Theses Doctoral

Italian Readers of Ovid: From the Origins to Dante

Van Peteghem, Julie

"Italian Readers of Ovid: From the Origins to Dante" studies the reception of Ovid's writings in medieval Italian prose and poetry, from the first vernacular poems composed in Sicily to Dante's "Divina Commedia." Starting from the very beginnings of a new literary culture, I show how the increasing availability of Ovid's texts is mirrored in the increasing textual presence of Ovid in the vernacular writings of the period. Identifying the general traits common to this Ovid-inspired literature, I discuss how medieval Italian authors used Ovid's works and his characters to address questions of poetics, openly debating the value of Ovid's poetry for their own writings. I then illustrate how, in his lyric poetry and the "Commedia," Dante inserts himself into this vernacular practice of discussing poetics through the medium of Ovid. Ultimately, I argue that Dante's reading of Ovid in the "Commedia" is deeply rooted in his own lyric poetry and that of his predecessors. Chapter 1, "Medieval Italian Readers of Ovid, Modern Readers of Reception," describes the material and cultural contexts of the reception of Ovid during the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Italy, challenging existing notions about Ovid's reception in medieval Italian scholarship. Previous studies mostly treat Dante's "Commedia" as the starting point of this reception history, neglecting the preceding and equally important lyric tradition. Questioning this approach, I reconstruct the increasing availability of Ovid's works in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italy and specify in which formats (commentaries, translations, anthologies, mentions in treatises, other works of literature) and contexts (schools, universities, courts, monasteries) contemporary readers could have encountered Ovid's works. By outlining these texts and contexts, I depict a growing community of Italian readers of Ovid, many of whom not only read Ovid but also incorporated the Latin poet's work in their writings. Chapter 2, "Readers Turned Writers: From the Sicilian School to the dolce stil novo," focuses on a first series of these Ovid-inspired Italian writings. This chapter explores the poetic implications of including Ovid in their works--a trait found in the poetry of Pier della Vigna, Guido Cavalcanti, and Guido Guinizzelli, among others. During this period, poets debate with their contemporaries about how to write poetry, openly addressing and even attacking fellow poets while defending their own poetics. The Italian poets explicitly evaluate their readings of Ovid's love poetry in their poems and single out his poetry as an emblem of the kind of poetry they write, or no longer wish to write. The vernacular poets treat Ovid's "Metamorphoses" similarly. By means of the simile, the Italian poets feature a select group of Ovidian characters to underline their own exceptionality: for example, the poet is similar to the male Ovidian character (but better), his lady to the female (but more beautiful). The third chapter, "Readers Turned Writers: Dante Alighieri and Cino da Pistoia," focuses on the exceptional position of Dante and Cino among this group of vernacular writers. Both Dante and Cino integrate Ovidian material in their poetry with more complexity. Including similes in their poetry, Dante and Cino radically revise this common practice by associating themselves with the female Ovidian character--a gender switch that later Petrarch will adopt. Both poets also go beyond comparing their world with that of the "Metamorphoses" (what all the vernacular poets discussed in Chapter 2 did), but truly integrate Ovidian material into their poetry, blending Ovid's world into theirs. Furthermore, this chapter challenges the notion of two phases of Dante's writing posed in Dante scholarship: one phase when he is exclusively interested in vernacular poetry, and the second phase when he turns to classical literature. Finding Ovid featured in one of Dante's earliest poem exchanges, I illustrate that it is precisely in his vernacular lyric poetry that Dante slowly starts to experiment with Ovidian material. The petrose, a series of four poems written around 1296, are central in this development. These poems test out some new techniques that Dante will use more frequently in the "Commedia": the integration of both central and peripheral elements from a larger passage in Ovid's text, and the combination of different Ovidian sources at the same time. Chapters 4 and 5 trace the development of these techniques from Dante's lyric poems to the "Commedia," where for the first time we encounter Ovidian material in a Christian context. While it is not my aim to de-allegorize Dante's reading of Ovid, I stress that the most radically allegorizing and Christianizing commentaries on Ovid are not part of the cultural context of Dante's time and, instead, illustrate how much Dante's reading of Ovid is rooted in the lyric tradition. Chapter 4, "Metapoetics in Ovid and Dante's Commedia," focuses on the role Ovid's writings play in Dante's definition of his poetics. Looking at metanarrative moments in the "Commedia" (Inf. 24-25, Purg. 24, the poetic invocations in Purg. 1 and Par. 1), I illustrate how Dante repeatedly discusses poetics through the medium of Ovid, just as the Italian lyric poets did. Chapter 5, "Shifting Shapes of Ovidian Intertextuality: Ovid's Influence in Purgatorio and Paradiso," proposes to categorize Ovidian allusions in the "Commedia" by the kinds of elements Dante drew from his Ovidian sources. The primary method with which Dante incorporates Ovidian material in the "Commedia" is the rhetorical trope of the simile, which was also repeatedly used by the vernacular lyric poets. Focusing on the Purgatorio and Paradiso, the two canticles where the poet compares himself most often with certain characters from the "Metamorphoses," I illustrate how Dante adopts and transforms this vernacular lyric practice. Of these vernacular poets, Dante is certainly the Italian reader of Ovid who integrates Ovidian material in his poetry most frequently and with the most complexity: he combines the methods of the vernacular lyric poets with other classical or theological sources and conforms these methods to the poetics of the "Commedia." But this complexity, I ultimately argue, can only be fully understood in connection within the cultural context of the reception of Ovid: an Italian literary culture that from its very beginnings reflects on Ovid's texts.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Barolini, Teodolinda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 4, 2013