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Fabian Alfie. Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice.

Fabian Alfie. Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

In Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice, Fabian Alfie explores, through close reading, the historical and literary importance of Dante's agonistic exchange of vituperative sonnets with Forese Donati. As one gathers from Alfie's brief concluding remarks, this first book-length study on the topic strives to put to rest doubts about the authenticity of this tenzone through thorough analysis of the manuscript tradition, of the reception of the poems, andof the sonnets themselves. Alfie's thesis is that this poetic exchange is a useful historical document regarding "the Florentine debates about nobility in the 1280s and 1290s" (14). It is not merely a reflection, he maintains, of Dante's waywardness after Beatrice's death, as others have argued. Alfie also holds that despite its status as a minor work, it "changed Dante's life and art, directly affecting all that came afterwards" (16) and exercised ah influence, direct or indirect, on debates about societal issues invoked by both minor and prominent writers of the Trecento and beyond.

Alfie divides his book into six chapters anda short conclusion, as well as an appendix that provides diplomatic transcriptions of main textual traditions of the tenzone. These valuable transcriptions are accompanied by Alfie's useful commentary and concise comparisons of the manuscripts' main features. Yet the philological rigor evident in this appendix is only one part of Alfie's ambitious project. He also succeeds in placing this exchange of poetas within a web of biographical, literary, and historical data that add to the reader's appreciation of Dante's early work. Further, he attempts to relate the tenzone to Dante's later work, particularIy Inferno 28-30 and Purgatorio 23-24. Throughout the book Alfie exercises his criticai judgment on often obscure material, showing strong familiarity with the commentary tradition and archival material and resourcefulness in tracking down the abstruse references and ambiguous turns of phrase that one finds in jocose and vituperative poetry.

In Alfie's view the caustic and satirical Dante of the tenzone is not inconsistent with his portraits of sinners in Infferno. Yet the tenzone is not only particularly important for an understanding of the later poetics of the Commedia, bur ir also shows Dante's engagement with the "injurious verse" that was "quite common" (6) during his lifetime. As he traces the formal and generic evolution of literary phenomenon of the tenzone, from the Provenzal tradition up to the Florentine comic poet Rustico Filippi (1230-1295), Alfie points out that in |taly the poems were not merely a series of personal insults; they were also linked to the vital debates on social issues of the times. The satirical nature of the exchange set it up as a way of affirming "social mores by deriding deviations from acceptable norms" (22). Alfie analyzes a representative sample of Rustico's vituperative poetry in order to show how closely connected the satire of everyday actions was to the political climate and to claim that Rustico's work "affected Dante's literary development" (23).

In his close reading of the six sonnets of the tenzone in Chapter 2, Alfie brings to light themes which were also prominent in Rustico's verse: the purposeful mingling of sexual and political insults and the close ties between drunkenness, prodigality, and poverty. In Alfie's view in his exchange with Forese Dante is not simply using Rustico "as a simple repertory of set insults" (38). Rather, Dante imitates Rustico's poetics, as he attempts to shame Forese by linking together his self-indulgent gluttony, the unhappiness of his marriage, and the corruption of his family.

In his argumentation Alfie is attentive to suggestive phrases and verbal echoes, and at the same time, he is honest about the stubborn barriers that even experienced scholars face in interpreting the sonnets. Alfie refers to historical works on medieval life, commentators and critics of Dante's works, as well as his own findings in order to explicate obscure phrases and other references. Indeed, for the ambiguous reference to "Solomon's knot" in Forese's first sonnet Alfie cites two passages from thirteenth and fourteenth century texts that help to illuminate its meaning as a "permanent emotional bond" (41). Despite this type of admirable effort, which one sees again in Alfie's new interpretation of "Stagno" in Dante's second poem, the reader often senses the tentativeness with which Alfie advances his interpretations of the individual poems. For example, he admits that Forese's first sonnet in the exchange presents events that are "cryptic" (39) and proceeds cautiously to write that "Forese may depict himself as the stereotype of the medieval merchant" (39). Again, he states that the tavern "may be the subtext" (44) of Dante's second sonnet, and referring to Dante's evocation of Forese's "arte" (1.9), Alfie concedes, "The art to which Dante alludes is not fully comprehensible" (46). Yet this hesitancy subtly conflicts with the tendency to see perhaps too much in a certain phrase. For instance, in discussing Dante's absorption within the experience of the sowers of discord and his "luci ... inebriate" (Inf. 29, 2), Alfie contends that by evoking the concept of "drunkenness," Dante wishes to remind the reader of the vituperative literature: "Ina single word, he brings to mind the literature of the tavern, with all that it suggested" (64). In this way Alfie may ar times overstress the importance of certain words in order to build his case.

Besides insisting that the tenzone not be viewed simply as a youthful error in Dante's poetic career but an instructive exercise that prepared him for the invective he uses in the Commedia, Alfie proposes that Dante's return to the actual material of the sonnets in the late cantos of Inferno 29-30 and in Purgatorio 23-24 reveals Dante's continued engagement with the poetics of vituperation and his desire "to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of praise and blame" (84). In Chapter 3 Alfie focuses his argument on Cantos 29 and 30 of Inferno, noting how Dante returns to the question of neglected vengeance of Geri del Bello's death for which Forese had criticized him in the tenzone. Alfie maintains that the return is far more than a defense against the accusation. Rather, these cantos show that Dante is evoking again the polemic against the failings of the noble class that were evident in the early poetic exchange. The string of characters, Geri del Bello, Capocchio, Gianni Schicchi, and Master Adam represent the failings of the noble class: violence, waste, fraud and political corruption (80). Alfie makes a similar argument regarding the imagined encounter between Dante and Forese in Purgatorio 23 and 24, noting that the meeting is more than merely an opportunity to correct the injurious exchange of the early sonnets. He holds that the vituperative poetics of the tenzone are transferred from Forese himself to other objects of scorn, such as the impropriety of Florentine women (89), the hostility of Lucca, the gluttony of Pope Martin, and the violence of Corso Donati.

The final main chapter attempts to show that the tenzone has a significant history of reception in the Trecento that includes three references in Boccaccio, two in the Decameron (IV.10 and VII.8) and one in the Corbaccio. In the discussions of all three Alfie relies on verbal echoing to argue that Boccaccio's references to Dante's parts of the exchange are purposeful and complicated by Boccaccio's clear familiarity with Rustico's verse. While he recognizes that Boccaccio adopts Dante's words in order to put forth more a social than political critique, Alfie writes that the allusion "adds weight to the reading of the tenzone as a socio-political document" (114), for Boccaccio had clearly recognized the social and political implications of the exchange.

The experienced reader of Dante will be challenged by this small but important book. While one may quibble with some of the readings of individual passages, Alfie succeeds in putting forth a detailed and coherent consideration of the tenzone and its afterlife that represents a real advancement in Dante Studies.


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Author:Mussio, Thomas
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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