Allegories of the Corpus [James C. Kriesel]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: James C. Kriesel

Tratto da: The Cambridge Companion to Dante's Commedia

Editore: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 2009

Pagine: 110-126

1. Dante’s Allegory: Body and Text

In the Comedy, Dante most overtly recalls contemporary ideas about allegory when he describes the obstacles that prevent the pilgrim and Virgil from entering the infernal city of Dis. In Inferno IX, while introducing the dangers that had threatened the travellers, the poet highlights the Furies who mutilate their own bodies, and observes that the pilgrim’s body would have been petrified if he had gazed upon Medusa. Before a celestial messenger unblocks the travellers’ path, the narrator addresses his readers: ‘You who are of good understanding, note the doctrine that is hidden under the veil of the strange lines’ (O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani, / mirate la dottrina che s’asconde / sotto ’l velame de li versi strani; 61–3). We are instructed conventionally to search for meaning by looking under the ‘veil’ or garment of the text’s verses, as though the poem were a covered object or a clothed body. The implied contrast between pilgrim and reader further establishes an analogy between the poem and a body: whereas the pilgrim cannot look at Medusa’s petrifying figure, readers must peek under the veils of the textual corpus to find useful ‘doctrine’.
The act of looking under the ‘veil of the strange lines’ of a textual corpus – strani had resonances ranging from ‘strange’ to ‘unusual’ – evoked standard medieval ideas about allegory. Allegory was defined as‘alien’ or‘other speak’ (alieniloquium): ‘[allegory] literally says one thing, and another thing is understood’. Accordingly, allegory was a broad rhetorical trope that encompassed many kinds of transferred speech (metaphor, irony, personification, etc.), as well as a variety of categories of signs (images, figures, symbols, etc.). In addition, tropes like allegory were sometimes depicted as ornaments or colours on a garment covering a body. Allegory was also intertwined with the exposition of Scripture and revelation: the veil and the disfigured bodies of Inferno IX may parodically recall Moses who hid the glory of his countenance behind a veil in contrast to Christ who fully revealed Himself (2 Corinthians 3:12–16). Finally, verses 61–3 underscore that allegory was related both to a kind of writing (sometimes called a weaving or covering) and to a manner of reading (sometimes termed a denuding or stripping; for instance, Vn XXXV, 10 [16, 10]). Medieval writers and readers, therefore, probably did not distinguish as clearly as modern ones do between an allegorical mode of textual composition (allegory) and an allegorical mode of reading (allegoresis).
Given the importance of allegory in medieval literary theory and poetics, several of the major debates about the Comedy – in medieval commentaries on the poem and in modern scholarship – have involved matters concerning the poem’s relationship to allegory. These debates generally address three main areas: how Dante thought his poem signified meaning; how he developed new ideas about textuality and authorship by adapting classicalrhetorical and biblical-exegetical traditions; and how Dante intended that his text should influence readers, a major concern for all medieval writers since literature was classified as a branch of ethics, and a vital issue for a poet of a work meant to bring about individual salvation and social and political change.
What follows examines allegory’s role in the Comedy, and does so, in part, by focusing on Dante’s metaliterary and symbolic uses of the body. As is shown by Inferno IX, Dante introduced ideas about allegory by using the physical body as a symbol for the textual corpus. The body was a common metaphor for the textual corpus in the Middle Ages, in part because Christ at the Incarnation had presented the Word, or His ‘text’, in bodily form. Scholars have studied the many ethical, spiritual, and literary resonances of the body in the Comedy. For example, with respect to literary issues, critics have discussed how Dante drew on the body when developing ideas about signs and semiology. However, Dantists have not considered in similar detail how the poet used the body when reflecting on allegory, a question that is bound up with medieval ideas about signs in general. How Dante uses the corpus, whether body or text, to reflect on allegory in the Comedy comes into clearer focus when considered in light of ideas about allegory in medieval literary theory and his ‘other works’.

