The heavenly Messanger (Inferno IX, 79-103) [Susanna Barsella]

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Dati bibliografici

Autore: Susanna Barsella

Tratto da: In the light of the angels. Angelology and cosmology in Dante's Divina Commedia

Editore: Leo S. Olschki, Firenze

Anno: 2010

Pagine: 144-163

Inferno is the cantide of obscurity and clamor; the antithesis of harmonious and luminous Paradiso. Yet, Inferno is ordered chaos, obeying in its structure to a division dictated by divine justice, in which even the ingnavious angels find precise collocation. By condemning ali forms of vicious and malicious deviations from the good, infemal justice is anchored in the providential principle that moves and governs the cosmos. In the allegorical metaspace of Inferno, divine justice applies equally to the tormentors and the tormenters, for it compels demons and mythological monsters to enforce the law they ignored or against which they rebelled. Two lights illuminate the oppressive darkness of Lucifer's pit: the fire of the great spirits in the castle of wisdom in the first circle; and the much brighter light of the figure sent from heaven (the messo) to help Virgil and Dante enter the city of Dis (Inf. IX). This figure, which represents external divine intervention in the exceptional circumstance of Dante's voyage, resolves one of the most frightening impasses Virgil and Dante face in their descent.
The sequence of events anticipating the arrival of the heavenly messenger illustrates the interlacing pagan and Christian symbolisms that characterizes this figure, and reflects the ideological texture of the episode. Frightened by the Erynnes's invocation of Medusa, Virgil intimates Dante to cover his eyes, and presses his hands on Dante's, lest Medusa's petrifying glance would keep him captive in hell forever, held by the enchantment of the ancient divinity, punished for looking directly at what one cannot see without the mediation of Perseus's mirror. In the salvific logie of the Commedia this mirror assumes the sembiance of the angel, abating the malignant effect of Medusa's glance. As the protagonist plunges in total blindness, the author interrupts the narrative continuity of the episode to introduce an hermeneutical address to the readers (Inf IX, 61-63), which precedes the arrival of the messenger where the juxtaposition of pagan and Christian elements intesifies. In blindness Dante perceives a loud sound, wind, and tremor preannouncing the arrival of the messo, and suggesting to the reader a parallel with the earthquake that accompanied Christ's Harrowing. Only at this point Virgil allows Dante to look at the figure approaching the walls of Dis. Tue simile of the frogs derived from Ovid, immediately precedes the entrance on stage of the messo.

Come le rane innanzi a la nimica
biscia per l'acqua si dileguan tutte,
fin ch'a la terra ciascuna s'abbica,

vid'io più di mille anime distrutte
fuggir così dinanzi ad un ch'al passo
passava Stige con le piante asciutte
(Inf. IX, 77-82).

As frogs confronted by their enemy,
the snake, will scatter underwater till
each hunches in a heap along the bottom,

so did the thousand ruined souls I saw
take flight before a figure crossing Styx
who walked as if on land and with dry soles.

