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Mourning Beatrice: The Rhetoric of Threnody in the Vita nuova

From: MLN
Volume 113, Number 1, January 1998 (Italian Issue)
pp. 1-29 | 10.1353/mln.1998.0011

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

MLN 113.1 (1998) 1-29

Charles Singleton emphasized for readers of Dante's Vita nuova the prominence of codicological metaphors (incipits, rubrics, paragraphs) in the transcription from the "book of memory" that is the substance of the work, and the characterization of the author as scribe that such metaphors imply. Subsequent critics have proposed various books that might have furnished models for the mix of prose, verse, and text analysis that makes up the libello, from books of the Bible to Boethius' Consolatio philosophiae, and in some cases have identified precise exemplars for the division of the poems in the book, by means of which Dante extends the authorial function to that of a commentator or expounder of his own work. At the present time, the importance, indeed the necessity, of situating the Vita nuova in the specific context of scholastic reading and commentary, and in the general context of late medieval understanding of the articulation of the book, may be taken as demonstrated.

Among this wealth of material, only sporadic attention has been paid to the Biblical book Dante draws on most explicitly in the Vita nuova, the book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, or Threni. This relative neglect is surprising in that the Vita nuova contains prominent episodes of formal mourning: for an anonymous lady early in the work, for Beatrice's father, and for Beatrice -- indeed, mourning is one of the Duecento social rituals that the libello records most fully. Yet the extent to which Dante's lyrics draw on topics of funeral plaint (planctus, planh) common in the troubadours and Italian vernacular poets has been understated by readers and editors, especially recently.

In this paper, I propose Threni as a model and intertext that illuminates the Vita nuova in depth, breadth, and detail commensurate with Dante's reliance on the Biblical book throughout his career as a writer. In Dante's milieu, however, reading the scriptural text meant consultation of glosses and commentaries. Threni, like many other Biblical books, enjoyed a rich tradition of commentaries from the Carolingians to the Scholastics. Several points about the reception of Threni in medieval commentary are usefully established before discussing Dante's use of the book in the Vita nuova: Threni as a poetic and rhetorical treasury; its function in simultaneously lamenting both an individual and a city; the understanding of its audience as "pilgrims and strangers" (Heb. 11.13); and the implicit dialectic of lament and future rejoicing that underlies the book.

The commentary tradition understands Threni as a collection of laments by the prophet Jeremiah describing the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by Nebuchadnezzar. The laments are identified as written in several metres ("metrice scriptae") and in lamentative mode, with the additional ornament of a Hebrew alphabetic acrostic, preserved in the Latin versions, for the first four books. Beginning with the humanist revival of the 12th century, the rhetorical and poetic manner of the book was especially remarked. In the commentary of Gilbert the Universal (incorporated into the Glossa ordinaria), and thereafter in the principal commentaries, passages of complaint and invective in the text of Threni were tabulated as loci conquestionis and loci indignationis. For the Ciceronian manuals that shaped the rhetoric of the 12th and 13th centuries, these topics served to amplify the conclusion of the oration, when the pity or outrage of the forensic audience might profitably be excited by the advocate. Moreover, in this tradition, application of these topics frequently involves recourse to apostrophe, which when spoken by or to a fictive entity includes the use of prosopopea, or personification -- figures which are also listed by rhetoricians as suited to discursive amplificatio. In Threni commentary, the most conspicuous use of apostrophe combined with a locus conquestionis is offered by the prosopoeic figure of the widowed Jerusalem (vidua), who enters the scene in Threni 1.11-12, and speaks the verse paraphrased by Dante early in the Vita nuova: "O vos omnes qui transitis, attendite et videte, si est dolor sicut dolor meus."

The laments of Threni, commentators explain, reiterate the prophet's private lament for king Josiah, killed several years earlier fighting the Egyptians; thus, for most commentators (as for liturgical writers) the...

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