Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Kathryn McKinley, Chaucer’s House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts

Kathryn McKinley, Chaucer’s House of Fame and Its Boccaccian Intertexts: Image, Vision, and the Vernacular (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016), xvi + 228 pp. ISBN 978-0-88844-206-2. €85/$85.

In this enjoyable volume Kathryn McKinley seeks to examine the House of Fame and its sources, arguing in particular that a greater prominence be given to Boccaccio’s Amorosa visione (AV). This early dream-vision is written in terza rima, under the influence of Dante, and divided into a modest ‘half-Comedy’ of fifty ‘cantos’, kissing the steps of the great poem but not emulating it. Chaucerians, she rightly points out, have been quick to dismiss the AV as having offered the English poet no more than a passing detail here and there. McKinley re-examines the AV and suggests that its rich and insistent recourse to ekphrasis, its flawed and unauthoritative guide-figure, and its complex representation of Fame, all provided Chaucer with an opportunity to reflect upon those key concerns of the House of Fame: poetics, literary self-representation, and the aleatory nature of one’s literary future. One of the core polemics of the book is that in the AV Boccaccio was resisting Dante, offering an alternative to the sublime, divine poem, in something more earthly and human. Boccaccio, then, in such a reading, become a very important point of reference for a Chaucer coming under the influence of Italian poetics. It is through Boccaccio that Chaucer’s poetry is not burned up like Semele in response to the genius of Dante.

After a detailed summary of the AV in Chapter One, ‘Boccaccio’s Narrative Arts: Text, Ekphrasis, Image’, and some brief remarks on the manuscript tradition and its second redaction written late in Boccaccio’s life, McKinley looks at some of the wider visual contexts in which to consider the poem, especially large-scale fresco cycles that were in demand in Italy in the fourteenth century. This serves to focus attention on Boccaccio’s acute interest in the visual, in ekphrasis, in the life of artists, discernible in the AV, the Teseida, and the Decameron.

The rest of the book might be described as a close-reading of the House of Fame, with its Books 1 and 2 being analyzed in chapters 2 and 3, and the long final book of the poem given over to two chapters, 4 and 5. The generous space for such a reading makes for an unhurried journey through the poem, and the opportunity to become acquainted or reacquainted with Chaucer’s extroardinary dream-vision is one to be relished. McKinley pays especial attention to parallels, analogues, and lexical echoes in the AV, with a series of tables setting out comparative passages for the reader’s convenience. Boccaccio’s technique of synthesizing his sources is highlighted. For example, in his treatment of Dido in AV cantos 28-29, Boccaccio combines lines from both the Heroides and the Aeneid, joining Ovid and Virgil together; McKinley suggests that this may have ‘helped shape Chaucer choice to feature alternating Virgilian and Ovidian depictions of the heroine in House of Fame, Book 1’ (p. 86). The eagle in HF Book 2 provokes a series of reflections on wing imagery in Boethius, Dante and Boccaccio, focussing especially on a passage opening Book 6 of the De casibus in which the narrator explains he does not have the wings to bring him sufficiently high to access arcane knowledge nor does he have the language to describe such elevated material. The passage echoes Dante’s warning in De vulgari eloquentia (II iv 11) about matching style and subject-matter, and tempering one’s ambitions so as not to be like the ‘star-seaking eagle’ (astripetam aquilam). This trope of declaring oneself not entirely up to the task is echoed in Chaucer’s worrying about his verse being ‘lyght and lewed’, metrically failing ‘in a sillable’ (1096-1098), and ‘embodied’ in the figure of the talkative, comic eagle; the only ‘gravitas’ Geffrey can boast of is literal rather than stylistic, as the eagle complains about how the effort required to carry his (over) weighty body. The final chapter reflects upon the figure of Fame and how Boccaccio represents Wordly Glory in the AV, proposing that the densely packed gallery in canto 6 provided Chaucer with a source for his own list of petitioners before the goddess.

