Biblical Citation in Dante's "Divine Comedy" [Christopher Kleinhenz]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Christopher Kleinhenz

Tratto da: Annali d'Italianistica

Numero: 8

Anno: 1990

Pagine: 346-359

In his study The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel, Herman Meyer asks the following questions: “Can the quotation, despite its natural limitations, play an essential role in the total structure of a narrative work? Are quotations anything more than simply the raisins in the cake, and can their aesthetic effect go beyond the momentary delight that the raisins offer the palate?” (4) Meyer’s response is, as could be expected from the title of his study, a resounding “yes.” For the past several years I have, to use Meyer’s phrase, been examining the “raisins” in Dante's delicious, finely textured, and highly caloric panettone in order to evaluate their intrinsic nature and to determine how and what they contribute to our appreciation of his poetic pièce de résistance.
My current research has been focused on the general relationship between the Divine Comedy and the Bible and, particularly, on the use Dante makes of the Bible in his poem through the process I prefer to call “biblical citation” or the “poetics of citation.” The rich and complex relationship between Dante and the Bible has been studied by numerous critics over the last century, and even the earliest commentators on the poem (Guido da Pisa, Pietro di Dante, Boccaccio, et al.) were sensitive to those passages which displayed Scriptural origin or influence. It is, of course, impossible to work on the Divine Comedy without acknowledging one’s indebtedness to the long and distinguished tradition of Dante scholarship; and, acutely aware of the vast amount of criticism that has accumulated over the centuries, I readily admit that my own work necessarily builds on firm foundations laid by numerous scholars. Earlier studies have provided scholars with a catalogue (albeit incomplete) of those passages (some three-hundred) in the Comedy which betray definite origin in or parallels with the Bible (Moore, Cavedoni, Groppi, et al.), while others have examined the presence of biblical language in Dante (Marzot). Other critics have treated the general question of Dante and the Bible in excellent and insightful studies directed toward the elucidation of other, though no less pertinent, matters, such as allegory (Singleton, Hollander, Mazzotta, Giannantonio, Pépin, Sarolli), figural realism (Auerbach), typology (Charity, Chydenius), prophecy (Mineo), theological poetics (Freccero), Church liturgy (Mastrobuono), and iconography {Fallani, Cassell). Many others have dealt with biblical influences on and/or presences in specific episodes in the Comedy. However, in my view, these numerous studies do not consider adequately the rich and dynamic interplay between the Divine Comedy and the Bible which Dante so painstakingly established and which we may recapture through an understanding and investigation of his “poetics of citation.”
While this phrase, which is obviously akin to others such as “poetics of allusion,” may be used to describe any example of Dante’s incorporation of another text — classical, biblical, vernacular — within his own, I am, for the purposes of this study, limiting myself to those instances of biblical citation. Dante the Poet’s relationship to other texts is varied. He is in many ways a mediator of other texts — a scribe, a translator, an editor, an interpreter — but he is not only a mediator or compiler; he is a poet and a prophet as well, drawing inspiration from these other texts and developing and refining through them his own distinctive poetic voice.
By “poetics of citation” I refer to Dante”s technique of evoking a particular word, verse, or passage in the Bible through the use of an exact or modified version of the Latin text or an Italian translation or paraphrase of the Vulgate within his own text. The application of this term goes far beyond its seemingly narrow textual limits; indeed, through use of scriptural reference Dante not only invokes the text of the Bible, but also evokes the written and visual traditions that are attached to that specific text. Thus, while Dante uses some scriptural citations simply for their immediate evocative value, he employs many others whose function in the