Allegory and the Incredible Fable: The Italian View from Dante to Tasso [Robert L. Montgomery Jr.]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert L. Montgomery Jr.

Tratto da: Publications of the Modern Language Association

Numero: 81

Anno: 1986

Pagine: 45-55

Our knowledge of medieval and Renaissance theory of allegory is largely governed by two traditions, the rhetorical defini- tion inherited from Quintilian and the exegetical method of reading on two or more levels of meaning, a method traceable to Augustine and usually illustrated by Dante's letter to Can Grande Della Scala. The rhetorical view of allegory as inversio and extended metaphor is mostly useful for examining the figure on a narrow scale, normally as part of a larger context. It describes an element of style but not a fictional structure. The exegetical tradition, though widely employed as a technique of reading, was, if one is to judge by Renaissance critical theory, seldom discussed or fully analyzed after Petrarch. When it was, as in Harington's Apology prefaced to his translation of Orlantdo Furioso, the result could be confusing. Generally critics were equipped with the handy assumption that all literature was susceptible to the figurative readings habitually given to Scripture, and the method was convenient to the allegorical interpretation of myth.
A third and possibly more suggestive approach to the consideration of allegory informs Italian criticism from Dante to Tasso, an approach that associates allegory directly with the incredible or patently untrue in the materials of poetry. It deals with the nature of the whole fiction or fable and is deeply involved in critical speculation about the relationship of poetry to history and to truth. There is no conflict with the other more familiar traditions; instead we are faced with a sometimes more enlarged, more thorough, and more discriminating view of the qualities of allegorical fiction, even when the critic is hostile to allegory. At the same time, it should be understood that the interest in allegory is seldom a central preoccupation. The Italians were anxious to defend and define poetry at large or to prescribe its subject matter and form; hence allegory is something treated in the course of more general discussion or as a consequence of assumptions about the nature and function of poetry. For Boccaccio the need to publicize the moral relevance of poetry, especially the mythical and non-Christian, prompts his statements of the ways in which meaning grows out of fiction. Later, in the debates over the nature of imitation, verisimilitude, and credibility in the sixteenth century, allegory is drawn into the question of what is true or real or plausible in all works which may be called literary, even as the moral issues important to Boccaccio survive. It becomes normal for critics to associate the false, the impossible, and the incredible with a substructure of allegorical meaning, to see allegory working beneath the veiled and often fantastic surface. That basic association is scarcely ever denied. But where Boccaccio clings to the view that nearly all serious literature carries ulterior meaning, his successors in the Cinquecento argue whether allegory and good poetry are compatible. By the end of the period it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a critic who does not consider allegory a special kind of literature rather than a quality inherent in all imaginative works which attempt to be meaningful.
Dante is the first to suggest a link between the false or feigned and allegory, but it is noteworthy that the poet who was later to be accused of the most fantastic creations, as critic is interested in something remarkably like verisimilitude when he explains the strategy of personification: "It may be that at this point some person . .. could be puzzled at my speaking of Love as if it were a thing in itself, as if it were not only an intellectual substance but also a bodily substance. This in reality is false, for Love does not exist in itself as a substance, but rather it is an accident in a substance. And that I speak of him as if he possessed a body, further still, as if he were a man, is evidenced by three things I say about him. I say that I saw him coming... I also say of him that he laughed and also that he spoke." Thus for Dante personification is an open pretense, and although he adds that the poet may animate unreal as well as real things, the weight of his remarks bears on the point that the figment is a likeness to the real or substantial.
Boccaccio's interest is quite otherwise, and his defense of imaginative literature in the fourteenth and fifteenth books of The Genealogy of the Gods contains the first comprehensive examination of the incredible fable. Dante's presentation of the false as if it were true is perhaps motivated by a desire to avoid confusing his readers. Boccaccio insists repeatedly that poetry need not appear truthful on the surface: "Fiction is a form of discourse, which, under guise of invention, illustrates or proves an idea; and, as its superficial aspect is removed, the meaning of the author is clear. If, then, sense is revealed from under the veil of fiction, the composition of fiction is not idle nonsense." And while attempting to distinguish fiction from lying, he remarks with some exaggeration: "poetic fiction differs from a lie in that in most instances it bears not only no close resemblance to the literal truth, but no resemblance at all; on the contrary, it is quite out of harmony and agreement with the literal truth."
