Cover image for The Commonwealth of Nature: Art and Poetic Community in the Age of Dante By C. Jean Campbell

The Commonwealth of Nature

Art and Poetic Community in the Age of Dante

C. Jean Campbell


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23 color/36 b&w illustrations

The Commonwealth of Nature

Art and Poetic Community in the Age of Dante

C. Jean Campbell

“C. Jean Campbell’s The Commonwealth of Nature: Art and Poetic Community in the Age of Dante is an important and intriguing treatment of Tuscan artistic culture in light of contemporary poetic theory, demonstrating the author’s deep understanding not only of Dante and Brunetto Latini, but of writers such as Boccaccio, Guido Cavalcanti, Guido Guinizelli, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Folgore di San Gimignano.”


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Winner of a 2009 AAUP Book Jacket and Journal Show for Jackets and Covers

The Commonwealth of Nature explores the role of Tuscan visual culture in the poetic construction of a commonwealth. For Campbell, “commonwealth” should be viewed not only in the context of abstract political theory but also as a living reality, dependent upon the very processes of art making. The book focuses on four exceptional works: Brunetto Latini’s didactic poem the Tesoretto; a unique illustrated manuscript of the same; and Simone Martini’s Maestà and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, both painted for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.

Campbell asserts that political interpretations of the art of the Tuscan communes ignore what Brunetto understood as a vital difference between the institutions of civic government and the reality of a commonwealth that was properly conveyed by poetry. Guiding us from the miniature to the monumental, from the private to the public, Campbell presents the inextricable links among poetry, art, and commonwealth. Beginning with the trope of secrecy in the Tesoretto and the poetic interpretation of friendship in the illustrated manuscript, she then moves on to Martini’s and Lorenzetti’s paintings, arguing that they are not solely political but are fully charged with the poetic as well. Concluding with a discussion of the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Campbell interprets the painting as a medium through which the peaceful commonwealth might be reinvented as a vital experience.

“C. Jean Campbell’s The Commonwealth of Nature: Art and Poetic Community in the Age of Dante is an important and intriguing treatment of Tuscan artistic culture in light of contemporary poetic theory, demonstrating the author’s deep understanding not only of Dante and Brunetto Latini, but of writers such as Boccaccio, Guido Cavalcanti, Guido Guinizelli, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Folgore di San Gimignano.”
The Commonwealth of Nature reasserts the creative and poetic energy of the Palazzo Pubblico frescos, too often overlooked in a scholarship focused on patronage and the political meaning of images.”

C. Jean Campbell is Associate Professor of Art History at Emory University. She is the author of The Game of Courting and the Art of the Commune of San Gimignano, 1290–1320 (1997).


List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Poetry of

1. Brunetto’s Treasure and Its Revelation in Script and Pictures

The Invention of Secrets

The Sharing of Secrets in Strozzi

2. Municipal Verse, Vernacular Poetry, and Simone Martini’s Maestà

Brunetto’s Failure and Dante’s Goal

Simone’s Maestà and the Advent of Nature’s Commonwealth

3. Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Poetry of Peace

Conclusion: New Clothes and the Rebirth of the Commonwealth





The Poetry of Commonwealth

It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to preserve virginity.

—William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

Insofar as we are willing to embrace affective response as a constituting element of meaning, art history’s critical means harbor the potential to comprehend the sort of commonwealth that Shakespeare identified as nature’s realm. The word “commonwealth” here patently designates something other than a political regime. It is something that has been forgotten in discussions of the art of the Tuscan cities in the age of Dante as the politicized notion of the “common good” has taken hold. By shifting attention away from the recognized sites of political content and toward the other sorts of meaning that are to be discovered in artworks like Simone Martini’s Maestà of 1315–20 and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Good and Bad Government of 1338–40 (both for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena), I aim not to replace their political interpretations. I hope rather to offer an alternative to the historicist view that reifies power relations and assigns a strictly instrumental role to the creative arts. That viewpoint has been claimed for the visual arts of fourteenth-century Tuscany in two influential books of the last decades: Randolph Starn and Loren Partridge’s Arts of Power and Marvin Trachtenberg’s Dominion of the Eye. Poetically speaking, the contribution of the present book lies in its remembrance of “nature’s commonwealth” as a vital and ethically informing principle of civil society. Stated in more practical and historically specific terms, my goal is to locate, in fourteenth-century Tuscany, a social model that brings individual subjects together, in a sense “collecting” them, but in a way that is not simply equivalent to the political state.

In this model, subjectivity is not solipsistic. The model, which I develop in the first two chapters around the life and works of the late thirteenth-century Florentine notary Brunetto Latini, not only recognizes but depends upon the reality of subjectivity as a matter of affective relations with others and of shared collective experience. Although it is related to political bodies, this shared experience is not confined within the institutions or limits of the formal, official collective that is a political regime. It is rather the basis of the sort of unofficial, spreading, and creative collectivity that transcends political boundaries and has been described for our own time by the novelist György Konrád.

In retrospect it seems fair to describe the critical impulse that gave shape to my project as antipolitical in many of the senses that Konrád outlined in his collection of essays devoted to that topic. Antipolitics, as defined by Konrád, is not so much a theory as it is a practice “that strives to put politics in its place,” making sure that it never oversteps “its proper office to defend and refine the rules of civil society.” The danger that antipolitics confronts is not politics per se, but rather belief in politics, as if it were necessarily something more than “the rich network of power relations” that constitutes a political regime and seeks power as its goal. What matters for the present study is that the creative, self-constructive, and affectively-grounded practices described by Konrád as a means of confronting the reality of contemporary military society are not entirely new, even if, as Ulrich Beck has observed, they are in the process of being adapted to the task of re-imagining the relation between the individual and the nation state in twenty-first-century Europe. While both the subjects and the contingent political circumstances of antipolitical activity have changed many times over the centuries, the practices themselves are very old and are mirrored in the creative endeavors of the painters and poets whose works are the focus of my attention.

