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Vertical Readings in Dante's Comedy. Volume 2

George Corbett
Heather Webb

21. God’s Beloved: From Pitch, Through Script, to Writ1

Corinna Salvadori Lonergan

Texte intégral

  • 1 Unacknowledged translations are my own. I have used emphasis to draw attention to key words in Dant (...)
  • 2 Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia, ed. and trans. by Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge Un (...)
  • 3 Letter X in The Letters of Dante, trans. by Paget J. Toynbee, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 196 (...)
  • 4 Peter S. Hawkins, ‘Dante’s Lesson of Silence: Paradiso 21’ in Lectura Dantis 11 (1992), 42–51 (p. 4 (...)

1The protagonists in the Twenty-Ones are all poets, ‘Dei dilectos’, ‘God’ s beloved, raised to the heavens by their ardent virtue and made the children of God’,2 as Dante writes in the De Vulgari Eloquentia (II. iv. 10) loosely adapting the Sybil’s speech to Aeneas (Aen., vi. 124 ff). In the letter to Can Grande the author writes of poets being given an almost divine gift, ‘quasi divinum quoddam munus’,3 just like our protagonists — Virgil, Dante, Statius and Peter Damian — who do not stand independently but are inanellati, intertwined in the three canti. Virgil introduces himself as a poet: ‘Poeta fui’ (Inf., i. 73); Dante also styles himself a poet amongst poets, rather than a rimatore, he is ‘sesto tra cotanto senno’ (Inf., iv. 102); Statius says that the name ‘poeta’ is the one that lasts and honours most, ‘che più dura e più onora’ (Purg., xxi. 85). Peter Damian was not primarily a poet, though he has left some verse, but a writer with a substantial body of works to his credit; this included a life of Romoaldo degli Onesti, who is mentioned in Paradiso xxii, and which may have been known to Dante; also, he had the ‘reputation as one of the major Latin stylists of the Middle Ages’4 and, in both Dantean and Virgilian terms, his ‘ardent virtue’ made him worthy of being raised in contemplation to the stars.

2The ascent is from the murkiness of the clinging pitch with devils defeated by human astuteness, but who defeat Virgil and expose his limitation because they have scriptural knowledge, the divinely inspired writing that he does not know. It is this same Scripture that permeates the dialogic exchange with Statius, bonded to Virgil, but now a saved Christian poet so a better guide for Dante. It is to Dante that Peter Damian, writer and reformer like him, will issue the writ: report as you have been inspired. Four writers, united by the written word, but not all raised to the heavens.

Inferno xxi

3The fifth bolgia of the eighth circle, the episode of the swindlers in public offices, has an unusual and interesting beginning: ‘Così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando / che la mia comedìa cantar non cura,/venimmo’ [and so we came from bridge to bridge, and talked of other matters that my comedy does not bother to record] (Inf., xxi. 1–3), that needs a reflection on the previous canto (xx) where Virgil is in control and the main speaker. He rebukes Dante for questioning God’s judgement — an intimation of the sixth heaven — and then points to three damned soothsayers of the ancient world known to us through those gifted transmitters of knowledge, poets: Amphiaraus known from the Thebaid, Tiresias from the Metamorphoses, Arruns from the Pharsalia; most importantly he gives us a sound (and beautiful) version of the foundation of Mantova, acceptable to human geographers, offering reason over magic.

  • 5 Here and hereafter (unless otherwise stated) the emphasis is mine.

     ‘Però t’assenno che, se tu mai odi
originar la mia terra altrimenti,
la verità nulla menzogna frodi’.
     E io: ‘Maestro, i tuoi ragionamenti
mi son sì certi e prendon sì mia fede,
che li altri mi sarien carboni spenti’. (Inf., xx. 97–102)5

[‘Therefore I have made sense to you, and if you ever hear a different version for the origin of my city, let not my truth be cheated by lies’. And I: ‘Master, your reasons are so sure and command my trust that others would be like spent coals’.]

4The explanation makes sense — senno — and Dante accepts it, placing his faith in reasoning as it demonstrates the truth. The greatest poet of antiquity — ‘lo maggiore nostro poeta’ (Conv., IV. xxvi. 8) — has humbly shown that he is aware that his work can occasionally lack credibility; led astray as he himself admitted by ‘dei falsi e bugiardi’ [false and lying gods] (Inf., i. 72) his ‘alta mia tragedìa’ (Inf., xx. 113) — a work the Florentine poet knows only too well (‘ben lo sai tu che la sai tutta quanta’, l. 114) — is not the work of a Christian poet. It is in the spirit of shared knowledge that the poets converse, of bonding through writing, noted already in the first circle of Hell where the six great poets had engaged in their own exclusive poetic talk: ‘parlando cose che ’l tacere è bello’ [speaking of matters best passed over] (Inf., iv. 104). It will be noted again, for example, in Purgatorio xxii:

     Elli givan dinanzi, e io soletto
di retro, e ascoltava i lor sermoni,
ch’a poetar mi davano intelletto.
(Purg., xxii. 127–29)

[They walked ahead and I, alone behind them, listened to their talk that was inspiring on the poet’s art.]

5However, Dante in Inferno iv is an equal with a difference, as will be the poet of the Thebaid when he appears in Purgatorio.

  • 6 John Barnes makes this point in an acute examination of the language and prosody of Inferno xxi. Jo (...)

6The opening of Inferno xxi draws attention to the different nature of two genres — tragedy and comedy — and Dante immediately embraces a completely new type of comedy — black comedy — in this bolgia of the grafters, the corrupt public officials derisively termed barattieri. It is exemplified both in style — colloquial, aphoristic, coarse, plebeian in the extreme, with harshness of rhyme, quite different from the style of canto xx (where the last word ‘introcque’ introduces the difference)6 — and in content. It is burlesque; in fact it is based on a double burla: trickery of the devils who are cheated by the damned official, Ciampòlo, whose intelligence and astuteness defeat them as now they are ‘in essilio de la superna patria’; they can no longer philosophize and reason for in them love is extinct (Conv., III. xiii. 2). The second burla is at the expense of the ‘mar di tutto ’l senno’ (Inf., viii. 7), the wise Virgil, cheated by the devils. So, twice he is wrong.

