Autore: John A. Scott
Tratto da: The Shared Horizon: Melbourne essays in Italian Language and Literature in memory of Colin McCormick
Editore: Irish Academic Press, Dublin
Over the past few decades much has been written about Dante's "allegory of the theologians". It will be my purpose in this paper to analyse the conclusions of recent studies in this fundamental area of Dante scholarship and to examine the concept in its original context.
In a seminal study published in 1950, Charles Singleton put forward a clear distinction between the "allegory of poets" and the "allegory of theologians", a distinction based on a conviction most concisely expressed some four years later, that "the radical difference" between these two types of allegory "lies in the nature of the literal sense in the one and in the other". This belief - that Dante's reference to an "allegory of theologians" requires a literal sense that is true, as opposed to the fictions characteristic of the allegory used by poets has become a cornerstone of virtually all discussions of Dante's use of allegory in the Convivio and the Comedy. In his monumental edition of Dante's works, published in 1965, Andre Pezard commented:
Les théologiens… led poètes…: entre les ecrits des unset des autres, selon Dante, la difference consiste en ceci: on ne trouve chez les auteurs sacres aucune fiction, mais bien un premier sens, historique', le sens litteral, auquel se superposent divers sens figures egalement vrais: allegorie, tropologie morale, prophetie historique ou anagogique. Chez les poetes, le premier sens, litteral, n 'est historique que dans certains genres com me la chanson epique: le plus souvent, il est pure fable ou fiction...
The same belief that the distinction between the two types of allegory lies in the value assumed by the literal sense has been enshrined in an otherwise excellent article in the Enciclopedia Dantesca, where Jean Pepin writes: Come intendere questa diversita tra teologi e poeti? Più che sul senso allegorico essa deve vertere sul senso letterale."
Let me state quite clearly my objections. They are not directed primarily against the belief that "The prime topographical difference between the two kinds of allegory (...) lies in the historicity or fictiveness of their literal senses.” Inatead, they are concerned with arriving at a correto interpretation of the notorious passage in the Second Book of the Convivio where Dante discusses "two different kinds of allegory". In that specific context (Conv. II.i.3-4) Dante was not alluding to what I shall call 'Allegory 1’ - a generic term referring to a system of exegesis which included three 'allegorical' or 'mystical' levels based on a primary historical-literal meaning. Instead, what he was pointing to was the difference between the first of the three mystical senses (Allegory 2, as distinct from tropology and analogy), as defined by the theologians on the one hand and the way poets used and understood 'allegory' on the other (see diagram on p. 37)
Let us therefore examine what Dante has to say in the Convivio. In the first chapter of the Second Book, before proceeding to unveil the truths hidden in his canzone Voi che 'ntendendo il terzo ciel movete", the writer tells us:
questa posizione conviene essere litterale e allegorica. E a ciò dare a intendere, si vuol sapere che le scritture si possono intendere e deonsi esponere massimamente per quattro sensi. L'uno si chiama litterale... e questo e quello che si nasconde sotto 'I manto di queste favole, ed e una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna: sì come quando dice Ovidio che Orfeo facea con Ia cetera mansuete le fiere, e Ii arbori e le pietre a se muovere; che vuol dire che lo savio uomo con lo strurnento de Ia sua voce fa[r]ia muoverea Ia sua volontade coloro che non hanno vita di scienza e d'arte [...] E perché questo nascondimento fosse trovato per li savi, nel penultimo trattato si mosterrà. Veramente Ii teologi questo senso prendono aitrimenti che Ii poeti; ma però che mia intenzione e qui lo modo de Ii poeti seguitare, prendo lo senso allegorico secondo che per Ii poeti e usato.
Readers will notice the highly charged - and ambiguous term le scritture; but far more important is the fact that Dante here is referring to what we have decided to call Allegory 2, the first of the mystical senses. This is made quite clear by the very next sentence, which begins "Lo terzo senso si chiama morale..." And as section 6 states "Lo quarto senso si chiama anagogico", I would suggest that the conjectural reading given by Busnelli and Vandelli in section 3 is misleading, for they insert a phrase mcluding the words "L'altro si chiama allegorico" to fill the gap indicated above between "litterale" and "e questo e quello che si nasconde... " Instead, I must suppose that Dante, who was counting up to four, wrote "lo secondo senso" or something amounting to this. The essential point - that we are dealing with Allegory 2 is obscured, if we mistakenly read L’altro si chiama allegorico", as though Dante were dealing with only two meanings "L 'uno si chiama litterale ... L' altro si chiama allegorico...".