In the effort to destabilize a politically complacent understanding of the relation between the creative arts and civil society, it would be difficult to find a better starting point than the ironic exchange from which the opening extract for this chapter derives. The excerpt comes from the speech delivered by Shakespeare’s comic villain Parolles as he attempts to break down the defenses of the virginal Helena. In response to Helena’s tongue-in-cheek request for advice on how virginity might best be guarded against men, Parolles responds that, for the sake of the city, virginity had better be breached than guarded, declaring: “Virginity being blown down, man will quicklier be blown up: marry, in blowing him down again, with the breach yourselves made, you lose your city. It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to preserve virginity.” Considered in a context where speech, personified by Parolles (paroles or words), occupies a downright tricky place with relation to procreative nature, on the one hand, and political institutions, on the other, this advice can only be described as lascivious and self-serving. Considered within a tradition that posited the relation between nature’s commonwealth and political society as both necessary and socially uncontrollable, Parolles’ speech also has serious import, which concerns the perpetuation of living knowledge as the lifeblood of a sovereign body. Through a portentous juxtaposition of the content of Parolles’ speech with his name, Shakespeare designated not just one but two types of generation without which the city would, as he put it, be lost. The first of these is the perpetuation of familial bloodlines through sexual generation; the second the perpetuation of nature’s bloodline (sometimes called the anima mundi) through the medium of language.

The association of these two lines had been elaborated in the twelfth-century by the Chartrian poet Alain de Lille as the basis for a newly ethical use of language, one that might escape those self-serving practices that, in valuing similarity over difference, resulted in the nongenerative acts that Alain designated as poetic sodomy. Alain’s works, both De planctu Naturae and Anticlaudianus (c. 1170), were to become fundamental texts for an important tradition of late medieval poetry that was characterized by a positive assessment of earthly love and language as part of a natural ethics. This current of naturalism (which itself had deeper roots in the neo-Platonic writings of the sixth-century scholar Boethius) saw significant developments in twelfth-century France and has been identified both with aspects of courtly production and with the new Platonism of the school of Chartres. In France, the various currents of naturalism reached their culmination in the late thirteenth century with the Roman de la Rose, a text that enjoyed widespread popularity in communal Tuscany. Brunetto Latini’s Tesoretto is one of several early Tuscan texts inspired by the Roman de la rose, Dante’s Commedia being the most famous among them.

The ethical principle of active engagement with the world of natural emotions could not have found more fertile ground than in the communes of late medieval Tuscany, where, as Starn and Partridge emphasized, political survival depended far more heavily upon words and deeds than it did upon God-given rights. In the civic context with which the present study is concerned, Alain’s articulation of the relation between sexual generation and generative language—between semen and signs, copulation and writing, and so on—would become the platform for the imagination of the relation between writing in the generative tradition of nature (the job of poets) and writing according to the practical conventions of law and society (the job of notaries). The mediation of these two linked but finally incommensurable functions produced some of the most interesting characters in the literary and urban landscapes of late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century Tuscany, including Dante Alighieri and the figure who serves as the protagonist of the current study––Dante’s beloved master, Brunetto Latini.

In recent decades Brunetto’s works have been brought to bear, with illuminating results, on the question of textual sources for the imagery of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s frescoes for the Sala dei Nove. One of these results has been the discovery of the Ciceronian aspects of Ambrogio’s imagery and the attendant revision of Rubinstein’s predominantly Aristotelian/Thomistic interpretation of that imagery. Another, more important result, especially of Quentin Skinner’s earlier contributions to the question of Ambrogio’s imagery, was its reattachment to the practices and concerns of a pre-humanistic rhetorical culture, whose charge it was to sustain the political fiction of the earthly city. While my project is indebted to both this latter line of inquiry and to works on the pre-humanistic rhetorical culture of Northern Italy by scholars like Jerrold Seigel and Ronald Witt, my path diverges significantly from the ones that these scholars have taken, because my enterprise is neither to trace the roots of republican political thinking nor find the origins of Renaissance humanism. My goal is rather to discover, through the example in Brunetto’s writings, the sorts of unofficial social ties that are forged in the practice of those alternative modes of knowledge that characterize living communities of artisans. These alternative modes of knowledge, which are recurrent themes of the present work, include education as a “secret” person-to-person affinity (or friendship) rather than a public program; art as a matter of lived experience rather than ahistorical knowledge; and, finally, tradition as the transmission of embodied vernacular practices rather than the canon of classical authorities.

