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Vertical Readings in Dante's Comedy. Volume 2

 | 
George Corbett
, 
Heather Webb

17. Seductive Lies, Unpalatable Truths, Alter Egos1

Tristan Kay

Texte intégral

  • 1 I would like to thank George Corbett and Heather Webb for inviting to me to participate in the Vert (...)

1Forming what might be regarded as the central column of the three cantiche of Dante’s Commedia, the Seventeens are cantos of considerable, even pivotal, narrative and philosophical importance, yet they do not form an obvious triad. From the dramatic descent on the monster Geryon in the Inferno, to Virgil’s disquisition on love in the Purgatorio, to Cacciaguida’s prophecies in the Heaven of Mars, we are, in each case, on very different thematic and stylistic terrain. In preparing this reading, I have nonetheless been struck by a number of threads, symmetries and oppositions that can be traced across this sequence. At the very least, these connections can help us to bring three distinctive cantos into a productive and revealing conversation, and in certain cases are so pronounced as to make us entertain the possibility of a conscious ‘vertical’ strategy on the part of the poet himself. In particular, these three ‘halfway’ cantos share a strongly metapoetic focus, featuring metatextual imagery and important statements of purpose, and, in this light, I shall ultimately consider how the Seventeens together contribute to Dante’s definition of his poem as a ‘comedy’. I shall begin, however, by briefly reviewing the content and some of the most important ideas that emerge from the Seventeens, before highlighting the structural prominence accorded to the three cantos and reflecting upon some of the imagery, themes and intertexts that might be seen to connect them.

  • 2 See Aen., vi. 289. Durling and Martinez detail various sources for Dante’s description of Geryon, f (...)
  • 3 Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2 (...)
  • 4 Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University (...)

2Inferno xvii represents a key moment of transition in the first cantica. It begins in the third and final section of the circle of violence, the seventh circle of Hell, and ultimately recounts the dramatic descent of Dantepilgrim and Virgil into Malebolge, the circle of fraud. Dante and Virgil descend on the back of the beast Geryon, who had been described in classical literature, including by Virgil, as a monster with three bodies.2 The opening description of Dante’s Geryon as ‘quella sozza imagine di froda’ [that filthy image of fraud] (Inf., xvii. 7) presents him as the embodiment of the sin punished in the eighth circle. His benign ‘faccia d’uom giusto’ [face of a just man] (l. 10) distracts us from his hairy forepaws and his serpentine body and tail, as do the vivid colours and extravagant patterns that adorn his flanks. For Robert Hollander, this tripartite form renders him ‘the counterfeit of Christ, three-in-one rather than one in three’.3 As has been widely noted by commentators, Geryon’s monstrous body maps out the way in which fraud unfolds: the righteous countenance and seductive colours, whether visual or rhetorical, lure in and distract the victim until the fraudulent deed (represented by his tail’s ‘venenosa forca’ [poisonous fork], l. 26) is done. Geryon, indeed, has fascinated critics not only as an embodiment of fraud but also as what Teodolinda Barolini describes as the ‘locus classicus for textual self-awareness in the Commedia’,4 a daring and supremely self-reflexive creation highly attuned not only to the linguistic dimension of fraud, but also to aspects of the poem’s own unique textuality.

  • 5 Hollander, Inferno, p. 324.
  • 6 See, for example, the comparison of the sinners to flea-ridden dogs in lines 49–51 and the usurer R (...)

3Following the introduction of Geryon comes Dante-pilgrim’s encounter with the usurers. Their charging of interest upon loans, an activity strongly associated with Dante’s native Florence, defied the natural law whereby reward should follow corresponding toil. The usurers in Hell are accordingly static, ‘unmoved movers hunched over their desks in pursuit of gain’.5 This is a group depicted by the poet with contempt, taking on the sort of subhuman characteristics that become increasingly common in Malebolge.6 While the pilgrim goes to speak to the usurers alone, Virgil prepares Geryon for their descent to the circle below. The descent itself takes up the third and final phase of the canto. Dante describes the hairraising flight and the fear it aroused within him with reference to the illfated flights of two errant Ovidian figures, Phaeton (Met., i. 747-ii. 332) and Icarus (Met., viii. 183–259). Through these similes, he reflects upon his protagonist’s submission to authority and highlights the opposition between a tragic, pagan world view, lacking an underlying principle of salvation, and the redemptive Christian vision of his own Comedy.

  • 7 Hollander notes the way in which the experience of these visions serves as a ‘trial run’ for the vi (...)

4Like its infernal counterpart, Purgatorio xvii is a transitional canto that straddles two zones of the realm in question. Here we move from the terrace of the wrathful, the last terrace devoted to sins of misdirected love, to the terrace of sloth, a sin of love lacking vigour. We can again divide the narrative into three distinct phases. Firstly, the pilgrim experiences a series of ecstatic visions in which he perceives three exemplars of destructive anger.7 In the middle of the canto, Dante receives the blessing from the angel of meekness, before he and Virgil stop wearily in a liminal space between the terraces. This pause in the narrative provides the opportunity for Virgil, who is accorded here an extraordinary degree of theological insight, to offer one of the most important philosophical discourses of the poem, taking up the last fifty-four lines of the canto, on the nature of love and its role in informing the moral order of Purgatory. Virgil presents ‘amor’ [love] as present in every being, encompassing both creature and creator, but draws a distinction in humans between ‘natural’ love, always directed towards the highest good, and ‘elective’ love, which is subject to free will and thus able to err in its chosen object or its degree, thereby leading us to sin. We learn that the seven deadly sins, punished on the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, fall into three broader categories: misdirected love (pride, envy, wrath), insufficient love (sloth), and the excessive love of secondary goods (avarice, gluttony, lust). This doctrine of love is further developed in canto xviii, especially in relation to free will, and its importance is underlined by its situation at the very core of the Commedia.

  • 8 See Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, ed. by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi (Milan: Mondadori, 1997), pp. 4 (...)
  • 9 Durling and Martinez note that the hapax ‘ambage’ evokes the oracles of the pagan gods. See Dante A (...)

5Paradiso xvii, the third canto of a triptych dedicated to Dante’s encounter with his great-great-grandfather, the crusader Cacciaguida, constitutes one of the poem’s truly climactic episodes, forming the apex of the poem’s ‘historical’ dimension.8 While the previous two cantos in the Heaven of Mars had focused primarily upon Cacciaguida’s personal history and the former glories and current vicissitudes of the city of Florence, canto xvii contains two vital messages delivered by Dante’s ancestor. First, Cacciaguida gives the definitive prophecy of Dante’s painful exile from Florence. He explains with clear words and precise language — ‘con chiare parole e preciso latin’ (l. 34) — what had formerly been articulated through ‘ambage’ [ambiguities] (l. 31).9 He tells of the pain, poverty, and humiliation that await Dante, the patrons who will protect him, and the former political allies who will betray him. Yet this experience of exile will prove bittersweet, for Cacciaguida spells out explicitly that Dante’s journey has had a dual purpose. Not only has it been a salvific one from Dante’s individual perspective, but it has served as the basis for a divinely sanctioned poem to be written for the edification of the ‘mondo che mal vive’ [world that lives ill] (Purg., xxxii. 103). We learn, indeed, that the ‘anime che son di fama note’ [souls who are known to fame] (l. 138), whom the pilgrim has encountered on his journey, have been selected to provide the most potent examples to his future readers. Thinking ‘vertically’, we might contrast the ‘fama’ described here with the marked infamy of the dehumanized usurers, of whom Dante stated: ‘non ne conobbi alcun’ [I recognized none] (Inf., xvii. 54). The pilgrim is told that, in reporting his experience, he must foreswear all falsehood, must not fear the consequences of his poem’s provocative content. Indeed, exile becomes the requisite platform for Dante in writing this uncompromising poem. Now detached from civic and party-political allegiances, he may speak with a unique candour. Like the descent on Geryon, this encounter with Cacciaguida in canto xvii also features conspicuous allusions to Ovidian figures, as Dante again compares himself to Phaeton as well as to the unjustly exiled Hippolytus. Each figure ostensibly appears as a kind of figura dantis, but, as in the Inferno, Dante is asking us to consider situational contrasts between his Christian protagonist and his pagan alter egos.

