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The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature.

The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature. Ed. by PETER HAINSWORTH and DAVID ROBEY. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002. xlv+644pp. 60 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-19-818332-1.

It needs to be stated that now there is an Oxford Companion to Italian Literature, and for professional Italianists this represents a welcome albeit tardy recognition by a major publisher that theirs is a world literature important enough to have a Companion. This 'first of its kind' volume has almost 2,400 entries, written by some 200 scholars drawn mainly from these islands, Italy, and Switzerland, but also from the USA and Australia. The authorship of wide-ranging entries is shared; for example, each of the six sections covering, chronologically, Literary Theory, from before 1400 to 1900 onwards, is written by a different specialist. The 'literature' of the title, while applying to the majority of entries, be they by author, title, or character (e.g. Angelica, Marco Lombardo), is not limited to a traditionally defined canon; its catholicity will be found to include, in more than 500 subject entries, Cinema, Cookery books (from Platina to Il ghiottone errante), Fotoromanzi, Fumetti, etc. (I failed to locate letteratura di confine but this could represent navigational incompetence on my part.) The subject entries provide, also, the humus in which literature grows, and cover history, politics, geography (cities, islands), artistic movements (e.g. Futurism), music, and more. There are maps, from c. 1250 to contemporary Italy, and a useful chronology (pp. xxxii-xli) with a column of 'Authors and artists' which includes important contributors to Italian culture, some of whom have no individual entry--Vivaldi, for example, who will not be found even under Venice.

I have consulted this book for almost a year for research, teaching, and editorial work, and in all cases, but especially for editing, it has proved an invaluable, user-friendly, and quick provider of reliable information, telling me at a glance who was Michele Leoni or in what year did the Edinburgh Review first publish an article by Foscolo, and much more. My many random but also my systematic checks revealed a web of cross-referencing that will be a treasure for the non-specialist; a non-halianist colleague with a query on Guinizzelli found, as well as the essential, a route to Bolognese, dolce stil hoyo, canzoni, sonnets, Guittone d'Arezzo, Bonagiunta da Lucca, Dante, Vira nova, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, Divine Comedy (that unfortunate Divine is ubiquitous, but English forms are adopted if well known), and finally Cavalcanti--the lot contributing to a complete and scholarly overview. As the boom though it carries no health warning, is addictive, it is easy to start with, say, the Beneficio di Cristo (a pity its extraordinary survival story is not given) and carry on to Sera Benelli, Roberto Benigni, Stefano Benni, a selection of the Bentivoglio family, and Benvenuto da Imola--an intriguing sampling of seven centuries.

Wondering why Galeazzo Ciano has an entry to himself, denied to Cosimo pater patriae, and Moravia is given fractionally more space than Poliziano, I realized with relief that this did not reflect value judgements but rather what is made clear in the introduction (p. viii): the volume attempts to redress an imbalance; the contribution to European letters made by Italian writers of the earlier periods is well recognized, and a stronger case has to be made for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (impressively covered, though judged by one who is not a specialist in this period), and also for the twentieth century, which has 'about a quarter of the total number of substantive entries'. I became informed on more twentieth-century writers and critics than I knew existed, though I missed Silvio D'Arzo and Cesare Angelini, and while it was good to see Marina Jarre, one would have liked a cross-reference to her under Waldensians. In fact, entries that are non-literary are inconsistent in giving that literary dimension which one would expect in a Companion to Literature. It is right and just to know that the Dominicans are castigated by Aquinas in Paradiso, but this is not said of the Franciscans; the Jesuits' long entry does not mention Civilta cattolica, their periodical very much engaged in debate on public issues that dates back to 1850; for neither Giotto nor Puccini is there a reference to Boccaccio, though for Giotto we find the more important one to Dante. The outstanding entry on Neoplatonism would be made perfect by leads to some major literary texts. This would apply also to Peasants (contadini), an informative sociohistorical entry that cries out for a reference to writers like Carlo Levi or Silone. There is no difficulty when artists are also writers; justice is done to Bronzino for his 'considerable corpus of poetry', and the entry on Michelangelo is superlative, with passing mention of his major visual works but virtually total concentration on the poetry--textual problems, fortunes, complexities, etc.; the omission of Armour's work from the bibliography is its only flaw.

