Michael Calabrese

title.none: Hollander, Boccaccio's Dante (Calabrese)

identifier.other: baj9928.9806.009 98.06.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, California State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Hollander, Robert. Boccaccio's Dante and the Shaping Force of Satire. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997. Pp. 225. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10767-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.06.09

Hollander, Robert. Boccaccio's Dante and the Shaping Force of Satire. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997. Pp. 225. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10767-2.

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
California State University

The work under review is not a new critical book, so to speak, but a collection of previously published essays by one of the world's greatest Boccaccio scholars. Hollander joins the essays together with a short introductory essay and with some editorial editions that serve as signposts to guide us through the "book" that now obtains. Hollander also adds a long list of previously unpublished hapax legomena from the Decameron and the Commedia. What unifies the essays' arguments and makes this appear to be a book and not just a handy compilation of Hollander's journal articles (which it is, of course) is the theme of satire, that is, in the most general sense, Boccaccio's poking fun at Dante, writing a human comedy in the place of his Divine one, generally questioning and challenging Dante's pretense to truth and authority. Hollander's Boccaccio is a deeply learned Dante scholar, able to take a word, image, phrase or motif from the Commedia and to transform its meaning and function, making it part of the human comedy, part of the world of living men and women, most of whom sit under no divine judgment and whose selfishness and expedience are bound only by the relative limits of their wit and rhetorical artistry. Boccaccio's close use of Dante's text in his own firmly links Boccaccio's work to the Commedia, and Hollander in these pieces wants to make sure that we never again (as so many have) underestimate or generalize the relationship between these great texts. Boccaccio could not have escaped Dante, nor would he have wanted to. Rather he uses the obvious and gross differences between himself and his elder to help him depict his world of story, rhetoric and desire. Boccaccio constantly positions himself in relation to the grandeur and gravity of Dante. This does not mean that Hollander feels he has unlocked new proof of the connection or that he considers this study an absolute science. Rather he invites us to listen along with him as he speculates about the full force an effect of Boccaccio's textual borrowings. And it is at the verbal level that Hollander operates, tracing echoes and allusions and pulling them like so many threads that can unravel the mystery of the relationship between Dante and Boccaccio. Hollander wants not so much for us to believe him in every detail but to become sensitized to Boccaccio's tendency to satirize Dante. If I am right, then I would say he succeeded with this reviewer.

As mentioned, all of the critical essays are reprinted from journals. In fact, one could have gathered up and photocopied all the originals in about 20 minutes from the library. Many Italianists probably have. The current package is not intentionally deceiving, but readers should be aware that, excepting the list of hapax legomena, this book is a collection of widely available journal articles from Italica (chapter 1) Studi sul Boccaccio (chapters 2, 3, 4, 6) and one printed book, Miscellanea di Studi Danteschi in memoria di Silvio Pasquazi (chapter 4). Let's briefly survey the contents. I will not summarize every argument, since the critical work is not new. Rather I will attempt to give the potential reader some flavor of Hollander's method and intentions as he chases down, detective-like, evidence that Boccaccio had specific words, phrases and scenarios from the Commedia in mind as he sought to satirize the authority, presumption, truth claims and moral idealism of the work that he simply could not and would not have wanted to ignore.

The essays are printed in chronological order, except the first one, which serves as a general overview. This plan compels Hollander to add bracketed commentary throughout the essays, referring the reader to other chapters that develop or respond to a comment that, in the current book format, no longer stands alone. Such "seamfullness" is awkward but inevitable when re-packaging formerly discrete pieces.

The nine-page introduction, which is new for the book and is designed as a "Shaping Force," as it were, over the essays within, basically makes the case that "[Boccaccio] can hardly make a move without thinking of how Dante moved before him" (3). Hollander promises that the essays to follow will consider "some arresting Boccaccio citations of Dante." He acknowledges that "we are at the beginning of an investigation that will take years, and, most likely, will never reach a term at which someone will proclaim it finished," but he nonetheless asserts that he can offer a framework for understanding the basic "road" that Boccaccio took in confronting Dante: Boccaccio wants to "shape his work as satire," "involved with his large sense of the vision of Roman satire, most particularly the urbane and urban writings of Ovid and Horace" (6).

Chapter 1, "Boccaccio's Dante" (1986), offers an overview of why we should consider the two poets together and further explores the concept of satire, explaining how Boccaccio wants "his own dubiety to read back to Dante's claims for authority as truth-teller" (19). Hollander's rich and detailed textual arguments here and throughout the book cannot be reproduced fairly, since they are based upon closely listening to Boccaccio's allusions and verbal echoes of Dantean images and verses. But this chapter ends with an almost allegorical reading of Decameron II, i, in which the traveling actor Martellino playfully pretends to be a cripple so that he may crawl to the bier of Saint Arrigo. This image leads us:

to treat the novella as an allegory of Boccaccio's imagined sense of Dante's outrage at his own [Boccaccio's] unsanctified fiction making. Martellino, as Boccaccio, is unmasked by a nameless Florentine who tells the Trevisans that Martellino is a mountebank (Dante, protector of the truth, revealing Boccaccio as the falsifier that he is?): Marchese, one of the two Florentine friends, makes the (false) claim that Martellino has stolen from him one hundred golden florins (Martellino as Boccaccio, "stealing" by writing his one hundred novelle, the one hundred canti of the Commedia?)

