Saturday, 22 December 2007

A McGonigle Watch at Appleby's

I recently became interested in the work of the McGonigle brothers, Irish watchmakers. I get e-mail updates, and they recently let us know that they had left a watch into Appleby's in Dublin for viewing. Since I had never seen one in the flesh, I thought I'd go in to have a look. There are two, including a beautiful platinum model. They are just beautiful, incredibly poised in design and with a really dynamic face. They feel really modern actually, and quite edgy. This is all the more remarkable considering that they are so traditional, crafted with painstaking attention to detail. They make, I believe, about four watches a year. Money would be vulgar to talk about considering the kind of watch we're talking about. It's a work of art. That's all. If you're interested I really recommend a visit to see this marvellous watch.

I should also say that the chap who looked after me there, and I did not catch his name, but I should have thought he's an Appleby, was extremely helpful and courteous and spoke with care and in detail about the watches. I greatly enjoyed the visit, and was given good reason to trust them.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Another wot got away

I thought I nearly had it. A tad over-priced, but I was willing. Postage cost a disgrace, but that's the way of it. And then a message, the bookseller regrets that this book is not in place: it may have been sold to a customer who walked in off the street, or the seller's database has not been updated. So that's that. I know it will come up again; it'll be in the window of a charity shop, or I'll find it online again and I'll be that person who walked in of the street and gets it in time. Patience with books leads to good collections.

It was Guglielmo Gorni's edition of the Vita nova for the 'Nuova Raccolta di classici italiani annotati', published by Einaudi, in 1996 (ISBN: 8806132253). I must admit I find myself convinced by his renumbering of the chapters. Numerology is always a tricky one to argue, because it's so flexible and can be made to perform incredible acrobatics for you that just work somehow, but the patterns around the number 9 are very stimulating and compelling. See too his article ''Paragrafi' e titolo della «Vita Nova»', Studi di filologia italiana, 53 (1995), 203-222 for an account. There's something very economical about his argument and his critique of Barbi's assertion that the divisions are inconsistent in the extant manuscripts is powerful. (Cf. Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta, 'From Manuscript to Print: The Case of Dante's Vita Nuova', in Dante Now: Current Trends in Dante Studies, ed. by Theodore J. Cachey, William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies, 1 [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995], pp. 83-114, for another view, of considerably more shaky philological foundation).

But I cannot complain. Lately I've been finding some lovely things here and there. Kenelm Foster's The Two Dantes (London, 1977), in lovely condition, and a very good pb of his Petrarch (Edinburgh, 1984). The former I found before a visit to Cambridge last week. I took it as a good omen for my journey, and it was indeed a good omen. While in Cambridge I found a lovely copy of Gordon's The Double Sorrow of Troilus (Oxford, 1970), and Barron's Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered (Manchester, 1980).

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Francesco Petrarca, De insigni obedientia et fide uxoria, ed. Albanese (1998)

This gorgeous little facsimile of Florence, Bibl. Riccardiana, MS 991, prepared by the excellent Gabriella Albanese was published in 1998 by Edizioni dell'Orso (Alessandria); she is also responsible for writing an introduction. It appears to be out of print now, but I shall certainly keep my eyes open for it as I'd love to own a copy. The manuscript is rather unusual in that it comprises just 22 ff of Petrarch's Latin translation of Dec X. 10, the story of Gualtieri and his patient wife Griselda. Very few single volume 'monographs' of the work exist, being much more frequently compiled with other material into a miscellany. Its format is unusual, 18 cm X 12.5 cm, written in a humanist script that is light and spacious.

"L'elegante mise en page del testo, infatti, vergato in scrittura umanistica, a piena pagina, con uno specchio di scrittura arioso, di gusto classico, il formato decisamente moderno e 'petrarchesco' di «libretto da mano» ne fanno un maneggevole libro di lettura, scritto al contempo con eleganza e chiarezza, che ripete da vicino teoria e prassi della riforma del libro voluta e imposta da Petrarca negli ambienti delle più avanzate avanguardie umanistiche" (p. 39).

Perhaps most interesting is its unfinished iconographic programme, with blank spaces at key scenes. Albanese includes an analysis of these empty scenes and a comparison with other illuminated manuscripts with pictorial representations of these very moments in the text. This is a fascinating study and a fascinating manuscript and both are worth looking at carefully.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Theory of Everything

Apparently, a surfer named Garrett Lisi has just discovered the Theory of Everything. And central to it is E8, a very complex group of symmetries that if written out in tiny print would cover the size of Manhattan. Needless to say, I have not got the foggiest idea what any of this is about. I just think the picture is pretty.

But even more exciting, apparently, is that they've just figured out how to plug in an enormous blender in Switzerland called the Large Hadron Collider, and they can now actually test this guy's theory of everything. Isn't that amazing? Testing a theory of everything. I don't even know what that means, never mind what it might answer. But if you look at the picture you go a little dizzy after a while.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Renaissance Siena: Art for a City; National Gallery London, until 13 Jan

The National Gallery recently restored a triptych panel by the so-called Master of the Story of Griselda of the sequence for which he has become famous. The curator was so struck by its quality that he decided to put together a larger exhibition entitled Renaissance Siena: Art for a City, and the result is an extremely enjoyable collection of work. Siena was often considered the second city in Tuscany in terms of power and influence after Florence, and there is no doubt at all that this secondary position is reflected in the quality of the art it produced. But in a way that is what made this exhibition so enjoyable. You are seeing how a relatively normal Italian Renaissance city got on with creating its saints, its iconography, establishing its authority in artistic terms with the best artists it could grow at home and import from elsewhere.

What I went to the exhibition to see was those recently-restored panels detailing the Griselda story and it was certainly worth it for that. The panels are thought to have been produced for a double wedding in the Spanocchi family and would have decorated the nuptial bedchamber. It would seem that they were placed in a row as they are all lit from the left. The first panel details Gualtieri out hunting and seeing Griselda (left background, and left middle ground). He goes to Griselda father to ask permission for her hand in marriage (right background), takes her outside, has her stripped naked (left foreground), and then marries her in her sumptuous bridal clothes (centre).

