Skip to main content
Dr Laura Banella

If Dante had not written the Divine Comedy, we would have missed one of the greatest European literary achievements. But Dante still would have been among the most important, if not the most important intellectual and poet of his times. Likewise, his already preeminent position as rimatore, as writer of vernacular lyric poems, plays a fundamental role in his own presentation as a leading and authoritative poet. Indeed, in one of the crucial episodes of the Commedia, Dante has Bonagiunta, a previous generation poet, identify him as "the one who drew / forth the new rhymes, beginning: / Ladies who have intellect of love?" (Purg. 24.49-51).

With more than 500 manuscripts, Dante’s lyric poems (more than 120 compositions in diverse forms, written ca 1283-1315) grew into one of the most successful corpora in the history of literature. Dante’s lyric corpus reveals itself as being as important as the Commedia, especially for a specific kind of poetic authority, given that lyric, along with epic, was the most important among the genres, and lyric poets played a prominent role in the evolution of vernacular literatures. As both writer and theorist of lyric poetry, Dante exercised a powerful and abiding influence on Italian literary culture from the late thirteenth to the sixteenth century. As a lyric poet, his influence extended beyond Italy, as shown by the codices owned by Íñigo López de Mendoza, Marquess of Santillana, or John Donne’s Convivio, today at the Bodleian Library. In the twentieth century, the Commedia but significantly also Dante's lyric texts were a crucial model for eminent lyric writers, such as the Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale.

Exploring Dante’s lyric poetry and its material reception, that is, exploring the books that have transmitted it, sheds new light on how his poetic authority was established both alongside and in reaction to other forms of early ‘canonisation’ (e.g., public lectures of the Commedia and early commentaries upon the poem). Dante began writing the Commedia when he was over 40 years old, after having been a protagonist in the public life of his time and a vernacular lyric poet. Thus, his lyric production represents the first, fundamental stage of his literary career, and the earliest anthologies and miscellanies illustrate readerly (and editorial) responses independent of the Commedia.

Manuscript anthologies and miscellanies, and early print copies collecting lyric poetry articulate authoriality – i.e., the quality of being an author – through their modes of selection and presentation: they receive and pay witness to a canon, and, while diffusing it, they create new meaning, and at times establish new canons. Each grouping of poems implies an editorial choice, which determines a redefinition of the meaning of the sequence of poems, and in turn of its author(s).

The corpus of Dante’s lyric poetry is still a matter of debate, not least because, in the absence of copies fabricated or supervised by Dante himself, discussions about an ordering, and shifts in attribution, emphasise the crucial function of scribes, editors, and anthologists. Dante gathered 31 of his poems in the Vita Nuova (ca 1292-1294) accompanying the verse with his own prose commentary, and he planned to comment on fourteen of his canzoni in the unfinished Convivio (ca 1304-1305). However, he only commented on three of these and never systematized the other ones in any organized songbook. His poems appear in volumes usually containing other lyrics and other texts, in collections that might or might not be intentional. A songbook is usually understood as a collection of poems forming a sequence whose meaning is greater than that of the single pieces. A songbook can be put together by an author with her/his own pieces, or by someone else, and especially in the second case, it can contain pieces from one or more authors. The word songbook has an evident metonymic quality: taken literally, it means a book containing songs, lyric texts. In English, its primary meaning is antiphonary, one of the service-books of the church. In Romance languages, the word songbook – canzoniere in Italian, chansonnier in French – may also point to a book collecting lyric poems. These various meanings of the word, coexisting together and mirroring different hermeneutical levels, cast light on the multifaceted issues at stake when dealing with lyric poems gathered together in a book.

A manuscript today at the British Library, the King’s 321, offers an illustrative example of the diverse actors involved in the material reception of literature. Copied by the unknown Andrea de Badagio, a prisoner in Venice in 1400, it is a sumptuous illuminated book by the famous artist Cristoforo Cortese, which pairs Petrarch’s collection of vernacular poetry, the Canzoniere, with only one yet a highly significant poem by Dante, the notorious canzone petrosa “Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro” ("I want my words to be as fierce"). Here the writer gives vent to harsh feelings towards the cold, stony beloved woman, even expressing a desire of sexual assault as vengeance for her cruelty in a way that jolts with the image of Dante as the swooning, tormented lover of Beatrice or the pious pilgrim. Nevertheless, this was the most famous canzone written by Dante from the early fourteenth century to the late Renaissance, a model both for form and metre and for content in writing of unrequited love. What is more, the scribe Andrea de Badagio added his own poetry in Italian and French to the manuscript, poetry in which he narrates his love but also describes the Venetian prison as infernal circles. This book, then, sheds light on a distinctive reception of Dante where the scribe’s will to ‘canonise’ his own production in relation to the two most important poets of the time – Dante and Petrarch – shapes the structure of an anthology that was commissioned by Venetian patricians, an unlikely public for Dante's lyric poetry, which mostly circulated among city bourgeois and literate artisans and merchants.