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Vertical Readings in Dante's Comedy. Volume 1

George Corbett
Heather Webb

1.ii. Orientation1

Heather Webb

Texte intégral

  • 1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy websit (...)

1A structuring concept that runs through the Ones is orientation. If we take orientation to mean the determination of the relative position of something or someone, we may note that each of these cantos stages a problem in the process of such determination. How does the pilgrim determine his position or locate his path? What point of reference does he choose? How does he relate to that point of reference? Finally, how do I, as reader, relate to the particularity and the universality of the pilgrim as he seeks to orient himself at the threshold of three realms that are, by definition, foreign lands to us?

2By examining these issues of orientation, we may discover a powerful means of exploring the relations and distinctions between the three canticles. These are, of course, distinctions not only between the realms the canticles reveal but also between states of being in place.

3Let us begin with the very first lines:

  • 2 All citations from the Comedy are from Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, Commedia, 3 vols (Milan: Mon (...)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita. (Inf., i. 1-3)2

[In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.]

4‘In the middle of the journey of our life’ is a temporal indicator – the protagonist is thirty-five years old and is referencing the Scriptural expectation of a seventy-year life span – but the imagery of a pathway suggests a spatial coordinate as well – he is halfway along his life’s trajectory. The poet’s exile means that his life’s path is a literal one of peregrination, while it is, at the same time, the path of return to God. Even if we understand the ‘cammin di nostra vita’ in strictly spiritual terms, there is no mistaking the fact that Dante will painstakingly map the twists and turns that his path will take from here onto very specific coordinates in the known world and at its margins.

5We readers are, at the same time, somewhat disoriented by the way that the first line meets the second: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai’. Which path are we on? Is this the path that all mankind takes through life? Or is this the single, individual, non-repeatable life of Dante Alighieri, Florentine, born in 1265? Is this timeline, this landscape, entirely symbolic, and therefore pertinent to (if removed from) all of us in its abstraction or is it historically located in the year 1300? Are we reading autobiography or theology?

6As we move swiftly through a series of depictions of spatial orientation in these three opening canti, we will see that in each of the three, moments of particular opacity, moments that have led to huge critical discussion and that have continued to perplex readers, hinge on the ways in which the specificity of place and the inscription of individual bodies into space push our understanding of the poem either toward historical specificities or transcendent theological truths.

7‘Mi ritrovai’, the poet tells us, ‘per una selva oscura’. What does it mean to find oneself in this case? He has, in this moment, recognized that he is in a dark wood and can no longer see the straight path. But he does not tell us how long he has been there without noticing – he himself does not know, as he points out. He has no idea how or where he entered. He has become conscious of his disorientation only now. It is only now that he looks around himself and sees where he is – already in the midst of the unknown. He has entered a wild, undomesticated space in which he can discern no point of reference.

8It takes considerable self-enclosure, significant abstraction from the world around us, to stumble so far into the darkness that we can no longer see where we entered or locate any recognizable point. But this, in fact, is the condition of the sinners that are deepest in the Inferno, figured elegantly in their contrapasso. Encased in ice, they have no means of exchange or relation with anything or anyone outside themselves. They have not understood that their place in the world must be a relative position. If we bear in mind this notion of the extremity of sin, the urgent focus on orientation in these three opening canti becomes comprehensible. In each, the pilgrim has become sharply conscious of the ways in which he enters the realms that he enters and of the signs that mark the paths that he takes.

9When the pilgrim comes to stand at the foot of a hill and sees the sun just above and behind it, alluded to as the ‘pianeta che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle’ [the planet that leads us straight on every path] (Inf., i. 17-18), it would seem that he has found in that light his point of orientation, his guide, his way out of the darkness. But when he begins his climb, he is almost immediately driven back ‘dove ‘l sol tace’ [where the sun is silent] (Inf., i. 61) by the three beasts that block his way. It is at this moment of darkness and disorientation that the pilgrim meets Virgil. And Virgil is such a comforting presence also because his opening speech lists a series of concrete, recognizable places, moving from the relatively local to the broader geography of the trajectory of Aeneas’ voyage and Rome’s founding:

li parenti miei furon Lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
vissi a Roma
cantai di quel giusto
figliuol d’Anchise che venne di Troia. (Inf., i. 68-69, 71, 73-74)

[my parents were Lombards, Mantuans both by birth. […] I lived in Rome […] I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy.]

