Autore: Daniel J. Ransom
Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society
[This paper was presented at the meeting of the third Ohio Conference on Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies at Cleveland, Ohio, 13 October 1976]
In Paradiso II Dante discourages all from following his exalted narrative except those who have lifted up their necks "per tempo al pan de li angeli." The bread of angels is a biblical, and hence theological, metaphor borrowed from Psalm 77, and, as Bruno Nardi has pointed out, medieval exegetes consistently interpret it as a figure for Christ. Moreover, since Christ is Wisdom, critics have universally agreed that, in the context of the Paradiso, the "pan de li angeli" signifies divine knowledge. Thus the reference is a kind of sign-post to inform us that the Paradiso will be an excursion into theology, into a realm where metaphor and reality seem to be coextensive. But this is not the sole, nor even the primary function of the allusion; Dante had used the metaphor earlier in his Convivio (I, i, 7), and in effect he is alluding to his own text as well as to the biblical source. What is the relationship between these two passages, and what significance does it have for Dante’s use of the biblical phrase in the Paradiso? Here the critics have failed to come to an agreement, and if we are to understand the import of the phrase in Dante's Comedy, we must return to the Convivio and try to discover its function in Dante's literary strategy there.
The Convivio is both a philosophical treatise and a literary document. In it Dante correlates two distinct problems: the relative value of two categories of knowledge, theological and philosophical, and the validity of two modes of symbolic language, the theological and the poetic. The connection between theological thought and the allegory of theologians is clear enough, and it had been accepted in biblical exegesis even before St. Augustine. On the other hand, the relationship between philosophical knowledge and poetic allegory is more problematical. For Dante, it seems to have been analogous to the theory behind biblical exegesis. However, St. Thomas Aquinas thought otherwise. In his commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences he says:
poetica… minimum continet veritatis;… poetica scientia est de his quae propter defectum veritatis non possunt a ratione capi; unde oportet quod quasi quibusdam similitudinibus ratio seducatur. In his Summa Theologiae he adds: Procedere autem per similitudines varias et repraesentationes, est proprium poeticae, quae est infima inter omnes doctrinas;… poeta utitur metaphoris propter repraesentationem: repraesentatio enim naturaliter homini delectabilis est. Sed sacra doctrina utitur metaphoris propter neces- sitatem et utilitatem.
In the Convivio, Dante tries to refute Thomas' position in practice if not by theory, and in the first tractate, where Dante develops the controlling metaphor of the book and its title, he employs an extraordinary device to do so. There Dante supports his poetic allegory with allusions to the Bible, evoking the similarities to suggest an essential likeness between the two kinds of allegory. The procedure is sophisticated, if not to say sophistical, and warrants close examination.
The governing metaphor of the Convivio, the feast of knowledge, has its reminiscence in Ezechiel 3:1, where God commands the prophet to “eat this book and go, speak to the children of Israel.” However, the first concrete reference to a biblical phrase is the mention of "il pane de li angeli" in the first chapter of the first tractate." As I have noted, this recalls Psalm 77:24-25:
Et pluit illis manna ad manducandum,
Et panem caeli dedit eis.
Panem angelorum manducavit homo;
Cibaria misit eis in abundantia.
We see first of all that Dante has extrapolated "pane de li angeli" from a context where there is a direct allusion (manna) to the narrative paradigm that he will employ in the Divine Comedy - Exodus. However, there is no Exodus in the Convivio, and this fact complicates the meaning of the borrowed phrase. The standard glosses on these lines are those in the Glossa Ordinaria and in Hugh of St. Cher's commentary. The former states:
Panis ceIi. Cassiodorus. Non aliter quam Christus de quo celestes, id est Angeli reficiuntur eius contemplatione et hunc panem, id est verbum quo grandi cibo pascuntur Angeli per carnem factum.
Hugh of St. Cher makes the same identification on two levels of interpretation. For the literal he says: "Vel dicitur panis Angelorum, quia ministerio Angelorum paratus: vel quia significat Christum, qui est panis Angelorum." Allegorically, "Panem Angelorum manducavit homo, qui factus ad imaginem, and similitudinem Dei servat earn. Panis Angelorum Christus est." An early gloss is that of St. Augustine:
In sublimibus thronis, in partibus coelorum, in his quae supra coelos sunt, videtur Verbum ab Angelis, et gaudetur: et manducatur, et permanet. Sed ut panem Angelorum manducaret homo, Dominus Angelorum factus est homo. Haec est salus nostra: medicina infirmorum, cibus sanorum.
