Academia Bessarion, Initial Discussion, 10/11/2020, On Dante’s Vita nova

Julia Bolton Holloway

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1-7 Endnotes

[1] Right. One of us, Sandra, was saying how much she wanted an Academy for Independent Scholars. She Is from Serbia, living in Canada, came the day following Ryan's visit to the library. I was realizing how some of us thirst for being amongst fellow academics. [2] So I thought perhaps we could start an Academia Bessarion. This is the house he had in Rome. Bessarion was the Greek Cardinal who came to Italy when they needed to get help for Constantinople - which wasn’t exactly forthcoming. But it was he who read the statement in Florence’s cathedral uniting the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches at the Council of Florence in 1439. And then lived in this house in Rome with his long beard, becoming the model for the paintings of Saint Jerome. So we decided that we should call our group the Academia Bessarion, after that house, like ours here, with a library in a garden - Cicero’s definition of happiness.

Tonight I will talk - and have us all talk - about Dante’s Vita nova as our Academia Bessarion’s inaugural lecture and discussion. [3] This is the door to the original house that was rebuilt after Dante was condemned to exile and death in the Libro del Chiodo then kept in the Bargello, the Palace of the Podestà, the Black Guelfs having destroyed his earlier home. The present Museo Casa di Dante is fake, built in the 1920s next to it. But that medieval door still there next to it. Across the street is the Chapel of Saint Martin, San Martino, which is the church founded by Irish monks back in the Dark Ages. Now it is owned by the Buonuomini di San Martino, twelve of them, who meet every week and divvy out the money and give it to the proud poor.

When I was travelling from library to library with a Eurailpass to see Brunetto Latino and Birgitta of Sweden manuscripts, there were often young Japanese students on the trains and they were telling me how they were organizing their studying - in space and time. Which I then took to teaching to my students in Colorado.

Space: What I am doing here is giving you Dante’s space. This is where he was born. And explaining that he uses his autobiography as had Augustine, Boethius and Brunetto, all placing themselves in their texts, giving that sense of ‘a local habitation and a name’, their carnal reality. I think it is really important that Dante does this in the city of Florence – as James Joyce will do for his Dublin. [4] This is the Torre della Castagna, the Tower of the Chestnut, where he was to be Prior and exile his great friend Guido Cavalcante and his great enemy Corso Donati, Guido dying as a result of this. All three, Francesca da Barberino, Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti, were students of Brunetto Latino.

This is the other tower, of the Florentine Badia, of the Abbey on the street where Dante lived, and where he would have heard Benedictine monks singing the Psalms in Gregorian chant that he would use in the Commedia. And this is the Bargello. There’s a plaque on it written by Brunetto Latino citing Lucan boasting before Montaperti’s disaster in a rather Trump-like way that they have power over all the sea and land, which Dante will mock in Inferno XXVI.

Time: [5] Concerning time, Dante was baptized here in the Baptistry; not all the mosaics yet being in place but some of them were, of the Angels and Powers and so forth. He begins the Vita nova with ‘Incipit vita nova’ in red letters for this is about the Red Sea, Yam Suf in Hebrew, as emblem of baptism. (He will repeat that new beginning in Purgatorio I.) And then at nine years old he sees Beatrice. And he sees Beatrice nine times in the Vita nova. Which forever plays on the Nine of the Angelus rung at the Badia, the meaning of nine in Arabic dating and so forth.

Meanwhile Guido Cavalcanti, older than Dante, was married to Beatrice, Farinata degli Uberti’s daughter, at the Peace of Cardinal Latino, but he instead loved Giovanna. And then, when Dante was orphaned, Brunetto Latino was made his guardian by his stepmother, in the 1280s. I believe he copies as scribe the Riccardian Tesoretto and Mare amoroso, he presents a wonderful sonnet to Messer Brunetto to accompany the Vita nova, saying it needs interpreting. And then there are also two Tesoro manuscripts by the same scribe and, I believe, in Dante’s hand. He was married to Gemma Donati in 1285 at 19, and Beatrice was married to Simone dei Bardi in 1287. She was the daughter of the very wealthy banker Folco Portinari. In a sense I see Beatrice, the first Beatrice as we see her through Dante’s eyes, as rather like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, “She has money in her voice”. He is an impoverished orphan, his father a mere money-lender, and he has this obsession, this fixation, he is stalking her, which is rather annoying and she does get annoyed with him. Folco Portinari, her father, founds the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, her nurse, Monna Tessa, the Oblate nursing order for it.