2. The Critical Context: Medieval and Dantean

In the Middle Ages, ideas about allegory underwrote a key distinction between religious and secular writing. Christians thought that God signified through the things of creation and the events of providential history (allegoria in factis), which could foreshadow or prefigure other things and events (figura, typus). Regarding the Bible, elements in the Old Testament prefigured events in the New, especially as concerns the Incarnation and Christ’s mission (Luke 24:44; Galatians 4:21–6). Like Christ’s body, Scripture was considered a historical corpus perfectly figuring meaning. Exegetes also recognized that, even though the literal sense of the Bible described historical events, it could contain metaphorical or figurative language: for example, the erotic metaphors and images of the Song of Songs were considered to embellish a narrative about the relationship between Christ and the Church or between the soul and God. Christian readers theorized that in Scripture there were three ‘other’ senses in addition to the literal one: the allegorical, often related to Christ’s life; the moral, concerned with personal behaviour; and the anagogical, associated with the afterlife. The senses of allegoria in factis were regularly illustrated by reference to Psalm 113 that dealt with Israel’s flight from Egypt. Thus, the author of a Latin epistle (Ep. XIII; 1320?), which features an exposition of Paradiso I and is addressed to one of Dante’s patrons during his exile, Cangrande della Scala, lord of Verona, discusses the psalm’s senses. Though the letter’s attribution to Dante is disputed, the epistle nevertheless sheds light on contemporary ideas about allegory and ‘polysemy’, the fact that a text may have ‘many meanings’ (7). The author explains that the literal sense of Psalm 113 concerns the history of Israel; the allegorical, humanity’s redemption through Christ; the moral, the conversion of the soul from sin to grace; and the anagogical, the soul liberated from bondage in this world (7). Moreover, medieval writers, including Dante, considered the universe as a book (Psalm 18:1–2; and Par. XXXIII, 86). In fact, creation as a whole was assessed for ‘traces’ (vestigia) that revealed truths about God. Reading creation allegorically was encouraged by the mystical theology of the influential sixth-century Christian Platonist, Pseudo-Dionysius, who maintained that God is present everywhere, even in worms, and by Neoplatonic philosophers, who claimed that the world was a ‘veiled’ embodiment of the spiritual realm.
God’s signifying in history was contrasted to human authors signifying exclusively through the words of a fictional literal sense (allegoria in verbis). Thus, Dante defined the literal sense of literature as a ‘beautiful lie’ (Conv. II, i, 4). Theologians and philosophers regularly dismissed literary fictions as falsehood, sometimes adding that literature afforded only superficial pleasures, although they did not deny that it had some didactic value. Even fantastic or erotic texts like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Art of Love were read in medieval schools to teach the structures of grammar, ideas about antiquity, and lessons about ethics. It was also thought that ancient writers had occasionally intuited Christian truths in an imperfectly analogous manner to God’s writing in history. In the twelfth century, a group of philosophical poets at Chartres canonized the idea that one needed to look ‘under the veil’ (sub velamine) or ‘under the wrapping’ (sub integumento) of a fictional narrative to discover ideas about the world or ethics. These Chartrean proposals, coupled with the patristic commonplace that Scripture was a book with meanings ‘written within and without’ (Ezekiel 2:9–10), probably influenced Dante’s appeal in Inferno IX to look for‘doctrine’ under the ‘veil’ of the textual corpus (compare Purg. VIII, 19–21; XXXIII, 100–3; and Par. IV, 40–5). A few works, for example parts of Virgil’s Aeneid and of Eclogue IV about the birth of Augustus, were also considered to be historically true, and even to have prefigured Christ’s birth and life. In the Convivio, Dante implied that many ‘writings’ (‘scritture’) could be interpreted according to three ‘other’ senses: the allegorical was explained with Ovid’s account of Orpheus taming the beasts (signifying the education of the ignorant); the moral with the example of Christ’s transfiguration (one should have few confidants); and the anagogical with Psalm 113 about Israel’s flight from Egypt (the soul liberated from sin; II, i, 2–7). Such ideas developed alongside the more systematic reading of ancient myths as imperfect intuitions of Christian truths, and the increasingly common practice of using pagan myths in literature to represent Christian notions. Everything in medieval culture could therefore be allegorical: a Christian could read any text or thing allegorically (allegoresis). At the same time, writers and critics discussed how an author ought to compose a text (allegory) as they endeavoured to vindicate the dignity of literature as a discursive mode in comparison to philosophy, theology, and history.
Dante discussed ideas about allegory in nearly all his texts. Nonetheless, his‘other works’ provide only partial insights into how the Comedy signifies, mainly because the poem is unique with respect to his other writings and indeed with respect to any classical and medieval text. However, Dante himself encouraged readers to consider his ‘other works’ in light of the Comedy by evoking them, especially the Vita nova and his love lyrics, within the poem. As will be explained, he recalled these writings to help readers appreciate the uniqueness of the Commedia, a work boldly presented as a divinely inspired ‘sacred poem’ (sacrato poema, poema sacro; Par. XXIII, 62 and XXV, 1).
For their part, most late-medieval and Renaissance readers tended to downplay the Comedy’s prophetic, providential, and salvific claims – the exception being the Carmelite friar Guido da Pisa, who characterized Dante as God’s scribe and the ‘pen of the Holy Spirit’. 5 Other commentators concentrated on the poem’s classical, doctrinal, and historical allusions, marvelled at the descriptions of the other world and its inhabitants, and interpreted the poem as an allegorical fiction about the growth of the human soul guided first by Virgil (Reason) and then by Beatrice (Theology). Only in the twentieth century did ideas about the poem’s allegory begin to change, although not initially in Italy, where scholars, like the philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), celebrated the aesthetic and lyric aspects of the Comedy as distinct from its ideological (and thus allegorical) dimension. In North America, Charles Singleton (1909–85) initiated discussion of the poem’s allegory when he suggested that its structures of meaning approximate Scriptural ones. He noted that the Commedia’s literal narrative has a ‘historical sense’ that grounds its three allegorical senses. However, Singleton downplayed the poem’s historicity by claiming that the ‘fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction’, which amounts to saying that it is verisimilar, and thus like other human fictions.
