Monthly Archives: April 2024

Seeing Dante’s Commedia in Print from the Renaissance to Today: The Taylorian Collections

Together with the artist and printmaker Wuon Gean-Ho, two researchers from the sub-faculty of Italian, Rebecca Bowen and Simon Gilson, have been exploring the Taylorian collections of Renaissance print editions of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. This blog post highlights key aspects of those collections ahead of an exhibition of new artworks created by Wuon-Gean which will be displayed alongside these historical editions. The exhibition will run in the Voltaire Room from 14th – 26th June 2024. A catalogue will be available through Taylor Editions.

The Taylor holds an astonishing collection of early print editions of Dante’s Commedia, published before 1600. These books, both beautiful and rare, represent an experimental and exciting era in the development of print as a medium and as a technology. With at least 27 different editions of or about the poem, studying the Taylor’s historical collections of Dante amounts to studying the history of the Commedia in early modern print more broadly. As well as striking illustrations and interesting paratexts, these volumes hold the histories of their former owners and readers, offering a journey that moves from Dante’s Florence, to sixteenth-century Venice, and on to Oxford in the nineteenth-century, as the examples examined in the following paragraphs show.

Title Pages. (Aldus, 1515: MOORE.1.G.1; Giolito, 1555: Moore 1.A.3)

Almost all of the early printed Dante’s in the Taylorian collections were published in Venice. This reflects a very real phenomenon in the early print history of the Commedia as the Venetian city state dominated production. The earliest printed copy of the Commedia in the Taylorian collections was produced by the German craftsman Windelin von Speyer, whose brother, although not himself born a Venetian, was the first printer to be granted a licence to print in the city (ARCH.FOL.IT.1477). This book was produced in 1477 and reflects the fact that print technology was still very experimental at that time. As scholars have noted, the body of the text is interrupted by several blank spaces. Looking back at older manuscripts we can see that, where this printed edition has blank spaces, earlier copies have hand-drawn diagrams. These scientific images did not accompany Dante’s poem but were part of the commentary by Iacomo della Lana, which is printed for the first time in this edition. These blanks remind us of the technological difficulty of reproducing images alongside text in the early era of printing.

Blank space. (Speyer, 1477: ARCH.FOL.IT.1477)

The first fully illustrated edition of the Commedia was also printed in Venice, nearly fifteenth years after the last edition, in 1491. The Taylorian has a copy of this book, published by Bernardo Benali and Matteo Capcasa di Parma (or Codecà), which contains an illustration for every canto of the poem (ARCH.FOL.IT.1491(1)). The Taylorian also has copies of several of the books that were produced after this edition, using the same or similar images and even replicating its setting of the text, including an edition printed by Pietro Quarengi in 1497 also in Venice. Quarengi’s edition uses some of same woodcuts made for Codecà’s earlier book, but also uses another set of blocks made for a rival edition, printed by Pietro di Piasi months after Codecà’s book in 1491 (ARCH.FOL.IT.1497(1)).

 

Inferno 1. (Codecà, 1491: ARCH.FOL.IT.1491(1))

 

Inferno 1. (Quarengi, 1497: ARCH.FOL.IT.1497(1))

Of the 25 editions of the Commedia published before 1600 and held in the Taylorian collections, only 7 were not printed in Venice. Two of these editions were printed in Florence, Dante’s hometown. They both reflect a strand of interest in Dante’s poem that was particularly popular in Florence in the 16th century when publishers and readers of Dante were increasingly excited about exploring the poem as a source of inspiration for scientific and mathematical hypotheses on locating and measuring hell. The earliest of these editions was printed by Filippo Giunta in 1506 and presents Dante’s poem along with a new treatise on the ‘Site, Shape, and Size of Hell’ (101.C.15).

The Taylor’s copy of this edition is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is missing Dante’s poem and only contains the treatise. Secondly, the final 8 leaves of the treatise are also missing and they have been replaced with very careful handwritten replicas, including a diagram that accurately reproduces the image in the print edition on a deliberately yellowed surface. Although this approach to conversation clashes with contemporary practices—now we would understand pages as an important part of the life of the object and not a deficit to be filled—it is common to find very accurate, hand-drawn inclusions of missing parts of text in manuscripts and early printed books.

