Autore: Denise Heilbronn
Tratto da: Studies in Philology
Among the many theories concerning the identity of the one sent from Heaven to open the gate of Dis for Dante, the Pilgrim, those in particular need to be indicated whose direction is followed in this study. In 1929, Erich Auerbach tentatively designated the figure striding over the water with dry feet as ‘“a divine messenger, pethaps Il Veltro.” However, in a later, more detailed analysis of the heavenly rescuer, whose descent he compared with that of the Homeric god, Poseidon, Auerbach described the former unhesitatingly as a godlike figure: “he represents the figure of Christ and symbolizes Christ’s descent into Hell.” The interpretation which gives rise to the present one is Mark Musa’s more far-reaching “Advent at the Gates.” Here the rescuer’s descent is recognized as a reenactment of the Harrowing of Hell, and this in turn is considered symbolic of the First Advent within a larger pattern of allegories in the Divine Comedy representing the three Advents of Christ: the First and Final Advents (at the gate of Dis and in the Earthly Paradise, respectively), and an intermediate daily Coming in grace (in the Valley of the Princes). The basis fot Musa’s interpretation is Saint Bernard’s First Serzzon on the Advents (Migne, PL CLXXXIII, 38), which defines the First Coming of Christ in terms of its first important consequence, the liberation of the captive souls of the tighteous from Limbo.
If the allegory of Inferno IX is interpreted from this point of view, it becomes possible not only to discover reminiscences of the Harrowing of Hell, but also to demonstrate that the Pilgrim’s entrance into the City of Dis is surrounded by the symbolism of the First Advent as that event is more commonly understood: the Incarnation, or the descent of the Savior into the world. Moreover, the setting, the poetic language, as well as the dramatic action at the gate of Dis are capable of suggesting the widest implications of the Advent. ‘The coming of the Messiah was necessitated by the Fall and its promise will be fulfilled at the Last Judgment. Considered a central event in time, therefore, the First Advent lends a deeper significance to past history, as seen in retrospect; present and future history, on the other hand, is a time of expectation. To reflect these aspects of the Advent in his poetry, Dante uses a complex system of polysemy involving the adaptation of traditional symbolism derived from patristic scriptural exegesis. Yet the literal narrative is never made subservient to the poet’s allegorical intentions: rather, it is imbued with the very drama of the Advent which inspires it.
The poet’s address to the reader (Inf. IX.61-3) calls for an allegorical interpretation of the event that climaxes and resolves the entire episode at the gate of Dis: the descent of the one who is expected, who reopens the closed gate so that the Pilgrim may proceed on his journey to salvation. But the stage is prepared for a major allegory even before the poet explicitly alerts the reader to its imminence: certain aspects of the usually well-defined setting of Hell are deliberately obscured, and the principal actors in the scene, Virgil and Dante, behave in unexpected ways.
The walls of Dis are located in a place set apart from the surrounding otherworldly landscape by its distinct physical and spiritual atmosphere. Unlike the landscape of Inferzo I, which occupies a “moral” space completely lacking in geographical points of reference, the setting of Cantos VIII and IX does belong to the concretely defined topography of Hell. And yet it has its particular moral dimension. The walls separate the fifth from the sixth circle of Hell, but are not in either circle. They divide upper Hell from the lower pit, and contain a gate, the second gate on the Pilgrim’s Journey, through which access to the City must be gained. As a point of passage, this gate therefore has a special solemnity. It is reached by way of the fog-enshrouded Styx, whose exact spatial extent is never disclosed.
Nevertheless, the wayfarers” circuitous movements along and across the water convey a sense of vast distance and breadth. After having circled the swamp on foot in a wide arc (‘‘girammo de la lorda pozza / grand’ arco,” VII.127-8), they notice some far-off towet-signals which hint at its expanse (VIII.3-6). No sooner has Virgil responded to his pupil’s questions about the meaning of the flames, than Phlegyas comes in his boat out of the fumes (from where?) at the speed of an arrow. He ferries the travellers across, following—as one learns much later—a wide circular trajectory (“grande aggirata,” VIII.79). This takes considerable time, for during the crossing, the meeting with Filippo Argenti takes place (“Mentre noi corravam la morta gora,” VIII.31); in fact, the wrathful spirit is submerged and left behind even before the opposite shore comes into view (VIII. 55-66). The travellers finally disembark at a gate (VIII.81) which, as the reader learns in the next canto (IX.36), is in a tower. Although it was possible to assume 4 priori that the gate must be in a tower, as are medieval city gates (and also the gates of Jerusalem: II Chron. 26:9), the question arises belatedly whether this tower might not be the very same one fitst mentioned briefly at the end of Canto VII (“Venimmo al piè d’una totre al da sezzo”), the one whose two signal-flames were sighted from afar. If not, where was the tower at whose foot the wayfarers arrived “at last”? But even a careful reading of the text provides no ready answer to these questions.
