11.05.19, Houston, Building a Monument to Dante

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Guy P. Raffa

The Medieval Review 11.05.19

Houston, Jason M.. Building a Monument to Dante, Boccaccio as Dantista. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. 228. ISBN: 9781442640511.

Reviewed by:

Guy P. Raffa
University of Texas at Austin
guyr@uts.cc.utexas.edu

Jason Houston makes an important contribution to Italian literary history by showing how Boccaccio, the junior member of Italy's great literary triumvirate (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio), deserves the lion's share of credit for enabling posterity to appreciate the independent, mutually beneficial achievements of these "three crowns." While Houston aims principally at illuminating Boccaccio's thought and work through the lens of his dantismo, he also opens up striking new vistas on the other two writers and the complicated relationship of all three men to one another. The book's privileged pair, as the title indicates, is Boccaccio and Dante, and I find the author's meticulous examination of the distinct yet overlapping roles that Boccaccio plays in relation to his illustrious Florentine precursor-- editor (chap. 1), biographer (chap. 2), apologist (chap. 3), and commentator (chap. 4)--to be original and compelling. Boccaccio's construction of Dante, Houston convincingly argues, serves not only to solidify Dante's standing as Italy's literary-national father, but also--and often in tension with Petrarch's views--to support Boccaccio's own advocacy of vernacular culture at the same time that he, along with Petrarch, helps to launch Italy's Latin-centered humanism. Houston skillfully frames the four main chapters--visually and discursively--with brief reflections on the marble statues of the three authors located outside the Uffizi Museum in Florence. In the introduction (embellished with Dante's image), he lays out the argument and structure of the book, explaining that he will use "philological tools to detect and explicate ideological motives" in Boccaccio's Dante-related writings (7-8). Indeed, this study benefits immensely from the author's expert use of manuscript studies-- paleographic as well as philological analysis--in combination with literary and historical criticism to unveil Boccaccio's fashioning of Dante in his own image. The conclusion, featuring images of Petrarch and Boccaccio, contrasts the "archeological" bent of the former (aimed at recovering the classical past) with the latter's "architectural hermeneutic" aimed at constructing a "new literary artifice" (162)--a literary monument to Dante that would help Italy's nineteenth-century nation builders to raise the physical monuments to the poet that adorn Florence today. In the book's final pages, Houston also presents his most developed interpretation of a novella from Boccaccio's Decameron, the vernacular masterpiece dismissed by Petrarch. He reads the story of Nastagio degli Onesti (Day 5, novella 8) as an anticipation of Boccaccio's translation of "Dante's ethics to the public sphere" (168) when Boccaccio delivered lectures on the Inferno before a Florentine audience in 1373-74. Boccaccio's construction of Dante as an ethical model for the public good is in fact a major thread running through this book, though Houston garners most of his support from Boccaccio's lesser-known works. The body chapters examine Boccaccio's creation, defense, and presentation of a Dante who, as "a figure of moral rectitude, not as a poet of theological vision" (101), more properly "belongs in the piazza not in the church" (82). Chapters 1 and 2 combine to show how Boccaccio established--through his role as Dante's editor and biographer--the predominant understanding of the poet and his works for centuries to come. The first chapter perceptively discusses Boccaccio's edition of Dante's works, specifically in the Chigiano manuscript, as part of a larger project to establish a Tuscan school of poets that includes Petrarch and Guido Cavalcanti in addition to Dante. As the "first step in his building of a monument to Dante" (13), Boccaccio's manuscript editions provided the de facto authorized version of the poet's texts for readers from around 1400 through the early nineteenth century (14). As Dante's editor, Boccaccio had no qualms about liberally rewriting Dante's text, as Houston shows in Boccaccio's manipulation of the Vita Nova (I follow the author in this spelling). Moving the divisioni (Dante's own prose explications of the poems) to the margins of the manuscript, Boccaccio created a text that "more closely resembled the traditional manuscript format of centralized text and marginalized commentary" (29). Houston considers this liberal editing of Dante's work to be innovative insofar as Boccaccio "applied the same process to Dante's vernacular texts that he and his contemporaries applied to Latin texts" (26). Chapter 2 treats Boccaccio's biographical writings, primarily his inventive vernacular account of Dante's life (Trattatello in laude di Dante), but also his Latin works on the fall of great men (De casibus virorum illustrium) and the lives of St. Peter Damian (Vita Petri Damiani) and Petrarch (De vita e moribus domini Francisci Petracchi). Houston shows how, privileging Dante's "poetics of rectitude" over Petrarch's "poetics