In all these readings, the panis angelorum is not what most students of the Convivio have understood Dante to mean by the phrase. According to the authoritative and heavily annotated edition by G. Busnelli and G. Vandelli, the epithet signifies "la sapienza e la scienza filosofica e teologica." Bruno Nardi has maintained that it represents divine wisdom because, if the Convivio is a philosophical treatise, still philosophy and theology have the same object of contemplation (eternal truth) and differ only in their capacity to contemplate it. Another critic, Paolo Pecoraro, claims that Dante's use of the metaphor confuses and mixes together natural and supernatural wisdom. Thus have scholars tried to reconcile the philosophical tone of the Convivio with the independent theological meaning of the biblical metaphor. However, their views do not take into account Dante's concern with the separation of spiritual and secular goals and activities, a concern which Etienne Gilson has vigorously demonstrated in his book Dante and Philosophy.
Moreover, Gilson has insisted that the "pane de li angeli" does not signify Theology:
From this would follow two equally unacceptable consequences: one, that the Convivio was a work of theology, whereas Dante there constantly invokes Dame Philosophy and celebrates her cult; the other, that Dante had betrayed Theology in writing a book to initiate in that science those who have not had the time or the means to study it.
Clearly Gilson is right. Dante wants to promulgate knowledge, but in the Convivio he is interested in secular wisdom, not revelation. Hugh of St. Cher's tropological gloss to "panem angelorum" provides a provocative insight to the difference between the two:
Panis iste Angelorum bonus est, sed tamen non sufficit quia cito potest sumi, id est, cito potest sciri Theologia, ideo prius volo impleri alleis and porris Aegypti, id est, scientiis saecularibus.
Dante has not yet begun his Exodus, his journey to God in the Commedia, and he, too, prefers to be filled first with "alleis and porris Aegypti, id est, scientiis saecularibus." And these are the same viands that he serves in the Convivio, nor is there need to invoke the Holy Spirit before such a meal. Yet, Dante chooses to call this food the bread of angels and those who partake of it "beati." Are we to suppose that he was unaware of the commonplace interpretations? He must have known that Christ is the panis angelorum, the Word Incarnate, the wisdom of God. These are not random identifications arbitrarily drawn together. We find them woven into St. Augustine's Enarratio in Psalmum CXXXIV where he says:
Quid suauius pane angelorum? Quomodo non est suauis Dominus, quando panem angelorum manducauit homo? Non enim aliunde uiuit homo, et aliunde uiuit angelus. Ipsa est ueritas, ipsa est sapientia, ipsa est uirtus Dei: sed quomodo ea perfruuntur angeli, tu non potes. Illi enim quomodo perfruuntur? Sicuti est: In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum eratapud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum per quod facta sunt omnia. Tu autem quomodo contingis? Quia Verbum caro factum est, et habitauit in nobis. Vt enim panem angelorum manducaret homo, Creator angelorum factus est homo.
It seems, then, that Dante is borrowing the rhetorical force of the biblical phrase, but not its substance. That is, he appropriates a scriptural metaphor, a metaphor for which the tenor and vehicle are equally substantial (Christ is Wisdom and the eucharistic bread), and uses it to represent an ordinary metaphorical relationship. Secular wisdom can be bread only by poetical fiat; it is a fiction, not a fact.
The artistic, or rather the artificial quality of the fiction soon becomes manifest. To begin with, Dante never explicitly identifies his canzoni with the panis angelorum. In fact, it is not entirely clear that the delicacy has been included in his menu. To be sure, the "beati" of the Convivio do nourish themselves upon that bread, but Dante does not say that they eat no other food. Nor does he specifiy what he gathers from them. He simply states: "ricolgo di quello che da loro cade" (I, i, 10). Nonetheless, the implication is that the canzoni are angel bread crumbs, tidbits which Dante has already shown to the people who do not have the opportunity to leave the field and sup at the feet of philosophers. And on their behalf he proposes to prepare a feast which will duplicate, insofar as it can, that of the "beati. " However, the canzoni "aveano d'alcuna oscuritade ombra, si che a molti loro bellezza piu che loro bontade era in grado” (I, i, 14), so Dante promises to provide bread, that is "la presente disposizione," which "sara la luce, la quale ogni colore di loro sentenza fara parvente” (I, i, 15). Here Dante seems to change metaphors in midstream. The canzoni are no longer bread but will be referred to henceforth as vivanda which will be served with bread. Moreover, the new metaphor breaks down immediately. How can food have a shadow of some obscurity? How can bread illuminate? The literal level has become transparent. Indeed, the metaphor is already an imitation of a metaphor and so insubstantial that it cannot exist without the allegory. That is, the literal level makes no sense. Joseph Mazzeo describes the problem as follows:
Dante there [in the Convivio] maintains that one of the differences between theological allegory and poetic allegory is that the former may be true in both the literal and allegorical meanings whereas the latter is true only in the allegorical sense. The poet invents stories out of his head, and they can thus be considered only as beautiful lies meant, however, to refer to some truth of a moral nature. There is thus a tendency for the allegorical level to cancel out the literal level, for the truth lies in the former alone. This tendency works against another one, that of having the allegorical meaning complete the literal meaning. I think that the problem of poetic truth conceived as the problem of allegory presented Dante with the choice of "either/or" when what he seemed to want in his actual commentary was "both."
