Commentary (both by Dante and on Dante) [Luca Fiorentini]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Luca Fiorentini

Tratto da: The Oxford Handbook on Dante

Edito da: Oxford University Press, Oxford

Anno: 2021

Pagine: 79-95

1. By Dante

The complex formal structure of Vita nova—highly original in itself and completely without concrete precedents in Romance literature —is described in these terms by Giovanni Boccaccio, the most influential of Dante’s early interpreters:

In a little volume entitled Vita Nuova, Dante collected some extremely beautiful works in rhyme, such as sonnets and canzoni, which he had written at various times previously. Each of these compositions was prefaced with an explanation of the motives which had moved him to compose them, and after each one he analysed the work’s divisions. (Trattatello, first draft, § 175)

Boccaccio attributes a latently hermeneutic function to all of the prose in Vita Nova. The purely narrative sections, unconstrained by the conceptual and historicalbiographical classification of an individual poem (eg., VN I, II, LXII, etc.; 1.1–11, 31, etc.), are not, in fact, considered as such, given that Boccaccio did not give them an autonomous status. In other words, according to Boccaccio’s succinct description, the prose of Vita nova would seem, as a whole, to be a single, long interpretative act.
This is a rather interesting approach to the interpretation of the work—or better, an implicit suggestion of how it should be interpreted. Indeed, it has been written that Vita nova can be understood as a sort of ‘mise-en-scène in which the poet presents his own past according to the parameters of an ideal development’. It has also been shown that this mise-en-scène is entrusted to the exegetic prose and often implies a more or less pronounced revision of the original meaning of some of the lyric poems. However, it is also the narrative process considered as a whole that conveys a powerful idea of the sense and aims of the poetic composition.
It is well-known that Dante’s reaction to the episode of the ‘gabbo’ [‘mocking’] (VN XIV; 7) constitutes the turning point in Vita nova. The immediate consequences of this episode are, without doubt, projected into the three ‘Cavalcantian’ sonnets of chapters XIV–XVI (7–9) and, indeed, from that moment onwards, it is necessary for the poet ‘to find a new theme, one nobler than the last’ (VN XVII, 1; 10.1). One might say that the reflection on poetry given over to Vita nova as a whole is motivated by the need to go beyond the limit fully expressed by that episode.
This limit is essentially conceptual and, indeed, a thematic change follows its overcoming. As illustrated in chapter XVIII, 3–9 (10.5–11), obtaining a different ‘beatitudine’ (‘bliss’) from that brought about by the lady’s greeting cannot, in fact, be understood apart from the definition of a new ‘matera’ (‘theme’) of ‘parlare’ (‘poetry’). Therefore, the lyric poetry would proceed to abandon the old, less noble mode, which consisted of the poet writing about himself and his own turmoil, and would now embrace a more noble subject matter that coincides entirely with the celebration and praise of the beloved (VN XVIII, 6; 10.8). A similar act of ‘utter devotion’ corresponds ‘to an idea of love as “eternal possession”, just like “something that cannot fail me” [XVIII.4; 10.6]’, and is ‘therefore, the source of an infinite gratification that nothing and nobody, not even the beloved lady by withholding an acknowledgement, has the power to frustrate’.
Two opposing principles—corresponding to two distinct poetic ‘truths’— come up against each another: one dealing with the irremediable mutability of amorous feeling, based on a relationship of exchange, and the one mentioned above of ‘eternal possession’. Two different literary conceptions and, therefore, two different situations correspond to these two principles. In the former case, lyric poetry becomes a receptacle for contents which, due to their changeable nature, are fatally liable to becoming passionate.
On the other hand, in the latter case, the contents are unchangeable and eternal. It has been justly observed that a famous extract from Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae can be identified as the background of this passage in Vita nova. In the opening sequence of this work, Philosophy chases the Muses out of Boethius’ bed: defined as scenicae meretriculae, Boethius’ Muses are the personification of a poetic expression limited to pain’s fatal self-satisfaction, and irrational insofar as it is incapable of projecting itself beyond the most immediate contingencies.
It is especially the montage of the poems according to a given order that functions, in Vita nova, as a conveyor of meaning. This principle is already explicitly declared in the division of the first poem, the sonnet A ciascun’ alma presa, whose special prophetic quality is clearly revealed by the narrative: ‘The true meaning of the dream I described was not perceived by anyone then, but now it is completely clear even to the least sophisticated’ (VN III, 15; 2.2). In other words, only when it reaches its conclusion will the story open itself up to being deciphered. It has often been observed that the explanation of meanings in Vita nova tends to follow the ‘figurative’ scheme that governs the historical flux in the Holy Scriptures, where parallel events are explained at a distance in virtue of the principle according to which the older event prefigures the more recent, and the latter completes the former. In the Vita nova, in a similar way, the key for interpretation is provided by a revelation—Dante’s conversion to the new theme and the cognitive progress that such a conversion entails.