Hand drawn replacement of missing pages. (Giunta, 1506: 101.C.15)

The second Florentine edition in the Taylorian collections was released by the Manzani printshop in 1595 and edited by the newly founded Accademia della Crusca, a scholarly society still operating today that opened its doors in 1593 (MOORE.1.B1). As well as a detailed map of the Inferno printed with the expensive technique of engraving, this edition offers specialized linguistic notes for readers interested in the poem’s textual variants. The edition is plagued with typographical errors, partly because many Academicians were invited to contribute to its creation.

As well as books printed in Venice and Florence, the Taylorian holds four editions of the Commedia printed in the French city of Lyon. These are evidence of the prolific trade between Northern Italy and South-Eastern France in the early modern period (101.C.2; VET.ITAL.I.A.158; 51.E.6.B; MOORE.1.A.7). These editions present Dante’s text in Italian and include new paratextual materials to help the reader navigate the text. They also experiment with small format publication, beginning with an octavo edition printed in 1502 that is an exact copy of a book first produced by the very popular Venetian printshop of Aldus Manutius (101.C.2); a smaller edition in 12mo which was printed by Jean de Tournes in 1547 (VET.ITAL.I.A.158); and an even smaller 16mo edition printed four different times by Guglielmo Rouillio (the Taylorian edition is from 1552: 51.E.6.B).

Title page, ‘La Divina Comedia di Dante’. (Giolito, 1555: MOORE.1.A.3)

Despite their small size, these editions offer the reader a detailed visual experience that includes woodcut illustrations and the use of ‘page ornaments’ to signal the start of different sections of text. Rather than staying in France, this aesthetic crossed back into Italy and influenced the page design in publications like Gabriele Giolito’s edition printed in Venice in 1555 (Moore 1.A.3). Instead of using the same paratextual materials as the ones printed in Lyon, Giolito’s book presents new summaries and interpretations alongside a new edition of the text produced by the scholar Ludovico Dolce. Dolce was engaged in deeply politicised discussions about Dante’s poem that raged between Venice, Florence, and Rome in the mid sixteenth-century and went so far as to implicate Dante in debates about the religious orthodoxy of his text. Defending Dante in this context, Dolce’s edition is the first to refer to the Commedia as ‘divina’ (divine), highlighting the word through prominent placing and framing at the top of the title page.

Title page. (Aldus, 1515: MOORE.1.G.1)

These small books were very much inspired by an edition esteemed for its elegance and simplicity, produced by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Although the Taylorian does not hold a copy of the first edition printed by Aldus in 1502, it does hold a copy of the second edition printed by Aldus in 1515 and claimed by the printer with his recognisable dolphin motif.

These collections are available for consultation and for study. As well as being of interest to students of Book History and Italian Studies, they present an opportunity for creative reflection on the history of poetry in print. For further information on the collections related to Dante and, in particular, more modern materials, consult the existing blog posts on images of the poet and audio files as well as the handbook for the 2021 exhibition ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’, curated by Gervase Rosser and Claire Hills-Nova.

Far from forgotten fragments in the long print history of Dante’s Commedia, these rare books are testaments to the duration of interest in this medieval poem as an object of study and as a story that transcends national and regional boundaries, offering a poetic geography that to this day invites readers to imagine ‘otherworldly’ spaces in relation to their own worldly experiences.

Some of these books will be on display from 14th – 26th June 2024 in the Voltaire Room alongside new artworks by Wuon Gean-Ho. This is the result of a TORCH Knowledge Exchange Innovation Fund. You can read more about the project at this link.

Renée Vivien, enfant terrible of the Belle Époque?

Mon œuvre sera le meilleur de moi-même, qu’elle soit donc connue, et que je demeure moi-même dans l’ombre…

In the 115 years since her death, Renée Vivien (1877-1909) has become a shadowy figure of French literary history, although perhaps not in the sense she had hoped. Dubbed ‘Sappho 1900’ or ‘Muse of the Violets,’ she has acquired a paradoxical reputation, both sulphurous and ethereal, both kitsch and otherworldly, fuelled by anecdotes about her openly lesbian lifestyle and love affairs which tend to relegate her writing to the margins. Colette’s influential portrait of Vivien in The Pure and the Impure, for instance, depicts her as a sort of Parisian Miss Havisham, an alcoholic, anorexic nymphomaniac who lurks, ghost-like, in the shadows. The decadent themes of her poetry, the timing of her untimely death, and her links with other prominent members of Paris-Lesbos conspired, for better and for worse, to turn Vivien into a lasting emblem of the Belle Époque – a nostalgic synthesis of the excesses of pre-war Europe, a disturbed ‘Albertine without her little Proust,’ doomed to vanish with the withering old world order. Although the last few decades have seen a much-needed renewal of interest in (and editions of) Vivien, this myth has managed for the most part to escape unscathed, merely adapting to the times. Whether she is decried as a bad feminist or celebrated as a martyr to the cause of gay rights, Vivien’s writing often continues to come second to her life, and the same quotes and extracts are recycled over and over again to tell the same tragic story. Yet untangling the fact from the fiction is easier said than done, given that even Vivien herself was wont to offer conflicting information about herself and her writing. What – if anything – lies beneath the many masks of Renée Vivien?

