Access to authorithy: Dante in the Epistle to Cangrande [Albert R. Ascoli]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Albert Russell Ascoli

Tratto da: Seminario Dantesco Internazionale / International Dante Seminar 1. Atti del primo convegno tenutosi al Chauncey Conference Center, Princeton, 21-23 ottobre 1994

Editore: Le Lettere, Firenze

Anno: 1997

Pagine: 309-352

From very early in his career, Dante’s works were marked with a singular propensity for poetic self-reflexiveness, in combination with an ever-growing ambition to claim for his vemacular poetic works the cultural prestige usually reserved for Latin auctores and for the disciplines of philosophy and theology. These two tendencies, as we have recently begun to realize, come together most visibly in the formal recourse to auto-eregesis, following, to greater and lesser degrees, the existing models of poetic allegoresis of classical texts (from Servius and Fulgentius to Bernardus Silvestris), of the Biblical commentary tradition, as well as of the rationalizing divisio of scholastic method. Though this tendency is present in various ways in De vulgari eloquentia and in the Commedia itself, the two texts where it is most explicitly expressed are the youthful Vita Nuova and the more mature Convivio, in both of which poetry is surrounded by prose glosses — in the Vita Nuova through the mixture of explanatory narrative and exegetical “divisions”; in. Convivio through the extended literal and allegorical commentaries on three canzoni.
The full implications of the tum to self-exegesis are most apparent in Convivio, which is more completely and openly engaged with the Latin poetic and intellectual traditions. To write a formal commentary on vernacular poems which reveals their hidden philosophical content is to place them, structurally, on a par with the long-dead classical auciores, and the rare modern Latin author, such as Alain de Lille, for whom such treatment had previously been reserved. Dante in this way attempts to enlarge and transform the canons of cultural authority so as to include himself and his poetry within them, and thus to command the “faith and obedience” due the true auctor.
The very fact that this process takes place through self-exegesis, however, suggests that the nature of auctoritas is being changed, utterìy changed, even as it is being appropriated. That a text is deemed worthy of commentary or exegesis means that it has acquired the impersonal, timeless, standing of an auctoritas. That the commentator is identical with the auctor, however, in some sense compromises or modifies that authority — re-introducing an element of time-bound, self -interested personality which is at odds with the basic tenets of medieval literary auctoritas. In attempting to fuse the prestige of Latin culture with the vitality and accessibility of the vernacular, I have argued elsewhere, Dante discovers a new figure, the “gutore”, at the mid-point between the classical auctor and the modem, personal author, and, not incidentally, acquires the perspective which enables him to write the most authoritative poem in Western literature, the Commedia. As he does so he becomes the most spectacular representative of the trend that A.J. Minnis and his collaborators have identified as the emergence of the human author as a focus of attention in both literature and Scripture (Minnis, p. 118 et passim).
It is within this general perspective, then, that I will consider the so-called Epistle to Cangrande. This text, belying its traditionally assigned name and its usual placement among the Epistolae of Dante, is a generic hybrid, consisting of an epistle (§§I-IV), followed by an accessus, an academic prologue or introduction, to the Commedia generally and to the Paradiso specifically (§§V-XVI), plus a commentary on the first few lines of the first canto of the third canticle of the poem (§§XVII-XXXI), and a brief coda that apparently returns to the epistolary mode (§§XXXII-XXXII). And it is presented, from the outset, as having been written by “Dantes Alagherii florentinus natione non moribus” [Dante Alighieri, Florentine by birth, but not in manners), although the attribution is now quite controversial. This document, I will argue, should be seen as a nafural sequel to and effect of Dante’s consideration and pursuit of auctoritas through the formal device of auto-commentary.
With this focus in mind, paradoxically, it becomes relazively less important whether or not Dante himself wrote all or part of the Epistle, while it becomes all-important that such a document could not conceivably have been written without Dante as an “efficient”, if not its “instrumental” cause. This is so in the obvious sense that he was among the earliest vernacular authors, along with Guido Cavalcanti and Albertino Mussato, whose works were the object of scholastic commentary on close analogy with those given to the classical aucfores, and that he was unquestionably the first vernacular author to inspire a sustained tradition of commentaries. More importantly, it is so in the less obvious sense that he, as the first of all Dante commentators, in the Vita Nuova, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, and elsewhere, set a precedent that was eagerly followed, teaching his interpreters how to do their work. This precedent, I will argue, was very much in the mind of whoever wrote the Epistle.
So much, of course, could be said of several other accessus to and commentaries on all or part of the Commedia that appeared throughout the fourteenth century, and it might be said of modem Dante scholarship as well. What sets the Epistle apart, and makes it especially “Dantean”, is that it presents itself not simply as accessus and commentary, but rather as anio-accessus and auto-commentary — whether the Dante who is named in the heading and who apparently speaks in the first person here and there n the document is authentic or whether he is an artful impersonation. It is rather shocking to note that this extraordinary fact, the single most salient feature of the Epistle, has gone unanalyzed by both sides of the authenticity debate — proponenis taking it, as it were, for granted that Dante would indulge in self-exegesis and then getting on with the more pressing business of using it as a tool for interpretation of the Commedia; opponents removing it as quickly as possible from the field of play so that they, too, can get back to the Commedia, without ever asking themselves what in the world it might mean to forge an auto-exegetical text “by Dante”? Both sides thus frequently lose track of what I would argue is the real historical significance of the Epistle — its place in the history of a fraslatio litterarum from Latin to vemnacular, its role in defining Dante as a canonical literary authority, and its participation n. a generalized process of inventing the modern, self-reflexive author.
In what follows, I will attempt to give substance to the claim that Dante is “in” the Epistle to Cangrande, whether or not he wrote it, by tuming to a detailed analysis of the text. I will begin with a catalogue of the various ways that the document depends directly on Dante’s works individualiy and on his cultural project more broadly understood, giving special attention to the fact that the. Epistle itself repeatedly takes up a range of questions about authority and authenticity that pervade Dante’s oeuvre from beginning to end. I will then tum to a specific consideration of the central section of the document, the general introduction both to the Commedia as a whole and to the Paradiso (§§V-XVI), whose generic affinity to the accessus ad auctores, typically used to introduce literary giants like Virgil as well as prestigious texts in other doctrinae, makes it the most obviously relevant to the Dantean quest for authority.
Before proceeding, however, I need to say a few more words about the authenticity debate. It should already be abundantly clear that Î do not want to enter directly into the controversy over the authorship of the Episdle, that, in fact, I would like to offer an alternative way of considering the document. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that I do not yet have a definitive opinion about the authorship of the document (or its various parts), and in fact tend to share Edward Moore’s very reasonable pronouncement of ninety years ago that the question can never be settled once and for all (p. 351), although I do have strongly held opinions about some of the specific types of evidence and argumentation that have been deployed by its participants. To the extent that it is relevant to the debate, my reading tends to make Dantean authorship plausible. On the other hand, it does not exclude the hypothesis of a complete or partial forgery either, rather, it tends to provide a clearer picture of what the motivation for such a falsario might be and how he might have produced the remarkably Dantean document that he did. The second, and more important, reason for avoiding the controversy is that I agree wholeheartedly with the collective authorship/editorship of Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c.1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition, that “This question has tended to displace or postpone discussion of the letter’s intrinsic importance [as well as its historical significance, I would add], or to preestablish the lines along which such discussion will develop” (p. 440).
For all of their differences, the two sides of the authenticity debate tend to share a basic premise which has important, and at times inauspicious, methodological corollaries. As has recently been noted, the Epistle #0 Cangrande is treated by both sides in subordinate relation to Dante’s other works, especially the Commedia — its authenticity is affirmed or denied in tandem with the critic’s perception that it either supports or undermines her or his interpretation of the poem. Thus the discussion of allegory in paragraph VII tends io garner approving responses from the authenticity crowd, while the section on the rifu/us, and especially the multiple definitions of comedia, draws the disdain of those favoring inauùthenticity. In other words, both sides assume that, as far as internal evidence is concerned, the authenticity or inauthenticity of the Epistle depends on its conceptual coherence with the earlier works, especially the Commedia.
At some level, of course, this standard of coherence is appropriate. The Epistle presents itself as an exegesis of the Commedia, so it should, if it is by Dante, have something substantive to say about the poem. It is worth noting, however, that the document clearly has more than one purpose: in its opening and closing sections it is a plea for “friendship”, but also for patronage, from Cangrande della Scala, imperial Vicar in Italy; in its choice of the accessus and commentary forms and their standard critical vocabulary, it is an attempt to reconcile the Commedia with ways of conceiving poetry that may, in fact, be partially or wholly inadequate to the task of describing the “sacrato poema”; finally, in all of its parts it reveals a drive to establish the literary and doctrinal auctoritas of Dante and his poem. And it may be that these multiple purposes determine the content of the Epistle as much or more than the impulse to “tell the truth” about the Commedia, which, after all, speaks pretty well for itself.
Even before pointing out the many internal and external reasons this document in particular could be acknowledged as “inconsistent’ or “ncoherent” and yet still intensely Dantean, however, let us recall the well-known fact that in the Dantean ceuvre as a whole the appearance of contradiction between one text and another is as often a characteristic feature of Dante’s thought and writing as is the appearance of continuity and coherence, as the lengthy debate in Dante criticism on the issue of the palinode clearly demonstrates. Equally characteristic, as we also know, is the practice of continually entering into new generic fields with consequent stylistic and conceptual adaptations, the experimentalism of Dante which Contini rightly stressed.
