A theme of utmost importance is that of the modes Dante employs to speak about himself. Under the general term ‘autobiography’, I include not only all references to his real life but also the representation of the self as the protagonist of the poem, a character who undertakes a journey through the afterlife during which he is ordered to put into a book all that which has been shown and revealed to him; and finally, the representation of the self as a poet engaged in the verse narration of this transcendent experience. Let’s start at the end: the ascent into the sphere of the fixed stars, where he reaches the constellation Gemini in the second part of Paradiso xxii. 26. The passage from one sphere to the other always happens in an instantaneous movement, faster and swifter than any movement that could be made in terrestrial life (ll. 103–05). The ascent to the starry sphere is underscored by an address to the reader that is different from all the others, due to its personal and autobiographical character. The poet swears in the name of the final return to Paradise, in order to be worthy of which, he states that he often makes confession and repents for his sins:
‘S’io torni mai, lettore, a quel divoto trïunfo per lo quale io piango spesso le mie peccata e ’l petto mi percuoto, tu non avresti in tanto tratto e messo nel foco il dito, in quant’io vidi ’l segno che segue il Tauro e fui dentro da esso.’ (Par., xxii. 106–11)
[‘So may I return, reader, to that devout triumph on whose account I ever weep for my sins and beat my breast: you would not any sooner have withdrawn your finger from the fire and put it in, than I saw the sign that follows the Bull and was within it.’]
The poet represents himself as a sinner engaged in lamenting his sins and humbling himself in the hope of attaining eternal salvation. But it must not be forgotten that in the previous canto, Peter Damian presented himself as ‘Pietro Peccatore’ [Peter the Sinner] (Par., xxi. 121–23), as he did in life. Dante, admitting humbly to his own nature as a sinner, links back to Peter Damian’s model of sacred humility, thus continuing to construct his own identity after these saints. But the address to the reader is immediately followed by the invocation to the divinity: an invocation that is the most personal of the nine present in the poem, as it is addressed to the zodiac sign of Gemini under which the poet was born and to which he declares to owe all of his genius (Par., xii. 112–23). It becomes evident, from this conclusion of the trajectory of the Twenty-Twos, how closely the autobiographical themes are connected to the metaliterary — to the representation of Dante as a poet engaged in an extraordinary literary enterprise. The presence or absence of an autobiographical thematic in the infernal cantos devoted to the bolgia of the barrators has been a topic of fierce scholarly debate.
28. In fact, barratry was the primary accusation that led to Dante’s conviction and exile from Florence. In Inferno xxi–xxii, no explicit reference to any such conviction is to be found. But there are other explicit autobiographical statements inserted in an unessential way as vehicles or similes. There are no allusions to the accusations of barratry. On the contrary, there are implicit claims to being a model citizen and a patriot, one who served the country by fighting to defend it against the enemy Ghibellines. The first allusion is to the siege of Caprona, which took place in August 1289: ‘così vid’io già temer li fanti / ch’uscivan patteggiati di Caprona’ [thus once I saw the foot-soldiers fear, coming out of Caprona under safe-conduct] (Inf., xxi. 94–95). The second set of references is located, emphatically, at the beginning of canto xxii, where there is another allusion to military events in 1289, to the war between Florence and Arezzo culminating in the battle of Campaldino, during which Dante fought among the cavalrymen: ‘corridor vidi per la terra vostra, / o Aretini’ [I have seen mounted men coursing your city, o Aretines] (Inf., xxii. 1–12). These allusions make a claim to his own military service to the nation, precisely in the cantos devoted to the sin of barratry.
Ancient Poets, New Preachers, and the Poetry of Salvation
In cantos xxi–xxii of Purgatorio, there are no autobiographical allusions in the narrative sense, and overt elements of direct self-representation of the poet do not appear either. Consideration of poetry through the figures of Statius and Virgil, however, has a clear value that reflects on the figure of Dante, poet of the Commedia. In fact, the acts of identity construction based on certain models are here intertwined with metaliterary reflection on the power and limits of poetry. Even in canto xxi, this theme is at the center of Statius’s self-representation (ll. 82–93), which is structured like Virgil’s in Inferno i (ll. 67–75). Furthermore, Statius acknowledges that if he has become a poet, he owes it to the love with which he studied Virgil’s Aeneid, which taught him everything (Purg., xxi. 94–99).