Une enfance pas très heureuse, en somme, et une enfant toujours rêveuse, toujours bizarre et presque toujours seule, aimant et cherchant la solitude, et composant déjà des histoires à l’âge de six ans…

Born in London in 1877 to a well-to-do English father and American mother, the young Pauline Mary Tarn spent most of her childhood in Paris, attending a French pension, reading Racine and La Fontaine, and playing in the Champs-Élysées. When her father died in 1886, she was taken out of her French school and given a prim and proper English governess, before being shipped off to boarding school in London, where she pined for the freedom and friends she had left behind in Paris. By all accounts, her teenage years were a deeply unhappy time. Pauline felt French at heart and misunderstood by her English peers, and turned, increasingly, to literature for comfort, beginning to write verse in French at the age of fifteen, while on holiday in Fontainebleau with her childhood friend Violette Shillito. By the time she turned 21 and came into her father’s hefty inheritance, her mind was made up: she would move to Paris and become a poet.

The Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, early 1900s. Vivien lived at no. 23 from 1901 to 1909.

The Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, early 1900s. Vivien lived at no. 23 from 1901 to 1909.

Towards the end of 1899, shortly after Pauline’s return to the French capital, Violette introduced her to Natalie Clifford Barney, an American heiress who had recently scandalised Parisian society by seducing renowned courtesan Liane de Pougy. The two soon became not only lovers, but classmates and collaborators, too, taking classes in French versification with writer Jean Charles-Brun to improve their own compositions. Charles-Brun, who would go on to become a lifelong friend, helped Pauline get her first volume of poems published by Alphonse Lemerre, albeit at her own expense. Études et Préludes appeared in the spring of 1901, shortly followed by Cendres et Poussières and Brumes de Fjords the following year. These works were signed by an elusive ‘R. Vivien,’ whom many assumed to be a man. It was only in 1903, when her translation and rewritings of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho appeared in print, that the pseudonym was extended to ‘Renée Vivien,’ making the author’s gender (and sexual orientation) indubitably clear.

Renée Vivien photographed in Nice, c. 1907.

Renée Vivien photographed in Nice, c. 1907.

In the meantime, Pauline’s life had changed drastically. In spring 1901, Violette Shillito died of typhoid, and in summer of that year, Pauline broke off her unhappy relationship with Natalie and attempted suicide. Shortly afterwards, she met the woman who would become the closest thing she had to a lifelong partner: Hélène van Zuylen van Nijevelt, a wealthy, married baroness. Together, they produced a novel, short stories, and volumes of poetry under the pseudonym Paule Riversdale, while Renée Vivien’s craft came into its own, culminating in 1906 with À l’Heure des Mains jointes, widely regarded as her best work. However, the misogynistic, hostile or, worse yet, voyeuristic responses her works garnered from critics led Pauline to distance herself, increasingly, from the literary establishment of the Belle Époque, preferring instead to focus on travelling around the world and building her impressive collection of exotic antiques and musical instruments. Her health began to deteriorate, too, either as a result of, or leading to, an alcohol and chloral dependency and malnutrition. In November 1909, she died at her home in Passy, allegedly of a ‘lung congestion,’ having converted to Catholicism on her deathbed, as her friend Violette had done almost a decade earlier. She was thirty-two years old.

Je veux chercher le vrai. Rien que le vrai.