Singleton’s German contemporary, Erich Auerbach (1892–1957), also made recourse to ideas about the Bible’s modes of signification. In particular, he utilized the concept of prefiguration to contextualize one of the Comedy’s striking novelties: its realistic depiction of psychologically complex individuals in contrast to the stilted personification allegories found in Prudentius’ Psychomachia (c.405) and allegorical-didactic poems like Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1181–4). Auerbach suggested that the denizens of the afterlife were ‘figural’ fulfilments of their earthly selves, whereby their eternal existence reflected their earthly lives. Dante himself elucidated the notion of the contrapasso, the system of punishment that, in Auerbach’s terms, ‘figures’ the reality of the souls’ temporal existence, by programmatically referring to the body. In Inferno XXVIII, the Occitan poet Bertran de Born, who turned father against son (a grotesque inversion of the love binding the Father and Son), is punished among the sowers of discord. Bertran physically embodies his sin by having his head severed from his body: ‘thus in me is observed the retribution’ (Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso; 142). In light of the Comedy’s ‘figuralism’, scholars have been encouraged to explore further how the poem might communicate through recourse to typology and analogy, in particular by including events, symbols, and persons that are modelled on biblical exemplars and passages: the pilgrim’s otherworldly journey recalls Christ’s descent to Hell and resurrection.
In the mid-twentieth century, Bruno Nardi (1884–1968), a historian of ideas rather than a scholar of literature, argued that Dante presents the Comedy as a true prophetic vision, an interpretation that also has had a profound influence on subsequent discussions of its allegory. However, like other contemporary Italian dantisti, Nardi did not consider the poem as allegorical, nor did he fully explore the implications of maintaining that it is a true prophetic vision. Readers have continued to interrogate the ways in which the Comedy can be considered ‘true’ in relation to reality and Scripture. Ideas about figura and typology, whereby something is true in so far as it accords with Scripture or theological concepts, only account for a part of the poem’s veracity. Robert Hollander addressed this matter by arguing that ideas about allegoria in factis as described in the letter to Cangrande – though these overtly refer only to the Bible and not to the Comedy – were generally valid for the poem. However, the problem with relying on the epistle to understand the Comedy is that its author also terms one of the poem’s ‘modes of treatment’ ‘fictional’ (9). Moreover, claiming that the Comedy signifies according to allegoria in factis does not explain what role tropes and modi typically associated with literary texts may have in the poem (for example, the personification of Lady Poverty; Par. XI, 55–75). More recently, scholars have studied the poem itself for clues about its signifying properties by analysing its metaliterary passages about allegory. Such passages often appear in the liminal parts of the Comedy – areas of a medieval text that typically foreground matters related to the formal, signifying, and genre properties of a literary work – and are located at the beginning and close of canticles, as well as in cantos that mark transitions between major groups of souls.

3. Allegorical Writing in the Comedy

Inferno I foregrounds matters related to the poem’s allegorical modi tractandi, or ‘ways a text treats’ a subject and signifies meaning. The canto functions as a ‘prologue’ (prooemium) to the Comedy, and introduces ideas about the textual and connoting properties of the poem that later cantos address in greater detail. The first part of Inferno I (1–63) features a plethora of references to bodies, which prompted some medieval readers to conclude that the pilgrim had sinned by submitting his reason to the appetites. The pilgrim arrives at the foot (piè; 13) of a hill; the sun’s shoulders are clothed with light (16–17); and the pilgrim’s body may be deformed because his left foot is dragging (28–30; the left was associated with carnality and worldliness). Like the Furies and Medusa in Inferno IX, the beasts that block the pilgrim’s way are described in fleshly detail: their skin, head, physical appearance, and desires are mentioned (31–54). The carnality of the opening seems to be associated with traditions of fantastic allegorical writing set in oneiric landscapes populated by beasts. The pilgrim’s ‘voyage’ (vïaggio; 91) may evoke the allegorical–didactic journeys of learning depicted in texts like the Anticlaudianus. The violent beasts are reminiscent of a personification allegory such as the Psychomachia; while the narrator’s sleepiness evokes allegorical dream visions, like the erotic Roman de la rose (c.1230 and c.1275). Such works featured beasts representing vices and personifications of the liberal arts, virtues, and emotions.
In the second part of Inferno I (64–111), the subject of the narrative changes, as does the nature of the bodily references. This section treats matters related to the pilgrim’s biography and providential history, and dramatizes a purification of carnal desires. Dante-character meets the shade of Virgil, who is not described physically, but instead in historically precise and individualized terms. The pilgrim initially wonders whether the ancient poet is a ‘shade or real man’ (od ombra od omo certo; 66), and Virgil answers that he is no longer a man but once was (67). Moreover, Virgil does not simply represent Reason, but talks about his poetry, historical epoch, and political-religious milieu (67–75). He then treats the earlier, seemingly fictional, parts of the canto – and this is the key – as though they were both part of Dante-character’s real experience and part of providential history. Virgil contextualizes the pilgrim’s battle with the carnal she-wolf in light of the history of Italy: he prophesizes that a ‘greyhound’ (veltro; 101), which does not feed on earth or flesh (perhaps Christ or a universal emperor), will hunt the beast whose ‘greedy appetite is never satisfied’ (mai non empie la bramosa voglia; 98). This hound will restore the Italy of the chaste Roman heroine Camilla (107).