text may be fully understood only through a careful consideration of these various sources, analogues and materials, and their associations and interconnections. My research, therefore, is directed toward shedding some light 1) on the inventive process that was at work in Dante’s mind when he was writing his masterpiece and 2) on the sort of assimilative process the poet expected on the part of his reader. The “poetics of citation” represents the employment both of direct references that rely on earlier authors (= authorities) and of references which have a certain metaphorical allusiveness that invokes no less directly those same texts. We might well call this technique the “poetics of allusion” or the “poetics of reference” or even — and this perhaps best expresses the goal toward which Dante was striving — the ‘poetics of authority.” Nevertheless, I prefer to think of this procedure in decidedly textual terms, which, for me at least, the word “citation” conveys best. It expresses Dante’s desire for his text to be a proclamation of his personal, yet universal vision, an announcement which will serve to correct the “evil ways of the world,” the “mondo che mal vive” (Purg. 32:103), a message which derives its moral and spiritual force precisely because it is rooted in and appeals to the authority of Holy Scripture, such that the Comedy itself becomes a sort of “new scripture.”
In line with my previous work on this subject, I would like to examine a few specific episodes and/or passages so that we may begin to understand how Dante uses the biblical text as an integral part of his own text and to discover how meaning in the Comedy may be either generated or enhanced by a consideration of the larger referential context provided by the biblical tradition.
Biblical citations in the Comedy take several forms. They may be exact, modified, or incomplete versions of the Latin text of the Vulgate or Italian translations or paraphrases thereof. These citations may be long or short, several lines, an entire verse or even a single word, just enough to trigger a response in the mind of the reader, to evoke that other text and its context and meaning. One example of exact citation from the Vulgate is the verse from Matthew — “Venite benedicti Patris mei” (Matthew 25:34) — with which Christ will summon the blessed at the time of the Last Judgment. Dante incorporates these exact words in Purgatory 27:58, where the angel addresses them to Dante the Pilgrim, Virgil, and Statius after their passage through the wall of fire on the seventh terrace and prior to their admittance to the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain. Once in the garden the three wayfarers will witness the triumphal procession of the Church, which culminates in the advent of Beatrice who comes as Christ will come at the end of time. The use of the verse from Matthew at this crucial juncture — after purification and before entry to Eden — recalls to the reader the final advent and office of Christ, thus setting the stage for the analogous advent of Beatrice and focusing attention on her pronouncement of judgment on Dante the Pilgrim.
On at least one occasion Dante clearly points to the glossing function of the biblical citation. During his third night on the Mountain of Purgatory and just before his entry in the earthly paradise, Dante the Pilgrim has his third prophetic dream, in which the allegory of the active and the contemplative life is presented through the traditional Old Testament figures of Leah and Rachel. Leah who sings and gathers flowers represents the active life; Rachel who sits constantly before her mirror meditating upon her own image symbolizes the contemplative life. In the dream Leah clarifies the meaning by saying: “‘lei lo vedere e me l’ovrare appaga’” (27:108). The prophetic potential of this early morning dream is realized when Dante, taking his first steps in the garden, sees a lady — Matelda — gathering flowers and singing. The garden of Eden is, of course, a place of paradoxes, being at once the place of original sin, man's fall, and a wondrously attractive and desirable /ocus amoenus. Recognizing that her apparent happiness in this ambiguous place could puzzle the Pilgrim, Matelda advises him to consider the ninety-first Psalm — identified here by the single word “Delectasti” — to discover the reason:

“Voi siete nuovi, e forse perch'io rido”,
cominciò ella, “in questo luogo eletto
a l’umana natura per suo nido,

maravigliando tienvi alcun sospetto;
ma luce rende il salmo Delectasti,
che puote disnebbiar vostro intelletto”.
(Purg. 28:76-81)

The explicit, telegraphic reference sets in motion the mental process that recalls the precise verses of the Psalm:

5. Quia delectasti me, Domine, in factura tua; Et in operibus manuum tuarum exsultabo. 6. Quam magnificata sunt opera tua, Domine! Nimis profundae factae sunt cogitationes tuae. 7. Vir insipiens non cognoscet, Et stultus non intelliget haec. (Ps. 91:5-7)

We recognize the very precise relationship between the biblical text and the events in the Comedy. As Singleton has carefully noted, “Matelda, by her allusion to the psalm, is telling us that the joy she experiences is the joy of love, and that her song… is a love song in praise of the Lord who made these things” (Dante Studies 2, 207). Matelda, as the correlative of the figure of Leah in Dante’s dream, as the embodiment of the “active life,” takes special pleasure in God’s works, in the works of His hands. The wonders of God’s handiwork can, of course, be seen everywhere in Creation, but here, in the garden of Eden, they have a particular force and poignancy, for these sights and joys, which were lost to man because of the Fall, represent in consequence the goal of his longing. The return to Eden — Dante the Pilgrim’s return — is then the regaining of that original state of justice before the Fall. Matelda’s precise reference to Delectasti does not necessarily limit our attention to these specific verses, but rather should invite us to consider the Psalm in its entirely. Significantly, the final verses of the ninety-first Psalm celebrate the just man who “shall flourish like the palm tree,” the one who “shall grow up like the cedar of Libanus” (“Iustus ut palma florebit; Sicut cedrus Libani multiplicabitur” 13). The Psalmist continues:

14. Plantati in domo Domini, In atriis domus Dei nostri florebunt. 15. Adhuc multiplicabuntur in senecta uberi Et bene patientes erunt: 16. Ut annuntient quoniam rectus Dominus Deus noster, Et non est iniquitas in eo. (Ps. 91:14-16)

Matelda’s joy is thus twofold, arising from her appreciation of God's works and from her recognition of His promise of salvation to the just man. In the present context Dante the Pilgrim has just returned to Eden, and is, thus, “planted in the house of the Lord.” Matelda experiences joy in this verification of God”s promise in Psalm 91; and thus her song is also a celebration of the “just man” — the Pilgrim — who is newly arrived in the garden.
Sometimes Dante slightly modifies a direct citation from the Vulgate. One such example occurs in Purgatory 30, in the canto following the triumphal procession of the Church. A member of the mystical procession — presumably the representative of Solomon’s Canticle — calls for the advent of Beatrice, and all of the participants in the procession then join in this triple shout: “e un di loro, quasi da ciel messo, / ‘Veni, sponsa, de Libano’ cantando / gridò tre volte, e tutti li altri appresso” (30:10-12). The verse in question — “Veni, sponsa, de Libano” (Purg. 30:11) — presents in slightly different order and with one omission the words in the Song of Songs — “Veni de Libano, sponsa mea” (4:8). In the Comedy these words are said to be repeated three times, just as the imperative veni is repeated in the Bible. Although Dante rarely alludes to the Song of Songs, the citation has a particular importance and force in this highly complex allegorical episode. Like most of his contemporaries, Dante was most interested in the allegorizations of the Song of Songs, and here in Purgatory he refers directly to the sponsa, the comely bride who was variously interpreted as the human soul, the Virgin Mary, and the Church. However, none of these interpretations is really appropriate in the Dantean context. The Church, for example, is already present on the scene as the triumphal chariot, the “carro” on which Beatrice will miraculously appear. To clarify this point, we must recall that the sponsa of the Song of Songs was also interpreted in the allegorical tradition as “Sapientia,” the Wisdom of God. When she appears on the chariot, Beatrice is described as follows: “sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva / donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto / vestita di color di fiamma viva” (30:31-33). The olive tree was sacred to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom; hence, the association is complete with the earlier reference to the Song of Songs. We might also wonder if there were reasons other than metrical for Dante’s reordering of the phrase from the Song of Songs. By omitting the possessive mea, he renders the sponsa — Beatrice — less restricted, less personal, and more universal in her interpretation. By placing sponsa immediately after the imperative veni, Dante focuses greater attention on her and her miraculous qualities, not on the place of origin.
At times the biblical citation is incomplete in that the phrases cited mark the boundaries of a larger, missing text. In the tenth canto of Purgatory Dante and Virgil observe three relief sculptures representing the virtue of humility. The first portrays the Annunciation to Mary and so lifelike is the marble carving that it “speaks” to them in the language of the Gospel of Luke (1:28-38):

Giurato si saria ch’el dicesse “Ave!”
perché iv’ era imaginata quella
ch'ad aprir l’alto amor volse la chiave;

e avea in atto impressa esta favella
“Ecce ancilla Dei”, propriamente
come figura in cera si suggella.
(Purg. 10:40-45)