The vagueness surrounding the signal-tower’s location contributes considerably to blurring the spatial configurations of the setting in which the allegory unfolds. Space is treated very much as a function of time in Canto VII; but time and duration are indicated only in relative terms: the tower is reached “in the end,” Phlegyas will have the travellers “no longer than” during the crossing, Filippo is submerged “before” the City comes into view. ‘Thus the reader is impetceptibly transported out of the clearly delineated landscape of Hell into a spiritual zone where a unique event takes place. At the gate, the Pilgrim meets an obstacle that cannot be overcome by the usual means of Vitgil’s guidance, but requires extraordinary divine intervention. Here Virgil all but despairs of the journey, although he has foreknowledge of one who is to come in aid; and Dante is tempted to turn back. AIl this happens in a watery, foggy environment set off by the glow of fire, where nothing can be distinctly visualized except the City”’s ferruginous walls and the gate-tower with its fiery top.
Although we can picture it clearly in the end, this tower comes into focus only gradualiy. I shall assume, now, that the tower mentioned at the end of Canto VII and the one on which the Furies finally appear—the tower whose gate is closed by the devils and reopened by the one sent from heaven—is indeed one and the same. In describing it the poet moves from a seemingly casual allusion for which the reader is totally unprepared, through an accumulation of minimal detail, to a more precise image. At the same time, there is a progression from an indefinite article to a definite article, while the reader’s attention is transferred from the foot of the tower to its top:
Venimmo al piè d’una torre al da sezzo.
... assai prima
che noi fossimo al piè de l’alta torre
li occhi nostri n’ andar suso a la cima.
… l'occhio m’avea tutto tratto
ver’ l’alta torre a la cima rovente.
In the first quotation, the wayfarers have arrived at the foot of a tower; in the second, they see its signals from a distance; in the third, they are standing at its foot, the gate is closed, and above it the Furies have just risen up. In the meantime, the reader has composed a mental image out of four details offered in sequence: 44 torre, alta torre, la cima, la cima rovente— “alta torre a la cima rovente.”
The unusual opening of Canto VIII, “Io dico, seguitando,” where the poet “turns back in artificial order” to relate what happened before arrival at the tower, has several important consequences: Cantos VIII and IX, together with the last line of Canto VII, are forged into a single, coherent unit; the tower itself is given such emphasis that it may assume a major significance in the allegory of the Advent; the Pilerim’s encounter with Filippo (encompassed as it is by the anticipated and actual arrival at the tower) must be considered in strict relationship to that allegory; anticipation is introduced as an underlying poetic motif for Cantos VIII and IX. In this connection one might observe that the interval of 81 lines which separates the anticipated arrival at the tower from the event (VII.130-VIII.81) cotresponds exactly to the interval between Virgil’s announcement of the messenger (“tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta,” VIII.130) and the latter’s appearance in full view—not described, but such that the reader may recognize him by his action as a Christ-figure (“passava Stige con le piante asciutte,” IX.81). Such parallelism cannot be a mere coincidence when it appears in a symbolic representation of the Advent, one of whose essential aspects is anticipation: expectancy of the Messiah, expectancy of the Judge. The tower, as it were, has a prophetic function in the narrative, pointing ahead to the messenger in a manner that cannot be understood until the latter’s meaning is revealed. The necessary consequence of anticipation is retrospection.
Not only the setting but also the actors in the drama contribute to changing the spiritual climate in preparation for the allegory. The first suggestion of such a transformation occuts while the wayfarers are being ferried across the Styx, where the Wrathful are punished. Dante, who had previously grieved at the sight of Francesca (V.140-1), Ciacco (VI.58-9), and the Avaricious and Prodigal (VII. 36), now responds with open hostility to a spirit who rises from the swamp to ask him: “Chi sei tu che vieni anzi ora?” (VIII. 33). The Pilgrim not only affronts but also curses his antagonist: “spirito maladetto” (VIII.38). And Virgil, the rational master, reacts with an equally impassioned outburst. After having pushed the mud-covered shade away from Phlegyas boat with an insult, he turns to his pupil to bestow on him unprecedented (and never to be repeated) praise:
Lo collo poi con le braccia mi cinse;
basciommi ’l volto e disse: “Alma sdegnosa,
benedetta colei che ’n te s’incinse!”
Most of the older commentators interpret Virgil’s words and embrace as high tribute, and Dante’s antagonism towards the anonymous shade (who later turns out to be Filippo Argenti) as righteous anger. But Castelvetro, for one, did exhibit some skepticism: “Io non veggo che D. abbia fatta o detta cosa per la quale Virg... lo dovesse abbracciare e baciare, e ringraziarne la madre che l’aveva partorito al mondo… .” One might add that it is surprising for Virgil to bless his pupil’s mother, just here, though the blessing neatly counterbalances the Pilgrim’s preceding malediction directed against Filippo. Borgese comments on the scene: “Dante’s outbursts and violences, rather than under the Thomistic heading of De Iracundia, belong to the following: De Crudelitate. Obviously enough, there is no ethical or theological level at which his wrath could meet poetic acquittal.” If such wrath, and consequently such praise, has no ethical or theological basis, it may nonetheless have its poetic justification.