Inferno I introduces the poem as a historical and a true text – true because it is intertwined with the unfolding of providence and revelation. The Comedy thereby radically purports to signify in a manner akin to biblical allegoria in factis, but also – and this is just as significant – subsumes within itself other modes of signification like allegoria in verbis. At the same time, the references to the body in Inferno I point to the kinds of truths the Comedy depicts. They imply that, unlike allegorical-fictional fables, Dante’s text does not ‘veil’ or ‘block’ any kind of moral or anagogical meaning. The fantastic portion of the canto features bodies that obstruct the pilgrim’s ascent; its historical-prophetic part instead recounts that a Christ-like greyhound will chasten bodily desires, and Virgil advises the pilgrim to follow him through the afterlife. As noted, medieval exegetes thought that the moral sense concerned the soul’s conversion from sin to grace, and the anagogical pertained to the soul being liberated from bondage in this world. Inferno I accordingly depicts a purification of sinful carnality, as well as a pilgrim who escapes from physical bondage into the spiritual afterlife. Inferno IX equally suggests that the Comedy ‘unblocks’ obstacles to anagogical truths, an idea again symbolized by the pilgrim’s entering into the city of Dis, and hence passing (further) into the spiritual otherworld.
After cantos I and IX, in Inferno, Dante most overtly reflected on issues relating to allegory on the outer edge of the circle encompassing sins of fraud (Malebolge), an area that, once again, foregrounds matters related to textual signification and the body in order to challenge medieval ideas about literature as falsehood. The poet raises the issue of the truthfulness of the Comedy when the pilgrim encounters the monster Geryon, the ‘foul image of fraud’ (sozza imagine di froda; XVII, 7), whose physical presence dominates the action. The poet provides an extended description of the creature – a highly unusual rhetorical strategy in the Comedy – that focuses on its body. The beast is a hybrid: it has the face of a man; its trunk and limbs are comprised of bestial and reptilian elements; and its tail resembles that of a scorpion (XVII, 1–15). The narrator swears by the verses of the Comedy that he saw a ‘truth that has the face of a lie’ (ver c’ha faccia di menzogna; XVI, 124). The episode also features other key allegorical concepts introduced in Inferno IX; for example, the notion of reading ‘beneath the veil’ of a text is recalled when Dante mentions those who ‘not only see the [external] deed but look with understanding into thoughts!’ (non veggion pur l’ovra, / ma per entro i pensier mirano col senno!; XVI, 119–20). Moreover, Geryon’s body recalls a textual veil: it is covered with drapes, weavings, and signs (XVII, 15–18), thereby appearing to demand interpretation.
Dante constructed Geryon as an analogue of the Comedy to reflect upon the novelty of its textual properties, including its relationship to the fraudulent or imperfect nature of human language and representation. The references to allegory underscore this point since allegory signalled that valid meaning was to be found beyond the ‘letter’ of a text. Dante, however, stressed the truthfulness of his poem by distinguishing its literal sense, symbolized by its ‘carnality’ or ‘superficiality’, from the literal sense of other texts. While fictional texts have a false literal sense, the Comedy has a literal sense that seems false but is true (XVI, 124). The paradoxical medieval wonder of a literary text being truthful and historical is symbolized, in part, by the ‘marvellous... figure’ (figura ... maravigliosa) of Geryon’s hybrid body (131–2). By creating a ‘marvellous’ body, a notion that can be extended to the whole Comedy, Dante likened his creation to God’s work as the divine artist, the Deus artifex. God created the world, and therefore no body or object in it can be completely ‘against nature’, not even Geryon’s corpus. Even though Dante’s poem broke canonical rules about genre by integrating various styles and linguistic registers, the Comedy, like Geryon’s body, is a natural part of God’s creation. Accordingly, the literal sense of the poem cannot be discarded or looked past as in standard secular writing. In Inferno IX, the pilgrim must shield his eyes from Medusa and avoid the Furies, figures emblematic of secular writing and myth, because their bodies harm, petrify, and damn. Conversely, like Scripture, the Comedy’s corpus is directly connected to the unfolding of providential history and revelation. The pilgrim, therefore, must gaze upon and engage with Geryon’s body, which physically impacts on his reality by transporting him forward on his divinely ordained journey. In other words, the creature’s body, like the meaning it signifies, is immediately and directly present. Dante probably drew on the metaliterary resonances of the body to counter the criticism of literature as falsehood because, in the wake of the Incarnation, the body could be emblematic of truth and history. As Christ’s body perfectly succeeded, so Dante – insofar as a human author could – attempted to embody truth and influence the course of history.
