Dante's «Convivio»

Or How to Restart a Career in Exile

by Franziska Meier (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 288 Pages
Series: Leeds Studies on Dante, Volume 3


Dante’s unfinished work, the Convivio, his first book written in exile, is often overlooked. This volume, instead of promoting the idea that Dante’s career evolved continuously from the youthful Vita nova through to the Commedia, takes the Convivio as Dante’s first attempt to reassemble and reshape the remains of his Florentine past — from his love poetry to his philosophical readings — in order to construct a new way of defining himself as a writer after 1302. Contributors to the volume explore the Convivio from a variety of different angles, including the issue of genre, the relationship between poetry and prose and Dante’s concept of the reader, as well as examining the importance of ideas such as nobility, the vernacular and Roman law.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations and Note on Translations
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Introduction (Franziska Meier)
  • 1 ‘Oh come è grande la mia impresa’: Notes towards Defining Dante’s Convivio (Zygmunt G. Barański)
  • 2 ‘Per suo desiderio sua perfezione non perde’: Knowledge and Happiness in the Third and Fourth Books of the Convivio (Enrico Fenzi)
  • 3 ‘Alcuna cosa di tanto nodo disnodare’: Cosmological Questions between the Convivio and the Commedia (Theodore J. Cachey Jr)
  • 4 ‘Da questa nobilissima perfezione molti sono privati’: Impediments to Knowledge and the Tradition of Commentaries on Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae (Anna Pegoretti)
  • 5 ‘Questa sarà luce nuova, sole nuovo’: Dante and the Vernacular in Convivio I (Franziska Meier)
  • 6 ‘Ponete mente almeno come io son bella’: Prose and Poetry, ‘pane’ and ‘vivanda’, Goodness and Beauty, in Convivio I (Albert Russell Ascoli)
  • 7 ‘Ne la selva erronea’: Dante’s Quaestio on Nobility and the Criticism of Materialism (Maria Luisa Ardizzone)
  • 8 ‘Poi che purgato è questo pane’: Vindication and Recognition in Dante’s Convivio (Andrea Aldo Robiglio)
  • 9 ‘Però si mosse la Ragione a comandare che …’: Roman Law and Ethics in the Convivio (Lorenzo Valterza)
  • 10 ‘Miseri, ’mpediti, affamati’: Dante’s Implied Reader in the Convivio (Enrica Zanin)
  • 11 ‘Tu l’hai fatto di poco minore che li angeli’: Nobility, Imperial Majesty, and the Optimus Finis in Convivio IV and Monarchia (Donatella Stocchi-Perucchio)
  • 12 ‘Di questo parla l’autore in una chiosa d’una sua canzone’: The Convivio through the Eyes of Its First Readers (Luca Azzetta)
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →

Abbreviations and Note on Translations

The following editions are used throughout, unless otherwise stated:

← viii | ix →

Notes on Contributors

ALBERT RUSSEL ASCOLI is Gladyce Arata Terrill Distinguished Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Berkeley.

MARIA LUISA ARDIZZONE is Professor of Italian Literature at New York University.

LUCA AZZETTA is a lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Florence.

ZYGMUNT BARAŃSKI is Notre Dame Professor of Dante and Italian Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Emeritus Serena Professor of Italian at the University of Cambridge.

THEODORE J. CACHEY JR is Professor of Italian and the Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Family Director of Dante and Italian Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

ENRICO FENZI is an expert in Italian Medieval Studies.

FRANZISKA MEIER is Professor of French and Italian Literature at the Georgia Augusta University, Göttingen.

ANNA PEGORETTI is Assistant Professor of Italian Literature at the University Roma Tre.

ANDREA ALDO ROBIGLIO is Associate Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

DONATELLA STOCCHI-PERUCCHIO is Associate Professor of Italian and head of the Italian programme at the University of Rochester. ← ix | x →

LORENZO VALTERZA is Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

ENRICA ZANIN is a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Strasbourg.