True, Dante has already told us "questa sposizione conviene essere litterale e allegorica." Here, however, he is making a distinction between the literal meaning and the allegorical exposition (Allegory 1), the latter then subdivided into Allegory 2, the moral or tropological sense, and the fourth or anagogical sense ("significa de le superne cose de l'etternal gloria", Conv. II.i.6). Exactly the same bivalency is present in the Epistle to Cangrande, where the writer is careful to point out that allegory can have a generic, as well as a specific, meaning: "omnes dici possunt allegorici, cum sint a litterali sive historiali diversi." Before this reminder, we read: "primus sensus est qui habetur per litteram, alius est qui habetur per significata per litteram. Etprimus dicitur litteralis, secundus vero allegoricus sive moralis sive anagogicus." Brugnoli's text-which follows the one established by Ermenegildo Pistelli and published by the Societa Dantesca Italiana in 1921 - is significantly different from the reading adopted by Paget Toynbee. The latter implies Allegory 1 ("Et primus dicitur literalis, secundus vero allegoricus, sive mysticus"), whereas Pistelli-Brugnoli's "secundus vero allegoricus sive moralis sive anagogicus" is a clear reference to Allegory 2. To my knowledge, no editor or scholar has made this essential distinction.
Again, the Convivio's "Thomistic" insistence on the importance of the literal sense (so frequently played down in biblical exegesis) has been noted by various scholars. The change in approach was due to the influence of Aristotelian thought and the work of the Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204): "Christian commentators had despised the letter and dwelt on 'mysteries' because this was the only way they knew of rationalizing what seemed irrelevant and unedifying. Maimonides taught them to find reason and edification in the literal sense.” Having noted this, however, we should also note Dante's insistence on the close connection between the literal sense and Allegory 2. It is in fact the latter which is meant when this point is asserted no less than four times in quick succession in Convivio II. i. 8-12:
sempre lo litterale dee andare innanzi, sì come quello ne la cui sentenza Ii altri sono inchiusi, e sanza lo quale sarebbe impossibile ed irrazionale a li altri, massimamente a lo allegorico ... impossibile e venire al' altre [sentenze] massimamente a l' allegorica, sanza prima venire a la litterale... Onde con ciò sia cosa che la litterale sentenza sempre sia subietto e materia de l' altre, massimamente de l' allegorica, impossibile e prima venire a la conoscenza de l'altre che a la sua ... e la litterale dimostrazione sia fondamento de l'altre, massimamente de l' allegorica ... [italics mine].
Bearing in mind this essential difference between Allegory 1 and Allegory 2, we must now proceed to a further distinction. For this, we shall return to Dante’s gloss – “Veramente li teologi questo senso prendono altrimenti che li poeti” (Conv.I.i.4) - which points out that Allegory 2 has a very different meaning for the theologians. And it is here that Dante’s audacity comes to the fore - in his claim: at poets may rival the Bible's four levels of meaning. It is worth noting that his examples of the third and fourth levels (the moral or tropological and the anagogical) are taken from Scripture. Nevertheless, at the end of the chapter, Dante cl rums that all four levels are found in his poems: 'sopra ciascuna canzone ragionerò prima la litterale sentenza, e appresso di quella ragionerò la sua allegoria, cioè la nascosa veritade; e talvolta de li altri sensi toccherò incidentemente, come a luogo e a tempo si converrà”.
