Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Simon A. Gilson, Dante and Renaissance Florence (CUP, 2005)

Contained in the Proemio to Cristoforo Landino’s Comento on the Divine Comedy is a chapter that comprises the full text of one of Marsilio Ficino’s Latin letters and in which he presents Dante’s coronation with laurel. The scene is surely one suggested by Dante himself when he prophesies his return to the Baptistry to be crowned as poet laureate: ‘con altro vello | ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte | del mio battesmo prendero ‘l capello’, Par. 25. 7-9. This coronation is brought about through the agency of the poet, vates Landino himself, and the text reads:
‘recently your [sc. Dante’s] father Apollo, made pitiful from my long weeping and your eternal exile, sent Mercury to enter the devout mind of the divine poet Cristoforo Landino. Having assumed Landino’s appearance, he used his wand to awake your sleeping soul, his wings to take you inside the walls of Florence, and finally he crowned your temples with Apollo’s laurel’, ‘nuper tuus pater Apollo, et longum flectum meum, et diuturnum tuum exilium miseratus, mandavit Mercurio, ut pie Christophori Landini divini vatis menti prorsus illaberetur; Landineosque vultus indutus, alma primum virga dormientem et suscitaret, deinde alarum remigio te sublatum menibus Florentinis inferret; denique Phebea tibi lauro tempora redimeret’ (Comento, Procaccioli ed., I, 268, 6-11; trans. Gilson, p. 191). I cite this passage from Simon Gilson’s new book on the Renaissance rezeption of Dante because it is a rather densely-textured attempt to reintegrate Dante as auctor in Florence’s cultural history. Landino as commentator becomes an auctor, and is divinely inspired just like Dante. The Comento is trading in the authority of Virgil’s Aeneid with Mercury’s remigio alarum (cf. ‘de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo’, Inf. 26. 125), but he is also doing so through the voice of Marsilio Ficino, another of Florence’s vates. The commentary impulse is nicely revealed here, where the commentator seeks to establish his own auctoritas through the excerpted voices of other auctoritates, ventriloquising, imitating and emulating. And now the commentator himself must be up to the job of praising the great poet and needs inspiration, not just ingegno. The Commentary becomes another work of poesia in a way, written by a Poeta.

The illustration, which also forms the dustjacket to Gilson’s book, shows Dante crowned with laurel outside the city walls of Florence, with the city in the background beside the mountain of Purgatory. (Does that mean that Florence is Hell?) It’s by Domenico di Michelino and is a tempera on panel in the Duomo in Florence, and dates from 1465 (232.5 x 292 cm). Dante holds a book, his Comedía, from which rays of light shine forth. It’s almost a holy book. So Dante stands with one of Florence’s great literary treasures, the Comedy in front of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, one of Florence’s great architectural treasures. The Landino/Ficino quotation above shows how important it is to repatriate Dante (and there’s much discussion in the Renaissance about bringing Dante’s bones back to the city) by having him re-enter the city, a kind of obsessive complex over his forced exile caused by the city itself.

Gilson’s book is in three parts. The first, entitled ‘Competing cults: the legacy of the Trecento and the impact of humanism, 1350-1430’, pp. 21-93, treats mainly of Boccaccio and Petrarch and the dichotomy of Dante reception between these two poets. Boccaccio is the great admirer, copier, compiler of Dante’s work, and his own writings are hugely influenced by Dante. Petrarch is notoriously cool towards Dante and is often characterized as unimpressed with Dante’s so-called ‘humanist’ credentials. The rest of the book, then, is broadly about how this dichotomy of denigrating Dante or glorifying him runs throughout the Renaissance and its reception of the Poeta. The second part, entitled ‘New directions and the rise of the vernacular, 1430-1481 (pp. 97-160), looks at Dante as a civic and linguistic model, and at critical judgments of Dante’s poem. The third part is about Cristoforo Landino’s Comento sopra la Comedia, which dates from 1481. Much material, all of it fascinating, it certainly is required reading for any bibliography on ‘The Afterlife of Dante’. My only criticism is that such is the spread of material there was not more time to work out the implications of the positions humanists were taking in respect of Dante. Often Gilson identifies loci of Dante resonances in humanist texts but does not proceed to ask why those localized occurrances might be interesting or significant. It’s not a serious criticism really because now the material has been put together. But I was often left wanting more. It is extremely well documented with a wonderful bibliography. Cambridge University Press’s usual high stardards of finishing the book have left little to correct for the paperback.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Lesley Grant-Adamson, Guilty Knowledge (Faber, 1986)

