Imag(in)ing Dante: an illustrated manuscript of the Divine Comedy (with complete set of drawings)

Of the several hundreds of manuscripts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, about a hundred have some illumination or decoration, drawn or painted. Of these, London British Library Harley MS 3460 is a remarkable specimen. The manuscript contains illustrations of the scenes covering cantos 1-20 of Inferno, drawn in plummet in the lower part of the page. The manuscript was copied, and possibly illustrated, by Martin de Bonsegnoribus in Milan in 1469. We know this from the colophon where Martin gives us his name and the year he completed the manuscript.

What is, I think, unique about these drawings is that the artist depicts most of the souls in Hell as sexless human beings without hair, closely resembling little children. The nondescript quality of these wretched multitudes is, of course, in line with Dante’s theological insight, that the self in Hell is diminished in its being, a bodily shadow of its former self. A kind of eternity in peius is therefore brought out through this simple drawing technique.

Harley MS 3460 hasn’t been digitized. A detailed description of its content and characteristics is now being being prepared at the British Library through a project in which I take part. As the manuscript won’t see the digital light of day any time soon, I thought it might be a good idea to include the complete set of drawings in this blogpost. The figurative scenes extend from the moment Beatrice sends Virgil to guide Dante through Hell in canto 1 of Inferno down to the sorcerers and astrologers in the 8th circle, canto 20:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.

Please scroll down for 26 images.

Radiant Beatrice entrusts Dante to Virgil to guide him through the Underworld
The two poets enter Hell through the famous door
Virgil arranges for Charon to ferry the two pilgrims across the river Acheron, the boundary separating the cowardly neutrals from the souls in the circles of Hell proper.
The pilgrims arrive in Limbo
They arrive before Minos the infernal judge
Sexless Paolo and Francesca detach from the ‘hellish hurricane’Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti
Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the circle of gluttony. Dante’s friend Ciacco takes the stage
The avaricious and prodigal are pointlessly pushing heavy boulders
The wrathful and the sullen are showing every act of aggression
The pilgrims try to enter the City of Dis, Hell’s inner fortress
The pilgrims are unable to enter Dis
Despite the opposition of the Furies, the poets enter Dis with the help of a heavenly messenger
The heretics lie in flaming tombs, while Farinata gets his 5 minutes of fame
Another damned soul, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, engages with the pilgrims
Pope Anastasius lies here
The two travellers enter the seventh circle, that of the violent, and meet the Minataur and the centaurs
The blasphemers in the river of blood
Dante’s old master, Brunetto Latini, is a resident
The sodomites walking across a burning desert


Monster Geryon, the epitome of fraud, is lured into helping the pilgrims cross from one circle to another
The panderers and flatterers looking not so flattering
Immersed in a river of excrement representing their words, the panderers and flatterers are lashed by demons
Jason stands out among the flatterers
In the ring of the simoniacs of Malebolge, Pope Nicholas III is upside down in a large baptismal font
The diviners, astrologers and magicians have their heads twisted backwards and are forced to walk backwards



A decorated 11th-century manuscript of Lucan’s ‘Civil War’

Medieval manuscripts of classical works are only rarely illustrated and decorated. Yet, surprises abound. This week I was looking at a manuscript of Lucan’s Civil War, also known as Pharsalia: British Library Harley 2728. The manuscript was produced in Germany sometimes between 1030-1060. Heavily annotated – as most classical texts were -, it was also decorated with beautiful initials for the beginning of each of the ten books. Many of the explanatory marginal notes are written in geometrical patterns. There are several diagrams (including one for the mountains of Greece) and illustrations which also help explain some of the text. The words of Cornelia’s lament in book 8 are marked with musical neumes, as if the passage was meant to be sung.

See below for images of all these highlights.

Unfortunately, the manuscript has not yet been digitised. My detailed description of it will soon be available in the British Library’s online catalogue.

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Give me an I for iamque….
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and a P for propulit’
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And an A for at procul
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… and several other ….
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… initials …. 
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… with remarkable interlace …..
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… and foliate motifs ….
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… becoming more and more complex ….
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… all the way to the end.




