New Italian professor begins time at Yale with focus on endings

Jane Tylus in Italy circa 1982.
Jane Tylus in Italy circa 1982.

Jane Tylus, the newly named Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Italian, double-majored in English and music as an undergraduate. When Tylus said “ciao” to college with a celebratory trip to Italy, she spoke barely a word of the language. A chance meeting on that trip persuaded her to change course and pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature with a focus on Italian.

Eurail passes in hand, Tylus and her travelling companion had boarded the train from Rome to Brindisi, the major port of embarkation for Greece-bound passenger ferries, when an older woman entered their car carrying a crate of live chickens. Eventually, another older woman alighted with a big bag of oranges. Two more women, each with their own small commodities, arrived, and as the train pulled out of the station, the four strangers had already struck up an “incredible” conversation as they swapped food and livestock, Tylus recalled.

Tylus said that by the time the train pulled into Brindisi, it was as if the four women were best friends. “I realized that I wanted to be able sit on a train in Italy as an old lady and be able to speak like that with all the people getting on,” she said.

That was the appeal of the Italian language for Tylus, but the appeal of Italian literature began while she was still in college. Her favorite comparative literature professor — with whom Tylus still maintains contact — introduced her to “Orlando Furioso,” a 16th-century Italian epic romance poem by Ludovico Ariosto, in a seminar on reading Italian in translation.

As an English major, I had read Spenser and Shakespeare, all the great Renaissance poets,” said Tylus. “But then I read ‘Orlando Furioso,’ and I was like, ‘Wait a minute — Spenser is not that original!’” She noted that her longtime love of opera also likely helped tip her towards doctoral studies in Italian.

During her academic career, which has included faculty positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and New York University, Tylus has specialized in late medieval and early modern European literature, culture, and religion. She’s focused on lost and marginalized voices from the era, historical figures, minor genres, secondary characters in major works, dialects, and “parole pellegrine.” The latter approximately means “foreign words,” and describes words that are unusual, exotic, or not often used, so as to make a reader sit up and take notice when they appear, explained Tylus. She has also done work on translation, both practice and theory.

Tylus arrived at Yale this fall as a professor of Italian language and literature with a second appointment in the Department of Comparative Literature. She is currently teaching a class at the Divinity School called “Taking Leave: Meditations on Art, Death, and the Afterlife, The Bible through Shakespeare.”

At the beginning of the semester, Tylus had her divinity students read selections from “Last Works: Lessons in Leavetaking,” by Columbia philosopher Mark Taylor, published in 2018 by Yale University Press. “Last Works,” explains Tylus, “explores the final works of a dozen 19th- and 20th-century writers and philosophers in an effort to understand the meaning of the ending — and how one’s words, and works, can extend life.” Taylor’s book sets up questions about leavetaking in different centuries and contexts, specifically 1300-1650 and within the “explicitly religious and artistic contexts of late medieval and early modern Europe,” says the Yale professor.

In addition to the Bible and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the students have been reading Plato’s “Phaedo,” Dante’s “Purgatorio,” and Savonarola’s “The Art of Dying,” among other significant Christian texts from the period. Each author demonstrates vastly different approaches to the endings, explained Tylus, not only in their works but also of their work — their careers as writers, artists, and thinkers wrapping up. Tylus said Shakespeare and Petrarch offer the most obvious contrast in approaches to leavetaking from one’s life’s work. Shakespeare retired from playwrighting several years before his death, Tylus noted, while Petrarch claimed in a letter that “he would like to die while he’s ‘writing or reading,’ and then he adds, ‘or praying and weeping.’”

In fall 2019, Tylus will be teaching a second version of the class as an undergraduate seminar based at the Beinecke Library, where she was invited to teach by Kathryn James, curator of the early modern and Osborn collections. The class will make daily use of the library’s deep collection of early modern works, which includes original manuscripts by some of the authors the class will be reading.

The content of these classes is also the basis for Tylus’ next book project, which has the working title “Saying Goodbye in the Renaissance.” The fundamental question Tylus said she is trying to answer in both the classes and her ongoing research is “How do people say goodbye?”

It’s mainly about saying goodbye at the moment of death, but what I'm really interested in is how this translates into the way that artists say goodbye to their work,” Tylus explained. “Many of these works we’re looking at are last works. We’re asking: How does a departure from life also become a departure from one’s work, and how do you turn that departure from one’s work into a departure from life? We’re looking at this meeting point between the artistic and the personal.”

This is a long-percolated line of inquiry for Tylus. “I’ve always been interested in the end of Dante’s and Petrarch’s poems,” she said. “They are moments where the poet will turn to the work — and these are short works, such as canzoni [lyric poems] — and Dante actually phrases it like this, ‘as though to console it for leaving him …’ to say a few words before the work goes away.”

I’ve always just been very struck by this kind of turning,” said Tylus. “It’s obviously a very self-conscious moment where you are taking stock of the fact that once you send this out into the world, you don’t control it anymore. It’s going to be subject to misreading and misinterpretation, and perhaps even just dropping off the face of the earth. These endings have always been kind of a side interest of mine that I’ve tinkered away at.”

Tylus joked that in talks she’s been giving on the subject, people often mis-hear the book title as “Saying Goodbye to the Renaissance.” She said, “They’re like, ‘Oh, are you not going to be writing about the Renaissance anymore?’” Tylus said that initially she thought “no,” but, “now, I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe this would be an interesting last book in terms of my work on the early modern …”

Jokes aside, although Tylus is considering other additional projects — she’s currently writing a series of essays on music and translation — she said she remains committed to early modern studies. Tylus continues to serve as general editor of the journal I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, and has just signed on to become a co-editor for the new Routledge “Encyclopedia of the Renaissance World.”

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Kendall Teare: kendall.teare@yale.edu, 203-836-4226