← x | 1 →



Dante’s Convivio, or how to restart a career in exile: the title of the volume is a contentious statement indeed. It has been chosen to emphasize the admittedly provocative purpose underlying this project. Instead of repeating the idea of a more or less continuous evolution in Dante’s thinking and writing across his career, and instead of following a slow and occasionally tortuous dilatation punctuated by bouts of growth in his thought and expression, this volume isolates the years from 1304 to 1308, the very time Dante started to live by himself, having left the universitas of his political fellows, the bianchi. It is based on the proceedings of several conferences over recent years on the Convivio, which draw attention to Dante as the author of the Convivio. In these conferences, discussions were consistently faced with the question of whether, and to what extent, the poet wanted to make a new start in his career in a quite different socio-political and linguistic context. Could a new start even have been forced upon him?

As Dante’s first undertaking in exile, the Convivio had been long neglected by scholarship which in any case had remained spellbound by Bruno Nardi’s narrative in Dal ‘Convivio’ alla ‘Commedia’. Nardi, in fact, accurately placed the Convivio in the middle of the poet’s gradual evolution passing from the lyrical youth full of love songs which were collected in the prosimetrum Vita nova to the poetry of maturity, the Commedia. In this picture the Convivio belongs to the so-called philosophical period which embraces both the moral canzoni of the 1290s and their unfinished prose commentary dating from 1304 to 1308, which would be superseded by a new and sacred understanding of the poet’s first love and of the role ← 1 | 2 → of poetry itself.1 As a result, the Convivio was, and continues to be, largely studied for the sake of exploring Dante’s philosophical reading and its impact on the Commedia.

Besides Maria Corti’s groundbreaking as well as controversial work on Dante’s possible adherence to radical Aristotelianism,2 it has been up to historians of medieval philosophy to reveal the revolutionary aspects of the voluminous text. Subsequent to Cesare Vasoli and Domenico De Robertis’ 1988 edition highlighting the Convivio’s encyclopaedic dimension, a bilingual edition supervised by Ruedi Imbach and Francis Cheneval was carried out by Thomas Ricklin.3 Apart from the extensive documentation concerning Dante’s likely reading and the source of specific formulas, this Fribourg research team were the first to credit Dante with being a philosopher in his own right. Ruedi Imbach went so far as to claim that Dante, by explicitly addressing the Latin-illiterate members of the courts, gave birth to a new understanding of philosophy. For Imbach, Dante was the first to take the definition of man as ‘animale rationale’ (rational animal) seriously and aimed at educating people, most of all lay people.4

Yet the Convivio took some time to arouse the interest of Dante scholars and philologists. Under the pressure of burgeoning philosophical studies which consider the unfinished book to be a theoretical treatise, scholars of Italian Literature finally began to pay attention to the text.5 In 2004, Zygmunt Barański asked crucial questions about the genre to which the Convivio ought to be assigned,6 while in 2010 Paolo Falzone dedicated a ← 2 | 3 → book to the central issue of Desiderio della scienza e desiderio di Dio. These two publications represent a budding interest in the text from a literary perspective. In May 2012 Johannes Bartuschat and Andrea Robiglio organized a conference in Zurich in which Dante scholars along with historians of philosophy discussed the Convivio.7 During the previous summer in 2011, while the Zurich conference was being planned, an Oberseminar on Dante’s Convivio was held at the University of Göttingen and was attended by students and scholars from different disciplines, such as Italian Literature, Philosophy and History. A project which was initially supposed to serve as an enlightening foray into Dante’s broad range of philosophical knowledge, in order to better understand the Commedia, surprisingly turned into an outright engagement with the Convivio for its own sake.

This volume gives an idea of the academic steps which led us to organize the workshops, culminating in an international conference. We started in November 2011 with a tiny, rather casual workshop on ‘Dante’s Convivio between Commentary and Hermeneutics’ which was generously funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. We did not invite philosophical specialists in the Convivio, as we were more interested in elucidating the broader context on which Dante in exile probably leaned: such as the tradition of medieval commentaries (Alastair Minnis), medieval philosophy as seen in the longue durée (Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann), the fashion of vernacularization in Duecento-Italy in general (Alison Cornish) and the construction of authority (Albert Russel Ascoli). In the aftermath of this first intellectual exchange we increasingly got the sense that neither an exclusively philosophical nor an exclusively textual or philological approach really fitted, nor could either of these approaches offer a convincing explanation of why Dante in exile set about writing the Convivio.