But Boccaccio is concerned with the relationship between the incredible and the verisimilar in fiction, and in a passage that represents one of his most crucial services to critical theory, he uses this relationship to distinguish types of fiction: Of fiction I distinguish four kinds:

The first superficially lacks all appearance of truth; for example, when brutes or inanimate things converse... The second kind at times mingles fiction with truth, as when we tell of the daughters of Minyas at their spinning, who, when they spurned the orgies of Bacchus, were turned to bats... The third kind is more like history than fiction, and famous poets have employed it in a variety of ways. For however much the heroic poets seem to be writing history - as Vergil in his description of Aeneas tossed by the storm, or Homer in his account of Ulysses bound to the mast to escape the lure of the Sirens' song - yet their hidden meaning is far other than appears on the surface. The better of the comic poets, Terence and Plautus, for example, have also employed this form, but they intend naught other than the literal meaning of their lines. Yet by their art they portray varieties of human nature and conversation, incidentally teaching the reader and putting him on his guard. If the events they describe have not actually taken place, they could have occurred, or might at some time... The fourth kind contains no truth at all, either superficial or hidden, since it consists only of old wives' tales.

The implications of this passage are important. The truth contained in verisimilar fiction, the third type, would seem for Boccaccio to lie on the surface, although he ascribes hidden meanings to heroic poetry without telling us how they are managed. Moreover, his classification forces him to contradict his earlier generalization that fiction lacks all appearance of truth, and he is perhaps not as careful as he might be in differentiating between verisimilitude and conceptual truth. But he does hint that allegorical meaning is channeled through the incredible or impossible aspects of fiction, a hint that is confirmed when he writes: "For where history is lacking, neither one [Holy Writ or poetry] concerns itself with the superficial possibility, but what the poets call fable or fiction our theologians have called figure."

This statement is the gist of a good deal of medieval thinking on the subject, and, as Dante had done, Boccaccio allies poetry in method and general intention with theology and Scripture. More significant still is his anticipation of the speculations of sixteenth-century Italian criticism on the essential nature of fiction and his demonstration that a concept of allegorical form may emerge from an understanding of the ways in which truth (or what appears to be truth) and falsehood are mixed and balanced in fiction. On Boccaccio's scale allegory is most surely congenial to fiction which lacks all resemblance to literal fact and which is dominated by the incredible, by fabulous creatures and events. One of his remarks on Dante makes this plain: "what intention does lie seem to have had in presenting the picture of the griffon with wings and legs, drawing the chariot on top of the austere mountain, together with the seven candlesticks, and the seven nymphs, and the rest of the triumphal procession?"
Boccaccio's disposition to regard the fantastic, the mythical, the incredible as normally symbolic prevails through the fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth. For a time the resort to allegorical interpretation is more common than not, and genuinely critical attention to the problems raised by credibility, verisimilitude, truth, and falsity as they affect allegory is virtually non-existent. Only when the influence of Aristotle's Poetics begins to modify criticism in the middle of the sixteenth century do the tempo and depth of comment on this issue change.
Aristotle had written that "the poet should prefer a probable impossibility to improbable possibilities," and that "the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion." The consensus of sixteenth-century critics (though there are some notable exceptions) is that the work of art must be verisimilar or credible and usually both, whether they find the source of these qualities in natural or historical fact or in the opinions of the audience. To the critics of the later sixteenth century poetic materials understood to be naturally impossible or in some fashion incredible from a contemporary perspective are troublesome. A very few theorists argue that any sort of untruth is inadmissible in poetry, but most tend to the general view that all poetry is a mixture of the true and the invented and go on to speculate as to just how these terms should be defined and applied to the judgment of literature.

For our purposes the point at which the Poetics begins to make itself felt is with Robortello's commentary, In Librum Aristoteles De Arte Poetica Explicationes (Florence, 1548). A modest summary of his rather extensive views will indicate what was to become a common method of response to problems made urgent by interest in the Poetics. Robortello's strategy is to classify and define. After stating that poetry is based on the "false or fabulous"' (by which he means that it handles what is invented and not literally true), he nevertheless argues that the poetic plot, the imitation of action, must be verisimilar and credible. Bernard Weinberg remarks (I, 391- 393) that in this instance the "true" for Robortello is what is "said to be" and "seems to be"l and that he prefers the credible, almost always excluding the false and impossible. But elsewhere Robortello subordinates credibility to the plea- sure to be derived from admiration, and in his commentary on Poetics 61b9 he defends three sorts of impossible subject. The supernatural, "such as ships turned into nymphs, women into men, men into trees," may be philosophy ingeniously disguised. What improves upon nature, such as the prowess of Hector and Achilles, serves to exemplify humanity at its most ideal. The third type, whatever concerns the gods, is permissible if they are represented as worthy. Robortello shows little interest in detailing the process of allegorizing impossible or incredible fables, but he contends that such idealizations as Hector and Achilles may be convincing because the opinion of the audience establishes credibility and verisimilitude.
