Autore: Robert Wilson
Tratto da: Interpreting Dante. Essays on the tradition of Dante commentary
Editore: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame
While we may agree that "one of the basic functions of allegory is to make literary documents relevant," we can also see that another of its functions is, at times, to render them partly irrelevant, at least with regard to their literal meaning. This essay follows from the paper I originally delivered at the conference in Manchester, which examined some of the responses of Dante's early commentators when their author appears to make a mistake. Although notionally limited to Trecento commentaries, that paper included a comment by Filippo Villani on Inf 1.70, in which he had recourse to allegorical interpretation of a quite specific statement by Dante in order to avoid the problem of a factual error at the literal level. Among the Trecento commentators' explanations of this verse, Villani's was the most direct example of switching to an allegorical mode of reading in order to resolve a problem at the literal level. Here I consider some allegorical readings proposed by some of the early commentators on the Comedy which seem to be for the purpose of avoiding problematic literal readings and consider their treatment of the literal sense. First, I would like to touch on some relevant points in the history of allegory.
Avoidance of the literal meaning is found as a motive for allegorical interpretation at the very origins of its history. A well-known explanation of the actual term άλληγορία is given in Plutarch's Moralia (19E), where he explains that the practice of such interpretation, or "distortion" as he puts it, previously went by the name ύπόνοια. As Plutarch attests, the basic concept is older than the term used by his time and which continues into the present. The earlier term ύπόνοια, which can mean "under meanings" or "hidden meanings," is used by Plato, who is critical of some of the allegorical interpretations of Homer offered by teachers often characterized as Sophists. The opening words of a much later response to Plato by Heraclitus (ca. A.D. 100) have a very familiar ring for readers of Pietro Alighieri's commentary on Dante: "If he meant nothing allegorically, he was impious through and through, and sacrilegious fables, loaded with blasphemous folly, run riot through both epics."
The term allegoria was initially used in a rhetorical context, taking in many other sorts of "under meaning," or "other meaning," such as riddles, enigmas, and irony. The much-quoted definition from Isidore of Seville, "allegoria est alieniloquium. Aliud enim sonat, et aliud intellegitur" (Allegory is "other-speech" for it literally says one thing and another thing is understood), is actually located in the first book of his Etymologies, which deals mainly with grammar. In book I, the definition of allegoria is found in chapter 37, on tropes, and is placed in the list between "hyperbole" (21) and "ironia" (23), so that for Isidore (in the Etymologies at least) it is classified primarily as a figure of speech.
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia
[The letter teaches what happened, the allegory what to believe,
the moral sense what to do, the anagogical what to strive for.]
This well-known aide-mémoire, found in a number of exegetical and theological texts in the Middle Ages, provides a succinct description of the allegorical approach to the reading of scripture known widely as fourfold allegory. Although Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla on the letter to the Galatians, written in 1330, had been cited as the source, Henri de Lubac traced this particular formulation back to Augustine of Dacia, a Dominican who published a simple guide to theology around 1260, the Rotulus pugillaris. De Lubac goes on to trace the ideas contained in the lines back through a series of patristic writers to John Cassian in the fourth-fifth century. Writing on the subject of spiritual knowledge ("de spiritali scientia") in his Collationes (XIV 8), Cassian gives an explanation of the four senses, first dividing them in two, the literal, which he calls the historicam interpretationem," and then the spiritual, which is the "intelligentiam spiritalem." The spiritual is then further divided into three types of knowledge: "scientiae genera, tropologia, allegoria, anagoge.'' Despite the popularity and the formulaic appearance of the verses, we should note that their application as a method was not always methodical, clear, or consistent. The allegorical sense is sometimes described as the mystical or the spiritual sense, sometimes the moral and anagogical appear to be included in a more general category called allegorical, and the allegorical and anagogical are often interchangeable and difficult to distinguish, as are the literal and the historical.
A recurrent concern in the allegorical interpretation of scripture from the patristic period through to the Middle Ages is the tension between the literal and the spiritual, or allegorical, meaning. There is no space here for a lengthy account, but this verse from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians is indicative of one approach to the literal sense: "littera enim occidit Spiritus autem vivificat" (For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life) (2 Cor. 3:6). Augustine tells us that he heard Ambrose quote this verse many times in his sermons, in which he would open up the spiritual meaning of passages of scripture which seemed perverse when read literally:
Saepe in popolaribus sermonibus suis dicentem Ambrosium laetus audiebam, "littera occidit, spiritus autem vivificat," cum ea quae ad litteram perversitatem docere videbantur, remoto mystico velamento spiritaliter aperiret.
[I was pleased to hear that in his sermons to the people Ambrose often repeated the text: "The written law inflicts death whereas the spiritual law brings life." And when he lifted the veil of mystery and disclosed the spiritual meaning of texts which, taken literally, appeared to contain the most unlikely doctrines, I was not aggrieved by what he said, although I did not yet know whether it was true.]
This is only part of the verse in Paul's letter, but it is this part which is widely quoted by the early church fathers, including Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. This idea of a relationship between letter and meaning sometimes described as being akin to the relationship between body and soul runs through much patristic writing on scripture, and it is easy to see how the literal sense starts to be of secondary importance, even possibly hindering the proper understanding of scripture. The letter becomes a covering (integumentum), or the husk around a seed, or the bark on a tree, or the shell of a nut, so that this "other" hidden, internal meaning is privileged. One obvious conclusion of this line of thought is the devaluing of the literal sense to the point where it might be discarded, ignored, or even destroyed. While the allegorical interpretation of secular pagan texts in the Christian period may be regarded as throwing them a sort oflifeline, it also places their literal sense in a precarious position. The allegorizing of Virgil's Aeneid by Fulgentius and then Bernardus Silvestris is a very clear example of the infusion of a pagan text with a spiritual meaning beyond the mere letter. This becomes the discovery of a spiritual meaning through the so-called allegory of the poets, a meaning clearly not in the mind of the author but claimed to be by the allegorizer.
Although the practitioners of "allegoresis" usually regard themselves as seeking out the true meaning contained within the text, their activity might equally be seen as an attempt to add something of greater value to the letter of the text, and by extension an admission that the literal sense is, of itself, already judged to be insufficient. The short commentary on Statius's Thebaid attributed to Fulgentius begins with this observation:
Non incommune carmina poetarum nuci comparabilia videntur; in nuce enim duo sunt, testa et nucleus, sic in carminibus poeticis duo, sensus litteralis et misticus; latet nucleus sub testa: latet sub sensu litterali mistica intelligentia; ut habeas nucleum, frangenda est testa: ut figurae pateant, quatienda est littera; testa insipida est, nucleus saporem gustanti reddit: similiter non littera sed figura palato intelligentiae sapit. diligit puer nucem integram ad ludum, sapiens autem et adultus frangit ad gustum; similiter si puer es, habes sensum litteralem integrum nullaque subtili expositione pressum in quo oblecteris, si adultus es, frangenda est littera et nucleus litterae eliciendus, cuius gustu reficiaris.
[The verses of poets are not uncommonly seen as comparable to a nut; for as there are two parts in the nut, the shell and the kernel, so are there two in poetic verses, the literal and the mystical sense; the kernel is hidden under the shell, and the mystical understanding is hidden under the literal sense. The shell must be broken for you to have the kernel; and the letter must be shattered for the figurative meaning to be opened. The shell has no taste, but the kernel gives flavour: likewise it is not the letter but the figurative meaning that provides flavour to the palate of understanding. The child loves to play with the whole nut, but the wise and mature person breaks it in order to taste it. Similarly, if you are a child, you have the literal sense intact and free from any subtle exposition so that you can delight in it. If you are an adult the letter must be broken and the kernel of the letter taken out so that you are refreshed by its taste.]
This proposes nothing less than the destruction of the "shell" of the letter in order to get to the "nut" of the "mystical" sense. This is a very clear indication of the vulnerability of the literal sense in a pagan text which is undergoing Christian interpretive rehabilitation. As we might expect, the case of scripture is different; however, this fascinating comment by Jerome uses precisely the same metaphor: "totum quod legimus in divinis Libris, nitet quidem, et fulget etiam in cortice, sed dulcius in medulla est. Qui edere vult nucleum, frangat nucem" (All that we read in the divine Books shines, and is bright even in the shell, but sweeter inside. Let whoever wants to eat the kernel, break the nutshell). In fact what Jerome is urging here is an appreciation rather than a disregard for the literal sense of scripture, although the primacy of the allegorical is maintained and a similar, rather destructive metaphor used. It is interesting, in view of Jerome's own anxieties about his aesthetic preference for pagan literature, to note that even here he cannot avoid echoing a verse from Plautus.