Thus, unlike the feast of the "beati," Dante's Convivio offers no panis angelnrum but a different kind of bread baked in Dante's own ovens. In effect, he substitutes an actual allegory of poets for a potential allegory of theologians (a distinction that Dante will discuss in the second book of his treatise).
This, then, is Dante's polemical answer to St. Thomas. Since biblical metaphor is necessary for an understanding of theological truth, by adapting it to a "poetic" and philosophical context, Dante implies that the same is true for poetic metaphor vis-a-vis philosophy. Consequently, the theological implications of panis angelorum are not relevant to Dante's use of the term in the Convivio, though Dante must have been aware of those implications. Instead, these hover over his text and lend it a spurious significance. Or, to put it another way, because the bread of angels has substance only in its proper theological context, when Dante, having already taken it out of that context, replaces it with bread of his own metaphorical baking, he is actually replacing a ghost with its shadow. At the same time, however, the theological rhetoric continues at the literal level and serves to cover his metaphor and give it an ostensibly tangible reality. One can see what the result of this procedure must be. In the allegory of the Convivio, theology is the shell and metaphor the kernel; break away the shell and the nutriment disappears.
The "nut-and-shell" description of allegory, a commonplace in medieval literary theory, is certainly relevant to the Convivio. In the first chapter of the second book, Dante explains allegory in comparable terms, and at the end of Book I, he will evoke the idea in a highly allusive way. Once again, bread will be the crucial metaphor, and an examination of Dante's manipulation of that metaphor should clarify and confirm the purpose behind his use of the phrase panis angelorum. That is, it should throw light, just as Dante has promised, on the obscure significance of the "pane de li angeli."
In Tractate I, at the beginning of chapter 5, Dante apologizes for what he says to be the substance of his bread:
Poi che purgato e questo pane de le macule accidentali, rimane ad escusare lui da una sustanziale, cioe da l'essere vulgare e non latino; che per similitudine dire si puo di biado e non di frumento (I, v, 1; my emphasis).
Here Dante proceeds explicitly in the manner of poets: to recall St. Thomas's words, "per similitudines.'; This is the only instance where Dante will draw attention to the artificiality of his poetic devices - and for good reason. The "pane di biado" is a merely digressive metaphor which allows Dante to introduce explanations for his decision to write in Italian. However, the “real” or less artificial substance of his bread is something entirely different. At the end of the first tractate, in what has been called "una breve coda alia vera e proprio chiusa, quasi una seconda chiusa," Dante identifies the grain in order to draw an analogy between his bread and the loaves multiplied by Christ on the shores of Galilee: "Questo sara quello pane orzato del quale si satolleranno migliaia, e a me ne soperchieranno le sporte piene" (I, xiii, 12). Critics have wondered whether the "pane di biado" and the "pane orzato" refer to the same thing, or perhaps to different aspects of the same thing. Busnelli, for example, believes that the barley bread must refer to the language in which the commentary was written. Carlo Curto thinks it represents a new knowledge drawn from the Gospel. However, to understand what Dante may have meant by such an allusion, we must learn how he and his contemporaries understood the biblical event which he recalls. To do this, we must turn again to the commentaries.
In the gospel story (John 6:1-15) five loaves are multiplied; how- ever, Dante is not interested in the number (which consistently is said to represent the Pentateuch) but the kind. And from at least as far back as Augustine, commentators have explained the fact that the bread is made of barley by interpreting it as a symbol for biblical allegory. For example, in the Glossa Ordinaria we find: "Medulla hordei, tenacissima palea et vix separabili tegitur, sic spiritualis sensus." Thus, the text contains, among other things, an allegory which describes the nature of allegory. This, I take it, is at least part of the reason why Dante employs the analogy. Of course, Dante makes it clear that he has chosen to use the allegory of poets in the Convivio, but he wants his readers to take it as seriously as the allegory of the theologians. The two are much the same, especially in Dante's imitation where he virtually equates the biblical metaphor with his own and adopts its significance to enhance the substantiality of his poetic allegory.
