Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.47

Jan M. Ziolkowski (ed.), Dante and the Greeks. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Humanities.   Washington, DC:  Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2014.  Pp. 286.  ISBN 9780884024002.  $44.95.  

Reviewed by David Lummus, Stanford University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In 1948, describing Dante’s engagement with the ancient poets that make up the bella scola in limbo, Ernst Robert Curtius wrote: “Homer, the illustrious progenitor, was hardly more than a name to the Middle Ages. For medieval Antiquity is Latin Antiquity. But the name had to be named. Without Homer, there would have been no Aeneid; without Odysseus’ descent into Hades, no Virgilian journey through the other world; without the latter, no Divina Commedia.”1 After almost seventy years, the basic truth behind Curtius’s statement remains valid: Dante did not know ancient or modern Greek, nor did he have more than an inkling of an idea about Hellenic culture. Whatever access he did have to the Greeks was filtered either through Roman authors or through medieval translations, forgeries, adaptations, commentaries, lexicons, allegorizations, and other forms of transmission of Greek poetry, philosophy, history, science, and myth. For Curtius, as for many of the contributors to Dante and the Greeks, Dante’s engagement with Hellenic culture is emblematic of the historical distance and cultural disruption involved in the reception of the classical tradition during the Western Middle Ages. If Dante’s Greeks, as Glenn W. Most has argued, “were not a historical people but a moral and aesthetic one,”2 then the essays in this volume help to historicize and contextualize the philosophical and poetic traditions that Dante inherited from and associated with them.

This volume collects twelve essays written by both established and emerging medievalists, from Dante specialists to Byzantinists, selected from among the papers delivered at the 2010 symposium of the same name (on which see here. The title might lead prospective readers to underestimate the scope of the book, which is neither only about Dante nor concerned solely with the classical Hellenic tradition. In the introduction, Jan M. Ziolkowski establishes the book’s ambitious goal of bringing together the fields of Byzantine and medieval studies around the focal point of Dante. He hopes that the volume will demonstrate how the convergence of traditionally distinct disciplines can shed new light on old problems. In fact, while Dante is the center around which the essays rotate, the volume as a whole examines more broadly the intersection of Greek East and Latin West in late-medieval Italy through the lens provided by Dante’s poetry, thought, and cultural milieu. A significant amount of attention is given to the diverse components of the relationship between Byzantium and the people of the Italic peninsula during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, as well as to Dante’s own engagement with early Christian and medieval Greek culture.

The first three essays provide historical accounts of the political and intellectual interactions between Italy and Byzantium during the time of Dante. In “Greeks in Italy at the Time of Dante (1265-1321),” Vera von Falkenhausen surveys various points of contact between the two cultures in Italy, especially in the south and in Genoa and Venice. She documents how a relative frequency of contact between the two regions and a continuous presence of educated Greeks in Italy did not lead to anything but a minimal interest in the Greek language or culture there. Réka Forrai’s “Change and Continuity: Italian Culture and Greek Learning in the Age of Dante” portrays the period of Dante’s life as one of slow transition in texts and readers from an ecclesiastical medieval canon of Greek authors, whose end is marked by the death of William of Moerbeke in 1286, to a lay Humanist canon, which would begin to take shape with Boccaccio and Petrarch in the mid-fourteenth century. Although, in the opening paragraph, she incorrectly notes that in 1342 Petrarch studied Greek with Leontius Pilatus, rather than with Barlaam of Seminara,3 Forrai accurately reviews the various forms of indirect access to Greek language and culture that a man of Dante’s era could have had. In “Homo Byzantinus and Homo Italicus in Late Thirteenth-Century Constantinople,” Elizabeth A. Fisher examines the presence of Westerners in Byzantium and the linguistic and cultural knowledge about the West in Byzantine intellectual and political circles. She finds that during this period, despite opportunities for cultural exchange and cooperation, Greeks and Italians, both of whom considered themselves heirs to the Romans, felt suspicion and scorn for one another and only occasionally bridged the cultural divide that separated them. It is clear from these essays and those that follow that Dante shared with his contemporaries a general distrust of the Greeks.

