Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Interpreting Codicology: Re-Visions of the Divine Comedy in the Codex Altona

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Interpreting Codicology: Re-Visions of the Divine Comedy in the Codex Altona

Article excerpt

Criticism of medieval literature often focuses on the rich hermeneutic possibilities afforded by the multiple forms in which medieval texts have been transmitted. Ever since Paul Zumthor coined the term mouvance, the study of variance has come to dominate many aspects of medieval studies. Recently, Bernard Cerquiglini has argued that the multi-window computer screen provides the most reliable and accurate access to the meanings of medieval texts. Yet even though modern technologies do manifest a kind of mouvance, they do not supplant existing media; rather, they add to the repertoire of representational possibilities. The study of medieval literature, then, must continue to engage ancient media, together with 19th-century printed editions and the most recent computerized versions. When approached with questions appropriate to its signifying potential, every medium yields valuable insight into the textual past.

In this essay, I will explore the dynamics of poetic communication in the ancient medium known as the codex (i.e., a book made by sewing together folded sheets, as distinct from a roll or a tablet). My approach is informed by the interpretive methods pursued by Sylvia Huot in From Song to Book, where she aims "to provide a reading not merely of the poem but of the poem as manifested in book form" (1). I will emphasize the way that each page of a medieval text structures the reader's gaze and how this "architectonics of the codex" (11) shapes the message it conveys. I will be describing the reading experience as I can imagine it, with full attention to the matrix of relationships formed between the textual, the visual and the codicological.

Codicology is the study of the physical structure of books. R. Allen Shoaf has termed the necessary features of a medieval book -- such as margins, line rulings and sewing -- "codicological intention" (10) Yet the architectonics of a codex also results from what I term codicological accident: it can include features -- such as patches, tears and worm holes -- that were not intended to contribute to its physical condition. For the reader of a codex, the simultaneous effects of codicological intention and codicological accident merge with the words of the text itself to suggest its meanings.

The Codex Altona of Dante's Divine Comedy (currently housed at the Christianeum Library, Altona, Germany) offers a cogent example of how a reader's experience of a text can be transformed by its physical appearance. This work is particularly instructive because critical examinations of the Divine Comedy as a poem whose different manifestations impact its meaning for readers are virtually non-existent, perhaps because the transmission of the book has produced little mouvance (Ahern, "Binding" 800; Cosmo 181-88; Tatlock). With the notable exception of John Ahern ("Dante" 12n9), critics have continued to overlook the significance of physical presentation despite the ease of access afforded by the several facsimile editions of manuscripts of the Divine Comedy (Balsamo; Michelini Tocci; Rocca). Likewise, although several critics have undertaken important studies of the iconography of Dante's poem both in terms of illustrations and textual allusions (Brieger et al.; Cassell 32-42; Fiero; Nassar; Pope-Hennessy), they have not investigated the visual in relation to the textual in the context of codices. Thus my interpretation of the Codex Altona (based upon the facsimile reproduction published in 1965) seeks to demonstrate how the presentation of the poem structures its meaning for the reader, and to show that this meaning depends as much on codicology as it does on poetics and theology.

The Codex Altona is an illustrated copy of Dante's poem. Begun in the mid-14th century (probably in a Tuscan hand, according to Scheel's paleographic analysis), work on the codex was abandoned sometime during the first quarter of the 15th century (Degenhart; Haupt). Several different hands -- Sienese (Brieger et al. …

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