- Dante and the Dynamics of Textual Exchange: Authorship, Manuscript Culture, and the Making of the Vita Nova by Jelena Todorovic
Jelena Todorovic’s Dante and the Dynamics of Textual Exchange: Authorship, Manuscript Culture and the Making of the Vita Nova paints a detailed tableau of the young Dante’s received culture of reading and writing, and is a welcome contribution on the subject of Dante’s largely undocumented literary formation.
In chapter one Todorovic argues that Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy is a significant yet underrecognized philosophical source for the Vita Nova. [End Page 88] While the Consolation was used as an intermediate grammar text in Florentine schools, she argues that Dante mines it for philosophical substance. His poetic shift to the self-sufficient stilo de la loda—aiming to praise Beatrice without recompense—seems rooted in the Consolation’s conclusion that secure happiness must be independent of fortune, and can be found in the philosophical pursuit of truth. But Todorovic risks overstatement in claiming that “through Boethius Dante became aware of the insignificance of transitory things” (65); here she might consider the poet’s other sources on stoicism or religious praise poetry. This does not, however, mar her reading of the Vita Nova as a “consolation of poetry” (60), in which Dante’s roles as author, glossator, compiler, and scribe create a “‘manual’ for writing poetry in that it returns over and over again to the inventive process” (57); the grieving poet’s “search for [. . .] consolation is parallel to the creation of the account of literary history” (65).
Chapter two examines Dante as scribe and commentator, proposing that the Vita Nova’s prose illuminates Dante’s pedagogical formation and represents an important first intervention in self-authorization. Todorovic demonstrates that the list of poets appearing in Dante’s discussion of literary history (VN par. 16 [XXV]) and later in the Commedia’s Limbo are those poetic auctores whose texts were used to teach grammar and interpretation in Florentine schools. She argues that Dante distances himself from his contemporaries and aligns himself with this canon worthy of exegetical interpretation. To that end, Dante weaves an accessus ad auctores, traditionally used to introduce canonical texts and Scripture in the medieval classroom, into the presentation of his own poems. Todorovic argues that “we should understand the prose and the whole of the Vita Nova as a defense of [Dante’s] intentions and a clarification of the circumstances that surrounded the composition of the poems” (82); it theorizes “how [poetry] is conceived, how it is produced, how it is part of a wider and longer intellectual context in history” (95).
Dante’s scribal and exegetical personas are again addressed in Chapter three, this time taking up his likely influences in Old Occitan poetry. While there exists no certain evidence that Dante had direct contact with Occitan verse, Todorovic’s argument for Dante’s exposure to influential manuscripts in Florence leaves little room for doubt. First, she accounts for the mingling of the Occitan, Sicilian, and Tuscan traditions during Dante’s poetic formation in Florence. She notes that the prose vidas (lives) and razos (accounts) accompanying Occitan verse in Italy functioned as accessus ad auctores and mediated between the cultures of the Occitan diaspora in Italy and of the Italian courts where the poetry was performed. The [End Page 89] vidas and razos eventually circulated in manuscripts independently of the poetry, as proto-novellas that narrated literary history, as they recounted the life events that prompted poets to write. Two key Florentine manuscripts in Todorovic’s study incorporate a cobla from the lyric into each vida and razo, anticipating Dante’s prosimetrum, while also giving him a precedent for the exegesis of vernacular lyric. In Dante’s case, it is the author himself who, in language reminiscent of the vidas and razos, desires to “explain in prose” (aprire per prosa) his poems in ragioni (accounts, razos). Todorovic’s most striking and original argument is that the...