Introduction to the Commedia of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine

Notes for Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008. ¶Page numbers to the one-volume Charles Sisson/OUP translation are in bold.

Dante by By Sandro Botticelli

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita


Midway upon the journey of our life…


Psalm 90, v10: “The days of our years [are] threescore years and ten…”


Dante born Florence 1265, died Ravenna in 1321.


Pope Boniface VIII (tenure of office: 1294-1303), declares a Jubilee year on February 22nd, 1300—pilgrims, who visit Rome, and pay pious honour to Saints Peter and Paul, are promised plenary [“entire, absolute, unqualified”] “pardon of all their sins” [cf. Leviticus 25, vv8-17: “proclaim liberty throughout all the land to its inhabitants”].


1302: Dante sentenced to death in absentia: beginning of his (permanent) exile from Florence [cf. the prophecy in Paradiso xvii.55-60 ¶424: “You will leave everything you love most dearly… You will learn how salt is the taste of other people’s bread, and how hard the way going up and down other people’s stairs.”—also Ezekiel 24, vv15-18]—January 27th, 1302: Dante found guilty of barratry, extortion and resistance to the Pope; March 10th: Dante permanently banned from returning to Florence under penalty of death.  During these proceedings, Dante “was on an official Florentine embassy at the papal court in Rome” (G.A. Trone).  Dante belonged to the political grouping called the “White Guelfs”; the government of Florence in 1302 was the “Black Guelf” faction.  The Guelfs = very broadly speaking were the Italian Papal party—opposed to the Ghibellines, the Imperial party; the Black Guelfs are notorious for their resolute fidelity towards the Papacy.  The White Guelf faction might be characterized as more lukewarm ¶8n.  Pope Boniface VIII [cf. the eager anticipation of Boniface’s arrival in Inferno xix.52-57 ¶124-125; also Inferno xxvii.85 ¶161: “the Prince of the new Pharisees”] strongly supported Florence’s Black Guelf faction.  Also in 1302 (November 18th), Pope Boniface VIII issued the Papal Bull (“edict, decree”) known as Unam sanctam, an uncompromising assertion of Papal supremacy in the priority of the sacred over the secular order in Christendom: “temporal authority [ought to be] subjected to spiritual power”; the conclusion reads: “we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”—directed against King Philip IV, the Fair, of France (reigned 1285-1314)—ultimate consequence was the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy in Avignon from 1309 to 1377; an attempt was made to force Boniface’s abdication in 1303; Boniface also evaded a plot at his abduction to France; Boniface died in the same year [cf. the 2nd masque or pageant at the conclusion of Purgatorio xxxii ¶343].


So, exactly 800 years ago, in exile, we know that Dante Aligheri, the Florentine, was composing his Inferno, and in the Autumn of the year 1308, it is believed that Dante was already drafting his plan for Purgatorio.


Dante, in exile, depended on the generosity of guest friendship; Dante wrote a letter to his host and patron, Cangrande della Scala, Ghibelline lord of Verona—identified as the subject of Paradiso xvii.76-90 ¶425—and sometimes thought to be the clue to the identity of the Greyhound of Inferno i.101 ¶50—this letter is known as Epistola XIII, of uncertain dating, but dedicating the Paradiso to the man who was his host between the years 1312 and 1318.  This crucial document [extracts below in the translation (hereafter tr.) by P. Toynbee] needs to be the first moment in any attempt to read or interpret Dante’s Commedia.  a) it explains the title: this work is written in the vulgar tongue (§10 comedy = “rustic song” from comos (village) and oda (song); whereas the end of tragedy is “foul and horrible”—even though tragedy is the song of a goat (tragos), nonetheless its language is both “high-flown and sublime”—the conclusion of Dante’s Commedia is beneficent, desirable and benevolent [cf. Confessions I.i.1: “our heart is restless until it rests in you”].  b) Dante explains (§16) that “the branch of philosophy to which the work” belongs, “in whole and as in the part, is that of morals or ethics; inasmuch as the whole as well as the part was conceived, not for speculation, but for a practical purpose”; viz. “it may be stated briefly that the aim of the whole and of the part is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery” (§15, ), in other words, the Comedy belongs to that branch of philosophy called ethics, since its purpose is practical, not speculative—and that is to move the reader from a state of misery to a state of bliss in this life.  c) “Before we are reconcil’d to this doctrine, how often must we repeat to ourselves, that the simple view”* of Dante’s Comedy as a picture of the afterlife, where Dante uses the occasion of eternal rewards and punishments “to do good to one’s friend and harm to an enemy” & “to help your friends and harm your enemies” (Republic 335a&334b)—this unsustainable view must be put aside before every reading.  Dante’s Commedia is an allegory about this life, our present life [*adapted from David Hume].  d) In the dedication to Cangrande, Dante affirms that his epic poem is an “allegory”, which is to say it is a story that tells “another story”—from the Greek allos [= other]; actually from the Greek for allos & agoreuein [= “to speak elsewhere than in the agora” (=the Assembly)].


