The Unfinished Convivio as a Pathway to the Comedy [John A. Scott]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John A. Scott

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numero: 113

Anno: 1995

Pagine: 35-41

[…] The wellspring of the Second Book of Convivio is found in the writer’s manifesto (I, ii, 15) “Movemi timore d’infamia, e movemi disiderio di dottrina dare”; and, in this, it reflects the raison d’étre of the whole work. Here, however, it is above all the “timore d’infamia” that inspires the notorious discussion of allegory, where Dante is bent on devaluing the literal or apparent meaning of certain love poems written after Beatrice’s death and in praise of another woman. Almost obsessively, the writer insists that he will now make plain “la vera sentenza di quelle [canzoni], che per alcuno vedere non si può s’io non la conto, perché è nascosa sotto figura d’allegoria” (I, ii, 17; cf. II, xii, 1, “la esposizione allegorica e vera”; II, xv, 2, “la vera sentenza”). Nothing could be farther from the poet’s purpose in writing the Comedy, where every resource is brought into play in a sustained attempt to convince the reader of the truth of his account - although even here a word of caution must be sounded, inasmuch as for a medieval writer and his audience “truth” was not necessarily contingent on what we call “reality”. In the Convivio, on the other hand, afflicted by poverty and the sufferings of exile, Dante’s reputation has suffered. He therefore sets out to redeem it by a work of erudition that will, among other things, clear him of the charge of inconstancy in love levelled by “molti [...] udendo me essere dal primo amore mutato”; hence, his first task is to persuade his audience that the woman who had captured his love was no woman, “nullo migliore argomento era che dire quale era quella donna che m’avea mutato” (III, i, 11).
Dante’s work, we understand, will purvey knowledge (dottrina dare) - chiefly, in the literal exposition of poems such as “Voi che ’ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” (Book II) and “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona” (Book II) - and it will rescue his reputation by disclosing the latter’s true meaning and thus dissipating the infamy surrounding them. That this was a specific moment not only in the poet’s career but also in the economy of the Convivio is evident from the fact that allegory is jettisoned in “Le dolci rime d’amor ch'i’ solia” and its exposition in the last Book: “E però che in questa canzone s’intese a rimedio così necessario, non era buono sotto alcuna figura parlare [...] Non sarà dunque mestiere ne la esposizione di costei alcuna allegoria aprire, ma solamente la sentenza secondo la lettera ragionare” (IV, i, 10-11).
Having placed the discussion of allegory in the specific context of the Second Book of the Convivio, we may now turn to what Dante writes there. I would ask the reader to [re]read the whole of the first chapter, while bearing in mind the following observations. The first is the corrupt state of the Convivio”s text as we have it. The second is the fact that the term “allegorical” may be applied generically to what are also called the “mystical” senses, which are three in number and of which the first is also called “allegorical.” It is this second sense (which henceforth I shall refer to as Allegory2) that the theologians apply differently from the way it is used by poets and in the interpretation of their works: “Veramente li teologi questo senso prendono altrimenti che li poeti” (II, i, 4). Here, Dante is NOT directly referring to two different systems of writing and interpretation, where their essential difference “lies in the nature of the literal sense in the one and in the other.” Third, Dante never uses the term “allegory of the theologians”: he simply tells his readers that theologians understand “questo senso” – Allegory2 - in a manner quite different from the way it is used by poets. Fourth, the neologism “allegory of the theologians” has come to mean the way the text of Holy Scripture is structured rather than the point Dante is making here, in Convivio I, which is the way it is interpreted by theologians. For any educated contemporary reader, this would have been a truism. Why, then, does Dante make the point? Surely, not because he felt that his public was likely to mistake the allegory supposedly hidden in his canzoni for Allegory2. Instead, it is one of the numerous digressions made by a writer bent on displaying his newly-found erudition, a digression possibly encouraged by the example of Orpheus in II, i, 3, since Orpheus’s descent to the underworld made it possible to see in him a figura Christi.
What would an educated contemporary have understood by “questo senso,” as applied by theologians in biblical exegesis? In the twelfth century, Honorius of Autun defined it most succinctly: “Allegoria, cum de Christo et Ecclesia res exponitur” (Migne: Patrologia Latina, 172, 359). Just before Dante was born, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “sic est allegoricus sensus vel typicus, secundum quod ea quae in veteri testamento contigerunt, exponuntur de Christo et Ecclesia.” And the poet’s contemporary, Giovanni di Genova, stated in his Catholicon (completed, 1286): “Et scias quod sacra scriptura quatuor modis potest exponi [...] Historia docet factum, tropologia faciendum, allegoria credendum, anagogia appetendum. Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia” - illustrating this with the example of Jerusalem, which “historice enim est quedam civitas, tropologice est tipus anime fidelis, allegorice figura ecclesie militantis, anagogice tipum gerit ecclesie triumphantis.” To concentrate exclusively on the definition of allegory given in Convivio II, i, 3 (“una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna”) is to ignore the essential fact that in this passage no mention is made of the (obvious) fact that Scripture”s literal sense was chiefly historical and no “bella menzogna” - although even in biblical exegesis it was recognized that certain parts of the Bible had a literal sense which could only be interpreted allegorically or mystically. In this regard, the text of the Song of Songs would traditionally have been considered a “bella menzogna” whose truth had to be sought exclusively in its allegorical senses. The other side of the coin for the Dante of the Convivio must have been the essential truth that the poems he had written about Beatrice and his love for her could never be reduced to the level of a “bella menzogna” - any more than his ethical canzone “Le dolci rime” which he was to gloss in the Fourth Book. Moreover, the pagan poets did not write only belle menzogne: they were capable of composing trustworthy literal accounts of real events, as the highlycharged word scritture make clear in III, iii, 7-8: “Onde si legge ne le storie d’Ercule, e ne l’Ovidio Maggiore e in Lucano e in altri poeti, che combattendo con lo gigante che si chiamava Anteo [...] E questa battaglia fu in Africa, secondo le testimonianze de le scritture.” At this point, we should recall the distinction made in Isidore’s Etymologies between historia, argumentum, and fabula: “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 nec facta non sunt, nec fieri possunt, quia contra naturam sunt.”
I would therefore argue that the treatment of allegory in Convivio I does not point so much towards two radically different forms of the literal sense, as to the fundamental idea that biblical exegesis possessed its own special sense of Allegory2, which always referred to matters of the true faith. Confusion is possibly generated by the way editors place a hypothetical altro in their attempts to fill the gap in the manuscript tradition of II, i, 3, between “L'uno si chiama litterale” and “e questo è quello che si nasconde sotto ’l manto di queste favole, ed è una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna.” Anton Maria Biscioni, in 1723, was the first scholar to notice the lacuna, which he attempted to make good by placing “Il secondo si chiama allegorico” as a link between the two parts. This at least has the virtues of clarity and simplicity, unlike the later conjectural “L'altro si chiama allegorico,” since it inserts Allegory2 into a clear sequence: “L’uno [...] Lo terzo senso [...] Lo quarto senso” (II, i, 3-6). And it is this sense that “li teologi […] prendono altrimenti che li poeti” (II, i, 4).
We may therefore conclude that in Convivio II, i, Dante is preparing the way for the revelation of his love for Lady Philosophy by classifying his poems written for the Donna Gentile as fabulae, with their literal sense thus demoted to the level of “bella menzogna” or a fictitious springboard from which to launch the true, allegorical message. In his unique adaptation of the four senses of biblical exegesis, Dante went so far as to include the allegorical justification of fabulae, while he felt obliged to point out that the second sense of the theologians’ canon was utterly different and signified truths of the Christian faith. It is moreover possible that this technical excursus was brought about by the choice of the myth of Orpheus, which illustrated the powers of poetry and philosophy but which, for theologians, could bear a Christological interpretation—-and we note that Orpheus is placed in Limbo by the poet of the Comedy as a poeta theologus (Inf. IV, 140). Finally, Dante’s wording in “e questo è quello che si nasconde sotto ’l manto di queste favole” may not be (as so many have claimed) the equivalent of the theologians’ dismissal of ALL poetry as mere fables. Since we have no referent for “queste favole” in the text that has come down to us, the fables in question may well have been limited to the belle menzogne of Ovid’s mythological fables or the personification allegory of Vita Nuova XXV, 9.
AIl this seems to point to the fact that the Convivio represents an intermediate stage between the discussion of allegory and figures of speech in Vita Nuova XXV, 8-10 and Dante’s use of allegory in the poema sacro. There, in a unique amalgam combining fabulous mythological figures such as the Minotaur and Pluto with the most sacred historical personages of Christian history, we find what we may call Dante’s figural allegorism, which “is his own, new and revolutionary, and neither that of the poets nor that of the theologians.” In the Second Book of the Convivio, while making “the troublesome claim that biblical exegesis could be used to elucidate the significance of a secular poem” Dante compounded “his boldness by giving overt exemplary citations from Scripture,” something found only in his Comedy and in the Epistle to Cangrande. And while writing the Fourth Book—where he rediscovered Virgil, as we shall see— the Christian poet began to learn from the example of the Aeneid “how to compose a narrative poem which describes actions as though they were historical, to compose a fiction that is intended to be taken as historically true. Thus, the discussion of allegory in Convivio II and the discovery of the true core of Virgil’s poem, which had been hidden under allegorical incrustations, led to the composition of a sacred poem “al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra” (Par. XV, 2) - and the abandonment of the unfinished Convivio. But that, of course, is not the end of our story.