Some of the topics which undergo prominent shifts within the uncontested Dantean corpus show up again in the Epistle, only to be then labelled as “inautbentic” or “authentic” just because they appear either inconsistent or consistent to, the critic in question. Among these are “allegory” and “comedy”, as already mentioned, as well as the status of the vernacular, and others. I will retum to address these particular issues in due course, but first I would like to offer a somewhat different example of the problems that arise when one makes consistency the touchstone of authenticity. I refer to the recent debate surrounding the use of Latin prose rhythms known as the cursus in all or part of the Epistle, which has focused on the degree to which it is compatible with Dantean practice elsewhere in his Latin @uvre, with the aim, usually, of disproving authenticity.
I should begin with two caveats: the first is that I am not enough of a Latinist to judge accurately the truth or falsity of cursus counts made by those who have worked this vein; second, that I have no quarrel in principle with using this method of analysis — just with the way it has been used to date. I would, for example, want to hear substantive replies to Robert Hollander’s assertion that those who argue for inauthenticity by claiming that the cursus is used less frequently in the Epistle than in the rest of Dante's expository prose have either ignored or glossed over results for two other expository texts (that is, Monarchia and Quaestio de aqua et terra, the Latin works most closely contemporaneous with the Epistle, if it is authentic) which also differ considerably from De vulgari eloquentia and the other Epistolae (Dante's Epistle, pp. 47-49). In other words, I suspect that such critics may well fail to note that in stylistic matters as well Dante might be consistent in his inconsistency.
Furthermore, the statistical significance of these results is especially hard to judge because these studies almost invariably compare Dante to Dante (or pseudo-Dante) and make no attempt to determine the most obviously relevant factor -— namely how common the cursus is in a given genre in the universe of late medieval discourse. Kelly is the only one to go outside the Dantean corpus for evidence, arguing that the percentage of cursus in the “expository”, rather than the epistolary, section of the Epistle is much closer to the counts in the fourteenth-century Dante commentators, from whom he believes the text actually derives, and to fourteenth-century expositional prose generally, than to Dante’s expository treatises. But even these results, assuming their accuracy, raise more questions than they solve: does the expository section of the Epistle resemble the Latin commentators on Dante because most or all accessus writing before and after Dante has a low cursus count rather than because it derives from them? What this evidence really suggests, in other words, is that the expository section should not be judged against “exposition” in general, but rather against examples from the specific expository genre or genres to which it belongs. To put it simply: is the cursus commonly practiced in accessus, and if so, how frequently? Until such evidence is forthcoming, is held to more stringent and appropriate statistical criteria, and is weighed more carefully in the balance with numerous other factors, no conclusions can be legitimately drawn even from Kelly’s analysis, much less from others less prudent methodologically.
Let me be clear, however, that I do not regard the clear limitations of the cursus argument as proof of the Epistle's authenticity in any way, though I reject the claims that it proves inauthenticity. Rather, I offer this example as a warning against too easily deciding what constitutes consistency Or inconsistency, as well as against the notion that even provable inconsistency is a guarantee of inauthenticity when dealing with an author whose stylistic, conceptual, and generic range is as vast as Dante’s. After all, were the cursus used in a way virtually indistinguishable from that in De vulgari eloquentia, and were there other pressing reasons to doubt Dantean authorship, one might just as well argue that a clever forger would be more likely to duplicate the style of an earlier Dantean work than Dante himself! The case of the cursus reinforces two other methodological points as well. The first is that it would be a mistake to judge the significance of single Dantean, or pseudo-Dantean, texts with reference to the Dantean corpus alone. In particular it suggests that we need to pay even more attention than we have previously to the medieval precedents for the Epistle and its individual parts. It also, paradoxically, suggests the obverse conclusion — that we need to read the Epistle integrally, as a document with a definite generic identity, with a | clear formal structure that establishes relations between its single parts and a specific set of purposes, which include not only a limited description of the Commedia, but also, as asserted earlier, the acquisition of patronage from a powerful Signore and the presentation of Dante as auctor and his poem as auctoritas.
In what ways, then, can we say that Dante is responsible for the Epistle to Cangrande, even if he is not its author: in what ways is Dante “in” this text? While I think it is clear that the appearance of structured contradiction between two texts (one echoing but also changing the other) is plausibly Dantean — and I will retum to specifics shortly — I would be reluctant to argue, for obvious reasons, that difference alone, or even resemblance-with-a-difference, constitutes textual filiation, much less identity of authorship. It is, in any case, very easy to show that the Epistle is permeated with more-and-less obvious allusions to specific language from Dante’s works, and that a number of its techniques and arguments are consistent with those he deploys at one time or another. Nor is this point at issue in the authenticity debate, as the frequent recourse to the argument “from clever forgery” among those sustaining inauthenticity suggests. Brugnoli in his commentary to the Epistle actually adduces a minimum of thirty points where the language of the text echoes or parallels a Dantean work or works, although on a few crucial occasions he argues that the thought expressed is not parallel even if the verbal texture is. Critics more friendly to Dantean authorship have noted greater numbers of parallels. Significantly, the two primary sources are, in this order, Convivio and the Commedia, with the other Epistolae in a distant third piace, and trace connections to De vulgari eloquentia and to Monarchia. What this information, without much further specification and analysis, already suggests is that whoever wrote the document and however he may have depended upon one of the commentators or another, he also depends upon an intimate and direct knowledge of at least one of Dante’s major texts besides the Commedia itself. That text, furthermore, is an obvious precedent, very likely the most obvious, for the Epistle's practice of auto-exegesis.
One general area of proximity is the concern that the Epistle’s author, along with other Trecento commentators, shares with Dante for adapting the critical categories not only of medieval literary theory but also of other disciplines — rhetoric, philosophy, and Biblical exegesis — for the description and analysis of vernacular language and poetry. For example, whatever one might think about the appropriateness of the specific definitions elaborated, the discussion of comedy and tragedy under the rubric of the titulus is in keeping with Dante’s concem in De vulgari eloquentia (and, fugitively, in Convivio I, v, 8) for developing a theoretical understanding of the applicability of the classical genres to vernacular literature and his practical deployment of the two categories, in clearly contrastive relation, within the body of the Inferno. Even more specifically, the author of the Epistle, by claiming that the Commedia reflects the stylistic dicta pertaining to the genre of comedy because it is written in the vernacular and is for that reason specifically to be considered a “mod[us] loquendi [...] remisse et humiliter” [the manner of speaking [...] unstudied and low], shows that he shares at least two of Dante’s basic preoccupations: that, just mentioned, of transferring the stylistic categories of Latin rhetoric and poetics to the vernacular and that of trying to confront and justify the inferior status of the vernacular language vis-à-vis Latin.
Again, while the discussion of fourfold exegesis in paragraph VII may or may not be taken as an appropriate or accurate model for reading the Commedia, its proximate source is cleariy-the discussion of two types of allegory in Convivio. There, of course, Dante deploys a fourfold model of literal sense plus the same three allegorical-senses listed in the Epistle (allegorical, moral, anagogical), even as he clearly states that the poets and theologians take allegory in different ways. It is true that significant precedents exist for applying a three or fourfold model to the reading of secular poetry. It is also true that as early as the twelfth-century Dialogus super auctores of Conrad of Hirsau we can find the clear assumption that allegory, tropology, and even anagogy (defined in a decidediy non-eschatological way, however: “anagogen [est] superior intellectus” [anagogy is higher understanding]; Huygens, p. 78; see also De Lubac, II pt. 2, p. 211]) can be adapted ascategories for understanding the sense of secular literature. Nonetheless, as Hollander has repeatedly asserted, we have yet to “uncover any significant precedent for using Biblical examples to illustrate the fourfold model in a context where it is applied to secular poetry (“Dante as theologus-poeta”, pp. 41-42). This process begins in Convivio II, i, where the moral and anagogical senses are exemplified, respectively, with reference to the Transfiguration and to Exodus, just after the allegorical sense proper has been illustrated with the classical, poetic example of Orpheus. It culminates in the Epistle, whoever its author may have been.
The Epistle thus seems to be directly indebted to Convivio. This is so in at least three major ways. The first, as we have just seen, is the use of both the fourfold model of interpretation and of Biblical examples in conjuction with a description of poetic allegory, and hence the direct juxtaposition of poetic and Biblical modi tractandi or “forms of the treatment”. The second point of contact, and the one most commonly noted, is the use of the Exodus story in particular as privileged example. This example, significantiy, does not appear in any of the early commentaries, Guido da Pisa’s and others, which make reference to the fourfold scheme. They instead use the example of Minos, infernal judge, taken from the Commneda itself, thus avoiding the mingling of poetic and Biblical examples. Nor is Exodus even the most common example used to illustrate the fourfold model in its strict theologica] presentation (Minnis et al., p. 443 and n. 19). Finally, and crucially, the two texts share a reluctance or inability to appiy two of the three allegorical senses directly to a reading of poetry, even as they imply the possibility of so doing. In other words, in both Convivio and the Epistle the desire to associate Dante’s poetry with the authority of the Bible, and even more with the prestige of scholastic hermeneutics, is attended by a studied failure to draw all the practical consequences of such an association (see Scott, “Dante’s allegory”, p. 583; Minnis et al., p. 383), whether because of an inability to give a fully coherent account of how the fourfo!d scheme maps onto a given poem, a fear of inquisitoriai sanction if one pressed the analogy too far, or some other reason. In short, the evidence suggests that paragraph VII is elaborated directly from Convivio II, i by someone who saw its implications clearly and knew the Biblical exegetical tradition very well (better, clearly, than Dante did in the earliest years of his exile). I will come back later to the question of the place of paragraph VII in the textual economy of the accessus section of the Epistle.