"But such flights of critical fancy may not be rewarded with certainty" (18), rejoins Hollander hastily, content to suggest the allegory as a prick to spur the close verbal study that informs the entire book. He then quickly displays such connections to Dante in another part of this same tale, II, i. Boccaccio notes that "according to what the Trevisans affirm" [secondo che i trivigiani affermano] the bells of the Cathedral sound upon the death of Saint Arrigo. Here Boccaccio echoes Inferno 29.63 "as the poets hold for certain" [secondo che i poeti hanno per fermo] where Dante belittles an Ovidian myth: Hollander's argument is complex and subtle here:

Dante's slap at the veracity of pagan truth when it is compared with the Christian revelation to be found in his Commedia does not go unanswered here. His [Dante's] testimony, to which he swears in verses 55-57 in terms which call to mind the authority of the Bible, would place his poem beyond the dubieties of pagan myth. Boccaccio, citing him for lines which undermine the veracity and the authority of the populace of Treviso, undoubtedly wanted his own dubiety to read back to Dante's claims for authority as truth-teller. In fact, he would seem to imply, he himself, Martellino, Ovid, and Dante Alighieri are all what they seem to be -- mountebanks, peddlers of fiction, capable of changing their own form to accommodate their fictional purposes for the amusement of not overtly intelligent observers.(18-19)

I cite this passage at some length because it's otherwise hard to represent Hollander's methodology throughout the book, reflecting qualities at the same time impressionistic and textually grounded. Also, this instance displays the theme of satire and deflation that marks the book as a whole and attempts to unify the essays.

Chapter 2, "Imitative Distance" (Decameron I, i and VI, x), starts by covering the same ground as the pervious chapters -- an overlap that is one of the unavoidable pitfalls of such collections. It then argues that Boccaccio's Ser Cepparello da Prato is Boccaccio's "parodic version of Dante's Brunetto Latini" (32). Since Brunetto seems as if he should be saved but he's not, and Cepparello should be damned though Boccaccio allows that he might be saved, the overall effect of the connection is a "mild rebuke to the poet who claimed to know the denizens of heaven and hell" (37). Again, Boccaccio's "gentle attacks on Dante are wholly intentional, deriving from the position of a man of the world who respects but cannot accept the idealistic zeal of the Commedia." If Hollander is correct, "it would suggest that Boccaccio's great work is far more bitter than it is generally perceived to be" (39). The second half of the chapter studies Frate Cipolla, arguing that Boccaccio wants to explicitly explore fraternal fraudulence in light of Beatrice's antifraternal comments in the Paradiso. Hollander then studies how two words -- penna and carbone (the feather and coal switched in this playful story of relics and authority) carry significance because Boccaccio plays off their various meanings in Dante. The resourceful and fraudulent Cipolla's successful manipulation of these signifiers pokes fun, again, at the pretense of authority in Dante, resulting in a "supremely artful little joke at the expense of [Boccaccio's] beloved Dante" (52).

The next chapter, "Decameron: The Sun Also Rises in Dante," takes us, rather tiringly it must be confessed, through Boccaccio's series of Dantean echoes in the introductory passages to each day of the Decameron. Sometimes the echoes are based on grammatical sequences: "(pluperfect + 'when' + woman's name)" (61). Again the conclusions are provisional or simply nonexistent: "Even assuming that they are all justly observed," owns Hollander, " I would find it very difficult even to begin to account for their significance" (67).

The following chapter on utilita very instructively and convincingly argues that Classical, Horacian notions of 'utility' do not evenly apply to the diverse, morally complex human comedy of the 100 stories here. Hollander's conclusion reflects the thesis of the entire book: "unlike Dante, he does not wish to make us live or pray better: rather he wants to enable us to think more clearly about our human nature" (85).

Next follows, "The Proem of the Decameron," which, to this reviewer's predictable delight, agues for the importance of Ovid's Remedia Amoris to Boccaccio's self- characterization as a teacher of love. The essay agues no specific conclusions about the relationship, wanting only to suggest that we read Boccaccio with the same playful, ironic sensibility with which we read Ovid, as he brews up the various healing remedies in the Roman amatory handbook. Boccaccio's Ovidian study of human appetite thus takes its place in his satiric treatment of Dante. Since Ovid satirized Virgil, who better for Boccaccio to summon as he satirically confronts his own grand mentor?

The final long chapter, co-authored with Courtney Cahill, opposes all those, including the great Italianist Victoria Kirkham, who see Day 10 as an optimistic, moral or uplifting conclusion to the work. Instead of fortifying our faith in order and law, Day 10 satirizes the pretense of order and justice, exposing the "myth of law" and revealing the "destructive consequences that may result from upholding the law, particularly the rigid terms of contractual agreements" (114). Readers will quickly see how X, v (Madonna Dianora and the garden in Winter) and X, x (Patient Griselda) could be read as such satires.

The book has no formal concluding chapter or summary, but this final chapter is well placed and serves to review the overall role of Boccaccio as a skeptical satirist, in the tradition of Roman satire and comedy, "dedicated to the seeing of what is (rather than what might or should be)" (163). Hollander then appends the fifty-page list of "Hapax Legomena in Boccaccio's Decameron and its Relation to Dante's Commedia," which is bound to be of use to anyone doing close textual study of the relationships Hollander has been studying in the previous chapters.

Hollander is generally assertive in his readings but always humbly suggests that he's only trying to inspire a consideration of the issues, wanting others to try out his hypotheses, to explore further the rich and seemingly infinite connections between the Italian giants. I myself am left with a useful vocabulary and a framework -- that of satire -- with which to frame both my teaching and my writing on Boccaccio. Hollander offers a general model but one based on textual specifics. He counts the streaks on the tulip like no other scholar. He buries us so far into the text, printing Boccaccio and Dante side by side, italicizing the common words or parts of words in common -- a microscopic method. But he often shows the larger cultural historical, and artistic reasons for Boccaccio's borrowings and for his satiric treatment of Dante, whose political life and exile weave their way through the Decameron as Boccaccio lovingly but often scurrilously struggles with the magnitude and high seriousness of his venerable elder.