Robert Hollander
(Princeton University)
31 July 2001

"La concubina di Titone antico": Purgatorio IX.1

The opening nine lines of the ninth canto of Purgatorio have caused much dispute. Here are the major questions that dispute rests upon: (1) Is Tithonus's bed-mate the aurora (a) of the sun or (b) of the moon? (2) Is the astronomical reference to (a) sunrise in Italy or (b) moonrise in Purgatory? (3) What does the "cold-blooded creature" represent, (a) the constellation of Pisces or (b) that of Scorpio? There are other permutations in some of these formulations that do not need to be dealt with here. In the many, and often heated, contributions to this debate, almost every participant chooses all three (a) or all three (b) answers. Moore, pp. 74-85, essentially solved this problem almost a century ago, but in fact the early commentators (to whom Moore pays no attention, thus depriving himself of some persuasive support) had already done so. Nearly all of them are quite sure that Dante has invented a second myth, one in which Tithonus is married to Aurora (1--of the sun) but has a "relationship" with Aurora (2--of the moon). The poetic facts are simple, according to Moore. The time is between 8:30 and 9:00 pm in Purgatory, the cold animal is the constellation Scorpio (and certainly not Pisces, arguments for which identification -- central to the case of the solar Aurorans -- he dismantles), and thus the aurora we deal with is that of the moon. Shrugging off Scartazzini's indignant claim that Dante would then be "falsifying mythology," Moore sees him as modifying or adapting it to his own purpose (p. 81). We are learning to understand how free Dante is in his handling, not only of the classics (e.g., not one, but two Mantos [Inf. XX.55; Purg. XXII.113]) but of Scripture (e.g., inventing Adam's first speech in the Garden [DvE I.iv.3-4; Par. XXVI.134--and in this case Dante chooses to contradict his own earlier version of that speech, which has no standing in Scripture in any case]). This view of the passage coincides with that of almost every early commentator and most closely with that of Benvenuto da Imola: "And so I say that [Dante] is simply describing the aurora of the moon; but when he calls her the concubine of Tithonus, I maintain and believe that our poet once again, as often, nay indeed almost always, is creating new fictions for this and every poetic subject" (hoc fingit, sicut saepe, imo quasi semper novas fictiones in omni materia).

The near unanamity of the early commentators began to change with Vellutello (1544), joined later by Lombardi (1791). Worth reading is the angry response from Portirelli (1804), who spends what would become nine screens of the Dartmouth Dante Project supporting the older hypothesis. His neglected comments should be studied, including his emphatic treatment of the unavoidable reference to Scorpio in verse 5. Indeed, this is a completely vulnerable part of the arguments of those who campaign for the Italian solar aurora and who mainly avoid discussion of how the constellation in question must be Pisces (astronomy forces them to such measures). When one watches Trucchi (1936) attempt to convince his reader that Dante refers to Pisces by only one of its two fish and conceives it as slapping at other constellations with its tail, one sees why naked assertion of a reference to Pisces is a better tactic than evidentiary procedure. It is interesting to observe that the argument for an Italian sunrise at the antipodes became exclusively an Italian position. Between Tommaseo (1837) and Pasquini/Quaglio (1982), with only the exceptions of Bianchi (1868) and Campi (1888), all Italian commentators in the DDP support this shaky argument, while all the British and American commentators oppose it. The quality of their procedure may be represented by Sapegno's (1955). This very influential glossator cites Benvenuto's notice that the lunar version of the tale of Tithonus's second auroral lover was unknown from any other source in such a way as to insinuate that Benvenuto's argument served to oppose the possibility that it be considered in line with Dante's views, while in fact, and as we have seen, for Benvenuto, its originality was the very mark of Dantean authorship.