There could be no book on Dante’s Greeks without significant space dedicated to his engagement with Aristotle. In the following four essays Dante’s reception of Aristotle is examined in the context of medieval translations, appropriations, and debates on ethics. Marcia L. Colish’s “Acting against Conscience: Dante and the Aristotelian, Stoic, and Christian Traditions” surveys the different, sometimes conflicting sources that would have contributed to Dante’s ideas about ἀκρασία or incontinentia, from Aristotle and Seneca to Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, among others. From this vantage point, she reflects on Beatrice’s discourse on the will in Paradiso 4 and 5, inviting Dante scholars to look differently at Aristotle as a source and to consider Dante’s other authorities on contested philosophical issues. In “From Anna Komnene to Dante: The Byzantine Roots of Western Debates on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,” Michele Trizio traces the fortune of the Greek-Byzantine commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics as translated into Latin by Robert Grosseteste. He finds in these commentaries an unacknowledged source for some of the notions of “so-called” Latin Averroism in the Middle Ages, including those of Dante in Convivio 3.15. Filippo Naitana’s “Reading One’s Way to Happiness: Dante, Cicero, and the Promise of the Greeks” persuasively argues that although Aristotelian ethics is the foundation of Dante’s reflection on happiness in the Convivio, we must view his reception of Aristotle alongside the more civic-minded Cicero of the De finibus, whose concept of utilitas helps us perceive the political thrust of Dante’s reflections on happiness, knowledge, and virtue. Teodolinda Barolini, in “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” makes a convincing argument that Dante is proto-Humanist in the way in which he mingles Aristotelian ethics and vernacular codes of conduct in the Commedia. She traces the origins of this hybrid ethical system to his early canzone Le dolci rime, in which he cites Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the creation of a theory of nobility. She concludes with a canzone from the same period, Poscia ch’Amor, in which Dante prescribes an ethical social practice in line with the theory, putting Aristotelian philosophy to use in fostering social change. These four essays on Dante’s Aristotelianism are followed by Diego Sbacchi’s contribution on early- Christian mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Representation of Light in Dante’s Paradiso.” This essay argues that Pseudo-Dionysius is essential to our understanding of Dante’s Paradiso, especially the way Dante employs terms of light in his description of heaven, the divine, and his spiritual journey. The essay concludes with the stimulating remark that Pseudo-Dionysian influence would be a solid historical basis for comparing Dante’s Commedia and Byzantine art.

The next two essays, by Theodore J. Cachey Jr. and William Caferro, take on the question of Dante’s vision of Mediterranean space and history. In “Cartographic Dante: A Note on Dante and the Greek Mediterranean,” Cachey takes an interpretative stance that reads the spatial imagination of the Commedia in relation to developments in mapping during the period. He gauges the complexity of Dante’s attitude toward Greece in terms of a “cartographic” writing that brings together the worldviews of contemporary regional maps of Italy, sailing charts of the Mediterranean, and medieval mappae mundi. He sees Greece as both occupying a spatially and ethically marginalized position, analogous to the one it holds in Dante’s theory of history, and serving as the ideal frame for Dante’s journey through the utopic realm of the Paradiso, in the form of the Greek Mediterranean that stretches between Argos and the Pillars of Hercules. In “Dante, Byzantium, and the Italian Chronicle Tradition,” Caferro surveys the treatment of Byzantine Greeks in a selection of Italian chronicles from the period, comparing their attitude about and attention to Greek matters to those of Dante in the Commedia. He begins with the premise that the Byzantines complicated Dante’s notion of Rome, inasmuch as they were both heirs to the Roman Empire and Eastern religious schismatics. For Dante, Caferro explains, the Byzantine claim to Empire, like that of the French, had only an economic justification and was not the expression of divine justice, as was that of Rome. Caferro finds that, due to this Rome-centered political vision, Dante was strangely silent about Greek matters—especially the Greek role in political events on the Italian peninsula—that were of interest to medieval Italian chroniclers.