In the opening cantos of Purgatorio, Dante continued to highlight the formal properties and intended effects of his allegorical poem. He again distinguished the ‘modes of writing’ of his ‘sacred poem’ from those of classical myth and secular literature. Purgatorio I highlights matters related to the Comedy’s allegory by overtly evoking the images of the ‘veil’ and the (textual) corpus. Cato, the guardian of Purgatory, explains that he left the ‘veil’ (vesta; 75) of his body on earth by committing suicide to free himself from the tyranny of Caesar. On the one hand, Cato represents the best of classical culture since he is the first saved soul encountered by the travellers. On the other, he reveals how he and the ancient world were transfixed by the sensual superficiality, the carnal-literal ‘veil’, of creation and literature. Not only was Cato blinded by his experience of embodied reality to the point that he fatally harmed himself, but he was also bewitched by the kind of eroticism present in some of Dante’s lyric poems, one of which is cited in the next canto. Indeed, as Cato was compelled by his wife Marzia’s physical beauty to do whatever she willed (Purg. I, 85–7), so the pilgrim and the newly arrived penitents are sensually overwhelmed by the musician Casella’s recital of one of Dante’s pre-exile canzoni, ‘Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona’ (Love that reasons in my mind; II, 112). Cato subsequently criticizes the souls – and by extension (Dante’s previous) love poetry – by declaring that the penitents are wasting their time and neglecting their spiritual purification (112–23). Cato commands that the penitents must strip off the carnal veil or ‘slough’ (scoglio; 122) that clouds their vision of God. Consequently, Dante questions the poetics and the signifying efficacy of pagan literature and his earlier love poetry. Whereas the ‘veils’ of those corpora confused Cato’s and the penitents’ search for valid meaning, the Comedy spiritually enlightens its readers and sharpens their perceptions of reality.
Purgatorio II further differentiates the symbolic properties of pagan and erotic literature from those of the Comedy’s signifying qualities by restressing that the poem should be interpreted using the conventions of allegoria in factis. The spirits arrive in Purgatory singing Psalm 113, thereby prompting some modern readers to turn to the epistle to Cangrande to clarify the Comedy’s allegory. However, given that the first two cantiche circulated before the letter was written, this means that clarification of its symbolic characteristics ought to be sought in the poem itself. In fact, the reference to Psalm 113 reveals that Dante carefully guided perceptions of the Comedy’s modes of meaning by evoking common ideas about biblical allegory. At the same time, the allusion does not imply that Dante intended to suggest that his poem communicated with three allegorical-spiritual senses throughout. In his Monarchia, Dante cautions against thinking that allegory is systematically present in every passage of a text (III, iv, 6–11). As the quotation of Psalm 113 confirms, it is only those parts of the Commedia that deal directly with providential history and with the pilgrim’s divinely sanctioned journey that ought to be read according to allegoria in factis. The opening two cantos of Purgatorio thus develop issues first raised in Inferno I, thereby highlighting that the Comedy employs a biblically inspired ‘figural’ mode of signification: episodes, events, and persons acquire their full significance later in the poem when considered in light of subsequent episodes, events, and persons.
In Purgatorio, Dante also addressed matters related to allegory and ideas about semiology more generally. Since allegory was defined broadly as ‘other speak’, discussions of allegory encompassed and were influenced by notions about other categories of signs (signa), such as enigmatic symbols, visual images, and language. In the Earthly Paradise, Beatrice foregrounds semiological matters by discussing a range of signs, for example the ‘enigma’, ‘words’, and ‘traces’ (enigma, parole, vestigge; XXXIII, 50, 53, 108) left by God in creation. Tellingly, Beatrice deals with divine semiology, a crucial subject for an author purporting to be God’s scribe, in Eden, the area situated between the terrestrial and celestial realms, because God’s signs, as is the case with the Comedy, were supposed to mediate between the spiritual/divine and the carnal/human.
In the Earthly Paradise, the pilgrim sees the events and written record of providential history in bodily form. He witnesses a procession of human, animal, and fantastic figures which, at first glance, evoke the types of personifications and bestial representations of the emotions, virtues, and vices present in many late-antique and medieval allegorical fictions (Purg. XXIX, 43–154 and XXXII, 103–60). As the procession unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the pageant is a highly synthesized and detailed allegorical embodiment of salvation history as recorded in the books of the Old and New Testament (twenty-four elders symbolize the books of the Old Testament; four animals the four Gospels; a chariot the Church; the griffon Christ). Moreover, the sometimes enigmatic and fantastic nature of the imagery recalls John’s prophetic dream-vision recorded in Revelation. Appropriately, in Eden, the apostle appears asleep (XXIX, 142–4), a detail that points not only to the inspired nature of the Comedy, but also to Dante’s active role in its creation. The fact that the pilgrim is awake when he views the procession stresses the historical reality of his journey and the veracity of his poetic account.