The messo («un») walks over the muddy waters of Styx, again recalling the figure of Christ, before opening the gates with a light touch of the verghetta (little wand) he holds in his right hand. These actions, and the light the messo emanates, help Dante - and the reader - to immediately realize that he belongs to the celestial society of the Empyrean. Yet, the deliberate figural ambiguity that surrounds him suggests Dante's intent to prevent a straitforward identification of this figure with an angel. He needs to be both, retaining the meanings that his association with the pagan Mercury-Hermes imply, andare so crucial to the interpretation of the episode.
The pagan and Christian elements interlacing in the episode that span two cantos (Inf. VIII and IX), have led commentators to identify the messo either with Mercury or with an angel. The former hypothesis originated with Pietro di Dante (1340), the latter with Giovanni Boccaccio (1374). Among the early commentators, only Bernardino Daniello (1568) interpreted the messo as a synthesis of both, stressing the importance of the co-presence of both mercurial and angelic attributes. Most commentators after the sixteenth century shared the angelic interpretation, while the hypothesis of Mercury prevailed among thirteenth and fourteenth-century interpreters such as Benvenuto (1375) and Serravalle (1416). Other hypotheses have included Hercules, Aeneas, Henry VII, the Veltro, and Christ, but none of these readings has been satisfactorily defended. Tue attributes and function of the messo suggest Dante's intentional combination of elements pertaining to both angelic Intelligences and Mercury, the chthonic messenger. Heroes such as Aeneas and Hercules, nonetheless, belong to the mythological texture of cantos VIII and IX, and frame their literary meaning.
The messo's intervention in aid of the two poets is coherent with the providential design of Dante's angelology, and reflects the importance of angelic functions in the narrative pattern of the Commedia. I maintain that this polysemic character, charged with a plurality of symbolic references and object of much debate among Dante scholars, finds a coherent explanation if considered in the light of Dante's general design of angelic ministries as instruments of divine order. His assistance in Inferno, which Beatrice guaranteed Virgil, not only testifies to the providential meaning of Dante's descent into hell, but also is crucial to define Dante's criteria of literary invention and hermeneutics. His Mercurial appearance is not only a figurative mark that makes the messo homogenous with the infernal imagery displayed in hell, but also is critical to the meaning of the episode within literary and hermeneutic perspectives. While it is functional to characterize Dante's descent as 'virtuous', contextually the messenger offers the key to its interpretation.
The messo is a sign of the divine disposition that allowed Dante to enter the circular path from a state of moral confusion to a renovated spiritual condition through the visionary experience of the divine. Beyond this, however, Dante's sapient amalgamation of mythological and Christian elements in this hybrid figure serves to figuratively connect the poets' entrance into Dis to the literary topos of infemal descents. The angel-Mercury represents Dante's dialogue with Christian and pagan traditions in an episode that stages the unprecedented descent of a living being (and author) into the depths of Tartarus.
Rhetorical reasons also induced Dante to deliberately combine angelic and pagan elements in the figure of the messenger. Intervening to restare order in hell, he must interact with the language, the rhetoric, and the symbology that belonged to Dante's mytho-Christian universe; one dominateci by classical pagan imagery. The messo's Mercurial appearance and language are a rhetorical artifice necessary to make his Christian message effective and understandable within a pagan context. Dante's contaminatio of pagan and Christian motives appears - almost paradoxically - to respond to a principle of realism that transforms the messo into a literary specimen of what Panofsky called the medieval «principle of disjunction», whereby artists clad Christian contents in classical forms, and vice versa. When this happened, the symbols and the imageries of Christian and pagan worlds became interchangeable, and widened the range of rhetorical devices available to medieval authors. Dante could thus utilize ali the elements pertaining to the two cultural universes and make them converge into a new meaning.

1. The Messo's Veil

Medieval exegesis established a relation of continuity between classical and Christian cultures, and made them interact. Their imageries were seen in a figural relation, where the pagan era prefigured the Christian one. This intellectual attitude was founded on the belief that God manifested Himself to men even before Revelation, so that pagan divinities were but the signs of God's intervention in the world.
The Christianization of mythical materials was the result of a complex and controversial process that lasted centuries, and the so called 'pagan humanism' of medieval schools, such as those of Chartres and Saint Vietar, greatly contributed to make it an essential part of the medieval cultural koiné. Critical to enlighten the presence of this humanistic attitude toward the mythological past is Dante's hermeneutical tercet in Inferno IX, 61-63:

O voi ch'avete li 'ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'ascende
sotto 'l velame de li versi strani
(Inf. IX, 61-63).

O you possessed of sturdy intellects,
observe the teaching that is hidden here
beneath the veil of verses so obscure.

The term «veil» (velame), used to indicate the rhetorical covering of the doctrine this tercet hides, echoes the definition of integumentum (cover, veil), which is an exegetical criterion for the interpretation of pagan mythology that medieval theologians such as Bemardus Silvestris developed in the Middle Ages. The definition of integumentum can be found in Silvestris's Commentary to the book VI of the Aeneid, and is associated with the interpretation of Aeneas’ descent into Avemus accompanied by the Sybil.

Integumentum vero est genus demonstrationis sub fabulosa narratione ueritatis involvens intellectum, unde et involucrum dicitur (In Aeneid, Proemium, 44-46).

