Dante the Book Glutton, or, Food for Thought from Italian Poets

Bernardo Lecture Series, No. 12

By Victoria Kirkham
Edited by Sandro Sticca

Subjects: Classics, Italian Studies, Medieval Studies
Series: The Bernardo Lecture Series
Imprint: Distribution Partners
Paperback : 9781586842574, 60 pages, January 2004

Explores Dante’s love of books.


Victoria Kirkham's Dante the Book Glutton, or, Food for Thought from Italian Poets is the twelfth in a series of publications occasioned by the annual Bernardo Lecture at the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies (CEMERS) at Binghamton University. This series offers public lectures which have been given by distinguished medieval and Renaissance scholars on topics and figures representative of these two important historical, religious, and intellectual periods.

Boccaccio's Little Treatise in Praise of Dante (ca. 1350) documents his subject's love of learning with a story about how he went to Siena to see a book, then sat reading it all day with such absorption outside a shop on the piazza that he failed to notice the noise from Palio festivities going on all around him. In mid-fifteenth century, the humanist Manetti repeats this anecdote in his Vita of Dante, adding that like Cicero's Cato, the poet could be called "a book glutton" ("helluo libri"). The image of Dante as a book gobbler belongs to a rich western tradition that runs from Ezechiel, St. John on Patmos, and Plato's Symposium via Augustine, Macrobius, Petrarch, and Dante himself, down into modern Italian fiction by Umberto Eco. The idea has visual counterparts in the typology of the author portrait, which depicts writers with their books from late antique models to medieval Gospels and secular Renaissance manuscripts. Most literary speak only of reading and "digesting" without pushing the metaphor to its logical conclusion. Martianus Capella (5th c. ), however, imagines Lady Philology vomiting up books before her apotheosis as Mercury's bride. Commemorative statuary of a type known humorously in Italian as the "caccalibri" [book pooper] completes the intellectual food cycle in another way, showing books streaming from behind Niccoló Tommaseo in Piazza Santo Stefano at Venice, and Benjamin Franklin on College Green at the University of Pennsylvania. John Crowe Ransome's amusing poem, "Survey of Literature," caps this illustrated history of literature as food for thought.

Victoria Kirkham is Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an Italianist whose scholarship has ranged from Dante and Boccaccio to the cinema of Antonioni and Benigni. Her most recent book, Fabulous Vernacular: Boccaccio's Filocolo and the Art of Medieval Fiction, won the Scaglione Prize of the Modern Language Association of America. As a specialist in medieval and Renaissance Studies, she has interests in literature and the visual arts, iconography of poets, numerology and literature, and poetry by women.