To argue that the literary presentation of character is plausible because the audience finds it credible is to say very little, but this sort of appeal to audience judgment is a common and convenient way of justifying certain kinds of impossibility and hence a great deal of ancient literature. At the same time references to the perspective of the audience suggest that sixteenth-century critics are uneasily aware that credibility or possibility or their contraries are not fixed and that there is no general, timeless agreement about what they are or what their value is. Fracastoro's Naugerius shows a critic alert to the various ways in which literature may be true and responsive to the historical changes which may affect the audience's sense of what is plausible. Insisting upon an appearance of credibility, he objects primarily to hyperbole, citing examples he thinks impossible to take literally:
In general nothing ought to be invented or set forth by anyone who deserves to be called poet which is evidently incompatible with truth, as I see some do who write that rivers are dried up with the fires of lovers, and ships propelled by their sighs, and the like. Indeed, everything which may be allowed to invention is true either because it has the appearance of truth, or because it has allegorical significance, or because it is a common belief, either of all men or many, or because it accords with the universal, the simply beautiful idea, and not with the particular... The old idea that forms were metamorphosed, that groves were sacred, that rivers and fountains bad their protecting spirits, that certain gods had the care of us... all this was not beyond the belief of mortals.

If Fracastoro appears sensibly tolerant on the issue of what is proper subject matter for poetry, his statement also hints at a serious dilemma. Since the ancients believed "that forms were metamorphosed," then such things to them were literally true. Fracastoro is not far from the inference that, when audiences cease to believe, allegorical interpretation may be brought in to preserve an element of truth in fiction, and indeed the justification of an apparently incredible fiction by allegory is a frequent resource of critics disposed to accept an inclusive roster of literary materials. But this attention to the nature of audience perspective gives allegory quite a different status from that understood by Boccaccio. For him allegory was the essential formal reason behind the poet's deliberate use of the incredible fable, but for Fracastoro allegory is only one among several kinds of "truth" to be found in the fable.
What emerges from the body of later sixteenth-century Italian criticism remaining to be treated is an attitude towards the value of allegory - and consequently towards the value of the incredible fable - different from that of the Middle Ages and earlier Renaissance, but there is little denial that in one way or another where allegory is to be found it is in the company of the incredible. A number of writings exhibit either distinct hostility to allegory or allow its legitimacy only with severe limitations. Others approve it, substantially on the bases we have already observed, as the "medicine of the impossible," to borrow the language of Mazzoni, or as a delightful veiling of truth. Yet among critics of all persuasions (and this is most important) there is more careful attention to the nature of the incredible, the impossible, and the false, and hence a more detailed exposure of the specifics of allegorical method.
This attention to detail frequently springs from antipathy to a particular work as well as from interest in verisimilitude and credibility. The comments of Filippo Sassetti reveal both motives. To test and largely condemn forms of departure from the true or verisimilar he subjects Ariosto's work to the rigors of logic. Attempting a distinction between enigma and allegory, he says that the former is a joining together of impossible accidents (mixed metaphor), whereas "true" allegory proceeds by enthymeme or a logically continued metaphor. Basing his dis- tinction on inferences drawn from Aristotle, he concludes: "We may interpret the sense of his words to mean that enigma is made of many metaphors when the metaphors are discontinuous or not of the same genus."
What is continuous or of the same genus is therefore the possible, and allegory constructed on these principles is legitimate. Sassetti illustrates the point by analysis of the logic in Petrarch's "Volo con l'ali del pensiero al cielo" (Canzoniere, 362). Then, joining the logically impossible to the incredible, he charges Ariosto with pretending that his incredibilities are true but excuses Petrarch's conceits and allegories as ''visions in whose actions the human imagination shapes everything possible and impossible, as in dreams." Since he has not argued previously that the device of the vision could legitimize impossibilities, Sassetti is applying a double standard. But his work has something to commend it as an effort to establish a basis for what actuality is and what it is not in poetic discourse. There is, also, the tacit admission that mixed metaphor, a form of the incredible or impossible, may be an allegorical symbol, even if one disapproves of it.
A less slanted rhetorical and logical analysis emerges from a lecture by Francesco Bonciani delivered in 1578 and entitled "Lettione della Prosopopea." Bonciani begins by arguing that prosopopeia is imitation, since "the true, the verisimilar, the false, and the impossible can be imitated" (fol. 132v). Prosopopeia imitates only the false and impossible. It has three forms: the simple personifying of abstractions, making ani- mals speak (as in beast fables), and the poet speaking in his own person (as Dante). Using the term "imitation" broadly - to "represent the form and habits of a thing with words and give it movement" (fol. 134v) - Bonciani reasons that prosopopeia imitates the impossible only in wholes or combinations. Details are verisimilar.