It is possible to argue about the originality of Dante's claim. Professor Robert Hollander has taken me to task for pointing out that "we now have examples of other writers who applied the technique of Biblical exegesis to secular works.” Another fine medieval scholar, Dr Peter Dronke, accepts my claim, which is based on examples offered by Henri de Lubac. For the present, I would point out to Hollander that I have never suggested that secular writers before Dante claimed for their works privileges that were reserved for the Bible. What I have tried to show is that "the technique of Biblical exegesis" was applied (i.e., modified or adapted) to a work like Ovid's Metamorphoses; in other words, medieval biblical exegesis was surely the model that encouraged Arnoul of Orleans and Pierre de Bersuire to attempt to interpret Ovid's work "modo quasdam allegorice, quasdam moraliter, et quasdam historice" (Arnoul) and "litteraliter, naturaliter, historialiteret spiritualiter" (Pierre). On the other hand, I would agree with Hollander that Dante's claim in the Convivio is "unique .. [he] was the first to make the troublesome claim that biblical exegesis could be used to elucidate the significance of a secular poem, compounding his boldness by giving overt exemplary citations from Scripture-a gesture which I have found in no other source that I have yet seen adduced in this argument.”
Bent on opening up the closed shop of medieval philosophy and on distributing its riches to "principi, baroni, cavalieri, e molt'altra nobile gente, non solamente maschi ma femmine, che sono molti e molte. . . volgari e non litterati" (Conv. I.ix.5), Dante is determined to combat the decrial of poetry practised by so many theologians. Among the latter, Aquinas is the most important in his denial of the possibility that poetry "infima inter omnes doctrinas" may possess any sense beyond its literal meaning: Unde in nulla scientia, humana industria inventa, proprie loquendi, potest inveniri nisi litteralis sensus... fictiones poeticae non sunt ad aliud ordinatae nisi ad significandum; unde talis significatio non supergredi tur modum litteralis sensus" (Quaestiones Quodlibetales VII. vi.16). Only the Bible may contain the mystical or allegorical senses, since its author is the Holy Spirit ("sed solum in ista Scriptura, cujus Spiritus sanctus est auctor, homo vero instrumentum"). The full import of Dante's challenge may now be measured, especially in his use of the highly-charged word scritture, when he claims: questa sposizione conviene essere litterale e allegorica. E a cio dare a intendere, si vuol sapere che le scritture si possono intendere e deonsi esponere massimamente per quattro sensi" (Conv. II.i.2). The writer's purpose in the Convivio as in the Comedy - is a moral one, to convince readers of the truth of his message, to make them aware of the truths of philosophy (ethics), of their beauty and their utility. However, it did not appear necessary to the author of the Convivio to place great importance on the literal sense of the poems he was using as a springboard for his moral truths. In this, Dante at this stage in his career was far removed from the position he was to adopt in the Comedy, where his whole purpose was to convince his reader of the truth of every part of the vision described in the poem.
In fact, the poems he wished to use were a handicap, since they spoke of ardent love for a woman who was not Beatrice. As Dante himself points out, this could have led people to accuse him of inconstancy and reduced his credibility as a writer and teacher. And it was precisely the fear of this accusation that made him write a commentary to his poems, where the chief purpose was to play down their literal sense and insist on their allegorical meaning as the only true one. This would show that the donna gentile" celebrated in his poems was not areal woman but a personification of philosophy: "Dico che pensai che da molti, di retro da me, forse sarei stato ripreso di levezza d'animo, udendo me essere dal primo amore mutato; per che, a torre via questa riprensione, nullo migliore argomento era che dire quale era quella donna chem' avea mutato" (Conv. III.i.11) - as he claims he set out to do in "Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona."
Given that Dante's whole purpose in writing the Convivio was to clear his name and to instruct his fellow-men and women in certain moral truths ("Movemi timore d 'infamia, e movemi desiderio di dottrina dare"), it is hardly surprising that he insists so much on the truth of the 'allegorical' message hidden beneath a cloak of fiction: intendo anche mostrare la vera se ntenza ... che per alcuno vedere non si puos 'io non la con to, perche e nascosa sotto figura d'allegoria..." (Conv. 1ii.15-17); "Poi che la litterale sentenza e sufficientemente dimostrata, e da procedere a la esposizione allegorica e vera" (II.xii.l); "E, manifesto questo, vedere si puo la vera sentenza del primo verso de la canzone proposta, per la esposizione fittizia e litterale" (II.xv.2).