To begin with Virgil’s praise, its Biblical solemnity is unmistakable. Borgese has pointed this out: “Virgil’s salutation, borrowed from the Ave Maria: ‘Blessed be she that bore thee’ hints, unaware of sacrilege, at a symbolic equalization of Dante with Christ, and the canto is not closed ere a replica is more than sketched in the scene of the devils defending the gates of Hell against the intruder who, Christlike, will vanquish them.” However, Virgil’s words are not borrowed from the Ave Maria, as Borgese thought. The Ave Maria reads: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” With these words Elizabeth greeted Mary at the Visitation—the meeting of the two pregnant women—where Elizabeth became the first person to proclaim Mary the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:42-3). Obviously, Virgil could not address his pupil with Elizabeth’s salutation. Instead, he adapts a blessing spoken by an anonymous woman to Christ as He was preaching to a crowd on His way to Jerusalem: “Blessed is the womb that bore thee” (Luke 11:27). This passage also alludes to Mary’s virgin motherhood. As Virgil speaks, he thrtows his arms around the Pilgrim’s neck and kisses his face.
There is no mention of an embrace in either passage of Luke, but Christian art has traditionally represented the Visitation as an embrace between Mary and Elizabeth. Virgil’s embrace, in combination with the words he speaks, is strongly reminiscent of the Visitation—and this may have caused Borgese’s error. In Dante’s account, two allusions to the Virgin are fused: one is derived from a textual source (Luke 11:27), and the other from pictorial sources (scenes of the Visitation).
While the “psychology” of Virgil’s praise remains puzzling, I believe that the embrace is to be understood primarily as a symbolic gesture, a symbol made visible. The importance of the visual image in the Divine Comedy cannot be underestimated. Although the Pilgrim and his guide are two male figures midstream in the river Styx, engaged in an altercation with a wrathful spirit, they are imitating the embrace of Mary and Elizabeth as the artists depicted it. By evoking a scene usually associated with the birth of Christ, or rather by staging a symbolic scene which can call to mind the Visitation when it is combined with words that allude to Mary’s role in the Incarnation, the poet ushers in the allegory of the First Advent. And so, long before the divine messenger appears, the reader is led beyond the literal narrative towards the second sense of the episode at the gate of Dis. Moreover, as his attention is directed towards the Virgin through words and gesture, he may be alerted to the presence of other Marian symbols.
The most important Marian figure to appear in Dante’s allegory of the First Advent is that of the closed gate. It is based on Ezekiel’s vision of the temple (Ezek. 44:1-3), whose eastern gate, which was to remain forever locked, is interpreted by the Church Fathers as an image of Mary’s eternal virginity and a prophecy of Christ’s birth. Honorius of Autun writes of it: “Ezechiel quoque portam semper clausam vidit, per quam solus Rex regum transivit et clausam reliquit (Ezech. XLIV). Sancta Maria est coeli porta quae ante partum et in partu vitgo fuit et post partum virgo permansit.” Honorius’ statement sums up an established teaching. According to this view, Marty is a gate in two senses: she is the porta clausa with regard to her virginity, but she is also coelî porta, the gate of Paradise, in that she reopened the way to salvation, which had been closed through Eve.
Dante’s gate of Dis, closed by the devils and reopened by one sent from Heaven, may therefore be understood as a two fold image, porta clausa and coeli porta. The latter sense is related to the idea of exclusion from Paradise and lends significance to the Filippo Argenti episode, as will be seen later. The former sense pertains more particularly to the allegory of the First Advent represented in the messenget’s descent. Because of this double meaning, the gate’s tower also may be considered an important Marian image.
It cannot be by chance that the tower and its signal flames are mentioned long before the wayfarers arrive at its foot. Literally, the tower is the first landmark that a traveller is apt to perceive as he approaches any city (cf. Purg. XVI.96). And on the allegorical level, one temembers that to the Christian mind, Marty is not only the gate but also a tower. The tower as a type of Mary is derived from the Song of Songs: zurris Davidica (4.4), turris eburnea (7.5). The tower symbolizes Mary as an image of protective strength and hope: she is given the epithets #urrss fortitudinis, turris nostrae spei. In both Latin and Greek interpretations, the images of the tower, the castle, and the wall are often used to suggest the virgin birth and Marys role in the Incarnation: ‘haec est tutris, quam vallavit incorrupta deitas, haec castellum, quod intravit sola verbi veritas... ” Surely, the walled City of Dis with its gate-towet is a perfect stage setting for an allegory of Christ’s First Coming.
Still another multivalent symbol with Marian implications appears on this stage. It is the verghetta, the little wand or rod, with which the heavenly envoy opens the gate:
Venne a la porta, e con una verghetta
l’aperse, che non v’ebbe alcun ritegno.
The inverted syntax of these verses places a strong emphasis on the words verghezta and aperse. Taken literally, the verses tell of the powerlessness of the demons against the one from Heaven. As a poetic image, the verghefta which opens the unresisting gate is heavily laden with various associations. It may recall the wand with which Mercury opened Herse’s chamber and turned Aglauros, the envious sister, to stone (Ovid, Metam. 2.708-836; in the case of Dante, the Pilgrim, he has just been threatened with a similar punishment). But certain Old Testament angels also carry a wand ot rod, as for example the one who appeared to Gideon (Judg. 6:21), or the angel with the measuring rod in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 40:3); or again, in the New Testament, the angel of the Apocalypse who measures the Holy City, its gates and ramparts (Apoc. 21:15). Yet this does not exhaust the possibilities of the verghefta as a symbol. In early Christian art, Christ often holds the wand of a thaumaturge, particularly in representations of the raising of Lazarus, the miraculous wine making at Cana, and the multiplication of the loaves. Besides, the angel in Annunciation scenes usually carries a wand ot scepter. And this brings us to the more specifically Marian associations of the verghetta.
