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 fterlife, 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 selfs 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 e 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 ovement, faster and swifter than any movement that could be made in terrestrial life (ll. 103–05). The ascent to the starry sphere is underscored y 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 he final return to Paradise, in order to be worthy of which, he states that he often makes confession and repents for his sins:Order now
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withdrawn your finger from the fire and put it in, than I saw the sign that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 mustot be forgotten that in the previous canto Peter Damian presented himself as ‘Pietro Peccator’ (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. ut 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 o the metaliterary — to the representation of Dante as a poet engaged in an extraordinary literary enterprise. he presence or absence of an autobiographical thematic in the infernal cantos devoted to the bolgia of the barrators has been a topic of fierce cholarly 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 eference 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, ne who served the country by fighting to defend it against the enemy Ghibellines.He 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’ (Inf., xxi. 94–95). The second set of references is located, emphatically, at the eginning 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 ampaldino, during which Dante fought among the cavalrymen: ‘corridor vidi per la terra vostra, / o Aretini’ (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 arratry.
Ancients 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 oet 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 n the power and limits of poetry. Even in canto xxi, this theme is at the centre of Statius’s self-representation (ll. 82–93), which is structured like irgil’s in Inferno i (ll. 67–75).29 Furthermore, Statius acknowledges that if he has become a poet, he owes it to the love with which he studied Virgil’s eneid, 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 here profoundly transformed in meaning. Only thus does it become ffective 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 a faithful, but the meaning that Virgil attributed to these erses was limited and reductive. Only a Christian reading, attentive to the consonance Virgil’s verses found with the good news spread by the Gospel,an render these verses able to illuminate the path to salvation. Alongside this reflection on Virgil’s poetry, there is, however, another n Statius’s poetry. Statius’s poem, in fact, does not make his faith manifest.
‘Or quando tu cantasti le crude armi
de la doppia trestizia di Giocasta’,
disse ’l cantor de’ buccolici 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’ , to not having displayed his faith openly and to having actually continued to feign his adherence to paganism:
‘E pria ch’io conducessi i Greci a’ fiumi
di Tebe poetando, ebb’io 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
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’ , so now all the great ancient oets are condemned to Limbo, ‘nel primo cerchio del carcere cieco’ , also Homer and the other ‘Greci che già di auro ornar la fronte’ :
‘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 piùe
Greci che già di lauro ornar la fronte’. (Purg., xxii. 97–108)
[‘tell me where our ancient Terence is, Caecilius and Plautus and Varro, if
you know: tell me if they are damned, and to which district’. ‘They and
Persius, and I, and many others’, replied my leader, ‘are with that Greek
to whom the Muses gave more milk than ever to any other, in the first
circle of the blind prison; often times we speak about the mountain that
forever holds our nurses. Euripides is with us and Antiphon, Simonides,
Agathon, and many other Greeks who once adorned their brows with
Now Dante is representing himself as intent on listening to Virgil and Statius’s discussion of the power, glory, and limits of poetry. He draws on these discussions for lessons that he will seek to apply to his own poetry:
Elli givan dinanzi, e io soletto
di retro, e ascoltava i lor sermoni,
ch’a poetar mi davano intelletto. (Purg., xxii. 127–29)
[They were walking ahead, and I all by myself behind them, listening to
their talk, which instructed me in writing poetry.]
But 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’ , the ‘novi predicanti’ who brought the truth of the Gospel into the world (Purg., xxii. 76–81). Cantos xxi and xxii of Paradiso display, in ways that are unexpected and hus particularly relevant, passages with strong metaliterary significance, important reflections on the poem, its structure, its function, its meanings.
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 phere of Mars (Par., xvii. 124–42).31 Now, in the Heaven of Saturn, Dante the character asks the first blessed soul he encounters why he had been he 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 ouls, 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 e 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 umbly. This prophetic investiture is unexpected and therefore very significant; it confirms Cacciaguida’s solemn investiture and precedes a eries 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). nd canto xxii presents 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 he Empyrean. The difficulties that the poet is preparing himself to face in narrating the final part of his journey are emphasized with the invocation o the stars of the Gemini, to which he asks for the necessary virtue for this ‘passo forte’ (Par., xxii. 112–23).32 he metatextual import of Inferno xxi–xxii is announced from the beginning of canto xxi, when the title of the work, comedìa, is mentioned for he second time:
Così di ponte in ponte, altro parlando
che la mia comedìa 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 anclassical 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 theirown 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
Just as dolphins leap out of water revealing their curved backs, so the sinners’ backs brief‘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’ 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’ , 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 to write what he is shown in the afterlife ‘in pro del mondo che mal vive’ (Purg., xxxii.103), is affirmed with particular force by the investiture of Cacciaguida, who speaks of the ‘vital nodrimento’ (Par., xvii. 131) that the poem, with the alas bitter condemnation of the sins and the representation of the souls punished in the afterlife, would constitute for human sinners.
In this framework, the phrase ‘fanno segno / a’ marinar / che s’argomentin di campar lor legno’ assumes particular significance. The readers of the poem, too, are sailors, who can, thanks to these signals, ‘campar lor legno’ . It is through the image of the dolphins that the reflection on the poetry in the Twenty-Twos intertwines with the model of the holy preaching of the apostles, of their followers, of Benedict. Based on these models, Dante presents himself as a holy preacher and claims the redemptive power of the poetry of his comedìa.