It is still an unusual endeavour to read Dante’s Commedia in a systematically vertical manner, linking three single canti from Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso on the basis of numerical positioning, rather than following the extraordinarily well-determined linear pathway that Dante delineates for his narrative journey from Hell to Heaven. On first encounter with the Commedia, readers often feel directed towards horizontal rather than vertical approaches to a poem in which the exercise both of its writing and its reading are figured as linear progressions along tracks, pathways,or sea-routes. But the value of comparison and retrospection, to identify connections between episodes in different canti or cantiche, soon emerges. The narrative of the entire poem is, after all, cast as a recollection of lived experience in the protagonist-author’s first-person voice, hence structurally retrospective from the outset. Its one hundred-canto, triple-cantica structure is clearly the product of complex planning, in which the unfolding assembly of parts and whole facilitates the establishment of parallels and echoes between its multiple elements.
The exercise of vertical reading proposed in this series advances further questions about how patterns and intersections occur within Dante’s poem. The alignment of canti on the single, strict criterion of number order creates its own discipline. This essay seeks to demonstrate that the spatial implications of the metaphor of vertical reading are, indeed, very apt to the Fourteens, where connecting all three of what initially appear to be somewhat disparate canti permits a new set of meanings to emerge, based around coordinates supplied individually within the three parts. Successively, Inferno xiv,Purgatorio xiv, and Paradiso xiv each open an atlas page on which northsouth and east-west axes are laid out with topographical precision, matched morally and rhetorically by the coordinated temporal references that Dante plots to both secular and sacred history between the three same-numbered canti. Each canto of course offers its own mapping of moral concerns, consistent with its place within the horizontal narrative of the Commedia. But their vertical juxtaposition does more.
The grandiose epic and scriptural dimensions evident in the poetry of Inferno and Paradiso xiv are at first sight out of scale with what look like rather parochial regional and genealogical surveys in Purgatorio xiv. Yet as this essay will show, this middle canto pays a form of attention to the minutiae of individual place, time, and personal biography that is central to Dante’s understanding of how universal history links all humanity into the salvation narrative invoked more explicitly in the imagery of the Old and the New Adam in the infernal and paradisal canti. In the reading that follows, both direct and oblique instances of vertical connection between Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso xiv will be examined.The essay begins by examining some linguistic and aesthetic common points between the Fourteens, in their shared and contrasting uses of imagery of water and of light. It then presents a series of thematic reflections on the three canti’s readings of both secular and providential history, and of moralized terrestrial topography. Examining in turn the historical, rhetorical, and eschatological range of Dante’s concerns within and between the three canti, it is my hope that the vertically ordered reading opens new vistas onto the real complementarity that can be discovered between the Fourteens.
Water and Fire
Probably the most evident vertical connection that a reader will initially identify between the Fourteens (or two of them, at least) is a topographical one, given the prominence, in both Inferno and Purgatorio, of river imagery.Roughly half the space of both canti is occupied by the starkly moralized description of waterways. In Inferno xiv, we begin with a ‘picciol fiumicello’ (l. 77) flowing through a stony channel in the circle of violence, which recalls the Bulicame, a natural thermal spring near Viterbo. In Purgatorio, river imagery begins with an unnamed ‘fiumicel’ (l. 17), which rises in the Apennines and flows more than a hundred miles down to the sea. The two speeches will both unfold at some length before the two rivers, infernal Phlegethon and Tuscan Arno, are finally named. They open with almost identical locutions:
‘In mezzo mar siede un paese guasto’,
diss’elli allora, ‘che s’appella Creta,
sotto ’l cui rege fu già ’l mondo casto’. (Inf., xiv. 94–96)
[‘In the midst of the sea lies a ruined land’, he said then, ‘called Crete,
under whose king the world once was chaste’.]
E io: ‘Per mezza Toscana si spazia
un fiumicel che nasce in Falterona,
e cento miglia di corso nol sazia’. (Purg., xiv. 16–18)
[And I: ‘Through the midst of Tuscany there flows a little stream that is
born in Falterona, and a hundred miles of flowing do not sate it’.]