Gabriel’s initial address — “Ave” — and Mary's eventual response — “Ecce ancilla Dei” — define the boundaries of the biblical citation. The rapid succession of the two phrases as heard by Dante the Pilgrim in his mind is in part a function of the artistic medium that enables the observer to see the scene in its entirety and to “hear” the words in a virtually simultaneous fashion. Readers of Dante’s text are invited to consider not only the two specified fragments of the biblical text but to fill in the missing portion — some ten verses — in which the angel explains to Mary the cause of this miraculous event in order to allay her fears and doubts. Just as the artistic representation evokes the immediate scene and its multifold ramifications, so do the spare words cited evoke the entire passage in the Gospel:

28. Et ingressus angelus ad eam dixit: Ave gratia pleta: Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus. 29. Quae cum audisset, turbata est in sermone eius, et cogitabat qualis esset ista salutatio. 30. Et ait angelus ei: Ne timeas Maria, invenisti enim gratiam apud Deum: 31. ecce concipies in utero, et paries filium, et vocabis nomen eius IESUM: 32. hic erit magnus, et Filius Altissimi vocabitur, et dabit illi Dominus Deus sedem David patris eius: et regnabit in domo Iacob in aeternum, 33. et regni eius non erit finis. 34. Dixit autem Maria ad angelum: Quomodo fiet istud, quoniam virum non cognosco? 35. Et respondens angelus dixit ei: Spiritus sanctus superveniet in te, et virtus Altissimi obumbrabit tibi. Ideoque et quod nascetur ex te sanctum, vocabitur Filius Dei. 36. Et ecce Elisabeth cognata tua, et ipsa concepit filium in senectute sua: et hic mensis sextus est illi, quae vocatur sterilis: 37. quia non erit impossibile apud Deum omne verbum. 38. Dixit autem Maria: Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Et discessit ab illa angelus. (Luke 1:28-38)

In some instances a Latin phrase is so charged with biblical echoes that its mere use is sufficient to evoke this larger context. In his narration of the life of St. Francis in Paradiso 11, Thomas Aquinas at one point uses the Latin phrase “et coram patre” to refer to Francis’s meeting with his father in the episcopal court of Assisi. In this dramatic scene Francis, stripping himself naked, renounces his earthly father and all worldly possessions to wed, as it were, Lady Poverty with the blessing of the bishop and before the assembled people: ‘‘ché per tal donna, giovinetto, in guerra / del padre corse, a cui, come a la morte, / la porta del piacer nessun diserra; / e dinanzi a la sua spirital corte / et coram patre le si fece unito” (Par. 11:58-62). By using the phrase et coram patre, Dante evokes the passage in Matthew 10, where “patre” refers to God:

32. Omnis ergo qui confitebitur me coram hominibus, confitebor et ego eum coram Patre meo, qui in caelis est. 33. Qui autem negaverit me coram hominibus, negabo et ego eum coram Patre meo, qui in caelis est. (Matthew 10:32-33)

Francis’s life was in many respects an imitatio Christi, and these well known similarities form the basis for Dante’s presentation of the saint. Thus, the use in Paradise 11 of the phrase coram patre would appear to serve a dual — indeed, a pivotal function — first describing Francis’s appearance before his carnal father, and secondly, and more importantly, referring to his mystical marriage with Lady Poverty before the bishop and God, his spiritual father. This transfer of allegiance from his earthly to his heavenly father is the beginning of Francis’s own special mission on earth, one that accords in important ways with that of Christ.
Citations from the Vulgate have their vernacular counterparts, and the text of the Comedy is studded with examples of Italian translations and paraphrases of biblical words, phrases, or entire verses. In Inferno 10, for example, Farinata degli Uberti, the great Ghibelline warlord, addresses Dante as a fellow citizen of Florence, stating that he has recognized him through his Tuscan speech: “La tua loquela ti fa manifesto” (nf. 10:25). As most commentators on the poem indicate, this phrase translates the words spoken to Peter after he has denied Christ for the third time — “Loquela tua manifestum te facit” (Matthew 26:73). However, these same commentators do not generally provide any further gloss. In a forthcoming essay (“Poetics of Citation”) I have attempted to demonstrate how meaning in this canto is generated by a remarkable conjunction of individual words, complete phrases, and images, through which Dante is able to draw our attention to the specific biblical text and its larger referential context of the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. We are first led to these considerations by the poet’s insistence on the biblical citation — “la tua loquela ti fa manifesto” — which sets in motion the entire series of intertextual connections.
Another example of the Italianization of a biblical phrase occurs on the first terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory. There we meet Omberto Aldobrandeschi, the second son of Guglielmo Aldobrandeschi, Count of Santafiora in the Sienese Maremma, who speaks of his pride and how it caused his death:

“L'antico sangue e l’opere leggiadre
d’i miei maggior mi fer sì arrogante,
che, non pensando a la comune madre,

ogn’ uomo ebbi in despetto tanto avante,
ch'io ne morì”.
(Purg. 11: 61-65)

One phrase in this passage — “common mother” (comune madre) — has been variously interpreted as referring either to Eve, the first mother and thus of all humankind, or to Nature or to the earth. As many commentators note, the probable biblical source of this phrase is Ecclesiasticus 40:1: “Occupatio magna creata est, omnibus hominibus, et iugum grave super filios Adam, a die exitus de ventre matris eorum usque in diem sepulturae in matrem omnium.” However, these same critics have failed to recognize that this passage conveys far more than a simple textual reference to the “comune madre.” In the verse from Ecclesiasticus we note the burden of original sin on the “children of Adam” (“filios Adam”), which is represented by the phrases “occupatio magna” (“great labor”) and “iugum grave” ("heavy yoke”). Man's tribulation begins with birth and ends only with death. In the Dantean context the souls on the terrace of pride are weighed down with heavy stones such that they move “like oxen under the yoke” (“come buoi che vanno ‘a giogo” Purg. 12:1). The purgation of pride, which was Adam’s sin and is the beginning of all sins (Ecclesiasticus 10:15: “initium omnis peccati est superbia”), is effected by subjection to the yoke which instills humility. Omberto’s pride was such that he despised everyone, ignoring the fact that we have a common mother (whether Eve or Earth, it does not matter). We enter and leave the world in the same fashion; the miseries of existence affect everyone, and death is, of course, the great leveler. These concerns are the subject of the subsequent verses in Ecclesiasticus:

2. Cogitationes eorum, et timores cordis, adinventio exspectationis, et dies finitionis, 3. a residente super sedem gloriosam, usque ad humilatum in terra et cinere; 4. ab eo qui utitur hyacintho et portat coronam, usque ad eum qui operitur lino crudo; furor, zelus, tumultus, fluctuatio, et timor mortis, iracundia perseverans, et contentio; (Ecclus. 40:2-4)

Is it by accident that the words of Omberto — the proud scion of the powerful Aldobrandeschi family, now humbled in Purgatory — refer to that particular biblical passage?
Later in this same episode in Purgatory 11 Dante meets the shade of Oderisi da Gubbio, a well known manuscript illuminator, who speaks of the vanity of worldly endeavors and the fleeting quality of earthly fame:

Oh vana gloria de l’umane posse!
com’ poco verde in su la cima dura,
se non è giunta da l’etati grosse!

Credette Cimabue ne la pittura
tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido,
sì che la fama di colui è scura.

Così ha tolto l’uno a l’altro Guido
la gloria de la lingua; e forse è nato
chi l’uno e l’altro caccerà del nido.

Non è il mondan romore altro ch'un fiato
di vento, ch’or vien quinci e or vien quindi,
e muta nome perché muta lato.
(Purg. 11:91-102)