Let me begin, therefore, with Brunetto. While his memory has long been tied to Dante’s portrayal of his shade in the infernal circle of sodomites, Brunetto Latini was an important figure in his own right. He was a notary of great distinction, a political adviser and confidant, and a prolific compiler of human knowledge. His most ambitious work, the French Li livres dou tresor, presented, in three books, an encyclopedia of the natural world, a treatise on the virtues and vices, and a discussion of the uses of rhetoric in civic government. The work, which has in modern times been called the first medieval encyclopedia for laymen, earned Brunetto the epithet of “great philosopher” nearer to his own time. The title was bestowed upon him posthumously, in the middle of the fourteenth century, by the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani. The epithet appears in Villani’s Cronica, as part of an obituary of the great Florentine notary:

In that year of 1294 a valiant citizen named Brunetto Latini—who was a great philosopher and eminent master of rhetoric in both spoken and written forms—died in Florence. And he was the one who espoused the Rhetoric of Tullius, and made the good and useful book known as the Tesoro, and the Tesoretto, and the key of the Tesoro, and many other books in philosophy, and of the vices and of virtue, and he was dittatore of our comune. He was a worldly man [mondano uomo], but worthy of mention, because he was the instigator of and master in the refinement of the Florentines, acquainting them with the principles of good speech and with the knowledge of how to lead and maintain our republic through politics.

Given the superficial character of the knowledge imparted in the Tresor, early twentieth-century scholars found it difficult to take the epithet “philosopher” seriously, and it is certainly true that Brunetto’s encyclopedia is not on a level with the more learned contributions to that genre made by Albert the Great and Vincent of Beauvais. This evaluation is not, however, entirely justified. Whereas the encyclopedias of Albert and Vincent emerged from the world of the universities, Brunetto’s writings, as Villani indicated when he called Brunetto mondano uomo, belonged to a tradition of practical knowledge, which was cultivated primarily in workshops and perpetuated through the practices of notaries, speechmakers, scribes, illuminators, and other quotidian makers of human culture. The knowledge value attending Brunetto’s works must finally be judged in this milieu.

A significant shift in the perception of Brunetto’s importance as a cultural figure was inaugurated by Charles Davis, who considered Villani’s claim in light of Brunetto’s cultural role as model of a civic virtue—a role that he was instrumental in creating, not only for himself, but for a whole line of Florentine secretaries and chancellors who would follow in his footsteps: Dante Alighieri, Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Niccolò Machiavelli among them. Davis emphasized the Latin rhetorical foundations of the notion of virtue that Brunetto cultivated in his life and work, but there is another, equally important side of the question of cultural foundations, which has to do with Brunetto’s engagement with an emerging tradition of vernacular poetry associated with the dissemination of the Roman de la Rose in Tuscany around the year 1300. It is to this latter tradition that Brunetto’s other major work, the Tesoretto (or Little Treasure), belongs. The exemplary character of Brunetto’s contribution to this stream of late medieval allegorical poetry was duly recognized many decades ago in the essay for which Hans Robert Jauss’s influential article, “The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature,” once served as an introduction.

Brunetto’s Tesoretto is a Florentine verse translatio of the more universally addressed Tresor, translatio being the critical term for the sort of adaptive translation of the Latin authors that was characteristic of vernacular literary practice in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the sense that it compiled, adapted, and represented, in a new and pleasing form, didactic material drawn from the auctores, Brunetto’s prose Tresor was itself already a translatio. It was, in other words, the sort of inventive reworking that Dante recognized as one of the accomplishments of Old French in a familiar passage of De vulgari eloquentia: “The langue d’oil thus claims for itself, because of its easier and more delightful popular dissemination, that whatever is worked or composed (redactum est sive inventum) in prose vernacular belongs to it; that is, Biblical compilations together with the deeds of Trojans and Romans, and the very lovely adventures of King Arthur and very many other histories and works of instruction.” There is good reason to think that Dante had Brunetto’s Tresor in mind as one of the “works of instruction” that now belonged to the lingua d’oil. Indeed, as Earl Jeffrey Richards noted, Dante’s description of the relative ease and pleasantness of Old French among the various vernaculars current in his time derives from Brunetto’s explanation of why he, being Italian, composed the Tresor in the French vernacular. Brunetto answers the rhetorical question at the end of his introduction with two observations: first, that he writes according to the French custom because he is in France, and, second, that this form of speech is “more delightful and has more in common with all the languages.”

In his Tesoretto, Brunetto took the process of adaptive translation that he had begun in the Tresor several steps further. He not only abbreviated the material of his earlier work (collapsing its three books into one) but also, following the example of the Roman de la Rose, adapted that material to a narrative verse form, rendering his subject in the form of a poetic journey the ostensible end of which was the representation of a unifying goal in nature. Finally, Brunetto translated his material into the Florentine vernacular, thus moving from a language that had some claim to the role of a common currency to a local dialect. As is discussed at greater length at the beginning of my second chapter, Dante recognized the potentially contradictory motives involved in this last move when he included Brunetto in his list of delusional Florentines who, pretending to compose vernacular poetry, succeeded only in writing “municipal verse.” While the vernacular was the fluid and evolving language of affective relations, it could also become tied to finite political interests. This potential would be proved in the subsequent ascent of the Florentine vernacular, especially from the sixteenth century onward, as it became tied to the political/cultural claims involved in the Questione della lingua.

It is significant in this last regard that the journey recounted in the Tesoretto begins precisely at the point when Brunetto’s narrator and fictive namesake, Ser Brunetto, becomes estranged from his local political identity, namely, as a Florentine Guelph. As the narrator tells us, this happens on his return trip from an embassy to Spain, when he meets a scholar on the road from Roncesvalles. During that encounter, Ser Brunetto learns of his political exile from his native Florence. In a fictional recreation of the real-life circumstances that prompted Brunetto himself to write the Tesoretto, the news of exile causes the narrator to reflect on two things: first, on a lost common possession in nature and, second, on the divided state of man in society.

