Interpreting Dante's 'Commedia': Competing Approaches [George Corbett]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: George Corbett

Tratto da: Bibliotheca Dantesca. Journal of Dante Studies

Numero: IV

Anno: 2021

Pagine: 1-32

The centenary year of 2021 invites a long view and, in this article, I take the opportunity to reappraise the competing approaches to interpreting Dante’s Commedia over the last hundred or so years. In the first section, I address the dominant emphasis on the truth of the literal sense of Dante’s Commedia in twentieth-century scholarship, whether the poem is conceived as a mystical vision (Bruno Nardi, 1884-1968), figural fulfillment (Erich Auerbach, 1892-1957), or allegory of the theologians (Charles S. Singleton, 1909-1985; and Robert Hollander, 1933-2021). This emphasis has profoundly affected how Dante’s poem has been understood by subsequent scholars and students. In the second section, I revisit Pierre Mandonnet (1858-1936)'s little known study of the theological form of Dante’s Commedia in Dante le théologien (1935), with reference also to the work of his fellow French Dominican Joachim Berthier (1848-1924). I analyse — for the first time — Mandonnet’s rich and historically informed account, which draws on symbolic theology (and the four senses of Scripture) but, unlike Singleton and Hollander, insists that the literal sense of the poem is a ‘beautiful lie.” In the third and concluding section, I indicate that a literalist approach underpins key twentieth-century discussions of the apparent unorthodoxy of Dante’s theology in the Comunedia, as well as contributing to broader secularizing trends in twentieth-century Dante Studies. Moreover, I argue that whereas the approach of Mandonnet and Berthier is in a spirit and hermeneutic of continuity with the seven-hundred-yearlong commentary tradition of the poem as a whole, the literalist approaches which became foundational in twentieth- and twenty-first century scholarship represent a clear rupture with that tradition. Going forward, I suggest that we should continue to reappraise and question the methodological assumptions underpinning our approaches to interpreting the Commedia, mindful that progress from one point of view may represent a regression, or even aberration, from another.

1. The Literal Truth of the Commedia: The Interpretative Approaches of Bruno Nardi, Erich Auerbach, and Charles S. Singleton

Charles S. Singleton was clearly the towering figure of North American Dante scholarship in the post war period, his translation of the Divine Comedy with commentary (1970-75) only consolidating his influence. Through his writings and students, his influence on the field extended across North America and internationally; writing a year after his death, Anthony K. Cassell could remark that the present generation of North American Dantisti “belonged, with very few exceptions, to the Singletonian school.” Of the three themes which, according to Kenelm Foster, unified the concerns of Dante scholars in the post war period: “(a) Dante’s philosophy and theology, (b) his use of symbol and allegory, (c) the relation of the Comedy to the minor works,” the preoccupation with the second is particularly associated with the Singletonian school. Moreover, scholars’ understanding of the first (Dante’s philosophy and theology) and third (the relation of the Commedia to the minor works) is strongly conditioned by their understanding of the second (Dantean hermeneutics and the question of the “truth claims” of the Commedia).
Before considering Singleton’s insistence on the allegory of the theologians as the appropriate interpretative framework for the Commedia, I shall outline two other interventions which were also extremely influential: first, Bruno Nardi’s claim that Dante’s poem is a true mystical vision; and second, Erich Auerbach’s method of figural interpretation and “secular” reading of the poem. For now, it is important to highlight that, despite their differing interpretations of Dantean hermeneutics, Nardi, Auerbach, and Singleton share one thing in common: a rejection of the hermeneutic approach of the early commentators (and, specifically, of interpretations according to the allegory of the poets).
Bruno Nardi explicitly sought to dismantle the hermeneutic approach of the early commentators to Dante’s Commedia. In his view, these commentators deliberately misinterpreted Dante’s poem according to the allegory of the poets (i.e. the truth under the veil of the “bella menzogna”) in order to protect the poet from charges of heresy. Instead, Nardi insists that the literal sense of the poem is literally true: that Dante believed that he was shown in vision Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, as they truly are in reality. Nardi claimed, in other words, that Dante spoke as a divinely inspired prophet, and considered his poem not a literary fiction but the report of a true mystical vision. The ex-priest and anti-clerical Nardi — who had already strongly rejected Thomism — found in Dante his true teacher, and in the Commedia his own personal truth, and particular synthesis of Christian wisdom. By arguing for the literal truth of the poem, moreover, Nardi detached in one important sense his own interpretations of Dante, and of his intellectual sources, from wider interrogation: he no longer ultimately needed to defend what he saw as Dante’s theses theologically or philosophically for, in Nardi’s view, they were divinely revealed in a vision.
Nardi’s insistence on the literal truth of the poem had little precedent in the commentary tradition, with perhaps the arguable partial exception of Guido da Pisa, and it received short shrift, at least initially, in Italy. Nonetheless, his claim was taken up enthusiastically by much of English-language Dante scholarship in the United Kingdom and particularly so in North America. For example, Teodolinda Barolini (1951-) considers that Nardi “threw down a critical gauntlet and challenged us to look at the Commedia not through a glass darkly but face to face,” and her influential monograph The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (1992) takes Nardis apparent revelation of the poems essence as its starting point and foundational premise.
