Fabian Alfie. Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice

By Mussio, Thomas | Italica, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Fabian Alfie. Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice


Mussio, Thomas, Italica


Fabian Alfie. Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

In Dante's Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice, Fabian Alfie explores, through close reading, the historical and literary importance of Dante's agonistic exchange of vituperative sonnets with Forese Donati. As one gathers from Alfie's brief concluding remarks, this first book-length study on the topic strives to put to rest doubts about the authenticity of this tenzone through thorough analysis of the manuscript tradition, of the reception of the poems, andof the sonnets themselves. Alfie's thesis is that this poetic exchange is a useful historical document regarding "the Florentine debates about nobility in the 1280s and 1290s" (14). It is not merely a reflection, he maintains, of Dante's waywardness after Beatrice's death, as others have argued. Alfie also holds that despite its status as a minor work, it "changed Dante's life and art, directly affecting all that came afterwards" (16) and exercised ah influence, direct or indirect, on debates about societal issues invoked by both minor and prominent writers of the Trecento and beyond.

Alfie divides his book into six chapters anda short conclusion, as well as an appendix that provides diplomatic transcriptions of main textual traditions of the tenzone. These valuable transcriptions are accompanied by Alfie's useful commentary and concise comparisons of the manuscripts' main features. Yet the philological rigor evident in this appendix is only one part of Alfie's ambitious project. He also succeeds in placing this exchange of poetas within a web of biographical, literary, and historical data that add to the reader's appreciation of Dante's early work. Further, he attempts to relate the tenzone to Dante's later work, particularIy Inferno 28-30 and Purgatorio 23-24. Throughout the book Alfie exercises his criticai judgment on often obscure material, showing strong familiarity with the commentary tradition and archival material and resourcefulness in tracking down the abstruse references and ambiguous turns of phrase that one finds in jocose and vituperative poetry.

In Alfie's view the caustic and satirical Dante of the tenzone is not inconsistent with his portraits of sinners in Infferno. Yet the tenzone is not only particularly important for an understanding of the later poetics of the Commedia, bur ir also shows Dante's engagement with the "injurious verse" that was "quite common" (6) during his lifetime. As he traces the formal and generic evolution of literary phenomenon of the tenzone, from the Provenzal tradition up to the Florentine comic poet Rustico Filippi (1230-1295), Alfie points out that in |taly the poems were not merely a series of personal insults; they were also linked to the vital debates on social issues of the times. The satirical nature of the exchange set it up as a way of affirming "social mores by deriding deviations from acceptable norms" (22). Alfie analyzes a representative sample of Rustico's vituperative poetry in order to show how closely connected the satire of everyday actions was to the political climate and to claim that Rustico's work "affected Dante's literary development" (23).

In his close reading of the six sonnets of the tenzone in Chapter 2, Alfie brings to light themes which were also prominent in Rustico's verse: the purposeful mingling of sexual and political insults and the close ties between drunkenness, prodigality, and poverty. In Alfie's view in his exchange with Forese Dante is not simply using Rustico "as a simple repertory of set insults" (38). Rather, Dante imitates Rustico's poetics, as he attempts to shame Forese by linking together his self-indulgent gluttony, the unhappiness of his marriage, and the corruption of his family.

In his argumentation Alfie is attentive to suggestive phrases and verbal echoes, and at the same time, he is honest about the stubborn barriers that even experienced scholars face in interpreting the sonnets. …

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