And I, taking stock [ponendo cura],

Returned to the nature

I’ve heard each man possesses

Coming into the world:

And [he] is born first to his father and relatives,

And then to his community;

Whence I know of no one man

Whom I would wish to see

Have my city

Completely in his own guise;

Nor should it be divided,

But all for the sake of the community

Should pull together a rope

Of peace and good deeds,

Because a land [terra] torn apart

Cannot escape its affliction.

For Brunetto, only a provisional masking of the division from nature was achieved in the social fiction of human government. The original wound was always potentially mortal, both to the man and to his homeland or terra. It therefore required attention of the sort that Brunetto described in curative terms as “taking care” (ponendo cura). The common possession in nature, which Ser Brunetto claims to know only by rumor but attempts to remember by means of a journey into nature’s realm (a metaphor for Brunetto’s own occupation with the medium of poetry) is the real and necessarily absent subject of his undertaking.

In the Tesoretto, and elsewhere in his work, Brunetto explicitly designated the memorial and encyclopedic processes of writing as acts of poetic finding, through his use of such terms as the Italian trovare and the Old French trover. He thus acknowledged his debt to the traditions of Provençal and French lyric and pointed to his association with a generation of notary-poets who articulated, in the praise of nature, the cultural value of vernacular poetry as it emerged in the decades immediately surrounding the year 1300, in the cultural crossroads between France and Italy.

Whether Brunetto remained faithful to his ostensible subject in nature remains an open question. Certainly, Dante’s consignment of his shade to the infernal circle of sodomites, there to suffer perpetual exile from human nature, indicates that Brunetto had somehow used poetry to unnatural ends. Whatever social reasons there may have been for the charge of sodomy, and the figurative casting of Brunetto’s soul into the fires of Hell, Dante’s poetic motive was surely to personify, in that tortured figure, the fraught position of the notary-poet as witness to and conveyor of the substance of human relations in two distinct realms. Whereas the notary’s practical charge was to represent finite social and/or political relations, the poet had to embrace but never to be bound by individual and/or worldly goals. Brunetto’s sin is best understood, as far as its political context is concerned, along the lines that Richard Kay has traced in his careful parsing of the various perversions of nature represented in the fifteenth canto of Inferno. Put simply, the sin that Brunetto represents is the failure to recognize charity as both the source and the proper goal of those intellectual gifts that were his natural talent. In some senses Brunetto’s failure is similar to that of three eminent Florentine statesmen—Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci—whom Dante identified at the outset of the sixteenth canto in the group of sodomites that follows on Brunetto’s heals. The exclusion, which Dante explicitly characterized in Brunetto’s case as an exile from human nature, was brought about in all four cases by an overwhelming desire for the worldly fame that was grounded in public opinion and local interests.

While the otherwise venerable Florentine statesmen are examples of those leaders who, in Kay’s words, “became slaves of the society that by nature they were destined to lead,” Brunetto’s position is differentiated from theirs in important ways. In fact, Dante portrayed Brunetto’s relation to that group as a profoundly uneasy one. Brunetto’s shade voices this unease when he declares that he “must not be” in the company of those (Florentine statesmen) whose race he only appears to win. As Susan Noakes has explained, Brunetto earned his position as apparent winner by ostensibly devoting his intellect to the pursuit of knowledge in works like his Tresor. Thus precariously positioned between politicians and poets, Brunetto’s shade exemplifies that aspect of the sin of sodomy to which philosophers and poets were especially susceptible in Dante’s estimation, namely, becoming the instruments of local political interests.

Dante’s harsh judgment of Brunetto must be understood, on some level, as a warning to himself—in light of his own youthful engagement in the partisan politics of Florence—of the mortal danger involved in believing in local interests rather than in the ultimate goods of peace and security. The dissociation that Dante achieved by considering his youthful political pursuits in the mirror of Brunetto’s example was a necessary stage in the progress of what Noakes neatly described as Dante’s ongoing effort to “discover the natural model of human community.” Dante’s larger project cannot, however, be described as antipolitical. Rather, it involved the active promotion of a global monarchy as the organizational means of achieving and maintaining this truly natural polity. Brunetto’s example could not have been a wholly negative one where the achievement of such a goal was concerned. It represented, in Dante’s account, both the failure and the potential of the sort of project through which poets and philosophers might interpret and convey the knowledge that was charity’s gift.

While poetic journeys of the kind recounted in the Tesoretto derived from and depended upon affective relations, both positive and negative, for their perpetuation, they could not properly be fulfilled in the notary-poet’s limited or closed relationships. Neither, conversely, could they be undertaken publicly on account of the threat they represented to social order. The necessity of sustaining poetically open and therefore generative relations was answered in Brunetto’s day, much as it is in our own, by the cultivation of a fictional intimacy. So, in concluding the dedication of his Tesoretto, Brunetto both expressed his desire for intimacy and portrayed its inevitable rupture:

Yet, I have already composed

In prose and in rhyme

Things of great affect,

And then in great secret

I gave them to a dear friend;

Then, with sorrow I say this:

I saw them in the hands of boys

And so badly copied

That the seal was broken

And they were left worthless.

Brunetto’s commonwealth, unlike the political fiction that stood openly in its place, was carefully circumscribed as a secret to be shared within the contracted realm of affective relations. Outside that realm, its potentially curative effects were subject to perversion.

