Dante's Plurilingualism: Authority, Vulgarization, Subjectivity


ICI Berlin, 2-4 April 2009

Concept/Organisation: Sara Fortuna, Manuele Gragnolati, Jürgen Trabant

Supported by the VolkswagenStiftung



While Dante’s oeuvre is traditionally considered as the culmination and summa of medieval Weltanschauung, already in 1929 Erich Auerbach highlighted its modern and innovative character, which he associated with the representation of individuality: “Dante discovered the European representation (Gestalt) of man”, in the sense that “Dante was the first to configure what classical antiquity had configured very differently and the Middle Ages not at all: man, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness”.

This conference invites scholars from several disciplines and cultural traditions to explore the role that language plays in Dante’s novelty indicated by Auerbach. Indeed, Dante’s discussion of language is encompassed in all his work: from the often disregarded seeds of Vita Nova 6 and 15–16, through the position of Convivio I and the core discussion of the De vulgari eloquentia, all the way to the conclusion in Paradiso XXVI, the problem of language is ever present and pressing to an author who, as all critics agree, automatically aligned his practice of poetry with theoretical reflection. The hypothesis with which this conference engages is that Dante’s linguistic theory and praxis, which can be understood in terms of a strenuous defense of the vernacular language, both informs and reflects a new configuration of the relationship between authority, knowledge and identity that seems to open up towards modernity and is imbued with a strong element of subjectivity.

From this perspective, for instance, the Vita nova (1292-94) strikes us for being the first, full articulation of an autobiographical “I”; the De vulgari eloquentia (ca. 1303-05) for the emphasis it puts on the expressive potential of the vernacular language; the Convivio (ca. 1304-07) for its confidence in making accessible, in the vernacular, philosophical themes that had up to then been exclusively treated in Latin within the elitist circles of the universities; the Monarchia (ca. 1313) for its passionate theorization of a lay State that is free of the Church’s interference; and the Commedia (ca. 1308-1321) for the breadth and boldness with which it does not only include all these elements, but also fully reconfigures reality with a vernacular language finally embraced – beyond any traditional category of medieval rhetorics – in all its openness, variety and multiplicity.

The Commedia’s “plurilingualism” is a key concept and scholarly category proposed by several Dantisti (from Auerbach to Contini, to Mengaldo, to the recent discussion by Baranski), and this conference takes it in a meaning that includes the methodological choice to reunite scholars with different perspectives and backgrounds, and to engage them in a critical dialogue that can create new connections and thereby investigate the richness of Dante’s language and its relationship with anthropology and episteme in all their complexity, novelty and relevance.

One of the critical – and potentially very productive – tensions that this conference aims to create is between two groups of scholars: on the one hand those who have focussed their analysis on Convivio and especially De vulgari eloquentia as the main point of interest of Dante’s linguistic theories, discussing and illuminating their historical and philosophical intricacies and implications; on the other hand those who consider the Commedia as the performative point of arrival of a long artistic journey in which the previous works are considered as “minor works”, representing crucial but temporary steps towards the renewed enterprise of the poema sacro, and its attempt to re-consider the themes already treated by Dante in the past, and to re-assemble them in a new synthesis that is both transcendental and eschatological. For instance: is it legitimate to consider the theories of De vulgari eloquentia and Convivio as a pre-figuration of the Commedia’s poetic praxis? To what extent does the Commedia’s, and in particular, the Paradiso’s, attempt to transcend the linguistic multiplicity of the vernacular allow for a retrospective interpretation of the De vulgari eloquentia’s theories? Do the contexts in which the concepts of linguistic variability and naturalism appear in the different works shape the way in which they can be interpreted both in themselves and in connection with the notions of subjectivity and knowledge? In other words, if the different genres used by Dante express different linguistic theories and anthropologies, to what extent and in what terms is it possible to compare them?

Other insights (and tensions) will also arise considering Dante’s texts from perspectives originating in contemporary debates, ranging from the philosophy of language to psychoanalysis, from the history of linguistic ideas to post-colonial theory, from deconstruction to theoretical linguistics. Our hypothesis is that these critical approaches to Dante’s texts will also offer hermeneutical tools to re-consider some of the most interesting ideas within contemporary debates about the relationship between language and knowledge, between authority and alterity, as well as between vulgarization and different identities (religious, national, gender).

Concept and Organisation:
Sara Fortuna, Manuele Gragnolati, Jürgen Trabant


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