The second panel details Gualtieri's supposed killing of their two children (left background), his seeking a divorce (under the left arch), showing her the forged papal bull giving him permission to divorce her (under the central arch) and her scandalous disrobing (under right arch). She goes home in her camicia, or undergarment, to her father who is waiting for her.

The third panel details the wedding banquet. Gualtieri has asked Griselda to return to the castle and prepare the household for his impending wedding (left background). She agrees and welcomes the wedding guests, including the supposed bride and her brother (far background). Under the far right arch Griselda speaks to Gualtieri, explaining that he should not test his new wife like he did another (i.e. her). Under the far left arch Gualtieri reveals that is was all a test, a test that she has passed, and he embraces her (rather awkwardly). The central two panels details the restoration of order and Gualtieri and Griselda's re-marriage and happily-ever-after moment.

These are fascinating panels, not just for the very interesting representation of marriage, such as is discussed by Christiane Klapische-Zuber in "The Griselda Complex", but also the marriage iconography being used in such a specific nuptial context (see Baskins on Italian cassoni etc). Also, the artist has clearly created a very uneven composition, where there is much skipping and jumping between scenes, where one is often unsure what is happening, where clothes and headgear must be read in order to understand who's who. These are such vital concerns in the story that it represents an interesting example of a rich textual background informing the visual tradition. The animals playing on the floor in the final panel provide a wonderful marginal commentary to the story too, with chained monkeys and bears and such looking at various characters. One wonders at the central panel and its use of a forged papal bull in the context of often delicate relations with Rome. The bull is the central point in the panel, the vanishing point, clearly indicating that it is upon this authority that Gualtieri acts. As the central panel it balances the two others, provides their centre of gravity, or their fulcrum. Interesting too is the theory that the final panel was produced first, in time for the wedding, and that he others were added later. In the Spanocchi house, then, the resolution came first, and the problems were represented later. Given that the wall would have been prepared to receive the panels in advance, a bride might well have had a sense of foreboding at the two empty panels waiting for a story, explaining how Griselda ended up like that. I am troubled too by the awkwardness of Griselda's embrace of Gualtieri in the final panel. It speaks volumes in a scene in which she says nothing.

Go to see this exhibition.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Guillermo Martínez, The Oxford Murders (Abacus, 2005)

This novel is Martínez's first to be translated into English and is the winner of the Planeta Prize in Spain. Last year they filmed some of it here in Oxford and I thought I'd give it a read and see what the fuss was about. Only now I get around to it, having picked up a cheap copy at the Oxfam booksale on Saturday morning. The story revolves around an Argentinian post-doctoral student who arrives in Oxford to work with a famous maths don. He lodges with a little old lady who gets murdered and whose murder appears to be one in a series that follows a mathematical logic. Can they identify the series and predict the next murder or will the killer be too clever for them?

The maths is quite interesting, the plots has been competently sketched, apart from a clunky ending, but the characterization and writing is terrible. And I mean, really terrible. It might be a question of something being lost in translation, but the characters all lack any depth or interest. I know that often these kinds of books will rely on plot and conceit to carry them, so we're supposed to think that the maths makes up for the lack of characters. Oxford is supposed to be a wonderful setting, but unfortunately it's all a little heavy-handed, with lots of silly mistakes like porters emptying bins in dons' rooms in Merton. It felt far too like what Dan Brown did for Rome with Angels and Demons. And if the maths were done in a more clever way, he might have pulled it off. But unfortunately it is all pretty straightforward, and the maths doesn't come out of it in any mysterious way, as it should have. It seems liked a missed opportunity, and I'm afraid to say that I recommend that The Oxford Murders be your missed opportunity.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Garage, 2007; dir. Lenny Abrahamson, written by Mark O'Halloran

Last Thursday I got a chance to see Lenny Abrahamson and Mark O'Halloran's new film Garage. [Thank you Margaret!] Based on what I have already said about Adam and Paul and Prosperity, I suppose it is going to be pretty obvious that I am an admirer of the work this collaboration has been producing. With Garage I think we move into something rather more serious, not just in terms of subject-matter, but also in terms of art. There is a beautiful pace to the film, a rigorous slowness of the surrounding landscape that is part of the characters and their lives.

The story is simple. Josie works in a garage, looking after the few passing customers and waiting for business to pick up. He is treated like the village idiot, though often it is clear he is perfectly self-conscious. When his boss suggests that he work longer hours, he sends the son of his new girlfriend to work with Josie. The two strike up a friendship and Josie and the young man sit talking about nothing in particular, drinking cans and looking out at the closing evening. The rest of the film is tragic and heartbreaking, moving inexorably to a terrible end; I can't reveal more of the story without spoiling it.

There is a great great delicacy to the performances, and Pat Short is simply astonishing. His Josie is wonderfully played, physically vivid, and emotionally charged. It will be impossible to consider him 'just' a comic actor from now on. The filming is wonderful, mixing lush green countryside with harsh fluorescent internal lights. The desolation of the small town almost becomes a part of you at the end of the film. And its silence overcomes you. It is too desperate for expression, for tears.

It would be condescending to those involved to praise this film as a great new Irish film. This is a great and beautiful film. It was an enriching experience to see it.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Fifth International Dante Seminar

On Thursday and Friday I went to the Fifth International Dante Seminar entitled Dante Etico e lirico. There were some fascinating papers delivered, with highlights being a stunning contribution by Robin Kirkpatrick and George Corbett on the use of Dante in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, and another being the marvellously erudite and rich contribution of Claudia Villa on the eclogues, Par 22 and Giovanni del Virgilio. Lots of famous people there, the usual putting faces to names.

Very happy also to have learned about the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies, which looks very interesting and dynamic. There is also a podcast, the first of which deals with key moments in Inferno 1.1-3. It is very good and worth listening to.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

100 Words and Pictures That Define Time

This is Jonathan Harris, a sickeningly talented young web artist who has developed all sorts of fascinating web-based concepts, seeking to explore and understand the human world through the artifacts people leave behind on the Web. It's nice kind of variation on the idea of found art.

