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À mon chevet: 'Dante: il romanzo della sua vita'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

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Leonardo Bruni wrote that Dante "enjoyed music and sounds" and was the only early biographer to add: "and he drew excellently by hand." It is no surprise that Dante was a competent musician. The writings of thirteenth-century Italian lyric poets circulated almost always by being read or recited and not, as the Provencal troubadours did, through sung performances with musical accompaniment, but there was still a practice of "clothing" poetry with notes. Dante makes several references to his lyric compositions having musical accompaniments, and there is a scene in Purgatorio where the musician Casella (about whom we know nothing, except that he was a friend) sings his canzone Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona (Love that discourses on my mind).

The act of drawing is quite another matter. Bruni doesn't say that Dante was a connoisseur or a cultivator of the fine arts but that he himself practiced it. He could have taken the information that Dante painted, or rather drew, from the paragraph of the Vita Nova in which he describes the day of the first anniversary of Beatrice's death, June 8, 1291, when thinking of the lady's blessed soul, he sat in an unspecified place drawing "an angel on certain tablets." He was concentrating so much on this task that he didn't realize certain distinguished gentlemen had approached and were observing him. When he noticed their presence, he stood up and greeted them but then, once they had left, returned to "drawing figures of angels." At first sight it might seem no more than an invention, but even if this were not the case, it certainly can't be assumed that these things happened at the time and in the way that Dante describes.

Yet the use of the technical words "tablets" (tavolette) is striking. Toward the end of the 1300s, the painter Cennino Cennini, a pupil of Agnolo Gaddi, wrote a practical treatise on the various techniques of drawing and painting in which, having established that "the basis of art ... is drawing and coloring," he exhorts a prospective pupil to begin by drawing, and says that this practice begins with drawing in tavolette. This consists of drawing using a "stylus" of "silver or brass" on wooden boards properly "plastered" with a layer of "well-ground bone." Here it seems as though Dante is describing himself carrying out this preliminary exercise -- an exercise which we should not imagine, in modern fashion, as being done in the open air. It would be more reasonable to think of him sitting in a closed, or semi-closed, surrounding which may have been a workshop (of a painter or apothecary). But since medieval workshops opened onto the street, the distinguished gentlemen could have easily observed him. Besides, if even respectable city figures could see him at this work without finding it unusual, this means that Dante regarded it as more than a simple impromptu leisure activity: would he have portrayed himself as a "sketcher" if he wasn't known for such activity or practice?

-- Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life (trans. Richard Dixon), pp. 77-78
We have a bit of a Dante obsession here at Ionarts. Marco Santagata, who recently posited the identity of Elena Ferrante as Naples university professor Marcella Marmo, is a professor of Italian literature at the Università di Pisa. His recent biography of the author of the Commedia draws together the archival evidence about Dante's life, wrapping it around a close reading of all of his works to glean the biographical details. While there are many things about Dante's life we just cannot know for certain, he brings to bear much about the lives of the people who figure in his works, like Guido da Montefeltro, Pope Boniface VIII, Beatrice Portinari, Guido Cavalcanti, Brunetto Latini, the nephew of Farinata degli Uberti, and the father and lover of Francesca da Rimini. There is also more information about the Guelf-Ghibelline politics of the city of Florence than most people probably need to know, but the portrait of Dante that is revealed -- his familiarity with music and drawing, for example -- is a rich one.

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