Besides their lexical and structural symmetries, equally notable is the way that each river episode begins by describing an apparently harmless fiumicello, but develops into unsettling, monstrous imagery as it follows the river from source to end. In Purgatorio xiv, the Arno flows down through a series of communities metamorphosed from the human to the bestial, as if through Circe’s black magic (l. 42).2 The Arno’s known course clearly identifies these unnamed locales, each symbolized by a more unpleasant animal, from uncouth swine in the Casentino, to whining dogs in Arezzo, wolves in Florence, and in Pisa cheating foxes (ll. 43–54). Confirming the explicit moral allegory of the bestial imagery, it has been noted since the early commentaries that the Arno’s ‘maladetta e sventurata fossa’ (l. 51) follows a scale of descending vices that matches the stratification of sin in Inferno, as it passes from swinish incontinence, through lupine force, to vulpine fraud.
As for the rivers of Hell itself, in Inferno xiv they too follow a downward flow that is figured as both physically and morally degenerative. The Phlegethon has a sufficiently sinister appearance, with its sulphurous, boiling similarity to the Bulicame, and waters red with blood. As Virgil explains, it forms part of a continuous system of four rivers flowing through Hell (ll. 115–20): the Styx, Acheron, Phlegethon, and Cocytus, all names borrowed from classical poetry, including Virgil’s own Aeneid. As noted above, before the rivers are named, a long circumlocution explains their origin in the familiar earthly world, on Crete’s Mount Ida (ll. 94–114). Yet although the locale and mechanics of the river system’s source are earthly, they are also uncanny. The bloody waters of the Phlegethon have their source in another bodily fluid: the tears weeping from the statue of an Old Man, hidden in a cave on the island of Crete.
The tears flow not from the statue’s eyes, but from wounds perforating its body, in a parody of the redemptive flow of blood from the wounds of Christ at the Crucifixion: ‘Ciascuna parte, fuor che l’oro, è rotta / d’una fessura che lagrime goccia’ (ll. 112–13).4 The image carries a reminder that all the pain of souls in Hell has its origins in their sinful actions on earth. Within a vertical reading, there is also a parallel between the weeping wounds of Inferno xiv’s Cretan statue, producing the rivers of Hell, and the weeping, wounded eyes of Guido del Duca, who produces the polluted, infernal image of the Arno in Purgatorio xiv.
The infernal rivers’ relentless downward flow from the fissures in the statue make a single interconnected system out of, not only the abyss of Hell, but of the whole Mediterranean above ground, where Crete lies in mezzo mare. If the landscape imagery in the whole circle of the violent forms a negative counterpart to earthly landscape phenomena — sterile bushes in the wood of the suicides, the desert and rain of fire of blasphemy, the
blood-filled Phlegethon — this reversal of natural order is consolidated in the Old Man image. Hell’s rivers, in exact opposition to earthly ones, have their origins in salt waters and flow downwards into ice, in the frozen lake of Cocytus; whereas rivers in the human world rise in icy mountain regions and flow towards the salt sea. Nonetheless, at the end of the canto, a brief allusion to the fifth river of the classical afterlife, Lethe, reminds us that the flow of water can, and should, cleanse as well as contaminate:
‘Letè vedrai, ma fuor di questa fossa,
là dove vanno l’anime a lavarsi
quando la colpa pentuta è rimossa’. (Inf., xiv. 136–38)
[Lethe you will see, but outside this ditch, there where the souls go to be
washed once their repented guilt has been removed.]
If the mountain island of Crete is the well-spring for Hell’s rivers of pain, Dante will also provide a counter-balancing image in Purgatory of a mountain island where the Lethe rises with pristine Edenic origins, and produces consolation.
The second part of Inferno xiv is dominated by this discussion of infernal rivers and their strange earthly origins, but the canto opens with another reversal of natural order, in a snowfall of flakes of fire:
Sovra tutto ’l sabbion, d’un cader lento,
piovean di foco dilatate falde,
come di neve in alpe sanza vento. (Inf., xiv. 28–30)
[Over all the sand there rained, with a slow falling, broad flakes of fire,
like snow in the mountains without wind.]
