17.11.09, McKinley, Chaucer's House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts

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Karla Taylor

The Medieval Review 17.11.09

McKinley, Kathryn. Chaucer's House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts: Image, Vision, and the Vernacular. Studies and Texts, 206. Toronto: PIMS, 2016. pp. xvi, 228. ISBN: ISBN: 978-0-88844-206-2. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Karla Taylor
University of Michigan

In the last forty years a considerable body of scholarship has established the House of Fame as Chaucer's earliest response to the writers of the Italian trecento. This scholarship has focused on the relationship between the unfinished English poem and Dante's Divine Comedy, thoroughly showing how it registers Chaucer's astonishment, admiration, and skepticism toward Dante's claims about poetic authority and the capacity of human poetry to express truths both historical and transcendent. In this new study of the House of Fame, Kathryn McKinley aims to correct the tendency to analyze it as only a direct response to Dante, unmediated by other influences. Instead, she posits Boccaccio's writings--chiefly the vernacular Amorosa visione but also the Latin De geneologia deorum gentium--as the vectors through which Chaucer shaped his response to Dante, particularly the modes in which he departed from Dante's ambitious conceptions of poetic authority and the scope of vernacular poetry.

The book is organized straightforwardly into five chapters. The first chapter outlines the visual and literary contexts for the Amorosa visione, a secular dream vision in which Boccaccio struggles to work out his responses to Dante. Although dismissed by modern scholars, the Amorosa visione, comprised of fifty short cantos in terza rima, is nevertheless central to Boccaccio's efforts to define his poetic vocation as both a continuation of and contrast to Dante's practice. The chapter then analyzes the uses Chaucer made of Boccaccio's strikingly visual poem in some of his other works, such as the Parliament of Foules and the Knight's Tale. Aspects of Boccaccio's effort to revise Dante reappear prominently in the subsequent chapters on Boccaccean models for the House of Fame: ekphrasis, the treatment of the dream vision genre, and the extensive meditation on poetics and poetic authority. Chapters 2-5 take up sections of the House of Fame in the poem's order of exposition, with a particular focus on the distinctively material architectural settings in the poem's three books. Chapter 2 treats the Temple of Venus in Book I, with its depictions of the Troy story and especially the story of Dido, central both throughout Boccaccio's works and here in the House of Fame to the problem of truth in poetry. Chapter 3 traces the motif, familiar from Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, of "the wings of thought," in which human understanding rises to apprehend transcendent truth. In the House of Fame this motif figures in the Dantean eagle that plucks the dreamer Geffrey from earth and carries him to Fame's aery realm. Chapter 4 treats Fame and her palace, replete with the features of the Amorosa visione and other Boccaccean writings that helped Chaucer to fashion his own response to Dante. Prominent among these features are the strongly visual and material character of the palace, the drama of the petitioners, and the gallery of author-pillars upholding the palace itself. Chapter 5 moves on to the final architectural setting, the House of Rumor (here called the House of Twigges) and Boccaccio's shaping influence on Chaucer's understanding of the relation of poetry and truth.

The argument for the extensive influence of the Amorosa visione and other Boccaccean writings proceeds on two tracks. In the first, McKinley explores the House of Fame's use of the modes of representation employed by Boccaccio in order to counter key Dantean claims about his own authority and the capacity of poetry to achieve spiritual transcendence. The key representational strategies are ekphrasis, the verbal description of visual art that dominates the Amorosa visione with its murals depicting the triumphs of Wisdom, Glory, Wealth, Love and Fortune; and the departures from the usual repertoire of the dream vision genre. The story of Dido, told both in the Triumph of Love section of the Amorosa visione and in Book I of the House of Fame, crystallizes all the major themes of the latter poem; Chaucer's complex responses to Dante are moreover mediated through Boccaccio's representational strategies by which a painted (or engraved) image comes to life and speech in a revision of the visibile parlare (visible speech--not a bad definition of ekphrasis) of Dante's bas-relief pavements in Purgatorio 10. In the most interesting parts of the study, McKinley situates the central role of ekphrasis in both Italian trecento and fourteenth-century English (and, more broadly, European) culture. Boccaccio himself was active in the visual arts, especially in the design and illustration of manuscripts of his own works; the ekphrasis of the Amorosa visione is also related to the development of fresco in Italy during the fourteenth century. The plates include parts of the pictorial programs of places that Boccaccio would certainly have been familiar with, and that Chaucer may also have seen, such as the frescos in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The multisensory experience depicted in the Temple of Venus draws on Boccaccio's ekphrasis, but also intersects with the experience of devotional images in fourteenth-century English, as well as with the debate about their validity inspired by Lollard criticism. Chaucer's poem thus becomes a distinctively English response to the provocations of Italian literature and culture. The descriptions of visual art in Book I as well as later in Book III's House of Fame reflect the notion that material images could be animated in devotional practice. As such, McKinley argues, the House of Fame departs from the Amorosa visione by reintroducing a religious thread, also evident in its frequent references to the Apocalypse, that is absent from Boccaccio's explicitly secular poem. The treatment of visual and material culture here is informed by textual and art historical scholarship, and draws especially on Michael Camille's notion of the "period eye" to argue that immersion in the cultural context of these poems undermines any suggestion that Chaucer's depiction of the eagle--to take a prominent example--is satirical.