(I would love to give a talk on the Vita nova in Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. It’s now very beautiful, and I gave a talk there on the African-American Abolitionist, Sarah Parker Remond, who arrived there, with a letter from Giuseppe Mazzini, to study medicine, in 1868 becoming M.D. When it was impossible for women to become M.D.s. In that talk I showed the Nativity of Christ by Hugo van der Goes, painted for a Portinari descendant, Tommaso Portinari, for the Hospital, a painting evoking all our fragility, in the Child lain on the bare earth. The Ospedale has been in continuous use since Folco's founding of it seven centuries ago.)

Beatrice dies, 8 June 1290, soon after her father’s death. The following year is the Fall of Acre, the Loss of the Jerusalem Kingdom, and Dante was making allusions to that with Jeremiah’s Lamentation I, "How doth the city sit solitary, desolate". Which he will repeat in Purgatorio VI, of Rome rather than Jerusalem..

[6] This is Brunetto, this is Francesco da Barberino, and this is Dante with the Tesoro in his lap, within the Laurentian Tesoro, Plut. 42.19, fol. 72r. Francesco looks at Dante admiringly. This is illuminated, commissioned by Francesco, of the miniaturist who also does the Trivulzian codex of the Commedia, the “Master of the Dominican Effigies”. [7] Francesca Pasut's research is brilliant on the miniaturists concerned. And then this is Dante writing, I think, the Tesoretto and the Mare amoroso (BRicc 2908), and then this is the Tesoro (Laur. Plut. 42.20). I was able to pinpoint when Dante was studying with Brunetto by finding, with the help of Robert Davidsohn and Daniele De Rosa, all the documents he wrote in his own hand and which mention him.1 [8] Dante’s fellow student, Francesco, creates this marvelous book, the Documenti d’amore with Cupid on the horse. The other one of the same figure of Cupid, the God of Amore, is in his manuscript of Brunetto’s Tesoretto. [9] And this is Ovid there teaching Brunetto the Art of Love and the Remedies of Love.

These texts palinode, they seem to go in one direction, then they pivot and go in the opposite one. Unlearning, undoing, their early errors. In Andreas Capellanus’ Art of Courtly Love, when you get to the highest social ranks, instead of being courtly they are like animals. Machiavelli is doing the same. They are writing satires, satura, and in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy the prose is mixed with poetry. Dante in the Vita nova is doing the same. He is creating a kind of scrapbook, a Zibaldone, a commonplace book of loci comuni, of his own poems. And then he goes back and he reads more meanings than he had thought there were there in them. Of the Canzonieri poem collections, one in the Vatican actually begins with the Vita nova. They are very much connected with each other. [9] And when we go to Purgatorio XXIV we will meet these poets, Bonagiunta da Lucca and Notarò and so forth, Bonagiunta singing the same poem which had been in the Vita nova, ‘Donne che avete intelletto d’amore’. [10] And this is how I’ve done it on the web with Dantevivo’s Commedia. If you click on these arrows when you go to the website you will actually hear the singing from the manuscripts of the period that we researched and performed in two hour concerts of all the music that Dante mentions,2 For these poems of the “Dolce stil nuovo”, of the “Fedeli d’amore”, were sung, as we see and hear Casella singing, “L’amor che ne la mente mi ragiona” and Carlo Martello, “Voi che 'ntendendo il terzo ciel movete”; they are not just read the way we read modern poems, silently. [11] And this is a delightful one where he and Guido and Lapo are in the boat, enchanted and so forth, with their girlfriends who are not their wives. This is the game and play of “Courtly Love”, of “Fin amor”, which is adultery, as with Lancelot and Guinevere, from which Dante will be weaned when he experiences the death of Beatrice. Instead of being the Daisy of The Great Gatsby she will turn into the figure of Christ, the Paolo and Francesca of Inferno V.

