Gloria Allaire
(Ohio University)
August 7, 1997


Of the three beasts in Inferno 1, the lonza's puzzling nature is triple, comprising its etymology, its naturalistic counterpart, and its allegorical significance. Dante described it as swift, slender, and spotted (Inferno 1.32-33, 42; 16.108). For centuries, scholars have grappled with unsatisfactory zoological identifications. The lynx, panther, leopard(ess), pard, cheetah, hyena, and even lioness have been proposed or rejected in turn.

A passage from Guerrino meschino (hereafter, G) by Andrea da Barberino (ca. 1372-ca. 1431) offers clues for a uniquely Florentine interpretation. It argues for a lonza that is genetically and conceptually autonomous from the animals previously proposed. As the protagonist departs from Alexandria, going west toward the Libyan desert, his guides describe the local fauna:

"Dissono che . . . erano paesi pieni di lioni e di serpenti e di dragoni e di diversi animali, liopardi, e lonze. Io addomandai che chosa era la lonza. Rispose che era ingienerata da uno leopardo et da una leonessa. Io addomandai: 'Che chosa e'ne leondra?' Rispose: 'E' ne gienerata da uno leone et da una leoparda femmina,' e cche di queste due ragioni di animali, cioe' leonza maschio o femmina che fusse, nonne ingieneravano se non come fanno tra noi i muli e lle mule, et cosi' fanno le leondre. Ed e' poco divario dall'una e ll'altra se non la leonza e' piu' fiera che non e' la leondra, ma comunemente si chiamano tutte "leonze" per la poca differenza che v'e'. Di queste fiere sono assai per le parti di Libia e della Morea et d'Africha per li grandissimi diserti che fa il Mare Renoso. Et dissonmi che molto sono piggiori fiere queste tralingniate di natura che nessuna dell'altre. Et dissonmi se queste tralingniate menassono frutto per tutte queste parti, non si potrebbe abitare. Ed io maravigliava come non ingieneravano. Dissono che muli dall'asina al chavallo o dalla chavalla all'asino maschio nascieva si' grande caldeza che lla natura viene archimiata chome fa l'ariento vivo di forza de' zolfi naturali fa oro ariento, rame ferro, piombo stangnio e pare ariento vivo; e volendo trasmutare uno di questi metalli in un altro sechondo natura non puo', cioe' che torni difette [sic] naturali. Non puo' del piombo fare oro, ne' dell'oro rame, ne' del rame stangnio, ne' dello stangnio ferro; chosi' degli altre cose fa la chosa fatta fuori di natura--lioni e liopardo fuori di natura l'uno dall'altro--et pero' quelli che nascono non ingienerano insieme." (Edited by the author from Oxford, Bodleian ms. canon. it. 27, f. 64v; Paris, B.N. ms. 491, f. 94r; and Florence, Riccardiana ms. 2266, f. 104r.)

May a text composed a century after Dante furnish a valid gloss on his Commedia? This is admissible for several reasons: first, Dante scholarship has always accepted evidence of commentaries written well after Dante's death. Second, although G was an innovative contribution to chivalric literature, Andrea's vernacular genre and public were relatively conservative. Third, Andrea's narratives relied on written sources and frequently preserved portions of now-lost texts. Finally, the Commedia itself served as a subtext for G, Book 6, in which the protagonist undertakes a dantesque journey.

The lonza has an attested etymological, if not zoological existence. Etymologically, lonza (Old Fr. lonce) descended from vulgar Latin luncea. (Classical Latin's lyncea had yielded lince.) Much of the confusion regarding this term and the breed it represented may be due to its imprecise application by the uneducated. Andrea himself indicates the zoological misapplication of a name by the "unscientific" populace in the case of his leondra. The legend of the lonza's impure generation may have been an attempt by fourteenth-century vernacular writers to furnish a pseudo-Plinian explanation for Dante's perplexing beast.