Dante’s self-fashioning in the first treatise, above all, struck us as rather novel. Was the Convivio to be read as a serious attempt to launch a new kind of author who tried to promote himself as a courtly educator and entertainer? Did it bear testimony to his ambition to match or even overshadow the emerging universities and their new, increasingly self-confident ← 3 | 4 → and socially acknowledged academic personnel? To put it in a nutshell: we were considering the specific reasons and motivations for Dante’s composition, or what Wilhelm Dilthey called: its Sitz im Leben [its setting in life].

It has become a common assumption that the Convivio was conceived mainly out of apologetic reasons. It is certainly true that the exiled Dante was suffering from an ‘infamia’ which must have stuck hard on his heels wherever he went, due partly to his political banishment in 1302, but also to the taint of being declared a ‘barattiere’, that is of being found guilty of corruption while in office. It is astonishing though that in the Convivio the apology is primarily concerned with the gossip regarding the poet’s presumed infidelity as a lover of Beatrice and, furthermore, that this apology fades from view as the text progresses. It has completely disappeared by the fourth treatise, when Dante amazingly reinvents himself as a moral guide and as a model of the four ages of life. So, if we understand apology as the initial spur for the project, it must have soon been replaced by other motivations. And here further, the old issue arises as to the consistency of the text. Did the Convivio derive from a movement that was driving and determining Dante’s writing? To what extent was it formed by interior, or exterior, circumstances? And how do we reconcile such a movement with a composition that was from the outset, at least sketchily, laid out in fifteen books by its author?

In the footsteps of Maria Corti, who emphasized the cleft between the third and fourth treatise, which was presumably caused by a profound philosophical change of mind in Dante’s thinking,8 scholars have become interested in retracing the chronological order of the poet’s first post-exile writings and the respective circumstances to which he may have at least partially responded. However, as far as the Convivio’s relation with the contemporaneous De vulgari eloquentia is concerned, which Dante hints at in the first treatise, the painstaking attempts of reconstruction remain controversial and are not likely to be resolved. ← 4 | 5 → 9

In Göttingen we opted for another path and sought clues in the historical context in which and impacted by which the composition took shape. In criticism the Convivio is often connected to Dante’s sojourns in Verona or the Lunigiana, and therefore to Tuscan and North Italian courts. However, we increasingly realized just how hard it is to understand what the courts at that time looked like and what role an exiled poet could have figured out to play in them. Taking Petrarch’s much-quoted anecdote in Rerum memorandum libri into account, Dante’s self-fashioning in the Convivio as a solemn educator of courtiers could only have amounted to a totally inappropriate attempt, a self-conceit or even an involuntary joke.

In December 2012 we organized a second workshop focusing on the historical circumstances, having received generous funding from the Deutschen Akademischen Austauschdienst. We invited Gianfranco Fioravanti and Mirko Tavoni, editors of the Convivio and De vulgari eloquentia respectively in the new Meridiani edition of Dante’s Opere. We also invited Marco Grimaldi, editor of Dante’s poetry for the publishing house Salerno, Stefano Rezzoni and experts in the field of social and political change from the first Trecento on, such as Gianmaria Varanini and Andrea Zorzi, in order to learn more about the burgeoning Italian courts Dante may have moved in and about the troubadours he might have met and their role in courtly life. Nonetheless, the picture remained rather confusing. The standard distinction between comuni and signorie or feudal remnants was far from clear cut. Historians, it seems, no longer speak about the decay of popular communities and the gradual rise of the Signorie, the rule of individual usurpers or mighty families. Instead, they nowadays stress a manifold bundle of political, social and cultural dynamics which unfolded in both a sporadic and interwoven manner. The assumption here is of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring about the much-cherished goal of stability, peace and order. Only by 1320 can we sensibly suppose that the forms of popular and signorile government and their respective social orders are neatly separated. In short, the Convivio was written in a highly transitional and experimental period. ← 5 | 6 →