One of his websites is the beautiful 10X10, which takes the top 100 words being used in cyberspace during any one hour. It creates its own kind of narrative, at once isolated and beautiful, yet completely fleeting and plugged in to what we're hearing. It generates its own logic of strangeness while remaining oddly familiar. I think it's a brilliant idea; it makes you look at the world differently. It's marvellous.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Prosperity, dir. Lenny Abrahamson, written by Mark O'Halloran (RTE Television, 2007)

The past two weeks have seen the first two episodes of RTE's new drama Prosperity, directed and written by the highly talented Abrahamson and O'Halloran and being aired on Monday nights at 21.30 BST on RTE Network 2. They have also been made available by RTE online, along with lots of other info on the series as well as the scripts. Those without access to Network 2 are strongly urged to watch it online. The quality of this drama is uncharacteristic of RTE and it surely represents a high-water mark for the season, and for future Irish-made drama. The series explores they way that the new-found prosperity experienced in Ireland has not brought everyone with it. Many of the scenes serve to reinforce this: the boys walk across their crumbling estate with the skyline crowded with cranes, testifying to the building boom that has not reached their own high-rise flats. Stacey hangs around a shopping centre full of people buying things she cannot afford.

Each episode is someone's story: the first, Stacey's Story; the second, Gavin's. Stories are the heart of this drama, not plots. Stacey is beautifully rendered as a young mother passing each day with her baby wandering the streets and hanging around the Jervis St shopping centre, dealing with problems that might not even occur to some: finding a place to change the baby; finding a way to charge her mobile telephone after losing her charger; trying to be alone with her on-off boyfriend and father of the child.

Gavin is a young boy who wants a new toy and cannot afford it. He and his friend Conor play truant from school and spend the day trying to find a few euro to make up what he has saved and buy the toy. The boys meet a young mother and try to sell her the beer they have stolen. Instead they barter a can for three cigarettes and sit looking at the rabbit that Gavin has stolen from a neighbour's back yard. The story follows the boys as they make their way through the day, a day that culminates with a confrontation with the friend of one of Gavin's neighbours and an absolutely stunning and shocking final scene.

The stories run in parallel, and in each episode you will see a reprise from an earlier episode, so they weave in and out of each other, a bit like the dynamic of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois Couleurs. There are some stunning shots, like the beautiful portrait of Gavin looking at his father with a strong sunlight behind his face. Anyone familiar with Abrahamson and O'Halloran's Adam and Paul will recognize many echoes in this episode and there's much more to say about the way that O'Halloran has chosen to explore the themes of innocence and child-like language in both of these works.

Something very very special is happening in Prosperity.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Ian Sansom, The Mobile Library: The Case of the Missing Books (Harper, 2005)

The Mobile Library is the first in a series featuring “one of literature’s most unlikely detectives”, Israel Armstrong, a Jewish vegetarian sensitive type who arrives in a small Northern Irish village to take up a position that just might make his CV look passable. Everything that can go wrong does to wrong in his first twenty-four hours. Not least of his problems is that the books have gone missing, and in order to get out of his contract, he must find them.

Sansom is a very smart writer and there are many laugh-out-loud moments in the book. I like the twist of a Jew trying to navigate all the religious and political sensitivities in the North. I like the way this detective is an outsider. I like some of the characters in the book.

But I’m not sure that it is a sincere book. And sure, perhaps it is not meant to be. (I can just hear the cavils now about sincerity...but not to sound too much like one of Sansom's characters, you'll know it when you see it). It is a book that just screams something like “Postmodernity can be fun kids”, and I have at least three problems with such a statement. There are some genuine moments, certainly, but my overall impression was an unsettling sense of being manipulated by cleverness rather than invited to share in the playfulness.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (Verso, 2002)

In these nine reflections on the idea of distance and historical inquiry, Carlo Ginzburg, the noted historian and intellectual makes his way through a variety of fascinating topics from diverse fields with great ease and coolness. The concept of distance is examined from several perspectives. In in the first essay, entitled 'Making It Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device', he opens by discussing Viktor Shklovsky's Theory of Prose and his definition of art as a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant. From here he takes us on a wonderful journey from Proust, Marcus Aurelius, Antonio de Guevara (who?), Montaigne, La Bruyère, Tolstoy and many more as he examines the idea of ostranienie or de-familiarization. This gives some idea of the range that Ginzburg provides in his meditations. This only works when the author has complete control over his argument and over his material, and both happily coincide in this book.

A long chapter on 'Myth: Distance and Deceit' takes us from Plato to the Nazis without time for breath in between; another on 'Representation: The Word, The Idea, The Thing' opens with a fascinating discussion of funerary practices in the late middle ages and the use of effigies of the dead and examines the idea of an oscillation between representation as substitute and as mimetic evocation. One of the most facscinating meditations, Chapter 4, 'Ecce: On the Scriptural Roots of Christian Devoational Imagery' opens with a marvellously stimulating discussion of the role of Old Testament (and prophetic) citations in the Gospels, and wonders if it is useful to use the term testimonia to describe these citation strings. His conclusion is that it is the citations that generate the narrative and not the other way around.

Further chapters are: 'Idols and Likenesses: A Passage in Origen and its Vicissitudes'; 'Style: Inclusion and Exclusion'; 'Distance and Perspective: Two Metaphors'; 'To Kill a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance'; 'Pope Wojtyla's Slip'.

I look forward to keeping this book closeby and returning to it and ruminating further on the many fascinating things Ginzburg has to say. I recommend it.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The Francis Bacon Studio, The Hugh Lane, Dublin

After Bacon's death in 1992, his heir, John Edwards, wanted to donate his studio and papers to a gallery where it the studio might be re-housed and studied. Edwards approached the Tate, who apparently dithered for several years. Edwards turned around and offered it to the Hugh Lane. They did not dither. The studio was dismantled and rebuilt in Dublin with forensic precision, every item catalogued and meticulously photographed. The result is a huge digital archive of everything, books and pictures, thousands of objects that have made their way into his work in one way or another. Being an Irishman, it is very appropriate that the Studio return to the city of his birth. And going to a gallery that houses a collection bequeathed by Sir Hugh Lane that itself had some trouble finding a home seems oddly poignant and appropriate. Dublin did not make the same mistake twice, it would seem.