It is worth emphasizing that, as the commentary to A ciascun’ alma presa succinctly demonstrates, the occasional adjustments made to the original meaning of some poems (which the modern reader can only appreciate with some difficulty), concern always and only the literal sense. The adaptation of the poems to the rationale of the story never involves a rethinking, or even just a vague attenuation, of the immediate truth of their contents—for example, in order to search for an allegorical significance. The true meaning of the lyric poems is such by virtue of the narrative context that illustrates it. Therefore, as that context is evoked in the prose sections of the work, that truth comes to be defined once and for all.
A decade later in Convivio (I, ii, 17) matters are very different. Dante writes: ‘I intend also to show the true meaning of the canzoni, which no one can perceive unless I reveal it, because it is hidden beneath the figure of allegory’. This announcement in the prologue is supported by the controversial first chapter of the second book, in which the author illustrates the four senses of the Scriptures—both sacred and profane—as the basis of the interpretative method to be employed in the course of the work (II, i, 2–15). Much has been written on these extracts from Convivio, on the problems they pose and on their aporias. Mostly, modern readers have noted the insistence on a distinction between literal and allegorical meanings which is presented as systematic (II, i, 15) but which is already abandoned after the third canzone, Le dolci rime d’amor (IV, i, 11).
No less interesting, for obvious reasons, is the highly allegorical re-reading of the episode of Vita nova that relates to the ‘young and very beautiful noble woman’ who momentarily distracts the poet from his thoughts of Beatrice (VN XXXV–XXXIX; 24–8). Presented in Vita nova as a real person, in Convivio the donna gentile becomes the ‘figura d’altre cose’ [‘figure of other things’] (Conv. II, xii, 8), that is, an allegorical simulacrum—the vehicle of a meaning which, strictly speaking, is substantially different from the literal one. The literal dimension of the secular scriptures, according to the classification presented in Conv. II, i, 3, is, after all, a ‘beautiful lie’ which has to be overcome in order to reach the truth.
The ‘true meaning’ of the canzone in the second book is explained in Conv. II, xii. After recalling thirty months dedicated to the study of philosophy, Dante explains why he decided to represent his path of philosophical initiation as the story of falling in love with a ‘noble woman’, that is, ‘sotto figura d’altre cose’ [‘beneath the figure of other things’] (Conv. II, xii, 8). The allegorical form of Voi che ’ntendendo is initially motivated by a negative argument, that is, that Lady Philosophy could not find a worthy representation in vernacular poetry if not through a disguise. This could refer to what the author wrote in Conv. II, i, 4 with regard to the reason for which ‘this kind of concealment was devised by the wise’ (‘perché questo nascondimento fosse trovato per li savi’). Dante explains that this reason would be revealed ‘in the penultimate book’, but, as is well-known, Convivio was interrupted far before that.
It has been suggested that Dante refers here to Macrobius’ commentary to Somnium Scipionis (I, ii, 17–21), where it is stated that philosophers made use of figurations in order to avoid Nature being exposed, unveiled, to the criticism of everyone, including the most uneducated. Indeed, it is Nature herself that demands that the wise approach her secrets through allegoric narration. From this point of view, allegory is not simply a means for rendering Philosophy its dues, but it is also and principally a strategy to limit access to its ‘secrets’. However, this interpretation clashes with what is suggested subsequently (and, in particular, with the very preconditions of Convivio, as we will see). The readers, Dante writes in Convivio II, xii, 8, would not have trusted an explicit praise of Philosophy, since it would have been difficult for them to comprehend ‘the [non] fictive words’, that is, to accept the true meaning of the canzone as such. That is, if Dante had told of his love for an abstract entity—i.e. Philosophy—without recourse to an allegorical personification, he would not have been believed. Therefore, allegory seems to be an instrument aiming at facilitating the communication of a concept, not a way to limit access to it. Nevertheless, it is evident that, in this context, communication cannot do without an explicative commentary that finally makes explicit the truth obscured behind the artificial image.
If speaking through a figure is an operation that finds legitimacy within an antique tradition and acquires its sense through that tradition (see VN XXV; 16), the construction of an allegory seems to be a conceptually different act within which the poet operates in a substantially autonomous manner (Conv. I, ii, 17). In Conv. I, ii, 12–16, Dante offers an important piece of information about the allegorical interpretation of the canzoni. Initially, Dante explains that ‘speaking about oneself is allowed’ in only two cases. The first of these is ‘when great infamy or danger cannot be avoided except by talking about oneself ’ (13); the second is explained as follows (16):

Temo la infamia di tanta passione avere seguita, quanta concepe chi legge le sopra nominate canzoni in me avere segnoreggiata: la quale infamia si cessa, per lo presente di me parlare, interamente, lo quale mostra che non passione ma vertù sia stata la movente cagione.