Dante's own views on, or use of, allegory are not for discussion here, but there are two specific points I would like to recall. In Monarchia, 3.iv.6-7, he reminds his readers of the limits of what he there calls "mystical" interpretation, normally understood to refer to allegorical interpretation, and he quotes Augustine's De civitate dei, XVI.2, in support. In Convivio, 2.1.1-12, Dante famously discusses the four senses, the allegory of theologians, and the bella menzogna of poets. The tantalizing and frustrating lacuna at Conv., 2.1.3, leaves us without Dante's direct explanation of the literal sense. Instead it is the indirect reference to the literal in the treatment of the allegorical which has become so widely known and discussed:
E a ciò dare a intendere, si vuol sapere che le scritture si possono intendere e deonsi esponere massimamente per quattro sensi. L'uno si chiama litterale, e questo e quello che [… L'altro si chiama allegorico, e questo e quello che] si nasconde sotto 'l manto di queste favole, ed e una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna.
[To convey what this means, it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses. The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that [… The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that] is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction.]
He then goes on to stress the fundamental importance of the literal sense:
Onde con ciò sia cosa che nelle scritture [la litterale sentenza] sia sempre lo di fuori, impossibile e venire all'altre, massimamente all'allegorica, sanza prima venire alla litterale... Onde, con ciò sia cosa che 'l dimostrare sia edificazione di scienza, e la litterale dimostrazione sia fondamento dell'altre, massimamente dell'allegorica, impossibile e [al]l'altre venire prima che a quella.
[Consequently, since in what is written down the literal meaning is always the outside, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal. ... Consequently, since explication is the building up of knowledge, and the explication of the literal sense is the foundation of the others, especially of the allegorical, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses without first arriving at it.]
With these Dantean caveats in mind, we can see that Filippo Villani, in trying to extricate his author from a factual, historical error, has himself perhaps committed a greater error in his utilization of allegory simply to avoid an uncomfortable acknowledgment of Dante's fallibility. This is his comment on Virgil's statement that he was born "sub Iulio" (Inf. 1.70):
Sanctus Gregorius in Moralibus dicit quod quoties licteralis intentio substineri non potest, quod tune ad allegoricum sensum decurrendum est. Hoc vere ad licteram sustineri non potest, ut vides, licet quidam voluerit quod per idem tempus, quo predicti consulatum tenebant, Iulio Cesari utramque Galliam senatusconsulto fore decretam et, ut sic, natum fore sub Cesare. (Expositio, 269-70)
[Saint Gregory says in the Moralia that whenever the literal meaning cannot be sustained, then one must have recourse to the allegorical sense. This, in fact, cannot be sustained at the literal level, as you can see, although someone would have it that at the same time as the men mentioned above (Crassus and Pompey) held the consulship, both Gauls had been given to Julius Caesar by decree of the senate, and thus he (Virgil) was born under Caesar's rule.]
I would suggest that the quotation from Gregory is indicative of Villani's own discomfort with the solution he has chosen in order to resolve the difficulty. In fact he has already provided, earlier in his commentary, a lengthy and detailed explanation of allegory and of the method he intends to use. There should, therefore, have been no need to discuss the matter again, except that in this case he is faced with a very simple literal statement that is causing him a problem that he wishes to avoid. He could have done so in other ways, and his choice of allegory here may indicate a rather literal understanding of the literal sense. The section from Gregory's Moralia which Villani appeals to runs as follows in the original:
Aliquando vero exponere aperta historiae verba neglegimus, ne tardius ad obscura veniamus: aliquando autem intellegi iuxta litteram nequeunt, quia superficie tenus accepta nequaquam instructionem legentibus, sed errorem gignunt... Aliquando etiam, ne fortasse intellegi iuxta litteram debeant, ipsa se verba litterae impugnant.
[Sometimes, indeed, we neglect to explain the plain words of the account, in order not to arrive at the hidden meaning too late; sometimes, however, they cannot be understood according to the letter, because taken according to the surface, they produce, not instruction, but error for readers .... And sometimes, in case perhaps they should be understood according to the letter, the very words of the letter oppose that.]
