By Invitation
The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today

In the fall of 2001, when I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford, I took part in a seminar taught by Sepp [Gumbrecht] and Brigitte Cazelles, entitled “The Medieval Beginnings of Western Poetry.” It was, without a doubt, an event-inducing seminar. At that point, I still thought, ridiculously, that I might want to be a modernist (though it was also around this time that Robert [Harrison] had begun to ask me if I was sure that I didn’t want to work on Dante). This seminar, with its gorgeous intellectual pairing of Sepp and Brigitte, convinced me that medieval studies was in fact the most dynamic, most vital area of study. I remember vividly how exciting it was when I first heard Sepp talk through his notion of an oscillation between presence effects and meaning effects in the early lyric poems we were considering. I remember studying rhyme with a close attention I had never before brought to bear upon a text. That sensation of a discovery, of an event happening just now, right here in the room where we are all seated together, around a suitable table, of course, is one of Sepp’s great gifts.

I think all of us here will agree that there is no adequate way to thank Sepp for his generosity with gifts of this magnitude, so what I’d like to offer now is a small tracing of some ways in which his thought on presence, atmosphere, and mood is reverberating in Italian medieval studies of late. It almost goes without saying that Italian medieval studies has until very recently generally not engaged with notions of presence, atmosphere, and mood. While Occitan scholars like Marisa [Galvez], for instance, are accustomed to working with notions of music, song, orality, and thus thinking necessarily about textual forms as physical realities that envelop bodies, Italian medievalists often claim to work with texts that have always been silent. In a series of interventions over the first decade of the 21st century, Maria Sofia Lannutti has presented a long-overdue critique of the so-called “divorce hypothesis,” according to which the Italian lyric tradition of the 13th century developed in a distinct way compared to other vernacular literatures by virtue of a “divorce” between music and text. It is, she suggests very convincingly, an idea with strongly nationalist 19th-century origins. But somehow, it gained immense traction as it was subsequently taken up by prominent 20th-century Italian literary critics.[1] Thus scholars have long felt free to treat early Italian lyric as silent-reading texts. Only very recently have scholars begun to consider these texts as in any way related to music, oral culture or performance. There is a massive amount of work still to be done.

One new direction this work has recently been taking in the UK and in Italy is in attention to laude, an early form of paraliturgical religious poetry, set to music and composed in the vernacular. The laude developed in mid-13th-century Tuscany and Umbria out of the praise psalms used in the Morning Office. Considerations of the sung laude force attention to vernacular poetry that is embedded in and indeed arises from devotional practice or performance. The laude cannot be divorced from their lived contexts. But in addition to being an intriguing subject of study in themselves, I wonder if it’s possible for the study of laude to point the way to rethinking our approaches to other early Italian vernacular poetry?

Of course, for Italians, the poet who most divides is Dante. And indeed, there are (at least) two Dantes. There is the popular Dante, who is always performed. From the earliest days of the poem’s existence, there is a folk tradition of non-academics who can recite entire cantos of the Comedy. You can, to this day, find barbers who will recite all of Inferno 26 for you. And the professional Dante scholars squirm slightly. Or think of Roberto Benigni’s performances of Dante, in piazze and on television. 10 million people tuned in to listen to his recitation of Paradiso 33. And most Dante scholars, of course, turned up their noses. Dante scholars aren’t particularly interested, usually, in that fact that there is something about hearing Dante performed that affects even those who don’t understand all the words.

And yet it was perhaps the most famous Dante scholar, Gianfranco Contini, who wrote of Dante’s memorabilità. Why is the poetry particularly memorable? Why did Primo Levi have it so ready to his ear and to his lips, even in Auschwitz?[2] How might the sort of critical tuning to prosody, to the textual dimension of the form of the poem that so particularly touches us, as from the inside, that Sepp proposes, help us to bridge the popular Dante and the scholarly one?

Contini speaks about Dante’s use of ‘figure ritmiche.’ Or, as Ryan Pepin calls it in as yet unpublished work, ‘rhythmic conditions.’ And here, in invoking the ongoing work of very new Dante scholars, I propose a turn to the future, visible perhaps in the newest generation of scholars of medieval poetry. Pepin suggests that taken as a claim about a technique of formulaic diction, Contini comes very close to the assertion that Dante is an oral poet—that is, a poet for whom rhythm and memory or memorability are a compositional site. And this would change utterly how we speak about Dante, and bring to view in the poem a process of rhythmical transformation as the condition of its ‘thought.’ The difficulty of this mode of thinking is that, Pepin claims, “a poetry for which memory is the force of composition affects the grammar of criticism...Speculation on the poet’s mind with a view to how he intends, or is motivated to re-use, shapes of language, continues because poetry that is spontaneous and unreflective is difficult to write criticism about.” This is pretty radical stuff. And I’m not sure that I have fully come around to a notion of Dante who is spontaneous and unreflective. But Pepin (with Contini) is right that in our practice as Dante scholars, we must also take into consideration rhythm, memory, and memorability, as not simply by-products, or sound-effects, but as constitutive of the poem and how it interacts with us.