[I fear the infamy of having yielded myself to the great passion that anyone who reads the canzoni mentioned above must realize once ruled me. This infamy will altogether cease as I speak now about myself and show that my motivation was not passion but virtue.]

It has been noted that, in these extracts too, there seems to be an echo of Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae, that is, the presentation, through the image of the elegiac Muses chased away by Philosophy, of the dialectic between the mutable poetry ‘of the world’— of passions and contingencies—and the unchangeable poetry of concepts. Moreover, if it is true that the allegorical re-reading of Voi che ’ntendendo also has the function ‘of removing, by showing its inconsistency, the suspicion of a passionate nature that weighs on its author’, it is also true that the need to promote the non-passionate content hidden by the lyric poetry leads towards the elaboration of a poetic theory with wider implications. Without the key that Dante himself provides the reader in the allegorical commentary, it would, in fact, be impossible to comprehend that the woman described in the canzone (ll. 47–8) is not real, but an allegorical figuration; or that ‘the third heaven’ in the first verse is, in truth, ‘science’ (Conv. II, xiii, 2)—and so on.
Therefore, the relationship between the poetic figuration and its meaning tends to be based, in these passages, on a symbolic abstraction, which delineates a relation of an essentially arbitrary nature between image and concept. Furthermore, this is even more evident if one considers that it is the author himself, and not an ‘external’ exegete, who defines the terms of this relation. A similar process—although conveying a meaning which is opposed to that of the first two canzoni of the Convivio—can be identified in the commentary which accompanies the canzone Amor da che convien purch’io mi doglia in Dante’s Epistola IV. The sensual love which a beautiful woman from the mountains induces in the poet—as one reads in the epistle—ends by dominating his free will (Ep. IV, 4). The love for this lady allegorically indicates an episodic return to lyric poetry which might have forced Dante to interrupt his work on Convivio.
However, on a closer look, the question would seem to be more complex than these examples might imply. Let us consider the second book of Convivio again. We have already discussed chapter xii, which, in practice, is nothing more than a long allegorical ‘razo’, which retraces the contents of Voi che ’ntendendo along the lines of their hidden meaning. The literal explanation is instead presented in chapter ii of the same book. Here, Dante returns to the episode that was narrated in chapters XXXV–XXXIX (24–8) of Vita nova, enrichening it with further details and, above all, inverting its sense: the love which in the booklet finally revealed its nature as ‘adversary of reason’ (XXXIX, 1; 28.1), is now defined as ‘virtuosissimo sì come vertù celestiale’ (‘most powerful, like celestial virtue’, Conv. II, ii, 5). Much has been written on this change of perspective; what is important to highlight here is that it seems aimed at giving a full ‘factual’ reliability to the literal sense of the canzone. Indeed, it is precisely due to the conceptual (but also narrative?) correction applied to the episode recounted in Vita nova that the event of Voi che ’ntendendo is redefined as positive and true in itself—it is not important whether or not it is historically so—, thereby allowing the allegorical meaning to be projected perfectly onto it. Consequently, it is decidedly difficult for the literal sense of the canzone to be reduced to a ‘beautiful lie’, as the norm cited above from Dante would suggest (Conv. II, i, 3).
But there is more. Let us read what Dante says about the disappearance of the pattern of double interpretation (literal and allegorical) in the fourth book, at the end of chapter i (Conv. IV, i, 10):

E però che in questa canzone s’intese a rimedio così necessario, non era buono sotto alcuna figura parlare, ma convennesi per via tostana questa medicina [dare], acciò che fosse tostana la sanitade.

[And since I sought to provide a very necessary remedy in this canzone, I did not consider it effective to employ figurative language, but rather to supply this medicine by the quickest way, so that health [. . .] might be quickly restored.]