To return to the Second Book of the Convivio, we note that in his exposition of the literal sense of his ode “Voi che ’ntendendo” Dante makes a fascinating excursus into angelology (II, ii, 7-II, vi, 10), whereby he claims inter alia that angels had been glimpsed by the pagans as through a glass darkly, so that in Greco-Roman myth they were invoked as “Dei e Dee” (II, iv, 6) with temples set up to them. Dante’s syncretism is nowhere more in evidence than in this unique assimilation of the pagan Olympians into Christian angelology - to the extent that no Olympian is found in the Inferno, while it underpins Beatrice”s discourse in Paradiso IV, 58-63. Less idiosyncratic is the concomitant idea that those “intelligenze, le quali la volgare gente chiamano Angeli” (Conv. II, iv, 2) correspond to the “movitori di quelli [cieli]” posited by Aristotle and taken up by Arab philosophers. What seems to be unique to Dante, however, is his emphasis on angelic motor function as well as the distinctive one-to-one correspondence between the various heavens and the orders of angels assigned to them. Here, for the first time, we find Dante mapping out the celestial hierarchy as he would enshrine it in the Paradiso (with one important exception, in Par. XXVIII, 98-139): the order of the nine heavens, above which is found “lo cielo Empireo” (Conv. II, iii, 8). For Dante, cach heaven is moved by a different order of angels (II, v, 12-13), whereas St. Thomas had assigned the movement of all the heavens to the Virtues alone.
This apparently unimportant detail is in fact symptomatic not only of the Convivio but also of an important aspect of Dante’s mature thought, for it leads to a division throughout the nine angelic orders. Dante begins by stating that “li movitori di quelli [cieli] sono sustanze separate da materia, cioè intelligenze, le quali la volgare gente chiamano Angeli” (II, iv, 2). He proceeds to argue that, since the beatitude of the contemplative life is superior to that afforded by the active life, it must follow that such blessed creatures are not deprived of it; however, since the angels’ intellect is “uno e perpetuo,” they can only enjoy one type of beatitude, hence “conviene essere altre [...] che solamente vivano speculando” (II, iv, 11). The latter are in a majority. Now, however, Dante muddies the waters by agreeing that “la speculativa vita” is the only one meet for the angelic nature. He therefore goes on to claim that “pure a la speculazione di certe [sustanze separate] segue la circulazione del cielo, che è del mondo governo” (II, iv, 13), thus contradicting his basic premise: “E con ciò sia cosa che quella che ha la beatitudine del governare non possa l’altra avere [...]” (II, iv, 11).
This contradiction points to an essential and all-too-easily forgotten truth: that the Convivio as we have it was not only left unfinished (only four sections were actually written out of the fifteen planned: I, i, 14) and unrevised by Dante, but that what we have is a highly corrupt text. However, it must also be pointed out that, whereas the distinction between the active life and the life of contemplation may strike us as a medieval commonplace (ultimately derived from Aristotle’s Ethics X, 7-8), its application to angelic activity is in fact neither Aristotelian nor Thomist but very much Dante’s own. His argument, based on the fact that “qui [on earth] l’umana natura non pur una beatitudine abbia, ma due, sì com'è quella de la vita civile, e quella de la contemplativa” (II, iv, 10), is not merely an obvious case of anthropomorphism. It is typical of Dante’s whole attitude in the Convivio, which leads him to divide up human activities into separate compartments. As far removed as this attitude may at first appear from the poet’s vision in the Comedy, it nevertheless points the way to the largely autonomous - if complementary - spheres of influence which form an integral part of the divine poem: the empire and the papacy; philosophy and theology (Virgil/Beatrice; Aquinas/Siger). As the highly unorthodox assignation of the sciences to the various spheres makes clear by placing ethics above metaphysics (II, xiii, 8), Dante is most original in his resolve to break away from the rigidly hierarchical structures of medieval thought, so that for the author of the Convivio and the Comedy relative inferiority does not necessarily imply subjection.
At this point, a digression may allow us to make a small contribution to the on-going debate regarding the authenticity of the Epistle to Cangrande. To the evidence marshalled by Robert Hollander must now be added the fact - first noted by Stephen Bemrose - that in the gloss to Paradiso I, 13 (“buono Appollo, a l’ultimo lavoro”) we read that such invocations were made by the ancient poets “cum aliquid contra comunem modum hominum a superioribus substantiis petendum est” (Ep. X, 47). It is surely highly significant that the author of the Epistle does not use the phrase a diis but a superioribus substantiis when referring to Apollo and his ilk, since - as far as we know - only Dante assimilated the pagan deities to separated substances or angelic intelligences.
The theme of the Third Book is announced in the closing chapter of the Second (II, xv, 3-4): it will be the nobility of Lady Philosophy, who - “ornata d’onestade, mirabile di savere, gloriosa di libertade”- brings salvation to human beings by her teachings and saves them from the death of ignorance and vice: “Veramente in voi è la salute, per la quale si fa beato chi vi guarda, e salvo da la morte de la ignoranza e da li vizii.” The concluding statement reaffirms the identity of Dante’s beloved - “la bellissima e onestissima figlia de lo imperadore de lo universo, a la quale Pittagora pose nome Filosofia” (II, xv, 12) -, where the writer has already adumbrated that extraordinary conflation of philosophy with divine wisdom that is the hallmark of the Third Book.

Date: 2021-12-25