It becomes a question of crediting rhythmical units, and the moods they embody, with compositional force, triggering recalls from one site in the text to another, and from one site in the text to certain extra-textual sites in the real world. Why should Dante’s vision of God “sempre dintorno al punto che mi vinse,” reverberate so audibly with “ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse;” the infernal encapsulation of succumbing to lust? The sensation evoked is surrender, recalled here through the very rhythm of the line that draws a certain sensibility with it from its infernal precedent, a sensuality that lingers as a condition of love, both divine and fallen.

Helena Phillips-Robins, in an article published in 2017 and in a forthcoming book, has been examining how Dante, like Boccaccio, sets frameworks of atmosphere for reception and recitation.[3] Dante sometimes does it rather more surreptitiously. But she has argued, for instance, that when Dante embeds bits of Psalms within his poem, these embeddings correspond with liturgical practice of the time that would prompt certain forms of engagement. There are a number of moments in the poem, she suggests, when Dante might expect us to stop reading and to sing a complete psalm. The liturgical fragments embedded in the poem evoke atmospheres of reception that connect to spaces, to music, and to practices outside the text. Through her work on 13th-century Tuscan ordinals, Phillips-Robins has discovered that for a Florentine, the psalm that Dante refers to at the opening of Purgatorio would be the one sung during the Easter procession from the cathedral to the baptistry. So while Dante scholars have long belaboured the meaning of the reference to the psalm as having to do with the allegory of the poem, Phillips-Robins’s work shows how the text evokes lived practice and precise physical spaces and places, like the baptistry of San Giovanni, and the sound and feel of walking that specific distance while singing Psalm 113.

As Sepp notes, this sort of work is always vulnerable to criticisms of the speculative or the subjective. Whether we think about rhythmic evocation of mood as a mode of composition or whether we consider readers of the Comedy as, necessarily, singers, we have in either case strayed far from the safety of silent reading. To conclude, while it’s obvious that I and others who have had the privilege to work directly with Sepp would naturally be attuned to questions of presence and atmosphere, what I find particularly exciting is the way that the next generation, the generation of young scholars that I have the privilege to work with now, is so engaged with these riskful ways of working, seeking out ways of investigating sound or precise details and condition. It is precisely these sorts of risks that can reclaim the vitality of medieval literary studies today and in the future.


[1] See, for example Maria Sofia Lannutti, "Intertestualità, imitazione metrica e melodia nella lirica romanza delle Origini," Medioevo romanzo 32, no. 1 (2008): 3-28.

[2] See Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 2005) pp. 98-103.

[3] Helena Phillips-Robins, “‘Cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce’: Singing and Community in the Commedia,” Italian Studies 71 (2016): 4-20.

Join the colloquy

On Being a Medievalist and More

This Colloquy originated in the "After 1967" conference of 2018 in which we celebrated the work of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. It is concerned with Gumbrecht's relation to medieval literature, his original field of interest.


The core of the Colloquy is three items from the conference, which I describe briefly here. However, we welcome contributions on how the field of medieval literature has changed over the past fifty years and how philosophy, media studies, and performance studies have catalyzed medieval studies, as well as the more circumscribed topic of medieval studies at Stanford. 

In an interview that marks the centerpiece of this Colloquy, I drew Gumbrecht out on a series of questions about the influence of medieval studies in his intellectual biography and the presence of medieval studies at Stanford from the time of his arrival in 1989 to the present day. Starting our discussion with how the difficulty of the medieval period nourished new ways of approaching literary texts, we also covered foundational experiences and encounters. We spoke about the influence of Hugo Kuhn and media studies and its translation to American Humanities, the Grundriss der romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters in the age of electronic media, the inspiring otherness of medieval culture and how it has productively shaped his work on presence, athletic beauty, and other phenomena—work that seeks to "conjure the past in a non-narrative way." I was fascinated by Gumbrecht’s encounters (both personally and intellectually) with Kuhn, Paul Zumthor, and certain epistemological genealogies concerning performance, media studies, and semiotics via medieval studies. He describes colloquia where he, Zumthor, Jean-François Lyotard, Niklas Luhmann and others were pursuing the "anti-hermeneutic effect," that is, "dealing with cultural artifacts or cultural phenomena that are not circumscribed to the attribution of meaning." He also describes in candid detail the convergence of an intellectual milieu at Stanford—a "technical" university in the best sense of the word, e.g. with "vibrations from computer science, engineering"—whose intersection was medieval studies. A core group of scholars cultivated a Stanford style of humanities, where "medieval studies mattered," Gumbrecht explains, because it "could never be taken for granted as with other universities."  This was a time when Michel Serres, René Girard, John Freccero, Brigitte Cazelles, Jeffrey Schnapp, and Robert Harrison in the French and Italian department were publishing major works on medieval topics and authors that registered an impact in all spheres of humanities. 

As Gumbrecht puts it, "performance creates its own situation. Like in our conversation." And this is true for the interview: people past and present, events local and international, colloquia, and publications came together as a story about medieval studies at Stanford and beyond in the course of the conversation. As part of this colloquy, you will also find two presentations given at the "After 1967" conference: my paper on "The Production of Medieval Life Forms in the Work of Gumbrecht" and "The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today" by Heather Webb. These two papers describe the consequences of Gumbrecht's scholarship in our respective fields of medieval French and Italian, and touch on the motifs of his thinking such as mood, performance, and transgression.

Join the Colloquy

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.