Andrea's naturalistic description resembles one found in the later branch of the Tuscan bestiary (hereafter, TB) {Kenneth McKenzie, "The Problem of the 'Lonza,' with an unpublished text," The Romanic Review 1 (1910), 21}. This bestiary clearly distinguishes the lonza from lion, lioness, panther, and leopard. Both TB and G describe the lonza as a ferocious feline hybrid that possessed sexual desire associated with great heat. The exact parentage differs, however. In TB, the lonza is produced either by the coupling of "leone con lonza" [sic, leoparda?] or of "leopardo con leonissa," but in G only the latter pairing obtains. In G, the lonza is sterile and would have been unable to produce offspring with a male lion. Unfortunately, G complicates the problem by referring to an animal not named elsewhere: la leondra.

Both vernacular accounts omit the moralizing associated with medieval bestiaries and instead recall the naturalism of Pliny {Historia naturalis, 8.69} and Albertus Magnus {De animalibus 2.2.1}. Both TB and G subscribe to the notion that a third kind of animal (hybrid) is born from the "adulterous" crossbreeding of two different species. Despite these common details, the two versions diverge: TB continues with a Plinian description of the lonza's habits including the ability of the leopard to cure itself from poison by eating human excrement {Hist. nat. 8.41} whereas G discusses its habitat and reproductive nature.

What new light can this evidence shed on the interpretation of the lonza? The majority of commentators, translators, and critics have agreed upon the lonza's allegorical significance as luxuria. Others have suggested its connections to incontinence, fraud or even vainglory. G supports the idea that the lonza represents lust or incontinence. The notion of big cats as libidinous is found in Pliny's description of sexual passion in lions, their heat being explained by the dry African conditions. Since many species flock to a single watering hole, this leads to male aggression and the opportunity for lust between species thereby producing "many varieties of hybrids" {Hist. nat. 8.17}. Andrea's description of such hybridization (leopard + lioness = lonza) fancifully expands on Pliny's (panther + lioness = leopard). However, the leopard should itself be sterile {Hist. nat. 8.69}. If we suspend disbelief about its genetic impossibility and accept the symbolically-rich literary fiction, the lonza may be considered a beast produced by doubly adulterous relations between species. As such, it is an apt representative of lust.

Pliny also linked violence to lust in the big cats, attributing both to the hot African climate. The carnal desire that engendered the lonza resulted in its extreme fierceness, a point reiterated in Boccaccio's commentary, in TB and in G. Thus the lonza may also symbolize the sin of violence usually associated with Dante's lion.

The lonza's agility and spotted fur can denote fraud or malice. Strangely, neither TB nor G mention the lonza's hide. Perhaps as a result of the Commedia's transmission this characteristic had by Andrea's day become a cultural and literary given. In addition to its spots, the lonza's dubious origins link it to fraud: it is etymologically and genetically a bastard. This doubly false creation is a suitable literary representative of fraud.

Although the lion's noble blood flows in the lonza's veins, it is a degraded offspring as Andrea's alchemical analogy demonstrates. Higher metals, when heated with a reagent, can only yield lower forms; the process cannot be reversed. Not only is it an ignoble form of animal life but, as is the case with mules, the lonza cannot reproduce. Its sterility symbolizes the unproductive nature of sin, a leitmotif that runs throughout Dante's first canticle.

Finally, Andrea's verisimilar passage is the only one that discusses the beast's habitat: Libya and Morea. Again, the north African deserts clearly represent sterility and call to mind the characteristic sexual heat that was necessary to generate the beast. The desert, heat, and unnatural sexuality are all elements of Inferno 25. Furthermore, the lonza passage in G is bracketed by mention of Libyan serpents. This echoes Dante's serpents and his allusions to Lucan's Libya in Inferno 24.85 and 25.94.

To conclude, evidence from Guerrino meschino accords well with early Dante commentaries, incorporates late medieval "zoology" drawn from the Plinian tradition of natural history, and weaves popular beliefs around the enigmatic figure of the lonza. Far from simplifying our task, however, the G passage complicates it by providing an expanded description of this creature's generation that mentions a sororal beast, the leondra. The G description permits a polysemous reading of the lonza that fully supports Dante's poetics on the allegorical level. The first obstacle in the pilgrim's path foreshadows the three major categories of sin in Dante's cosmography: Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud. As a representative of the moral and physical landscape of the Inferno, the lonza suggests the barrenness that Dante the pilgrim will repeatedly encounter. The corrupted and degraded lineage of Dante's first beast ably represents the path of descent away from divine light onto which the erring soul is forced by its own moral imperfection.