  • 7 Umberto Bosco, ‘Il ludo dantesco dei barattieri’, in Essays in Honour of John Humphreys Whitfield, (...)

7In canto xx Dante was strongly rebuked — scelerato, impious, compassionate rather than pius, for he had failed in due respect for the judgement of God. As the reader was told to ‘prender frutto / di tua lezione’ [benefit from your lesson] (Inf., xx. 18–19), Dante, in the episode with the devils, shows that he has certainly learnt the lesson. In the black comedy of this bolgia the author’s purpose is to damn through derision, through the grotesque, because neither devils nor barattieri are worth the saeva indignatio he had expended on the simonists. Now his aim is to excite vulgar laughter, and in fact the whole episode — and the word is Dante’s — is ludicrous: ‘O tu che leggi, udirai nuovo ludo’ [Reader, you will hear a new entertainment] (Inf., xxii. 118). One reads, but one also needs to hear the hard-hitting rhymes, the changing rhythms of the hendecasyllable, for in comedy timing is of the essence. As ever Dante proves a master, and he creates what Umberto Bosco defined as a profana rappresentazione, a play with little black devils scuttling fiercely around, just as they were popularly imagined.7

  • 8 A clear exposition of the charge against Dante is in Barnes,Inferno Canto XXI’.

8In the background is the bitterness of Dante’s much suffered exile: he was accused of baractaria, a standard accusation when political opponents were sent into exile;8 in the coarseness of the canto there is Dante’s superiority, cathartically exorcising the experience. Even Santa Zita and the Sacro Volto are sacrilegiously exploited in the sarcasm. There is not a whiff of dignity about the devils who collect, dump, and flay with their hooks those who want to emerge from the pitch, whereas there is with some other ministers of the justice of God, most notably the Centaurs. A comparable scene might be in a tavern with guzzlers, rather than in a church with saints, as Dante will suggest in a clipped maxim: ‘ne la chiesa / coi santi, e in taverna coi ghiottoni’ (Inf., xxii. 15). The ludo is packed with derision: the activity of the devils, their ensuring that the damned ‘dance’ in the pitch (‘qui balli’, l. 53), their not being important enough to be compared to chefs — they are low grade scullery hands:

     Non altrimenti i cuoci a’ lor vassalli
fanno attuffare in mezzo la caldaia
la carne con li uncin, perché non galli. (Inf., xxi. 55–57)

[Chefs get their scullery hands to do the same, to push the meat with their hooks into the middle of the cauldron so it does not float upwards.]

9And as for the dannati, here demeaningly carne, later in the canto they are dismissed as lessi dolente — bully beef in pain — and in the next canto they are described as being well done to a turn: ‘ch’ eran già cotti dentro da la crosta’ (Inf., xxii. 150). Dante’s scorn is strongly stated in the first simile in canto xxi. It anticipates the busyness of the devils, comparable to the hub of activity in the arsenal where the Venetians are busy repairing rotten timber — the barattieri, with greed clinging tenaciously, have damaged the ship of the state and it cannot sail, as there cannot be buon governo with rotten officials:

     Quale ne l’arzanà de’ Viniziani
bolle l’inverno la tenace pece
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani,
ché navicar non ponno; (Inf., xxi. 7–10)

[As in the Venetians’ arsenal in winter time the tenacious pitch boils to repair their damaged ships that are not sail-worthy;].

10Dante and Virgil are not spectators but participants in the ludic performance. The appearance of the first devil takes them by surprise:

     Ahi quant’ elli era ne l’aspetto fero!
e quanto mi parea ne l’atto acerbo,
con l’ali aperte e sovra i piè leggero! (Inf., xxi. 31–33)

[Oh, his looks were so savage! and nasty in his action, with splayed wings and feet skimming!]

  • 9 See ‘I nomi dei diavoli’, in Commedia, by Dante Alighieri, ed. by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi (Bo (...)

11This is the devil of medieval frescoes; he is carrying a barattiere as if it were a bag of coal, head down, clutching the sinew-strings and creating an image similar to that of the corruptors of the Church, the simonists. That same athletic devil scuttles away like a ‘mastino sciolto’ (44), a bull-dog going off for another barattiere, to Lucca. He has done such good work there that the place is full of barrators, and he implies sarcastically that Bonturo is the worst of them. The devils — to the approaching Virgil — come with the same furore and tempesta as ‘escono i cani a dosso al poverello’ [dogs making for the beggar] (l. 68), an anticipation that our Virgil farà la figura of the poverello in all of this. Dante — and this is an understatement — disliked animals; birds just about escaped. With the barattieri, as with the usurers, all of them kindred souls unashamedly pursuing money, the imagery, the metaphors, the similes are animal-inspired and designed to evoke disgust. The names of the devils may indeed be ‘storpiature’ [distortions] of surnames of Lucchese officials,9 but just as they stand they are onomatopoeically suggestive of beastly features — Cagnazzo, Draghignazzo, Ciriatto, Graffiacane — bizarre but hardly frightening. The Malebranche are a bunch of no-gooders.

