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Vertical Readings in Dante's Comedy. Volume 2

 | 
George Corbett
, 
Heather Webb

19. Inside Out1

Ambrogio Camozzi Pistoja

Texte intégral

  • 1 For support towards this research, my gratitude is warmly extended to Keith Sykes and Pembroke Coll (...)

1In Dante’s time, the conventions controlling the composition and interpretation of texts were fairly stable. As a discipline, this system of rules, sometimes known as grammatica or rhetorica, constituted the fundamental subject of medieval school curricula. This does not mean, of course, that there was no cross-fertilisation between literary genres, but rather that the literary canons, derived from classical authors, had reached a very high level of codification at this point in western culture. This is at the origin of the late-medieval fascination for meta-literary discourses, a phenomenon that is widespread in Dante’s cultural background and characterises all of his works. Compared to his contemporaries, however, the poet’s dedication to the theorisation of literature and language takes a radical turn. As Dante himself puts it, he was ‘in love’ with language: ‘quite perfect love for my native language that burns within me’ (Conv., I. xii. 1–4).

  • 2 Gianfranco Contini: ‘Introduzione alle Rime di Dante’ [1938] in Varianti e altra linguistica. Una r (...)
  • 3 This line of research has been pursued in particular by Gianfranco Contini: ‘Introduzione alle Rime(...)

2Rhetoric, as the knowledge of how language works, of how texts convey or hide certain messages, how they are structured and classified, was extremely close to Dante’s heart. Of this art — not politics, law or theology — he knew all the variations and possibilities, of this discipline his expertise was unparalleled in his generation. He wrote extensively on the topic, leaving two books on the subject: the De vulgari eloquentia, a treatise on the vernacular language; and the Vita nova, an elaborate collection of love poems that has been fruitfully read as a manual for writing good poetry, an Art of Poetry in the same vein as Horace’s Ars poetica. In addition, scholars suggest that he also intended to devote one of the books of his unfinished Convivio to language. This section was never written, but metaliterary references surface almost everywhere in the surviving four books. Gianfranco Contini aptly defined this obsession as a ‘serietà terribile’, a ‘cosa dell'ordine sacrale’.2 This sentiment permeates Dante’s lyric production and, of course, the Commedia. As the adventurous journey through the black chasm of Hell, the cornices of Purgatory and the pure lights of Heaven advances, so the journeying progresses through the forms of language. The ethical ascent goes hand in hand with a process of revision and redefinition of poetry which eventually gives life to the plurilingualism of the poem, a pan-linguistic landscape where a newly redefined ‘comic’ language exists next to a newly redefined ‘erotic’ language, ‘tragic’, ‘elegiac’, ‘scholastic’, ‘scientific’, ‘trivial’, ‘colloquial’, ‘technical’ languages, as well as many others.3

3The teaching of grammatica, furthermore, is key to unlocking a dimension of the Nineteens that has long been overlooked. Hidden in the fabric of these cantos lies a series of references to medieval literary theory and, in particular, to the theory of satire, one of the major literary genres. These hidden clues, if brought together, form a line of thought which questions the canonical limitations of satire, the potentialities of satiric language and the risks involved in using this particular way of writing and thinking. Thus, my vertical reading of the Nineteens begins with a reconstruction of the medieval theory of satire and a description of those stylistic features that would have made satirical language recognisable to medieval readers. This brief summary is followed by a reinterpretation of Inferno xix’s and Purgatorio xix’s key moments; in the final section, I analyse Paradiso xix and address also Paradiso xxvii in order to show how some of the questions raised by Dante in Inferno xix and Purgatorio xix re-emerge in the course of the last canticle.

Medieval Theory of Satire

  • 4 On medieval theory of satire see Ben Parsons, ‘“A Riotous Spray of Words”: Rethinking the Medieval (...)
  • 5 One of the principal sources of the satire-satyr connection is Diomedes’s Ars Grammatica III: ‘Satu (...)
  • 6 See Horace, Ars Poetica, pp. 203–50. And Guillaume de Conches notes: ‘Potest et satira dici a satir (...)

4According to late antique and medieval grammarians, satire is a literary genre modelled upon the writings of Juvenal, Persius and Horace.4 In order to summarise its formal features, grammarians often refer to the false etymology from ‘satyr’, the god of the forest.5 This etymological explanation enjoyed great popularity in medieval schools; it offers a poignant visual epitome of the main stylistic qualities of satirical writing. Satire, grammarians explain, is ‘saltans’ [leaping] like a satyr, for it does not have a specific topic or target. In other words, the satirist must not spare anyone, whether rich or poor, priest or professor, king or peasant. The image of the caprine satyr gives visual representation to the typical ‘filthiness’ of satire’s vocabulary, the obscenity of its lexicon and the vulgarity of its prosody. Another attribute that satire shares with satyrs is its ‘nuditas’ [nakedness]; there are no pretences or cover ups, satirists do not beat around the bush but rather go straight to the point. They use a ‘rustica’ [rustic], simple syntax, a mode of speaking that derives from the language of rural rampages.6 Finally, satire is ‘derisoria’ [offensive]. Like the giggly, unpredictable half-men, satirists ridicule their enemies, wounding them with their ‘sharp tongue’, biting with their mordant remarks.

  • 7 See medieval annotations on Horace, Ars Poetica, pp. 234–35: ‘Non ego inornata et dominantia nomina (...)

5These colourful features can be reorganised into five scholastic categories: intentio, modus scribendi, stylus, causa materialis and materia tractandi. The intentio of satirical writings is to wound, lacerate, hurt. The modus scribendi — the way in which these words are written — is bare, straightforward, unadorned.7 The stylus of the syntax is simple, quotidian and ordinary; the vocabulary is vulgar, filthy, obscene. What satirical works also have in common is the so-called causa materialis, the motive behind the decision of writing a piece in the satirical style. That which provokes the writer to burst into a satirical attack is very often identified by the fact that the world where the satirist lives appears to be turned upside down. A profound injustice allows the evil to trample on the good, whereas the just are exiled, mistreated, isolated. Another recurrent theme of the satirical tradition is the ‘materia tractandi’ [subject matter]. The favourite target of satirists throughout the ages is the accumulation of riches, more often than not leading to the bartering of spiritual values for material possessions.