And this is the wonderful poem – there is some doubt whether it is written, addressed to Ser Brunetto – but I think it really is [12],

‘Messer Brunetto, questa pulzeletta

con esso voi si ven la pasqua a fare

non intendete pasqua di mangiare

ch’ella non mangia, anzi vuol esser letta.


She needs to be read, rather than eaten. But she is the Eucharist.

La sua sentenzia non richiede fretta,

né luogo di romor né da giullare;

anzi si vuol più volte lusingare

prima che’n intelletto altrui sì metta

Se voi non la intendere in questa guisa,

in vostra gente ha molti frati Alberti’.


Dante mentions here Albertus Magnus, as if giving the Aristotelian exegesis of the Vita nova, as if in the lecture halls in Paris. And then at the last line, “If you really can’t understand it, better go to ‘Messer Giano’”, who is the god Janus, the two-faced god. So it has two meanings.

And the translation of that sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is perfect. Likewise his translation of the Vita nova. [13] And here he is, the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti identifying with Dante Alighieri of Florence painting angels and shown where Beatrice’s brother comes to Dante a year after Beatrice’s death. Dante had experienced the illuminating of manuscripts as also had Francesco da Barberino as also had Brunetto as also had Alfonso el Sabio whose manuscripts Brunetto had witnessed being illuminated in Spain. I love the way Dante Gabriel Rossetti who never journeyed to Italy, who was born in exile, really understood the essence of a Florentine room where there used always to be a Madonna and Child while this interior so well evokes the Ponte Vecchio.

Alex, welcome. And so we’ve got Laura in Connecticut, I’m in Florence, Danuta is in Vienna, Anja in Colorado, Ryan in England now, and Alex in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I thought if we had a visual sense of where we’re going, a sense of space and time, with carnal incarnational flesh and blood, plus this allegory as well, for it is both at once, we could understand the Vita nova. He’s playing all kinds of games, which he will do again in the Commedia. This is his brilliant apprentice work for that Commedia. Like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Years ago I published an essay in English and they later asked me to give a lecture on it in Naples in Italian.3 There I was in this beautiful frescoed aula, windows looking out on Vesuvius, lecturing on the way in which Dante, so young, brilliantly structures the work – it seems to be chaotic the way he writes it but it isn’t.

Emmaus: In both Chapter 9 – there are 42 chapters - and Chapter 40 are fractals of the Emmaus story, where you have the pilgrim who is Love, Christ, but he’s not recognized by Luke or Cleophas - or by Dante at the beginning.4 And then Dante sees the pilgrims and they are wondering why there is this sense of loss in Florence, but it is the Death of Beatrice, the Loss of Jerusalem, and the Crucifixion’s Loss of Christ in flesh and blood, of the story in Luke. And Dante will repeat that in the Purgatorio and in fact in the whole of the Commedia.

Exodus: And the other, the 42 chapters which mirror the 42 Stations of Exodus as they are given in Numbers 33. The Middle Ages loved numerology and pilgrims would imitate the 42 Stations done by the Israelites at leaving Egypt going to Jordan and each one has a name and the names have meanings and those meanings Dante incorporates into those chapters: Miracle, Knocking, the horse clopping, they are all there. So I wrote the essay and for its final version in Italian I was even able to put in the Hebrew in Hebrew. If you go to the web and call up the  Hebrew Bible’s Numbers 33 and click on how it is read you can actually hear all of those names where they are like a genealogical recitation, the way Maoris here in this library have narrated and I recorded their genealogy: So and so begat so and so. The memorized Catalogue of Ships in Homer is similar. You go from this Station to the next one. Thus Dante is playing a very carefully structured game as if this were the skeleton, the bones, under the flesh and the blood, not obvoiously seen but nevertheless there. And so in doing this I ended up with even greater respect for Dante.

