- Dante’s Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice by Fabian Alfie
In his authoritative and cogent new book on Dante’s tenzone with Forese Donati, Fabian Alfie establishes himself as a reliable and incisive scholar of the medieval comic tradition. As the sole substantial extant instance of Dante’s employment of invective prior to writing his magnum opus, his tenzone with Forese offers an opportunity, unique to the poet’s early lyric production, to trace Dante’s engagement with the low register of the vernacular. Alfie situates the tenzone within the purview of comedy. His analysis of the poets’ verbal sparring, rife with harsh accusations concerning the economic and moral decrepitude of their respective families, establishes the tenzone as integral to Dante’s development into the moral and ethical poet of the Commedia.
Alfie begins by surveying critical studies of tenzoni to elucidate the social function of the form; as the slander of verbal debate was intended not just for private discourse but was also circulated to a wider readership, “[s]ocial ramifications were really the point of reprehension” (21). Three close readings of the improprium of Rustico di Filippi delineate several topoi of invective verse, each similarly connecting individual insult to a larger societal ill (a wife catching a winter chill to her husband’s poverty, gluttony to the [End Page 134] excess spending of the nobility). Synthesizing didacticism and analysis, Alfie effectuates a constructive framework for accessing a Dantean understanding of injurious comedy, which encompasses poetic form, style and content in symbiotic relationship to proffer the “corrective of vice” (32).
The moral function of comedic slander shapes Alfie’s analysis of the six sonnets comprising the truculent and vitriolic tenzone between Dante and Forese in the second chapter. While his close reading draws heavily on the abundance of critical treatments of the tenzoni, both to explicate its many obscure biographical, geographic, legal, political, and social references and to furnish additional textual analysis, Alfie does offer many novel, if not always plausible, additions to extant scholarship. The primary value of this rich and compelling exploration, however, is its synthetic nature: Alfie presents the most complex, comprehensive, and detailed treatment to date of Dante’s tenzone with Forese Donati. His interpretative framework — invective as the “corrective of vice” — negotiates coherence out of the cacophony of accusations and affronts: “both writers shed light on the deteriorating ethos of nobility [. . .] by addressing the failures of each other’s families” (55). In a period of socio-economic upheaval, when growing political and economic power of a new merchant class threatened traditional Florentine conceptions of nobility, Dante and Forese employ the rhetoric of invective to challenge their respective claims to honor. As Alfie’s analysis progresses, his insistence on comedy becomes repetitive; intertextuality with Dante’s comic predecessors seems enough to corroborate Alfie’s reading of the moral function of invective without continual distracting references to the “semiotics of the tavern”. Similarly, at times Alfie’s seems to process the text only inasmuch as it sustains his reading of nobility, a reductive approach which leads to a neat conclusion, but which disappointingly brushes over a myriad of complimentary and compelling social, cultural, and personal matters at stake in Dante and Forese’s debate.
Turning to the Commedia, Alfie explores Dante’s explicit reference to his earlier tenzone in his representation of Gianni Schicchi and Geri del Bello in Inferno XXIX and XXX. Alfie sheds light on the puzzling parallel of Myrrha to Schicchi; in equating incest to economic falsification Dante’s connects the disruption of bloodlines to that of inheritance, both of which fundamentally damage patriarchal kinship systems, thereby clarifying his critiques of the Donati family in his earlier tenzone. Alfie reads Dante’s encounter with Geri as an admission of shared public humiliation: “as a member of an affronted noble family, he is also implicated in Geri’s sin” (66). The problematic of nobility unifies the sinners in the tenth bolgia, each of which “personifies in some way...