  • 8 This material is still largely unpublished; for bibliographical references on Giovenale, see Stefan (...)

6Of these five predicaments, the rhetorical category of intentio deserves special attention because medievalists, including Dante scholars, have largely failed to account for its normative implications. Intentio is not the author’s intention — which is generally referred to as causa finalis (e. g. to entertain, to moralise, to dishonour, etc). In contrast to the variable nature of the author’s intention, the intentio is a quality intrinsic to a given language and cannot be altered: it is like conductivity for materials. The intentio of satire, as mentioned, is to hurt and offend. This point is striking mainly because no other literary genre possesses this particular trait. Satire has a dark heart: it is a language entangled with violence and as such, unlike other languages, it requires containment. From late antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, scholiasts and commentators have worked towards a definition of the genre that includes forms of control and inhibition. The marginalia of medieval manuscripts containing poems of Persius, Juvenal and Horace, are fraught with anonymous glosses indicating ways to justify and embank the flood of rage, to make it morally acceptable.8 I would divide these popular solutions into three groups.

  • 9 Guido da Pisa, Expositiones et glose. Declaratio super Comediam Dantis, ed. by Michele Rinaldi (Rom (...)

7One way of justifying the use of satire follows the Aristotelian principle of moderation. ‘Vituperatio et laudatio’ or ‘reprehensione vitii et commendatione virtutis’: any harsh rebuke must be followed and tempered by a praise of the good aspects.9 Another way is to prevent the use of satirical language against specific historical individuals. Satire can be practiced as long as its target is left unnamed or consists in a generic category of persons. It is the well-known motto: hate the sin not the sinner. The third and most popular way of justifying satirical violence is to introduce a moral finality. Hitting and hurting is permitted as a way of correcting ['ut corrigat']. Satirists shout and insult their targets in order to push them away from their bad habits and wrong behaviours.

8That satirical language can potentially be used for ethical purposes does not mean that satire is per se an ethical genre. In satirical writings, the moral finality is accessory, a rhetorical device aimed at defusing what the civic body sees as a form of mutual violence. Satire is the expression of a feral and wild spirit:

  • 10 Persius-Scholien, p. 49 (commentary on Satira i., 114–15). See also late antique and medieval comme (...)

Certe novimus Lucilium in urbe Roma satyrographum ita invectum in vitia, ut videretur non mores carpsisse, sed homines necasse et vulnerasse.10

[We read of the satirist Lucilius who in the city of Rome was so carried away against vices that he would wound and kill people rather than carping at their habits.]

  • 11 To convey this sense of disquiet, I accompany this study with a reproduction of Tiepolo’s etching o (...)

9This takes us back to the satyr-satire connection. This false etymology disseminates the idea that satire derives from or is connected to the original language of ‘monstra’ [monsters], creatures whose nature is hybrid, unclear. The satirist is animated by an animal rage, that can kick off, twitch in any moment; he is an unbridled, brutal and riotous being. In the depth of his language brews a primordial violence.11

Gianbattista Tiepolo, ‘Satyr family (Pan and his family)’, etching from Scherzi di Fantasia series (c. 1743–57). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © MET under OASC licence, http://www.metmuseum.org/​art/​collection/​search/​361896

  • 12 This section of the Epistle to the Pisos ought to be read through school commentaries on Horace. Fo (...)

10Satyrs come from the forest, relegated outside the community, they are creatures to avoid. The central section of Horace’s Ars Poetica (ll. 202–50), an epistle presented as an informal letter to members of the Piso family and one of the key textbooks in medieval schools, is concerned with the origins of satire and satyrs’ irreverent nature.12 The great Latin poet claims that his fictum carmen, his new poetry, is able to tame those woodland spirits (‘Silvis deducti caveant me iudice Fauni’, l. 244), to domesticate their habits, mixing (‘contemperare’ is the verb used in a popular commentary) some elements of their obscene repertoire with the sobriety of the tragic style. Arguably, Dante’s Commedia — as a whole — narrates a very similar process. The poet who emerges from the wild, harsh forest (‘aspra, selvaggia, forte’, Inf., i. 5) used to speak a bitter, malicious language (‘Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte’ [So bitter, that thought, that death is hardly worse], Inf., i. 7), the language of the tenzone with Forese Donati:

     […] ‘Se tu [Forese] riduci a mente
qual fosti meco, e qual io [Dante] teco fui,
ancor fia grave il memorar presente.
     Di quella vita mi volse costui [Virgilio]
che mi va innanzi […]’. (Purg., xxiii. 115–19)

[If you (Forese) bring back to mind what you were once to me and I (Dante) to you, the memory of that will still be sore. I, from that life, was turned away by him (Virgil) who walks ahead of me…]

  • 13 See Robert Hollander, ‘Tragedy in Dante’s Comedy’, The Sewanee Review 91:2 (1983), 240–60.

11From that life, from that language that was unnecessarily obscene and offensive, Dante is turned away by Virgil, the author of the alta tragedìa (Inf., xx. 113).13 The process which transforms the language of the selva oscura into a sacred poem to the service of the Church and the Empire thus resembles the story narrated in Horace’s letter to the Pisos; it begins when the man of the ‘selva oscura’ curbs to the grave words of tragedy. In this sense, Dante’s satire (only one of the many languages of the comedìa), just like Horace’s satire, is a combination of the rustic and the tragic. The first two cantos of this vertical reading, Inferno xix and Purgatorio xix, aptly combine the two registers.

12But there is more to it. Unlike in Horace, Dante’s satire is not simply legitimised by a stylistic compromise between the filthy and the sublime; the violence of Dante’s satire takes a spin so radical that a stylistic solution cannot contain it. To find its full legitimisation, indeed, Dante’s satirical attack requires — as I shall show — a prophetic investiture directly from God, and this is what Paradiso xix can help us to understand. But let us proceed in order.

