Narrative Design in Dante’s Earthly Paradise [Richard H. Lansing]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Richard H. Lansing

Tratto da: Dante: the critical complex. Vol. 7. Dante and interpretation: from the new philology to the new criticism and beyond

Editore: Routledge, New York-London

Anno: 2003

Pagine: 293-305

From the moment of its appearance it has been universally acknowledged that Dante’s Commedia is a highly structured poem whose constituent parts, at every level of formal consideration, display a visual analogue to Aristotelian notions of order under the aegis of Christian theology. Although criticism of very recent vintage, primarily efforts in the deconstructive vein, has attempted to destabilize this ageold view of the poem, claims that assign value and meaning to patterns of correspondence, hierarchy, symmetry, proportion, and teleological purpose, have generally prevailed over notions of deferral and undecidability. Aristotle placed near the heart of his body of narrative principles the notion that a poem ought to have a beginning, middle, and end, believing that these three salient narrative points, if properly related, would ensure a work’s formal consistency. His idea of the “middle” was vague, since by that term he seemed to refer to everything that lay between the beginning and end of a work. In any event, his remarks on the subject, as they have come down to us, were left undeveloped. But the epic tradition in general developed a symbolic sense ofthe middle and considered the mid-point or central episode of a poem to exemplify the idea of the middle. Events located at the middle accrued special import because of their positioning, so that what was at the center was deemed “central” to the meaning of the work and in some way symbolic of its thematic structure.
Dante’s Commedia, being a complex poem with multiple parts and a double action, may be said to have not one but two middles, a formal middle and a dramatic middle. The formal middle occurs in the interstices between Cantos xVI and XVII of Purgatorio, while the climax of the poem and the turning point in the pilgrim’s moral consciousness take place in the Earthly Paradise when Dante is rejoined by Beatrice. In a way, this double center is a natural result of the poem’s having two principal actions, the presentation of the state of the souls in the afterlife, and the unfolding of the pilgrim’s journey from the selva oscura to the candida rosa. At the formal center, Dante showcases in Marco Lombardo’s speech the poem’s underlying theme of divine justice founded on libero arbitrio, which constitutes the rule by which each of the dead souls is assigned his or her place in the otherworld. The six cantos that make up the final section of Purgatorio, Cantos XXVII through XXXIII, witness the completion of the moral recovery of the pilgrim under the tutelage of Beatrice and her handmaid Matelda within the realm of the Earthly Paradise, which takes the form, as has often been noted, of a conversion. To call this moment the poem’s climax, or turning point, is not meant to sell short all of the Paradiso, but simply to acknowledge a narrative fact, namely, that the dramatic action of the pilgrim’s mission, taking into view the entire reach of the poem, achieves a major climax in these cantos.
The poem achieves its rhetorical climax as well in these cantos. Nowhere else do we find such a rich and extraordinary confluence of diverse literary and cultural sources. Dante merges the pagan pastoral myth of the Golden Age with that of the biblical Earthly Paradise, saturates the Procession of the twenty-four Elders with Ovidian imagery, alternates allusions to classical and sacred scripture with vertiginous speed, blends cosmological mystery with romantic desire, and within the context of Christian sacramental liturgy introduces, in Canto XXXII, an cpitome of the historical disasters of the Church. The mood ranges from the pathos of Vergil’s disappearance to Beatrice’s imperious welcome and to the rapt wonder with which the pilgrim scans the spectacle of the Procession and later the Historical Masque. It is a remarkable literary tour de force, one that Dante marks as a center in several ways. The Christian concept of conversion symbolizes the definitive moment of separation from a troubled past and entrance into a redemptive future. Hence the Fathers of the Church traditionally speak of Christ’s Incarnation as marking the center of historical time, coming midway between the Fall of Adam and the Second Coming and dividing the age of nature from the age of grace.
The subject of my inquiry is the narrative design, or conceptual structure, of the Earthly Paradise, which spans the last six cantos of the Purgatorio. An analysis of events in this part of the poem will not only lead us to a more coherent understanding of the way that Dante has structured the realm of Purgatory and of how tightly he has integrated the Earthly Paradise into the moral paradigm employed on the seven terraces of Purgatory proper, it will also help absolve Dante of the unwarranted charge of having unaccountably duplicated his narrative material. When seen in the proper light, the sequence of events surrounding the appearance of Beatrice reveals a unity of structure and an imprint of poetic influence that have not been fully appreciated.