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The marginal notes explained the main texts. They are known as ‘scholia’ or glosses. Often, these were written in geometric patterns, like these upside-down triangles
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An initial ‘B’ for the word’ bella’ was planned, but left unfinished. The half-circles of the B-compartments were also traced.
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Some celebrate the end of a project with champagne, others with extravagant writing. The last lines of the Pharsalia were written in ‘dramatic’ script, so though to say: I, the scribe, am so happy to get this over with. Often, scribes expressed the sentiment in writing just after the last words in what is known as a ‘colophon’. The last two words read: Explicitn Lucanus (Here ends Lucan).
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Who thought that Lucan could be sung as plainchant? The musical notation (known as ‘neumes’) is entered on the words corresponding to Cornelia’s speech in book 8 of The Civil War. This speech is marked with neumes in just 8 other manuscripts of Lucan’s text.
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The main (sacred?) mountains in Greece are represented around Thessaly (Tessalia): Ossa, Athos, Pindus, Olympus and Pelion (clockwise from the top)
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A diagram of the Earth showing the habitable and inhabitable regions. The extremes (too cold) and the equator (too hot) were deemed inhabitable. The two other bands were thought to support human life.
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A mini-map of the area around Gibraltar with the Atlantic Ocean at the top. The two horns are the pillars of Hercules
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A slightly-faded T-O map (O for the circle of the earth, and the T dividing it into Asia, Europe and Africa, with Asia at the top) showing the four main winds
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Another mini representation of the Earth with the circle of the air



Ionesco’s ‘Improvisation’ and the playwright’s plight

Image result for improvizatie la alma

Eugen Ionesco’s one-act meta-theatrical play ‘Improvisation’ (original title: L’Impromptu de l’Alma), whose magisterial mise en scène at the National Theatre in Bucharest (Improvizație la Alma) I saw this weekend, has as much to say to us today as it did in 1956 when it opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. A satire about the world of theatre critics, a proclamation of artistic autonomy, the greatest compliment ever made by a playwright to her audience, or a contestation of our deeply-held convictions about reality, Improvisation is all of these, and so much more. Andreea Ciocîrlan’s vision of the play is a cross between Kafka’s Trial and the Matrix. Sleeping at his desk amid rows of chairs (a nod to his play The Chairs) and dressed in rhinoceros-patterned pyjamas (another nod to Rhinoceros), the playwright Ionesco is visited by three agent-Smith-like figures all named Bartholomeus who quickly reveal themselves as Ionesco’s fastidious critics. Despite having the same pedantically-Latin name, the three Bartholomeus hold different views about what Ionesco’s dramatic art should be, making insistant claims on his work, knocking repeatedly and obsessively at his door. The almost psychedelic rotation of these figures in the room create a kind of trance which only the maid Marie, with her broom, shrill voice and contrasting insouciance can break. It quickly emerges that Marie is hostile to the three-fold Bartholomeus, a figura of the audience who comes to the author’s rescue. The Ionesco-character seizes the opportunity to assert his autonomy and to mock the conservatism of his detractors, underlining their fanaticism and inability to understand art. Things are not as simple as they seem, for in so doing, the Ionesco-character is forced to proclaim, with matching pedagogic authority, his own vision of theatre as an existential exploration of self, a dynamic which comes into collision with his own desire to liberate himself from the shackles of dogmatic criticism.

Architrenius and the life of a 12th-century scholar

One of the biggest weepers of medieval fiction must have been Architrenius, the protagonist of the 12th-century Norman satirist John of Hauville’s poem with the same name. Architrenius means ‘the Arch-weeper’, and one thing he laments is the miserable condition of the scholar of the time. Architrenius went in search of Nature and self-understanding, but his allegorical odyssey took him on detours to Paris and the ends of the Earth, in a satyrical nostos bestrewn with temptations and puzzles. A cynical Job, Architrenius’ tears serve only to mock fun at the world around, deploying an impressive knowledge of the classical world and the liberal arts, wondering at the suffering scholars must endure in their humanistic pursuit.

