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Dante and the Greeks

Posted On March 19, 2015 | 16:12 pm | by lainw | Permalink
A new publication from Dumbarton Oaks and an interview with volume editor Jan Ziolkowski

Although Dante never traveled to Greek-speaking lands in the eastern Mediterranean, and his exposure to the Greek language was limited, he displays a keen interest in the cultures of Greece, both ancient and medieval, pagan and Christian. Bringing together cartography, history, philosophy, philology, reception studies, religious studies, and other disciplines, the essays in Dante and the Greeks tap into knowledge and skills from specialists in the medieval West, Byzantium, and Dante. The twelve contributors discuss the presence of ancient Greek poetry, philosophy, and science (astrology, cosmography, geography) in Dante’s writings, as well as the Greek characters who populate his works. Some of these individuals were drawn indirectly from ancient mythography, Homeric epic, and other such sources, while others were historically attested personages, down to Dante’s own era. Greek was not only a language and civilization of the past, but also a present (and often rival) religious and political entity. Latins related to each layer of these entities—ancient pagan, early Christian, and contemporary Byzantine—differently than the Greeks. Doctrinal, political, linguistic, cultural, and educational matters all played important roles in shaping the attitudes that form the focal point for this volume, which sets the stage for further engagement with Dante’s corpus in its cultural settings.

Jessica Salley spoke with Ziolkowski, Director of Dumbarton Oaks, about the origins of the project and his interest in Dante.

Your recently released edited volume, Dante and the Greeks, came out of an interdisciplinary symposium that was held at Dumbarton Oaks in 2010. What was the impetus for hosting the symposium?

One of my roles at Dumbarton Oaks is to serve as a catalyst for the institution by encouraging interactions of our programs with the broader humanities. Every day I pass the plaque to the left of the main entrance, which refers to Byzantine and Medieval humanities. When I first contemplated the opportunity to take the Directorship, I asked former Director Ned Keenan what the quotation meant for Dumbarton Oaks. He gave me an enigmatic smile and told me that I would have to figure that out on my own. My approach to the relationship is to get the two fields together as much as possible in mutually beneficial ways.

This particular symposium facilitated conversations among three fields that I respect greatly: Medieval Studies, Dante scholarship, and Dumbarton Oaks’ own very strong and distinguished tradition of Byzantine Studies.

In some ways, I look at this endeavor as resuming the spirit of early symposia at Dumbarton Oaks, when the fields were less developed, and before the specialization and narrowing of higher education in the postwar era. To a degree, the symposium and volume hark back to earlier times when people framed questions more broadly across fields. (Disciplines are another matter.)

The actual symposium was deeply fascinating for me because specialists in each of the three different fields radiated a palpable anxiety. You had before you experts who had earned top credentials in their individual areas, but who were extremely afraid of making blunders in other fields because of lacking linguistic or literary knowledge. Getting people to thaw and actually connect took a bit of time and was one major contribution of the event, quite apart from the eventual publication.

How did you identify a group of contributors to the symposium, and later the volume, from such diverse fields and interests?

The topic of the symposium and book has interested me for a while, and in looking around initially, I was astonished at how little had been done on it. I did a thorough bibliographic trawl and also ran names by different colleagues to check about them.

With Dante, I have the good fortune of having belonged, as an outsider, but a charmed outsider, to the Dante Society of America, which was founded in Cambridge a century and a half ago and has involved people in a tradition going back to Longfellow; many people from Harvard have been involved. I was able to arrange for the Society to hold its annual meeting at Dumbarton Oaks (in the past they tended to meet in Cambridge, in Longfellow House). With the Byzantinists, it was far easier to find out who was out there, and I was able to approach current and past Directors of Study, namely, Margaret Mullett and Alice-Mary Talbot.

You mentioned the “silo” that academic fields entered after the Second World War as a key motivator for the 2010 symposium. What do you think is the state of the silos, five years later? Are projects like this the best way to spur interdisciplinary work?

That’s a hugely interesting question, and actually one that, in the coming year of our seventy-fifth anniversary, I’d like to explore systematically in a number of ways within the institution. I’d like to foster discussion among Byzantinists in particular. I feel that an unspoken, unarticulated raison d’être for the field of Byzantine Studies was framed in the aftermath of the Second World War and that it kept things going until the Iron Curtain came down. The time may be ripe for a new articulation of the field’s importance.

In my view, it is important for scholars to have a larger context of thought for their work, to know how it fits with general social, political, and economic trends, and to be capable of explaining its significance in positive and passionate, rather than defensive, ways. And so, will this collection achieve that lofty goal by itself? No. But is it a part of helping to explain these three areas of the humanities to a broader public? Yes. And can it belong within a series of moves that achieves a meaningful form of the interdisciplinarity about which administrators like so much to talk? Well, yes, I think so.

I was struck powerfully this year when we were interviewing the Junior Fellows in Byzantine Studies, first, by the overall quality of their research and, then, by the naturalness with which many of them were pursuing truly interdisciplinary work, so much so that an outsider might have difficulty in attaching a single disciplinary label to it—along the lines of “this person’s in literature, this person’s in history, this person’s in liturgy”—because they work very fluidly and unselfconsciously across different disciplines. To me that state of affairs indicates how an already strong field is growing: simultaneously retaining the strength of a very focused self-definition while broadening itself to include areas that would have hitherto been considered marginal. Byzantine Studies have grown to encompass more, geographically and culturally. Ever more attention is paid to adjacent cultures, such as Islam, and, likewise, attention not just to Greek but to Syriac and other languages; such interest and commitment have always been there, but now there is appreciably more. And then, in addition, there are forays into different disciplines, as, for instance, scholars will try to use philology if they’re in history, and they’ll try to use art history if they’re in literature. So long as the standards in the specific disciplines are upheld, and people help each other, these developments can lead to very fruitful results that may well be more accessible and appealing to a broader public.

Where did your own interest in the topic of Dante and the Greeks originate?

It’s essential to be clinical about one’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as to be romantic about one’s passions. If you can find a means of satisfying your romance while also being clinical, then you’re in a golden place where you’ll at least enjoy what you’re doing and maybe accomplish something of enduring value as well. So, for me, the insight about where my interests tended and what I loved came pretty early. In fact, Dante I owe to a teacher I had in high school who was pursuing a PhD in Italian, which I doubt he ever got—he was an ABD. As an Italianist teaching English, he snuck in Dante’s Inferno and I remember we used the Dorothy Sayers translation from Penguin at that point—she’s the generally cultured writer that one thinks of mostly for detective novels, but she also translated a good deal. I really loved the Inferno. It was ultimately to him that I owed my first exposure, and I’ve gone back repeatedly to the same well.

In my own field of Medieval Latin, few authors are well known. Maybe Carmina Burana, a lot of people know that manuscript. But, for me, the points of orientation are at either end from the central spread of Medieval Latin writers; there are classical authors, like Virgil, who are absorbed in the Latin Middle Ages, and at the other end there are authors that received the Latin Middle Ages but transmitted them in the vernacular. That would be Dante, that would be Chaucer, that would be Chrétien de Troyes, and that would be the poets of the Romance of the Rose. I enjoy both ends of the spectrum. So I’ve tried, in my own investigations, to look at how the Classical tradition was carried into the Middle Ages and transmitted ultimately to us. It makes great sense in my field because it means that you can benefit from the immense scholarship on Virgil and Dante, and their reception. Many highly intelligent, well-read scholars over the centuries have worked with both of these greats. When I frame topics in my own area, I often draw on research that the scholars in those other fields have conducted, and I am very grateful to them for it.