Ryan: I have never heard that about the 42 Stations. That’s extraordinary. I will definitely check it out. Could you send me the essay? Julia: It’s a bit doubtful because the modern editors, like Guglielmo Gorni, no longer see the divisions as 42 but it comes through in almost all of the instances. I can send you the paper. You are working on metrics in Dante. And, Danuta, did this make sense in terms of Latin medieval literature? Danuta: I can give you this, I am vaguely remembering, I may not remember. I seem to remember, some letter of Jerome. Julia: Yes, it’s Jerome writing to Fabiola. I love his letters to Fabiola. He also does one wonderful letter on why Aaron’s robe is hyacinthine blue. And she is divorced, this Roman noble woman about whom there’s a bit of a scandal. Yet he writes the most profound letters to her, very fine allegorical letters. I found the one on Aaron’s blue robe of the utmost importance for Julian of Norwich, who makes use of that. Also Elizabeth Barrett Browning does as well. And Jerome couldn’t have done his Hebrew studies if he hadn’t had the help of Paula and Eustochium. They funded his work of translating the Vulgate, and even worked with him, studying Hebrew (they already had Greek and Latin) ,and gave up all of their wealth, living in the cave at Bethlehem with him.5 Modern scholars forget that we wouldn’t have had the Vulgate if this mother and daughter team had not sustained it.

Danuta: I have a student who is working on some of his financing of his writings. I mean his use of women to finance his Biblical studies and his book habit. Could you tell me more about the Documenti d’amore? Could you repeat that? Julia: I think in a sense Francesco da Barberino gave up his own writing career and instead took to publishing a hundred copies of Dante’s Commedia for his daughters’ dowries on returning to Florence from exile. He recognized he wasn’t up to the standard that his fellow student, Dante, was. But Documenti d’amore is a fascinating and strange work. It’s in two manuscripts in the Vatican, carefully illuminated with these scenes of Love and Death. and this was already a theme in Brunetto’s writings. Brunetto jokes about Death and his students carry it on. In Inferno V with Francesca and Paolo you get that wonderful play on “Amor, Amor, Morte”. It doesn’t work in English, but it does in Italian with this phonetic parallel. In Francesco’s miniatures and in the sculpture that he commissions Tino da Camaino to do for his patron’s tomb, of Antonio D’Orso, Bishop of Florence, that is in Florence’s Cathedral. In these you get Death with two bows with arrows that are being shot at at everyone, as already was being done with Cupid, with Amore. The two are Eros and Thanatos. And the interesting thing is that this group of writers are able to joke about it. There’s a wonderful dialogue that Brunetto gives that gets copied into other texts of Fear and Security, Fear says “Aren’t you afraid of dying in a foreign land?” “‘What does it matter where I die”, and so on and so forth.

You get this wonderful joking quality about Death which Brunetto taught his students  A useful topic in time of Covid. Indeed, I feel that we need to read Dante with more laughter because it’s there. The modern Dante is seen as serious. And yet, when you study the medieval mode of pedagogy, it is to find it was filled with laughter, with joking, and in this, paradoxically, you end up being more profound. For instance, when Dante meets Brunetto (I think all of us who’ve taught have had this nightmare of walking into the lecture hall and we haven’t got our clothes on, we are unprepared, and so on and so forth. Have you all had that nightmare? [Everyone nods "Yes!"]), there is Brunetto naked beneath his student who loves him, where normally it is Brunetto in the catedra and his students beneath him. Thus you get this turning of tables. That is also the playing with the legend of Aristotle being made by Alexander to fall in love with Phyllis and there he is on all fours in the courtyard, Phyllis on his back, and Alexander his student laughing at him from a height. This scene is even in a Livres dou Tresor Brunetto Latino manuscript in Carpentras. All this is being replicated in the scene where Dante on high meets his naked teacher running below him. So I think the Commedia is about education, and that we are being educated as we read it because we are Dante as we go through the text

And the lovely retelling of the Commedia by Christine de Pizan in Le Chemin de Long Estudes where her guide is the Sybil who had been Aeneas’ guide and the Sybil is an old harried lady like me and Christine is the young beautiful widow. And she is being educated in government, as Christine was writing for the Kings and Queens of France, explaining what Brunetto had already been teaching in his Li Livres dou Tresor/Il the Tesoro.6