The aim of the canzone of correcting as quickly as possible the erroneous opinions that had developed around the concept of nobility (Conv. IV, i, 6–7) discourages the use of figurative language, which, by its very nature, is less effective than so-called direct language. Nevertheless, although lacking in hidden meanings and free of rhetorical artifices that render the language obscure, Le dolci rime may be—and, in fact, is—a ‘meat’ to be profitably accompanied by the ‘bread’ of the commentary. Therefore, it is not the allegorical dimension that makes the presence of an explanatory commentary necessary. Indeed, in the fourth book, albeit in a far less dispersed way than in the second and third, the canzone is above all the starting point for a wider discussion (as shown by, amongst other things, the important excursus dedicated to the reflection on the Roman Empire in chapters iv–vi).
The allegorical form of the poetic texts is not the fundamental reason for the commentary, which, rather, has the role of fulfilling all the cognitive potential contained in the lyric poetry, transforming its ‘bellezza’ (‘beauty’) into ‘bontade’ (‘goodness’), as declared in Conv. I, i, 14–15. If in the first book this probably indicates the exposition of the allegorical meaning, the rest of the work confers a wider function upon the commentary: that of perfecting the cognitive benefit offered to the readers by developing further and completing all the knowledge contained in the poetic texts, not just the ‘hidden’ one. Moreover, the commentary also helps to demonstrate the author’s full command of the artistic medium, according to a method—the precise clarification of the contents of the lyric poetry and, above all, the ways through which these contents have been expressed poetically—which, in some ways, continues along the path already indicated in chapter XXV (16) of Vita nova.
Secondly, Dante seems to leave two different paths open with regard to the function of the allegorical disguise. If, as has already been noted, in chapter xii of the second book, the allegorical figuration helps render communicable an experience to which it would not be possible to give credit otherwise—and which, therefore, would be inadmissible for the readers—, it is precisely the absence of the allegorical figuration which makes the communication of the doctrinal contents of the canzone more effective in the fourth book. In one way or another, the aim remains the same: that of perfecting the explicatory act by ‘giving to many’ and ‘giving useful things’, that is, that of putting the reader in the condition of making full use of the bestowed gift (Conv. I, viii, 3).
One could say that, from this point of view, the Commedia overcomes the limit that was still present in Convivio, that is, the need to render ‘every shade’ of the ‘meaning’ communicated in poetic form fully ‘visible’ through a commentary (Conv. I, i, 15). It is true that Dante probably imagined the Commedia as a text that was destined to be annotated, and, according to a recent line of interpretation, the pars expositiva of the Epistola a Cangrande (Ep. XIII) was a first draft of the commentary that Dante himself intended as an accompaniment to the whole Paradiso. However, it is equally true that great uncertainty still remains as to the paternity of the exegetic section of the Epistola a Cangrande. What is most relevant, though, is that, due to their being completely performed within the poetic text itself, the modes of representation adopted in Dante’s magnum opus tend to resolve directly the three factors which justified the recourse to self-commentary in Dante’s preceding works: the construction of a narrative revealing the true sense (Vita nova), the revelation of meanings communicated in allegorical form, and the discussion of doctrinal questions in greater depth (Convivio).
Just a few examples will suffice. According to what the writer of the exegetic section of Epistola XIII wrote, the Commedia is a ‘polysemous’ text (Ep. XIII, 20) which, according to the literal sense, deals with the ‘status of the soul after death’ (24) and, according to the allegory, discusses free will (25):

Si vero accipiatur opus allegorice, subiectum est homo prout merendo et demerendo per arbitrii libertatem iustitie premiandi et puniendi obnoxius est.

[If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man according as, by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will, he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.]

Nevertheless, it is difficult to consider the reflection on free will as the ‘hidden’ meaning of the Commedia. Not only does the whole work show explicitly the consequential relation between the actions carried out in the course of a person’s life on Earth and their other-worldly destiny, but the three doctrinal cantos at the centre of Purgatorio, which are the central nucleus of the entire poem, are dedicated to the theme of human freedom. With respect to the question raised in Epistola XIII, 25, it is certainly not secondary that the triptych of Purgatorio XVI–XVIII closes with a long and well-structured lesson by Virgil on the nature and essence of free will.
The aforementioned example is significant on a more general level. Indeed, in the Commedia all of the great themes are explicitly exposed in the doctrinal episodes which are found in the course of the narration. For instance, as we have just mentioned, one of the fundamental topics of the work—probably its principal ethical-political theme—is evoked once more and resolved in clear terms in the triptych of Purgatorio XVI–XVIII. And the main themes of the Monarchia, or more precisely those debated in the last chapter of the treatise, are also explicitly discussed in Marco Lombardo’s speech on the ‘two suns’ (Purg. XVI, 91–114), that is, the two universal guides—the Emperor and the Pope—who have the role of guiding humankind towards earthly and eternal happiness.
On a narrative level, the development of the events in the Commedia follows a path of progressive revelations, in terms of both the poet’s biography (e.g. from Brunetto Latini’s first announcement of his exile to Cacciaguida’s explicit prophecy) and the individual themes and doctrinal questions which return and are progressively clarified (e.g. the theme of the destructive power of greed, announced in Inferno I, resolved philosophically in the central cantos of Purgatorio, and frequently revisited in the cantos of Paradiso dedicated to the moral corruption of religious orders). The sense is thereby carried by the poetic text itself, not by an external interpretative intervention.
As regards the use of an allegorical figuration, synthetically one can say that it rarely produces sequences with an effectively hidden meaning. Only in a few cases is allegory deployed in the text with its nature of coded language and, when it is, it is almost always clearly indicated by the author (eg., Inf. IX, 61–3 and Purg. VIII, 19–21). What happens more often, however, is that the contents conveyed in the form of allegorical images are revealed within the text itself. This act of offering a key for decoding the sense of the figuration is one of the functions usually performed by Dante’s guides. In the very first canto of the poem, for instance, Virgil gives some indications of the meaning of the three beasts assaulting the viator when he leaves the forest (Inf. I, 106–11). The most significant episode from this point of view is probably to be found at the exact centre of the first canticle. The mysterious Geryon, the monstrous guardian of the circle of fraud and itself a ‘foul image of fraud’ (Inf. XVII, 7), appears between cantos XVI and XVII of the Inferno. In the initial tercet of canto XVII, Virgil illustrates Geryon’s double function. On the one hand, it is ‘the beast with the pointed tail’ (Inf. XVII, 1), i.e. the character that is specifically depicted in the ‘letter’ of the text, while, at the same time, it is also the one ‘that passes mountains and breaks through walls and arms’ and ‘that infects all the world’ (2–3), i.e. the image of the fraud that exists in earthly life. Perfecting the meaning of the image—that is to say, revealing the concept enclosed within it—does not produce any conflict between the literal and allegorical levels of representation, rather the true sense of the image and its special poetic quality coexist equally in the letter, without either distorting the other.
It would, however, be naive to accord this status to all of the figurations present in the Commedia (as, for example, in the case of the ‘normal’ allegory of Purg. XXXII, 109–60). It would be no less naive to believe that Dante wanted to present the entire eschatological tableau realized within the poem as straightforwardly true. The character of Thomas Aquinas offers a notable warning about the exemplary—not substantial— value of the judgements formulated about the destiny of the historical characters inhabiting the three realms:

Non creda donna Berta e ser Martino,
per vedere un furare, altro offerere,
vederli dentro al consiglio divino,

che quel può surgere e quel può cadere.
(Par. XIII, 139–42)

[Let not Dame Bertha and Master Martin, when they see one rob and another make an offering, think they see them within the divine counsel; for the one may rise and the other fall.]

‘Thomas’s warning’, it has been written, ‘relativises the poet’s very deliberations, which the reader is called upon to consider according to their emblematic character’.
However, the ‘emblematic character’ of a figuration regarding man’s final destiny takes nothing away from the wider sense of the truth—and, therefore, the moral efficacy—of the tale within which it is found. A ‘comment’ by Cacciaguida is decisive in this sense:

Però ti son mostrate in queste rote,
nel monte e ne la valle dolorosa,
pur l’anime che son di fama note,

che l’animo di quel ch’ode non posa
né ferma fede per essempro ch’aia
la sua radice incognita e ascosa,

né per altro argomento che non paia.
(Par. XVII, 136–42)

[For that reason have been shown to thee, in these wheels, on the mountain, and in the woeful valley, only souls that are known to fame; because the mind of one who hears will not pause or fix its faith for an example that has its roots unknown or hidden or for other proof that is not manifest.]

2. On Dante

Twenty years after Dante’s death, Boccaccio transcribed the mysterious Epistola di frate Ilaro into his Zibaldone Laurenziano (MS Laur. Pl. 29.8, c. 67r). This famous text ends with a sequence deserving attention. After revealing sensational news about the original project for the Commedia (10), the enigmatic Ilaro recounts that Dante asked him to give the Inferno to Uguccione della Faggiuola (14) and that Dante himself then invited him to accompany the work with some brief notes (12): ‘he added, with much affection, that if I could have leisure for such occupations, I was to go through the work with certain brief annotations, and send it on, so annotated, to you’. The monk confirmed that he had fulfilled the request (§ 13). The sending of a text accompanied by a commentary to Uguccione had already been indicated in paragraph 4 of the letter: ‘Now this man [Dante] whose work, together with my exposition of it, I intend to send to you [...]’.
According to this imaginative account, Ilaro was, then, the first commentator of Dante’s poem, and the Epistola di Ilaro can thereby be read as a sort of ‘foundational myth’ for the exegesis of the Commedia. In an essay published in 2006, Luca Carlo Rossi tried to highlight the points of structural agreement between the commentaries written before the 1340s and Ilaro’s letter—and some vague analogies can, in effect, be identified. However, what we find most significant in the letter is the reference to some exegetic practice that was so early as to have actually been carried out before the complete version of the Commedia was published.
The eventual connection between Ilaro’s tale and the existence of exceptionally old commentaries on Dante’s poem is a non-verifiable, falsifiable, and, therefore, critically irrelevant hypothesis. It is nonetheless interesting to inquire why the author of the Epistola di Ilaro insists on a particular element—the sending of a work accompanied by a commentary—which stands out for its unlikelihood. It raises the question of why Dante gave a monk he had met by chance on the road not only the task of giving the Inferno to Uguccione, but also of annotating it.
It is easy to understand the ideological assumptions of the monks’s letter. After having read the first verses of the Inferno, Ilaro wrote (9): ‘I was astonished at the quality of the language, [. . .] because I thought it seemed difficult, no, inconceivable, that such arduous matter could have been expressed in the vernacular [amiculo populari]’. In other words, Ilaro questions the linguistic choice at the heart of the poem: adopting the point of view of the early humanists, Ilaro considers the vernacular inadequate to express ‘high concepts’. The serious problem raised here is resolved by the character of Dante (10–11) with an argument that re-proposes ‘in a negative tone’ the reflection on the use of the vernacular included in the first book of the Convivio, although a partially positive solution is suggested, implicitly, shortly afterwards. Indeed, paragraph 13 of the letter contains an interesting indication of the ‘quality’ of Ilaro’s interpretation of the poem. As the first interpreter of the Commedia, and with the support of his direct contact with the poet, Ilaro tried to reveal the hidden meanings of Dante’s verses: ‘though I have not fully extracted all that lies concealed in his words, I have faithfully and with free heart laboured’ [‘si non ad plenum que in verbis eius latent enucleavi, fideliter tamen laboravi et animo liberali’]. In other words, the exegesis of the Commedia is conceived of as an allegorical exegesis.
