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Truth, Autobiography and the Poetry of Salvation Essay

Vertical Diptychs

Many of the ‘vertical readers’ who have come before me have examined the reasons that make the experiment of a complete vertical reading of he Commedia compelling, while also remarking on the care with which this critical exercise must be approached. Without adding to the valid eflections that have already been offered on these methodological issues, I will concentrate on the three twenty-second cantos, which are of xtraordinary interest. Reading them vertically will allow us to identify particular trajectories of meaning that are developed throughout the three anticles. The first element common to all three is the close relationship that each wenty-second canto has with the preceding canto, the twenty-first.

In fact, the critical tradition assigns to cantos xxi and xxii the classification of losely connected canto pairs. Inferno xxi and xxii are both dedicated to the bolgia of the barrators, the fifth in the eighth circle. In the first canticle, this s an exceptional fact, because up to this point only one canto, or merely one part of a canto, has been dedicated to one individual region. The xtended attention to a single region is counterbalanced by the complexity of the episode dedicated to this bolgia and by the movement Dante and irgil have been forced into by the trickery of the Malebranche demons. The latter, at the instruction of their leader Malacoda, guides them along the embankment between the fifth and sixth bolgia looking for a bridge over the sixth bolgia that hasn’t collapsed — in reality a bridge that does not exist. But it is thanks to this deception that the travellers can observe he condition of the damned, who emerge from the boiling pitch seeking a moment’s relief, and then immediately sink back down so as not to be aught by the demons. Furthermore, they are able to witness the capture of one of the damned, and talk to him, and find out about his other fellow ufferers.1

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In Purgatorio xxi–xxii the movement is from the fifth to the sixth terrace. he ceremony of the encounter with the angel, which includes the recitation of the Beatitude and the erasure of the P from Dante’s forehead, however, s skipped over, evoked as having already taken place at the beginning of canto xxii. All of the attention is concentrated on the encounter between irgil and Statius, the narrative object that makes cantos xxi–xxii a unit, defined by critics as ‘the Statius cantos’.2 Statius has finished serving is sentence in the terrace of the avaricious and prodigal. He introduces himself as a poet influenced by Virgil; then as indebted to Virgil also for is moral conversion from the vice of prodigality to virtue, and finally from paganism to the Christian faith. These are cantos of great importance or their reflections on poetry, on the relationship between classical and Christian culture, and between Virgil and Dante.3

In Paradiso, the unity of the xxi–xxii pair is apparent as well: they are the two cantos dedicated to the seventh sphere, Saturn, and the encounter with pair of contemplative spirits who represent the sanctity of monasticism:ter Damian (xxi) and Benedict (xxii).4 This part completes a fundamental structure of Paradiso: the double hagiographic diptych found in the cantos dedicated to the fourth and the seventh spheres, in perfect symmetry. In the sphere of the sun there is in fact the diptych of Francis (xi) and Dominic (xii), both founders of the mendicant orders. Reading these three pairs of cantos vertically, with particular attention to the Twenty-Twos, I was surprised, indeed, by the number of commonalities. Often these are thematic elements that are spread throughout the entire poem, but in these three cantos the repetitions are evident, numerous and significant. For instance, one first element is provided by the presence of the otherworldly ministers of the various realms, devils and angels.

This is only a seemingly obvious fact, because the presence of Malebranche devils is exceptional, insofar as in Dante’s Hell there are very few devils. Another pervasive theme in the poem is that of flight and vertical movement, of descent and ascent, a theme which has original and interesting developments in these cantos. Furthermore, all three of the Twenty-Twos are cantos of movement. In the Inferno canto, the movement takes place within the bolgia of the barrators; in Purgatorio, from the fifth to the sixth terrace; in Paradiso, after their encounter with Benedict, Dante and Beatrice ascend from Saturn to the Fixed Stars. I cannot approach all these topics here. Instead, in what follows, I shall focus on a series of correspondences and oppositions which I consider inter-related and of particular relevance to truth, autobiography
and the poetry of salvation.