Auerbach (Literary Language, p. 231, n. 43) was teminded of Aaron’s rod, which, he points out, is the cross (a fit symbol, one might add, in an allegory of Christ’s first Coming, which was consummated on the cross). But “Aaron’s rod” is also one ofthe oldest of the common epithets used for Mary. Another important Biblical type of Mary, however—one which may be associated linguistically with the verghetta—is the rod of Jesse (virga Jesse). Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘Et egredietur virga de radice Jesse, et flos de radice ejus ascendet” (Isa. 11:1), has invariably had one interpretation among the Church Fathers: the rod is Mary, and the flower is Christ. The fact that Dante uses the diminutive should not present problems, for there are numerous parallels in Latin hymns to the Virgin. Indeed, although Dante?’s verghetta could reflect the symbolism of any of the examples mentionedt—mythological, Biblical, and iconographic—in which the wand suggests divine authority, the diminutive form of the word seems to confirm its specifically Marian connotations.
As we have seen, the setting itself and at least one item of “stage property” for the action at the gate bring associations with the First Advent in its primary meaning, the coming of the incarnate Christ. However, these aspects of Cantos VIII and IX are in a sense externals to the more essential drama of the Advent which pervades the cpisode.
As the wayfarers are increasingly caught up in the commotion preceding their entry into the City, both undergo noticeable changes in their states of mind. "The Pilgrim, who had displayed a degree of self-esteem bordering on arrogance when confronted with Filippo Argenti, is quickly intimidated by the multitude of angry devils, “rained down from Heaven,” swarming over the gate. They challenge him to return, alone, along the road he has travelled, and he doubts that he will ever get back. He is willing to retrace his steps and is overcome with a sense of confusion and abandonment when Virgil leaves his side to confer alone with the devils.
Virgil, on the other hand, approaches the devils with confidence in the foreordained success of the journey: “Non temer; che ’l nostro passo / non ci può torre alcun: da tal n’è dato” (VII.104-5). However, one wonders at his manner in dealing with the demons. Instead of speaking with authority, instead of using words at all (although his eloquence, “la parola ornata,” is supposed to be Virgil’s means of assisting and delivering his pupil—cf. If. II.67-9), he makes a sign to indicate that he wishes to speak with them apart. Perhaps just here the epithet, “my wise master,” brings a note of irony: “E ’l savio mio maestro fece segno / di voler lor parlar segretamente” (VIII.86- 7). It is the only time Virgil offers to confer with the evil spirits on intimate terms, ot to negotiate with them, and the attempt leads to a humiliating setback:
Udir non potti quello ch’a lor porse;
ma ei non stette là con essi guari,
che ciascun dentro a prova si ricorse.
Chiuser le porte que’ nostri avversari
nel petto al mio signor, che fuor rimase,
e rivolsesi a me con passi rari.
It is Virgil now, who turns to retrace his steps. Those adversaries blocking the way are the fallen angels, “da ciel piovuti,” whose leader, Satan, induced Eve to close the gate of Heaven fot mankind.
From here on, Virgil, though vexed and downcast, assumes an attitude of expectancy in the knowledge of help to come. His anticipation of one who is already on the way is coupled with the memory of one who once came to defeat the devils:
Questa lor tracotanza non è nova;
che già l’usaro a men segreta porta,
la qual sanza serrame ancor si trova.
Sovr’essa vedestù la scritta morta:
e già di qua da lei discende l’erta,
passando per li cerchi sanza scorta,
tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta.
The defenders of Hell used arrogance once before, in vain, when Christ descended triumphantly into Limbo; again they will be defeated by the one who is descending the slope now, to open the City for the wayfarers. In these tercets, Virgil associates the upper gate of Hell with the gate of Dis, and Christ with the one who is expected. The twice-used già joins memoty to prophecy; it seems to echo that passage of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue (vv. 5-7) which in the Middle Ages was thought to be a prophecy of Christ. Virgil now listens for the descending liberator with an attitude which betrays a moment of anxiety. His visual limitations caused by the dense fog may be understood metaphorically. Virgil is surrounded by spiritual darkness, and he foresees but dimly:
Attento si fermò com’ uom ch’ascolta;
che l’occhio nol potea menare a lunga
per l’aere nero e per la nebbia folta.
“Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga,”
cominciò el, “se non... Tal ne s’offerse.
Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!”