The six cantos of the Earthly Paradise can be clearly seen to divide into three pairs, thereby forming a tripartite division. Canto XXVIII describes the pastoral setting of the Garden of Eden and prepares for the liturgical spectacle of the Procession of the books of the Bible in Canto xxx, which ends with the appearance of Beatrice. Cantos xxx and xxx, shifting to events of a more personal and private nature, delineate the ritual of Dante’s contrition and confession under the guidance of Beatrice. And the third pair, comprising Cantos XXXII and XXXIII, returns to complete the allegorical drama initiated in the first pair by introducing a second, even more mysterious spectacle of historical events in the disasters of the Church.
The cantos fall neatly into what one might call the “sonata” form, or A B A structure, which is to say, into a triptych that contrasts two different orders of human experience, the individual and private world of the interior selfon the one hand, and the broad sweep of history and public world of politics and government on the other. The drama of Dante’s individual soul, his struggle to redeem himself of having followed a “via non vera” and of having succumbed to the enticements of “cose fallaci,” is enclosed within the context of the establishment of the Church on earth, figured in the Procession, and its subsequent humiliation over an extended period of time, delineated in the Masque in Canto XXXII. Linking the individual and interior with the historical and exterior is the theme of the fall: Dante’s own personal fall, his abandonment of Beatrice, is tied thematically first to the fall of Adam and later, as a result of both internal forces and also contamination with the Empire, to the fall of the Church, which reaches its greatest degeneration in Philip the Fair's intrigue with Clement Vv to remove the Papacy to Avignon.
I want to look more closely now at the historical events depicted in the two “A” markers, the coming of the Church in Canto XXIX, dramatized as the revelation ofthe Word in sacred scripture, and its parallel Canto, number XXXII, which displays, as it were, the going of the Church. These two separate but related events, the Procession of the books of the Bible and the Masque of Church disasters, have for some seemed to constitute a repetition of material and an unnecessary redundancy. Robert Kaske took up this question some time ago and offered the following explanation:

... why has Dante chosen to duplicate its theme [that of the figurative survey of Christian history], though in strikingly different imagery, in a part of the poem so closely preceding? . . . I suspect that what is being dramatized here is the distinction between “history” as it exists in the mind of God, and history as it is allowed to work itself out in a material universe. The Procession of Scripture—unearthly, severely ordered, and using as its major symbols the Books that are themselves the word of God—is history seen, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis; the historical survey of Cantos XxxIl and xxxIII, allegorical though it is, presents with greater liveliness and variety the vicissitudes and ultimate triumph of this divinely ordained drama when it is put into production on the imperfect stage of earth. (106-107).

Kaske’s remarks seem to me cogent and sensible, although I do not think that Dante’s re-presentation of material owes anything to making it more lively and more various the second time around. And the “ultimate triumph” of which he speaks, the coming of the DXV, while promised, is never realized. Dante, I believe, had something else in mind when he presented an image of the Church under two different allegorical guises. Before I suggest what I take to be the reason for his supposed narrative “duplication,” it will be useful to recall in greater detail the actual sequence of events in both allegorical dramas.
The Procession that depicts the books of the Bible is meant to convey an image of historical time as it unfolds from Genesis to the Apocalypse. As he gazes upon its advance rapt in wonder, Dante witnesses the appearance of the twenty-four Elders of the Old Testament, crowned in white, the color of faith, walking two-by-two. Directly behind them follow four animals, representing the Gospels, crowned in green, the color of hope, and seven figures representing the remaining books of the New Testament, who, naturally, are crowned in red, the color of charity. Displaying the proper sequence of the theological virtues, they march in two columns behind seven candelabras whose flames paint in the sky above streamers of multi-colored light that form a protective canopy over their heads. Centered among the four Gospels is a Chariot, symbolizing the Church, upon which Beatrice stands, drawn by the double-natured Griffin, who represents Christ. On the right side of the Chariot and along the axis of its wheels dance the three theological virtues, on the left, the four cardinal virtues. The Procession records the entire span of human time, from Genesis to Apocalypse, conceived as God’s providential plan. The end of time is dramatized, in an allegorical sense, by Beatrice, who appears as Christ will at the Second Coming (Purg. xxx, 13-18), ready to pronounce judgment on her disciple. This scene allegorizes what I would refer to as the historical perspective of earthly time in bono.