Like Nardi, Erich Auerbach situated his approach to interpreting the poem in antithesis to that of the early commentators; he suggested, moreover, that the “allegory of the poets” is simply incompatible with modern literary sensibilities: “The older commentators had no objection to a purely allegorical interpretation, for they did not, as we do today, feel that allegory was incompatible with authentic poetry. Many modern critics have argued against this idea, stressing the poetic, human, personal quality.” Both scholars similarly inherited the Romantic nineteenth-century emphasis on the literal sense of the poem, and the distaste for a kind of abstract or pure allegorization. Thus Auerbach’s mentor Karl Vossler (1872-1949) considered allegory ‘a soulless repetition or dull imitation of antiquity [...] in short, philological art.”
And yet, as James I. Porter has convincingly shown, Auerbach’s seminal approach to Dante is also a polemical reaction against his teacher Vossler’s theological reading of Dante. Where Vossler presents Dante’s poem as entirely cut off from all “earthly existence,” according to Auerbach, “[Dante] projected his earthly surroundings into the realm of eternity and created the Dantean world sub specie aeternitatis.” Where, for Vossler, Dante’s poem is but an instance of one man’s religious belief, for Auerbach, the poem describes “the narrow cleft of earthly human history, the span of man’s life on earth.” Where Vossler presents Dante as “an unwavering dogmatic,” Auerbach argues that, in Dante, “the indestructibility of the whole historical and individual man turns agaznst [the divine] order ... and obscures it. The image of man eclipses the image of God.” In other words, Auerbach makes Dante a “poet of the earthly world,” his own English rendering of his original title Dante als Dichter der Irdischen Welt (1929), and, in so doing, he turns Dante into a “poet of the secular world,” the title as translated by Ralph Manheim in the English edition of 1961.
Auerbach’s polemical interpretation of Dante thus forms part of his overarching philosophy of history, according to which Christianity was but one stage in the progressive march towards secularization: ‘from an era in which human meaning is sought out in some transcendental sphere above to an era in which it is discovered and consciously made here on earth.” With his theory of figura, Auerbach seeks to reduce Dante’s eschatology to little more than a literary form which contains, like a frame, a content about man's earthly life:

In my essay “Figura,” I have shown — convincingly, I hope — that the Comedy is based on a figural view of things. In the case of three of its most important characters — Cato of Utica, Virgil, and Beatrice — I have attempted to demonstrate that their appearance in the other world is a fulfilment of their appearance on earth, their earthly appearance a figure of their appearance in the other world.

Drawing on the figural interpretation of events in the Old and New Testaments in terms of promise (figure) and fulfillment, Auerbach considers Dante’s eschatology as the figural fulfillment of the souls’ promise on earth. Citing Hegel, Auerbach claims that: “Dante’s inhabitants of the three realms lead a ‘changeless existence” [...] yet into this changeless existence Dante ‘plunges the living world of human action and endurance and more especially of individual deeds and destinies.’” The world beyond is “God’s design in active fulfillment. In relation to it, earthly phenomena are on the whole merely figural, potential, and requiring fulfilment.”
However fertile his reading of the “earthly qualities” of Farinata and Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, Auerbach’s “figural” interpretation — even when just applied to the static souls in Hell — is severely deficient; when applied to the souls in Purgatory and Paradise, it arguably falls apart all together. Nonetheless, Auerbach’s figural interpretation, like Nardi’s account of a true mystical vision, would be extremely influential on Dante criticism.
Singleton’s approach to the hermeneutics of the Commedia, like the approaches of Nardi and Auerbach, is a departure from that of the early commentators, and of the majority of the commentary tradition up until the twentieth century. In his “The Vistas in Retrospect” (1965), Singleton delineates his own contribution to twentieth-century progress in Dante Studies: it is the “polysemous” reading of the poem, and the interpretative principle that every thing is also a sign. Singleton founded, indeed, a kind of theological reading of the Commedia based on his imposition of a medieval hermeneutic of Scriptural allegory onto the hermeneutics of the poem. Where Dante interprets his canzoni in the Convivio according to the allegory of the poets, explaining “the truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie,” this is not the correct hermeneutical frame, Singleton claims, for Dante’s Commedia. Instead, the Commedia imitates Biblical polysemy and should be read through the allegory of the theologians. As medieval theologians understand the literal or historical sense of Scripture to be true, the precondition for Dante’s reader is, on Singleton’s view, an imaginative assent to the truth of the literal sense, the journey through the afterlife. The literal story of Dante’s poem should be read as if it were true or, in Singleton’s famous and confusing phrase, “the fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction.
Singleton’s approach validates the primacy of the literal sense (and the Crocean imperative to read Dante as poetry) while also recovering the hermeneutic richness of polysemous interpretation. Despite this, Singleton and his followers were accused by Italian scholars in particular of searching for theological meanings at the expense of the poem's form, its literal meaning. Singleton was nonetheless fully aware that his interpretative approach represents a clear break with the dominant understanding of Dante as poeta theologusin the commentary tradition as a whole, and that it sets up Dante’s method as unique in literary history. But he insists that “strikingly soon after Dante,” and especially with Boccaccio, Dante’s own understanding of the poem’s hermeneutics, as allegory of the theologians, became lost.