Integumentum is indeed an explanation of a truth whose meaning is wrapped in a fabulous narration, and for this reason is also called covering.

The italics in the quotation above stress the parallel between Silvestris' definìtion and Dante's tercet. The term «dottrina» (doctrine) indicates a body of teaching concerning the truth, («genus demonstrationis [...] veritatis»), while the word «velame» seems to almost literally transiate Bemard's «involucrum». The principles of integumentum and disjunction seem to provide the hermeneutical keys for evaluating the angelic and mythical figure that opens the gates of Dis. Together they effectively capture the ideological framework and the cultural context in which Dante conceived of this figure.

2. The Poetic Impasse

The entrance to Dis marks a crociai moment in the diegetical pattern of the Commedia, for it represents not only the author's entrance in a literary unexplored world, but it also defines the ethical character of Dante's fictional descent. The syncretic figure of the messo is fundamental to individuate the system of relations Dante establishes between his own experience and the Christianized heroic traditions of classical descents.
The criticai moment triggering the dynamics of canto IX occurs at the end of canto VIII (115-17) when the demons and monsters guarding the entrance to the lower part of hell shut the doors in Virgil's face. Virgil's dismay at the demons’ tracotance throws Dante into deep anguish, worried about his fate. The Latin poet reassures him by anticipating the arrivai of someone («tal») who will farce their way into the lower infernal circles. He assures Dante that the demons must yield to divine authority, as they had already done when Christ harrowed hell. Moreover, Virgil guarantees Dante of his competence as his guide by mentioning his previous descent into Tartarus, when the sorceress Erichtho sent him to summon the soul of one of Pompey's soldiers. In reassuring the frightened Dante, Virgil thus indirectly connects Christian and pagan descents, introducing the main underlying theme of the episode that culminates with the messo's intervention. These descents bave a common trait in the rebellion of infemal creatures, vanquished by a superior supematural power. The figural link between sacred and profane descents hinges on the modes of facing and defeating the rebellion of the infemal guardians. This is the main operation the messo performs in bis mission to restore the order threatened by the demons.
As seen in the previous paragraph, before the iron walls of Dis the text intensifies cross references to mythological and Christian elements, thus preparing the readers to perceive and decode the double nature of the messenger. Demons «fallen from Heaven» and mythological monsters, such as the Erinnyes and the Gorgon, crowd the battlements. They inveigh against those who attempt to violate the regions of T artarus, and try to reassess their dominion over the inner part of hell.
The Erinnyes, the ancient goddesses of vengeance who in pagan mythology intervened whenever someone overstepped the limirs imposed by cosmic order (as Virgil and Dante intend to do), cast an angry apostrophe against the two poets, and curse those who dare to descend into Tartarus before them. They refer to Theseus and Pirithous, held captive in Hades far their attempt to k.idnap Persephone. The Erinnyes’ main target, however, is Hercules, who freed Theseus and Pirithous and infringed the laws of fate that even Jupiter was farced to obey. The Erynnes allude to Hercules’ twelfth labor, when he not only freed the captive heroes, but also captured Cerberus, the threeheaded guardian of Hades. The reference to Hercules’ twelfth labor is particularly significant far it reappears in the messo’s rebuke to the demons in Inf. IX, 91-99, and therefore encloses the entire episode, casting an indirect figural relation between ancient and modem chthonic heroes.
Hercules, Theseus, and Pirithous are connected to another important model of virtuous descent: that of Aeneas. In Aeneid VI, Aeneas recalls these heroes when he prays to have access to the cave of Averno: «si fratrem Pollux alterna morte redemit / itque reditque uiam totiens. quid Thesea, magnum / quid memorem Alciden...?» [«time and again traversing the same road up and down; / if Theseus, mighty Hercules - must I mention them?»] (Aeneid, VI 121-123). Charon at the crossing of Styx cast an invective against the same heroes similar to that of the Erynnes:

nec uero Alciden me sum laetatus euntem
accepisse lacu, nec Thesea Pirithoumque,
dis quamquam geniti atque inuicti uiribus essent.
Tartareum ille manu custodem in uincla petiuit
ipsius a sollo regis traxitque trementem;
hi dominam Ditis thalamo deducere adorti.
(Aeneid, VI, 392-97)

The law forbids me to carry living bodies across
In my Stygian boat. I'd little joy, believe me,
When Hercules carne and I sailed the hero aver,
Or Theseus, Pirithous, sons of gods as they were
With their high and mighty power. Hercules stole
Our watchdog - chained hirn, the poor trembling creature,
Dragged hirn away from our king's very throne! The others
Tried to snatch our queen from the bridal bed of Death!