  • 10 Barolini describes Inferno xvi–xvii as ‘a land of transition, and proximity to the boundary between (...)
  • 11 Charles Singleton describes this as ‘the central pivot of the whole poem’. See Charles Singleton, ‘ (...)
  • 12 John Logan describes this revelation as being ‘as important to the pilgrim as was the great exposit (...)

6It is immediately apparent that, in addition to their thematic heterogeneity, the Seventeens are characterized by very different kinds of poetry: from visceral narrative drama in the Inferno, to philosophical disquisition in the Purgatorio, to intensely personal and prophetic dialogue in the Paradiso. All three cantos are nonetheless pivotal with respect to the development of the narrative as a whole, each representing a different kind of watershed. Inferno xvii marks the passage into Malebolge, a circle distanced in moral, spatial and poetic terms from the previous seven circles;10 Purgatorio xvii sees Virgil elaborate upon a principle that is the foundation of Dante’s Christian ethics and key to the structure of his second realm;11 and Paradiso xvii features the conversation between the pilgrim and his forebear that finally renders his exile from Florence and the very purpose of his journey explicit.12

  • 13 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 287. See also Singleton: ‘Thus Love, as the central concern and argume (...)
  • 14 See Durling and Martinez, II, p. 611, citing Manfred Hardt, ‘I numeri nella poetica di Dante’, Stud (...)
  • 15 On Malebolge as a narrative and stylistic watershed, see Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 74–76.
  • 16 Hollander describes the successful flight, often seen as microcosmic of the poem as a whole, as a ‘ (...)

7It is no coincidence that the Seventeens feature these episodes, concepts, and revelations of decisive importance, for they are structurally privileged cantos. Purgatorio xvii and Paradiso xvii are the central cantos of their respective cantiche, preceded and followed in each case by sixteen cantos. Indeed, it is at the centre of his central cantica that Dante situates Virgil’s exposition of what Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez describe as ‘the central principle of all things, as well as the central problem of human life’.13 The discourse is thereby placed on a pedestal, and the exact centre of the Commedia (Purg., xvii. 125) falls at the precise midpoint of Virgil’s speech.14 The centrality of Inferno xvii is, of course, less pronounced, since the Inferno features thirty-four rather than thirty-three cantos. Accordingly, the midpoint of the cantica falls between cantos xvii and xviii — the point of transition from the circle of violence to Malebolge and an undoubted watershed in the first cantica.15 Rather than as representing a ‘central’ episode, we might thus consider Dante and Virgil’s flight upon Geryon as the climactic episode in a demarcated first half of the Inferno.16

8This impression that Dante himself was highly attuned to the centrality associated with the Seventeens is reinforced in the Purgatorio and Paradiso by some intriguing structural and numerological patterns. In his essay ‘The Poet’s Number at the Center’, Charles Singleton notes the symmetrical disposition of the number of lines belonging to the seven cantos that surround Purgatorio xvii:

  • 17 Singleton, p. 2.
  • 18 Singleton, p. 8.
  • 19 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 610.

9Singleton claims his identification of a cluster of seven cantos is supported by the sevens we are given by adding together the digits 151 at either end of the sequence. Furthermore, at the centre of cantos xvi and xviii, either side of our canto, we find corresponding references to the vital concept of ‘libero arbitrio’ [free will]: xvi. 71 and xviii. 74.17 Each of these is preceded and followed in the canto by twenty-five terzine, with the numbers two and five again combining to give a seven. The number seven is, argues Singleton, the ‘number of Creation’,18 while Durling and Martinez note its numerous resonances in medieval culture, encompassing the seven planets, the vices and virtues, the sacraments, the ecclesiastical orders, and the liberal arts.19 Additionally, it corresponds in the purgatorial context to the seven terraces that make up the second realm. Singleton regarded this highly contrived numerological sequence as a kind of ‘signature’ at the very core of the poem, marking its completeness and perfection, and serving as an affirmation of divine order that corresponds to the reordering of errant desire that is the essence of the second cantica.

  • 20 See Logan. On the centres of all three cantiche, see Riccardo Ambrosini, ‘Canto XVII’, in Lectura D (...)
  • 21 As well as in the essays in question, both Singleton’s and Logan’s sequences are usefully set out b (...)

10Paradiso xvii, too, is framed by a numerological pattern that highlights its structural, as well as narrative, centrality. John Logan traces a similar symmetrical pattern in the number of lines in the cantos ‘framing’ Paradiso xvii.20 He focuses not on the totals themselves, as had Singleton in the case of the Purgatorio, but rather on the sum of their constituent digits (for example, 139 lines = 1 + 3 + 9 = 13):21

x

148 =

13

--

xi

139 =

13

******

xii

145 =

10

*****

xiii

142 =

7

****

xiv

139 =

13

***

xv

148 =

13

**

xvi

154 =

10

*

xvii

142 =

7

Centre

xviii

136 =

10

*

xix

148 =

13

**

xx

148 =

13

***

xxi

142 =

7

****

xxii

154 =

10

*****

xxiii

139 =

13

******

xxiv

154 =

10

--

  • 22 Logan, p. 98.

11Indeed, while one must be circumspect with respect to numerological patterns in the
Commedia, Logan identifies an analogous pattern in the Purgatorio, thereby reinforcing Singleton’s argument and all but confirming an authorial intention (symmetries of this particular kind are found nowhere else in the poem).22 The Seventeens, probably more than any vertical sequence, thus underline the extraordinary attention to structure and numerology characteristic of the Commedia, whose architectural intricacy and harmony is intended as a manifestation of the perfection of God’s creation. They confirm, moreover, Dante’s own sense of their ‘centrality’, their place as a structural pillar at the heart of his poem, thematically divergent but containing concepts and episodes that are decisive both in the reader’s experience of the narrative and the pilgrim’s experience of the journey.

  • 23 Like other contributors, I must stress that we cannot know whether the correspondences I set out in (...)
  • 24 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 291.

