Sunday, 11 March 2007

Justin Steinberg, Accounting for Dante (Notre Dame, 2007)

The latest addition to the William and Katherine Devers Series in Italian Studies at the University of Notre Dame Press is the extremely good Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy by Justin Steinberg. I could hardly put this book down and greatly enjoyed it.

Steinberg aims to navigate a path between literary criticism and philology. He asks why Dante, who is so concerned in his work with concepts of circulation and transmission, is not studied in the context of his earliest transmission in the so-called Memoriali bolognesi. To look at the notary records in Bologna, records that contain some of the earliest written witnesses of Dante's work, is not new, and work continues apace. But what is so interesting about what Steinberg does is to ask why particular poems appear beside particular records in the Memoriali. Steinberg combines a reading of the Memoriali with an analysis of the rise of notarial guild in Bologna. With this he also looks at how the way books were put together changed dramatically in the period, especially amongst the merchant class and the account books. So rather than quires being copied and subsequently sewn together, the account books were bound blank and then filled up page by page.

The other strand of this study is to examine some of the very famous vernacular anthologies, in particular Vat. 3793. He looks at the editorial choices exerted in these anthologies and how Dante could have seen a lyric such as Donna ch'avete copied in his lifetime in the Memoriali bolognesi (no. 82) and in Vat. 3793 (f. 99v). He looks at the contexts of this poem and in particular the way that it is followed immediately by the poem Ben aggia l'amoroso et dolce chore. In light of this use and abuse of Donna ch'avete, Steinberg reads Purgatorio 24 as a site of two innovative authorial strategies first attempted in the Vita nuova: 'First, he [sc. Dante] suggests that the ultimate authentic text lies in the author's mind and not in the public reception and various material redaction of his texts. This shift in emphasis from reader to writer foreshadows textually what Petrarch and Boccaccio would later experiment with materially when introducing their autographed author's books, and it places renewed importance on authorial intention. Second, Dante presents his dialogue with other vernacular poets as transcending the contingent, contentious "nodo" of contemporary literary production and politics' (p. 94). He then looks at how an anthology like Vat. 3793 is made up of quires representing particular geographical regions and puts such an extended discussion beside an analysis of the De vulgari eloquentia. The results are fascinating and exhilerating.

Chapter One comprises: Dante's First Editors: The Memoriali bolognesi and the Politics of Vernacular Transcription. Chapter Two: "Appresso che questa canzone fue alquanto divulgata tra le genti": Vaticano 3793 and the donne of "Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore". Chapter Three: "A terrigenis mediocribus": The De vulgari eloquentia and the Babel of Vaticano 3793. Chapter Four: Merchant Bookkeeping and Lyric Anthologizing: Codicological Aspects of Vaticano 3793. Chapter Five: Bankers in Hell: The Poetry of Monte Andrea in Dante's between Historicism and Historicity'. Epilogue: "Dante": Purgatorio 30. 55 and the Question of the Female Voice.

The book looks at how Dante can be viewed in the codicological context of his contemporaries and how such a horizontal view can provides new perspectives on old and familiar texts. It is written with a light and subtle touch and can cut through swathes of (sometimes difficult) codicological and philological material an eye Ockham might envy. There is nothing so satisfying as a book that helps you see the familiar in an entirely new light. Tolle et lege.

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