Baranski’s Article (1991) [Robert Hollander]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert Hollander

Tratto da: Dante's "Epistle to Cangrande"

Editore: The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

Anno: 1993

Pagine: 75-95

Zygmunt Baranski has recently devoted a lengthy article to our question. While it is mainly concerned with what he perceives to be the vast difference between the treatise and the poem with respect to their diverse reflections of a theory of the genres (in one of his more enthusiastic moments he characterizes this difference as a “fathomless abyss,” p. 38), he concludes with considerations of the supposedly diverse modes of allegory he claims to find in §87-8, followed by a brief series of related observations. His work is well researched (only one major omission will detain us—see (2), below), thoughtful, lively, and provocative. Precisely because it is such an attractive critical performance, it requires close attention.
As he warms to his argument, Baranski becomes less cautious in his judgment that the Epistle may not be by Dante, concluding with the following assertion: “To argue against the Epistle's Dantean origins is— I believe—to perform a humble service on the poet’s behalf” (p. 45). Let us examine his arguments in order to test the merit of his project. What follow, in the order in which they occur in Baranski’s text (from their page numbers, references to endnotes seemingly will interrupt the sequence, but do not, of course, actually do so), are the causes of my principal disagreements with him.
(1) Baranski begins by asserting that Nardi 1960 and 1961 ‘had convincingly refuted’ Mazzoni’s principal claims (p. 26). Not even Brugnoli goes that far. It is already clear that I strongly disagree with this evaluation, although Nardi had indeed made some telling points against several of Mazzoni’s arguments. What he failed to do was to dislodge the evidence Mazzoni had given that the commentators were better acquainted with the document than Nardi wanted to admit. It is also worth noting that Baranski pays little attention to Nardi’s strong support for the authenticity of the first four paragraphs.
(2) While indicating that Brugnoli both studied with Nardi and continues to share many of his thoughts on the question (p. 26), Baranski fails to take any notice of Giorgio Padoan’s important 1965 contribution, which opposes Nardi and supports the authenticity of the Epistle, even though Padoan also considers himself Nardi’s student. Padoan countered Nardi’s surprising miscomprehension (one shared by Brugnoli) that the Epistola's schema for the adaptation of the four theological senses of allegory made the poem a mere, or traditional, fiction, rather than the prophetic vision composed by Dante that is so passionately believed in by Nardi.
(3) Unsurprisingly, given his basic agreement with the thrust of Kelly’s work, Baranski holds that “it is impossible to assert with any degree of certainty that, say, Guido da Pisa depends on the letter rather than vice versa” (p. 48). Only if one supposes that the Epistle is not genuine may one so argue, a tactic that makes of the matter in dispute the first tenet in one’s argument. Those who oppose the Epistle’s authenticity are under the burden of proof in this matter. We are not dealing with a manuscript that turned up without ascription and that a modern scholar has tried to assign to Dante, but with one that surfaced in the hands of Filippo Villani, through what paths we know not, bearing Dante’s name. If we return to Mazzoni’s dating of the Epistola a Cangrande (between 1315 and 1317), then clearly Guido depends on it. And even Nardi, who believes the first four paragraphs genuine, only moves their date forward to 1319. Thus, as I have argued, if the clearly Dantean opening is accepted as authentic, and if we find Guido da Pisa and Jacopo delia Lana referring to it and to later parts of the Epistle at least by 1328, it is probably impossible to argue for Guido’s (or anyone else’s) prior composition of elements found in the Epistola. Baratiski says (p. 27) that recent discussicns have questioned the date of the Epistle. In recent years only Kelly’s, however, has postponed it so drastically. And there is the question of the validity of these discussions, which is not addressed by Barafriski.
(4) “It is not at all clear why, given their cult of Dante and their culture’s obsession with authority,” the commentators do not cite Dante as its author, says Baranski (p. 49). To this observation is added the following challenge: “I’ll be especially interested to see how supporters of the Epistle’s authenticity would explain away a version of the letter which did not bear Dante’s name.” It is possible that Baranski’s challenge reflects a similar moment in Brugnoli”s introduction (discussed above, pp. 38-39), in which Brugnoli reflects with bemused impatience that neither Jacopo della Lana nor the Ottimo, if they do cite the document, feels obligated to refer to Dante as its author. This argument is confronted by Mazzoni, but it is treated by Brugnoli as though it had not been and as though it were a major point on his side. (In fact, the argument had already been put forward by D’Ovidio 1899, p. 449, arguing that supporters of genuineness could not supply ‘alcun trecentista che citasse l’Epistola”; and see his further comments on pp. 475-76.) Neither Brugnoli nor Baranski cites or discusses Jenaro-MacLennan’s substantial discussion (pp. 80-85) of the way in which attributions and other indications of person tend to slip away in later versions of commentary material.
Nonetheless, both of these are important questions, and Mazzoni 1955, pp. 184, 198, has dealt with them in what I consider intelligent ways, admitting, even insisting, that the Epistola circulated without its first four paragraphs, after having been transcribed in that form, perhaps by someone close to Cangrande. We can, I believe, make the case, on negative evidence, that most of the fourteenth-century commentators who saw the text did not see it in full. Given that so many deal with it in their proemi, we may speculate that it could have been copied into at least one manuscript as the accessus to the work, and thus was neither clearly Dante’s own nor clearly not his own. But that is mere speculation. We can only say that it seems more than likely that the truncated form of the Epistle (no more than §85-33, and probably considerably less) made its way into the hands of a number of commentators, though not all necessarily quote from it, since some may be citing from the texts of other commentators. The lack of any citation of Dante as its author results from the absence of his name as author of the Epistle, which is only found in the dedication.
There is a second point. As Padoan has shown, the early commentators (and particularly Pietro Alighieri) were extremely uncomfortable with the claims for truth made in the poem itself, which they frequently attempted to undermine by making the text a more “ordinary” kind of fiction (“here the author feigns that he saw...” is a typical locution in this mode), in response to Dante”s continual representation of the state of the souls after death and his experience of them as being veracious. Therefore the Epistola, with its similar claims, is a difficult document for most of the commentators to accept. At the same time, its citation by such as Jacopo della Lana, Guido da Pisa, and Dante’s son Pietro gave it a kind of tentative authority. Thus it is used, abused at times, and held at a certain distance. It is almost always there somewhere in the early commentaries, but its authority is uncertain, its doctrines at times disconcerting or even dangerous. It has, in short, exactly the sort of liminal and simultaneously controversial status that its sporadic treat- ment would indicate. And, finally, we should observe that in fact Guido da Pisa does refer to the Epistle as being by Dante (in his commentary to Inferno XV, 69: “Et ‘hoc semper in suis licteris ostendebat dicens: Dantes florentinus natione, non moribus”), that Jacopo della Lana does so as well (whether he was following Guido, as Jenaro-MacLennan believes, glossing the same text, when he wrote “sì si scrivea Dante da Firenze per nazione, e non per costume”), and that Paolazzi 1989, pp. 13-14, has now shown that Benvenuto is also in this company. Paolazzi (p. 13) cites from the lectures given by Benvenuto da Imola at Bologna in 1375 (the version of his commentary the authorship of which was attributed incorrectly to Stefano Talice da Ricaldone in the nineteenth century):