The final exclamation reveals a profound desire for the one whose arrival he anticipates. It reflects the Messianic yearning of the pre-Christian world, as expressed in the Advent liturgy, particularly in the antiphons, where the keynote is in the wish, noli tardare (“Oh quanto tarda a me...”): “Ecce apparebit Dominus, et non mentietur: si moram fecerit, exspecta eum, quia veniet, et non tardabit”; ‘“Veniet Dominus, et non tardabit, ut illuminet abscondita tenebrarum”; ‘... veni, Domine, et noli tardare”; “...veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.” Nevertheless, in the ninth canto of the Inferno, the divine rescuer does delay, and during the brief interval Virgil tells his pupil how once before he descended into lowest Hell under the spell of the Thessalian sorceress, Erichtho. Immediately after telling that story he succumbs to the Furies and their threats.
It has been said that the tale of Virgil’s earlier descent into the underworld is meant to justify his knowledge of the way and to comfort his frightened pupil. However, even if Virgil does wish to display confidence at this point, thereby offering reassurance, this cannot be the only reason for the story’s insertion in the narrative just here. A second reason, and perhaps the very reason for its invention, might well be to prepare for the episode of the Furies.
Virgil’s tale of Erichtho, I believe, serves as a reaffirmation of his paganism at a crucial point in the journey through Hell. He was once subject to the magic of the sorceress, when under her influence he brought out a spirit from Judecca. His mission now is to bring Dante out of the dark wood by leading him down into and beyond the pit of Judas. Virgil’s two journeys may be related, but paradoxically so: though he seems to be travelling the same road twice, he is in fact not doing so since his two trips into Hell have different aims and different sponsors. Reliance on such knowledge as he may have gained through his previous descent cannot lead to success now. And indeed, before he finishes speaking (“E altro disse, ma non l’ho a mente,” IX.34), the three Furies have risen up on the tower, and we see Virgil fall again under the pagan spirits’ domination, believably so, precisely because we have just been reminded of his longstanding familiarity with them.
The instant the Furies appear over the infernal gate, Virgil demonstrates this familiarity by naming them one by one. As the terrified Pilgrim draws close to his guide, the Furies call on Medusa to turn the Pilgrim to stone. At this point one may notice that Virgil has undergone a profound transformation. Unmindful of the one who is already descending the slope, of his own mission as guide and of her who sent him, he causes his pupil to face about, to shut his eyes, and to turn his back to the gate of Dis and the road beyond. In so doing, Virgil ceases to personify Reason; he is no longer the poet whose eloquence subdues the demons along the Pilgrim’s way, nor the prophet of divine assistance. Although Medusa never appears, her name alone immobilizes Virgil and blinds him to his task while the Pilgrim, with two pairs of hands over his eyes, literally becomes a blind man. Together, Virgil and his pupil represent the dark pre-Christian ages, the pagan world and that of the elect; neither understands the true nature of the expected liberator:
“Volgiti ’ndietro e tien lo viso chiuso;
che se ’l Gorgon si mostra e tu ’l vedessi,
nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso.”
Così disse ’l maestro; ed elli stessi
mi volse, e non si tenne a le mie mani,
che con le sue ancor non mi chiudessi.
The poet reaps the full irony of the situation by using this moment of reversal and extreme confusion, which leaves both wayfarers unseeing, to call upon his readers to see:
O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.
Those readers who have “intelletti sani” (as Virgil, perhaps, does not) are asked to consider the doctrine hidden beneath the veil of the strange verses. The address to the reader clearly marks a turning point in the narrative, which it interrupts about midway through Canto IX. The Pilgrim has turned his back to the gate, but by the same token he is now facing in the direction of the descending messenger: his stance takes on a new meaning, as a word will do in an equivocal rhyme, or a note in a musical modulation.
The rescuer’s advent follows immediately upon the address to the reader and is described acoustically, as the blindfolded Pilgrim would perceive it: “E già venìa su per le torbide onde / un fracasso d’un suon, pien di spavento” (IX. 64-5). The abrupt “E già” recalls Virgil’s first distant announcement, ‘e già di qua da lei discende l’erta...’’ (VIII.128), restoring a sense of continuity to the sequence of events. The advancing messenger cannot be seen, but the simile of the violent wind describing the sound of his apptoach evokes in the reader’s mind the visual image of a devastated pastoral landscape; and when the Pilgrim’s eyes are finally opened, what he sces is presented through a second simile, that of the snake and the fleeing frogs. Neither simile reveals the messenger’s appearance; rather, both refer to his power and its effect, and both abound in associations. The image of the windswept forest followed immediately by that of the enemy-snake brings to mind an Eden destroyed, and the fieeing souls, “più di mille anime distrutte” (IX.79), suggest a multitude that greatly surpasses the numbers of Wrathful previously described in the Styx. The phrase referring to the souls reiterates one used carlier for the devils over the gate, “più di mille... da ciel piovuti” (VIII.82-3). One must be reminded of the Fall, and of the hosts of rebel angels, and of the men of all times, past, present, and future, made outcasts from Heaven.
All the imagery surrounding the heavenly liberator’s descent hinges on reversal. ‘The wind, unlike the life-giving spirit, is a destructive force; the shepherds, unlike those who were told not to fear (Luke 2:10), are put to flight; the one who walks on the water does not come to subdue a storm (Mark 6:48-51), but he creates one. The rescuer from Heaven descends into the hostile territory of Hell as the adversary, the serpent, and this paradox has its foundation in Scripture: in John II:14, the brazen serpent which Moses raised up in the desert is compared to Christ, who must likewise be raised up (on the Cross).