12The main players are Virgil, Dante and Malacoda (ll. 58–135). Mindful to hide his charge from the devils, Virgil tells Dante to hide, ‘t’acquatta’ [to squat] — not the most dignified pose, and later, when he is called away from hiding, he is described as coming almost stealthily, ‘quatto quatto’ — with Virgil adding over-confidently: ‘non temer tu’, [don’t be afraid], as I have everything under control from the previous time, altra volta. He has made the journey all the way to Giudecca, but it did not help him at the lock-out at the city of Dis and, but for the messo dal ciel, the journey might have been discontinued. Furthermore, since he first went to Giudecca, there was a major event (the Harrowing, which he told Dante about when they were in Limbo). The devils make for him with their hooks and Malacoda is called upon to negotiate. Dante’s reader knows at once that someone named Malacoda would have a sting in the tail (Gerione was rather a clue) but not so the confident Virgil who asserts that God is on his side, he is an official guide. Malacoda, good actor and deceiver, feigns to believe and orchestrates the deception of Virgil, announcing that he is not to be attacked — ‘non sia feruto’. Nor is the pilgrim to be harmed; though one bridge is broken, there is another bridge, just a little further on. The accurate reference to the Harrowing of Hell, a confirmation that the journey’s date was April 1300, wins Virgil’s confidence. What is presented as damage to one bridge is, however, false as all the bridges are down. Malacoda pursues his act and invites ten devils to accompany the poets, assuring them that they will come to no harm: ‘gite con lor, che non saranno rei’ [go with them and they will not harm you] (l. 117).

13In all of this, Dante’s performance is opposite to Virgil’s. He does not believe that the devils will keep their word: ‘ch’ io temetti ch’ei tenesser patto’ (l. 93), and mentions fear in two consecutive lines (ll. 93–94). The memory from the Caprona seige is so strong that he gets as close as possible to Virgil while keeping an eye on the devils as ‘la sembianza lor (ch’) era non buona’ [their looks were not reassuring] (l. 99), (one of Dante’s great understatements). His fear is so obvious that the devils exploit it humorously: ‘Vuo’ che ‘l tocchi […] in sul groppone?’[…] ‘Sì, fa che gliel’ accocchi!’ [‘will I hook into his rump? Yeh, go for him’] (ll. 100–02). Dante does not want to be escorted by devils and asks Virgil to dispense with them if he (the official guide) knows the way, Dante is prepared to go it alone; can Virgil not see how they ‘digrignan li denti’ [gnash their teeth] (l. 131) as they will be so graphically painted later by Andrea di Bonaiuto, Angelico and others? Virgil is trusting: nonsense, he says, it is a mise-enscène for the dannati, not for them:

      ‘Omè, maestro, che è quel ch’i’ veggio?’,
diss’ io, ‘deh, sanza scorta andianci soli,
se tu sa’ ir; ch’i’ per me non la cheggio.
     Se tu se’ sì accorto come suoli,
non vedi tu ch’e’ digrignan li denti
e con le ciglia ne minaccian duoli?’.
     Ed elli a me: ‘Non vo’ che tu paventi;
lasciali digrignar pur a lor senno,
ch’e’ fanno ciò per li lessi dolenti’. (Inf., xxi. 127–35)

[‘Oh, master, what do I see?’, said I, ‘do let us go without any escort, if you know the way, as I don’t need one. If you are your usual sharp self, can’t you see how they grind their teeth and how their brows are threatening harm?’ And he replied: ‘I don’t want you to fear, let them grind away as much as they want, they are doing it for the boiling beef in pain’.]

14Virgil is wrong: Dante is right. The canto ends with its vulgar trumpet call, another way of mocking the hollow military discipline of these fallen angels, but it is the end of the episode that crystallizes Virgil’s defeat and explains it (Inf., xxiii. 139–44).

15Virgil will be mocked for trusting Malacoda, and the revelation comes with a last laugh at his expense. When Catalano gives the travellers correct information, the downcast Virgil comments that ‘Mal contava la bisogna’ (l. 140) (linking linguistically to Malacoda), to which the friar retorts, boasting of his theological studies in Bologna, that he had learnt that the devil is a liar and the father of all lies. Catalano is quoting John 8.44: ‘mendax est et pater eius’ [for he is a liar, and the father thereof]. Dante will later write: ‘Taccia Lucano […] Taccia […] Ovidio (Inf., xxv. 94, 97), and here he silences the greater poet, his guide, but one who cannot lead him into Heaven as to him Scripture is unknown. The devil is just like his gods, ‘falsi e bugiardi’ (Inf., i. 72), the words echoed by Catalano.

Purgatorio xxi10

  • 10 My thinking on this canto has been enriched by three enlightening studies: Mario Martelli, ‘Lettura (...)

16It is indeed Scripture, holy writ, that permeates Pugatorio xxi, the third canto set in the fifth girone, that of the avari e prodighi, the covetous and squanderers, an area reached by Virgil and Dante in canto xix, when Virgil interprets Dante’s dawn dream and exposes the misdirection of sensual desire. A quick reading of Purgatorio xx suggests themes that were background to Inferno xxi: the covetous are fixed face downwards, like the barattieri in the pitch and the simonists in the rock, and they look into the bowels of the earth from whence comes the gold and silver of which they made their God. The condemnation of greed comes strong, and its metaphor is predictable, directly linked to Inferno i and to the hope of the Veltro: ‘Maladetta sie tu, antica lupa, […] quando verrà per cui questa disceda?’ [Be cursed, ancient she-wolf […] when will the saviour come to cast her away?] (Purg., xx. 10–15). These saved souls cry out examples of scorn for riches and praise of liberality, which Dante hears because it is day. Yet at night he cannot hear, we are told that they recall punished avarice, and that the volume of their cry indicates the intensity of their feeling. Amongst the exempla there is one Caius Fabricius, a Roman consul, of whom we read that he lived frugally and died poor; he refused the gifts of the Samnites and of Pyrrhus when he was sent to negotiate with them. Virgil describes him as ‘rich in poverty’ (Aen., vi. 843) — and for Dante he is an exemplary figure of pro bono service to the state, the opposite of Hell’s public officials (Purg., xx. 25–30).

