15.08.67, Barolini, ed., and Lansing, trans., Dante Alighieri, Dante's Lyric Poetry

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Laurence E. Hooper

The Medieval Review 15.08.67

Barolini, Teodolinda, ed., and Richard Lansing, trans. Dante's Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the 'Vita Nuova' (1283-1292). The Lorenzo da Ponte Italian Library. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. pp. vii, 335. ISBN: 9781442626195 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Laurence E. Hooper
Dartmouth College

The back cover of my Italian edition of Dante's Convivio, which appeared in the same Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli series as the original Italian version of the volume under review, proclaims its editor, Giorgio Inglese, to be "the author of an important edition of Machiavelli's Il principe." [1] This phrase has always seemed to me to epitomize the stark divide in attitude between Italophone scholarship and its Anglophone counterpart regarding editions of literary classics. The idea of the editor-as-author supports the common Italian view that the pinnacle of a literary scholar's career is the production of an "important edition" of a canonical text. Meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine an English-language publisher or a North American tenure and promotion committee according editorial work parity of terminology or value with the authorship of a scholarly monograph. As the English translation of an Italian edition by an American scholar, Dante's Lyric Poetry situates itself between these two opposing attitudes to editing. The volume's editor, Teodolinda Barolini of Columbia University, selects the aspects of each tradition that most suit her purposes, resulting in a book that resembles no other edition I can think of.

Barolini delivers her commentary as "introductory essays," rather than line-by-line annotations. Together with her "general introduction," Barolini hopes these essays will demonstrate Dante's "conceptual itinerary" (4): from a lyric love poet to the multifaceted author he became after his exile. In formal terms, the introductory essays adapt an Italian convention known as the cappello (literally a "hat"): a note by the editor that precedes the line-by-line commentary on a poem. Yet the Rizzoli volume's helpful annotations, supplied by Barolini's former pupil, Manuele Gragnolati, vanish from its English-language counterpart, leaving the introductory essays as our sole guide. While a cappello rarely extends past a page or two, Barolini's essays often exceed five pages, reaching close to eleven in one instance (206-16). In content, they range far from the poem at hand to touch on Dante's other works, especially the Vita nova and the Commedia, or to make detailed excursuses on the editorial history of the lyrics. Dante's poems are quite literally dwarfed by their commentary: they appear in a smaller typeface and are not set on a separate page from their introductions. Combined with the length of the introductory essays, this makes consulting the text of a single poem independent of its commentary a challenging feat, especially in the case of the sonnets.

The sheer weight of Barolini's words seems to lay claim to the status of "author" accorded to Inglese by their mutual Italian publisher. Meanwhile, her insistence on developing a distinctive argument accords with the Anglophone definition of authorship. Her discursive approach to commentary has some benefits for the well-informed reader and one merit of Barolini's approach is that she treats Dante's lyrics with the intellectual seriousness they deserve. Reading through the volume, one gains a satisfying sense of the lyric Dante as a poet who regularly questions the paradigm of love poetry and thereby gradually expands its possibilities. By the end of the book we have seen him incorporate into that paradigm a great variety of sources and techniques: from vision literature to Aristotelian ethics and politics, Christian eschatology to social commentary. Still, the result is a book that reads more as an argument about Dante's lyrics than an introduction to the lyrics for English speakers. Moreover, I found some of Barolini's comparisons more convincing than others.

Barolini's style is punchy and declarative. The editor uses her detailed knowledge of Dante's texts to make strong connections based on specific verbal parallels, both between the poems themselves, and between the Rime and the poet's other works. Barolini is at her happiest when she can attach a clear label to a given lyric: "courtly," "stilnovist," "Cavalcantian," "visionary," "Aristotelian," and "sociological," are among her favorites. This approach helps the reader appreciate the variety and innovation that characterize Dante's lyrics. It surprised me, however, that the introductory essays did not engage with the slew of scholarship in this vein by the likes of Maria Luisa Ardizzone, Claudio Giunta, Enrico Fenzi, Roberto Rea, Justin Steinberg, or Raffaella Zanni. The essays are not devoid of citations, but the vast majority of these refer to Barolini's own work, giving the impression that Dante studies is a closed universe encompassed within her publications.

In the absence of critical context, Barolini's punchiness can lead to a lack of nuance or consistency. No one denies Dante's importance in canonizing the depiction of the beloved's death, but the assertion that this "is not an Occitan topos nor one of the earliest Italian poetry: it is a Dantean idea" (243) ignores the Libre of Guiraut Riquier, or Giacomino Pugliese's Morte, perché m'ài fatta sì gran guerra (Death, why have you made such a great attack on me?) Moreover, it contradicts Domenico De Robertis's words, quoted a few pages earlier: "The death of the lady (or lord) is not an unknown subject in the tradition of early Italian poetry" (219).

