A Local Habitation and a Name: Imagining Histories in the Italian Renaissance

A Local Habitation and a Name: Imagining Histories in the Italian Renaissance

A Local Habitation and a Name: Imagining Histories in the Italian Renaissance

A Local Habitation and a Name: Imagining Histories in the Italian Renaissance

Synopsis

Focusing on major authors and problems from the Italian fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, from Petrarch and Boccaccio to Machiavelli, Ariosto and Tasso, A Local Habitation and a Name examines the unstable dialectic of reality and imagination, as well as of historyand literature. Albert Ascoli identifies and interprets the ways in which literary texts are shaped by and serve the purposes of multiple, intertwined historical discourses and circumstances, and he equally probes the function of such texts in constructing, interpreting, critiquing, and effacing the histories in whichthey are embedded. Throughout, he poses the theoretical and methodological question of how formal analysis and literary forms can at once resist and further the historicist enterprise. Along the way Ascoli interrogates the mechanisms of historical periodization that have governed for so long our study of what is sometimes called the Renaissance, sometimes the early modern period. He also addresses the period's own unstable version of the literature/history opposition, the place ofgendered discourse in the construction of historical narratives (and vice versa), the elaborate formal strategies by which poets and intellectuals negotiate their relations to power, and, finally, the way in which proper names (of authors, works, and exemplary characters) serve as points ofnegotiation between individual identity and social order in the Renaissance. The book brings to culmination two decades of a major scholar's thinking about some of the most important figures and questions that shaped the Renaissance, with emphasis on the question of history, both the historicalcontext of literature and the writing of literary history.

Excerpt

Every book has a name, or title—or at least so we have come to expect—and usually that name is accompanied by another proper name, that of an author, who presumably gave the book its proper name. This arrangement, however, is not a given, and we have increasingly come to understand that it has a complex history, one, for instance, entangled with the emergence of modern notions of intellectual and cultural property. Dante’s Divine Comedy, every selfrespecting teacher of Dante tells her or his class on the first day, is really not named that at all—it is the Commedia—the adjective “divine” being a later, readerly addition that serves the multiple purposes of specifying the text’s theological content, distinguishing this nontheatrical work from the comic dramas that returned to center stage only two hundred years after the appearance of Dante’s masterpiece, and asserting its preeminent canonical authority. Now, one particularly provocative scholar has argued, not without his reasons, that the book we sometimes carelessly call the Divine Comedy, and righteously refer to as the Commedia (or, hypercorrectly, comedìa), actually has no claim at all to that name (Casadei 2009)—may not even have its own name, in fact. The Liber sine nomine has a name that asserts the absence of a name, for reasons its unnamed author (obviously Petrarch) gives in a proem—though, in fact, it is arguable that the title refers not to its own paradoxical nonexistence, but rather to the omission of that author’s name, to screen him from the wrath of the popes and prelates who are so fiercely attacked by the letters within. Boccaccio’s Decam- eron has a surname (cognome), or we would probably now call it a subtitle: “Prencipe Galeotto,” which alludes to a passage in Dante’s temporarily nameless poem, in which the functional identities of author and book are damningly conflated (“Galeotto fu il libro, e chi lo . . .

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