This collection of insightful essays by New York University professor John Freccero aims to read Dante in the long shadows cast by Augustine's corpus. Freccero, who has been teaching, thinking about, and writing about Dante for decades, offers eleven essays on topics as wide-ranging as the Francesca episode in the Inferno and an intriguing reading of John Donne's seventeenth-century English elegiac "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." Several of the essays here were previously published, and Danielle Callegari and Melissa Swain have competently edited the current volume.
Freccero's careful approach to Dante is reflected in his attention to details in language and imagery such as the Guido episode in canto X of the Inferno which he writes is "reminiscent of a Shakespearean play within a play" (57). The opening essay, "Shipwreck in the Prologue," masterfully places Dante studies in the history of literature, particularly within the discussion of the novel in the modern era. Although he argues that the "novelistic quality" of Inferno "seems indisputable," Freccero focuses on the character of Ulysses, both in Inferno and in the Homeric epic, in order to argue that Ulysses, "the only major speaker in Hell not a contemporary...of the poet," is "clearly a surrogate...for Dante himself, before he wrote the Commedia" (2-3). The complexities and subtleties required to study Dante emerge in each one of these essays. Dante is quoted frequently here in Italian but always with English translation following for those not fluent in the Florentine's native tongue.
Freccero's nimbleness with the material reminds me of Angus Fletcher's landmark 1964 study of allegory (Allegory: The Theory of the Symbolic Mode) in that its author displays a comprehensive knowledge of the history of ideas and craftily interweaves references from philosophy, theology, and literature throughout. As just one example, in the course of one page (7), Freccero references Homer, Plotinus, Paul, Ambrose, Augustine, and Dante.
The Francesca and Paolo episode in Inferno 5 is handled here so completely that my undergraduate students will read the piece this semester. Not only do we get the basic facts--"there is no record of the love story of Francesca da Rimini before Dante's account" (19)--but Freccero goes on to touch base with many of the most significant scholarship on the canto, including Rene Girard's work and Renato Poggioli's famous essay questioning whether the tale is a tragedy or a romance. I found this essay to be the highlight of the volume and am glad to see it reprinted from its original 2009 publication in Modern Language Notes (MLN).
In "The Eternal Image of the Father," paternal imagery is examined in both a secular and religious context, concluding with the father-son relationship as a mirror for the teacher-student dynamic. This piece also suggests that "Dante's Christian humanism" actually transformed Virgil's work into "the status of Old Testament History," an intriguing idea that should be further explored (95).
Augustine is a presence throughout this volume. Not always explicitly as in direct correlations in language and word choice, but more in ethos. Sometimes it is what seems to be a throwaway statement such as this one: "Autobiography is represented schematically in Dante's poem by this synthesis of Platonic allegory with traditional biblical motifs, just as it was in Augustine's Confessions" (97). Such insights, which seem matter-of-fact, are so fully fleshed out in the essays that the reader feels completely schooled by the volume's end. But Freccero offers us a clear development of thought that begins with Augustine and continues through Dante. In fact, many threads are traced to Homer and the Bible. What develops, then, is a kind of genealogy of thought with the full flowering of the tree occurring in Dante.
Another example is the careful juggling of three balls--Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, Augustine, and Dante--in the essay "In the Wake of the Argo on a Boundless Sea." The volume is a virtuoso performance in Dante studies and would make an ideal ancillary text in a Dante course for undergraduates or graduates. The extensive allusion to Stephen Daedalus, particularly from Portrait of the Artist, prompts one to order that text as a course companion. In fact, "Joyce was a passionate Dantista," apparently called "Dublin's Dante" by friends (118).
In "The Fig Tree and the Laurel," Freccero tackles the intersection between Petrarch and Dante, noting that "Critics have failed...to define adequately the ways in which [Petrarch's] poetry was as revolutionary as his humanistic writings" (137). The essay focuses on Petrarch's debt to Augustine, "the founder of the genre" of literary self-creation (138). What seems at first to be an oddly-placed essay, a piece on the English poet John Donne's "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" nicely makes the connection to the Italian poets' focus on love: "Among the English poets who underwent the influence of Italian love poetry of the Renaissance, John Donne stands out" (171). In many ways, the essay is a good example of the way in which Freccero continually erects bridges between the ancient world, the medieval world, and the modern world.
Perhaps the best example of that bridge building appears in the volume's final essay "Zeno's Last Cigarette," an intriguing look at the issue of memory in Augustine, Dante, and the early-twentieth century novels of Italo Svevo, the final one being 1923's The Confessions of Zeno. Svevo was a close friend of James Joyce, again showing the bridge connections through time.
From Petrarch to Machiavelli, from Homer to Joyce, John Freccero's volume is a history of Dante studies in less than three hundred pages. After completing the volume, the reader feels indoctrinated into the field. Well-documented throughout, with clear English translations following Italian passages, this volume belongs on every college library's shelf alongside other seminal but accessible scholarly explorations of Dante. In addition, the use of Augustine throughout not only furthers our understanding of Dante, it adds to our appreciation for the far-reaching influence of Augustine. Freccero's subtitle, "Reading from the Medieval to Modern in the Augustinian Tradition," is well-reflected here in a work that is more than the publisher's "Medieval Studies" label on the back cover. This is a work in the history of ideas.