The persistent influence of Singleton on subsequent Dante Studies to the present day is pervasive, but let me give just one example in the scholarship of Robert Hollander. Hollander sought to develop Singleton’s application of allegory (beyond the moral-theological sense) and, by drawing also on Auerbach’s work on figuralism, to open a wider discussion about the exegetical strategies invited by Dante’s text. Hollander’s Allegory in Dante's Commedia (1969) is his most extensive treatment of the theoretical issue, but it recurs throughout his writings, including in a short summary note he wrote on “allegory” for the Princeton Dante Project in 1998. Like Singleton, Hollander considers the Comumnedia as an allegory of the theologians, according to which the literal level is to be understood as if it were true, commending Singleton’s pithy statement that “the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not a fiction”. Hollander also considers Auerbach’s figural interpretation (of the “sinner or saved soul [being] the fulfilment of [their] earthly life”) as true but limited, highlighting that there are many more interesting figural relationships, including between different personages in the Comunedia, relationships he draws out compellingly in his commentaries and articles on the poem.
Let us briefly consider, though, four of Hollander’s assumptions underlying his interpretative position: (1) he associates the literal sense of Scripture exclusively with “the historical passages in the Bible,” and claims that the “literal sense of theological allegory is historically true, found only in events narrated in the Bible”; (2) he asserts, as Dante’s claim in the Convivio, that “he could have employed theological allegory in his analysis of his poems” and, furthermore, that Dante goes on to do so in writing the Comunedia; Hollander dubiously bases this ‘“astounding fact” merely on Dante's affirmation that “since it is my intention here to follow the method of the poets, I shall take the allegorical sense according to the usage of the poets” (Convivio 2.1.3-4); (3) he claims that because, in the Epistle to Cangrande, Dante makes the “most astounding and controversial assertion [that] the fourfold interpretation of texts used to elucidate the historical meanings of the Bible was the very method to be used in order to understand the Comedy,” this position “at the very least and unmistakably implies that the literal sense of the poem be treated as historical tract, i.e. that Dante”s seven-day visit to the afterworld is to be treated as historical fact”; (4) he asserts that theologians were opposed “to the idea that secular literature had any meaningful claim to purvey truth,” and that Dante’s procedure is “surely the stuff of heresy.”
Finally, Hollander highlights that Singleton’s pithy way of ‘framing the question” had the “crucial and noteworthy result” of freeing readers from the “interpretative shackles imposed by forcing the ‘allegory of the poets’ onto the poem,” an approach which, he also underlines, has been “its fate from the time of the earliest commentators.” Forty years into his own teaching career, Hollander concludes: “It is a useful and pleasing freedom that you [students of the poem] enjoy: ‘The allegory of the Comedy is not the allegory as the commentators urge me to apply it. I may read this poem as history, and understand it better. When I first taught this poem, in 1958, I wish someone had given me that gift.”
To summarise this first section, Nardi, Auerbach, and Singleton all placed emphasis on the truth of the literal sense of the poem, albeit in different respects. For Nardi, Dante speaks as a divinely inspired prophet and the literal sense of the poem records Dante’s mystical vision. For Auerbach, Dante transposes the “earthly world” onto his eschatology, and the literal sense of the poem is but the fulfillment of an earthly life which, in relation to this fulfillment, is merely the figure. For Singleton, Dante adopts God’s mode of writing in Scripture: the reader is asked to assent, therefore, to the literal sense of Dante’s poem as if it were true. Nonetheless, as Scripture is polysemous, so Dante’s poem should be read according to the allegorical senses as well, and this typically for a moral or theological meaning. Crucially, though, Singleton’s emphasis on the truth of the literal sense (and the allegory of the theologians) rules out an interpretative strategy of the allegory of the poets common since the early commentators: namely, to read certain passages solely according to an allegorical sense. Instead, for literalist readers, Virgil is always Virgil the man; Beatrice is always Bice Portinari, the young woman; Dante’s Journey through the regions of the afterlife is always literally true or intended to be accepted as such, whatever the additional allegorical meanings there may or may not be.

2. The Theological Truth of the ‘Commedia:’ The Interpretative Approach of Pierre Mandonnet and Joachim Berthier

Pierre Mandonnet, O.P. came to Dante, a literary passion throughout his life, as an outstanding medieval historian (author, for example, of important volumes on Siger of Brabant and the life of St Dominic) and a Thomist (collaborating on the new critical edition of Aquinas’s works commissioned by Pope Leo XIII as editor, for example, of Aquinas’s huge commentary on the Sentences). Entering the Dominican order in 1882, he was professor of history at the University of Fribourg from 1891-1918; on retirement, he continued to research and teach at the Dominican house of Le Saulchoir in Belgium. Having published short articles on Dante during his academic life, he published Dante le Théologien in 1935, shortly before his death on 4 January 1936. Mandonnet’s academic career thus parallels that of a Dominican colleague at Fribourg ten years his senior, Joachim Joseph Berthier, O.P. An accomplished medieval historian (who published important works on the early masters of the Dominican order Humbert of Romans and Jordan of Saxony) and Thomist (who also collaborated on the Leonine edition of Aquinas’s works and published a series of Thomist scholastic manuals), Berthier translated Dante’s Commedia into French, and published a two volume edition of the Inferno in Italian “with scholastic commentary” in 1892, as well as a series of articles on the poet. As Ruedi Imbach notes, Berthier and Mandonnet's labours testify to a “new catholic impulsion to Dante Studies,” symbolically given Papal approval by the removal of Dante’s Monarchia from the Index in 1881 (where it had remained since 1554), and which paralleled the Renaissance in Thomistic Studies instigated by Pope Leo XIII” encyclical Aeterni patris in 1879.