The greatest departure from the conventions of dream vision is the diminished authority of the guide figure in the Amorosa visione, which Chaucer reshapes into the guideless experience of the Temple of Venus, the eagle who snatches Geffrey up to the aery heights (but disabuses him of any notions of apotheosis) and points him in the direction of Fame's abode but does nothing to dispel the uncertainties of knowledge attained in the human, sublunary world. Boccaccio's unreliable guide and poet-narrator respond to Dante's powerful authority and truth claims, and suggest a new source for these features of Chaucer's poetry in addition to French love visions.

Although the House of Fame that emerges from this analysis is largely familiar, the argument for Boccaccio's broad-brush role in shaping Chaucer's poetic response to Dante on the issues of poetic authority, the reliability of fiction, and the relation of poetry to truth is nevertheless a useful contribution, and this study makes a good case that the Amorosa visione has been unjustly slighted in the scholarship on Chaucer's relation to Italian trecento writers. Because the work is so little known, McKinley includes extensive summaries and quotations as well as helpful structural charts (some comparative). The structural and thematic parallels, such as the centrality of Dido and the inclusion of a gallery of authors in the Amorosa visione, most of whom reappear in the House of Fame alongside distinctively English writers as author-pillars upholding Fame's palace, make it entirely plausible that Chaucer used Boccaccio's poem as a model for his own responses to the provocation of Dante's work. Also as a result of general lack of familiarity with the Amorosa visione, the treatment of both poems is usually more descriptive than analytical.

The second track setting forth the influence of the Amorosa visione, the quotation and analysis of parallel passages from both poems, is less persuasive. Striking though the structural parallel between Chaucer's author-pillars and Boccaccio's author-gallery may be, the language of the adduced parallel passages is not as arresting. In the shared example of the flight of Icarus (Amorosa visione 35.37-45, House of Fame 919-24), the suggested echoes (in bold) are not close in lexis or phrasing; similarly, the verbal parallels (again in bold) between author-gallery (Amorosa visione 5) and author-pillars (House of Fame 1419-1519) are restricted to personal and place-names, often using different parts of speech. The language is simply not distinctive enough to assert firm quotations or allusions here or elsewhere where parallel texts are presented. This is a common problem in the Boccaccio-Chaucer relationship: it is rare that we can identify and agree upon the kind of specific verbal echoes that characterize Chaucer's uses of Dante, for instance. It suggests that Chaucer did not have a text of the Amorosa visione at hand as he wrote the House of Fame. Thus the careful textual work in the study--like the discussion of autograph MS Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Chigi L V 176, the manuscript Boccaccio assembled for Petrarch to persuade him of the value of vernacular poetry--an unsuccessful effort, by all accounts--does not serve to identify any text that Chaucer might have been familiar with, although it fills in the material context involved in Boccaccio's complex relationship to both Dante and Petrarch.

There are many virtues to praise in this study, notably the integration of visual and material culture in the discussion of the poetry (illustrated by plates illustrating an eagle-lectern and a tabernacle from as far afield as the Czech Republic, in addition to the new fresco art in Florence) and the effort to situate the central poetic relationship in their textual history. Too often, however, the wealth of cultural and textual information runs into familiar dead ends, or has little interpretative effect on our understanding of the House of Fame. As a result, the study's chief contribution is likely to be its central concern: to reopen the question of Chaucer's use of Boccaccio's poem--and perhaps, in the process, to attract new readers to the Amorosa visione.

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