Sunday, 14 January 2007

Don't I know You From Somewhere?

They have just reconstructed Dante's face from a set of 1920s drawings and measurements of his skull. Apparently his features are now softer, though the nose is still a bit aquiline. These drawings and studies are actually quite well known to historians of the iconography of Dante. In 1921 the Italian government, with the city of Ravenna, commissioned a thorough study of the Poet's bones. A Prof. Fabio Frassetto, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna, was commissioned for the job. In 1923 his findings were published and then enlarged in book form in 1933 under the title: Dantis ossa - La forma corporea di Dante. Frassetto felt that the Giotto portrait, reproduced below, was so close to Dante's skeletal remains that it must have been done from life. In Altrocchi's review of the problem, cited below, he suggests that the Palatine portrait, and Giotto's, are the two most authoritative representations we have of the Poeta.

It is interesting that there should be an impulse to reconstruct an author's face, as if it will somehow give us some sort of essence or something more than what we already have: the text.

The face and in particular the recognition of a face occur at some very powerful moments in the Commedia. In Inf. 15 Dante meets his old magister Brunetto Latini. Brunetto recognizes him first and greets him. His face is burned ('lo cotto aspetto') but not even that could keep Dante from recognizing him, 'sì che 'l viso abbrusciato non difese | la conoscenza süa al mio 'ntelletto'. Dante immediate reaction is to move towards Brunetto, and not just that but to reach out and touch his face: 'e chinando la mano a la sua faccia, | rispuosi: «Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?»'. I always find this such a beautifully tender gesture on Dante's part, to reach out and touch Brunetto's burned and scarred face, a gesture that is entirely unselfconscious and intuitive. And notice the repetition of words for face in the passage, aspetto, viso, and faccia, how important it is to represent his face. Brunetto tells him that much honour awaits Dante. When Dante speaks to him he praises his old teacher and again comes back to the idea of Brunetto's face: 'ché 'n la mente m'è fitta, e or m'accora, | la cara e buona imagine paterna | di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora | m'insegnavate come l'uom s'etterna' (Inf. 15. 82-85). For Dante the ability to recall the face of Brunetto is intimately linked to remembering what Brunetto taught him. It's almost as if Brunetto's face is a memorial locus for Dante, one that he knew so well not even burning could render it unrecognizable. Such was the affectio for Brunetto that he is pained to see him in this state, 'or m'accora'. The rhyme here is ancora/m'accora/ora, as if to reinforce the emotional shock and extent of the pain Dante feels, and exactly this is repeated in the Pier della Vigna episode just two canti previous. Such is Dante's emotional response to the awful broken twigs speaking and begging to be remembered on earth, Dante responds to Virgil's invitation to ask a question by saying: '«Domandal tu ancora | di quel che credi ch'a me satisfaccia; | ch'i' non potrei, tanta pietà m'accora»' (Inf. 13. 82-84). These are the only two reflexive uses of the verb accorar.

The second illustration is Giotto's famous portrait. He looks a little arch in this representation. It has, however, undergone some rather heavy-handed 'restoration' apparently, so maybe the skull and bones have survived better after all.

On the question of early Dante iconography see Rudolf Altrocchi, 'The Present Status of Dante Icoography', Italica 12 (1935), 106-115. Altrocchi is also responsible for an analysis of Domenico di Michelino's portrait of Dante that is found in the Duomo: 'Michelino's Dante', Speculum 6 (1931), 15-59.

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