Having knowledge of many things, our fantasy sometimes mingles their nature forming one nature which is entirely different from anything else, but similar in its parts. Such were the chimeras, the centaurs, and other monsters feigned by the poets, which, quite incapable of ever having existed in the fashion in which they have become objects of our attention, nevertheless can have their being in our fantasy. And this is sufficient to make them material for imitation, since it is not said that such imitation is of things which are in nature but of feigned and imagined things. (fol. 135v)

Bonciani remarks that a similar process is evident in painting, especially in Flemish grotesque. There is always a contact with reality, and once the impossible or incredible combination of parts is established, another sort of verisimilitude is required. The actions attributed to the personification should be consistent with its nature: "But given the fact that the impossible exists, such as a door talking, we must require that the rest be verisimilar, that is, the things which it is made to say the poet must make verisimilar… And this is the likeness to truth which is looked for in prosopopeia" (fol. 139v).
Precisely what kind of likeness to what truth is not made clear. Does he mean that a door must talk like a door or that it must conform to some familiar pattern of human behavior? The example is perhaps a poor one, for we do not know what the door might be supposed to represent. Bonciani establishes the important point that context may well determine the direction of personification fiction, but he suggests only that some likeness to some truth be followed. As a further example he cites the failure of the poet who makes the Archangel Michael laggard in executing divine commands, calling this a lie. But it is false only from a doctrinal point of view, and such a telescoping of conceptual truth and other sorts of verisimilitude is ambiguous. As we have seen, an earlier criticism cheerfully dispensed with surface verisimilitude so long as true doctrine or philosophy could be discovered behind the curtain of the fiction, but Bonciani belongs to an age seeking some form of the credible or possible in the texture of the fable as well, and he appears to be offering a mediation between the two viewpoints. Perhaps if he had extended his discussion he might have argued that the Archangel's behavior would not ring true to a Christian audience because his actions ought to conform to their assumptions about doctrine as well as the logic of human behavior.
Bonciani's main drive, however, is to isolate the nature and function of impossibility within the figure, and it is with this in mind that he proceeds to discriminate prosopopeia from other figures such as metaphor, allegory, and metonymy. When metaphor is continued and becomes allegory, the process by which it is continued is energia, and thus "actions will be attributed to insensate things" (fol. 142). Here he has arrived at a significant feature of allegory and one not generally acknowledged by his contem- poraries: not only does it involve an impossibility or incredibility but also an action derived from them. Yet he believes that only one kind of allegory, that which Quintilian calls mixed and which is not composed of one steadily extended metaphor, can be identified with prosopopeia (fol. 142v). His reasoning is that metaphor involves a transfer of sense, while prosopopeia does not. A personification may be impossible or incredible, but its name (as Love, Wrath, Error) is directly indicative of its meaning. When personification is set in action, a further impossibility occurs, for something which does not exist cannot act. But the action must be verisimilar in conforming to some pattern of truth outside, as Bonciani has already argued. Metaphor, on the other hand, preserves its integrity when continued into allegory by being self-consistent. The difference is illustrated by reference to Petrarch's "Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio" (Canzoniere, 189): "For undoubtedly this first verse would be considered allegorical. Precisely the contrary happens in prosopopeia, because in it the name of the principal element is not changed [i.e., is not a metaphor], so that it is necessary to maintain it unaltered, or else to maintain the same meaning and then attribute to it things impossible to its nature, not things which follow the same nature, as Petrarch does with the ship" (fol. 142v). Thus, Bonciani's criteria are not limited to the strict logical consistency demanded by Sassetti, for his understanding of prosopopeia bears a resemblance to allegory composed of mixed metaphor.
In spite of Bonciani's reference to criteria outside the poem as affecting credibility and impossibility within the poem, his argument suggests that he considers the literary construct as determining the specific character and function of the incredible and impossible. The beliefs of the audience, on which so many critics of the Cinquecento sought to base their understanding of what was true or false in literature, have been subordinated, as witnessed by his view that in a narrative context one of the distinctive features of prosopopeia is the way "things impossible to its nature" - not things impossible in themselves - are attributed to it. Finally, although Bonciani explicitly dissociates allegory and personification, one may infer from his classifications of the types of personification that he is talking about the standard furniture of Renaissance allegory. He lists human form assigned to celestial beings, passions of the soul, virtues, the arts and sciences, "cities and provinces feigned in the human figure," "brute animals speaking and reasoning," and the personification of insensate objects and ideas or concepts.