In one aspect, the invocation of the fourfold exegetical model points toward a larger feature that pervades Dante’s oeuvre thematically and structurally and that the Epistle fully shares with it — namely the desire to place itself and Dante’s discourse in relation to a panorama of significant and prestigious intellectual disciplines and modes of writing. We should recall the wide range of philosophical genres (political [Monarchia], linguistic [De vulgari eloquentia], scientific [Quaestio de aqua et terra), and moral [Convivio]) that Dante enters into — and the specific ways in which Convivio claims philosophical content for poetry — just as the Commedia is extravagant in its willingness, increasing with each successive canticle, to elaborate scientific, ethical, metaphysical, and theological disquisitions. The presence of the fourfold model in the Episttle may well call attention to or create a parallelism between the Commedia and Scripture. More immediately, however, it unquestionably marks the Epistle’s own claim of relationship to the discipline of theology as articulated in Summae, where the model commonly appears, and scholastic treatises of other kinds.
Above all, the use of the accessus constitutes a hinge by which the Epistle attaches itself to a spectrum of disciplines, all of which had adapted that form to their specific characteristics. It has been repeatedly pointed out that the list of ten modi tractandi in paragraph IX is actually a combination of two lists of five, each of which is appropriate to a specific type of discourse. The first sequence (“poeticus, fictivus, descriptivus, digressivus, transumptivus” [poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive]) is clearly packed with terms applied to literary discourse, although these terms are easy (often easier) to find in Scriptural accessus as well. The second set of five modi (“diffinitivas, divisivus, probativus, improbativus, et exemplorum positivus” [by definition, division, proof, refutation, and the giving of examples]) is frequently found as such, unlike the first sequence, for which no exact parallels have been located to date, in a wide range of “scientific” texts, all of which fall under the general rubric of philosophy. In other words, within the space of two paragraphs, the Epistle aligns itself with three different disciplines: grammar (which had charge of the literary accessus per se), dialectic (as the privileged instrument of philosophy), and theology. Finally, the discipline of rhetoric, which hovers in the background of Convivio, plays an important part, as Baranski and Paolazzi among others have suggested, in paragraph X, and becomes an explicit foil to poetry near the beginning of the commentary section (§§XVIII-XIX) both in the contrast between the function of invocation in rhetoric and in poetry (‘‘exordium [...] aliter fit a poetis, aliter fit a rethoribus” [the exordium […] becomes a different thing in the hands of a poet than it is in the hands of an oratori], §XVIII, 45) and in the citations of Cicero concerning the desired rbetorical effects of exordia on their audience (XIX, 49).
In a different sense, as well, the rhetoric of the Epistle is congruent with Dantean practice elsewhere. The commentary section clearly shows familiarity with the terminology of scholastic philosophy and rationalized theology and with its practices of argumentation, in a way that parallels Dante’s practice, especially in Monarchia. The accessus section, of course, is not “probativus”, that is, it does not proceed by syllogistic argument as much of the commentary section does (partial exceptions made, however, for §§V, VII and VIII), because of ifs generic function as elementary introduction to a text and the commentary on it. It is, however, “descriptivus” and, especially, “divisivus” in a way that many liferary accessus are not, but that does characterize Dante's literary criticism from its earliest incamation (see Moore, p. 295). Especially notable are the bipartite division of the subiectum, the tripartite subdivision of the modus tractatus, and, above all, the systematizing and rationalizing attention to the difference between introducing the poem as a whole which calls forth the one properly “probativus” section of the accessus (§V) and the careful distinctions made between topics (auctor, finis, genus philosophie) that apply equally to the poem and its parts and topics (subiectum, forma [or at least “forma tractatus”] and titulus) where the part must be defined differently from the whole. Both this section and the divisio elements of the analysis of Paradiso I (Paolazzi, p. 153) are comparable to various other Dantean texts, but especially to the oft-scorned and ignored divisio sections of the Vita Nuova. These seemingly tedious parsings of the youthful poet’s lyrics are a good example of an indisputably authentic portion of the Dantean euvre that critics have by and large felt should have been spurious. And yet recent work has shown the complexity of their role in the text and their extraordinary philosophical and even cosmological underpinnings. Again, this is not meant as proof of Dantean authorship, just of the extent to which the author of the Epistle is in tune with Dante’s project of broadening the discursive authority of the vemacular by assimilating the instruments of the central disciplines of Latin culture and with the specifically auto-exegetical form that this project takes.
This brings me to a second major area in which the Epistle seems fo reflect a basic and even obsessive set of Dantean concems: namely the biographical identity and personality of the author, and his rhetorical place both in the “text” of public opinion and in his own written texts. These elements are most prominent in the first four paragraphs, the epistolary section proper, though, as we shall see, they have interesting counterparts in the last two sections, and they do, to the chagrin of many of the Epistle’s critics, reappear in a particularly pathetic form in the next-to-last paragraph of the document (when the commentary breaks off because “urget mei rei familiaris angustia, ut hec et alia utilia reipublice derelinquere opportet” [anxiety about personal matters weighs upon me, and so I must put aside this and other works useful to the common good], §XXXII, 88, with segue into a plea for patronage). They are informed by the most widely acknowledged echoings of previous Dantean works, especially Convivio, in the Epistle, and it seems reasonable to claim that they constitute the grounds that many of the fiercest opponents of Dantean authorship for the bulk of the treatise - Mancini, Nardi, and their heirs - have not wished to deny the authenticity of the first four paragraphs (see especially Nardi, Il punto, pp. 5-10). From my perspective, obviously, they speak directly to the fandamental paradox that individuality and personality are consistently recognized by Dante as the greatest obstacles to the impersonal auctoritas he seeks, while his works consistentiy foreground “Dante” both as narrator, or analyst, and as protagonist, typically with lavish use of the first person.
From the strictly biographical point of view, the small amount of information offered concerning Dante’s exile — its financial hardships, his special esteem for Cangrande, and his love-hate relationship with his natal city — is all consistent with the authentic Dantean corpus and with what we know independently of the poet’s life, but also with what any aspiring fourteenth-century forger would have known as well (though the elegant disdain of the qualifier, “florentinus natione non moribus”, does evoke the master-hand rather poignantly). In any case, the most suggestive evidence in this vein is not biographical but rhetorical and conceptual. Primary, of course, is the protracted justification given by the first person narrator, “Dante”, for claiming a relationship of amicitia with his political and social superior, Cangrande. Brugnoli identifies Convivio III, i as source or analogue for several of the conceptual elements in this section, which is simultaneously apologetic and audaciously self-assertive, in a way that is familiar to us from much of Dante’s authenticated ceuvre. To this there is much to add. We know {that Dante very consistentiy expresses his personal and especially poetic identity in terms of his friendships: in the Vita Nuova in relation to his “primo amico”, Guido Cavalcanti; in De vulgari eloquentia, by identifying himself as the amicus of Cino da Pistoia; in Inferno II as the amico of Beatrice, but not of fortune; and so on. We know as well that he consistently adopts a complex attitude toward hierarchical authority — combining explicit deference to his institutional and cultural masters (Frederick Il and Aristotle in Convivio IV; Pope and Emperor in Monarchia; etc.) with more and less implicit assertions of his own autonomy and authority.
Just as interesting, from my point of view, is the fact that the discussion of “Dante’s” skeptical reaction to the “excessive” reputation of Cangrande (“preconium, facta modernorum exsuperans” [the report of your deeds, exceeding those of the moderms], §I, 2) which gives way before his experience of the Lord of Verona in person (Costa, p. 11), can be linked to the historical Dante’s general pronouncements on the topic of fama in Convivio (I, iii-iv; it is not irrelevant that Dante specifically ties the problem of reputation to the problem of friendship in I, iii, 7). Even more importantly, they constitute the exact obverse of the crucial discussion in Convivio where Dante describes how his exalted reputation was undermined by his personal presence (“sono apparito a li occhi a molti che forsechè per alcuna fama in altra forma m’aveano imaginato, nel conspetto de’ quali non solamente mia persona inviliò, ma di minor pregio si fece ogni opera, sì già fatta, come quella che fosse a fare”, I, iii, 5-6) when he took refuge in various Italian courts, like that of the della Scala in Verona, after he became “exul immeritus” (Ascoli, “The vowels of authority”, pp. 31-33). This apparent echo may suggest to us how precisely the Cangrande author reflects Dante's concem that his works, like Cangrande’s deeds, but also like those of the classical auciores, be considered as ‘“facta modernoram exsuperans”.