Blank-verse translations by Richard Lansing accompany Dante's Italian. Lansing's renderings are serviceable but the lack of endnotes denies us access to the reasoning behind his choices. This becomes problematic where the translations imply debatable interpretative judgments, for example the frequent use of "memory" to render mente (mind; cf. 68, 84, 176, 258, 263), two concepts that are well distinguished in medieval psychology. Lansing's decisions further feed into Barolini's essays. Take line 56 of Li occhi dolenti per pietà del core (My eyes, distraught by pity for my heart), Dante's lament for Beatrice's death: the Italian reads e mentre ch'io la chiamo, me conforta, which Lansing translates "and while I call on her she comforts me" (253). But Italian commentators unanimously agree that the subject of me conforta is impersonal and so a correct translation would be "and while I call on her it comforts me." Barolini returns to this line numerous times in her essays, stating that Dante is "bringing her [sc. the deceased Beatrice] to life so that she comforts him" (257; and cf. 248, 249, 254, 294-95), when in fact it emphasizes the composition of poetry and its potential to manage the affective states of poet and reader.

Barolini makes commendable efforts to historicize the poems by introducing societal points of comparison such as gender, mysticism, or the conventions of Florentine mourning. However, her preference for sharply defined taxonomies can become reductive where it runs into Dante's predilection for hybridity and polysemy. In commenting on the ballata, Per una ghirlandetta (For a little garland), Barolini reaches for Guido Cavalcanti, well known for his ballate. But she forecloses on Dante's subtle intertwining of sources by calling the poem's form "an homage from Dante to Guido" (127) and declaring that its lady's name, Fioretta, "ha[s] clear Cavalcantian connections, echoing as [it does] the floral delicacy of [his ballata] Fresca rosa novella" (128). But flowers are hardly a distinctively Cavalcantian motif: they appear only four times in his corpus. The vernacular laude to the Virgin Mary represent an equally likely predecessor for Dante's poem and indeed for Cavalcanti's. The laude frequently use the metaphor of the lady as a rose or flower, often in combination with the adjective novello/-a (new)--associated with brides and springtime flourishing--and imagery of angels; all elements that are present in Per una Ghirlandetta and in Fresca rosa novella. [2] Far from paying homage to Cavalcanti, Dante foregrounds a marginal aspect of his friend's work in order to highlight his own poem's participation in the transcendent use of love symbols in the laude--something that Cavalcanti's poetics of immoderate and uncontrollable love cannot permit.

The most distinctive feature of the edition is its rejection of the traditional Italian definition of the Rime as all the poems by Dante that he did not himself collect in the Vita nova or Convivio. Barolini declares these parameters unsatisfying because governed by "the enormous cultural capital assigned to the 'organic' and 'unified' whole that once united by an auctor should never again be fragmented" (22). Instead she collects and analyzes all the lyric poems that Dante wrote in his early Florentine period (1283-92), including the thirty-one lyrics later transcribed in the Vita nova. The inclusion of the Vita nova poems is welcome because it provides an opportunity to read Dante's lyric corpus as a whole and to understand the anthologized poems qua poems, rather than as components of a macrotext. However, in her eagerness to undo prior editors' mistakes, Barolini goes too far in some of her methodological declarations. She invokes a post-Romantic conception of the lyric where she declares that "Dante considered his own lyrics as texts that are independent or complete in themselves rather than as parts of a whole" (10), ignoring Marco Santagata and Claudio Giunta's convincing arguments that the early Italian lyric is always already dialogical. And Barolini herself is not immune to the "cultural capital" of Dante's "'unified' whole[s]" (22), especially where the Vita nova is concerned. Despite her claims to respect the lyrics' autonomy from the prose frame of the libello, Barolini terms the three poems that Dante's prose identifies as dedicated to a noble lady who took pity on him after Beatrice's death a "group" (278), when there is nothing in the text of the lyrics themselves to suggest this. At the same time, she drops her habitual scruple of using the term madonna unless the poem itself names a beloved and equates the lady of these poems with the donna gentile of the prose (267, 284).