17Another theme in canto xx relevant for us is the indirect reminder of Dante’s exile, the result of treachery; this is in the condemnation of Charles de Valois, who championed the Black Guelphs and achieved victory not through military prowess but through treachery, using ‘la lancia / con la qual giostrò Giuda’ [the lance of Judas] (ll. 73–74), and the treachery of Judas reappears in canto xxi. Still in xx, the poets feel the mountain quake, ‘tremar lo monte’ (l. 128), and Dante is frozen with fear — ‘mi prese un gelo / qual prender suol colui ch’a morte vada’ [as one going to his death] (ll. 128–29) — terrified as he was with the devils. Virgil, as in Hell, asserts confidence in his power of leadership: ‘Non dubbiar, mentr’ io ti guido’ [doubt not, while I lead you] (l. 135). That confidence is fading, as is Virgil himself who will gradually yield his role to Statius, the Christian poet, and invite him to explain to Dante the complex generation of the body: ‘e io lui chiamo e prego / che sia or sanator delle tue piage’ [and I call on him and pray him to be henceforth the healer of your wounds] (Purg., xxv. 29–30). The quake is followed by the hymn of praise, Gloria in excelsis Deo, sung by the angels at the birth of Christ as reported by Luke 2.14.

18Scripture opens Purgatorio xxi with Christ in his ministry, and it remains the canto’s sub-text. The first reference is to John 4.5–15: the femminetta, the Samaritan woman whose very anonymity indicates ordinariness. She is the social outsider who will become an insider and she asks for grace: ‘dimandò la grazia’ (Purg., xxi. 3). Grace is gratuitously given, but one must dispose one’s heart to receive it. Dante’s ‘thirst’, his yearning for grace, his natural curiosity to know more, his wanting that knowledge that was stated in Conv., I. i to be our ‘ultima perfezione’, our ‘ultima felicitade’, is a metaphorical thirst that is tormenting him, ‘mi travagliava’ (l. 4), and he implies unequivocably that it cannot be quenched by what is of this world, it needs ‘the water that I (Christ) will give him […] a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting’, as one reads in John’s account. Thrice in canto xxi does Dante use the metaphor: ‘sete natural’, we cannot know fully without supernatural grace (ll. 1–4); ‘si fece la mia sete men digiuna’ [my thirst diminished], Statius’s explanation is of a supernatural phenomenon (ll. 37–39); ‘tanto del ber quant’è grande la sete’, Dante’s joy now that he has knowledge is proportionate to his yearning for it (ll. 73–75). The metaphor of thirst and its quenching appears at the opening of canto xxii with the beatitude that links thirst and justice: ‘beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam quoniam ipsi saturabuntur’ [Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill] (Matthew 5.6). Only when justice destroys greed will society live in peace; this is Dante’s fundamental theme in the Commedia and the Monarchia. The text emphasises that there is now only one water: there are meteorological impossibilities in Purgatory as our water no longer has a place there because there is a new water, a salvific aqua viva that sustains:

      ‘Per che non pioggia, non grando, non neve,
non rugiada, non brina più su cade
che la scaletta di tre gradi breve;’ (Purg., xxi. 46–48)

[For this reason neither rain, nor hail, nor snow, nor dew, nor hoarfrost falls above the short stairway with its three steps;]

19A shade approaches the poets from behind, just as the black devil had with the barattiere on his shoulder, and Dante himself reminds us of Luke, the ‘scriba Cristi’ (Mon., II. viii., 14), and he uses Luke’s very words: Et ecce, ‘ed ecco, sí come ne scrive Luca’ (Luke 24.13–15). So had the risen Christ (‘già surto fuor della sepulcral buca’, Purg., xxi. 9) appeared to the disciples. Later in that chapter Luke writes that Christ appeared to the eleven apostles wishing them peace with the greeting: ‘Pax vobis: ego sum, nolite timere’ (Luke 24.36), or in Dante’s words: ‘O frati miei, Dio vi dea pace’ [Brothers, may God give you peace] (Purg., xxi. 13). Note that these references are to the risen Christ, as the birth — when peace first was wished to men of goodwill — could have been that of a prophet, but only His death and resurrection made Christ the Redeemer. These canti are punctuated by commonly known passages from the Evangelists; the chant was the birth, the quake was the death, the apparition was the Resurrection, but also, mid canto, the Crucifixion is presented as Judas selling the blood of Christ, a line evocative of both simonists and barattieri:vendicò le for a / ond’uscì ’l sangue per Giuda venduto’, [he avenged the wounds from which poured forth that blood that Judas sold] (Matthew 26.14–15). The canto ends in a manner that recalls the embracing of Anchises and Aeneas, but scripturally it is from the Apocalypse as the newly arrived soul, the poet Statius, wants to prostrate himself at Virgil’s feet, but is stopped:

     Già s’inchinava ad abbracciar li piedi
al mio dottor, ma el li disse: ‘Frate,
non far, ché tu se’ ombra e ombra vedi’. (Purg., xxi. 130–32)

[He was already bowing wanting to embrace my teacher’s feet, but the latter said to him: ‘Brother, don’t do that, for you are a shade and it is another shade you see’.]

Et dixit mihi: Scribe: Beati qui ad coenam nuptiarum Agni vocati sunt; et dixit mihi: Haec verba Dei vera sunt. Et cecidi ante pedes ejus, ut adorarem eum. Et dicit mihi: Vide ne feceris: conservus tuus sum, et fratrum tuorum habentium testimonium Jesu. Deum adora. Testimonium enim Jesu est spiritus prophetiae. (Revelation 19.9–10)

[And he said to me: Write: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith to me: These words of God are true. And I fell down before his feet, to adore him. And he saith to me: See thou do it not. I am thy fellow servant and of thy brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. Adore God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.]