Written around the 1180s, the poem is made up of eight books, but book 3 is perhaps the most exciting as it describes a day in the life of a Parisian scholar. It is a portrait which has more in common with a Bohemian artist than with the image most of us preserve of a medieval litteratus. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

I have included an extended passage from W. Wetherbee’s translation below (Johannes de Hauvilla, Architrenius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 62-79).

27 manuscripts of the Architrenius have been identified. These are the opening lines from a British Library manuscript that I’ve recently looked at, Royal MS 15 C V (4th quarter of the 13th century, my photo). The earliest known manuscript is Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 157

Chapter 1. The wretched life of the scholar

But this people, though all but gods in their Phoebean wisdom, reap little reward; the seed they sow is blown about by hostile whirlwinds. Architrenius weeps to behold the ranks of Pallas all but exhausted by heir misfortunes. Philosophers blessed with wisdom are beaten down by the cruel lash of unrelenting Fate. For all their great merit, they obtain no favor from the wealthy. Their very zeal for study prolongs their days of misfortune, hastens the onset of old age despite their years, and drives them to abandon their youth to this early schooling in age. For poverty deprives them of the joys of life, and Fortune’s listless hand provides only a bare sustenance. Evils rash upon them from every quarter. The empty belly is endlessly infested by raging hunger, all grace of body is laid waste and the face grows lean. Hunger substitutes its pallor for the snowy white which Nature had bestowed, and traces lines of rust on the inflamed eyes; every spark of brightness is extinguished in the seared face; the blighted lilies of the cheeks and the roses of the lips grow withered, the whiteness of the neck is defiled by spots of dirt, and the face assumes the ghastly appearance of death. Since the task of the comb has been abandoned, the hair bristles; random confusion makes it stray into an upward path. Untouched by any grooming hand it grows stiff with dirt; the locks struggle in battle among themselves, and the discord is not reduced to peace by the fingers that might unsnarl the tangled hair.

Chapter 2. How poverty does away with artful grooming

Poverty takes no pleasure in tilling the hair by applying the furrow­ing comb, and so defining a path for the straying locks. When a poor man is faint with hunger he does not know the delights of being neatly groomed-one who feels no inclination to pleasure repudiates the hairdresser’s art, content with that bodily grace which Nature provides. His graver concern is with the struggle to fend off hunger, the besetting Fury of all those whose lips taste Thetis, while their minds grow drunk on the arts of Phoebus.

Chapter 3. Their threadbare clothes

Are there minds of such rocklike hardness (and what is harder than rock?) that the plight of this shaggy horde of logicians would not sway them? Who would not abandon severity and open his heart in floods of tender weeping at the spectacle of the philosopher’s ignominious fortune?

The cloak in which he covers himself is ravaged by time. Its fringe is more the work of age than of craft. This it is that has torn the garment, this and the labor of enduring all the duties this one garment is compelled to perform. Condemned as it is to such a variety of uses, it can never gain a day of rest by any amount of effort. This same cloak sighs at the buffetings of the wind which the night brings with it, and protests at the blasts of Boreas; whispers gently in the soft eastern breezes, smiles happily at the touch of Zephyrus’ gentle breath, and is reduced to tears by the rainy wind from the south. Assailed by so many ills, its threads are too soon sundered by the shears of old age, and if any trace of style remains, it is all on the surface; the wintry chill within is veiled by the springlike appearance of the garment. Poverty is less painful when concealed in a rich enclosure; so long as the garment deceives the eye, a Codrus may outwardly proclaim himself a Croesus.

Chapter 6. The scholar’s bed

After the sober cheer of the meager feast, when the appetite has been curbed in a way which forestalls satiety before hunger has been cut by half, the thin pallet is burdened by the weight of a meal of coarse stew, that pallet than which the floor itself is scarcely lower, so that the ground, as hard as iron, almost breaks one’s bones. Here the embattled bastard heir of Aristotle toils, while the lamp devours his eyesight. Pale from study, his eyes made weary by the light of the oil lamp, he is yet eager for both; weary as he is, and with eyes and mind in need of sleep, he imposes nocturnal vigils on each of them, until the eye of the watchful lamp becomes blurred, and strains his ow n blurred vision.