Such detailed and disinterested analysis of figurative form is rare, although the same critical terminology persists and there is no end to the making of distinctions. Agnolo Segni will serve as an example. He asserts that all discourse is the making of "idols" which imitate by analogy. The poetic "oration" employs fiction, especially marvels and miracles, and is therefore a form of lying. But there are two sorts of lying fable: one is the "false oration" which contains false things; the other is the false action. Segni considers poetry to consist in the false oration, since the action is contained within the oration. Once again there are two divisions for poetry. "One is that which has nothing in it but falsity. The other through its lies leads us to contemplate and know the truth" (pp. 17-19). The second is illustrated by Achilles' anger and abstention from battle. This is a possible occurrence and conforms to the truth, although it is not literally true. The first sort of fable, which Segni illustrates by the myth of Uranus's eating his sons and his castration by Saturn, he dislikes, although he admits that it may be allegorized occasionally (p. 21). But his treatment of the issue, besides using examples as extreme and obvious as this, confounds the naturally impossible with the doctrinally suspect (p. 22).
Yet Segni's approach, which yields far less interesting results than Bonciani's, is in the mainstream of thinking in the latter half of the Cin- quecento, insisting upon surface credibility as the means of justifying the lies of the poet. For Segni the legitimate poetic lie is the plausible one, the character or action which, even though invented, might have been; and significant meaning, he suggests, derives from the instructiveness of poetic persons and events. They point a moral or perhaps illustrate some typical lesson about human nature. Segni's concession that in some cases allegory may be a corrective to an impossible, absurd, or theologically distasteful fable is hardly enthusiastic. Such qualifications betray an increasing distrust of mythic literature, and only infrequently does a critic overtly welcome the incredible, like Alessandro Rinucci, who con- tends that the patent falseness of reference to the pagan gods may delight an audience, which "imagines that it is in ancient times, and the mind allows itself to be transported into times past as to a distant place."
The next group of theorists to be dealt with continues to attend to the concepts just reviewed, though unlike Sassetti and Bonciani they are not so closely concerned with matters of rhetorical or logical nicety. But they perpetuate the habit of measuring the poetic fable against the literal truth of fact or history and of exploring problems in the relevance of the poetic fiction to actuality and credibility. On the whole Lombardelli, Patrigi, Mazzoni, Beltrami, Bulgarini, Zinano, and finally Torquato Tasso mark no radical change in the direction of theorizing about allegory, but they are the main exemplars of a sustained concern for its place in literature at a time when Italian criticism was most anxious that poetry be essentially verisimilar and credible.
This anxiety permeates the fairly extensive qualifications of Orazio Lombardelli, whose Discorso Intorno a i Contrasti, che Si Fanno sopra La Gierusalemme Liberata (Basle, 1586) is a central document in the quarrel over Ariosto and Tasso. Lombardelli (p. 37) makes the usual dis- tinction between history ("an account of what has happened, preserving the circumstances of times, places, causes, accidents, and the like") and poetry ("a feigned narrative of things partly true and partly false, but all of them such as might possibly have happened"). He then enumerates the types of fable: true and verisimilar, true and not verisimilar, verisimilar and not true, not true and not verisimilar. He further subdivides the last type into three: the impossible (stones, plants, and animals personified, men metamorphosed into trees, and the like); the narration of "things which by common consent are unbelievable, such as certain nymphs consorting with men...; finally, others recount things whose vanity makes men laugh" (p. 39). But all discussion of allegory is avoided, and the omission is important. Apparently he does not consider Tasso's work allegorical, or perhaps for him allegory is unimportant. In any case, he remarks that the first two types of untrue, non- verisimilar fable, which numerous authors have employed, cannot provide poetic subjects. Thus, true poetry is inhospitable to the incredible, the non-verisimilar, and, we may infer, allegory.
Such an extreme position limits the canon of poetic types and materials far too severely for most theorists, even those who lend major importance to verisimilitude. At the other end of the critical spectrum is Francesco Patrizi, whose work offers a signal departure from that of the Aristotelian theorists. Challenging the concept that imitation is the heart of poetry, he substitutes the marvelous and contends that to have the marvelous you must have the incredible, though not exclusively. At the same time he is careful to distinguish poetry from history by their different relationships to literal or factual truth. Poetry, he believes, is essentially untrue and therefore non-imitative. As Weinberg says, "All notions of imitation and verisimilitude have been discredited, and in their place the marvelous has been enthroned as the fundamental characteristic of poetry" (ii, 772). Patrizi's theories allow ample room for allegory, which he lists as one of several manifestations of the marvelous.