Vivien’s poetics is often characterised as a blend of Decadent, Parnassian, and Symbolist influences, allegedly indebted to such tutelar figures as Charles Baudelaire, Algernon Swinburne, and Paul Verlaine. While these affinities are undeniably present in her writing, the latter cannot be reduced to a passive pastiche. Frustrated by the blatant androcentrism of the Western literary tradition, Vivien undertook a radical revisionary project in order to redeem and re-centre the lived experiences of women, and of lesbian women in particular. Like her male predecessors, she rewrote the ancient legends of Sappho, Lilith, Delilah, and the Lady of the Lake, but unlike them, she challenged their implicit glorification of men – instead, the reader’s moral and aesthetic sympathies are directed towards the antiheroines. Everywhere in her œuvre, femininity is celebrated; associated with the moon, the sea, flowers, sensuality, and death, it represents a counter-discourse to the dominant vitalist narratives of the Belle Époque. This gynocentric agenda, more than the homoerotic content of her writing, is what sets her apart from her contemporaries – as do the technical features of her poetry. Vivien’s style is generally considered ‘old-fashioned’ for the early 20th century, laden down by formal alexandrines and unwieldy epithets. Yet what is often overlooked is its paradoxical modernity. Her novels, prose poems, and short stories experiment with form and explore the complexities of human consciousness in a strikingly proto-Modernist manner. Neglected, too, is the light side of Vivien. The frequency with which night-time, pain, and death appear in her verse has often overshadowed other, less conspicuous aspects of her writing – such as her gift for satire, her philological achievements, or her interest in syncretic spirituality. Vivien’s œuvre eludes simple definitions, oscillating, rather, between contradictory stances and aesthetics – between binary misandry and gender fluidity, between the past and the future, between pathos and irony. Like the thyrse which Baudelaire bestows upon Liszt, and no doubt wielded by her own ‘bacchante triste,’ Vivien’s poetics is an irreverent marriage of opposites.

Mercredi, 1er août 1888 : J’ai pris la résolution de devenir une petite fille sage et chrétienne. […] Jeudi : J’ai pris la décision de ne pas devenir sage ni chrétienne. C’est trop difficile.

The ‘Renée Vivien: enfant terrible of the Belle Époque?’ exhibition, held in the Voltaire Room from 22 April to 2 May 2024, is an opportunity to learn more about the life and works of this fascinating, contradictory figure from the turn of the century. Dispersing the aura of melodrama and tragedy that permeates the Vivien myth, it invites viewers to form their own understanding of who Pauline Tarn was as a person and as a poet. As well as showcasing the Taylor Institution’s array of first and subsequent editions of Vivien’s works, the exhibition has been invaluably enhanced by generous loans from the private collection of Imogen Bright, Vivien’s great-niece and literary executor. It also builds on the digital edition of Vivien’s teenage diary, titled Ma Vie et mes Idées [available soon], compiled as part of the Digital Editions course run by the Bodleian Libraries in Hilary Term 2024. Described by its author as ‘la Pauline d’aujourd’hui parl[ant] à la Pauline de demain,’ this document provides precious insight into the 16-year-old poet’s self-perception, erudition, and monumental literary ambitions.

Extract from Ma Vie et mes Idées, the diary Pauline Mary Tarn wrote in summer 1893.

Extract from Ma Vie et mes Idées, the diary Pauline Mary Tarn wrote in summer 1893.

Women writers, and Renée Vivien in particular, have traditionally been dismissed as either too feminine or not feminine enough, either dramatically sentimental or boringly scholarly. Together, the exhibition and Ma Vie et mes Idées invite us to rethink this dichotomy. What if the bluestocking and the bacchante were, in fact, one and the same?

A huge thank you to the Medieval & Modern Languages Faculty, to Nick Hearn, and to Imogen Bright, for their time, advice, and invaluable help in making this exhibition happen.

 

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Albert, Nicole G. (ed.), Renée Vivien à rebours : études pour un centenaire, Paris, Orizons, 2009.

Clifford Barney, Natalie, Souvenirs indiscrets, Paris, Flammarion, 1960.

Colette, Le Pur et l’Impur, Paris, Aux Armes de France, 1941.

Goujon, Jean-Paul, Tes blessures sont plus douces que leurs caresses : vie de Renée Vivien, Paris, R. Deforges, 1986.

Islert, Camille, ‘Renée Vivien, une poétique sous influence ?’, PhD thesis, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2021. Available here: https://theses.hal.science/tel-03883263/document.

Vivien, Renée, Je suis tienne irrévocablement : lettres à Natalie C. Barney, ed. Chantal Bigot & Francesco Rapazzini, Paris, Bartillat, 2023.

Vivien, Renée, Lettres inédites à Jean Charles-Brun (1900-1909), ed. Nelly Sanchez, Paris, Mauconduit, 2020.

Vivien, Renée, Ma Vie et mes Idées: A Digital Edition, ed. Rebecca Boyd, Taylor Institution Library, one of the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, [forthcoming].

Vivien, Renée, Poèmes choisis (1901-1909), Paris, Points, 2017.