12In addition to their structural and architectural prominence, the Seventeens are also connected by a number of thematic and lexical threads that invite interesting comparative readings and illuminate facets of the relationship between the three cantiche.23 Firstly, motion, and in particular images of vertical ascent and descent, play an important role in all three cantos. In the inter-cantica section of their edition of the Purgatorio, Durling and Martinez note the ascent followed by the descent of Geryon in Inferno xvii and the ecstatic visions in Purgatorio xvii that fall like raindrops into Dante’s fantasy — ‘piovve dentro a l’alta fantasia…’ [there rained into my lofty fantasy…] (l. 25) — before breaking up like rising bubbles (‘a guisa d’una bulla / cui manca l’aqua sotto qual si feo, / surse in mia visïone…’ [like a bubble losing the water beneath which it formed, there arose in my vision…], ll. 32–34).24 We might add to this the toilsome ascent of Virgil and Dante up Mount Purgatory itself and, in Paradiso xvii, the image of Dante forlornly ascending and descending the staircase of his patrons in exile: ‘come è duro calle, / lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale’ [what a hard path it is to descend and mount by another’s stairs] (ll. 59–60). We in fact find references to stairs in all three cantos. Geryon is described by Virgil as a staircase (‘si scende per sì fatte scale’ [we descend by stairs like these], l. 82), in light of his role of lowering the pilgrim and his guide into Malebolge. We encounter the angel of meekness in Purgatorio xvii atop a staircase (‘io con lui volgemmo i nostri passi ad una scala’ [with him I turned my feet toward a stairway], l. 65); ‘Noi eravam dove più non saliva / la scala sù’ [We were where the stairway rose no further], ll. 76–77). Finally, in Paradiso xvii, we find the staircase to be wearily mounted and descended by the exiled Dante. These staircases thus pertain, in sequence, to infernal descent, purgatorial ascent, and lastly to the forlorn and repetitive rhythms of Dante’s life in exile. This last instance might be contrasted, outside of the vertical framework, with the inexorable ascent towards the divine associated with the ‘scala santa’ [holy stairway] (Par., xxi. 64) we later find in the Heaven of Saturn.

  • 25 Durling and Martinez note this abundance of nautical imagery in the canto (I, p. 268 ff.).

13Secondly, nautical imagery connects the three cantos. Geryon, prior to Dante and Virgil’s descent, is likened to a docked boat (‘Come talvolta stanno a riva i burchi, / che parte sono in acqua e parte in terra’ [As skiffs lie on the shore at times, partly in water and partly on land], ll. 19–20), then later to a boat leaving its port (‘come la navicella esce di loco / in dietro in dietro, sì quindi si tolse…’ [As a little boat moves from its place backward, backward, so he moved thence], ll. 100–01), and finally to an eel during the descent itself (‘là ’v’era ’l petto, la coda rivolse, / e quella tesa, come anguilla, mosse’ [he turned his tail where his breast had been, and, extending it, he moved it like an eel’s], ll. 103–04).25 The first two of these images resonate in Purgatorio xvii, where Dante and Virgil come to a halt like a boat coming to shore: ‘pur come nave ch’a la piaggia arriva’ [like a ship that is beached] (l. 78). As with the staircases, we see a change of direction from one cantica to the next (‘la navicella esce di loco’; ‘come nave ch’a la piaggia arriva’), reflecting the Purgatorio’s wider concern with homecoming and the pilgrim’s overcoming of infernal exile. There is a prominent nautical simile in Paradiso xvii, too, used to explain how God’s knowledge of future events does not determine them (‘necessità però quindi non prende / se non come dal viso in che si specchia/nave che per torrente giù discende’ [it does not, however, take necessity from there, any more than from the eye in which is mirrored a ship that floats downstream], ll. 40–42).

  • 26 Elena Lombardi describes the association as being ‘as old as literature itself’ (The Wings of the D (...)

14Dante also draws on weaving in each of the Seventeens, both in its mythological and technical aspects. For Dante, as for other medieval and classical authors, weaving is often related to questions of language and textuality and, indeed, features in several important metapoetic passages in the Commedia.26 In the metatextual description of Geryon in Inferno xvii, the monster’s extravagantly coloured body is compared to vivid Turkish and Tartar textiles and to those created by the mythological weaver Arachne, guilty of hubris in her weaving contest with the goddess Minerva and punished by being turned into a spider for her brilliant but irreverent tapestries of the pagan gods: ‘Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte / non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi, / né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte’ [with more colours, in weave and embroidery, did never Tartars nor Turks make cloths, nor did Arachne string the loom for such tapestries] (ll. 16–18). Dante draws here upon a technical semantics of weaving (‘sommesse’, ‘sovraposte’, ‘imposte’), before doing so again in Paradiso xvii. There, as Cacciaguida finishes his first speech, Dante describes him as having completed the ‘textile’ that the pilgrim had begun: ‘Poi che, tacendo, si mostrò spedita / l’anima santa di metter la trama / in quella tela ch’io le porsi ordita’ [When, falling silent, that holy soul showed it had finished pulling the weft through the warp I had held out to him] (ll. 100–02). Cacciaguida, in finishing his answer to the pilgrim’s question (the ‘warp’: the fixed threads) with his response (the ‘weft’: the crosswise threads), has completed the ‘weave’. The metaphor implicitly figures the text of the Commedia as a tapestry of voices coming together to form a unified and coherent whole, with Dante the poet as the master weaver who skilfully unifies the disparate parts.

  • 27 On Arachne’s relationship to Ulysses, and to the transgressive quality of Dante’s poem, see Barolin (...)

15This designation, indeed, seems particularly apposite in the case of the Seventeens, where — in Dante’s meticulous framing of the cantos discussed above — we witness such highly self-conscious structural ‘weaving’. The myth of Procne and Philomela, evoked as one of the exemplars of wrath in Purgatorio xvii, is also concerned with this ancient art. Procne killed her son in an act of wrath after her sister Philomela had told her, through images woven onto a tapestry, that Procne’s husband Tereus had raped her and cut out her tongue. Ill-fated mythological weavers therefore feature in Inferno xvii and Purgatorio xvii, followed, in Paradiso xvii, by a metaphor that figures Dante the poet as a weaver and the Commedia as a woven textile. The weaver of the Commedia, acting in accordance with divine will and instigating positive moral change, stands in opposition to the ancient weavers evoked in the earlier cantos, whose tapestries defied divine authority or else brought about chaos, conflict and self-annihilation.27

16We can note that alimentary metaphors, while common in the poem, feature at especially important moments in Purgatorio xvii and Paradiso xvii, in both cases with reference to vital processes of knowledge and understanding. In Purgatorio xvii, Virgil tells Dante to pay close attention to his discourse on love to benefit from the pause in their ascent: ‘volgi la mente a me, e prenderai / alcun buon frutto di nostra dimora’ [turn your mind to me, and you will take some good fruit from our delay] (ll. 88–90). In Paradiso xvii, Dante describes the bitter taste that his words may have if he candidly retells what he has seen (‘ho io appreso quel che s’io ridico / a molti fia sapor di forte agrume’ [I have learned much that, if I relate it, to many will bring a most bitter taste], ll. 116–17), before Cacciaguida uses a further digestive metaphor in describing the transformative effects of Dante’s poem upon its future audience: ‘Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta / nel primo gusto, vital nodrimento / lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta’ [For if your voice will be painful at the first taste, it will leave vital nourishment later, when it is digested] (ll. 130–32).

  • 28 On this sense of progression from improper sympathy to firm rebuttal, in five phases of the Inferno(...)