The Studio, at number 7 Reese Mews in South Kensington, was not just his studio but also where he lived. Perry Ogden was asked to photograph the studio before it was to be moved to Dublin. These are now on display and comprise shots not just of the studio but also of his kitchen and his bedroom and living space. I found these images very affecting I must say. There was a stunning simplicity about the space, and just a few photographs dotted around of those most important to him. There were many photographs too of his own work, and it is clear that in his living space he meditated often on his own iconic work. In his later years he became very wealthy and owned various other properties, but this was where he lived and worked for thirty years. And despite the money to complicate his life with beautiful objects and posh fixtures, he has a tiny studio with his bath in the kitchen and his bed in his living room.

There is something extremely interesting about seeing an artist's workspace. Over the past few months The Guardian have been doing a Writer's Room series in which a writer will talk a little bit about their own workspace. Bacon does refer to the mess he works in and how important that mess is. The studio has been rebuilt so that you take one step inside it, with a perspex glass door keeping you out. A couple of other peep-holes allow views of other parts of the studio. It is disconcerting too to watch the empty studio, with ripped canvases and torn bits of paper all over the floor. Like seeing a room full of potential creativity rather than seeing something Bacon meant us to see.

There are several paintings on display, a highlight being the work you can see in the photograph above, a figure that appears to be Bacon himself. It is a typical work but clearly quite unfinished. And that was one of the most moving points of the Bacon Studio. He was still working, and had more work to do.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Pausing, then Effecting

A quick visit to my local secondhand bookshop ended up a bit of a crisis of hyperventilation and overspending. The usual story. One of the retiring dons has off-loaded some of his books, and he had a research interest in good stuff, like Chaucer. This means that there were many things I wanted. I had to make three piles in the end. The stuff I couldn't live without. The stuff I could live without for today (but no guarantees about tomorrow). And the stuff I know I'll regret not buying. (That's usually as good as it gets, I'm afraid). In the end I think that I was exemplary in my restraint and good judgment. First to call out to me was M.B. Parkes' Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992). A hard to find book, very competitively priced (£20). That was the little gem. Something I've used, and coveted, and wanted to own for a long time. The rest was all criticism I don't own but have read (with varying degrees of attentiveness). Owning them now and having them on my shelf obviously means I can return to them in my own time and ruminate. (That's the justification). Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (CUP, 1973); David Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (RKP, 1980), and very serendipitously Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 1992). Super stuff. A very happy bunny.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Bookbinders Bite Back

Those who have ever worked in an Irish library may have seen a little sticker in the bottom corner of the hardback library binding marked O'Reilly's. Well, it seems that globalization is now hitting the bookbinders and they are relocating to Eastern Europe where labour is cheaper. But the binders are having a sit-in, so well-done them. Sigh. I'm not optimistic.

The first John McGahern International Summer School was held over the past couple of days in Co. Leitrim. The programme looks interesting. I hope this Summer School establishes itself.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Islamic and Christian Medieval Astronomy: A Shared Heritage

These past three evenings there have been three public lectures held at the Dept. of Physics. Tonight's was on the Astrolabe, and it was given by Dr Stephen Johnston, from the Museum of the History of Science. In it he discussed the history of the astrolabe, how it works, and gave a really interesting demonstration of a little java applet of an astrolabe in action. He went through some interesting astrolabes, both Arabic and Western, as well as many others. I began to see how one might work, and how versatile as instruments they actually are. You can measure not just time, but you can also plot the planets and thus, someone's horoscope. It is so easy to forget that Chaucer actually wrote a manual on how to use the astrolabe, ostensibly at the request of his son Lewis. There are many interesting aspects to this work, not least the prologue, where he talks very directly about the nature and role of translation (for which see the very interesting article by Andrew Cole, 'Chaucer's English Lesson', Speculum 77 [2002], 1128-1167). It also occurred to me that this was a very anthropocentric way of thinking about time, at once very local (you have to use a plate with your latitude on it), and also universal, transnational. You could use an Arabic astrolabe for example in Europe with the right latitude plate and a bit of thinking.
Below is a wristwatch astrolabe, made by Dr Ludwig Oechslin at the Swiss watchmakers Ulysse Nardin. I can just imagine Lewis looking for one for his birthday! (Chaucer would have been writing a longer complaint to his purse then I rather think).

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Dorothy L. Sayers, Nine Tailors (Gollancz, 1934)

It is with a little embarrassment that I admit to reading only now the crime fiction of Dorothy Sayers. It was with her work on Dante that I was first acquainted, and only later saw that she was a such an accomplished crime novelist. The novel I started with is a late one in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and it is a very enjoyable read. The prose is getting a little creaky, and Wimsey himself is a funny character and not entirely one that you can believe or sympathize with. However, the story is marvellous, and its dénouement reminds me a lot of Murder on the Orient Express, only a little better because it's more shocking in many ways. Having spend a very short time ringing bells once in Dublin I was totally absorbed in all the bell stuff, and you've got to be to enjoy the book. The story is also very complicated, which requires immense skill to keep control of, to prevent it from dissolving. I shall certainly read soon Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night. And it was with delight and shock with equal measure that I read about her work as a copywriter on the Toucan Guinness adverts. I'll never drink a pint the same way again.

