Printer Friendly

The Renaissance Dialogue: Literary Dialogue in its Social and Political Contexts, Castiglione to Galileo.

This original study, written with verve and conciseness, deserves to be read by all those interested in the cultural history of the Cinquecento because of the light it sheds on that history while it charts the development, or rather the devolution, of the dialogue from Castiglione's Cortegiano to Guarini's Segretario.

Fully aware of the variety of kinds of writing that are encompassed by the term dialogue, Cox nonetheless makes a useful distinction in her second chapter between "documentary" and "fictional" dialogues. The latter, which descend from Lucian, do not pretend to be recording a conversation which has really taken place but present themselves as a production of fantasy in which the play of ideas between the interlocutors is more significant than their historical verisimilitude. Documentary dialogues, on the other hand, represent conversations between historically identifiable interlocutors in realistic settings. They descend from Plato and Cicero. Actually, Cox points out that documentary dialogues of the early Cinquecento, which were clearly preferred by Italian writers over fictional dialogues, shared more of the characteristics of Cicero's dialogues than of Plato's, namely, speakers of a relatively high status, close attention to historical accuracy, and an overwhelming concern with decorum. The neo-Ciceronian model exemplified by Castiglione's Cortegiano dominated dialogue production in sixteenth-century Italy.

Why, Cox goes on to ask, was it only in Italy that there developed a strong tradition of documentary dialogue while elsewhere in Europe the majority of dialogues took on fictional forms? It was, in part, because of the distinguished tradition of such dialogues bequeathed by fifteenth-century humanists. The author offers more interesting reasons for the blossoming of Ciceronian documentary dialogue. She argues convincingly that the documentary dialogue, serving as it did to represent and celebrate the art of "civil conversazione as practiced in the Italian courts, fulfilled a task of self-definition for the cultural elite of the Italian peninsula. The dialogue (again, the Cortegiano serves as an archtext in this discussion) had to be historically verisimilar, had to attend to the ethos of its interlocutors, and to observe decorum scrupulously if it was to fulfill its exemplary function as "a sort of window display of Italian elite society" (26). There were, Cox goes on to point out, "negative" reasons as well for the development of the Ciceronian dialogue, the main one being the growing unacceptability, after 1550, of its chief rival: the fictional, satirical model originated by Lucian and popularized by the immensely influential Colloquia of Erasmus. Both the works of Erasmus and of Lucian were placed on the Index of 1559, obviously affecting the reputation and influence of their dialogues. The aura of heresy and subversiveness which surrounded Lucianic dialogue in the latter half of the century is confirmed in Signonio's condemnation of Lucian in De dialogo liber (1562).

Cox points out in chapter 4 that within sixteenth-century courts "literature, like speech, like dress, like dancing, was felt as a sort of performance and it was subject to the same social etiquette which governed these other pursuits" (40). By the same token there were concrete and immediate advantages to be gained by an author using a documentary form of the dialogue in that his ability to imitate a private ragionamento, the preferred medium of court discourse, could itself serve to establish the author's right to a hearing in polite society. As a reader interested in the ways literary performance served as a display of courtliness in the sixteenth century, I was especially drawn to this part of Cox's account. Not that she demonstrates in any detail how particular dialogues served to advertise their author's commands of courtly etiquette. In fact, aside from the fine analysis of the Cortegiano in her fifth chapter (which contains a brilliant account of the "rhetoricization of ethics" in book 11 of that work), she devotes little space to close readings of other Cinquecento dialogues.

Cox's sixth chapter confirms that Castiglione's genuinely dialogical use of the dialogue was comparatively rare in Cinquecento Italy. With the exception of Sperone Speroni's, dialogues become more monological and didactic in the second half of the century. Cox demonstrates how the shift she discerns from open dialogue to a more monological and authoritative species is reflected in the contrasting conceptions of dialogue set forth in the first and second halves of Speroni's complex Apologia dei dialoghi (1574-75). Speroni's eventual retraction of the case he initially made in defense of the open dialogue illustrates why that form of dialogue could not coexist with the repressive cultural policy that the Catholic Church was putting into effect.

Cox sees, however, that besides the exigencies of religious authority, formal and methodological considerations are also responsible for the changes in the form of late cinquecento dialogue. For example, Tasso's dialogues, which she contrasts with the Cortegiano, are more technical and display a professional slant that reflects the new prestige of academic philosophy and the court audience's acceptance of its sectoral language. Cox proposes that this development, along with an increasing preoccupation with method and systematic argument, contribute as much as any ideological factors to the decline and eventual demise of the genre.

My synopsis may already make apparent one of the most valuable aspects of this book: Cox's account of the shift from the open dialogical dialogue to a more monological, didactic, even doctrinal species can serve as a paradigmatic history of the uses that were made in Cinquecento Italy not only of one literary genre but of several. One constantly feels that Cox's history sheds light on the devolution of all Italian literature in the sixteenth century.

Two other prominent virtues of this book merit praise. First, the fine quality of the writing: Cox's thoughts are concentrated into a prose that is forceful, supple, clear, and always engaging. Equally impressive is the author's erudition, restrained in the concise and elegant chapters, but fully manifested, along with her grasp of contemporary Renaissance scholarship, in the 95 pages of useful notes at the end of the volume.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Javitch, Daniel
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
Previous Article:Catallus and His Renaissance Readers.
Next Article:Petrarch's Laurels.

Related Articles
Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941.
American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique.
Conceived Presences: Literary Genealogy in Renaissance England.
The Dialogue in Early Modern France, 1547-1630: Art and Argument.
Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex.
Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature.
Tommaso Campanella and the Transformation of the World.
Lodovico Dolce: Renaissance Man of Letters.
Lucian and the Latins: Humor And Humanism in the Early Reniassance.
Signe(s) d'Amante: L'agencement des Evvres de Louize Labe Lionnoize. (Reviews).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters