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  • The “Dante Canon”Collecting Dante’s Lyric Poetry in the Fourteenth Century
  • Laura Banella

In the introduction to his founding edition, Gianfranco Contini claims that the corpus of Dante’s lyric poetry is “la più superba collezione di ‘estravaganti’” (“the most magnificent collection of scattered poems”).1 Among the many points raised by Contini that have opened significant ways of understanding Dante’s oeuvre, the freeing of Dante’s rime from the idea of an authorial canzoniere has led to a fundamental awareness of the poems and their history.2 After Domenico De Robertis’s critical edition, the debate around the possibility of a primitive order hidden behind Boccaccio’s series has engaged many critics, as have questions concerning the new order chosen by De Robertis for the rime.3 Even if we are unsure whether Dante ever organized his lyrics in series outside the Vita nuova and the Convivio, the manuscripts do not arrange the poems completely haphazardly, but, as De Robertis shows, in consistent groups of lyrics, among which Boccaccio’s selection stands out.4 Indeed, the manuscripts collecting the rime are the place to look for understanding Dante’s reception, especially apart from the notion of Dante as the auctor of the Commedia.5 Keeping these issues in mind, I argue that investigating the rime accompanying the Vita nuova, which is the most important authorial series by Dante, will not only shed light on the interpretation of the prosimetrum by its earliest readers, but also help to understand the “idea of Dante” as a lyric writer between the trecento and the quattrocento, and beyond.6 [End Page 169]

A canon—authorial or not—has the power to attract other series that are also considered “original.” The Vita nuova preserves in itself the only complete and indisputably authorial series by Dante, and so it follows that it attracts other groups of lyrics, the canzoni distese foremost among them.7 The material relationship between the Vita nuova and the other lyrics by Dante (and other authors) provides the space to explore some of the hermeneutical questions animating the debate around the Italian author par excellence. These questions include the constitution of authorial books and anthologies, and the significance of lyric series and sequences. In particular, the order and selection of poems anthologized along with the Vita nuova reveal the tension between the authorial strategies that, as Albert Ascoli has pointed out, Dante keenly adopted in order to deliberately embrace the role of auctor and auctoritas, and the perception of lyric poetry and of Dante’s poems held by the early scribes of his lyric corpus. The emergence of the author figure, especially in Italy, was admittedly fully in process in the Late Middle Ages, and can be traced back at least to the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Yet is also true that, as Ascoli writes, Dante “anticipates such a transformation [i.e., the birth of the author in the full modern sense] by at least two centuries.”8

This essay examines the codices containing the Vita nuova dating back to the fourteenth century, which can be divided into two main groups: 1. the two copies of the prosimetrum by Boccaccio (along with significant examples of codices deriving from them), and 2. the other books constituting the early tradition of the text.9 Although, as we will see with Boccaccio, tradition might be strongly influential for a long time, the actual making of an anthology depends on the availability of the texts. Selections also respond to the fashion and taste of the people involved in the process, whose decisions in turn partly depend on the place and time the act of anthologizing takes place. The creation of an anthology is, by definition, a process bound to history.10

Because the order of the texts accompanying the Vita nuova, along with their selection, will be a crucial element of our analysis, it is important to stipulate that the sequence in which various works appear in a book suggests a value judgement by the compiler, especially in medieval books containing lyric poetry. In a famous passage of the De Vulgari Eloquentia (DVE 2.3.7), Dante himself points out the evaluation...


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pp. 169-194
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