17Another thematic point of contact between the Seventeens is the question of Dante’s growing autonomy, as both pilgrim and poet. In Inferno xvii, Virgil, occupied in preparing Geryon for their descent to Malebolge, trusts Dante for the first time to encounter a group of sinners, the usurers, alone: ‘Acciò che tutta piena / esperïenza d’esto giron porti, / […] va, e vedi la lor mena’ [That you may carry away full experience of this subcircle, go, and see their behaviour] (ll. 37–39). Thus, Dante proceeds to encounter the usurers independently: ‘Così ancor su per la strema testa / di quel settimo cerchio tutto solo / andai…’ [So once more along the outer edge of that seventh circle I walked all alone] (ll. 43–45, emphasis mine). This points to the pilgrim’s mastery over sins of violence: having earlier felt compassion towards Pier della Vigna and Brunetto Latini, he is confident and contemptuous when confronted by the usurers.28 Paradiso xvii, too, stages a kind of conferral of autonomy onto Dante, but in this case it is onto Dante the poet. Cacciaguida famously commands Dante to embrace the isolation that will be his in exile. Rather than aligning himself with his feckless White Guelph compatriots in exile — ‘la compagnia malvagia e scempia’ [the wicked, dimwitted company] (l. 62); ‘tutta ingrata, tutta matta ed empia / si farà contr’ a te’ [who will be utterly ungrateful, mad, and cruel against you] (l. 64) — it will behove him to form a party of himself alone: ‘sì ch’a te fia bello / averti fatta parte per te stesso’ [so that it will be well to have become a party unto yourself] (ll. 68–69). This radical autonomy is the necessary condition for the author of the Commedia, allowing him to speak in a truthful manner, condemning Guelph and Ghibelline factions alike as he reaffirms the common purpose of humanity and the unifying role of imperial authority. The journey undertaken by the pilgrim, in order to become the poet, is necessarily one of emancipation, from party-political as well as sinful bonds, of gaining political and moral autonomy, and both these matters are strongly in evidence in these particular cantos.

  • 29 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 291.
  • 30 Ibid.

18Finally, as noted by Durling and Martinez, Inferno xvii and Purgatorio xvii share a number of references to errant deviation, in verbs such as ‘abbandonare’ [abandon] (Inf., xvii. 107; Purg., xvii. 136) and ‘torcersi’ [twist] (Inf., xvii. 28; Purg., xvii. 100), as well as references to a ‘freno’ [bridle] (Inf., xvii. 107) not prudently deployed.29 In the infernal context, these words apply to the wayward flights of Phaeton and Icarus, which veer off course as they take a ‘mala via’ [bad course] (l. 117). In the Purgatorio, they relate foremost to wayward loves in Virgil’s exposition of the structure of Purgatory: a love that ‘al mal si torce’ [turns aside to evil] (l. 100) or ‘l’amor ch’ad esso troppo s’abbandona’ [a love that abandons itself excessively to secondary goods] (l. 136) — what Durling and Martinez describe as ‘the moral equivalent of Phaeton’s mad career’.30 In both cases, there is an emphasis placed on the dangers of imprudence and excess, of a lack of moral fortitude or a failure to submit to divine authority. Such deviation contrasts with the inexorable progress of Dante’s journey through the afterlife. This journey, sanctioned by God, arrives unerringly at its destination. Its narrative arc is represented emblematically in the flight of Geryon and its movement from fear and uncertainty to resolution. This movement is evident, moreover, in Paradiso xvii, which begins with Dante, again like his mythological antecedent Phaeton, fearing for his future, due to the ‘parole gravi’ [grave words] he has heard below, but ends with his fears placated and with a reinforced sense of certainty and of poetic and spiritual vocation.

19Both the successful flight of Geryon and the powerful certainties offered by Cacciaguida thus encapsulate the poem’s wider tendency towards Christian resolution. Indeed, the fact that both episodes unfold in the shadow of tragic Ovidian myths — the ‘mad flights’ of Phaeton and Icarus and the unjust worldly exile of Hippolytus, untempered by spiritual redemption — underlines the key distinction between Christian ‘comedy’ and pagan ‘tragedy’ that appears especially important in the Seventeens, particularly so in the infernal and paradisiacal cantos. My reading so far has offered a sense of the cantos’ diversity of style and content (and consequent resistance to any sort of ‘global’ vertical reading, as per the ‘political’ Sixes) as well as their surprising range of affinities. In the remaining pages, however, I shall seek to give a more integrated reading of what I regard as a strongly metapoetic group of cantos. In light of the poem’s status as a ‘comedy’, I shall focus on two interrelated questions: firstly, the relationship between Geryon (as ‘sozza imagine di frode’) and Cacciaguida’s instructions to Dante as poet of the Commedia; and secondly, the cluster of mythological figures with whom Dante establishes both analogies and contrasts in these cantos.

20The label of ‘comedy’ is especially pertinent in considering the Seventeens because the description of Geryon in Inferno xvii is prefaced by a passage, at the end of the previous canto, in which Dante refers to his poem as a comedy for the very first time. Indeed, Inferno xvii must be seen to unfold in light of the notion, taken for granted by us but not by the text’s first readers, that this poem is to be considered a ‘comedìa’ (Inf., xvi. 128). It comes as Dante the narrator seemingly insists upon the literal truth of perhaps the most implausible moment of the entire Inferno:

     Sempre a quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna
de l’uom chiuder le labbra fin ch’el puote,
però che sanza colpa fa vergogna;
     ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note
di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro,
s’elle non sien di lunga grazia vòte,
     ch’i’ vidi per quell’aere grosso e scuro
venir notando una figura in suso,
maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro […] (
Inf., xvi. 124–32)

[Always to that truth which has the face of falsehood one should close one’s lips as long as one can, for without any guilt it brings shame; but here I cannot conceal it, and by the notes of this comedy, reader, I swear to you, so may they not fail to find long favour, that I saw, through that thick dark air, a figure come swimming upward, fearful to the most confident heart.]

  • 31 For Barolini, Geryon is ‘an outrageously paradoxical authenticating device: one that, by being so o (...)
  • 32 As Barolini summarizes: ‘although a comedìa may at times, as when representing Geryon, have the “fa (...)
  • 33 See Barański, ‘The “Marvellous” and the “Comic”’; Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 58–73; and Franco (...)
  • 34 Barolini, Undivine Comedy, p. 66. In her reading of Geryon as representing the poem, Barolini accou (...)

21Dante swears upon the very poem itself — ‘per le note / di questa comedìa’ — that this sight of the monstrous Geryon swimming through the air towards him was one truly experienced.31 The key words here are ‘quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna’, words often regarded as encapsulating Dante’s presentation of the Commedia as a whole.32 It is no coincidence that this description of the poem is juxtaposed with the description of Geryon at the beginning of canto xvii. Where Dante’s poem is classified as a truth with the face of a lie, Geryon is evidently presented as a lie with the face of truth: the foul embodiment of fraud with the benign face of a just man. While this juxtaposition places the Commedia in opposition to the kind of fraudulent discourse embodied by Geryon, it should be reiterated before proceeding that critics such as Barański, Barolini and Ferrucci have offered important insights into the ways in which this creature should also be seen to represent the poem itself and aspects of its unique textuality, especially in terms of its violation of stylistic norms.33 While Geryon is indeed to be understood, as Barolini states, as ‘both the poem and its antithesis’,34 it is the ‘antithetical’ side of this polysemous and indeed paradoxical monster that strikes me as most important in the context of this vertical reading — as the specious, fraudulent and embellished counterpoint to the Commedia’s humble and truthful realism.

  • 35 See, for example, Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Comedìa: Notes on Dante, the Epistle to Cangrande, and Medi (...)
  • 36 See Barański, ‘Comedìa’, who denies the Epistle is Dante’s on account of its highly conventional tr (...)

