Sunday 31 October 2010

Boccaccio, by Boccaccio

Of Boccaccio's autograph manuscripts, it is arguably that of the Decameron that has attracted the most attention in recent years. Now in the Staatsbibliothek - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, in Berlin, under the shelfmark "MS Hamilton 90", this fascinating manuscript, produced in the 1370s, clearly shows an author concerned with the 'packaging' of his great masterpiece. This is all the more interesting because the late Boccaccio is often thought of as more interested in the production of Latin works, as repudiating the earlier, youthful and foolish vernacular work. The manuscript certainly disturbs any neat division anyone might wish to draw between these two Boccaccios.

While there had been some talk earlier in the twentieth century of this being an important manuscript, but it was not until the publication in 1962 of Vittore Branca and Pier Giorgio Ricci, Un autografo del Decameron (Codice hamiltoniano 90), (Padova: C. E. D. A. M., 1962), that its true importance was realized. Branca and Ricci identified it as an autograph and the former set about producing a critical text based on it. This was subsequently published as Decameron: edizione critica secondo l'autografo hamiltoniano (Firenze: L'Accademia della Crusca, 1976), and appeared simultaneously as volume 4 of Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, gen. ed. Vittore Branca, Classici Mondadori 10 vols (Milano: A. Mondadori, 1964-1998). The 600th anniversary of the death of Boccaccio fell in 1975 and was the impetus for a good deal of publications on the author and his work. So, in 1974, there appeared, under the auspices of Charles S. Singleton, Decameron: Edizione diplomatico-interpretativa dell'autografo Hamilton 90 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). This contains a very important description of the manuscript by Armando Petrucci, 'Il MS. Berlinese Hamiltoniano 90. Note codicologiche e paleografiche' (pp. 647-661); as for the rest of the volume, it really never recovered from the scathing review by Branca in Studi sul Boccaccio 8 (1974), 321-329.

In 1975 Branca produced a beautiful facsimile of the manuscript: Decameron: facsimile dell'autografo conservato nel Codice Hamilton 90 della Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz di Berlino, Manus summorum: autografi dei capolavori nella civilità universale riprodotti in facsimile (Firenze: Alinari). Well, dear reader, while perusing on Ebay what did I find only a rather reasonably priced copy of the said facsimile and before I could say Buy It Now, it was winding it way from sunny Italy to the dark and wintry North. I am so delighted to have this. It is invaluable to be able to check each passage from the printed text against how it appears in the autograph, keeping an eye on how the punctuation and capitalization are marked out. This has been rather wonderfully discussed by Lucia Battaglia Ricci in her Boccaccio (Rome: Salerno, 2000; = 'Giovanni Boccaccio', in Storia della letteratura italiana, ed. by Enrico Malato, 12 vols [Roma: Salerno Editrice, 1995], Vol. 2: Il Trecento [1995], pp. 727-877), where she suggests that Boccaccio distinguishes between narrative layers that are not always easily reproduced in modern printed editions. She makes some very important points too about the look and feel of the manuscript: it is a rather serious book that looks for all the world like a university text.

The beautiful and witty catchphrases are also a constant source of fascination for me. There are thirteen catchwords in the manuscript though there were others since the final three quires are missing. The one illustrated above occurs on f. 71v and represents Pietro di Vinciolo, at Dec v 10 37; his text reads 'che poco'. Branca saw in these an illustrative programme reflecting the work's thematic concerns. So, the figures represent the triumph over Fortune, Love, and Wit (fortuna, amore, and ingegno), four portraits for each. Six of the ten male figures are merchants, which he saw as indicating the social class in which many of the stories are set and perhaps indicating too the presence of this class amongst the work's earliest readers and copyists. (While not dissenting [too much] from Branca, I have a somewhat different take on these catchwords, outlined in greater detail in the third chapter of my forthcoming Chaucer and Italian Textuality [Oxford: Clarendon Press]).

The facsimile was set and printed in the famous Stamperia Valdonega, in Verona, in 325 copies; mine is numbered 188. The photographs were taken by Alinari; the paper produced by the Cartiera Ventura di Cernobbio; it was bound by the Legatoria Torriai di Cologno Monzense, and comes boxed in brown cloth and card. It is a thing of sober beauty. And a great addition to the library.

Friday 22 October 2010

Hell's Half Acre, Lazarides Gallery London, October 12-17, 2010

Dante: no other medieval author continues to exert such an extraordinary force on the modern imagination. Those who've read his Comedìa never recover; those who've never read him still feel like they know the Inferno, and because it has become such a cultural norm, they probably do know it. At Cambridge, Prof. Robin Kirkpatrick has been undertaking a massive critical and creative engagement with Dante over the past couple of years in a project entitled Performance, as well as a conference at CRASSH entitled Pain in Performance and 'Moving Beauty'. This year, on October 30th, Performance 2010 will further explore Dante and other texts in a series of performances, music, dance, art and drawings.

