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Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance

Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance

by Deborah Parker

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Dante's Divine Comedy played a dual role in its relation to Italian Renaissance culture, actively shaping the fabric of that culture and, at the same time, being shaped by it. This productive relationship is examined in Commentary and Ideology, Deborah Parker's thorough compendium on the reception of Dante's chief work. By studying the social and


Dante's Divine Comedy played a dual role in its relation to Italian Renaissance culture, actively shaping the fabric of that culture and, at the same time, being shaped by it. This productive relationship is examined in Commentary and Ideology, Deborah Parker's thorough compendium on the reception of Dante's chief work. By studying the social and historical circumstances under which commentaries on Dante were produced, the author clarifies the critical tradition of commentary and explains the ways in which this important body of material can be used in interpreting Dante's poem.
Parker begins by tracing the criticism of Dante commentaries from the nineteenth century to the present and then examines the tradition of commentary from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. She shows how the civic, institutional, and social commitments of commentators shaped their response to the Comedy, and how commentators tried to use the poem as an authoritative source for various kinds of social legitimation. Parker discusses how different commentators dealt with a deeply political section of the poem: the damnation of Brutus and Cassius.
The scope and importance of Commentary and Ideology will command the attention of a broad group of scholars, including Italian specialists on Dante, late medievalists, students and professionals in early modern European literature, bibliographers, critical theorists, historians of literary criticism and theory, and cultural and intellectual historians.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Commentary and Ideology makes a timely appearance into the theoretical discussions of today. Parker's work is informed by such theorists as Jauss and Bakhtin and by new developments in bibliographic studies, and this offers a perspective on her material which is both original and truly exciting."—Craig William Kellendorf, Texas A & M University

"Parker's vision is subtle and nuanced, and it offers richly textured insights into the dynamics of reception that take account of received opinion, communities of readership, registers of response, and unconscious as well as conscious interpretative choices. Parker's book stands in a class by itself in the study of Dante reception."—William J. Kennedy, Cornell University

"The vast corpus of medieval commentary on Dante has for far too long been either ignored, misunderstood, marginalised, or read for supposedly significant details, which wrenched from their context, have been made to serve needs of modern editors and critics—needs which are very different from those of the original commentators. It is time that this corpus was seen whole and in its proper historical context. Deborah Parker's book represents a major step in that direction. It should be read not just by Dantists but by anyone with an interest in medieval hermeneutics."—Alastair Minnis, University of York

"This book's shift in focus from criticism itself to the nature of its interpretive legacy has now made possible—perhaps 'necessary' is the better word—whole new lines of scholarly and critical thinking. The book's method, a kind of new philology, represents an important and innovative approach to reading."—Jerome McGann, University of Virginia

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Commentary and Ideology

Dante in the Renaissance

By Deborah Parker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9940-7


Dante's Medieval and Renaissance Commentators: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Constructions

Criticism of Dante's medieval and Renaissance commentators in the last ten years encompasses a wide range of philological activity: detailed investigations into the earliest commentators' use of sources; new attempts to settle questions concerning dating, dependencies, and attribution; and in-depth studies of one commentator or of a period of commentary. These studies testify eloquently to the recent resurgence of interest in Dante commentaries. However, there is an uncanny sense of repetition to this situation. Resurgences of interest in commentary are periodic. The diverse interests of the last ten years have been in part conditioned by the kinds of studies of commentary that dominated the nineteenth century, the period in which commentary first emerges as an object of criticism. The legacies of these earlier nineteenth-century studies still crisscross the surface of recent work—largely unexamined, yet exerting a considerable influence on later critical activity.

Positivism, Nationalism, and Antiquarianism

Although no brief narrative can account for all the particulars, it is nonetheless possible to identify the influences significant to the move from commentary to criticism of the commentaries. This reorientation was largely due to the effects of positivism, nationalism, and antiquarianism. These three impulses, each of which produces a different thread of the critical legacy, underwrite the renewed interest in Dante in the nineteenth century.