Also just read another of the Jonathan Argyll series by Iain Pears, Giotto's Hand (HarperCollins, 1994). I find these very enjoyable, though they are very light and frothy things. Great for a lazy Sunday when you're not in the mood for the papers and you've had a late night. Next on my list is Dibdin's last, and that will get a review certainly.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Harper 2005)

In this beautiful book Joan Didion relentlessly explores her grief after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. Her eye is unflinching, and at times you feel almost invasive reading it. The publicity has been huge, the praise deservedly lavish. A quick Google search will find all you need.
What I found very interesting about the book was they way that she researched grief. She was very practical about it, wanted to know what people's experiences have been, and read some very interesting material. For example she makes frequent reference to the great Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Towards Death From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, trans. Patricia Ranum (Johns Hopkins UP, 1974), and comes back to the medieval idea that the dying knew more about their own death than others. She cites the example of Gawain, in the Chanson de Roland, who responds to an incredulous question about the proximity of his death by saying: 'I tell you that I shall not live two days'. She repeats this like a mantra, reflecting on what Ariès says about this passage: 'Only the dying man can tell how much time he has left'. This leads her to look with what I can only describe as a searing set memories of his last hours, looking for any sign that John knew his end was near.

It's a beautiful book, and it's well worth reading. John Leonard, in his review in the NYRB (Vol. 52, No. 16, 20 Oct. 2005) ends aptly: 'I can't imagine dying without this book'. Didion's book is a modern answer to a medieval Ars moriendi, the survivor's guide.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Italy's Three Crowns, Bodleian Library

An exhibition to celebrate an International Dante seminar, to be held in September, has opened at the Bodleian Library, and runs from 19 June to 31 October 2007. It is a must see for anyone in the area. The exhibition celebrates all three fourteenth-century masters, but the balance of material is slightly weighted towards Dante, mainly because of its attention to the nineteenth century, and some fascinating material from the Tom Phillips archive. A beautiful and scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibition, edited by the inestimable Martin McLoughlin and Zygmunt Baranski.

Highlights include the wonderful Holk. misc. 48 (left), Dante's Comedia, as well as Petrarch's own copy of Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars and Ambrose's Letters, with his marginalia. There are many other beautiful manuscripts in the exhibition and I am looking forward to popping in regularly over the summer.


Saturday, 26 May 2007

Paul Strohm (ed), Middle English (Oxford, 2007)

This volume appears as the first in a series called 'Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature'. As its editor explains in the introduction, it is not really designed to be a companion to anything. There are no 'major author' chapters for example. Instead, the chapter titles seeks to 'violate customary categorizations' (p. 2): 'Vision, Image, Text'; 'Symbolic Economies'; Episodes'; 'Feeling'; 'Learning to Live', for example. So it's not Middle English Literature or Middle English Culture or Textualities, or any such. No; we're past that very Twentieth Century approach. The result is a jumble, but very curiously pleasing. And how could a medievalist complain about such miscellaneous varietas? The book is valuable, interesting and full of gems.
There isn't the space to review every essay, though do have a look at the table of contents. The following are random thoughts and impressions. The book is divided into four parts, 'Conditions and Context', 'Vantage Points', 'Textual Kinds and Categories', and 'Writing and the World'.
Part one is very stimulating. The opening chapter, by Carol Symes, looks at the idea of the 'manuscript matrix', the complex interaction of canonical texts and canonical manuscripts. 'Nearly everything that we take for granted about the identification, classification, and evaluation of texts must therefore be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in the twenty-first century, so that we gain a new appreciation of the very different conditions in which all medieval writings came into being, while acknowledging that many of the texts that make up the medieval segment of the modern canon were elevated to that status based on a variety of criteria which does not account for the aesthetic, cultural, or social values of medieval people, nor the media through which these values were conveyed' (p. 21). [I'd have loved a bit more on Dante, especially since she cites Sanguineti's edition of the Commedia, p. 14 n18, unfortunately without comment on how this edition might have relevance to her argument]. Robert M. Stein's article, immediately following, similarly urges for a return to the manuscripts and a consideration of the codicological context of these texts in a multi-lingual environment. This issue is addressed, again, by Christopher Baswell's essay 'Multilingualism on the Page' (pp. 38-50). And later, Alexandra Gillespie in 'Books' urges a dynamic approach, implicating the likes of Foucault, MacKenzie and Adam Pynkhurst: 'If my first point is that there are lots of different ways of thinking about books, my second is that no one way of thinking about a book is secure in itself. A book is something that must be worked on and made sense of. It is discursively formed - and discursive formations, the forms of human knowledge, are partial and unstable' (p. 90). Some welcome essays surely include Bruce Holsinger's contribution entitled 'Liturgy', proceeding along a 'detheologizing' line of analysis [an approach familiar to all who've read Barolini].
And it would be remiss of me to ignore the remarkable essay entitled 'Vernacular Theology' by Vincent Gillespie (pp. 401-420), where he argues succinctly and elegantly [he rarely argues any other way] that 'vernacular theology' might now be better understood working 'with the assumption that each subperiod in medieval England produced multiple, interlocking, and overlapping vernacular theologies, each with complex intertextual and interlingual obligations and affiliations' (p. 406). His pages on Ullerston as a key figure in the Oxford translation debate will leave you hungry for more. It is hoped that this 'twenty-first century approach' will soon get another outing providing Gillespie with more space to explore and elucidate this fascinating figure.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2007)

The Lives of Others is the feature film debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and it is can only be described as a stunning achievement. It tells the story of a playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, a renowned actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), living in East Germany and trying to make art and toe the party line. They eventually come under the scrutiny of the secret police and it is then that Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) begins to observe them. His credentials are impeccable, as the chilling opening scenes testify. But he was not expecting to find himself emotionally involved in the lives of these two subjects, and especially Christa-Maria, and his navigation of these feelings - weaving perilously between the expectations of the State (itself a complex of vested interests and ideals) and his personal involvement. When Dreyman writes an inflammatory article dealing with the subject of suicide, in response to the death of a black-listed director friend, and publishes it anonymously in Der Spiegel, the pressure mounts and the State apparatus closes in.