22The poem’s status as a ‘comedy’ has prompted extensive critical debate, in relation to classical and medieval poetics, that I am not able to rehearse in detail here.35 The suitability of the label has largely focused upon narrative and stylistic questions that are encapsulated in the Epistle to Cangrande, even if the letter is widely regarded as much more schematic in its discussion of style than the poem itself.36 In terms of narrative, the Epistle states:

Et est comedia genus quoddam poetice narrationis ab omnibus aliis differens. Differt ergo a tragedia in materia per hoc, quod tragedia in principio est admirabilis et quieta, in fine seu exitu est fetida et horribilis; et dicitur propter hoc a ‘tragos’ quod est hircus et ‘oda’ quasi ‘cantus hircinus’, idest fetidus ad modum hirci; ut patet per Senecam in suis tragediis. Comedia vero inchoat asperitatem alicuius rei, sed eius materia prospere terminatur, ut patet per Terentium in suis comediis. (xiii, 29)

[Now comedy is a certain kind of poetical narration which differs from all others. It differs, then, from tragedy in its subject-matter, in that tragedy at the beginning is admirable and placid, but at the end or issue is foul and horrible. And tragedy is so called from tragos, a goat, and oda; as it were agoat-song’, that is to say foul like a goat, as appears from the tragedies of Seneca. Whereas comedy begins with sundry adverse conditions, but ends happily, as appears from the comedies of Terence.]

  • 37 See, for example, Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Significar per verba: Notes on Dante and Plurilingualism’, (...)

23Naturally, in the case of the Commedia, this ‘comic’ arc concerns the journey from the dark wood of sin and confusion to salvation and the vision of God at the culmination of the Paradiso. With respect to language, the Epistle states: ‘Similiter differunt in modo loquendi: elate et sublime tragedia; comedia vero remisse et humiliter’ [Tragedy and comedy differ likewise in their style of language; for that of tragedy is high-flown and sublime, while that of comedy is unstudied and lowly] (xiii, 30). As has been widely explored by Dante scholars, the lowly and humble style of the Commedia can be considered both in terms of the fact that it is composed in the vernacular rather than Latin and also in terms of its non-adherence to rhetorical norms. Its stylistic approach is defined by its breadth and flexibility, its capacity to draw on a full spectrum of language in order to communicate as faithfully as possible the nature of a journey that encompasses the extremes of the created universe.37

24A vertical reading of the Seventeens sheds light on both these dimensions of the poem’s status as a ‘comedy’. Let us begin with the question of language and style. As noted above, in presenting Geryon as a living symbol of fraud, Dante is highly attentive to questions of language:

lo dosso e ’l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.
     Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte
non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte. (Inf., xvii. 14–18)

[it has back and breast and both sides painted with knots and little wheels: with more colours, in weave and embroidery, never Tartars nor Turks made cloths, nor did Arachne string the loom for such tapestries.]

  • 38 See Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 63–64.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 64.

25As noted by Barolini in particular, the references to ‘nodi’, ‘colori’ and weaving all carry clear associations in Dante’s work with language and textuality,38 while Arachne, the particular weaver evoked, is ‘the mythological figure who more than any other is an emblem for textuality, for weaving the webs of discourse’.39 As such, the language of fraud (or, depending on one’s emphasis, the textuality of the poem) is strongly foregrounded. If Geryon is to be considered in part a meditation on fraudulent language, then what precisely is it that constitutes fraudulent language? In light of Dante’s reference to abundant (rhetorical) knots and colours, it would seem to be an ornate and highly rhetorical language. Such an interpretation would indeed be fitting, anticipating the enticing but deceptive language associated with the seducers and the flatterers — the fraudulent sinners we encounter in the very next canto. Dante describes there the manipulative ‘parole ornate’ [polished words] (l. 91) of Ovid’s Jason, while the flatterers wallow in excrement that reflects their worthless sycophancy. In light of the rhetorical skill accorded to Francesca and Ulysses, it is clear that Dante is conscious of the potentially specious quality of highly ornate language. In Vita nova xxv, he condemns those poets (chiefly Guittone d’Arezzo) who cannot justify their use of ‘colori rettorici’ [rhetorical colours]. In Purgatorio xxiv (ll. 49–62), he contrasts those vernacular poets, constrained by an expressive ‘nodo’ [knot], whose contrived lyric expression contrasts with the inspired and spontaneous genesis of Dante’s own verse.

26This description of Geryon as an embodiment of fraudulent discourse takes on a further resonance, though, if read in conjunction with Paradiso xvii, and specifically Cacciaguida’s exhortations to Dante. I would suggest that Geryon can be glimpsed in the background of Paradiso xvii, the negative image of the kind of poetry that Cacciaguida demands. Dante of course tells Cacciaguida of a dilemma he faces. On the one hand, he fears his words, if entirely truthful, may leave a bitter taste among his readers and his future patrons; on the other, if he remains a ‘timid friend’ to truth, he risks compromising his poetic legacy and the transformative potential of his Commedia. In response, Cacciaguida urges Dante to remain steadfastly committed to a faithful articulation of his experience:

     indi rispuose: ‘Coscïenza fusca
o de la propria o de l’altrui vergogna
pur sentirà la tua parola brusca.
     Ma nondimen, rimossa ogne menzogna,
tutta tua visïon fa manifesta;
e lascia pur grattar dov’è la rogna.
     Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta
nel primo gusto, vital nodrimento
lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta’. (Par., xvii. 124–32)

[then he replied: ‘A conscience dark with its own or another’s shame will indeed feel your word to be harsh. But nonetheless, putting aside every falsehood, make manifest all your vision, and let them still scratch where the itch is. For if your voice will be painful at the first taste, it will leave vital nourishment later, when it is digested’.]

27As expressed so memorably here, Dante’s poem must be purged of every falsehood in its account of Dante’s vision. As in Inferno xvi–xvii, the Commedia is powerfully aligned with ‘il vero’ [truth] (l. 118) and distanced from falsehood: ‘menzogna’. Such commitment to truth will naturally render the Commedia an abrasive text, whose truths are often unpalatable. Yet the uncomfortable pang of recognition felt by a reader with a ‘coscïenza fusca’ will testify to the poem’s capacity to instigate change, to provide ‘vital nodrimento’.

  • 40 Claire Honess writes that ‘one of the functions of Dante’s encounter with Cacciaguida is to make ex (...)
  • 41 For example, it is well known that Inferno ii places Beatrice’s clear speech (‘soave e piana’) (56) (...)
  • 42 ‘As Dante’s treatment of Vergil’s [Aeneid ] repeatedly demonstrates, the classical tragedìa partici (...)
  • 43 ’As a genre that is devoted to truth, rather than to the parola ornata, it may exploit any register (...)

28The uncompromising commitment to truth demanded by Cacciaguida is no doubt related to Dante’s designation of his poem as a humble ‘comedìa’. Cacciaguida’s ‘chiare parole’ are a model of plain-speaking frankness, not least the expression ‘lascia pur grattar dov’è la rogna’. This harsh, corporeal idiom serves as a prototype for Dante’s own radically inclusive use of style and register in a poem that must remain beholden only to truth, and not to stylistic and rhetorical norms.40 At the other end of the linguistic spectrum, and the infernal end of the vertical sequence, we find the seductive and embellished falsehoods, the ‘parole ornate’, associated with Geryon and the fraudulent sinners who inhabit Malebolge. ‘Parole ornate’ is, moreover, an expression strongly associated in the Commedia with Virgilian eloquence, and the lofty, tragic, and rather stiff style (‘alta tragedìa’, Inf., xx. 113) with which the Mantuan poet is synonymous in medieval culture, a style in opposition to which the vernacular Christian ‘comedìa’ continually situates itself.41 As is well known, this opposition between ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’ in Dante’s poem continually maps onto an opposition between truth and falsehood.42 Dante’s own alignment with truth concerns not only the fact that his poem has a Christian, and not a pagan, subject-matter, but also that in using language more freely than tragedy, it is less fettered by rhetorical restrictions and thus less mendacious in its approximation of reality.43 By reading vertically we see Inferno xvii and Paradiso xvii plot two forms of discourse against each other: the ornate, seductive, and yet mendacious speech of fraud is the antithesis of the more unpalatable and humble yet innately veracious language of the Commedia.