Mandonnet’s approach to the theological form of the Commedia builds on that of his Dominican colleague Berthier, whose “originality” consists in a return to the original contexts of Dantes work, and of the early allegorical commentary tradition, in a spirit of interpretative continuity. At the level oftheological content, Berthler characterises Dante as less of an inventor than a brilliant scholar and synthesiser. Dante’s true innovation was to unify the new doctrine of the schools with poetry; that is, the doctrinal transformation witnessed most powerfully in the life and work of Aquinas led, in Dante, to a special transformation of poetry. Whereas poetic literature in the vernacular had heretofore concerned itself almost exclusively with feats of arms, the acts of love, and the corruptions of the court, now it became allegorical: it sung of knowledge, of wisdom, of the intellect and virtue. In Provenzale, the Franciscan Maftre Ermengaud (d. 1322) wrote the Breviari d'amor (c. 1288) celebrating the Christian virtues while, in the Italian vernaculars, Guido Guinizelli sung of knowledge, Guido Cavalcanti of philosophy, Cino da Pistoia of justice, and Dino Compagni of the intellect. Berthier does not negate that these writers may have written of women in the flesh, but he underlines that they wrote of them allegorizing and idealizing, such that their loves for “Giovanna” and “Mandetta” (Cavalcanti) or “Beatrice” (Dante), for “una pastorella” or “una forsetta,” also symbolise the love of science and virtue, the poets transferring the idealized beauties onto the true intellectual objects of their poems. This is, Berthier claims, the ambient of Dante, and the distinctive trait of the dolce stil novo school of poetry, of which Dante calls Guido Guinizelli the founder (Purgatorio 26.92-108). Even within the school of the dolce sti! novo, however, Dante flies higher than the others precisely because the other poets celebrated the sciences which are servants or handmaids (“ancelle”) of theology, while he sung of theology herself in the figure of Beatrice.
Thus, according to Berthier, Dante creates an immense allegory, where one finds the immediate object and what is mediated, the sign and the signified, the allegory itself, and the sense of the allegory. There are two key implications of Berthier's approach. First, the allegory itself— by which Berthier means Dante’s depiction of the Hell, Purgatory and Paradise of the otherworld, with their circles and inhabitants — is not dogmatic or strictly theological at all; rather it represents a fiction, according to which particular places, personages, or mythical figures — depicted with marvellous verisimilitude — signify dogmatic and theological truths (and particularly the moral Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of this life). Berthier claims that the admission of this simple rule (that Dante always speaks as a poet, in creating fictions, and as a theologian, in communicating doctrines) removes all shadows of difficulty from the point of view of theology. Second, it is an interpretative error to seek for meaning only in the allegory itself, since the literal sense does not exist for itself (per se), but for its signification.
Interestingly, Berthier connects this erroneous interpretative approach in the literary study of Dante to late nineteenth-century Biblical Studies (“one finds the same issue in Biblical Studies”) which similarly developed an almost exclusive focus on the literal sense of Scripture, with a dismissal of the mystical senses. Late nineteenthcentury Dante scholars are like the laici of Dante’s own time who, in ignorance of theology, simply interpret his poems as about sensual love, or his Commedia as about the regions of the afterlife (“they even suppose he went there!”?), whereas, for the learned, this is obviously only the allegory (the fiction), and not the meaning of the allegory (which lies hidden beneath its veil). In this respect, Berthier highlights Giovanni Villani’s reference to Dante as a great scholar in all the branches of learning, despite being a lay person (“tutto fosse laico”), and as one “who didn’t know well how to converse with laypeople” (“non bene sapea conversare co’ laici”), emphasising the implicit (and common) medieval distinction between a cleric (“chierico”), learned in the sciences, and a layman (“laico”), ignorant of them. With regard to allegorical poetry, the typical lay reader can only appreciate the surface meaning (‘la sola laicale sposizione”’); “mute” and “silent,” he cannot penetrate the doctrine hidden beneath it.
Like Berthier, Mandonnet issues the standard complaint against secular critics such as Benedetto Croce, who sought to separate poetry from theology, and only consider the literary aspect of the Commedia: this is to impose the flaying of Marsyas on Dante, leaving one in effect with an ornamental bedside rug (a lion skin) rather than a great living organism (the lion itself). But Mandonnet goes further. He argues that even the poetical style of Dante’s Commedia is theological. Dante is not merely a poet who treats theology; instead, Dante is a poet who treats theology through theology, through a properly theological technique.
According to Mandonnet, Dante derives four methodological elements from theology: 1) the literary modes; 2) the rule of symbolism; 3) the use of the four senses; and 4) the formal concept of onein-threeness (unitrinsime). The latter is Mandonnet’s invented neologism to describe the way in which Dante imprints the central mystery of the Christian faith — that God is one in three persons — into the fabric ofthe Commedia at every level. Mandonnet thereby provides a highly rich and variegated account of the theological form of Dante’s Commedia. Like Singleton after him, Mandonnet sees Dante as drawing on fourfold Scriptural exegesis; for Mandonnet, however, this does not imply in any way, as it subsequently did for Singleton, that Dante considered the literal sense of his poem to be true.