20Relevant in the source is not just the angelic injunction not to prostrate oneself, inappropriate in the brotherhood of love, but there is also the one to write: one must write and thus through writing bear testimony to Christ. Another Scriptural reference that comes readily to mind is ‘Noli me tangere’, the words spoken by the resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalen; they are here applicable to the non-embrace between the two classical poets — one saved, and one not — but there is more, for, in John 20.17, Christ’s command is to go to the brethren and say to them (‘et dic eis’): ‘I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God’. Repeatedly Dante’s attention is on the injunction to write, to tell, and to do so with the purpose of bearing witness. Already in Conv., IV, xxii. 16 Dante had written that the three Marys looking for the saviour at his tomb were to go and tell the disciples and Peter, that is those looking for Christ and specifically ‘coloro che sono sviati, sì come Piero che l’avea negato’ [those who have gone astray from the right path and have denied Him as Peter did] (Matthew 28.2–3). To write, to speak, to bear witness but also with a redemptive message ‘in pro del mondo che mal vive’ [for the good of the world that is living in sin] (Purg., xxxii. 103).

21There has been an earthquake and the newly arrived soul explains the reason: it indicates that a soul feels ready to ascend to Heaven after the purgatorial sentence, hence shouts of joy that celebrate this release. It is appropriately evocative of that earthquake that ushered Christ as victor, ‘un possente, / con segno di vittoria coronato’ [crowned with the sign of victory] (Inf., iv. 53–54), into Limbo to release the souls of the just; this was first mentioned by Virgil, recalled also by Malacoda (Inf., xxi), and now it is Virgil who makes clear that he was excluded from that release (Purg., xxi. 16–18). Virgil’s cenno in response to the stranger’s greeting, one likes to think, is a smile, but he becomes very serious as he distinguishes beween the three of them: the stranger who will have peace according to the judgement of one who cannot err; he himself forever relegated to the ‘etterno essilio’ (l. 18) (one of those left behind, and exile is a very strong word); and his companion Dante who will be saved and amongst the blessed: ‘ben vedrai che coi buon convien ch’e’regni’ [you will see that he will be in the kingdom of the blessed] (l. 24). The stranger introduces himself: he is Statius, the poet, author of the Thebaid and the unfinished Achilleid (‘la seconda soma’, l. 93).

22What the text suggests is that Virgil’s role vis-à-vis Dante and Statius is similar: he is the poetic master to both. Statius in life, ‘famoso assai ma non con fede ancora’ [famous but without the true faith] (l. 87), was inspired by the ‘divina fiamma’ [sacred flame] (l. 95) of Virgil’s poetry, a flame that set many on fire. But Statius goes further and uses an image, a common topos that appears often in the Commedia, that of motherhood, one that always carries strong emotion with connotations of provision of vital nourishment:

      ‘de l’Eneïda dico, la qual mamma
fummi, e fummi nutrice, poetando:
sanz’ essa non fermai peso di dramma’. (Purg., xxi. 97–99)

[I mean the Aeneid, both mother and wet-nurse to me as a poet: without it what I wrote would have had much less substance.]

23It is worth noting that Dante uses that same rhyme (mamma / drama / fiamma) in Purgatorio xxx, when he turns like the frightened childquando ha paura’ (l. 45) to Virgil for help and finds him gone. Virgil’s role has been fulfilled. This intimate image ushers in a change in the linguistic register, which becomes very direct and colloquial. Statius indulges in hyperbolic, affectionate, but absurd wishful thinking which is a source of humour: ‘if only I had been a contemporary of Virgil’s’! The ensuing scene is delightful, an unspoken exchange where only a ‘lampeggiar di riso’ (l. 114) conveys happiness and surprise, followed by a completely absorbing and tenderly dramatic scene of agnition.

24Dante phrases the debt of Statius to Virgil in almost the same words he had used when he first met Virgil in the selva oscura:

      ‘Questi che guida in alto li occhi miei,
è quel Virgilio dal qual tu togliesti
forte a cantar de li uomini e de’ dèi’. (Purg., xxi. 124–26)

[This soul who is leading me to see higher things is that very Virgil on whom you drew greatly for your singing of men and of gods.]


      ‘Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore,
tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore’. (Inf., i. 85–87)

[You are my master and my author, you are the only one from whom I have taken the fine style for which I am honoured.]

26To both Statius and Dante, Virgil has been not only a poetic maestro, but more importantly an instrument of salvation. In this canto Virgil tells Statius, before their identity is revealed, that Dante was not capable of doing the journey alone; he needed help because he could not see clearly. Remember Beatrice’s appeal to Virgil, that he should convince Dante to undertake the journey with his ‘parola ornata’, as only poets have this enabling gift (Inf., ii. 67–69):

      ‘l’anima sua, ch’è tua e mia serocchia,
venendo sù,
non potea venir sola,
però ch’al nostro modo non adocchia.
     Ond’ io fui tratto fuor de l’ampia gola
d’inferno per mostrarli, e mosterrolli
oltre, quanto ’l potrà menar mia scola
’. (Purg., xxi. 28–33)

[his soul, a sister to ours, could not make the ascent alone because it does not see as we do. I was summoned from the wide throat of hell to show him the way, and that I shall do insofar as my knowledge enables.]

27In Purgatorio xxii Statius reveals that he owes it to Virgil that he became a poet and a Christian: ‘Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano’ (l. 73) — an emphatic assertion of a link between poetry and the true faith. Aeneid (iii. 56–57) made him review his behaviour and abandon prodigality, the counterpart of avarice (as shown also in the fourth circle of Hell, avari e prodighi, in canto vii). Still led by Virgil’s writing — that effective parola ornate — this time in the fourth eclogue, he became a Christian. Truly, Virgil could be called a ‘famoso saggio’ (Inf., i. 89) though one with a major limitation: he could give light for others to see, but fail to see himself. Also, Statius lived in a society where there was knowledge of Christ, hence he could see the salvific import in Virgil’s text; he ushers in his autobiography with God, the ‘sommo rege’ (83), and vengeance for the Crucifixion, whereas Virgil lived in a completely pagan milieu.