The film deals beautifully with the personal and the political, the microcosm and macrocosm of our lives and how we reconstruct lived experience. The Stasi relentlessly records every (seemingly absurd) detail building up an enormous archive. Dreyman, years later, returns to the Stasi offices to read his own files and only then makes sense of what happened. It is a remarkable and moving scene, and results in him writing a novel, Sonata for a Good Man (a piece of music given him by the director who committed suicide). The archive had been a menacing and threatening instrument used against the country's residents, but now becomes a heuristic source for rebuilding their lives.

I highly recommend this stimulating, moving and affecting film. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, 14 May 2007


It would appear that the Babel sessions at Kalamazoo went fantastically well, and the wonderful Eileen Joy is the talk of the town. This was so obviously going to happen sooner or later. I was supposed to give a paper on that session and part of me is upset I could not go - hugely upset really. But I'm also relieved that I didn't get to go because I think my paper would have been easily the most boring in the session, from the sounds of things. Anyways, the papers are going to be posted, so keep an eye out. A highlight is Timothy Spence's paper on Books of Hours and iPods.

Posting is down to a minimum on Miglior acque these days as the workload has increased, but I'll get down to a couple of posts soon on the wonderful film The Lives of Others, and Paul Strohm's edited collection Middle English which I am greatly enjoying. Do read, in the meantime, Estelle Stubbs' very interesting article in the latest Review of English Studies on Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 198 (a ms of the Canterbury Tales). Super stuff. And tonight Guglielmo Gorni is coming to talk about Dante, which I'll hopefully blog.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Chaucer Revealed, sort of...

The wonderful collaborative medieval blog In The Middle has recently had the Chaucer blogger contribute. This had been promised and was eagerly anticipated. But what a surprise to find that it was written in the blogger's own voice. It was full of colloquial and informal American speak such as dang and like and stuff, and it all sounded so much less knowing that the Chaucer voice he uses. Some of those who left comments seemed to betray a little of this disappointment, with one even comparing the voice to that of Holden Caulfield. And now Stephanie Trigg has posted on the whole question of voice and identity and anonymity etc, and wonders about the disappointment at the confessional aspect to the Chaucer blogger's post. All very interesting stuff.

PS: apologies for the lungo silenzio. Will post soon with the usual psychotic book rants.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Michael Dibdin

It was with great regret that I learned this evening of the death of the crime writer Michael Dibdin. Dibdin wrote eleven novels featuring his wonderful detective Aurelio Zen, as well as several other novels not in the Zen series. I've read all of his work, and it is extremely good. The last Zen novel, Back to Bologna (2005) was particularly enjoyable for me because it was set in my favourite city in the world and it was full of oddball types, including what has to be a parody of il professore himself, Umberto Eco. Apparently there is another novel, End Games, to be published posthumously. Dibdin's work is some of the best crime fiction around, and it constantly challenges preconceptions about the genre. Read him.

Friday, 30 March 2007

The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes

A rare Arab manuscript was acquired a couple of years ago to great fanfare by the Bodleian Library and was displayed for a period with some other very interesting manuscripts (including a copy of Chaucer's Astrolabe). The catalogue of that manuscript was published by the Bodleian and is entitled Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Picturing the Universe in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages (2004). The manuscript, now MS Arab c. 90, has been put online for digital consultation and quality of the images is wonderful. This is a marvellous project and well worth browsing. The manuscript is a late 12th or early 13th century copy and was probably made in Egypt, and is of paramount importance for its unusually large set of maps of the heavens and the earth. It is a compilation of material that has hitherto been known in a fragmentary state and so offers to chance to do much recuperation and reconstruction. For those who wish to know more, I recommend: Jeremy Johns and Emilie Savage-Smith, 'The Book of Curiosities: A Newly Discovered Series of Islamic Maps', Imago Mundi, 55 (2003), 7-24. It has me thinking a lot about all the talk about an Arabic source in Dante, and when you browse through this manuscript and look at the extraordinary topographies, you really do wonder.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Announing Judgment and Apocalypse: Aspects and Approaches

Attached are two screenshots of the programme for the forthcoming conference, Judgment and Apocalypse: Aspects and Approaches, to be held at Lincoln College, Oxford, April 13th-14th 2007. All welcome! You can access the conference programme website or download it in pdf format.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Nearly PhinisheD

I submitted my thesis today. Now all I've got to do is convince my examiners I know what I'm doing and my diabolical plan will have been realized. Mwhaoh mwhaoh mwhaoh (that's a diabolical laugh, by the way).

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Into Great Silence, dir. Philip Gröning (2005)

Philip Gröning's film Die Große Stille took 21 one years to make, a mere blink of the eye for a Carthusian. The Carthusians were founded in 1084 by St Bruno of Cologne. The order boasts never to have been reformed, which is technically correct (though it has changed over the centuries). It was an extremely powerful order in the middle ages perhaps due to its patronage by European royals, in particular in France and later in Italy. In fact, the Order's founder was responsible for two houses, one at Chartreux (close to Grenoble), and the second in Calabria at Serra San Bruno. He had been summoned out of the solitary life by Urban II for political advice and Urban, sensibly, wished to keep him close. The result was Bruno founding a sort of second mother house in Calabria. The Order is famous for its austerity and its great learning (the Carthusian libraries were some of the richest in medieval Europe).

This film is a delicate and richly textured portrait of the Carthusians. It is utter simplicity. There is hardly any dialogue. The viewer follows the monks in their daily rituals as a kind of fly-on-the-wall. The camera sits watching a monk praying with a relentless patience. The monks are not exactly embarrassed by the camera, more tolerant of it. There are sets of portrait shots of each monk that are stunning. Just long shots of a face looking back, compelling and moving. The director takes shots of a bowl of fruit or a glass of water and works a kind of magic with them, creating something worthy of an early Netherlandish miniature or about which a Friedländer or Panofsky might write with grave scholarship.

The harsh environment is an integral part of their existance (the first site of Bruno's monastery was destroyed early in the twelfth century by an avalanche and the surviving monks had to descend several hundred meters for safety reasons). And yet they make the environment something not oppressive. There are comic moments. One scene follows the monks on a walk where they bring little sleighs and slide down the incline laughing and joking with each other. Another comic conversation is recorded where they discuss the ritual of handwashing before dinner. They are austere but far from humourless. The film has an extraordinary effect of the viewer. You find yourself becoming the silence, becoming the ritual. Last night everyone left the cinema in almost total silence, and even as people gathered outside the cinema there was little conversation.

