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Stewart’s new book explores love, poetry, science

By : Ingrid Husisian

Dana Stewart, associate professor of Italian, has written a new book that examines poetry of the 12th-14th centuries alongside optical theories of the same period.
Dana Stewart’s new book The Arrow of Love investigates common visual themes in medieval French and Italian love poetry through a unique lens: the science of optics.

Stewart, associate professor of Italian, faculty director of the Women’s Studies Program and fellow of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Harpur College, examines the works of a number of poets who wrote during the late 12th century through the early 14th century — encompassing 200 years’ of poetry that is rife with images of lovers gazing into one another’s eyes — and compares the writing to theories of optics that were popular during the same time period.

Stewart presents the example of Sicilian Giacomo da Lentini’s 13th-century poem, Amor e’ un desio che ven DA core (Love is a desire that comes from the heart), which discusses the phenomenon of love at first sight, insisting that true love always begins with an image that enters the heart through the eyes.

Stewart compares this romantic notion to the basic ideas of the Aristotelian optical theory, which was popular during the middle ages and held that the heart, not the brain, is the seat of perception.

Another poem is that of Pucciandone Martelli, who penned Tuttora agio di voi remembranza (I still have memories of you), in which the poet confides to his beloved how the first sight of her entered his heart with such pain and intensity that the vision ignited him with love.

In fact, the notion of love causing physical pain is a constant theme in medieval poetry and is still present in the poetry of today, Stewart said. Martelli also drew on Aristotelian optical theories when speaking of how the image of love entered his heart through his eyes.

“Optics was a popular subject in those days and would have been studied at universities,” Stewart said. “Sight was thought to be the most spiritual of senses, a sort of a gateway between the physical and spiritual realms.”

In addition to exploring the relationship between the eyes and the heart, Stewart also examines the power of the beloved’s glance and of the heart’s image of a lover. She compares poetic discussions of this concept to the reigning optical theories of the era, particularly the Platonic view, which postulated that the eyes project beams or spirits onto objects in the field of vision, and the Aristotelian view, which theorized the converse that the eyes merely serve as gateways for entering images; indeed, on the cover of Stewart’s book is Roman de la Rose, a portrait of the Cupid, the God of Love, shooting his arrow at a lover.

However, Stewart does write that not everyone in medieval times blamed Cupid for their feelings, and suggests that sometimes, people thought the woman’s eyes launched the arrow that would pierce the man’s heart.

Stewart said she became interested with the subject matter of her book by accident. While earning her PhD in Italian at Stanford University, she wrote a paper on the theological theories of vision that were popular during medieval times. These theories even explained how people imagined the sight of God.

Stewart’s professors then suggested that she also study the time period’s physiological theories of vision, and when she began her research, she became stunned by the field’s similarities to the love poetry she had been reading. The connection between medieval optical theory and love poetry was a topic that had not been explored in any comprehensive way. “Before long, I had changed the focus of my research from divine love to human love,” Stewart said.

Stewart has also developed a course entitled, “Love, Science, and Magic in the Middle Ages,” which she has based on her research. She said she enjoys seeing her students read medieval love poetry, learn about the era’s scientific theories and then put the two disciplines together. Stewart is also organizing a conference entitled, “Science, Literature, and the Arts in the Medieval and Early Modern World.” It is set to take place at the University this October.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08