The inclination to reject Aristotelian principles so drastically is rare in the latter decades of the sixteenth century, and at least on the surface such a rejection is not necessary to the critic who approves of allegory. Jacopo Mazzoni remains committed to most of the terms Patrizi discards, but he does dissociate allegory from the concrete, the true, and the verisimilar as the latter was normally understood. Setting out to defend the work of Dante, Mazzoni gave birth to one of the most exhaustive and comprehensive investigations of poetic theory in the Renaissance, and the tolerant welcome he allows the feigned and the impossible is one of the cornerstones of his elaborate critical edifice. Unlike Patrizi he affirms that poetry is an imitative art, but he accepts a wide variety of poetic image. The poetic image, he says, derives from the same power that produces dreams, the fantasy (p. 279). But this image must be credible, and the credible is of two kinds; the persuasive, which is proper to rhetoric, and the marvelous, which is proper to poetry (p. 754). Mazzoni has previotisly divided imitation into icastic (of things which are true) and fantastic (of things which are false or imagined), the latter predominating in poetry, although the icastic may also be present as representing concrete realities outside the work of art. This division is important to the argument because of the contention that fantastic imitation, which results from the free play of the poet's imagination and has only an accidental relationship to concrete reality, is nevertheless to be considered credible. It is obvious, Mazzoni contends, that many things in poetry, such as descriptions of monsters, are false, and these conceits "persuade us of their evident falsity by experience" (p. 578). Yet what is false and impossible on the literal level is true allegorically (p. 579), and Mazzoni extends this proposition to the statement that the "impossible credible… originates from the allegorical sense" (p. 807). As to what is credible and what is not, he admits that impossible fables have been literally believed by some writers, including Pliny, but he insists that monsters such as centaurs, chimeras, hydras, or the Phoenix are naturally and obviously impossible (pp. 602- 603). In enumerating the types of allegory, he cites an extraordinary number of examples to show that the methods of ancient and modern writers are identical (pp. 813 ff.). Furthermore, he is convinced of the allegorical intentions of these writers and repeats the commonplace that many antique fables contain Christian truth and that many impossibilities become credible through the power of God (pp. 873-877).
Mazzoni thus makes the incredible and the impossible so closely interdependent that they are virtually the same, in the sense that belief in the reality of something is meant to depend upon its existence in nature. The real difference is that the credible is extended to include conceptual and doctrinal truth, and it is by this extension that Mazzoni is able to support his argument for the false and impossible as poetic subjects at the same time as he declares his partiality for literature that is plausible: allegorical meaning is just as much a part of the credible actuality of art as representative imitation. And Mazzoni, though his main concern is to urge that what is clearly false in literature has a plausibility, is careful to notice something seldom, if ever, mentioned explicitly by his contemporaries. Their habit is to excuse monsters, myths, and marvels (if they tolerate them at all) by saying that they may be allegorized. Mazzoni, when he asserts that the "impossible credible… originates from the allegorical sense," points up the fact that this element in fiction is the vehicle for allegory, the chosen instrument to further the writer's meaning.
Criticism hostile to the work of Dante and hostile to allegory tends to understand more narrowly the terms Mazzoni uses. For Fabrizio Beltrami what is credible to the audience determines what is possible in literature: a naturally impossible event, such as Aeneas's descent into Hades, is artistically improper unless credible to the audience for whom Virgil wrote. Furthermore, the proposition that a consistent meaning may lurk beneath the surface is a violation of the Aristotelian rule of unity of action. On these grounds Beltrami disallows Tasso's argument for the allegory of Gierusalemme Liberata, criticizing it as an attempt to justify multiplicity of action. He concludes that allegory has no integral place in the structure of any worthy poem and that all too often allegorical meanings have been foisted on works whose authors had no such intention (fol. 66).
The appeal to a hard and fast reading of Aristotle is by no means uncommon among those diametrically opposed to Mazzoni's liberal acceptance of allegory. For example, Bellisario Bulgarini, drawing his argument from Aristotle and "invincible reason" (one senses that, like Homer and nature, they are the same), maintains that "the poet ought to create according to the truth, and... since the historian is bound to tell the truth about events which have happened ... so the poet must create according to verisimilitude." This emphasis upon the resemblances between the poet and the historian, rather than their differences, helps measure one of the major critical moods of the later Cinquecento. Even if the poet follows Aristotle and seeks to use the impossible, "everything which he wishes to deduce from the impossible must be accepted reasonably" (p. 63). For Bulgarini this excludes allegory: "And therefore in Dante there seems to be no virtue in that work, unless we wish to consider it wholly allegorical, in which case we should be outside the rules of Aristotle, according to which imitation of action is sought in poems of the type Dante's ought to be" (p. 42).
What we are witnessing in the essays of the 1580's and after is a polarization of attitudes, with resistance to the incredible and non-verisimilar powerful enough to occasion in reply elaborate and searching defenses of literary prac- tice both ancient and modern. Yet the main tendency is a hardening of the commitment to what was thought to be Aristotelian thinking. On two grounds much ancient poetry-as well as the fantasies of Dante and Ariosto-is found lacking. Surface credibility and logic in the construction of a plot (not to mention plausibility in characterization) are standards to which the poet's work must respond, and all too frequently the impossible or incredible involve supernatural occurrences difficult to square with Christian belief. Moreover, those who, like Beltrami, argue that literature should be aimed at a mass audience reject allegories which they assume to be obscure and enigmatic and thus unsuited to a meagerly cultivated public.