The work of scholars like Alessandro D'Ancona, Adolfo Bartoli, Giuseppe Vandelli, and Isidoro Del Lungo is associated with the historical school of criticism that flourished in Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The locus of most of these studies was Florence, which had a long tradition of Dante studies and was the center of other philological-historical researches. Positivist research on Dante tended to focus on the state of the text of the Comedy, on the reconstruction of the poet's historical moment, and on the identification of Dante's literary precursors. We can best get a sense of the spirit and practice of these positivist researches by examining their contribution to one of the most prominent critical issues of the latter half of the nineteenth century: the matter of whether Beatrice was strictly a symbol or a historical person. D'Ancona contended that she was a real woman. Bartoli, on the other hand, argued that Beatrice was based on a feminine ideal inspired by a number of women admired by Dante. This issue was resolved, in part, through recourse to an early commentary on the poem. Bartoli, after being informed by one of his students, Luigi Rocca, that Pietro Alighieri refers to Beatrice Portinari as the woman whom his father loved, published a letter to D'Ancona in the Florentine newspaper La Nazione. This letter, writes Rodolfo Renier, was widely regarded as una mezza ritrattazione on the part of Bartoli. What is significant in this debate is the particular use made of commentary at this time—as a means of adjudicating a dispute, as a kind of critical referee. Such a use was by no means unprecedented or unusual: in the previous century professional scholars and aristocratic connoisseurs had often consulted the medieval and Renaissance commentaries to determine the meaning of obscure points in the poem. Motivated by antiquarian interests, scholars such as Antonio Rosso Martini had examined the codices in the libraries of the Accademia della Crusca and San Lorenzo to check the meaning of words like cruna (Purgatorio 21.37) and brigata (Purgatorio 14.106) in the commentaries of Francesco da Buti, Landino, and Vellutello. Occasionally these forays would lead to speculations concerning the commentaries' dating and provenance. Bartoli, like other scholars, consulted the commentaries as one might other early documents in order to cast light on critical issues of the day. This unreflexive use of commentary is typical: Pietro Alighieri's remarks acquire immediately an authoritative status because of his vicinity to the poet—as a contemporary and as Dante's son. His comments settle, prematurely, a hotly contested interpretive point, with a serene innocence as to the historical status of this commentary in general. This aspect of positivist scholarship, an "objective description of a series of events in an isolated past," fails to consider the historicity of either the Comedy or commentaries to it. Part of its seemingly authoritative status in settling modern disputes results from the particular twists and turns of the ensuing commentary tradition. The tradition of commentary has, in part, worked to produce modern readers who would perceive a force to and authority in Pietro's remarks. The power of Pietro's work to settle interpretative disputes is not so much owing to the commentator's sagacity as to the situation of readers such as Bartoli, who have been prepared to see authority in Pietro's work by the commentary tradition in which they participate and by which they were formed.

A more direct evaluation of the commentaries is offered by Karl Witte, whose work on the poet represents the culmination of the golden age of Dante scholarship in Germany between the 1820s and 1860s. As elsewhere in Europe, historical studies flourished in Germany, but the particular contribution of German scholarship was the emphasis accorded philology. In an essay that with typical directness he titles "The Art of Misunderstanding Dante" (1823), Witte called for greater philological-historical scrupulousness in textual matters. Witte's hopes of producing a more accurate text of the Comedy led him to examine hundreds of manuscripts of the early commentaries for what he hoped would be more reliable transcriptions of the poem. Although Witte's archival researches yielded little in the way of a more correct text of the Comedy, his increasing familiarity with the commentaries did provide him with a new object of study. He amended, for example, many of Paul Colomb De Batines's conjectures concerning the dating and dependencies between Jacopo della Lana and the Ottimo commentator, and many of his observations inform Luigi Rocca's later assessment of these two commentators.

Witte's comparisons between these commentaries and those of his own day also increased critics' awareness of the contributions of early commentaries. In Witte's eyes, nineteenth-century commentators were insensitive to the poem's religious meaning, and their political readings were so farfetched that they were markedly inferior to their medieval predecessors. "Exegesis," writes Witte, "is pre-eminently the happy hunting ground of caprice and ignorance." Witte singles out for condemnation the failures of Pompeo Venturi (1732) and Baldassare Lombardi (1791) to consult the earliest glosses in the preparation of their commentaries. These sobering comparisons often revealed that readings touted by recent commentators as new had already been proffered by the poem's earliest readers. The effect of such research on the resurgence of critical interest cannot be underestimated. By the end of the century a small commentary industry had sprung up.