The first key element of Dante’s theological methodology according to Mandonnet, then, is the hermeneutic tradition of the multiple modes of treating theology. To serve the purposes of his poem, Mandonnet sees Dante as deploying twelve different literary modes in the Commedia. The poem’s general purpose is the glory of God, and Dante’s poem, comprising “cantica” and “canti,” is a lauda or canticle throughout, using the (1) laudative mode (modus laudativus). The three particular purposes regard the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual orders. As poet, Dante employed the (2) narrative (narrativus), (3) the praying or deprecative (orativus sive deprecativus), and the (4) symbolic (symbolicus) modes, as well as (5) the mode of soliloquy (modus soliloqui. As preacher, he used the (6) preceptive (praeceptivus), (7) exhorting (exortatorius), (8) admonishing (comminatorius sive admonitorius), (9) promissory (promuissivus) modes, as well as the (10) narrative of exemplars (narrativus exemplorum). Finally, as teacher, he drew upon the (11) revelatory (revelativus) and (12) argumentative (argumentativus sive disputativus) modes. The last, the argumentative, pertains equally to theology and philosophy, as both employ disputation according to three categories of proofs: the authority of great teachers (per auctoritates); demonstration (per rationes); and similitudes (per sinulitudines). Although Dante does not treat these modes explicitly in his theoretical works, he does touch upon the variety of literary modes employed superficially in his Epistle to Cangrande, where we find the following list in two parts: the (1) poetic (poeticus), (11) fictive (fctivus), (111) descriptive (descriptivus), (iv) digressive (digressivus), and (iv) transumptive (transumptivus) modes, as well as the (v) defining (definitivus), (vi) dividing (divisivus), (vii) proving (probativus), (vii) disproving (improbativus) modes, and (ix) the positing of examples (exemp/lorum positivus). The second group are, of course, identical to the list of the five forma tractandi given, for example, in Aquinas’s commentary on Aristotle’s De interpretatione.
Far from equating Dante’s hermeneutics with the procedure of Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, Mandonnet sees Aquinas’s Summa as the paradigmatic example of a “new direction of theology,” while he understands the hermeneutics of Dante’s Commedia principally within the cultural context of the symbolic theology which it displaced. Two features characterized the “new direction of theology”: first, the introduction of Aristotle’s logical works and then his entire corpus into the schools provided a new philosophical methodology, which was placed at the service of sacred doctrine (sacra doctrina) enabling, thereby, a true science of theology; second, the critique of unrestrained allegorization, and the emphasis on the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture for deriving theological doctrine. By contrast, symbolic theology (dominant “from the Church Fathers until the start of the thirteenth century”) was characterised by the unrestrained use of the allegorical method of Scriptural interpretation, according to which “one can allegorise about everything,” be that a person, a thing, a number, a place, a time, or a fact.
Crucially, while Mandonnet avers that the new direction in theology gradually displaced symbolic theology in the schools or universities (in other words, in academic theology), he equally highlights that symbolic theology ‘continued to occupy the streets, the porch, and the narthex,” holding a privileged place in figurative and architectural art, vernacular literature, and as a teaching and catechetical tool. Specifically, Mandonnet associates the symbolic method with the literature of the goliards and the troubadours, most of whom, he avers, were clerics or clerics who had returned to lay life. Mandonnet underlines one further (and apparently contradictory) feature of literary symbolism which pertains to Dante’s authorial procedure: as well as allegory being used to communicate and make known doctrine, it could also be used to hide doctrine. In this way, and following the example of Christ in the parables, allegory “enabled sacred truths to be hidden from profane and superficial readers,” as well as sharpening the curiosity of deeper ones.
Symbolism is, Mandonnet affirms, the “crust of the Commedia,” which appears first and which also “creates the greatest difficulties for the reader in trying to understand the work.” He divides Dantean symbolism into three main forms: metaphor, typology, and allegory. Typology and allegory, which are inter-related, are most important for interpreting the Commedia. Typology is static, and normally refers to a person. Allegory is dynamic, and is a symbol “which is ongoing for more or less time, and which is developed successively [...] when the type appears on stage, its action is allegorical.” Thus, according to Mandonnet, Dante is a type for the Christian (and is poet, sinner, and student); Virgil is a type for the natural order, and is Dante’s guide in poetry (duca), leader in virtue (segnore), and teacher of truth (maestro); Beatrice is a type for the Christian supernatural order, and is the beauty of Christian revelation (in the realm of making), grace and the light of glory (in the practical field of morals), and faith and the light of glory (in the speculative field of knowledge). Secondary protagonists, such as Statius, Matilda, and Bernard, have similar typological meanings. Dante-character’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife, then, is the poetic and fictive element of the poem which establishes the unity of dramatic action, including the action of these typological personae, and their relation with each other, as they unfold dynamically in the course of the poem. Alongside typology and allegory, Dante also uses symbolism in the form of metaphor, principally to translate theological or other ideas through material forms. Thus, the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis is Dante’s metaphor for the human soul shedding its body and undergoing an apparently miraculous transformation upon death; the butterfly is “angelic” (“l’angelica farfalla”; Purgatorio 10.125) because human souls, temporarily separated from their bodies, have a spiritual nature like that of angels.
