We are pleased to announce that Francesca Southerden's new book Dante and Petrarch in the Garden of Language will be volume 57 in our Italian Perspectives series.
As innumerable fridge-magnets tell us, if you have a garden and a library then you have everything you need. The ghost of Cicero might not be happy with this translation of his aphorism (though he would probably have liked fridges, given that he spent his summers near Naples): but these words still speak to us. Like a garden, a library is displayed but fenced off. Like a library, a garden is varietal but organised. Either of them can end up the focus of a whole life, spent grafting fig trees, or spent grafting ideas. Or in Cicero's case, conspiracies.
Languages can be grafted, too. The Latin of the letters written by Cicero's secretaries — together with the Latin they actually spoke off duty in the taverns and at the fishmonger's, of course — became the vernacular Italian of the Middle Ages in the usual haphazard way: linguistic drift, demographic change, and that sort of thing. But when Dante and Petrarch made that Italian into a new voice for poetry, that was much more deliberate. It was an act of creation, just as, in capital letters, Eden was an act of Creation.
The garden of language which they cultivated was rich in possibility, with seeds blowing in and out on a warm breeze. Simply by its sense of being spoken, vernacular Italian had the subtlety of human speech. It was different in the mouth of each different speaker, as befits something grown rather than manufactured. No two fig trees are ever quite the same, even in the best-ordered orchard.
Francesca's marvellous find of a cover image is the Songe de Pétrarque, an illuminated page from MS Français 594, fol. 3. It might also have made an excellent Genesis album cover, circa 1973. ("When the sun beats down and I lie on my bench / I can always hear them talk...").
Dante and Petrarch in the Garden of Language is due out in our Italian Perspectives series in October 2022.