Nothing is stable is this sublunary sphere. Oderisi notes that in the fields of painting and poetry one excellent craftsman shall surpass the fame of his illustrious predecessor. As Giotto has eclipsed the fame of Cimabue, so Guido Cavalcanti has surpassed Guido Guinizelli. The final phrase couched in the future — “e forse è nato / chi l’uno e l’altro caccerà del nido” — alludes vaguely (“forse”) to another poet who will chase both from the [poetic] nest, an allusion which may well refer to Dante himself. As commentators have almost unanimously noted, the metaphor for fame, both here and later in this canto (11:115-17) — the verdant grass which rapialy withers and dies — reflects several biblical passages, as, for example, Psalm 89:6 (‘“Mane sicut herba transeat; Mane floreat, et transeat; Vespere decidat, induret, et arescat”), or Ecclesiasticus 14:18 (“Omnis caro sicut foenum veterascet, Et sicut folium fructificans in arbore viridi”), and Isaiah 40:6 (‘“Omnis caro foenum, Et omnis gloria eius quasi flos agri”). What commentators have generally not considered, however, is the larger and illuminating context provided by the several biblical analogues to this citation. Three verses later in Psalm 89 we find the reference to the years of man’s life — “The days of our years . . . are threescore and ten years” (10. Dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni. Si autem in potentatibus octoginta anni, Et amplius eorum labor et dolor; Quoniam supervenit mansuetudo, et corripiemur” Psalm 89:10) — which provides the basis for the fictional age of the Pilgrim and the joumey”s date — “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” Inf. 1:1) — and confirms the identity of Dante as the one who has been born. The passage in Ecclesiasticus 14 is concermed with the necessity of living properly according to the dictates of wisdom and justice:

20. Omne opus corruptibile in fine deficiet, Et qui illud operatur ibit cum illo. 21. Et omne opus electum iustificabitur, Et qui operatur illud honorabitur in illo. 22. Beatus vir qui in sapientia morabitur, Et qui in iustitia sua meditabitur, Et in sensu cogitabit circumspectionem Dei.
(Ecclus. 14:20-22)

These verses would seem to relate to Dante’s own sense of mission, his description of the state of souls after death in order to, on the allegorical level of the poem, describe the operation of Divine Justice. The fact that he viewed himself as living in a dismal age caused him to assume a prophetic voice in the Comedy, to lament the degradation of mankind, and to attempt to chart, through example and exhortation, the proper course for the regeneration of human society. The biblically resonant phrase “com” poco verde in su la cima dura” we must recall is qualified by the “se non è giunta da l’etati grosse!” Thus, if Dante viewed his own age as one of the “etati grosse” which Oderisi mentions, is he in essence calling attention to his hope that his fame will endure a bit — indeed, a lot! — longer? If so, then this would be one major, additional reason for Dante to depict pride as his principal sin and to allude to his future lengthy stay on this purgatorial terrace.
Another example of Dante's Italian adaptation of biblical phraseology occurs in Paradiso 29. In the midst of her diatribe against philosophers and false preachers Beatrice evokes the passage at the end of the Gospel of Mark — “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature” ("Euntes in mundum universum praedicate Evangelium omni creaturae” 16:15) — and adapts it to her immediate purpose by substituting the word “ciance” (“idle stories” or even “garbage”) for “Evangelium": “Non disse Cristo al suo primo convento: / ‘Andate, e predicate al mondo ciance”” (29:109-10). The irony and bitter sarcasm of this distorted Gospel verse sums up the several points she is making about the lack of spiritua: guidance on the part of the clergy. For example, the faithful, who are described typically as the flock of innocent lambs — the “pecorelle che non sanno” — are continually fed with the idle talk, the insubstantial hot air of the preachers — “tornan dal pasco pasciute di vento.” The movement in the verse cited almost completely from Mark — “Andate, e predicate al mondo ciance” — is like that used in the first verse of Inferno 34, where the ringing incipit of the hymn by Venantius Fortunatus, ‘“Vexilla Regis prodeunt,” is distorted, transformed to good infernal effect by the addition of the genitive “inferni.” Thus, the first three words in the verse lead us to think of the triumph of Christ on the Cross, of death being overcome by life. However, when we read the fourth word, inferni, we realize, suddenly and with surprise, that these “vexilla” are the “banners” that belong to the king of Hell, Lucifer, who is immobile in the icy grip of Cocytus. His banners, the grotesque bat-like wings, as Lucifer himself, cannot advance; they can only move to generate an icy wind that maintains the frigid conditions in this lowest region of Hell. In Paradise 29 the initial movement of the phrase suggests that it will be a direct citation of the Gospel — “Andate, e predicate al mondo” — but the use of “ciance,” which belongs to a decidedly lower lexical register, exerts a great effect on the reader/listener, one that shocks and clarifies at the same moment. To the power of the biblical citation is added the vigorous and dynamic force of a common, indeed crude, word that does not sidestep the issue. In much the same way, Cacciaguida in Paradise 17 instructed Dante to “let all that [he has] seen be manifest”: “tutta tua viston fa manifesta” (Par. 17:128) and to let those afflicted “scratch wherever it may itch” (“‘e lascia pur grattar dov’è la rogna’” Par. 17:129). Cacciaguida continues by expanding on the metaphor of nourishment: ““Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta / nel primo gusto, vital nodrimento / lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta’” (Par.17:130-32). Dante”s voice is like that of the Old Testament Prophets who inveigh against corruption and cry out for justice. His words — his poem — will be the “vital nodrimento” serving Christendom and the cause of justice in the early fourteenth century, as the word of Christ did — and still does, or should do — in the Gospels and through the agency of the disciples who “a pugnar per accender la fede / de l’Evangelio fero scudo e lance” (Par. 29:113-14).
In addition to these several types of more or less direct verbal citation, there is finally a large and more difficult to define category of biblical reference in the Divine Comedy, namely, Dante’s imitative prophetic voice which permeates the poem and gives it its special tone and character. On numerous occasions, Dante consciously incorporates biblically inspired language and imagery as an integral part of his prophetic-apocalyptic vision. In Paradise 27, for example, St. Peter delivers a stinging rebuke of Pope Boniface VIII:

“Quelli ch’usurpa in terra il luogo mio,
il luogo mio, il luogo mio che vaca
ne la presenza del Figliuol di Dio,

fatt’ ha del cimitero mio cloaca
del sangue e de la puzza; onde ‘l perverso
che cadde di qua sù, là giù si placa”.
(Par. 27: 22-27)

While some commentators (see Singleton, Commentary 428) have understood these verses — and particularly the phrase “vaca” — to mean that Boniface”s election to the Papacy was not legally valid, it is perhaps more accurate to see them as a further indictment of the general corruption wreaked upon the Church by Boniface. The extent of St. Peter's outrage is reflected in his threefold repetition of the phrase “il luogo mio,” which increases the intensity of the invective. Critics have noted, generally without commentary, the similarity between this triple repetition and that found in Jeremiah: “Nolite confidere in verbis mendacii, dicentes: Templum Domini, templum Domini, templum Domini est!” (Jer. 7:4; emphasis mine). The similarity, however, goes beyond the simple fact of threefold repetition. In both cases the holy place has been defiled: in the Comedy by Boniface’s greedy usurpation and prostitution of the Church; in Jeremiah by a sinful people who would wish to achieve holiness by mere virtue of being within the sacred precinct of the temple and by invoking its protective aura. Moreover, the passage in Jeremiah reiterates the importance of the holy place — Dante’s “luogo” — by referring to the temple with phrases such as “in loco hoc” (Jer. 7:7) and “in domo hac” (Jer. 7:10). The third reference to the temple (“domus ista’’) occurs in the climactic eleventh verse of Jeremiah 7 which combines mention of the “den of robbers” and the triple repetition of “Ego” — “Numquid ergo spelunca latronum facta est domus ista, In qua invocatum est nomen meum in oculis vestris? Ego, ego sum; ego vidi, dicit Dominus” (emphasis mine). God”s personal denunciation of the violation of his temple is a direct and forceful parallel to St. Peter’s personal diatribe — “il luogo mio” — against clerical corruption. Jeremiah®s language, rhetorical devices, and imagery provide an excellent model for Dante’s passage; indeed, these carefully constructed passages build to a dramatic intensity which the triple repetition and the more general context both convey and confirm.
By delving more deeply into the Bible, that other text which Dante subtly conjures and carefully evokes through his “poetics of citation,” we are able to appreciate the Divine Comedy more fully and to understand at least in part how the poem has achieved its place of prominence and authority in the Western literary tradition. Through his subtle use of biblical citation, Dante has truly enabled the Comedy to become a new Scripture, that “poema sacro / al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra” (Par. 25:1-2).

Date: 2022-01-03