The evolution of a point of view grudging or hostile to allegory not only divides critics rather sharply, it may also draw the theorist who wishes to retain something of both positions into inconsistencies and ambiguities. It is this situation that makes Tasso's criticism instructive, for in response to repeated attacks from other critics over a period of years he attempts in part to suggest how imitative and figurative poetry may be joined together by a single rationale. To put it differently, Tasso's critical writings which deal with allegory seek to reconcile the views represented by Mazzoni on the one hand and Bulgarini on the other. Normally Mazzoni's elastic definition of credibility (the credible may include knowledge, precept, and doctrine beneath the patently incredible fable) and his belief in an imaginative imitation are too libertine for those closely wedded to the authority of Aristotle. And at the same time Bulgarini's narrower definitions of credibility and verisimilitude and his demand that the poet confine his subject matter entirely to history would banish Tasso's own work from the canons of "true" poetry. Thus Tasso's critical writings reveal an effort, however strained it may be, to effect a compromise.
Yet at first he seems utterly committed to Bulgarini's position. The heroic poem must be verisimilar, he argues in one of his earlier treatises, and this quality is best derived from a historically based narrative: "The material, which can also conveniently be called the argument, is either feigned… or it is taken from history. But it is much better, in my judgment, that it should be taken from history because the epic ought to seek everywhere what is verisimilar." But headds, "There is little delight in the poem which has nothing in it of the marvelous which so moves not only the souls of the ignorant but also of the educated" (i, 12). The problem, then, is by what means the marvelous, which is beyond natural law, may be accommodated. To use the gods of the gentiles is to rob the heroic poem of verisimilitude, and hence credibility, since they are plainly false and impossible. Tasso therefore urges the use of Christian miracles and marvels which, he thinks, are rendered verisimilar by the faith of the audience (i, 14).
In his Discorsi del Poema Eroico, published in 1594 but composed between 1575 and 1580, Tasso proposes an extensive reach for the epic. Both the concrete, natural world and "those [things] which the intellect is scarcely able to conceive" are treated by Homer and Virgil, and the arcane and difficult are covered with "the finest veil of allegory" (p. 89). Thus far the argument is conventional and the precise nature of this sort of allegory is unidentified, but as his critical theories develop Tasso begins to work out more detailed concepts of the relationship of allegory to verisimilitude. In the two discourses just touched on he fails to indicate whether the marvelous is the formal vehicle for the "veil of allegory," although his illustrations associate the marvelous with the naturally impossible.
Tasso classifies and explains the functions of imitation and allegory in Allegoria del Poema, an essay printed in 1581 with Gierusalemme Liberata. Although the terms have changed, imitation, like the verisimilar, is concerned with concrete reality believably presented. It is "the semblance and image of human life." What imitation offers to the senses, allegory understands figuratively and conceptually: in dealing with customs, affections, or discourses of the soul, imitation represents their consequences in action; allegory searches out their "intrinsic essence." Tasso thus understands allegory as the interpretation of the very images which embody the imitative aspect of poetry and seems to veer drastically away from the views of his contemporaries for whom the fundamental opposition of the credible, verisimilar surface of fiction to allegory is not even a point of debate. Normally, as I have shown, it is assumed that allegory is accompanied by the incredible and non-verisimilar. But, without trying to argue that the impossible or incredible are in any way included in his concept of imitation, Tasso arbitrarily assumes a comprehensive, essentially Platonic connection between the experience of the senses and the inner life of man, which allows him to read his own work as the endeavor of the soul toward civil and spiritual felicity.
The problem of the true and the false in poetry enters his line of vision in Apologia in Difesa della sua Gierusalemme Liberata (Ferrara, 1585), where he also returns to the question of the marvelous. His premise is still that "imitation is of things in- sofar as they exist," the non-existent being the concern of sophists (sig. B7). The marvelous differs from the non-existent or impossible in having an occult cause, and with this distinction established Tasso proceeds to defend his own practice: "All the incantations, fashioned to exclude machinery [the deus ex machina], besides containing many allegories, can be believed... What is done by the Wizard is possible, and these things are particularly worthy of the marvelous because they are linked to the fable" (sigs. D1v- D2v). Here is more than a hint that Tasso is seeking to fortify his use of the supernatural and the nominally impossible by reference to allegory as well as to a causality acceptable to Christian belief, and we can sense behind his words a line of thinking that is beginning to divorce allegory from the ordinary and natural, the objects of imitation.