After Beatrice’s chastisement of Dante and his confession to her of his moral lapses, the Procession converts into a Masque or Pantomime Show as the “glorioso esercito” surrounds the Tree of Justice and becomes witness to a return to the beginning of time, to the Fall of Adam, followed by allusions to Christ's death, resurrection, and transfiguration, as an overture to the main event, the fall of the Church repeated in seven separate attacks on the chariot. Each calamity, occasioned by an attack by a rapacious beast or monster, represents a specific period of significant degeneration or erosion of the Church’s power: the persecutions of the Church by the early Roman emperors, the early heresies, the Donation of Constantine, the Mohammedan schism, further malignant donations, papal corruption, and the Babylonian Captivity. If the Procession of biblical books presents an image of the ideal plan of history in the mind of God, the Masque delineates how far the Church has deviated from that ideal, and, by contrast, the historical perspective of time in malo. Now what is especially interesting about this deployment of highly developed images is its relation to the architectural structure of the purgation of sin in Purgatory proper. Edward Moore's essay “Unity and Symmetry of Design in the Purgatorio,” and much later Enrico De’ Negri’s study “Tema e iconografia del Purgatorio,” have elucidated the systematic pattern of symmetry underlying the sequence of narrative events on each of the seven terraces of sin. Upon entering a terrace the pilgrim Dante first encounters exempla illustrating a particular virtue, subsequently a number of penitential souls in the process of purging their disposition toward a specific sin, and finally a second set of figures, exempla of the vice being purged. The two sets of exempla, which Dante terms the “ferza” and the “freno,” or whip and bridle, are flanked by angels. The first angel receives Dante into the new terrace, sings a song evoking the spirit of the opposing virtue in the corresponding beatitude, and indicates the way of ascent. As Dante leaves a terrace after having studied the exempla of vice, a new angel greets him, erases from his brow a “P,” standing for the sin or “peccatum” symbolically purged, and guides him into the next terrace. This pattern emphasizes a tripartite structure: there are three panels of figures, and while the number of exempla may vary on the different terraces, the order of their presentation does not. The most sophisticated and complex pattern of this narrative grouping occurs in the first instance, on the terrace of pride, and for our purposes it provides the best illustration of the model. On either side of Umberto Aldobrandeschi, Oderisi da Gubbio, and Provenzan Salvani, the three penitents purging their pride, we encounter three corresponding exempla or sets of exempla. The exempla of humility, sculpted on the walls of marble along the path, exhibit Mary at the time of the Annunciation, David dancing before the Ark, and Trajan humbly receiving the plea of a minor citizen. On the other side, balancing these exempla, we find, etched in the marble pavement upon which Dante tramples, twelve examples of pagan and biblical individuals struck down for their pride, aligned into three distinct groups, capped by a final example of the city of Troy, as pride writ large. That Dante intends us to take the twelve examples of pride as three sets of four is made evident by the fact that each terzina contributes to creating an elaborate acrostic whose initial letters spell out the word V-O-M, signifying “uomo,” or mankind, an acrostic recapitulated in summary fashion in the thirteenth terzina of Troy.
Dante’s penchant for employing symmetry as a sign of thematic coherence is overwhelmingly evident in this part of the poem, which spans Cantos X through XII, as is his highlighting of the Trinity in the tripartite structure in which sin is purged and virtue reinforced. That tripartite structure, as any reader of Dante would be quick to note, replicates the overall structure of the otherworld in its divisions into three realms, and in a sense Purgatory reverses the larger order of experience. While the path from Hell to Paradise displays first the exempla of vice and then the exempla of virtue, with examples of penitents in between, the sequence in Purgatory moves conversely from images of virtue to images of vice, separated by the confessions of the penitents. The ritual of purgation requires reinforcement of virtue as a first step toward confession, an act that enables the true penitent to confront vice later with strength and equanimity.