Therefore, when Dante speaks about courts, it should be put in inverted commas. And if, according to Ruedi Imbach, the Convivio is eagerly adopting the need of the courts in Northern Italy, the background, or in Imbach’s words the Erwartungshorizont, must have been nothing less than plain, to say the least. Yet the Erwartungshorizont was itself in the making, however seductive it may be to imagine Dante having his say in this development. The truth is, we simply do not know the extent to which the outstanding and dynamic circumstances in Italy may have contributed to the shaping of Dante’s first undertaking in exile nor how alluring it may have been to him. What we can be sure of is that the historical circumstances, the very dynamics in play in 1304, while provoking a profound sensation of uneasiness and troubling anxieties, offered Dante extraordinary opportunities and a margin he badly needed after leaving this political fellows. The continuous flux of social settings, especially those of the so-called courts, might have appealed to the forty-year-old man both as a field which was crying out to be cultivated and as a kind of springboard for restarting his writing and career outside of the former municipal habitat. I have a suspicion that, from a social and political point of view, Dante in 1304 was more revolutionary or, we might say, more open-minded than some years later in the Commedia. Yet, all this, actually, remains open for discussion.

Finally, in May 2013 a major interdisciplinary conference on Dante’s Convivio took place. At the Göttinger Lichtenberg-Kolleg, thanks to the sponsorship of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Niedersächsische Ministerium für Kultur und Wissenschaft, historians of philosophy and Dante scholars from Italy, Great Britain, Belgium, the US and Germany spent two full and exciting days giving papers and challenging positions. This volume bears witness to this inspiring interdisciplinary and scholarly event which simultaneously served as the inauguration of the Göttinger Dante Forum, a platform which is dedicated to organizing interdisciplinary and international conferences on cultural issues from the turn of the Trecento.

The onus is now on the reader to ascertain whether, and the extent to which, the heuristic decision to isolate the Convivio from what came before – the Vita nova – and after – the Commedia – proves to be helpful and enlightening. While it may be difficult and somewhat artificial to study ← 6 | 7 → the Convivio in isolation, the treatise in form of a commentary does deserve to be analysed as a full-blown and equally ambitious project which may have taken its author a long way and which might have introduced us to a markedly different Dante had the Commedia not interrupted its completion at such an early stage. The essays in this volume tackle extremely variegated issues, ranging from philological to more philosophical and cosmological questions, yet at the same time share a common thread, which is central to our undertaking: through the contributions of this eclectic group of scholars Dante comes into focus, snared by ambiguities, and sometimes by outright paradoxes of the Convivio. This entanglement is particularly rife in statements relating to very specific and important aspects of what he is about to do and to write. These ambiguities may well mirror the difficult situation which had been foisted on the exiled Dante and the degree to which he became disorientated. They may also bear testimony to the scope of his ambition, that is to give his writing in both prose and poetry a new direction that was able to keep pace with an astonishing range of new knowledge, as well as with the new circumstances of his life.

I would like to close this introduction by expressing my deep gratitude to the Istituto italiano di cultura in Wolfsburg and Berlin, which never wavered in their support of my endeavours to promote Italian culture in Göttingen and which gave a substantial contribution to the conferences and workshops, and to the publication of this volume. It is a great pleasure and honour for me that Claire Honess and Matthew Treherne kindly welcomed the proceedings into their Leeds Dante series and their patience is much appreciated. I am very grateful to Tristan Downs for assistance in editing the articles and to Maria Ximena Ordóñez as well as to Petra Löb-Kompart who in different ways took care of formatting the manuscript. ← 7 | 8 →

1 Dal ‘Convivio’ alla ‘Commedia’ (Sei saggi danteschi) (Rome: Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo, 1992).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (April)
Italian Medieval Studies Dante's Convivio Philosophy in the Vernacular
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 288 pp.

Biographical notes

Franziska Meier (Volume editor)

Franziska Meier is Professor of Romance Philology (French and Italian Literature) at the Georgia Augusta University, Göttingen. Her early research in Italian studies focused on modern literature, particularly the relationship of novelists with fascism and the anti-fascist resistance movement. More recently, her scholarly interests have converged on Dante, Boccaccio and Renaissance art history.


Title: Dante's «Convivio»