Once again, an appreciation of the difference between Brunetto’s position with regard to aesthetic intimacy and that articulated many centuries later, but in remarkably similar terms, by Walter Pater can serve as a point of departure for a reconfiguration of the relation between affective response and meaning as that relation might pertain to Brunetto’s representation of commonwealth. Having eliminated the offending “Conclusion” from the second edition of his essays on the art and poetry of the Renaissance, Pater reintroduced it in subsequent editions with a warning to the effect that it might “mislead some of the young men into whose hands it might fall.” While Pater delivered his warning, which is really a disavowal of the effects of his discourse, from a closed or impenetrable position, Brunetto’s expressed fear that his writings might fall into the hands of unworthy boys represented a position that was far from impenetrable. On the contrary, as is revealed in the process of reading the Tesoretto, Brunetto’s warning is an invitation to a hoped-for intimacy, where the worthiness of the reader is always yet to be determined. His project could be fulfilled only in its conveyance and the perpetual reinvention therein of a circuit of knowledge. Brunetto’s plea that his writings be guarded as a secret is perhaps best characterized, on this account, as the representation of a desire for intimacy where that desire involves what Lauren Berlant has called “an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way.” In Brunetto’s case the aspiration is expressly to regain the wholeness of nature’s commonwealth.

It is, finally, with relation to fictions of friendship and to the desires they represent, that we may begin to speak of the sort of spreading and/or relational aesthetics that apply, where the normative and objectifying aesthetics of early modern art history do not, to the mediation of the sense of community involved in the makeup of nature’s commonwealth. As far as Brunetto was concerned, the authoritative locus for the theory of friendship, and for its potentially informing relation to society, was Cicero’s treatise on that topic: Laelius de amicitia. Two points essential to the understanding of Brunetto’s commonwealth emerge from Cicero’s reflections on friendship: first, that the friend, viewed as a mirror image of the individual, becomes a portrait of an infinitely larger relation; and second, that this infinitely larger relation is something other than a formalized political society.

Dealing with the first point, Cicero attributed a sustaining power to the memory image generated through the intimate relation of friendship:

Given, moreover, that friendship contains very many great advantages, the greatest of all is surely this, that it lights a beacon of hope for the future, nor does it allow the human to weaken or to stumble. For he who looks at a true friend sees as it were a reflection of himself. Thus, those who are absent are made present, the needy are made rich, the weak strong; and, a harder saying still, the dead still live: so lively is the memory that follows after them among their friends, so great the respect, so keen the longing; and through this the dead even seem to be happy in death, while those who mourn gain honor while yet alive.

This passage, which is recognizably the touchstone for Leon Battista Alberti’s comparison of “the divine power of painting” to that of friendship, stands near the beginning of a long Western European tradition in which friendship and aesthetics were perceived as being linked in the field of memory and thereby associated with an ethical outcome. In Cicero’s estimation there was a necessary connection between friendship, as the field of authentic human relations, and a vital society. As he put it, “if the bond of goodwill be removed from the world, no house or city will be able to stand, nor even will the tilling of the land continue.” Writing within this tradition at the end of the nineteenth century, Pater denied the social benefit of affective relations, claiming that the pleasure individuals derive from looking either on the face of a friend or on the work of an artist’s hand is nothing other than a reflection of the interiority of their own genius. Speaking of the impossibility of shared experience, Pater said: “[I]t is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution of knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colors, and curious odors, or the work of an artist’s hand, or the face of one’s friend.” The fragile circuit that had allowed Brunetto and others writing in Cicero’s memorializing tradition to see in the affective bonds of friendship a mirror of an indefinable relation between the individual and society was thus destroyed. If we are to have any sense of the real forces driving Brunetto’s enterprise and that of his progeny in the interrelated artisanal realms of poetry and painting, that circuit needs to be reconstituted, if not as an act of faith then at least in an expressed desire to communicate.

Much as it had been for Cicero, the medium of friendship, represented through letters, was the foundation for Brunetto’s representation of an elusive but very real relation to a living commonwealth. As Cicero explained the matter in De legibus, the affective bonds of friendship and the legal bonds of society are related but nevertheless distinct manifestations of the same natural inclination. Throughout the treatise on friendship, Cicero’s spokesman, Laelius, insists that the bond of true friendship is highly exclusive and can take place only within very narrow limits. According to Cicero, friendship is the contracted remnant of an originary and unlimited living society (infinita societatis generis). Its sustaining power, therefore, consists in the remembrance of something very much like Brunetto’s lost commonwealth in nature.

Unlike Rubinstein’s abstracted republican ideal, the reality of nature’s commonwealth was properly remembered in a lived experience, which, in Brunetto’s case, meant the constitutive engagement with ink on a page. The material and bodily foundations of such a project are inescapable and need to be acknowledged as the final and necessary condition of interpretation. These foundations were, in fact, memorably portrayed by Alain de Lille as part of the description of the legitimate field for the operations of desire presented in the De planctu Naturae. There, Alain has his sovereign, Lady Nature, conjure an image of an artist’s workshop, where Venus is the artist, the instruments are the “hammers” and “pen,” and the receptive objects are “anvils” and “paper.” Nature describes her causal and refining relation to the fruits of Venus’s erotically charged artistry, explaining: “I selected Venus to be in charge of the work of propagation of earth’s living things so that she might in producing things mould various materials and submit them for examination. I, in the varied formation of their nature, would add to her works the final refining touch.” This passage aptly characterizes the erotic foundations of the enterprise that the artists, scribes, and poets of early fourteenth-century Tuscany inherited and conveyed in their shared aspiration to be citizens of nature’s commonwealth.