And thanks to Virgil’s poem, Statius turned away from the vice of prodigality (Purg. ,xii. 37-45). Yet, as I already mentioned, the text from Virgil that Statius cites is profoundly transformed in meaning. Only thus does it become effective in promoting Statius’s moral conversion. Finally, Virgil’s poem enlightens Statius to the faith, in the passage I have already cited (Purg. ,xii. 64-73).
Statius’s translation of the beginning of Virgil’s fourth eclogue is faithful, but the meaning that Virgil attributed to these verses was limited and reductive. Only a Christian reading, attentive to the consonance Virgil’s verses found with the good news spread by the Gospel, can render these verses able to illuminate the path to salvation.
Alongside this reflection on Virgil’s poetry, there is, however, another in Statius’s poetry. Statius’s poem does not make his faith manifest. ‘Or quando tu cantasti le crude armide la doppia trestizia di Giocasta,’ disse ‘l cantor de’ bucolici carmi, ‘per quello che Clïò teco lì tasta, non par che ti facesse ancor fedele la fede, sanza qual ben far non basta’. (Purg., xxii. 55-60) [‘Now when you sang of the cruel war that caused the double sadness of Jocasta,’ said the singer of the bucolic songs, ‘by what Clio touches on with you there, it seems that faith, without which good works are not enough, had not yet made you faithful.’]
And Statius himself admits to having been a ‘chiuso cristian’ [secret Christian], to not having displayed his faith openly, and to having actually continued to feign his adherence to paganism: ‘E pria ch’i conducessi i Greci a’ fiumi di Tebe poetando, ebb’i battesmo; ma per paura chiuso cristian fu’ mi, lungamente mostrando paganesmo.’ (Purg., xxii. 88-91) [‘And before I led the Greeks to the rivers of Thebes in my poetry, I was baptized; but out of fear I was a secret Christian, for a long time feigning paganism.’]
The long appendix on the poets in Limbo, Virgil’s fellow sufferers, who are always engaged in talking about poetry, confirms their eternal fate of failure and absence. Just as Virgil had presented himself to Statius as someone banished ‘ne l’etterno essilio’ [to eternal exile], so now all the great ancient poets are condemned to Limbo, ‘nel primo cerchio del carcere cieco’ [in the first circle of the blind prison], also Homer and the other ‘Greci che già di auro ornar la fronte’ [Greeks who once adorned their brows with laurel]: ‘dimmi dov’è Terrenzio nostro antico, Cecilio e Plauto e Varro, se lo sai; dimmi se son dannati, e in qual vico’. ‘Costoro e Persio e io e altri assai’, rispuose il duca mio, ‘siam con quel Greco che le Muse lattar più ch’altri mai nel primo ringhio del carcere cieco; spesse fïate ragioniam del monte che sempre ha le nutrice nostre seco. Euripide v’è nosco e Antifonte, Simonide, Agatone e altri più e Greci che già.
However, the lessons for Dante’s new poetry also come from Statius’s references to another activity of speech: the preaching by the messengers of the ‘vera credenza’ [true belief], the ‘novi predicanti’ [new preachers] who brought the truth of the Gospel into the world (Purg. , xxii. 76–81). Cantos xxi and xxii of Paradiso display passages with strong metaliterary significance, important reflections on the poem, its structure, its function, and its meanings, in ways that are unexpected and thus particularly relevant. In Paradiso xxi, we find a first confirmation of the prophetic mission assigned to Dante by Beatrice in Eden and solemnly reaffirmed by Cacciaguida in the sphere of Mars (Par. , xvii. 124–42). Now, in the Heaven of Saturn, Dante the character asks the first blessed soul he encounters why he had been the one predestined by divine providence to carry out this task (ll. 76–78). But his response is that divine providence elects men, and also the blessed souls, to take on certain offices, according to an infallibly just will that no creature can fully know (ll. 82–96). And he adds that this response should be extended to all men: ‘E al mondo mortal, quando tu riedi, questo rapporta, sì che non presumma a tanto segno più mover li piedi’ (Par. , xxi. 97–100) [And when you return to the mortal world, carry this back, that it may no longer presume to move its feet toward so great a mark.] Dante’s mission is thus also to remind men of the limits of their knowledge and of the need not to presume beyond these limits but to accept them humbly. This prophetic investiture is unexpected and therefore very significant; it confirms Cacciaguida’s solemn investiture and precedes a series of investitures entrusted to the apostles most beloved by Jesus: James (Par. , xxv. 40–45), John (Par. , xxv. 127–29), and Peter (Par. , xxvii. 64–66).
