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.

Friday, 12 January 2007


Joy unbounded. Back in May 2005 I posted on a volume of the Mondadori reprint of the Ricciardi Opere minori of Dante. I had been looking for vol. 1/1, the Vita nuova and Rime ed. by Domenico de Robertis and Gianfranco Contini. It had been and has been annoying me for a long time. Well, guess what? I found it. Quite by chance, just a casual browse on an Italian version of Abebooks which is called Maremagnum. I find it a very useful site for s/h Italian books, though I do wish that Italian postal charges were a little lower. They seem to also list some of the booksellers on Abebooks, and indeed on Abebooks you'll find some of the sellers who list with Maremagnum. The site charges a commission, which seems fair enough, and they do tell you what they charge. The bookseller is called Studio Bibliografico Orfeo and it is in via Torleone 20/a, 40125 Bologna (tel. +39 051 6360113). Needless to say after looking for this book for about five years it is very satisfying to find it in Bologna. They also sent me a very elegant catalogue of their stock and it looks very interesting. Not a huge amount of Dante, but a few nice things.

The value of these editions is their commentaries, which are excellent. The texts themselves are, bit by bit, being superseded by more recent editions, such as de Robertis' edition of the Rime (I want it I want it etc), Brambilla-Ageno's text of the Convivio and Gorni's edition of the VN, though in this last case we may be talking more about a question of a reinterpretation of the divisio textus rather than individual lectiones; undoubtedly Barbi's text is still extremely important.

I had heard a rumour that Treccani, who bought the Ricciardi catalogue, were going to publish the Opere minori again, and I have a feeling they're going to bring it out in those editions they sell with the Sunday newspapers. I've already seen one of the Promessi sposi and would guess it's going to be the same for Dante. I have another little find that I'll post about soon, but will wait until it arrives!

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Joanna Newsom, Ys (Drag City DC303, 2006)

Anyone who heard Joanna Newsom's last album, The Milk-Eyed Mender will have sat on tenter-hooks for the new album, and here it is. If you didn't like that album then the chances are you'll not warm to this one, though they are quite different. The critical response has been effusive, and it is deserved. Ys contains only five tracks, the longest of which is nearly seventeen minutes. The sound is familiar, but the voice has begun to settle and the sound has begun to widen. There is much more orchestration, so the sound is often very full. Van Dyke Parks did the arrangements and conducting and is credited on the album as playing the accordion; Jim O'Rourke did the mixing; and Steve Albini recorded harp and vocals. That's quite a heavy duty set of collaboration. The lyrics are bonkers but really beautiful. They have a great sense of poetry and music about them, strange and at the same time right. The first track, Emily, contains the following:

And, Emily, I saw you last night by the river.
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water -
frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever,
in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror.

I think that this is an extraordinary achievement and you simply must hear this album. It really is just that simple.

The name of the album is also quite interesting. There is no explanation in the album jacket about the name. The only interpretative clue might be in the cover art, though even that may be enough to keep even Panofsky going for a while with its symbolic imagery. I think that it must have some medieval overtones, like those Northern European masters. The artist Vierling seems to be fond of a kind of Victorian Gothic revival medievalism (Waterhouse, that kind of thing), so I think something of this nature is going on. The name Ys then could refer to the Breton city of King Gradlon who fell in love with a druid/fairy woman, bearing him a daughter Dahut. The beautiful city of Ker Is (or simply Ys) is protected by dams with a bronze floodgate to which only the king has a key. Dahut steals the key, under varying sets of circumstances in different versions of the legend, and opens the floodgates. Gradlon's protetor saint, Guénolé, urges him to throw his (still pagan) daughter into the waters so that they may subside. He does so eventually, but the city is destroyed and becomes the Bay of Dourarnenez in Brittany. Dahut is transformed into a sprite/siren where she can still be heard singing and enchanting sailors to their watery end.

Whether any of this is supposed to have contemporary New Orleans resonances, as I've read some suggest, I am unsure. Water is certainly a very strong theme in the album, and I suspect that the story of a doomed pagan princess sacrificed to save a doomed city was too crazy for her to pass over.