Inferno xix

13From the very opening lines of Inferno xix, Dante struggles to contain his anger and bursts into a loud cry:

      ‘O Simon mago, o miseri seguaci
[…]
or convien che per voi suoni la tromba’. (Inf., xix. 1, 5)

[You! Magic Simon, and your sorry school!… The trumpet now (and rightly!) sounds for you.]

  • 14 See Francesco D’Ovidio’s chapter ‘Il canto dei simoniaci’ in his Nuovi Studi Danteschi (Milan: Hoep (...)
  • 15 For the translation of ‘opra’ as ‘thing’ see Ruggiero Stefanini, ‘La “laida opra” di Inferno XIX 82 (...)

14Dante’s ‘tromba’ is both the trumpet of the angels of the final judgement and also the squealing tuba of Horace’s satyrs. The vocabulary and the syntax of the canto are characterised by the typical attributes of satirical writings. Alongside the tragic nuances of the dialogue with Pope Nicholas, Dante uses a low register. The vocabulary is often vulgar and comical, as the poet lingers on the description of the lower limbs of the body of the sinners: ‘piedi’ (Inf., xix. 23, 64, 79, 81), ‘gambe’ (l. 23), ‘grosso’ (l. 24), ‘piante’ (l. 25), ‘giunte’ (l. 26), ‘buccia’ (l. 29), ‘calcagni’ (l. 30), ‘punte’ (l. 30), ‘anca’ (l. 43), ‘zanca’ (l. 45) ‘piote’ (l. 120) [feet, legs, joints, skin, heel, toe tips, hip, shank, feet]. Of these terms, the word ‘zanca’ [shank], deriving from the dialect, probably of gypsy origin, works as a stylistic marker, tuning the whole piece on a sordid keynote.14 The syntax is rustic, quotidian, colloquial: ‘dopo lui verrà di più laida opra’ [after him, an even uglier thing will come] (Inf., xix. 82);15 ‘Deh, or mi dì’ [Ah, now tell me] (l. 90); ‘Però ti sta, ché tu se’ ben punito’ [Therefore you stay down there, for you deserve your punishment] (l. 97). Dante insists on the filthiness of the language: the foot soles of the simonists are ‘unte’ [greasy] (l. 28), the rock of the pouch is ‘sconcio’ [filthy] [l. 131], and the future pope is ‘laida opra’ [obscene stuff] (l. 82).

15The poet highlights that the canto’s words are ‘vere’ [true] (l. 123), alluding to the standard modus scribendi of satirical writings. In Inferno xix, Dante does not employ circumlocutions but accuses the shepherds point blank of treating the Church as a whore:

      ‘Di voi pastor s’accorse il Vangelista,
quando colei che siede sopra l’acque
puttaneggiar coi regi a lui fu vista’. (Inf., xix. 106–08)

[Saint John took heed of shepherds such as you. He saw revealed that She-above-the-Waves, whoring it up with Rulers of the earth.]

  • 16 Also the term ‘zanca’ occurs only in Inferno xix and Inferno xxxiv (l. 79), and there again to rhym (...)

16The whole episode is constructed on the satirical trope of inversion, of the mundus immundus, making full use of the upside down world metaphor that proliferates in medieval (and modern!) satirical writings. The word ‘sottosopra’ occurs in this canto (l. 80) and only one other time in the whole Commedia, in Inferno xxxiv, where it serves to describe the position of Satan.16 In fact, the kingdom of Hell is arguably God’s satirical ‘poem’, written to trample the evil and raise up the good. In Inferno xix, the focus of this antithetical representation is on the bodily posture of the sinners whom Dante portrays buried upside-down in holes the size of baptism basins:

      ‘O qual che se’ che ’l di sù tien di sotto,
anima trista come pal commessa… (Inf., xix. 46–47)

[Whatever you might be there, upside down, staked, you unhappy spirit, like a pole…]

  • 17 On the inversion of sacraments see Erminia Ardissino, ‘Parodie liturgiche nell’Inferno’, Annali di (...)
  • 18 Kenelm Foster, ‘The Canto of the Damned Popes’, Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante (...)
  • 19 Francesco da Barberino, I Documenti d’Amore, ed. by Marco Albertazzi, 2 vols (Lavis: La Finestra, 2 (...)

17In this way, the canto redresses the injustice procured by the simonists with their avarice, a sin that afflicts the world ‘calcando i buoni e sollevando i pravi’ [trampling the good and raising up the wicked] (l. 105). The valley of the simonists resonates with distorted representations of natural roles. In a grotesque carnival of the holy sacraments, the canto parodies the liturgy of baptism, marriage, priestly ordination and confession.17 Kenelm Foster writes that the canto is ‘[a] kind of Anti-Church’,18 where readers encounter the groom ‘avolterate’ [betraying] (l. 4) and making a whore of his wife (ll. 106–11), the (un) charismatic unction of the foot soles rather than the foreheads (ll. 25, 28), the mismatching of baptismal names (ll. 52–53). The subversion of roles is methodical: as he listens to Pope Nicholas III, Dante presents himself as a friar who confesses the assassin (‘Io stava come ’l frate / che confessa lo perfido assessin’, ll. 49–50); but the assassin is in reality a pope, a friar, who, in the right world, should confess the assassin, the poet. Why does Dante depict himself implicitly as an assassin? My hypothesis is that Dante is here thinking of himself as a satyr, someone able to kill with his language. In fact, this is exactly what this canto does. The poet here attacks individuals that are still alive. One of these individuals, Boniface VIII (who died in 1303), is still alive when the fictional journey of the Commedia takes place. The other one, Pope Clement V (who served as pope 1305–14), was alive when this canto was already circulating in Florence.19

  • 20 For an edition of the texts mentioned, see Die Apokalypse des Golias; Visio Alberici. Die Jenseitsw (...)