My testing of gender balance was positive, though with some possibility for improvement; I missed the first woman member admitted to the Accademia della Crusca, Caterina Franceschi Ferrucci, but noted that there are more women humanists than feature in Hale's Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance.

Although the balance is strongly in favour of the modern, not only were there no serious lacunae in the early period (I found Il mare amoroso against my expectations), but I doubt that one could find more and better entries in English, in a compact volume, on writing of the Due- and Trecento than here. When surprised to read under Diaries that 'Italy's contribution to the genre has been limited' (p. 190), I searched for ricordanze; these are mentioned under ricordi with reference to Guicciardini and Campanella, but humbler writing is covered by Household Treatises, and so briefly as to exclude Marco Parenti. Exclusion applies to few humanists, and the lack of Pietro del Monte and Polydore Vergil was forgiven, though it could be argued that they should feature in a work that will be consulted by English scholars because of cultural interaction between Italy and England; Pietro Martire Vermigli has an entry and he, like Polydore, wrote more in England than in Italy. The excellence of some entries on authors or topics in the periods in which I could be most critical was a pleasure, and often essential information with balanced judgements are stylishly synthesized. From my substantial list, I pick at random the essay on Translations, not least because it recognizes the brilliance of the theoretical thinking of Leonardo Bruni's De interpretatione recta (not mentioned under Bruni); the essay on theatre before 1600 (despite its omission of R. A. Andrews from the bibliography); the incisive introduction to Cavalcanti, which contains also an 'English' dimension (Rossetti, Pound, and Eliot). The precisely titled Reception of Italian Literature in Britain is tantalizing and leaves the reader wanting another section for the neighbouring island to allow at least for Yeats and Heaney.

Because this is an outstanding pioneering work and deserves subsequent editions, I add suggestions with a view to its attaining perfection, 'qual che ella si sia'. Italy exists in the imagination of the cultured non-specialist more through images than through texts, and the 'fabric' of this Companion, whose only illustrations are maps, tends to exclude the artistic dimension. To be sure, major artists have entries, and there is an essay on Visual Arts and Literature which ranges from Dante to Arte povera and new expressionism, highlighting links such as those between Botticelli, Poliziano, and Neoplatonism, but an Enea Silvio Piccolomini without mention of Pienza or Pinturicchio is greatly diminished, as is a Federigo da Montefeltro without reference to Piero's portrait; the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits should be given credit for their artistic patrimony, and the few lines given to Cosimo (under Medici) ignore that artistic legacy that still attracts visitors to Florence. It would be helpful, also, if more entries had bibliographies directing readers to editions where a rare text can be found, and to recent (excellent) editions--e, g. Sinicropi's of Sercambi's Novelle; some existing bibliographies need revising: although the cut-off date is given as 2000--and often this is so (Grafton on Alberti makes it)--in some cases they lag behind: Bausi and Martelli could replace others on Poliziano, and Fogazzaro (born 1842, not 1841) has had better criticism since 1928. The brief given (Reader's Guide, p. xxx) that short entries on individual works give only a bare indication of contents, is fortunately ignored by some contributors, and should be reconsidered; the few lines on Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno ignore the plot but illuminate the reader, the inanity of the plot of Mandragola (appropriately defined, but under Machiavelli, as a 'black comedy'), or of the Novella del grasso legnaiuolo would make anyone marvel that they are famous works.

The only misprint of substance I noted was the omission of the (essential) question mark from 'Leonardo Bruni: Florentine Traitor?' (p. 87), and the most irritating feature was the total disregard for basic rules of Italian syllabification; it is churlish to draw attention to it but it is most uneducative to promote wrong pronunciation: sig-nori (p. 31), Lollob-rigida (p. 241), prat-ica (p. 391), decadent-ismo (p. 630), etc. That said, this is a very fine volume that scholars will find indispensable, and its editors and contributors are to be warmly congratulated and thanked for such a service to Italian literature.


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Author:Lonergan, Corinna Salvadori
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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