Interpreting Dante: Essays on the Traditions of Dante Commentary comprises fifteen essays by Dante scholars that examine commentaries on il divino poeta from the fourteenth through the nineteenth century. Published in the Notre Dame University Press William and Katherine Devers series in Dante and Medieval Italian Literature, this volume adds to the already established prestige of the series. A consequence of a project begun a decade ago as well as a result of the philological editorial work of the Edizione Nazionale and those involved in that effort, the volume opens with the central recognition that "The Divine Comedy's critical fortune is the longest and richest enjoyed by any poem written in a vernacular language" (1).
The introduction lays out the rationale for the book as the only collection that "gathers scholars from different continents with the intention of attracting the interest of the English-speaking academic world to Dante's exegetical tradition" (11). Thus, all quotations cited in original languages are translated into English in order to facilitate the non-Italian reader, and with the exception of two important essays, Massimiliano Corrado's "Presenze de Liber de vita et moribus philosophorum nell'Ottimo Commento alla Commedia" and Claudia Tardelli's "Tipologie compositive e hapax nel Commento alla Commedia di Francesco da Buti," all essays are in English. Except for the final essay, all the essays deal with commentaries in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, the bulk of these, indeed on fourteenth-century works. In a fairly consistent pattern, some of the essays take up general topics that cover several commentaries in the same period as Steven Botterill's "Reading, Writing, and Speech in the Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Commentaries on Dante's Comedy or Saverio Bellomo's "How to Read the Early Commentaries" and then are followed by a focus on specific commentators as Spencer Pearce's "Use of Learning in the Dante Commentary of Iacomo della Lana" or Paolo Nasti's "A Friar Critic: Guido da Pisa and the Carmelite Heritage." Together the essays make the argument that the implications of Dante's "unique position of prominence in the influential medieval and early modern tradition of commentary, a standing that no other poet has ever managed to gain" (4) has neither been well understood nor analyzed. The volume sets out to address this perceived lack.
The following overview provides an idea of the approaches adopted by the authors in a panoply of essays that expounds on reading strategies, lexical issues, interpretive foci, illuminations and illustrations. Steven Botterill's elegantly written opening essay, "Reading, Writing, and Speech in the Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Commentaries on Dante's Comedy" heralds "the rediscovery of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century tradition of commentary on the Comedy" as "probably the most exciting area of innovation in Dante studies for at least the past thirty years" (17). These early commentaries had fallen into obscurity until the nineteenth century when under the profound cultural impact of Italian national consciousness (17) Dante came to prominence in forging the modern Italian language and its literary tradition. The vernacular commentaries likewise emerged as significant in this cultural-political project. As Botterill points out however, today these early commentaries constitute our most "tangible source for ascertaining what early readers of the Comedy thought they were doing as they read it, and for the assumptions and preconceptions that they brought with them to the experience of reading Dante's poem" (26).
In a probing essay that follows, "Allegory as Avoidance in Dante's Early Commentators: 'bella menzogna' to 'roza corteccia'," Robert Wilson draws attention to contradictory reading strategies when both the literal and the allegorical are applied. The essay provides a brief historical background to the term allegoria (going back to Plutarch, Plato, Heraclitus, and Isidore) and then turns to how the early commentators applied it as a reading/interpreting strategy that facilitates avoiding the literal level of the text. He finds that the early commentators found themselves, not surprisingly, in the dubious role of "praising the artistic merits of their author" (44) while they simultaneously reduced the literal level of the text to its external packaging.
Iacomo della Lana's commentary, the first to treat all three cantiche and the Monarchia is the subject of Spencer Pearce's essay "Uses of Learning in the Dante Commentary of Iacomo della Lana." The essay shows how Lana presents a "horizontal reading" (73) that ties Dante and his poem to the Latin philosophical and theological learning of his times so that his commentary concentrates on "the generic, the abstract...in which doctrine, speculation, and didacticism replace" more concrete and historical reference as found in Graziolo Bambaglioli. The following essay, Saverio Bellomo's "How to Read the Early Commentaries" turns back to a general discussion of several fourteenth-century commentaries and what they tell us about medieval attitudes. Examining certain critical passages, one from Inferno 1 and the second from Inferno 5, Bellomo suggests that these comments highlight the differences between medieval notions of sin and our own inability to recognize it at all.
Paola Nasti's "A Friar Critic: Guido da Pisa and the Carmelite Heritage," as its title makes clear, examines the role of Carmelite theology and apocalypticism in Guido's commentary on the Commedia. In keeping with Carmelite charisma and education, Guido attempts to "assimilate Dante to the Old Testament prophets," thus highlighting Carmelite convictions about "the continuity between the Old and the New Covenant" (151). In the next essay, "Guido da Pisa's 'Chantilly' Dante: A Complex Exegetical System," Lucia Battaglia Ricci discusses the illustrated manuscript of Guido da Pisa preserved at Chantilly (Condé Museum 597). With ten color figures to demonstrate how the illustrations support an interpretation that makes Dante a visionary and a prophet, the essay shows how the illuminations are "entirely consistent" with Guido's critical interpretation (201).