The particular version of the enterprise with which I am concerned began sometime between 1266 and 1294, in the life of Brunetto Latini, and with the poetic composition of the Tesoretto. It did not, however, end with Brunetto’s death. As Julia Bolton Holloway has demonstrated in compelling detail, the effort to represent the great Florentine notary’s life work, and thereby bring it to fruition, began very shortly after his death, during the first half of the fourteenth century. By far the most impressive translation or poetic reinvention of Brunetto’s project is Dante’s Commedia (composed between 1307 and 1320). Dante was not, however, alone in his efforts to revive Brunetto’s project. A more humble, but nonetheless remarkable product of this initiative is the scribal and pictorial rendition of Brunetto’s Tesoretto in a manuscript that is now hidden away in the reserve collection of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (fig. 1). The manuscript, which bears the shelf mark Strozzi 146, was probably produced in the fourth decade of the fourteenth century along with the first Florentine commentaries and illustrations of Dante’s Commedia. It is the only extant illustrated copy of Brunetto’s Tesoretto.

Using Dante’s reading of the Tesoretto as the means to imagine an exemplary reader for this wonderful little manuscript, and thereby unlock the secrets of its intimate world, I contend that these secrets were properly conveyed only one on one, through the subjectively engaged hermeneutic processes of reading and remembering, copying and illustrating. These are processes that the Laurenziana manuscript of the Tesoretto both records and promotes. If the reader follows the examples provided, first by Brunetto and subsequently by the scribe and illuminator of Strozzi 146, and thereby learns to read and copy well, this unassuming little book may still, even after so many centuries, serve the single most important aspect of its function. That function was, above all, to represent in the reader’s experience the potential of the human scribe/illuminator to convey the knowledge that was Brunetto’s real treasure.

The intuition of a relation between Brunetto’s “secret” and the meanings conveyed by the other two works featured in the present study had its origins in the deceptively simple observation that both Simone Martini’s Maestà, painted and repainted between 1315 and 1321 for the Sala del Mappamondo of Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico (fig. 2), and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s panoramic portrait of Good and Bad Government, painted between 1338 and 1340 for the Sala dei Nove of the same building (fig. 3), contain significant passages of nature imagery, which have gone virtually unnoticed in the scholarly literature. While it seemed that the common ground must be significant in more than a narrowly iconographic sense, it was by no means immediately apparent how to describe that significance. Certainly the familiar objectifying modes of historical analysis could not be adapted to the task. Classical philology could not, for instance, explain how it was that the poet involved in the making of Simone’s Maestà could translate a piece of Horatian verse in a knowing manner at a time when the Roman poet’s works had yet to be reconstituted as a body and reattached to the name Horace. Reduced to its simplest formulation, the question, which bears a synecdochal relation to the larger questions of knowledge and interpretation as they pertain to the present undertaking, is the following: how could Simone and his poet-collaborator know what Horace’s poetry meant if they did not know who Horace was?

The answer, which is elaborated in my second chapter, resides in a renewed understanding of poetry in its various material manifestations, scribal and pictorial, as a conveyor of knowledge. Dante indicated just such an answer in the fifteenth canto of Inferno, where he portrayed the meeting between the pilgrim and Brunetto’s shade in the following image:

Thus espied [adocchiato] by that company,

I was recognized by one who grasped me

by the hem and cried: “what a marvel!”

And I, when he reached his arm out to me,

fixed my eyes on his scorched features,

so that his baked face would not prevent

my intellect from recognizing him,

and inclining my hand [chinando la mano] toward his face,

I responded: “Are you here, Ser Brunetto?”

Brunetto’s shade, who then requests permission to leave behind his trace (lasciare andar la traccia) and remain awhile with the pilgrim, is thus portrayed by Dante as a figure for the writer’s ink. While the pilgrim first attempts to recognize the shade through his vision and intellect, by fixing his eyes on the shade’s charred and disfigured features, it is finally only by also inclining his hand (chinando la mano) to the task of writing that he can really know Brunetto. Reaching his hand down to Brunetto, who is now literally brunetto or brown like ink, the pilgrim/scribe comes to know his “dear,” “kind,” “paternal” teacher through a memory image generated by writing the inklike material that he has become. The process thus described clearly does not posit knowledge as an objective separable from the poet’s embodied and erotically charged experience. Since the substance that Brunetto’s shade represents is ashlike and desiccated, not liquid, Dante needs to supply the anima in order to acquire the knowledge he desires. He does so by appealing to his own memory and thereby to the vital spirit that moves it. Materials, memory, making, and the acquisition of knowledge—specifically knowledge of the human subject as exemplified in the figure of Brunetto—are thus fundamentally linked in Dante’s representation of the poet’s vocation.

Pointing to the relation between the charge of sodomy and the aesthetic and ethical failings of what Dante characterizes as Brunetto’s “municipal verse,” I aim to demonstrate how Simone’s Maestà, while fulfilling its civic function, nevertheless transcended the failings of municipal verse by returning poetry to its natural goal in charity. It did so both by virtue of what Francesco Petrarca would describe in the two sonnets he devoted to the Sienese painter as Simone’s heavenly inclination, and in the evident fervor of Simone’s art as he and the anonymous poet who composed the vernacular verse inscriptions interpreted that inclination. The prevailing political interpretations of Simone’s marvelously wrought fresco only graze the surface of a painting that must also be understood as a poetic outpouring, the outward manifestation of Simone’s aspirations as a poet of nature’s beauty. While this intimate aspect of Simone’s enterprise constituted its ethical core—in Brunetto’s terms its connection to the nature that is divided at birth—it is not recognizable in anything like an aesthetic norm. The significance that runs through Simone’s representation of commonwealth may be fathomed and reconstituted only through a self-conscious critical reflection on the traces of Simone’s art and the representational means through which the Maestà was composed: illusionistic painting, gilding, punching, collage, and writing, among others. While the public goal of the painting was didactic and rested in the promotion of the common good as a politically defined value, its secretive goal was the materialized and memorializing representation of knowledge, not as a disembodied ideal but rather as a vital, natural, and theologically informing experience.

