Thursday, 1 December 2011

Clemintina Piazza on autobiography

Bocaccio, Petrach and the changing nature of the literature of the self between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Clemintina Piazza (University of Oxford)

The last session of the term has been devoted to the role of the Self in the biographical and/or autobiographical writings of Dante, Petrarch and Bocaccio. Clemintina Piazza has offered a comprehensive overview of the different stands towards the Self in the writings of these three well known authors, focusing in Bocaccio's reluctance to write openly about himself but leaving traces of his biography in his works.

After a quick review of the methodological approach to the concept of the Self in the Middle Ages and the genres of biography and autobiography, Clemintina has gone back to the trobadours and trouvères to explain the raising interest in the lives of the poets and the circumstances of the composition of a literary work. About hundred years after these trobadours and trouvères wrote their poems, a genre of "poets' lives" appeared, in which some biographical notices about the creators were provided before the literary composition itself started, despite not being trustworthy because of the chronological distance and the literary nature of most of these "biographies".

However, in spite of this growing interest in the poetic persona, Dante states in his Convivio that it should be avoided writing about oneself or any other person, because of the unavoidability of partiality and diffamation. But he makes two exceptions that correspond with his own "biographical" writings, if by "biographical writings" we understand his Comedia and Vita Nuova. In both works Dante shows a conception of his "autobiographical" experience as a path of perfection that drives to God, therefore, as an exemplary topic. This moral aim is what justifies writing about the self, so that Dante's works should be considered rather philosophical writings about life and the Self than reflections of his autobiography.

On the other hand, Bocaccio would adopt the extreme stand of the story-teller and decide to write strictly fictions, that is, to make use of his imagination and not to write about himself. This does not mean that there are not traces of his self in his writings, but he conceals it under different literary forms, which are what interest him most, so that the personal component of the experience disappears. However, his biographical works are an exception to this, as we learn as much about the writer as about the object of the work. In this case, Clementina has suggested that this is due to the role Dante and Petrarch played in Bocaccio's literary concept, so that he cannot avoid getting personal when he writes about authors that have influenced him so much. In fact, Bocaccio would have tried to define with both biographies the place of Petrarch and Dante in the literary world of his time.

Finally, Petrarch tackles the problem of the self directly, letting the moral intention of biographical writing defended by Dante fade in favour of a properly personal analysis of the self. His Secretum is a work that speaks about his life, which is a life devoted to creating literature. However, a problem arises if we consider that the Secretum seems to have been a private writing, a kind of guide to his life and writings, which the author did not intend to make public. In any case it was made available after his death and received well by readers, so that it proves that there was a place for the reflection on the self without a proper moral meaning at the time too.

During the Q&A turn more interesting topics were treated, such as for example the target reader of these writings, the inspiration of any writing, the exemplary role of biography and autobiography and the rhetorical devices related to both genres. Hispanists commented on the pseudo-autobiographical Libro de Buen Amor and the doubts on its exemplarity, as well as the XVth century "revival" of biographies with the Generaciones y semblanzas by Fernán Pérez de Guzmán. Boscán's cancionero was mentioned too as an example of credible autobiographical poetic writing, as well as the custom of writing about their lives of nuns in Spanish monasteries during the Golden Age, as part of their reflections. The relation of biography and autobiography with saints' lives was discussed too, as a possible source of the exemplary value Dante conceeded to biographical writing and also to Petrarch's self analysis. Unfortunately, there was no time left to pose more questions, but it was a very good way to end the term.

Thank you very much to Clemintina Piazza for such an interesting talk and to all of you for attending today's session. Do not forget that the next session will take place in the second week of Hilary Term, that is on the 26th of January. Keep up-to-date by visiting the I3MS website or subscribing to our RSS or newsletter.

Happy vacation and holidays!
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