Recently, the Lazarides Gallery in London held an exhibition (suggestively) entitled Hell's Half Acre in which sixteen artists produced work evoking Dante's Inferno in The Old Vic Tunnels, under Waterloo Station. The setting is an important aspect of this exhibition. You enter and descend into a dark series of cavernous spaces in which artworks are lit by spotlights, passing a projection of a barking dog on the way. Curiously, this not on the list of works exhibited: perhaps no-one wanted to own up to such creature. Your eyes take some time to become accustomed to the low light - I nearly fell over in my first five minutes, adding to my disorientation and considerably heightening the effect! Steve Lazarides is a name often associated with Banksy though he represents over thirty contemporary artists and his vision in putting together this exhibition in this particular space is remarkable. This short review will no do justice to the richness of the exhibition.

The Old Vic Tunnels comprise five long, wide, intersecting tunnels accommodating an exhibition of installations, paintings, sculpture and film. This has allowed works to be displayed with fairly generous space, and installations have room to breathe. It also allows the darkness of the space between works plenty of room to exert itself on the viewer's imagination. The engagement with Dante is not always apparent. A plan of hell is provided in which the names of various artists are found in certain circles, sometimes indicating a whole circle, or merely sitting beside certain sins. There is obviously a good deal of humour involved here and surely a smile was raised when deciding where to put which artist: akin to taking the Inferno quiz. It implies structure, that the exhibition is mapped against the moral design of the Comedy; and while it was enjoyable to think about the interpretative possibilities that became available, I'm not sure that it has been so mapped quite so seriously.

These are images of pain and suffering, of bodies being punctured. There are Boogie's Needles, and Paul Insect's Object Desire, a sphere of syringes with needles pointing out. Threatening, forbidding. Compelling and maybe beautiful too. There is the affecting piece by Jonathan Yeo, For What We are About to Receive, an installation of several panes of glass that need to be viewed from a specific angle to re-compose two kneeling supplicant figures. Here perspective and position are essential. To see the whole image you need to stand in one very specific spot. The act of viewing is rendered performative: it makes the art. But in another real sense, the art makes you. It forces you to stand in front of it, directly, head on. You are being controlled by it. There are often moments in the Comedy when we feel like that.

Bodies too are central to the explorations of Mark Jenkins in a sculptural installation entitled Chrysalis 1-5. These hanging bodies wrapped in clingfilm are quietly waiting, in the foetal position, for something. They are in a limbo-like stasis. Or, given that a chrysalis will become a perfected creature, perhaps there is more of a purgatorial state of becoming about these bodies. There is nothing of expiation in their hanging, it does not feel like a punishment or a purging. It points to a natural state on one hand; on the other it is deeply unsettling that their human form is so developed. They unsettle but they do not disgust. One is compelled by them, compelled to look at them, to try and see their faces (which are not visible). One wants to know who they are and why they are there. One waits for dialogue. Like them.

Readers of the Comedìa in the 1320s must have recognized figures from Florence, perhaps people they knew personally. Branca Doria could have read Inferno 33.136-138 and raised an eyebrow to have found himself there. So too, the present is more than enough for some of these artists contemplating Dante. A wonderful installation by Vhils entitled Bernie Made Off shows a painting of Bernard Madoff on a wall which has suffered serious damage. It is only when one looks more closely that it seems as if the damage, bullet holes, are in fact creating the image. It is an elegant and at the same time angry piece. Viewers have no trouble locating him somewhere in Hell. Quite far down actually. Even his name should have given something away: he becomes almost like the devils in Malebolge with their violent, cruelly parodic names, Malebranche, Malacoda, Scarmiglione, Alichino, Calcabina, Cagnazzo, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello, Rubicante. Similarly, a piece by George Osodi, Niger Delta Series comprises photographs of the Niger Delta in front of a sand and oil installation. The stagnant, polluted water is surely reminiscent of the Inferno (cf. 'L'acqua era buia assai più che persa'; 'The waters here were darker, far, than perse', Inf 7. 103, trans. Kirkpatrick [Penguin, 2006], p. 63). Perhaps not subtle, but then again, not much about the destruction there is subtle. Again, one has no trouble imagining those responsible somewhere in Hell.

Hell was not the only part of the poem explored. A beautiful piece by Tokujin Yoshioka entitled Stellar had a white sphere hanging from the ceiling, made up of pieces of opaque crystal. A smoke machine filled the room (which was closed off with heavy drapes) with white smoke. I do not have a photo of this piece, but I doubt a photo would really convey the effect. Viewers walked under the sphere, rapt in attention, as we were enveloped. You could really only see people's faces, all moving in an ethereal and quite sublime appreciation of this strangely lit object overhead. It was paradisal and I found it a profoundly moving piece of work. Beautiful. Humane. And joyful.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Bolt from the Blue

via the BBC website:

This is the moment a lightning bolt appears to strike the Statue of Liberty in New York. New York photographer Jay Fine had spent the night braving the storm in Battery Park City, Manhattan, in a bid to get the perfect picture. Jay spent nearly two hours poised with his camera and took more than 80 shots before striking lucky with this particular bolt of lightning at 8.45pm on 22 September. He said he had been waiting 40 years to get the picture.

To capture the shots Jay used a Nikon D300s with 60mm f/2.8 lens on the following settings: Aperture: F/10, Shutterspeed: 5 seconds, ISO: 200.


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