D'Ancona's study of the figure of Beatrice was published in 1865. The date is significant: it coincides with the height of nationalistic sentiment in Italy and with the sixth centenary of Dante's birth—hence also the complexity of the legacy I have been tracing: positivist scholarship is taken up into a system of purposes provided by partisan sentiment. The Risorgimento fueled tremendous interest in the Middle Ages in general, but particularly in authors who, like Dante and Machiavelli, were perceived as patriotic. Dante incarnated nationalism: he was the first important author to write a significant work in Italian; he had eloquently defended the volgare illustre as a literary language; and in the De vulgari eloquentia he had argued for the necessity of a national language. Even the hardships of exile had not diminished Dante's love for his homeland. There was no shortage of material well suited for the glorification of the poet: studies and tributes to Dante abound between the 1820s and the 1860s and culminate in May 1865 with three days of national festivities. Hailed as the prophet of the new united Italy, the figure of Dante galvanized the popular imagination throughout the country. Critics like Bartoli and D'Ancona and poets like Carducci wrote on Dante, at least in part, out of a nationalistic spirit. D'Ancona's interest in the poet, for example, was initially inspired by Francesco De Sanctis's impassioned Dante lectures in Turin (1854-55) during his exile from Naples. "La prima ventura che mi è stata concessa," writes D'Ancona, "e della quale giorno per giorno, ora per ora, ringrazio la Provvidenza, è l'esser nato e vissuto nei tempi del Risorgimento italiano (The first fortune that has been conceded to me, for which day by day, hour by hour, I thank Providence, is to have been born and to have lived in the time of the Italian Risorgimento)". The figure of Dante exemplified the political commitment, rebirth, and national unity that pervaded the scholarly and civic activities of patriotic critics like D'Ancona and De Sanctis.

De Sanctis's lectures on Dante are shot through with nationalistic statements. His essay on Inferno 10 is a monument to the spirit of the Risorgimento. Its focus is Farinata degli Uberti, the great captain of the Ghibellines whom Dante encounters among the heretics. The essay's revolutionary spirit is evident from the first page: De Sanctis recalls the passions that brought about the French Revolution in an effort to reproduce the sentiments underlying Dante's concezione colossale —Farinata. For De Sanctis, the canto's overriding theme is amor della patria, a sentiment that Dante himself embodies: "fatto parte per se stesso, alzatosi sopra amici e nemici, le ire e le ingiustizie partigiane sono in lui temperate da un sentimento più nobile: dall'amor della patria (having made a party unto himself, having risen above friends and enemies, the anger and partisan injustices in him were tempered by a more noble sentiment: by the love of his homeland)." Who could better exemplify the transcendence of partisan feelings than Dante? It is difficult to imagine how D'Ancona could not have been moved by such rousing statements.

Just as patriots claimed Dante as a symbol of national unity from the past, so did many see in Giosuè Carducci's poems a contemporary expression of the new Italy. It comes as little surprise therefore that Carducci was invited to write an article on Dante's critical fortune for the sixth centenary. One section of this piece, "Gli editori e i primi commentatori della Divina Commedia" (1867), represents the first overview of the commentaries of Jacopo Alighieri, Graziolo Bambaglioli, Jacopo della Lana, the Ottimo commentator, Guido da Pisa, and Pietro Alighieri. Carducci is essentially interested in providing an account of the reception of the Comedy among Dante's contemporaries and near contemporaries; therefore his focus is not so much on the commentaries themselves as on ascertaining who were the poem's supporters and detractors. Carducci seeks evidence of a continuity between the past and the present; hence, he emphasizes recognition by Dante's contemporaries of the poet's patriotism and greatness. Viewed in this way, the commentaries serve to augment and supplement the Risorgimento's vision of Dante as an inspirational symbol of unity and nationalism. Nevertheless Carducci's work, like that of Witte earlier, provided later scholars with a basis for more detailed analyses of the early commentaries. Although Carducci is largely interested in tracing the activity of "gli ombrosi della gloria di Dante," he also discusses dependencies among the commentaries.