Laura: Julia I told you that you would be doing all the talking if it were only the two of us. Julia: Right, Laura and I have been discussing with someone who is writing a book of theology. But I also have been Zooming with Adoyo from Kenya in Washington D.C. She’s a brilliant scholar of Dante, of music, and she’s written a novel called Rain which is about Africa, America, Europe, decolonializing Vasco da Gama, where so often it has just been the two of us. And her final Zoom was with people from Kenya, her parents, everyone all over the globe. It was glorious. Laura: Can you tell us about your new book about Brunetto?.Julia: I’m just hoping that we will get it into print. I’ve got a DVD. It has not only the texts I edited and transcribed, but it has also a whole library of materials to go with it. Brian, did I give you a copy of it? Brian: Yes. Julia: ‘Have you had a chance to look at it? Can you tell us about it. Brian: ‘This one here. I have had a look at it. It’s remarkable. Actually I want to ask you about this set of manuscripts because you mentioned, the ones that Dante writes, too. And I hadn’t seen that it contained also the Mare amoroso which is very interesting. Do you think that poem is originally in that context? Julia: [who did not hear the question]: Well, there’s a whole batch of manuscripts that are all similar, but textually not, because they are orally presented. This was the Arab way of writing books. The Christian monk would be copying one book in his cell, doing only one copy at a time. Whereas, at the court of Alfonso el Sabio, Alfonso was using the Arabic method of dictating his book to a roomful of scribes. So you get multiple copies and these being beautifully illuminated. Which are the regal manuscripts, for instance, of Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, but also of the Estoria, and so on. And this was carried out also when Brunetto did this in France when in exile and then back from exile after the Sicilian Vespers. He was doing this with these three students, Guido, Dante and Francesco, and they are named in the early Commentaries and Dante and Francesco say this themselves. These manuscripts give almost the eyewitness account of the Sicilian Vespers, which make for thrilling reading with Gianni di Procita and his companion, they are both disguised as Franciscans, the other, called Accardo Latino, whom I think is Brunetto. They are going to the Emperor of Constantinople, to the Popes, to the Genoese, to the Aragonese - they even go to Charles of Anjou - to raise money against Charles of Anjou. They succeed in stopping his crusade against Christian Constantinople  The account is glorious to read because of its the sheer chutzpa, it’s Foggy Bottom memoires.

And this cluster of manuscripts all give the same careful astronomical illustrations, clearly from the same school room/lecture hall. These all dated in the in the 1280s, up through calculating lunar tables in the future 1296. And then in the thirteen hundreds you get Francesco da Barberino who carefully goes back to the original versions that Brunetto had written in the 1260s. Not the more up-to-date versions with the newer Chronicle additions. And which now also lack the astronomical drawings. It was these later versions, less complete versions, which got into print, only Michele Amari editing the ones about the Sicilian Vespers. However that Sicilian Vespers account is in the manuscript that is in the same hand as the Riccardian Tesoretto, which I think is Dante’s. And the Riccardian Tesoretto is fascinating because it’s written by a young student, the handwriting being still immature. But it will become the more mature handwriting of the two Tesoro manuscripts, in all of which the ‘r’ goes below the line, the spelling being the same.  It is the handwriting which  Francesco will copy when he does the Commedia in cancelleresca. And Francesco, when he does Brunetto’s manuscrips copies them out n the more rounded littera textualis. Teresa De Robertis has discovered that Francesco has these two hands in manuscripts which he signs. Now we have Leonardo Bruni saying that Dante’s handwriting was lovely, and that the letters were tall. "Dilettossi di musica e di suoni, e di sua mano egregiamente disegnava; fu ancora scrittore perfetto, ed era la lettera sua magra e lunga e molto corretta, secondo io ho veduto in alcune epistole di sua mano propria scritte". That description matches the cancelleresca handwriting of this scribe. It also notes Dante's practice in music and in drawing.

There is a further manuscript among this same group of students copying Brunetto’s texts in the 1280s. Dante’s manuscripts are on rather bad parchment. He’s an orphan, not wealthy, as if he were a scholarship student taken on by Brunetto but not from a wealthy background. Guido Cavalcanti, I now think, could be the scribe of the manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale which matches these other manuscripts, which has the same astronomical diagrams, and which then has the Sommetta describing how to address letters to Ugolino della Gherardesca and many others of the characters, historical characters, of the Inferno, giving the diplomatic formulae, but in Italian, not Latin. And this is why I feel it’s a bit like the smoking pistol. Hélène Wieruzowski wrote about this particular manuscript and for a long time I thought it was Dante’s.7. But the hand isn’t right. It’s a rounded littera textualis, not a lanky cancelleresca. And so I’ve had to revise my initial belief.