It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that the structure of events in the Earthly Paradise duplicates the model for the seven terraces below. In the narrative panel reserved for the exempla of virtue, Dante presents the thirty-five books of the Old and New Testaments, in a Procession that leads to the advent of Beatrice as Christ figure. In the central panel that features the penitent undergoing purgation, Dante makes himself, as pilgrim, the penitent who confesses his sins of infidelity to his lady, experiences contrition, and receives absolution. In the panel reserved for the exempla of vice, Dante presents an epitome of a catastrophic and humiliating series of historical events that strip the Church of her dignity and stability. Both the Procession and the Masque are designed to fit the exemplaristic mold, of good and evil, of history in bono and history in malo, which has been reiterated on each of the seven terraces below. The order of presentation, the progression from images of good to images of evil, is also preserved. The Old and New Testaments, containing the old and new law, constitute the book of virtue that offers the primary means of achieving salvation, as Dante himself states with characteristic concision in Paradiso v: “Avete il novo e ’l vecchio Testamento / e ’l pastor de la Chiesa che vi guida; / questo vi basti a vostro salvamento” (vv. 76-78). In terms of the major symbolic figures within the two allegorical scenes that stand as counterparts to each other, Christ, the paragon of virtue, represented by the griffin, is balanced by the Anti-Christ figure of the Giant who attacks and abducts the Harlot. Beatrice, chaste, adorned in the colors of the three theological virtues, simultaneously figura Christi and Bride of Christ, is balanced by the cupidinous and wayward Harlot.
Although to the best of my knowledge no one has ever made the connection, this pattern of correspondence is, I think, virtually self-evident, and it is reinforced in some degree of detail. The first exemplum of virtue on each of the seven terraces, in keeping with a device that Dante borrowed from Conrad of Saxony’s Speculum Beatae Mariae Virginis, is always taken from the life of Mary. While Mary cannot figure directly in the Procession, Dante evokes her presence in the twenty-four Elders’ paraphrase of the angel’s words to Mary “Blessed art thou among women,” words directed at Beatrice in anticipation of her appearance: “Benedicta tue / ne le figlie d’Adamo, e benedette / sieno in etterno le bellezze tue!” (Purg. XXIX, 85-87). As Singleton observes, the chant is a prophetic herald of Christ’s coming, just as the Procession itself enacts the coming of Christ in Beatrice. Vellutello’s interpretation of the Procession as bearing the shape of the Cross of Christ, thereby symbolizing the idea that Christ is the model not only for man but the trajectory of history itself is, incidentally, as imagistically powerful as it is theologically fitting. The teaching that makes Christ the foundation of the ideal Church is allegorized in the architecture, and specifically the floorplan, of every Gothic cathedral in Europe. The positioning of the nave, transepts, and sanctuary is meant to call to mind the image of the cross, in order to illustrate the doctrine that personal salvation derives from and depends directly upon Christ’s crucifixion. Moreover, the personification of the seven virtues who act as chaperons to Beatrice and hover about the Chariot strengthens the affiliation of the Procession to the exempla of virtue, as do the Elders’ theologically colored garments. Later, the personified virtues will join Beatrice in weeping when the Church disasters are recounted in the Masque. Supplementing the seven virtues are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, allegorized in the seven candelabras that precede the Procession. As Aquinas remarks, these gifts are sometimes called virtues in the broad sense of the term, are superior to all virtues except the three theological virtues, and as habits of the good soul are required for salvation. The Procession, then, epitomizes the very idea of virtue. And finally, the rite of removing the letter P from Dante’s brow on each terrace finds its parallel in Dante’s immersion in the rivers Lethe and Eunoe, where he undergoes ritual absolution and a final cleansing of his personal sins.
What emerges from this analysis is a view of Purgatory that is more integrated and uniform than previously thought. Dante has assembled the narrative components of the Earthly Paradise on the model that he has deployed throughout Purgatory proper, so that we can perceive his Garden of Eden as the culmination of the same process of ritual purification that takes place on each of the seven terraces. It is the moment that ties together all of the thematic and conceptual threads of the fabric of Purgatory; it is the jewel in the structural crown of the transitional realm.
Critics have not been quick to notice this pattern of correspondence, perhaps because they have focused primarily on external sources as a means of elucidating Dante’s structures, sources which are astonishing in their number and range. Dante himself cites Ezechiel and St. John as sources for the Procession of the books of the Bible, and throughout the cantos of the Earthly Paradise he makes extensive use of material from and the spirit of Johns book of the Apocalypse. But those sources, while providing the outline for the Procession, do not account for the idea of the procession, the image of the marching “glorioso esercito.” In John's vision as in Ezechiel’s, the twenty-four Elders are assembled around a throne on which the divine Christ sits, having been presented statically in a manner that accentuates the mystical. Here we must turn to classical examples of processions, like those found in Prudentius’s Psychomachia, Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, or Bernard Silvestris’s De mundi universitate. Alain de Lille’s Anticlaudianus provides the especially remarkable parallel of a chariot fashioned by the seven liberal arts, the Trivium and Quadrivium, drawn by Prudence in an ascent into heaven where the renewal of man is celebrated. And one should keep in mind that Dante would have been very familiar with actual processions like those of the Corpus Christi and the general Mass, as well as with mosaic images lining the tympana of cathedrals in Ravenna and elsewhere.