Chapter 7. His nights of study

Thus he applies the light of eye and mind to his books, attaches his elbow to the page and his hand to his ear, and ponders what the wisdom of modern and ancient times has produced. He gulps with eyes and mind all those streams that the foot of Pegasus caused to issue forth from the Castalian cave, drinking now with the eye, now the mind, now both together, yet more with the former than the latter. Now he boils down what he has read in the furnace of thought, and consigns it, securely bound, to the vault of memory; now he passes over things which, having been skimmed less attentively, did not delight or engage him, and so were not deemed worthy to enter the storehouse of the mind. At one moment he glides smoothly on open and level ground which asks little of the mind as it creeps ahead. At another he gnaws in intense concentration at a knotty passage which resists his efforts and ensnares the understanding that seeks to spread its wings. He exerts the utmost power of his mind, until his eyes grow inflamed with concentration, then buries his head in his arms and ponders at length how to clear the steep path and break open the hostile doors that deny him access. Repeatedly he returns his eye to the page, with finger and mind pointing the way, and strives until dawn to clear away the shadows. The corner of his eye becomes wrinkled; one bushy eyebrow strikes against the other; his burning, furrowed brow contracts into a series of ridges; the bridge of his nose, wrinkled by concentration, contracts; and pursed Ups express the effort of the panting mind. He strives to advance with his whole being, pours forth long-drawn sighs and groans as the barriers are broken, brings the hot blood to his face, and puts forth his uttermost effort, while his eyes blaze in frenzy. At last the swift thrusts of insight and knowledge force a way and he is free to survey the steep path he has climbed. Now he bids the heavens yield to him, and explores the vast sphere by which the universe is enclosed – if that which no circling path can encompass may properly he called a sphere.


Chapter 8

He observes that the etherial sphere moves in a direct path, and that the planets move obliquely in an opposite direction; that those stars which an imperfect understanding has termed “fixed” are borne in an orbit parallel to that of the sun. He discovers what form, what order, what underlying natural principle or force diverts the orbit of a “wandering” planet, and what musical bonds ensure the parallel courses of fixed stars – laws which a power unchanging through time, a day embracing all the years, has ordained, a power that is itself unmoved, and maintains all things in an unchanging order. Now he draws circles and spheres, in his mind and in the sand, and proves that a rectangle has four times the area of a circle when formed with sides whose lengths correspond to the circumference and the diameter of the circle. Now a heroic feat of concentration reveals to his dazed mind that the surface area of a sphere is four times that of the plane of its circumference. Now he strives to refine more precisely the formulas of Euclid, and proves that a line cannot be divided according to the ratio of extreme and mean; and that the diagonal which divides a rectangle into two equal parts must be incommensurable with the side of the rectangle, or else be at once an even and an uneven number. Now he scrutinizes the wonders of rhetoric, and discovers how Orpheus’ eloquent lyre made harsh things grow soft, by what power the Thracian’s charming words caused the oaks to break ranks. He learns how it came to pass that a people grew contemptuous of this life, willingly took up arms to wage deadly war against themselves, and thrust the deadly sword into their own torn bodies; for Hegesias spoke repeatedly to them of the hardships of the world and the perils of lingering in this life, concluding that the gift of Lachesis must be repudiated, that the world is a place of sickness, an ocean of pain, a sea of wickedness, a maelstrom of slaughter, a pit of decay, a foul swamp of vice. Now he probes to where the annals of truth lie hidden, and plucks forth from the dark shadows both what will always be true and what is always false: that no one body is amplified by more dimensions than any other body; not even one grain of sand can exceed another in this respect. Now he directs his probing mind to the cradle of grammar, and traces the proper ways of connecting words, studying constructions in which two nominatives are bound together in a transitive relation, just as a contrary rule joins a word in an oblique case to a nominative without such a transitive link.

