Robert Hollander
(Princeton University, Emeritus)
27 April 2010

Marsyas as figura Dantis: Paradiso 1.20

In memoriam
Fabio Fabbri

   Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsïa traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue.

Much has been thought and a lot (though certainly less) written on Dante's reasons for including the satyr Marsyas in his poem at such a pivotal moment, here in the third and final tercet of the fifth and central invocation of the nine in the Commedia.[1] Benevenuto da Imola (comm. vv. 19-21) refers to Marsyas as "rusticus silvanus de genere satyrorum,"[2] phrasing that intrinsically points to a possible wider frame of reference in Dante's choice of the satyr as exemplary of the outrageously daring poet. Benvenuto's discussion of this reference does not, however, attempt (nor does any other known to this writer) to resolve the "question of Marsyas" within a context of a possibly shared generic identity, that of comedy. Our essential view of Marsyas is so different from our sense of Dante that we naturally tend not to see the major similarity that may have united them in the poet's mind – they are both associated with the low vernacular.

However one reads this fifth invocation – and there are profound differences in interpretation between two opposed groups, the majoritarian "secular" school that maintains that Dante's Apollo is first and foremost Apollo, the classical god of poetry, while the minority view (which has only several supporters, including Jacopo della Lana, Francesco da Buti, Carroll, Pietrobono, Giacalone, and Hollander [3]) holds that this "buono Appollo," like "sommo Giove" (Inf. 31.92 and Purg. 6.118), is not a pagan god, but Dante's own. It is thus that we may consider Marsyas as figura Dantis, as also being inspired, breathed into, by the "true" Apollo, i.e., the Christian God, who now is called on to inspire the "new Marsyas," Dante Alighieri.

The estimable John Carroll, if he does not see a further point to the poet's choice of Marsyas as figura Dantis, nonetheless does present a religious understanding of the satyr's hope for ecstatic revelation, citing Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "A truer and deeper meaning is suggested in the MS. note of Coleridge in Cary's Dante in the British Museum: 'He asks for an evacuation or exinanition of all self in him, like the unsheathing of Marsyas. . . ,' a meaning which would certainly fit in with the 'transhumanize' of line 70, the transcending of the limits of humanity." Carroll's insight accords well with the notion of humility in those who receive God's gift of final enlightenment, but does not perceive the raffish low-vernacular character of Marsyas in the opinion of the similarly low-vernacular author of this poem, with its assorted plunges to the linguistic humility of a villanello (Inf. 24.7) and its stubbornly rustic twang, even in Paradiso, perhaps most prominently present in Paradiso 17.129: "e lascia pur grattar dov' è la rogna".[4]

Dante surely knew Ovid's account of Marsyas in the sixth book of the Metamorphoses, in which the references to the early stages of the myth are absent (vv. 383-386). He devotes the core of the account (vv. 387-391) to the graphic details of the flaying and then, in the quieter conclusion (vv. 392-400), he turns to the sadness of Marsyas's fellow fauns and satyrs at his death and transformation into the clearest stream in Phrygia. Dante probably did not have access to the various and fragmentary classical accounts that may be knit together to make the story of Marsyas that modern readers easily find in various compendia. An important element of the satyr's pre-history he may well have known from Ovid's other account (Fasti 6.695-708), which has it that Minerva, having invented the Pan-pipes, happened to see her visage, reflected from the surface of a stream, distorted by the effort required of her facial muscles when she played the instrument. Offended, she hurled it away. Marsyas, retrieving it, quickly learned to compose and play his tunes and became so convinced of his excellence that he challenged Apollo to a contest (cf. those similar Ovidian challengers of the gods' performative abilities, the daughters of King Pierus [Purg. 1.9-12] and Arachne [Purg. 12.43-45] -- all of whom are referred to by Benvenuto in his gloss to this passage). Naturally, Apollo and his lyre outdo Marsyas and his piping. Since each combatant was to have his will if victorious, Apollo flays Marsyas alive (presumptuous mortals are always taught a lesson by the Ovidian gods whom they offend, but never seem to learn it). He is a satyr defeated in a contest by Apollo and punished by the god; but do we not catch a glimpse in him of a potentially failed Dante, his vernacular a low instrument when contrasted with the lofty Apollonian lyre? In the account of Marsyas's punishment that Dante probably knew best, his musical instrument has evidently humble origins: It is a reed (harundo [Meta. 6.384]) such as a yokel might pluck to make a tuneful sound; it is also a reed-pipe (tibia [6.386]). Thus, while presenting in Marsyas a coded figure of the poet as vas electionis, Dante would seem also to encourage us to fashion a further understanding. He is a proponent of the comic muse, of the low style, against the higher forms of artistry intrinsically represented by Apollo, his "natural" flute vs. Apollo's "artificial" lyre. We have learned to read Dante's controversial self-identifications with a certain perspicuity. At one remove, he goes out of his way (and we follow him with great relief) to show that he is not like Uzzah [5] or, for that matter, Arachne.[6] On the other hand, we are never rid of the suspicion that the poet is also confessing that he, secretly, acknowledges precisely his resemblance to these outlaws, these challengers of divine authority, these chafers at divine constraint upon human knowledge and capacity. Thus in some respects Ovid's Marsyas is the opposite of Dante's, who has been turned inside out, as it were, as per Jessica Levenstein's succinct remark: "While Ovid portrays the god's removal of the skin from the satyr, Dante describes the god's removal of the satyr from the skin."[7]