18Dante’s satirical attack is of a unique kind. I am not aware of another classical or medieval satirical work that so explicitly assaults and defames contemporary figures. Satirical poems such as the Visio Alberici, the Apocalipsis Goliae or Le songe d’Enfer narrate journeys through Hell where the writer claims to have seen countless groups of friars, princes, kings and even popes.20 Unlike these other satirists, Dante puts aside any conventional scruple, and rather than attacking generic social categories, he gives us the Christian and family names of those friars, princes, kings and popes. In so doing, the poet seems to destroy what his readers know about satire as a literary genre. The rules that rhetoricians had established are broken in front of our eyes by someone who, nonetheless, demonstrates that he knows them perfectly well. Dante presents himself as a satirist in a canto where he is crossing the traditional boundaries of the style, those limitations that were put in place to protect society from the violence hidden in this language.

19It is even possible to catch a glimpse of the iconography of the satyr in the filigree of this infernal canto. In the opening lines, as we have seen, Dante mentions the trumpet, the typical instrument of the half-goat, halfman creature. He then refers to horns in the middle of the canto, in line 60, where he writes that he feels almost ‘scornato’ (literally ‘without horns’), frustrated for not understanding what was said to him: ‘Tal mi fec’io, quai son color che stanno,/per non intender ciò ch’è lor risposto,/quasi scornati’ [Well, I just stood there (you will know just how)/simply not getting what I’d heard come out,/feeling a fool] (ll. 58–60). In the finale of the canto, a third visual clue is released, when a hybrid creature appears re-emerging from the valley of the simonists. Dante is being carried up by Virgil in his arms and, as a result of this bizarre way of transportation, a ‘monstrous’ figure looms up from the third pouch of the eight circle. The appearance in this canto of a double natured figure with legs comparable to goat’s legs is no coincidence but, rather, a deliberate reference to the popular association between satire and satyrs:

     Quivi soavemente spuose il carco,
soave per lo scoglio sconcio ed erto
che sarebbe a le capre duro varco.
(Inf., xix. 130–32)

[And there he gently put his burden down, gently on rocks so craggy and so steep they might have seemed to goats too hard to cross.]

20The welding of the two bodies is located at the level of the ‘anca’ [hips] (l. 43), where classical and medieval iconography locates the passage of nature in the frame of the half-man half-goat god.

21This particular reading of Inferno xix raises a whole set of issues regarding the justification of the Commedia and Dante’s self-representation. To some of these problems, at this point of his journey, Dante has no answers:

     Io non so s’i’ mi fui qui troppo folle,
ch’i’ pur rispuosi lui a questo metro:
‘Deh, or mi dì:…’ (Inf., xix. 88–90)

[I may have been plain mad. I do not know. But now, in measured verse, I sang these words: ‘Tell me…’]

22‘I do not know’. The poet does not know if the language (‘metro’, poetry) used against the simonist popes is too harsh and foolhardy.

Purgatorio xix

  • 21 Dante Aligheri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, ed., trans. and notes by Robert M. Durling an (...)

23Evident bonds tie Inferno xix to Purgatorio xix. Ronald Martinez and Robert Durling have listed these affinities in their edition of the Commedia:21 like Inferno xix, Purgatorio xix is devoted to avarice and simonist popes; in each canto, Dante speaks to one soul only, and this happens to be a pope; the souls are punished upside down: ‘che ’l di su tien di sotto’ [who hold your up side down] (Inf., xix. 46); ‘volti avete i dossi/al su’ [you have your backs turned up] (Purg., xix. 94–95); ‘i nostri diretri/rivolga il cielo a se’ [Heaven turns our backsides toward itself] (Purg., xix. 97–98). Both former popes, Nicholas and Adrian, use the metonymy of ‘the great mantle’ to refer to their former office (Inf., xix. 69 and Purg., xix. 103–04); both identify themselves as popes with the words ‘know that…’ (Inf., xix. 69 and Purg., xix. 99); and there are recurrent keywords (‘calcagne’ in Inf., xix. 30 and Purg., xix. 61) and parallels of phrasings.

24Some of these vertical links highlight the continued influence of the satirical tradition on his poem. The upside down position of the bodies is one of the most compelling visual clues that relate the satirical vein of this canto back to its infernal counterpart. However, the poet does not simply replicate the same issues in a changed setting; on the contrary, he takes advantage of the circular and vertical structure of the journey not only to take forward, but also to rethink and correct ideas previously expressed. This process of retrospective rewriting, continuous correction and amendment is the mechanism that allows him to persuade — or attempt to persuade — his readers of the ‘miraculous’ coherence of his poem. In reality, what happens is often far from being as linear as he would like us to think. This is clear especially in his use of the notion of ‘reverenza’ [reverence]. In Inferno xix, the poet explains that if he were not forbidden by his reverence for the papal office, he would have used still heavier words against the simonist popes:

     E se non fosse ch’ancor lo mi vieta
la reverenza de le somme chiavi
che tu tenesti ne la vita lieta,
     io userei parole ancor più gravi; (Inf., xix. 100–03)

[And, were I not forbidden, as I am, by reverence for those keys, supreme and holy, that you hung on to in the happy life, I now would bring still weightier words to bear.]

25In Purgatorio xix, Pope Adrian refers back over Dante’s decision of curbing his vehemence against the former popes, and corrects him. Dante kneels to show his ‘reverire’ [respect] (l. 129) for the office of pope, but Adrian rebukes him:

      ‘Drizza le gambe, lèvati sù, frate!’,
rispuose; ‘non errar: conservo sono
teco e con li altri ad una podestate’. (Purg., xix. 133–35)

[Straighten your knee, my brother. Just get up! Make no mistake. I am, along with you and all, co-servant of one single Power.]

  • 22 See Tavoni, ‘Effrazione battesimale’; and Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Canto XIX’, in Lectura Dantis Turic (...)