Sed est dubium, que est causa qua homo tantus deduxit se ad describendum vulgariter. Ratio prima est ista, que habetur in sua epistola, ut faceret fructum et delectationem pluribus gentibus, tam literatis quam illiteratis: unde si descripsisset literaliter, tunc ipsum vulgares non intellexissent: unde novum stilum voluit capere, et etiam ut faceret fructum Italicis.” (italics added)

Paolazzi (pp. 227-30) argues that the thought of the passage is close to that found in §10.31 and 15.39 of the Epistle, and (p. 14) to the phrase “utilitatem et delectationem” in §33.89. To his argument may now be added Francesco Mazzoni’s observation, in a recent conversation, of the same phrase, “fructum et delectationem,” reflected in the opening verse of the capitolo ternario of Busone da Gubbio's epitome of the Commedia: “Però che sia più fructo e più dilecto.” In addition, the phrase “‘utilitate et delectatione” appears in any declined form only once (strangely enough) in the Latin commentaries currently found in the Dartmouth Dante Project; it is used by Benvenuto in his comment on Paradiso II, 7-9. This fact may lend Paolazzi’s thesis some support. In another of his recent studies, however, Baranski (1991c, p. 228) claims that this phrase “ha tutta l’aria di una interpolazione, forse di mano proprio di quello Stefano Talice da Ricaldone il quale, copiando il commento di Benvenuto, se lo appropriò.” Baranski does not tell us whether he has bothered to check out this version of the commentary for other such “forgeries,” and we are left wondering how often texts that, for one reason or another, displease a scholar with an agenda become “forgeries.”
Baranski’s supporting argument is more provocative and interesting. If Benvenuto was so keen to have the authority of Dante for his discussion, why did he omit the reference in the final version of his commentary? Henry Kelly (1989, pp. 51-55) had already, as Baranski notes, offered a complex and interesting discussion of Paolazzi’s ascription of the reference to Epistola XIII to Benvenuto. In Kelly’s view, the words “sua epistola” in this second version of the commentary may either refer to the letter from Petrarca abou! Dante referred to by Benvenuto in the final version of his commentary, where this passage is again elaborated in a discussion of Inferno Il, or to Boccaccio’s letter of “Frate Ilaro” about Dante. However, the passage in question is wholly unambiguous: “Ratio prima est ista que habetur in sua epistola.” And the following text, while perhaps not faithfully rendering Dante’s argument, is nonetheless to be taken as Benvenuto’s version of it, which turns the Epistle’s description of the poem’s status as vernacular work into the commentator's understanding of the purpose that lies behind that choice. The simplest and most logical inferences that we may draw are, first, that “in sua epistola” refers to a letter by Dante (and not one about him) and, second, that the only epistle thus indicated is the Epistola a Cangrande.
If these things are true, we are still left with Baranski’s good objection. Why did Benvenuto withdraw the citation in his final version of his commentary?
Paolazzi, in the understandable pleasure of discovery, has not, it is fair to say, considered the strange practice of Benvenuto if he is both acquainted with the Epistola a Cangrande and knows it is by Dante. If these two things are true (and I think they may be), how do we explain that his references to the Epistle are so very few and far between? And so faint when they do seem to be present? (Mazzoni 1955, p. 168n, spoke of Benvenuto as being “at the margins of the problem.”) When we compare his accessus to the Commedia to Boccaccio’s, perhaps the most faithful recapturing of the key elements in the Epistle of any fourteenthcentury commentator, and a text that Benvenuto knew more closely than perhaps any other commentary, how can we account for his nearly total distancing of himself from the document? I think there is a reason: Benvenuto did not approve of what the Epistle was saying. Boccaccio treats it as authoritative (if not in nomine Dantis); Benvenuto seems to think it was by Dante and desires to be free from its yoke (like so many contemporary students of the problem). This hypothesis would account for Benvenuto’s only occasional, nearly involuntary, reference to it, and his suppression of his single earlier reference to it as Dantean in the final version of his exegesis.