Gregory is permissive, but the types of errors that concern him relate to morality and orthodoxy rather than the sort of simple, factual mistake that troubled Villani. Furthermore, allegorical interpretation has its limits, as Gregory goes on to clarify:
Aliquando autem qui verba accipere historiae juxta litteram negligit, oblatum sibi veritatis lumen abscondit; cumque laboriose invenire in eis aliud intrinsecus appetit, hoc quod foris sine difficultate assequi poterat, amittit... Quae videlicet si ad allegoriae sensum violenter inflectimus, cuncta ejus misericordiae facta vacuamus.
[Sometimes, however, whoever chooses not to accept the words of the account according to the letter, conceals the light of truth that has been shown to him; and when he laboriously strives to find something different inside them he loses what he could easily have obtained on the outside... Clearly, if we violently bend these words towards the allegorical sense, we make all his acts of mercy empty.]
We can see then that a complete distortion of the literal sense is cautioned against.
Thomas Aquinas provides a fuller defense of the validity of the literal sense some centuries later when he addresses directly the matter of the different senses of scripture. In fact, he prefaces his response to the questions by citing another section of Gregory's Moralia which states that scripture transcends all other branches of knowledge in its expression, at once narrating an event and revealing a mystery. Aquinas follows the same pattern of an initial division into the literal and the spiritual meaning, before subdividing the spiritual into the three senses we have seen above:
Respondeo dicendum quod auctor sacrae Scripturae est Deus, in cuius potestate est ut non solum voces ad significandum accommodet (quod etiam homo facere potest), sed etiam res ipsas. Et ideo, cum in omnibus scientiis voces significent, hoc habet proprium ista scientia, quod ipsae res significatae per voces, etiam significant aliquid. Illa ergo prima significatio, qua voces significant res, pertinet ad prim um sensum, qui est sensus historicus vel litteralis. Illa vero significatio qua res significatae per voces, iterum res alias significant, dicitur sensus spiritualis; qui super litteralem fundatur, et eum supponit. Hie autem sensus spiritualis trifariam dividitur.
[I answer that, the author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division.]
He goes on to say that there are other senses which are dependent on, and fall within, the literal sense too: "Ad secundum dicendum quod illa tria, historia, aetiologia, analogia, ad unum litteralem sensum pertinent" (Reply to Objection 2. These three - history, etiology, analogy - are grouped under the literal sense). And he notes that the literal sense includes what he describes as the parabolical sense, by which he means figurative language as well as direct description and narration:
Ad tertium dicendum quod sensus parabolicus sub litterali continetur, nam per voces significatur aliquid proprie, et aliquid figurative; nee est litteralis sensus ipsa figura, sed id quod est figuratum. Non enim cum Scriptura nominat Dei brachium, est litteralis sensus quod in Deo sit membrum huiusmodi corporale, sed id quod per hoc membrum significatur, scilicet virtus operativa. In quo patet quod sensui litterali sacrae Scripturae nunquam potest subesse falsum.
[Reply to Objection 3. The parabolical sense is contained in the literal, for by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God's arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ.]
The short excerpts that we have looked at so far are concerned specifically with the interpretation of sacred scripture rather than any sort of text. Aquinas states very clearly that the text he is speaking of is divinely authored and therefore unique, an approach shared by Gregory, Augustine, and Ambrose, among others. Thus the use of allegorical interpretation is characterized as an attempt always to discover the true meaning of the author's text, supremely important in this case since the author is God. However, Aquinas's more developed understanding of the figurative and metaphorical possibilities of the literal sense is a significant step in the regulation of allegorical interpretation. More serious than the problem of factual inaccuracy which faced Villani is the issue of Dante's orthodoxy for more literal readers of the literal sense. Despite the possible solution to such questions offered by Aquinas's distinctions within the literal sense, some of Dante's commentators still appear to prefer an allegorizing approach to that problem.