The final two essays in the volume turn to the question of Dante’s use of Greek myth in the Commedia. In “Angels, Monsters, and Hybridity in the Divine Comedy: Ancient Greek Cultural Legacies and Dante’s Critique of the Church,” George Dameron examines how Dante employs hybrid creatures from Greek mythology across the three canticles of the poem in order to critique the clergy. Of course, as Dameron himself notes in conclusion, these figures—Geryon, Cacus, and other monsters—all ultimately derive from Latin sources. The reader is left wondering whether it was the hybridity of these figures or their Greek origin that made them evocative for Dante of Western ecclesiastical corruption. In the brief final contribution, “Ulysses and the Three Traditions,” Piero Boitani returns to familiar territory, exploring Dante’s famous representation of Odysseus in the Commedia. In an effort to assert Dante’s authority as a mythmaker, he reminds readers that Dante would have known the general outlines of Homer’s Odyssey and claims that Dante weaves a new, just as important version of the story that combines three ways of interpreting the figure of Odysseus: as trickster and teller of tales, as the embodiment of virtue and wisdom, and as a prefiguration of Christ.

Dante and the Greeks is a finely produced book, containing 8 black and white photo illustrations of medieval maps and a detailed index. Unfortunately, however, it lacks a comprehensive bibliography that would have made the volume more useful to beginning researchers as a reference tool. There is also no consistent criterion for citing texts in the three main languages addressed by the volume: medieval Italian vernacular, Latin, and Greek. At times only the original is cited, at others only the English translation, and sometimes both are cited. Furthermore, Greek-language citations are written sometimes using Latin transliteration, sometimes using the Greek alphabet. Consistency in offering the original accompanied by an English translation would have been desirable, especially since the volume aims to create a dialogue among scholars with different sets of linguistic expertise. These, however, are only minor editorial issues. The volume is an excellent contribution to the study of Dante and his world, but it also does much more than analyze a single author’s engagement with Greek culture. It provides valuable historical accounts and interpretative models for appreciating the originality of pre-Humanist reception of Greek antiquity. It is also an important resource for understanding how the Greek and Latin worlds interacted in the period that preceded the Italian Humanist retrieval of Greek literature and philosophy in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Jan M. Ziolkowski / 1
Greeks in Italy at the Time of Dante (1265–1321) / Vera von Falkenhausen / 25
Change and Continuity: Italian Culture and Greek Learning in the Age of Dante / Réka Forrai / 47
Homo Byzantinus and Homo Italicus in Late Thirteenth-Century Constantinople / Elizabeth A. Fisher / 63
Acting against Conscience: Dante and the Aristotelian, Stoic, and Christian Traditions / Marcia L. Colish / 83
From Anna Komnene to Dante: The Byzantine Roots of Western Debates on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics / Michele Trizio / 105
Reading One’s Way to Happiness: Dante, Cicero, and the Promise of the Greeks / Filippo Naitana / 141
Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety / Teodolinda Barolini / 163
Pseudo-Dionysius and the Representation of Light in Dante’s Paradiso / Diego Sbacchi / 181
Cartographic Dante: A Note on Dante and the Greek Mediterranean / Theodore J. Cachey Jr. / 197
Dante, Byzantium, and the Italian Chronicle Tradition / William Caferro / 227
Angels, Monsters, and Hybridity in the Divine Comedy: Ancient Greek Cultural Legacies and Dante’s Critique of the Church / George Dameron / 247
Ulysses and the Three Traditions / Piero Boitani / 265
Abbreviations / 273
About the Authors / 275
Index / 277


1.   Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Bollingen Series 36, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1953; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 18. Originally published as Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (Bern: Francke, 1948).
2.   Glenn W. Most, “Dante’s Greeks,” Arion 13.3 (Winter 2006): 15-48 (19).
3.   Boccaccio brought Pilatus to Florence in 1360, where he translated Homer, Euripides, and Lycophron and taught Greek until 1362. On page 60, Forrai correctly identifies Barlaam as Petrarch’s Greek instructor.

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