Infernal Darkness and the Light of Paradise

The opposition between infernal darkness and the light of Paradise is a common motif.5 In cantos xxi–xxii of the Inferno, the darkness of the hadows is emphasized by the blackness of the pitch: thus the bolgia seems from the very beginning ‘mirabilmente oscura’ (Inf.,xi. 6). In cantos xxi–xxii of Paradiso, the theme of the divine light reflected in the blessed recurs many times.6 n Purgatorio xxi–xxii there is no trace of the usual purgatorial discussions of the theme of light, related to the position of the sun or the brightness of he angel. Here, there are only metaphorical uses related to the knowledge of truth and faith. Virgil, having registered Statius’s conversion from vice to irtue, asks him to explain his conversion from paganism to the Christian faith, without which virtue is insufficient for attaining eternal salvation. irgil asks Statius which ‘lume’ took him from the shadows to illuminate him with: ‘qual sole o quai candele / ti stenebraron ?’ (Purg., xxii. 61–63). The answer is that it was Virgil himself who illuminated Statius, whereas he himself remained in the dark:

Ed elli a lui: ‘Tu prima m’invïasti
verso Parnaso a ber ne le sue grotte,
e prima appresso Dio m’alluminasti.
Facesti come quei che va di notte,
che porta il lume dietro, e sé non giova,
ma dopo sé fa le persone dotte,
quando dicesti: “Secol si rinova,
torna giustizia e primo tempo umano,
e progenie scende da ciel nova”’. (Purg., xxii. 64–72)

The reference is to Virgil’s fourth eclogue, which announces the birth of a puer, the renewal of the era, and the return of the golden age and justice. irgil appears in the guise of the prophet unaware of Christianity, who presages Christ yet attributes a limited and terrestrial meaning to hiswn words, without understanding their true significance.7 The image to represent this condition is that of the torch-bearer who in the night has the ight in his hand, but rather than holding it forward to light his own way, holds it behind, continuing to walk in the shadows while those who come ehind him are able to make use of the light that he carries.8 Virgil was not able to be illuminated by his own words. For this reason he is relegated o Limbo, defined as a ‘luogo non tristo di martìri, / ma di tenebre solo’ not saddened by torments but only by darkness] (Purg.,ii. 28–29). Yet despite Virgil’s personal failure, the redemptive power of his poetry is exalted, which ‘stenebra’ or dispels the darkness for Statius,enlightening him to the truth and the faith.

‘La vera credenza’: The Theme of Truth

Another crucial theme in these cantos is truth. In Purgatorio xxii, in the tercet at the exact centre of the canto, after having praised the role of Virgil’s oetry in his conversion, Statius adds, however, that, ‘la vera credenza’ was spread throughout the world by the apostles:

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‘Già era il mondo tutto quanto pregno
de la vera credenza, seminata
per li messaggi de l’etterno regno;
e la parola tua sopra toccata
si consonava a’ nuovi predicanti’. (Purg., xxii. 76–80)

Already the whole world was pregnant with the true belief, sown by the messengers of the eternal kingdom, and your word, touched on above,greed with the new preachers.]

Thanks to the ‘vera credenza’ and the preaching of the apostles and disciples the conquest of the ‘etterno regno’ is possible. nly due to its ‘consonance’ with this truth is Virgil’s word able to take on redemptive value. preading the truth is emphasized even more in Benedict’s selfpresentation in Paradiso xxii.9 As in many other instances, the biographical ection begins with a geographical marker. For Francis and Dominic, it is their places of birth, while for Peter Damian and Benedict it is the onasteries where they spent their lives in contemplation. In Benedict’s case, it is the Abbey of Monte Cassino, previously a site of pagan worship:

Quel monte a cui Cassino è ne la costa
fu frequentato già in su la cima
da la gente ingannata e mal disposta;
e quel son io che sù vi portai prima
lo nome di colui che ’n terra addusse
la verità che tanto ci soblima;
e tanta grazia sopra me relusse,
ch’io ritrassi le ville circunstanti
da l’empio cólto che ’l mondo sedusse’. (Par., xxii. 37–45)

This description exhibits specific correspondences with the hagiographic story of Benedict’s life as related by Gregory the Great in book two of the alogues, where he recalls an ancient temple to Apollo, a place still visited for pagan worship, and the work of evangelism and conversion carried out y the saint.10