Graziolo Bambaglioli's Latin commentary on the Inferno of 1324 shows a particular sensitivity to any charge of unorthodoxy which might be leveled against Dante's poem, and not without reason. Some five years later Guido Vernani's attack on Dante's Monarchia was ominously dedicated to Bambaglioli, then embroiled in religious rivalry and controversy which would culminate in exile. Although Bambaglioli does not use the term allegoria to describe his comments, we do find the expression "aliam significationem" used in juxtaposition to "licteram." His concern for Dante's orthodoxy comes to the fore at two points in his commentary. The first is in Inf. 13.103-8, where Pier delle Vigne explains that the suicides will return to the forest with their bodies after the Last Judgment. Bambaglioli is unequivocal: "sed quamvis hec verba sic sint ab auctore descripta, nichilominus teneo quod aliud scriptum fuerit et alia fuerit auctoris intenctio" (but although these words are written down in this way by the author, nevertheless, I maintain that what was written is one thing, and what was the author's intention is something else). He goes on to explain the reason for severity of the punishment for suicide: according to scripture it is a sin of despair and therefore excluded from divine mercy and forgiveness. For this reason Dante sets out here to frighten and warn his readers about the gravity of this particular sin. The comment concludes with a firm declaration in defense of Dante's orthodox Catholicism: "credo autem auctorem prefatum, tamquam fidelem captolicum et omni prudentia et scientia clarum, suo tenuisse iudicio quad Ecclesia santa tenet videlicet" (I believe, however, that our author, as a faithful Catholic and renowned for his prudence and knowledge, clearly held in his judgement what the holy Church holds). As an alternative allegorical reading this falls a little short, since the commentary does not actually elucidate the allegorical sense. However, the distinction drawn between the letter and the author's intention, which is subsequently privileged to the extent that the "verba" no longer mean what they say, fits with allegorical interpretive practice.
The second example is in the zone of Tolomea, in Inf. 33, and concerns the idea that some souls are sent to hell before their death, so grave is their sin. Again, Bambaglioli is very direct: "sed quamvis hec ita scripta sint, tamen simpliciter non sunt vera, quia falsum est, et contra naturam et fidem" (but although these [words] have been written thus, they are plainly not true, since this is false, and against nature and faith). There then follows an explanation:
Hec siquidem sunt figurative ab auctore descripta; nam hoc nichil aliud significat vel figurat nisi quod tanta est gravitas prodicionis et proditoris, quod statim ex peccati pondere pena sequitur et sequi deberet auctorem suum.
[So these have been written figuratively by the author; for this can mean or represent nothing other than the idea that the seriousness of betrayal and being a traitor is such, that from the weight of this sin punishment follows immediately and must fall upon its perpetrator.]
The term figurare is used by Bambaglioli for allegorical representation, in particular for simple personification-type allegory, so the sense is clear and the motive explicit.
A sustained allegorical approach is found in the commentaries by Dante's sons. Jacopo Alighieri's commentary is regarded rather unfavorably by more recent critics on account of its relatively unsophisticated personification allegory, including the charge that it is the original source of the Virgil-human reason equation. Saverio Bellomo identifies a precise motive for the use of allegorical interpretation by the early commentators. He cites the well-known story from Boccaccio of the women in Verona who literally believed (according to the story) that Dante made the journey to Hell as evidence that precisely such a literal, actual reading of the Comedy was eminently possible in that historical and cultural context. Dante's poem described a journey to places which really existed for his contemporaries. Bellomo suggests that the promotion of allegorical readings by early commentators was intended to lift the poem beyond this most basic reading level-the literal-and demonstrate that it contained "real truth," and a real truth available to the initiated only, those of "ntelletti sani" (Inf. 9.61-63).
The exaltation of the text is a very plausible motive for an allegorizing agenda in the commentaries, especially those of Dante's sons. However, in the case of Pietro a sustained allegorical reading might, in addition, be described as one long single act of avoidance, as this famous statement from the second redaction of his commentary makes clear: "Nam quis sani intellectus crederet ipsum ita descendisse, et talia vidisse, nisi cum distinctione dictorum modorum loquendi ad figuram?" (For who of sane mind would believe that he made such a descent, and saw such things, unless with the distinction of the modes of figurative speech?). Having adopted the method of fourfold allegory, Pietro still has the problem of dealing with a literal sense which he does not wish to be read also as historical. He addresses this by going on to explain that the literal sense may also use metaphorical language, and chooses to give the example of the arm of God (Isa. 51:9), precisely that given by Aquinas at the conclusion of the question from the Summa.
