When Dante’s Commedia became divine

0107virgil.jpgDante may have been the most imaginative and transgressive medieval poet, but he was also one of the most immodest authors since Antiquity. It is well known that what we came to call ‘The Divine Comedy’ (“La Divina Commedia“) was initially known simply as ‘La Commedia di Dante Alaghieri di Fiorenze‘. It was Boccaccio who later added the epithet ‘divina‘, as we know it today. It may be that Boccaccio, famous for his veneration for Dante, retitled the Commedia as a homage to its author – or as a gloss on the sacred matter it treats of –, but, as I argue below, he may have done it mainly because he, before everyone else, really understood what Dante was trying to do. As Dante claimed to know the mind of God, so Boccaccio, by ‘deifying’ the Commedia, claimed to know the mind of Dante.

There are two main ways to read the Commedia, either from within the text, or from outside it, as it were, although the best way is both at once. If we read from within, we are tempted to take Dante at face value and to accept his truth claims as he chooses to introduce them to us. If we look from without, we get to see the backstage and the props, naturally, but much of the world the poet creates vanishes before our eyes. As far as the sacrality of the Commedia goes, Dante builds a delicate scaffolding. Before he meets the Roman poet Statius in Purgatory (Purgatorio 21), there is no suggestion that Dante’s poem might aspire to anything sacred, saintly or divine, in the way that Scripture or the Sibylline prophecies were understood to be at the time. The words sacro, divino and their cognates were indeed sacred in Dante’s time, and not subject to playful and elastic poetizing. Although Dante’s theological pilgrimage was already booked, no reader in Dante’s time, I think, would have dared qualify his work as ‘divino’. Yet, that is what Dante is doing, if only very subtly and furtively. The key to understanding Dante’s strategy here is his encounter with Statius in Purgatorio 21. Statius was a Roman poet of the 1st century AD (he died in 96), whose major work The Thebaid concluded with a panegyric of Virgil’s Aeneid, its chief model and inspiration:

Wilt thou endure in the time to come, O my Thebaid, for twelve years object of my wakeful toil, wilt thou survive thy master and be read? Of a truth already present Fame hath paved thee a friendly road, and begun to hold thee up, young as thou art, to future ages. Already great-hearted Caesar deigns to know thee, and the youth of Italy eagerly learns and recounts thy verse. O live, I pray! nor rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps. Soon, if any envy as yet o’erclouds thee, it shall pass away, and, after I am gone, thy well-won honours shall be duly paid.

Statius, Thebaid, XII, 810, trans. J. H. Mozley, (1928)

Dante picked up on Statius’ adulation of Virgil and created two ripples in his poetic creation. One has been satisfactorily acknowledged by the critics, the other less so. Dante’s treatment of Statius is one of the most transgressive and risqué poetic choices in the whole of his work. Statius is one of the four pagans who, for various reasons, don’t end up in Hell. For Dante’s time, that is outrageous enough. But to turn Statius into a redeemed soul who converted to morality through the Aeneid and to Christianity through Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue would have been, for later centuries, unforgivable heresy. Not only does Dante astound us with this unprecedented move, but he further confuses us by refusing this honour to Virgil, who has to return to Limbo at the end of his guided tour of Purgatory. Less noticed, however, has been Dante’s triangulation of himself, Virgil and Statius around the words ‘divina fiamma’ in Purgatorio 21:

Stazio la gente ancor di là mi noma:
cantai di Tebe, e poi del grande Achille;
ma caddi in via con la seconda soma.

Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville,
che mi scaldar, de la divina fiamma
onde sono allumati più di mille;

de l’Eneïda dico, la qual mamma
fummi, e fummi nutrice, poetando:
sanz’ essa non fermai peso di dramma.

On earth my name is still remembered—Statius:
I sang of Thebes and then of great Achilles;
I fell along the way of that last labor.

The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire—the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.

I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote
verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse;
my work, without it, would not weigh an ounce.

Purgatorio 21:91-9, trans. A. Mandelbaum, (1988)

It is clear from the two texts quoted above that Dante glosses Statius’ concluding remarks about the Aeneid in the Thebaid. Dante’s ‘holy fire’ or ‘divine flame’ (“divina fiamma”) echoes Statius’ ‘the divine Aeneid’ (in Latin, ‘divina Aeneida’), the poem that inspired ‘more than a thousand poets’ since him – also a witness to Virgil’s stellar reputation in the medieval period. Just as Statius embedded Virgil in his poem, so Dante embeds both poets in his ‘Comedy of mirrors’ (read my comments on Dante’s technique of mise en abîme here). The only thing missing from this stratigraphy of authorities and authorships is the stasis of the divine poetic attribute. If Statius bestows the divine epithet on the Aeneid and Dante bestows it on Statius as reflecting his own assignation, then who bestows it on Dante’s? This question is bound up with the concept of Dante as author and reader (auctor et lector), brilliantly analysed by Albert Ascoli. Of particular interest here is the idea of self-reading, that is Dante’s own exegesis of the Commedia in his other works, which, according to many critics, prepared that impressive commentary tradition that put the Commedia on a par with Holy Scripture and the classical canon almost immediately after Dante’s death – something no other ‘modern’ or vernacular writer could boast in the Middle Ages.

