Thomas M. Izbicki

title.none: Hollander, Dante's Epistle to Cangrande

identifier.other: baj9928.9407.003 94.07.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas M. Izbicki, Johns Hopkins University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Hollander, Robert. Dante's Epistle to Cangrande. Series: Recentiores: Later Latin Texts and Contexts. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.07.03

Hollander, Robert. Dante's Epistle to Cangrande. Series: Recentiores: Later Latin Texts and Contexts. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Reviewed by:

Thomas M. Izbicki
Johns Hopkins University

Readers of this brief and trenchant volume should have a copy of the Epistle in front of them.1 Robert Hollander, a distinguished Dantist, presumes of the reader an in-depth acquaintance with the text and with a great deal of the literature concerning it. One needs to know that the Epistleis described as divided into three parts, the dedication to Cangrande, the accessus and the exposition. Of these, the dedicatory letter to Cangrande is accepted to some, but not all, of those who dislike attributing the complete letter to Dante. Most of the key writers cited by Hollander will be mentioned below; but note that no chapter is devoted to Bruno Nardi, one of the most important recent authorities denying the authenticity of the complete Epistle, though not of the dedication. Hollander, however, has set about refuting Nardi and his like, vindicating Franceso Mazzoni's position that the letter is authentic, even where he does not agree with every point that scholar has made.

There are two dominant themes in Hollander's work while a third theme is discernible. The two dominant themes, as is clear from his review of the literature, concern the interpretation of the Epistle itself: 1) that the arguments advanced against authenticity are less impressive than some might think; 2) that there is a strong case to be made instead for authenticity. (Hollander, however, admits that, short of the finding of an autograph, the question cannot be answered beyond all doubt.) The third, underlying theme is one relevant to all efforts to interpret texts, that scholars should not defend their interpretations at the expense of the text. Certain Dantists are criticized for deciding what Dante's intentions must have been in the Divine Comedy and then dismissing the Epistle if it does not support their interpretations. (The reviewer will admit that his own doubts about the validity of many modern interpretations of texts, and not just of literary works, run in a similar direction.)

One should note here that Hollander makes extensive use of the Dartmouth Dante Project when examining early interpreters of Dante to determine whether they were aware of the Epistle. In doing so, he illustrates one of the benefits of using electronic full-text resources, their ability to permit us to compare related passages swiftly and efficiently. Here, more than in the detailed critiques offered of arguments against the letter's authenticity, lies the book's interest to the reviewer.

The Dartmouth Dante Project, for those not familiar with it, is a database, the construction of which Professor Hollander has supervised, containing texts of the Divine Comedy (Petrocchi edition) and of 46 commentaries, complete or partial, on it. (The complete database is expected to contain 60 commentaries.) Access can be gained via TELNET or through the online catalogue of Dartmouth University's Baker Library. The texts mounted can be searched by term or by canto and line in the Comedy. Search results are displayed with the appropriate text from the Petrocchi edition followed in chronological order by the comments retrieved.

Evidence gained by use of the Dartmouth Dante Project is used where appropriate, but sufficient detail is not given to allow the reader to look over the author's shoulder as he used his computer to frame inquiries relating the text of the Epistle to the Comedy and its commentaries, particularly the latter. One can follow, however, his progression through the recent literature concerning the authenticity of the Epistle, assessing the arguments presented.

The introduction speaks of the days when the Epistle was regarded as authentic and the Comedy's essence was believed to be theological, as described in the Epistle. In more recent years the balance of critical opinion has favored doubting Dante's authorship of the letter, or even dismissing of the text in its present form as spurious. While setting out to redress the balance, the author pauses to argue, against Teodolinda Barolini, that the question of authenticity is important. The ability of the Epistle to limit the critic's freedom, according to Hollander, lies at the bottom of most efforts to deny the poet's authorship of the letter.

The author also briefly reviews the older literature on the Epistle, from Filippo Villani's first mention of Dante's name as author to the most recent critics, noting in passing that some who cannot accept the Epistle in its present form still accept the opening paragraphs addressed to Cangrande as genuine. Nonetheless, the work of Giorgio Brugnoli and Mazzoni is described as subsuming the older literature, permitting the author to begin with the case made by the former against the Epistle.

Hollander begins the body of his text with a chapter on Brugnoli's edition of the Epistle, whose apparatus reflects the arguments of Nardi and others against the authenticity of the text in its present form. It is not possible to present every argument, even in an online review. Attention will be given mostly to those concerned with the wholeness of the Epistle, its relationship to the early commentators — the portion of the study most dependant on electronic access, and the allergy to theology shown by so many critics, both medieval and contemporary.

Certain points stand out in Hollander's critique of Brugnoli. First of all, Brugnoli finds it possible to accept the dedicatory portion of the letter, but not the transition sentence from it to the accessus, which he dismissed as forged despite its appearance in the three fifteenth century copies, the oldest manuscript evidence for the text. Hollander argues that this sentence in the truncated version was excerpted, with the rest of the material, from a version of the complete text, although there is no manuscript copy of it dated earlier than the sixteenth century. This continuity is offered to argue that the text must be analyzed as an entire work, not piecemeal.

The author's dating of the Epistle in this chapter also bears mention. Unlike many of the recent critics, he follows Mazzoni in placing the letter in the period 1315-1317, in which the Paradiso could have been dedicated to Cangrande while as yet incomplete. Then the praise of the Scaliger in the middle canto of the cantica can be argued to echo the letter, despite Brugnoli's supposition that the latter is too inept to be from the poet's hand. The parallel passages in the Paradiso then would be just one more example of the poet's documented tendency to self-citation.

