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Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance.

The arrival in one season of two superlatively learned books on Dante from two vastly different perspectives should provoke commentary. The first, Giuseppe Mazzotta's, offers us a Dante for our time. Mastering the entire field of twentieth-century Dante scholarship, it propels the Divine Comedy into the twenty-first century with a compelling revaluation of the poet's break from epistemic models of his own epoch via an aesthetic theology accessible to later ages. The second, Deborah Parker's, charts ensuing interpretations of the Divine Comedy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Probing tangled assumptions of such commentators as Cristoforo Landino and Bernardino Daniello, it clarifies the dual role played by the Comedy in shaping the fabric of Italian Renaissance culture and in being shaped by it. Each book may figure as a parable of the other in directing our attention to the actively mobile sense of meaning that radiates from Dante's poem on the brink of the early modern era.

Mazzotta's book focuses on the tension between encyclopedic vision and poetry in Dante's learned imagination. Acknowledging that the Renaissance with its emphasis on knowledge as subjective and open-ended no longer produced encyclopedias (32), Mazzotta explores Dante's contested admiration for and journey beyond polymathic erudition. If encyclopedism from Isidore of Seville to Vincent of Beauvais encourages breadth, at its worst a massive assemblage and idle display of merely antiquarian interest, Dante pushes forward to discover depth, a knowledge that is not static but rather a process of growth in time. The Comedy thus embodies a radically historical principle of knowledge, an "interpretive journey across the vast ambiguity of conventional and natural signs" (55). Fortunately Dante did not have to make a choice between breadth and depth, for he accomplished both in the aesthetic and moral unity of his poem. There we find a consistent and "astonishing power to hold together two principles that, on the face of it, are irreconcilable" (132). The glue is, of course, the poet's language, or, better, Dante's profound sense of language itself as history, a semantic locus where the properties and attributes of things are held in the etymologies of words. With this powerful grasp of language and history Dante's "aesthetic turns into a genuine source of knowledge" (232).

We may gather from Mazzotta that the subsequent epoch - the one we call "Renaissance" - was not able to sustain Dante's synthesis. Forced to choose between breadth and depth, it chose depth and thus concentrated its energies upon the exiguous understanding of texts in microscopic philological detail. Petrarch with his zeal for uncovering past meaning through an archeological dig into its alien otherness initiates the new age. By the time this review appears in print, Duke University Press will have published Mazzotta's The Worlds of Petrarch, which examines Petrarch's contribution from a no less broad theological, philological, poetic, and historical perspective. That book, like this one on Dante, accomplishes its revisionary view through a superb deployment of wide-scale scholarship and penetrating close analysis. For all its breathtaking scope, Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge still takes enormous power from sharp readings of particular texts, like the Inferno's canto of Bertran de Born where "God's justice is poetic justice" (79), the Purgatorio's dream of the siren where vision is privileged "because it is never partitioned" (152), and Paradiso's heaven of the contemplatives where "poetry is the source of vision" (166). Renaissance scholars may well take this book as a prolegomenon for Mazzotta's incisive study of their key figure, Petrarch.

If Mazzotta's book gives us a Dante for our time, what about ideas of Dante in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? Deborah Parker's Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance provides us with richly textured information on and interpretations of early modern Dante exegesis. It too has mastered the field of European and American scholarship on its topic, and it challenges the accepted results when they appear facile, naive, or simply uninformed. Governing Parker's analysis is a highly sophisticated awareness of what texts are, how they operate, and how readers and interpreters approach them according to different social environments and historical moments. The result is that for Parker the work of producing commentaries is not a neutral activity. Not only does she explore how "commentary functions as a genre, as a flexible, at times creative, response to Dante's poem" (22), but she also shows "that commentary is a social act, that each text is imbued with a cultural, social, and historical specificity" (23).

Committed to studying the features of commentary as a genre, Parker surveys its medieval roots in early commentaries by Jacopo della Lana and Guido da Pisa, among others, using a Bakhtinian perspective that uncovers the "coexistence of both an analytic and a loose narrative style" as components of "the essentially dialogic nature of discourse" (46). Later commentaries are increasingly concerned with bringing the Comedy in line with the new cultural formations of the Renaissance, and so they recontextualize and reinterpret Dante's meaning "as informed by a shifting array of ideological commitments" (47). Taking account of communities of readership, registers of response, and unconscious as well as conscious interpretive choices, a finely detailed chapter 3 analyzes late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century treatments of Brutus and Cassius in Inferno 34. Disagreeing with Dante's medieval imperialism, for example, a republican humanist like Cristoforo Landino in 1481 would work "through indirection" (84) to present Caesar as a Janus-faced figure with good and bad traits that allow the reader to infer a more complex politics than the text readily admits.

Among the principal players in Parker's later chapters are Alessandro Vellutello, whose commentary of 1544 brings an attention to history missing from earlier commentaries, and Bernardino Daniello, whose commentary of 1568 appears heavily indebted to the unpublished work of Trifone Gabriele but moves beyond plagiarism as an act of conservation, "a kind of fossil record" (115) that preserves traces of earlier readings with new attention to stylistic devices and rhetorical detail. The book's concluding chapter on the material production of specific editions offers a learned and illuminating account of codes in printing formats - size, typeface, decorations, circulation (132) - that engage further levels of meaning in their concrete physical immediacy. No student of sixteenth-century Italian cultural and intellectual history should miss this book.

Considered together, Mazzotta's and Parker's erudite studies revise our notions of Dante's relevance for Renaissance culture. Literary scholars and all who specialize in the period will learn much from them.

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Author:Kennedy, William J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
Previous Article:Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge.
Next Article:Linguistic Theories in Dante and the Humanists: Studies of Language and Intellectual History in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Italy.

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