26‘Drizza!’, ‘vattene!’ Pope Adrian reproaches Dante harshly. In the afterlife, he explains, secular institutions no longer exist and all souls are equal. No reverence to the souls is thus needed for the office they held in their previous life. Dante could and should have used ‘heavier words’ in Inferno xix. The heavier words that Dante did not dare to use in Hell will resound in Paradiso xxvii, arguably the most exact ‘vertical’ conclusion to the satirical vein of the Inferno xix and Purgatorio xix. In this canto of Paradiso, simony and the corruption of the papacy are brought back to the scene to be lambasted once more. St Peter glows red with anger as he condemns his successors who use their papal power for selling false privileges and benefices. The disciple accuses the popes of Dante’s day, wolves in shepherds’ clothing (Par., xxvii. 55–56), of turning his burial place into a blood-filled sewer (Par., xxvii. 25–26); the first pope also singles out two French popes — one of whom Dante had blamed in Inferno xix (Clement V) — and reveals that they are preparing to drink the blood of their martyred predecessors (Par., xxvii. 58–60). Here are the heavier words! In Inferno xix — as well as in Purgatorio xix — the poet is still far from understanding what is really going on, the exact nature of his role, what his job really entails. The signs are there but the poet’s (and the reader’s) hermeneutic skills are not strong enough to interpret them. To quote a passage of Paradiso xix, we can say that God’s providential plan ‘èli, ma cela lui l’esser profondo’ [it is there but its depths conceal it] (Par., xix. 63).22

27The other vertical parallelism that renews the satirical paradigms of Inferno xix is related to the role of Virgil. Purgatorio xix opens with the ugly woman (ll. 1–33) who appears to Dante in his dream: her eyes are crossed, her feet are crooked, her hands are crippled, she is pale, and stammers when she talks. This is what she is, but Dante, in his dream, ‘dresses’ her into a beautiful Siren:

     mi venne in sogno una femmina balba,
ne li occhi guercia, e sovra i piè distorta,
con le man monche, e di colore scialba.
     Io la mirava; e come ’l sol conforta
le fredde membra che la notte aggrava,
così lo sguardo mio le facea scorta
     la lingua, e poscia tutta la drizzava
in poco d’ora, e lo smarrito volto,
com’amor vuol, così le colorava. (Purg., xix. 7–15)

[there came, dreaming, to me a stammering crone, cross-eyed and crooked on her crippled feet, her hands mere stumps, and drained and pale in look. I gazed at her. Then, as to frozen limbs when night has weighed them down, the sun gives strength, likewise my staring made her free, long-tongued, to speak, and drew her, in the briefest space, erect in every limb, giving the hue that love desires to her blurred, pallid face.]

28The beauty Dante attaches to the woman is fleeting, superficial; it is the ‘beauty’ that humans attach to worldly goods. As the poet explains in the fourth book of his Convivio and throughout the Commedia, riches and wealth are the basest goods; yet, when our conscience is asleep, we fall in love with them. Before the Siren finishes her song, another woman shows up and asks Virgil the identity of this Siren. What happens next is quite striking. Virgil jumps in and rips the Siren’s clothes off, showing Dante the terrible rotten stench that is steaming from her bare genitalia:

     L’altra prendea, e dinanzi l’apria
fendendo i drappi, e mostravami ’l ventre;
quel mi svegliò col puzzo che n’uscia.
(Purg., xix. 31–33)

[He seized the Siren, ripping down her dress, opened the front of her, displayed her guts, and that, with all its stench, now woke me up.]

29Virgil does here what a satirist does, ripping superficial values apart, and revealing the true nature of corruption. He re-enacts, almost word by word, the deeds of Lucilius, the earliest Roman satirist:

… cum est Lucilius ausus
primus in hunc operis conponere carmina morem
detrahere et pellem, nitidus qua quisque per ora
cederet, introrsum turpis… (Horace,
Sat. II. i. 62–65)

[… when Lucilius first dared to compose verses after this style, and to strip off the skin with which each strutted with a fair outside, though foul within…]

30In Purgatorio xix as in Inferno xix, when satirical language and tropes are employed, the character of Virgil appears fused, enmeshed in that of Dante. In the pouch of the simonists, the Roman poet carries Dante on his hip, directly contributing to the deployment of the defamatory attack against those sinners. It is again Virgil, now part of Dante’s dream, who lacerates the fake beauty of the Siren revealing her true nature and the plague that is affecting her body. Both scenes can be fruitfully read from a metaliterary point of view, by assessing them against the medieval theory of satire. Dante would seem to suggest that Virgil — Virgil’s poetry or Virgil’s imperial ideas — played a fundamental role in his own transformation into a ‘good’ satirist. Yet, Virgil will not accompany Dante in the third realm, where the full unveiling of crimes and injustice is performed. In Paradiso, the poet takes his satirical language to another dimension, and Virgil appears to be no longer needed.

Paradiso xix

31In the third cantica, the vertical pull of the Nineteens loses its momentum. The numerous and compelling connections that tied Inferno xix to Purgatorio xix are almost absent in the third canto of the series. This is no surprise. Just as the poet strives to offer his readers internal references and structural symmetries that may help them in the difficult task of interpreting the poem, so, at the same time, he refuses to ‘imprison’ himself in rigid, obvious patterns. Flexibility — or ‘liquidity’ to use a more poetic term — is an inherent feature of the Commedia. This said, Paradiso xix contains certain themes and images that, although not exclusively related to the canto, can still offer rich insights into the central questions of Dante’s ‘new’ satire.

32Famously, the last nine terzine of the canto present an acrostic — a ‘visible’ word — on the letters L, U, E, the Italian word for ‘lue’ [pestilence]. The acrostic weaves together, terzina after terzina, all kingdoms of Europe, from Norway to Sicily, in a common, disgraceful tapestry. If read against the content of the other two Nineteens, and in particular against the episode of the putrid Siren, the acrostic LUE stands out as another, further example of satirical revelation. The canto exposes — just like Virgil does in the dream of the Siren — the corruption affecting the world. Little or no thought is given here to the ethical causes of this perversion. Dante just shows to his readers how things really are. In fact, one of the main focal points of this last canto is sight. Paradiso xix opens with a verb, ‘parea’ [to appear], relating to the sphere of sight, continues with the ‘bella image’ of the eagle (2), with the repetition of ‘parea’ (4), and the description of Dante’s eyes reflecting the vivid light coming from each soul. In the next terzina, the poet explains that he will portray, ‘ritrar’ [to draw], what he saw — instead of saying it or writing it (6). He adds that ‘Io vidi e anche udi’ parlar lo rostro’ (l. 10, emphasis mine). He ‘saw’ the words being said. The eagle will answer the poet’s question because the divine animal can see the poet’s mind (28–30). Sight, and human sight in particular, is the theme developed by the eagle in its long discourse on God’s Justice.