Here, as done by the Erynnes in the Commedia, Charon directs his rage against the heroes’ act of violence against the laws of Hades, for their violation affirms the superiority of the power of the solar gods over the princes of Erebus. Like Aeneas, the boatman also insists on the heroes’ capacity not only to descend but also to return from Hades; a trait that ties these heroes and makes them victorious figures of virtue. Their capacity to come back from the realm of the dead is a sign of their superior qualities, but also of the existence of a more powerful force that allows them to infringe the laws of infemal divinities. In the version of the myth underlying Virgil’s narrative in book VI, the heroes indeed do need the assistance of a guide and the protection of the herald of Jupiter, Mercury. The power assisting Dante is however superior to that of the ancient gods, for he will be able to penetrate the deepest parts of the infernal abyss, while the classical heroes never descended into the depths of Tartarus.
The classical topos of the descent in the underworld was of particular relevance in the Christian reinterpretation of pagan mythology. Neo-Platonic exegetes interpreted the heroes’ descents as prefigurations of Christ's Harrowing of Hell, and as allegories of the virtuous soul’s itinerary to God through earthly experience (the Augustinian regio dissimilitudinis), a step in the anagogical ascent to heaven.

3. The Virtuous Descent

The above-mentioned heroes, and their literary sources, indicate the models with which Dante dialogued and delimited the ideal space of these authoritative texts. These semi-gods (with the exception of Orpheus) were ali exemplary figures of virtuous descents, particularly in the Aeneid commentary tradition. In his comment to Aeneid VI Bernardus Silvestris associated Mercury to Aeneas's descent, thus introducing the figure of the god to represent the divine assistance necessary to successfully complete the hero's journey. The presence of Mercury accompanying Aeneas as a sort of interpreter resolving moments of impasse was already attested to in the different versions of the myth of Hercules’ twelfth labor that inspired Virgil’s narrative in Aeneid VI. The same function of guide-interpreter characterizes Dante's messo.
The mythological nucleus that Virgil developed and others, including Dante, followed, is pattemed after a version of the myth reported both in Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid and in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca. According to this version of the myth, Hercules descends into Tartarus escorted by Mercury psychopomp. His presence signals to the inhabitants of Hades that the gods protect Hercules’ incursion in their world, but Mercury-Hermes has also the task of making chthonic laws comprehensible to the hero. After crossing the Styx, and facing the ghosts of Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa, Hercules’ first reaction is to use his sword against them. Mercury however warns him that arms are useless against shadows. Following the pattern of the myth, Virgil transferred the function of the psychopomp to the Sibyl, who similarly prevented the Trojan hero from using force to overcome Charon’s reluctance to ferry him over to the other shore of the Acheron. Aeneas eventually gains bis entrance into Avernus by showing the golden bough he hides under bis mantle, a sign of authority over the dead, strictly related to the special rod of Mercury the psychopomp, and which reappears as the messo’s little bough («verghetta», Inf. IX, 90).
The chthonic functions of the pagan god remained a privileged trait in the medieval Christianization of Mercury, which reached its peak in the allegorical exegesis of Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Tue commentators of Capella - and in particular Bernardus Silvestris - linked again Mercury and Aeneas's descents, and in Dante's text we find an echo of their interpretation. As the pagan figures representing the virtuous conquest of materiality had needed divine intermediation and protection, so does the Christian hero. In analogy with the classical explorators of the underworld, the pilgrim undertakes an allegorical journey in which he learns about vices and virtues. His experience, like that of the heroes in their allegorical interpretations, leads him to knowledge, and from knowledge to desire of purification, to which he will be initiated in Purgatorio to attain finally the longed far unification with the divine in the conclusive canto of Paradiso.
The direct and indirect references to the above mentioned version of the myth of Hercules (the only one testifying to the presence of Mercury and to Cerberus’ loss of his 'beard') and to its later allegorical interpretations, allow for the setting of Dante’s entrance into lower Hell within a well-established, allegorical tradition, and elevates the wayfarer to the Olympus of virtuous chthonic heroes. Dante, however, does not simply go back along the same path as his predecessors, but spirals through a circular pattern that will lead him back to earth after experiencing the celestial regions. Dante's Christian descent, a truly successful path through knowledge of vice and punishment, provides the basis for a contextualized interpretation of the messenger as the Christianized figure of Mercury.

