Dante’s Veltri [H.D. Austin]

Dati bibliografici

Autori: H.D. Austin

Tratto da: Italica. The quarterly bulletin of the American Association of Teachers of Italian (Evanston, Ill.)

Numero: XXIV

Anno: 1947

Pagine: 14-19

To one familiar with Dante criticism, mention of the word veltro brings up immediately the endless theories and discussions as to its allegorical significance in Inferno I, 101, where Vergil prophesies that it will come and slay the she-wolf (presumably of Greed) that is ruining Italy. But aside from the symbolical Veltro of this passage, what did veltro mean to Dante in the concrete, as a dog, and not an abstraction?
Dante mentions veléri four other times in his works, each time as creatures of flesh and blood. In the Wood of the Suicides he says that he saw two sinners pursued by ‘black bitches, eager and swift (correnti) as veltrt just loosed from their chains.’ In his Banquet he names speed as being the particular virtue of the veléro: ‘every virtue (bontade) which is proper to any thing is estimable (amabile) in that thing..., as, in the veltro, running well.’ In one of his sonnets Dante refers to ‘swift (correnti) veltri loosed from their leash.’ And in a canzone he says in the envoy: ‘Canzone, hunt with the black veltrt.’ Thus in three of Dante’s four references to veliri outside of the famous first. passage he speaks of them as swift runners. This seems to justify the majority of translators and commentators, who take veltro in Dante to mean “greyhound,” “Windhund,” “levriere,” etc.
The thought of a greyhound routing a wolf has raised doubts in the minds of some; so that we find, for example, Holbrook saying: “The veltro was a heavily built dog, probably between our great Danes and the greyhound. Without doubt the veltro and veautres are the same dog. They were strong enough to kill bears and wild boars”; and Vossler quoting this and adding: ‘It is a very frequent error to translate Veltro in German by Windhund (greyhound).’ The general problem, however, as to what the word veliro meant in medieval Italy is not so simple; and the burden of proof lies on those who assert that it designated a dog preéminent for its strength and courage.
The origin of the word veltro is Celtic (Gallic); the form of the Latin equivalent which most faithfully represents the Celtic background is vértragus —with many variants: vertagus, vertracus, vertraha, velirahus, veltraha, and later (canis) veltris; etc. Whether or not the Gallic vertragus was a large hound, as Meyer-Liibke has it, the original meaning of the word is taken to have been “swiftfoot”; and in the Romance derivatives, especially Italian veliro, the significance of the factor vel-, “swift” (Gallic ver-, intensive prefix), seems to have been recognized, or assumed, by several of the early Italian commentators on Inferno I, 101. Noteworthy in this connection too is the alliterative Tuscan proverb, “Va come un veltro.” As to what color Italian veliri were, Dante may be giving us a hint in the passage ‘black bitches, eager and swift as veltri’ that he was thinking of black veltri, and in the canzone cited above he definitely calls them black; Boccaccio mentions a velfra ‘black as coal’; Petrarch speaks of ‘two veltri, one black, one white,’ though perhaps primarily for allegorical purposes, to represent night and day. This chromatic variation from the suggestion in English “greyhound” need not disturb us overmuch, as the first element of the word is from, or related to, Old Norse grey which meant ‘‘hound” or “dog,” and the fact that this breed was prevalently of a gray color in Great Britain brought about the usual acceptance of the meaning in English.
One of the earliest occurrences of the word in ancient literature is in the Cynegetica of Gratius Faliscus, at about the beginning of the Christian era. Here the vertraha is recommended for the pursuit of gazelles or hares: ‘choose the rock-dog which is famed for this, and the swift Sigambrians, and the veriraha painted with false spot.’ Martial, toward the end of that century, speaks of the vert(r)agus as bringing in a hare. Arrian, in the second century a.D., writes: ‘The swift-footed Celtic hounds are called otéprpayot hounds in the speech of the Celts, from their swiftness.’ Formerly attributed to the mathematician Firmicus Maternus, in the fourth century, is (in a chapter listed in the Teubner text of 1897-1913, along with all those from 5 to 14 inclusive, as ‘spurious’): ‘If Mercury is found in Virgo, those who have him in that position will be strong, industrious, wise, rearers of horses, hawks, falcons, and other birds used in fowling, and likewise of Molossian hounds, vertagi, and those which are adapted to the chase.’