10The second major intersection of the poem (after that noi/mi of the first lines) is this moment in which a largely symbolic and eternal landscape that is described without any defining features (the wood, the hill) meets with the highly specific, grounded and geographically and historically embedded Lombardy, Mantua, Rome, Troy.

11This is the challenge set to the reader: thinking history and human venture within the eternal, the individual within the collective, the local within the providential. And it is precisely in these moments that the most difficult hermeneutic problems of the poem appear. The first of the three I will discuss here is Virgil’s prophecy of the ‘greyhound’:

Questi non ciberà terra né peltro,
ma sapïenza, amore e virtute,
e sua nazion sarà tra feltro e feltro. (Inf., i. 103-105)

[He will feed on neither earth nor pelf, but on wisdom, love, and power, and his birth will be between felt and felt.]

12There have been myriad interpretations of ‘between felt and felt’, including Dante’s own astrological sign, the two mendicant orders, an election technique, or to indicate geographical location: Feltre and Montefeltro. On a more general level, what exactly is the prophecy meant to indicate? A specific, known political leader who will unite the peninsula or the secular redeemer of End Times who will make way for the Second Coming of Christ? Having it both ways is tricky. If we focus on the theological resonance of the poem’s condemnation of sin and social ills, we may gloss over the ‘felt’ problem. If we allow the little towns of Feltre and Montefeltro to delimit Dante’s notion of the secular redeemer, we commit the poem to history, to a particular moment; we pin Dante’s hopes to the person of Can Grande della Scala, for example. A person who, as far as we can tell, did not restore order and prepare the way for the Second Coming.

13Leaving this mysterious prophecy dangling, Virgil then suggests a new system of orientation for the pilgrim:

Ond’ io per lo tuo me’ penso e discerno
che tu mi segui, e io sarò tua guida,
e trarrotti di qui per loco etterno. (Inf., i. 112-114)

[Thus for your good I think and judge that you shall follow me, and I shall be your guide, and I will lead you from here through an eternal place.]

14In other words, the pilgrim must orient himself in relation to Virgil, not in relation to geographical or universal coordinates. He must not follow the sun, but must follow his own personal guide. This pilgrimage will go from history into eternity, but will do so by means of the vehicle of a still-living mortal body. And there will be a return into history for that body. So from Dante’s individual location of disorientation to salvation, he will be led by a guide that is of particular relevance to him personally (as even the source of his poetic style), but also one who is a narrator of Italy’s providential history, of the finding, as well as the founding, of Italy.

15And so the pilgrim does follow Virgil throughout Hell, often blindly, through that dark realm with increasing misery and claustrophobia as the only index of place apart from the reassuring presence of his guide to give structure to what the pilgrim and reader so viscerally experience. We are told, at the end of Inferno, that the pair emerge to see the stars again, but the description only arrives at the beginning of Purgatorio, where the delight in perceiving external references of orientation is palpable, and glorious:

  • 3 Readings of Purgatorio i that I found particularly useful are: Johannes Bartuschat, ‘Canto I’, in (...)

Dolce color d’orïental zaffiro,
che s’accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
del mezzo, puro infino al primo giro,
a li occhi miei ricominciò diletto,
tosto ch’io usci’ fuor de l’aura morta
che m’avea contristati li occhi e ‘l petto. (Purg., i. 13-18)3

[The sweet color of eastern sapphire, gathering in the cloudless aspect of the air, pure to the first circle, began to delight my eyes again, as soon as I came forth from the dead air that had weighed my eyes and breast with sorrow.]

16‘Dolce color d’orïental zaffiro’: this is also the incredible pleasure of being, in some way, home, or at least above ground once again with a set of references that are recognizable (that is East!). What follows is a deliriously joyful list of astronomical coordinates, a flourish of knowledge that shows the pilgrim back in relation with the heavenly bodies. With his feet upon the earth, he knows something of his utterly new place due to his view of the heavens:

Lo bel pianeto che d’ amar conforta
faceva tutto rider l’ orïente,
velando i Pesci ch’erano in sua scorta.
I’ mi volsi a man destra, e puosi mente
a l’altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle
non viste mai fuor ch’a la prima gente. (Purg., i. 19-24)

[The lovely planet that strengthens us to love was causing all the East to laugh, veiling the Fish, which were her escort. I turned to the right and considered the other pole, and I saw four stars never seen except by the first people.]