Margery at the MLA

Please read Geoffrey Chaucer hath a Blog for a wonderful account of Margery Kempe going to the MLA. I have just managed to pick myself up off the ground laughing. Genius.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Déjà vu, dir. Tony Scott (2006)

Please note: the following contains serious spoilers. It's very difficult to talk about without giving away the conceit of the film, so brace yourself or stop reading. Really. If you don't want to read on, for now I'll just say that I highly recommend the film and enjoyed it a lot.

What would you do if you could change the past? If you could travel back in time and do something about some terrible event? Set against the backdrop of an only just recovering post-Katrina New Orleans, Déjà vu opens with an act of domestic terrorism that leaves the city reeling. A ferry boat full of US Navy officers and their families is blown up with over 500 dead. Federal ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) sets about sifting through the debris and his sharp eyes brings him to the attention of FBI agent Andrew Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer). Carlin, we are told, cut his teeth on the Oklahoma bombing case. Pryzwarra assigns him to an elite team of technical wizards who have found a way to bend time, opening a worm-hole into the past that can be viewed on a set of huge monitors in a laboratory. They can see four days ago, in a continuous stream that can cannot be rewound or fast forwarded. So they sit and wait for clues around the bomb site, and will eventually see the bomber actually perpetrate his crime. Then they just arrest him and they’ve solved the crime. Great. But what if they could actually do something about it? What if they could send some sort of a message back to some point in the past so that Carlin could pick it up? What happens if you change the past? The future becomes obsolete, out-dated. Or was it all meant to happen anyway?

The trouble begins when Carlin gets a call about a woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), who is found with injuries ostensibly caused by the bomb but a full hour before the bomb actually went off. He investigates and believes that she is somehow crucial to understanding what's going on. And in the post bomb time-line, understanding her behaviour, the message 'U Can Save Her' written with magnetic letters on a noticeboard, all seems impossible but significant. Shortly after, the forensic team tell Carlin his fingerprints are all over the apartment, and put it down to his carelessness on initial investigation. But his fingerprints and blood-soaked swabs are both in the apartment though he'd never been there. Thrilling high-speed chases ensue, with Carlin wearing his time-warp-seeing gizmo on his head and following the bomber back to his hideout. There he watches the past happen before his eyes. When Carlin does manage to send himself back in time he has already experienced the things about to happen in this past future, and he anticipates them. So he changes the future, a future he has already experienced, by averting the explosion and saving Claire. His conversation with the bomber, Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel), creates a sense for Oerstadt of uncanny foreknowledge, a sense that Carlin brings by mentioning things in Oerstadt's FBI questioning in the future. However, in a blaze of bullets this futuristic Carlin gets killled with Oerstadt, while managing to save Clare. And as Claire sits on the shore awaiting questioning by the authorities, Doug Carlin arrives to investigate the explosion. And the future begins again.

Time-travelling is a complicated business, as either Marty McFly in Back to the Future or Hermione and Harry in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban will tell you. The conceit of the film, that the sense of déjà vu is caused by actually having experienced something before, a sense of another parallel experience in a 'many worlds theory'-type existence. But the post-bomb 'present' of the film contains realities that Carlin will change, it already contains the alternative past (his bandages and evidence of his presence in the apartment), though he has not actually returned to the past yet. It is as if many pasts are being lived at once within a complex multi-temporal present. Within this present Claire is both dead and alive. (I wonder is a bit like Shroedinger's Cat? If time-travel is going to happen it will be with quantum physics.)

Needless to say there is a huge amount of wish fulfillment in such a film. It's poignant. The great unspoken act of terrorism in the film is 9/11. Imagine being able to return and change that? What kind of present would we now be living? Can we still live that present? By changing the present do we not also, in a way, change the past? To understand the possibilities that surround us in the present is also to understand the complexity of the past, and visa versa. To slip in and out of the past and present is, perhaps, what is most politically subversive about this film, what challenges everyone about what it is they experience and how it has come about.


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