28But Dante, at the beginning of the journey, had balked at the task, and Virgil the magnanimo had to rebuke him with pusillanimity: ‘l’anima tua è da viltate offesa’ (Inf., ii. 45), and again: ‘perché tanta viltà nel cuore allette?’ [Why has so much cowardice gripped you?] (Inf., ii. 122). When better informed, Dante overcomes the fear and agrees to undertake the journey that will result in a poem greater than the ones of his fellow poets. Statius, however, did not overcome his accidia, his insufficiency of zeal, and he failed to proclaim the Christian message, to bear witness: ‘per paura chiuso cristian fu’mi’ [out of fear I was a crypto-Christian] (Purg., xxii. 90). Statius and Dante are poets, both indebted to Virgil as poets and as Christians, but only one — Dante — will proclaim, indeed he will shout, his Godgiven message as Cacciaguida bids him: ‘Tutta tua visïon fa manifesta; […] Questo tuo grido farà come vento’ [make your vision known […] this loud shout of yours will be like a wind] (Par., xvii. 128, 133). Our three poets are bonded, inanellati, but Dante is the most privileged; and now I will explore a further link, with Peter Damian.

Paradiso xxi11

  • 11 My thinking on this canto has been shaped by Fumagalli’s chapter ‘Dante e Pier Damiani’, pp. 147–57

29Paradiso xxi and xxii are in the seventh Heaven, that of Saturn, the heaven in which the contemplatives are revealed to Dante. Three canti were dedicated to the sixth Heaven, that of Jupiter, the only time when all the blessed — the milizia del ciel (Par., xviii. 124) — in the shape of an eagle, speak chorally with one voice. Some looking back is required in order to understand better the seventh Heaven, and to carry forward the crucial lesson that Dante has learnt: how mysterious, to us humans, is divine judgement. Aquinas in Paradiso, xiii. 130–42 had spoken very directly, aphoristically, on this, and the eagle’s discourse has a sharpness that is less than paradisial and less than enlightening. It is motivated specifically by Dante’s concern with those who die without baptism and without faith — ‘non battezzato e sanza fede’ (Par., xix. 76) — through no fault of their own, in lands where no one has read or written about Christ (Par., xix. 70–99). The conclusion is a paraphrase of Scripture (Romans 11.33) which Dante had already expressed in Pauline words in Conv., IV. xxi. 6 (‘sono incomprensibili li tuoi giudicii e investigabili le tue vie’) that God’s judgements and ways are beyond our understanding and pursuit, and the eagle reiterates it:

     Roteando cantava, e dicea: ‘Quali
son le mie note a te, che non le ‘ntendi,
tal è il giudicio etterno a voi mortali’. (Par., xix. 97–99)

[Wheeling, it sang and said: ‘as my music is beyond your understanding, such is eternal judgement to your mortal minds’.]

30Dante must believe without understanding, but a perplexing implication is suggested.

31Beatrice, of course, is present but in fact, from their ascent into the sixth Heaven (xviii. 55), there is no mention of her; she takes no part in the exchange on the salvation of the unbaptised. The hypothetical case of the eagle, however, is made unto the image of a great innominato, Virgil, never mentioned but present as poeta. Indeed, it is in the Aeneid that one reads of Ripheus, the Trojan hero who was slain during the sack of Troy and is singled out as ‘iustissimus unus / qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi’ [the one man amongst the Trojans most just and most observant of probity] (Aen., ii. 426–27). God enabled him to be redeemed and he promoted goodness amongst the perverse, the sviati. But God’s grace did not extend to Virgil who describes his abode in a manner that is acceptable when he first states it, but becomes perplexing later in the poem: ‘Io era tra color che son sospesi’ (Inf., ii. 52). Can his being amongst the ‘suspended’ mean that a final judgement awaits? The eagle’s injunction was not to judge as even the blessed do not know God’s judgement, and Dante was rebuked for setting himself up as judge; nonetheless, he has judged, and as his writing evolves, he comes to question his own earlier decision. Virgil, at this critical moment, is very much an absent presence in Paradiso.

  • 12 Hawkins, ‘Dante’s Lesson of Silence’, pp. 42–43.

32The impossibility of understanding is carried on from the sixth to the seventh Heaven, that of Saturn: though Dante accepts that the eagle has given him ‘soave medicina’ (xx. 141), doubt is still with him, and appears at the very ‘entry’ into the seventh Heaven. The pilgrim is perplexed: contrary to previous practice, Beatrice, who is now mentioned, is not smiling as Dante would be unable to sustain her smile; the intense ‘fulgore’ [effulgence] is too much for his ‘mortal podere’ (Par., xxi. 11), although he is ‘trasumanato’ (Par., i. 70). A kaleidoscopic radiant effect of light begins, the very text sparkles (Par., xxi. 16–30); the Heaven mirrors divine light, and the poet must make his eyes mirrors as some new spectable — nuovo ludo? — will begin. He sees a golden ladder that reflects the sun: ‘di color d’oro in che raggio traluce / vid’io uno scaleo eretto in suso’ (Par., xxi. 28–29). Appropriately it is golden, as Saturn evokes a golden age of justice and no greed: ‘ogni malizia morta’ [all evil lay dead] (l. 27). The souls on this ladder who descend toward the pilgrim are like a ‘cascade’ of light and yet he gives us a simile of humble jackdaws that Peter Hawkins suggests may be ‘as if to reinforce the emphasis on humble simplicity celebrated throughout these cantos’.12

  • 13 Fumagalli, p. 151, drawing on Cesarius of Arles.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 154. Fumagalli tends to the opinion that Dante was acquainted with some of Damian’s writi (...)