This tendency is clearer in a work published the following year entitled Risposta a'l Discorso del Sig. Oratio Lombardelli. Lombardelli had defended Tasso on grounds the latter was reluctant to accept, namely that poetry is fundamentally a false narrative. This view distinguishes history and poetry in the usual way: the subject matter of the one is true and of the other false. Tasso continues to argue that poetry is characterized by imitative method and that it ought to be verisimilar and credible. In pursuing this course he reverts to an older point of view, even as he insists that in poetry "allegory is mingled with history," for like Boccaccio he cites patristic authority to refute the charge of lying: "And Demetrius once said that allegory is an abundant absurdity and that mysteries are spoken in allegory, but St. Augustine said most effectively of all that allegory is not false because it has meaning. Therefore, I am not a falsifier but a poet" (p. 21). Tasso was sensitive enough on this point to revise his poem rather drastically, and in explanation he finally acknowledges a crucial difference between the historical and verisimilar on one side and the marvelous on the other. In Del Giudizio sovra la sua Gerusalemme da lui Medesimo Riformata (1595) he is still anxious to maintain that poetry mingles the true and the marvelous, and he repeats his citation of Augustine to the effect that allegory lends significance to the otherwise false or vain. But he has made his poem more fundamentally historical: "For this reason in the revision of my fable I sought to bring closer to truth what was originally not conformable to history. And to history I added allegory so as not to leave any empty place in the world and nature of things." What this means is not at once apparent. In one place Tasso insists that all parts of his poem can be interpreted allegorically (i, 459), but he discloses his position more candidly when he remarks: "I use allegory in those parts of my poem where I am farthest from history, suppos- ing that where the literal sense ceases, it ought to supply the allegorical and other senses" (i, 470- 471).
Thus Tasso has maneuvered his thinking from a position that attempts to force the allegorical and the verisimilar into the same kind of fiction to one which recognizes their essential difference. But his accommodation of the historical and the allegorical as diverse but complementary aspects of the same poem is an uneasy one. It seems to say rather defensively that allegory is little more than a convenience to keep poetry respectable on the few occasions when its grip on history and verisimilitude is relaxed. Allegory, as he con- cedes, is "added" to history; it is no longer the fundamental ingredient it had been for Boccac- cio. Tasso's halting acceptance of the incredible or impossible is qualified and strained, and his frequent retreat to patristic judgment reveals the pressure that the arguments for a thoroughly verisimilar and credible poetic had accumulated by the end of the sixteenth century.
If in the minds of the Italian critics of the late Cinquecento the value of allegory has suffered a decay, the discussions to which it was submitted nevertheless demonstrate that the general asso- ciation of allegory with the incredible and the non-verisimilar is continued. Whether or not critics liked allegory, they normally deviated very little from this perception. At the same time one might wish that the perception were exploited more fruitfully than it was. Boccaccio gives substantial weight to the effort to understand the figurative element in literature on the level of the whole fiction as well as on the level of rhetorical detail. In addition, he anticipates the struggle to grasp how the incredible and the plausible, the impossible and the possible, the "true" and the "false," and their relative mixtures are concerned with the ways in which liter- ature generates meaning. After him Bonciani is the most suggestive of the critics, in spite of his confusions, for he is careful not only to identify the impossible and the verisimilar but also to indicate how they work together in a figurative structure. Tasso's painfully self-justifying theories, although they reveal much about the critical problems of his time, do not reach this far. Moreover, one serious limitation constrains the critical speculation of the Cinquecento: the persistent resort to criteria external to literature for evaluating the relevance and character of poetic subject matter. Truth to nature or appeals to the belief of the audience could not really settle important questions of form as decisively as critics hoped, and the nearly total reliance on one or both of these standards obviates a more profound grasp of allegorical method.
Yet the sum of Italian Renaissance theorizing about allegory is a good deal more useful than these rather obvious limitations would indicate. First, it blocks out the areas within which distinctions between imitative and figurative art could be made and their relationships pondered. Second, it develops classifications for the true and the false, differentiating between fidelity to nature and true doctrine (even though the two were often confused) on the one hand, and the deliberately incredible on the other. Third, there is an earnest attempt to explore the basis for deciding what is incredible and what is not, coupled with a partial recognition that the viewpoint of the audience may make judgment of this issue fluid. Finally, even though one may view the criticism of the later Cinquecento as a struggle to escape from allegory as the major avenue to instructive meaning in poetry, it is yet clear that there is an established recognition that his- torical, believable materials are not the medium of allegory, that allegory is almost invariably associated with the false, the impossible, the incredible (though these may be matters of degree), and that these very qualities in allegorical literature may account for or permit the meanings it declares. The more familiar rhetorical and exegetical definitions with which we began may describe linguistic function and thematic richness; awareness of the incredible fable provides at least a rudimentary understanding of how alle- gory proceeds.

Date: 2021-12-22