English has had offshoots of the veltro etymon. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an obsolete form velter for which it gives an interesting definition and example: “A small hunting dog. 1598 MANWOOD Lawes Forest Carta de foresta of Canutus §32 margin, These little Dogges called Velteres, and such as are called Ramhundt (al which Dogges are to sit in ones lap) may be kept in the Forest.” This classification of the velter among lap-dogs is peculiar to Great Britain, so far as I have discovered in early records. There is given also a rare derivative, velterer, with a quotation dated 1911, and an earlier obsolete fewterer, with a number of variant forms (including vewter), a statement of derivation through Anglo-French, and the definition: “A keeper of greyhounds. Also in a wider sense, an attendant.” The Century Dictionary defines the Old French viautre, or later vaultre, as “a kind of hound, a mongrel between a hound and a mastiff.”” Godefroy’s Old French dictionary has the word for the dog, in nearly a dozen different forms, as meaning “sorte de chien employé surtout pour la chasse de l’ours et du sanglier,” with a wealth of examples; and the word is found, though obsolescent, in modern French in the form vautre, while its derivative vautrait is still alive, with the meaning “boar-hunting equipage.” Littré gives vautre as obsolete and the meaning as ‘hound intended for hunting the bear and the wild boar,’ and objects to Diez’ trying to connect the etymology with (se) vautrer, “wallow.” In France, therefore, the vautre was a dog powerful enough to bring down wild boars and bears; and in this respect only are the opinions of Holbrook and Vossler justified.
But the evidence indicates that Dante must have had quite another type of dog in mind. The meaning of veltro, a word now practically obsolete over the Italian domain, is given in Italian dictionaries as levriere (levriero), really “harehound’’; and in ItalianEnglish dictionaries as “greyhound.” It would seem from the passages we have cited from Dante and others around 1300 A.D. that in. his time the typical Italian veltro was a (usually) black hound remarkable especially for its swiftness. The translation “greyhound” is therefore probably the best that can be done in English, in spite of the misleading color suggestion of the word; Italian levriere (levriero), or German Windhund, can cause no such presupposition. The early Italian Dante commentators give no hint as to the color.”
The Spanish have no congener for the word veltro; instead they call the dog perro galgo, or simply galgo; that is, ‘‘Gallic (dog),” canis gallicus, thus attributing its provenience to Gaul; and they make a distinction between the (perro) galgo, built for speed, and the (perro) lebrel which is especially adapted for hare-hunting and which has a more powerful muzzle.
Galgo is used in Spanish as is veltro in Italian to denote a person who is a swift runner. The early iconography of Canis familiaris furnishes us with a wealth of representations of what are unmistakably “greyhounds” on Egyptian monuments from the very dawn of history. At an early period these hounds were introduced into Greece and Italy; they were of a large breed, with erect ears.
Summarizing topographically, then: the dog designated by the word vertragus and its congeners and derivatives was (as the Spanish galgo indicates) believed in late antiquity and in the Dark and Middle Ages to be of Gallic origin; the word persisted in older English in the form velter to mean a small hunting dog classed along with lap-dogs and later gave way to “greyhound” in the modern sense, with the first syllable fortuitously suggesting its prevalent color; in France, its native home, vautre meant a dog powerful enough for use in hunting the bear and that most dangerous of European beasts, the wild boar; while in Italy, until fairly recent times, veltro meant “harehound,” a dog esteemed primarily for its speed, as are our “greyhounds,” and ranging in color from black up through pray.

H. D. Austin

University of Southern California

Date: 2022-12-04