What I love also is that Dante revises his earlier mistakes, and obviously states this in the Commedia, for instance in having Beatrice teach him that he got it wrong about the shadows on the moon and so forth. And what they are teaching is the need for humility. Their king is Charles of Anjou, a kind of Trump, and they are trying to show a different politics, a politics that combines with Aristotle’s Ethics and Cicero’s Rhetoric in order to get it right. It’s training in government. And this is why I am so touched that Eugenio Giani, who is now elected Presidente of the Regione Toscana, of Tuscany, who has always encouraged me to write this book on Brunetto (I’d already published one but this is the edition), is having the Regione Toscana print a hundred copies of it. But it doesn’t have all of the material that’s in the DVD. So I am hoping to include the DVD with it. Because if you print out those pages on both sides they will result in parallel text, the manuscript facsimile on the left and the transcription on the right that will make it easier to read.

For I find ordinary secular Florentines can read it because I’ve given the modern spacing to the transcription though adhering diplomatically to its spelling and punctuation. The Italian of seven centuries ago is readable today, just as modern Hebrew is reconstituted from Biblical Hebrew, as Italy deliberately went to Dante’s Italian. He is the Father of the Italian Language. Is that correct, Danuta? I can send copies of the DVD to anyone who wants it.

We were actually thinking for the Academia Bessarion that we could meet once a month, and each one of us in turn could give a presentation on what they are working on, what they would like to share and so forth.  Does this make sense? Is this possible? Danuta, what would you like to share? Danuta: I don’t have anything on Dante going right now. It is possible that I might have something that could be tried out on you all. Julia: That would be wonderful. Alex?

Alex: I know you are in your office. But for all of us who have sat so many times across your library table you have provided Vita nova for all of us. You are an incredible fountain of [shows cover with Dante and Beatrice]. Julia: Yes. Alex: As I sit here in what is still Radcliffe buildings. But as you were talking I was thinking of the scrapbook, the so-called scrapbook.  Julia: That is what he is doing. Right! Alex: And he has anticipated exactly how modern fiction has gone. But I must say I am now maybe a five minute walk from where the wonderful poet who just won the Nobel Prize, Louise Gluck, lives. And one of her most beautiful books, Vita nova, is really all about the two sides of love. And so, anyway, Julia, I thank you profoundly as we all do. I am just going to sit quietly and listen to this. But I would love to hear from all the other people who are participating in this because clearly it is a rich rich source. Julia: In the Laurentian Library  - this is for Danuta in a way – there is Boccaccio’s Zibaldone and I forget which manuscript it is. He transcribes all of Terence’s Comedies and all of Apuleius’ writings. And in the Zibaldone he also describes how he is sent by the Comune of Florence to Ravenna to give fifty gold florins to Beatrice, who is the nun who is Dante’s daughter. And it’s so lovely, this rehabilitation of Dante by Florence, this atonement for his exile, to his daughter. I found as I saw this I was just so moved. And then when they had the conference in Ravenna last year and I said to Giuseppe Ledda I didn’t have the money to stay in a hotel he put me up not with the nuns of the Clarissan Order where Beatrice had been a sister, but with Carmelite nuns likewise associated with her. Alex: You mentioned at the very beginning of possibly doing a talk at some point on the Vita nova at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. I would love to hear that. We all loved  the talk that you gave, just basically about a nineteenth-century biopic. But I would love this one. Julia: There’s a wonderful novel that’s just come out by Igiaba Scego, who is Somali, born in Italy. She has done all the research on Sarah Parker Remond from Concord Massachusetts and on Edmonia Lewis and who was at Oberlin College. Got expelled and so forth. Igiaba binds them into one character. And they all come to Italy with Frederick Douglass. And she layers it with her own experience of meeting with discrimination because she’s Black. It’s a brilliant novel. The heroine comes to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tomb here in this cemetery saying Theodore Parker’s lines, “The arc of the moral universe bends slowly but it bends towards Justice”. I’m trying to get her to come to Florence - she lives in Rome - to give a presentation because it’s such a powerful novel and so brilliantly researched. And is so much part of this place here, this “local habitation and a name”. The lecture at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital on Sarah Parker Remond was absolutely fascinating. But also terrifying because so many of the women in this cemetery died following childbirth because the male doctors didn’t know to wash their hands. The Oblate, women founded by Monna Tessa, Beatrice’s nurse, had been keeping everything clean that they were involved with for seven centuries, and so really this was a very powerful moment in that lecture hall.