17Dante does not need Virgil to tell him where he is now – he has seen it for himself. And this is the new mode of Purgatorio. The pilgrim has no further need to blindly follow Virgil; he is encouraged to look around himself and develop his own relational geographies, his own sets of coordinates, beginning with the heavens, but also within the landscapes, and the human landscapes of Purgatorio. His journey will be directed by his recognition of friends and countrymen, who will serve to point the way upward, but also toward new understandings of vice and virtue. In Inferno, where there was only sin, and no good to follow, the pilgrim was utterly dependent on his guide. Finding your way is a constant choosing of the good, as we come to understand in Purgatorio, and this option only at long last opens here.

18The assumption behind Cato’s question reveals this Purgatorial difference:

Chi v’ha guidati, o che vi fu lucerna,
uscendo fuor de la profonda notte
che sempre nera fa la valle inferna? (Purg., i. 43-45)

[Who has guided you, or what has been your lantern, coming forth from the deep night that makes the valley of Hell forever black?]

19In other words, the darkness of Hell, symbolising the totalising blockage of the sinners enclosed within themselves and enclosed there, is such that it is impossible to navigate out of that place. Without a point of light, without stars or sun, there is no way to find one’s own way out of Hell. Only the right guide can save you.

20In Purgatorio, we find instead an alignment between astronomical and moral points of orientation, as becomes immediately clear when the pilgrim sees Cato:

vidi presso di me un veglio solo,
Li raggi de le quattro luci sante
fregiavan sì la sua faccia di lume,
ch’i’’l vedea come ‘l sol fosse davante. (Purg., i. 31, 37-39)

[I saw close by me a solitary old man, […] The rays of the four holy lights so adorned his face with brightness that I saw him as if the sun had been before him.]

  • 4 Erich Auerbach notes that Cato’s ‘figural role as the guardian of earthly political freedom is ful (...)

21This is, in fact, the second of this vertical series of hermeneutical challenges. To some degree, the way in which we resolve the challenge at the entrance of each realm functions as a kind of test for us as readers. Our resolution will in some way determine our reading of the entire canticle to follow. And each canticle of the Comedy must be read in a different key, employing different tools. There has been much ink spilled over the problem of the ‘reality’ of these four stars. Yes, they stand for the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, but the dense context of reference to Venus, to Pisces, etc., indicate that Dante wishes us to understand them also as literal stars, also as natural phenomena. They are points of orientation in a part of the world as yet unknown to us and they point directly to Cato, a historical person whose concrete life is taken here, in this place, as emblematic of moral virtue. His presence as momentary guide – and there will be many of these in Purgatorio, while there was only Virgil in Inferno – is a perfect alignment of celestial, moral and human reference. Cato’s presence is another immense challenge to the reader. What do we do with the life of the historical Cato, a pagan, a republican, a suicide?4 How do we understand the place of that historical specificity in the text?

22We might begin by noting that Purgatorio is of the earth, but its points of orientation are, as we see in the example of the stars that Dante notes, partly recognizable and partly entirely new. We may use some of our earthly coordinates to navigate here, but some should be left behind as we look toward, other, new, markers of place and of identity. The poet stages a little faux pas on Virgil’s part that helps the reader process the challenge of orientation posed by the intersection of our knowledge of the historical Cato and the beplumed guardian even as it gives us a sense of the new coordinates, the new horizons, of this realm. Virgil refers back to Cato’s suicide at Utica, giving the name of the place in an assertion of and recollection of historical geographies, and appeals for help in the name of Marcia, Cato’s wife, who now inhabits Limbo. Cato’s chilly rebuke redraws geographical boundaries and sets new points of reference:

‘Marzïa piacque tanto a li occhi miei
mentre ch’i’ fu’ di là’, diss’ elli allora,
‘che quante grazie volse da me, fei.
Or che di là dal mal fiume dimora,
più muover non mi può, per quella legge
che fatta fu quando me n’usci’ fora’. (Purg., i. 85-90)

[‘Marcia so pleased my eyes when I was back there’, he said then, ‘that whatever kindness she wished from me, I did. Now that she dwells beyond the evil river, she can move me no longer, according to the law that was made when I came forth from there’.]

