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Professor explores Dante’s ‘Vita Nova’

| Friday, January 30, 2015

Professor of Dante and Italian studies Zygmunt Baranski spoke Thursday on the significance of Dante Alighieri’s early work the “Vita Nova” as part of a yearlong lecture series, “Dante’s Other Works.”

“The common designation for Dante’s other writings was to call them minor works,” Baranski said. “The one point I think is very important to stress is that they are anything but minor. Each of them makes a major contribution to Western artistic and intellectual culture.”

Despite being relegated by scholars as a minor work, Dante’s “Vita Nova” reveals a linguistic ingenuity that precedes his better-known work, the Divine Comedy, Baranski said.

“In the ‘Vita Nova,’ everything he’s doing at every level is new,” he said. “He develops a new form of literature, a new form of criticism.”

Baranski said Dante’s vision for the “Vita Nova” is a characteristically ambitious one.

“Fundamentally, the ‘Vita Nova’ is a work about salvation … which can have a bearing upon any reader to try to work out his or her relationship with God,” he said.

While it is a work complex enough to engage the educated elite, the “Vita Nova” also appeals to a broader audience, Baranski said.

“The basic point that he’s telling us is accessible to the simple … the morally pure person,” he said. “Dante is working on different levels … his texts never have a single audience.”

In a break with Western literary tradition, Dante combines Christian and secular ideas of love in his writing, Baranski said.

“He brings these elements together in order then to funnel them towards a Christian resolution based on salvation,” he said.

Baranski said many scholars, however, do not view the “Vita Nova” as a literary innovation but instead believe it to be a necessary preparation for Dante’s future works, a perception he said fails to recognize the “Vita Nova’s” value in itself.

“I think there’s been a tendency to banalize the text,” Baranski said. “People tend to consider the work in light of the [Divine Comedy] … that somehow all the books that Dante wrote before … were written to prepare for the [Divine Comedy].

Barasnki said scholars have also overlooked the significance of the prose sections of the “Vita Nova” compared to the poetry sections, failing to consider the work as a whole.

“You’ve got to look at the text as a whole,” Baranski said. “[Scholars] have overwhelmingly focused on the poetry, and have tended to push the prose into the hinterland.”

Baranski said there is evidence that Dante later edited certain poems in the “Vita Nova” to better fit the narrative of the work.

“Dante is a great self-propagandizer,” Baranski said. “[“The Vita Nova”] … is part of the fiction that he’s constructing, of someone who has experiences, writes poems about them, and at a later stage, realizes that all these experiences…come together to reveal to him a divine providential truth.”

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