It has been suggested occasionally that the absence of similarly aggressive assertions of first person authorship in the latter two sections of the Epistle are grounds for clalming they were authored by a different, and more clearly non-Dantean, hand (or hands). In both sections the narrating accessor and/or commentator surfaces only occasionaliy in a first-person singular verb. At the same time he imposes an impenetrabile grammatica] barrier between himself and the author who is his object of study, but also, in the rhetoric of the Epistle, identical with himself. In the accessus section the author appears only fugitively, as part of the titulus: “Incipit Comedia Dantis Alagherii, fiorentini natione non moribus” [here begins the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by birth but not in character] (§X, 28; see also §XIII, 37), though this part of the title is given no exegesis at all; and under the heading “agens”, one of the “sex inquirenda” [six topics of inquiry], where, nonetheless, there is only a cross-reference back to the title (§XIV, 38). In the commentary section, by contrast, the author of the Paradiso, while never named, is repeatedly referred to in the third person singular, in obvious contrast to the first person commentator. In both cases, the effect of this rhetorical depersonalization of Dante-poeta within the Epistle’s rhetoric of auto-exegesis is clearly double: on the one hand, it betokens a stylistically prescribed humility; on the other, as I have repeatedly suggested here, it puts “Dante” in the place of the impersonal auctor worthy of “fede e obbedienza” and, above all, of commentary.
No doubt, in any case, that there is a confrast between the first section and the latter two as far as the rhetoric of self-reference is concerned, although the “I” of the epistle does not in fact specifically identify himself as the author of the Commedia, and names himself as “Dante” only in the formal heading, and although such differences as there are might be seen as determined by the shift in genre as the narrating “I” begins to speak “sub lectoris officio”. It is erucial to remember, furthermore, both that much of Dante's canonical oeuvre is characterized by elaborate strategies of self-effacement and depersonalization, including frequent recourse to a dual system of reference, “Dante” divided grammatically and/or rhetorically into two different roles within a single text, and that such strategies are deployed notwithstanding, and often in tandem with, Dante’s irresistable propensity for self-staging. Closest to the practice of the latter two sections of the Epistle is that of De vulgari eloquentia, where “Dante” the author of a Latin treatise speaks in the first person, while “Dante” the exemplary poet is never named, and is referred to euphemistically and in the third person for most of the treatise. The phenomenon, to be sure, takes on different forms in different texts, as in the Commedia where Dante is present continuously as “I”, both as pilgrim and as poet, but allows his name to be pronounced on only one occasion, and only then in the mode of reproof and with the pretext of constraint (Purg. XXX, 55). The rationale behind the uneasy dialectic of open self-reference with retorical self-effacement, that characterizes the canonical works of Dante, and that haunts the Epistle as a whole as well, can be found in the often-cited passage in Convivio which insists upon the rhetoricians’ taboo against self-reference, either for self-praise or for self-blame, only to then provide an elaborate explanation for the systematic violation of that taboo in the name of self-justification and the education of others (I, ii).
So far I have discussed two broad areas of Dantean influence in the Epistle, the use of traditional categories and tools of the Latin exegetical . tradition, and the problematic placement of the writer within the text, which roughly correspond, in reverse order, to the two semantic components of the term “auto-exegesis”. In the process, a third category of common interest has emerged in a number of ways. The Epistle, in all three of its major sections, shares Dante's perennial concern with the nature of auctoritas in a variety of. fields, with the relation of these different fields to one another, and with Dante's own historically and conceptually complex position in respect to them qua vernacular autore and aspiring auctor. The irony imhering in the fact that a debate over authorship and authenticity has raged unrelentingly around a text which itself consistently probes the standing of the auctor and the problem of auctoritas has been quite lost on Dante criticism.
We have seen that the Epistle, especially in its treatment of Dante”s relationship to Cangrande, shares Convivio’s concern with defining a role of mutual dependency between philosopher-poet and political authority (especially I, x, 5 and IV, vi, 17-20; see Ascoli, “The vowels of authority”, p. 30). We have seen that the Epistle shares the authentic Dante’s interest n appropriating for poetry in general, and his own vernacular poems in particular, the prestige and the tools of other disciplines, notably rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. We have seen that the Epistle follows De vulgari eloquentia and other works in effecting a traslatio of rhetorical and poetic terminology from Latin literature to the vernacular — and that it evokes the problem of situating the authority of the “locutio vulgaris in qua et muliercule comunicant’ [its speech is the vernacular, in which even women communicate] (§X, 31) in relation to the overwhelming prestige of Latin.
We can now see that in each of the three sections of the document, the authority of Dante personally is both problematized and asserted. The epistolary section is dominated by the elaborate discussion of whether Dante can claim to be Cangrande’s amicus, despite ihe great differences in their social standing. The commentary section refers to the hope of capturing the audience’s docilitas, its acquiescence to the possible truth of the journey recounted in Paradiso, precisely by the verisimilar confession that the poem recalls oniy what the pilgrim’s limited human intellect could retain (§XIX, 50). And it offers the even more striking reply to those who might object to one who is still “in sin” claiming visionary experience by comparing the pilgrim-poet’s experience to that of Nebuchadnezzar (§XXVIII, 81). Finally, as we have already seen, and as we will now see in even greater detail, the accessus section both addresses specific aspects of the authors aucroritas and is itself the sign of an authority reserved for true auctores.
Thus, the three topics through which I have tried to place Dante, or at least his historical influence, “in” the Epistle to Cangrande, namely the problem of authority, the representation of the author, and the development a technical vocabulary to describe a literary work in the vernacular — all converge on what I have from the beginning of this chapter pointed to as the most Dantean aspect of the Epistle, its status as auto-exegesis whose primary purpose is conferring aucforitas on the work it glosses. Dante is responsible for producing a vernacular text, the Commedia, that elicits detailed introduction and commentary according to schemes typically reserved for either classical auctoritates or for books of the Bible. He is responsible for portraying himself as a vernacular “autore”, a “binder of words”, who is also, at least by implication, “worthy of faith and obedience”. Most significantly, he is responsible for having developed in the major works which preceded the Commedia related schemes of academic commentary applied to vernacular texts by their own author. In other words, if the Epistle to Cangrande is a forgery that imitates the hand of Dante, a large measure of the verisimilitude of that imitation derives from the fact that it takes the form of an auto-comment in which auctor and commentator are ostensibly identical, a trait characteristic of Dante in a way that is virtually unique in this epoch.
The Epistle, of course, is a very different kind of commentary from those unquestionably written by Dante, although those works in turn differ significantly among themselves. In particular, it differs strikingly from the Vita Nuova and Convivio in two ways. First, it is separated from the text it comments upon, in this sense abandoning the complex hybrid structure of the earlier works. As previously noted, however, it does combine three distinct genres within itself (letter, accessus, commentary). Moreover, the Commedia itself already constitutes a radical departure from the form of prosimetrum, blending the three elements, narrative, poetry, and analytic, that are separated from one another in the Vita Nuova through the synthetic magic of terza rima.
Secondly, and most important for imy purposes here, the form of the auto-exegetical portion of the Epistle is a much more traditional one than that of either of the earlier works, even though it too has some significantly innovative aspects within the limits of its form. Written in Latin (like De vulgari eloquentia, but unlike the two prosimetra), its central, and by ali accounts most significant and debatable, section follows closely the form of an accessus ad auctores, the general introduction appended to authoritative school texts in all fields, including literature, various kinds of philosophy, law, medicine, and, of course, the books of Scripture. As noted earlier, by now both the accessus genre and its applicability to the Epistle’s survey of the “sex [...] que in principio cuiusque doctrinalis operis inquirenda sunt, videlicet subiectum, agens, forma, finis, libri titulus et genus phylosophie” [six questions which should be asked at the beginning about any doctrinal work: what is its subject, its form, its agent, its end, the title of the book, and its branch of philosophy] (§VI, 18) have been ampiy described by scholars (see note 15 above). We know that all six topics are common to the genre, and are especially close to one standard model, the “type C'’ prologue (in Hunt's classification) which had taken hold in the late eleventh and the twelfth centuries and had continued to evolve thereafter in directions that point toward the Epistle (Minnis et al., pp. 12-15 et passim). We know that the choice of this particular model is a doubly traditional one, in the sense that at least by the late thirteenth century some literary prologues, under the influence of scholastic theology and its application to Biblical exegesis, had begun to adopt an accessus model based on the four Aristotelian causes (final, formal, efficient, and material). We know as well that the adoption of the four causes model for literary accessus was part of a more general trend of reciprocal influence between accessus forms in different disciplines, especially between literary and scriptural exegesis. We can see that influence at work in the Epistle, even lacking reference to the four causes, in the form of the scholasticizing divisio fextus that appears in both the accessus proper and in the following commentary (see also Minnis et al., pp.4-5; Parker, p. 27, n. 6), in the introduction of terminology from “scientific” accessus in the modus tractandi section, and, most spectacularly, in the presence of the fourfold model of exegesis in paragraph VII.
What we do not understand very well yet is exactly how the particular configuration of the accessus in the Epistle compares to specifically literary examples of the genre that were being read and written in the period leading up to Dante”s maturity (see notes 33 and 43 above). Nor, for ali the use that the accessus model has been put to in the authenticity controversy, have we tried to analyze carefully the internal dynamics of paragraphs V to XVI, that is, the rhetorical shape and purpose of the accessus section as a whole. For example, there has been very little serious discussion of the structural position and function of the fourfold exegetical model in the logic of this accessus, and none thai does not ultimately focus on its separable applicability to the Cominedia itself. But this is a topic that will be treated more fully later on.