  • 44 See Kevin Brownlee, ‘Phaeton’s Fall and Dante’s Ascent’, Dante Studies 102 (1984), 135–44. I am ind (...)

29As well as this stylistic dimension, the narrative opposition between comedy and tragedy, reflecting an opposition between Christian and pagan world views, is also strongly foregrounded in the Seventeens. I discussed earlier how both Inferno xvii and Paradiso xvii feature a common movement from fear and uncertainty to resolution, in the successful flight of Geryon and the reassuring words of Cacciaguida, but this ‘comic’ dimension of the poem is brought into sharper focus by the unusual concentration of Ovidian figures who feature in the Seventeens. Perhaps the most striking of these figures are Phaeton and Icarus. As we saw above, Phaeton appears at key moments in both Inferno xvii and Paradiso xvii, and is thus perhaps the most prominent link between the cantos. In a persuasive essay, Kevin Brownlee has analysed in detail what he regards as the programmatic use of Phaeton over the course of the Seventeens.44 In Ovid’s familiar account, Phaeton is directed by his mother Clymene to his father Apollo, for reassurance that he was indeed the son of the solar deity. To this end, Apollo agrees to Phaeton’s request that he be allowed to ride the sun chariot for a day, but the flight ends in catastrophe. Phaeton, terrified by the constellation of Scorpio, drops the chariot’s reigns and risks scorching the earth before being felled by a thunderbolt from Jupiter. Phaeton’s story is thus an emblematic tale of human presumption and pride, especially in the face of divine power and authority, and accordingly serves as a valuable counterpoint for the author of the Commedia.

30Dante compares his own fear while riding Geryon to that of Phaeton upon losing control of the sun chariot:

     Maggior paura non credo che fosse
quando Fetonte abbandonò li freni,
per che ’l ciel, come pare ancor, si cosse… (Inf., xvi. 106–08)

[I believe there was no greater fear when Phaeton abandoned the reins, so that the sky was scorched, as still appears…]

  • 45 Brownlee, ‘Phaeton’s Fall’, pp. 136–37.

31While the emotion of fear is common to the two figures, the wider contexts of the episodes could not be more different, and, as in many of his classical similes, Dante is prompting us to reflect upon a situational contrast. While Phaeton, to his cost, is heedless of the dangers of his flight, Dante submits to the authority of a guide who all but embodies rational discretion. Brownlee notes that while Scorpio brings about the unguided Phaeton’s downfall, Virgil protects Dante-pilgrim from Geryon’s scorpion tail.45

32At the very beginning of Paradiso xvii, Dante, in seeking reassurances from Cacciaguida (following the menacing but opaque prophecies he has heard in the previous two realms), compares himself to the apprehensive Phaeton before Clymene:

     Qual venne a Climenè, per accertarsi
di ciò ch’avëa incontro a sé udito,
quei ch’ancor fa li padri ai figli scarsi;
     tal era io, e tal era sentito
e da Beatrice e da la santa lampa
che pria per me avea mutato sito.
(Par., xvii. 1–6)

[As to Clymene, in order to verify what he heard against himself, he came who still makes fathers cautious toward their sons: such was I, and so was I perceived both by Beatrice and by the holy lamp that earlier had changed place because of me.]

  • 46 Ibid., p. 137. Hollander summarizes the inversion at stake here in Paradise: ‘In Ovid’s “tragic” na (...)
  • 47 Schnapp, ‘Dante’s Ovidian Self-Correction’, p. 219.

33We are again invited to consider an inversion of the classical model. While Phaeton goes to his mother asking for reassurances concerning his uncertain past, Dante goes to a paternal figure, Cacciaguida, and seeks clarification concerning a glorious future.46 In both the infernal and paradisiacal allusions, Dante emerges, writes Schnapp, as a ‘triumphant Christian charioteer, a Phaeton made good, a Phaeton who may rightfully lay claim to the heavens’.47

  • 48 See Brownlee, ‘Phaeton’s Fall’, pp. 137–38.

34Reinforcing the sense of Phaeton as a key thread in the Seventeens, and one intended as such by the poet, Brownlee also identifies an allusion to Ovid’s Phaeton in Purgatorio xvii, though this time the classical figure is not named and the allusion identified is arguably less compelling. Specifically, the critic sees a parallel between Dante’s appearance before the angel of meekness and Phaeton’s appearance before Apollo, and draws similarities between the figures’ shared inability to withstand the luminosity of the divine figure before them: ‘Ma come al sol che nostra vista grava / e per soverchio sua figura vela, / così la mia virtù quivi mancava’ [But if as at the sun, which weighs down our gaze and veils its shape with excess, so my power failed before him] (ll. 52–54).48

  • 49 Ibid., p. 137.

35Taking the three episodes across the Seventeens collectively, we witness a ‘poetically functioning reversal of the narrative order of the Ovidian Phaeton story’, as well as of its tragic narrative principle:49 we move, in this ‘comic’ rewriting, from Phaeton’s flight, to his appearance before Apollo, to his appearance before Clymene, while in the classical text the events unfold in the contrary direction. A similar idea of inversion is at stake in the figure of Icarus, whose famous and fateful flight is similarly concerned with questions of presumption, temperance, guidance, and authority. Unlike Icarus, who disobeys his father’s advice to follow a central course between the sea and the sun, Dante remains guided by the paternal Virgil and has divine will and authority on his side:

     né quando Icaro misero misero le reni
sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,
gridando il padre a lui ‘Mala via tieni!’. (Inf., xvii. 109–11)

[nor when the wretched Icarus felt his loins unfeathering because of the heated wax, as his father shouted to him, ‘You’re on a bad course!’.]

  • 50 As Hollander summarizes, ‘the protagonist […] must have thought that he, too, might die for his tem (...)
  • 51 See Kevin Brownlee, ‘Dante’s Transfigured Ovidian Models: Icarus and Daedalus in the Commedia’, in (...)

36Again, a tragic tale of presumption is granted a comic resolution in light of this Christian voyager’s submission to his God.50 While Icarus is only named in this one instance, and lacks Phaeton’s powerful association with the Seventeens, Brownlee sees him as having a similar programmatic function over the course of the Commedia, evoked by reference to his father Daedalus and the poem’s pervasive imagery of wings and feathers.51

  • 52 On this tendency in Dante’s work, see the various essays The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in (...)
  • 53 On Dante’s handling of this contrast, with a focus on the figure of Dido, see my essay ‘Dido, Aenea (...)