Last, but hardly least; Filippo Villani still more explicitly attributes the Epistle to Dante. Does Baranski really believe that all this is not significant evidence? We must assume so, given his total silence about the two glosses to Inferno XV, 69, and despite the fact that he has read the texts that put forward these pieces of evidence. His only response (1991, p. 48n) is to list the bibliographical sources of the various opinions that we have examined and to offer a blanket denial: the claim may only safely be made for Filippo Villani. Baranski is a fine dantista. His authority, however, does not reach the level that allows dismissals of evidence without dealing with that evidence.
(5) Except for several loci, most notably the opening discourse concerning friendship and the expository passages to the opening verses of Paradiso, the Epistle is characterized by curtness, logical clarity, and a certain precise and professional quality. Where the author expatiates, he frequently sounds like the author of the Monarchia (e.g., 882-3, on the nature of friendship; §§19-21 on Paradiso I, 1-3; §§25-26 on verse 4), whose style has at times a similar scholastic prolixity. On other occasions, he is far from loquacious, conventional, even, in Baranski's terms (p. 35), “conservative” (the definitions of the sex...inguirenda, the notorious “ten terms” of the modus tractandi, the titulus, etc.).
There is another issue raised in Baranski’s complaint. Later in his argument (p. 39) he has the questionable judgment to refer to the Epistola a Cangrande as being “among the least impressive of Trecento Dante commentaries.” This judgment seems to me a cause for some dismay, since it overlooks the sophistication and daring of the document (this is the central appreciation of Mazzoni 1955, Mazzeo 1960, pp. 97-103, concerning the gloss to the opening lines of the Paradiso, Martinelli 1984 and 1985, and Paolazzi 1989), which says so much in such brief compass and in so sophisticated a way. On the other hand, the Epistle is not in fact a “commentary,” but rather a sample of one, by the offer of which Cangrande is invited to request more of the same (with whatever playfulness we may imagine). Dante, as commentator on his own poem, would not have wanted to tell us all (Hardie [1960] even argues that the verses at Paradiso X, 22-27, show us that Dante never intended to write a commentary to the poem; I agree that he did not, without believing that this text would have in any way prevented him from composing one had he wanted to; it is a nonbinding remark, and the Epistle was composed, in any case and in all probability, before Dante wrote Paradiso X). Baranski frequently takes the author of the Epistle to task for not representing the radical novelty of the Commedia’s practice and concludes that it would not have been like Dante to present his work as being so conventional.
Such a self-presentation on the part of the author of the Epistle strikes me rather as arguing for Dante’s authorship than against it, hiding rather than revealing some of his most unsettling claims. We may consider, for example, his brief explication of the invocation at Paradiso I, 10-12 (§31.87). AIl he says that is of any interpretive significance (and it is of considerable significance) is contained in the laconic remark that the author of Paradiso “petit divinum auxilium.” We remember the related text at §18.47, the first discussion of the invocation, where we are told that what must be invoked by poets is “quasi divinum quoddam munus,” a passage that allows a “pagan” understanding to those so minded, but that is now, it is clear, revealed to have referred exactly to the “divinum auxilium” of the true God. Continuing, at §32.88, he refuses to develop the sententia of the invocation, precisely at the moment he would need to reveal to us that “Apollo” is the Triune God, that the Holy Spirit is his inspiration, etc. It is typical of Dante that here, as in the poem, he forces us to mouth his deep truths for him. He may have learned this technique from the Christ of the Gospels, as in his use of the locution “tu dicis” in order to render Pilate’s unbelieving formulation of Jesus’ kingship no less than truthful (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:33: John 18:37).
(6) Baranski is also displeased by what follows. The equation made between