The choice of a popular language, therefore, did not bring about a lowering of the content. As Ilaro suggested, the Commedia contained hidden (‘que latent’) meanings, certainly unavailable to a very wide public. Therefore, a sort of compensatory strategy seems to take shape, albeit in a sketchy form. The unease brought about by a ‘popular’ linguistic choice is overcome on the level of the profundity and difficulty of the concepts (‘intentionem tam arduam’, ‘tante sententie’, 9).
An analogous strategy was also adopted by other fourteenth-century interpreters who had to deal with the elitism which was typical of early humanism. Guido da Pisa, in the self-commentary to line 7 of the first canto of his Declaratio (ante 1333–1334), had already mentioned certain ‘ignorantes’ who scorned the Commedia because it was written in vulgar language (‘quia vulgari sermone conscriptam’). These are ‘worse than the insane’, because ‘they ignore [...] the fruit that is hidden [qui latet] within it’. This is the same lexicon as Ilaro’s, which is also the traditional lexicon of allegorical exegesis. In letting themselves be distracted by the linguistic apparel of the poem, Dante’s adversaries were not able to reach the hidden fruit.
We do not know who these ‘ignorantes’ were. Instead, we know very well the principal detractor of Dante’s work and, above all, language: Francesco Petrarca. It is equally well known that Giovanni Boccaccio had to contend with this for decades and that the insistence on the allegorical dimension of the poem prevailed among the various strategies Boccaccio elaborated to make the Commedia fit with Petrarch’s rigid paradigms. If the uncultured are able to approach the Commedia because they understand its language, as Petrarch loved to repeat (Familiares XXI, 15), this does not mean that they are able to grasp its profound sense. This concern can be felt in the first draft of Boccaccio’s Trattatello, which bestows the most important reflection on the allegorical essence of the Commedia onto the interpretation of the dream of Dante’s mother.
Twenty years later, Boccaccio would begin his Esposizioni on Dante’s poem along the same lines. Here, Boccaccio’s discourse draws support from the sections of Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis in which the philosopher explains the reason why the ‘wise’ had protected the secrets of Nature through allegorical fables (I, ii, 17–21)—we have already cited these extracts in the first part of this essay in relation to Convivio II, i, 5. Boccaccio writes that, in the same way as the wise ancients mentioned by Macrobius, the true poets—including Dante, of course—‘concealed behind fabulous speech traces of those things they believed to be most worthy so that what was valuable was not left open to everyone and thus transformed into something common’. This line of interpretation had already found its seal of approval a few paragraphs before, where Dante’s Commedia was fully assimilated to a ‘structurally’ allegorical work like Petrarch’s Bucolicum carmen.
Therefore, Petrarch’s censure pushed Boccaccio to search for an allegorical-esoteric dimension in the Commedia and to confer a fundamental ideological role upon it. However, the idea that Boccaccio always kept his promise to reveal everything that was hidden under ‘la roza corteccia’ [‘the rough bark’] of Dante’s verses is, as we will see, only partially true.
On the other hand, it was not only interpreters influenced by the elitism of the emerging humanist culture that show interest in the allegorical dimension of the Commedia. Rather, the allegorical interpretation of the Commedia is, in practice, as old as the Commedia itself. Epistola XIII—where Dante’s poem, as we have already said, is immediately classified as a text with many meanings—is, without doubt, a key proof of this original hermeneutic approach (Ep. XIII, 20). This is not the place to return to the problem of the Dantean authenticity of the prologue to Cangrande. I will thereby limit myself to underlining that which is well-known: within the vast interpretative tradition of the fourteenth century, it is possible to recognize a principal current based upon the references (almost always implicit) to that section of the pars expositiva of Epistola XIII corresponding to a general accessus (Ep. XIII, 14–41).
The influence exerted by Epistola XIII did not take long to occur. It is indeed already possible to identify a consistent number of references to it in Iacomo della Lana’s commentary (ante 1328). Without any hesitation, Iacomo identifies the literal subject of the work with ‘the state of souls after death’ (Ep. XIII, 24), not with Dante’s other-worldly journey. This preliminary hermeneutic statement is pivotal, and it clearly depends on the direct influence of the accessus to Cangrande. The very few fourteenth-century commentaries that were clearly independent of the expositio of Epistola XIII confirm this. Indeed, they share the tendency to emphasize the individual dimension of the poem and the drama of the viator lost in the dark wood. This much can be gathered, for instance, from both Graziolo Bambaglioli’s prologue to the Inferno and from the anonymous Chiose Selmi and Berlinesi.