      ‘Or tu chi se’, che vuo’ sedere a scranna,
per giudicar di lungi mille miglia
con la veduta corta d’una spanna?’ (Par., xix. 79–81)

[Well, who are you to sit there on your throne, acting the judge a thousand miles away, eyesight as short as some mere finger span?]

33This emphasis on sight might help to explain why the Virgilian component is missing from this new staging of satirical modes. The Commedia is a satire sui generis because its author is allowed to cross the natural boundaries to which satirists are normally bound. Through the invention of the journey to the afterlife, Dante enables himself to see the invisible, the things dark to view (‘tanto occulto’, Par., xix. 42). His ability to expose crimes and immorality is thus enhanced. He sees through the Franciscan cloak, through Guido’s skin and reads the immoral heart of the apparently ‘nobilissimo’ duke of Montefeltro (Inf., xxvii).

     … molti gridan ‘Cristo, Cristo!’,
che saranno in giudicio assai men prope
a lui, che tal che non conosce Cristo;
      […]
     
‘Che poran dir li Perse a’ vostri regi,
come vedranno quel volume aperto
nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi?’ (Par., xix. 106–08, 112–14)

[… many cry out: ‘Christ! Christ! Christ!’ Yet many will, come Judgement, be to Him less prope than are those who don’t know Christ […] ‘What will the Persians say about your kings, when once they see that ledger opened up in which is written all their praiseless doings?’]

34Many who cry out ‘Christ!’, many who want to appear pious and good, when all things are revealed, will appear for what they really are: sordid simonists, traitors and thieves. Dante peers at that ledger and tells us what he sees. In fact, the Commedia is that ledger (‘volume aperto’, l. 113) in which all actions and thoughts are recorded, the volume where ‘the secrets of their hearts are laid bare’ (i Corinthians 14.25).

35In a similarly positive way, we could read the three terzine beginning in line 58:

      ‘Però ne la giustizia sempiterna
la vista che riceve il vostro mondo,
com’ occhio per lo mare, entro s’interna;
     che, ben che da la proda veggia il fondo,
in pelago nol vede; e nondimeno
èli, ma cela lui l’esser profondo.

     Lume non è, se non vien dal sereno
che non si turba mai; anzi è tenèbra
od ombra de la carne o suo veleno’. (Par., xix. 58–66)

[It follows that the sight your world receives in sempiternal justice sinks itself three-fold as deep as eyes in open sea. Although you see the bottom near the shore, the ocean floor you can’t. And yet it’s there. Its depths conceal its being so profound. There is no light except from that clear calm, changeless, untroubled. Others are tenebrae, the shadows or the venom of the flesh.]

36Readers tend to interpret these lines as a description of the restrictions imposed by God upon human nature. I would like, instead, to emphasise their positive significance. ‘Lume non è…’: there is no light unless it comes from that clear calm that is God. This is quite different from suggesting that there is no sight at all. These lines suggest that human beings, thanks to God’s help, can see that which is invisible: ‘fede è sustanza di cose sperate/e argomento de le non parventi’ [Faith is substantial to the things we hope, the evidence of things we do not see] (Par., xxiv. 64–65). In purely technical rhetorical terms, God functions for Dante as a literary device, that allows him to surpass satire’s traditional limitations and innovate the genre.

Conclusions

  • 23 See Rachel Jacoff, ‘Dante, Geremia e la problematica profetica’, in Dante e la Bibbia, ed. by Giova (...)
  • 24 Some connections between satire and prophecy are developed by St Jerome. See David S. Wiesen, St. J (...)
  • 25 Compare with Dante Alighieri, The Vision: Or, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri, tr (...)

37Although many scholars have interpreted the Nineteens, and especially Inferno xix, as steps towards a redefinition of the Commedia as a prophetic poem, I have focused, instead, on an appreciation of the Nineteens in terms of satire.23 However, it should be clear that the satirist of the Commedia is very much a prophet, a man whom God bestowed with a special election. The aim of this vertical reading is not, then, to diminish the role of the prophetic tradition, or the figure of the prophet, in the formation of Dante’s language but, rather, to raise the tradition of satire to an equal level of importance. Perhaps, indeed, Dante deemed that neither the genre of satire nor the tradition of prophecy was adequate on its own as an antidote against the moral and social corruption of his world. He thus forged a new poetic persona that is at the same time prophet and satirist; the two traditions are equally valued and are woven together, arguably for the first time in the history of western literature.24 The Roman pagan roots and the technical contribution of the literary tradition of satire are fully preserved, if not even vivified through the encounter with the biblical, prophetic tradition. The two bearded figures, the satyr and the prophet, are both cast out of their communities for speaking the truth, and share, thereby, a state of isolation and exile. They are seen as foolish but have an uncanny ability to see what no one else can (or wants) to see. They expose the truth, bringing it forcefully to light. These shared elements highlight a particular, innovative aspect, then, of Dante’s poem. Although the Commedia has sometimes been described as a ‘vision’, it is an ‘inside out’ vision, a prophetic vision of that which is hidden inside the outside mask of satire.25

Notes

1 For support towards this research, my gratitude is warmly extended to Keith Sykes and Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. I should like to thank George Corbett and Heather Webb for having invited me to take part in this project. The present chapter is based on and reflects the style of a spoken presentation prepared for a public of non-Dantisti. For a revised and better documented examination of Inferno xix, see my ‘Profeta e satiro. A proposito di Inferno 19’, Dante Studies 134 (2015), 27–45. For the translations of the Commedia, I have used Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. and comm. by Robin Kirkpatrick (London: Penguin, 2006–2007). Horace’s texts are quoted from Opera, ed. by Stephanus Borzsák (Leipzig: Teubner, 1984).

