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The third chapter traces how Petrarch imagines the place of the poet in the period between 1341 and 1353. It begins with Petrarch’s coronation oration as poet laureate of Rome, which has long been recognized as representing the poet’s status in an oscillating temporality between past and present. It argues that this tension in Petrarch’s self-representation is related to his ambiguous stance about appertaining to a city or being situated beyond it. In readings of the coronation oration, the letters surrounding the revolution of Cola di Rienzo, and his major texts on poetry, the chapter shows how Petrarch increasingly distances himself from association with urban environments as places of the masses, even as he becomes more directly involved in politics. With an ideal Rome as his city, he can claim a status that is above and beyond the vulgar concerns of the people of the city. Petrarch’s political language of vituperation against the people coincides with the language of his rejection of the vernacular. After a close reading of the poetics of place in Familiares 10.4 and the related Parthenias, the chapter concludes with an analysis of the defense of poetry in the Invective contra medicum.
The second chapter addresses Dante’s representation of himself as a poet in relation to the civic sphere. In a detailed analysis of the Egloghe, four Latin poems that make up Dante’s correspondence from Ravenna with Bolognese professor and poet Giovanni del Virgilio, the chapter shows how Dante measures himself against a humanist paradigm for the role of the poet in the city. In his rejection of this role, he asserts himself as the poet of exile, who stands without a city. Yet, through the pastoral imaginary, he also figures a space for poetry in the historical world, marginal though it may be. The chapter concludes by applying this reading of Dante’s humanism to the Paradiso. First, in a reading of Paradiso 15–17, it establishes that the human community of which Dante is poet is figured as a utopia somewhere between Cacciaguida’s Florence of the past and an imaginary Florence of the future. Then, in a reading of Paradiso 22–27, it shows how Dante asserts himself as a poet-theologian and poet laureate.
The introduction situates the book’s argument within scholarly debates on poetic authority in the late Middle Ages and especially in fourteenth-century Italy. It frames the book’s narrative by inviting readers to think historically about the role of poets and poetry in the public sphere. By understanding in its historical context how poet-scholars first argued for their own relevance centuries ago, we may better conceive new roles for literature in the changing landscape of public discourse. While an etiology of the figure of the public intellectual or an archaeology of the public humanities are goals beyond the scope of this book, its argument supports and contributes to debates on these topics.
A part of this book’s story shows how four poets sought to create an institution of poetry because other paths to recognition and power in the civic space were blocked to them. The defense of poetry and laurel crowning were modes of political empowerment. By the end of the fourteenth century, with the increasing bureaucratization of cities like Florence, the intellectuals who take up the cause of poetry no longer do so to defend their own role in society. The authority of the poet is reabsorbed by the authors of the works read by these functionaries, who shared a similar training in grammar, rhetoric, and law with these poets, but whose effective authority in the city required no defending. As a concluding example, the epilogue examines the first defense of poetry of Florentine Chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), which takes place in a series of private letters written to Bolognese Chancellor Giuliano Zonarini in 1378–79. It suggests that the previous poets’ concern for situating themselves vis-à-vis political power is translated into a role for poetry itself.
The fourth chapter shows how Boccaccio manipulates the Petrarchan model of the poet for different ends. It is prefaced by a reassessment of the relationship between Boccaccio and Petrarch, focusing on the political differences between the two poets. In an analysis of the initial years of their friendship, the chapter shows how Boccaccio moves from seeing Petrarch’s presence in Florence as the condition for the repatriation of Dante’s poem, to trying to separate the two poets from one another in his first redaction of the Vita di Dante. After establishing the fundamental political and cultural differences between the two poets, the chapter moves to an analysis of Boccaccio’s defense of poetry in Book 14 of the Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, which has traditionally been understood as a reiteration of Petrarch’s ideas. It argues that Boccaccio undermines and at times reverses the terms of Petrarch’s notion of the poet’s relationship to the city, which also has implications for the value of vernacular poetry. Throughout, the chapter indicates how Boccaccio’s Decameron and vernacular poetry are often in the background of his defense. It concludes with the suggestion that Boccaccio obliquely claims for himself the role of the poet for the city.
The first chapter examines notary-poet Albertino Mussato’s defenses of poetry in relation to his political role in Padua between 1309 and 1320 and to the poetry he composed during this period, a Senecan tragedy, Ecerinis (1314), and a Lucanian epic, De obsidione civitatis Padue (1320). Challenging received notions that Mussato’s defenses of poetry are not politically oriented, it argues that Mussato employs them to authorize his political role in the city. It describes Mussato as the poet of the city inasmuch as he establishes an institution of poetry which allows him to participate with increasing authority in the political debates of his city. This institution is formally recognized in the civic sphere with Mussato’s crowning as poet laureate in 1315. If in his defenses of poetry Mussato establishes the poet as equal to the theologian, then in his Ecerinis and De obsidione he performs that role by seeking to provide moral and political direction to the Latinate notaries and novices of the city. He assumes the role traditionally held by theologians of influencing the moral and political outlooks of the city’s inhabitants.
What did it mean to be a poet in fourteenth-century Italy? What counted as poetry? In an effort to answer these questions, this book examines the careers of four medieval Italian poets (Albertino Mussato, Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio) who wrote in both Latin and the Italian vernacular. In readings of defenses of poetry, speeches and letters on public laurel-crowning ceremonies, and other theoretical and poetic texts, this book shows how these poets viewed their authorship of poetic works as a function of their engagement in a human community. Each poet represents a model of the poet as a public intellectual - a poet-theologian - who can intervene in public affairs thanks to his authority within texts. The City of Poetry provides a new historicized approach to understanding poetic culture in fourteenth-century Italy which reshapes long-standing Romantic views of poetry as a timeless and sublimely inspired form of discourse.