I'm not going to insult the beauty of this achievement by giving the usual guff about it being an antidote to our busy lives and how we don't know what silence is anymore. Something more is happening here. Go and see this film. Just go.

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.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Jaeger Le-Coultre, Reverso Grande Complication à Triptych

This is the JLC Reverso Grande Complication à Triptych, Tourbillon (with in-house escapement) sideral time, perpetual calendar with equation of time with zodiac signs and sunrise and sunset indications. It is basically every possible way of thinking about time and measuring time in one watch. Apart from a sandglass, maybe. This is nothing short of a miracle of design and beauty.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Obviously written by a medievalist

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Dante Commentaries (1977) and Dante Readings (1987)

While at the last of this year's UCD Lectura Dantis (this year on War and Peace in Dante) last Monday, where Claire Honess gave a very interesting paper called 'Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile: Henry VII and Dante's Ideal of Peace', John Barnes gave away some copies of the earlier UCD Italian publications. These are increasingly difficult to get hold of so I was delighted to have them, and it seems only right that I should blog a review of them, just to remind you of what is in them. Each volume has its merits, but highlights would surely include the contributions of Lonergan, Armour and Scott in the first volume.

David Nolan (ed), Dante Commentaries: Eight Studies of the Divine Comedy (Dublin & N.J.: Published for University College, Dublin and the Italian Cultural Institute, Dublin, Irish Academic Press and Rowman & Littlefield, 1977) contains the following eight lecturae: David Nolan, 'Inferno XIX'; G. Singh, 'Inferno XXVI: A Personal Appreciation'; C.S. Lonergan, 'The Context of Inferno XXXIII: Bocca, Ugolino, Fra Alberigo'; W.B. Stanford, 'The "Maggior Fortuna" and the Siren in Purgatorio XIX'; Piero Calì, 'Purgatorio XXVII; Peter Armour, 'Purgatorio XXVIII'; J.H. Whitfield, 'Paradiso VI'; J.A. Scott, 'Paradiso XXX'.

Eric Haywood (ed), Dante Readings, Publications of the Foundation for Italian Studies, University College Dublin, 5 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1987) contains the following six articles: Piero Calì, 'Dogma and Poetry in Dante's Paradiso'; Seamus Heaney, 'Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet'; Kenneth Hyde, 'The Social and Political Idea of the Comedy'; Deirdre O'Grady, 'Woman Damned, Penitent and Beatified in the Divine Comedy'; Liberato Santoro, 'Dante's Paradiso (Canto 1) and the Aesthetics of Light'; Clotilde Soave-Bowe, 'Purgatorio 19: Adrian V'.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Babel, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu (2006)

In Genesis 11: 1-9 is the brief account of the earliest inhabitants of the earth, speaking one language, deciding to build a city and a tower in the region of Shinar. 'Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we do not get scattered all over the world'. When Yahweh saw their enterprise he wished to confuse their efforts and in turn scattered them all over the world. The word Babel (בָּבֶל), which would represent the place where this city was being built, is close to the Heb. word 'confuse' (בָּלַל, cf. the Gk. verb συγχέω, συνέχεεν). The tower of Babel is described by Dante in De vulgari eloquentia as a 'turris confusionis' (1. 6. 5), a tower of confusion, following Ugguccione's etymology. There isn't time now to discuss how very interesting is Dante's use of this myth in the DVE and his figuring and correlation of Florentine urbanism and Babelic hubris. However, Babel continues to exert all sorts of forces on the creative imagination today.

Alejandro González Iñárritu has directed an extremely interesting film in Babel. It is essentially about confusion, about how we really don't understand what we say to each other. The story weaves in and out of four groups of people. They all try to communicate but keep misunderstanding the language they should use. So the language of violence is expressed innocently by the boys shooting from a hill, testing their new rifle bought to kill jackals that attack their goats and the distance the bullets can reach. When the bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American tourist travelling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt), it is obviously interpreted as an act of terrorism. The state departments of Morocco and the USA in turn fight over whether it should be called terrorism or not, holding up medical aid for an excruciating length of time. Yussuf misunderstands the language of sex in spying on his sister, and indeed she does too by letting him watch her. Susan and Richard are grieving over the death of a child and it becomes clear that they, too, are speaking different languages to each other. Susan and Richard's two children, meanwhile, are being minded by their nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who takes them to her native Mexico for her son's wedding. On their way back with Santiago (Gael García Bernal) they are stopped by border police and are interpreted as nothing more than illegal immigrants. The rifle had been given to its vendor as a present by a successful Japanese businessman in gratitude. The Moroccan police wish to confirm this rifle had not been bought on the black market and so we follow the police to Tokyo where we find him grieving over his wife's suicide and his deaf daughter's increasing distance from him. She too is talking a language of loss, of frustration, of sex, as those around her resists her efforts at human contact. Rinko Kikuchi is absolutely extraordinary as the deaf daughter and she plumbs depths one hardly imagines possible. Her Oscar nomination was entirely deserved. The music, too, is wonderful and that Oscar was also deserved. (This is Gustavo Santaolalla's second Oscar, the first was in 2005 for the sublime soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain).

Babel is a moving film and it had me engrossed and involved. Some may say that it is a little long, but it may indeed be part of the point because the film is about frustration and distance. I recommend it.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, secondo la princeps del 1516 (Florence, 2006)

Of great interest is the recent publication of the 1516 edition of Ariosto's Orlando furioso (Florence: Olschki, 2006), ISBN: 88 222 5576 1, edited by Marco Dorigatti. The text of the poem was first issued in 1516 but was extensively revised by the author and republished in 1532. This text, risciacquata in Arno, is the standard edition used today. The 1516 text is not widely witnessed and is extant in just 12 printed copies. Each is interesting because of Ariosto's tight and careful control of every aspect of the page, right down to typographical details. Dorigatti (a lecturer in the Faculty of Modern Languages at Oxford), after an extensive study of these witnesses, reconstructs this earlier text and makes available for the first time an Orlando that is considerably more Ferrarese than Tuscan. The later text was rendered less local, less provincial, and the Tuscan made it more widely popular (more palatable?). The publication of this new text makes it much easier now to study a masterpiece in the re-making and will surely become required reading for the study of Ariosto's reworking and rewriting of himself into Italian literary history.