The volume editor launches numerous broadsides at her predecessors: in particular, she gives no quarter to De Robertis's Rime and Gorni's Vita nova. [3] De Robertis's monumental critical (2002) and annotated (2005) editions of the Rime cannot be easily liquidated, and Barolini draws the majority of her Italian texts from the latter volume, all the while expressing reservations over its editor's decisions. One stark disagreement comes over the poem Barolini places last in her volume: Per quella via che la Bellezza corre (Along the path that Beauty quickly moves). At issue is De Robertis's inclusion of two redactions of the sonnet in his critical edition, one of which replaced the proper name Lisetta, for which the poem is famous, with the allegorical senhal "Licenza" (license). The "Lisetta" redaction then disappeared entirely from De Robertis's 2005 annotated edition. Barolini sets out to rescue the name Lisetta, charging De Robertis with "interven[ing] in the reception of this sonnet" (301), although I am unclear why he should have avoided this. Departing from her practice of following De Robertis's 2005 texts, Barolini prints the twin redactions of the 2002 edition, claiming that De Robertis "presents [...both] as equally valid from a philological perspective" (301). In fact, De Robertis's 2002 annotations explicitly declare his preference for the "Licenza" redaction; he includes the "Lisetta" version only because of the response poems that cite that name. [4] But this particular battle need not have been joined: Claudio Giunta reviewed the controversy in his 2011 edition of the Rime, and concluded that De Robertis probably erred in his preference for "Licenza" over "Lisetta." Giunta points out that the former term did not have the meaning of "licentiousness" or "libertinism" in Dante's time, rendering De Robertis's proposed allegorical significance moot. [5] Unfortunately, Barolini's commentaries ignore Giunta's many excellent readings; his work makes only a brief appearance in her introduction, where she accuses him, unfairly, of leaving out the Vita nova and Convivio poems (23). (Giunta's Rime appear in an edition of Dante's complete works outside the Commedia, so the poems in question appear within the works in which Dante later placed them.)

Meanwhile, Barolini summarily dismisses Guglielmo Gorni's Vita nova as "belletristic" (25). Gorni's work continues to arouse controversy but it has also made broadly accepted contributions such as the revision of the title from the Italian Vita nuova to the Latin Vita nova. Barolini calls the new title "not...compelling" (25n33), without addressing Gorni's plausible rationale that the phrase Incipit vita nova (VN 1.1) is an integral Latin sentence. The rejection of Gorni's work causes problems for Barolini's goal of including the lyrics of the Vita nova in her volume. Thirteen of its thirty-one lyrics appear in De Robertis's twin editions of the Rime, in pre-Vita nova redactions that he recognized in the manuscript tradition; Barolini adopts these texts. For the remaining eighteen poems she turns to De Robertis's "1980 edition of the Vita Nuova" (24), a misleading turn of phrase since De Robertis supplied only the commentary for that version, while the text is that of Michele Barbi's 1932 critical edition. [6] Stefano Carrai's 2009 edition of the Vita nova could have provided a more satisfactory source for the missing lyrics but his work went completely unmentioned. [7]

In conclusion, it is difficult to assent to the claim that this edition "brings Dante's early poems to a wider audience" (i). I found it hard to see how lengthy introductory essays without endnotes would help newcomers to the lyrics understand the meaning of the poems as they read them. Ultimately, Barolini's minute articulation of the lyrics' "teleological direction" toward the Commedia (27) seemed more suited to presentation in a monograph aimed at fellow specialists than an edition. Yet such a book would have to ground its argument in a fuller and more nuanced account of the critical and philological context. For now, the venerable translation and commentary of Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde will remain the English edition of choice both for the uninitiated reader, to whom it is accessible, and for the experienced scholar, to whom it provides much useful guidance. [8]



1. Dante Alighieri, Convivio, ed. Giorgio Inglese (Milan: Rizzoli, 1993); Dante Alighieri, Rime della gioventù e della "Vita Nuova", ed. Teodolinda Barolini, with notes by Manuele Gragnolati (Milan: Rizzoli, 2009).

2. See Laude novella sïa cantata, in Laude cortonesi dal secolo XIII al secolo XV, ed. Giorgio Varanini, Luigi Banfi, and Anna Ceruti Burgio, 4 vols. in 5 books (Florence: Olschki, 1981-85), 1:90.

3. Dante Alighieri, Rime, ed. Domenico De Robertis, 3 vols. in 5 books (Florence: Le Lettere, 2002); Dante Alighieri, Rime: Edizione commentata (Florence: SISMEL, 2005); Dante Alighieri, Vita nova, ed. Guglielmo Gorni (Turin: Einaudi, 1996).

4. See De Robertis's commentary in Dante (2002), 3:349.

5. Claudio Giunta, ed., Rime, in Dante Alighieri, Opere, ed. Marco Santagata et al., 2 vols. (Milan: Mondadori: 2011-14), 1:1-744 (at 627).

6. Domenico De Robertis, ed., Vita nuova, in Dante Alighieri, Opere minori, 2 vols. in 3 books (Milan-Naples: Ricciardi, 1979-88), 1:1-248 (at 20).

7. Dante Alighieri, Vita nova, ed Stefano Carrai (Milan: Rizzoli, 2009).

8. Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde, ed. and trans. Dante's Lyric Poetry, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

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