2016 Balzan Prize for Comparative Literature
L’ombra di Ulisse, the masterpiece that came out in 1992, marks Piero Boitani’s passage (b. Rome, 1947) from Anglicist and Americanist to comparatist. Until that time, he had been involved with publications on Afro-American literature in the United States and on Chaucer and on the Middle Ages in England. But from that moment onwards, he began to examine the long shadow cast by the figure of Ulysses on Western literature from Homer to Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Milton, Leopardi, Pessoa, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, Primo Levi and Wallace Stevens. Boitani does not proceed in a chronological fashion, but rather – drawing on Auerbach – adopts a typological approach, and in an unprecedented way shows how earlier figures of Ulysses prefigure later ones and these complete further ones. In his interpretation, the figure of Ulysses is dealt with as an emblematic figure who raises questions about human existence that are fundamental to our culture: quest and failure, curiosity and hubris, the return home and death.
With L’ombra di Ulisse Boitani not only found a theme that left a trace in almost all his subsequent books, he also discovered an innovative method that enabled him to take texts beyond chronological continuities and cultural barriers and bring them into living dialogue with each other. The fruitfulness of this approach can be seen in the award-winning comparatist work that followed. In Ri-Scritture (1997) Boitani focused on the reworking of Biblical episodes in Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth, William Faulkner and others. In Parole alate (2004) he traced the human obsession with flight in poetry and in real life, from Icarus to the nocturnal flights of Saint-Exupéry and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Letteratura Europea e Medioevo volgare, a title that alludes to Ernst Robert Curtius’s classic work, illustrates the central role played by vernacular literature in the Middle Ages in the transmission of classical antiquity to the European modern age. Il grande racconto delle stelle (2012) is a monumental attempt to explain the fascination that the motif of the starry skies had on European and non-European (including Persian, Indian and Chinese) poets, novelists, artists and composers from Homer to Stockhausen. In Riconoscere è un dio (2014) Boitani again uses his typical way of comparing ancient and modern texts to deal with the subject of anagnorisis, which 2009 Balzan Prizewinner Terence Cave had treated in a completely different way in Recognitions. A Study in Poetics twenty-five years ago.
Through his research oriented towards the history of reception, his openness to questions regarding cultural studies, his all-encompassing knowledge of the western canon, his orientation towards non-European literatures, the integration of music and the visual arts, and in general, through his stupendous erudition and indefatigable curiosity, Piero Boitani has renewed comparative literature in Italy and abroad, but without forsaking its foundations. These foundations are grounded in the reading of texts in their original languages, which reveals their potential for meaning through dialogic encounters with other texts, art works, cultural phenomena, historical events and different anthropological realities. Boitani’s success in tracing this process makes him one of the most important literary critics of our time and one who is altogether worthy of being awarded the Balzan Prize.