Dante further explains his epic poem to Cangrande as “polysemous, that is, having several meanings” (§7).  To illustrate how the Comedy may at once render both a literal (historical) and an allegorical sense, Dante chooses this text from the Psalms, the possibility of a simultaneous literal and allegorical meaning, Dante chooses Psalm 114, v1: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language…”  The literal meaning is, of course, the Exodus, but the allegorical meaning is, for Dante, the redemption of the world; the passage also has a moral sense, viz. “the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace”.  If we were to add the words in this life to the “moral sense”, we would, in principle, have the aim of the poem in “whole and part” directly here before us.  This judgment can only be strengthened when we add Dante’s rendition of the “anagogical” meaning of this verse: “the departure of the holy soul from the thraldom of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory” (tr. by D.L. Sayers; on the necessity for the “polysemous” interpretation of Scripture, see, for instance, St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 1, Articles 9 & 10. Dante here follows the assessment of St Thomas Aquinas in Article 10, where the anagogical sense—the mystical interpretation: in the triad of Dionysius, the moment of union or perfection—is referred to “eternal glory”.  In Dante’s treatment of the properly polysemous interpretation of his Commedia, it is not difficult to find a resounding echo of Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final; the anagogical sense of the text is its telos (its final end, or purpose).  But in Greek, the term telos can also mean consummation, most appropriate, as we shall see, for the 100th Canto (103-4 ¶498 of this Divine Comedy: “Because the good, which is the object of the will, is there in its entirety” [“is held and gathered in perfection there” (tr. by Robert Hollander)].


As is clear from the dedication above, the title The Divine Comedy would not have been known to Dante: it was simply his Commedia.  The recognition of its “divine” (divina) status is attributed to Dante’s Florentine successor, Boccaccio, author of The Decameron.  


When beginning a massive and world-historical poem—a poem with sometimes numbing complexity and puzzles that may never be solved, the identity of the Greyhound being one—it can be very helpful to compare one’s (always provisional) sense of what the whole work is about, when attempting to interpret the individual cantos.  This is called “the hermeneutical circle”, whereby our sense of the whole informs our reading of the parts, and our reading of individual cantos and episodes challenges and then deepens our understanding of the whole.  So, just to get the conversation going, here, for this tutor, is the essential passage in the Comedy as a whole:   There are hints everywhere: e.g., the Psalm verse, apparently, arbitrarily chosen, in the dedication to Cangrande and in explanation of the need for “polysemous” interpretation (§7).  In Dante’s first encounter with the blessed arriving on the shores of Mount Purgatory (ii.46-48).  What are the blessed singing but the very same Psalm 114 (“In exitu Israel de Aegypto they sang together with a single voice…”) which was the subject of teaching us how to read the work as a whole.  Finally, in Paradiso (xxv.55-57) Beatrice is able to give this hint full voice:

Hence, leave to come from Egypt he has won,

To see Jerusalem, though many a year

His soldiering on earth has yet to run.

(tr. by D.L. Sayers)


From the Oxford/Sisson translation, it will be obvious that Dante composed his poem in a verse form identified as terza rima, which is to say, three line stanzas.  These stanzas then reflect the tripartite structure of the poem as a whole: Inferno and Paradiso, separated (and united) by a “mediating” middle Cantica (= Canticle), which we shall come to know as Dante’s Purgatorio.  What is not so obvious, unfortunately, from this small extract of Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation is that the tercets are supported by a rigorous rhyme scheme, which follows the pattern aba bcb cdc ded &c.  This is actually very important, since it reemphasizes that the mediating, middle term both separates and unites each tercet, and it also adds a dramatic quality to each stanza, since there is an accelerating forward motion in the verse form itself; I repeat: aba bcb cdc ded &c.  Each canto can therefore only be brought to its proper conclusion by a single concluding verse, which rounds off the rhyme and concludes the drama of each canto.  This is visually present in your Oxford translation, but the absolute requirement for a single concluding verse remains occult.  Each stanza – as also the three Canticles as a whole – is a permanent reminder of the presence of the Christian Trinity.  Over the academic year 1802-3, August Wilhelm Schlegel gave a crucial series of lectures in Berlin in which he stressed the triadic structure of the poem “in whole and as in the part”: “consists of a doubling or halving of a given unit, which then produces a mediating third entity out of itself… the first rhyming line represents, as it were the Father and corresponds to the third line, while the second line both divides and unites the other two.  There is another wonder to be uncovered here, which Schlegel discusses directly: each part of Dante’s Commedia ends with exactly the same word, viz. stele (= stars; occulted by Sisson at ¶195, but see also ¶347, 499).  The other miracle which a close reading of the Dante’s Commedia would reveal is that the name of Christ is never spoken in the Inferno, and where Christ’s name does appear in the poem it is never rhymed.  The name of Christ [=Cristo] is tripled (as rhyme) four times in Paradiso [xii.71-5, xiv.104-108; xix.104-108, xxxii.83-87].  Because of the nature of Dante’s rhyme, Cristo first appears as the mediating rhyme, then as the conclusion of the first and third lines of the subsequent stanza [occulted by Sisson except at ¶434].