The procession frames the pilgrim’s reunion with Beatrice at the top of the mountain, helping to set up a complex contrast between the use and interpretation of verbal and embodied signs in the Comedy and in the Vita nova, the latter being explicitly recalled at Purg. XXX, 115. The Vita nova recounts the narrator’s relationship with his beloved who has Christ-like attributes (for example, her greeting has salvific effects; Vn XI, 1–4 [5, 4–7]). In chapter XXV [16], Dante explains why he includes a personification of Love in an autobiographical narrative that should be distinguished from fiction, emphasizing that he is imitating classical authors. The same section also foregrounds similarities between signification in the Vita nova and in the Bible. In the previous chapter, the narrator has a vision of the lady of his friend and fellow-poet Guido Calvacanti, who is called both Primavera (‘Spring’ but also ‘She who comes first’) and Giovanna, because she preceded Beatrice, her name deriving from John the Baptist, who came before the ‘true Light’. Dante thus establishes a figural relationship between Giovanna/John the Baptist, who announce the Word, and Beatrice/Christ, who (re)embody the Word (XXIV, 4 [15, 4]). In the Earthly Paradise, in keeping with the Vita nova, Beatrice recalls that she successfully guided her lover for a time thanks to her bodily presence, although, once she died – she continues – he abandoned her to follow false corporeal images (Purg. XXX, 109–45), a revelation that runs counter to the story told in the ‘little book’ (Vn I, 1 [1, 1]). She concludes that the decomposition of her body should have taught him to focus on spiritual rather than physical matters (XXXI, 49–57).
As in its opening, Purgatorio’s final cantos thus question a mode of signifying based vitally on erotic bodily signs. Beatrice’s remarks offer a critique of the Vita nova’s symbolic ‘mode’, as well as its efficacy, for all its Scriptural allusiveness, as an ethical and salvific text. Beatrice characterizes the pilgrim as a writer who had concentrated on a single body and utilized just one ‘genre’ of signs, namely Beatrice’s corpus and erotic secular literature. Conversely, the allegorical pageant, that is both a divine text and a record of God’s writing, incorporates the complexity of signs present in creation by featuring different kinds of bodies (animal, elderly, female, male) and a diversity of signs (enigmatic, fantastic, historical, erotic). Accordingly, before the pilgrim ascends to Paradise, Beatrice enjoins him to remember as accurately as possible what has just been revealed to him (XXXIII, 73–8). Beatrice’s command implies that the poet-scribe’s representation will imitate not the personifications of human authors but the embodied symbols of God’s divine ‘writing’. The Comedy, therefore, endeavours to approximate the signifying range and properties of God’s two ‘books’, Scripture and providential history. As the souls correct their previous sinful dispositions during their purgatorial ascent, so, in Purgatorio, Dante attempts to correct some of his misguided youthful ideas about allegory, signification, and embodiment.
In Paradiso, Dante returns to the subject of signs while reflecting on the ineffability of Heaven. In the opening canto, the narrator prays for help to make manifest ‘the shadow of the blessed kingdom’ (l’ombra del beato regno; I, 23), underlining that the cantica presents an approximate and analogic ‘shadow’ of the divine reality. Ideas about signification are also highlighted when Beatrice explains why the souls, who reside beyond space and time in the Empyrean, appear to the pilgrim in the lower celestial spheres. Beatrice clarifies that the souls experience beatitude in various degrees, and that this truth is revealed to the pilgrim by having the souls descend to the heaven that most closely approaches their paradisiacal reality: ‘It is necessary to speak thus to your faculty, since only from sense perception does it grasp that which it then makes fit for the intellect. For this reason Scripture condescends to your capacity and attributes hands and feet to God, having another meaning’ (Così parlar conviensi al vostro ingegno / però che solo da sensato apprende / ciò che fa poscia d’intelletto degno. / Per questo la Scrittura condescende / a vostra facultate, e piedi e mano / attribuisce a Dio e altro intende; IV, 40–5). On the one hand, Beatrice clarifies how God reveals the nature of eternal glory in Paradise to the pilgrim who is limited by his humanity. On the other, given the overt allusions to ‘Scripture’ and allegory (‘altro intende’), her remarks also address how the poet should imitate divine modes of signification in order to communicate, of course indirectly, the immaterial-spiritual reality of Paradise. Thanks to Beatrice’s reference to the bodily representation of God, it becomes apparent that Paradiso’s modes of signification are elucidated not in light of Geryon’s monstrous physique, but in terms of a ‘perfect’, because divine, metaphorical human body. In contrast to disfigured infernal bodies, in Paradise the blessed form shapes, such as circles, letters, and even a symbolic eagle, that are untainted by earthly imperfection. Furthermore, in the heaven of the Sun, the pilgrim hears an allegory about Francis’ love for Lady Poverty, an erotic personification narrative purified of unchaste carnal sexuality (X, 7–12, 61–81; XI, 55–84). The Paradiso thus models itself on signs and a love untainted by corporeal and symbolic imperfection so that it can offer a ‘shadowy’ glimpse of the divine truths that its author had been privileged to experience.