Turning, in my third chapter, to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s frescoes for the Sala dei Nove, I consider how those interpreters who hoped to find their place in nature’s commonwealth might have construed Ambrogio’s pictorial imagery. I argue that, for those spectators at least, Ambrogio’s panorama—itself an allegorical elaboration of the uncertain territory between fear and security—would have presented the specter of death in a mirror that also held the promise of rebirth. Both imminent death and the attending promise of rebirth were brilliantly portrayed by Ambrogio in the group of festively attired dancers inhabiting the center of the peaceful cityscape (fig. 4). This is a motif that has proved remarkably resistant, especially to those interpretative procedures that assign an overriding truth value to social fictions and thereby collapse any view of what might otherwise be perceived as a legitimate field for the operations of desire. Following Uta Feldges-Henning, who introduced the problem of sumptuary legislation with relation to Ambrogio’s dancers, current scholarship on the Sienese frescoes tends to cite the law banning dancing in public spaces to prove that their presence cannot be taken as a reflection of reality. Randolph Starn and Loren Partridge went so far as to call the dancers “textual surrogates.”

Whereas recent historicizing scholarship has thus sought to control these flamboyant figures by conceptually putting them away, accepting them primarily as disembodied signs of peace, earlier formalist criticism, including both John White’s brilliant analysis of the perspectival structure of Ambrogio’s frescoes and George Rowley’s meticulous dissection of the illusion of movement conjured in the dancing group, had substantially more to say on the subject. In a characteristic tour-de-force of structural analysis, John White recognized the centrality of the dancers to the larger composition, observing that they occupy both the hub of a radiating spatial illusion and the locus of the fictive light source. The implication is that the dancers’ presence is somehow generative of both space and light. While sublimating their responses under the rule of rational analysis, in White’s case, and aesthetic sensibility, in Rowley’s, both scholars also, albeit unknowingly, engaged in a process of signification through which an aspect of nature’s commonwealth might yet be glimpsed. In the poetic economy of a commonwealth, where virginity, as Shakespeare put it, “is not politic,” the dancers are properly embraced as a deeply affective and quintessentially lyric moment: a mise en abyme of the generative possibilities of allegory. Outside this moment, Ambrogio tipped the balance slightly but never definitively away from the sort of lyric materialism at play in Simone’s Maestà, turning toward mythologizing fable and allegorical narrative as fertile media for the portrayal of natural origins. For Ambrogio, as for other would-be citizens of nature’s commonwealth, the space of mythologizing fiction was both ominous and pregnant with significance.

There is, finally, no better point than this last one upon which to summarize the difference between the approach guiding the present project, in its attempt to articulate the vital relation between form and meaning in the art of the Sienese commune, and that taken by Randolph Starn and Loren Partridge as part of their formidable revision of the relation between art and political bodies in Renaissance Italy. With their neat reversal of Jacob Burckhardt’s well-known claim to the effect that in Renaissance Italy “the state became a work of art,” Starn and Partridge closed the hermeneutic circle. Whereas Burckhardt had consistently refused to articulate a causal relation between political contingencies and the history of art, Starn and Partridge cast art as political tool, proposing that, in Renaissance Italy, art became “a work of state.” While Burckhardt’s formulation was born of his own identification with a desire to escape, through history and art, the tyranny of radical nationalist politics, Starn and Partridge reified political relations. In doing so, they produced a cool and sometimes mechanical interpretation of the imagery of the Sienese commune. Under the resulting republican regimen, even the shifting scale of Ambrogio’s figural imagery became the positive appearance of a power relation or, as Starn and Partridge put it, the representation of “the genial diversity envisioned by the republican polity.” The fabric of Ambrogio’s fiction, with all its generative potential, was thus rendered a rigid and fundamentally unproductive regime, the type of system that Lacan might have designated as “realtight.”

In an effort to revive an appreciation of their generative potential, I approach the artworks produced for the Sienese comune by Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti neither as representations of an abstract republican political ideal, as in Rubinstein’s model, nor as a regimen of power relations, as in the historicist model proposed by Starn and Partridge, but rather as poetic media and as conveyors of origins, where those origins are defined as a society’s generative principle. While my method, thus described, recognizably owes something to current psychoanalytic challenges to New Historicism, it is also firmly grounded in fourteenth-century poetic theory. Significant echoes in the semantic fields developed by poststructural hermeneutics, on the one hand, and late medieval poetics, on the other, suggest that the moment is ripe for the articulation of meaningful continuities. That undertaking has already borne fruit, for example, in Gregory Stone’s revision of the essentialist view of late medieval naturalism in a book exploring the natural ethics of Boccaccio’s poetic enterprise.