Antiquarianism also played an important role in the move from commentary to criticism of the commentaries. A significant number of the nineteenth-century editions were made possible by the English Dantophile Lord George Vernon, who provided the funds for the publication of the commentaries of Jacopo Alighieri, Graziolo Bambaglioli, Pietro Alighieri, and the falso Boccaccio. After Vernon's death, his son William Vernon paid for the publication of J. P. Lacaita's five-volume edition of Benvenuto da Imola. By the turn of the century the majority of Dante's fourteenth- and fifteenth-century commentaries were available in modern editions. Given this remarkable output, it comes as little surprise that in a review of an edition of Graziolo Bambaglioli one critic describes this period as being imbued with a "fervore di studi sugli antichi commentatori." Many of the men who were involved in the production of these editions were friends, and this community exemplifies the mutual reliance of amateur and scholar. George Vernon, for example, numbered among his friends J. P. Lacaita, editor of Benvenuto da Imola, and Vincenzo Nannucci, editor of Pietro Alighieri as well as Pietro Fraticelli (1852) and Brunone Bianchi (1844), both of whom had written their own commentaries to the poem.

Vernon's son, William Vernon, shared his father's fascination with Dante. Like his father, William Vernon also numbered among his friends many scholars, including Edward Moore, Paget Toynbee, and Charles Eliot Norton. The extent of the community inhabited by the younger Vernon is remarkable. His acquaintance with Norton's work, for instance, was largely conducted through correspondence. Their abiding love of Dante and interest in commentaries are evident in their correspondence: in a letter of 1888 Norton lists among the books "indispensable" to a student of Dante, the commentaries of "Boccaccio, Buti, Benvenuto and ... Landino." William Vernon's and Charles Eliot Norton's correspondence, along with their related publications, testify to the resurgence of scholarly interest in the commentaries in different countries. A remarkable parallel between Italy's elevation of Dante as symbol of patriotism and national unity can be found in Norton's moralizing on the poet: in the midst of the Civil War, Norton, too, offered Dante as a symbol of courage and sacrifice to American youths.

A different kind of involvement and promotion of commentaries can be seen in the activities of the bibliophile Willard Fiske. Primarily between 1893 and 1896, he amassed one of the most extensive Dante collections in the world. Fiske's activities as a bibliophile put him in contact with Norton, who recommended that the librarian, Wesley Koch, catalog Fiske's collection when it was donated to Cornell. Although this fascination of antiquarian patrons and bibliophiles with the commentaries is confined to a relatively small circle of individuals, their effect on Dante studies was significant. The concentrated efforts of this small but influential group of individuals constitutes an important aspect of the critical tradition.

By the end of the nineteenth century these forces had combined to produce a steady interest in the commentaries. The positivist studies of scholars such as Adolfo Bartoli and Alessandro D'Ancona; the bibliographical data and initial evaluations furnished by Colomb De Batines, Carducci, and Witte; the elevation of Dante to a figure of national unity; the publication of critical editions of the early commentaries; and the antiquarian interests of a variety of scholars and aristocratic connoisseurs all contribute to this development. But the different impulses underlying these activities bequeath a varied and somewhat fragmented legacy. Carducci's and Witte's studies seek to distinguish the different critical contributions of the earliest commentators; the work of D'Ancona and Bartoli provide the basis for a philological-historical approach to literature. Nevertheless, the sudden availability of critical editions provides new opportunities for scholars: a shift in focus from the poem itself to the nature of its interpretive legacy was now possible.

The Legacy of the Historical School

The continuation of interest in the commentaries at the turn of the century was largely owing to the personal legacy of critics like D'Ancona and Bartoli. Projects envisioned by these scholars were subsequently realized by some of their students. At Bartoli's instigation, Luigi Rocca undertook a detailed examination of Dante's earliest commentators. Michele Barbi wrote a thesis on Dante's reception in the Renaissance under the directorship of Alessandro D'Ancona. Rocca's Di alcuni commenti composti nei primi vent'anni dopo la morte di Dante (1891) and Michele Barbi's La fortuna di Dante nel secolo XVI (1890) are among the first book-length studies of Dante's respective medieval and Renaissance commentators. Somewhat later, another of Bartoli's students, Guido Biagi, helped realize perhaps the most ambitious of his teacher's ideas, the compilation of an anthology of the commentaries.


Excerpted from Commentary and Ideology by Deborah Parker. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Deborah Parker is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia.

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