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Vita Nuova.

Besides offering an accurate, admirably readable Italian text and facing English translation of Dante's Vita Nuova, this new volume makes bold claims about Dante's text. It does so in more than 240 pages of introduction, topical index, glossary and concordance, appendices on textual history, and bibliography. In addition to these valuable aids, the editors promise a second volume of line-by-line commentary that the University of Notre Dame Press will publish in the near future. Until then we have this substantial contribution that raises important questions about the letter and the spirit of Dante's work, its mode of existence in an oral and manuscript culture, and its intersections of poetry and narrative joined "in a continuous effort to overcome the aporias of time" (43).

Cervigni and Vasta take seriously Bakhtin's idea of the chronotope as a privileged moment of time situated within a specific setting in space that relates individuals to a social group. Applying this concept to early manuscripts of the Vita Nuova, they conclude that modern divisions of the text into numbered chapters belie the fluidity of cosmic time, lived time, and calendar time inscribed there. Their most striking innovation is to eliminate chapter divisions and to limit paragraph indentations to ones prompted by temporal shifts. In this way they suggest Dante's oral consciousness, along with the conditions of a manuscript culture that subordinates graphic arrangement to internal structure. Still, in their final product Cervigni and Vasta cannot escape the codes of our own print culture. Having dispensed with chapter notations and many paragraph indentations, they still retain modern punctuation cues, orthographic signals, and quotation marks. These might nonetheless affect other, more subtle differences between orality and literacy. How, for example, do the translators distinguish bits of dialogue in the prose from those recast in the poetry? "Di necessitade convene che la gentilissima Beatrice alcuna volta si muoia" in the prose (23:4, 94), for example, corresponds to "Ben converra che la mia donna mora" in the poem (23:21, 100). Do the translations measure any difference: "Of necessity it must happen that the most gentle Beatrice one day will die" (95) and "The time must come when my lady dies" (101)? How singular are the words of any speaker or author? How replicable?

If the substitution of verse for prose confronts the disposablehess of either with the uniqueness of both, so does the shifting register of language. Amid the apparatus that Cervigni and Vasta provide is a useful concordance and glossary of archaic terms in the text (227-304). Here we find in addition to bellezza such variants as beltate, bieltade, bieltate, and bielta. But why did Dante inflect the Siculo-Tuscan surface of his text with them? And how might translators respond with comparable English variants? The sonnet "Vede perfettamente onne salute," for example, presents such archaisms as onne for ogni, merzede for mercede, and face for fa. Cervigni and Vasta render the relevant lines as "One sees perfectly every salvation," "for beauteous grace, to render thanks to God," and "rather it makes them go with her clothed/in gentleness, love, and devotion" (26:10, 113). Should they have sought the strangeness of such admittedly banal forms as "ev'ry" and "maketh"?

The issue of substitution looms large in the Vita Nuova because, as its very title suggests, substitution and novelty figure largely in both the poetry and the prose. The text's dominant question concerns the uniqueness of Beatrice. If after her death she can be replaced by another donna, as nearly happens with the "donna da una finestra" (35:2, 130), then Dante's experience of her seems devalued. His psychological achievement is to invest Beatrice's corporeal existence with transcendent significance, thereby gaining in dramatic, moral, and historical intensity. As one sort of language replaces another, verse replaces prose, archaisms yield to poetic diction, and the sense of seeing gives way to a sense of hearing. Put another way, the text asks us to distinguish the substance of things understood from the accidents of change. Cervigni and Vasta state the problem exactly, and we can be sure they will explore it in the notes they are preparing. Until then we can be grateful for this richly detailed edition and translation.

WILLIAM J. KENNEDY Cornell University
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Author:Kennedy, William J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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