4. The Angelic Mercury: Eloquence and Wands

The function of Mercury as a divine instrument the gods used to communicate with mortals (alive or dead) remained a distinct trait of the Christian reinterpretation of the Cyllean God as angelic Intelligence, and his functions as psychopomp and herald of the gods shape the figure of the messo sent from heaven to open the doors that fate would otherwise hold shut.
Two key elements allow for identifying the messo's integumentum with Mercury: his wand (virga), and his eloquence, where the virga is also the symbol of Mercury's eloquence. The emblem of the verghetta to signify eloquence appears in Ovid, Statius, Horace, and Apuleius, and was perhaps the strongest element that induced ancient commentators to recognize Mercury in the figure of the messo. Both in antiquity and during the Middle Ages the virga was associated with Mercury's chthonic powers, and its symbolism included authority over the dead and even magic. In parallel with Mercury and Aeneas's boughs, the messo's verghetta is a sign of supernatural power, of authority over Hell and, symbolically, over its mythological and classic representations.
The association of Mercury and eloquence, rooted in mythology and attested to in classical literature, remained a fundamental trait of the god in the Middle Ages and later in the Renaissance. In Martianus Capella's allegorical text De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, Mercury symbolizes Eloquence, the necessary complement of Wisdom. Referring to Capella, Fulgentius in his Mythologiae pointed to the deceitful aspect of Mercury's eloquence. This interpretation derived from Augustine’s identification of the god with the eloquence of merchants and traders. Augustine stressed the symbolism of Mercury as god of language and interpretation, which he derived from his Greek name 'Hermes'. The god’s facunditas was also associated with the planet named after him. Albert the Great, in bis De rebus metallicis, wrote that the engraved image of Mercury on a given stone would confer to its owner the power of eloquence and business ability. Dante himself, in the Convivio, connected Dialectic with the virtues of the planet Mercury. Indeed, the messo is the heavenly creature that delivers the longest speech in the Commedia, after the angel porter of Purgatorio. While bis wand opens the gates with no effort, his speech silences the demons, and reaffirms the power of the word over the sword, as in the originai myths that form the subtexts of canto IX.
Mythological references, literary sources, and the association with eloquence, suggest that the mercurial characteristics of the messo do not play a merely symbolical role but refer, literally, to Mercury's attributes as psychopomp. This function, together with the elements characterizing it (the magie wand and eloquence), was absorbed into the cult of the archangel Michael as a result of the early syncretism of Mercury and Michael (as soothers of souls). Although most ancient commentators were inclined to interpret the messo as a generic angelic figure, several modem interpreters, such as Silvio Pasquazi, identify him with Saint Michael, as the guardian angel of Limbo. Michael, however, was mainly a figure of power: he was the prince of the heavenly Host who defeated the rebel angels, the protector of the Virgin and the Church, and the vanquisher of the dragon in the Apocalypse of John. According to his different functions he was represented as an archangel, a principality, or a seraphim. Also the messo comes as a conqueror of a defensive stronghold, but in canto IX there is no real fight such as that against Lucifer or the dragon: on the contrary, many elements indicate Dante's willingness to depart from a knightly figure. The Mercurial angel does not carry a sword but a frail bough, and his main weapon is his intimidating speech. In Dante's hell the epic battle against the rebel angels has been won and the demons subjugated: they are now infernal officers, coerced to enforce the laws of divine Justice.
All the elements composing the complex structure of this ritual canto indicate the strategie importance of Mercurial attributes in identifying the «tal» commanded from heaven. This figure not only restores the arder of justice by curbing the demons’ mutinous attitude, but also detennines the ethical character of Dante's entrance into Dis through its allegorical link with the tradition of virtuous and heroic descents. The syncretism of the messo appears justified by these two main functions. If his role as psychopomp coincides with the function later attributed to Michael, his relation to heroic descents is however typical only of Mercury. It seems therefore coherent to suppose that Dante transformed the ancient psychopomp, the god of trivial speech and power over the dead, into the angelic intelligence that operates as infemal herald. Dante operateci the same metamorphosis on the goddess Fortune (Inf VII, 71-84), who, like Mercury, becomes an angelic intelligence governing human alteming fate.
A further compelling element leads to interpret the messo as Mercury transforrned into angelic Intelligence. Mercury was the Latin name of the Greek god of language and interpretation, Hermes, from whom the science of interpretation, hermeneutics, derives. Coherently with the meaning of his name, the messo’s function, literally and figurally, is to overcome the impasse that prevents the pilgrim to enter Dis; to see beyond the walls as beyond what is known; to untangle the knots of interpretation. It is not by chance that the hermeneutical tercet in Inferno IX, 61-63 discussed above is set between the threat of the pagan, petryfying glance of Medusa, allegorically preventing insight, and the arrival of the «tal» who opens the text to a new understanding.
The sudden, violent irruption of the angel-Hermes at the gate of Hell forces us to re-think the question of textual impasse so often debated by scholars. After the initial impediment, when the demons at the gate deny access to the pilgrim, the fortified wall is no longer an obstacle. The angel 'opens up' the barrier. The action resumes, and the angel appears as the 'angel of interpretation'. He regains ali the attributes of the mythical Hermes, god of the crossroads, psychopomp, and the very embodiment of language.
The vehement speech the messo addresses to the demons in front of the gates of Dis supports this hypothesis. Not only is it an example of exquisite Mercuria! eloquence, but it also focuses on the heroic theme of Hercules's twelfth labor that underlies the whole episode, so relevant to the meaning of Dante's enterprise:

"O cacciati del ciel, gente dispetta",
cominciò elli in su l'orribil soglia,
"ond'esta oltracotanza in voi s'alletta?

Perché recalcitrate a quella voglia
a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo,
e che più volte v'ha cresciuta doglia?

Che giova nelle fata dar di cozzo?
Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda,
ne porta ancor pelato il mento e 'l gozzo".
(Inf. IX, 91-99)

"O you cast out of Heaven, hated crowd,"
were his fust words upon that horrid threshold,
"why do you harbor this presumptuousness?

Why are you so reluctant to endure
that Will whose aim can never be cut short,
and which so often added to your hurts?

What good is it to thrust against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
for that, had both his throat and chin stripped clean".

Delivered in a colloquial tone, and with words taken from common vernacular discourse, this speech is an example of sermo communis, the eloquence Augustine associated with Mercury. The messo directs his apostrophe to the re bel angels «Cacciati dal ciel») rather than to the whole community of monstrous creatures populating the battlements. The allusion to the banishment from heaven introduces the first reference to events of Christian history, and indirectly evokes the figure of Michael, who defeated Lucifer's army. In the following lines, the events interlace with the mythological narratives that prefigure Christ's harrowing of hell. The term "oltracotanza" in line 93 harks back, intensifying it, to the «tracotanza» of Inf. VIII, 124, the word Virgil used to recali the demons’ defeated rebellion when Christ forced the doors at the entrance of hell. The episode signifies the subversion of the old law and the instauration of the new arder of providential love. The dramatic sequence of rhetorical questions in tercet 94-96 reminds the demons of the necessity to obey the decrees of divine will («quella voglia / a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo»), and yield to providential order («fata») that governs universe, whereby the messo derives his power and authority. The mention of Cerberus in line 98 seals the messo's rebuke by recalling Hercules's twelfth labor. The infernal dog - the messo wams the demons - still bears the signs of its beating by Hercules. These «parole sante» conclude the episode with the image of the pagan hero, who emerges from the context as a prefiguration of the poet as Christian hero called to subvert the ancient poetic 'order' of those who explored the infernal abyss before him.

Date: 2022-01-09