Mandonnet also situates Dante’s use of symbolism within the historical development by theologians of the theory of the four traditional senses of Scripture. Mandonnet deploys Aquinas’s relatively precise taxonomy of the four senses (in his later works) as a framework to analyse Dante’s practice in the Commedia, cross-referencing, in the process, Dante’s passing and superficial references to the four senses in the Convivio and the Epistle to Can Grande. Both Aquinas and Dante divide the four senses into two: the literal sense and the threefold spiritual sense (moral, anagogical, and allegorical). For medieval interpreters, the literal sense is “that which is signified by the letter” (sicut littera sonat). This literal signification can be direct, but it can also be indirect (whereby parabolic or figurative expressions come under the literal sense). With indirect signification, the “literal sense is not the figure of speech itself but the thing figured. Thus when Scripture speaks of the arm of God it does not literally mean that God has bodily members of this kind, but it means that which is signified by such members, viz. operative power.” With indirect signification, then, there is the “letter of the symbol” (the arm of God) and the “sense of the symbol” (the operative power of God). In ordinary parlance and in allegorical poetry, we would call the former the literal sense of the symbol, and the latter the spiritual or symbolic sense; however, in Scriptural interpretation, the latter is, in fact, the literal sense, as it is the sense intended by the author.
Where Singleton, Hollander et al. associate the literal sense of Scripture exclusively with “the historical passages in the Bible,” and conclude that, as a result, “Dante’s seven-day visit to the afterworld is to be treated as historical fact,” Mandonnet applies the Scriptural procedure of indirect literal signification — and the distinction between the letter and the sense of the symbol — to the distinction between the literal and symbolic senses of Dante’s Commedia. Like the letter of the symbol in Scriptural interpretation, the literal sense of Dante’s Commedia is a figure and is, in a strict sense, instrumental, whereas the symbolic or allegorical sense of Dante’s Commedia, like the sense of the symbol in Scriptural interpretation, is the intended meaning. Thus, at the beginning of the poem, Dante describes carnal passion (the sense of the symbol or, in allegorical poetry, the symbolic sense) through the leopard (the letter of the symbol or, in allegorical poetry, the literal sense). From the perspective of ethics, the symbol (the leopard) has no reason to exist of itself, as it is ancillary, instrumental, and pertains to a shared language or stock of images. By contrast, the thing signified (carnal passion) exists for itself, and is the purpose of this kind of symbolic expression. At a macro level, Dante’s fictional depiction of the realms of the afterlife and invented encounters with over three hundred souls is a figure for, and is instrumental to, the moral and doctrinal senses and purposes of his poem.
This notwithstanding, from the perspective of poetry, the proper aim of which is to create fictions (“belle menzogne” [beautiful lies]), the principal object is the very beauty and appropriateness of the symbols themselves. Here, then, is the formal distinction between theological and poetical symbolism (which both Aquinas and Dante touch upon in their theoretical works): sacred scripture uses symbolic and literary figures due to necessity and utility; by contrast, the very purpose of poetry, on this view, is to create symbolic figures, delightful representations, which cloak doctrine (whether sacred or profane).
Let us make some summarizing comments, then, about Dante’s use of symbolism on Mandonnet's view: (1) he associates it with a plurality of traditions (including those relatively unconnected with Aquinas’s normative procedure), such as classical literature and philosophy, symbolic theology, and medieval art, architecture, catechesis, and vernacular literature; (2) he distinguishes between typology and allegory, on the one hand, and metaphor, on the other; (3) he argues that Dante draws on the theological tradition of the four senses of Scripture in a critical and selective way; (4) he underlines the distinction between direct and indirect signification in the literal sense of Scripture, and compares the distinction between the letter and the sense of the symbol (in indirect signification) to the distinction between the literal sense and the symbolic senses in Dante’s poetry; (5) he particularly highlights the moral (Inferno and Purgatorio) and anagogical (Paradiso) senses of Dante’s symbolism; (6) he underlines that, from the perspective of ethics and theology, what matters is the symbolic sense (and the literal sense is instrumental) but, from the perspective of poetry (the purpose of which is to create “beautiful fictions”), the literal sense itself is the principal object (and we admire the poet, as poet, for his ability to create particularly appropriate and delightful representations). Finally, Mandonnet frames his whole discussion of Dantean symbolism with a consideration of the variety of literary modes used by Dante. Thus, although symbolism is the most notable feature of Dante’s poem as whole, there are parts ofthe poem (such as the so-called doctrinal passages) where its presence is less keenly felt, and where other modes of writing come to the fore.

3. Continuity or Rupture: A Revisionary Proposal

From the interpretative perspective of Berthier and Mandonnet, Bruno Nardi’s contention that Dante “spoke as a divinely inspired prophet,” who believed he actually received a mystical vision of the afterlife, might seem a retrograde step, encouraging the naive literalism of unlearned readers, the laici. While Barolini maintained that Nardi revealed the essence of the poem, leading twentieth-century scholars and students to see the “Commedia not through a glass darkly but face to face,” Robert M. Durling (1929-2015) and Ronald Martinez (1948-) concluded a decade ago that he was “wildly mistaken,” and ushered in “hagiographic fumes” that actually obscured a correct understanding of Dante’s greatness as a poet and as a human being for generations of scholars and students. Similarly, Auerbach's reading of Dante as a “poet of the earthly world,” and his limited application of allegory to the figure and fulfillment of earthly lives, might seem a continuation of late nineteenth-century Romantic readings and as an accommodation to twentieth-century secular reappropriations of Dante, rather than as a progressive development in our understanding of the Commedia.
