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Studying satire

Even if you have never read Dante’s Divine Comedy, you will probably be aware of the basic plot.

A character called Dante, a fictionalised version of the author himself, travels through the three realms of the dead: Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory) and Paradiso (paradise). Along the way Dante encounters souls, both living and dead, and wastes no time in ‘naming and shaming’ those who are in hell. How is he able to be so blunt in his assertions? Compared to his British near-contemporary, Chaucer, why are his caricatures so biting? How might we describe the kind of literature that seeks to deride and expose the people that it depicts?

These are the questions that occupy Dr Ambrogio Camozzi Pistoja (2010). His current research explores the relationship between Dante’s work and the oft-neglected genre of satire.

‘We avoid satire because we’re uncomfortable with it,’ he explains. ‘Its purpose is a disquieting and difficult one. The first intention of the language is to hurt another person, so we ignore it or try to find excuses for it. During the Middle Ages many writers struggled to justify it and explain how it was morally acceptable. But the reality is that it will hurt someone. It cuts and wounds like a knife. It bites like a sharp tongue.’

You can see Ambrogio explore this concept in relation to Dante below, in a short lecture that formed part of the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy series.

Ambrogio became fascinated with Dante a long time ago. ‘I think that we should learn from the great men and women,’ he says, ‘and Dante was undoubtedly one of them. His brain travelled at a speed that, as far as I know, few people have been able to replicate. In his texts he weaved so much information together, in unity and complexity, that after seven centuries we are still working to disentangle all the threads. He dedicated himself to the study of rhetoric – that is the system of rules overarching the composition of texts – and knew the rules of the game like no one did in his generation. His work is a fantastic example of what the human brain can achieve.’

Ambrogio explains all of this over espresso, sitting huddled in a thick green woollen coat and sporting a dark bruise across his eye from a recent match with the College football team. His love and respect of the literature and his earnest desire to understand it are obvious. He explains: ‘I want to study texts in the same way that a scientist studies a rock. My object of study is the text and my research method is philological. That is, I look at how texts work. I look at how they convey – or hide – a particular meaning. What are the rules of their composition?’

Answering these questions involves lots of reading and writing. ‘I’m currently writing a couple of books,’ he says. He also takes occasional trips around Europe to study medieval manuscripts or to offer cultural tours for students. He will be in Krakow next week hunting down an illuminated manuscript containing the oldest Italian version of the legend of Alexander the Great. However, for now, he is heading back to his book-lined study in Pembroke to wrestle with Dante’s cantos further.

Camozzi PistojaAmbrogio grew up in Italy and came to Pembroke College as a PhD student in 2010.

He is now the Keith Sykes Fellow in Italian Studies at Pembroke.

For more information about his work, please see the Department of Italian website.

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