Massimiliano Corrado's "Presenze de Liber de vita et moribus philosophorum nell'Ottimo Commento alla Commedia" examines l'Ottimo, the commentary that possesses pride of place because of its exemplary language (the Florentine volgare of the fourteenth century) and its appreciation by the leading literati of the period. Massimiliano Chiamenti examines the three drafts of Pietro Alighieri's Comentum in "Pietro Alighieri and the Lexicon of the Comedy. He successfully demonstrates that by the third draft, Pietro was both more attentive to the poem's lexicon and included more quotations from classical and silver age poets. The essay attributes this evolution to the emergence of proto-humanist impulses that made the lexicon and classical sources increasingly important. In "Modes of Reading in Boccaccio's Esposizioni sopra la Comedia," Simon Gilson addresses the strange case of Boccaccio's unfinished Esposizioni of the Comedy. These were originally public talks for a Florentine public, but Gilson argues, "Boccaccio was intent on fashioning a commentary for readers" (254). What we have inherited shows that the commentary had dual purposes: civic ones to promote public and personal morality and a second more literary and doctrinal intent.
The following sequence of essays treats the commentaries that demonstrate the political, moral, cultural, and specifically pedagogical purposes to which Dante's poem was subjected in the sixteenth century. As the title makes clear, "A 'Commentary for the Court': Guiniforte Barzizza," Corrado Calenda's essay discusses one of the least famous and as commentary least interesting of all the fifteenth-century commentaries, one intended for a court environment and located in one of the most beautiful codices that was unfortunately dismantled, cut, and otherwise mutilated and its illuminations (likely 115 illustrations) dispersed. Still, this commentary reveals its function was to exalt the Duke of Milan and his "anti-Florentine agenda" (338) and thus both the essay and the commentary it discusses provide yet another avenue into the history of the reception through commentary of Dante's major work.
In yet another historical moment that signals a radical change in Dante's fortune, Lino Pertile's "A Text in Movement: Trifon Gabrieli's Annotationi nel Dante, 1527-1565," looks at Dante's reception during the Counter-Reformation. Here the conclusion to the essay serves as a superb summary of the turn taken at this most critical moment in the history of Christianity as culture and Dante's place in it. Dante was saved from the Index because of his profound elaboration of Purgatory; yet a "Counter-Reformation scholar accuses him of heresy because of what he said about purgatory" and "the poem which had been written in the vernacular specifically so that everyone could read it and find salvation is accused of corrupting the world and removed from the pyre only by virtue of its obscurity" (355). In contrast, from the same period, Lodovico Castelvetro's "irreverence" (377) for Dante's text is explored in Claudia Rossignoli's "Castelvetro on Dante: Tradition, Innovation, and Mockery in the Sposizione.
In a long, illustrated (28 figures) essay, Andrea Mazzucchi, "A Pictorial Interpretation of Dante's Commedia: Federigo Zuccari's Dante historiato" demonstrates how Zuccari's "pictorial rendition of Dante's poem" (420) assumed a pedagogical function: "to instruct apprentices in artistic techniques and also to encourage the development of moral fortitude" (422). Mazzucchi concludes about this turn in the commentary tradition that the "moral reading" "was destined to prevail until the eighteenth century" (423). Examining the contrast in approaches to the poem over these two centuries demonstrates, as Hans-Georg Gadamer argued in Truth and Method and Frank Kermode in History and Value, that shifts in hermeneutical methods can radically alter the value and meaning of a particular text over time.
In the final essay, "Notes on Nineteenth-Century Dante Commentaries and Critical Editions," John Lindon provides further evidence of how historical events and shifts in rhetorical, philological, or aesthetic interests often determine interpretive turns. A result of the positivism of the age, philological and linguistic interests dominate as well as a focus on the literal level of the text. With the first new editions since the 1595 Crusca edition, the 410 editions and reprints of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century constitute one of the most prolific periods for Dante studies.
From the point of view of Dante scholarship, this volume is a very useful guide to the commentary tradition and what it reveals about the history of interpretation of Dante's poem. But even though focused on a particular author, the collection also provides a history of reading, a history of literary scholarship, and a history of critical approaches not just to Dante's poem, but to both the diversity of these critical approaches and the transformations in interpretation wrought by time and radically different cultural-political interests. As such, it is a highly useful book for anyone interested in the long history of reception, literary interpretation, exegesis, and hermeneutics.