The second hagiographic diptych concludes by linking back to the eulogy St Francis in Paradiso xi. In fact, Benedict’s work of converting pagans is presented like that of Francis, who to the infidels ‘predicò Cristo’ (Par., xi. 102). Just as Dante’s Francis is also an evangelist and a preacher, so too Benedict is not only an ascetic and monk, but also aoly preacher who promotes conversion. In the case of Benedict there is a strong emphasis on truth: Francis’s ‘predicò Cristo’ becomes now Benedict ‘carried’ (Par., xi. 40) the name of Christ, indicated periphrastically ‘colui che ’n terra addusse / la verità che tanto ci soblima’ (ll. 41–42).h emphasis on the truth brought by Christ and spread by the apostles and the ‘novi predicanti’ , then brought by Benedict in hisission of conversion is opposed by the emphasis on fraud and deceit that characterises the cantos in Inferno. Thus, in pseudo-scriptural language, the arrator Frate Gomita is defined as the ‘vasel d’ogne froda’ (Inf., xxii. 82),11 while later, in canto xxiii, albeit in reference to the olgia of the barrators, there is mention of the evangelical saying that the devil is ‘bugiardo e padre di menzogna’ (Inf., xiii. 144).12

Deceit unites the damned and the demons in the bolgia of the barrators, just as both are joined by defeat and damnation, and under the llusion of the simulacra of false salvation. Barratry is a falsification of the truth in public office through the erverse and deceitful use of language.13 Its strongest definition appears at the beginning of the episode: ‘del no, per li danar, vi si fa ita’ (Inf., xxi. 42). Recalling the importance given to the affirmative particle for the classification of languages in Devulgari eloquentia,14 we can understand just how radical is the contortion of  language these sinners commit. The fraudulent use of language twists truth and destroys political community. e can note a syntactical and structural similarity between the verse that defines barratry and the one with which Saint Benedict concludes is condemnation of corruption in the Church. He cites the three great initiators: Peter, founder of the Church; himself, father of western onasticism; and Francis, founder of the mendicant orders. The holy beginnings, characterized by poverty, prayer, asceticism and humility, are overturned in the corrupt actions of their current successors:

‘Pier cominciò sanz’oro e sanz’argento,
e io con orazione e con digiuno,
e Francesco umilmente il suo convento;
e se guardi ’l principio di ciascuno,
poscia riguardi là dov’è trascorso,
tu vederai del bianco fatto bruno’. (Par., xxii. 88–93)

The present corruption of the Church is the fraudulent contortion of the original truth: ‘del bianco fatto bruno’ and ‘del no si fa ita’ .

Hunger for Gold: Greed, Virtue and
Contemplation

The motive for the fraud that contorts the truth, then, is money. This is the case for the barrators: ‘del no, per li danar, vi si fa ita’ (Inf., xxi. 42), as well as Frate Gomita ‘danar si tolse’ (Inf., xxii. 85). But the same goes for the corrupt monks.ccording to Benedict’s condemnation, the monks, moved by foolish greed, took the earnings of the monasteries for themselves, forgetting that he riches obtained by the Church must only be used for the poor (Par., xxii. 79–85). Thus the reference to the original poverty of the Church is especially trong: ‘Pier cominciò sanz’oro e sanza argento’ (Par., xxii. 88).

The phrase ‘sanz’oro e sanza argento’ recalls the opposite behaviour of the simoniacs: ‘le cose di Dio, per oro e per argento avolterate’ adulterate for gold and for silver] (Inf., xix. 2–4); and ‘Fatto v’avete dio d’oro e d’argento’ (Inf., xix. 112).15 Thus Benedict returns to the polemic against greed among the religious orders who corrupt the original truths and forsake heir mission out of a desire for wealth. But in the fraudulent contortion of the truth, civil barratry is as serious as ecclesiastic simony and equally otivated by the greed for money. There is no need to recall the centrality of the reflection on the vicious r virtuous relationship with wealth in cantos xxi–xxii of Purgatorio. These cantos in fact constitute an appendix to the terrace of the avaricious. Cantox ends with its examples of avarice punished, and contains multiple occurrences of the term oro. Among these examples is that of Polymnestor nd Polydorus, which later is also mentioned by Statius, who admits that he was inspired by Virgil’s verse to convert from the vice of prodigality to virtue:

‘E se non fosse ch’io drizzai mia cura
quand’ io intesi là dove tu chiame,
crucciato quasi a l’umana natura:
“Perché non reggi tu, o sacra fame
de l’oro, l’appetito de’ mortali?”
voltando sentirei le giostre grame.
Allor m’accorsi che troppo aprir l’ali
potean le mani a spendere, e pente’mi
così di quel come de li altri mali’. (Purg., xxii. 37–45)