Epistola XIII did not just orientate the initial reception of Dante’s poem: it continued to influence twentieth-century scholars’ opinions about the oldest commentators of the Commedia. If Epistola XIII can be attributed to Dante in its entirety, and if its interpretative contribution is the best possible one for the correct exegesis of the Commedia (although this, it should be emphasized, is not necessarily a consequence of the former hypothesis), the tradition that derives from Epistola XIII should also, in theory, enjoy the same ‘trustworthiness’.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that the firmest supporters of the authenticity of Epistola XIII are also usually best disposed towards the old commentators. On the other hand, those who believe that the pars expositiva of Epistola XIII is a forgery of low quality, that is, a conceptually poor text, have also generally expressed a negative judgement on Dante’s early commentators. Nobody has taken this position in more radical terms than Bruno Nardi, according to whom the commentary contained in Epistola XIII is no more than a clumsy apologetic script. According to Nardi, by insisting on the Commedia’s plurality of meanings, and by inviting the reader to go beyond the literal sense, the author of the expositio strived to reduce the concerns raised by a work which risked echoing heretical theses in many instances.
It is certainly true that, besides the intellectuals who were tied to aristocratic-Latin prejudice, the detractors that Dante’s initial interpreters had to confront—detractors who, therefore, influenced the oldest critical reception of the poem—also included some mysterious individuals who attacked the Commedia on a purely doctrinal plane. However, it is not easy to establish who these individuals actually were inasmuch as the voices of those who felt that there were dangerous heterodox reverberations in the poem are only preserved through the words of those who tried, more or less effectively, to refute them.
Nardi attributed a crucial importance to these tensions. He wrote that ‘all’ the old interpreters of the Commedia, ‘tried to defend Dante from the accusation of heresy on every occasion that his words raised a pretext for such an accusation’, and added that ‘all’ of them ‘protected him from this accusation in the same way, distinguishing [. . .] between the literal sense, intentionally devalued, and the allegorical sense, the only true one, that is, the one that is hidden behind the veil of fictional words’. Therefore, in Nardi’s opinion, the Commedia was initially read through the reassuring paradigm of ‘the allegory of poets’ (Conv. II, i, 4), which allows for the acceptance of any fable so long as it is recognized as superficially false. However, is that what really happened?
As an example, let us consider the first draft of Pietro Alighieri’s commentary (1340–1341), one of the interpreters considered by Nardi as one of the obstinate defenders of Dante’s orthodoxy. Pietro, too, knew the accessus to Cangrande, but he used it less passively than his predecessors. With regard to the causa materialis of the poem, for instance, Pietro modified the formulas of Epistola XIII, although he kept their fundamental meaning intact. According to the literal sense, in the Commedia Dante talks ‘of Hell, Purgatory and, then, earthly and heavenly Paradise, just as they can or, rather, must be understood in their real essence as separate places’. Shortly after, Pietro would define these places as the ‘essential’—real—realms. Instead, according to the allegory, Dante describes three species of living beings: the sinners, the penitent, and those who live in complete virtue—souls still united to their bodies that live, respectively, in the ‘moral’ Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Thus, the subiectum operis is the afterlife in itself, which is like saying ‘the state of souls after death’. However, according to a thousand-year-old reading, the state of souls after death necessarily reflects the condition of the living. Indeed, following the lines of the most archaic Greek rationalism, Servius had already warned the reader of Virgil’s Aeneid that ‘everything which the poets refer to the underworld in their fictions occurs, in reality, in our lives’ (ad Aen. VI, 596).
The reference to Servius is not without implications. In order to clarify the relation between the two levels of figuration in the Inferno, Pietro relies on a source closely tied to Servius’ exegesis: Bernardus Silvestris’s accessus to the sixth book of the Aeneid. Before explaining the allegorical meanings of Aeneas’ katabasis, Bernardus distinguishes between four types of descensus ad inferos: (1) the descensus naturalis ad inferos, in other words, the union of soul and body; (2) the descensus virtuosus, i.e. the process through which the wise separate themselves from earthly goods; (3) the descensus vitiosus, which describes the condition of the living who are prisoners of false riches; and finally (4) the descensus necromanticus, which is the ensemble of diabolical rites that renders the contact with the dead possible.