33The image of the ladder comes primarily from Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28.12–13, where it is not golden; there are angels upon it, not souls, and they are ascending and descending, whereas Dante’s only descend. Yet it is very relevant that Jacob is shown the Kingdom of God and given knowledge of the holy: the connotation is one of revelation for a purpose. Jacob’s ladder was used as a metaphor for the monastic life: while based on the active life, through contemplation it reaches upward to God. It seems to have been used by medieval preachers often ad corrigendos mores,13 for doctrinal purposes; the angels descending were used to instruct the uneducated, as suggested at the end of the canto. The source for the ladder’s color d’oro could be Peter Damian himself; in Dominus vobiscum, in epistle I. 28 he makes use of the image of the ladder of contemplation: ‘Tu via aurea, quae homines reducis ad patriam’.14 Dante says something similar of his journey; when speaking to Brunetto (Inf., xv. 49–54) he points to Virgil as the one who ‘reducemi a ca’ per questo calle’ — he is taking me back home, ad patriam, and his entire journey is an itinerarium mentis in Deum, the journey of the contemplative.

34One sparkling soul comes closest to Dante who knows it is love — ‘alta carità’ (l. 70) — that has motivated the soul’s descent to him. He waits to speak until Beatrice has bid him to do so, and then he asks why it is he, rather than any other soul, who has come nearest to Dante, and also why there is no ‘dolce sinfonia’ [sweet symphony] (l. 59) in this heaven. This is quickly answered in that Dante’s ‘udir mortal’ [mortal hearing] (l. 61) would not be able to sustain it, as was the case earlier with his sense of sight. There is great joy in the ordinariness of the saint’s statement as to why he has come down:

     Giù per li gradi de la scala santa
discesi tanto sol per farti festa
col dire e con la luce che mi ammanta; (Par., xxi. 64–66)

[I have come down the steps of this holy stair just to celebrate that you have come, both with my words and with the light that mantles me.]

35God has bid the saint to go to Dante but this causes the pilgrim to continue with a variation of the doubt unsolved by the eagle: why amongst all the contemplatives has this soul been predestined to celebrate Dante’s arrival — and Dante is the first to use the word: ‘perché predestinata fosti sola / a questo officio tra le tue consorte’ [why have you been, amongst the souls, the only one predestined for this task] (ll. 77–78). Dante, from the idea of salvation, who is saved, is moving to predestination, trying to understand what he has been told he cannot presume to penetrate, God’s counsel; why is it Peter Damian? The soul for some twenty lines, with evocative and dazzling language — ‘allegrezza ond’io fiammeggio […] la chiarità de la fiamma pareggio’ [the joy in which I flame […] I equal the clearness of the flame] (ll. 88–95) — closes with a statement similar to the eagle’s: neither we nor you can answer the question, all is hidden in the abyss of God’s eternal law, in his unfathomable will. Moreover, Dante is directed to report this to those on earth when he returns from his journey:

      ‘E al mondo mortal, quando tu riedi,
questo rapporta […]’
     Sì mi prescrisser le parole sue,
ch’io lasciai la quistione e mi ritrassi
a dimandarla umilmente chi fue. (Par., xxi. 97–98, 103–05)

[‘And when you return to the mortal world, carry this back […]’ These words so prescribed a limit that I abandoned my question and drew back to ask humbly who he was.]

  • 15 In Mon., III. ix Dante recreates Peter giving him a depth of personality beyond Scripture.
  • 16 Arsenio Frugoni, ‘Pier Damiano, santo’, in Enciclopedia Dantesca (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia (...)

36The saint’s words are clear, prescriptive, and Dante drops the whole matter: ‘lasciai la quistione e mi ritrassi’ [I dropped the matter and left it at that] (l. 104). The question — why Peter Damian? — remains and implies why Dante? In the contemplative our poet is presenting an alter-ego, as indeed in part were Virgil and Statius. In Damian’s third speech to Dante (ll. 113–35), it is clear that Dante was not alone in being caught in sin for ‘la diritta via era smarrita’ [I could not see the right path] (Inf., i. 3); the saint had been ‘Pietro peccator’ (taking the text at its face value) as indeed was the great Peter, a sinner, as Dante reminds us more than once.15 Damian’s ascetic life in the service of God is presented precisely in terms of that of Peter (and of Paul), who ‘magri e scalzi’ [thin and bare-foot] (i. 128) — unlike the over-fed and over-dressed modern prelates — had sought no gold, but bore witness to Christ; the passage is evocative of John, Luke, Matthew and indeed Paul. Damian’s was, like theirs, an active life, engaged in reform of monasticism and of society, which enabled him to ascend in contemplation in order to descend to share the vision with others, with a view to bringing them nearer to God — for that was the role of Peter and of Paul. The reasons differ but the life of the exiled Dante is one of hardship, ‘povero e vetusto’ (Par., vi. 139), he has abandoned ‘ogni cosa diletta / più caramente’ (Par., xvii. 55–56) what was dearest to him and, out of this deprivation, the Commedia, with its message for mankind, will be written. Peter Damian was an important spiritual writer who wrote angrily, ‘con cruda violenza’,16 on topics close to Dante, topics that appear in the Commedia, in the prose works: the integrity of the Church, the absolute poverty espoused by the first followers of Christ, but now abandoned, belief in imperial power, denunciation of cupiditas, the root of all evil, as it corrupts both social and ecclesiastical structures. Like Dante, he was motivated by wanting to hound back to Hell the ‘maledetta lupa’, the cursed wolf of greed that is destroying a society where ‘del no per li denar vi si fa ita’ (Inf., xxi. 42), where money can change nay to yea.

37Peter Damian wrote — and the written word matters. In canto xxiv Dante, in his magnificently bold assertion of faith to St Peter, will state that alongside physical and metaphysical proofs of God, he has truth — verità — as prophets and evangelists recorded it in the Old and the New Testaments (ll. 130–38). He believes in what they wrote, inflamed as they were by the Holy Spirit that hallowed them: ‘per voi che scriveste / poi che l’ardente Spirto vi fé almi’ (ll. 137–38). He too is inspired by the Spirit, he writes a consecrated poem — a ‘sacrato poema’ (Par., xxiii. 62), and in xxv he will call it: a ‘poema sacro / al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra’ [a sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have set their hand] (ll. 1–2).