We are virtually certain that Dante derived his idea for balancing or contrasting a set of virtues with a set of vices from Conrad of Saxony’s Speculum and from Hugh of St. Victor’s De quinque septenis. But neither of these sources can account for the tripartite narrative structure found in the Earthly Paradise. It is quite possible that he modeled his narrative structure on an episode from the Aeneid, his favorite text after the Bible. Book Six of the Aeneid recounts Aeneas’s underworld journey, which the Trojan hero embarks upon with the sole desire of coming face-to-face once again with his father Anchises. Interestingly, this scene reveals a tripartite structure. Aeneas first encounters a series of souls who died during the journey from Ttoy, specifically Palinurus, Dido, and Deiphobus. Only subsequently does Aeneas meet Anchises, the prototypical figure of the past, from whom he is given a prophetic vision of the future of his people in the new world of Rome, and in particular of the rulers from Silvius down to Augustus and Marcellus. All of the narrative ingredients are here: a panel of figures of the past contrasts with a panel of figures of the future, and Anchises, who functions as a kind of Beatrice for Aeneas, is fount of true wisdom and providential guide along the journey to Italy. Like Dante’s paradigm, it covers historical time from beginning to end, which is to say, all the time it took to rebuild Troy in Rome, from the fall of Ilium (like the fall in Eden) to the advent of a future savior (Augustus). It is cast in the prophetic mode, although Dante will convert the melancholic vision of the loss ofthe young Marcellus, the last ofthe great Romans presented by Anchises, into the salvific figure of a redeemer known only as “un cinquecento diece e cinque.” And finally, in Vergil as well the pivotal events are presented at the very center of the poem, in book six of twelve, which center symbolically marks the turning point in Roman history. The only difference, and it is a small one, is that Dante has reversed the poles by placing the image of the good before that of the bad, whereas Vergil presents the lesser past before the better future, the old world before the new. Given the centrality of the Aeneid to Dante”s imagination, such an adaptation of narrative material is not entirely improbable, especially if we consider the fact that the only time Dante quotes Vergil’s poem in the original, in the verse “Manibus, oh date lilia plenis” (Purg. XXX, 21), occurs at precisely this juncture in the poem.
Dante’s reversal of polarity has less to do with a desire or need to rewrite the text of the Aeneid than with exploiting a characteristic rhetorical pattern that we find elsewhere in the poem as well. In the sphere of Mars, Dante’s encounter with his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida is distinctly modeled on Aeneas’s meeting with Anchises in the underworld scene of Book Six. The parallel, which is reinforced by an explicit and direct comparison of the two paternal figures, serves to alert the reader to a broader, structural correspondence between the two episodes that compares an image of the past with one of the future. Again reversing polarity with Vergil while maintaining chronological order, Dante has Cacciaguida list first the good and peace-loving families of the once “pura cittadinanza” of his Old Florence, and subsequently a longer list of Florentine families corrupted by the “confusion de le persone” and the “nova fellonia” of more recent times, a train of historical events that will culminate in the poet’s exile, as prophesied by Cacciaguida. For Dante, the ideal always seems to lie in the remote ast or the prophesied future, never in the immediate present.
To conclude: I believe that we can safely say that the Procession and he Masque constitute less a duplication of material than a squaring off two distinctly inverse ethical perspectives on the history of the Church, the real and the ideal. If each terrace of Purgatory presents notable exempla of good and bad actions that merit archetypal status, the Earthly Paradise parades images of the collective totality of and continuity of perfection as well as of evil. What emerges on this eighth and first terrace, and this is what differentiates it from the lower terraces, is an image of social integration, of communitas, of the body of Christ which is the ideal Church, counterbalanced by its antitype, that same body meretriciously abused and torn apart. The eighth terrace, gatehering and integrating all of what comes before, embraces the previous and simultaneously transcends them by going one beyond, to achieve the definitive view of role of the individual within the context of human history, sub specie aeternitatis.

Date: 2022-09-21