It is worth repeating that the poet's purpose in the Comedy is quite different. He is dealing with the ultimate realities of the Christian faith. As in the Convivio he is primarily concerned with ethics, with converting men and women to virtuous action, not with speculation: “Genus vero philosophie sub quo hic in toto et in parte proceditur, est morale negotium, sive ethica; quia non ad speculandum, sed ad opus inventum est totum et pars" (Ep. XIII. 40). On the other hand, the author of the Epistle to Cangrande' s purpose is very different from that of the Convivio: his task is certainly not to suggest that the Comedy's literal sense is a "bella menzogna", although he does use the term fictivus in his classification of the work's forma tractandi - "F orma sive modus tractandi est poeticus, fictivus, descriptivus, digressivus, transumptivus, et cum hoc diffinitivus, divisivus, probativus, improbativus, et exemplorum positivus" (ibid., 27). No one would have dared to use that term in connection with the Bible.
A mighty controversy has been waged in the United States over the precise significance of the Comedy's literal sense. Opponents have come to what may strike an ingenuous onlooker as very similar conclusions. C.S. Singleton writes "The fiction of the Comedy is that it is not fiction”, where as R.H. Green tells us "But this illusion of historical reality is his fiction." And, while insisting that Dante used the 'allegory of the theologian s' and that this allegory is based on a literal sense that is historically true, Robert Hollander attempts to encompass the best of all possible worlds: "what I have suggested is that Dante is not a poeta-theologus but a theologus-poeta, and I further argue that while the former freely admits that his fictions are fictions, Dante creates a fiction which he pretends to consider not to be literally fictitious, while at the same time contriving to share the knowledge with us that it is precisely fictional. That would be a fair recapitulation of the major points of my argument."
However helpful such caveats and distinctions, I must warn the reader that they have little to do with the 'allegory of [the] theologians '. First of all, the phrase is not to be found in any of Dante's writings - certainly not in the Epistle to Cangrande. Instead, it has been used by modern scholars to imply that Dante distinguished between an 'allegory of poets', where allegorical gold was hidden beneath a beautiful lie, and an 'allegory of theologians, where allegory was rooted in a literal sense that must be historically true, as in the Bible. Even the latter proposition is not quite accurate, since medieval scholars freely admitted - and even cautioned that not everything in the Bible must be taken as literally true. The parables formed a clear example of fiction invented for a moral purpose. Peter Damian and Hugh of St Victor, to take only two representative writers, recognized that parts of the Bible's literal text appeared absurd or incongruous and must therefore be read only for their allegorical message:
Sic divina pagina multa secundum naturalem sensum continet, quae et sibi repugnare videntur, et nonnunquam absurditatis aut impossibilitatis aliquid afferre. Spiritualis autem intelligentia nullam admittit repugnantiam...
Notorious difficulties were created by the literal text of the Apocalypse and the Song of Songs, which had to be explained allegorically.
All this, however, is only part of the reasons that led Dante to point out - in Convivio II.i.4 - that “Ii teologi questo senso prendono altrimenti che Ii poeti”. Emphasis on the literal sense would certainly be more pertinent, if Dante were referring to Allegory 1, that is to say, a generic reference to the allegorical interpretation of the Bible, generally based on a true, historical sense. However, as we have demonstrated, in the passage in question, Dante is in fact discussing Allegory 2, the second of the four senses listed by him. It is this, the first of the mystical or hidden senses, that is taken by theologians in a way quite different from the way it is used and understood by poets.
What, then, was the primary significance of Dante's observation that the theologians understand this sense in a different way? Surely, the primary meaning is not concerned with the literal sense but with the message sought by the theologians. This, for any medieval scholar, was concerned with the Christian faith, with Christ and the Church.
Even the mnemonic jingle invented by Dante's contemporary, Augustine of Dacia, put it unequivocally:
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.
Already in the sixth century, St Gregory the Great claimed "allegoria fidem aedificat", a formula repeated over and over again by scholars concerned with Biblical exegesis. The fourfold system of exegesis, with clearly defined roles for the literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses, has its origins in Rabanus Maurus's Allegoriae in universam Sacram Scripturam (c. 850; see Migne, Patrologia Latina, CXII.849):
Quisquis ad sacrae Scripturae notitiam desiderat pervenire, prius diligenter considerat quando historice, quando allegorice, quando anagogice, quando tropologice suam narrationem contextat. Has namque quatuor intelligentiae, videlicet historiam, allegoriam, tropologiam, anagogiam, quatuor matris sapientiae filias vocamus. Mater quippe Sapientia per hos adoptionis filios pascit, conferens insipientibus [incipientibus] atque teneris potum in lacte historiae; in fide autem proficientibus, cibum in pane allegoriae… allegoria quidem fidem, tropologia vero aedificat moralitatem.
