by Amedeo Quondam
Donzelli, 347 pp., € 28.00
“Would you care to bestow the grace of your dancing upon the gathered company?” asks the perfect courtier to his advisee. “Why, most absolutely not, my dear friend,” a slightly less than gracious Prince of Salina responds: “I’m afraid the mere sight of all this decadence has left me truly tired and emptied of energy.” “We shall therefore await the opportune moment,” is the courtier’s reply. “Certainly,” concedes the prince: “Though, I do eagerly anticipate your next words on sprezzatura. That is, once you have emerged from beneath the Baroque.” Without further ado—a conversation between Castiglione’s courtier and Don Fabrizio of The Leopard fame?—interjects the perplexed reader. And the response is that yes, a colloquy between these two literary figures, so disparate with respect to both time and temperament, is most certainly possible. The facilitation of such a dialog is, in fact, orchestrated by Amedeo Quondam in his aptly titled book, La conversazione. It is always wise however that one remain wary of a book’s cover, for the title is not always a direct indicator of the content. Such is the case with Quondam’s book. The art of conversation is a topos of Renaissance literature, so it would be of no surprise if the mere mention of the dialogic form were to evoke the eloquent discussions held within Urbino’s castle walls or the profanity-laced exchanges crafted by Aretino. Whereas the title of Quondam’s work recalls the well-trodden path of Renaissance studies, this scholar’s approach to his topic is much broader and even a bit disorienting. After all, the point of departure for Quondam’s discourse is neither the Renaissance, nor the classical exemplars which were reclaimed and refashioned by the likes of Castiglione and Tasso. The very first line of the book situates the reader in mid-Nineteenth century Sicily. The main event is a “conversation circle”. So, while Renaissance purists may scoff at the fact that Quondam invites his reader to engage with such a time-honored literary theme as the conversation within the context of Sicily, an area supposedly too far removed to actively participate in the intellectual circles of Renaissance Florence and of the Risorgimento-era Piedmont region, Quondam’s deviance from the typical discourse around this topic should be appreciated. The conversational style that is adopted by Quondam in this academic work, as well as his examination of a relatively obscure treatise—Pontano’s De Sermone—serve as further testimony to the author’s intrepidness. If Quondam’s untraditional rendering appears quite the antithesis of the ideal Renaissance study, it is really only so on the surface because, despite the various detours to small corners of 18th- and 19th-century Italy, Quondam arrives at his destination. With a keen critical eye and innovation, he is able to bring out the Renaissance spirit that animates much of human interaction. In short, this book is a model in itself to be imitated. Moments of redundancy are outshined by Quondam’s wit, and the criticism exudes its depth. Even the Courtier and il Principe di Salina would be able to agree on the excellence of this book.