23Cato does not respond to Virgil’s evocation of Utica; such places are no longer relevant to him. The only coordinate that matters is the boundary line of the ‘mal fiume’, dividing the saved from the damned. Now that Marcia is beyond that line, she can do no more to move him. She is certainly not forgotten, but she, as well as other aspects of Cato’s personal history, has been re-framed by a broader vision with added, and more compelling, points of reference.

24For the pilgrim, the re-orientation needed here constitutes something of a return. As in the first canto of Inferno, Dante must retrace his steps, going back down before he can ascend the mountain. Cato tells them:

lo sol vi mosterrà, che surge omai,
prendere il monte a più lieve salita. (Purg., i. 107-108)

[the sun will show you, for it is rising now, where to take the mountain by an easier ascent.]

25In other words, as he begins again, the pilgrim must follow the lead of the sun. With Virgil at his side, rather than leading him, he will once again take up the challenge that defeated him in the first canto of Inferno. He will ascend a mountain (not just a hill this time – though it is clear that the poet means for us to make connections between the colle of Inferno i and the monte of Purgatorio i), taking the sun as a guide.

  • 5 Two readings that I found particularly helpful on Paradiso i are: Sara Sturm, ‘Credibility in the (...)

26In Paradiso, the issue of orientation is again utterly different.5 We are no longer on earth, there is no more landscape, and, as in Hell, we are in an eternal space. If it is difficult to navigate Hell because of the absence of celestial markers, difficult to navigate earth and Purgatorio because of things that impede our adherence to our clearly marked path, such as forests, beasts, tiredness, the need for sleep, etc., it would be a challenge to navigate Paradiso because of the sheer proximity of the sun and the stars. In Purgatorio, the coordinates of place are also the all-important coordinates of time. The sun, stars, recognizable constellations and planets, all join in a choreography that maps the pilgrim’s progress through space and time. But it is distance from these heavenly bodies that constitutes their relative meaning. To be in Paradiso is to be immersed in the simultaneity and blinding light of the heavenly spheres, in the place where all of historical time is seen as one indivisible moment. Fortunately, there is no need to ‘navigate’ in Paradiso, and we must first of all relinquish our sense of needing to find our own way in order to understand what it means to enter into this realm. But how does the individual, historical human fit at all, or even just be in his or her place, in a realm without coordinates?

27The third of those particular challenges to the reader in terms of conceptualizing the relationship between body and place occurs here:

Surge ai mortali per diverse foci
la lucerna del mondo; ma da quella
che quattro cerchi giugne con tre croci,
con miglior corso e con migliore stella
esce congiunta, e la mondana cera
più a suo modo tempera e suggella. (Par., i. 37-42).

[The lantern of the world rises to mortals through divers outlets, but from the one that joins four circles with three crosses it comes forth with better course and joined to better stars, and it tempers and seals the waxy world more to its manner.]

28How are we to understand the place that Dante designates as four circles joined with three crosses? There has been considerable debate upon this point. What does seem clear is that in this detailed description of the sun’s point of entrance, there is a very specific reference to a certain point in time that references both the Creation and the Resurrection. At this locus of astronomical circles and crosses, the poet stages an intersection between the pilgrim’s voyage that takes place in time, in Easter week of 1300, and the eternal realm into which he enters. The pilgrim rises to Paradiso in the time of Christ’s Resurrection, or when Christ’s historical being is transformed into eternal being, and also in the time in which Creation was thought to occur, or when the eternal made space for historical time. In a parallel way, the historical individual that is Dante Alighieri enters into the eternal space that is Paradiso, with his body. Or at least that is how I understand it; because this is the second fold of the interpretive crux that we run up against at the opening of Paradiso. So first: Can those four celestial circles be joined with three crosses or is this merely an allegorical vision of the four cardinal virtues meeting the three theological virtues? It depends on mappings and understandings of ecliptics, equinoxes, etc. But this problem as to whether Dante can be referencing real astronomical phenomena and whether he is doing so accurately, or even intends to do so accurately, is paired with a major theological issue. The second fold: Does Dante really mean for us to believe that he ascends to Paradiso in body? Echoing Paul, he says:

S’i’ era sol di me quel che creasti
novellamente, amor che ‘l ciel governi,
tu ‘l sai, che col tuo lume mi levasti. (Par., i. 73-75)

[If I was solely that part of me which you created last, O Love who govern the heavens, you know, for you raised me up with your light.]