Because the poet does not describe the Christ-like intruder into Hell, this figure can be recognized only by his actions and attributes. For the reader, the two similes describing his arrival establish strong associations with the Fall; and the very fact that the figure walks over the water suggests the Savior, whose Advent reversed the effects of the Fall. An additional sign, however, leads the Pilgrim to recognize the figure from Heaven. The one who has finally atrived removes the dense air from about his face with a motion of his left hand; thereupon the Pilgrim is certain of his provenance:
Dal volto rimovea quell’ aere grasso,
menando la sinistra innanzi spesso;
e sol di quell’ angoscia parea lasso.
Ben m’accorsi ch’elli era da ciel messo.
The last line brings a verbal echo of Virgil’s recognition of the Furies (“ben conobbe le meschine / de la regina de l’etterno pianto,” IX.43-4), thus implicitly contrasting the master and the pupil and the worlds of their beliefs. Now Virgil, restored to his role as guide, bids his pupil to bow low before the one from Heaven, as he will do later in the presence of angels. However, because of the lack of a precise visual image, this personage differs from the angels seen later along the journey, all of whom dazzle the Pilgrim with light or joy, and are described (at least in Purgatory) as to the color of wings or vestments. Moreover, the word messo is ambiguous, since it can be understood either as representing the past participle of mettere, to send, or as the noun messo, messenger. The language permits, but does not require the figure to be identified as an angel, leaving the reader free to recall that Christ too was one sent. If this figure is to be taken literally as an angel, he is much like one of the Old Testament messengers who come in the guise of men.
The fanning motion, which seems to confirm the Pilgrim’s belief concerning the messenger’s identity, has on the contrary perplexed many commentators. Without attempting to explain why the messenger removes the fog from about his face, most have simply remarked that if the left hand is fanning, the right hand must be holding the verghetta. I would suggest that, in removing the thick air from about his face, the messenger is performing a symbolic action whose meaning is connected with the imagery of the concealing veil that is present throughout the episode at the gate of Dis.
The veil is used metaphorically in the address to the reader (‘mirate la dottrina che s’asconde / sotto ’l velame de li versi strani,” IX.62-3). The exhortation to gaze beneath the poetic veil is found in a general context that places a strong emphasis on the sense of sight, in a setting where smoke or fog literally functions as an obscuring veil. ‘The thick air hanging over the Styx, “il fummo del pantan” (VIII.12), “l’aere nero e... la nebbia folta” (IX.6), hides Phlegyas’ approach from an unseen place; it conceals the City of Dis from view so that the moaning within is heard before the ramparts are seen; and it has to be penetrated by the messenger as well. When the latter finally does come, Virgil uncovers the Pilgrim’s blindfolded eyes, urging him to see:
Li occhi mi sciolse e disse: “Or drizza il nerbo
del viso su per quella schiuma antica
per indi ove quel fummo è più acerbo.”
What this ancient impediment to vision may signify is stated explicitly much later, at the threshold of the Earthly Paradise, just before Beatrice appeats:
Quando il settentrion del primo cielo,
che nè occaso mai seppe nè orto
nè d’altra nebbia che di colpa velo...
When the messenger is seen as a figure of Chtist coming into the world, it will be remembered that Christ came to save mankind from sin, to bting light into the darkness, and to reveal. As. the celestial envoy, whose vision knows no physical barriers, fans the dense fog from his face with a seemingly superfluous, weary gesture, he is going through the motions of removing a figurative veil. Thereby he enables the Pilgrtim to see and to recognize him: “Ben m’accorsi ch’elli era da ciel messo.” The metaphorical darkness, which has its visible shape in the thick Stygian air and in the Pilgrim’s twice-covered eyes as well, must be associated with the spiritually unenlightened pre-Christian ages. The Pilgrtim, having been a blind man, is restored to sight at the moment of the messenger’s advent; and the messenger in turn reveals his face to the Pilgrim by removing the veil of fog. If Virgil turned his pupil around and made him shut his eyes and, not trusting in Dante’s hands, covered them also with his own, it was for the sake of the unveiling which takes place when the one from Heaven descends the slope to open the gate.
The scene of the blindfolded Pilgrim restored to sight is analogous to certain medieval illustrations of the Crucifixion, in which Christ is flanked on the right side by a personification of the Church and on the left by a personification of the Synagogue. With His right hand, the crucified Savior crowns the Church, and with His left He removes a veil from the eyes of the Synagogue. This signifies that Christ came into the world, and by proclaiming the New Law revealed the previously hidden mystery of the Old Law. The symbolism of the image is often explained by an accompanying verse, as for example “Vetus testamentum velatum, novum testamentum revelatum,” or—as in a verse written by the Abbot Suger for a stained glass medallion in a window of the twelfth-century Cathedral of St. Denis— “Quod Moyses velat Christi doctrina revelat.” The parallelism between such images and the dual unveiling in Ixferzo IX imposes itself all the more by the fact that the messenger uses precisely his left hand to clear away the fog, and that the verb sciolse— suggesting a loosening, an unbinding (of a blindfold)—is used to describe Virgil’s removal of his hands from the Pilgrim’s eyes. The idea that the First Advent brought freedom from the bondage of darkness and sin is visibly acted out in Dante’s verses.