It is apparent that while the allegory of the poets might be opposed to what Auerbach understood as “modern literary sensibilities,” it does not follow that, in considering the literal sense as a “beautiful fiction,” we necessarily have less appreciation of its realism, verisimilitude, or “human, personal” qualities. Moreover, Mandonnet’s sophisticated understanding of Dante’s adoption of the symbolic method and polysemous signification in the Commedia enables us to situate Singleton’s contribution more accurately: this was Singleton’s novel insistence that Dante thereby implies that the literal sense of his poem must be read as if it were true. The assumptions underpinning this conviction — as we outlined in relation to Hollander — are just that, however, and betray a typically Protestant understanding of the literal sense of Scripture, and an apparent unawareness of the crucial distinction in medieval Biblical hermeneutics between direct and in- direct signification. That Dante draws on theological modes of Scriptural interpretation does not imply that the literal sense of Dante’s poem is not fictitious.
Nonetheless, some of the most vexed twentieth-century discussions of the theological content of Dante’s Commedia are underpinned by such an insistence on the literal truth claim of the poem. For example, Kenelm Foster, an authority on Dante’s theology, memorably posited a deeply problematic tension in the Commedia between the “Two Dantes,” “attached, simultaneously, to Christianity and to paganism,” a tension he located especially in Dante's treatment of Virgil. By contrast, Mandonnet understands Dante’s Virgil and Beatrice as his poetic solution to the challenge of representing, in the speculative order of knowledge, the autonomy of truths from reason and from revelation, truths which find — in Christian theology (as in Dante’s Commedia) — their integration, without thereby losing their distinction.
The same applies, within the practical order of morals, to the distinction between nature and grace. For Foster, nature must — in some sense — surrender its autonomy in a Christian synthesis; by contrast, Virgil (and the limbo of the virtuous pagans as a whole) seems to embody a kind of human perfectability without healing grace (gratia sanans), which he finds theologically unacceptable. From the hermeneutic perspective sustained by Berthier and Mandonnet, however, Dante’s limbo of the virtuous pagans, which so troubled Foster (given his equation of the poem’s theological truth with its literal sense), is not intended as dogmatic eschatology at all (i.e. to imply that such a state actually exists for adult pagans in the afterlife). Rather, what is primary is the truth signified, not the fictional sign: namely the kind of (albeit limited) earthly happiness attainable by the teaching of the philosophers. Man's natural end (natural beatitude) — praising and contemplating God without suffering but without seeing Him face to face — would be, according to Aquinas’s theological hypothesis, the eternal destiny of unbaptized infants in limbo. However, in Dante’s fiction, man's limited earthly happiness is seen (and represented in the limbo of the virtuous pagans) from the perspective of man's supernatural end, and hence the virtuous pagans “live in desire without hope”.
The limbo ofthe virtuous pagans may thereby exemplify Mandonnet’s distinction between Dante’s (potentially competing) theological and poetical principles in composing the Comunedia, the tension between the demands of the teacher and the poet. While Kenelm Foster and many other twentieth-century scholars were deeply preoccupied by Dante’s apparent damnation of Virgil (and this undeniably provides, at the level of the fictional journey, one of the key narrative dramas of the poem), what is primary is not the actual eternal destiny of particular pagans (which, in the heavens of Jupiter and Saturn, Dante finally makes clear is known to God alone), but rather important theological and moral doctrines (which, at the level of the fiction, necessitate Virgil’s apparent damnation). Doctrinally, Dante’s Virgil typologically represents the natural order (including philosophical truth, the moral law, and the human art of poetry); the necessary corollary being that, at the level of poetic representation, the historical Virgil is located in limbo and apparently (1) morally impeccable (which is, theologically, an impossibility) and (2) spiritually damned (which is theologically plausible, but not theologically necessary).
Dante could have avoided these two consequences, at the level of the fiction (the poems literal sense), had he chosen as his signifier for the natural order in the Commedia an abstract (and historically non-existent) lady such as Boethius's Lady Philosophy, or the ‘donna gentile’ of the Convivio. But, clearly, Dante had many other reasons for making the historical Virgil the first guide in his poem, including Virgil’s authority as an ethical poet who wrote, also, of the pagan underworld; Virgil’s political function as poet of empire (“imperium sine fine”) ; as well as, autobiographically, the ethical power of Virgil’s poetry on Dante’s own moral and spiritual life; Dantes indebtedness to Virgil for his development as a poet; and Dante’s profound empathy for Virgil the man. Choosing a historical person, Virgil, while giving him a three-fold (in Mandonnet’s view) allegorical function, implies a balancing act between sustaining the verisimilitude of the fiction, on the one hand, and sustaining the typology and allegory, on the other. Likewise, in interpreting Dante’s Cormedia, we, as readers, need to be mindful of these principles, aware that — at particular pressure points in the poem — one may have to give way to the other.
The hermeneutic strategy to interpret certain features of the Commedia solely according to the allegorical sense is in continuity with the approach of Dante”s first commentators, but it is ruled out if one equates the theological truth of the poem primarily with its literal sense. Moreover, with the example of the limbo of the virtuous pagans (another example would be the region of the neutrals), we see how a commitment to the truth of the literal sense of the poem implies a heterodox interpretation of Dante’s theology (that Dante believed that pagans could have been sinless in their earthly lives) whereas, interpreted according to the poetic allegory, the theological or moral doctrine hidden under the fiction of Dante’s invented region may not be necessarily problematic at all.