Although the statement quoted above disappears from the third and final version of Pietro's commentary, much in the same vein is his comment on the passage in Inf. 33 which so vexed Bambaglioli. Pietro is equally concerned, and having described the problem, namely, that souls cannot die before their bodies, he introduces his allegorical explanation thus: "Quare, obmissa cortice dictorum verborum et superficie, veniamus ad medullam, idest ad intentionem veram auctoris" (Wherefore, having removed the rind and the surface of the words in question, we arrive at the kernel, that is, at the true intention of the author). We can see the fundamental principle that the allegorical sense reflects the author's true mind, and note the use of the usual metaphors associated with allegorical interpretation ("cortice," "medullam").
Boccaccio too uses these metaphors. As might be expected, the term corteccia is used regularly in his Esposizioni, but it is also found in the Trattatello, with some slight changes that bear further examination. His story of Dino Lambertuccio's identification of the first seven cantos of the Inferno states:
Li quali veggendo Dino, uomo d'alto intelletto, non meno che colui che portati gliele avea, si maravigliò si per lo bello e pulito e ornato stile del dire, si per la profondità del senso, il quale sotto la bella corteccia delle parole gli pareva sentire nascoso.
[When Dino saw them, being a man of great intellect, he marvelled no less than he who had brought them to him, both at the beautiful and polished and ornate style of speech, and at the depth of the meaning which he seemed to see hidden under the beautiful bark of the words.]
The second redaction adjusts the text slightly, to read:
Li quali avendo veduti Dino, e maravigliatosi si per lo bello e pulito stilo del dire, si per la profondità del senso, il quale sotto la ornata corteccia delle parole gli pareva sentire, senza fallo quegli essere opera di Dante imaginò.
[When Dino saw them, he was amazed by both the beautiful and elegant style of the language, and the depth of meaning, which he thought could be understood under the ornate bark of the words, and without hesitation he supposed that they were the work of Dante.]
So the literal sense, while still simply a barklike covering (corteccia) over the allegorical "profondità del senso" (depth of meaning) is, nevertheless, bella" and then "ornata." This then changes in the Esposizioni. The first "esposizione allegorica" describes the process thus:
Poi che, per la grazia di Dio, e quello, che secondo il senso litterale si può, dimostrato, e da tornarsi al principio di questo canto e quello che sotto la roza corteccia delle parole è nascoso, cioè il senso allegorico, aprire e dichiarare.
[Now that we have, by the grace of God, expounded on what can be explained from the literal meaning, we must return to the beginning of the canto and to what is hidden beneath the rough bark of the text, that is, the allegorical meaning, in order to explain it and make it clear.]
The literal level of the text has now gone from "bella" to "roza corteccia" (rough bark). Like Bambaglioli and Pietro, Boccaccio is concerned with the reputation for orthodoxy of his author, and goes on to state: "Fu adunque il nostro poeta, si come gli altri poeti sono, nasconditore, come si vede, di così cara gioia, come è la catolica verità, sotto la volgare corteccia del suo poema" (We can clearly see, then, that our poet, like other poets, concealed the precious jewel that is Catholic truth beneath the rough bark of his poem).
There are a number of points of interest here. Boccaccio is clearly linking allegory and poetry, and situating orthodoxy and truth in the hidden, allegorical sense, while the letter of Dante's poetry is reduced to a "corteccia," which, even if the term is somewhat formulaic, is then further qualified as "roza" and "volgare." This distinction between the two senses is also explicit in the structure of Boccaccio's commentary, divided into the "esposizione litterale" and "esposizione allegorica" for each canto. There is some unevenness in these treatments, and it has been suggested that the commentary was left unfinished not solely due to Boccaccio's ill health, but because of criticisms leveled at him, in particular, for having opened up Dante's poem to the "vulgo" (common people).
We can see then that the description "volgare corteccia" has additional resonance. It is not surprising that Dante's early commentators sometimes turn with a certain ease to allegorical interpretation as a means of avoiding difficulties in the letter of his text. They have behind them a whole tradition of doing so, and not only in dealing with pagan, secular texts, but sacred scripture as well. It is not surprising either that they should employ the metaphorical language and imagery we have seen, since this too is such an established part of the tradition of allegorical interpretation that it would come naturally. Allegorical interpretation not only offers a way around problematic literal statements; it also raises the status of Dante's poem. However, the tension between their praise of the artistic merits of their author, including his own recognition of the "bella menzogna" of the poets, a praise which must rest on the letter, and their reduction of the literal level of his text to a "roza corteccia," appears to go unnoticed by these first commentators.