the vernacular and the “comic” (‘ad modum loquendi, remissus est et humilis, quia locutio vulgaris in qua et muliercule comunicant’’) is most bewildering, when Dante's glorification of his native language in De vulgari eloquentia is remembered; to say nothing of the uses to which he puts the vu/garis in the Commedia itself. (p. 34)

I think that Baranski here is caught on the horns of a dilemma of his own making. Since he wants the Commedia to be simultaneously “comic” (in the widest possible terms) and “plurilingual” (his term in a number of his recent studies: see, inter alia, Baratfiski 1986, 1988, 1991b; i.e., a work involving all styles and registers of language), he here seems to want to deny (for reasons I do not understand) the “tragic” as one of these styles. (To return to Guido da Pisa’s formulation, alluded to in the first chapter, Baranski somehow fails to understand that what Dante has composed may be described as his “alta Comedia.”) At the same time he wants Dante’s definition of the lofty vernacular from De vulgari eloquentia, which is pronouncedly “tragic,” to apply here. This objection contradicts Baranski’s purpose as it is elsewhere expressed (e.g., Baranski 1988, p. 59, and 1991b, pp. 6-9).
(7) On a related matter concerning the Epistle’s discussion of the comic style, Baranski continues (pp. 34-35):

Dante’s first eclogue [cannot] be put forward to support the letter’s definition of the poem’s language. Tityrus’ reply is not to be taken as Dante’s judgment on the vernacular, but as a polemical calque on Giovanni del Virgilio’s reservations regarding the Commedia (Ecl. 1.5- 24); in fact, it serves to vindicate his linguistic choice in the poem (Il. 51-54):

“Mopsus” tunc ille “quid” inquit.
“Comica nonne vides ipsum reprehendere verba,
tum quia femineo resonant ut trita labello,
tum quia Castalias pudet acceptare sorores?”

I take Baranski to be saying, in his last clause, exactly what I would say, or indeed, what Mazzoni has already said: in his tongue-in-cheek way, Dante, by making the tragic/Virgilian/Latinizing Giovanni del Virgilio (his name was almost certainly derived from his devotion to the Latin poet) hold such negative views of poor comic/Dantean/vernacular Tityrus” Commedia, the challenging choice of Italian for a ‘serious’ work is insisted on behind the smile. As a result, the passage has exactly the effect that Baranski seems to want explicitly to deny it (support of the Epistola a Cangrande’s definition of the Commedia’s style as “stilus humilis”). In my opinion what he ends up saying supports exactly such an interpretation.
(8) Starting at page 35, and wending its way to the end of Baranski’s article, we find his characterization of the Epistola a Cangrande as “conservative.” I think there is some merit in this characterization, in that I see Dante as deliberately understating (see discussion at 5, above) his claims for the Commedia and thus trying to get it to pass muster apparently as an acceptably “old-fashioned” poem. We must remember that its patron—Cangrande della Scala—was intended to be at least among its first readers; Cangrande was apparently an admirer of Albertino Mussato and thus was not one to welcome, we may surmise, literary criticism of too radical and “modern” a bent. At the same time, hidden in the accessus and the exposition are radically new and even dangerous claims. Thus I see Dante, as author of the Epistle, playing two games at once, making clear to the adept what he is really up to and, simultaneously, allowing the more modestly equipped to come away without being overly disturbed.
(9) Baranski believes (p. 35) that Dante’s use of Seneca and Terence as emblems of tragedy and comedy, respectively, opposes the likelihood that the text is authentic, since the Commedia puts forward Virgil and Dante as the major representatives of the two genres. If anything, this position rather supports than undermines that likelihood, since anyone other than Dante would have been able to offer his name as exemplary of comedy. Since he cannot, and chooses to use Terence, a comic writer, he balances him with a tragic one.
(10) Baranski (pp. 35-36) argues that the citation of Horace in the service of allowing a mixture of styles in a single work is not really a very good reading of Horace, who allows only a limited mingling of genres. Dante, however, or the author of the Epistle, not having had the benefit of Baranski’s counsel, simply decides that Horace allows as much as Dante wants him to (Horace, he says, “licentiat aliquando comicos ut tragedos loqui, et sic e converso”). Baranski, differing from this opinion without reference to Vandelli’s version of it, argues that this use of Horace was a commonplace in the exegetical tradition of the Middle Ages, and thus is further proof of the passage’s “conventionality,” an attribute that Baranski assumes renders the Epistle more likely to be spurious—one supposes on the ground that some who have argued for authenticity regard it as “revolutionary.” The Epistle, on the other hand, like the Commedia, is a work that combines the old and the new. If Baranski is right about the conventionality of the claim made on the authority of Horace, that is still no reason to believe it is not by Dante; if Vandelli is right, there is every reason to believe that it is by Dante.
Baranski now leaves his main subject, the Epistle’s relationship to Dante’s theory of the genres, to engage some other issues. First he turns to the question of the allegorical exposition found in §87-8 of the Epistle.
(11) Baranski’s main point (pp. 39-42) is that the discussion of theological allegory in §7 is followed by a description in §8 of what is essentially “the allegory of the poets.” According to him, this description “is rather bland and lacks any Biblical overtones: ‘Si vero accipiatur opus allegorice, subiectum est homo prout merendo et demerendo per arbitrii libertatem iustitie premiandi et puniendi obnoxius est. As Minnis has convincingly explained:

That sounds very much like a moral or tropological interpretation, in which Dante’s characters are taken as exempla of what to do and what to avoid; such a reading proceeds by generalizing ethical precepts from the specifics of the literal sense rather than by subverting [sic] it. This impression is confirmed by the subsequent classification of the text under ethics....In the final analysis, then, the author of the Can Grande epistle does not seem to be going very far beyond the “allegory of the poets” as described in the Convivio, which type of allegory had a definite ethical intent.... That is to say, he is reducing the spiritual senses to one, namely the moral or tropological sense, perhaps under the influence of the relatively uniform and essentially moral allegory which medieval commentators were used to extracting from classical literature. ...In Dante’s thought, in the Can Grande epistle, and indeed in the commentary-tradition on the Divine Comedy, elements from both hermeneutic traditions interweave and reciprocate.” [Minnis and Scott 1988, pp. 385-86; I have omitted a few phrases in Minnis and Scott cited by Baranski and included a few that were not.]

The problem with the interpretation of Minnis, Scott, and Baranski is, simply, that it is almost certainly incorrect. First, Baranski’s omission of the first part of the eighth paragraph of the Epistola obscures the consecutive nature of the thought found in the two connected statements of §§7-8. Having finished the description of the four senses in §7, the writer links his next discussion to it: “Hiis visis, manifestum est quod duplex oportet pesse subiectum, circa quod currant alterni sensus.” The text continues by saying that the subject of the work must be interpreted first literally, and then allegorically; that the subject of the entire work is the state of the souls after death (its literal sense), “nam de illo et circa illum [“statum,” not “subiectum,” as in Brugnoli’s translation; the pronominal form would be “illud’’ were the latter the antecedent] totius operis versatur processus.” The movement forward of the entire work, its plot, or narrative, is concerned with the state of the souls after death, if it is understood literally (see Paolazzi 1989, p. 57, for John of Garland’s definition of the materia ...tria of a text: “principium, progressus et operis conclusio,” with the processus thus including the “sviluppo mediano dell’opera”).
And now we join the text where Baranski intercepts it. This text gives the allegorical interpretation of the entire work, that of the three “alternating”’ nonliteral senses of Scripture—allegorical, moral, and anagogical – all subsumed, as St. Thomas authorized, in the familiar passage from Summa Theologica (1.1.10), which allows for or, rather, insists upon the identity of the three “allegorical” senses (allegorical, moral, anagogical) and the single threefold (trifariam) “spiritual” sense. In it the past lives of the damned are seen as prefiguring their present “status post mortem,” and also as indicating our need to incorporate the lessons offered by their lives and deaths into the choices in ours: by living their lives in ours, as it were, either by fieeing what was vicious in their thoughts and actions or by following what was virtuous in them. The past lives of the damned also prefigure their future damnation or glory under God’s justice.
Further, Minnis and Baranski are apparently, at least in this instance, not aware of the sort of question a theologian puts to such a text—and the author of the Epistle, as we have seen, is clearly speaking “theologically” in these passages. It is instructive to consult Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibeta, quaest. 6. art. 15. obj. 3, reflecting issues raised in his definition of the four senses in Summa Theologica 1.1.10 (the text precisely the closest we can find to Dante’s own sense of fourfold exegesis, as Baranski admits [1987, p. 89n]). He answers the following objection, which is much as that of Minnis and Scott (and Baranski) to §8: “[M]oralis sensus est qui ad morum instructionem pertinet. Sed sacra Scriptura in pluribus locis secundum litteralem sensum mores instruit. Ergo moralis sensus non debet distingui a litterali.” Here is Thomas's resolution of the quaestio: “Ad tertium dicendum, quod moralis sensus non dicitur omnis sensus per quem mores instruuntur, sed per quem instructio morum sumitur ex similitudine aliquarum rerum gestarum; sic enim moralis sensus est pars spiritualis, quod nunquam est idem sensus moralis et litteralis.” For a clear and useful distinction between the two kinds of allegory the work of Shaw (e.g., Shaw 1938, pp. 9-13) is still worth consultation; Shaw’s point is that Thomas defined allegory strictly, where others were content with far looser procedures.
In his study of theological allegory, Dante seems to have been formed by Thomas far more than by anyone else. And his own distinctions are a great deal more “strict” than some contemporary theorists recognize. However, that he follows Thomas’s formulations does not mean that he accepts his prescriptions (or proscriptions). I am grateful to Francesco Mazzoni for pointing out to me the following. The definition of the “Iiteral subject” of the Commedia in the Epistle, §8.24, “status animarum post mortem simpliciter sumptus,” almost certainly reflects the following proscription of Thomas, who, in his commentary In X libros ethicorum ad Nichomachum, 3, lectio 14, locating fortitude’s place between boldness and fear, discusses our only normal fear of death:

Inter omnia autem maxime terribile est mors. Et hujus ratio est, quia mors est terminus totius praesentis vitae, et nihil post mortem videtur esse hujusmodi bonum aut malum, de his quae pertinent ad praesentem vitam, quae nobis inferunt mortem. Ea enim quae pertinent ad statum animarum post mortem, non sunt visibilia nobis. (italics added)

Nardi makes a similar point to a different end (1961, p. 304). In a previous passage in his commentary to the Ethics, 1, lectio 9, Thomas had already specifically denied such knowledge as Dante would be claiming if he wrote the Epistola: “loquitur in hoc libro Philosophus de felicitate qualis in hac vita potest haberi. Nam felicitas alterius vitae omnem investigationem rationis excedit.” Thus, if the non-epistolary sections of the Epistle were to have been written by Dante, Nardi concludes, their author would have had to deny exactly such purpose as §8 arrogates unto itself, “per la tomisticissima ragione che lo ‘status animarum post mortem’ non è di competenza di nessuna parte e di nessun genere della filosofia, semplicemente perché ‘omnem investigationem rationis excedit.”
In both these instances (and the text found by Mazzoni constitutes a truly arresting detail, a far more interesting proof that Dante had Thomas in mind here [as he was in Dante’s definition of theological allegory]), what we see reflected in the Epistle is Dante’s precise knowledge that Thomas would no: have warranted what he was writing. And Nardi’s argument is a strange one, since he has argued most forcefully for Dante’s positioning himself as poet of revealed truth, if anything an even stronger prise de position against St. Thomas than Nardi finds in the Epistle. My view is that both Mazzoni and Nardi are correct in thinking that the author of the Epistola a Cangrande is in polemic with Thomas; Mazzoni sees him as citing Thomas, but is less willing than I to argue that the procedures of his poem exactly manifest his insistence on theological allegory; Nardi argues that Dante would not have violated Thomas’s “rules” in the Epistle, but then did so (and not a little) in the poem. I still find Padoan’s 1965 resolution of the problem the most convincing: the Epistle and the poem share the same givens, the same techniques, the same effects.
The question concerning the adequacy of its description of the poem’s “subject” has long troubled doubters of the Epistle’s authenticity; they have been offended that Dante’s poem is referred to in what they consider trivializing terms. Remnants of this view remain in some recent work. For instance, Dronke (1986) believes that it does not yield an interesting result to say that the subject of the poem is the state of the souls post mortem (p. 2), since it is in fact “the itinerarium mentis of Dante Alighieri” (p. 5); thus the Epistle does not seem to him likely to be genuine. But the subject of the poem is the state of the souls after death, from the moment in which we enter Inferno proper until that in which we see the vita of St. Bernard and the culminating vision of humanity as the blessed in the rose. And the fact is not trivial, for here is a poem that takes as its subject the history of the future, as it were. Further, that there is a ‘‘second subject” is clear, if it would have been out of order for Dante to say so (these remarks reflect the previous discussion of agens in chap. 1). He is the second subject.
The above is, I hope, a sufficient answer to Minnis’s attempt to pull the author of the Epistle back to the poet’s side of the divide of allegory; that is not where he has elected to be found. We must be careful not to make Dante more our kinsman than he wanted to be. There is absolutely no reason whereby anyone can claim with confidence that §8 of the Epistle is any less “‘theological” than the one with which it is inextricably bound and that precedes it; there is only the desire to “detheologize” Dante, as Minnis seeks to do, or to “undertheologize” the “false” Dante of the Epistle, Baranski’s aim. (It is amusing to note that Baranski wants the true Dante to be a “theological” poet, and so eventually disagrees with Minnis’s evaluation of Dante’s “mixed” allegoresis, a position not very distant from Nardi’s.)
The last pages of Baranski’s article attempt to make a few final points that would lead us away from taking the proposition that Dante wrote the Epistola a Cangrande as a fact. These, too; are not acceptable arguments.
(12) He objects to the formulations in §14.38, which make Dante alone the author of the poem, and in §16.40, which have it that the ethical purpose of the work requires that it “non ad speculandum, sed ad opus inventum est. These precisions, Baranski interprets, mean that the poem is not aimed at the higher speculative purpose the text itself would lead us to find, but is mired in ordinary moralizing, such as one finds in the “allegory of the poets,” thus denying, in Baranski’s words (p. 43),