But if a cloud should obscure what he seeks to grasp, resisting the dulled keenness of his mind, so that his eager rush up the steep path is is slowed, and difficulty makes him fall back in despair, he merely makes a mental note, or perhaps quickly jots it down, but allows to remain closed what tomorrow’s greater Wisdom may be able to unfold. In such brief thoughts and jottings, too, he records obscure matters which may become accessible to his mind through the master’s exposition, when golden Aurora, Phoebus’ charioteer, has put the stars to flight with her purple lash.

Chapter 9. The sleep of a scholar exhausted by study

Toiling at such tasks, by lamplight and by the light of learning, he grows faint with exhaustion, yet burns with eager love to make Minerva wholly his own. Only when Phoebus has arisen from the low-lying Antipodes, and drawn within a few paces of the horizon, does peaceful sleep first spread its gentle mist over his eyes. Now he holds his pen and other tools with slack fingers, while the open book receives the weight of his drooping head. But even in the peace of slumber the unceasing labor of the student finds no peace. Care remains wakeful even in the midst of sleep, and the sleeper’s anxious mind is still proposing books and projects to itself. This abiding anxiety never succumbs to sleep; instead the preoccupations that had earlier kept him awake return, and the vast amount of work to be done presents itself like a Hydra of troubles to his restless cogitations.

Chapter 12. The scholar prepares to set out for school

And so he shakes his head and looks around, his face and hair alike in a state of confusion. He sweeps back his uncovered hair with the comb of his fingers, dries his lips still moist from sleep, on the edge of his tunic, and groans with a mouth still panting from his night-time labors. He clears his eyes, still swimming with dross, and with his hand frees them from the tangled lashes that still keep them in shadow, and while his gaze moves quickly forth in all directions, he gropes for words worthy of the hour. Eager to arrive at school before his master, he fears that the other has arrived already, that he has already sounded the horn for the daily lesson, and is now proffering a second round of Cirrhaean libations. He curses his body for succumbing to fatigue; indignation evokes a sneer of bitter anger, and he spews forth the complaints that swell his burning bosom, lamentations that bring him at last to the point of tears.

Chapter 14. The scholar’s journey to school

In the same way the soldier of Phoebus, exerting feet and mind to the utmost, hastens to the precincts of Minerva, the sanctuary of learning, continually glancing at the horizon as he proceeds, spanning the horizon with his eyes, and the earth with his feet. He gauges with his eye how much of the upper sky Aurora has set aflame with her glowing purple mantle, and with his mind how far the line of Libra has withdrawn from Phoebus, and thereby determines how long it will be before the Sun shows forth from amid the swell of Thetis – the starting point of the philosopher’s day.

Chapter 15. His behavior in the presence of the Master

Having arrived where gentle Pallas arms Apollo’s host, and the mind prepares to exert itself in the gymnasium of study, he stirs up the fire of apprehension, musters his powers of mind, sharpens his wits, and gives himself wholly to the perceptions of his attentive mind. He drinks in the master’s words with open ear and mind, hastily gathering up the words that fall all about him, while eyes and mind remain alertly focused on the teacher, and the attentive ear performs the marriage of the eager mind with its beloved Minerva. It is for her that the Venus of study makes him thirst and yearn, for her that he pants with a desire other and greater than that of Cupid, devoting to her all his energy and the entire day, until the world grows dewy again at Phoebus’ setting, and the withdrawal of his fires restores to the stars their own proper day, while Vesper and the departing sun open the portals of darkness and

close those of daylight.

Chapter 16. Some sympathy for scholars and their harsh lot

Such are the burdens of study, such the mass of evils heaped upon the philosopher, that the monsters’ roars would fall silent in compassion with him; Sciron’s rocks would dissolve in friendly weeping; kindly feelings would suddenly seize the horses of Diomede, and the human blood on the altars of Busiris be washed away by tears; Sinis’ bowed trees would recoil no longer; Sulla’s dungeons would burst their iron fetters;  Nero would become less sodden in drink and spare his victims; the bull of Phalaris bellow in pity, and Cinna and Spartacus be joined in a bond of peace. The jaws of the Stygian dog would dare to fall silent; Cocytus’ waters would reverse their flow and brim with tears of another kind; the plain of Phlegethon would burn with a milder fire.