This leads us to consider a further, more general import of the three literalist approaches we have examined, one particularly pertinent perhaps given the increasing theological turn (or return) in Dante Studies in the twenty-first century. Arguably, all three literalist approaches contributed to a wider, secularizing approach to Dante in the twentieth century. Auerbach’s approach does this most openly and straightforwardly by re-presenting Dante as a poet of the earthly or secular world. By contrast, both Nardi’s theory of mystical vision and Singleton’s imposition of the “allegory of the theologians,” by locating the poems theological truth primarily in its literal-historical sense, create an implicit separation and alienation between Dante (and what he is presumed to have believed or to have asked us to believe) and his readers (and what they are presumed to deem credible). As the evidence of Dante’s first commentators indicates, this separation and alienation would have been equally true in Dante’s day as in our own. No right-minded person, whether Christian or not, and whether medieval or modern, would accept that the Commedia’s depiction of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise were shown to Dante in a mystical vision as they truly are in reality (let alone a newly invented region like Ante-Purgatory); and yet, Nardi claims that Dante did indeed believe this. No right-minded person would believe that the literal sense of Dante’s poem is true; and yet, on Singleton’s view, Dante is asking us to assent to the poems literal sense (which is clearly not literally true), as if it were literally true (which is, at the least, rather unreasonable).
However, if Dante did not intend for us to read his poem literally, this separation and alienation between Dante and his readers, at least in this key respect, disappears: the poem’s truth claim is with regard not to the signifier (the literal sense) but to the signified (the allegorical meanings). Dante is indeed claiming to reveal the truth, but he does so through literary forms and poetic conventions, which carry his teaching, his preaching, and his apparently prophetic polemic. Authorial claims to report what he has seen (for example, “O mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi”; Inferno 2.8), on this view, are constitutive of the literary form and rhetoric of the poem as a whole, as is the author’s famous swearing on the veracity of his poem (a truth which has the face of a lie; Inferno 16.124) in relation to “seeing” the image of fraud, Geryon (a lie which has the face of truth; Inferno 17.10-12).
For Berthier and Mandonnet, what is signified through the “beautiful lie” of Dante’s fiction − predominantly ethics and theology − is, in large part, “simply catholic doctrine”. This does not mean that they were unaware that some key aspects of Dante’s thought were (or would subsequently be viewed as) heterodox. Thus, Berthier and Mandonnet considered Dante’s political theology contrary to catholic teaching and downright dangerous for humanity. Their fellow Dominican Guido Vernani was quite right, in their view, to condemn the imperialist utopianism of Monarchia and to unpick some of its absurd arguments shortly after Dante’s death. The treatise’s removal from the Index in 1881 was in no way a belated recognition that Dante’s political vision had, in fact, been correct. However, times had moved on, and the Church arguably did not want to dampen, by this censure, the enthusiasm for Dante as the Christian poet of the Commedia. Notwithstanding Dante’s heterodox political vision, then, it is the theological and philosophical doctrines of the Commedia overall that Mandonnet and Berthier consider sound.
Whether or not modern readers assent to these doctrines will depend on the nature of their own philosophical convictions, and the nature of their Christian faith or lack of it, but neither Christian believer nor unbeliever needs to ascribe to Dante the implausible belief that his poem records a true mystical vision (Nardi), that it is a private or even “authentic divine revelation” (Barolini), or that Dante wanted us to read the Commedia, like Scripture, as if it were literally true (Singleton). Where Hollander encouraged students that “the allegory of the Comedy is not the allegory as the commentators urge me to apply it. I may read this poem as history, and understand it better,” Mandonnet and Berthier (who were alike historians and theologians) might encourage a future generation of students that “the allegory of the Comedy is the allegory as the commentators urge me to apply it. I may read this poem as ethics and theology, (while appreciating ever more fully Dante’s poetic art, his profound empathy with the lives of specific historical individuals, and his mastery of verisimilitude), and understand it better.”
As we look ahead to the next hundred years of Dante Studies, my revisionary proposal, therefore, is that we revisit the interpretative perspectives of Mandonnet and Berthier, and other outstanding scholars of their generation. Mandonnet presents compelling reasons, I think, for Dante scholars to set aside the dominant twentieth-century insistence on the literal truth claim of the poem, and the interpretation of the Commedia as “mystical vision” (Nardi), figural fulfilment (Auerbach) or according to the allegory of the theologians (Singleton and Hollander). In its stead, Mandonnet offers a highly rich account of the theological form of Dante’s Commedia, an account which pays attention both to the marvellous verisimilitude, realism, and human particularities of the literal sense (understood, nonetheless, as a “beautiful lie”), and to the doctrine (especially moral and theological) which it covers or hides. As we have seen with the concluding example of the limbo of the virtuous pagans and the damnation of Virgil, how we understand the theological form of Dante’s poetics may also be decisive for how we understand the nature of its theological content. In this respect as well, Mandonnet’s competing interpretative approach may provide alternative resolutions to some of what twentieth- and twenty-first century Dante scholars have underlined as heterodox elements in Dante’s poem and his theology. Whatever our own approach to interpreting Dante’s Commedia in the future, moreover, we should be aware that Mandonnet’s hermeneutic approach is much more in continuity with the seven-hundredyear long commentary tradition on the poem as a whole than the literalist approaches favoured by many scholars over the past hundred years.

Date: 2022-09-20