From the perspective of Ovid's Apollo, Marsyas is a bumpkin who deserves to be roundly punished (a view shared in Tommaseo's commentary: "da quell'altezza è misera cosa cadere a Marsia scorticato, imagine e corporalmente e moralmente turpe"); from Dante's, he is the classical forerunner of a poet working in the low vernacular, and thus a more enigmatic presence. Dante's God, unlike Apollo, rewards humble singers with true vision accomplished in a rapture of the soul, drawn – as was Marsyas's -- from its body.[8]

[1] The first studioso to identify the nine invocations in the poem was apparently Fabio Fabbri, "Le invocazioni nella Divina Commedia," Giornale dantesco 18 (1910): 186-92. See Hollander, "The Invocations of the Commedia," Yearbook of Italian Studies 3 (1976): 235-40, who, believing himself the first to report that there are nine invocations, failed, however, to have taken into account Fabbri's earlier contribution; see a belated acknowledgment in his Studies in Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 1980), p. 32n. Now see Fosca (DDP, comm. Inf. II.7-9). This year, 2010, is marked by quiet celebration of the centenary of Fabbri's observation.

[2] This and all subsequent citations of Dante's commentators derive from the Dartmouth Dante Project.

[3] See their commentaries to this passage. Francesco da Buti identifies Apollo specifically with Christ: "O buono Appollo; cioè o vera sapienzia d'Iddio Padre, che se' lo suo figliuolo." That gloss has only been referred to once (by Scartazzini) in the commentary tradition. It is perhaps instructive to wonder why.

[4] In very much the same tonality, the word villano, with the sense of country lout, or low-life, occurs eight times in this poem (Inf. 15.96, 26.25, 32.33, 33.150; Purg. 6.126; Par. 16.56), so frequently marked by its attention to "low" themes and diction.

[5] See Hollander, "Dante as Uzzah? (Purg. X 57 and Epistle XI 9-12)," in Sotto il segno di Dante: Scritti in onore di Francesco Mazzoni, ed. L. Coglievina & D. De Robertis (Florence: Le Lettere, 1999), pp. 143-51.

[6] For bibliography, see Hollander, comm. Purg. 12.43-45.

[7] "The Re-Formation of Marsyas in Paradiso I," in Dante for the New Millennium, ed. T. Barolini and H.W. Storey (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), p. 412.

[8] For appreciation of Dante's variations on Ovid's Apollo/Marsyas relationship, see Marguerite Mills Chiarenza, "Pagan Images in the Prologue of the Paradiso," in Proceedings, Pacific Northwest Council on Foreign Languages 26 (1975): 133-36. For discussion of the generic concerns of the poet as he began composing his Paradiso, see what remains one of the most important studies of Dante's generic self-positioning, Manlio Pastore Stocchi, "Dante, Mussato, e la tragedìa," in Dante e la cultura veneta, ed. V. Branca and G. Padoan (Florence: Olschki, 1966), pp. 251-62. I am grateful to Lino Pertile for reminding me that Paola Rigo, in Memoria classica e memoria biblica in Dante (Florence: Olschki, 1994, pp. 67-70, 119-124) also deals with Dante as "novello Marsia."