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Wilhelm Potters. Nascita del sonetto. Metrica e matematica al tempo di Federico II.

Wilhelm Potters. Nascita del sonetto. Metrica e matematica al tempo di Federico II. Ravenna: Longo, 1998. Pp. 189.

In the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert's Yum-Yum (The Mikado), "here's a how-dedo!" Few readers of this undeniably thought-provoking book will, I suspect, be able to maintain complete scholarly equanimity in the face of the sheer unexpectedness of its contents. Lulled into a sense of comforting familiarity by its sober presentation and respectable publisher, the charming miniature on its cover, or the numerous illustrations reproduced from late medieval manuscripts in its first chapter, the literary scholar will scarcely fail to note--it may be with a certain disquiet--the proliferation of figures and statistical tables that begins in the book's opening pages. For some, disquiet may soon turn to alarm, as the remaining pages fill with geometrical diagrams, mathematical symbols, fractions, equations, sketches of flatfish, sunflowers, and horses, computergenerated images derived from fractals, and more or less grainy photographs of the Apollo Belvedere, sculptures at Chartres Cathedral, and sundry works of Raphael, Duccio, Durer, Mondrian, and Aristide Maillol--not to mention the Parthenon, the Pyramids, and a singularly unattractive Le Corbusier apartment building in sunny Marseilles. It all seems to take us a long way indeed from the author's titular preoccupation, the "birth of the sonnet."

Which, of course, is precisely the point. Wilhelm Potters is anxious to make us think about this hackneyed problem of literary history in an entirely new way. In order to do so, he has marshaled an astonishing variety of (mainly) non-literary evidence in support of a simple but dramatically original argument: that the sonnet takes the form that it does--fourteen lines of eleven syllables apiece, usually grouped into eight-line octave and sixline sestet--because its inventors were writing, at the Sicilian court of Frederick II in the early thirteenth century, in a cultural atmosphere suffused by the most advanced mathematical theories available at that time in the Christian West. The numerical values inherent in the sonnet structure--not only 11 and 14, but also 154 (the total number of syllables in a sonnet), 22 and 7 (the numerical elements of [pi] in their respective proportional relationships with 11 and 14), and the ratio 4:3 (or 8:6, octave to sestet)--are thus neither arbitrarily devised nor adapted from existing models in a tradition of literary forms, but chosen precisely for their power to signify key mathematical ideas, especially those connected with squaring the circle and the so-called Golden Section (in the late medieval discussion of which these very numbers, as Potters exhaustively demonstrates, recur over and over again).

This is revolutionary stuff indeed. Many a scholar has ventured a hypothesis as to the origin of the sonnet, all the way from the form's dependence on Provencal (or classical, or even Arabic) literary precedent to Ezra Pound's reductive, but not altogether implausible, suggestion that the sonnet simply came into being one day when an incompetent artist found himself faltering in the attempt to compose the opening stanza of a canzone. No one before Potters, however, has gone so far outside specifically literary history in pursuit of an answer, or has presented such a wealth of information in support of so provocative a thesis. There is much to be learned from this book about both the history and the theory of mathematics--Potters is generous with his description and quotation of some remarkably interesting primary texts--and even the most deplorably unmathematical reader will come away not only much better informed but also with a deeper sense of the richness of cultural and intellectual possibility that distinguished the thirteenth century in general and the Frederician court in particular.

That being said, from a strictly literary point of view the book suffers from some serious problems. In essence these are structural: there is much more about matematica than metrica here, and the imbalance is not redressed by any very searching inquiry into the relationship between the two concepts, either in theory (beyond the identification of the importance of certain numbers), or in practice (through, say, the analysis of particular texts in which numerically-based disposition of syllables has a verifiable influence on poetic meaning). Potters tells us that 11 and 14 are crucial numbers in medieval mathematical theory, and we believe him. He tells us that squaring the circle and the Golden Section are fascinating topics in mathematics, influential in art and architecture down to the present day, and we believe that too. Then, instead of clinching his argument by demonstrating the concrete significance of these connections for literary analysis, he contents himself with piling up evidence--much of it (see the list above) dubiously relevant to the invention of the sonnet or to any other aspect of medieval culture--for points he has already made.

Likewise, the book fails to deal with some fairly obvious potential objections to its thesis. Apart from the biographical question, which seems likely to remain unanswerable for lack of hard evidence (we remain, that is, entitled to wonder just how much the poets at Frederick's court did actually know, or care, about mathematics), it might be asked why, if 11 and 14, or the ratio 4:3, are really so indispensably important to the invention of the sonnet, they seem to lose their indispensability so early in the subsequent development of the form? It is not long after 1250 that the sonetto caudato appears, its extra lines putting an end to the ubiquity of 14. A mere couple of centuries after that, sonnets begin to be written in non-Italian languages, and there goes the need for 11 (replaced by the 10 syllables per line of English pentameter or the 12 of the French alexandrin). As for the 4:3 ratio, it too ceases to be mandatory as early as the third quarter of the thirteenth century, with the replacement of the octave by the ten-line fronte devised by Guittone d'Arezzo and perfected by Monte Andrea. Of course, it might be replied that Potters's concern is with the birth of the sonnet, not with what became of it in later life; but it does seem strange that, if certain numbers and proportions are so universally significant in mathematical culture as to have spilled over into prosody and generated the sonnet form, their significance in the history of poetic practice should thereafter be restricted by features of language and chronology.

Wilhelm Potters has written a learned and original book that certainly deserves to be taken seriously by scholars of literary history and poetic form. But some of his readers may find themselves wishing for rather fewer pictures, however pretty, and rather more--and more incisive--discussion of literary texts.

Steven Botterill, University of California, Berkeley
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Author:Botterill, Steven
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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