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Simon A. Gilson. Dante and Renaissance Florence.

Simon A. Gilson. Dante and Renaissance Florence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Domenico Michelino's painting of Dante and his Comedy (1465), now located on the north wall of the Florentine cathedral, juxtaposes the realms of the afterlife depicted in the poem--hell, purgatory, heaven--with the world of Michelino's contemporary Florence. On the left side of the painting the ignavi of Inferno 3 are being led off to hell by a miscellaneous group of colorful devils. In the back center of the image is a representation of Mt. Purgatory that follows the description of the realm in the Comedy's second canticle. Above and stretching completely across the large wood panel is an abstract depiction of the spheres of heaven. On the right side of the painting behind elegantly styled city walls with gates and battlements one sees partial views of Florentine landmarks: the tower of the Palazzo della Signoria, the Bargello with the marzocco climbing up its metal staff, the Badia with its angel, and looming before all the other images of the urban landscape, Brunelleschi's dome, a clear reminder that this is Domenico's fifteenth-century Florence and not Dante's. Slightly off-centered to the right between Mt. Purgatory and Florence stands Dante himself crowned with laurel and holding in his left hand an illuminated copy of the Comedy opened to its first lines. The text, which he communicates with a gesture of his right hand, is, literally, radiant. Moreover, it is almost as large as the cathedral's massive dome. Dante is positioned outside the city walls, outside the public space of the city that had exiled him and sentenced him to death. And yet he looks on benignly as his poem illuminates Florence.

Simon Gilson's Dante and Renaissance Florence, which appropriately sports Domenico Michelino's painting on its dust jacket and refers to the painting in the introduction, is ah exploration of the Florentine reception of Dante and his works from 1350, the year Boccaccio first met Petrarch, to 1481, when Cristoforo Landino published his great commentary on Dante's Comedy. If fate never allowed Dante to realize the dream sounded in the opening lines of Paradise 25 of returning home to be crowned poet laureate in the Baptistery, his works and reputation made their way back to Florence and into the Florentine consciousness between 1350 and 1481 with a vengeance. In these years Dante's Florentine readers interpreted him, even reconfigured him, as "patriotic emblem, politically committed citizen, moralist, philosopher, theologian, Neoplatonist, and prophet" (1), not to mention a poet who spoke their language. Throughout this study of Dante's reception, Gilson reflects on the paradox of Dante as the ultimate cultural conservative, on the one hand, and the radical innovative writer, on the other, whose innovations are often of precisely that body of traditional material he is encapsulating in his encyclopedic work. This is a study of reception that focuses on how Dante received classical and medieval material, on how Dante preserved the traditional through renewal and in so doing, according to Gilson, assumed the role some critics attribute to him of pre-humanist.

Gilson examines three main topics: 1) how Dante was perceived in relation to humanism and its values; 2) how Dante was used by readers, humanists and merchants alike, to advance Florentine civic causes; and 3) how subsequent readers and writers reused Dante's teachings in general. His chronological study of Dante's reception highlights readers, beginning with Petrarch and Boccaccio in chapter one, who confront what they perceive to be the author's outmoded medieval qualities in the process of working out strategies that legitimate their respective responses to him. At the risk of simplifying the complex dialogue between readers and texts that characterizes the fullness of Gilson's analysis, we can position the interpreters between 1350 and 1481 into two main camps articulated rather clearly from the start: Boccaccio's cult of Dante exhibited in his Trattatello in laude di Dante and Esposizioni, among other late works, versus Petrarch's humanistic reservations about the Florentine poet expressed in Familiares xxi, 15. Boccaccio's championing of Dante--a position that develops, as Gilson shows, in close dialogue with Petrarch's arguments against the poet--heralds a way of responding to the man and his works that is followed in subsequent generations by practitioners of the burgeoning vernacular culture in Florence. Gilson explores the extensive response to Dante and his work by Florentine mercantile culture. The Deca-meron may be the 'epopea mercantile' but the Comedy gives it a good run for its money. The quantity of merchants reading, annotating, and commissioning copies of the Comedy is enormous, and this readership develops almost immediately after Dante's death. In the 1330s and 1340s, Francesco di ser Nardo da Barberino's workshop alone famously produced one hundred manuscript copies of the Comedy.

In chapter two, Gilson considers the outspoken voices that emerge in the second half of the fourteenth century and in the first decades of the fifteenth such as those of Giovanni Gherardo da Prato, Cino Rinuccini, and Domenico da Prato who praise Dante for his fiorentinita, his civic commitment, and overall learning in the face of mounting criticism against him by humanists inspired by Petrarch. But not all those who embrace the new learning are criticai of Dante. Coluccio Salutati and Filippo Villani advance arguments to recuperate him. Leonardo Bruni, for his part, first censures Dante in his Dialoghi only to retract the main criticisms in the work's concluding section. Here as elsewhere, Gilson marshals the fundamental scholarship on the issue in the process of formulating his conclusion. In chapter three, Gilson examines how Florentine humanists of the 1430s and 1440s--Filelfo, Bruni, Palmieri, and Alberti--use Dante to promote political and civic causes linked to Florence, thus overcoming many of the reservations articulated first by Petrarch and sharpened by intervening humanists like Niccolo Niccoli. This sets the stage for the full-scale revalorization of Dante as a linguistic and civic model in Medicean Florence, which is the focus of the remaining chapters of the book. The contributions of Lorenzo, Poliziano, Ficino, Palmieri, and others are discussed in detail, but the figure with whom the chronological narrative culminates is Cristoforo Landino.

In the book's final section, Gilson examines Landino's impressive commentary on the Comedy (1481), recently published in a new critica1 edition that has facilitated his research, Comento sopra la Comedia, ed. Paolo Procaccioli, 4 vols. (Rome: Salerno, 2001). Like Domenico Michelino's painting, Landino's commentary reinterprets the Comedy in a contemporary civic setting that emphasizes the classical underpinning of the vernacular literary culture embodied in Dante's poem.

This is an excellent book, clear in its conception, well-argued, and crisply written. It stands as a model for future research on Dante's reception throughout the Italian peninsula and beyond.


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Author:Looney, Dennis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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