Trinity Rare Books is a wonderful second-hand and antique bookshop in Carrick-on-Shannon (that's in Co. Letirim, in the northwest of Ireland, for my international readers) and I paid a visit on Saturday to wish Nick and Joanna festive greetings. They have good stock in the shop, especially Irish literature and local material. There are some nice early McGaherns and you often see lovely Kavanaghs and Yeats there. There's even an early Ulysses, though I don't think that's for sale. I picked up a couple of nice things, including Arsenio Frugoni, Incontri nel Medioevo (Bologna: il Mulino, 1979), and a copy of Carlo Levi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, as well as the book I review below. The Frugoni is a collection of previously published articles, some of which are very famous, such as his very interesting work on circumstances surrounding Boniface VIII's jubilee year of 1300 (the year in which Dante sets the Commedia). His daughter Chiara is a famous medieval historian too. Mad Christmas dinners in that house, I should think. I once went in to Trinity Books after they'd bought a load of wonderful Italian stuff and picked up copies of Peter Armour, The Door of Purgatory: A Study of Multiple Symbolism in Dante's Purgatorio (Oxford: OUP, 1983), and his Dante's Griffin and the History of the World, as well as John Took, "L'etterno piacer": Aesthetic Ideas in Dante, John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion and Rachel Jacoff (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Except for the last all hardbacks, and all in great shape. I actually thought I was having a mirage to see all that stuff in one place in what is the least densely populated part of Western Europe. I may have started to hyperventilate or at least make some form of alarming moaning noises. You just never know where or when a book is going to turn up. Of course it's the stuff I didn't buy then that still sticks in my mind, like Patrick Boyde's Dante Phylomythes, to be republished imminently in paperback, or Anthony Cassell's Dante's Fearful Art of Justice, or the folly purchase which would have been three volumes of Edward Moore's Studies in Dante (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896). But I'm getting over it, and was very grown-up about the whole thing. I've nearly forgotten about them. Three years later.

Lesley Grant-Adamson's third novel is called Guilty Knowledge and was published in 1986 by Faber. The novel's heroine, Rain Morgan, a gossip columnist with the Daily Post, hatches a plan to get a junkit to the Cote d'Azur for a few days in the depths of winter. She will interview Sabine Jourdain, the mistress of a famous artist, who rumour has it wants to talk. Off she goes with her on-off lover, a cartoonist named Oliver, and before you know it they are up to their necks in it. It seems that Rain and her questions have been the catalyst in a whole series of murderous events that leads even to her own safety being threatened. At the heart of the mystery seems to be the reclusive and brilliant artist Marius Durance and the group of glamourous people around him. There are the high-powered dealers, Benjamin and Merlyn Joseph, and Philippe Maurin, the charming gallery owner. And then the remains of Durance's coterie of beautiful women, Sabine herself, and Barbara Coleman. It seems the minute that Rain starts asking questions, both Sabine and Barbara are being urged not to speak, by the Josephs and by Maurin, but what could they have to say that threatens everyone?

Grant-Adamson's novels often have a female detective, or in this case just a nosey journalist who wants to get to the bottom of a murder (or two), and her strength is in the way she draws women who are both frightened of the situations they find themselves in, and determined to understand those situations. In this story Rain and Oliver are constantly about to catch a flight back to England but Rain wants to talk to one last person to put another piece of the puzzle in place. She is always about to say enough, this story isn't worth what's happening, but at the same time she is constantly making connections that draw her deeper and deeper, until eventually she gets in a little too deep. The book is well structured and interesting, though the title, Guilty Knowledge, does not quite work for the story and is, perhaps, a little banal. It's a pity because it is not written that way. It gets a little complicated at the end as the different threads are being brought together, but the killer and their motives (keeping it gender neutral there for you) have a powerful simplicity, like all the best murder stories. And the whole book has been preparing you for that simplicity.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Two Exhibitions: A Perspective