But barley sustains more than one relevant interpretation. A less common gloss, but one that is fairly widespread nonetheless, is that which Busnelli cites to support his argument that the bread represents the vernacular: "la Glossa ordinaria dice 'cibus est rudium' (iumentorum)." Indeed, this does provide a basis for the metaphor in which the vulgar tongue becomes "pane di biado." However, Dante may be moving beyond that particular relationship when he says that the bread is made of barley. In fact, once we learn the import of the gloss, which is not explained in the Glossa Ordinaria, a different view of the metaphor comes to light. Wernerus II of Kussenberg elucidates the observation as follows:
Panes vero hordeacei fuerunt, qui cibus est rusticorum, quia rudibus auditoribus quasi grossiora committenda sunt praecepta. Animalis enim homo non percipit ea quae sunt spiritus Dei.
We may recall that Dante prepares his banquet for "quelli che con le pecore hanno comune cibo [...] quelli che in bestiale pastura veggiono erba e ghiande sen gire mangiando” (I, i, 7-8). The man who partakes of Christ's barley loaves is said to be animalis; the guests at Dante's banquet are associated with the term bestiale. The similarity here, not shared with the gospel narrative, suggests that Dante was indeed influenced by the exegetical analyses and that he used these as a foil to his allegory along with the biblical texts which they explicated. The analogy between Dante's banquet and the miracle of the loaves and fishes is made ever the closer. Dante is ever the more like Christ. He does not feed the people their own language but such knowledge as they might savor, "praecepta grossiora," as it were.
Busnelli also objects to the notion that Dante would want the left-overs of his own commentary:
Se avesse qui avuto in pensiero il solo suo commento alle canzoni, non avrebbe senso il dire 'a me ne soperchieranno (cioè sopravanzeranno) le sporte piene.' Sporte di commento forse? È ridicolo il solo pensarlo.
Rather, Busnelli argues, because Dante will have demonstrated the utility and nobility of the vernacular, he will have better advantage to avail himself of the vulgar tongue in the future. This is what he gets back from his commentary. The problem with Busnelli's view is that it fails to recognize the importance of the correspondence that Dante makes between his rhetoric and the biblical event. Christ is intent on teaching; so too is Dante (the vernacular is merely auxiliary and Dante's promotion of it necessarily of secondary importance). And the commentaries are almost unanimous in their interpretation of the remaining pieces of bread. Again, the Glossa Ordinaria is representative: "Fragmenta, sunt secretiora, quae com- munis non capit populus. Haimo of Auxerre develops this idea more fully:
Quod ergo plebeia multitudo non capit, Dominus apostolis ut collegerent praecepit: quia obscuriores sententias, quas simplex multitudo capere non potest, magistri Ecclesiae, episcopi scilicet et sacerdotes, in propriis pectoribus debent recondere.
We must remember that Dante feels obliged to apologize for the difficulty of his commentary. Apparently, Dante believes that his bread, his discourse and his expounding of a text, will not be entirely consumed and understood. Likewise, the miraculous gospel bread "quern frangit Jesus, mystice quidem Dei verbum est, et sermo de Christo, qui dum dividitur augetur." St. Augustine explains that the breaking of the bread is a figure for the interpreting of a text:
Et frangi iussit panes; frangendo multiplicati sunt. Nihil uerius. Quinque enim illi libri Moysi, quam multos libros, cum exponuntur, tamquam frangendo, id est disserendo, fecerunt?
Thus, both Christ and Dante are interpreters of texts. Dante, a poet, a source and efficient cause of the allegory of poets, depicts himself to be very much like Christ, the maker, the source and efficient cause of the allegory of theologians. The corollary is that Dante wants to establish an equally close analogy between the allegory of poets and the allegory of theologians.
Dante, then, adopts the allegory of poets in the Convivio but makes its fiction analogous to biblical facts which sustain an allegory of theologians. Thus, he tries to give the allegory of poets a kind of reality; he suggests that it is more than a fable. The irony is that he simultaneously implies that without the analogies to biblical metaphors, his poetic metaphors would be arbitrary and without substance. Thus, his method is self-defeating and enervates his attempt to refute St. Thomas's opinion that metaphor has no place in philosophy. Dante seems to capitulate when he abandons the Convivio. He is, however, still convinced that symbolic language is essential to understanding. Consequently, he will go beyond phi- losophy and write his own Summa Theologica, the Divine Comedy.
