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Jacopo Mazzoni As Literary Cirtic

By Nicholas Birns

Mazzoni (1talian; 1548-1598)was an intellectual prodigy of the age, learned

multiple languages, and had a legendarily prodigious memory. Though his
philosophical work largely concerned the reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle, it is as
a literary critic, and commentator on Dante, that he is best known. Mazzonis
importance to literary criticism lay in his willingness to mix truth and reality and see
imaginative art as a roadway to truth. In his two defenses of the Comedy, the first
and less respected of which was published in 1572, Mazzoni discussed Dante in the
course of a re-theorizing of mimesis and of poetrys place as traditionally conceived
by Aristotle. Because he wrote in the vernacular, mixed Christian and classical
subjects, and splayed humor and philosophy, the ideal and the all-too-real, Dante
was, for all his prodigious talent, thought indecorous by some Renaissance
tastemakers. Mazzoni leapt to his predecessors defense, but strove to justify Dantes
work in already existing Aristotelian terms. Literary creations, Mazzoni argued, were
idols made by man, and if they are responsible and adhere to the precepts of their
ilk this sort of idol making is proper and even commendable. Mazzoni thus took a
traditionalist line but bent it as much as possible towards embracing the positive
potential of the arts. Mazzoni detached poetry from any scientific or moral aim, and
saw it as fundamentally an imaginative rather than an intellectual exercise. Using

Dantes Comedy as the consummate example of imagination, Mazzoni saw the poet
as being fantastic rather than icastic. Fantasy is a mode of representation that strays
beyond the narrowly imitative, yet does not depart from it entirely, despite the poem
being set in the afterlife which on man has literally seenbecause its allegorical
intentions were to represent the real. Mazzonis emphasis on the realism of Dante
instanced a strain in Dante criticism that would be reiterated in the twentieth century
by Erich Auerbach.
Mazzoni was one of the first self-identified literary critics to take anything like
what would later be called an academic position. He lectured at various French and
Italian universities, and helped established the tradition of learned people gathering
in organized groupswhether within or without the confines of universitiesto
discuss the principles and making of literary works. This tacitly entailed a certain
upward revaluation of the poet from an academic viewpoint. If the academy had not
been in deliberate accord with Platos wish than in practical enactment of it, the poet
had, consciously or unconsciously, largely been left out. Mazzoni paralleled Sidney
in seeing the poet as a rhetorician of the imagination who is not to be seen as
engaging in a rational exercise, or one aiming at any cognition, and therefore is not
to be chastised or reprimanded for getting things wrong. This divorce of rhetoric
from truth leads Mazzoni to label poetry sophistic, though by this he does not
mean the (alleged) relativism of Gorgias, but a mode of entertainment that is not
literally true but also instructive. Mazzoni called this the credible marvelous, and
his concept of the mingling of reality and fantasy, though couched in strict classical
terms, is in truth not irreconcilably far from late twentieth-century concept of magic

realism in fiction (see realism). Much like Guarinis consent to the mixture of
tragedy and comedy, Mazzonis willingness to mix truth and fiction, or to see it
mixed in art, provided an explanation as to why the works of Shakespeare emerged
in the shape they did, although Shakespeare necessarily did not write his plays to
Italian critical prescription, nor, most likely, did he at all know Mazzonis work.
Mazzoni was also influential on the poetry of Milton, who mentioned Mazzoni as
one of the critical authorities he had consulted. Mazzoni may seem severe and
restrictive to later readers, but in his own day he was an opponent of the didactic and
moralistic theories of poetry so often expounded. Some of his ideas, such as his
sense of the power and the autonomy of the imagination, dimly foreshadow later
critics such as. Coleridge.
Habib, Rafey. A History of Literary Criticism, From Plato to the Present. London:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.

Hathaway, Baxter, The Age of Criticism: the Late Renaissance in Italy. Ithaca,
New York: Cornell University Press, 1962.
McAllister, Robert L. Meaning, Language, and Conceptualization: Alternatives in
Mazzoni and Dante, Language and Style, 5, 1971, pp. 3-42.
Treip, Mindele Anne, Allegorical Poetics & The Epic: the Renaissance Tradition to
Paradise Lost. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.