Many of the parallels and echoes between the AV and the HF are based around catalogues of names and are not quite as clear-cut as to constitute a firm source; naturally, these echoes sound a bit different every time one revisits them. That said: McKinley’s assertion that Chaucer’s reference to ‘cruel Achilles’ (HF 1463) is close Boccaccio’s line del teban mal, d’Achille ’l vigor raro (AV canto 5, line 36), which is only found in the hypothesized second redaction, does not sound close, especially given that in Purgatory 21, where Dante calls Statius a ‘Tholosaun’, we find the name Achilles given the prominence of rhyme position (line 92), a prominence it has in HF. The kind of reworking Chaucer does with Boccaccio is often not conducive to definitive statements about sources. While the Decameron seems an obvious analogue for the Canterbury Tales, there are no very clear verbal echoes to suggest Chaucer worked from it directly. And when he clearly was reading Boccaccio, and translating the Filostrato line-by-line in Troilus and Criseyde, he attributed the work to someone else, almost seeming to refuse to name Boccaccio.

A few typos do creep in but none is misleading. One curious moment of inattention in the book (p. 120) leads McKinley to suggest that Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Chig. L. V. 176 (a celebrated manuscript in the hand of Boccaccio, compiling a number of works by Dante and Petrarch) was in fact sent to Petrarch “some time…after 1351”, citing Martin Eisner’s 2013 monograph. The construction of this manuscript is very complex, and it is certainly in some sort of ideological dialogue with Petrarch, but it was never sent to him.

Kathryn McKinley in this book ensures that work on Boccaccio remains crucial to understanding what Italy meant to Chaucer.

[A shorter version of this review appeared in Medium Ævum LXXXVIII.1 (2019), pp. 167-168] 










Tuesday, 27 March 2018

I'm not dead

I could offer any number of excuses, and they’d all be good ones. Research, teaching, marking, administration, living, sleeping. But I miss this blog, and I shall endeavour to reprise fairly regular posts.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Nicola Gardini, Lacuna. Saggio sul non detto (Torino: Einaudi, 2014)



In this remarkable book, Nicola Gardini takes the theme of the unsaid, that which is omitted, avoided, skirted around, or suppressed. The opening sentence strikes a note that is maintained throughout the rest of the book: ‘Io sono innamorato della parola «lacuna»’; this passion drives what follows, with a rigorous attention accorded the very texture of the word. Gardini moves deftly deftly through a wide range of languages and literatures, and is careful to give both a micro and macro level of analysis, according to each moment of the argument.

It is an essay in the proper sense of the word (in the sense, that is, used by Montaigne, and in the sense used too infrequently now), a trying out of something, an attempt at exploring something. An essay should be risky. It should be uncertain. It should not be too sure of where it is going. And Gardini marshals all of these resources magnificently in this book. The sections are given strange titles, such as ‘Textus’, ‘La mente scultrice’, ‘Reliquie’, and ‘Il segreto di Octave’, and this estrangement is another important value in his prose. Some sections are very short, a couple of pages in length, and others range over fifteen or twenty pages. The result is a kind of pace that keeps you on your toes, but never leaves you at sea.

One of the book’s primary assertions is the importance of recognizing that which is unsaid, omitted, left out, and seeing how the partial points to completeness. As he says, on p. 5: ‘Occorre, in un certo senso, che diventiamo anche noi invisibili per riconoscere l’invisibile. Non c’è omissione testuale che non rimandi a una pienezza extratestuale; a questa sta al testo come l’ombra al corpo’. Thus the imperfect becomes replete with power and with potential.

The pages that follow then range over a dazzling array of authors, from the Ancient Greeks to the contemporary, weaving in and out with ease and conviction. The few passages on Dante are well worth chasing, but the attention to the detective story I found particularly enjoyable, a chapter (‘C’est du Sherlock Holmes’, pp. 145-167) that brings together Arthur Conan Doyle, Proust, Leopardi, Simenon, and Seneca.