of fame," Boccaccio constructed a life of Dante "meant to both inspire ethical action and warn against moral lassitude" (72). In Boccaccio's "monumental" biography, Dante acquires a saintly stature that attests to "the greatness of his life and the wickedness of contemporary political factionalism" (82). Boccaccio refashioned Dante in support of his own literary and political agendas, I surmise from Houston's argument, much as Dante had previously shaped Virgil, Cato, Statius, and other classical figures to serve his theological and poetic purposes. Boccaccio's Dante serves as a model for using vernacular culture in support of the Florentine republic. Chapter 3, featuring Boccaccio as Dante's apologist, arguably contains the book's most original and impressive claims. Here Houston interprets two texts by Boccaccio--a Latin poem honoring Petrarch (Ytalie iam certus honos) and the Corbaccio--as responses to criticism of Dante's Commedia by Dominican preachers and writers and, more subtly and ambiguously, by Petrarch himself. Boccaccio must therefore defend Dante's achievement before two different audiences simultaneously. He seeks to overcome the ambivalence of Petrarch and other humanists toward Dante by celebrating "the virtue of Dante's political life and the validity of his choice to compose in the vernacular" (92). Boccaccio's Latin verses, which he composed to accompany his gift to Petrarch of a manuscript copy of Dante's poem, typify his defense of Dante before this group. Houston then makes a strong case for reading the Corbaccio, previously viewed as either a straightforward misogynist rant or a playful literary exercise, as a satirical barb aimed at discrediting Dominican preachers and volgarizzatori-- two in particular (Bartolomeo di San Concordio and Jacopo Passavanti)- -who fulminated against the "new vernacular poetics championed by both Dante and Boccaccio" (93). This discussion of the Corbaccio, daring and stimulating though it is, at times veers too far from the issues at hand. For at least parts of the section, the author would have been better served by significantly reducing the material or by developing and publishing it separately. Still, he offers a persuasive interpretation of this controversial text as a key piece of evidence in Boccaccio's overall defense of Dante's Commedia and--by extension--his own Decameron against the hypocritical critics of vernacular literature, "those who would limit the poet in any way, whether in terms of idiom or of ideology" (123). Houston's argument in chapter 4 also pivots around two audiences--or a mixed audience--for Boccaccio's Dante-centered work. The principal text here is Boccaccio's commentary on the first eighteen cantos of Dante's Inferno (Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante), the written record of the public lectures he delivered in Florence in 1373-74, with the audience comprising both erudite humanists and the common folk (those without Latin). For both groups, Boccaccio sought to place Dante on a pedestal as a monument to political virtue and beneficent vernacular culture. In the Esposizioni Boccaccio focuses on explicating the literal meaning of Dante's narrative, though he draws out ethical and moral lessons from the text even while downplaying specifically biblical ones. In this way, Houston argues, Boccaccio "models his commentary on commentaries of pagan authors" (140), thus raising Dante's status to that of such classical authors (and authorities) as Virgil. In defending Dante's Commedia, Boccaccio once again defends his own Decameron against detractors of vernacular literature, including and especially Petrarch, who, in Houston's apt formulation, belittles both works with "the insidious condemnation of faint praise" (152). By persuasively and persistently promoting Dante as the standard-bearer of vernacular culture, "Boccaccio places his monument to the poet in the centre of Florentine civic life" (154). Houston's book bear witness to an impressive mastery of materials, not only source texts and secondary works (in Italian, Latin, and English) but also the manuscript history of his main authors. His writing is generally clear and lively, though I wish he had unpacked a few particularly dense or ambiguous formulations, and several of the more subtle triangulations--for instance, Boccaccio's critique of Dante's phrase matta bestialità read as a response to Petrarch's translation of Boccaccio's novella (148-54)--require clarification. A surprisingly high incidence of typographical errors--which perhaps stand out more owing to the book's attention to editing--can be distracting and occasionally create momentary confusion, as when numbers in a date are transposed (109). But this monograph is exceptionally well-conceived and well-organized, and the author's overall presentation of a substantive, nuanced, and ambitious project pays off handsomely. Houston succeeds in showing how Boccaccio monumentalized Dante as a model and monitory story for the ethical contribution of poetry to civic life. Taking this lesson to heart, successive generations would use and abuse Dante to serve various cultural agendas down through the creation of the Italian nation-state and continuing to the present day.

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Guy P. Raffa

University of Texas at Austin