The conditions of mythmaking and poetic remembrance that are so eloquently bound up in Boccaccio’s Genealogie deorum gentilium account for the limitations of social history, iconography, and classical philology, all heirs to a modern notion of history that depends on boundaries, that values diachrony over synchrony, and that objectifies the past—to respond fully to the vital species of mythopoetic imagery to which Ambrogio’s dancers belong. The study of the Genealogie deorum, as it has evolved in recent scholarship, is an exemplary case of how poststructural approaches to the problem of interpretation have rescued from near-oblivion a work that was as important to the poets and scholars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as it has been perplexing to modern classical philologists. Jeremiah Reedy spoke for the latter tradition when he characterized Boccaccio’s scholarship with evident ambivalence: “Initially the reader of the Genealogy is impressed by the scope of Boccaccio’s knowledge of classical literature. . . . Recent scholarship has shown, however, that, by modern standards, Boccaccio as a scholar leaves much to be desired. . . . Even in the case of Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca, Boccaccio frequently quotes from decadent compilations or from memory.” The limitation involved in such devaluations of memory is succinctly explained by Mary Carruthers in the conclusion to her work on medieval memory. “Indeterminacy of meaning is the very character of recollective gathering. Emotions are the matrix of memory impressions, and so—of course—desire moves intellect, as all learning is based on remembering. These themes of deconstruction and psychoanalytic criticism are not socially subversive when we detect them in medieval literature; they are the tradition itself.”

The stalemate that has been reached in the scholarship on the Sienese frescoes between those who recognize the eroticism implied in the depicted costumes and actions of Ambrogio’s dancers, but are unsure what to do with it, and those who avoid the issue altogether by assigning the dancers to the realm of “symbolic figures,” seems to support the point of the contention that the strictly historicizing perspective cannot ultimately accommodate, except in implicitly negative or explicitly subversive terms, either a memorialistic culture, like that of the Middle Ages, or a memorialistic rite, like that imagined in the Sienese frescoes. Even Jonathan Alexander, who recognized the positive potential of the dancers’ eroticism, hesitated in the final analysis. Picking up on Jane Bridgeman’s suggestion that their transgressive dress and erotic activities characterize them as guillari or itinerant male entertainers, Alexander concluded: “The Sienese dancers, if they are indeed giullari, are interesting, as they stand in an ambiguous position relative to both status and gender. This may be a prophylactic warding-off of sexual transgression by parody. Or the dangerous aspects of dance may be being shifted onto the shoulders of outcasts.”

By considering the dancers, in the first place, as poetic fictions, I introduce an alternative mode of engagement, one that takes account of the erotic agency of the artist in the making of such fictions. This mode of engagement was advocated by Boccaccio as part of the lesson in ethical reading that he offered up in the “Author’s Conclusion” of the Decameron. There, in defending his use of language against the charges of licentiousness that he anticipated from “those prudish ladies who are more anxious to seem virtuous than to be virtuous,” Boccaccio declared: “I deserve no more disdain for having written them than do men and women in general for using, in their everyday speech, words like hole and rod [foro e caviglia], mortar and pestle [mortaio e pestello], and sausage and stuffing [mortadello e salsiccia].” Having thus primed his readers with this colorful litany of equivocal terms, Boccaccio directed their attention not to an unequivocally vulgar conclusion but rather to his instrument and thereby to the erotic agency that it represents.

No less creative authority [auttorità] should be granted to my pen than to the brush of the painter who, without reproach of a justified kind at least—let alone that he makes Saint Michael wound the serpent with his sword or lance, and Saint George the dragon wherever he pleases—even makes Christ masculine and Eve feminine, and, sometimes with one nail [chiovo] sometimes with two, fixes [conficca] to the cross the feet of him who resolved to die on it for the salvation of human kind [“la salute della umana generazione”].

The reader of this passage is compelled by the sequence of images that Boccaccio borrowed from the repertory of early fourteenth-century painters to recognize the erotic potential represented in the word chiovo (nail) and vividly evoked in the term conficcare (forcefully penetrate). Boccaccio thus demanded that the experiential force of the words he had penned be taken on board and weighed as part of an active process of interpretation. This weighing evidently played an important part in the constitution of a reader’s position with relation to the knowledge of subject that Boccaccio sought to portray. That subject was both brilliantly evoked through the play with the reader’s erotic experience and openly identified by Boccaccio as salvation. To translate his words more literally, Boccaccio’s subject, and the stakes of the thoroughly embodied mode of engagement that he promoted, was the very “health of human generation” (la salute della umana generazione).

Boccaccio was, of course, writing these words in the aftermath of the Black Death, at a time when the “health of human generation” was very much at stake. The lesson is, however, a more general one, which Boccaccio frequently exemplified by appeal to the visual arts of the earlier fourteenth century. The challenge he put to his readers is one that we need to take seriously. Specifically, we need to look for the traces of the artist’s instrument and recognize, in self-reflexive terms, the real substance conveyed in the ethical operation of the imaginative faculty. While this recognition is important for the appreciation of the experiential charge of the novel sorts of sacred images that Boccaccio enumerated in the above-quoted passage, the authority of such images did not depend entirely on the contingent authority of the painter’s brush. Such images, including Simone’s Maestà, also belonged to an old tradition of icons. Their authority derived in no small part from their resemblance to an established pictorial tradition the primary function of which was to convey, in recognizable terms, its relation to a sacred archetype. As advertised in the figure of the dancers, Ambrogio’s frescoes for the Sala dei Nove participated in another sort of fiction-making (or mythopoesis), which relied for its meaningful operation primarily on the recognition and weighing of the author’s inventive faculty.

It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin the work at hand by appealing to a hermeneutic principle drawn from the Geneaologie deorum and specifically from Boccaccio’s claim that poetry is an “art or skill [facultas], not empty, but full of the sap of natural vigor [succiplena or all juiced up] for those who would press forward understanding [sensus or common sense] by means of fictional invention.” If poetry is conveyed in the art-making processes through which it is also made manifest, the interpreter must be open to discover—through his or her own subjective processes—the natural vigor that poetry represents.

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