of wandering described in the prose passage. The lyric excess suggested in the title of sonnet, ‘Tutti li miei penser parlan d’Amore’, and the repetition and prolongation of Dante’s pain in Chapters XIV and XV can then be read as linguistic and poetic enactments of a repetitive, masochistic circle as the poet wanders in (and wonders at) his desire.
Professor Manuele Gragnolati (now at the Sorbonne) expanded the focus from the microcosm of language to the macrocosm of composition, using his talk to highlight the place of the Vita Nova in a wider literary context. After reminding us of the double temporality of the lyric poems in the Vita Nova (written and circulated before being re-collected in this prosimentrum piece) Gragnolati encouraged us to read the lyrics as sites of performance, each one acting as a mise en scène of Dante’s poetic development, creating and justifying the trajectory of improvement constructed in the framing narrative and thereby constitutive of a ‘modern’ authorial approach. This self-defined, perceptible modern author can also be understood in contrast to the often imperceptible ‘io’ of pre-modern lyric poetry, as poets had almost no authorial control over the anonymous, circulating collections of verse which abounded in the Middle Ages.
With a truly comparative analysis Gragnolati then revealed a similarity between these authorial modes and the differing theories of desire in the Vita Nova and in Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry. If with the Vita Nova Dante aims to ‘master love’ (and love poetry) with the ‘fedele consiglio de la ragione’, stopping desire through authorial control, this is the opposite to the notions of passivity, reciprocity, and abstraction implied in Cavalcanti’s (radical Aristotelean) theory of desire. If the Vita Nova creates a modern author, Gragnolati suggested, it is through the performance and control of the poet’s textual identity, via a text that also performs and controls the poet’s desire, setting the love-lyric at the heart of literary advancement in more ways than one.
Dr. David Bowe closed the presentations with a discussion on the unity of chapters XVII and XVIII. Reading them as a key pivot in the text, Bowe argued against Barbi’s chapter divisions, suggesting that these two chapters mirror and repair the emotional rupture caused by the ‘gabbo’ episode in chapter XIV and together pave the way for the stylistic shift to the ‘stile della loda’. As Bowe pointed out, chapter XVIII can be seen as a response to, and perhaps a repairing of, the humiliation of the ‘gabbo’ as the poet is finally able to move on from the destructive polyphony of his own thoughts and towards a more positive dialogue with the group of women to whom he speaks. As the active voice in this transition, the speaking woman is also presented as a knowledgeable reader of the lyric tradition; as Bowe pointed out, the final word she says is loaded lyric term (‘intendimento’) commonly used by the lady to the poet-lover. The linguistic shift to ‘intelletto’ with which Dante praises the donne in the next chapter further highlights the shift from the sad mode of his equivocal ‘amorosa erranza’ towards the more dialogic mode of the ‘stile della loda’.
The presentations were followed by a lively discussion, a report on which can be found here.
Please join us for our next meeting, 2-5pm on 27 April, 2018, where we will be discussing chapters 19-24 at the University of Bristol.
The event will be in the Verdon-Smith Room, Institute of Advanced Studies, Royal Fort House, University of Bristol, BS8 1UH.
Keep and eye on the blog and #VitanovaUK for further updates and details!
You’re very welcome to join us for the third afternoon of presentations and discussions of Dante’s Vita nova, hosted at the Taylor Institution by the University of Oxford on Friday, 2 February. You can also follow the discussion via #VitanovaUK on twitter and through this blog, which will be updated with reports from the day.
The full programme is here:
We’re looking forward to the next event in the series, to be held in the Taylor Institution Library (Room 2), at 2-5pm on Friday, 2 February.
The day will begin with a welcome at 2pm and presentations will begin at 2.15pm. There will be a coffee break at 3.45pm, followed by a session for general discussion.
We’ll be confirming the remaining details shortly and we look forward to seeing you there!