One of the problems in this debate is that the early commentators almost all believe (perhaps on the authority of Ovid, Heroides XVII.111 [deriving from the Homeric tradition, Iliad XI.1 and Odyssey V.1]) that Tithonus and Aurora were indeed married (and indeed, according to several of the early commentators, had a son, Memnon), while the later ones have in mind another version of the tale, in which Tithonus is, Ganymede-like, carried off by the goddess into eternal sexual use, unsanctioned by matrimony. It is for this reason that it has become de rigueur for the anti-lunarians to claim that concubina is not a word with negative overtones, but only means "bed-mate," and can refer to a wife as well as a lover. Moore, p. 80, points to Convivio II.xiv.20, where Dante speaks of theology as allowing us see truth perfectly, differentiating her, his "perfect dove" (colomba... perfetta) from other intellectual pursuits, metaphorically the "queens" (regine) that number sixty, the eighty "concubines" (amiche concubine), and the numberless "handmaidens" (ancille) of the Song of Solomon (6:7). The language here shows that Dante is well aware of the distinction between concubine and wife. And the context lent by Virgil, in which the unwedded Dido and Aeneas stand in for Aurora and Tithonus, especially given Dido's fraudulent insistence on her married state while she is no more than the concubine of Aeneas, seals the matter with some emphasis (see also Monarchia II.iii.15, a passage that reveals Dante's clear awareness of Dido's bogus claims for marital status, as John Scott has reminded this writer). Avery argues for the conflation of Dido's "implicit balcony" as she ruefully looks over the harbor at Aeneas's departing ship (Aen. IV.584-591), noting that both the phrases e speculis and albescere lucem seem to make their way into Dante's second line ("s'imbiancava al balco d'orïente"), as previously noted by Raimondi, p. 96. And thus, while some interpreters resist the notion that "concubina" or "dolce amico" may have sexual and negatively charged implications here, there seems absolutely no reason to have any doubt but that they do. The entire first part of the canto is suffused by fairly outrageous sexuality (e.g., Tereus has carnal knowledge of two sisters and Tithonus has it of two Auroras).

It is worth considering farther the closest thing we have to a source text, Aeneid IV.584-585: "Et iam prima novo spargebat lumine terras / Tithoni croceum linquens Aurora cubile" (And now young Aurora, leaving the saffron bed of Tithonus, sprinkled her fresh light upon the earth), a passage which turns its attention to Dido, a Dawn who has just realized she has lost her concubino and who thinks she would like to kill Ascanius and serve him up to his father to eat (IV.601-602), a gesture that recalls the vengeance of Procne upon Tereus for the rape of her sister, Philomel, when she cooked up her and Tereus's son, Itys, for the father's meal (in our text the rape of Philomel is referred to in vv. 13-15). Rape, depending on which version of the Aurora myth we refer to, is a consistent feature of at least two of the three classical tales Dante revisits here, as the following reference to Ganymede will make clear (vv. 23-24). Whether or not Dante thought of rape when he thought of Tithonus, he surely did when he thought of Philomel and Ganymede. And this last rape ends up figuring his own rapture (like Ganymede, he is ratto), clasped by Lucia (who is dreamed of as Jupiter's eagle), and who indeed is speeding Dante on his way to the sommo consistoro, his eventual destination, in his Pauline ascent, in Paradiso. Thus do three tragic tales of love involving rape lead to a fourth comic one (see Hollander, pp. 145-48; Picone, p. 123), a motif that will be carried farther by the reference to Achilles (vv. 34-39), who, too, is "raped," i.e., transported in his mother's arms from Pelion in Thessaly to the isle of Skyros. Unlike Dante's kindly "rape" at the hands of Lucy, this motherly intervention will eventually, though through no fault of Thetis, lead to Achilles' death in Troy.

Dante's myth of the lunar Aurora shows once again how cavalierly this poet will treat the details of the literary tradition he enjoyed so much that he wanted to make it entirely his own.


Avery, William T., "Purgatorio IX, 1-3: Aurora's balco d'orïente," Dante Studies 97 (1979): 151-55.

Hollander, Robert, Allegory in Dante's "Commedia" (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969).

Moore, Edward, Studies in Dante, Third Series: Miscellaneous Essays (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968 [1903]).

Picone, Michelangelo, "Canto IX," in Lectura Dantis Turicensis: Purgatorio, ed. Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Cesati, 2001 [1999]), pp. 121-37.

Raimondi, Ezio, "Semantica del canto IX del Purgatorio," in his Metafora e storia: Studi su Dante e Petrarca (Turin: Einaudi, 1970 [1968]), pp. 95-122.