4. Allegorical Reading in the Comedy

While defining the properties of his allegorical writing, Dante concurrently reflected on allegorical reading. As noted, the two were intimately related in medieval culture, and they illuminated each another. It has been suggested that the whole of the Comedy dramatizes a journey of interpretation: the soul lost in the confusing wood of this world returns to the fullness of meaning in the presence of God. The nature of this interpretive journey is illustrated in several key episodes centred on the soul shedding its improper attachment to the self and the body. In particular, Inferno V and IX, that respectively feature the first carnal sin and the transition from the sins of incontinence to those of the intellect, dramatize the importance of reading and interpreting properly. In canto V, Francesca explains that she and Paolo were reading ‘for delight’ (per diletto; 127) about Lancelot and Guinevere and that the characters’ erotic embrace prompted them to commit adultery (133–8). In Inferno IX, Dante invites his readers to look beneath the ‘strange verses’ of his textual corpus.
Both episodes have connections with Paul’s affirmation that ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (II Corinthians 3:6), a biblical verse that inspired centuries of meditation on the nature of reading. For example, Augustine warned readers not to be mesmerized by the literal sense, the ‘body’ or ‘veil’ of a text, or by the superficiality of creation, but to look through the literalcarnal for allegorical-spiritual meaning. Francesca and Paolo read ‘superficially’ about a kiss that they decide to imitate directly, thereby falling into adultery. In so doing, they misunderstand the moral warnings implicit in the story: the kiss was personally sinful and more broadly contributed to the destruction of the Arthurian court. Moreover, their reading exclusively ‘for delight’ violated classical and medieval precepts regarding the ethical purpose of literature. In the Art of Poetry, Horace explained that literature was for ‘delighting and instructing the reader’ (AP 343), and his proposal prompted medieval readers to classify literature under the philosophical category of ethics (ethice supponitur). Francesca and Paolo did not find any ‘useful’ or moral instruction in the text that they were reading, but focused solely on the erotic events recounted. They did not look under the literalcarnal ‘veil’ to discover an allegorical-moral meaning; rather they allowed the text to arouse them – indeed their superficial reading physically ‘changed the colour of [their] faces’ (quella lettura ... scolorocci il viso; 131). Finally, the episode is a parodic reversal of Augustine’s conversion. On reading biblical verses about drunkenness and lust (Romans 13:13–14), the saint, unlike Dante’s sinners, was inspired to dedicate his life to spiritual and contemplative matters (Conf. VIII, xii, 29–30).
In Inferno IX, the pilgrim is cautioned not to gaze on the dangerous female body of the Medusa, as doing this would turn him into stone. When considered in light of the accompanying appeal to the reader to interpret correctly (61–3), the warning implies that we need to ‘look’ carefully to avoid being blinded by the literal sense of a text and equally by the superficial sensuality of creation. Outside the gates of Dis, the pilgrim avoids these pitfalls with the assistance of Virgil as the representative of human reason and, more substantially, of a heavenly messenger, who opens the gates for the two travellers (77–105). The celestial envoy’s movements, appearance, and behaviour recall not only Christ’s harrowing of Hell, but also the voyages of the ancient god Hermes, who was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. Hermes was associated with crossing boundaries, especially between the divine and mortal realms, as well as with hermeneutics (as his name implies). Dante thereby suggests that readers aided by reason and especially by Christian revelation can deal with exegetical difficulties and moral obstacles. In the following canto, the pilgrim encounters heretics, namely those who persisted in maintaining false doctrinal beliefs, a sin that involved the wilful misinterpretation of reality and Scripture. He principally spends time among the Epicureans who believed that the soul dies with the body (X, 13–15). Like Francesca and Paolo, these sinners failed to understand the proper relationship between body and soul, ultimately becoming blinded by the physical ‘veil’ of creation. As their beliefs imprisoned the soul in the body, so they are eternally imprisoned in a tomb; as they failed to recognize an eternal spiritual life beyond the carnality of this world, so they see in a flawed way: they only know future and past events (58–72 and 97–105). Indeed, at the Last Judgement, they will lose all ability to ‘open up’ meaning: ‘all our knowledge will be dead from the moment the door of the future will be closed’ (nostra conoscenza da quel punto / che del futuro fia chiusa la porta; 107–8).