that the Commedia might have a divine “author” and, thus, that it might participate directly in the process of salvation (a most peculiar sentiment, indeed, in a letter meant to accompany the Paradiso). As far as our anonymous commentator is concerned, the Commedia belongs squarely among that vast majority of “scritture” in which [we are to take] “lo senso allegorico secondo che per li poeti è usato” (Cv II i, 2, 4).

The latter is an error resembling that already made by Francesco D’Ovidio in 1899 (p. 468: “Dubito molto se il poeta avrebbe ammesso che la filosofia della Commedia sia esclusivamente morale, sicchè quel tanto di speculativa che c’è vi stia in servigio della morale” —see Mazzoni 1955, p. 181), a passage cited by Mazzoni to show that its detractors frequently fail to understand the context of the Epistle and its relation to Dante’s thought. In this case the passage, as Mazzoni indicates, is in strict parallel with one in Monarchia (1.2.6): “Materia presens non ad speculandum per prius, sed ad operationem ordinatur.” Since it is likely that the two works were written quite close to one another (without entering into this vexed question, I only note that I follow those involved in the debate over the dating of the treatise who claim that it was begun after the Paradiso was well under way, that it is a sort of companion piece to Paradiso VI), they do make interesting neighbors. Thus, the meaning of the passage is not, as Baranski and some others believe, to remove speculation as an end of the poem, but, in good Christian fashion, to use speculation as the basis for action. Further, Dante does not say that the poem has ro speculative aim (“si in aliquo loco vel passu pertractatur ad modum speculativi negotii, hoc non est gratia speculativi negotii, sed gratia operis”), nor does he limit the number of loci or passus he may indeed have filled or be about to fill with the same. He is only saying what a Christian poet would always say, that speculation is not an end in itself, as it was for the pagans, but must lead to moral action. As Baranski knows, within the confines of the poem Dante says that his aim is to make mortals pray better (Paradiso I, 34-36), and that, to offer only a single example of the moral purpose of the work as this is expressed within it, would be another way of saying what the Epistle says here, just as it begins its commentary on that very canto.
(13) The phrase “sublimem canticam” (at §3.11) also seems to Baranski (pp. 43-44) the work of a forger. Why? Because the term (and he here disagrees with a part of Brugnoli’s argument, pp. 606-7, as do I) means not “last cantica” but “sublime cantica,” that is, one of loftiness. I would say that the Paradiso is meant to be seen as “high” in style (if not always, essentially, and more so than the preceding cantiche) and “happy” in content. Baranski takes “sublime” to refer only to the “tragic” style. And that bothers him considerably. He cannot fathom how the author of the Epistle, on the basis of his previous exegesis, would say that “a comedy could actually be ‘sublime.’” He concludes his remarks on this point by noting (p. 44) that in the Commedia Dante never used the word sublimis to describe either his poem as a whole or the Paradiso in particular. Is this a compelling reason to believe that the author of the Epistle cannot be Dante? The word allegoria is similarly absent from the poem. We would hardly want to consent that its presence in the Epistle in itself marks the letter as inauthentic. And the word sublimis is indeed found in Paradiso (XVIII, 102), where the Seraphim and Cherubim are described as being “sublimi” in their vision. If, as Baranski himself insists, the Commedia is “plurilingual,” will not that “plurilinguismo’’ include the high style? And would not Dante, if he wrote the Epistle, insist on its presence? I agree with Baranski that the poem contains many styles. Surely the tragic is one of them, as he elsewhere clearly believes. What is perhaps most exciting in Dante’s “high style” is that it rests so easily alongside the “sermo humilis” that is his trademark. Let me, aware of how many might serve, offer only two examples to demonstrate the point. Dante says in the Convivio (2.2.7; 2.4.2) that “angeli” are only so denominated by the “volgar gente,” that, in fact, they really should be referred to as “intelligenze.” (His practice in the Commedia, unsurprisingly, is precisely to follow the “volgar gente”: the word “angelo” is used a total of thirty-one times, “intelligenza,” four, and only once [Paradiso XXVIII, 78] with a possible undertone of the angelic nature of the motion of each celestial sphere.) Such “vulgarization” is in keeping with what is perhaps, and rightly, our central perception of Dante’s linguistic direction in the Commedia, from high to low. And I think it is right to conclude that that is what he himself wanted to be most notable about his new creation—its ability to use the vernacular for subjects that had hitherto been treated in “lofty” Latin. However, if we find him “lowering” scholastic Latin to its vernacular equivalent, we also find him “raising” the vernacular to its level, as we may conclude from such evidence as that commented upon by Torquato Tasso, cited by Raffaele Andreoli (1856, as found in the Dartmouth Dante Project, in his comment to Paradiso XXXII, 145), referring to Paradiso XV, 28-30:

Né, acciocchè non: una delle solite parole latine interposte da Dante, come quia, quare, prope, ubi, etc., non per bisogno, perché qui per esempio un semplice non avrebbe fatto lo stesso effetto, ma [in Tasso’s words] ‘quasi giudicasse le parole latine esser più atte ad esprimere la maestà e l’altezza de’ concetti del Paradiso.”

(14) That throughout the Epistle Dante’s verses are translated into Latin is also a sign to Baranski that we are dealing with a forger. I cite him (p. 44):

Perhaps what is most shocking about the Epistle’s exegetical procedures is the fact that, when it quotes from the Commedia, it translates Dante’s vernacular poetry into Latin. I find it difficult to accept, given the poet’s dedication to the Italian vulgaris, that he would have ever contemplated transforming it into another language; and, among these, Latin seems the least likely, given the crucial opposition which Dante instituted between Italian and gramatica.

This overheated flourish collapses on immediate inspection. Even were the observation correct, would this be the “most shocking” gesture made by this falsifier of a commentator’s persona? On the other hand, even in the Commedia Dante was never afraid of a little Latin (there are some seventy-six passages or tags in all); and if he liked to develop the antithetic nature of vernacular and Latin, he also liked to develop their cordial relations (as, among a multitude of possible examples, the penultimate rhyme-word of the Commedia indicates: “velle”). Why cannot Baranski understand that sub lectoris officio one lectures in Latin, citations and all? And in any case Dante evidently did his poem no permanent harm by doing so; he did not yield to Giovanni del Virgilio’s blandishments to translate the poem into Latin and throw away the poor, used Italian. He was a poised and intelligent man who could (and did) assume many roles, including that of the Latin pedant. And I would be willing to wager that he enjoyed himself thoroughly while he was doing so. The seriousness of Baranski’s final remark on this point is numbing: “Translating the poem into Latin [but Dante didn’t do that, he only “grammaticized” a few lines of it] meant accepting the validity of Giovanni del Virgilio’s attack (Ecl. I.6-16).” It is difficult to account for so somber a view based on such evidence.
(15) His final sally is to suggest that the “true” author of the Epistola a Cangrande was most likely to be a theologian. Baranski is following Nardi’s often cited argument (1960, p. 225). Neither Nardi nor Baranski has considered that the last person in the world to write a defense of the Commedia as a theological poem, one using the proscribed “allegory of the theologians,” would be a theologian (Nardi himself offers some unwitting testimony to this view of the matter). As I am fond of saying to my students, “There are only two classes of people who become enraged by Dante’s stance as theologus-poeta: believers and nonbelievers.” In any case, that old argument seems as unlikely now as it did when Nardi first offered it (if we were to find that in fact it is a forger with whom we are dealing, it seems far more likely that he would have been a grammaticus than a theologian). We can only imagine how Dante would have smiled at all this.
Baranski’s conclusion is that “as things stand today, the most ‘economic’—to use Contini’s term—philological conclusion is that the Epistle is a forgery” (p. 445). I do not think he has come close to making good his case, for all of the interesting points that he raises. And his final gesture toward Contini has the unintended effect of reminding us that Contini accepted (1956, p. 219) at once the genuineness of the Epistola a Cangrande as a result of Mazzoni’s research and then underlined his agreement with some force (1958, p. 39); I do not believe he ever modified his opinion.
This review of the recent work which would have us believe that the Epistola a Cangrande is, in whole or in part, a forgery has been undertaken in the attempt to clarify the current state of the question. The flawed arguments that have served to becloud the issue, stemming from Brugnoli’s edition in 1979, with its attempt to resuscitate Nardi’s objections (themselves deeply flawed), offer some reason to believe that the Epistola is by Dante. I hope that some of the counterarguments advanced here have served to alert the reader that the single best hypothesis remains that of Francesco Mazzoni, itself following in the tradition of Vandelli, Moore, and others. The text that we know as the Epistola a Cangrande is exactly what its salutation says it is, the letter to the man who is invited to become the sponsor of a commentary that Dante almost certainly never expected to write. He knew he did not have to, that we would do that for him. I do not believe that he would have hoped to find so much time and effort being devoted to the study of this epistle, which he probably wrote quickly and with lodging and food as his main aim. While he was at it, he contrived to set down some exegetical guidelines that can assist those who are willing to dedicate themselves to a nuanced reading of his great poem.

Date: 2022-09-21