Let us return then to Canto II of the Paradiso. There, as we remember, Dante warns those listeners who are in a "piccioletta barca" to turn back lest, losing sight of his "legno," they should remain lost. "L'acqua ch’io prendo," Dante says, "gia mai non si corse. " However, he does not discourage everyone:
Voialtri pochi che drizzaste il collo
per tempo al pan de li angeli, del quale
vivesi qui ma non sen vien satollo,
metter potete ben per l'alto sale
(Par. II, 10-14)
Aside from the obvious change in circumstances, we may note two other differences in the context. First, Dante says that these waters have never been crossed before, hence they cannot be the philosophical deep which he sailed in the Convivio:
Poi che, proemialmente ragionando, me ministro, e lo mio pane ne lo precedente trattato con sufficienza preparato, lo tempo chiama e domanda la mia nave uscir di porto; per che, dirizzato l'artimone de la ragione a l'ora del mio desiderio, entro in pelago con isperanza di dolce cammino e di salutevole porto e laudabile ne la fine de la mia cena. (II, i, 1)
Secondly, the bread is such that men never come from it satisfied. Thus, it is rather unlike that knowledge proffered in the Convivio, for there Dante says that "nel desiderare de la scienza successivamente finiscono li desiderii e viensi a perfezione" (IV, xiii, 5). Nevertheless, Dante seems to be traversing the same shipping lanes as in the Convivio. When he asks Beatrice what the dark marks of the moon might be, he is raising a problem that he has already dealt with in the Convivio. Beatrice, after remarking that "la ragione ha corte l'ali" (57), asks Dante what he thinks. His answer, "credo che fanno i corpi rari e densi" (60), echoes the opinion which he set forth in the second tractate of the Convivio: "non e altro che raritade del suo corpo, a la quale non possono terminare li raggi del sole e ripercuotersi cosi come ne l'altre parti" (II, xiii, 9). Beatrice tells Dante that he is quite wrong and provides dialectical and experi- mental refutations of his opinion. She then sets forth the true ex- planation of the moon spots, one based on spiritual realities. The implication is that natural reason in the sublunar world will not suffice in a search for truth, even when the truth is apparently a philosophical one. Reason is efficacious only when illumined by a higher order of understanding. Thus, Canto II is a critique of reason and a retraction of a conclusion obtained by it.
This retraction is an obvious one, and it should serve to remind us that throughout the Comedy Dante disavows many of his earlier intellectual positions (another obvious example is Dante's rearrangement of the hierarchy of angels in Paradiso XXVIII, where he changes the order from that which he had followed in Convivio II, v). Also, we ought to be aware that Dante, as John Freccero has pointed out, sometimes recants in very subtle ways. For example, in Canto V of the Inferno Dante implicitly rejects his erotic love poetry when the condemned soul of Francesca echoes lines from stil novistic verse. In Purgatorio II Cato rebukes the souls enrapt by Casella's musical rendering of Dante's song to philosophy, a canzone from the third book of the Convivio. Thus, by changing the contexts of lines written earlier in his career, Dante disclaims the original context of those lines.
Is this true for the "pan de li angeli"? Let us turn to the beginning of Paradiso XXIV where Dante redescribes the environment in which this bread is found. There Beatrice exclaims to the truly blessed:
"O sodalizio eletto a la gran cena
del benedetto Agnello, il qual vi ciba
si, che la Vostra voglia e sempre piena,
se per grazia di Dio questi preliba
di quel che cade de la vostra mensa,
prima che morte tempo li prescriba,
ponete mente a l'affezione immensa
e roratelo alquanto: voi bevete
sempre del fonte onde vien quel ch'ei pensa."
In the Convivio Dante flees from the "bestiale pastura" in order to sit at the feet of those seated at the "beata mensa" and to gather "di quello che da loro cade." Is this flight comparable to that ascent which brings Dante to the celestial feast where by the grace of God, before death prescribes the time for him, he foretastes "di quel che cade de la mensa"? I think our answer must be in the negative. Is it likely, therefore, that the bread of angels in Paradise is the food of philosophers on earth? Again, I think not. Rather, in the Paradiso the "pan de li angeli" reacquires its theological substance. Hence, the phrase is a subtle palinode, Dante's rewriting of an earlier misguided appropriation of the biblical metaphor. What was in the Convivio food for thought becomes once again food for the soul.