Other episodes deal with the question of how the Commedia should impact its readers, which is the issue at the heart of the poem’s ethical concerns and reforming aims. For example, after the narrator describes each part of Geryon’s body, the pilgrim rides the creature to the next part of Hell. The idea that descriptions of physical bodies could ‘move’ readers stems from medieval ideas about the emotions and passions. In treatises on rhetoric and poetic composition, writers were advised to employ detailed descriptions of beautiful and ugly bodies (descriptio corporis) to ‘arouse’ and ‘motivate’ (movetur) a person to behave virtuously. Given Geryon’s close association with explanations regarding the status of the Comedy, by describing and then travelling on the monster, Dante reveals that his poem too can affect its readers by depicting the process of moral and spiritual progress in terms of physical presence and movement. Furthermore, the pilgrim’s aerial flight stands in contrast both to Phaethon’s failed voyage to discover his celestial origins and to Ulysses’ aimless wanderings. Phaethon, who did not believe that he was the son of Apollo, and Ulysses, who abandoned his family ‘to gain experience of the world’ (a divenir del mondo esperto; Inf. XXVI, 98), are both damned because they were poor readers. The former was a bad interpreter of his divine origins, while the latter of the spiritual purpose of humanity’s terrestrial ‘journey’ since he focused his attention narrowly and exclusively on earthbound experiences. Unlike Phaethon and Ulysses, the pilgrim is moved by his ‘reading’, namely his encounters with the damned, the penitents, and the blessed, to search for truth in a morally appropriate and divinely sanctioned manner. His voyage, therefore, does not end in disaster; nor does he end up damned in Hell. Instead, close to the end of his experience of the Empyrean, he comprehensively reads ‘in a volume that which is spread in leaves throughout the universe’ (in un volume / ciò che per l’universo si squaderna; Par. XXXIII, 86–7).
In Purgatory, the pilgrim learns how to love others and the body properly. Indeed, Virgil’s major exposition on love, which appears around the centre of the Comedy (Purg. XVII–XVIII), is followed by an episode in which the pilgrim gazes on an eroticized female body. As his dream of the siren reveals, Dante-character grapples with the difficulties of loving the body correctly (XIX, 7–24). By staring at her, the pilgrim transforms her hideous body into that of a sensual and attractive woman. Given the erotized context, it is likely that her body represents the seductions of the world and secular literature. Virgil must strip the ‘clothes’ (drappi; 32) from her body to reveal the fetid and corrupt nature of the material world if this is loved improperly (28–33). In Eden, Beatrice confirms that the pilgrim had, in fact, been drawn off course by the false pleasures of the sirens (XXXI, 34–46), and that he had been ‘too fixed’ (troppo fisso; XXXII, 1–12) on her physical body. After confessing his errors, the pilgrim peers beneath Beatrice’s ‘veil’ (velo; XXXI, 82), and seven nymphs symbolizing the virtues purify his sight, which allows him to glimpse Christ reflected in Beatrice’s radiant eyes (XXXI, 106–23). Nonetheless, the pilgrim still struggles to understand the meaning of Beatrice’s prophetic, or ‘dark’ (buia; XXXIII, 46), discourse on the drama of salvation history. Recalling the Medusan threat evoked in Inferno IX, the pilgrim’s intellect is ‘petrified’ (impetrato; 74), his intellectual obtuseness evidence that he is still prone to reading ‘carnally’. Consequently, Beatrice must present providential history ‘literally’ by stripping her words ‘naked’ (nude; 100–1), thereby removing the ‘veil’ that has blinded her lover. Only then is the pilgrim ready to ascend to the spiritual light of Paradise where he will properly refine his abilities to ‘read’ spiritually which, in turn, will allow him to return to earth and compose the Commedia.

5. Conclusion

Immediately prior to his union with God, the pilgrim sees three coloured circles, one of which is ‘painted [inside] with our likeness’ (pinta de la nostra effige; Par. XXXIII, 131). A human form surrounded by three luminous circles contrastively recalls the pilgrim threatened by three carnal beasts in the dark wood. The opposition between the opening and the close of the poem further refines the function of allegorical writing and reading in the Comedy. God’s recourse to the human form to ‘paint’ an ‘image’ (imago; 138) of a great divine truth, the Incarnation, confirms the centrality of the body in spiritual signification. The connections with Inferno I highlight how, in the Comedy, the literary corpus has been transformed to embody and allegorically reveal spiritual-anagogical truth. The bestial bodies that forced the pilgrim down to ‘where the sun is silent’ (dove ’l sol tace; 60) have been replaced by a figure aglow with divine radiance. By extension, this stark opposition reminds readers how, in composing his poem, Dante, as God’s scribe, has incorporated and transformed the ‘corpora’ of various literary traditions, beginning with that of the secular allegorical texts evoked in Inferno I. Dante emphasizes that, as a human author, he imitates, however approximately, God’s writing by employing every type of sign and mode of signification. The Commedia is thus both a divine ‘image’ and a ‘trace’ of divine ‘traces’, thereby transcending not only canonical literary distinctions and precepts, but also contemporary ideological biases related to historical versus fictional literature, religious versus secular writing, allegoria in factis versus allegoria in verbis. As a consequence, the poem establishes – in a bold and revolutionary fashion – the cultural import and the ethical-salvific value of the formal properties of literature in general. Finally, the ties between the first and the last canto offer an insight into how we as readers should understand the true nature of reality. Indeed, the links suggest that the carnal ‘dark wood’ is actually permeated with divine light – one’s experience of the world depends on how one perceives it. In allegorical terms, the Commedia instructs us to see the divine ‘Other’ everywhere, to see spiritual light even in the darkness, as we make our way on our earthly pilgrimage towards God.

Date: 2021-12-22