The expressive beauty of the terzina, with its paradoxical image of fiery snow, carries direct echoes of lines from the love poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, and from a lyric sestina of Dante’s own, as well as from earlier Italian love poets.6 At the same time, the image stresses the implacable flow of the flames, falling downwards in contradiction of the elemental nature of fire; while the silence of a true snowfall is inverted by the endless noise generated by the sinners’ hands slapping at their burnt skin, sound and motion recalling the rhythms of a dance or tresca (and the terzina’s soundpattern here mimetically shifts from sweet lyricism to a harsher, consonantheavy tone):
Sanza riposo mai era la tresca
de le misere mani, or quindi or quinci
escotendo da sé l’arsura fresca. (Inf., xiv. 40–42)
[Without any rest ever was the dancing of their wretched hands, brushing
away the fresh burning, now from there, now from here.]
The continuous shifting movement of the flakes of fire, and of those sinners capable of motion, contrasts starkly with the immobility of this canto’s only named sinner, Capaneus. Like the statue of the Old Man, Capaneus is gigantic in size;7 there is a compelling symmetry to the physical inertia of the two huge bodies that dominate the two halves of the canto. Capaneus retains violent energy in voice and thought, in spite of physical immobility. He shouts out defiantly persistent blasphemy, addressing the God of Dante’s Christian universe with the pagan name of ‘Giove’ (l. 52).
Morally speaking, however, this vehemence is itself paralysed. There is a rigid continuity of rejection in the perfect rhetorical antithesis of his selfcondemnation: ‘Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto’ (l. 51). His physical immobility matches his internal, frozen determination to maintain rejection and contempt for God, never shifting from his stifling pride and rage.8 Both Capaneus’s speech of defiance, and Virgil’s forceful denunciation of his crimes, fill their dialogue with a vocabulary of sin and anger that closes the episode with expressions rhetorically opposite to the lyrical opening lines on snow and fire.
The fire imagery of Inferno xiv, like that of its rivers, can be matched with elements in a vertical partner canto, this time in Paradiso. Paradiso xiv offers exceptionally frequent references to light and fire: there are at least forty separate uses of the vocabulary of light in the canto, with words such as ‘luce’ used three times, ‘raggio’ four times, and ‘lume’ five times.10 Each of the canto’s two planetary heavens is identified by a single atmospheric colour: intense brightness in the Sun, and flaming red in Mars. Against these light-filled backgrounds, the souls are perceived individually as single, more intensely glowing, sparks of light. Solomon tells how the lightning-bright intensity of the souls in their current state (‘questo folgór che già ne cerchia’, l. 55) will be kindled to greater intensity, like flame from coal, after the Last Judgement (‘sì come carbon che fiamma rende’, l. 52).11 Collectively, the flame-like spirits cluster into fixed forms that symbolically reveal something of each group’s special virtues. In the Sun, the souls of the wise draw together around Dantepilgrim and Beatrice in circles. From one circle in canto x, to two in xii, and finally here in xiv a Trinitarian third, the souls flow into fixed geometrical forms that nonetheless leaves each of them a joyful freedom of movement, in a wheeling dance.
The heavenly round-dance composed of ‘sempiterne fiamme’ (l. 66), accompanied by melodious choral singing (ll. 31–33), almost perfectly inverts the flame-tormented tresca and sound of hands slapping flesh from Inferno xiv. In Mars, the souls form the shape of the cross, maintaining its perfect fixed symmetry even when they move around the form, as Dante describes with two similes: first comparing the whole cross to the celestial grandeur of the Milky Way (ll. 97–102); and second describing the single souls as glittering like motes in a sunbeam (ll. 109–17). The fixed new constellation of the cross in the Heaven of Mars is thus also a shimmering cluster of individual lights, the souls of holy warriors who died in service of the ‘venerabil segno’ (l. 101). Between these two similes, there falls a vision that is also expressed in light imagery, appearing with the suddenness and transience of a lightning flash:
Qui vince la memoria mia lo ’ngegno;
ché quella croce lampeggiava Cristo,
sì ch’io non so trovare essempro degno;
ma chi prende sua croce e segue Cristo,
ancor mi scuserà di quel ch’io lasso,
vedendo in quell’albor balenar Cristo. (Par., xiv. 103–08)
[Here my memory outstrips my wit, for that cross flashed forth Christ,
and I cannot find a worthy comparison, but whoever takes up his cross
and follows Christ, will yet excuse me for what I must leave out, seeing
in that whiteness the blazing forth of Christ.]
The triple repetition of Christ’s name in self-rhyming sequence stresses the separateness of this momentary vision against the more continuous and meditative contemplation of the cross and its individual flame-like souls.