At the Taylor Institution is a small exhibition to celebrate the publication of this new edition and it is well worth a visit. It contains some of the interesting early editions in the Taylor Institution Library's collection as well as some modern editions.

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Middle English Dictionary now Free

After 115 fascicles, 13 volumes, 15,000 pages, 55,000 entries, and 900,000 illustrative quotes compiled on over 3 million cards, the Middle English Dictionary was completed in 2001. Begun in 1930 with an extensive reading programme, the first volume appeared in 1952 with the letter E. The MED has been available since 1998 as part of the Middle English Compendium and access to it required an institutional licence. Now the University of Michigan Press has announced that access to the MED will be free for all users. This is wonderful news. It is an amazing resource and in electronic format is incredibly powerful for searches and cross-referencing.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Enciclopedia dantesca, gen. ed. Umberto Bosco, 6 vols (Treccani, 1970-1976)

In 1944 the idea for a new encyclopedia on Dante was suggested by Umberto Bosco (1900-1987). This was designed to replace the Scartazzini 3-volume Hoepli encyclopedia published between 1896-1905. The new encyclopedia actually only took shape during the 1965 celebrations for the 700th anniversary of the Poeta's birth. In 1970 the first volume appeared from Treccani in Rome, and by 1976 the fifth and final volume of lemmata had appeared. A sixth volume appeared the following year, and contained an appendix of texts and illustrations. Thus was completed a monument of Dante scholarship. Whatever is missing from this encyclopedia is simply not worth knowing. In 1984 a 2nd edition was printed, though the revision appears to be mainly an updated bibliography rather than any alterations to the individual entries. Italian publishers are very good at producing luxury books. Think of Vallecchi, for example. So too Treccani reissued the Enciclopedia dantesca in 1996 in a beautiful deluxe edition. This edition, now out of print, was issued in 2500 copies in full leather and just exquisitely produced. The boards are lined with silk and each volume is individually boxed in leather, silk and suede.

Lately I managed to acquire a copy of the ED. It sits now by my desk and is consulted about five times a day, and that's when I'm not working on Dante. Because Dante's poem is encyclopedic, the encyclopedia is...well...even more encyclopedic. Quid dicam?

For scholars who don't read Italian there is the Dante Encyclopedia, ed. by Richard Lansing (New York: Garland, 2000). I've used it and found it very good, especially for taking account of more recent approaches and bibliography. It does not pretend to replace the ED, and a single volume of 1,000 pages could not possibly do so. But just as the ED was put together by the great Dante scholars of the time, so too does the Dante Encyclopedia comprise entries by the big Dante scholars around at the moment.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Marilynn Desmond, Ovid's Art and The Wife of Bath (Cornell UP, 2005)

When Naomi arrived for a court hearing into the alleged assault on her maid, she wore a t-shirt that sums up the premise of Marilynn Desmond's new book on Ovid and the erotics of violence in the Wife of Bath's Prologue. 'Naomi Hit Me...And I Loved It', or in another (more apposite) variation 'Naomi Hit Me...And It Felt Like A Kiss'.

The book opens with a very interesting account of a 1997 conference in New Paltz entitled 'Revolting Behaviour: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom'. In the conference there was an informational panel looking at the issue of sadomasochism and the ideas around consensual and safe S/M. It provoked a huge controversy with the SUNY being denounced for 'promoting lesbianism and sadomasochism'. In an investigation it was found that nothing illegal had happened, no taxpayers' money had been misused, and academics were left feeling the welts of a non-consensual conservative spanking. 'The report of the investigating committee specifically appealed to free speech and academic freedom - two principles that have come under enormous pressure in the few short years since September 2001' (p. 2).

There are six chapters: 1. 'Sexual Difference and the Ethics of Erotic Violence'; 2. Ovid's Ars amatoria and the Wounds of Love'; 3. 'Dominus/Ancilla: Epistolary Rhetoric and Eotic Violence in the Letters of Abelard and Heloise'; 4. 'Tote Enclose: The Roman de la Rose and the Heterophallic Ethic'; 5. 'The Vieille Daunce: The Wife of Bath and the Politics of Experience'; 6. 'The Querelle de la Rose: Erotic Violence and the Ethics of Reading'. Chapters 3 and 6 have already appeared in 1998 and 2003. Desmond is primarily interested in the French responses to Ovid and in particular to the marginal responses that appear in gloss form in manuscripts of the French translations of the Ars amatoria. The book is particularly sensitive to the iconography of women and violence and is generously illustrated. I found very interesting the opening discussion of MS illuminations of the figure of the 'mounted Aristotle', and while the point is not forced, I was quite struck by the similarity between many of these figures and the fifteenth-century illuminations representing the Wife of Bath (cf. BNF MS fr. 95, f. 61v [fig. 4, p. 18] and the Wife in MS Gg. 4. 27, f. 222r).

Desmond is very good at looking at broad visual and textual traditions (I'm thinking of her rather excellent Reading Dido: Gender, Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid) though this book is much more restricted in scope than Reading Dido and I was left wanting more. I'm paying the book a compliment of course, but I am also left with the peculiar feeling that the book could have been a little more substantial. The focus is, admittedly, on the mainly French traditions around Ovid, but a more developed and ripened discussion would have been welcome on the Latin commentary and glossing traditions on Ovid and how this relates to the vernacular glossing traditions. How distinct are they and why?
How Cornell University Press can think it is OK not to produce a bibliography is beyond me. This is an extremely interesting book and I very much recommend it.

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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