In Purgatorio, Dante has some unresolved business about poetic pride, and he leaves us on a note of humility regarding the divine poem. He comes back to it from the safety of Paradiso 25, in a grand act of self-anointment, as Teodolinda Barolini nicely put it. Not only does he crown himself poet (‘poeta‘) at the expense of everyone else in Paradiso, but he does something that no-one else had done before – though one would later do – and that is denominate the Commedia as a sacred poem, poema sacro:

Se mai continga che ’l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra,
sì che m’ha fatto per molti anni macro,

vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra
del bello ovile ov’ io dormi’ agnello,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra;

If it should happen . . . If this sacred poem—
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years—

can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it …

Paradiso 25:1-6, trans. A. Mandelbaum, (1988)

To my knowledge, none of the early commentators or contemporary critics, except perhaps Boccaccio, realised just how defiant this gesture is in relation to Purgatorio 21. Like a seasoned general, Dante manages to conceal his strategy underneath fine-tuned manoeuvres. We swallow the sacred poem and focus on his weeping for lost Florence. We forget his subversion and turn our affection towards his bitterness for an exile which would never end. All this while under our beguiled noses Dante manages to reverse the humility of Purgatorio 21 into outright self-glorification. By describing his work as sacred, Dante invites us to recall his discussion of the formative role of the Aeneid for Statius in Purgatorio 21. The Commedia is divine not only because it provides a vision of the divine plan, but also because it has the ability to do for others what the Aeneid had done for Statius, namely to turn readers from the dark woods (“selva oscura“) of perdition to “that forest—dense, alive with green, divine” (“la divina foresta spessa e viva“, Purg. 28) of Eden and up the heavenly spheres into the Empyrean with God, the resting-place of redeemed humanity. As Virgil and Statius guided Dante in his vision, so Dante can naratologically guide the readers of his Commedia through the three realms and be a master and an author (“mio maestro e ’l mio autor”, Inf. 1) to them, while his masterpiece can be mother and nurse to them (“mamma … nutrice“, Purg. 21). In a way, Dante the pilgrim crowns Dante the poet and assures that the Commedia receives its guarantee of authority from within.

We can see, therefore, that the concept of poema sacro, understood as divine flame of inspiration, cascading down from Virgil to Statius to Dante-pilgrim to Dante-poet, creates a context in which the Commedia can aspire to the same status as the Scriptures. It has also been suggested that in authoring the Commedia, Dante was trying to write something like a ‘Third Testament’, or at least a totalising synthesis of the Old and the New, a liber caelestis, a heavenly book, in the words of John Ahern. The foregoing discussion seems to lend plausibility to this view.

So where does that leave Boccaccio, with whom I started this post? If Boccaccio had written a visionary poem modelled on the Commedia, then, I think, he would have re-enacted the encounter in Purgatorio 21, casting Dante as Statius and himself as Dante. Boccaccio’s single-handed amendment of the generic title of Commedia strongly suggests he wished to be the one to close the circle on the idea of poetry as a divine mission. If that’s true, then he was successful, for 700 years on, we still acknowledge the Commedia as divine enterprise, set under the Ptolemaic spheres of vision and poetic genius.

Dante in Inferno: the devil is in the detail (of perspective)

One of my favourite parts of Dante’s Commedia is the end of Inferno, canto 34. Having surveyed all nine circles, the two poets reached the abode of Lucifer, lo ’mperador del doloroso regno. They went down Satan’s fur and out of Hell, but, as Dante soon learned, they crossed the centre of the Earth and experienced a reversal in gravity, causing Satan to appear upside down.

Medieval iconoography found a nice way to deal with this in the famous Yates Thompson manuscript 36The verticality of the egress (di vello in vello giù discese poscia […] e aggrappossi al pel com’om che sale) is rendered horizontally, yet the passage of time is clearly visible in the posture of Satan, before and after, the descent, giving a sense of movement that creates unexpected realism on the manuscript leaf.

British Library caption: Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing the gigantic figure of Dis, with his three mouths biting on the sinners Cassius, Judas, and Brutus, and Dante and Virgil emerging from the Inferno, in illustration of Canto XXXIV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 62v.

Dante was puzzled, thinking that they had made a volte-face and returned to Hell. The narrative representation of this infernal topography is something I always come back to in awe and fascination. In Henry Cary’s translation: (emphasis is mine)

Turn’d round his head where his feet stood before,
And grappled at the fell as one who mounts;
That into Hell methought we turn’d again.
“Expect that by such stairs as these,” thus spake
The teacher, panting like a man forespent,
“We must depart from evil so extreme:”
Then at a rocky opening issued forth,
And placed me on the brink to sit, next join’d
With wary step my side. I raised mine eyes,
Believing that I Lucifer should see
Where he was lately left, but saw him now
With legs help upward. Let the grosser sort,
Who see not what the point was I had past, 
Bethink them if sore toil oppress’d me then.
“Arise,” my master cried, “upon thy feet.
The way is long, and much uncouth the road;
And now within one hour and a half of noon
The sun returns.” It was no palace-hall
Lofty and luminous wherein we stood,
But natural dungeon where ill-footing was
And scant supply of light. “Ere from the abyss
I separate,” thus when risen I began:
“My guide! vouchsafe few words to set me free
From error’s thraldom. Where is now the ice?
How standeth he in posture thus reversed?
And how from eve to morn in space so brief
Hath the sun made his transit?” He in few
Thus answering spake: “Thou deemest thou art still 
On the other side the centre, where I grasp’d
The abhorred worm that boreth through the world.
Thou wast on the other side, so long as I
Descended; when I turn’d, thou didst o’erpass
That point, to which from every part is dragg’d
All heavy substance. Thou art now arrived
Under the hemisphere opposed to that,
Which the great continent doth overspread,
And underneath whose canopy expired
The Man, that was born sinless and so lived. 
Thy feet are planted on the smallest sphere,
Whose other aspect is Judecca. Morn
Here rises, when there evening sets: and he,
Whose shaggy pile we scaled, yet standeth fix’d,
As at the first. On this part he fell down
From Heaven; and th’ earth here prominent before,
Through fear of him did veil her with the sea,
And to our hemisphere retired. Perchance,
To shun him, was the vacant space left here,
By what of firm land on this side appears,
That sprang aloof.”