2 Gianfranco Contini: ‘Introduzione alle Rime di Dante’ [1938] in Varianti e altra linguistica. Una raccolta di Saggi (1938–1968) (Turin: Einaudi, 1970), pp. 319–34 (p. 321).

3 This line of research has been pursued in particular by Gianfranco Contini: ‘Introduzione alle Rime di Dante’ [1938], and ‘Dante come personaggio-poeta della Commedia’ [1957], in Varianti e altra linguistica. Una raccolta di Saggi (1938–1968) (Turin: Einaudi, 1970), pp. 319–62; and Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘“Tres enim sunt materie dicendi…”: Some Observations on Medieval Literature, “Genre” and Dante’, in Libri poetarum in quattuor species dividuntur, ed. by Zygmunt G. Barański, supplement to The Italianist 15 (1995), 9–60; see also Barański’s ‘Sole nuovo, luce nuova’. Saggi sul rinnovamento culturale in Dante (Turin: Scriptorium, 1996).

4 On medieval theory of satire see Ben Parsons, ‘“A Riotous Spray of Words”: Rethinking the Medieval Theory of Satire’, Exemplaria 21 (2009), 105–28; and Ambrogio Camozzi Pistoja, ‘Il quarto del Convivio. O della satira’, Le Tre Corone 1 (2014), 27–53 (pp. 28–38).

5 One of the principal sources of the satire-satyr connection is Diomedes’s Ars Grammatica III: ‘Satura dicitur carmen apud Romanos nunc quidem maledicum et ad carpenda hominum vitia archaeae comediae charactere compositum, quale scripserunt Lucilius et Horatius et Persius […]. Satura autem dicta sive a Satyris, quod similiter in hoc carmine ridiculae res pudendaeque dicuntur, quae velut a Satyris proferuntur et fiunt […]’ [Satire is the name of a verse composition amongst the Romans. At present certainly it is defamatory and composed to carp at human vices in the manner of the Old Comedy; this type of satura was written by Lucilius, Horace, and Persius […]. Satura takes its name either from saturs, because in this verse form comical and shameless things are said which are produced and made as if by satyrs]. For other examples see the collection of texts published by Suzanne Reynolds, ‘Dante and the Medieval Theory of Satire: A Collection of Texts’, in Libri poetarum in quattuor species dividuntur, ed. by Zygmunt G. Barański, supplement to The Italianist 15 (1995), 145–57.

6 See Horace, Ars Poetica, pp. 203–50. And Guillaume de Conches notes: ‘Potest et satira dici a satiris, id est ab agrestibus dicta est […] agrestes cuiuscumque patrie conveniebant in honore Cereris et Bachi […]. Deinde sibi indulgendo, commedendo, et bibendo magnam partem diei consumebant. Ad ultimum, rustici unius ville contra rusticos alterius ville consurgebant et in vicem fundebant convicia non bene consona pro discretione rusticana. Et huius modi convicia predicta sunt satire, id est agrestes callidiores autem in artem redigerunt et metrice ceperunt reprehendere’ [It is possible that ‘satire’ is derived from ‘satiri’, that is from ‘peasants’ […] peasants, they used to assemble for the honour of Ceres and Bacchus […] In these occasions they would give free reign to their appetites, celebrating and drinking, feasting for the greater part of the day. At the end of such gatherings, the rustics of one village would stand against those of another settlement, and by turns they poured out abuse, chiming together in ungainly fashion, as harsh and rough as befits the peasantry. And these types of outbursts anticipated satire, because the craftiest farmers, those with most skill and artistry, later fashioned verse intended to reprehend’]. Guillaume de Conches, Glosae in Iuvenalem, ed. by Bradford Wilson (Paris: Vrin, 1980), p. 91.

7 See medieval annotations on Horace, Ars Poetica, pp. 234–35: ‘Non ego inornata et dominantia nomina solum/verbaque, Pisones, Satyrorum scriptor amabo’ [As a writer of [a new] satire, oh Pisos, I shall never be fond of unornamented words and verbs of established use].

8 This material is still largely unpublished; for bibliographical references on Giovenale, see Stefano Grazzini, ‘Leggere Giovenale nell’alto Medioevo’, in Trasmissione del testo dal Medioevo all’età moderna. Leggere, copiare, pubblicare, ed. by Andrea Piccardi (Florence: Polistampa, 2012), pp. 11–45; for Horace, see Chiara Nardello’s, Il commento di Francesco da Buti all’Ars poetica di Orazio (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Padua, 2008), pp. 33–50; for Persius, see Persius-Scholien. Die lateinische Persius-Kommentierung der Traditionen A, D und E, ed. by Udo W. Scholz and Claudia Wiener (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2009).

9 Guido da Pisa, Expositiones et glose. Declaratio super Comediam Dantis, ed. by Michele Rinaldi (Rome: Salerno, 2013), p. 245.

10 Persius-Scholien, p. 49 (commentary on Satira i., 114–15). See also late antique and medieval commentaries on Horace, Ars Poetica, p. 284.

11 To convey this sense of disquiet, I accompany this study with a reproduction of Tiepolo’s etching of a satyr.

12 This section of the Epistle to the Pisos ought to be read through school commentaries on Horace. For the Anonymus Turicensis, see István Hajdú, ‘Ein Zürcher Kommentar aus dem 12. Jahrhundert zur Ars poetica des Horaz’, Cahiers de l’Institut du Moyen âge grec et latin 63 (1993), 231–93 (in particular pp. 261–63); for the Materia, see Karsten Friis-Jensen, ‘The Ars Poetica in Twelfth-Century France: The Horace of Matthew of Vendôme, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and John of Garland’, Cahiers de l’Institut du Moyen âge grec et latin 60 (1990), 336–88 (in particular pp. 360–63); for Pseudoacro, see Otto Keller, Pseudacronis scholia in Horatium vetustiora (Leipzig: Teubner, 1902–1904), ad loc.

