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.
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.