What savagery would not give over its harshness for their sake? The Labyrinth would release such a Theseus though he had no thread to aid him; Charybdis would grow mild, calm her tormented waters, and cease to destroy ships; Scylla would cease howling and utter peaceful murmurs, and a milder Syrtis, as free of access as the open sea, would heap up harmless shoals around its shallows.

The confession of a 15th-century curator of manuscripts

We generally know very little about the early physical life of medieval manuscripts. We know when texts were started and completed, we may even know where the book travelled, to whom it was donated, who sold it, etc, but to get really close to a particular moment in the volume’s history one has to be very lucky, as these instances are extremely rare. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for medieval books to circulate without bindings.

There is a manuscript in The British Library of Nicolas de Biard’s Distinctiones, a work of scholastic theology: this is Additional MS 21355. Nothing is known about Nicolas, except that he was a mendicant friar and that he lived in the second half of the 13th century. A collection of Nicolas’ guidelines for writing sermons, the Distinctiones are the only work which can be unquestionably attributed to him. It was being copied and used at the University of Paris towards the end of the 13th century. The Additional manuscript was written in the 14th century. It has a 15th-century full-leather binding with wooden boards and a strap and peg fastening. This type of fastening mechanism is older than the clasp and, in this instance, it used two leather straps with metal tabs at one end that slotted into the raised pins of metal plates attached to the opposite board. It is quite extraordinary.



When released from the pins, the straps unfasten the book and reveal the parts of the mechanism to be in a very good condition. The only unusual thing is that the book has to be upside down for it to open.


Once open, it becomes clear that the spine is not doing as well as the fastening. It is quite wobbly, and for this reason the manuscript has to be handled with extra care, not to put any strain on the loose cords and the stitching.


The damaged spine reveals at least two pieces of parchment whose purpose was to reinforce the spine.


By far the most remarkable detail of this manuscript is the story it carries. On the verso of the first leaf, there is an inscription in red ink written by brother William of Mailly in the winter of 1426. William seems to be the same person whose name is mentioned in an inscription in another manuscript, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Latin 3506: ‘This book was written and completed by brother William of Mailly (per fratrem Guillermum de Mailliaco) of the Dominican convent of Auxerre in the year of the Lord 1401, on St George’s day.’ (f. 94).


The inscription reads:

Ego frater Guillelmus de Mailliaco hunc librum in parva libraria dissutum repperi et folia eius dispersa, in quo xvi folia deficiebant. Dolens ergo quod sic male tractabatur, et dubitans ne aliquis eum, ideo quia incompletus erat, umquam vellet religare, et sic inutilis extitisset, prædicta xvi quæ in eo deficiebant scripsi et addidi eidem, ipsumque religavi, anno Domini MCCCCXXXI, in adventu Domini. Oretis Deum pro me.”

I brother William of Mailly, found this book in a small bookcase, unstitched and loose-leaf, from which sixteen leaves were missing. Pained that it had been handled so badly, and doubting that anyone, given how scrappy the book was, would ever wish to have it bound, and that it would thus end up useless, I completed the aforesaid missing sixteen leaves and added them to the book, and had it bound, in the year of our Lord 1426, at Advent. Pray God for me.’

We might have here the first ever confession of a curator of medieval manuscripts. We have at least one of the earliest genuine feelings for books which have been ill-used and mis-handled, sadness as well as confidence. Upset about the condition of the book, and perhaps because Nicolas de Biard’s work was important for the studies of the Auxerrois Dominicans (another copy appears to have been at hand, from which William supplied the missing text), William determined to have it bound (or bind it himself, who knows, the verb is active), rewrite the text that was lacking and make it available for readers, saving the book from uselessness (inutilis) and perhaps loss. He understood that without a binding and the missing folios, the book would not have made much of an incentive for reading. William must have been a lover of books indeed, but also someone who would take action to save, repair and preserve the library collection.