13 See Robert Hollander, ‘Tragedy in Dante’s Comedy’, The Sewanee Review 91:2 (1983), 240–60.

14 See Francesco D’Ovidio’s chapter ‘Il canto dei simoniaci’ in his Nuovi Studi Danteschi (Milan: Hoepli, 1907), pp. 335–443 (pp. 370–71).

15 For the translation of ‘opra’ as ‘thing’ see Ruggiero Stefanini, ‘La “laida opra” di Inferno XIX 82’, Lingua nostra 66 (1995), 12–14.

16 Also the term ‘zanca’ occurs only in Inferno xix and Inferno xxxiv (l. 79), and there again to rhyme with ‘anche’ (Inf., xxxiv. 77).

17 On the inversion of sacraments see Erminia Ardissino, ‘Parodie liturgiche nell’Inferno’, Annali di Italianistica 25 (2007), 217–32; John Scott, Dante Magnanimo. Studi sulla Commedia (Florence: Olschki, 1977), pp. 75–115; Ronald Herzman and William Stephany, ‘“O miseri seguaci”: Sacramental Inversion in Inferno XIX’, Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 96 (1978), 39–65; Mirko Tavoni, ‘Effrazione battesimale tra i simoniaci (Inf. XIX 13–21)’, Rivista di Letteratura Italiana 10:3 (1992), 457–512; Filippo Zanini ‘“Simulacra gentium argentum et aurum”. Parodia sacra e polemica anticlericale nell’Inferno’, L’Alighieri 39 (2012), 131–45.

18 Kenelm Foster, ‘The Canto of the Damned Popes’, Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 88 (1969), 47–68 (p. 55).

19 Francesco da Barberino, I Documenti d’Amore, ed. by Marco Albertazzi, 2 vols (Lavis: La Finestra, 2008), I, pp. 371–72.

20 For an edition of the texts mentioned, see Die Apokalypse des Golias; Visio Alberici. Die Jenseitswanderung des neunjährigen Alberich in der vom Visionar um 1127 in Monte Cassino revidierten Fassung, ed. by Paul Gerhard Schmidt (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997); The Songe d’Enfer of Raoul de Houdenc: An Edition Based on All the Extant Manuscripts, ed. by Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1984); and Darren Hopkins, ‘Le Salut d’Enfer: A Short Satire Modelled on Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer’, Mediaeval Studies 71 (2009), 23–45.

21 Dante Aligheri, 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), II, pp. 324–25.

22 See Tavoni, ‘Effrazione battesimale’; and Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Canto XIX’, in Lectura Dantis Turicensis. Inferno, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michele Picone (Florence: Cesati, 2000), pp. 259–75 (then Zygmunt G. Barański, Dante e i segni: saggi per una storia intellettuale di Dante Alighieri (Naples: Liguori, 2000), pp. 147–72 with the title ‘I segni della Bibbia. II. La lezione profetica di Inferno XIX’).

23 See Rachel Jacoff, ‘Dante, Geremia e la problematica profetica’, in Dante e la Bibbia, ed. by Giovanni Barblan (Florence: Olschki, 1988), pp. 113–23 (especially pp. 119–20); Tavoni, ‘Effrazione battesimale’; Barański, ‘I segni della Bibbia’.

24 Some connections between satire and prophecy are developed by St Jerome. See David S. Wiesen, St. Jerome as a Satirist: A Study in Christian Latin Thought and Letters (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1964). Walter of Châtillon, in his satirical poems, draws extensively from biblical prophets, especially in the poem ‘Propter Sion non tacebo’; see Moralisch-satirische Gedichte Walters von Châtillon. Aus deutschen, englischen, französischen und italienischen Handschriften, ed. by Karl Strecker (Heidelberg: Winter, 1929), pp. 17–33. A possible source for the conjuncture satire-prophecy is the book of Jeremiah: ‘Antequam exires de vulva, sanctificavi te, et prophetam in gentibus dedi te […] ut evellas, et destruas, et disperdas, et dissipes, et aedifices, et plantes’ [‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. […] I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant’] (Jeremiah 1.5–10). In the Ordinary Gloss on these lines, it is used a line from Origen: ‘eradicare vitia per sermones’ (St Jerome, Translatio Homiliarum Origenis in Jeremiam, PL 25.756). This understanding of the prophetic mission is copied in a popular accessus to Juvenal: ‘eradicare vicia et plantare virtutes’; see Estrella Pérez Rodríguez, ‘La teoría de la sátira en el s. xii (según los comentarios a Juvenal)’, in Teoría y práctica de la composición poética en el mundo antiguo y su pervivencia, ed. by Emilio Suárez de la Torre (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid), pp. 299–317 (p. 306). The sentence appears also in William of Auxerre’s Summa Aurea, ed. by Jean Ribaillier (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1980–87), vol. 3, p. 114. For the political sphere, see Andrea da Isernia, Liber Augustalis: ‘Ad hoc debent tendere omnes boni Principes, eradicare vitia, et plantare virtutes’, in Consitutionum Regni Siciliarum Libri III (Naples: Cervonius, 1771), vol. 1, p. 85.

25 Compare with Dante Alighieri, The Vision: Or, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri, trans. by Henry F. Cary, 3 vols (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1814). I am most grateful to George Corbett for his revisions and very helpful corrections.

Table des illustrations

Légende Gianbattista Tiepolo, ‘Satyr family (Pan and his family)’, etching from Scherzi di Fantasia series (c. 1743–57). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © MET under OASC licence, http://www.metmuseum.org/​art/​collection/​search/​361896
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/3689/img-1.jpg
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Auteur

The current Keith Sykes Research Fellow in Italian Studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he completed his PhD as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He is the author of Vita di Alessandro (2016), Dante & the Medieval Alexander (2017) and articles on Dante, medieval political thought, medieval magic and satire. He has directed and edited the video documentary Frames from a Round Table: Paradiso XV (2015).

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