When the gate is opened, the Pilgrim may continue unhindeted on his journey leading to Paradise and ultimately to the highest vision. Consequently, his divinely assisted passage into the City of Dis is indirectly an entry into the Heavenly Jerusalem. Indeed, as Singleton has pointed out, the City of Dis may be seen as an imitation in reverse of the Heavenly City. Such a view is entirely consistent with the reverse imagery surrounding the messenger’s descent into Hell, and it is indispensable to the interpretation of the gate of Dis as a Marian image, porta clausa as well as coelî porta. When the messenger touches it with his verghetta, the gate is porta clausa, the untesisting portal of Mary's virgin motherhood; when the Pilgrim passes freely through the gate to continue his journey to salvation, it is coeli porta, the gate of Heaven. ‘The latter sense lends itself to further exploration as it relates to the Filippo Argenti episode.
The gate of Heaven was reopened for the faithful, but for others it remains forever shut. Consequently, the symbolism of the gate implies the idea of exclusion, from the community of the faithful, or from Paradise. It is possible to think of Filippo as ofone who is left behind while the Pilgrim enters through the gate. Thus, thanks to the episode of the wrathful spirit, the gate acquires an additional dimension, as it points anagogically to the celestial kingdom at the end of time.
As we have seen, Virgil’s language is that of the New Testament when he addresses Dante “Alma sdegnosa, / benedetta colei che ’n te s’incinse!” The fact that Christ was on the road to Jerusalem when similar words were spoken to Him (Luke 11:27) is all the more notewortthy when we think of the City of Dis as being a reverse image of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The tone of Virgil’s language is quite in harmony with the entire scene involving Filippo Argenti. The passage has a Biblical quality throughout, particularly in its expressions of violence. ‘That quality is enhanced by the wrathful Florentine’s anonymity which is maintained until the last of the eleven tercets devoted to the episode. One might also say that even though all three actors in the scene display an intense personal involvement, the encounter has something of the cautionary tale about it, and Filippo’s final submersion is very much in the nature of an exemplary punishment. This impression derives, no doubt, from the circumstance that Filippo’s “dunking” follows shortly after Virgil’s brief sermon on those many proud men who will one day be like swine in the mud.
The first words spoken to Dante by Filippo as he rises up from the Styx have generally been interpreted as an insult to the Pilgrim: ‘Chi se’ tu che vieni anzi ora?” At the same time, however, this question brings to mind a passage from Matthew (8:29) in which two savage demoniacs come out of the tombs at Gerasa to accost Christ, saying “What do you want of us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (“Venisti huc ante tempus torquere nos?”). These lines are considered an allusion to the Last Judgment: until then the demons enjoy some degree of freedom on earth in Satan’s service. If there is indeed a relationship between Filippo’s question and the one asked by the demoniacs, it follows that the Pilgrim is twice made the vehicle for a subtle allusion to Christ. The references are to the First Coming (Virgil’s praise) and the Final Coming (Filippo’s question). ‘Thus the twofold character of the Savior’s Advent in Grace and in Glory is taken into account. Since the Old Testament prophets made no distinction between the two Comings, and the Final Coming is considered the consummation of the First, the Advent liturgy celebrates both in conjunction. Filippo’s first words to the Pilgrim may very well serve as an introduction to the anagogical aspects of the drama at the gate of Dis, while Virgil’s praise introduces the allegory of the First Advent as Incarnation.
Dante’s prompt answer to the mud-covered spirit immediately sets the two in a forcefully contrasting relationship:
E io a lui: “S’ i’ vegno, non rimango;
ma tu chi se’, che sì se’ fatto brutto?”
Rispose: “Vedi che son un che piango.”
E io a lui: “Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch’ i’ ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto.”
The key words in this passage are “non rimango” and the emphatic “ti rimani.” The Pilgrim will pass through the gate of the City, while Filippo, the unclean spirit, pier di fango, brutto, lordo, will remain where he is. The opposition between the two is heightened through Dante’s curse, “spirito maladetto,” to be followed two tercets later by Virgil’s blessing, benedetta colei... .” Moreover, the Pilgrim has the mark of a greatminded man, “alma sdegnosa” (VIII.44), whereas Filippo was a proud man, ‘persona orgogliosa,” completely lacking in goodness, so that his shade is furious here in Hell (VIII.46-8).
Virgil’s words about the itascible spirit are no less Biblical in tone than his blessing of the Pilgrim. He uses Filippo’s example to observe that those who think of themselves as kings will be brought low (cf. Luke 1:52), and he compares Filippo and his like to dogs and to swine (VIII.42, 46-51).