29It is precisely the pilgrim’s confusion that follows soon after these lines that suggests that he is, in fact, there in body. Once again, as in the first canto of Inferno, he is entirely disoriented, as his human senses perceive something beyond their purview. A human body that depends on orientation to understand its place has entered into the coordinates of orientation themselves:

parvemi tanto allor del cielo acceso
de la fiamma del sol, che pioggia o fiume
lago non fece alcun tanto disteso. (Par., i. 79-81)
[so much of the sky seemed to be on fire with the flame of the sun then, that rain or river never made so extended a lake.]

  • 6 On the nature of the point, see Christian Moevs, ‘Il punto che mi vinse’, in Dante’s ‘Commedia’: T (...)

30The sun, that reappears in each of these first cantos as a point of orientation, is here present as an immense expanse to be entered into. It is no longer a question of turning the body towards or away from some distant point, but rather of allowing that body to be naturally subsumed by that point that reveals itself to be encompassing. This, on a microcosmic level, is a preparation for the appearance of God as point in Paradiso, but as a point that is, ultimately, the generative circumference of all creation.6 Beatrice explains to him:

Tu non se’ in terra, sì come tu credi;
ma folgore, fuggendo il proprio sito,
non corse come tu ch’ad esso riedi. (Par., i. 91-93)

[You are not on earth as you believe, but lightning, fleeing its proper place, never sped so fast as you, going back to yours.]

31The pilgrim’s confusion of place is such that he has not recognized that he is no longer on earth, but this time, his disorientation is unproblematic. His movement here needs no guide. But he continues to need to orient himself and this, for the reader, is a great mercy. It is the particularity of the pilgrim, his human, corporeal historicity, that provides us with an in, with a mode of navigating Paradise.


1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website,
As this text was prepared as a public lecture for a general audience, I have not brought an extended critical apparatus to bear on the reading. In the pages that follow, I have signaled in footnotes only a few critical works that were particularly helpful in my preparation of the reading.

2 All citations from the Comedy are from Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, Commedia, 3 vols (Milan: Mondadori, 1991, 1994, 1997). Her introductions and notes offer excellent summaries of, as well as contributions to, the critical debates in each of these canti. On the first canto of the Inferno, readings that I have found particularly useful are: Giorgio Petrocchi, ‘Il proemio del poema’, in his Itinerari danteschi (Bari: Adriatica, 1969), pp. 257-75; John Freccero, ‘The Prologue Scene’, in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, ed. by Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 1-28; Freccero, ‘The Firm Foot on a Journey Without a Guide’, in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, pp. 29-54; Guglielmo Gorni, ‘Canto I’, in Lectura Dantis Turicensis: Inferno, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Franco Cesati, 2000), pp. 27-38.

3 Readings of Purgatorio i that I found particularly useful are: Johannes Bartuschat, ‘Canto I’, in Lectura Dantis Turicensis: Purgatorio, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Franco Cesati, 2001), pp. 13-28; Antonio Illiano, Sulle sponde del Prepurgatorio: Poesia e arte narrativa nel preludio all’ascesa (Purg. I-III 66) (Florence: Cadmo, 1997). On the connections between Purgatorio i and Inferno i, see the ‘Inter cantica’ section in the notes to canto 1 in Purgatorio, ed. and trans. by Robert M. Durling, introduction and notes by Ronald L. Martinez and Robert M. Durling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 33; Anna Pegoretti, ‘Dalla “piaggia” del prologo al “lito diserto” della seconda cantica’, in her Dal “lito diserto” al giardino: La costruzione del paesaggio nel Purgatorio di Dante (Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2007), pp. 52-53.

4 Erich Auerbach notes that Cato’s ‘figural role as the guardian of earthly political freedom is fulfilled in the role he plays at the foot of the Mount of Purgatory as the guardian of the eternal freedom of the elect’. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. by Willard Ropes Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 196.

5 Two readings that I found particularly helpful on Paradiso i are: Sara Sturm, ‘Credibility in the Commedia: Paradiso I’, Dante Studies 87 (1969), 139-45; Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s ‘Note integrative’ at the end of Paradiso I, pp. 39-41.

6 On the nature of the point, see Christian Moevs, ‘Il punto che mi vinse’, in Dante’s ‘Commedia’: Theology as Poetry, ed. by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).


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