A vertical reading of Dante’s Purgatorio 4

One way of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy is ‘vertically’, which means analyzing same-numbered cantos from two or three parts of the poem (canticles), Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, for symmetrical meanings which become enriched by this clever juxtaposition. This is based on the presupposition that Dante built this symmetry into the poem as a whole, and expected a close reading of his work to reveal ‘hidden’ meanings. The vertical approach is already well-established, thanks to the work of George Corbett and Heather Webb. Although some cantos lend themselves better to this kind of reading than others (think of Inferno 1, Purgatorio 1, Paradiso 1 (‘the ones’) and their common theme of orientation, for instance), the verticality of Dante’s cantos, at least as a compositional and exegetical principle, is undeniable.

Cantos 4 of Purgatorio and Inferno are a good example of how this works. Inferno 4 is devoted to the first circle of Hell, the Limbo, where the pilgrim and his guide meet the unbaptised virtuous souls. Purgatorio 4 is about Mount Purgatory, its geo-spatial location and the meeting with Belacqua, Dante’s lazy friend. Despite their differences, the two cantos are, I think, linked by a common theme, and they may, for that reason, be read ‘vertically’. The theme is, well, verticality.

The two cantos have something to say about the topographies of Hell and Purgatory. Hell is a cone-like pit, while Purgatory a cone-like mountain. In Purgatorio 4, Dante notes with vivid detail how steep the mountain is:

Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista,
e la costa superba più assai
che da mezzo quadrante a centro lista.

The summit was so high, my sight fell short;
the slope was far more steep than the line drawn
from middle—quadrant to the center point. (Purgatorio 4.40-42)


Many commentators have explained that the ‘quadrant’ refers to the quadrant circle, meaning one-fourth of a circle, so the gradient of a middle quadrant is 45%. No wonder Dante thought that he needed wings to scale the mountain (‘I had to fly: I mean with rapid wings and pinions of immense desire’, Purg 4.28-29).

In Inferno 4, Dante makes the same kind of observation about the appearance of Hell:

Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa
tanto che, per ficcar lo viso a fondo,
io non vi discernea alcuna cosa.

That valley, dark and deep and filled with mist,
is such that, though I gazed into its pit,
I was unable to discern a thing. (Inferno 4.10-12)

This time, the gradient is not important, because the pit is dark and appears to be bottomless. Both landscapes, however, strike the pilgrim, and us, as readers, through their verticality. One goes up, the other goes down. One is 45% steep, the other undiscernibly deep. It is against this backdrop – the radical ascent of purification and the equally radical descent of sin and death, that Dante foregrounds the lethargic but penitent Belacqua in Purgatorio 4 and the unbaptised virtuous pagans in Inferno 4.


Poetry to keep you warm

Now that the cold winds start blowing from the north, it is time to put on new breeches and pick up Ovid.

Copy of it's time toCelebrate.jpg

His poetry is indeed for all seasons, but especially for the cold season. I know he would have agreed, especially as he lay miserable and despondent at Tomis on the freezing Black Sea coast (freezing in winter, not bad in the summer, though).

In his own words:

Snow falls, and, once fallen, no rain or sunlight melts it,
since the north wind, freezing, makes it permanent.
So another fall comes before the first has melted,
and in many parts it lingers there two years.

Nix iacet, et iactam ne sol pluuiaeque resoluant,
indurat Boreas perpetuamque facit.
Ergo ubi delicuit nondum prior, altera uenit,
et solet in multis bima manere locis;
(Tristia 3.10)

Having put on new winter hoses, Ovid wants to experience the frozen sea for himself:

Seeing was not enough: I walked the frozen sea,
dry-shod, with the surface under my feet.

Nec uidisse sat est. Durum calcauimus aequor,
undaque non udo sub pede summa fuit. (Tristia 3.10)