For the moment I would like to address the relatively traditional status of the Episile’s accessus in relation both to the prologue tradition generally and to earlier examples of Dantean exegesis. Zygmunt Baranski has recently argued that the extremely conservative and traditional character of the Episile, and especially of the accessus section, is completely incompatibile with Dante's defining propensity for innovation (“Comedia”, pp.33-34). This claim deserves serious consideration, but also significant qualification. First, as I have just noted, the accessus section does reflect some of the innovations in the genre during the thirteenth century. Moreover, its “standard” character is compatible with Dante’s increasing familiarity with and mastery of the normative discourses of Latin culture, medieval and classical, in his later writing, a fact reflected in the two works which take, respectively, the standard forms of a fractatus (Monarchia) and a quaestio (the Quaestio de aqua et terra) and in a pastoral Eclogue, which closely imitates a classical model. One might argue as well that the achievement of the. Commedia itself, particularly its insertion of the author into a position of full parity with the greatest classical poets (“sì ch'io fui sesto tra cotanto senno”, Inf. IV, 102) left Dante, or for that matter, anybody else, in a position to assert his stature as auctor in more conventional terms than he had earlier on. The Epistle is less in the business of inventing authority for Dante which he does not yet possess, than it is in affirming an authority already acquired.
The basic point, however, is that Baranski, in order to make his claim, has to forget what he himself had earlier asserted quite convincingly, namely that Dante always operates through a dialectic that includes bor tradition and innovation (“Comedìa”, p. 30; see also p. 40), and, in fact, I would add, often comes to his innovations in part precisely through his elaborate attempts to make himself part of an authoritative tradition. Let us grant for the moment that the accessus is a tissue of clichés with nothing new or original in it (a point that in itself, I will soon suggest, needs serious qualification) — we are still left with the astounding fact that prior to the fourteenth century the Latin accessus form had not ever been used to introduce a contemporary vernacular text (the Cavalcanti and Mussato commentaries date from roughly the same period; the vidas and razos are only approximate equivalents and are not written in Latin) and had rarely been deployed in the mode of auto-exegesis. In other words, the introduction of a traditional accessus form, with all its shopworn clichés, into the context of early fourteenth-century Italy, applied to this particular text and this particular author, in the rbetorical mode of auto-exegesis, would have been a fundamental innovation, even a historical watershed.
It is now time to return to the series of prologue topics, the “sex [...] inquirenda”, plus the discussion of the fourfold model of exegesis that introduces the heading of subiectum. So far, I have, like so many critics, treated the topics in isolation from each other and from their generic context. Now, however, I will try to consider their significance both in terms of the accessus as a specific critical genre with particular purposes and limitations, and in terms of their function in the economy of the Epistle’s accessus section as a whole, For example, I would agree with Baranski, Kelly, and others that keeping the perspective of the accessus form in mind for understanding of the ritulus heading is crucial, though for very different reasons than them. I earlier suggested that a primary purpose of writing an accessus on the Commedia is to continue a process of transferring categories from the study of classical Latin literature in its traditional forms to that of vernacular literature in its new forms (and none newer than the Commedia), and that this purpose is eminently, though by no means exclusively, Dantean. From this perspective it may be inappropriate to expect even Dante himself, much less a later forger, to have used an accessus to develop a fully satisfactory definition of the poems title. The literary accessus is not usually, despite its adaptations of scholastic vocabulary and other formal features, a vehicle for extended speculative argumentation which is probativus. Rather, it typically rehearses and applies a set of standard descriptive categories that re-appear over and over again in this genre. And that, of course, is why it is the perfect vehicle for normalizing Dante's status as an auctor, but an jll-chosen means for elaborating innovative criticism of the poem.
It is common practice by now to review the options of generic definition available to “Dante” or to “Pseudo-Dante” and to conclude that his choices are not only banal, but also inconsistent with his earlier discussion of genre and style in De vulgari eloquentia and inadequate as descriptions of the Commedia.To understand the schematic banality of the Epistle’s treatment of comedy, critics have tended to go to the rhetorical treatises, medieval dictionaries, and poetriae. Nonetheless, without contesting that the proximate source of the Epistle’s definitions is Uguccione da Pisa, it seems to me appropriate to look at other examples from within the accessus tradition, where commentators never tire of rehearsing the usual etymologies of tragedy and comedy, as well as of other generic categories, at the least provocation, without much regard to the appropriateness of their application or any real attempt to rationalize that application. By those standards, in fact, the Epistle’s treatment seems relatively complex, and introduces an issue, the generic standing of the vernacular, which, for obvious reasons, never appears in a typical accessus.
The issue of consistency thus becomes somewhat less crucial, if we take into account both the specific generic purposes and limitations of the accessus form, as well as the fact, amply discussed above, that inconsistency is a Dantean hallmark and is often explicable precisely in generic terms (that is, what is suitably said in one generic context is not appropriate in another). Perhaps the question is worth pushing a litile further, however. Let us begin with the fact that despite claims to the contrary, De vulgari eloquentia 18 by no means more consistent or adequate as a guide to the Commedia than the Epistle and almost certainiy does not represent Dante’s stable and unvarying thoughts on tragedy and comedy in either stylistic or generic terms. The De vulgari eloquentia, of course, develops a prestige language and a prestige poetic style, the “volgare illustre” and the “tragic” respectively, both of which are said to find their fullest expression in the cantio or canzone. The Commedia, however, clearly represents an entirely new development in vernacular poetic form — its range of styles, its titular genrè, and its prosodic form effectively constitute a point-by-point departure from the detailed definition of the canzio in the earlier treatise.
The crucial question, one that is virtually never asked in the authenticity debate, is whether there is any definition of “comedy” available in the Latin critical tradition that would be fully adequate to a vemacular poem, much less to the Commedia. With Baranski, I think that the answer is a resounding “no”, although again I draw very different conclusions than he does as concems the Epistle's two definitions of “comedy” — the stylistic and linguistic (the Commedia is comic because written in the humble style of the vernacular) and the narrative (the Commedia is comic because it begins in sorrow and ends in happiness). The stylistic-linguistic question is the easiest to tackle, because the problems it presents are on full display already in De vulgari eloquentia.
The objections raised to the Epistle's linking of comic style to the vernacular are two: (a) De vulgari eloquentia establishes the nobility of the vernacular in general and of the illustrious vernacular in particular, and (b) the Commedia uses a full range of styles from the humble to fhe sublime and admirable and thus, on both counts, the phrase “remisse et humiliter” is inappropriate. The problem, as ! see it, lies in the insuperable logical difficulties that the authors of De vulgari eloquentia and the Epistle both confront in explicitly transferring the stylistic categories of grammatica into the domain of the vernacular, a problem the author of the Commedia does not face, for the simple reason that he never bothers to discuss the issue explicitly, but rather represents it figuratively and allusively. In book I of De vulgari eloquentia, Dante first posits the nobility of the vernacular in general, but then goes on to separate out an illustrious vernacular whose stylistic dignity is in obvious contrast with the Babelic multiplicity of clearly ignoble and “low” vernaculars dotting the Italian peninsula. However, when he gets down to practical generic distinctions among types of vernacular poetry in Book II, he is never very clear about the standing of the illustrious vernacular. He distinguishes three levels of style and three genres to go with them (although the comic genre may include two styles, the middle and the low), obviously adapting the basic generic/stylistic categories of Latin rbetoric and poetics, with an idiosyncratic difference. This adaptation works as far as the “tragic’” cantio is concerned, since its high style is easily conflatable with the illustrious vernacular. But what about the others, which are not so elaborately treated? Does the “volgare illustre” contain the same full range of styles, from high to low, that Latin does? Is vernacular comedy illustrious or does it borrow its low elements from the municipal and regional vernaculars?
Dante never answers these questions and thus never fulfills his implicit goal of mapping the prestige of Latin language and rhetoric onto vernacular poetry - precisely because he never comes to a logically satisfying definition of the relation between Latin and vermacular languages. The vernacular is nobler in principle than grammar because it is “natural” and not “artificial”, but the illustriocus vernacular is a language of art and the cantio deploys a language of artifice in obvious imitation of high, Latin style — to press the question in Book II would be to undo all of the elegantly deceptive footwork of Book I In short, De vulgari eloquentia does not constitute a true superseding of the Convivio’s characterization of Latin's mastery over the “servant” vernacular; rather, the two possibilities both remain open without hope of a theoretical resolution (the resolution of course is practical and historical — Dante writes the Commedia, the vernacular, several centuries later, finally wins out in its battle with Latin). And the consequence is that whenever the issue of vernacular style comes up it is subject to two parallel but not fully compatible schema — the possibility of a full range of styles, in the Latin rhetorical mode, from high to low within the vernacular; the problem of the vernacular’s intrinsic cultural lowness vis-à-vis Latin.
Precisely this dilemma then surfaces in the Epistle’s stylistic definition of the Commedia, though not of comedy in general, as written “remisse et humiliter”, not because of its subject matter (which was an option available through Uguccione), but because of its language of composition. The reference to the humility of the vernacular “in qua et muliercule comunicant”, is thus congruent with the “vulgarem locutionem [...] quam sine omni regula nutricem imitantes accipimus” [the vernacular speech which we acquire without any rules by imitating our wetnurse] (DVE I, i, 2), with the language of the “poeta volgare [...] che volle fare intendere le sue parole a donna” (VN, XXV), and with the extended linguistic discussions in Convivio (I, v-xiii). And its dual function is (a) to emphasize the transfer of Latin categories to the vernacular, while (b) maintaining the pose of respeciful humility that Dante so often adopts in his treatment of grammatica and the Latin classics.
