Paola Nasti

title.none: Steinberg, Accounting for Dante (Paola Nasti)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.017 08.02.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Paola Nasti, University of Reading,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Steinberg, Justin. Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in late Medieval Italy. The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 234. ISBN: $30.00 (pb) ISBN-13: 978-0-268-04122-9, ISBN-10: 0-268-0412-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.17

Steinberg, Justin. Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in late Medieval Italy. The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 234. ISBN: $30.00 (pb) ISBN-13: 978-0-268-04122-9, ISBN-10: 0-268-0412-9.

Reviewed by:

Paola Nasti
University of Reading

Accounting for Dante is one of the most original contributions to the study of Dante's lyric poetry to have appeared in the last decade. Based on extensive codicological, philological, historical and literary analysis, the book explores the impact of reception, readership, and manuscript transmission on Dante's lyric production as well as on the formation of the literary "canon" and on the literary debates of his time. Even though manuscripts like the Vaticano Latino 3793 discussed by Steinberg have been objects of much detailed and valuable investigation in the past, Dante studies have consistently underestimated the role played by the material and social conditions of manuscript culture in the context of the emergent vernacular literature. This book, on the contrary, aims at tracing "a history of duecento lyric culture that takes into account the localized and socially stratified centres of textual production active in late medieval Italy" (4). To achieve this Steinberg brings into focus issues and problems that have been discussed for decades by Dante scholars such as the transmission of Dante's texts via the Memoriali Bolognesi (Chapter 1), or the editorial rationale behind the most important manuscript of medieval lyric in Italy, Vat 3793 (Chapter 4). Yet Steinberg deals with very familiar material in such a distinctive and original fashion as to bring to life and shed new light on a long-lived debate. Readers are made aware of the cultural implications of political, social and ideological competition and discord in medieval northern and central Italy, and are therefore invited to consider literary production as a fundamental activity of men who are responding to the stimuli of their competing environments. On the basis of a good array of codicological evidence this major study tells us the fascinating story of the influence that readers' responses may have had on the "manufacturers" of literary products in medieval Italy. It also tells us about the emergence of a new urban "class" of producers of literature as well as of makers of books which used culture to influence, as well as compete with, the establishment. In particular, chapters 2, 3 and 5 attempt to recreate the impact of readership on Dante and propose unseen readings of the Vita Nuova, the De Vulgari Eloquentia and Inferno VII, XVII and XXX. Steinberg is in fact convinced that Dante's first self-anthology (Vita Nuova), his revisionist history of vernacular language in the De Vulgari, as well as his treatment of poets like Monte Andrea in the Commedia, were highly influenced by the ways in which an urban public had responded to his work, or in other words, by the ways in which his poetry had been anthologized in contemporary manuscripts by his able readers. To take just one example, Steinberg suggests that the framing of Donne che avete in the Vita Nuova was part of a complex response to the fact that the compilers of ms. Vat. 3793 copied after Dante's text a poem by Dante's Amico: Ben aggia l'amoroso et dolce chore. This canzone turned Donne che avete into a literary ludus, into a game that Dante might have so disliked that he felt moved to write the Vita Nuova in order to establish his real authorial intentions, the verace meaning of his extremely serious texts.

Chapters 1 and 4, on the other hand, offer interesting judgements on the impact of the socio-economical and political background of medieval Italy on the reception of vernacular poetry recorded by the Memoriali Bolognesi and the ms. Vat. 3793. In particular, Steinberg questions why certain poems rather than others appear beside specific notes and records in the Memoriali. In order to do that, he reminds readers of the developments in book production and use in thirteenth-century Bologna, when books were used more and more as blank "register books." These would slowly become zibaldoni which, we can assume, reflect, in one way or another, the cultural horizons of the guild of notaries and those of the new merchant class. Steinberg suggests, for example, that the exclusion of Guittone and his followers from the selection of rime included by the notaries of the Memoriali signifies a political and social ideology opposed to that of the magnati. Paleographical investigations, on the other hand, help the author to define the clear mercantile culture behind the composition of ms. Vat. 3793.

This book, bold both in its reach and approach, will inspire the debate on Dante and Italian medieval lyric and suggest new lines of reading for many years to come. Steinberg's knowledge and management of vast amounts of documentation regarding both Dante and Italian medieval lyric is commendable as are his acute observations and his clear yet imaginative writing. It would be hard for any book to satisfy such completely different groups as specialist readers and the merely "interested" ones. But although all the chapters of this book will not appeal in the same way to every reader, I cannot imagine anyone interested in manuscript culture or in Dante who would not find this book worth reading. The liveliness of Steinberg's arguments means that in spite of the different interests and background knowledge his various readers may have, this book will give all of them much food for thought.