In Virgil’s text, the exclamation ‘Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, / auri sacra fames’ (Aen., iii. 56–57,) addresses Polymnestor, who out of greed kills his brother-in-law Polydorus to take ossession of his wealth.16 Dante transforms the Virgilian passage: the cursed hunger for gold censured by Virgil becomes a holy hunger for gold, a ust and balanced hunger, neither excessive (avarice) nor too circumscribed (prodigality).17 ut the term ‘oro’ also refers to the relationship between Christian and classical culture by alluding to the myth of the golden age. Indeed, as I entioned earlier, Statius’s conversion from paganism to Christianity takes place through his reading of Virgil’s fourth eclogue, which announces the irth of a puer, a new age, and a return to justice (see Purg., xxii. 67–72). The significance that Virgil attributed to these verses was bound within the horizon f paganism and only a Christian reading, able to notice its consonance with the evangelical ‘good news’, could be illuminated by these words. In fact, the erses of Virgil’s eclogue that immediately follow — which are not cited by Statius but activated in the reader’s memory — say that the divine birth will ring back to earth the ‘gens aurea’: ‘ac toto surget gens aurea mundo’ (Egl., iv. 8–9).18 he term oro is explicitly used in the reference to the golden age which closes Purgatorio xxii. Dante, Virgil, and Statius reach the sixth terrace here the gluttons are punished. First, they are presented with examples of virtue that are contrary to gluttony, that is alimentary temperance. One uch example is indeed the golden age, though here reread not as an age of abundance, but of poverty, in which virtue made the poorest and most humble of foods taste good:

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‘Lo secol primo, quant’oro fu bello,
fé savorose con fame le ghiande,
e nettare con sete ogne ruscello’. (Purg., xxii. 148–50)

Another revision of this myth can be found in the cantos of the sphere of Saturn, who was in fact the mythical king of the golden age.19 Danteindicates it as the sphere that bears the name ‘del caro suo duce / sotto cu giacque ogne malizia morta’ (Par., xxi. 25–27): the realm of Saturn is remembered as an epoch f innocence and purity. hen, Dante sees a ladder that shines as if made of gold: ‘di color d’oro n che raggio traluce / vid’io uno scaleo’ (ll. 28–30). This golden ladder is the same one that acob saw, which the Christian scribes interpret as a symbol of the ascetic nd contemplative life.20 More specifically, Peter Damian also introduces he adjective aureus in the Dominus vobiscum, defining the hermetic life s the Jacob’s ladder but also as a ‘via aurea’ .21 Right after he allusion to the reign of Saturn, referencing the golden ladder corrects he ancient myth: the true golden age is the one that leads the Christian owards his celestial homeland.

Furthermore, citing the golden age among the examples in the terrace o the gluttons (Purg., xxii. 148–50), Dante introduces the theme of alimentary emperance, which will become central in the sphere of Saturn. Thus eter Damian praises the monastic and contemplative life, comprised of he renunciation of the world and its pleasures, as well as of fasting and umble food:

‘Lo secol primo, quant’oro fu bello,
fé savorose con fame le ghiande,
e nettare con sete ogne ruscello’. (Purg., xxii. 148–50)

Foods and Alimentary Metaphors

Furthermore, citing the golden age among the examples in the terrace o the gluttons (Purg., xxii. 148–50), Dante introduces the theme of alimentary emperance, which will become central in the sphere of Saturn. Thus eter Damian praises the monastic and contemplative life, comprised of he renunciation of the world and its pleasures, as well as of fasting and umble food:

‘al servigio di Dio mi fe’ sì fermo,
che pur con cibi di liquor d’ulivi
lievemente passava caldi e geli,
contento ne’ pensier contemplativi’. (Par., xxi. 114–17)

And he evokes the model of the primitive Church:

‘Venne Cefàs e venne il gran vasello
de lo Spirito Santo, magri e scalzi,
prendendo il cibo da qualunque ostello’. (Par., xxi. 126–29).