As for the adequacy of the primary, narrative, definition of comedy according to a “materia” which “a principio horribilis et fetidus est, quia Infernus, in fine prospera desiderabilis et grata, quia Paradisus” [at the beginning, that is in Hell, it is foul and conducive to horror, but at the end, in Paradise, it is prosperous, conducive to pleasure, and welcome] (§X, 31), again the question is whether an adequate definition was available at all in the Latin tradition. On the whole, even critics who contest'the authenticity of the Epistle based on the inappropriateness of this definition have not clalmed to offer fully convincing alternatives — to the point where it often seems that their real problem is with the title of the poem itself, not with the Epistle's treatment of it. The most ingenious proposal is that of Baranski, who says that while no single definition of comedy in the rhetorical tradition is adequate to the poetics of the Commedia, all of them taken together are and that Dante thus entitled his poem to evoke the full range of definitional possibilities (“Dante and the Latin comic tradition”, pp. 20-22; also in “Comedia”, pp. 36-38). The problem with this solution, however, is that it is purely conjectural, since Barafski offers no evidence that Dante directly refers to most of the definitions he adduces, either in the Commedia or elsewhere.
The very same problem afflicts two of the most tempting alternative solutions that have been offered to explain the title. Many critics have followed Erich Auerbach’s assertion that Dante’s Christian faith, combined with Augustine’s Christianizing of classical rhetoric, allowed him to conceive of a sermo humilis which reflects the universality and humility of Christian personal spirituality. This is undoubtedly the simplest way to explain the stylistic range of the Commedia, and should, together with due recognition of the widely varied linguistic experiences of Dante’s exile, probably continue to be used in describing his poetic practice. Practice, however, is rarely identica! with the theories used to explain it — and there is absolutely no trace of reference to the sermo humilis or to De doctrina christiana in Dante’s explicit, theoretical discussions of the question of style any more than there is in the Episrle. A second hypothesis, again quite tempting, is Paolazzi’s ingenious effort (pp. 168-73 et passim) to find in the Epistle and elsewhere traces of a common rhetorical distinction between three types of discourse — fabula, argumentum, and historia — the second of which is often linked to comedy and is said to treat “ficta res quae tamen fieri potuit” [fictive things which nonetheless might possibly exist], namely, is verisimilar in a way that bears out Singleton’s formula for the Commedia, “the fiction is that it is not a fiction”. Here again, the problem is that Dante, not to mention Pseudo-Dante, never uses this definition explicitly and that Paolazzi does not explain why the author of the Epistle would allude to it so obliquely when he could give it directly.
The questions remain open, then: why did Dante give the poem this title, and why does the author of the Epistle, Dante or not, offer an inadequate explanation rather than none at all? My answer to the first question is not much of an answer, but it seems to be the only one available, given the lack of evidence, namely that the designation Commedia is less of a definition of the poem than the poem is a redefinition of what “comedy” might mean, and thus constitutes the only sufficient gloss on its own title (Ferrucci, p. 51; Battaglia Ricci, Dante e la tradizione, pp. 34-36). Secondarily, as I have already suggested, both the poem’s title and the treatment of it in the Epistle can both best be understood as part of the eminently Dantean dialectic of tradition and innovation, classical and vernacular, rather than strictly in terms of logical explanatory power: this title both marks Dante’s assimilation of the classical poetic tradition and, at the very same time, highlights his, and the vernacular’s, and Christianity’s, inreconcilable differences from it. Similarly, the use of the accessus form reflects, directly or at a distance, Dante’s assimilation and simultaneous transformation of the Latin critical tradition. With such a struggle in progress, it is hardly surprising that we puzzle over fhe exact meaning of the title or find the Epistle's accessus confusing at times. But, to answer my second question more directly, it is also not surprising that, having committed to writing a classicizing accessus on the Commedia, for the purpose of affirming Dante’s auctoritas, the author of the Epistle includes in it this kind of discussion of the titulus, since it is an absolute requirement of the critical genre.
Finally, I would like to note that the Epistle’s primary definition of comedy, though certainly partial, and in this sense inadequate, is actually not at all irrelevant to a description of the Commedia, and in fact may be both the simplest and best choice for adapting an available definition of comedy to the “sacrato poema”. It has, first of all, the virtue of being undeniably accurate. lt also responds nicely to one of the major ways in which Dante’s poetics shifted between De vulgari eloquentia and the Commedia. In De vulgari eloquentia, the definition of.cantio assumes the essentially lyric nature of the form, and thus concentrates first of all on the decorous intersection of thematic content with appropriate style. The Commedia, by contrast, is first of all a narrative and this fact must be held at least partly responsible for the many shifts that take place between the two works. The Epistle’s narrative definition both is faithful to an essential characteristic of the Commedia and highlights one of the very few points at which Dante’s poem could be said to resemble a classical comic drama, in whatever contorted form he may have conceived that genre.
Consideration of the tiulus section of the Epistle tends to stress the ways in which its author is using the accessus form to “naturalize” the Commedia, minimizing its innovative difference by linking it with traditional poetic and rhetorical norms (Schnapp, p. 462; Hollander, Dante’s Epistle, pp. 83-85), even at the cost of describing it inadequately. As we shall see later on, this is true as well of the definition of the poem’s “genus phylosophiae” as ethics. Ir will now consider four other headings of the accessus, which more obviously constitute departures from nonms of that critical genre and introduce clear elements of innovation, or at least of complication, alongside those that are more traditional.
I earlier argued that paragraph VII, the famous discussion of the fourfold model of Biblical exegesis, is eminently Dantean — not in the sense that it gives an accurate and complete model for how the Commedia is written or how it should be read, which I do not believe it does — but rather in the sense that it is the logical extension of Convivio’s bringing together of the categories of poetic interpretation and signification with those of theological exegesis and hermeneutics. What I want to concentrate on now is its rather anomalous place in this accessus particularly and in the accessus tradition generally, and on its peculiar relationship with not one but two of the accessus headings that follow, the forma, especially the subheading known as the forma, or modus, tractandi, and the subiectum.
I have previously registered provisional agreement with Robert Hollander’s claim that in some basic ways the presence of this variani of the fourfold model, which seems to imply an analogy, if not an absolute identity, between the Bible's mode of signifying and that of a secular, if paradigmatically Christian, poet, is new, scandalously new, in the fourteenth century. Looking at it from the perspective of the accessus tradition, the results are somewhat different, though not entirely incompatible with this conclusion. One may, with Minnis, Scott, and Wallace, contextualize fhis sudden introduction of theological material within a larger trend toward reciprocal influence between theological commentary and secular prologues, especially literary ones, without foregoing, as they do not forego, the observation that the Episfle constitutes a highly charged example of this process.
Even assuming the normalcy of conflating Biblical and literary accessus, however, paragraph VII is not ordinary. After an admittedly incomplete survey of the relevant accessus, I have come to the tentative conclusion that discussion of the fourfold model is not a typical part of the Scriptural accessus form, nor is it accommodated within the normal range of accessus topics, certainly not under the heading of causa formalis, especially in the aspect of modus tractandi, where one might most likely expect to find it. One reason for this seems to be implied by Henry of Ghent, in the excerpt from the Summae quaestionum ordinarium theologii receptio praeconio solennis translated in Minnis et al., where in order to avoid attributing intrinsic multiplicity to Scripture he treats the fourfold method not as an innate feature of the text but as a “mode of exposition” used by its interpreters. Most of the many well-known theological discussions of the fourfold method appear in Summae and other treatises of the probativus variety. This is even applicable to the one document in the accessus tradition proper, namely Conrad’s Dialogus super auctores, where we have seen that the standard fourfold scheme appears, albeit in secularized form, since the treatment of the four senses occurs in the introductory dialogue and not in any of the actual accessus that follow.
Paragraph VII, in fact, is the one element of the accessus section which does not fall neatly within the scheme of the “sex [...] inquirenda”. The fourfold scheme is not presented under any of the six descriptive headings. Rather, it is used by way of exemplifying what is meant by the word polisemos as applied to the “duplex subiectum” [twofold subject} that is then attributed to the Commedia. Thus it is not presented directly as a description of the poem’s materia or of its signifying process (see Scott, “Dante’s allegory”, pp. 583-87; Paolazzi, p. 133). Nor does the author of the Episile bother to explain how, exactly, the four scriptural senses map onto the “duplex subiectum”, literal and allegorical, that is given for the poem in paragraph VII And the apparent discrepancy between the fourfold model and the twofold subject has been another of the sources of discomfort for the Epistles crilics (Baranski, “Comedia”, pp. 39-42). Paragraph VII thus represents a rupture in the accessus scheme, but the exact purpose and nature of the rupture is not immediately clear.
A second piece of evidence suggests that while the Epistle’s author deliberately left the material of paragraph VII out of the body of the standard accessus, he saw its potential relevance not only to the subiecium, with which it is explicitly linked as an illustration of polysemous materiae, but also to the forma of the poem, which is treated in paragraph IX. It is one of the many curiosities of Epistle criticism that with all of the attention paid to the accessus form in the last fifty years, the critics have never explored the technical significance of a crucial tum of phrase used in the following passage: “Et primus dicitur litteralis, secundus vero allegoricus, sive moralis sive anagogicus. Qui modus tractandi, ut melius pateat, potest considerari in his versibus” [the first is called literal, while the second is called allegorica, or moral, or anagogical. And in order to make this mode of treatment clear, it can be considered in these verses] (§VII, 20-21). The four senses (or two, since one general allegorical sense contains all three specific ones) are specifically described as a modus tractandi, unexpectedly anticipating “official” consideration of the poem’s modus fractandi under the larger heading of forma two paragraphs later.