I love being able to be in situ, in the right places. I was talking on James Joyce in the Aula Maxima on Stephens Green in Dublin once with Leslie Fielder and that was thrilling. Anja, we haven’t been hearing from you.  Anja: I am more a student than a teacher of Dante. First I’d like to listen in, then see what I can say  What I’d also like to do is some poetry reading of the actual texts because I get so little of that. Julia: Anja, did I remember you talking about Ulysses? There’s a glimmer of a memory, I’m not sure. Anja: Maybe when I was a young student. It would be hard for me.

Julia: When we’ve been meeting and talking and reading, we got half way through the Vita nova, and actually in the Badia’s Chapel of Santo Stefano where Boccaccio had lectured on Dante, but the virus’s lockdown became really too bad to continue. We read all the Commedia, with women doctors, but most not academics, love the way Dante is readable. But the scholars have made him so off-putting. The contadini recite him by heart and love him, but I found too many Italian intellectuals telling me they hated Dante, and I realized he is taught so badly, so seriously, but also so superficially. Anja: I agree with you, Julia   I teach Dante to Freshmen students who come fresh from High School and it’s interesting what you said about the  humor. Actually we read the translation and it’s very accessible to students, and there is some humor in it. I must say. It ends up being their favorite work of the entire semester and I think you are right. To do Shakespeare it takes your time. And I experience the same thing. They love Dante. It’s a very enjoyable offering, even the Vita nova. I choose some sonnets and we talk about them. It’s so relatable, this writing. It’s reader response, so much so that I’m here to learn.

Julia: It is wonderful. It doesn’t matter how many centuries away, for these are voices that are still talking in their books and they are such human voices. And they are capable of laughing at themselves as they unlearn pride and learn humility. A therapeutic experience for us. It’s not just belles lettres, a gentlemanly gloss, it’s much deeper than that. I wanted to mention this. To buy more copies  of the Vita nova for my reading group, I went to the bookstore and found this. It was published in 1930. I love the cover. It’s edited by Michele Scherillo, and I always found his research excellent on Brunetto. Beautiful notes, lovely large type. I wish modern books were like this.

Also this other book came to me through the lockdown from New Delhi and I ordered it with the finely tooled leather binding because it only cost twelve euro. They put fifteen euro custom duty on it because of the cover! It was translated by Joseph Garrow, who is buried here. Joseph Garrow was the son of an Indian princess, his father was an English Civil Servant, and his young cousin when his father had died raised him. Money was left by his father for him to receive an excellent education. Which he did. He was the first person to translate the Vita nova into English and he did it with a beautiful parallel text, testa a fronte. And this was back in 1846. The problem is he’s given it the wrong title, The Early Life of Dante Alighieri, so nobody caught on that this was a translation of the Vita nova. They thought it was a biography.  And it is an autobiography. That’s why I wanted to begin with Ovid, with Augustine, with Boethius, because it is in their autobiographies that they involve their readers in their own conversion stories which pivot from ignorance and sinning, the pear tree, and so forth, to finding  truth and wisdom, their readers with them.  Beatrice comes face to face with God at the end of the Vita nova. Which means that it has given Dante, given us, the power to come there.