The very use of the term cantica, with its biblical echo, in the Epistle is defended as evidence of the poet's theological intent. Hollander is able to add to Pertile's citation of John of Serraville's commentary that of Benvenuto of Imola to show early awareness of this reference to the Song of Solomon. Even if these commentators use the term gingerly, the author argues that Dante himself used it confidently, as well he might when explicating his own work in the letter. This is part of a larger problem of Dante's use of theological allegory, which is supported by the Epistle and denied by certain critics with their allergy to theology. Hollander argues, more against Nardi than Brugnoli, that the poet knew that there were "fictive" elements in his poem, despite his serious theological item.

Following his critique of Brugnoli, Hollander moves on to buttress his case for authenticity with evidence from Mazzoni and Luis Jenaro-MacLennan. Much of this chapter is devoted to showing how various lines from the Epistle are reflected in the early commentators. Here the author is able to show use not only of the dedicatory material, portion of the work most often accepted as genuine, but of the accessus and the exposition, the disputed second and third sections, in numerous places. One need only note as an example the presence of the term polisemos (7.20-21) in Boccaccio's exposition of the Inferno. Any argument that the "forger" built on these commentators, rather than vice versa, is dismissed as less likely than that of Jenaro- MacLennan that they built on the poet's own work. The earliest critics thus are argued to have been aware of the whole letter and often dependent on it in their own ways. Hollander regards this evidence as implying, further, that this influence supports the case for the poet as author.

After offering this evidence for authenticity, Hollander returns to his examination of the arguments to the contrary. He deals next with Peter Dronke's revival of the argument from the cursus or prose rhythm of the work. Hollander questions the analysis of all parts of the Epistle as if they were epistolary. The change from dedicatory address to comment could explain differences of cursus, and we lack another Latin commentary by Dante to use in a comparison. Hollander also takes issue with the significance of some of the statistical evidence presented, which often differs from critic to critic. He also offers his "sense" that the prose style of the letter is not too different from that of the Monarchia. (Although this is not firm evidence, the "sense" of so experienced a Dantist could be made the springboard for a fresh analysis of the Latin style of the text.)

The author's harshest criticisms are reserved for Henry Ansgar Kelly, especially for his argument that the Epistle was assembled from bits and pieces by various hands late in the fourteenth century. Here Hollander returns to the question of the use of the letter by the commentators, arguing that the more likely pattern of influence was that of one text (Dante's) on many, rather than of many on those who assembled the letter from bits and pieces. Here the author has difficulty only with the failure of any of his sources before Filippo Villani to refer to Dante by name when referring to the Epistle. Following Padoan, the author leans toward the commentators' being uncomfortable with the theological implications of their poet's own exposition of the text. (One can argue that, for once, Hollander is insufficiently bold. The failure of medieval writers to cite by name their real, especially contemporary, sources is no great ground for comment. One need only think of the number of polemicists who cited the Fathers from such sources as Gratian's Decretum or Aquinas' Catena aurea to dismiss any objection to the authenticity of the letter from its not being cited under Dante's name as overdrawn.)

Last among the hostile critics Hollander approaches the one he seems to respect most, Baranski. Once again much of the argument turns on the chronological relationship of the Epistleto the commentators. Here the author does mention the possibility that attribution of authorship slipped away in the commentaries, especially as they underwent revision. The possibility also is suggested that, just as the dedication circulated separately, so might the accessus and exposition, perhaps prefacing a copy of the Comedy, further reasons that the poet's name might have been dropped from the early commentaries. More intriguing, the author suggests that the commentators were as uneasy with Dante's theological enterprize as are many modern ones and, while unable to ignore it, used it circumspectly. Here his reading of the commentators is juxtaposed with Baranski's complaint that the letter makes the poet too conventional, which misses the very novelty which bothered the earliest writers cited in this debate. Baranski also questioned the possibility that the poet would have translated any lines from his poem into Latin while writing the exposition, since he had defended his use of the vernacular against the criticisms of Giovanni del Virgilio. Hollander rightly points out that doing a commentary entirely in Latin was typical of the time and that rendering a few lines into another tongue does not indicate any intention of doing more of the same. Hollander also maintains that this bit of commentary was not intended to be a start on a larger work, just an example of exegetical technique offered to a potential patron by a poet in need of patrons and subventions.

Hollander concludes with further evidence of the early commentators use of the Epistle, much of it, like that offered earlier, dependent on the Dartmouth Dante Project. Here, once more, the author argues that the earliest critics knew the letter to be authentic but were uncomfortable with its theological claims. The argument presented here is intriguing, often persuasive; but, as the author admits, the case cannot be proved beyond a doubt. He has proved beyond any reasonable doubt how intensively, if coyly, the Epistle was used. Here he has shown how valuable the Dartmouth Dante Project can be when used in the analysis of texts. That he believes the early commentators were unhappy with its theological content is as intriguing as his demonstration that modern critics too easily dismiss what does not fit their interests is quite believable. That Hollander regards the failure of writers before Villani to mention Dante's name as significant does something to undermine the firmness of his argumentation, but the gauntlet has been thrown to the opponents of authenticity. It is up to them to reply as well as Hollander has presented his affirmative case.

1 The lectures on which this volume in the series Recentiores was based, accompanied by a Latin text and an English translation of the Epistle, are available in an electronic form on the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Computer Analysis of Texts gopher ( under the heading Electronic Publications.