One interesting implication is that the model of the four senses potentially describes both the form and the subject, the signifier and the signified, of the text(s) it refers to — which points obliquely but surely to the special character of Scriptural allegoria in factis where the connection, the unity of signifying word and signified thing are guaranteed by the divine Word who authored them. Of more immediate concem in this context, however, is what this means for re-evaluating the much debated relationship between the Biblical senses described in paragraph VII and the first unit of five terms under the modus tractandi (“poeticus, fictivus [...]”). Exponents of the Singletonian reading of Dantean allegory have argued that the foregrounding of poetic fiction and figure under the explicit modus tractandi is not evidence that Dante is writing an “allegory of the poets” with a fictional literal sense, but rather alludes to the traditional recognition that poetry and Scripture alike make use of tropes and fables in the letter of the text. If we take seriously the use of the technical term, modus tractandi, to describe the four senses, however, this would suggest that we should again see the two passages as pofentially alternative to one another. Confirmation that this might be a deliberate strategy of the text comes if we retum to our eerlier recognition that already within the official list of modi tractandi, the Epistle’s author has juxtaposed two distinct versions of the “form of the treatment” — the scientific-rational and the literary-figurative. From this perspective, then, the Epistle sets up three alternative modi, side by side, without clarifying whether the text in question is a harmonious synthesis of poetry, philosophy, and theology, or whether instead these distinct disciplines are to a greater or lesser degree conflictual and incompatible. The one thing that is sure, by contrast, is the way in which the Epistle’s author, like Dante himself, is attributing to the Commedia an inclusive, even encyclopedic, relationship to the primary medieval disciplines and modes of knowledge.
Let us turn now to the second half of the question, namely the problematic relationship between paragraphs VII and VIIL As we saw earlier, the author of the Epistle deliberately associates the Commedia, a vernacular, poetic work, with a scheme of signification usually reserved for the Bible. However, by offering a formal definition of the poem’s subiectum which does not explicitiy follow the. fourfold scheme, he also deliberately refuses to make a specific application of that scheme to the poem. The literal subject, “the state of the souls after death”, bears no obvious relation to the historical Exodus story at all; while the allegorical sense matches up not with the first and primary figurative sense, the one which is itself called “allegory” and which refers to the Christ event, but rather with the second of the three, the tropological or moral sense. The formula of paragraph VIII, “homo prout merendo et demerendo per arbitrii libertatem iustitie premiandi et puniendi obnoxius est” [man, in the exercise of his free will, earning or becoming Hiable to the rewards or punishments of justice] clearly corresponds to that of paragraph VII: “conversio anime de luctu et miseria peccati ad statum gratie” [conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace], as critics have often recognized. In this sense the duplex subiectum of the Epistle has much closer affinities with the description of poetic allegory in Convivio, where the primary allegorical sense is clearly also moral, and is exemplified by Orpheus leading unlearned people to virtue and knowledge by the use of rhetoric and philosophy.
Having so far emphasized the disjunction between paragraphs VII and VII, I would like to point out, however, that it is possible to hypothesize a process of thought that leads from one to the other, although not without a certain dislocation. The necessary assumption for this hypothesis is that the author of the Epistle recognized a simple, basic fact: that the fourfold model is inapplicable as such to the Commedia, not, or at least not only, because of the difference between poetry and Scripture, but because of a special problem presented by the literal subject of the “poema sacro”. Throughout the Commedia (with the marginal exception of the first two cantos of Inferno) Dante looks back at human history from the perspective of eternity and witnesses “the state of the souls after death”. What this means, and what a number of Dante critics, including representatives on both sides of the authenticity debate, have noticed (Hardie, pp. 56-58; Charity, pp. 184-85, 204, et passim; Allen, p. 42), is that the literal subject of the Commedia is closely related to the anagogical sense as described in paragraph VII and throughout the theological tradition.
This fact could be seen as determining two of the most obvious shifts between paragraphs VII and VIII — the disappearance of the literal sense as historical record (the Exodus of the Jews) and its replacement with a literal subiectum, the “status animarum post mortem”, which seems to encompass the same subject matter as the anagogical sense of the fourfoid scheme: “exitus anime sancte ab huius .corruptionis servitute ad eterne glorie libertatem” [the departure of the sanctified soul from bondage to the corruption of this world into the freedom of eternal glory] (§VII, 22). Since, as we have scen earlier, the tropological sense is already present m paragraph VIII, the only sense unaccounted for is the Christological one. That absence is, of course, significant, though not inexplicable. One possibility is that it may indeed represent the ne plus ultra dividing poetry and Scripture for the Epistle”s author. A second possibility, not incompatible with the first, is that the emphasis in paragraph VII on the destiny of human souls and the choices that lead them to their allotted ends is precisely dictated by the ethical genre (“part of philosophy”) and purpose (finis) attributed to the poem under the last two headings, which I will take up in a moment.
To summarize: by introducing the fourfold scheme in limine to the accessus, with a technically instrumental, rather than fundamentally descriptive, function, the Epistle’s author both leaves the traditional accessus form ostensibly intact, and alludes to the possibility of extraordinary innovations in (a) understanding the relation of forma and subiectum in a poetic text; (b) formulating the relationship between poetic and Scriptural writing. We should, in other words, give equal weight to two crucial facts about paragraph VII. The first is that it points to the novelty of this particular accessus and to that of the Commedia itself, in its general appropriation of theological categories for poetic purposes and in its specific use of the Exodus typology (if not necessarily in a point-by-point application of the four-fold scheme). The second is that it refuses to make that novelty fully explicit (see Minnis et al., p.386): on the one hand, by not applying the fourfold model directly to the text of the Commedia, and, on the other, by not bringing it in under one of the formal rubrics of the accessus. In the process I have suggested that the relationship between paragraphs VII and VIII is not simply one of incompatibility or contradiction, but may be part of a process of adapting the traditional categories of the fourfold model to better fit the Commedia. As in my earlier discussion of the titulus, this phenomenon illustrates the way in which the appropriation of traditional categories to authorize a new kind of work can result, intentionally or not, in transforming them beyond easy recognition. Finally, it also points toward an unfolding logic that links the separate and apparently disjointed parts of the accessus section together, as we shall see more clearly now in a discussion of the finis heading.
While the complex case of the relationship of the duplex subiectum to the ‘wild card’ element of the fourfold model of signification has received a great ‘ deal of critical attention, the “finis operis”, which is the fifth of the “sex [...] inquirenda”, has excited virtually no interest at all, although, as we shall see, the two are actually closely linked. In any case, this topic, like those we have just considered, gains from the juxtaposition with the accessus tradition which in one respect, like the fitulus, it follows more faithfuliy than has been noticed, and which, in another, like the subiectum, it transforms in telling fashion. In positing the finis as multiplex, “scilicet propinquus et remotus” [that is, immediate and ultimate] (§XV, 39), the Epistle rehearses a common topos of the accessus genre, which marks its participation in it. In some prologues, the double finis is divided between extrinsicus and intrinsecus (see the example in Nardi, “Osservazioni”, p. 277). The phrase “propinquus et remotus” is also frequently attested.
A curious feature of the Epistle’s variant of this heading, however, is that it does not then go on to define both ends. Rather, “omissa subtili investigatione” [setting aside subtler investigation of the question] (§XV, 39), it reduces them to only one, namely, “removere viventes in hac vita de statu miserie et perducere ad statum felicitatis” [to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of happiness] (§XV, 39). An examination of some specific examples of this heading in other accessus will give us a clue as to why the Epistle’s author only offers one finis, and will then allow us to see that this anomaly is probably again determined by the complex problem of adapting the heading to a description of the Commedia’s distinctive subiectum, as defined in paragraph VIIi’s adaptation of the categories of the fourfold scheme laid out in paragraph VII.
Nardi (“Osservazioni”, p.282) cites the early fourteenth-century commentary of Antonio Pelacani on the Canon of Avicenna: “Causa finalis est duplex, scilicet propinqua, ut cunservatio sanitatis et remotio egritudinis, et remota, ut habita sanitate, de deo speculemur; in hoc enim omnis scientia finaliter ordinatur” [The final cause is double, that is, immediate, by which health is preserved and illness is removed, and ultimate, through which, health being restored, we contemplate God, toward whom indeed all knowledge is ordered as to its end]. The two “ends” of Avicenna’s text are thus defined as active and contemplative, and, translated into philosophical terms, they would thus be ethical and metaphysical. In the Epistle, the one finis that is given is practical in that it aims to effect a cure (“removere statu miserie” paralleling “remotio egritudinis”) not physical but spiritual, and thus seemingly reflects the causa finalis propinqua. But it also obviously includes the speculative dimension of Pelacani’s causa remota since the ‘statum felicitatis” in question consists precisely in the unmediated and eternal knowledge of God.
Even more suggestive is the example Nardi gives from Gregory IX’s gloss on the Decretals (“Osservazioni”, p. 285) in which the “causa finalis proxima” is said to be utilitas and the “causa finalis remota est beatitudo quae sequitur ex causa proxima” [the ultimate final cause is the blessedness which follows from the immediate cause]. Once again, we may argue that the finis heading of the Epistle actually contains both of the ends given by Gregory: the proximate end of ufilitas being expressed in removere and perducere, the remote end in “statum felicitatis”. This would then explain why the author of the Epistle feels that distinguishing the “finis propinquus” from the “finis remotus” would be a needless subtlety.