Numerous Biblical passages reflect the contemptibility of such animals, from the Old Testament dietary laws (Deut. 14:8; Isa. 65 :4) to New Testament miracles and lessons. ‘The devils possessing the demoniacs at Gerasa are sent into a herd of swine which then rush into the sea (Matt. 8:30 ff.; Mark 5:11 ff.; Luke 8:32 ff.); the Prodigal son remembers his father’s house only after he has utterly fallen as swine-herd (Luke 15:15 f.); in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches not to give sacred things to dogs or throw pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6).
When Virgil says to Filippo, “Via costà con li altri cani!” (VIII.42), one may recall how an important prophetic psalm pottrays the just man, a type of the Messiah, as persecuted and scorned by men: “Indeed, many dogs surround me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me; they have pierced my hands and my feet?’ (Ps. 22:17).
With an ear attuned to such Biblical echoes one must conclude that in the Filippo Argenti episode there is portrayed not simply a Virgil who praises beyond the requirements of reason, or a Dante roused to a just wrath verging on cruelty. The violences of the episode find their justification in Scripture. In the last chapter of the Apocalypse, which deals with the future Holy City—a prefiguration of the Heavenly Jerusalem—in that passage where an angel resembling Ezekiel’s angel measures the ramparts with a rod, we read that at the end of time Christ will come again, and all men will receive their just wages: “Happy are those who will have washed their robes clean, so that they will have the right to feed on the tree of life and can come through the gates into the city. These others must stay outside: dogs, fottune-tellers, and fornicators, and murderers, and idolaters, and everyone of false speech and false life” (Apoc. 22:14-5).
Filippo Argenti identifies himself as one who weeps (VIII.36). He reflects the Biblical impious man, whose wrath turns against the just. I suggest that the arrogant Florentine, the Black Guelph who was no friend of Dante’s, appears anonymously to represent the impure man, the rebellious and unclean spirit who at the end of time will be cast out among the dogs and the swine, among those who weep and whose teeth turn on their own flesh. These are the outcasts whom the messenger will address later on as “cacciati del ciel, gente dispetta” (IX.91). But Dante, the Pilgrim, is an image of the just man who will enter the City by the gate.
The reader is able to attribute such meanings to the Filippo Atgenti episode only in retrospect, that is, after having learned about the events at the gate and how the Pilgrim is freed from the obstacles which threaten his journey there. However, this is consistent with the narrative technique employed throughout Cantos VIII and IX, for the drama at the gate is governed by a movement of anticipation and retrospection, forward and backward in time, accompanied by analogous forward-backward movements in space. This is evident not only in the larger plan, but also in an accumulation of detail. To recapitulate: the wayfarers” arrival at the tower is anticipated by 81 lines; both Phlegyas and the messenger are expected before they appear. The tower comes into focus gradually in the landscape, and the messenger takes shape in Virgil’s prophetic awareness before irrupting on the scene. The prophetic and symbolic function of the tower becomes evident only in retrospect, after the messenger is recognized as a Christ-figure, as does the anagogical significance of the meeting with Filippo.
Canto VIII is marked by a high frequency of temporal clauses such as “assai prima che” (1-2), “prima che” (54), “avante che” (55), ‘non sanza prima” (79), which indicate what lies ahead before the preceding action is completed. Once the wayfarers disembark at the gate, the emphasis is on backward movement: “quei sen vada… sol si ritorni” (89, 91), “non credetti ritornatci mai” (96), “ritroviam l’orme nostre” (102). The forwardbackward tension is reflected in the Pilgrim’s mental vacillations: “che sì e no nel capo mi tenciona” (111). After the devils shut the gate and Virgil returns to his pupil (“rivolsesi a me con passi rari,” ), all movement, forward or backward, comes to a halt. This is the point where, in the last two tercets of Canto VIII, retrospection and anticipation are Joined in a single movement of memory and foreknowledge, as Virgil remembers Christ’s descent into Hell and looks forward to the messenger’s arrival, the latter event having a significance only in the light of the former.
Canto IX opens with words suggesting backward movement (“tornare in volta,” “ristrinse’’), words taken back (“se non...”), and a remembered promise which is also a hope (“Tal ne s’offerse”). As Virgil listens for the one who is expected, a climate of anticipation is maintained. There is a rettospective digression with a preview of what lies ahead (Virgil’s tale of Erichtho), followed by a complete about-face as Virgil covers Dante’s eyes. However, the Pilgrim’s turnabout to avoid the Gorgon is in reality a turning toward the approaching messenger: a symbolic turning to Christ. At this pivotal moment, a modulation into the new tonality is accomplished and the poetry moves swiftly towards a resolution of the suspense. When the messenger’s arrival is imminent, the element of high expectancy enters into the very fiber of the poetry. In the six tercets describing what the Pilgrim hears and observes until the messenger is finally seen walking on the water, there are no less than three cases of enjambement, where a strong sense of anticipation called forth by the rhyme-word forces the reader to continue immediately to the following line (‘un vento /impetuoso” 67-8; “il nerbo / del viso” 73-4; “la nemica / biscia” 76-7).
By such techniques Dante has transmuted into poetry the profound drama of the Advent: the pre-Christian ages anticipate the coming of the Messiah; their meaning in turn is unveiled retrospectively and Christian ages wait in hopeful expectancy for the Final Coming.