The final chapter begins ‘A malincuore arrivo a chiudere questo libro’, and by then it is undoubtedly a sadness shared by the reader. Perhaps because of the unusual form of the essay, this final section, ‘Conclusioni’ discusses the composition of the book, explaining what he had set out to do, what changed when he began, and how he found himself rewriting the entire work. This final section is a kind of (anti)manifesto ‘On Method’, in which he shows how the intricacies of argument and experimentation are not easily planned in advance. Gardini leaves his readers with a cri de cœur, asserting forcefully that in this navigating of the said and the unsaid, literature is a paradigm of life, and its value is fundamental. ‘Le lacune della letteratura ci preparano, appunto, ad affrontare la nostra fine’: The lacunas of literature prepare us exactly to face our own end.

This is a great book.

Watch the book being presented here; and a previous post by me slobbers over his writing room in Milan, here.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Friday, 20 February 2015

And also...

Cornerstone Books - 27 New St., Plymouth 

Also: how has it taken me so long to get back to blogging? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been busy, and then I got out of the habit. I’ve missed it though, and would like to get back to bookish madness. You’ll have noticed that in the Books I’d Like to Own category on the sidebar, Enciclopedia virgiliana no longer appears. I wonder why? I know. Because now I have my own copy! I’ll blog about that, I hope. Soon. I also want to blog a review of Prue Shaw’s new book on Dante, as well as post a few more reviews.

Robey and Hainsworth, Dante: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2015)



The lastest offering in OUP’s highly successful series ‘A Very Short Introduction’ is dedicated to Dante, perhaps one of the most widely recognized names of all of medieval literature. Rather appropriately it appears with another volume released the same week, Love: A Very Short Introduction. Perhaps they could be read as companion volumes, for love is one of the central themes in the Comedy, a term of constant engagement in Dante’s writing life. It is surprising that it has taken until now for Dante to appear in the VSI catalogue, which represents a kind of canon of authors, of ideas, of urgent and important questions. But a most welcome addition it is. The authors, David Robey and Peter Hainsworth, are two Italianists, medievalists, and Dantisti well known in the United Kingdom and beyond. Robey, for example, has devoted considerable energies to the computer analysis of poetry, and is the author of a fascinating monograph with OUP entitled Sound and Structure in the Divine Comedy (2000). Hainsworth was a Fellow and Tutor in Italian at Lady Margaret Hall for many years, and will probably be best known to readers for his book on Petrarch: Petrarch the Poet: An Introduction to the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Routledge, 1988, and now reissued in the ‘Routledge Revivals’ series). He has a very finely-tuned ear, and is, in many ways, a scholar of the old school, whose rigorous attention to the text, to the word, as a reader and as a translator, renders him urgently modern.

To write any of the Short Introductions must be a daunting task, but to write one on Dante seems to me particularly terrifying. The format requires clarity and compression, in equal measure (much like Dante, actually). The volume unfolds in an introduction and then six chapters: Autobiography; Truth; Writing; Humanity; Politics; and God. The book, then, sets Dante into a context, and emphasizes the importance of Dante as a character in his own work; ‘Writing’ is a lovely treatment of what Dante wrote, and in the case of the Comedyhow he wrote. ‘Humanity’ draws attention to the human, the fact that the whole Comedy is teeming with humans, and how frequently the poem explores, engages with, and is nourished by, the humanity of those figures. This leads on to human interactions, humans exercising power together, in ‘Politics’, a chapter that also draws attention to Dante’s own activities as a politician. Read the final chapter, ‘God’. Several ‘Boxes’ also illustrate particular aspects, such as ‘Dante’s hendecasyllable’ as well as three more giving the moral systems of each cantica. Nine illustrations also accompany the text, drawn from various sources, from the medieval (MS Holk. misc. 48), to the Renaissance (Botticelli’s illustration to Par 30), to the modern: Benigni reciting Dante in Piazza Santa Croce, with a statue of Dante dramatically towering over him, like the Giants in Inf 31.




The ‘Very Short Introductions’ are now, in a way, a genre unto themselves, with their own momentum, their own rationale, their own audience. As such, this is an excellent ‘Short Introduction’ to Dante, with a wealth of finely observed detail, coupled with judiciously executed broad brush-strokes. As an invitation to read more Dante, and read him more carefully, more deeply, I think it will succeed.

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