These examples, and particularly the last one, will now help me to suggest the existence of an especially close connection between paragraph XV and paragraph VIII, between finis and subiectum. Even without reference to Nardi’s examples, the salvific goal of “removing those living in this life from the state of misery and leading them to the state of happiness” seems a logical extension of the double subiectum defined in paragraph VIII. If the literal sense is a representation of the “state of souls after death” and if the allegorical sense is the recognition that these souls have achieved their current situation as just reward or punishment for acts of free will in this world, then, naturally, the effect should be to persuade the poem’s readers to act in such a way in this life as to avoid divine punishment and arrive themselves at a “statum felicitatis”.
The connection between the two paragraphs becomes even closer, furthermore, if we retum to Gregory’s accessus. The two ends that he assigns to the Decretals, and hence-the single finis of paragraph XV that yokes them together, are arguably analogous to the moral (utilitas) and anagogical (beatitudo) senses as we have seen them defined in paragraph VII of the Epistle. Moreover, as proposed above, the two subiecia of paragraph VII also match up with the anagogical (literal) and moral (allegorical) senses. Such a definition of the end of the Commedia in terms of practical action on its readers leading to eschatological redemption is immediately congruent with the final, absolutely traditional, heading of the accessus, “Genus vero phylosophie sub quo hic in toto et parte proceditur, est morale negotium, sive ethica” [The branch of philosophy which determines the procedures of the work as a whole and in this part is moral philosophy, or ethics] (§XVI, 40), as well as with Dante's consistent emphasis on an ethical teleology for all his writings.
In short, by recognizing the specific origins of this heading in the accessus tradition, an apparent mystery (that of the “finis multiplex” “propinquus et remotus” reduced to one) is resolved. Mucn more importantly, a relatively tight conceptual order linking the beginning of the accessus section to its end emerges which tends to belie recent claims that the Epistle is a hodgepodge of clichés, without, as we have seen, entirely dispelling the sense of a significant slippage between paragraphs VII and VII. Or to put it another way, and to return to a basic thesis of this essay, it allows us to begin conceiving of the accessus section of the Episile, at least, in terms both of its generic affiliation and of an internal logic that governs the relatton between its parts.
The last accessus heading that I want to consider here is also one that rarely gets attention of any kind, namely that of the agens, the agent of writing, or author. In this case too, the Epistle both rehearses and decisively alters the boundaries of its generic form. I have already discussed the way in which the suppression of the figure of the autbor in both the accessus and commentary sections is generally in keeping with the Dantean rhetoric of auto-exegesis as it is developed in the canonical works. It seems intuitively obvious that someone writing a commentary on his own works would be disposed to dispense with whatever called attention to his dual role, especially if a particular goal of that self-commentary was to confer a decidedly impersonal auctoritas on oneself. This, of course, is indifferently true whether the real writer of the Epistle was Dante, or just someone pretending to be Dante: rhetorically the text is still divided between “Dante commentator” and “Dante auctor (or agens)”. But it does help us, perhaps, to understand the absence of “Dante” from another part of the accessus, an absence so provocative that by itself it led Bruno Nardi to reject the authenticity of the Episile, namely the omission of any reference to the voyage of “Dante-pilgrim” in the definition of the poem’s subiectum (see also note 80 above). Surely it is possible to imagine that omission as motivated by the same rhetorical taboo against self-praise that Dante engages in Book I of the Convivio, and that more obviously accounts for the merely perfunctory paragraph on the agens (Scott, “Dante’s allegory”, p. 585).
But if in itself the absence of any extended treatment of the aucfor in the expository section of the Epistle seems natural to us, in the context of the accessus form, and especially in the context of the historical developments in that form charted by Minnis, the omission is more glaring. Even in the “C” prologue which is the Epistle’s basic model, the vita auctoris can play a significant role. As Minnis has argued, however, the human author really comes into his own as the causa efficiens in the Aristotelian model that increasingly dominates in the late thirteenth and then in the fourteenth centuries. In this light, the lack of substantive treatment of an agens calls attention to an important way in which this accessus, while observing the formal protocols of its kind, also is significantly different and eccentric.
There is, however, another, more positive and striking, way in which this treatment of the agens differs from other examples of the accessus genre, and that is in the very use of the term “agens” to designate the author of the Commedia. The more traditional heading for this section, as we have seen, is “vita auctoris”: while the thirteenth-centùry innovations of Scholasticism tum the auctor into the “causa efficiens” (Minnis, pp. 75-84). Both designations, in any case, were widely available to someone composing an accessus in the fourteenth centuty. By contrast, agens is a designation without precedent in the accessus tradition, and seems to be used only one other time by a Trecento commentator, Guido da Pisa. Its unique status virtually begs for additional glossing. It might well be argued, in fact, that the term arises precisely in a moment of trapasso in literary introductions from the type C accessus to the Aristotelian prologue: though inserted into a modified type C schema, the term smacks of a technical philosophical jargon made popular by Scholasticism and wholeheartedly embraced by Dante, and many others of his day.
What then is the particular standing of the term in relation to Dante’s explicit discussions of authorship? One obvious point is that in calling the writer an agens, the author of the Epistle is deliberately not calling him an auctor, or for that matter an “efficient cause” — that is, he is avoiding making an overt parallel between Dante and either the classical aucfores or the human authors of the Bible (Nardi, “Osservazioni”, p. 300; Paolazzi, p. 115) — despite the implication, inherent in the use of the accessus form itself, as well as more specifically in paragraphs VII and IX, that such a parallel exists. Such a combination of implied audacity and explicit modesty is very much Dantean. Specifically, it characterizes Dante’s overt discussions of authority in both Convivio and De vulgari eloquentia. In Convivio, as I have tried to show elsewhere, the prestige etymology of autore from autentin, meaning one worthy of “fede e obbedienza”, is attached to the great philosophical and political authorities, Aristotle and the Emperor Frederick II, respectively. Dante’s own authority, by implication, is linked instead to the seemingly marginal etymology of the poetic autore from aveio, referring to the act of binding words in verse, although at another level this potentially makes him into an analogue of God the Author whose Word, the copula mundi, binds together the totality of creation (Hollander, Allegory, pp. 77-79; Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert, pp. 256-68; Ascoli “The vowels of authority”, pp. 39-40 and n. 44). In De vulgari eloquentia, Dante alludes in passing to poets as “binders of words” (avientes, II, i, 1), but later draws on yet a thid etymology in the traditional medieval complex, namely that of the actor from agere, the human agent who is a maker of artifacts, a fabricator (DVE II, viii, 4), rather than a timeless guarantor of faith-compelling truth or impersonal channel of power that must be obeyed.
It is thus to the actor, rather than to either type of auctor, that the agens is most closely related, and he functions in an eminently Dantean system which at once exalts the modern vernacular poet te quasi-divine heights (as in paragraph VII) and humbly acknowiedges that he is ‘human, all too human’ (as throughout the commentary section), just as the “I” of the epistolary section is at once Cangrande’s amicus and his devoted servant. This is not an unexpected result in the light of the dialectical process in which even as the Bible becomes less the exclusive product of divine authorship and more the mediated making of a series of human scribes/authors, human authors become considerably more god-like in their powers.
For Dante, human, lay author of a “divine” and frequently prophetic text, both sides of the dialettic are operative. Paradoxicaliy, as ‘fabricating” poet he is most autonomous and god-like, most proleptic of the Renaissance author-God to come, while as scriba Dei he is most required to stress that he is a mere vehicle of divine vocalization, as in Purgatorio XXIV, 52-54: “quando / amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo / ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando”. Similarly, in the Epistle, the suppression of any detailed treatment of the agens tends to support a mystique of impersonal, transcendent auctoritas, while the heading itself reminds us that we are speaking of the creative efforts of a timebound, fallible, person.
It also, to return to the point where we began this part of the discussion, stands as the primary internal marker that the Epistle”s accessus is written in the mode of auto-exegesis, since in its very evasive brevity it is a reminder that the “Dantes Alagherii florentinus natione non moribus” who supposedly writes here “sub lectoris officio” is the same one named in the full titulus of the Commedia. This, let me say it one last time, is true whether the author of the Epistle is Dante or a forger. What matters is that, even if a forger is here casting his voice as “Dante’s”, still, his “fiction is that it is not a fiction”, a statement which may in the end be truer (or at least, more verisimilar) when applied to the Epistle than to the Commedia. No doubt that the author of the Epistle to Cangrande leamed the trick of conferring auctoritas through self-effacing self-commentary from Dante himself. No doubt that here, as throughout the works of Dante, the modern human actor-author is born at the same moment as the monumentally impersonal auctor is affirmed. No doubt, finally, that the importance of this process is less that Dante was personally responsible for it, and more that Dante, his works, this “epistle”, its author, whoever he may have been, were all part of a much larger transformation of culture and of the place of individual persons within culture, one which surely gave rise to Petrarch, “the first modem man”, but to many others, less famous, as well. If this is the historical significance of the Epistle, then it does not much matter whether Dante wrote it or not, but it does make all the difference in the world that he has been so carefully written into it.

Date: 2022-01-14