The apostles are thin and barefoot, they eat what they find if they are offered something: thus returns the theme of thinness, poverty and fasting. This model is the opposite of the degenerate custom of the ‘moderni pastor’ (Par., xxi. 130–32), so fat and heavy they are defined as beasts. And Benedict too recalls his holy beginnings in terms of fasting: ‘e io con orazione e con digiuno’ with prayer and fasting] (Par., xxii. 89). The Statius cantos are opened by the alimentary metaphors, with th evangelical reference to ‘La sete natural che mai non sazia, / se on con l’acqua onde la femminetta / samaritana domando la grazia’ (Purg., xxi. 1–3).22 Not only are such metaphor repeatedly used in these cantos with reference to poetry,23 but the th me of food is also fundamental, circularly, to the last part of Purgatorio xxii, hic proclaims models of alimentary temperance, the last of which, at the en  of the canto, is John the Baptist who sustains himself on nothing buth ne and locusts in the desert:

Mele e locuste furon le vivande
che nodriro il Batista nel diserto;
per ch’elli è glorïoso e tanto grande
quanto per lo Vangelio v’è aperto’. (Purg., xxii. 151–54)

The Baptist is the first ascetic and at the same time the first preacher, ‘vox clamantis in deserto’. In fact, his asceticism is always mentioned in the Gospels next to his preaching in the desert (Matthew 3.1–4; Maccabee 1.2–8). Thus in the conclusion of Statius and Virgil’s canto, the ex mplar of John the Baptist also alludes to a stronger and more effective model of th  word, which corrects the unknowingly redemptive word of Virgil and th indolent poetry of Statius, ‘chiuso cristian’ .

Whe eas the Gospel openly proclaims the truth: ‘quanto per lo Vangelo v’è aperto’ The Baptist, throughout the agiographic tradition, is the archetype of monastic asceticism, and so the conclusion of Purgatorio xxii announce  the type of holiness that will be exalted in cantos xxi–xxii of Paradi o. And the theme of alimentary temperance connects back to the insistent moti of deprivation and renunciation in the Saturn cantos. In Inferno xxi–x ii there is also heavy insistence on alimentary themes. This is one of the ew passages where Dante brings together elements of the traditional hellkitch n:24 the damned submerged in the boiling pitch are called ‘li less  dolenti’ and the demons treat them l ke pieces of meat to be cooked:

Non altrimenti i cuoci a’ lor vassalli
fanno attuffare in mezzo la caldaia
la carne con li uncin, perché non galli. (Inf., xxi. 55–57)

Finally the demons, butchers and cooks of the damned, are themselves transformed into well-cooked food when they fall into the boiling pitch: they too are ‘cotti dentro da la crosta’ (Inf., xxii 150).

Concealment and Revelation

In these cantos, the theme of truth and fraud is accompanied by the theme of concealment and its opposite: revelation, or discovery. In the cantos of Inferno and Paradiso, this motif unfolds in relation to the condition of th souls. The barrators always remain covered and hidden in the pitch. An Dante too has to hide in order not to be seen by the demons while Virg introduces himself to negotiate with them (Inf., xxi. 58–60) In the cantos of the sphere of Saturn, a great deal of space is allotte to a motif that is frequently repeated in Paradiso, according to which h blessed appear to Dante not in their human guise, as do the spirits in th other realms of the afterlife, but surrounded and concealed by an intense impenetrable light.25 Thus Peter Damian is addressed as ‘vita beata che t stai nascosta / dentro a la tua letizia’ (Par., xxi. 55–56; see also 82). And Dante asks Benedict if he c see him ‘con imagine scoverta’ countenance openly] (Par., xxii. 60) But the saint urges him to give up and be patient. Only in the Empyrea will he be able to fulfil his desire and see the blessed in their corp real form(Par., xxii. 61–63) In Purgatorio the l nguage of concealment is less frequent, but it is unusually emphasized in canto xxii, in parallel to the corresponding cantos in the other canticles. However, this is not because of the representatio of the souls, but because of the theme of truth, falsehood and appearanc  (Purg., xxi. 28–30), and especially with regard to the communication of he truth and the faith. Statius admits that even after baptism, ‘per paura ch uso cristian fu’mi, / lungamente mostrando paganesmo’ (Purg., xxii. 90 91). Further, he attributes to Virgil the merit of having guided him towards t e
faith, in the language of covering and its opposite: ‘Tu dunque, che levat hai il coperchio / che m’ascondeva quanto bene io dico’ (ll. 94–95), that s ‘the
true belief’. But it is the last verse of Purgatorio xxii that applies the langu geof opening to the truth revealed by the Gospel: ‘quanto per lo Vangelio v’ aperto’ . This stands in counterpoint t
the concealment of faith, on Statius’s part, and to the opening to other of something that remains closed to himself on Virgil’s part.

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