37Through this continual emphasis on inversion Dante seeks to confer a new Christian significance onto his pagan source texts; to metamorphose pagan tragedy into Christian comedy.52 Indeed, it only seems fitting that in Purgatorio xvii, the very core of the Commedia, is defined the principle — ‘amor’ — that enables human life to achieve comic resolution. For numerous pagan figures referenced in the poem, love, lacking a redemptive object, could end only in the ‘foul and horrible’, in tragedy. We need only think of Dido, ‘che s’ancise amorosa’ [who killed herself for love] (Inf., v. 61), or of Virgil’s famous words in Limbo, ‘sanza speme vivemo in disio’ [without hope we live in desire] (Inf., iv. 42), to understand the tragic tenor of love for Dante’s pagans. By contrast, love for Dante becomes the comic instrument of redemption and the means of terminating worldly exile.53 The Seventeens, structurally privileged within the poem and with a shared metatextual focus, can thus be seen as playing a decisive role in contributing to Dante’s definition of his work as a ‘comedy’. Looking back down the cantos, from the perspective of Paradiso xvii, we can regard Geryon as the poem’s negative image, everything that Dante insists his text is not; we find the tale of Phaeton entirely inverted, both in terms of its narrative order and its thematic principle; and we see ‘Icaro misero’ and ‘folle Arachne’ as the antitypes of the pilgrim and the poet-weaver respectively. Through the prism of these ancient anti-models, we bear witness to some of the defining features of a radically new kind of epic, one inspired by a redemptive ‘amor’ alien to his classical antecedents: an epic which Dante labels his ‘comedìa’.

Notes

1 I would like to thank George Corbett and Heather Webb for inviting to me to participate in the Vertical Readings series and for their generosity and hospitality during my visit to Cambridge. As well as to George and Heather, and the anonymous peer reviewers, I wish to offer my thanks to David Bowe, George Ferzoco, and Simon Gilson for their helpful and thoughtful comments on my chapter.

2 See Aen., vi. 289. Durling and Martinez detail various sources for Dante’s description of Geryon, from the Book of the Apocalypse to Brunetto Latini and Franciscan discussions of the Antichrist. See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, ed., trans. and notes by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, p. 268.

3 Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 322 (later cited as Hollander). Hollander also notes that the expression ‘Ecco la fiera’ [Behold the beast] (Inf., xvii. 1) recalls the Biblical ‘Ecce homo’ (John 19.5).

4 Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 58.

5 Hollander, Inferno, p. 324.

6 See, for example, the comparison of the sinners to flea-ridden dogs in lines 49–51 and the usurer Renigaldo’s bestial gesture: ‘Qui distorse la bocca e di fuor trasse / la lingua, come bue che ’l naso lecchi’ [Here he twisted his mouth and stuck out his tongue, like an ox licking its snout] (ll. 74–75).

7 Hollander notes the way in which the experience of these visions serves as a ‘trial run’ for the visionary poetics of the Paradiso and especially for the beatific vision of its final canto, anticipated in the use of ‘alta fantasia’ (l. 25), which reappears in the poem’s concluding lines (Par., xxxiii. 142). See Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, trans. by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2003), p. 380.

8 See Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, ed. by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi (Milan: Mondadori, 1997), pp. 469–70. Chiavacci Leonardi notes that while Virgil’s Aeneid (evoked here through Dante’s comparison of Cacciaguida to Aeneas’s father Anchises) can only conceive of such a historical apex, the true climax of Dante’s poem comes in the vision of God in the Paradiso’s final canto.

9 Durling and Martinez note that the hapax ‘ambage’ evokes the oracles of the pagan gods. See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, ed., trans. and notes by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996–2011), vol. I (later cited as Durling and Martinez). As Hollander comments, ‘Set off against pagan dark and wayward speech is Christian clarity of word and purpose’. See Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, trans. by Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 468. Cacciaguida’s prophecy is widely seen as ‘fulfilling’ that provided by his infernal correlative Brunetto Latini (Inf., xv), similarly fashioned as a paternal figure: see, for example, Jeffrey T. Schnapp, ‘Dante’s Ovidian Self-Correction in Paradiso 17’, in The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s ‘Commedia’, ed. by Rachel Jacoff and Jeffrey T. Schnapp (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 214–23 (p. 216).

10 Barolini describes Inferno xvi–xvii as ‘a land of transition, and proximity to the boundary between old and new is stressed’. See Barolini, Undivine Comedy, p. 72.

11 Charles Singleton describes this as ‘the central pivot of the whole poem’. See Charles Singleton, ‘The Poet’s Number at the Center’, Modern Language Notes 80 (1965), 1–10 (p. 6).

12 John Logan describes this revelation as being ‘as important to the pilgrim as was the great exposition of love at the centre of the Purgatorio’. See John L. Logan, ‘The Poet’s Central Numbers’, Modern Language Notes 86 (1971), 95–98 (p. 97).

13 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 287. See also Singleton: ‘Thus Love, as the central concern and argument, is seen to inform both God’s world and the poet’s world, there at the centre of both — and this we shall hardly view as an accident’(p. 1).

14 See Durling and Martinez, II, p. 611, citing Manfred Hardt, ‘I numeri nella poetica di Dante’, Studi danteschi 61 (1989), 1–27.

15 On Malebolge as a narrative and stylistic watershed, see Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 74–76.

16 Hollander describes the successful flight, often seen as microcosmic of the poem as a whole, as a ‘provisional comic ending’ at the midpoint of the first cantica (Inferno, p. 326).

17 Singleton, p. 2.

18 Singleton, p. 8.

19 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 610.

20 See Logan. On the centres of all three cantiche, see Riccardo Ambrosini, ‘Canto XVII’, in Lectura Dantis Turicensis. Paradiso, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Cesati, 2002), pp. 243–64.

21 As well as in the essays in question, both Singleton’s and Logan’s sequences are usefully set out by Hollander on the Princeton Dante Project site (www.princeton.edu/dante:note to Purgatorio xvii, 133–39). I have followed Hollander’s helpful formatting of the two sequences here.

22 Logan, p. 98.

23 Like other contributors, I must stress that we cannot know whether the correspondences I set out in the next few paragraphs were intended as ‘vertical’ connections by the poet or whether they are merely some of many correspondences based on core semantic fields that could be traced across numerous combinations of cantos. As noted by the series editors, the thorny question of intentionality is not of decisive importance: a vertical reading can always lead to illuminating comparative readings that draw out aspects of the cantos that might otherwise be neglected. On the benefits and pitfalls of the critical approach, see the editors’ introduction and the opening pages of Simon Gilson’s essay ‘The Wheeling Sevens’, both in Vertical Readings in Dante’s ‘Comedy’, ed. by George Corbett and Heather Webb (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015), pp. 1–12 and 143–60.

24 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 291.

25 Durling and Martinez note this abundance of nautical imagery in the canto (I, p. 268 ff.).

26 Elena Lombardi describes the association as being ‘as old as literature itself’ (The Wings of the Doves: Love and Desire in Dante and Medieval Culture (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2012), p. 241). Sue Hartley is currently writing a doctoral thesis at the University of Bristol on the rich relationship between poetics and textuality in medieval and renaissance literature, focusing especially on Dante and Ariosto. I am indebted to Hartley’s work here for its insights into the weaving references in both Inferno xvii and Paradiso xvii.

27 On Arachne’s relationship to Ulysses, and to the transgressive quality of Dante’s poem, see Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 122–42.

28 On this sense of progression from improper sympathy to firm rebuttal, in five phases of the Inferno, see Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante’s ‘Commedia’ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 301–07.

29 Durling and Martinez, II, p. 291.

30 Ibid.

31 For Barolini, Geryon is ‘an outrageously paradoxical authenticating device: one that, by being so overtly inauthentic — so literally a figure of inauthenticity, a figure for “fraud” — confronts and attempts to defuse the belatedness or inauthenticity to which the need for an authenticating device necessarily testifies’ (Undivine Comedy, p. 59). For a stimulating recent reading of these lines as representing ‘a bilateral pact’ that is ‘perilously close to […] a fraudulent deal’, see Justin Steinberg, Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 154–59.

