Lyric Language: mockery and new material in Vita nova XIII-XVIII

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.

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Rereading Dante’s Vita nova in Bristol, 27 April #VitanovaUK

We’re looking forward to our next event at the University of Bristol which will feature talks by Rebekah Locke (Bristol), Peter Dent (Bristol), Tristan Kay (Bristol), and Simon Gilson (Oxford).
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#VitanovaUK Chapters 13-18, Oxford, 2 February 2-5pm

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!

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Writing, re-writing, and recovering ‘missing’ lyrics in Vita Nova V-XII

After hearing four stimulating presentations for the second ‘Re-reading Dante’s Vita nova’ event, we enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion in both theme and geography, with participants in London, South Bend, and Rome.

Sophie Fuller (a PhD Student at UCL) reports:

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.

Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (c.1864–70), Tate Britain, Photo © Tate

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

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Portret van Dante Alighieri, Francesco Allegrini, after Giuseppe Zocchi, 1761, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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.

Was Dante telling the truth? Re-reading Dante’s Vita nova, chapters V-XII at UCL, a report by Katie Sparrow

UCL, 10 November 2017

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The Giuntina from the UCL Special Collections book display

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.

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Lamentation, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, c.1305

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.