Dante’s river of light: when Scripture meets poetic genius

The two most powerful episodes in the whole of Dante’s Commedia are arguably the descent into the last circle of Hell and the ascent into the Empyrean, the tenth and highest Heaven in the divine topography. Whereas pagan literature provided most of the furniture of the infernal abode, Holy Scripture is responsible for both the geography and the population of the heavenly realm.

In Paradiso XXX, Dante sang:

e vidi lume in forma di rivera
fluvido (!!!) di fulgore, intra due rive
dipinte di mirabil primavera.
Di tal fiumana uscian faville vive,
e d’ogne parte si mettìen ne’ fiori,
quasi rubin che oro circunscrive;
poi, come inebriate da li odori,
riprofondavan sé nel miro gurge;
e s’una intrava, un’altra n’uscia fori.

Light in a River’s form I then beheld,
which glowed refulgently (!!!) between two banks,
adorned with wondrous hues of early spring.
And from this River issued living sparks,
which settled everywhere among the flowers,
and looked like rubies set in gold; and then,
as if intoxicated by its odors,
into the wondrous River plunged again,
another coming out, if one went in. (61-69)

Later, Botticelli’s reading of the passage yielded this:

NC257_B7_L55_1921Paradiso30.jpg

The source of Dante’s imagery, however, is to be found in the Book of Revelation, chapter 22:

Et ostendit mihi fluvium aquae vitae splendidum tamquam cristalum procedentem de sede Dei et agni in medio plateae eius et ex utraque parte fluminis lignum vitae adferens fructus duodecim per menses singula reddentia fructum suum. (1-2)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.”

In some manuscripts and early printed editions fluvido in line 62 is given as fulvido. The difference is significant. Fluvido is the vernacular take on the Latin word fluvidus meaning flowing, fluid (see the French fleuve for river). The word fulvido, on the other hand, comes from the Latin fulvus which means bright, of a yellow-reddish colour. The fact that Dante later describes the light as giallo or yellow (verse 124: nel giallo della rosa sempiterna) throws some serious doubt on Dante’s intended reading. The critical edition of the Società Dantesca Italiana that I am using is unwilling to unequivocally commit to one or the other in its notes, though the preferred reading remains fluvido. I can’t really say I agree with fluvido, and this for a simple reason: its place in the verse. Fluvido di fulgore doesn’t really make sense unless it’s replaced by fulvido di fulgore. Fulgore obviously means ‘lightning’, and ‘flowing/running as a lightning’ can’t hold a candle to ‘bright as a lighning’.

It remains that this collision of prophetic and poetic power is thunderous, indeed from another world. In Dante’s hands, Scripture becomes light, colour and perfume. Five hundred years before Baudelaire, the synaesthetic effect of Dante’s canto heralds a new era of poetic expression.

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