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"Sole nuovo, luce nuova": Saggi sul rinnovamento culturale in Dante (review)

From: MLN
Volume 113, Number 1, January 1998 (Italian Issue)
pp. 244-246 | 10.1353/mln.1998.0001

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MLN 113.1 (1998) 244-246

Book Review

«Sole nuovo, luce nuova»: Saggi sul rinnovamento culturale in Dante

Zygmunt G. Baranski, «Sole nuovo, luce nuova»: Saggi sul rinnovamento culturale in Dante (Gli Alambicchi, VI). Turin: Scriptorium, 1996. 319 pp.

This volume contains a series of studies written between 1981 and 1993, here presented in revised versions in Italian, seven having been excellently translated from English by Marco Pustianaz. The title is taken, with the phrases reversed, from the Convivio (I. xiii. 12), where Dante predicts that the refined 'bread' of his banquet -- his vernacular commentaries to his poems -- will be 'a new light, a new sun which will rise where the ordinary sun sets and will give light to those who are in night and darkness because the ordinary sun does not shine on them.' This affirmation of the educative role of the poet-philosopher in an Italian-speaking society is applied more generally by Baranski to his presentation of Dante as innovator, ever conscious of his own originality (novitas) in exploiting the culture which he had inherited whilst at the same time adapting and altering it so radically as to move it in entirely new directions. In his preface, Baranski identifies three connected themes which draw his essays together: Dante's experimentalism in creating a literary tradition in the vernacular for ethical purposes, thereby establishing himself as both author and written authority (auctoritas); his appeal to the ideology, traditions, and 'cultural memory' of his readers which he modifies so as to define his own personal voice; and his use of the structures of the Comedy to stimulate the reader's memory towards grasping the meaning of the poem's internal echoes and allusions. In this way, inspired by the heavenly Author, God, Dante fashioned both a new literature and a new image of the engagé intellectual. Apart from the question of precisely how far Dante considered himself or can be considered to have been divinely inspired, these premisses are unexceptionable; no reader would deny that Dante's Italian is uniquely experimental and innovative and that his masterpiece forms an immensely rich interweaving of cultural and intratextual reference.

The first of the three opening essays, which deal with Dante's language, measures his Italian against the rhetorical tradition, which he both respects and challenges as he synthesizes religious and secular culture within his all-embracing 'comedy'. His choice of the vernacular is then viewed in relation to his desire to promote the primacy of Italian over the other literary languages, French and Occitan, particularly in the way in which he employs not the 'middle style' prescribed for 'comedy' but mixed styles which absorb other linguistic features within the overall unity of the poem. There follows a reading of the first chapters of De vulgari eloquentia which, when examined in the light of traditional exegesis of the passages in the Book of Genesis on language in the Garden of Eden and on the tower of Babel, exemplify Dante's rewriting of the biblical texts so as to emphasize, primarily, the essential link between language and ethics.

Turning more specifically to the Comedy, Baranski first defines its encyclopedic and 'pluristylistic' nature, arguing, in addition, that Dante did not know the works of Terence directly and that indeed the Roman writer posed a potential threat to his own position as an entirely new sort of comicus. The following chapter, a perceptive reading of Inferno XVI, investigates the ways in which Dante re-elaborates traditional sources in order both to show their limitations and to affirm his own superiority and originality; the marvellous, hybrid monster Geryon thus becomes an image of the whole poem. The next study focuses on Inferno VI, 73, arguing at some length against Francesco Mazzoni's revival of the interpretation of the two 'giusti' as two aspects of justice, and deciding that the more widely accepted reading is preferable: the reference is to two just men, Dante himself and an unidentifiable other, so that Florence is little better than Sodom, where God found none. Intratextual echoes of the poem so far are traced in Purgatorio XXVII so that the canto becomes primarily a recapitulation, designed to convey to the reader...

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