What was very interesting was that our group of elderly Florentine women were talking about how annoying (Ryan, forgive us), that there had been this whole tradition of writing these sonnets to women, “If you don’t go to bed with me I will die”, of “stalking”, and so forth, which became the Petrarchan “Lady cruel, but fair”. Dante shows himself going through all of this obsessive and neurotic posing. And Boethius was in the same situation. In the beginning he is writing under pain of death in the most horrible form. He will have cords bound around his head until his eyes burst out and be finished with the bludgeon and the axe. He knows this is going to happen. He’s on Death Row. And he writes a Consolation of Philosophy. But it begins with him chained to the whores of the theatre on his bed and he is writing sort of sonnets filled with self pity about that. And Philosophy enters the room, “Begone”, she says and chases all the whores out and says, “Now, you are being too self-pitying. You’ve got to shake yourself out of this”. I used to say to my students when they would come, depressed, “Read Boethius”. It’s a marvelously therapeutic text, like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, written in the shadow of Auschwitz.  It’s much deeper than mere literature, it’s the literature of the soul, soul-healing. And that’s what Dante is doing also in the Vita nova, presenting it to his teacher, “Messer Brunetto, questa pulzeletta”. He wants to be praised for it and he deserves it. It’s a wonderful text, and he will then deepen it with the Commedia.

And he also in this text, talks about all of the different languages, the Provençal, the Sicilian, the Gallegos of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the multicultural plurilingual development of poetry. Plus he has used the Hebrew of the 42 Stations of Exodus from Jerome’s explanations of the meanings of their names. And as well he uses the Arabic names of the times of the year. The Mediterranean is so culturally rich. And Florentine bankers  and lawyers flourished from that multiculturalism.  It’s been wonderful on Facebook seeing how suddenly everyone is able to talk about multiracialism positively after this terrible time with Trump’s White Supremicism, this explosion in creativity where we are not having to be monocultural. Dante is not monocultural, although he will be Father of Italian culture. He is able to bring together so many strands.    

Danuta offers to host the next session, 8 December 2020, 8,00 p.m., European time. Alex is suggesting we continue to explore Florence, perhaps the use - and art - of the Seven Acts of Mercy.

I am so grateful to you for I don’t often get a chance to talk about what I love and I hope it was half-way coherent. Thank you.


Julia Bolton Holloway, Twice-Told Tales: Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri (New York: Peter Lang, 1993).


2 La Musica della Commedia, Ensemble San Felice di Federico Bardazzi e Marco Di Manno,


3 Julia Bolton Holloway, “The Vita Nuova: Paradigms of Pilgrimage”, Dante Studies 103 (1985/1986), 103-124; Republished, Jerusalem: Essays on Pilgrimage and Literature (New York; AMS Press, 1998), pp. 101-120; “La Vita Nuova: Paradigmi di pellegrinaggio”, Lectura Dantis 2002-2009. Omaggio a Vincenzo Placella per i suoi settanta anni (Napoli: Università degli studi di Napoli: L’Orientale), pp. 1181-1203.

4 The Pilgrim and the Book: A Study of Dante, Langland and Chaucer (Berne: Peter Lang, 1987, 1989, 1993); “’Come ne scriva Luca’”: Anagogy in Vita nova and Commedia”. Divus Thomas 115 (2012), 150-170


5 Julia Bolton Holloway, Anchoress and Cardinal: Julian of Norwich and Adam Easton OSB. Analecta Cartusiana 35:20 Spiritualität Heute und Gestern (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 2008); Julian among the Books: Julian of Norwich’s Theological Library (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publications, 2016); Mary’s Dowry: An Anthology of Pilgrim and Contemplative Writings/ La Dote di Maria; Antologia di Testi di Pellegrine e contemplative. Traduzione di Gabriella Del lungo Camiciotto. Analecta Cartusiana 35:21 Spiritualität Heute und Gestern (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 2017).


6 Christine de Piza/ Cristina da Pizzano, Le Chemin de Longs Etudes/ Il Cammin di Lungo Studio, traduzione di Ester Zago, testo a fronte, francese/italiano,.De Strata Francigena, a cura di Renato Stopani (Firenze: Centro Studi Romei, 2017).

7 Hélène Wieruszowski, 'Brunetto Latini als Lehrer Dantis und der Florentiner (Mitteilungen aus Cod. II:VIII.36 der Florentiner National Bibliothek)'. Archivio Italiano per la Storia della Pietà, 2 (1959), 179-98.

The manuscript facsimiles are retrievable from