Bernardus explains that, according to the literal sense, Aeneas’ was a descensus necromanticus, made possible by Misenus’ murder. From an allegorical point of view (‘per integumenti figuram’), instead, the tale in book six of the Aeneid should be understood according to the descensus virtuosus paradigm: recognizing the fragility of earthy things impressed in the desolate images of Hades, Aeneas proves to be the allegorical figure of the wise man who distances himself from the world and dedicates himself to the eternal truths (‘ad invisibilia’).
In Pietro Alighieri’s commentary, Bernardus Silvestris’s method is not applied to Dante’s journey, but—consistently, given the preliminary definition of the subliectum operis—to the nature of the places described in the Inferno. The descensus naturalis does not reproduce the union of souls and bodies, but the separation of the sinners’ souls from their bodies, and their fall into the ‘essential’ Hell. The literal sense of the poem is entrusted with the representation of this process, which already corresponds in itself to a theological truth: ‘The natural descent into Hell occurs when a soul, separated from its body without having atoned for a mortal sin, falls into the abyss and is condemned to infernal punishments’. Allegorically, Dante’s Inferno is, rather, an image of the descensus vitiosus, i.e. of the condition of the living who are prisoners of sin.
The most significant implications of Pietro Alighieri’s general interpretation of the poem can be gathered with greater clarity by reading the initial pages of his commentary, where he refers to the narrative pattern, subsequently excluded from the definition of the subiectum operis, of the poet’s journey through the underworld. Here Pietro writes that Dante’s descent into Hell can be understood only in an allegorical sense: ‘when the author says that he descended into Hell—intellectually and through an act of fantasy, as indeed he did, and not physically—, he means that he reached the lowest point of vice’. Indeed, it would be absurd to believe that Dante had really entered the home of the dead: ‘Who indeed, among those of sound mind, could believe that he had effectively descended into Hell and had seen such things if they did not understand the tale in figurative, allegorical terms?’.
Finally, we understand that in order to circumscribe a space of truth that is recognizable in the literal sense of the poem, it is necessary to reduce the causa materialis of the work to the representation of the three other-worldly realms and of the threefold state of the souls after death. In fact, as considered above, Pietro Alighieri affirms that the Commedia ultimately deals with Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as they should be considered in their true essence as separate places.
The same awareness also emerges very clearly in Boccaccio’s commentary. Unlike in the final pages of Trattatello (first draft., §§ 220–7), which highlights the contrast between the ‘unique narrative’ of the journey into the underworld and the ‘simple and immutable’ truth which this narrative would conceal, Boccaccio, too, observes in the Esposizioni that ‘the substantive plot of this work (i.e. that sinners who die in their sins are condemned to eternal punishment and that those who pass away in the grace of God are raised up to eternal glory) is, and has always been, true according to the Catholic faith’. Therefore, the truth is not intentionally hidden: rather it is revealed in superficie litterae. In short, it is difficult in these extracts to perceive a devaluation, as Nardi suggested, of the literal sense of the Commedia. Instead, it appears that the aim to defend Dante’s orthodoxy merges, without erasing it, with the wish to prevent the poem from being reduced to any kind of allegorical fable.
The identification of the subiectum operis as the ‘state of the soul after death’ also has other consequences on the exegetic level. The most significant of these is the attribution of a fundamental role to those which Boccaccio (again), in the first lines of his Esposizioni, identifies as the ‘multitudes of stories’ : it would not be Dante’s journey that is at the centre of the Commedia, but the collection of tales told by the characters whom Dante encounters in the course of his journey.
Iacomo della Lana had already underlined the significance of the exemplary ‘many novellas’ within the Commedia for the moral aim for which it was written. It is natural to observe that if the causa finalis of the work—‘to remove the people who live in vice and transport them to a condition of grace and virtue’ — is realized thanks to the exemplarity of the stories entrusted to Dante’s characters, it is difficult to read the Commedia as a text that hides its truths, and the benefit deriving from them, under the ‘mantle’ of a fiction. The exemplum’s immediate moral efficacy clashes with allegorical language. Furthermore, that Dante wrote in order to be understood is explicitly stated by Cacciaguida in an extract that was cited at the end of the first part of this essay (Par. XVII, 136–42). Almost all initial plans to subject the poem to a systematic allegorical reading—generally motivated, as indicated above, by a reaction against external impulses, i.e. by various apologetic intentions—seem, ultimately, to be vanquished by this evidence.

Date: 2021-12-22