Honorius of Autun (12th century) defined Allegory 2 succinctly: Allegoria, cum de Christo etEcclesia res exponitur" (Migne, PL, CLXXII, 359). And, just before Dante was born, St Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Quaestiones Quodlibetales (VII.vi.15) "sic est allegoricus sensus vel typicus, secundum quod ea quae in veter testamento contlgerunt, exponunturde ChristoetEcclesia" (cf. Summa Th. I.I.10, resp.: "Secundum ergo quo ea quae sunt veteris legis, significant ea quae sunt novae legis, est sens us allegoricus"). In Dante's lifetime, Giovanni di Genova finished his Catholicon in 1286. This encyclopaedic work, which was most probably known and utilised by Dante, states under allegoria:
Et scias quod sacra scriptura quator modis potest exponi, scilicet historice, tropologice, allegorice, anagogice. Historia docet factum, tropologia faciendum,allegoria credendum, anagogia appetendum. Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. Hec patent in hac dictione Iherusalem; historice enim est quedam civitas, tropologice est tipus anime fidelis, allegorice figura ecclesie militantis, anagogice tipum gerit ecclesie triumphantis.
Let us now return to the text of the Convivio: "veramente li teologi questo sen so prendono altrimenti che li poeti ..." As Jean Pepin points out, it must be remembered that the Greek allegorein could mean both 'to speak allegorically' and 'to interpret allegorically': "Qualsiasi ricerca sul ruolo dell' allegoria in un au tore deve vertere su ambedue le accezioni del termine." Applying this test to Dante's remark that theologians "prendono" Allegory 2 in a different way, we understand that they 'take' it and apply it in a way that is different from the poet's way. It should be clear that Dante is not referring to the way the text is constructed but to the way it is interpreted. Theologians do not create or invent a text, they are merely mterpreters of Scripture. The phrase in question is therefore a kind of footnote, typical of Dante, the self-made scholar who was determined in the Convivio to show off his recently acquired erudition. It was also made necessary by his equal determination to include the tropological and anagogical senses in his commentary to poems whose literal sense he was bent on devaluing. With this excursus he hopes to silence possible critics, while showing that he is aware of his unorthodoxy.
Unfortunately, the lacuna in the text of this chapter makes it impossible to ascertain the antecedent to "queste favole" in Conv. II.i.3, where we read - immediately after the gap - "e questo e quello che si nasconde sotto 'I manto di queste favole, ed è una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna…" It is possible that Dante's original text made it clear that “queste favole" were not the kind of themes or genres available to poets, that poets were not condemned to inventing a bella menzogna but that, when they did, they could redeem it (if they were "savi") by a veritade ascosa. Even the example of Orpheus which Dante chooses is in a sense ambiguous. Here, the story of Orpheus' taming the wild beasts and moving trees and rocks is seen as a fable with no literal truth, invented only to signify the way "lo savio uomo con lo strurmento de la sua voce faccia mansuescere e umiliare Ii crudeli cuori, e faccia muovere a la sua volontade coloro che non hanno vita di scienza e d' arte; e coloro che non hanno vita ragionevole alcuna sono quasi come pietre." That, Dante tells us, is an example of the way the poets use fables and why they invent them ("E perche questo nascondimento fosse trovato per Ii savi, nel pen ultimo trattato si mostrerra", Conv. II.i.4). But it is also interesting to recall that Dante placed Orpheus in Limbo among the poetae theologi (Inferno IV, 132). For the writer of the Comedy, then, Orpheus was a historical character-one, we may add, who was well established as afigura Christi on account of his descent to the underworld. It is interesting to speculate whether Dante was aware of this other dimension; in other words, that the Orpheus myth was capable of two quite different interpretations, depending on whether it was interpreted as an extended metaphor, signifying the power of poetry and music over the human spirit, or as a prefiguration of Christ's preaching and His harrowing of Hell.