In canto xxii, there is an equally significant metaliterary and structural intervention. This takes the form of an invocation – the third in Paradiso – of great structural import since it begins a new part of the canticle, the part dedicated to the last three spheres: the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile, and the Empyrean. The difficulties that the poet is preparing himself to face in narrating the final part of his journey are emphasized with the invocation of the stars of the Gemini, to which he asks for the necessary virtue for this ‘passo forte’ [difficult pass] (Par. , xxii. 112–23). The metatextual import of Inferno xxi-xxii is announced from the beginning of canto xxi when the title of the work, “commedia,” is mentioned for the second time: ‘Così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando/che la mia commedia cantar non cura,/venimmo …’ (Inf. , xxi).
1–3) [Thus we went from bridge to bridge, speaking of other things my comedy does not record.] The title had already appeared at the end of Canto XVI, ‘Ma per le note / di questa comedìa, lettor ti giuro’ (ll. 127–28), while in the Canto of Inferno prior to this one, Virgil’s Aeneid is defined as ‘high tragedy’ (Inf., xx. 113). The Dantean and Christian comedìa is opposed to the Virgilian, pagan and classical tragedìa. The Christian comedy is not afraid to go down to the lowest levels of the humble style, down to the depths of vulgarity and triviality, as Dante does in the cantos of the barrators. In Christian culture, in order to truly rise, one must come down, prostrate oneself, in order to then ascend to the sublime heights of Paradise. In Canto XXII, the animal similes which were present with a parodic function for the demons back in Canto XXI, reappear.
Here they refer to the damned, who are forced to remain under the boiling pitch so as not to be caught and further tormented by the demons:
- Come i dalfini, quando fanno segno
- a’ marinar con l’arco de la schiena
- che s’argomentin di campar lor legno,
- talor così, ad alleggiar la pena,
- mostrav’ alcun de’ peccatori ’l dosso
- e nascondea in men che non balena. (Inf., xxii. 19–24)
[As dolphins do, when they signal to sailors, arching their spines, to take measures to save their ship: so from time to time, to lessen the pain, a sinner would show his back and hide it in less than a flash.]
Just as dolphins leap out of water revealing their curved backs, so the sinners’ backs briefly emerge from the pitch and then immediately disappear back down. If the movement is similar, their motivations are completely different.
The damned emerge in the attempt to relieve their own suffering, but this relief is fleeting and illusory. The medieval tradition attributed the movement of dolphins to their desire to inform sailors of a storm’s imminent arrival, so that they could allow enough time to reach shelter and keep the ship and themselves safe. Thus it is no surprise that extremely positive symbolic meanings were attributed to these animals. In Bartholomeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum, a text that is often close to Dante’s formulations, we find the gloss ‘Nota de sanctis’, which is an index of not only their positive symbolic value but also of their redemptive value in a strictly religious sense: the ‘santi’ [saints] are in fact the holy writers.
36 The redemptive value of dolphins could thus be brought into dialogue with the metaliterary and metatextual reflections, which resound in these cantos with echoes brought about by the emphatic reference to ‘la mia comedìa’ [my comedy], placed at the beginning of the previous canto (Inf., xxi. 1–3), and of the autobiographical allusions to Dante’s military experiences, with the recollection of the barratry conviction Dante had faced in the background. As opposed to these barrators damned in the pitch who are false dolphins, Dante is a true dolphin who — through his Comedia — directs Christians to safety and salvation. The prophetic and potentially redemptive value of the poem is variously affirmed in the individual investitures; and even the first, where Beatrice commands Dante , xxxii. 103), is affirmed with particular force by the investiture of Cacciaguida, who speaks of the ‘vital nutrimento’ [vital nourishment] (Par., xvii. 131) that the poem, with its bitter condemnation of sins and representation of souls punished in the afterlife, would provide for human sinners. In this framework, the phrase ‘fanno segno / a’ marinar […] / che s’argomentin di campar lor legno’ [they signal to sailors to take measures to save their ship] assumes particular significance.
The readers of the poem are also sailors who, thanks to these signals, can ‘campar lor legno’ [save their ship]. Through the image of dolphins, the reflection on poetry in the Twenty-Twos intertwines with the model of holy preaching of the apostles, their followers, and Benedict. Based on these models, Dante presents himself as a holy preacher and claims the redemptive power of the poetry of his Commedia.