32 As Barolini summarizes: ‘although a comedìa may at times, as when representing Geryon, have the “face of a lie” — give the appearance of lying — it is intractably always truth’. Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the ‘Comedy’ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 59. On this aspect of Geryon, see also Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘The “Marvellous” and the “Comic”: Toward a Reading of Inferno xvi’, Lectura Dantis 7 (1990), 72–95.

33 See Barański, ‘The “Marvellous” and the “Comic”’; Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 58–73; and Franco Ferrucci, ‘Comedìa’, Yearbook of Italian Studies 1 (1971), 29–52.

34 Barolini, Undivine Comedy, p. 66. In her reading of Geryon as representing the poem, Barolini accounts for the line ‘ver c’ha faccia di menzogna’ by interpreting it as Dante’s acknowledgement of the mendacity inherent in all narratives: ‘The answer is that even a comedia, in order to come into existence as text, must to some extent accommodate that human and thus ultimately fraudulent construct, language’ (Undivine Comedy, p. 61).

35 See, for example, Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Comedìa: Notes on Dante, the Epistle to Cangrande, and Medieval Comedy’, Lectura Dantis 8 (1991), 26–55; Barański, ed., ‘Libri poetarum in quattuor species dividuntur’: Essays on Dante and Genre, special issue of The Italianist 15 (1995); Barolini, Dante’s Poets, pp. 269–86; Ferrucci; Lino Pertile, ‘Cantocantica-comedìa e l’Epistola a Cangrande’, Lectura Dantis 9 (1991), 105–23; and Claudia Villa, La ‘Lectura Terentii’ (Padua: Antenore, 1984).

36 See Barański, ‘Comedìa’, who denies the Epistle is Dante’s on account of its highly conventional treatment of style. In favour of Dantean authorship of the Epistle, see Luca Azzetta, ‘Le chiose alla Commedia di Andrea Lancia, l’Epistola a Cangrande e altre questioni dantesche’, L’Alighieri 21 (2003), 5–76; Robert Hollander, Dante’s Epistle to Cangrande (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993); and Pertile, ‘Canto-cantica-comedìa’.

37 See, for example, Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Significar per verba: Notes on Dante and Plurilingualism’, The Italianist 6 (1986), 5–18.

38 See Barolini, Undivine Comedy, pp. 63–64.

39 Ibid., p. 64.

40 Claire Honess writes that ‘one of the functions of Dante’s encounter with Cacciaguida is to make explicit the justification for the poetics of the Commedia’. Claire Honess, ‘Expressing the Inexpressible: The Theme of Communication in the Heaven of Mars’, Lectura Dantis 14 (1994), 42–60 (p. 55).

41 For example, it is well known that Inferno ii places Beatrice’s clear speech (‘soave e piana’) (56), which ‘resembles the sublimely humble style valorized by the Comedy’, in opposition to Virgil’s more embellished, and later tainted, brand of eloquence (‘parola ornata’ [polished words], 67). See Hollander, Inferno, p. 40. On Dante’s handling of the Aeneid as tragedìa, see Hollander’s Il Virgilio dantesco: tragedia nella ‘Commedia’ (Florence: Olschki, 1983). On Dante’s ambivalence towards eloquence, with reference to ‘parola ornata’ see Steven Botterill, ‘Dante’s Poetics of the Sacred Word’, in Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (April 1996), 154–62.

42 ‘As Dante’s treatment of Vergil’s [Aeneid ] repeatedly demonstrates, the classical tragedìa participates in fiction, also known as falsehood — menzogna — while the comedìa, based on the conviction that the real is more valuable than the beautiful, deals exclusively in truth’. Barolini, Dante’s Poets, pp. 279–80.

43 ’As a genre that is devoted to truth, rather than to the parola ornata, it may exploit any register — high or low — but depends on none, since it must always be free to adopt the stylistic register than most accurately reflects the truth of the situation at hand’. Ibid., p. 280.

44 See Kevin Brownlee, ‘Phaeton’s Fall and Dante’s Ascent’, Dante Studies 102 (1984), 135–44. I am indebted here to Brownlee’s account of Dante’s inversion of the pagan model. On Phaeton, see also Marguerite Mills Chiarenza, ‘Time and Eternity in the Myths of Paradiso xvii’, in Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio: Studies in the Italian Trecento in Honor of Charles S. Singleton, ed. by Anthony Pellegrini and Aldo Bernardo (Binghampton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1983), pp. 135–55; Michelangelo Picone, ‘Dante, Ovid, and the Poetry of Exile’, in Dante in Oxford: The Paget Toynbee Lectures, ed. by Tristan Kay, Martin McLaughlin and Michelangelo Zaccarello (Oxford: Legenda 2011), pp. 26–38; and Schnapp, ‘Dante’s Ovidian Self-Correction’.

45 Brownlee, ‘Phaeton’s Fall’, pp. 136–37.

46 Ibid., p. 137. Hollander summarizes the inversion at stake here in Paradise: ‘In Ovid’s “tragic” narrative, Phaeton is, we remember, allowed to destroy himself through overenthusiastic evaluation of his own capacities as rookie sun-driver; in Dante’s comically resolved tale of his journey through the heavens, we see the protagonist as a wiser (and better-aided) version of Phaeton’ (Paradiso, p. 465).

47 Schnapp, ‘Dante’s Ovidian Self-Correction’, p. 219.

48 See Brownlee, ‘Phaeton’s Fall’, pp. 137–38.

49 Ibid., p. 137.

50 As Hollander summarizes, ‘the protagonist […] must have thought that he, too, might die for his temerity; the poet, however, making the analogies now, sees the comic resolution of a voyage that might have turned tragic except for the fact that this voyager had God on his side’ (Inferno, p. 326). Barolini sees Arachne, Icarus, and Phaeton as ‘surrogate figures’ of Ulysses: the poem’s emblematic figure of overreaching (Undivine Comedy, p. 64). The oppositions I have discussed here are not, of course, to be understood as evidence of the innate superiority of Dante’s poetic art. Rather they should be seen as emblematic of his continual endeavour to appropriate for himself an unimpeachable authority and to situate himself and his poetry in relation to other traditions of writing, in order to show how the Commedia overcomes their perceived moral, spiritual and expressive failings.

51 See Kevin Brownlee, ‘Dante’s Transfigured Ovidian Models: Icarus and Daedalus in the Commedia’, in Rethinking the New Medievalism, ed. by Howard Bloch, Alison Calhoun, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, Joachim Küpper and Jeanette Patterson (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), pp. 162–80.

52 On this tendency in Dante’s work, see the various essays The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s ‘Commedia’, ed. by Rachel Jacoff and Jeffrey T. Schnapp (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).

53 On Dante’s handling of this contrast, with a focus on the figure of Dido, see my essay ‘Dido, Aeneas, and the Evolution of Dante’s Poetics’, Dante Studies 129 (2011), 135–60.

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Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Bristol. He is the author of the monograph Dante’s Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation, Vernacular Tradition (2016) and the co-editor of the volumes Desire in Dante and the Middle Ages (2012) and Dante in Oxford: The Paget Toynbee Lectures (2011). He has also published a number of articles on Dante, especially in relation to medieval vernacular literary culture and the poet’s modern reception.

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