Dante as Piagnone Prophet: Girolamo Benivieni's "Cantico in Laude Di Dante" (1506)

By Roush, Sherry | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Dante as Piagnone Prophet: Girolamo Benivieni's "Cantico in Laude Di Dante" (1506)


Roush, Sherry, Renaissance Quarterly


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The 1506 edition of Dante's Divine Comedy is the only Florentine production of the complete work between 1481 and 1595. (1) Like its 1481 predecessor with its tour-de-force of patriotic and allegorical interpretation by Cristoforo Landino, the 1506 edition appears to have an agenda of civic promotion at its heart. However, its frame implicitly exalts nor a Medicean and mythologized Florence, but one favorably influenced in the intervening 1490s by Girolamo Savonarola's zealous call to radical repentance, the copious weeping for which earned his followers the designation piagnoni. What is striking is how the work's editor articulates this new civic vision in the edition's proem: as a prophecy received directly from the spirit of Dante. This proem, entitled the "Cantico in laude di Dante" (Canticle in Praise of Dante) by Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), is a 199-line poem in terza rima in evident imitation of a Dantesque canto. (2) In it Benivieni relates a dream in which he finds himself transported to the Eart hly Paradise where he meets the spirit of Dante. Dante speaks about the motivation behind his voyage through hell, purgatory; and paradise, about the mistreatment of his Comedy by other editors, and about the Florence of Benivieni's own time. Dante's spirit then proclaims the uncharacteristic Savonarolan prophecy, bringing to a close a composition that is clever, learned, and decidedly polemical.

The "Cantico" does much more than introduce the text of the Comedy or merely praise Dante, as its title suggests. It embodies microscopically and with great subtlety larger questions concerning the contemporary political implications of poetic interpretation. (3) The present study aims to explore how the 1506 Comedy's editor negotiates in his "Cantico" a poetic-critical position in the face of pro-Medicean cultural ties and the fiercely Republican moral reforms of Savonarola's legacy. By putting his vision of Florentine civic direction in Dante's mouth, Benivieni appropriates Dante's authority to promote what is in the first years of the sixteenth century a risky ideological position.

History has not smiled on Benivieni. Although his development as an author closely parallels that of a Sandro Botticelli in art, and despite the fact that when Benivieni edits Dante's masterpiece he could confidently claim the distinction of the "foremost living Florentine vernacular poet," (4) Benivieni remains a relatively obscure figure today. Benivieni came to cultural prominence as a teenager, becoming one of the shining stars of Lorenzo de' Medici's intellectual circle. He delighted the company with his astonishing ability to recite poems composed spontaneously and played the viol, earning for himself the nickname of the "Other Orpheus." (5) A life-threatening illness in 1470 prevented him from continuing a regular course of study. Nonetheless, he developed and flourished in the company of leading humanists and members of the Florentine Platonic Academy, including Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, and Pandolfo Collenuccio. Benivieni surpassed many of his peers, especially in the study of Hebrew. (6) In the late 1470s and early 1480s he circulated his own version of the popular, Petrarch-indebted love lyrics. Benivieni also cast a Boccaccian novella in verse and published well-received pastoral poems. After his spiritual conversion, prompted by the fiery sermons of the Dominican preacher Girolano Savonarola (1452-98), Benivieni went on to translate a number of Savonarola's works and to compose the lauds that the Florentine populace sang in some of the 1496 and 1497 religious processions.

Unlike Cristoforo Landino, a teacher at the Florentine Studio and lecturer on Dante before he prepared the 1481 edition of the Divine Comedy, Benivieni seems to have possessed unusual qualifications as an editor of Dante. However, it is possible that by 1506 Benivieni had already earned a reputation for a profound knowledge of Dante as well.

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