Yesterday I went to London to see the Renaissance exhibition at the V&A, and the Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery. A quick trip to Unsworth's opposite the British Library was worth it in that I picked up a copy of Burrow and Doyle's Thomas Hoccleve: Facsimile of the Autograph Verse Manuscripts, EETS S.S. 19 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 2002) for the princely sum of £34.99, a very good find. The facsimile reproduces three autograph manuscripts of Thomas Hoccleve, containing all his verse except the Regiment of Princes. The manuscripts are very well known, Huntington Library, San Marino, MS HM 111 & 744, and Durham, University Library, MS Cosin V. III. 9. They were all produced between 1422 and 1426 (when Hoccleve died), and are important not just as witnesses of Hoccleve's verse, but also because they are the earliest examples of an English poet creating a 'Book' of his own verse, a 'Collected Works'. As witnesses to a poet's self-presentation, they are extremely interesting. So after blowing money on that I couldn't afford the catalogues for either exhibition.

The V&A exhibition is entitled At Home in Renaissance Italy, and it runs until Janurary 7th, 2007. It is a collection of objets, of household stuff, both high class and low class, all thematically displayed in sections entitled Sala, Cucina, Camera, and Scrittoio. They display works from the Tuscan region, and the Veneto, so it gives you a chance to compare and contrast. The exhibits range in date from about 1400 to about 1600. The two things I was really looking forward to in this exhibition somewhat disappointed me. I wanted to see what they did with marriage dowry chests, known as cassoni, and how they presented marriage gifts etc. There was curiously little on the subject. They did have some gifts, hankerchiefs, a couple of rings, etc, and they were interesting. But there was only one cassone and it was really quite basic. Having read Cristelle L. Baskins, Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), as well as Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Famil y, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), esp. the marvellous chapter 'The Griselda Complex' on the very elaborate and fascinating dynamics of exchange and dowries in Renaissance Florence, I was wanting more from the exhibition. The other disappointment was the section entitled Scrittoio. Now I love this kind of thing. Nothing is more satisfying that getting into someone's study and having a root around. And apart from the marvellous Antonella da Messina St Jerome in His Study and the Labours of the Month by Luca della Robbia, which was originally in the de' Medici study, and a couple of impossibly delicate cameos, it was a little...lacking in a narrative. But it may well have been the nature of the material, lots of bits and bobs, and hard to hang a story around it.

The National Gallery's exhibition is simply entitled Velázquez (and runs until 21 January). Nothing else. Not 'The Early Years', 'The Late Years', 'The Lost Years', just 'Velázquez'. So presumably they are trying to give us a snapshot of the artist's output and his greatness. They have set themselves a tough job with so few works, only 46 in all, and many of the superstar paintings are not represented. What is there is certainly of a high quality, and it was a bit of a thrill to see the two 'Kitchen Scene' paintings, dating from about 1618, one of which has a small window in the background through which we can see the Supper at Emmaus. This painting is in the National Gallery Dublin, and I'm very fond of it. The other, at the Art Institute Chicago, lacks the background scene. There is a progression from the early, more domestic settings done when the artist lived in Seville to the later Court paintings, with huge monumental portraits, and mythographical scenes. To be honest it's the early stuff that really moves me, like 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs' (1618), or 'The Water-Seller of Seville' (1618-1622). And of all the court paintings the most beautiful, in my opinion, is the 'Portrait of a Young Man' (1625-9, Cat. 21/X5573, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). There's something so intimate and quiet about it, it's not flashy or for an obviously powerful client. His face is clear and frank, someone who knows a little too much of court-life but thinks he knows when his time will come, either to seize his opportunity or to get out altogether. Light streams down on his face from a full and high source. The rest of the painting has been executed with quick brushstrokes, and much of the canvas has been left unfinished, except for the extraordinary face. There's something ever so slightly pouting about the mouth, perhaps a kind of self-regard one might associate with such a powerful court. But this is off-set against the rather tender shadows around the nose and chin, and the beautifully steady eyes. It was worth going to the exhibition for this portrait alone.

Both exhibitions are well worth seeing, but neither will change your life.


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