To recapitulate: in discussing the first of the three 'hidden' senses - Allegory 2, - Dante points to a distinction between this sense as it is understood and applied by poets on the one hand and by theologians on the other. The former may invent a fabula or 'beautiful lie' in order to illustrate a truth, such as the fact that the 'wise man' can tame savage hearts and influence others whose lives are destitute of knowledge and rationality. Theologians, instead, look for a Christological meaning, interpreting "the allegorical [sense] strictly so called, [by] applying the passage to Christ and the Church Militant". Nowhere in Dante's text, however, do we read that poets are restricted to fables. What we are told is that the second of four senses consists of an extended metaphor for poets, which offers "una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna."
It is important to recall the distinction made by Isidore of Seville between historia, argumentum andfabula: "Inter historiam et argumentum et fabulam interest. Nam historiae sunt res verae, quae facta sunt. Argumenta sunt quae etsi facta non sunt, fieri possunt. Fabulae vero sunt quae nee facta non sunt, nee fieri possunt, quia contra naturam sunt." Let me repeat that there is nothing in Dante that should lead us to believe that writers are limited to inventing fabulae (which may, however, be redeemed by the "veritade ascosa" of allegorical interpretation). In fact, the text of the Convivio tells us quite clearly that poets could and did write historias (res veras). In the Third Book, we read that "le storie d'Ercule" found in Ovid and Lucan "e in altri poeti" illustrate the truth that "ciascuno naturalmente e di più virtuoso corpo ne lo luogo dove e generato", while the same highly charged term le scritture recurs when these poems are regarded as authentic historical evidence: "E questa battaglia fu in Africa, secondo le testimonianze de le scritture" (Conv. III.iii.8). Even more significant is the fact that the Aeneid of "lo maggiore nostro poeta" is quoted as historical evidence for the reality of Aeneas' descent to the underworld in Conv. IV.xxvi.9: "Quanto spronare fu quello, quando esso Enea sostenette solo con Sibilla a intrare ne lo Inferno a cercare de l'anima di suo padre Anchise, contra tan ti pericoli, come nel sesto de la detta istoria si dimostra!" The significance of the designation of Virgil's poem as istoria should now be clear: it is a work relating res veras (res gestas).
Afterre-examining the evidence of the Convivio, I must draw a number of conclusions:
1. When giving his notorious definition of "lo senso allegorico", Dante was referring to the "veritade ascosa" extracted from the fabulae of poets.
2. The conjectural reading "L'altro si chiama allegorico" in Convivio II.i.4 is misleading and should be emended to "Lo secondo si chiama allegorico".
3. His poems expressing his love and praise of the 'Donna Gentile' were to be classed as fabulae, their literal sense devalued as a "bella menzogna" to serve as a mere springboard whose value lay in the allegorical message.
4. In his unique adaptation of the four senses of Biblical exegesis, Dante was bol~ enough to include the allegorical justification off abulae but was obliged to pomt out that the second sense of the theologians' canon was utterly different.
5. That second sense signified the way theologians interpreted Scripture as signifying truths of the Christian faith ("quid credas allegoria").
6. For the author of the Convivio, the story of Orpheus reflected the power of philosophy over men’s mind; for theologians, it would have had a Christological interpretation.
7. At the time of writing the Convivio, especialy in reference to Lucan and Virgil, Dante asserted the belief that poetry could have a true, historical sense.
Following on the latter, I am delighted to find myself in agreement with Professor Hollander, who points out that the Vita Nuova was "written in the mode of the allegory of the theologians, or at least in a mode which approximates that mode." He hits the nail on the head when he writes: "The 'key' to that riddle is the Christological nature of Beatrice, a special creature, unlike all others, made so by God Himself." What I cannot accept is the assertion that "The prime topographical difference between the two kinds of allegory, as Dante knew far better than most of us, lies in the historicity or fictiveness of their literal senses." As will, I trust, be clear by now and as the author of the Epistle to Cangrandeknew "far better than most of us", the hallmark of Allegory 2-for the theologians-is its referral to the Christian faith: si ad allegoriam, nobis significatur nostra redemptio facta per Christum" (Ep. XIII.21). In the Convivio, Dante confused the issue by claiming that poets practised a different form of Allegory 2, which he arbitrarily inserted into the threefold system of Allegory 1.