  • 17 Dante, The Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds (Harmondswor (...)

38To conclude, there are four writers, each with a different role, but each connected through Dante and his interaction with them. Each one brings him further on his journey: Virgil, ‘nostra maggior musa’ [our greatest muse] (Par., xv. 26), in whose pagan beliefs lies his limitation; Statius, lesser poet, gifted with faith but a crypto-Christian; Damian, less accessible to the ‘futura gente’ (Par., xxxiii. 72) in his Latin but clear in his message to Dante, who will continue his edifying preaching, completely accessible in the vernacular. All are writers, all God’s beloved, and the differences lie not in ‘altezza d’ingegno’ [genius] (Inf., x. 59), but rather in predestination. Peter Damian asserts but cannot clarify that he is predestined, Dante is predestined, all is predestined, all is unfathomable; but there is an obvious purpose, and it lies in their writing as through their writing, in which they were gifted, they have influenced. His writ to Dante is to report back to those on earth: ‘E al mondo mortal, quando tu riedi, / questo rapporta’. Dante’s journey, an ascent to the world beyond ours, has its purpose in his descent back to our world, so sadly synthesized as ‘l’aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci’ [The threshing-floor, whereon fierce deeds are done] (Par., xxii. 151),17 a world in the grip of greed. Damian is not the first to issue the command to Dante, and it appears more than once in the Commedia. Dante had already heard it in a form that was most reassuring to the poet to be exiled because, as well as his mission, Beatrice promised citizenship: a citizenship that could not be stripped from him, a citizenship of the eternal Rome, his perennial imperial dream. This promise comes in a context of justice restored. Moreover, her command to write is issued in words that echo Scripture, the first chapter of the Apocalypse, when one John also heard a voice that said: ‘Scribe in libro’ [Write it in the book] (Revelation I. 11, see also 19):

      ‘Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano;
e sarai meco sanza fine cive
di quella Roma onde Cristo è romano.
     Però, in pro del mondo che mal vive,
al carro tieni or li occhi, e quel che vedi,
ritornato di là, fa che tu scrive’. (Purg., xxxii. 100–05)

[You will be but a short while back on earth, and you will be for ever with me a citizen of that Rome where Christ himself is Roman. Therefore, for the good of the world that is living in sin, when you return there, ensure that you write.]


1 Unacknowledged translations are my own. I have used emphasis to draw attention to key words in Dante’s text.

2 Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia, ed. and trans. by Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 59.

3 Letter X in The Letters of Dante, trans. by Paget J. Toynbee, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).

4 Peter S. Hawkins, ‘Dante’s Lesson of Silence: Paradiso 21’ in Lectura Dantis 11 (1992), 42–51 (p. 44).

5 Here and hereafter (unless otherwise stated) the emphasis is mine.

6 John Barnes makes this point in an acute examination of the language and prosody of Inferno xxi. John Barnes, ‘Inferno Canto XXI’, Lectura Dantis Andreapolitana, University of St Andrews, 6 May 2011, http://lecturadantisandreapolitana.wp. st-andrews.

7 Umberto Bosco, ‘Il ludo dantesco dei barattieri’, in Essays in Honour of John Humphreys Whitfield, ed. by H. C. Davis, D. G. Rees, J. M. Hatwell and G. W. Slowey (London: St George’s, 1975), pp. 30–40. On the ‘comedy’ of Inferno xxi, the classical reading by Luigi Pirandello in Letture dantesche. Inferno, ed. by Giovanni Getto (Florence: Sansoni, 1964), pp. 417–36, is still valuable.

8 A clear exposition of the charge against Dante is in Barnes,Inferno Canto XXI’.

9 See ‘I nomi dei diavoli’, in Commedia, by Dante Alighieri, ed. by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi (Bologna: Zanichelli, 2001), p. 377.

10 My thinking on this canto has been enriched by three enlightening studies: Mario Martelli, ‘Lettura stilistica del canto XXI del Purgatorio’, in Ragione e talento. Studi su Dante e Petrarca, ed. by Amelia Ciadamidaro (Cosenza: Falco, 2009), pp. 37–62; Edoardo Fumagalli, Il giusto Enea e il pio Rifeo. Pagine dantesche (Florence: Olschki, 2012), especially pp. 89–108; Spencer Pearce, ‘Purgatorio Canto XXI’, Lectura Dantis Andreapolitana, University of St Andrews, 15 November 2013, http://lecturadantisandreapolitana. wp. standrews. ac. uk/video/purgatorio-canto-xxi

11 My thinking on this canto has been shaped by Fumagalli’s chapter ‘Dante e Pier Damiani’, pp. 147–57.

12 Hawkins, ‘Dante’s Lesson of Silence’, pp. 42–43.

13 Fumagalli, p. 151, drawing on Cesarius of Arles.

14 Ibid., p. 154. Fumagalli tends to the opinion that Dante was acquainted with some of Damian’s writings. This passage is quoted also by Hawkins, ‘Dante’s Lesson of Silence’, p. 43.

15 In Mon., III. ix Dante recreates Peter giving him a depth of personality beyond Scripture.

16 Arsenio Frugoni, ‘Pier Damiano, santo’, in Enciclopedia Dantesca (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana Treccani, 1996), IV, pp. 490–91.

17 Dante, The Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 253. The translation of canti xxii to xxxiii, the introduction and notes are by Barbara Reynolds.


Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin and Cavaliere all’Ordine della Repubblica Italiana. She is the author of Yeats and Castiglione: Poet and Courtier (1965), the editor of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Selected Writings (1992), the co-editor of Italian Culture: Interactions, Transpositions, Translations (2006), the co-ordinating editor of Insularità e cultura mediterranea nella lingua e nella letteratura italiana (2012). Her verse translations include Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Rappresentazione (1992), Ambra (2004) and Poliziano’s Orfeo (2013). She has published on Dante and Beckett, on William Roscoe and Lorenzo de’ Medici.


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