A word about the Sisson/Oxford translation: there is much to criticize, but it does have two advantages: a) the entire Divine Comedy is present to you as a vade mecum, ready to hand; b) the notes are relegated to the back of the volume, there is some hope that you might actually read the poem, rather than drowning in the voluminous, not to say, suffocating notes.


Why 100 Cantos?  Properly speaking each Cantica consists of 33 Cantos, an allusion to the 33 years of Christ’s earthly presence among humankind.  Inferno has 34 Cantos; the common explanation sees the 1st Canto as introductory, followed by the more potent figure of 33.  However, another explanation is possible: in an earlier work by Dante entitled Il Convivio [= “The Banquet”; Book IV, Chapter 23].  Dante underlines that Christ “desired to die in the thirty-fourth year of his life”.  Dante’s Inferno is the Canticle concerned with death, the death of amor, the death of liberty, the freezing of the will, the accelerating destruction of personality, all accompanied in Dante by the progressive loss of poetic light.  Hence 34 Cantos are uniquely appropriate to the first Canticle, which alludes to Christ’s “descent into hell”, the so-called “harrowing of hell” (viz. Limbo; iv.52—63 ¶461; cf. Inferno xii.31-45 ¶94 & xxi.112-114 ¶135: “Yesterday, five hours later than this hour, 1267 years had passed, since the path was destroyed).  From passages such as that on ¶135 (it is now “Holy Saturday, 1300″), we are able to determine that Dante undertook his descent into hell on Good Friday, the anniversary of Christ’s death at Golgotha, in the Jubilee year 1300.  NB: according to this tradition, Christ died in 34 AD (following the Christian dating; there is no “Year Zero”); there are 34 cantos in the Canticle called Inferno.

Beatrice leading Dante, Paradise scene from The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Venetian miniature, 14th century.

Dante concluded a previous work, a kind of songbook, entitled Vita Nuova (= “New Life”; Chapter xlii) with this promise for Beatrice: “Thus, if it shall please Him by whom all things live that my life continue for a few years, I hope to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman” [tr. by Barbara Reynolds].  The Commedia abundantly exceeds this promise.  Beatrice is, however, worthy of Dante’s epic, since as Dante explains in The New Life, Beatrice Portinari—whom Dante may have met as a youth in Florence [in Vita Nuova, Chapter ii, Dante indicates that when he was in his 9th year, she who “was called Beatrice” for the first time “appeared before my eyes”], may have, before her untimely early death, married into one of the leading Florentine banking families—is a 9 [nine is the first square of an odd number; it is also the number that indicates “completion” (Dominic J. O’Meara)].  Chapter xxix: “Now, according to the Arabian way of reckoning time, her most noble soul departed from us in the ninth hour of the ninth day of the month; according to the Syrian method, she died in the ninth month… I say that she herself was this number nine; I mean this as an analogy… The number three is the root of nine, because, independent of any other number, multiplied by itself alone, it makes nine, as we see quite plainly when we say three times three are nine… then this lady was accompanied by the number nine to convey that she was a nine, that is, a miracle, of which the root, that is, of the miracle, in nothing other than the miraculous Trinity itself.”  NB: According to Christian Scripture, Christ died at Golgotha at the ninth hour; cf. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (line 68): “With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.”)


This deep significance of the number 9 was already known to the Pythagoreans, who “believed that number was the key to understanding the cosmos.  Their original insight was that the numerical ratios of the musical scale indicate that the apparent chaos of sound can be brought into rational, knowable order by the imposition of number” [A Prescocratics Reader, p.17; see also Convivio (tr. by R.H. Lansing), Book II, Chapter 13: “Pythagoras, as Aristotle says in the first book of the Physics, laid down even and odd as the principles of natural things, considering all things to have numerical aspect.”]  The Egyptian Ennead of Heliopolis is a family grouping of the nine greatest deities; and in “the sequence of numbers from the monad up to nine… the ennead and the monad are at the furthest distance [from the pentad], whence the ennead has the greatest advantage, the monad the greatest disadvantage, each by a full tetrad” [The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, tr. by Robin Waterfield, 2000, pp. 104-5; see also p. 87: “later tradition credits Pythagoras with teaching reincarnation…”].


All of this has to be placed under the rubric of Scholasticism; the clockwork of Paradiso Canto x.142-143: “where part with part will push and pull, and ring, ding-ding…” (tr. by D.L. Sayers); in other words, the weight and counterweight, reciprocity and exchange by which means only the mechanism as a whole can do its proper work [cf. Paradiso Canto xxiv.13-15 ¶454 “…as the interdependent wheels in clocks turn so that, while the first may be observed to be at rest, the last seems to fly”].  Perfectly summarized by the scholastic tag: “Distinguish in order to unite” & by Erwin Panofsky in his Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism  1957, pp. 44-45: “Like the High Scholastic Summa, the High Gothic cathedral aimed, first of all, at ‘totality’… In its imagery, the High Gothic cathedral sought to embody the whole of Christian knowledge, theological, moral, natural, and historical, with everything in its place…  In structural design, it similarly sought to synthesize all major motifs handed down by separate channels…”  In this way, Dante is genuinely still medieval, despite his poem’s appearing in the vernacular tongue.  Something else is already stirring in the very next generation in the person of Petrarch (1304-1374); he militated for a “revival under the influence of classical models”.  In his poem Africa, Petrarch declares: “for you… there is perhaps a better age in store; this slumber of forgetfulness will not last forever… our grandsons will be able to walk back into the pure radiance of the past” [cited by Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, 1970, p. 10].  Somewhere at the end of the same century which began with Dante’s Divine Comedy, there came to be a conviction, in Florence for instance, of “an intervening age”; so “in 1382 Filippo Villani could already refer in his book on illustrious Florentines to the names given to various islands in ‘ancient, medieval and modern times’” [cited by John Hale in The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, 1995, p. 591].  This attitude could be summarized as suggesting “there is a middle age separating us from antiquity”, and, from this perspective, “the in-between” of the mediating age could posit a barrier to the possession of antiquity; there is nothing of this in Dante.


This is all beautifully summarized in the contemporaneous development of polyphony [= many sounds “combined contrapuntally” (Michael Kennedy), to be treated in the concluding Dante lecture].  Christopher Page is the director of an English vocal ensemble called “Gothic Voices”, which he founded in 1980.  Page’s hope was to achieve a certain “kind of sound… to get away from the notion that medieval music is all about line and that you have to make the separate lines in a polyphonic work distinct, even doubling them with different instruments and so on.  It’s been my experience that, in fact, the reverse is true: the more homogenous the sound, the more you can hear the harmony and, paradoxically, the more subtle, yet more pronounced, the difference between the parts.”  Gramophone magazine [1989, p. 609] praised Gothic Voices for “this emphasis on harmony through homogeneity” which establishes “the elegance and the flow without any loss of individuality among the voices” [David Fallows, Gramophone 1990, p. 1259].  Guillaume de Machaut, the greatest practitioner of the musical Ars Nova  [= “increased independence in part-writing” (Michael Kennedy)], was born right around 1300, and composed his polyphonic Messe de Notre Dame sometime after he was installed as a Canon of the cathedral in Reims in 1337.  We may have an opportunity to hear his rondeau [= “circle of recurrence… type of medieval song… sung by troubadours in which sections of both words and music recurred (Michael Kennedy)”] titled “Ma fin est mon commencement” [“a retrograde (musical) canon in words” (Paul Hillier, director of The Hilliard Ensemble)].


The discussion of music is apt; above, we referred to Dante’s Vita Nuova as a “songbook”.  Consequently, the great troubadour tradition provides another essential angle of approach towards The Divine Comedy.  In the Holy Roman Empire, these performers might be called Minnesinger, which is to say these 12th and 13th Century minstrels were “singers of love”.  The Troubadours originally from Provence and surrounding territories performed their songs in a Romance language called Occitan, the language from which their name derives: originally trobadours.  It is from their “original vernacular tradition” (Pierre Bec).  Apart from the vernacular form, the crucial moment in the troubadour tradition is that their theme of “love from afar” then “revolved around an idealized, mostly nameless, and frequently unattainable Lady, or Donna, to whom a poet-musician addressed highly accomplished verses of intense longing” (Martin Best).  Dr Robert Crouse, who established the teaching of Dante’s Divine Comedy in FYP, and whose presence must be acknowledged everywhere in these lectures, never tired of clarifying how the “courtly love” tradition was embedded in the very structure of Dante’s three canticles: in Inferno the lover discovers his own unworthiness; having undertaken a quest in the lady’s honour, the lover (in Purgatorio) discovers himself as ennobled; in Paradiso, the now ennobled lover is rewarded when the lady deigns to smile upon him.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of Kubla Khan, provided this definition of poetry: “the best possible words in the best possible order”.  Not only is this definition itself a realization of its very own ideal, but, in my opinion, Dante supremely fulfils the imperative that Coleridge lays down: “the best possible words in the best possible order”.

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